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Dearest Anne 4

August 14, 2020 05:47PM
Dearest Anne - Chapter 4

Elizabeth shut the door behind her and leaned heavily against it. “What have I done?” she murmured miserably.

She was now thoroughly ashamed of the way she had behaved and utterly humiliated at the thought of how childish and ungracious she had been. But the shock of seeing them there was indescribable, and escape was all she had been able to think of at the time. Sir Robert’s painful words of the other morning echoed in her ear.

“Where is this man who has been so fortunate to have won your heart?”

Oh, she knew full well that Fitzwilliam Darcy had not come to Scotland in search of her. Indeed, his sudden appearance at Braemar Castle, of all places, had to be the oddest twist of fate she could ever have imagined—one that seemed especially designed to humiliate and torment her.

She had been doing so much better of late. She had been managing to limit her pining for him to only those times when she was on her own—at night in the quiet of her room, in the mornings while bathing or rambling about the countryside. She could now attend to other people’s conversations without that incessant, internal dialogue that her mind had insisted upon those first few months after he had gone from Hertfordshire. Why then had the fates conspired to have them meet again and throw her back into that cycle of longing and despair?

“What must he think of me?” she cried, as she sank into the chair by her dressing table. Gazing into the mirror she realized that not only had she behaved badly, but that she must have looked a fright as well! Her face was flushed—damp and glistening with perspiration—several beads of moisture resting above her upper lip. As usual, Jonathan had pulled down some of the curls that had been so carefully arranged earlier that morning and there were dark stains on the sleeve of her frock where he had drooled on it. Elizabeth hid her face in her hands. The worst humiliation was that she had left the house without her bonnet, as had become her custom on these warm summer days. “What must he think of me, looking and behaving like a peasant?”

“I know exactly what he thinks!” she declared angrily to her image in the glass. “He thinks you’ve degraded yourself, working as a servant in another man’s house!” Yet in the midst of her indignation a tiny voice whispered from within. “Quite the contrary, he thinks you have married Sir Robert.” Rising abruptly from her chair, she cried into the stillness of her room, “Oh, Fitzwilliam, no! Don’t think that! You mustn’t think that!”

A knock on the door brought her quickly to her senses. Betsy peeked in and asked, “Did you call me, Miss Elizabeth? Is there something you need?”

“Oh no, no thank you,” she replied, somewhat distractedly. Then suddenly remembering her responsibilities, she added, “Yes actually, there is something. Would you go out to the veranda and rescue Sir Robert? I left Jonathan in his care a few moments ago.”

“Of course, Miss,” said Betsy, smiling. She could see Elizabeth’s distress, but knew better than to reveal any concern. She quietly closed the door and hurried off to fetch the child.

With Jonathan’s welfare off her mind, Elizabeth lay back against the cushions of her bed, closed her eyes and allowed her mind to wander. The sounds and images of the past few days invaded her thoughts as she hovered between wakefulness and sleep:

“The elder gentleman is celebrating his seventieth birthday …”

“In front of all those people! Our uncle must be cognizant of her brave tribute to his honor…”

“What kind of man neglects the woman he loves so cruelly?

“I know I can make you very, very happy…”

Elizabeth bolted upright, her eyes now wide as she stared blankly out into the room.

“Georgiana! It must have been Georgiana playing last night!” she uttered in astonishment, “And it was the Earl’s seventieth birthday they were celebrating! They are all here! Oh dear G-d! Lady Catherine must be here as well! Four ladies and three gentlemen! Yes, that is what I counted. Oh, heaven forbid I should meet with Lady Catherine now! I don’t think I could bear it!”

She flew to her window hoping to see the gentlemen still in conversation with Sir Robert, but they were gone. Her eyes turned towards the portico of the inn just in time to see the Colonel follow Darcy inside. Her heart sank. Had she been quick enough, she might have limited the damage by rejoining them with some plausible excuse. Now it was too late. The impression she had left would be a lasting one.

Taking the counterpane from the bed, she wrapped herself in it and settled back onto the window seat to stare at the inn. It was far too warm to be huddled in it, yet she needed the comfort it provided. She soon fell asleep, thrashing about the events of the morning in her mind.

***

When she awoke almost an hour later, she peered out at the gardens, the great lawn and the lake beyond. It was a beautiful day—far too beautiful to have created such unhappiness. If she could only leave Braemar this very instant, she would, but she had given Sir Robert until the end of the month and, of course, could not go back on her word.

The great French doors off the inn’s dining room suddenly opened, and Elizabeth saw Mr. Darcy appear in the doorway. He turned to offer his arm to a slender young woman who stepped gingerly down the first steps and then leaned on him as they strolled together through the garden. The distance was too great to actually see their faces, but she had recognized him instantly. His stance, his gate, his demeanor immediately told her that this was her beloved Fitzwilliam. She assumed, at first, that it was Georgiana who was with him, but it soon became clear that it was not — the lady’s hair was dark and her manner of walking altogether different. A sudden pang of envy overwhelmed her as she watched the couple meander arm and arm through the perennial garden, their heads inclined towards one another, as people are apt do when engaged in an intimate conversation.

Stopping by a stone bench, they sat down facing each other, their hands clasped. They sat in this way for some time until Darcy took one of the lady’s hands in his and brought it to his lips, leaning ever closer. Elizabeth knew it was wrong of her to stare at them, but she could not tear her eyes away. And as she continued to study them, the lady raised her free hand and placed it tenderly on Mr. Darcy’s cheek. At this, Elizabeth shut her eyes and turned away, stunned by the intensity of her own feelings. She had never thought herself a jealous creature, but the sight of another woman caressing his face was…unbearable.

Yet, after a few moments she was drawn back to the painful scene and saw the approach of a figure she could not fail to recognize—the haughty bearing of a person whose carriage she would never mistake. Lady Catherine was making her way towards the couple, and being obviously pleased with them both, kissed them on the cheek. After a brief exchange, she continued down the path, her self-satisfied demeanor making no secret of her very great pleasure.

“It is Anne!” gasped Elizabeth in genuine surprise. “It is Anne, and Fitzwilliam is going to marry her after all! No wonder they are so intimate with one another! They must be engaged already! How stupid of me.”

She left the window in a daze and came to sit forlornly at the foot of her bed, wrapping her arms protectively around herself. Ever since Fitzwilliam’s departure from Hertfordshire, she had accepted the fact that he would never offer to her again. But seeing him here with Anne—so close, so affectionate—was quite another matter. As painful as knowing that she had lost him to another was the thought that he would now think ill of her…for as long as he lived.

***

“I’m so sorry that Mama found us together in this way, Fitzwilliam. We should have been more careful, more discreet,” said Anne, as she held tightly to her cousin’s hand.

“There is no point in distressing yourself, dear Anne. We shall have to make her aware of our resolve eventually, but let us postpone that conversation for a while. I would not have her anger spoil this family holiday for everyone—especially our uncle.”

“Yes, of course, we should say nothing for now. Though I doubt that she will have the good sense to avoid the subject.”

“We will deal with it if and when we must,” said Darcy, “but at the moment…I cannot…”

“Oh Cousin! How it pains me to see you so unhappy!”

“And I am ashamed and sorry for having burdened you with all my troubles! But I hope you know how much your sweet indulgence and understanding have meant to me, Anne. Never did I dream that I could speak of it to anyone,” said Darcy, pressing her hand. “Richard knows, of course, but I could not talk about it with him the way I have done with you. Men do not allow themselves the luxury of wrestling with such feelings with each other. And Georgie’s disappointment at the loss of Elizabeth is still too fresh, too painful. She dearly wanted Elizabeth for a sister and I will not add to her regrets. So it all falls on you, dear Anne. Forgive me for having placed so much on your shoulders.”

“My shoulders are broader than they seem and most willing to share the burden of your troubles, Fitzwilliam. Have you any idea how good it feels to be needed, to be of use to another person—especially one so dear to me? Though it hurts me to see you so despondent, I am thankful to be able to be of some comfort to you—even if all I can do is listen.”

“That is a very great deal indeed, Anne,” said Darcy, stroking the back of her hand with his thumb. “Just promise me that you will box my ears if I become too troublesome. Knowing how sensible you are, I shall never be offended.”

Anne de Bourgh laughed as she rose to take the arm now being extended to her. The cousins slowly made their way back to the house in search of Richard and Georgiana, whom they had so ungraciously abandoned to the company of the elder members of the family. As much as they enjoyed their quiet times together, they could not afford to separate themselves from the others too often. Then, not only would Lady Catherine, but the Matlocks, misconstrue their attachment.

***
Fitzwilliam Darcy had not slept for most of the night, and finally, at four in the morning had lit a candle and made himself comfortable with a book in a large winged chair. It was there that his man found him in a fitful sleep at seven—one full hour past the time he normally awoke. Darcy bathed and shaved in great haste, but was nevertheless late for breakfast, inconveniencing some of his relations and merely amusing others.

“There you are, Fitzwilliam!” said Lady Catherine, placing her teacup down on its saucer. “It is not like you to keep us all waiting. And where are you hiding your sister? Is she not with you? I thought you would be coming down together?”

Darcy turned to smile at the other members of his family. “Good morning, Aunt. Good morning, Uncle,” he said bowing to Earl and Lady Matlock. “I hope you slept well. Good morning, Anne, you are looking especially lovely this morning!” To Richard, he simply nodded. “And good morning to you, Aunt Catherine. I apologize for keeping you waiting and am sorry to disappoint you, but my man informed me that Georgiana left her rooms for a walk rather early this morning. I have no idea where she may be at the moment, but I shall find her if you like.”

“Oh, do sit down, Fitzwilliam,” said Lady Matlock. “There is no need for you to go in search of her. I’m certain she will be in momentarily. Did you not sleep well, my boy? You look a bit haggard. Indeed, it pains me to say that you have not looked at all well lately. No doubt, you’ve been pushing yourself much too hard with estate business. Well, I hope you will take the opportunity to rest and restore your strength while you are here. Your uncle and I are most concerned about you.”

“I did have a restless night, Aunt, but you needn’t worry. I am perfectly well and strong, and have every intention of indulging in a rather indolent life style while I am here.” He lifted his coffee cup as if he were offering a toast and grinned at his uncle, who just chuckled at his nephew’s talent for charming the ladies.

When another fifteen minutes had passed and Georgiana had still not made her appearance, Darcy insisted on leaving the table to look for her. He wandered through the downstairs sitting rooms, peered out through several sets of French doors and finally came to a small solarium attached to the west wing. There he spied his sister’s beautifully coiffed curls as they bobbed and swayed to the rhythm of her animated conversation. He heard her long before he was upon her, which was unusual in and of itself, as Georgiana was normally rather quiet and shy. Yet now, carefree giggles burst from her lips.

“What adventures you have had, Elizabeth! I would never have had the courage to accept such a responsibility!”

“I’m afraid I wasn’t given much choice. But then I suspect we all rise to the occasion when there is nothing else to be done,” replied that sweet, familiar voice.

“And now he is a healthy, active boy! It is to your great credit, Elizabeth! I would so much like to meet him! May I pay you a visit this afternoon and play with him a little?”

“You’d be most welcome, Georgiana…but I don’t know that your brother would approve. You had better ask him before you come,” said Elizabeth, her voice now sounding strained.

“But why would Fitzwilliam have an objection? On the contrary, he will be so happy to learn that you are here that he will surely insist on coming along!”

I doubt that very much, thought Elizabeth, as he has seen fit to keep my presence here a secret from you! But instead she said, “I think such a reunion might be a bit awkward at the house. Perhaps I should bring Jonathan to the children’s garden by the goldfish pond after his afternoon nap. We often play there, and you can join us whenever you like.”

Darcy’s countenance fell as he quietly retreated. He was not about to interrupt their conversation or impose himself on their happy reunion. “It would be awkward…your brother may not approve…” Elizabeth’s wishes were clear. Well, she need not worry; he would not inflict himself on her. Indeed, he would keep his distance. As a married woman, she was right to feel apprehensive about his proximity. Had he not professed an ardent and passionate love for her, and then, even once rejected, made subtle overtures to her in Derbyshire? No, he would not wish to make her uncomfortable. He would respect her position here as the mistress of Braemar House and leave her be.

On his return to the dining room he reported that he had not found Georgiana, but that the desk clerk had seen her returning earlier. Perhaps she had gone to her rooms to refresh herself or fetch a shawl?

Darcy resumed his seat and looked down at the plateful of food he had taken from the sideboard. He could eat none of it now. Aware that the others were watching him, he could only imagine the picture he presented. The muscles about his mouth were drawn down, weighted by some powerful force, and hard as he might, he could not raise them.

“Your food has gone cold, Fitzwilliam. Let me fix you another plate,” said Anne, reaching out to take it, but Darcy gently stayed her hand and shook his head. “No, Cousin, I am not very hungry. Just another cup of coffee will do.”

“Fitzwilliam, you must eat something,” said Lady Matlock. ‘You have gotten exceedingly thin.”

To this, the Colonel could not resist adding, “What Darcy? Not eating, not sleeping? One would think you were in love.”

Both his cousins turned to glare at him, and Richard Fitzwilliam now realized the seriousness of his blunder. He had been referring to Miss Bennet, of course, but to the others at the table the likely object of Darcy’s affection would be Anne. The Colonel winced. Yet despite this faux pas and the risk of rousing Darcy’s anger with such teasing, he felt it his duty to spur him into action concerning Miss Bennet.

Turning irritably from the Colonel to his aunt, Darcy continued, “No, Aunt, I assure you my appetite is ...”

“I’m so sorry, everyone,” came Georgiana’s animated voice as she hurried to settle herself in the seat left vacant for her. “I do apologize! I met an old friend in the front parlor and lost track of the time. Please forgive me.”

The Colonel shot a glance at Darcy and then asked, “An old friend, Georgie? Here, in this remote corner of the world?”

“Yes! Is it not remarkable? And you shall never guess who it is!” she said, turning excitedly towards her brother. “It is Miss Bennet, Fitzwilliam,” she said softly. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet is here at Braemar!”

His reaction was far from the one she expected. He looked stunned for a moment, but not at all pleased. His dark eyes narrowed and his features froze, making his countenance unreadable.

The Colonel, however, was determined to make the most of this chance meeting! He would use it to bring this unbearable situation to a head. “Miss Bennet? Is it not Lady Bennington? I thought I saw her with an infant early yesterday.”

Georgiana looked both puzzled and hurt. “Why did you not tell me that you had seen her, Richard? You know how fond I am of Miss Bennet.”

“Who is this Miss Bennet?” asked the Earl, “Some London acquaintance, I presume?”

“No, father,” replied the Colonel. “She is a very charming and clever young lady that Fitzwilliam met in Hertfordshire and then introduced to me at Rosings. Is that not right, Aunt Catherine?”

“Charming young lady, indeed! Ill-bred, impertinent and altogether too common to be called a lady,” retorted Lady Catherine.

“Mother!” said Anne, now coloring with humiliation. “How can you say so? You yourself invited her to dine with us many times. And I came to genuinely admire her. She is witty, poised and very affable. I believe we all enjoyed her company.”

Lady Catherine glared at her daughter. “I invited her because she was a visiting relation of Mr. Collins,” she said haughtily, “and that was long before I knew about her upbringing, her inferior relations and the infamous scandal concerning her sister! I forbid you to have anything to do with her, Anne. And I would advise the rest of you do the same, before your acquaintance with her tarnishes the reputation of this family!”

Georgiana was horrified at this injunction and expected her brother to protest it, but he seemed barricaded behind a wall that nothing could penetrate. Indeed, he had not truly heard anything anyone had said after Richard had uttered that painfully offensive name—Bennington. He was nervously awaiting Georgiana’s reply and was incapable of focusing on anything else.

His cousin persevered on his behalf. “Well, Georgie, which is it? Bennington or Bennet?”

“You think Elizabeth is married to Sir Robert?” said Georgiana in genuine amazement. “No, of course not!” she laughed. “She is simply here to help him care for his son until a proper nanny can be found. She has taken care of the little tyke since his mother’s death—poor little creature. In fact, she mentioned that she’d be returning to Hertfordshire at the end of the month. I am very glad we didn’t miss her. I, for one, am truly anxious to renew our friendship.”

Darcy turned to stare at his sister. While his mind was still adjusting to the blessed revelation that Elizabeth was yet unmarried, his heart was moved to breaking at Georgiana’s courage to stand up to Lady Catherine on her behalf. He had never been more proud of her or loved her more dearly. He suddenly rose to stand beside her, and taking her hand in his, said, “Yes, by all means, Georgie. We must visit her together and renew our friendship as soon as may be. Do you think she is still at the inn?”

“No, Fitzwillliam,” said Georgiana, her eyes now filled with tears, “I believe she returned home as soon as we parted. She had only come to see if a letter had arrived from her sister.”

“Well, then we shall see her later today—perhaps in the children’s garden this afternoon.”

Georgiana’s shocked expression widened Darcy’s grin, and as he bent to kiss her, he whispered, “Sh…our secret.”
SubjectAuthorPosted

Dearest Anne 4

Gaby A.August 14, 2020 05:47PM

Re: Dearest Anne 4

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