Colonel Hall received a note with his instructions a few minutes after Wickham finally left for his meeting the next day. Hall looked at his timepiece; his visitors would arrive in half an hour. While he waited, he decided to confirm the identity of the other occupant of Wickham’s room.
He quickly wrote a note to “Sarah,” sealed it, then stepped out into the hall and knocked on his prey’s door. The young woman who opened the door matched the description he had been given of Lydia Bennet.
“What is it?”
“I have a message for you, ma’am.”
“It must be from George. How romantic! I told him yesterday how much I missed him whilst he was gone.”
“George? The note is from John Halvers. You are Sarah Halvers, are you not?”
“My name is Lydia.”
“Beg pardon, ma’am. I must have been given the wrong direction. I will ask downstairs. Sorry to bother you.”
She closed the door and Colonel Hall smiled. That was simple enough. Too bad my regular assignments are not this easy.
He went down to the public room to await his visitors. Mr Bennet and Mr Gardiner were prompt, anxious to see Lydia. Hall took them to the room and knocked on the door.
Mr Bennet and his brother walked into the room, but the Colonel did not.
“If you will excuse me, I have other duties. Good day, Miss Bennet.”
“You knew who I was! Then why…”
“To confirm your identity. Miss Bennet, please, listen carefully to your father.” With that, Colonel Hall returned downstairs to await his next guests.
Mr Gardiner closed the door and stood watch as Mr Bennet spoke to his daughter.
“Lydia, we must leave at once. I will escort you to your uncle’s house in Gracechurch Street.”
Lydia folded her arms across her chest. “I will not leave George.”
“Nevertheless, I am your father and you are still under my authority. I am taking you away from here. Now.”
“No, I will not go. George and I are to be married. We were on our way to Gretna Green when he recalled some pressing business, and we turned to London instead. He is nearly finished, and we will depart within days. You see, I will soon be a married woman.”
“Foolish girl! Do you have any idea what his business is?”
“Something about some money he is owed. George wanted it resolved so we could have a proper honeymoon.”
“Your George has spent the last two days with your sisters’ husbands negotiating a bribe to marry you!”
“What? I do not believe you. George loves me. He said my lack of dowry meant nothing to him.”
“If George Wickham truly loved you, he would have come to me and asked permission to marry you. He would not have asked you to elope. But having done so, he most certainly would have taken you directly to Scotland.”
“I told you. He first had business here in London.”
“And I told you what that business is. Lydia, daughter, please. Do you not realize the seriousness of your situation? I am sorry to disillusion you, but Wickham has made it quite clear that he is prepared to abandon you and publish your disgrace unless he is paid a substantial amount of money.”
“No, he would not … I do not, I … ‘Tis too much… I am so confused,” Lydia finished in a small voice.
Mr Bennet put his arm around his youngest daughter and started to lead her out of the room. “There now, child. Let us go to your uncle’s, where we can discuss this further. Perhaps your aunt’s presence will bring you comfort.”
“But George… we are to be married. He said he loves me.”
“The only thing George Wickham loves is money. He is using you, my child. You are just a pawn, a means to secure his fortune. He will not marry you until and unless we meet his price.” Mr Bennet sighed. “At this moment, Lydia, you are nothing more than another of Wickham’s mistresses. Yes, another, and he married none of those women. Has he told you that he has two natural children? By the look on your face, I think not. Wickham is using you for his own pleasure and to secure his material comfort, that is all.”
Lydia looked around the filthy room and at last began to understand what her father was trying to tell her.
“I will send a servant to fetch them. We must go now before he returns.”
Mr Gardiner opened the door and the three went to the waiting coach. Lydia was in a stunned and silent trance until she was safely in her rooms at the Gardiner residence. Once there, she fell on her bed and cried, the full horror of her folly revealing itself before her.
Lydia Bennet might well have been one of the silliest girls in England, but she had enough sense to understand two things: She was no longer a girl, and she was completely and irrevocably ruined.
Bingley was quiet as the two men returned to his house. Darcy noted, but decided to wait for his friend to be ready to speak. His wait was not long.
“Darcy, are you not bothered by these negotiations?”
“Does it not disturb you to be promising to settle money on Wickham for a marriage that you have no intention of ever taking place?”
“Bingley, do not despair. Have you heard me promise that man anything more than to await word on the location of our next meeting?”
Bingley thought long on this before he said hesitantly, “No, but there is an implied agreement.”
“Wickham assumes that we want him to marry Lydia and is acting accordingly. What we want, however, is to remove Lydia from his grasp and marry her to someone else. I have given Wickham no promise that my honour compels me to discharge. I have asked you to remain silent so you would not promise anything that your honour would compel you to keep. As of the conclusion our meeting today, no monies have been agreed upon, nor have we indicated that Mr Bennet has given his consent to the union. I may not be entirely happy with the situation, but my conscience is appeased.”
Colonel Hall spotted his three fellow soldiers as they walked into the public house. He greeted them with warm handshakes and invited them up to his room, where he changed into his uniform. They waited until Mr Gardiner advised them that the Bennets were leaving; then it was time for the four of them to take the Bennet party’s place in George Wickham’s room.
Eventually Wickham, after imbibing in a few pints, arrived back at his lodgings. He rapped on the door.
“Lydia, open the door.”
When the door opened, the spirits Wickham had consumed had dulled his senses enough that he failed to react quickly, and he was unceremoniously pulled into the room.
“Well, well. Lieutenant Wickham,” Colonel Hall began. “Your commanding officer was most concerned about you. Seems you left without permission and in the company of a young woman who was under his protection. The regular Army frowns on such behaviour.”
“I was on my way to be married, and I am not in the Regulars!”
“Is that so? Where is your wife?” A slightly inebriated Wickham finally noticed the absence of Lydia. “You left Brighton long enough ago to have gone to Gretna and returned. I would like to offer my congratulation to your bride and escort you back to your regiment.”
“I, er, we have yet to go to Scotland.”
Wickham looked around stupidly for any sign of his intended bride – all her belongings were gone. Hall nodded and the other soldiers grabbed Wickham, pinning his arms behind his back. The Colonel slapped his captive.
“An officer in His Majesty’s Army does not behave in such a dishonourable manner. However, we cannot have you making a scene when we leave.” Another soldier poured a mixture of alcohol and laudanum into Wickham’s mouth. He sputtered as the liquid ran down his throat, the excess flowing over his chin and onto his shirt.
“Drink up, man!” Colonel Hall took the bottle from his assistant and raised it in salute, “God save the King!” before emptying the rest into Wickham.
The earlier pints of ale mixed with something stronger soon caused Wickham to pass out. The men changed him into his uniform, which they had located whilst they had been waiting, then carried him down the stairs. They hailed a cab and took him to the pre-arranged location. There, Colonel Fitzwilliam and several of Darcy’s men relieved them of their charge.
“He is a disgrace! What will happen to him now?” Hall asked after the other soldiers had left.
“He will serve his country in another way. That is all I can say.” Colonel Hall raised a sceptical eyebrow. “He will not be a discredit to the Army, and it is best we leave it at that.”
“Very well. I will put this out of my mind, like so many other of my duties.”
“Remind me never to volunteer for Intelligence.”
“What makes you believe we would accept you?” Hall slapped his old university mate on the back. “Glad to be of service, Fitz.”
“I am in your debt.”
“I will remember that.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam grimaced as he stepped into the coach. It was a long ride to Portsmouth. Whenever Wickham showed signs of coming out of his stupor, he was given more laudanum-laced alcohol. It was none too soon when they finally arrived in the port town. They waited in the carriage for daybreak. The Colonel then set about finding the Army garrison and the officer in charge of the attachment assigned to the HMS Faultless, another man went in search of lodgings, and the rest kept guard over their guest.
Fitzwilliam was able to locate the officer, a Lt Colonel Stines, without too much trouble and introduced himself.
“I have an officer who will be travelling aboard the Faultless en route to his new posting. Ensign Wickham just received his commission in the regular Army. He previously served in the Militia.”
“Oh? Where is he then?” Stines asked.
“He is still feeling the effects of his … celebrations. I believe you sail tomorrow?”
“That is Captain Hershey’s wish.”
“I want you to keep an eye on Wickham. He has upset some powerful people, and for his own good is being posted in the Caribbean. I am on my way to speak to the captain of the Faultless now.”
“I will accompany you. When will the ensign be coming aboard ship?”
“As close as possible to the time you set sail.”
The two men went to the Faultless and met with the captain, who was not pleased to be sailing with a less-than-willing passenger, but understood the situation. Colonel Fitzwilliam handed Captain Hershey a large sealed bundle.
“The Army would not be overly upset if the ensign decided to resign his commission at his new post. When you arrive, please give this to the man.” Colonel Fitzwilliam saluted the others. “It has been an honour and a privilege to meet you, gentlemen. I wish it had come under better circumstances.”
The Colonel found his party and settled in for one more night guarding his charge.
The next morning, Wickham was taken, still somewhat drugged and inebriated, to the docks and carried aboard the ship. All his necessary provisions had been obtained and were sent along with him. Colonel Fitzwilliam stuffed a letter containing a twenty-pound note into Wickham’s pocket.
Finally, their charge safely delivered into the hands of others, Fitzwilliam and Darcy’s men headed back to London. Everyone hoped that they would never hear of George Wickham again.
Several hours later, a rather green-looking Army officer staggered onto the deck of the ship. Spotting a man in a red Army coat, he made his way over him.
“Where am I?”
“Ah, Ensign Wickham, you are aboard the HMS Faultless en route to your new post in Bermuda. I hope you will have a pleasant voyage. First time at sea?”
“What? Bermuda! Ensign?” Wickham finally noticed that his coat was new, different from his Militia garb, and the same as the man he was speaking to. “I am supposed to be getting married!”
“I thought as much. You had better pray that your bride is willing to wait for you. It will be some time before you are able to return to England.”
“He tricked me! He never intended that I marry Lydia.”
“Wickham, let me give you some advice. You have obviously angered some very powerful people. It would be wise to keep that to yourself. Act like a soldier, and you might survive. Act like a fool, and any respect your uniform might gain you will be lost. Do you understand me, Ensign?”
“Yes, sir, but if Dar… if he thinks he has bested me, he is in for a surprise. We shall see who laughs last.”
Upon Darcy’s departure after his surprise visit on that man’s first night in Town, Michael Arnold had immediately penned letters to several of his friends, men he knew he could trust with such a delicate matter as this. He had briefly outlined the situation of “a friend” and asked if they knew of any man in need of a wife, who might be willing to marry even if it happened that the woman was with child.
Two of the men were in town at the time, and one of them called the day he received Michael Arnold’s letter. Mr Jones owned property in west Devonshire and knew of a farmer who had recently lost his wife. The widower had two small sons, so any child Lydia might be carrying would not be his heir. Arnold asked Mr Jones to determine if the man was interested in pursuing the match. If so, funds would be provided for him to come to London.
Less than a week later, the farmer, a Mr Pritchford, was in the drawing room of the Gardiner house preparing to meet Lydia. He had already met Arnold, then Darcy, and finally Mr Bennet, and gained each man’s blessing to court Lydia.
Frank Pritchford had loved his late wife and was not looking to replace her in his heart. However, he had two sons in need of a mother, and he was in need of a woman to maintain his house. If Lydia Bennet suited his needs and did not remind him of his beloved first wife, he would offer her marriage.
When Lydia first came to Gracechurch Street, she was told in very simple terms of the damage her elopement had caused and the plan to find her a respectable husband. Mr Bennet also informed her that she would not be allowed to return to Longbourn. Any hope that the incident could simply be hushed up was gone; gossip was already rife in Meryton, sparked, Mr Bennet had no doubt, by Mrs Bennet’s inability to control her hysterics in front of the servants. Mrs Gardiner also gently explained to Lydia the signs that would indicate she was with child. Since then, the young girl had been unusually quiet.
Lydia had by no means suddenly matured into a demure woman, but she did understand that her recklessness had left her with few options for a respectable future. If Mr Pritchford was a kind man and did not repulse her, she would accept an offer if he made one.
When Lydia finally met her prospective husband, she was surprised by how sombre and serious the man was. He seemed unaffected by her attempts at flirtation, intent instead on learning of her life in Hertfordshire. He desired to know what kind of upbringing and education she had. Whilst none of the Bennet girls had had a governess, each was taught to read and write and rudimentary arithmetic. Of much wider knowledge, Lydia was both ignorant and uninterested, but her mother had insisted that all the girls understand the basics of being mistress of their own households. Mr Pritchford was pleased; Lydia was much better educated than his first wife. He was inclined to pursue the courtship.
Their next meeting was highlighted by Lydia’s winning a smile from her suitor. He had asked her to expound on her favourite pursuits, and Lydia was quite eloquent on the subject of trimming bonnets. Such enthusiasm reminded Mr Pritchford of the actual age of the young woman before him, and he found humour in her youthful exuberance, reminded of his own sisters’ laughter when discussing bonnets. He then reflected on how they had grown and matured when they married and started their own families, and he began to see in Lydia the potential woman waiting to bloom in her own time.
Lydia saw his smile, wondered at what she had said to bring it about, and fearlessly asked him.
“Miss Bennet, I was recollecting the days when my sisters were always discussing bonnets. Those are good memories.”
“How many sisters do you have, sir?”
“I am blessed with three sisters. All are married now and have families of their own.”
“How many nieces and nephews do you have?
“Six nephews, three nieces. My eldest sister is with child, and we are praying for a safe delivery by October.”
“Your sons must love their male cousins.”
“Aye, that they do. They have spent much of the past year in the households of my sisters. I cannot care for them myself without help.”
“At least they do not have sisters to plague them about bonnets!”
“That would be their cousins’ prerogative.”
The two continued on in further conversation. Since she had come to her uncle’s house, no one else had bestowed attention on her, and she was quite willing to listen to Mr Pritchford. He was enjoying her liveliness; it had been a long time since he could laugh with a woman. She was not perfect, but then, neither was he.
The third time they met, Mr Pritchford was ready for a serious discussion with Lydia. If they were to marry, he said, there were certain issues that must be considered. They spoke about his two sons, Thomas and Phillip, and Lydia’s willingness to become the mother they never had. He was insistent that she learn to control herself in public. Lydia at first denied any impropriety, until he gently reminded her of their very first meeting and her shameless flirting, as well as the fact that they would not even be discussing marriage had she acted as she ought. They discussed Devonshire and its similarities to Hertfordshire – the limited society and lack of London sophistication. Finally, he broached the subject of class and money. He was farmer, not a gentleman of leisure. He lived comfortably, but there was no money to be wasted on frivolous nothings. He could provide for her comfort, but not for her vanity. When they finished talking, he left her to think on all they had discussed until they met again.
Pritchford himself needed to consider the meeting. Lydia Bennet was a pretty girl of pleasing shape, but she was very young and far from the ideal bride. She was vain and immature – much as was to be expected of a girl of sixteen. There was the real possibility she was carrying another man’s child. Her dowry was £2,500, although one thousand of those pounds would not to come to her until both her parents were deceased. She would be granted two hundred pounds per annum in addition to her dowry, as long as her father remained alive.
Although such a supplement to his income would be welcome, the material question was, could he entrust her with raising his two sons? He had missed Thomas and Phillip. Since their mother died, they had been living with their aunts and cousins; Pritchford could not care for them properly and also work the farm. If he wanted them back with him, he needed to find a new mother for them, and he needed to know if Lydia Bennet would be an appropriate choice. Tomorrow, he hoped to have his answer.
He had not told Lydia, but the boys would be in London the next day. He had sent for them and would use their meeting with Lydia as his final test. If she demonstrated a genuine affection for the children, he would make his offer. If, however, he detected a distaste on her part, he would walk away from the abbreviated courtship, as he had been assured was his prerogative.
The fourth meeting of the couple was occasioned by the surprise appearance of two small Pritchford boys in the Gardiners’ parlour. Lydia was understandably taken aback, but bravely set about meeting her suitor’s children. She found herself charmed when little Phillip climbed into her lap and stuck his thumb in his mouth. He showed a fearlessness that was familiar to Lydia, and she laughed at the similarity of their dispositions. Thomas shyly hid behind his father, content to peek out every now and then to confirm his presence to the new lady. Lydia did her best to coax the older boy to come to her, but he refused to leave the safety of his father’s side.
Mrs Gardiner soon rescued the boys and took them to the nursery to play with her children. Mr Pritchford asked to speak privately with Lydia.
When they were alone, he began, “Miss Bennet, I apologise for not informing you of my sons’ arrival in Town. Frankly, I wished to surprise you so that I could judge how well you would get on with Thomas and Phillip.”
“They are delightful boys. You must be proud.”
“I have barely seen them this past year. I am afraid much of the credit for their behaviour goes to my sisters. They have raised them as they have their own sons. But they are my sons, and if I am to raise them as I see fit, they need a mother. Miss Bennet, would you be willing to become their mother, to have them become your own children? Are you willing to marry me?”
“Yes, I will marry you, Mr Pritchford.”
“Then I will go and speak to your father.”
Mr Bennet was all too happy to grant his consent to the match and most desirous of a speedy wedding. It was decided that he would take Lydia to Devonshire, where they would purchase a licence from a local clergyman that would allow them to be married immediately. Neither Mrs Bennet nor any of Lydia’s sisters would travel with them. Darcy asked to attend; he wanted to witness the ceremony himself. Until Lydia was safely married, the threat of scandal still existed.
They arranged to leave the next morning. Because Mr Pritchford’s young sons were travelling with the party, the journey would take three full days. Lydia was disappointed to be leaving Town without any wedding clothes, but Mr Bennet promised her a sum of money to have new things made in Devonshire. It was the best that could be made of the situation.
Elizabeth continued to increase as she waited at Pemberley. Darcy had written to inform her of his arrival in Town, and later of Lydia’s recovery from Wickham and the search for a suitable husband. The last letter told of Lydia’s betrothal and Darcy’s and Mr Bennet’s journey to witness the nuptials. Elizabeth was relieved. Lydia would be married and the disgrace that threatened them averted once Lydia had an acceptable husband.
She missed her husband. The man who, despite his many faults, had become as dear to her as any man could ever be. There were times when the love she felt for him threatened to overwhelm her, worry for his wellbeing consumed her, the ache for his touch tortured her.
Oh, how she wished that he could love her in return! But he did not. Not even her aunt’s suppositions could convince her of that. She had always sensed that a barrier existed between them. He was willing to be her friend, and he certainly relished his role as her lover. Beneath a reserved exterior lay a man of great passion, who delighted in giving as much as receiving. He had encouraged, nay demanded, that she loose her passion for him. Into that passion she had poured her most tender feelings for her husband. Yet through all this, he seemed unwilling to lose his heart the way she had lost hers.
This saddened Elizabeth, and made her feel somewhat guilty. He had given her so much of himself, and still she desired the one thing he would not, or could not, give. Why could she not be content with what she had? Why must she covet more?
The carriages carrying the Bennets, Darcy, and the Pritchfords rolled into the village of _______ on the third evening after leaving London. Little Phillip did not even recognise his house when they pulled in front; it had been so long since he had seen it. Thomas recognised it and was excited. His father had told him he would soon have a new mother, and he could not wait to laugh and play and sing as he had with his first mama.
Mr. Bennet had great hopes that in two days’ time his daughter would finally be married to the quiet farmer who had quickly earned his respect. Mr Darcy was grateful that he would need to spend only a couple of nights in such a place as this. The inn was far below his usual exacting standards.
Mercifully for all involved, the license was secured the next day, and on the day after that, Lydia Bennet became Lydia Pritchford of __________, Devonshire.
The wedding accomplished, Darcy and Mr Bennet began the long trip back to London.
John Jacobs had come to the same place for the past two weeks; Wickham had failed to show every day since the second meeting with Lydia Bennet’s family representatives. Jacobs had his instructions. If Wickham did not appear or send word to him for a fortnight, and if there was no wedding or engagement announcement in The Times during that time, he was to post the three letters that Wickham had left in his care. This was the last day of the agreed period, and still nothing. It was time to discharge his final assignment and be done with it. He looked at the directions on the letters: Lord Fitzwilliam, Earl of______; Lady Catherine de Bourgh; and a notorious London scandal sheet. Brave man or fool?
When Darcy returned to London from Devonshire, he found an enraged relation awaiting him.
“Uncle! To what do I owe this visit?” Darcy asked, wary of the man before him. The Earl slammed down a folded newspaper in front of his nephew.
Darcy read the item circled in ink. His agitation turned to dismay.
“But how?” he asked weakly.
The Earl pushed a letter into Darcy’s hands.
“It seems that your dear old friend did not fully trust you and put in place a little contingency plan. He wrote to tell me what had happened, and that he was also sending letters to Lady Catherine … and to this… this… rag.
“I warned you that your wife would bring shame to our family. By now, most of the ton has figured out that my nephew has the disgrace of a fallen woman for a sister-in-law.”
“Lydia is married.”
“No, to a man in Devonshire.”
“You bought her a husband as far away as you could, eh? You are still dishonoured. Are you happy with your choice now?”
“Do not insult my wife.”
“Everyone else will. Go back to Derbyshire. Perhaps in a few years, after the scandal has faded from memory, you may return to Town. Perhaps when your child is old enough to be introduced into society, people will have forgotten. Then again…”
“Enough! You have crowed over me long enough! I will be returning to Pemberley in a few days to await the birth of my heir. I doubt we have anything else to discuss, so I beg you to excuse me.” Darcy started to walk out of the room.
“Yes?” he answered through clenched teeth.
“Expect to hear from your Aunt Catherine on this matter.”
Darcy glared at his uncle for a moment, then stormed out of the room, not stopping until he was safely in his study. Numb with shock, he poured himself a finger of brandy, and then another, and then another, until he lost count.
Later, Michael Arnold came to ask about the wedding. Having seen the paper, he was not surprised to find his cousin well into his cups.
“Darcy, old man.”
“Michael, my God, I feel terrible.”
“You look terrible.”
“Did you see the bloody newspaper? How did this happen? I had everything planned so well.”
“No one can anticipate every move of his opponent.”
“I should have.” Darcy tried unsuccessfully to pour another drink. Arnold stopped his hand.
“You have had enough for one night. Let me call your man, and he can get you to bed. I will come again tomorrow afternoon, after you have had a chance recuperate.”
“You are a good man, Michael Arnold,” Darcy slurred.
“You can thank me later.”
Darcy awoke the next morning much the worse for wear. Eventually, the powders Mrs Thomas provided did their job, and he reasoned that, after his display the day before, he had better go see his cousin.
“You look much better today, Darcy.”
“Michael, I must apologize for yesterday.”
“No need. I was not surprised to see you like that. I saw the paper, too. For your information, Mother is furious.”
“She and all her siblings. I hope she has not learned of your involvement.”
“I told her, and she is livid with me, as well. That will pass soon enough. It is not the first time I have garnered her wrath.”
“I am truly sorry.”
“What will you do?”
“I will go to Pemberley to be with Elizabeth during the rest of her confinement. There is nothing else I can do here.”
“What about her family?”
Darcy sat silently for a few moments. “Only Mrs Bingley will be acknowledged.”
Arnold sighed. He had expected that Darcy would disavow Elizabeth’s family. Frankly, he too saw little alternative.
“Your wife will be distressed,” Arnold finally declared.
“She will obey me.”
“But will she forgive you?”
“I am the injured party.”
“What do you mean?” Darcy said sharply.
“Time will tell.” Arnold stared at Darcy, unwilling to say more, knowing that his cousin would have to learn his meaning the hard way.
Elizabeth sat alone in the breakfast room stunned, a letter and section of newspaper next to her place. There was no note in her letter, only the enclosed bit of a scandal sheet. Elizabeth had no idea who had sent it, but guessed it must be someone who was jealous of her marriage to Darcy. The cutting was several days old, of course, and not from one of the papers she had faithfully read since her husband had raced away to Town with her uncle. The unease she had felt each time she perused the pages of the newspapers that were delivered each day had subsided. Surely, Darcy’s letter — reporting that Wickham was gone, Lydia was married, and he would return to her soon — meant that they were safe from scandal. Surely.
Her relative calm lasted until she spied the initials FD and the word Derbyshire in the cutting that had been sent to her. Unease turned to dread, and Elizabeth felt physically ill. A dozen scenarios crossed through her mind, each worse than before, each encapsulated by a single thought:
How will I ever face him?
It was nearly evening when Darcy arrived at Pemberley. The growing darkness reflected his mood. Every moment, every thought, every action since that fateful letter arrived had deepened a dark bitterness. He was humiliated because of the family of the woman he had chosen to be his wife.
The fiasco dredged up memories long repressed, memories of days when he was a boy with two parents who doted on him and his beautiful baby sister. His best friend, George, filled his days with laughter and adventure. Then things changed. His body began to transform, and he struggled; no longer a boy, yet not quite yet a man. George changed, too. He scoffed at Darcy’s adherence to the demands of duty and propriety. Jealousy soon followed. George, embittered that an accident of birth placed the two in different stations, began to act upon his basest desires and propensities. For the sake of what once had been, the esteem in which he held old Mr Wickham, and for the love of his own father, Darcy hid his childhood companion’s indiscretions from both their fathers.
It was not long after he lost his good opinion of George Wickham that Darcy lost his mother. Lady Anne Darcy was a woman of grace and beauty, who filled Pemberley with her personality. Her passing marked a new era, one punctuated by silence instead of sounds of mirth, of dancing, of life.
All the affection once given to his mother was now heaped upon his sister. Georgiana was the mirror of Lady Anne, and whenever Darcy looked upon her, he remembered their beloved parent. A precious fondness was never absent between the siblings.
When he left for university, he missed Georgiana as much as he missed his father and his home. At least he was able to avoid Wickham. That man’s education, though generously provided by Darcy’s father, did not place them in the same circles; differences in ages, abilities, wealth, and colleges ensured that. Still, there were occasions, all too frequent, when Wickham needed money, and he always knew who would supply him – Darcy.
Then came the terrible day when Darcy was summoned to his father’s chambers. The great man had passed on sometime during the night. Darcy felt the difference in his life immediately; even the servants treated him with increased deference. He was the master now. It was a lonely position.
To Georgiana, he was still her Fitzwilliam, but that too would change. He was now her guardian and responsible for her welfare. They remained close, and they still loved each other, but he was now more father than brother.
Georgiana’s death completed his isolation. All those who truly loved him were gone. There was no one left. The pain of his loss compelled Darcy to build walls around his heart. No one would hurt him again, for none would be let inside his defences.
He deliberately married a woman he did not love, to protect himself and to hurt those of his family who had failed to understand or love him. He reasoned that Elizabeth’s companionship in his life and her passion in his bed would be enough to satisfy him. Her low connections would mortify his aunt and uncle; his revenge for their officious insistence on arranging his personal affairs would be complete.
Who was triumphing now? Lady Catherine’s prophecies had come true. Elizabeth’s thoughtless sister had nearly ruined his good reputation and brought shame to the family. He had been forced to use cunning, to use disguise and deceit to recover Lydia, to separate her from Wickham, to buy her a husband in a far-off corner of England, and to condemn his former friend to a life of exile in the West Indies. He was at least as disgusted by his own actions as he was by the reasons for them.
He now regretted the day he had met Elizabeth Bennet. And he hated himself for it. She had done nothing to earn such condemnation. She had been his lover and his dear friend. She carried within her the next generation of his ancient family, a generation he must do — would do — everything to protect.
There was only one thing he could do.
The carriage pulled up in front of the house, and Darcy saw that his wife awaited him. He set his jaw and walked to her, kissed her hand, and asked to meet with her once he had refreshed himself. He saw the concern on Elizabeth’s face, and had to escape before his resolve faltered. Darcy beat a hasty retreat to his chambers. After a wash-up and a change of clothes, he fortified himself with a drink and went to meet with his wife.
He found Elizabeth in the library standing at a window, staring at the last remnant of the sunset, a hand laid protectively over the child inside her. She did not turn to face him when he came to her.
“It is done?” she quietly asked.
“Lydia is married and the rogue will trouble us no more.”
“I did what was necessary. You need not thank me for it.” Darcy poured himself another drink. “Elizabeth, this is the last time I will tolerate mention of the affair. This is the last time I will tolerate mention of your sister. From this point further, I will have nothing to do with her,” Darcy paused, knowing the import of what he must say next, “or her family.”
The words hung in the air.
Elizabeth began to shake. Her left hand came to cover her face, her right remained guard over the unborn child in her womb.
“What of Jane?” she choked through her silent sobs.
“Mrs Bingley will be accepted for her husband’s sake.”
After watching her silent grief, he slipped out of the room, a soft click announcing to Elizabeth that he had left her.
As dawn broke, Elizabeth sat on the window seat in her darkened room. Darcy had not come to her that night, and she had not slept. Absently, she twisted the wedding band on her finger.
Eight months previously, she had vowed to love, honour, and obey her husband. She never doubted her ability to honour, and she had been surprised by her capacity to love. Now she knew the sacrifice that was required of her to obey.
Must love always result in pain and despair?
She had known that her family would always be an issue between them. Darcy’s pride and propriety were continually taxed by the improper behaviour of her mother and youngest sisters, and even occasionally by her father. She had hoped that time, distance, and eventual maturity in her siblings would lessen this weakness in the eyes of her husband. Lydia’s disgrace made all her hopes for naught. Her family had failed her, and she had failed him.
Now they were as good as dead to her. Only Jane would be allowed to remain as a link to her past. Her life, her existence, her value in society were inextricably bound to the name she now bore, Elizabeth Darcy. All that had been Elizabeth Bennet must now be denied, erased from existence, as if consumed by fire.
Darcy had no choice. She understood his position; she understood his reasoning.
She had no choice. But she mourned all that she had lost, even as the mortification of her family’s infamy rolled over and over her in cold waves of shame. The tears that had been her only companion throughout the night came again.
Many months before, she had defined her greatest fear, one she hoped would never intrude on her marriage. Now it was before Elizabeth, bowing mockingly as it confronted her, and she was defenceless against it. Its name?
The door that separated Darcy’s room from his wife’s was solid, but it was not soundproof; he heard Elizabeth’s sobs as he prepared for bed. Part of him wanted to rush to her side and tell her that all would be well, but a greater part told him that his withdrawal was for the best. He and Elizabeth had become too close. It was better that he distance himself now, to protect against the inevitable heartbreak that lurked ahead. The child was coming soon. Would Elizabeth survive the babe’s entrance into the world? He believed that he had done all he could to ensure that she would. But until the child was born, he had to stay away.
If… if she safely delivered, he would go to her again. He needed heirs, and he needed a woman in his bed, and he would rather that woman be Elizabeth. He knew that she would miss her family terribly. Had he not missed his own, as one by one they had died? He had eventually overcome his grief; so would she. Then all would be as it was – with the notable absence of the accursed Bennets. Those disgraceful people would never again shame him or his family; they would never again be allowed to darken the door of any of his homes. He and Elizabeth would avoid Hertfordshire altogether. He would also talk to Bingley about finding a more suitable estate where the name of Bennet was unknown. But until the child was born, he had to stay away.
The next morning, husband and wife met at breakfast. Elizabeth would rather have remained in her chambers, but was concerned that a failure to appear downstairs would be misunderstood as an act of rebellion. Darcy’s temper was still unpredictable; she did not yet know to what extent his disavowal of her family would affect his behaviour towards her, and she did not have the wherewithal to confront an angry husband. He, however, seemed pleasantly surprised to see her.
“Good morning, Mrs Darcy.”
Elizabeth nodded her head, “Sir.”
“You look fatigued. Did you not sleep well?”
“No, I did not, but I shall rest later.” After a pause, she meekly added, “Does this meet with your approval?” Elizabeth could feel his eyes on her, but she could not raise hers to meet his.
“You know what is best for yourself and the child. If you need me, I will be with my steward. After my prolonged absence, we have many things to discuss.”
Elizabeth again nodded, unwilling to look at him, too disheartened should she again see censure in her husband’s gaze, and unable to think of anything to say. Nothing, at least, that would not cause more pain. They ate in silence, the only sounds cutlery scraping against plates, and cups rattling against saucers.
When Darcy excused himself, Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief. They had managed a civil discourse in this first meeting after his disapprobation of her family. She finished the food on her plate although she had no appetite. She knew she must keep up her strength, and forced herself to take bite after bite for the sake of the child. When she finished, she decided to speak to the housekeeper and the cook. Her life might be in shambles, but Pemberley went on. She had her responsibilities – first and foremost to see to the needs of her husband and unborn child. Having failed so spectacularly as Darcy’s wife, she would do everything in her power to maintain a well-run household. There was little else she could do for him, or for herself.
Elizabeth felt rather than knew that she would see little of her husband in the coming weeks. Yesterday and this morning, he had met her with the same mask of indifference that she had seen when he greeted those whom he felt beneath him. But never her; until now. That he might forevermore act thus around her gave her pause; it was more than she could bear, and her despair poured forth in free-flowing tears.
Elizabeth was correct; she did not see Darcy again until dinner. There remained an awkward silence between them; she wanted to talk, but there was an embargo on the one subject foremost on her mind and heaviest on her heart. Elizabeth was at a loss until she recalled that Darcy had spent the day with his steward.
“I take it that Mr Wright kept you occupied all day?”
“Yes, and we rode out to meet with a few of the tenants.”
“Nothing significant, I hope.”
“Not at all, but there is always something that needs my attention, or better said, someone in want of my attention.”
“I thought that I would visit a few tenants later this week. Even here at Pemberley, there is always some need that I can relieve.”
“Do you think it wise to journey so far from the house?”
“They expect and deserve no less from the Mistress of Pemberley.”
“Surely a servant dispatched with a basket and note would suffice. I do not want you to take any risks.”
“I am a healthy, country-bred woman. I see no great risk in paying calls of charity on people you have known all your life.”
“Elizabeth, consider my position. I am responsible for your care as well as that of the staff and tenants. I must ask you to yield to my wishes in this matter. The babe will be here in a month, if not sooner. After you recover, you may resume your visits.”
Elizabeth deliberately chewed her food before replying. “It will be as you wish.” Seeking to change the subject, she asked, “Tell me more about the people you visited today.”
“Nothing exciting, I daresay.”
“I would still like to hear of it.”
Until the conclusion of the meal, Darcy spoke of the people and situations that had occupied his day. Elizabeth had met but a few of the families involved in her visits about the estate, and could contribute little to the conversation. Afterwards, Darcy escorted Elizabeth to the library, so she could find a new book to read. He stayed with her, though they did not talk much, until Elizabeth decided to retire. Darcy walked with her to her bedroom, where he bowed and left before her door had closed. He did not come to her that night, or any night thereafter.
The days fell into the same pattern. They saw each other only at meals and in the evening after dinner. Elizabeth grew more and more despondent, greatly missing her loved ones and, though she was daily in his presence, missing her husband even more.
One evening, about a week after Darcy had returned to Pemberley, he and his wife sat together in the great library. Darcy noticed Elizabeth absentmindedly fingering a ribbon.
“What do you have in your hands, Elizabeth?”
She tensed. “A bookmark.”
“Did you make it?”
“It is only a piece of ribbon. I was reading in my rooms the other day and was in need of something to mark my place. My sewing basket was nearby, and I simply took this,” she said, indicating the piece of fabric. She put it back in the book and averted her eyes.
Darcy looked intently at the seemingly innocuous object before Elizabeth spirited it away into her book. It was when he realized she would not look him in the eye that he was struck by the colour of the ribbon. It was black, the colour of mourning. He looked again at his wife. He could see that she was valiantly trying to concentrate on her book, but she also was biting her lower lip.
Darcy’s first thought was one of anger. She was defying him! In this small way, she obviously meant to honour the memory of her disgraced family. They, who had brought this separation upon themselves. They, who had left him with no choice but to do what he had done. He took a deep breath, contemplating his reprimand. Elizabeth needed to understand that defiance of his authority would not be tolerated. But then he saw her glance at him before immediately returning to her book. The look in her eyes was not defiance; but what was it? Fear? Sadness? Longing? Regret? A mixture of all these?
Darcy’s heart unexpectedly softened. He knew that his wife struggled with a great sadness, yet she made a great effort to put a pleasant look on her face when she was with him. If a small black piece of ribbon helped her mourn, he would turn a blind eye. They were better off without her unfortunate relations, and the sooner she accepted this the better. Still, her lack of spirit and vibrancy troubled him, but he would not listen as his conscience whispered that he was partially to blame. Nevertheless, he held his tongue.
The Reverend John Mitchell walked into the small church that served the people of Pemberley. When he had brought his wife and young daughter to Derbyshire to take the living old Mr Darcy offered, no one could have foreseen that he would still be occupying it five and twenty years later, long after most of his original parishioners had died or moved away.
Mr Mitchell had found his true calling in the hills and valleys of the north. The Darcys were good to those under their care, if a little too proud of their rank. The rest of the people he served were kind, honest folks. He recorded countless births, baptizing those who lived, married many a blushing bride, and buried too many dear friends to recall. In short, he was a shepherd who loved, and was loved by, his flock. When word of his success spread, and the inevitable offers of other livings came his way, he politely declined, thankful for the gift that was his congregation, and continued his own quiet existence. He had never told anyone but his wife, but he felt like the man in the First Psalm, deep roots firmly planted, nourished by the clear waters of Derbyshire, ageing well, and prosperous in all the things that mattered to him. John Mitchell was truly blessed.
The minister was not too surprised to find that he was not alone in the small house of worship; he often encountered people seeking solitude or comfort in their faith. He was, however, a little taken aback when he discerned the identity of the individual in the chapel. Mr Darcy’s bride had impressed him when she came to Pemberley. Actually, she had more than impressed him; she had surprised him. Mr Mitchell saw a young woman struggling to fulfil her obligations, not afraid to seek assistance, not too proud to admit when she made a mistake. He was pleased with her willingness to embrace her role in the lives of her servants and tenants with a humility of spirit and genuine concern for their welfare. He had hoped that such a woman would eventually soften her husband’s arrogance and transform him into a truly great man. For all that, he did not expect to see her in his chapel in obvious anguish.
He knew that something had gone terribly wrong. It had begun when Mr Darcy and his guests suddenly departed those few weeks ago. Whatever had taken them away must not have been good, because everyone knew of the melancholy that now surrounded the couple. What made it doubly perplexing was that the long-awaited heir of Pemberley obviously would soon be born, which surely must be a source of joy. They were not in mourning, so Mr Mitchell had ruled out a bereavement, and as far as he could ascertain, the couple was not quarrelling, or at least not doing so in front of the servants. The reverend suspected that some unknown misfortune must be the reason for the young woman’s solitary presence in the chapel.
The man silently walked to Elizabeth, sat down next to her, and waited. Evidently she was too caught up in her distress to notice him at first, but eventually acknowledged his presence.
“Mrs Darcy, I find myself identifying with Eli, the priest, when in the first Book of Samuel, he encountered Hannah at the Tabernacle.”
“I am not praying for a child as she did, and you are a better father than Eli.”
“Thank you. And your womb is not barren, yet here you are seeking consolation as she was.”
Elizabeth placed her hand on her swollen abdomen, “No, it is not.”
“Will you tell me what troubles you? I give you my word that I will not reveal what you say.”
“My husband has the greatest respect for you, sir. I believe you would not betray my trust, but I cannot tell you what burdens me.”
“Then I shall leave you alone. I suggest that you talk to a Higher Authority.” Mr Mitchell stood.
“Please wait. I do have one question that you might be able to answer.” The cleric sat down again. “I have come for guidance, yet I know not what to ask.”
“Scripture says that when we are unable to pray, the Holy Ghost intercedes on our behalf. When I do not know what to pray, I pray as the Lord taught His disciples. ‘Our Father…’”
“‘Who art in heaven…’”
Elizabeth was silent for a moment, then gave him a small smile of gratitude. “Thank you, Mr Mitchell.”
He smiled in return and stood again to take his leave. “May you find the answers you are seeking, Mrs Darcy, and may they bring you peace.”
The reverend said a short, silent prayer of supplication for the Mistress of Pemberley before continuing on with his duties.
Elizabeth did as had been suggested and recited the Lord’s Prayer; she was surprised by the degree of comfort that the familiar words brought her. As she reflected on why that should be, her eye was caught by the rays of sunlight streaming through the sanctuary windows. Elizabeth looked more closely at one particularly beautiful stained glass scene depicting the crucifixion. She had seen this panel many times, but today its subject struck her as most appropriate.
“…He has borne our struggles,” she murmured.
After meditating on that thought for many minutes, a modicum of peace descended upon her. She had no great revelation from God, only an assurance in her soul that the trial she now endured was nothing compared to Christ’s sacrifice.
Darcy and Elizabeth maintained their strained existence. Not once since his return had he come to her at night, not once had he sought her out during the day. They continued to take their meals together as before. Each played their role as Master and Mistress of Pemberley for the benefit of the servants. They entertained no one except the few callers who came during the day. The only time the couple spent alone in each other’s company was after dinner. Often she played for him; rarely did they speak of anything other than matters concerning the estate. Elizabeth struggled to display the unaffected façade of a contented wife, but she felt every bit of the hideous incongruity of her situation as she watched her husband slip further and further away.
Darcy betrayed none of his emotions to her. She knew he was not pleased with the situation in which they found themselves, but he refused to talk about it – as if avoidance produced its own resolution. As much as she wanted to break down the barrier between them, Elizabeth feared that in trying to do so, she would say something she would later regret and only make matters worse between them. Her condition had loosened her control over her emotions, and tears were always imminent. She felt so much, yet she could speak about so little. She longed for the easy companionship they had always enjoyed but had little hope that it would soon return. Each night, alone in her bed, Elizabeth cried herself to sleep. Only the comfort she received in the little church near the house kept her from completely breaking down in unrestrained grief.
After a week of watching Mrs Darcy’s daily sojourn to the family pew, John Mitchell decided he needed more information to prepare himself to be of use when she needed his counsel. He rose early and rode out to visit one of his neighbouring clergymen. If any person could give him insight, Bartholomew Arnold was that man.
Mr Arnold was surprised, but pleased, to greet his guest, a man he greatly admired. He invited the gentleman to his study, and set about discovering why the elder clergyman had called. Mr Mitchell cautiously broached the reason for his journey.
To say that Mr Arnold was caught off guard would be an understatement. He had no idea that the situation at Pemberley was so grave. Amelia had not felt up to making a visit, but that was no excuse for Mr Arnold to have neglected his cousin. For all the strength of purpose that he admired in Darcy, Mr Arnold had not considered how difficult it would be for Elizabeth if her husband decided to exert his will. He must have demanded they cut off her family – what else could dispirit so lively a woman as Elizabeth Darcy?
Bartholomew Arnold knew that the older cleric would not have asked him to divulge intimate knowledge about the family unless he felt it critical to meeting the needs of the congregants placed under his care. Feeling guilty that his failure to call at Pemberley had contributed to the necessity of Mr Mitchell’s visit, Mr Arnold made his decision.
“I cannot tell you all that I know, but I can share what has become public knowledge in the scandal sheets.” Mr Mitchell paled at the mention of the gossip mills of London. “Mrs Darcy’s youngest sister eloped with a soldier. However, instead of travelling to Gretna Green, they went only as far as Town. Society does not know what has become of them.”
“Have they not married?”
“They have not, but I can tell you that Mrs Darcy’s sister has married. I know of her husband, he is a good man, but well below the station of Mrs Darcy’s father. I know not what has happened to the soldier.”
“Can you tell me anything else?” Mr Mitchell pleaded.
“No, I am sorry, I am not at liberty to divulge more. In fact, the marriage of Mrs Darcy’s youngest sister is not publicly known except to her family and the inhabitants around her new abode.”
“Thank you for your help. I hope I will know how to use this to help Mr and Mrs Darcy.”
“You are a good man, John Mitchell. I have every confidence that the Good Lord will give you the words to say to them. I must confess that I feel I have failed my cousins. I did not know the extent of Mrs Darcy’s distress until now.”
“Would you prefer that I not say anything? I do not wish to interfere in a family matter.”
“They are your parishioners and I do not know when I will be able to bring Amelia to visit Mrs Darcy. No, you must act without concern for offending me. We serve a higher purpose than subjecting ourselves to the vanity of men.”
During his return to Pemberley, Mr Mitchell considered all that he had observed and learned, as well as what he knew of Mr Darcy’s character. He could well see that gentleman reacting badly to the folly of Mrs Darcy’s sister. Mr Darcy was a proud man. Even the hint of a scandal that could impugn his name would drive him to action. He must have tried to keep the elopement quiet and had somehow failed, if the elopement was known to the scandal sheets. That would explain much of the dejected mood that had settled over Pemberley, for the Master’s disposition affected his servants. Mr Mitchell also now had a suspicion as to what was troubling Mrs Darcy. Tomorrow, if she came again to the chapel, he would ask a few delicate questions. Until then, he needed to formulate what he could say to help her. He thought about how she had looked up at the windows in the front of the church, seeking answers in the coloured glass. He remembered what those windows portrayed, and he suddenly knew what he should say.
Elizabeth did indeed come to the church the next afternoon. This time, after allowing her several minutes of solitude, Mr Mitchell greeted her, then sat in the pew behind her.
“Mrs Darcy, have you found the answers you seek?” He had decided to begin by being direct.
“Not yet, but I now feel that I am able to listen if God chooses to speak.”
“That is an improvement over not even knowing the words to pray. Otherwise, are you feeling in good health? Is all well with your child?”
“I am tired, but it is not much longer before my time comes.”
“Will any of your family be coming to help with the birth?”
“Lady Victoria may yet come, but it is by no means certain that she will.”
“And what of your sisters or your mother?”
“Mrs Bingley is unable to travel at present.”
Mr Mitchell noticed that she had said nothing about the rest of her family. He saw her wrap and unwrap a small black ribbon around her finger. Instantly he comprehended what it symbolized, and realized that he had been right. Darcy must have thrown off her family in the wake of the scandal. Seeking re-assurance for the words he planned, he looked up at the light streaming through the picture in stained glass of the crucifixion.
He began to speak on a seemingly unrelated vein. “I was preparing for this week’s sermon this morning and came across a familiar passage that I suddenly saw in a new light.” Elizabeth’s gaze followed Mr Mitchell’s to the image in stained glass. “I was reading the account of the last week of Jesus’ life in the gospel of Luke. Before He entered the city, Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and wept, knowing the people would reject Him. Yet, He still went into the City of David to embrace His destiny. I was struck by His willingness to do his duty and by His great love in fulfilling it at the ultimate cost of His life. I do not know if I could do the same. Has any man ever known such betrayal, such heartache?”
“I know not,” Elizabeth answered softly, “but I look forward to your sermon on Sunday.”
The reverend left her to her musings, satisfied that he had planted a tiny seed of truth that he hoped might sprout into the immense salvation she was seeking.
Elizabeth returned to the house, deep in thought. When the heartache of her shame had become nearly unbearable, Elizabeth had fled to the only refuge available. She was physically and emotionally isolated from almost every person she had ever confided in – she could not bring herself to burden Jane with her sorrow – and had blindly stumbled to the one remaining source of consolation – her faith. It had been her only solace; now it was her beacon of hope.
She knew that Mr Mitchell had not mentioned that particular passage without reason. She suspected he had heard of their misfortunes, and in an act of kindness was trying to give her a key to overcoming her sorrow and grief. She had never voiced it aloud, but from the moment Darcy returned and informed her of Lydia’s new situation and their shame, she had been grieving the loss of her family. Emotions ranging from anger to sorrow to loneliness and despair had nearly swept her away. Yet, even worse than the loss of her family, was the loss of intimacy with her husband. Before Lydia’s folly, she had felt closer to him than she had ever imagined was possible with another human being. Since his return, he had barely acknowledged her, other than during the public duties a husband was required to perform with his wife. He could not even look her in the eye. Then again, neither could she look into his. Each of them was afraid what they would see — and reveal — to the other. What she had believed was an ever-growing understanding between them, a marriage of two minds as well as two bodies, was now little more than the cold shell of a marriage only in name.
She considered again the passage that Mr Mitchell had quoted. Countless times she had heard it said that it was her Christian duty to act with charity toward her fellow man. What people had suggested was “charity” was in reality not much more than politeness and courtesy. That which she now contemplated was truly an act of love. To willingly face scorn and death because of a great abiding love, that was the example Christ set for His church. It was also a powerful demonstration of forgiveness.
In that moment Elizabeth Darcy finally comprehended that to love meant to accept the potential, nay the certainty, that one would be hurt by those one chose to love; but it also meant that they must then be forgiven for the heartache they had caused. She loved her husband deeply, more deeply than any hurt he could cause her. When he proclaimed her family as dead to them, the pain she felt was not something that he had maliciously inflicted. She understood his motives; she understood him, and knew he felt that he had had no other choice.
Elizabeth understood, but she also believed that he did have another choice, a choice, however, that he could not see through the blinders of his pride. Pride was his great fault, a fault she had accepted in her love for him. She knew herself well enough to know that she was not made for unhappiness; she held within her the power to walk the difficult path towards reconciliation: to forgive him his hubris, love him even more in spite of his imperfections, and create a family in which they could both find healing.
She realized that the same need be said of her family — she must forgive them as well. Her parents had loosed their daughters into an unforgiving world without proper guidance, guidance which, were she completely honest, her mother, at least, was ill-equipped to provide. That it had led to one sister’s headlong rush into infamy and the ruin of the family’s reputation might almost, almost, have been predicted had anyone given it a moment’s thought. That she and Jane had escaped both the foolishness of character and unseemliness of manner that marked their mother and younger sisters was near miraculous.
She had never felt so strongly, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from the impropriety of Mr Bennet’s behaviour as a husband and father. He had been content to find amusement in his wife’s ignorance and folly, and although grateful for his two eldest’s good qualities, had not troubled himself to improve the dispositions or correct the imprudence of his three younger. He had consented to Lydia’s trip to Brighton in company with a wholly unsuitable chaperone merely to spare himself the unpleasantness of her wrath — and her mother’s — had he refused.
But despite it all, despite their individual and collective failings, they were her parents, and the babe she carried within her was their grandchild. They were tied by blood, if not by temperament; they had given her life and she owed them respect — and, yes — unconditional love. It was much the same with Lydia, who was but a child charmed by an unscrupulous man. She might not soon forget the pain and trouble that her sister had caused, but she understood that Lydia was neither more nor less than she had been brought up to be — wild, selfish, headstrong, vain.
Lastly, in the light of her new understanding, she turned her thoughts inward. She knew she was not without fault, far from it! Had she done all she could to curb her sisters’ less appropriate behaviour? Yes, certainly, her father had more responsibility than she to guide the characters of his children. But how harshly could she judge him if she had chosen to ignore her own duty as an older sibling, especially after it became clear that neither of her parents were providing the guidance the younger ones needed? There was a time when she had the respect of her younger sisters. They would listen to her and to Jane. But as they grew older, and she became closer to her elder sister, Elizabeth had to admit that she had lost interest in her younger ones.
She had abandoned Mary to her books and religious tracts; now Mary could quote extensively from men like Fordyce, but had no understanding of the concepts or basic truths that those men wrote about. She had not really tried to convince her sister to be more widely read, or encourage thoughtful discourse about what Mary did read. She thought of Kitty, so eager to be noticed that she allowed Lydia to dominate her in exchange for her youngest sister’s companionship. Elizabeth was ashamed to acknowledge that she thought Kitty too immature to pay her much heed. Then there was Lydia, fearless and foolish Lydia. She had paid for being both. Elizabeth was not certain what she could have done to temper Lydia’s character, but she had barely tried to do anything at all. She had not wanted to risk her mother’s ire, but neither had she spoken to her father or urged him to intervene when Lydia was allowed out into society much, much too early. He might have listened to her, about this and so many other things, but she had remained silent.
When it came to Mr Wickham, she gave a hollow laugh. She had allowed that gentleman to impose on her. She had been wary of the man, but in the end she had believed his lies. She had always congratulated herself as more discerning of character than this had proved. Clearly she had over-estimated her ability to judge people. Her own pride had blinded her.
Then there was her relationship with Fitzwilliam. She did not regret marrying him, and she certainly did not regret loving him. But did she resent him for making her become a woman she no longer recognised? Had her desire to please him, to obey him, cost her honour and her dignity? Should she have questioned his decision to cast off her family?
“Honour thy father and mother… it is the first commandment with a promise.”
Her husband had never truly honoured her parents and she had said … nothing. If he had honoured them, he would have stood by them all in their predicament; but he had not. She had pledged to be his helpmeet, his conscience. Yet on this fundamental issue, her silent acquiescence with his failure to protect her and her family meant that she had failed all those she loved.
In the end, she knew it would be less a matter of whether she could forgive her husband and family, but whether she could forgive herself.
Elizabeth’s stomach rumbled, reminding her that she had been long away from the house. It was time to begin anew, a little wiser and much more humble for the experiences of the past month. She knew that she had a choice: resentment or acceptance, blame or understanding. She could not change the past, but she could modulate the future. This time, she hoped, she would prove to be both a more worthy Mistress of Pemberley and a more worthy wife to its master.
Her patient footman was waiting as she emerged. As they approached a bend in the path, she looked back at the little church before it was lost from view. She saw its windows, dark and apparently silent. She knew better. It was only when one was inside that the true beauty of the glass could be seen. How fitting.
Darcy noticed the change in Elizabeth’s demeanour the very next morning. She greeted him with the first real smile that he had seen from her since before he had gone to rescue Lydia. He was so surprised that he did not hear her question.
“I said, would you join me in a walk after breakfast? I would hope that Mr Wright does not need you for an hour or so first thing this morning.”
“I did not know you still were taking walks.”
“I may seem as big as Pemberley, but I still manage short treks. Never fear, I always take Marie and a footman. I suspect that Mrs Reynolds also sends other servants to keep watch over me. This morning, I would like the support of your arm.”
“Let me dispatch a note to Wright delaying our meeting.”
Elizabeth, now great with child, moved slowly as they left the house. Darcy felt her lean heavily on him, a rather novel sensation. She was always so strong.
“It has been too long since we walked this way together. Thank you for joining me.” They walked towards a nearby path. “Fitzwilliam, we have some matters left undecided that we need to discuss without delay.” Darcy stiffened, afraid that she would speak of the situation with her family. “We have not decided on our child’s godparents.”
“No, we have not. What are your thoughts?”
“I would wish to ask Lady Victoria, but I am afraid she is too old. Please do not tell her I said that.”
He laughed. It had been so long since he had heard such an impertinent comment from her. It had been so long since either of them had laughed.
“If my aunt, being of advanced age, is not a candidate, then who would you have take her place? And who should be the godfather?”
“I had thought the choice was obvious. One of her sons and his wife?”
“Michael and Helen or Bartholomew and Amelia?”
“Michael is the eldest, and Helen is a wonderful woman, but Bartholomew and Amelia live close to Pemberley and would be more a part of our child’s life.”
“You are fond of Amelia.”
“Oh, yes. She called several times whilst you were away. She is becoming a dear friend.”
“I see no reason to argue with your choice. Let it be my younger cousins, if they agree.”
“Do you doubt they would?”
“No, not at all.”
Their ramble brought them to a bench. “May we stop and rest for a while?”
“Certainly! When you are ready, I will return you to the house. You look uncomfortable.”
“I am never comfortable!” Elizabeth laughed. “I believe that is what happens near the end of a confinement!”
Darcy was mesmerized by the joy in Elizabeth’s eyes. It had returned so unexpectedly. He could not stop himself, and he leaned over and kissed her. She responded to his sudden display of affection with the same hesitancy with which he offered it. The kiss had surprised them both.
Wordlessly, Darcy stood and helped Elizabeth to her feet. This time, as she took his arm, she not only leaned heavily on it for support, but there was a tenderness that had been absent earlier.
“Shall we send a note to the Arnolds asking them to join us for dinner tomorrow? It has been too long since we have had company for an evening. We could ask them to be the godparents then.”
“Do you feel up to receiving guests?”
“They are not guests, they are family,” Elizabeth said with a conviction that caught Darcy off guard.
“As you wish. Send a note – but only after you rest.”
Elizabeth hoped that her innocent advances would bring her husband back to her bed that night. She yearned to be in his arms, to fall asleep with his breath on her neck. They need not be intimate; indeed, it was so close to her time that she had been told they should not be, but she missed him. She missed seeing him in her rooms. Only in the privacy of their chambers was he just a man and not the Master of Pemberley.
Her hopes were in vain, for her husband did not come to her that night. But from that day on, he was no longer cold and distant to her. It was a start, and that was significant in and of itself. The dark spell had been broken, and the pall that had settled over them, and over all of Pemberley, was at long last beginning to lift.
The Arnolds were only too happy to accept the Darcys’ invitation. They had worried about their cousins, all the more so since Mr Mitchell’s call, not having seen them in weeks. Amelia Arnold had begun to suspect that she was herself with child and suffered through what she believed to be morning sickness. Her husband refused to leave her for long and Amelia found herself unable to travel when she was feeling so poorly.
Thus, it was serendipitous that Amelia felt well enough to make the journey when the invitation to dine at Pemberley arrived. They found Elizabeth contented and serene, which engendered surprise and confusion in both Arnolds, but also profound relief. Amelia resolved to have a private conference with her friend as soon as possible. She did not have long to wait. Darcy was of the same mind with regards to his cousin, and spirited Mr Arnold away soon after the couple arrived.
Amelia had called on Elizabeth in Darcy’s absence and knew the reason for his flight to Town. She did not know about Darcy’s edict against the Bennets; however, she was not ignorant for long. As soon as the ladies were alone, Amelia begged Elizabeth to tell her what had occurred since they last had met. Elizabeth had implicit trust in her friend and imparted all that had transpired. Amelia sat in rapt attention as Elizabeth recited her tale and spoke of her heartache and despair. She could see the transformation on the young woman’s face as Elizabeth confessed how, with the prodding of her faithful clergyman, she had come to understand her responsibility to grant forgiveness and acceptance to her husband and her family.
“Oh, my dear, I do not know what to say.”
“You need say nothing but that you will be the godmother of my child.”
“Of course I will, but I spoke of the events of the past few weeks. I am astonished that you could so quickly overcome such deep despair. I see again the woman I knew before this calamity befell you, yet you said that you were unhappy until just a few days ago.”
“I was miserable.” Elizabeth’s gaze momentarily dropped to her hands folded on top of her lap. When she looked up at her friend with a determined look on her face, Amelia knew Elizabeth was ready to confess something deeply personal. “I decided that it was in my power to choose to be content and I will do everything I can to overcome the self pity I wallowed in for far too long. I cannot change the past, but I can love and forgive those who have disappointed me — and try very hard to forgive myself for my own mistakes. I will not deceive myself; I know that the despair can return at anytime. However, I have been given too much and I would be ungrateful to allow the gloom to affect me for an extended period of time. I still have my husband, I still have Pemberley, and soon I will have a child to love and care for.” The two women smiled at each other through their tears, though one smile was more brittle than the other. “I have one more request. When the time arrives, will you come and help me through the birth? I would very much like a friend by my side.”
“Elizabeth, I will come. Send word day or night, and I will come, with or without my husband.”
“You must bring him!” Elizabeth sniffed and wiped her tears from her cheeks. “Someone has to stay with my husband. I fear that the birthing will be, in its own way, just as difficult for him as it will be for me.”
In another part of the house, Darcy was asking Arnold much the same thing.
“Of course, you old fool! I would be honoured to be godfather, and I promise to bring my wife when your Elizabeth is ready to give birth. I intend to get you good and drunk so you survive the ordeal.”
“I am counting on it,” Darcy replied, surprisingly pleased and grateful that he would not be alone when the time came for his heir to be born. Then his expression sobered. “You can guess what I was forced to do in regards to Elizabeth’s family.”
“I can guess.”
“I have forbidden further association with all other than Charles Bingley’s wife.”
“Her older sister.”
“I had no choice!” Arnold did not respond. “I did what I did to protect my family, including my wife.”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing. She too realizes that it was the proper thing to do.”
“Hmmm. Now your wife has no sisters to attend her, your child has no grandparents, and you have denied Elizabeth the joy of introducing her firstborn to her family. And let us not forget that with the exception of my family, the rest of yours has repudiated her.”
“I did not tell you to hear you judge me.”
“Heaven forbid that I judge anyone, after you have already done so.”
“Arnold,” Darcy said, in a voice full of warning.
Arnold sighed. “Darcy, you acted according to your principles. Let us not argue the matter. We came for happier conversation and to partake of the famous Darcy hospitality. Let us rejoin the ladies.”
The rest of the evening was a happy affair. The couples laughed together and enjoyed a new camaraderie. When the Arnolds left for home, both promised to come to Pemberley when they received word of the baby’s imminent birth.
It came a fortnight later.