After a long three days’ journey to Hertfordshire, Elizabeth was in no mood to suffer the false sincerity of Caroline Bingley, although ‘false sincerity’ might have been too charitable a phrase. Miss Bingley carried a thinly veiled contempt for Mrs Darcy that her brother had tried, unsuccessfully, to check. Neither had Mr Darcy forgotten Miss Bingley’s cutting remarks for his then fiancée when last he was at Netherfield. Nor did he fail to remember his resolve never again to allow that woman to speak of Elizabeth in such a hateful manner without serious consequences. Another outburst such as he had experienced when he announced his betrothal and Caroline Bingley would be banished forever from both his London house and Pemberley. He hoped, for Charles’ sake, that it would not come to that, but a man must uphold the honour of his wife.
Thus, when they finally arrived at Netherfield, both Darcys were silently relieved that Caroline Bingley was nowhere to be seen; it was her amiable brother Charles who greeted their guests. Darcy asked that they be excused directly to go to their rooms, pleading fatigue. Despite his excitement about his impending nuptials, and his joy at seeing his friends, Bingley was observant enough to comprehend that Mrs Darcy was desirous of rest, and in evident need of it.
Her solicitous husband led Elizabeth to the room he had occupied as a bachelor on his previous visits. Although he had told Bingley that he might join him later, whether either Darcy appeared downstairs that evening would depend entirely on Elizabeth’s strength. If she preferred to retire for the evening, he would join her, as he had every night since they were wed.
Darcy dismissed both his wife’s maid, Marie, and Morton, his own valet. He had sensed Elizabeth’s fatigue as they walked up the stairs. For the first time ever, she leaned heavily on his arm for support. How could a carriage ride – albeit one of three days’ duration – so sap her strength? It had been, in his opinion, an especially easy journey.
He insisted that Elizabeth lie down directly, a request with which she readily complied. Darcy helped her out of her dress and corset before tucking her beneath the covers. Too concerned to leave her alone, he removed his shoes, jacket, waistcoat, and cravat and lay with her on the bed. Elizabeth pressed herself against him; soon her breathing slowed, and Darcy was relieved to see that his wife was asleep. He resisted the urge to return to his host, instead succumbing to the even greater urge to remain with the woman in his arms. When she woke, he would ask if she was unwell. Until then, he would join her in slumber.
A sound in the hallway awakened them.
“How long have I been asleep?” Elizabeth groggily inquired.
“Just short of three hours.”
“Who would have suspected that riding in a coach, a well sprung Darcy coach at that, could be so taxing?”
“Elizabeth, I am worried. It is not like you to be so tired after such little exertion. Please, tell me, are you ill?”
Indeed, Darcy sounded most concerned. Elizabeth noted his apprehension before a smile slowly diffused across her face.
“Fitzwilliam, my fatigue should soon pass.” She toyed with a lock of his hair. “You have commented on the large volume of correspondence between Longbourn and Pemberley.”
Darcy was confused by the apparent change of subject. His wife endeavoured to enlighten him: “My mother has taken great pains to inform me of all the different symptoms of a woman who is with child, hoping, no doubt, that I would soon exhibit enough of them to confirm that she was to be a grandmother.”
“You are with child?” Darcy’s face and voice reflected a myriad of emotions: astonishment, hesitation, hope — and something else entirely pleasant: the first cautious flickerings of joy.
“I cannot be certain until the child quickens, but yes, I believe I am carrying your heir.”
Elizabeth was gratified to see his initial concerns dissolve into happiness. Without warning, he kissed her, laughing as he broke away.
“I am to be a father!”
“I believe that was one of your stipulations when you asked me to be your wife.”
“Indeed!” He was very pleased and took some time showing her! “How long have you suspected? When will the baby come?”
Elizabeth laughed at his enthusiasm. He was as happy as she.
“I have suspected for only a few weeks, and I believe our child will arrive around the beginning of October. I told you on our wedding night that my monthly courses are normally very regular. When they did not come when expected, I dismissed it as another inconsistency due to the burdens of my new situation. However, as time passed, my suspicions were aroused. After all,” Elizabeth touched his hip, “you were diligent in teaching me how a lover ought to act. I do not believe a single day has passed without your excellent instruction.” Darcy smiled. “Mamá has continually inundated me with unsolicited advice, no doubt hoping for confirmation of her conjectures.”
“Does she know?”
“Fitzwilliam! How could you think that I would tell her, of all people, before I told you?”
“Forgive me, Elizabeth.” Darcy’s hand reverently caressed her still taut stomach. “Are there other signs?”
“Oh yes! I am surprised that you have not noticed. My breasts have changed, darling. They are larger and somewhat tender.”
He moved his hand to tenderly caress each one. “I thought it was my imagination.” He covered one and measured it with the span of his fingers. “Does it hurt when I touch you here?”
“Not if you touch me as you do now. They are not constantly sore, but if you could be careful, it would make this more pleasurable.” It was Elizabeth’s turn to move her hands. She pulled his head towards her with one and caressed the bulge in his breeches with the other. “Make me yours again, Fitzwilliam.”
He hesitated. “Will it endanger the child?”
Elizabeth laughed. “Another piece of my mother’s wisdom. No, it does not.”
Darcy never did return downstairs that evening; he was much more agreeably engaged.
Caroline Bingley was in a foul mood. Not only had both Darcys retired to their rooms immediately after their arrival and not returned downstairs even once during the previous evening, but this morning Mr Darcy was actually smiling. At his wife! Miss Bingley had rarely seen the man smile at anyone other than his dear, departed sister. He had certainly never bestowed a sincere look of pleasure upon her, but there he sat, across from his wife, and he could not keep his eyes off the woman. Charles was the one who normally resembled the love-sick puppy, not Mr Darcy.
“Are you fully recovered from your journey, Mrs Darcy?”
“Yes. Thank you, Miss Bingley.”
“Your room, does it meet with your satisfaction?”
“Certainly. Mr Darcy told me that it is the same one he occupied when he last stayed at Netherfield. It met with his approval then, and it is more than comfortable enough for us now.”
It took Miss Bingley a few moments to realise that Eliza Darcy had not stayed in the room she had been given, but had spent the night in Darcy’s. Suppressing her horror at the knowledge that husband and wife were sharing one room — and one bed — she coolly replied, “Do not hesitate to ask if you are in need of anything.”
Unable to watch the disgusting display of connubial bliss before her, Miss Bingley excused herself to see to some matter or other that needed her attention. She was not missed.
The time for the inevitable call on Longbourn arrived. Darcy knew that Elizabeth was eager to see Jane, but he shared none of her enthusiasm for visiting her family. Perhaps he would be able to escape with Mr Bennet before too long. Prolonged exposure to his mother-in-law was dangerous to his sanity — and to his hearing.
Mrs Bennet did not disappoint.
“My dear Mrs Darcy! You have come to Longbourn at last!” Elizabeth gave her spouse a wry smile before stepping out of the coach and into the arms of her adoring mother; she was clearly now Mrs Bennet’s favourite child.
Mrs Bennet stepped back from Elizabeth and examined her from head to toe. “I had hoped that you might be showing signs of increasing by now, Lizzy. After all, Mr Darcy expects an heir and it is your duty to produce one.”
“Mother!” Elizabeth hissed.
“Well, why else would he marry you? A good, stout, healthy country-bred woman strong enough to birth many children; that is what he must have seen in you.”
“This is not the time or the place to discuss this. I beg that we be allowed into the house so I may greet the rest of my family.”
Elizabeth was clearly unhappy with her mother’s vulgar display. Only his wife’s anticipation of seeing her father and her sisters kept Darcy from returning Elizabeth to their carriage and escaping back to Netherfield. Something must be done about Mrs Bennet.
Darcy followed his wife into the house, and saw Mr Bennet watching his married daughter and her mother with obvious amusement. Jane smiled at her sister, and Darcy could see how impatient she was to greet her. He was glad he had not acted on his first impulse and fled Longbourn. Mary stood silently and stoically biding her time, Kitty appeared happy to see Elizabeth, Lydia looked bored. They were all exactly as he remembered them.
When the party finally settled in the drawing room, Darcy felt like a prized stallion. He and Elizabeth sat on a divan, the centre of attention. He hoped that his father-in-law would soon grow tired of the spectacle and retreat to his books; Darcy would be right behind him. Fortunately, the ladies’ questions were directed to Elizabeth, and he was saved from participating in the inane conversation. From time to time, he surreptitiously glanced at Mr Bennet, silently entreating that gentleman to abandon the entertainment in the drawing room for the serenity of the library. When the master of the house at last stood to leave, Darcy was on his feet and following before Mrs Bennet had a chance to react. He gave Elizabeth a guilty little smile as he fled the room.
Once the men had departed, Elizabeth’s interrogation intensified.
“Lizzy, is Pemberley as grand as we have heard? Your letters spoke little of the house.”
“Pemberley is very large, but not overly ornate, Mamá. There is an elegance to it that I find most pleasing. What matters most to me is the integrity and generosity of its owner. The estate is a reflection of its master and insomuch as it is, I am content.”
Mrs Bennet was not to be distracted. She cared little about the integrity and generosity of Pemberley’s owner, providing, as it did, fewer morsels that she could use to impress her neighbours than would its splendours. “The house must be all that I have heard and better than I imagined! And to think that my daughter is its mistress. Your cleverness in securing such a fine husband has saved us all.”
“Mother, I never sought to secure Mr Darcy.”
“Of course not,” Mrs Bennet winked. “Mrs Darcy. Ooh, how wonderful that sounds! And now Jane is to be wed. Two daughters married! Lizzy, you must invite your sisters to stay with you. Jane, too, after you are Mrs Bingley. Both of your husbands have houses in Town. Think of the balls you will attend, and the society! You must take your sisters so that they, too, will be thrown into the path of rich men.”
Elizabeth knew where this was headed; Mrs Bennet was nearly in raptures again as she contemplated three, four, or even five daughters equally well-married. Her daughter quite deliberately steered the conversation to Jane’s wedding. Mrs Bennet never tired of talking of wedding preparations and blithely followed Elizabeth’s lead.
“Jane, at least, has had a proper engagement, with enough time to arrange an appropriate wedding day. You married too quickly, Lizzie, to organize the sort of wedding that your husband’s exalted position deserved.”
“I assure you, madam, that Mr Darcy and I were more than satisfied with our wedding day.” Elizabeth then added, “And you certainly made it memorable.”
Mrs Bennet smiled patronizingly and returned to Jane’s impending nuptials. Lydia and Kitty, having already heard all that their mother could possibly say on the subject, began talking amongst themselves about the latest gossip from Meryton. Neither had any news to report, but at least the topic was more interesting than anything their mother had to say. Mary simply picked up a book and started reading.
Mrs Bennet returned to another of her favourite subjects, albeit in a softer voice than normal.
“Have you begun to provide Mr Darcy with an heir? He looked more than willing to take you to his bed when he married you.”
“Mother,” Elizabeth hissed, “This is not the appropriate place to discuss such things.”
“Oh, the younger girls are not listening and I have already told Jane about her wifely duties. I want to know if you are with child yet. Come now, I birthed five daughters. I know how men are.”
Elizabeth coloured, unwilling to discuss the subject.
“As I have told you in every one of my letters, when there is news of that sort to report, be assured that my husband and I will tell you at the proper time.”
“But have you looked for the signs that I mentioned in my letters? You never answered me. You realize that once you are with child, you can send your husband away from your bed.”
“Mother! I must insist that you respect my wishes on this matter. I have nothing more to say. Let us converse on something more suitable for my unmarried sisters’ ears.”
Mrs Bennet was not happy with her married daughter’s refusal to elaborate.
“I very well. You always were the headstrong one. But you must promise that I shall be the first to know.”
“My husband deserves that honour.”
“Yes, yes, of course. After you tell him you must write to me immediately.”
At last, Jane, embarrassed by the conversation she had just witnessed and eager to have her sister to herself, took pity on Elizabeth and asked if she wished to see her bridal gown.
“Oh yes! Take Mrs Darcy to your room and show her your gown. I have never seen anything so fine on one of my daughters before.” Mrs Bennet conveniently overlooked the exquisite gown that Elizabeth was wearing.
Once safely upstairs, Elizabeth closed the door to Jane’s room and leaned against it, sighing in relief.
“Some things will never change.”
“Mother is excited.”
“Our Mother is exactly as she has always been. My leaving Longbourn affected no change in her, except to make her even more determined to find rich husbands for her other daughters.”
The reunited sisters embraced and both laughed at the truth of Elizabeth’s words.
“I have missed you so much.”
“As I have you, Jane. You must tell me everything you have not already told me in your letters – after you show me your wedding dress.”
Jane brought out the gown she would wear when she exchanged the name of Bennet for Bingley.
“Oh Jane, I can see this on you even now. You will be the most beautiful bride ever!”
“Mamá was insistent that no expense be spared. Thankfully, Aunt Gardiner came to my aid when we selected the fabric and trim. You know Mamá’s weakness for lace.”
The sisters then eagerly shared all the things left unspoken in their letters. Elizabeth was overjoyed to see Jane’s absolute love for Mr Bingley and to hear her sister’s assurances that the gentleman returned her feelings in kind. But Elizabeth, seeing these deep and tender emotions suffuse Jane’s entire being, was left with a tinge of sadness, wondering if she was doomed to a life of unrequited love. For the first time, the question arose in her mind: could she truly be content to love, but not be loved?
“Elizabeth,” Jane spoke softly, breaking her sister’s reverie. “Have you told him?” That you love him was unnecessary. Elizabeth understood her sister perfectly.
“In Brighton, about a week after the wedding.”
“It did not take long for you to see what was already in your heart.”
“I knew it the day of the wedding.”
Jane noticed the lack of enthusiasm in Elizabeth’s voice. “He has yet to tell you his feelings?”
“Jane, I do not expect him ever to love me. I do not know if he will be able to love me, or anyone else. He has told me this himself, and I have resigned myself to the fact that my husband may never have the depth of feeling for me that I have for him.”
“Oh, Lizzie, can you be happy in that knowledge?”
Elizabeth hesitated, now a little less sure of herself. The strength of her longing to have with Darcy what Jane had with Mr Bingley surprised her. But facts were facts, and regret was an indulgence. She might not yet have Darcy’s love, but she still had hope.
“Yes, I believe I can. But do not mistake me, Jane, I am content. He has given me everything he promised when he offered for me, but he never promised me his heart. I will spend the rest of my days loving him and being the companion he asked me to be. Believe me, I have thought much on this. I can never be as happy as you, for you are too good – but I can be, I will be, I am content to be Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy.” Jane looked at her with compassion. “Am I making any sense?”
“You make perfect sense. Elizabeth, I know you understood exactly what kind of a marriage you were entering with Mr Darcy. You chose a path of friendship and security, both financial and emotional. Your husband is exactly the kind of man who would challenge you intellectually and whom you could respect and esteem. The only thing you did not expect was the depth of affection you feel for him. I see no reason why this should bring unhappiness. Who is to say that Mr Darcy does not return the same feelings? He does not look displeased with you.”
“He has never given me any indication that he regrets our union. He seems at ease with our situation.” Elizabeth and Darcy had agreed to keep the knowledge of her pregnancy between them. As much as Elizabeth wanted to tell her sister the good news, she enjoyed the shared secret with her husband even more.
A look of mischief appeared on Elizabeth’s face. “Though he cannot be overjoyed at the amount of money he has spent on my wardrobe. Jane, if Mr Bingley insists that you be dressed in clothing befitting your new station, you will spend every spare hour in Town for next two months either buying fabrics or being fitted for new gowns!”
Dinner was a struggle for Elizabeth. Her time away from Longbourn and her association with Darcy’s family and neighbours had given her a new perspective on the unseemly displays of her mother, father, and three younger sisters. Only Jane escaped censure. Elizabeth had often been uncomfortable with the manners of her family, but now she wondered how she had failed to see just how dreadful their behaviour really was. She was never more thankful that Derbyshire was so far away and that her father detested Town. She would see Jane and Mr Bingley, she was sure; Bingley was one of her husband’s close friends. They would entertain each other when in London, and when she and Darcy were compelled to visit Hertfordshire, Netherfield would be a refuge. Elizabeth speculated how long she could neglect issuing an invitation to her family to visit Pemberley and, thereby, delay the mortification she would surely feel when her mother rhapsodised about the splendour of the Darcy estate.
Such were her thoughts as she and her husband returned to Netherfield. Neither was of a disposition to converse on the trip back.
Elizabeth suddenly realized the direction of her musings, and was shamed. How could she think so ill of her own flesh and blood? How could she belittle the people whom she loved? They did not deserve such condemnation, especially from her. Her attitude was the same as her husband had displayed in Brighton that had so troubled her less than three months previously. Had the wealth and privilege she now enjoyed so quickly altered her that she was unable to see the value of people beyond their rank in society and the propriety of their manners?
Her thoughts were interrupted by Darcy’s hand reaching across the carriage to rest on her knee.
“Elizabeth, what has distressed you so?”
Not wishing to confess the true source of her agitation, her agile mind quickly leapt to the problem made evident by their visit to Longbourn.
“Fitzwilliam, what are we to do about my family and the ball? I refuse to dishonour them by not extending an invitation, but I am afraid of what shame their behaviour might bring on me, which would also reflect on you. If it were only Jane, Mary, and my father, I would not be overly concerned. But my mother, Kitty, and Lydia! My father has done nothing to check them. My youngest sisters are silly, ignorant, and vain. They do not know how to act at home, much less in proper society, and Mamá – she will tell everyone she meets how her two eldest daughters have caught rich husbands. Oh dearest, I cannot bear to think on it!”
Darcy moved to sit next to Elizabeth and pull her into his arms. “You have expressed my own sentiments and concerns. We are in agreement that something must be done. However, we need not make any decision at this moment. Let me speak to Bingley. Perhaps your family can stay with them in Town. We can claim, justly, that you have much to prepare. As for your younger sisters and mother, I have no solution at present, but we still have time to think of something.”
“What a troublesome wife you have!”
“Elizabeth, I entered our marriage well aware that your family would provide obstacles to your acceptance into the ton. Do not become discouraged at the first challenge. Let me do what needs to be done.”
Nevertheless, they did discuss what could be done. The following morning, with a letter from Elizabeth in hand, Darcy called at Longbourn.
Mr Bennet was surprised to see his son-in-law so early in the day, but graciously welcomed him into the library.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning? You have already married my daughter, I fear there is little left of mine that you could desire.”
“On the contrary, sir, I have need of assistance on a matter of great importance.”
“And that is?”
Darcy handed over the sealed missive. “Elizabeth asked me to give you this letter. Please read it before we continue.”
Mr Bennet’s curiosity was clearly aroused. He broke the seal and began to read.
My Beloved Father,
I have asked my husband to deliver this letter into your hands this morning. My presence at Longbourn would have defeated the purpose of his visit, but I could not allow him to call on you without sending this affirmation of the news we have to share. Papá, I have every reason to believe that I am with child. We cannot be certain for at least a month, but all indications point to such a conclusion. As a father, you must understand the overwhelming emotions we are now experiencing, and I do not know who is more amazed, Mr Darcy or myself. Each day I grow more and more convinced that marrying Mr Darcy was the single wisest choice I will ever make in my life. I am more than happy with this news, I am elated. We have decided to tell you because of what my husband must now speak to you about. For my sake, and even more for the sake of the babe I now carry within me, please listen to all that he has to say.
I remain your devoted daughter,
George Bennet looked up to see the confirmation in the eyes of his reserved son-in-law. Darcy thought he saw a tear forming.
“It is true? My little girl is to be a mother?” Darcy nodded. “Elizabeth tells me there is more.”
“First of all, you are the only other person with whom we have shared this news. Elizabeth told me only two days ago. Until the babe quickens, we do not plan to tell anyone else.”
“Especially my wife. I understand your meaning, sir, but why tell me?”
Darcy continued. “I was about to come to that point. After much discussion, Elizabeth believed it best that you be told her condition so that you would be more agreeable to the petition I must now make. As you may know, Elizabeth will be presented at Court on the ___ of April.”
“Mrs Bennet may have mentioned it a time or two.”
“You might also suspect that we are to hold a ball two days following to mark the occasion, and to formally introduce Elizabeth to the ton as my wife. Elizabeth’s news gives me reason to be concerned for her well-being. The pressure she will be under for the next month is great, and the very last thing I wish to do is to add to her burdens.”
“What does this have to do with me?”
“Sir, I know that you and your wife would normally expect an invitation to stay with us in Town in anticipation of these events. I am concerned that the duties of hostess will be more than Elizabeth can manage without over-taxing herself. I have taken the liberty of speaking to Bingley, and without revealing Elizabeth’s state, have asked if he would be gracious enough to allow your family, which will also be his by then, to stay at the Bingley townhouse.”
“Mr Bingley, being a man who wishes to oblige his friends, agreed.” It was not a question.
“I hope you can understand why I have taken this course of action.” Darcy paused. “And I hope that you are not offended.”
“I find your reasoning entirely justified. I cannot say that I would have done differently if I were in your place.”
Darcy hesitated a moment.
“There is more that I need to say on this subject. When I spoke of the ball, I said that it was Elizabeth’s official début as Mrs Darcy. She will be under intense scrutiny for the entire evening; indeed, for the entire time we are in London. Mr Bennet, it is my intent that nothing jeopardize her acceptance into society, if I can prevent it.”
There was an immediate escalation of tension in the room.
“What are you saying, Mr Darcy?” Mr Bennet’s tone was cold and defensive.
“Sir, I am concerned about the behaviour of some members of this household and their ability to act with decorum and discretion.”
“Speak plainly, sir.”
Darcy sighed. “We both know that Miss Lydia is too young to be out in society. Tell me, is she truly ‘out’?”
“She and her mother may consider it so, but no, she is not. She is too young to be attending balls in London,” Mr Bennet said wearily. “To answer your next question, Kitty is ‘out’ and any invitation you extend to our family would include her. However, Kitty, when not in the company of Lydia, is less insipid. Actually, she is rather shy and withdrawn.”
“Elizabeth shares your estimation of Miss Catherine. I hope you can appreciate the difficult position I am in. I do not wish to insult you or your family, but I must first protect mine.” There was one person’s name left unsaid. Neither man wished to be the one to say it. “Mr Bennet, my one remaining request of you today is this. Will you speak to your wife and impress upon her the importance of the ball to Elizabeth’s acceptance in the ton. I know she will be very proud of her daughter. I know she will want to tell everyone how proud she is of her daughter. I am concerned that her enthusiasm on the subject will not be received in a manner that will do her or Elizabeth credit.”
Mr Bennet regarded the man before him for several moments. “It has been a long time since my wife has held her tongue for anyone or anything. I am not blind to her faults, Mr Darcy, but I know not how to comply with your request.”
“Impress upon her the absolute importance of the event for Elizabeth and for Elizabeth’s future children.” Even Darcy knew that he sounded heavy-handed.
“Give me time. I still have nearly a month to think of something. If all else fails, I will have a servant slip Mrs Bennet a sleeping draught.”
Darcy knew he had to be content with that answer. He had done what he had come to do, save one thing. “Mr Bennet, please understand that I have come here today as the head of my family. Please do not resent Elizabeth for what I have said. She loves her family and wants them to share in her honour. If you are angry with what I have said, be angry with me, not with her.”
Mr Bennet nodded his understanding. “Would you care for something to drink?”
“No, thank you. I should return to Netherfield and my wife. Expect to receive our invitations soon.” Darcy stood and shook his host’s hand. “Until next time.”
After Darcy had gone, Mr Bennet poured himself a drink and reviewed the remarkable conversation. The nerve of the man! Had Mr Darcy said what he had said about his family in any other manner, Mr Bennet would have felt compelled to call him out. The arrogance, the conceit – the justice of his assertions was difficult to accept. For all the haughtiness of his address, the man was right. Damn him! Mr Bennet felt every insult to his method of presiding over his household, and he knew they were deserved.
He banged his now-empty glass on the desk. George Bennet may have failed his wife and his children, but this was one time he could do something to help his worthy daughter. Elizabeth, and Jane for that matter, deserved that he try. It was the least that he could do. However, he was still thoroughly annoyed that he would also have to do it for the proud man who had married his favourite daughter. It took all his self control not to lash out in anger. Thank God Elizabeth had the sense to send her note to prepare him for her husband’s cutting words.
On the day Jane Bennet become Mrs Charles Bingley, many compared that wedding to the one three months prior when Elizabeth Bennet married Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire. They may have noted how much grander were the preparations for this wedding, how much more lavish the wedding breakfast, and how much larger the trousseau of the bride. Neither of the two couples in question cared one jot. What truly mattered to each was that they were irrevocably married.
After the wedding breakfast, the two couples left for London in separate coaches. Darcy was eager to escape from his Longbourn relations and bring Elizabeth back to Town; there was so much yet to be accomplished in the coming weeks. Bingley was adamant that he and Jane spend their first night as husband and wife without the responsibilities of a house full of family members who had come for the wedding, as were presently at Netherfield. Caroline could enjoy being hostess one last time for all he cared. His only desire was to bed his wife without fear of interruption.
The Darcys had been in London for a week when they received an unexpected caller.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam! We did not know you were in Town.”
“I have come to pay my compliments. You are both looking well. Marriage definitely seems to agree with you, Cousin.”
After a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries, the Colonel revealed his motivation for coming. “I bring an invitation to call at Afton House tomorrow.”
“Is this an invitation or a summons?” Darcy asked darkly.
“I would suppose that entirely depends on you. My parents wish to meet Mrs Darcy again. They were unsure of their reception here. At least that was my father’s impression of the situation between the two of you, when last you spoke.”
“Darcy, the Earl would like your wife to meet his children in private and avoid meeting for the first time in some public place – a situation that would be extremely awkward for all parties.”
“Please tell your parents that we will be happy to call in the morning,” Elizabeth said, taking control of the situation.
“Happy?” Darcy scoffed. “No, but my wife is correct. As little as I wish to see my uncle and aunt, it is the prudent thing to do.”
“With my siblings in attendance, it will be just like old times, eh Darcy?” Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed nervously.
“I will reserve judgement until after tomorrow.”
Elizabeth was not surprised when they arrived at the enormous London home of the Fitzwilliams. Afton House was, after all, the residence of an earl.
“Shall we?” Darcy asked before they climbed the steps to the front entrance. The butler greeted them at the door.
“Lord and Lady_____ are expecting you.”
He led them to the room in which the Fitzwilliam clan had assembled. Darcy made the introductions, and Elizabeth curtsied as she met each of her new family members. She had been introduced to Darcy’s uncle and aunt in Derbyshire at Bartholomew Arnold’s wedding, but only now had a chance to study them closely, and was finally able to match more faces to the names her husband and Lady Victoria had made sure she remembered.
Lord Harold Fitzwilliam, the family patriarch, was a fairly tall man with greying hair. Lady Alice Fitzwilliam appeared to be in her fifties, was still a handsome woman, and must have been a great beauty in her youth. The Earl’s eldest son, Martin, Viscount Newman, and his wife, Matilda, were a formidable looking couple. He was a younger version of his father, but with his mother’s eyes. Viscountess Newman had a classic beauty and reminded Elizabeth somewhat of her own sister, Jane, but the woman’s countenance lacked the look of kindness that was always present on Mrs Bingley’s face. Harriet, Viscountess Northem, the Fitzwilliam’s only daughter, and her husband, Josiah, were the last to be introduced. Lady Northem took after her mother in all but her light brown hair. Her husband was neither as tall nor as svelte as the Fitzwilliam men.
“Darcy, I have learned from my sister that your wife is to be presented at court,” said the Earl.
“Lady Victoria kindly offered to be Mrs Darcy’s sponsor.”
“I understand that the date is the ___ of April?”
“Yes, sir,” Darcy said, his taut jaw telling Elizabeth exactly how uncomfortable he was.
“Mrs Darcy, are your preparations proceeding smoothly?”
“Yes, my lord. Lady Victoria has been a very thorough instructor.”
“Good. It gives me comfort to know that you are being so well looked after.”
Elizabeth thought she understood him perfectly – he was implying that she would be lost without his sister’s help.
“When will you hold the ball to mark the occasion?”
“Two days after St James’s.” Darcy stopped to ponder his next words. “Would this sudden desire to appear reconciled mean that you would accept an invitation to that evening’s festivities?”
“Darcy, I know what I said to you at Rosings, but our failure to attend your wife’s ball would reflect poorly on us as well as on you. Despite what you may believe, I am a reasonable man. That is another reason I asked you to come here today. It is far better for the family to meet your wife for the first time here, now, than elsewhere. People might think it odd, and I do not condone gossip.”
“No, I daresay you do not.” Darcy paused. “Does Lady Catherine share this unexpected civility?”
It was the Earl’s turn to sigh. “No, she does not. She refuses to listen to reason, unsurprisingly. If you were to invite her, no doubt you would receive a rather vitriolic response.”
Up to this point, the rest of the Fitzwilliam clan had allowed the two men, with the brief exception of the direct question to Elizabeth, to converse alone. However, with the mention of a ball, a new voice was heard.
“A ball! How could I have failed to consider that you would be holding a ball in Mrs Darcy’s honour? Yes, we must attend; you know how much I adore balls.” All eyes immediately shifted to an excited Alice Fitzwilliam and all except Elizabeth stiffened. She noted the responses around her in wonder, but only for a few moments.
“I remember the ball my parents held for me when I came out in society. My father was an Earl as well, if you did not know. Oh the dancing that night! I had a partner for every set. That was when I met my Harold, before his father died, and he became Earl.” The Countess grew more and more excited as she grew more and more nostalgic. Elizabeth recognised the look on the faces of the rest of the family: the same mortification she felt whenever her mother acted in such an inappropriate manner.
Elizabeth was astonished by a revelation — the Countess of_______ was, in essentials, exactly the same sort of nervous and silly woman as her own mother. Whatever feelings of inferiority she might have had when she walked into Afton House that day disappeared with the knowledge that even the rich and titled could be as undignified as a country family like the Bennets of Longbourn. It was liberating!
London, April 1812
Elizabeth was lost in thought as she waited to be summoned before the Royal Court. Each of the foregathered ladies wore the similarly styled, oddly shaped hooped dress that protocol and Queen Charlotte demanded. Each was crowned with an elaborate ostrich feather headdress; each was draped with precious jewels – symbols of status, wealth, and worthiness to be presented to the Court of St. James on this day. Many of the ladies made idle talk to soothe their nerves; Elizabeth knew none of them, and felt no particular affinity for them. For all the others, this was their proper place. For all the others, this was the culmination of a lifetime’s preparation and expectation, inevitable from the day of their birth, more entitlement than honour. For all the others, but not Elizabeth Darcy, née Bennet.
Her unlikely journey to this small room had begun less than seven months ago, when she first set eyes on Fitzwilliam Darcy at the Meryton Assembly. At that moment, this event became her destiny. How easily fate might have decreed that this day — and more — never occur. How easily might that fleeting look of sadness have escaped her notice as he was introduced to Jane; how easily might she have been blinded by the reticence that hid the estimable man, misreading his character, dismissing him as unworthy of her notice and civility. How easily might she have never known love.
Lady Victoria touched Elizabeth’s elbow. “It is time,” she said, gently easing her niece into the present. Elizabeth smiled slightly, took a breath, and walked with the other bejewelled young women out of the Gallery toward the drawing room where Her Majesty, The Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, held Court. What Elizabeth could not see, but was readily evident to Lady Victoria, were the subtle ways she stood out from the other women. Though the cut of her gown was governed by strict protocol, its differing shades of green accentuated her auburn hair and fair complexion; the Darcy emeralds and diamonds glistened at her throat. She was the only married woman to be presented to the Court that day, and though still very young, was nonetheless a few years older than the others. The maturity in her features lent a certain gravitas to her countenance that enhanced her natural dignity. More notably, there was something about a woman who was with child that made her beauty bloom in full force. Elizabeth was noticed.
A half-hour later, the Lord Chamberlain announced, “Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy.”
Lady Victoria pressed Elizabeth’s arm, urging her forward. With a confidence and deportment rooted in hours of practice, Elizabeth gracefully glided before Queen Charlotte, curtsied deeply, then kissed the proffered hand.
“Mrs Darcy, I am told that you are recently married.”
“Yes, but four months, Your Majesty.” Elizabeth knew to respond solely and specifically to any pleasantries the Queen offered.
“I am also told that you are new to London. Where were you born?”
“I see. You have lived all your life close to London?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
The Queen regarded Elizabeth for a moment. “You are a lovely woman, my dear. Your husband must surely consider himself a lucky man.”
“Thank you, Ma’am, but I consider myself the fortunate one in our union. My husband is the best of men.”
“Well said.” With that, the Queen nodded and Elizabeth was dismissed from the Royal Presence. She made one final deep curtsy and slowly backed away, making every effort to move gracefully as an attentive footman assisted with her long train. Pray God I do not stumble and fall flat on my back! What an impression that would make!
Lady Victoria was quickly at her side once Elizabeth was safely away. “Breathe,” she whispered. Elizabeth exhaled; she had not even realized that she was holding her breath.
“Thank heavens that is finally over. When can we leave?” With the dreaded presentation finally behind her, Elizabeth smothered simultaneous impulses to flee as fast as she could, burst into tears, and laugh out loud at the absurd seriousness of it all.
“Soon. Watch, and follow my lead. We will be out of the palace and back in your carriage more quickly than you can imagine.”
Darcy had never been so relieved to see another person as he was to see Elizabeth after her presentation. Ordeal, more precisely, he corrected himself. As fetching as Elizabeth looked, he was glad that he would never again have to look at her in that oddly styled garb. He briefly considered forbidding her from ever wearing feathers again, but he had better sense than to attempt to dictate fashion to any woman. He also knew that such a dictum was unnecessary; Elizabeth had shown a willingness to dress at the height of fashion but without the gaudy ornamentation that some women employed – Miss Bingley immediately came to mind – in their attempt to secure attention.
Elizabeth walked up the stairway towards her chambers, pulling at the pins that held her headdress in place, and instructing her maid to help her change — immediately.
Lady Victoria stood beside Darcy and laughed quietly. “At least she waited until now to loosen her hair. I believe I would have begun to remove the headdress in the carriage.”
They walked to the drawing room. “Were there any … mishaps?”
“None at all, nor should you have anticipated that there would be.” Lady Victoria glared at her nephew. “Elizabeth handled herself with all the grace and charm you know she possesses. Whatever the state of her nerves, she betrayed no trepidation when called before the Queen. After exchanging a few words, she was dismissed and the next poor girl took her place. Darcy, you have no idea how terrifying the experience can be for a young woman. It makes the lack of a daughter of my own more palatable.”
“I will only rest easy once the ball is over.”
Lady Victoria shook her head.
“It is disappointing, Fitzwilliam, that I now have more confidence in your wife than you do.”
“I have every belief that all will go well. I am trying not to be overconfident and thereby underestimate the challenges that Elizabeth still faces.”
“I say you worry needlessly.” She sighed. “The Queen called your wife a lovely woman.” Darcy looked pleasantly surprised. “Elizabeth is proving herself to be every bit the gracious creature you found her to be in the wilds of Hertfordshire. All she needed was the chance to exhibit those virtues in a larger society to be properly acknowledged as a woman worthy of notice.”
“I am pleased then, of the outcome of today’s events. That does ease my mind somewhat concerning the ball.”
“Have you received replies to all the invitations?”
“Most. The Earl and Countess are coming, as are all my cousins – except Anne, of course. Elizabeth’s parents, her aunt and uncle from Gracechurch Street, and her two younger sisters will be attending, as well.”
“Two? I thought your wife had three younger sisters.”
“The youngest will not attend. She is far too young, and far too silly. Elizabeth’s older sister is lately married, as you know, and she and her husband are hosting the family. They arrived yesterday and we are to dine with them this evening.”
“From one engagement to another. Are you certain Elizabeth has the stamina for such a demanding schedule?”
Darcy looked askance at his aunt, wondering how much she knew. “Elizabeth has time to rest before we go to the Bingleys’.”
“The preparations for the ball – does she not still have much to do?”
Darcy smiled. “Are you searching for a compliment? You know full well that Elizabeth, with your invaluable assistance, has everything under control. Mrs Thomas assures me that all is proceeding according to plans. Elizabeth’s main task is to rest. Only a few minor details still need her attention.”
“My dear, unenlightened nephew. When planning a ball, there are always many more ‘minor details’ and last-minute arrangements than you can possibly anticipate!”
“That, my aunt, is why you are here! Do not deny it. I know you are deriving great pleasure from bringing my wife into society.”
“I will admit that in the beginning my reasons for agreeing to help where not entirely altruistic. I wanted to disoblige my siblings as much as you did.” Lady Victoria’s expression softened. “But as I came to know Elizabeth better, I developed a great fondness for her. She has become quite dear to me. I should never have doubted your choice, Darcy. Despite her lack of dowry or connections, you have done well. Very well, indeed.”
Darcy was sincerely touched by his aunt’s approbation. “Your approval means much to me. I will be eternally grateful for all that you have done for us.”
At that moment, they heard the rustle of fabric that preceded Elizabeth’s entrance. She grinned as she plopped down into a chair in a rather undignified manner. Lady Victoria feigned disapproval – for several moments – until she returned Elizabeth’s impertinent look.
“Do not let my brother or sister see you like that.”
“Risk the tenuous good opinion I now enjoy from that quarter? I would not dream of it.”
“Feeling a little less restricted in your current attire, Elizabeth?”
“Lady Victoria, I am shocked! Who would not feel bereft after abandoning the proper dress of the court?”
“Elizabeth, after all the time we have spent together, will you not now call me Aunt?”
“I would be delighted, Aunt,” Elizabeth replied, enjoying the sound of the word rolling off her tongue.
“Darcy tells me that you are to dine with your family this evening.”
“My sister and her husband are hosting a dinner tonight, yes. Mama will be eager to hear about everything, but it will be good to see them all again. Tomorrow they will call here.”
“A frontal attack,” Darcy quipped.
“Mr Darcy, for shame!” Elizabeth could not hide the smile on her face. “We thought it best to acquaint the rest of my family with the house. Especially Lydia.”
“Lydia is your youngest sister?”
“Yes, Lady… Aunt. She is but fifteen, too young to be out in society, although she has been allowed to attend assemblies in Meryton.”
Darcy cleared his throat. “Mr Bennet and I agreed that it was best if Miss Lydia did not attend.”
“How well was that news received, or have you heard?”
“I have. Not well at all, until Mr Bennet consented to Miss Lydia’s rather forceful request to accompany the family to London. And she will be fitted for several new gowns as recompense for missing the ball.”
“When Lydia learned that she would have more new dresses than her sisters, she became much more reconciled to her exclusion,” Elizabeth added.
“If the thought of more new gowns than her sisters was enough to placate her displeasure, then she is too young to be attending a London ball.” Both Darcys were in perfect agreement. Lady Victoria rose and took her leave. “I should be going now. Give my regards to Mrs Bingley. I will call again tomorrow.”
As she walked with her nephew to her carriage, Lady Victoria had one last bit of advice. “Darcy, you must do everything in your power to make certain that my sister-in-law is not left alone in the company of Elizabeth’s mother.”
The Darcys had dined in Town several times with the Bingleys since the latter couple’s wedding. Happily for the Darcys, Miss Bingley was staying with the Hursts and Charles Bingley did not wish to return to Hertfordshire until after the season. He preferred the relative privacy of his London house and was deriving great pleasure in showering his wife with gifts and extra funds to increase her wardrobe, just as Elizabeth had predicted. Thus, the sisters were able to spend more time together than they had anticipated, shopping and preparing for Elizabeth’s presentation and ball. It was also during this time that Jane was privileged to further her intimacy with Lady Victoria, who seemed to live at Darcy House rather than with her own family. Helen Arnold often accompanied her mother-in-law shopping and thence to the Darcy residence. Elizabeth was delighted that the most important people in her life enjoyed each other’s company as much as they did.
With each passing day, Elizabeth saw subtle changes to her body brought on by her unborn child. She dearly wished to confide in her sister, and in any event, she was so often in Jane’s company — and that of dressmakers — that she was convinced her sister would soon discern the signs and come to a rightful conclusion. She disliked keeping such a momentous secret from her beloved Jane, and regretted the absence of another female with whom she could discuss her situation. She persuaded her husband to allow her to reveal to Jane and Charles that she was with child; it would have been unfair to ask her sister to keep such happy information from her own husband. Elizabeth was as delighted to impart the news as Jane was to hear it; Darcy suffered Bingley’s effusive congratulations with equanimity, but was clearly pleased with his good fortune. Both Bingleys agreed to secrecy, until such a time as the Darcys announced their anticipation of an heir to the rest of the family.
So it was that eleven people, including five Bennets, two Darcys, and Mr and Mrs Gardiner, were gathered for the evening at the Bingleys’. Nine of them might as well have been mute; ten of them soon wished they were deaf. Mrs Bennet desired to hear every detail of Elizabeth’s presentation — from her preparations to the ride to St. James’s, from minute descriptions of the Queen to the wall coverings of each of the rooms. Elizabeth, knowing that the inquisition would end only when her mother was satisfied, patiently answered each question, whilst fervently nurturing the hope that her father would intercede and exert some control over his wife. Alas, it was not to be.
Fortunately, Elizabeth was an exemplary storyteller, despite her mother’s interruptions and exclamations; when she had finished, her attentive audience felt as if they had been at Court with her.
The next morning, the same party reconvened in the Darcys’ drawing room. Mrs Bennet had been unusually quiet when she first arrived, her jaw dropping in awe – a facial expression copied by her two youngest daughters. She had forgotten how truly elegant the Darcys’ townhouse was, despite her new familiarity with splendours available to the very rich in the form of Mr Bingley’s London house. Soon enough, she regained her voice and began to rhapsodise about every wonder on which her eyes fell, and it seemed that everything on which her eyes fell was deemed a wonder worthy of her rhapsodies, although she had toured the house less than four months earlier. It was no more than Elizabeth or her husband expected; for his part, Darcy was beginning to harbour grave doubts about Mr Bennet’s determination — and ability — to influence his wife’s behaviour.
The Darcys led everyone through the house. Even the Bingleys joined in, though both had seen it before, not wanting to be separated from the rest of the family. Once the entire house had been explored, all returned to the drawing room.
“Lord Lizzy, what a grand house you have. I am exhausted from walking through it,” Lydia said, flouncing into a chair and settling into the same unladylike pose that Elizabeth had struck the day before.
Elizabeth gave Darcy a knowing look, and he valiantly tried to keep from rolling his eyes as he remembered Elizabeth’s recent behaviour.
“Mrs Darcy, what plans do you have for other improvements? You did say your personal chambers are finished.”
“The house is fine as it is, Mama. I see no need to make changes only for the sake of making changes. I have not spent much time here in the months since we married. Any consideration for new furniture or further decorating will have to wait until after the season. I have more pressing matters to attend to at present.”
“A wise decision, my dear,” Mrs Gardiner said in support of her niece.
Elizabeth noticed that an addition had been made to the drawing room.
“Mr Darcy, is that what I think it is?” she asked her husband. He smiled and walked over to what could only be a covered painting.
“I ordered it placed here if it came whilst we were touring the house. Would you like to see it?”
Darcy drew off the cloth covering the newly completed portrait; Elizabeth had sat for it soon after they arrived in Town.
“Obviously, based on the background, the portraitist did not have much time to complete this commission. I hope to have another done soon, to be hung at Pemberley.”
“I see that you are finally grown up, Lizzy, and can sit still long enough to have your picture painted,” said Mr Bennet.
“Oh Mr Bennet, of course she is!” Mrs Bennet scolded her husband, who shrugged his shoulders and surreptitiously winked at his daughter. Elizabeth smiled.
As soon as was polite, Darcy, never comfortable in the presence of his mother-in-law, asked the men to join him in the library.
Mr Bennet was again impressed as he entered the room. So many books! “Darcy, Bingley tells me that the library here, as remarkable as it is, is nothing compared to that at Pemberley.”
“What you see here is a fraction of what Pemberley boasts, which has been the work of many generations and contains the bulk of the family collection.”
“When I finally visit you in Derbyshire, you will need go no further than that room to find me. I might even ask for a blanket and sleep there. I dare say I could do the same here.”
“I, for one, have no doubts that my brother speaks the truth,” said Mr Gardiner with a smile. “All of his acquaintances know that his fondness for the written word is matched only by his devotion to his port. I think he would consider himself a most fortunate man were he to die quietly with a book folded across his chest and a bottle of port on the table beside him.”
“As long as it was empty! One would not wish to leave good port undrunk.” All four laughed, at ease with each other, the friendly conversation, and the absence of clucking females.
“Do you think my wife is facing the same scrutiny about the preparations for the ball that she faced last night about her presentation?” Darcy asked.
“Undoubtedly! As sure as her mother is offering all kinds of last minute suggestions. Do not fret. Elizabeth knows how to deal with her mother.”
“What of Miss Lydia? I cannot believe she is happy about being left at Bingley’s tomorrow? Truthfully, I was surprised that she came to Town.”
“Son,” Mr Bennet said looking Darcy in straight in the eye, “one must pick one’s battles. I would have had no peace had I not allowed her to come. As it is, she accepted the situation only when I told her of the new gowns she would receive in lieu of the pleasure of attending the ball tomorrow evening. Like most things, it will be forgotten as soon as she is old enough to attend another event like it here in Town.”
“Who will stay with her?”
“Actually, Lydia will come to Gracechurch Street tomorrow,” Mr Gardiner answered. “Mrs Gardiner suggested that Lydia would be less agitated if she did not have to watch her sisters’ preparations. It may surprise you to learn that Lydia is very fond of her cousins and enjoys playing with them. She will spend the night at our house and return to the Bingleys’ the next day.”
“An excellent plan, gentlemen,” Darcy acknowledged.
“How long do think the women will continue talking together?” Bingley asked.
Darcy laughed, clapping his friend on the back. “They could go on all afternoon, but knowing my wife, she will send for us when she is finished with it. For now, enjoy the quiet. Mr Bennet, I noticed your eyes wandering along the bookshelves. Would you like to peruse them for something that suits your taste? Bingley here never seems to have the time for books, and I doubt he has much from which to choose.”
“Darcy!” Bingley protested, laughing.
“You yourself have confessed your shocking neglect of the family library.”
Knowing he was caught, Bingley resigned himself to his fate and let the other men tease him. In the midst of this, Darcy had a quiet aside with his father-in-law. He was curious to know whether Mr Bennet had approached Mrs Bennet on the subject of her behaviour at the ball. That gentleman briefly sketched his endeavours to curb his wife’s exuberance.
“Before we left Hertfordshire, we heard that the regiment quartered in Meryton is to encamp at Brighton for the summer. When Mrs Bennet learned that the Colonel’s wife planned to go sea bathing, she decided she must go sea bathing as well. I let it be known to her that I would never consent to such a scheme if she did not promise to curb her manners or wagging tongue for her precious daughter’s ball.”
“This will have the desired effect?”
“It should, and I could think of nothing else to say to her.”
“What of the officer I warned you about?” Darcy asked.
“I had a word with my brother-in-law, Mr Philips. You may recall that he is an attorney in Meryton. He thanked me for the information and had a few words with some of the tradesmen, reminding them it was not a good idea to offer too much credit to His Majesty’s soldiers. He assures me that if an officer were deeply in debt, he would have heard of it. I have kept my eye on Mr Wickham myself and have found nothing to reproach him over. Perhaps his change of heart was real after all.”
“No news of trifling with the affections of any ladies in the neighbourhood?”
“None. He has been the perfect gentleman during his time in Hertfordshire, as far as we have been able to discover.”
“I appreciate your diligence. It appears that I have worried for nothing.”
“You were quite right to bring it to my attention. I am relieved there is nothing untoward in his character, or that of the other officers, to report.”
Darcy and Mr Bennet returned their attention to the other two gentlemen. The four passed the time in discussion until, as Darcy had predicted, Elizabeth sent word that their presence was required with the ladies.
Elizabeth was speaking when the men returned to the parlour.
“Mama, there is little left for me to do. Every room has been thoroughly cleaned, as has every piece of silver, china, and crystal. The candles and lamps are readied. The flowers and greenery will be placed tomorrow. The food is being prepared, and I certainly will not bother the cook or meddle in the kitchen. Clayton, our butler, has directed the servants to remove all the doors that are to be taken down. Everything will be ready in time.” Darcy’s increasingly fine-tuned ears detected an undercurrent of exasperation in his wife’s manner. As accustomed as she was to her mother’s foibles, Elizabeth nevertheless had her limit.
“Mrs Bennet, Lady Victoria assures me that all is well. She is a veteran of many such balls, and has assisted Mrs Darcy for the last several months, to plan and prepare for tomorrow night,” Darcy said as he sat next to his bride. He suspected that his mother-in-law was a little put out not to have been asked to help her own daughter, and he wanted to squash any discord before it surfaced. “My aunt would have performed a similar service for my sister when she came out. We all knew, madam, that you would be consumed by your preparations for Mrs Bingley’s wedding, and felt it unfair to further burden you.”
Mrs Bennet simpered. Mr Bennet looked at his son-in-law with undisguised admiration. Elizabeth’s eyes widened, but she maintained her composure. Darcy, seemingly oblivious, continued: “Lady Victoria, you recall, was Mrs Darcy’s sponsor at St James’s and it was only natural that she lend her knowledge and vast experience as a member of the ton.”
“Yes, yes. My Lizzy must make a good impression. I am so excited for her and for my other daughters. Who knows what handsome, rich men they will meet?”
Darcy did not know how to respond, and before he could gather his wits, Mrs Bennet had introduced a related, if more dangerous, topic.
“Oh, Mr Darcy, it is such a shame that my dear Lydia will not attend the ball. She so loves to dance, and there will certainly be many pleasant partners for her amongst your guests. Do you not agree, sir, that it would be a very good thing indeed were my youngest to honour your wife with her presence tomorrow evening?”
Darcy was undone; he could summon no thought, no words, to deflect Mrs Bennet. For the first time in his life, Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley was utterly stymied. Rescue came unexpectedly from the lips of his tormentor, who now directed her attention to the man she held responsible for Lydia’s banishment.
“Mr Bennet, this is all your doing. How can you be so disagreeable? Surely you can see that there is no reason to deny Lydia. I simply cannot comprehend such hard-heartedness in any of my family. It is all very vexing.”
“Mrs Bennet, enough of such talk,” said her husband. “I remain resolute.” He nodded at Darcy, then turned back to his wife. “Come now, madam, we have taxed our hosts’ patience and fortitude quite long enough. It is time to make our goodbyes. Thank you, Darcy, Elizabeth, for your courtesy and hospitality.”
Mr Bennet bent to kiss his daughter on the cheek. “Rest child, for both your sakes.” Elizabeth and her father shared a silent moment of understanding.
“I will, Father,” she answered softly. “Thank you.”
When they were finally alone, Darcy ordered Elizabeth to her chambers to rest, a command she was all too happy to obey.
It had been many years since a ball had been hosted in the Darcys’ London residence. Elizabeth and Lady Victoria had worked long and hard in planning the evening. The decorations and the food where but a trifle compared to the most important task: devising a guest list. Because the evening included dancing, care was taken that the ballroom would not be overly crowded; this, by necessity, placed a limit on the number of guests. Lady Victoria and Elizabeth spent hours determining first who must be invited. Then, after consulting with Darcy, they filled out the remainder of the guest list. The individuals chosen were those who would be more disposed to accept Elizabeth than to dismiss her without taking the trouble of forming an acquaintance. Lady Victoria was satisfied with their choices and relieved when most had accepted.
All the planning coalesced in one moment when the musicians began playing for the first dance, and Darcy led Elizabeth to her rightful place at the head of the set. Within minutes, the approving nods of some of the onlookers could be seen. The Darcys made an elegant picture as they moved in harmony with the music and with each other. At least the new Mrs Darcy knew how to dance.
Lady Victoria watched with pride as her nephew and niece moved gracefully down the line. Her thoughts drifted to the past, to the last time a ball had been held in this house. Her sister, Lady Anne Darcy, looked regal as she danced with her husband. The birth of two children – and the loss of several more, though few knew of them –had done little to change her handsome looks and figure. She was a beautiful woman, and she was comfortable in her station in life. While some still looked down on her for marrying beneath her, she was happy with her choice. George Darcy was wealthier than many of her so-called peers. He had no title, but he had the coin that allowed her to live the kind of life she had come to expect as her birthright. Lady Anne had already begun to form plans for her son’s entrance into society, but until then, she would continue to host balls in Town and in Derbyshire. Lady Victoria and Lady Anne had rekindled their former intimacy after the latter’s marriage, and they enjoyed each other’s company and each other’s family. After the dance concluded, the two sisters found each other.
“Harold and Alice are not coming tonight, I take it,” said Lady Victoria.
“They sent their regrets. They have not yet arrived in Town from their estate.”
“She and Lewis are still in Kent. Rather, she is in Kent. Who knows where Lewis is? At least tonight I need not discuss Anne and Fitzwilliam.”
“I wish she would leave the poor boy alone. I am sorry that my favourite nephew is subjected to that. He is still a boy.”
“He can do so much better than my niece, like his father before him. My namesake, while rich, was not born a daughter of a peer.”
“I would hope that he would marry a woman he could respect and hold in affection.”
“Not everyone chooses your path, Victoria.”
“You chose it.”
“No entirely. We both know I did not. I did well for myself, and I wish my son and my daughter to do better. You must hold these same hopes for Michael, at least.”
“I wish him to be happy, Anne, whoever his choice may be. Is that not what you wish for Fitzwilliam?”
“I wish to see my son dancing in this very house with his wife—a woman of beauty and intelligence, an accomplished woman who will make the other ladies envious. I want the men to look at my son and wish they were in his place. That is what I wish.”
Lady Victoria returned to the present, wondering what her sister would have said had she been alive tonight. She had died unexpectedly not too long after that ball, many years ago. Elizabeth was all that Anne had wanted for her son, with the glaring exceptions of coming into the marriage penniless with nary a nobleman in the family tree. Would Anne have accepted her? Somehow Lady Victoria believed she would not, at least not at first, just as she suspected her nephew would not have married Elizabeth Bennet had he not needed a wife, had he not had Georgiana’s dowry, had her brother not pushed him too far. In the eyes of society, he had acted foolishly – and in the process won a prize. Tonight, the ton would begin to learn just what a prize Elizabeth Darcy truly was. Even Anne would have come to know it, had she lived to see it.
“Your nephew’s wife seems an elegant creature.” Lost in thought, Lady Victoria was startled by the voice at her ear. She turned to see her old friend, Charlotta Atkins, standing next to her.
“Forgive me, Charlotta, I did not see you until now.” She laughed. “I refuse to bias you with my opinion. You must judge the woman for yourself.”
“You like her.” Lady Victoria did not reply. “I have known you too long, Victoria. Very well, I will judge her on my own, but with your good recommendation, I am disposed to approve of her already.”
At that, Lady Victoria smiled. “If all the others here this evening were so fair minded, Mrs Darcy’s acceptance would be assured. She is a credit to my nephew.”
“That is high praise coming from you. You do not suffer fools lightly.”
“I have had far too much practice doing that very thing. Come, the dance is over. I would like you to meet my niece again. A receiving line is not the place to form an acquaintance.”
Thus began a scene that was repeated many times that evening. Lady Victoria made an effort to recommend Elizabeth and further her acquaintance with as many people as possible.
As many favourable opinions as Elizabeth made, there were others who had come strictly out of curiosity to see Darcy’s country-bred bride. Their invitations were matters of form; certain people simply had to be invited, no matter Darcy’s preferences. A number of these were not disposed to like the new Mrs Darcy on principle and would not allow one ball to sway their opinion too favourably. Lady Victoria overheard snippets of conversations of several of these ladies.
“She is pretty enough, but not as handsome as I expected to turn Darcy’s head…”
“We shall see how she handles the rest of the season…”
“Mrs Darcy seems at ease in her own house. Will she be as confident at Lord and Lady Westlings’ ball? ”
“I heard he took her to Pemberley to teach her proper manners…”
“Lady Victoria probably planned everything for the poor woman…”
It was nothing more than expected. Women like that would always populate their society. She was thankful that there were others, like her friend, Charlotta Atkins, who were more substantial than the shallow creatures she had just overheard.
Darcy was pleased with how the evening was proceeding. He enjoyed dancing with his wife, both to open the ball and before dinner. Elizabeth’s card was full; Lady Victoria’s son, Michael, claimed her for a dance, as did Charles Bingley. Even Darcy’s cousin, Viscount Newman, danced with her. The Bennets were under good regulation. He had spoken with his new brother, Bingley – now there was a benefit to his marriage that he never would have imagined – about the importance of the evening not only to Elizabeth, but to Jane as well. It went against his friend’s nature to think ill of his new family, yet he was in agreement that checking Mrs Bennet’s behaviour was to everyone’s benefit. Thus, they had worked together to blunt that lady’s silliness. The Gardiners had become unsolicited allies. Mrs Gardiner spent considerable time with her sister, guiding the conversation and calming the woman when she became agitated. Darcy recognized all of these machinations; it was exactly the type of scheme the Earl used when he wished for decorum from his own wife.
The Countess was one person he had most ardently worked to keep away from his mother-in-law. The thought of the two of them together, here, tonight, was enough to make him blanche. Theirs was a pairing to be avoided at all costs.
Therefore, when the meal was finished and the dancing had resumed, Darcy and Bingley were mortified when Caroline Bingley — Caroline Bingley of all people — manoeuvred the introduction of the very ladies they had worked so hard to keep apart.
Damn the woman, Darcy thought as he noticed the smile of satisfaction on Miss Bingley’s face. Hers was an invitation only made in deference to Bingley, and she repays us with this!
As Darcy strode over to the two matrons, he could hear their conversation well before he drew close.
“Your son is the handsome soldier dancing with Mrs Darcy? You must be very proud.”
“Indeed I am. His father, the Earl, talked of him going into the Navy, but I protested vociferously! No son of mine would spend his youth on the seas, and I so prefer a red coat to the blue of the navy.”
“I have always had a soft spot for a red coat myself. I remember the regiment that was encamped nearby when I was a girl. I cried a full week when they left. We have another regiment quartered near our estate now. Life shall be so dull when they depart for Brighton.”
“Oh, you must go to Brighton someday. Sea bathing is quite the thing to do!”
“I have already asked my husband to take us there. He has promised to strongly consider it. I have great hopes of pressing him to agree to a holiday.”
“Lady_____, Mrs Bennet, I see that you have met,” Darcy said, imposing himself in the conversation.
“Really Darcy, I do not understand why you did not introduce us. I was very curious to meet your wife’s parents. Mrs Bennet, you must call on us before you leave Town.”
Oh Lord, Darcy groaned to himself. How is it that one moment my aunt is determined to dismiss Elizabeth and her family, and the next she is behaving as if she has discovered a long-lost sister?
He looked about for someone to come to his rescue and was relieved to see his uncle making his way across the room, a look of concern on his face, a look Darcy was certain he mirrored.
“There you are, my dear. I have come to claim you for the next dance.”
“Dance?” Lady ______ replied in surprise.
“This is a ball, and I did promise to dance at least one set with you. Come, they are about to begin.”
“First let me introduce Mrs Darcy’s mother, Mrs Bennet. I have asked her to call before she returns to Hertfordshire.”
“Mrs Bennet,” Lord______ bowed, “Excuse us, the dance is about to begin.”
Darcy was amazed by how efficiently his uncle managed to separate Elizabeth’s mother from the Countess. From the pleased look on her face, she failed to notice the intended slight.
“Bless me, the Countess asked me to call on her!” she exclaimed. “Such an elegant woman, and what an exquisite gown. I have rarely seen such fine lace.” As Mrs Bennet continued her raptures, Darcy again looked around for help, his desperation increasing in proportion to the speed and volume of his mother-in-law’s grandiloquence. This time, it came in the form of Charles and Jane Bingley. He noted with admiration Jane’s serene countenance as she engaged her mother in conversation, gently asking questions about the events of the evening in a way that encouraged composure rather than wild gesticulations. It was not much different from the way one calmed a rather high-strung horse, Darcy thought, as he made good his escape.
He found Elizabeth in conversation with a couple. Their backs were to him, but he could tell by his wife’s posture that she took no pleasure in their company. Darcy slipped to her side and discovered the identity of the man and woman: It was the Bridens. Mrs Briden had pursued him for years in hopes of securing him for her only daughter. Miss Briden was even more repugnant than Miss Bingley. Why in the world had he consented to their invitation? Apparently, Lady Victoria had believed that the Bridens were in some way essential to the evening.
“Mr Darcy, we were delighted to receive your invitation,” Mrs Briden purred. “So many people are curious about your wife. Mrs Darcy, you simply must come to the soirée I am hosting next week.”
“If we are not otherwise engaged, I will make every attempt to attend,” Elizabeth replied graciously.
“Excellent!” Mrs Briden turned her attentions back to Darcy. “I have been trying to obtain Mrs Darcy’s agreement to attend for many minutes before you came. Your presence must have been the inducement that was needed.”
“I believe Mrs Darcy was only thinking of me. Our plans are not fully fixed and we have not had the opportunity to compare the invitations we received tonight.” Darcy was desperately trying to extricate Elizabeth from an uncomfortable conversation and an unwelcome invitation.
“I see your game, sir! An afternoon with the ladies is not how I prefer to spend my time, either. You are welcome to join the other husbands at my club whilst the ladies gather at my home,” Mr Briden offered.
Darcy was beginning to panic; he did not wish Elizabeth to go the bloody soirée nor did he want to spend the afternoon with the men Mr Briden called friends. “As my wife said, we must first consult our appointment book. Thank you for your kind invitation, Mrs Briden, Mr Briden.”
Darcy bowed; Elizabeth immediately followed with a curtsy, then was led away to more desirable company.
Later, after the last guests had gone, he carried a slumbering Elizabeth to her bed and rang for the maid.
“Marie, undress your mistress as best you can. I will return after I have spoken to Clayton and Mrs Thomas.”
“Oui, monsieur. I will do my best not to wake her.”
Darcy smiled kindly. “I doubt you could wake her now. Goodnight, Marie.”
The first rays of the morning light streaked across the sky as Fitzwilliam Darcy at last lay down next to his wife. He was exhausted, but deeply content. The ball had been a success and his wife’s behaviour had been above reproach. Elizabeth had conducted herself admirably. The foundation of her admission into the ton was laid. With the right invitations and the continued, albeit grudging, cooperation of the Earl and Countess, her future acceptance, and that of their unborn child, would be secured. The irony — that he now assiduously sought the approval of the very society he despised for its hypocrisy — escaped him.