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The Bookseller's Widow

November 20, 2016 10:27PM
This story woke me at 5 AM this morning from a most enjoyable sleep and insisted on being written. It is not the usual D&E love-fest, so be warned. I make no apologies for that. The story is comp-letely unBeta'd. I thought it unconscionably cruel to foist it off on an unsuspecting Beta. Thus the mistakes, etc. belong to me, and me alone. Consider yourself warned.


London, May 1817

The gentleman, who had entered the bookstore some minutes before, walked slowly down the the aisles. He leaned heavily on a cane although he appeared to be no more than five and thirty, perhaps even less. She had not paid much attention to him at first, his features were obscured by his hat in her initial glimpse as he walked through the door. Then he had been strolling up and down the aisles and lost to her view altogether. It was only the aimlessness of his wandering that drew her further notice. Her clerk was busy with a new shipment of books else he would have already approached the customer to offer assistance. One did not run a successful store if one ignored a potential customer and this one was clearly of some consequence. His clothes alone had established that fact; she had more than sufficient experience to recognize the quality of the materials and modishness of the style. The gentleman was not a dandy to be sure but he suffered no want of funds. His use of a cane for support suggested a man with a military background. She approached him.

“May I be assistance, Sir?”

He turned at the sound of her voice.

“You may.” He replied, “I was told that this store is a worthy rival to Hatchard’s and my source was correct.”

He had not looked at her directly. His gaze fixed on the shelf behind her. She immediately understood his desire to avoid her face for his own had been disfigured by a scar that ran down the side of his jaw. She recognized him almost at once. He had never been a particularly handsome man and the scar had certainly not improved his appearance but he had always in her opinion been rendered more handsome by his manners and agreeable nature.

“Colonel Fitzwilliam!” She gasped.

His eyes snapped to her face immediately and surprise at being recognized was followed by a quizzical look. She understood he had failed to recognize her although she had not thought herself so greatly change.

“I am afraid, you have. . .” Then recognition came and he blurted, “Miss Bennet! I had not expected. . .I mean, you have caught me by surprise. I am pleased to have met you once again.” He looked about and then at her. Confusion was evident in his features. “But what do you do here, Miss Bennet?”

“I am Mrs. Percival now, Colonel.” She paused, suddenly recollecting something she had read in the newspapers more than a year ago. “I apologize, sir. It is Major General Sir Edward Fitzwilliam now, is it not?”

She smiled at him. “I was pleased to have learned of the honours you have received. I never doubted that they had been well earned. I am happy that you returned safely to our shores. I hope that you recover fully from your injury.”

He looked more closely at her. Her dress was a dark grey. Was she in mourning? That she had married was not unexpected. She had been a woman who, had he a sufficient competence when they first meet, he would have offered for. She had clearly married which would account for her presence here but he thought, as a gentleman’s daughter she might have married much better.

“I thank you.” He paused briefly and then slapped his injured leg, “This fellow will be better eventually. This injury came on the training field and the doctors assure me I will be riding again in several months. Sometimes I even believe them.” He barked a laugh.

“I am pleased to hear it.”

Perhaps the question he wished ask was obvious from his manner, he did not know, but before he could form it, she suppled the answer with a small smile that contained a touch of wryness.

“I married in ’14, General.”

“Ah, I see. And your husband?”

Her smiled faded, “He passed just before Christmas last. There was the terrible fever that ran through London. My husband’s chest was never strong and. . .”

“I am very sorry.”

“Thank you. Now, how may I assist you? Are you looking for anything in particular?”

“It is my cousin’s birthday. She is one and twenty and I have been looking for something to please her.”

She chuckled, “And you have come to a bookstore? A most particular young lady, indeed.”

“Georgiana has a sufficiency of jewelry and I was hoping to find something else.”

“I recollect being informed that Miss Darcy – that is the young lady to whom you refer, I believe? Yes. Well, I understand she has a great appreciation for music. Our latest shipment has some pieces by a young composer that has become popular in Vienna. Perhaps that might do?

He agreed that it might and they walked to where the music sheets were to be found. Selecting a copy of each he accompanied her to the counter to pay for his purchase. They had maintained an easy conversation throughout and his self-consciousness about his disfigurement eased as she paid it no attention. She gazed at him without the revulsion that so many women displayed and he could not but warm to her easiness and that appreciation he once held for her returned in full measure. He had picked up his purchase but found himself reluctant to part from her. He stood awkwardly before her, for once slightly adrift as he searched for conversation to keep her attention. It was fortunate, he thought, that there was an absence of customers, else she would have been forced to move away. She did not appear to object to his company. He gathered his courage, told himself that if he could mount a charge against Napoleon’s finest, he could solicit the attention of an attractive woman.

“I was. . .wondering, Miss. . .Mrs. Percival,” he stumbled over her name, “whether I might see you again? And not. . .” He waved his hand briefly at his surroundings, “here in your store.”

She stepped back, surprise written over her features. He saw surprise, confusion, but not dismay or disgust.

“While I would like that, General – for I do remember with considerable fondness our conversations at Rosings Park, for they were, perhaps, the most enjoyable portion of my stay at Hunsford. – my time is not free during the day.” She smiled ruefully, “and I doubt that your friends and relations would welcome a shopkeeper’s widow. As well, I am, as you see, still in mourning and will be so until December next.”

Fitzwilliam shook his head, “I would not ask you to dishonour your late husband, Mrs. Percival. As to my friends and relations, I am not concerned about their reaction. I wish very much to see you again. Very much!”

She blinked, grew thoughtful at his vehemence and her head tilted slightly as she considered him more carefully. It was almost a minute before she responded and he wondered at the thoughts crossing her mind.

“I live here – there is an apartment behind the store where I live with my father. If you wish, I would be pleased to have you dine with us tomorrow evening. My father, I know, would enjoy the company and I as well. Would that suit?”

He eagerly accepted the invitation, received the direction to her apartment and shortly thereafter took his leave of her. Suddenly his leg no longer seemed to pain him as much.

The next evening could not come soon enough. He had spent many of the hours since leaving her, wondering at how she had arrived at her current position. He was not insensible to the problems facing young women possessed of limited means but she had been such a delightful creature that he had always assumed she would marry within her class. He certainly would have expected her to marry better than a shopkeeper.

She greeted him upon his arrival, introduced him to her father, Mr. Henry Bennet, who appeared to be a man of some fifty years or more, and led him into their small parlour. It was a comfortable room and more tastefully furnished than he had expected her to have the means to afford.

“This is a most delightful room.” He said looking about.

“Thank you. We owe much to my uncle who has allowed me to raid his warehouses. I do so unashamedly.” She smiled and gestured to a chair where he sat. He was pleased that it was beside the Sopha on where she placed herself. Her father had taken an opposing chair and regarded their visitor with some interest.

“My daughter has informed me that she met you while visiting my cousin in Hunsford.”

The general agreed this was so and commented that her presence had made his own visit much more tolerable than in the past, or the future.

“You have returned there since, General?” She inquired.

“Only the year following, fortunately. After that I was with Wellesley and since I have returned, I have allowed others to enjoy my aunt’s condescension.”

She failed to suppress her snort of amusement.

“General!” She cried, “You have caused me to embarrass myself.”

He smiled at her and her father chuckled.

“I gather,” said Mr. Bennet, “that Lady Catherine is as delightful as ever? I have not met the lady, you understand, but such reports as I have received suggest I would find her company quite. . .interesting.”

The general scowled, “She has, unfortunately, become even more insensible and dictatorial than ever. Even Darcy refuses to now visit, so uncomfortable has she made him – particularly since his marriage.”

Elizabeth asked quietly, “I had not heard that Mr. Darcy had married. I wish him well. Please convey my best wishes when next you see him.”

The general promised to do so and then inquired, “Have you visited your cousin again, Mrs. Percival? I seem to member that it was Mrs. Collins who was your particular fiend.”

“I have not been invited again.”

Fitzwilliam wondered at her phrasing. It sounded like she was no longer welcome and he wondered at it; however, the conversation moved to other subjects until the maid called them to the dinner table. There was no shortage of topics to be discussed there and the general found himself the target of two eager and knowledgable inquisitors who wished to glean as much as they could from his experiences and travels while serving against Napoleon. For his part, he was happy, after so many conversations with people only interested in society, gaming, horses and, when talking with gentlemen, women. To be asked his impressions of the Spain and its people, to debate the campaigns in which he participated, to speak of some of the men he had encountered or led, made the meal pass so easily that, at its conclusion, he confessed to his hostess.

“Mrs. Percival, this has been the most delightful dinner I have experienced in years. I confess I enjoyed our conversation to such an extent that, while I am sure the food was delightful, I was too much interested in our discussion to pay it much heed.”

“Then, General, you must dine with us again at your convenience and I promise to ensure the conversation will be sufficiently boring as to allow you to appreciate the meal.”

He laughed and Mr. Bennet chuckled.

“I do not think I would ask that of you, Mrs. Percival. I would be delighted to dine with you and your father whenever the opportunity presents itself. You have but to ask and I shall be pleased to come.”

She blushed slightly and her father’s eyebrows rose in surprise. The general realized that he had, perhaps, made his interest too obvious but the lady did not seem to object. He was, however, no further advanced in his understanding of how she had come to marry a shopkeeper. He had, during the course of the meal, ventured a few probes on the matter but she had, each time, most skillfully redirected the discussion and allowed his questions to fall largely unanswered.

After the meal, she and her guest returned to the parlour. Her father, after a quizzical look at her, removed himself to his room. It was, therefore, only Mrs. Percival and himself and she did not appear too uncomfortable being alone with him. It was, he knew, slightly improper – perhaps more than slightly. Although society tended to allow widows more leeway in terms of propriety, most would frown at their situation. It did not appear to be of concern to here and then he heard her father moving about. They were not quite so unchaperoned as it might appear. He wondered Next if she would continue to elude his questions.

“Mrs. Percival,” said he, “I have been most faithful in informing you of my recent past. You must know I am extremely curious as to how you arrived at your current circumstances. Am I presuming too much to seek an explanation? I understand should it be uncomfortable and will not press the matter. I do not ask due to simple curiosity. I want. . .I wish to be allowed to call on you in the future, if that is acceptable to you?”

She was surprised at his last statement. “You are very direct, sir.”

He could see by her slight smile that she was not offended.

“I am. I have learned that, in some matters, being forthright is best. I left my cunning stratagems on the battlefields, Mrs. Percival.”

“You wish to call on me?”

“I do.”


“For the usual purposes, Mrs.Percival. I accept that you are still in mourning and that my attentions must be circumspect until that period has ended. I would not wish to wait till then, however, to improve our acquaintance.” He paused very briefly before continuing, “There is another reason. You are the first woman I have encountered who does not appear distressed by my appearance.” He stroked his scar. “It makes many women quite uncomfortable.”

She shook her head, “I do not really see it.” And then was silent, her mien first one of wonder and then sadness.

“I would welcome your attentions, General, however, I believe when you understand my circumstances you will desire to withdraw them. I shall certainly understand when you do so. I fear your relations will not approve of me at all and I would not wish for your embarrassment.”

Fitzwilliam was astonished and jumped to his feet awkwardly, his leg betraying him. He politely waved off her assistance, which she had immediately risen to offer, and limped over to the fireplace and leaned on the mantle. He regarded her closely. She was, in his opinion, too fine a creature to have willingly breached propriety, and too intelligent to have done so by accident. He remembered well her liveliness; she had never crossed the boundaries of propriety despite her manner. He could not encompass the thought of her having done so. It was, in every way, inconceivable.

“Tell me!” He commanded.

Her eyebrows rose at his peremptory tone. She did not answer.

“Forgive me,” he said, “that was my commanding officer aspect that just spoke.” He smiled, “I would wish to understand and promise to listen without censure. I cannot imagine anything you say that will dissuade me from my purpose so, in the immortal words of Brutus, I will lend you my ears.”

His small attempt at humour appeared to achieve his object. She relaxed back into her chair, clasped her hands together in her lap and directed her eyes to the fire that kept the chill of the evening at bay. She gathered a shawl around her shoulders and her eyes lost their focus. She said not a word for about a minute.

“You are acquainted with George Wickham, I know.” She said.

“Wickham? What has he done now?” He cried. “I have not heard of him for years. And for that I can only be pleased.”

“I am not unaware of his character or your family’s dealings with him, General.”

He considered her carefully.

“He has imposed himself on you? No, not on you. He could not but on your family?”

It was less a question than a statement but she acknowledged it with a brief nod anyway.

“Who?” he asked.

“My youngest sister, Lydia. He convinced her to elope and then deserted her in London. We never recovered her. We know not whether she lives or has died. She was then but sixteen.”

“Dear God!”

he limped back to his chair and collapsed into it.

“So, you see, General, I am quite unsuitable. My family’s reputation would be too great a burden.”

She made as though to rise. He suspected she wished him gone, having already, in her mind, received his rejection of her.

“Am I not to be allowed to answer?” He replied.

She sank back into her chair, her surprise manifest.

He chuckled, “I will not be so easily dissuaded, Mrs. Percival. My relations may not wish for the attachment but I am not beholden to them in any way and can choose my own happiness. I am sorry for your sister’s misfortune. I am altogether too familiar with Wickham’s powers of persuasion with young girls.”

Elizabeth was about about to reveal her knowledge that his own cousin, Miss Darcy, had at the same age as Lydia Bennet, almost eloped with George Wickham. Her dowry of thirty thousand pounds would have assured, at least, her marriage to the scoundrel. Lydia had no fortune and hence there was no inducement for him to marry her. Elizabeth, however, could not reveal her knowledge of Miss Darcy’s fortunate escape without revealing how she came by such knowledge. That she was not yet prepared to do, although, should it come to the point of Fitzwilliam offering for her, she would feel obligated to inform him of Darcy’s proposal and her rejection of it.

“What happened afterwards, Mrs. Percival?” He asked.

“Our family was shunned. We had to leave Hertfordshire. Father leased Longbourn and we moved to a small house outside London. My elder sister, Jane, moved to live with my mother’s brother and his wife. The Gardiners found her a husband, a good man, who lived in Leeds and she lives there now with him and their children.”

“And you?” His voice was very gentle.

“Once Jane had left, I joined the Gardiners and within a few months had met and married Mr. Percival. He was a kind and respectable man and wished for a genteel wife. I needed a home and wished for children myself.” She smiled, “I must introduce you to my daughter. She is not yet two years of age.”

He nodded, “I would be delighted.” He paused, “You father lives with you. What has happened to the reminder of your family? I recollect you had several sisters. And your mother?”

“Mama died of a broken heart, I believe. Lydia was her favourite daughter and her loss and the manner of it quite destroyed her. She passed away over two years ago. My other sisters are Mary and Kitty – or Catherine. She does not wish to be called Kitty any longer. Mary felt the disgrace most keenly. She was always the one most inclined to reading religious texts. I believe she wished somehow to atone for Lydia’s sin and thus joined a nunnery. She is Sister Beatrice now. Kitty is living with the Gardiners and hopes to marry soon. A young clerk with excellent prospects in my uncle’s company has taken an interest in her and my aunt and uncle are furthering the attachment. The young man is, apparently, quite clever.”

“And your father has chosen to live with you?”

She laughed, “It was hardly a choice. I own a bookstore and, as there is nothing so pleasurable to my father as a good book, no one expected him to live elsewhere. He has been good company since my husband died.”

Fitzwilliam had not seen, over the course of the evening, any particular warmth when she mentioned her husband. He suspected that it had been a marriage of convenience for them both and that such affection as existed was of a tepid nature – on her part, at least. Mr. Percival, he did not doubt, enjoyed marital relations a great deal for his wife was an exceptionally attractive woman. He could hardly have expected to marry so advantageously if her family had not suffered its misfortune.

“I am resolved,” he said, “that I wish to continue our acquaintance. When might I call on you? Would tomorrow be too soon?”

Elizabeth laughed, “Tomorrow is Sunday. We dine with the Gardiners after services.”

He was not prepared to be so easily dissuaded, ascertained which church they attended and stated firmly that he would join them for the service. She invited him to dine with her relatives – which he had hoped she would do – and he accepted.

The hour was getting late and his carriage was due to arrive shortly so he rose to return home. By the time his coat and hat were obtained he heard his carriage draw up outside. He turned and looked down at her. She smiled at him, her own eyes fixed on his features. There was a searching quality to her gaze.

“I am pleased that we met.” His voice was soft, almost a caress, he took her hand and raised it to his lips before allowing it to fall. Her eyes widen in surprise. And he had a sudden desire to kiss here there and then. Perhaps she realized it for her own breath quickened slightly. He stepped back, ashamed at how close he had come to to behaving so improperly. There was a slightly bemused look on her countenance but no censure and from that he took comfort. He had not alarmed her.

He bowed, confirmed yet again that he would meet them at their church in the morning and took his leave. He did not look back until he settled in his carriage. She was still standing in the doorway, her focus on him. He knew with a certainty then, when the time was right, that he would offer and she might be convinced to accept. She was not insensible to him.

Thus, began Sir Edward Fitzwilliam’s courtship of Mrs. Elizabeth Percival. It was conducted for the first few months without his family even being aware of it. This situation did not arise through any design on his part. His parents were at their country estate and, if surprised at their son’s remaining in town during the heat of the summer, they did not think much about it. He had never been close to them and as their first born, the Viscount, had two sons, the general’s role as a spare to the earldom was no longer of any significance and he could be safely ignored. As neither of his parents were inclined to inquire into his doings, he was equally disinclined to inform them. The only persons who might have been interested, and concerned, were his cousins, Fitzwilliam and Georgiana Darcy; however, they both had retired to Pemberley, the Darcy estate, where Georgiana was being energetically courted by a young gentleman and Mrs. Darcy was entering her confinement to bing forth the Darcy heir. Neither cousin had a thought for the general and thus did not think to inquire into his whereabouts or activities.

By the time autumn arrived, Fitzwilliam’s courtship was being prolonged only by the demands of propriety. Elizabeth’s period of mourning would not end until mid December and she would not allow him to offer before then. She had, however, by this time left him in no doubt as to her feelings. He had called upon her daily and if he could not, due to other commitments, dine with her in the evening, he was not above calling upon her at the bookstore, abstracting her from its environs to lunch with him at a local teahouse. Almost every topic had been canvassed between them except one and Elizabeth knew it must be addressed although she feared doing so.

She had come quickly to the conclusion that Fitzwilliam would suit her very well indeed. He was an amiable person, intelligent, well-read and well-travelled, interested and conversable in a broad selection of subjects. His injured leg appeared to be healing well and if he stilled walked with a limp, it was less marked than before and his reliance on the cane had diminished. His facial disfigurement had long since been forgotten. He had met and charmed her daughter and Elizabeth had no trouble discerning that he would make an excellent father to her daughter and their own children. She had, on more than one occasion, contemplated those marital intimacies which she had accepted from her husband with only slight interest and wondered if she might enjoy them with a man for whom she had developed a passionate regard. Her Aunt Gardiner had implied that such intimacies could be pleasurable. Elizabeth had not found it particularly so but supposed that to be her fault for her husband had seemed content with his satisfaction and accorded little attention to hers. She had, on occasion, felt some stirrings of interest but nothing had developed and her husband had almost seemed affronted when she indicated any interest in such intimacies.

With Fitzwilliam, it had been very different. He had been careful in his attentions but had not scruples to touch her when alone with her, had kissed her with increasing frequency and allowed his hands to wander a little more freely than she knew to be proper. He had not, however, pressed her to the point where she felt uncomfortable. Indeed, on one or two occasions she had felt a momentary desire to take him to her bed. She could not, of course, not yet and she knew he would not ask it of her.

He had left to travel to Pemberley to attend the christening of Darcy’s son and heir. He sought her out the evening following his return, arriving at her home about an hour before dinner. She knew where he had gone, knew she probably should have spoken to him before he left but a fear that he might sever their relationship when he learned of her past with Darcy, had prevented her from speaking. She did not want him to travel there with her story on his mind.

His countenance when he entered the parlour left no doubt that an explanation could no longer be deferred. He was not angry, nor even particularly upset. He was, if anything, confused and she wondered at what Darcy might have said for she had doubted not that the subject of Fitzwilliam’s courtship with her would arise. The Darcy she remembered would have serious objections to his cousin marrying a woman engaged in trade regardless of the fact she had been born a gentleman’s daughter. She well remembered his disparagement of her family and lack of connections. They would now, she believed, be even more reprehensible.

She led him to the sopha, and sat beside him, his hand clasped in hers. There was the usual exchange on which everyone’s health was canvassed, the conditions of his travel and her activities during his absence. Then a silence briefly fell to be broken by the Fitzwilliam.

“I spoke to my parents and Darcy about my calling on you. I confess I did not speak of your sister’s tragedy. I saw no point at that time. I will not dissemble. My parents were not. . .welcoming at all, which did not surprise me greatly. I had not thought they would be. However, I have little intercourse with them now and I informed them that should we marry, I will expect them to treat you civilly lest all ties between us are severed. They were not pleased but I doubt they will be a cause for concern. No, my parents – and. I include my brother and his wife as well – are not of concern. I admit that Darcy’s reaction surprised me greatly. Surprised and confused, to be honest. I do not understand his reaction.”

“How did he react?” she murmured.

“Well, as I said, he appeared confused mostly. He remembered you from the visit to our aunt. I think he was dismayed that you should be in your present circumstances. Oddly enough he wished me well. I had rather anticipated that he would try to convince me to give you up. My parents made such attempt and perhaps Darcy realized that if I would not heed them, I would not be persuaded by himself. But it is possible that I do him an injustice. He is much changed over the years since you knew him.”

“In what way? I remember him as a rather cold, haughty man not inclined to speak with anyone and disdainful of anyone of less consequence than himself.”

“And, if I remember correctly, you charged him with just such a fault a Rosings.” He laughed. “It is peculiar thought. After I had informed him of my intentions, he seemed rather sad. I could not account for it. But he did wish me well and I suppose that is all that is important.”

Elizabeth did not know whether to reveal her past with Darcy or allow Fitzwilliam to remain in ignorance. The danger she saw with the latter course is that, should the subject arise between him and his cousin, he might feel betrayed at being left in ignorance. Trust, once lost, is almost impossible to regain. She must speak to the matter.

“I believe I can account for your cousin’s behaviour.”

“You? How so?”

Elizabeth began her explanation, beginning with Darcy’s visit to Hertfordshire with his friend, Charles Bingley, her interactions with Darcy while he resided there.

“Do you mean to tell me,” said Fitzwilliam, “that he insulted you the first time he saw you? Is the man blind?”

“I do not think he expected to be overheard and truly, as ungentlemanly as his comment was, the true fault lay with me. My vanity was grievously wounded. In any event, a certain gentleman joined the Militia which had been quartered in Meryton……”

Elizabeth briefly revealed Wickham’s slanders against Darcy which she had believed unreservedly, Darcy’s role n separating her sister from Bingley – and here she slyly looked at Fitzwilliam saying that she owed the information of it to him which caused him no little embarrassment. Fitzwilliam had largely been silent throughout but when she finally came to Darcy’s proposal, he could not help but burst out.

“Darcy proposed? To you? I had never thought him particularly attracted to you. Her rarely said anything, at least not in my hearing. He proposed? I am all amazement.”

“Tour amazement equaled my own at the time. I had no expectation of it. I can view it with some equanimity now, but it truly was a most dreadful proposal and one it would have been impossible to accept even had I not grievances against him.”

“Wickham and youR sister?”

She nodded sadly. “He was rude, condescending, insulting. He had no expectation that I would refuse, disparaged my family, speaking of them as a degradation. It was not the type of proposal that any woman of worth could accept.”

“Oh Darcy.” Fitzwilliam shook his head in dismay, “I cannot say I am surprised for he always had a rather elevated sense of his importance. That aspect of his character appears to have lessened in recent years and perhaps we can assign the credit to you?”

“I was very angry in my response and spoke excessively harshly. My sister’s unhappiness, which I laid at his feet, stoked my anger and I now could wish I had been more moderate in my language.”

“Perhaps, but it may be also that it took harsh words to affect an improvement. I, and others, had spoken to Darcy about his manners, but he paid little attention to us. I believe your words might have effected an improvement.”

“He wrote me a letter and gave it to me the next day. I have it still. A sort of remembrance of how poorly I judged two men. How my own pride led me astray.”

“What did the letter reveal?”

“He gave his reasons for separating my sister and his friend. It seems that my sister’s reserve and serenity led your cousin to believe her uninterested in Mr. Bingley and thus, not wanting to see his friend in a marriage of unequal affections, he worked successfully to separate them.”

“Hmmm. I am inclined to wonder at Bingley’s resolve in this matter. His attachment must have been slight and his understanding poor, if he could not discern your sister’s affections”

Elizabeth nodded, “I have come to much the same conclusion. As Mr. Bingley married not a year later, it is hard to think otherwise.”

“And Wickham?”

“He revealed all of his dealings with that man.”

“All?” His voice was questioning.

“All.” She stated, “I wonder if I would have believed him if he had not informed me about Miss Darcy. I knew he would not tell such a falsehood about his sister and if that was true, so must the rest be. It was a humiliating discovery to find myself so easily misled.”

“And yet Wickham was permitted to run off with your sister?”

She grimaced, “My father bears that burden to this day. I could not, of course, reveal the particulars about Wickham. I had not been permission to do so. I did, however, attempt to persuade my father to stop Lydia from going to Brighton. I knew her ways and that she would be poorly supervised; however, my father was not prepared to sacrifice his peace and quiet to keep Lydia home. She and my mother would have made his life a misery. So, she went and ran off with Wickham and our family was ruined.”

She paused briefly and then inquired, “Have you heard anything of Wickham in recent years?”

He shook his head, “Not I. And I believe that had Darcy encountered him, he would have advised me of it. Truthfully I suspect both of us were quite happy to not hear from him.”

They were silent. At last she roused herself.

“I have been reluctant to reveal this to you. I feared your reaction, that you might want to sever our relationship. That loyalty to your cousin might lead you to do so. I know how close you are to him.”

“We were certainly close as young men and being Georgiana’s guardians required us to work closely as well; however, we have, for the past three years or more, grown somewhat apart. I have been engaged with my military duties and out of the country for much of the time. I feel sorry for my cousin but I shall not compound his loss by giving you up. He shall have to make his own peace with you. But you may be assured of my support and I doubt he will be uncivil or unwelcoming. His wife I cannot speak for.”

“An unpleasant woman?”

“I cannot say. I met her during my visit and she seemed pleasant enough but I had no opportunity to assess her character. She’s from the Cavendish family and they do tend to think very well of themselves but I should not prejudice you against her.”

"You are not concerned," she finally asked, "that the scandal attached to my sister's behaviour will damage your reputation. That by marrying me you will be shunned in society?”

“I am not. I have given this matter considerable thought. Your family is largely unknown in London. I cannot see anyone so interested in your background that they would travel to Hertfordshire to inquire into the matter. And even should they do so, it matters not. You and I will be accepted by my friends. Of that you may be assured. My friends are not so small minded as to hold your sister’s actions against you – particularly when they come to know you.”

Elizabeth felt an incredible lightness of mood. He spoke now as though their marriage was a sure thing, as though she would meet his family and relations with him by her side. It was, in every way, a culmination of those hopes she had incubated for some weeks now. He would ask when the time was right and she would accept – joyfully.

On the 14th of December, the day following the end of Elizabeth’s mourning, Fitzwilliam arrived at her store even as she was opening its doors. If she had any doubt as to his intentions, they were of short duration. She was quickly persuaded to close the store for the day, her clerk instructed to take the day off, after appropriate renumeration from Fitzwilliam, and Elizabeth led, willingly, to her parlour. Fitzwilliam had secured Mr. Bennet’s consent and blessing some days before and wanted only the day to make his offer. Taking possession of her hand and assuring her in the warmest possible terms of his affections and respect for her, offered her his hand in marriage. She, in terms that matched his for warmth, accepted. He then proceeded to demonstrate the warmth of his attachment in a manner that left her breathless and possessed of a flush that endured for some time.

Once propriety had been reestablished, the practicalities of their life together must be determined. The wedding day was set for a week hence, for he had already acquired a common licence and spoken to the vicar of their church about possible dates. They would move to his townhouse which was in a respectable area not too distant from her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. She had seen the house from the outside and as it appeared to be of the same vintage as that of the Gardiners, she expected that the interior would not be unfamiliar. As for Mr. Bennet, he would take up residence with them. The only issue which they had not already canvassed was what to do about her business. Fitzwilliam assured her that the decision was hers and hers alone.

“Between my pension and the income from my investments, I believe we shall be quite comfortable. I cannot, of course, live as luxuriously as Darcy or my brother but I believe we can manage quite well on about a thousand a year. I was fortunate about two years ago, to be left a substantial sum by an aunt. It is safely invested and provides a secure return. And I own my townhouse outright.”

“I have no wish to continue operating the bookstore. I shall approach my uncle to find a buyer and the funds can perhaps be used to assist our children in the future.”

As this met with his agreement all that remained was to apprise their various relations as to the date and location of the nuptials. The Gardiners had anticipated their engagement and were quick to offer to host a wedding breakfast. Given the speed with which events were unfolding and the time of year, both Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth were uncertain as to which of their relatives would attend the ceremony. Fitzwilliam extended the invitation to them all and was pleased to have his parents agree to attend. The Earl and countess had chosen to sanction the marriage by their attendance, little though they wished to do so. The alternative of thee appearing to be a cleavage in the family was too distasteful to be contemplated. His parents would attend; however, the Viscount could not be persuaded to lend his countenance to the wedding and did not attend. Fortunately, his absence was not noticed by anyone. To Darcy, and Darcy only, did Fitzwilliam include the information about Lydia Bennet, and he informed his cousin that he and Elizabeth would understand should the Darcys choose not to attend.

On the date specified Major General Sir Edward Fitzwilliam took Elizabeth Rose Percival (nee Bennet) to wife before a small group of onlookers comprised of all of Elizabeth’s closest relatives (excluding Lydia), many of the general’s army colleagues and their wives and Mr. And Mrs. Darcy and Miss Darcy. The wedding breakfast was attended by all and the bride and groom were subject to the usual teasing and chafing, some of it slightly ribald, but none of it mean-spirited.

The only conversation of particular note took place between Mr. Darcy and Mrs. Fitzwilliam when, to the surprise of both, they found themselves alone in company. Their conversation was, as Elizabeth later confessed to her husband, as interesting by what it did not say than for its actual content.

“I wish,” he said, “to offer my congratulations and best wishes. I believe you and Edward will do well together. And I hope that you will be our guests at Pemberley next summer. With your appreciation of the country, I am sure you will greatly enjoy Derbyshire.”

“I thank you, Mr. Darcy. I believe I may safely accept such an invitation. As to Derbyshire, I spent some weeks there in the summer of ’12 with my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. We toured your home and grounds. Your housekeeper was most solicitous.”

“You toured Pemberley? I must not have been there for I would have been glad to welcome you.”

“You were to arrive in a few days, I believe. We did not linger long, unfortunately, as circumstances called us back to town sooner than we had expected.”

“That is unfortunate, but perhaps your next visit, being of longer duration, will afforded you the opportunity to see more of the country.”

Elizabeth nodded in agreement and further conversation was prevented by the approach of her husband who looked at her inquiringly, she smiled and he relaxed. Apprised of Darcy’s invitation he also was pleased to accept, however, he had a matter of more pressing interest. He wished to remove with his wife to his townhouse and begin their married life. For, as he whispered to her, as he led her away, “I propose to keep you locked in my bedchamber for several days, Mrs. Fitzwilliam. “

“Days, sir? Shall I be allowed no freedom?”

“None, Madam. I shall have you to myself, for I have waited six months for this day and that has been several months too long.”

Their departure was attended with the usual last minute exchanges of endearments, best wishes, hugs and humorous comments. Fortunately, the distance between the Gardiner house that of the Fitzwilliams only involved a short carriage ride. If the weather had been better and the occasion other than it was, the distance could have been readily walked. In subsequent years, Elizabeth and her children would do exactly that when deciding to visit the Gardiners.

For today, however, the carriage was to be employed and Elizabeth was soon introduced to the staff at her new home. Fitzwilliam would not allow her to linger over the introductions and led her with poorly hidden impatience up the stairs to the bedchamber, for they had decided before their marriage they would share a bed for all the days of their marriage.

Elizabeth removed quickly to her dressing room, was afforded the luxury of a bath and garbed in the most indecorous nightgown she had every owned, crept into the bed chamber and slipped under the covers of the bed. There she was shortly joined by Fitzwilliam and on the subsequent activities we shall draw a curtain. Suffice it to say that while she did manage to escape the bedroom on several occasions over the next few days, she was frequently seen hurrying back there with a smile on her face. The Fitzwilliams left their home only to join with the Gardiners to attend the Christmas service at church and to dine with them that day. When they returned home they secluded themselves in the bedchamber for several more days until Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth’s daughter joined them.

The Fitzwilliam’s marriage was a happy one. Their family was large, with four sons and two daughters being born to Elizabeth. Her first born never had cause to question her parents’ love. Her stepfather loved her as his own and his sorrow at having her leave their home to marry was as great as if she had been his own daughter. Elizabeth had, with the assistance of Mr. Gardiner, sold her business for almost ten thousand pounds and the funds were set aside for their children. Two of his sons followed him into the army and another, joined the navy and eventually rose to the rank of Admiral. His youngest son was of a different persuasion and with the support of his parents, joined Mr. Gardiner’s business and, after some years, the company was renamed Gardiner & Fitzwilliam. The two Fitzwilliam daughters married well, their dowries were not excessively large but they had both inherited the amiable and vivacious character of their mother and were welcomed into society. The gentlemen they married were perhaps not of the first rank, but both had respectable estates and could provide for their wives in the manner to which they were accustomed.

With his parents or his brother, the Fitzwilliams always remained distantly polite. Overtures for a closer relationship were made on several occasions by Elizabeth bur rebuffed politely. After the third such failed attempt, she was convinced by her husband to desist. “For,” he said, “at this point, it is for them to make the effort. I will not have you suffer such indignity again.”

Lady Catherine had opposed the marriage from the outset and had vitriolic in her response when apprised of it; however, as she rarely left Rosings Park and the Fitzwilliams had no cause to visit there, her anger had no target readily available. After her first letter, which was extremely abusive of Elizabeth, all subsequent letters were dispatched to feed the closest available fire.

With the Darcys they remained on the most cordial of terms and very frequent visitors to Pemberley during the summer. It was possibly due to careful scheduling on the part of their host, but none of the Fitzwilliam visits coincided with those made by Charles Bingley and his wife and sisters. According to Darcy, Bingley’s wife met all of Miss Bingley’s aspirations but only a few of Bingley’s. Darcy was most circumspect in his revelations but Elizabeth was given to believe that Mrs. Bingley was much like Miss Bingley in character and that his friend had found what solace he could from his clubs and friends. Of Miss Bingley, Elizabeth heard only that she remained unmarried and dependent upon her brother. Of the Hursts, nothing was ever imparted and Elizabeth could only suppose them to live their life of fashion on Bingley’s charity. She envied them not and felt her own sister had been fortunate to escape such a fate. If Jane was now the wife of a man who, though engaged in trade, was respectable, was loving and was held in great esteem by her sister. She could wish for nothing more for Jane.

Mr. Bennet survived his wife by almost twenty years, living with the Fitzwilliams until his passing. He had leased out his estate throughout that time, rebuffing several overtures from Mr. Collins to be allowed to reside there. The latter, notwithstanding the estrangement he created with the Bennet family, felt entitled to live on the state if Mr. Bennet could not. Mr. Bennet saw no reason to act in a charitable manner and was loath to surrender the income derived from leasing the estate. Between that income and Longbourn’s income, he could set aside sufficient funds to leave each of his three married daughters about fifteen thousand pounds directing only that it be used to advance the prospects of his grandchildren.

Of Wickham and Lydia, nothing more was ever learned although a rumour did surface in Derbyshire some years after Elizabeth’s marriage that he had fled to the Americas a step ahead of several men interested in collecting monies owed.

The End

The Bookseller's Widow

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