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Dearest Anne 3

August 08, 2020 08:25PM
Chapter Three

“A large party of guests has just arrived at the inn, Sir Robert,” announced Elizabeth as she handed Jonathan over to Betsy and removed her bonnet. “Hopefully you will find a chess partner among the gentlemen.”

“Indeed, I am looking forward to meeting them,” said Sir Robert, lifting his son out of Betsy’s arms. With one quick motion, he threw him high in the air and caught him again. Betsy gasped and put her trembling hand over her heart, as she always did when Sir Robert roughhoused with the boy. But the game was only beginning, for neither father nor son would be satisfied with fewer than six or eight tosses, and the higher Jonathan was tossed, the louder he squealed.

Naturally, once Jonathan had been wound up into a frenzy of excitement, Sir Robert handed him back to the servant to deal with the repercussions. Elizabeth rolled her eyes in Betsy’s direction, and they both suppressed a laugh as the baby stretched out his chubby little arms and wailed for more. But by now his father had other things on his mind and, gently urging Elizabeth towards the breakfast room, returned to the conversation at hand.

“Old Simmons told me of their expected arrival the other day. He said the senior gentleman of the party would be celebrating his seventieth birthday tomorrow evening. I understand that four of the finest musicians in the country have been engaged for the occasion and that the pastry chef has been preparing for days. Perhaps I can arrange for an invitation, Elizabeth. What do you say?” he asked, only half in jest.

“No thank you, Sir,” said Elizabeth, grinning. “I am not in the habit of imposing myself on other people or their celebrations.”

He pulled out the chair for her, and before seating himself, poured her a cup of coffee. “Your complexion tells me you’ve had a strenuous walk, Elizabeth. Perhaps Jonathan has become too heavy to be carried about in such a manner? I will not have you injuring your back.”

“Oh, no! As long as I have him well centered, his weight is not a problem. He is, however, kicking me black and blue in his excitement to see the birds and the chipmunks. I shall require extra compensation for injuries received in the performance of my duties,” she quipped playfully.

It was a longstanding joke between them. From the very beginning, Elizabeth had refused to take any compensation for her care of the baby, insisting that friends and extended family members did not seek payment for their help in times of crisis. And although Sir Robert continued to urge her to accept it, she continued to refuse it. He had, therefore, unbeknownst to her, finally written to her father, informing him of the account that had been set up in Elizabeth’s name and of the regular payments that would be deposited there as long as she continued on at Braemar in her present capacity.

“Shall I call a doctor to attend to your wounds, Miss Bennet? I would not wish these grievances to undermine your happiness with your position here,” he retorted.

“Position!” cried Elizabeth. “And what position might that be, Sir? Do you forget that I am only here to help you get by until you can find a proper nanny?” She leaned forward suddenly and, playfully wagging an accusing finger at him, warned, “Don’t answer that so hastily, Sir, for I believe you conveniently forget that fact when it comes to making any effort to replace me. And it is a serious issue that we must address—yet again!”

“I’m afraid it is very difficult to find someone with your skills and qualifications, Miss Bennet.”

“Tell me truly, Sir, have you made any inquiries at all?” she now said in all seriousness.

Robert Bennington looked thoughtfully down at his coffee cup, then raised his eyes to meet hers. He hoped his boyish charm would soften the impertinence of the remark he was about to make.

“Surely there is no need for me to hire a nanny, Elizabeth,” he said softly. “Jonathan and I are perfectly content. The only obstacle that remains is to persuade you to accept your place here as my wife. Betsy will do nicely as a nanny as long as you are here to guide her. My year of mourning will soon be over and we can be married soon after.”

Elizabeth set down her cup, momentarily closing her eyes and sighing. “Sir Robert, please. We have been over this time and time again. I cannot marry you, and I wish to go home. Please,” she now said in the most solemn tone. “Please understand and respect my wishes. Make it possible for me to leave.”

“But that is precisely the point,” he said, taking her hand and pressing it to his lips. “I cannot let you go, and what is more, I cannot understand your reasons for rejecting me.”

She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off with the sudden gesture.

“Forgive my conceit, Miss Bennet,” he said in a playfully teasing tone, “but if I thought, for even one moment, that you did not care for me or that I was in any way repugnant to you, I would acquiesce to your wishes immediately. But we have spent too much time in each others’ company for there to be any doubt of your fondness for me.”

Again, she tried to respond, but he silenced her with his fingers to her lips.

“What is more, you love my son and feel very much at home in this house. It is already your house, Elizabeth; you have been mistress of it for many months now. The servants acknowledge it, our neighbors look forward to the announcement that it is officially so, …and I long for it most passionately. You are the one that G-d intended for me, Elizabeth! You know my marriage to Fiona was one of convenience, arranged by our families. Had she lived, I would have done my duty by her and pretended to be the devoted husband; but I did not love her, Elizabeth...though G-d knows I tried. We were simply incompatible. Not one day of our marriage was as free and easy as each and every day has been with you!”

“I am fond of you, Robert,” she now hastily interrupted. “I cannot and will not deny that. But I do not love you as a wife should and may never be able to return your ardent affection. It would not be right for me to accept you. Indeed, it would be selfish and cruel.”

“But I accept the fact that your feelings, at present, do not equal mine!” he protested. “And I am willing to risk my heart if you would but give me the chance to make you love me. I know I can, Elizabeth! I know your warm and affectionate nature, and I have every confidence that I can make you very, very happy.”

“I doubt if that will ever be possible,” said Elizabeth, more forcefully now. “I have not wished to say this so plainly, Sir, but you leave me no choice. My heart belongs to another. I love him so deeply, and I doubt whether that shall ever change. Forgive me. I do not wish to hurt you, but I must make it clear that we have no future together.”

He sat stunned for a moment, then composed himself enough to reply, “No, no! It was right of you to tell me. It is best that I know the real reason behind you rejection. But tell me, Elizabeth, where is this man who is so fortunate to have won your heart? You have been here now for eight months and he has not come for you. Is he ill? Is he wounded? If I knew that you cared for me only half as much, I would not allow anything or anyone to keep me from your side. What kind of man neglects the woman he loves so cruelly?”

“It is very complicated,” murmured Elizabeth, hurt and stunned by his words. She folded her napkin very carefully and with trembling fingers set it on the table. “I beg you would excuse me, Sir. There are things that require my attention.”

He took hold of her wrist as she rose from the table. “You haven’t eaten a bite of breakfast. Now I know I’ve upset you, but you must eat.”

“I have no appetite, Sir. Perhaps later I shall ask for a tray to be sent up to the nursery.”

***

Sir Robert Bennington could not wheedle an invitation to the Matlocks’ private dinner party, but he was asked, along with a number of other distinguished guests, to join the family for the musical gala later that evening. He had begged Elizabeth to accompany him, but no amount of coaxing would move her. Though she would have liked to attend the performance, she preferred not to be seen, yet again, walking into the inn on Sir Robert’s arm. It was true that everyone in this small hamlet, especially the staff and permanent guests of the inn, speculated about her future as the mistress of Braemar House. She had allowed herself to neglect the finer points of propriety in this out-of-the-way place so far from home, and now she feared she would pay the price on her departure. There would certainly be gossip and speculation when she left for Hertfordshire. Uncle Gardiner had warned her to guard her reputation. Why had she not been more vigilant?

She and Sir Robert had shared so many difficult moments together in the care of the child and their casual, trusting relationship had grown out of those shared experiences. They spent many sleepless nights comforting the baby or discussing what was best to be done for him. They had wept and laughed together, seeing him through minor childhood complaints and one rather serious infectious fever. Had Sir Robert treated her like a servant, she would have been offended, but she was neither a close relation nor an old, dear friend to be treated so intimately. Though she herself was perfectly comfortable with the situation, she knew that it could easily be misunderstood. Her position at Braemar House was an odd one indeed—the rules and boundaries of behavior blurred by need and familiarity. Though there had never been any true impropriety between them, Elizabeth had to admit that, to an outsider, their relationship might seem suspect.

Now, as she sat on the large stone portico enjoying the soft night air, the music wafted across the gardens to caress her. These musicians were exceptional—harmonizing and blending so beautifully that she could scarcely differentiate the various instruments. A string quartet had always been her favorite ensemble, but she had rarely had the opportunity to attend a performance. Here I am, so close, and still I cannot enjoy it properly,” she sighed. Surely there would be no harm in my moving closer to sit on the bench by the hydrangeas. No one shall see me there and I will be able to hear the music so much better.

Wrapping her shawl about her shoulders, she slowly made her way to the garden bench closest to, but hidden from the veranda, where the great French doors had been swung wide to admit the cool night air. She twirled and swayed as she floated down the garden path, delighting in the solitude that allowed her such a luxury. As she sat down and settled in to enjoy herself, the sonata came to an end, and her ears picked up the delighted murmurings of an audience eager for the next offering. Then, as the entire room fell respectfully silent, the viola introduced the main theme of the new piece. It was soon taken up by the cello, and then by the violin—with the surprising addition of a pianoforte, rounding out the sound so magnificently.

“If only I could play like that,” mused Elizabeth . “But then I have never taken the trouble of practicing! Perhaps it would have benefited me to remain at Rosings and use the instrument in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room! Then perhaps I would have the right to be dissatisfied with my own performance!” she laughed to herself.

The performer was not only technically skilled, but a true musician in every sense. His phrasing was perfection, his interpretation exquisite. Elizabeth imagined him to be a gentleman of forty or fifty, graying at the temples, with a strong cleft chin. All good and handsome men should have a cleft chin, she decided. She could think of nothing more appealing on a man—and on one man, most particularly.

Joyous applause and the scraping of chairs signaled the concert’s end, as people began to flow onto the veranda to stretch their legs and praise the performers. Mesmerized by the music, Elizabeth had been slow to leave and was now worried that someone might see her. She drew her shawl about her head and shoulders and retreated slowly so as not to draw attention to herself. As she walked away, she overheard a lady speaking to her companion.

“Oh, cousin! You must be so terribly proud of her! Playing before all those people! I’m sure our uncle is cognizant of her brave tribute to his honor. However did she manage to practice with the other musicians without our noticing?”

But her companion’s reply was lost in a sea of voices that now came to praise the musicians, and Elizabeth was soon moving swiftly through the maze of hedges she knew so well towards the sanctuary of her own room. She would have liked to hear Sir Robert’s comments on the highlights of the evening, but knew it would be best to keep to herself tonight. Tomorrow she would give him her notice. He would have until the end of the month to find a new nanny.

***

The morning air was so fresh and inviting that Robert Bennington had his servants move the breakfast things onto the veranda. Here he would sip his coffee, read his paper and wait for Elizabeth to return from her walk. He was feeling particularly pleased with himself this morning because the evening before, in a moment of inspired genius, he had sent an express to Longbourn, inviting the entire Bennet family, along with Mr. and Mrs. Bingley, to come to Braemar.

Despite Elizabeth’s revelation that she harbored strong feelings for another man, Sir Robert took courage from the reality of her situation. Obviously there were problems with the match, insurmountable problems, or so it seemed. He prayed that time would heal her wound and perhaps open her heart to him. So with great optimism, he had written to propose a month’s holiday at the inn—at his expense of course, as recompense for selfishly keeping Elizabeth in Scotland. If Elizabeth could not see the benefits of becoming his wife, then perhaps her sister Jane would. Her opinion, he understood from his cousin Madeline, was the one that would carry the greatest weight with Elizabeth.

Although his primary purpose was to win Jane Bingley’s esteem and thus make her his advocate, he could hardly have invited her without the rest of the family. He had no assurances that his plan would work, of course, but whatever the outcome, both families would then be together to celebrate an engagement or, heaven forbid, take Elizabeth home.

Being a positive person by nature, his thoughts were thus pleasantly occupied with the more joyous of the two prospects, when he heard the muffled voices of two gentleman strolling, yet unseen, in the adjoining garden maze. Their voices were unmistakable. Delighted with the thought of their company, he called out to them.

“Gentlemen, good morning! Have you breakfasted yet? Come join me, won’t you?”

“Sir Robert,” said the taller, dark haired gentleman, as he peered over the hedges, “I’m afraid the Colonel and I are trespassing.”

“Nonsense!” replied Sir Robert, making his way down the steps to greet them. “If I didn’t enjoy the social interaction made possible by trespassing guests, I would have put up fencing long ago. The inn’s guests are always welcome to pass through my gardens. Only once was I irritated by some rambunctious youths that picked all the buds off my rose bushes. So unless you have come with some botanical mischief in mind, I urge you to stay and join me!”

“Indeed we have not,” laughed Darcy. “The Colonel and I are just taking the morning air while waiting for the ladies to come down to breakfast.”

“Yes, yes, I too wait upon a lady to share my morning meal. But the coffee is hot and freshly brewed, and I would enjoy it all the more in your company. Can I not entice you to sit with me a while. I wish to thank you for a truly memorable evening, Colonel, and to tell you, Mr. Darcy, how much I enjoyed your sister’s performance.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam grinned at his cousin, nodded his approval and gestured for them to follow their host.

“And hopefully, you shall have the opportunity to meet my little son, who is presently out rambling. It is not often that this unashamedly, proud papa has a chance to show him off.”

“And how old is the lad, Sir Robert?” inquired the Colonel, accepting the cream being passed to him.

“He is nine months old and already quite a handful!”

Darcy’s eyes widened in surprise, and after a moment’s contemplation, he asked, “ Is he actually walking at such an early age? And rambling, no less?”

“Oh, no!” laughed Sir Robert. “Elizabeth carries him in this ingenious sling that she’s fashioned for just that purpose.”

At the sound of that all too common, but precious name, Darcy startled. The term “rambling” had not been lost on him either. But before he could chide himself for thinking such ridiculous thoughts, there she was, walking towards him! She was still a good way off and totally unaware that she was being scrutinized. Darcy bolted from his chair, his heart threatening to pound through chest. What in the world was she doing here? And why was she…?

“And here they come,” declared Sir Robert, enthusiastically. “I ask you, Gentleman. Are they not a vision? Am I not a fortunate man?”

The Colonel’s coffee made a slight detour towards his windpipe, and he coughed loudly as he saw Elizabeth Bennet, red cheeked and glowing, striding up the walk. The ruddy complexion of the child she carried matched her own, as did the sparkle in his eyes. The babe now began kicking his feet and eagerly reaching out to his father. Miss Bennet on the other hand, froze upon that moment of recognition, instinctively turning away and bringing her hand up to cover her mouth. Within an instant, however, she seemed to recover her composure and continued towards them, though at a much slower and more measured pace.

Keenly attuned to every subtle change in her expression, Darcy noted her mounting distress. The tiny muscles about her mouth were trembling and her eyes darted every which way in an effort to avoid his. Obviously, she was as shocked as he. But while he felt an overwhelming sense of joy at seeing her, she, it was painfully clear, felt quite the opposite.

Unnerved and visibly uncomfortable, she pursed her lips and looked nervously down at the knots of the sling she was struggling to open. When they finally came undone, she handed the child over to Sir Robert and cast her eyes to the ground, not once looking up at either one of them.

“And here is the light of my life, gentlemen. Is he not a fine, healthy boy?”

“Indeed,” answered the Colonel, fully aware that Darcy was, at present, incapable of doing anything more than keeping himself upright.

“Oh, but forgive me! Allow me to introduce . . .”

“Introductions are quite unnecessary, Sir Robert,” Elizabeth hastily interrupted. “Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam are old acquaintances. How do you do, gentlemen. How very nice to see you again,” she said quickly. She then curtsied politely and murmured, “Will you please excuse me, gentlemen?” hurrying away even before they could straighten from their acknowledgement of her.

“But Elizabeth, where are you going?” called Sir Robert after her, completely befuddled by her behavior. “Come and have your breakfast; I’ve waited for you.”

“AHEM, yes, well, speaking of breakfast, I believe Darcy and I ought to be getting back. It would not be in our best interest to keep the ladies waiting,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, steering his stunned cousin away from the table. “It was a pleasure, Sir, and I am sure that we shall see you again in the course of the day.”

“Yes, I am sure we will,” said Sir Robert, refocusing his attention on his departing guests. “Let me know if I can be of any service to you. I know the countryside very well.”

“Indeed we shall. Thank you, Sir.”

***

They walked in silence for a while, each trying to digest what he had just seen and heard. Elizabeth Bennet here in Scotland? Living in the home of Robert Bennington as… what? His wife? Darcy had not had the presence of mind to look for a ring, but Elizabeth was obviously not the child’s mother—the boy’s age was proof of that. Why was she here then…and what was her position in the family? The question twisted at Darcy’s heart.

He had given her up for lost so many months ago and had been trying to convince himself, ever since, that he was capable of making a life for himself without her. But seeing her now, being in her presence for these few moments had brought back all the intensity and depth of feeling that he had been trying to bury—along with the realization that a life without her would be empty and meaningless indeed. He needed her! He needed her love, her affection and her esteem. He would never be whole without it.

Pain and pleasure mingled indistinguishably at the thought of how well and happy she had looked before becoming aware of him. His Elizabeth was here, in this, of all unlikely places! Was this not a sign that the fates wished to bring them together again? Or was this yet another plan devised to punish and humiliate him?

The Colonel’s voice drew Darcy from his thoughts. “She is clearly not the child’s mother! You saw her at Bingley’s wedding not ten months ago, did you not? Was she heavy with child then?”

Darcy’s shocked expression was his only reply to such an offensive query concerning Elizabeth!

The Colonel shrugged his shoulders. “Well, of course not! There, you see, the child cannot possibly be her's!”

“Very astute of you, Richard!” snapped Darcy. “She may not have borne him,” he now said in a more subdued tone, “but she may now be his mother, nevertheless.”

“You are jumping to conclusions, Cousin. Miss Bennet may very well be employed as the boy’s nanny!”

“Nanny? Do you think her family has sunk to that? No, I cannot believe it! Besides, I’ve never heard of an employer waiting upon a servant to share his breakfast…or addressing her by her Christian name. No, they must be married. And yet she seemed distressed to have me know it!” he said, looking utterly bewildered.

“I am not convinced, Darcy. Something is not right!” Suddenly he laughed aloud. “But why in the world are we speculating?” he now chuckled, “We shall have the answers to all these mysteries as soon as I have sent my man out to make some inquiries of the staff.”

“You will do no such thing, Richard! I shall not have you feeding the rumor mill by showing any interest in Miss Bennet …or Mrs. Bennington, …whatever her name may be. Promise me, Richard! Promise me that you will ask nothing and do nothing! And what is more, I do not want Georgiana told of Elizabeth’s presence here—not yet. When she learns of it, she will naturally wish to seek her out, prompting questions from Lady Catherine and your parents! Let it be for now. We cannot prevent the inevitable, but we need not rush headlong to meet it. No doubt, we shall learn all there is to know in good time.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam nodded his assent. Lady Catherine would not be at all pleased to learn that her own sweet niece had become enamored with the very lady who would rob Anne of her right to be Mistress of Pemberley. It would all come out in the end, to be sure, unless Miss Bennet was already married to Robert Bennington. Then, this painful episode in his cousin’s life would be over for good. Yet somehow, Richard Fitzwilliam doubted that it was the case.
SubjectAuthorPosted

Dearest Anne 3

Gaby A.August 08, 2020 08:25PM

Re: Dearest Anne 3

MichaAugust 08, 2020 09:18PM

Re: Dearest Anne 3

AntonellaMTCAugust 10, 2020 12:20AM



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