Mr Collins wasted little time in his quest to declare himself to Elizabeth. Twice she attempted to stop him; twice he brushed aside her hints. But when he launched into an excruciatingly detailed description of their future life together, Elizabeth was compelled to take matters firmly into her own hands.
“Mr Collins, you presume too much. Let me answer you now. I am well aware of the honour of your proposal, and I thank you on behalf of all my family for seeking a bride from among us, but I cannot accept your hand in marriage.”
“I am by no means discouraged. I know some young ladies refuse the man they secretly mean to accept. I shall take your refusal as an indication that you wish to increase my love for you.”
“Sir, I am perfectly honest in my refusal. I cannot marry you sir. It is in every way impossible.”
“My love for you will overcome the impossible.”
“I beg you to excuse me.” Elizabeth fled the interview as quickly as she could. She suspected that sometime in the future she would look back on Mr Collins’ love making with a great deal of amusement. For now, all she wanted was fresh air — preferably fresh air as far removed as possible from her cousin.
Mrs Bennet was waiting outside the door to offer her congratulations to the newly engaged couple. But when Mr Collins related Elizabeth’s words and his desire to overcome her hesitation, Mrs Bennet grew concerned; she understood Elizabeth well enough to know that her daughter had no intention whatsoever of changing her mind. She immediately petitioned her husband to speak to his “headstrong” daughter.
“Let me first speak to Mr Collins. Perhaps I can offer a remedy to your distress.”
“Yes, yes. Tell him you will make Lizzy accept him without delay.” She left before troubling to hear a response from her husband.
The Mistress of Longbourn acted with great efficiency, and within moments, she had herded the heir into the library. For his part, Mr Bennet realized that some considerable tact — if not outright equivocation — would be required to simultaneously keep his word to Darcy and Elizabeth and appease his wife and his cousin. He looked forward to the challenge with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance.
“Mrs Bennet, Mr Collins, please be seated whilst we address the situation. I am not in the habit of interfering in the private matters of other men. Nevertheless, because one of my daughters is involved, I hope you will indulge me.” Mr Collins nodded his consent. “Very well. Mrs Bennet has informed me that you have asked for the hand of my daughter, Elizabeth, and she has refused you. Is this correct?”
“It is, sir. I cannot believe she is serious. The establishment I offer is highly desirable, and I assured her in the most animated language of the violence of my affection. My hand is not unworthy, and it is by no means assured that she will ever receive another offer.”
“You are correct sir, she never will. But not for the reason you believe. Elizabeth cannot accept your proposal because another has come before you.”
“What! I know of no such thing!” Mrs Bennet cried.
“Of course not, my dear. Only I have been privy to this prior claim. So you see, Cousin, Elizabeth is by honour already bound to another. She could not possibly accept you, even if she wished it.”
“I see. Please allow me to apologize for placing you and Miss Elizabeth in such an awkward situation. I do beg your pardon, sir. I had no idea of any encumbrances with any of your daughters other than Miss Bennet.” Mr Collins sputtered, drew air, and appeared ready to launch himself into an extended speech of contrition.
Mr Bennet swiftly interceded. “No apology is needed, sir.”
“Who is the man?” Mrs Bennet could not believe that her second daughter had already reached some sort of understanding with anyone — much less that she, her own mother, was ignorant of the particulars.
“Ah, the material point. Elizabeth’s suitor wishes to remain unnamed for the moment, and I have agreed to keep the secret. He will return within a fortnight to announce his intentions. Until then, his identity will remain a mystery.”
With one more duty to perform, Mr Bennet turned his full attention to the young clergyman. “Mr Collins, I know my daughter has the ability to make men fall in love with her in a short amount of time, and any tender regard for her must be fragile. It would be impossible for your heart to recover quickly enough to form a lasting attachment before you leave. Therefore, if you still wish to seek a wife from amongst my available daughters, you are welcome to come to Longbourn again. I can assure you that at the moment, no other man has come to speak with me about my other four daughters.”
“You forget Mr Bingley and Jane, Husband. I am sure he is much in love with her, and I suspect you may be speaking with him soon.”
“We cannot discount Mr Bingley,” Mr Bennet said in all seriousness. “Well then, you are free to admire my three youngest daughters.”
“You are a gracious host, sir. I shall endeavour to spend the remaining time getting to know my three youngest cousins. If you will excuse me.”
“Mr Collins, before you leave, I must solicit your promise of secrecy about what has passed between us. Nothing but the present circumstance would have caused me to take you into my confidence about Elizabeth’s suitor.”
“Yes, of course. It is best left unsaid. After all, who can keep a secret better than a clergyman? Now if you will excuse me.”
Although nearly overwhelmed by curiosity, Mrs Bennet stood to follow him out of the room. She was most gratified when Mr Bennet stopped her, and had the good grace to wait until Mr Collins left the room before launching into her inquisition.
“Lizzy has a suitor! Why has no one told me? You take delight in vexing me! Who is it? Who is Lizzy’s suitor?”
“Mrs Bennet, calm yourself. I have no intention of revealing his identity at this time. I gave my word and I will not be moved. You must wait until the proper time, like everyone else.”
Mrs Bennet was not pleased. She wheedled and pleaded, threatened and cajoled. Mr Bennet remained resolute.
“Oh! Very well. If you insist on being cruel, I have no choice but to wait – though I do not see why you cannot tell me who it is.” Mrs Bennet turned to leave.
“Another word, my dear.”
She turned to him in agitation.
“What I said to Mr Collins applies to you, as well. You are not to say anything to anyone until I give you leave.”
“I was only going to share my good fortune with my sister.”
“If you cannot give me your solemn vow to keep this to yourself, I will forbid you to leave the house until it is time to make the matter public.”
“Very well, if you insist. I will tell no one.”
“And you will not accost Lizzy for information. Is this clear?”
Mrs Bennet huffed, “Perfectly. I will go and speak to Cook. When did you say her suitor would arrive?”
“I expect he will be revealed within the fortnight.”
“This will never do. How am I to know when he will be dining with us?”
“Mrs Bennet, I doubt anyone will ever be disappointed at your table. Do not fret. He will be more interested in Elizabeth than in his plate.”
“That is all you know. Hill! Hill, I need to speak to you…”
Mr Bennet shut his door to drown out the exclamations of his wife. He glanced at his pocket watch and found there was still time to warn off Darcy. Without delay, he penned a note to his future son-in-law.
Mr Darcy, do not come to Longbourn today. There have been some developments this morning that necessitate your continued absence. I can wait a few more days to see the papers. I will write with more explanation later. Rest assured, you are always welcome at Longbourn. I do this only to protect you and Elizabeth until such time as the point becomes moot.
Satisfied with the contents, Mr Bennet sealed the note and then placed it inside another sheet of paper, which he addressed to: Mr C. Bingley. He called for a servant and instructed that the man deliver the missive directly into Mr Bingley’s hand.
That accomplished, he poured himself a glass of port and speculated how long it would be before Mr Bingley came to him for Jane. A little later, Mr Bennet once again took quill in hand to compose an explanation of the morning’s events for Darcy. He was in no rush and took his time crafting a letter he suspected that Darcy would find quite amusing reading on his journey to Town on the morrow.
The Bennets’ servant delivered the note to the Master of Netherfield, who broke the seal and promptly handed the interior page to Darcy.
“What is it?” Bingley asked his puzzled friend.
“Here, you read it, and see if you can make it out.” Bingley took the proffered paper and rapidly read the contents.
“I wonder what has happened. He only asked you to not come today. He knows that you plan to return on Saturday. Perhaps this has something to do with his guest.”
“Collins is to leave that day, it is true. I suppose I should prepare for my journey. I see no reason why you cannot call on the Bennets. I know you wish it.”
“Am I that transparent?”
“Utterly. Go. Perhaps you will unravel the mystery. That is, if you can take your eyes off Miss Bennet long enough to do so.”
“You approve of her?”
“Considering that I am marrying her sister, I would be a hypocrite if I did not. Miss Bennet is a lovely woman. She reminds me of my own sister.”
Bingley put his hand on Darcy’s shoulder. “Higher praise you could not bestow.”
Bingley did call on Longbourn, but came back with no further intelligence other than that the lady of the house seemed unusually subdued. Darcy decided to wait for an explanation directly from Mr Bennet and set about preparing for the journey to Kent. First he would stop in Town to call on one other aunt. Many of his plans for Elizabeth depended on the good sense of this relative.
This time when Darcy arrived in London, the staff was expecting him. Warm fires were laid in his rooms, and his cook had prepared a hot meal. Darcy took the time to eat and refresh himself before sending a note to Lady Victoria asking if he could see her that evening.
Lady Victoria Arnold was the eldest of Darcy’s mother’s siblings. She had greatly disappointed her father, the Earl, by marrying a man of great fortune but no title. Such an action could be forgiven of the younger two sisters, but not the eldest, and their spouses at least came from ancient families. Reginald Arnold had the misfortune of being only two generations removed from trade. His father had purchased an immense estate, but the stigma of new money was yet connected to him.
Victoria Fitzwilliam cared not a whit. The Earl had refused his consent when Arnold first came to him. Lady Victoria was incensed! Unless her father changed his mind, she vowed to refuse all suitors. He did not, and she did. Every effort to win the lady’s favour was soundly rebuffed until the woman in question turned one and twenty. On the night she came of age, she told her father that unless he agreed to allow her to marry the man of her choice, she would have no option but to elope. The Earl finally understood that his grand schemes for his eldest daughter were at an end. He conceded defeat and a few weeks later, the lovers were finally united in matrimony.
That is not to say that her family welcomed her new husband with open arms. Tolerated was a more appropriate description. Victoria never forgave her brother or her sister Catherine for their disparaging attitude toward her new family. In fact, an estrangement took place, and only Darcy’s mother maintained cordial relations with the Arnolds. Lady Anne, the youngest child, abhorred the dissention, and her own marriage to an untitled gentleman had given her insight into her sister’s situation.
Darcy arrived at his aunt’s later that evening and had barely seated himself before the assault began.
“Out with it, Nephew. Why are you here?”
“It is lovely to see you again, Lady Victoria.”
“Darcy, you never call in the evening unless you have important news.”
“I travel to Kent in the morning.”
“To see my sister.”
“And your brother. The Earl is currently visiting Lady Catherine. Before I spoke to them I wished to speak with you.” Lady Victoria had known what he was going to say before he even said it.
“You are to be married,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Will my siblings approve?”
“Lady Catherine will not.”
“Ah, so you are not going to marry Anne. I always knew you had more sense than that. From all reports, Anne would not have suited you at all. Will my brother be pleased with your choice of bride?”
“I am uncertain of his response.”
“But you doubt he will. Who is this creature who has finally ensnared the Master of Pemberley? Do I know her?”
“Her name is Elizabeth Bennet. I would be surprised if you know of her or her family. Her father has a small estate in Hertfordshire, and she has lived all her life in that country.”
“A small estate, you say? How much of a dowry can she bring?”
“Next to nothing.”
“Other than a cousin who is Lady Catherine’s new parson, none.”
Lady Victoria clapped her hands together in glee. “I would love to be present when you inform my sister of this little bit of information.”
“I rather suspected you would feel this way.”
After of moment of gloating over her sister’s disappointment, however, her concern for her favourite nephew returned.
“As much as I enjoy disobliging Catherine, I am still anxious for you. Are you certain you have made a prudent choice? Are you so in love with your Miss Bennet that you have allowed you judgement to be clouded?”
“I assure you that my heart did not overrule my head. I carefully considered the disadvantages of the match before I offered marriage. I readily admit that my bride’s condition in life is decidedly below my own and that she has precious little experience in society apart from that in Hertfordshire. But Elizabeth is not some foolish backwater chit. She is an intelligent and charming woman. I have no doubt that with a little time and proper guidance she will become a worthy mistress of Pemberley and a credit to the Darcy name.”
“Am I correct in assuming that when you speak of proper guidance, you are referring to me?” Lady Victoria never minced her words. Her nephew was equally frank.
“Partially. It is my hope that you will help me guide Elizabeth through the deep waters of her first season in Town.”
“She has no one else?”
“There is an aunt and uncle who live in Cheapside. I hardly think they qualify.”
Darcy waited for his aunt to reply. It had not occurred to him that she might not support his decision. The longer she delayed, the more nervous he became.
“Bring Miss Bennet to me. If I find her to be as intelligent as you have represented, I will help you. If, however, I find her vulgar or too much the simpleton, I strongly suggest you find a way to extricate yourself from the situation and marry someone who understands what is required of your wife. Are we agreed?”
“It seems I have little choice. I will ask Mr Bennet to allow Elizabeth to come to Town to shop for her trousseau. I will then make arrangements for you to meet her. Perhaps you could attend her one day while she visits the modistes?”
“An excellent idea! There is no occasion that reveals a woman’s true character better than a day spent in the shops of London. Now then, tell me more about your lady. How and where did you meet?”
Darcy spent the next hour relating the details of his acquaintance with Elizabeth. When he left, his aunt suspected two things: that Miss Elizabeth Bennet must be a remarkable woman for Darcy to overlook all the disadvantages of the match, and that her nephew was head over heels in love with the woman, even if he was oblivious to it himself.
The Darcy carriage pulled onto the cobble-stoned streets of London early the next morning. The lone passenger had instructed his driver not to over-tax the horses, as he was planning to return the very same day. Even with the leisurely pace, Darcy arrived at Rosings just past noon. He instructed the grooms that the horses were to be made ready for the return journey in the shortest time possible.
It was time to face his family.
Darcy was greeted by his surprised uncle and aunts; thankfully, his cousin was absent. Lady Catherine, the Earl, and his wife the Countess were gathered in one of Rosings’ many ornate public rooms. Darcy had never liked Lady Catherine’s ostentatious displays of wealth. There was nothing subtle about the house; it had been built to function as a clear declaration of the wealth of the owner. Every stick of furniture shouted the mistress’ need for pomp, ceremony, and adulation. The furnishings were designed to intimidate. Darcy was never impressed.
“Darcy, what an unexpected surprise! What brings you to Kent?” Lady Catherine greeted her nephew.
Darcy acknowledged his elders with a respectful bow before sitting in a chair facing them.
“I have come to announce my engagement.”
“You are finally ready to have the banns read to marry Anne.”
“Pardon me, Aunt. I never said I was to wed my cousin.”
“Of course you are. It was your mother’s fondest wish. Your union has been anticipated for years.”
“Lady Catherine, I am by neither honour nor inclination bound to fulfil your oft-stated wish to have me for a son-in-law.”
“Come now, be reasonable. Marrying Anne would unite two great estates. This has always been expected of you,” the Earl responded.
“With all due respect to my cousin, I am not marrying her. I have asked for the hand of another lady and she has accepted me. We are to be wed before the New Year.”
“Enough of this nonsense, you are marrying Anne. Tell him, Brother.”
“Catherine, I have spoken to him many times about the need to secure an heir for Pemberley. I know you must be disappointed that he has not chosen Anne, but give the boy a chance to speak.” Lady Catherine met this with a cold glare. “Very well,” the Earl continued, “who is it that you think are you marrying?”
“I have gained the hand of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Bennet? I am not familiar with the name,” replied the perplexed family patriarch.
Lady Catherine furrowed her brow. “Bennet…Bennet. That name is familiar. Where have I heard it before?”
“Your clergyman is to inherit the estate of his Cousin Bennet, the father of my future wife.”
“You are marrying the cousin of my parson? Have you lost all your senses?”
“I demand that you tell us more about this Miss Bennet,” added the Earl.
“Her father is a gentleman. His estate is in Hertfordshire near the town of Meryton, in the village of Longbourn. The estate is entailed upon Lady Catherine’s clergyman for the lack of a male heir by Mr Bennet.”
“Is this Elizabeth his only daughter?” the Countess asked. It was the first words she had spoken since Darcy arrived.
“She is the second oldest of five daughters.”
“I sent Collins there to find a wife. Heaven forbid if he brings back a Bennet bride!” Lady Catherine was horrified.
Her brother ignored her outburst. “Has she been presented, at least?”
“No, she has lived all her life in the country.”
“An uncouth bride from the wilds of Hertfordshire? Tell me that she has family in Town whom we know.”
“None that you would know.”
The Earl groaned. “Fortune?”
“None to speak of.” Darcy was secretly enjoying his relatives’ shock.
“Does she have any redeeming values?” his uncle asked, his voice echoing his feeling of impending doom.
“She is witty, lively, and nothing like the simpering females I have been forced to endure since I came of age.”
“She is no one of any consequence,” the Earl pronounced. “My God, boy! You have disgraced us all! How DARE you marry so far beneath you! This alliance is a disgrace. We will be laughed at, ridiculed behind our backs by our peers.”
“That is none of my concern. I will marry the woman of my own choosing.”
“Your wife will not be recognised by any of us.”
“Oh my foolish sister may take a fancy to your wife, just to vex me. It matters little. It is my opinion on the matter that counts.”
“I shall not be swayed by your wishes, only my own. Resign yourself to this marriage. Tomorrow’s Times will carry an announcement of my betrothal. There is nothing you, or anyone, can do to stop this.” Darcy looked at them, daring them to act. None spoke.
Darcy stood to take his leave. “I confess I had anticipated your reactions to my announcement. It was only for the sake of my mother’s memory that I took the trouble to come in person rather than deliver the news by letter. When we meet in future, I hope you will give my wife the consideration that is her due. Until then, we have nothing left to discuss.”
Darcy walked to the door and calmly turned to say one last word. “Uncle, you have forgotten one thing. I am no longer a boy. I am a gentleman and my own master. Please try to remember that.”
Darcy was unsurprised when he heard his uncle calling to him. The abbreviated visit meant that Darcy’s carriage was not yet ready to leave. To pass the time, he decided take a tour of the park. He had no idea when or if he would return to Rosings. After the initial shock of the interview had passed, he knew one of his family members would make another attempt to reason with him, and his uncle was the obvious choice.
“Ah, there you are. I was afraid I would miss you.”
“Uncle, unless you have come to tell me that you accept my choice of bride, there is little left to say.”
“You cannot expect me to let the matter lay where we left it.”
“No,” Darcy sighed. “I am not naïve enough to think you would.”
“Let us be reasonable. You cannot expect me to be overjoyed with your news. An engagement to any woman is a surprise. To one so beneath us is astounding.”
“A surprise? You were the one who insisted I find a bride before the first snow had fallen on Georgiana’s grave. My mourning period was not half over before you contrived to put me in the company of single women you deemed eligible to be my wife. Well, sir, I have done what you have asked – nay, demanded – of me. I have found a woman I want to marry, and before the New Year is upon us, I shall be wed.”
“We both know that it is not so simple. Your wife has a duty to uphold the Darcy and the Fitzwilliam names. How can you possibly expect me to rejoice that you are marrying a woman of no fortune and inferior birth? How can such a woman live up to the honour of the position of Mrs Darcy of Pemberley?”
“You judge her unworthy without having met her. For shame, sir.”
“I do not need to meet this girl to know that she will struggle in her new role.”
“Miss Bennet may struggle. It will take her time to assimilate herself into her new world. Nonetheless, if I doubted her aptitude for learning, I would not have made an offer to her. Let me be the judge of what I require in my wife.”
“It would be so much simpler if you would just marry Anne.”
Until this point Darcy had held his temper in check. After all, he knew his declaration would not sit well with his family. The frustrations of the last several days combined with the fatigue from travel conspired to loosen his pent up indignation.
“You stand here and tell me to marry my cousin, a woman of delicate constitution, who may never be able to bear me an heir. Your wish would mostly likely result in the end of my family’s line. Tell me, did you plan our union in our cradles as well? Perhaps it was your idea in the first place, to consolidate the family wealth through marriage.”
“The idea was first and always Catherine’s and your mother’s. They saw the advantage of the match, even if you do not.”
“So I could be as happy as Lady Catherine and Sir Lewis were? Did your father pick my father for a son, as he picked Sir Lewis?”
“You father was smitten with your mother. He may have lacked a title, but Pemberley was more than enough incentive to overcome any doubts my father or your mother had.”
“Sir Lewis had Rosings – another jewel in the Fitzwilliam family crown. Tell me, was the knighthood part of Lady Catherine’s dowry? It is a wonder that such has never been offered to me as an incentive.”
The Earl started. Darcy saw it and knew he had unwittingly hit the mark.
“I see I have uncovered more of the truth. Was I to become Sir Fitzwilliam Darcy if I married Anne?” The older gentleman said nothing. His silence spoke volumes.
Darcy was disgusted. He wanted nothing more than to be alone and away from this place. Before he would go, he had one final question. “How is it that you can take such an interest in my marital state yet ignore the plight of your younger son?”
“What has Andrew to do with this?”
“I only wondered at the prodigious attention you have paid to my prospects, all the while knowing that my cousin needs to marry well. Have you no compassion for him?”
“He… he is now just thirty, and he has a profession. A soldier is not necessarily in need of a wife.”
“Save your excuses. You are wasting your breath with me. It is your son that…” A sudden thought occurred to Darcy at that moment. “Or did you have a bride in mind for him as well?”
His uncle would not meet his gaze.
“Georgiana! She was his ward and still only a child!”
“I have never suggested anything of the kind to you.”
“No, you never had the chance. At least I have this one solace — that my sister was spared your manipulation.”
“What is left is nothing but speculation.”
“What is lost is any remaining respect I had for you. You do not care for me, for Anne, or even your own son. We are only the means to an end. I want no more of your schemes for the improvement of your family. I have my own family, Pemberley, and all the people dependant on me to consider. I would rather bring them a mistress who embraces them because she is a caring person than a woman intent only on elevating her position in society. Elizabeth Bennet will be Mrs Darcy. Elizabeth Bennet will become a revered Mistress of Pemberley. Elizabeth Bennet will bear my children. Unless you are ready to be reasonable, we have nothing left to say. Goodbye.”
Darcy turned on his heel and strode purposefully to his waiting carriage. He tapped the roof and the driver prodded the horses to move. Not once, as the team pulled the coach away from the great house, did Darcy look anywhere but straight ahead.
The journey to London was accomplished before dark. His time in Kent had played out much as he expected. Darcy knew his uncle and aunts would respond as they did. When he placed himself in their situation, he could even imagine himself reacting the way they had. But it did not excuse their attempt to force him into a life of their making.
Since his father died, Darcy had craved to be a good landlord and a good master. He longed for the same praise as had once been lavished upon his predecessor. In his quest to live up to expectations of his position, he had gradually come to realize that he must be his own man. Never had he felt more confidence in himself than when he was in the presence of Elizabeth Bennet. Effortlessly, she drew him out from his normal reserve. She truly listened to him. She valued the man inside, and he found it irresistible.
When he pondered his future, one thought, one word, came to mind repeatedly: companionship. He wanted it, he needed it, and in Elizabeth Bennet he found a woman who could provide it. Her intellect would challenge him; her liveliness would complement his tendency toward sombreness. His uncle, the Earl, and his aunt, Lady Catherine, would never be able to comprehend this. Suddenly and unexpectedly Darcy felt pity for them. Both married and with children of their own, yet they both were still very much alone. Like he was until he met Elizabeth.
Mr Collins had spent most of Wednesday mourning the loss of the love of his life. He spent most of Thursday observing the three youngest Bennet girls, and most of Friday debating how soon he could approach Mr Bennet for permission to court Mary. He hoped an invitation to his cousin Elizabeth’s wedding might be forthcoming; he could use that time to woo the middle Bennet child.
Mr Bennet suspected that Collins would next attach himself to Mary. Her tendency toward moralizing might very well appeal to a man of the cloth. Still, considering what Darcy had told him of his expectation for the meeting with his aunt, Mr Bennet had serious reservations that Collins’ convictions would survive his patroness’ denunciation of Fitzwilliam Darcy and the entire Bennet clan. In short, Mr Bennet was counting the hours until Collins was safely on the road back to Hunsford, with no matters of honour to compel him to return. Mary did not deserve such a fool for a mate. Lydia, on the other hand…
So it was on Saturday morning that one unmourned, if acknowledged, suitor was bid farewell, while one welcome, if anonymous, suitor was eagerly awaited. Darcy did not disappoint. By three in the afternoon, accompanied by Bingley, he rode to Longbourn to make the momentous call.
It was a most fortuitous time for Darcy and Bingley to call at Longbourn. Mrs Bennet was visiting her Sister Philips in Meryton and had taken Lydia and Kitty with her. Elizabeth could not believe her good luck. When she spied the two gentlemen approaching on horseback, a bolt of nervous anticipation shot through her. Jane saw her shiver.
“They are coming,” was all Elizabeth said – and all that needed to be said. It was Jane’s turn to anticipate the presence of her amore.
Elizabeth faced a bit of a conundrum. She wished to join Darcy and her father in the library, but knew Jane would be uncomfortable alone with Mr Bingley. That gentleman’s attentions were very promising, and Jane was encouraging him as much has her character and disposition allowed. The only other potential chaperone was Mary, but Mary was entrenched in her room, and Elizabeth knew it would take time to coax her into coming downstairs. After a slight hesitation, she made her decision and hurried to the door.
“Elizabeth Bennet, do not dare leave me alone!”
“I promise to return before the gentlemen are announced and, with any luck, with Mary in tow.”
“Then hurry!” Jane pleaded to the now empty room. Breathlessly, Elizabeth walked into her next youngest sister’s room, grabbed her hand, and began to pull the surprised girl into the hall.
“We have no time to lose.”
“I am in the middle of an important section of my book.”
“That can wait. Right now, I need you in the drawing room. Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy are at this very moment on our doorstep, and I promised Jane that I would not leave her alone with Mr Bingley.”
“But you and Mr Darcy will be there. Why do you need me?”
“I have no time to explain. Please, trust me when I say I need your help.” Elizabeth
opened the drawing room door to find a pacing and very nervous Jane.
“Oh my, I was so worried you would not come before…”
The door opened again and Mr Bingley, and Mr Bingley alone, was announced. As the others moved to be seated, Elizabeth politely excused herself. Mary looked at Elizabeth in amazement.
Jane gently placed her hand on Mary’s and whispered, “Do not fret, you will soon understand.”
With a sigh, Mary realized that Elizabeth had kept to the letter — if not the spirit — of her promise to not leave Jane alone with Mr Bingley. She shrugged, saw that Jane and Bingley were already oblivious to her presence, and returned to her book. Several minutes later, she abruptly remembered that Elizabeth told her Mr Darcy had also come to call. Here was Mr Bingley, but where was Mr Darcy? For that matter, where had Elizabeth run off to? Mary’s book was quite suddenly considerably less engrossing than it had been only moments ago.
Elizabeth knocked on the library door and entered before her father had a chance to respond.
“Elizabeth,” Mr Bennet teased, “is there something you need? It is only Mr Darcy and I here, and you undoubtedly have no desire to spend more of your time in the gentleman’s company than is absolutely necessary.”
Elizabeth kissed her father’s cheek before sitting next to Darcy. He in turn took her hand and brought it to his lips before returning his attention to Mr Bennet. Elizabeth’s fingers burned where his lips had touched her bare skin, but Darcy seemed unaware of the effects of his kiss.
“Your young man has just told me that he has completed his quest and there is no longer any impediment to announcing your betrothal. All that remains is for you to tell your mother and sisters. When might you muster up the courage for such revelations? I am certain your mother’s nerves will deliver an outstanding performance.”
Darcy was unable to hide his displeasure at the inference behind Mr Bennet’s words. Elizabeth had always overlooked her father’s inappropriate speeches regarding the follies of their family; this time she felt all the shame that such behaviour should produce. Fortunately, Mr Bennet did not notice Darcy’s momentary lapse in hiding his true opinion, and Elizabeth quickly bridged the silence before it could become uncomfortable.
“I shall tell Mama this evening. I believe she would prefer to have at least a full day to plan dinner for my intended.”
“Yes, the first meal with a daughter’s fiancé should be one of the crowning moments in a mother’s life. Mr Darcy, you must join us tomorrow.”
“I shall be honoured.”
“Undoubtedly!” Mr Bennet quipped.
This time Darcy shared in the general amusement. Elizabeth was relieved that he could see the humour and truth in her father’s comment and realize that her father had not again spoken disrespectfully of his wife. Even were she the daughter of a peer, Darcy would be subjected to the same kind of attention. A daughter well married was every mother’s goal.
Darcy did not expound on the meeting in Kent; he was much more forthcoming about his talk with Lady Victoria and his desire for Elizabeth to meet his aunt in Town before the wedding. Elizabeth already planned an excursion to the city to acquire items for her trousseau. It was agreed that they would travel to London the following week.
“There is one detail I would like to settle before we go any further,” said Mr Bennet. “I think it wise to set a wedding date before Elizabeth speaks to her mother. We had determined that the ceremony should take place during the week following Christmas. Do either of you have a preference for the exact date?”
“Christmas Day is a Wednesday. I believe Friday or Monday would be acceptable. What is your opinion, Elizabeth?” Darcy answered.
“I see the wisdom in either day. However, may I suggest Monday the 29th? That would give any family who wishes to come time to travel. Surely the Gardiners can stay that long?”
“I doubt my brother would need to return to Town before then. If Mr Darcy has no objections, then the 29th it shall be.” Darcy nodded in affirmation. “Very good. Mr Darcy, you must have spent much of the day travelling. Perhaps you should take advantage of the fine weather and walk with the ladies and Mr Bingley. I have been told he is somewhere on these grounds right now, undoubtedly in Jane’s company.”
When they entered the drawing room, Elizabeth took pity on Mary and announced her engagement then and there. Bingley was relieved to finally be able to express his good wishes. Darcy cautioned them that Mrs Bennet had yet to be told, and all agreed to keep the news to themselves for one more day. Soon all five were walking the lanes around Longbourn; mercifully, Elizabeth and Darcy were allowed to walk alone behind the other three.
The conversation between the couple naturally directed itself to the events of the last week, for they had hardly any time alone since becoming engaged. Elizabeth regaled Darcy with a retelling of Mr Collins’ ill-timed addresses. She could see that the subject made him uneasy and reassured him that even had she not been promised to him, Mr Collins would still have been refused.
“I have no doubt that you would have refused the man. That is not what troubles me.”
“Then what does?”
“That such a man could fancy himself so violently in love after so short an acquaintance.”
“You had not known me much longer before you made me an offer.”
“True, but our situations bear little resemblance. I did not profess feelings that could exist only in my imagination. Mr Collins’ supposed regard for you will quickly fade, and I have no doubt that he will soon find another object for his attentions.”
“You do not believe in love at first sight?”
“I have seen it, but I have never seen such a thing last a year through. Too often couples carried away by feelings of passion marry quickly. In a twelvemonth, passion has sunk into indifference. Within a few years, most are barely speaking to each other, yet they are bound in wedlock until death.”
“You have many more acquaintances than I, and it is not surprising that you have seen this.” Elizabeth walked several more paces before continuing. “Do you worry that this fate will befall us?”
Darcy heard the concern in Elizabeth’s voice. He took her hand in his and squeezed it to reassure her.
“I do not profess to know what our future holds, but I have the utmost faith that such will not befall us. It is true that we have not known each other for long, but in that time, you have become one of my closest friends. I believe that the like-mindedness that exists between us is a better foundation for a happy marriage than the randomness of rash passion. It is not because I believe no passion will exist between us, but because we share a desire for something even more important. ”
“And what is that?”
“Companionship. Compatibility manifested in mutual regard, stimulating conversation, respect for the opinion of the other. Your intelligence and lively wit would demand no less from me. I alluded to it when I proposed. It is the one quality that I most sought in a wife. Surely you have experienced it when we are together?”
“Yes, I have. I will not deny that it was a primary reason I accepted you.”
“Elizabeth, I cannot guarantee you martial bliss. That is inherently unreasonable to assume to be a certainty between two people when they wed. Only time will reveal our fate. I can, however, offer you my respect and my honesty.”
Then after a short pause Darcy added, “And Elizabeth, while I said before that passion was not the reason I asked you to marry me, know that you are a beautiful woman and that I do desire you.”
Each turned to search the other’s face. Elizabeth blushed. “How unlucky that you should have a reasonable answer to give, and that I should be so reasonable as to admit it!” She smiled, and they continued walking.
“Fitzwilliam… It still sounds so strange to call you that.”
“I like it when you call me by my name.”
“Fitzwilliam, tell me of Kent. How did your relations react to our news?”
Darcy’s jaw tightened. Elizabeth could see that he was perturbed. “They were not pleased. Elizabeth, please do not question me further on this. It is still upsetting to remember their words to me.”
“I did not mean to cause offence.”
“It is not you who has offended. Forgive me, my dear, I did not mean to accuse you. Let us speak no more of it.”
“As you wish.” Elizabeth hesitated, then asked, “Will you tell me of your meeting in London with your other aunt?”
Darcy immediately relaxed. “My aunt, Lady Victoria, would very much like to meet you.”
“As you said. Please tell me about her.”
Darcy told her of his aunt’s courtship and marriage to Reginald Arnold. Elizabeth was surprised.
“A love match?” she asked.
“I do not think so, at least not in the beginning. As a lad my mother told me that Aunt Victoria had decided that she wished to marry my uncle and once she had set her mind on it, no one could dissuade her. The Fitzwilliam clan have a decided tendency towards independence and obstinacy.”
“Have you inherited it?”
“I would not know.”
“Hmm,” Elizabeth replied before returning to the subject of his aunt. “You said it did not begin as a love match, yet this implies that it became one.”
“Yes, it did. It was obvious to anyone who saw them together that they held each other in tender regard. When my uncle died two years ago, my aunt was devastated.”
“To lose a beloved spouse must have been a blow.”
“Her sons rallied around her, as did her friends. Due to my aunt’s position in society as the daughter of an earl, and my uncle’s wealth, she has many acquaintances in both the titled and gentry classes of upper society. Those she called friends came to her side when her grief was greatest. Aunt Victoria chose well.”
“She sounds quite formidable.”
“Aye, she is. But she is a sensible woman who refuses to make hasty judgements.”
“You mean to say that I must win her approval.”
“If you wish to think of it in that manner, yes. You need not be afraid. She will find you a person of value as long as you are yourself.”
“I sense her approval is important to you.”
“It is. I… I have hopes that at least one of my immediate family members will not oppose you.”
“Fitzwilliam, what happened in Kent obviously distresses you. I do not understand why you still wish to marry me with such apparent opposition from your relatives.
“Elizabeth, it is nothing I did not anticipate. I admit that the reception I received in Kent was unpleasant, but I was not so naïve to expect anything else. Without going into specifics, I lost most of my respect for my uncle and I refuse to bend to the will of a man whom I cannot esteem. I made it clear that I am my own man.”
“Promise me that you will someday confide in me what happened?”
“This enmity still troubles me.”
“I would not have it do so. The objections that they raised reflect only their own characters. I am entirely content in my decision and prospect of our marriage.”
Elizabeth saw that he did not wish to discuss the matter further and wisely decided to change the subject. “Have you any family on your father’s side?”
“I have no aunts or uncles on my father’s side. My father was the eldest of five children. He had three sisters and one brother. None of the girls survived childhood. After my father married and I was born, my Uncle Robert joined the army and was killed. He had never married.”
“How tragic! Your poor father! Do you have any cousins on your mother’s side, or would you rather not speak about them now?”
“No, I have nothing against them. My uncle, the Earl of ______, and his wife have three children. Their oldest son, Martin, is to inherit. The second, Andrew, is a colonel in His Majesty’s Army. He and I were very close growing up, and we both were my sister’s guardians. The youngest, Harriet, is married to Viscount Northem.
“Aunt Catherine, married Sir Lewis de Bourgh, and they have one daughter, Anne. I believe you have heard much about her.” They both smiled at his inference to Mr Collins.
“Aunt Victoria and Uncle Reginald had four sons. The oldest is Michael, and he inherited the estate when my uncle died. Michael is married to Helen, and they have three children. His brother, Charles, was given the living for the family estate. The third son, Bartholomew, is the rector of Kympton near Pemberley, and the youngest son, Joseph, is at university, preparing for a career in the law.”
“Two sons in the Church. I am surprised at least one did not go into the army or the navy.”
“None of them wished it. My cousins prefer a life serving others and serving God. The middle two are too gentle in nature to make good fighting men. The youngest loves to debate, so he will do well as a barrister.”
“Do you have other cousins?”
“No, the rest of my relations are all much further removed. In fact, right now, my heir is the grandson of my father’s uncle.”
“No wonder you are in a hurry to marry!” Elizabeth teased.
She was not prepared for the look on his face when he replied, “More than you know.”
His look told her that although he was not marrying her in blind lust, he recognised that desire was part of their attraction. Thoughts of the unknown thrilled her, and his hand over hers suddenly felt much warmer. Elizabeth attempted to rein in these unfamiliar feelings through more conversation. She remembered the new book she had received just that afternoon.
“Thank you again for your gift. It is a handsome diary.”
“I am pleased you like it. I did not know if you kept one.”
“I do, but I am nearing the end of the current one. It is most fitting to begin a new book as I begin my new life. Do you keep a journal as well?”
“My father gave me my first when I was preparing to leave for school. It has been the habit of many generations of the Masters of Pemberley to keep a diary. He felt it was a good time for me to learn to do the same. I confess this was one motivation for the gift. Not all the Mistresses of Pemberley have kept a diary, but many have.”
“It would please you if I did.”
“Of course, hence the gift!”
“You are a fortunate man, Fitzwilliam. I have secreted my thoughts on paper for many years now and have no intention of stopping.”
“When we get to Derbyshire I will show you the collection of the old journals. They are kept in a locked section of the library. Right now, only I have access to them. You shall have it too, if you wish.”
“I do wish it. I would very much like to know more of your family’s history.”
“It will be part of your family’s history, too, Elizabeth, and our children’s. Soon you shall be a Darcy. Elizabeth Darcy. I like the sound of that.”
When he said her new name he did not just say it as much as he caressed it. All doubts were sublimated in the sensations that his voicing her future name produced.
Elizabeth spent the evening preparing her speech to her mother. As the household prepared for bed, Elizabeth went to her mother’s chambers. She had no expectations for her mother’s reaction other than that it would be extreme; she was, therefore, thoroughly shocked when Mrs Bennet could not speak for many minutes after she was told. This silence was, unfortunately, short lived. Mrs Bennet had expected that Elizabeth would be comfortably settled with her unnamed fiancé, but never in her wildest dreams had she considered a man of ten thousand a year. What wealth her Lizzy would have! What advantages to share with her family! Hang the hedgerows Mrs Bennet would never have to worry for her security in life again!
The following week
The coach with the Darcy crest rumbled down the road to London, its owner the sole occupant. It had been another trying week for Fitzwilliam Darcy. At dinner on Saturday he announced his engagement to the family at Netherfield. Bingley had known for days, but continued to express his sincere congratulations; his sisters were another matter entirely. Mrs Hurst, at least, had the grace to withhold her opinion, but Miss Bingley was not so well composed. Caroline insisted that Darcy must be joking, and a cruel joke at that. Elizabeth Bennet of all people! When her brother confirmed his friend’s sincerity, she managed to convey the depth of her outrage in a few short sentences before Bingley was able to interrupt her, lest she go too far.
Darcy knew that Caroline Bingley would be disappointed, her hopes for a match with him long displayed. He had allowed her outburst – that one time. If she were savvy enough to understand that she risked losing his notice and any hope of future invitations to Pemberley, she would have to come to terms with his marriage.
The next morning, Darcy met Elizabeth and her family for church. His presence at her side garnered many surprised looks and guaranteed many inquiries once the service was over. However, it served its purpose. By the time the other parishioners returned to their homes, Darcy and Elizabeth’s engagement was common knowledge. Mrs. Bennet saw to that.
Dinner that night at Longbourn was torture of another kind. Since Darcy had come into society, he had suffered the effusive attentions of nearly every unmarried woman to whom he was introduced. Only marginally more distasteful were their mothers. Constantly seeking his favour, constantly promoting the interests of their daughters, such woman became extremely tiresome. Elizabeth Bennet may not have been like most of the marriageable women he met, but her mother was every bit the rapacious matchmaker he abhorred. And even now, with the match made, the betrothal announced, the wedding date set, she would not rest. Her not so subtle hints about the advantages he could bestow on her family, most especially in securing rich husbands for her youngest girls, wore on his nerves. Sly inferences to Elizabeth’s use of feminine arts to catch him in marriage caused him to sink further into himself. It took tremendous self-control to hide his revulsion. He was grateful only for the fact that his relations did not witness the spectacle.
After supper, Mr Bennet took pity on Darcy and whisked him away for port and cigars. The gentleman did have his moments – the bad and the good. When they rejoined the woman, Darcy could see that Elizabeth did all that she could to shield him from her mother and had enlisted Jane’s help as well. When Mrs Bennet required Elizabeth’s notice, Jane was there to take her place. And so the evening continued until it was time for Darcy to return to Netherfield. Elizabeth saw him out. Her words and posture told him she was just as relieved as he that the evening was finally over. She thanked him for his forbearance and bade him goodnight. Had Mr Bennet not been watching, Darcy would have kissed her. Surely he had earned that reward! But it was not meant to be; Darcy said farewell and rode away.
During the next few days, Mrs Bennet found that she required Elizabeth’s presence as she made calls on her neighbours; her time to display her daughter and exult in the capture of the greatest prize the country had ever seen was short, and she intended to make the most of it. Elizabeth found consolation in Darcy’s daily calls at Longbourn after the ladies had returned. The weather was favourable, and Elizabeth and Darcy escaped to walk the grounds at every opportunity. They spoke of many inconsequential things. They shared stories of their childhoods, retold memories of loved ones now passed, and talked of their immediate future. Darcy was thankful that the Gardiners would house the Bennets whilst they were in Town.
He was soon on his way to London to await the Bennets’ arrival. Darcy wished to have a few days to personally prepare his house and staff to receive a visit from the next mistress. The added bonus of this early return to London was his removal from daily exposure to a sullen Miss Bingley and an overbearing Mrs. Bennet. He began counting the days… two and twenty more and he would take Elizabeth away from such unsuitable company.
The Bennets arrived at Gracechurch Street on Monday afternoon. Mr Bennet had sent Jane with Elizabeth for support. He had volunteered to remain at Longbourn with Mary, Kitty, and Lydia knowing that his eldest daughters could manage their mother, with their uncle and aunt’s help. Mr Bingley had gallantly offered to escort the ladies to London, as Mr Bennet suspected he would.
Darcy called at the Gardiners that same evening to extend an invitation to come to his house so that Elizabeth could inspect her future residence. Before Darcy could escape, he was invited to stay for dinner. Darcy remembered how much Elizabeth had praised her uncle and aunt, and he rapidly ascertained that her description of the couple was accurate. He had worried that Mr Gardiner would be like his sister, but thankfully, that was not the case. On the whole, the evening was pleasant, and if not for Mrs Bennet, Darcy would have called the experience quite surprisingly enjoyable.
On Tuesday, the ladies began shopping in earnest. Wednesday morning was again dedicated to expanding Elizabeth’s trousseau, but the afternoon was reserved for her first real foray into her new life.
When the coach arrived at an elegant house in a fashionable district, none of the four ladies said much; each was too much in awe of the size and splendour of Elizabeth’s future abode. Not for the first time did Elizabeth contemplate the great gulf in situation and social standing that she would cross with her marriage to Mr Darcy. She made an effort to compose herself as the women were shown into a sitting room where Darcy and an older woman were waiting to receive them. He wasted no time in making the introductions.
“Ladies, may I present my aunt, Lady Victoria Arnold.”
“It is an honour to meet you, Lady Victoria,” Elizabeth said when she rose from her curtsey. “Mr Darcy has spoken often of you and your family, and with great affection.”
“Has he now?” Lady Victoria motioned for Elizabeth to sit beside her.
“He has nothing but the highest respect for you.”
“He was always an obliging boy. But he is a boy no longer and soon to be wed. Darcy told me that I have been commissioned to take you shopping tomorrow.”
“I am grateful for your consideration, my Lady.
“I look forward to getting better acquainted with my future niece.”
Lady Victoria spent a few more minutes conversing with the rest of the party, then took her leave.
Darcy summoned his housekeeper, Mrs Thomas, to accompany them on a tour of the house. The size and sheer number of rooms, the beauty and grace of the furnishings, all were striking. Netherfield was a fine country residence, but Darcy House was all that was sophistication and elegance without ostentation. Several times, Jane gave Elizabeth a little look, concerned for her sister’s equanimity. Elizabeth remained outwardly serene, but inwardly, she wondered at her ability to be mistress of such a household. Darcy House was enormous but she knew that Pemberley was even larger. Would she be successful in managing such an immense estate? She communicated her anxiety to Jane with a lift of her eyebrows and a slight tip of her head. Jane gave a small nod in acknowledgment.
Mrs Gardiner, although evidently impressed, was true to her own good sense. She asked intelligent questions about several of the more interesting architectural features, and was her usual consummate example of breeding and fine manners. Mrs Bennet was her usual consummate example, but less of fine manners than of unrestrained sensibility. She was initially so much in awe of the house and of her daughter’s future aunt that she had, for the most part, remained mercifully silent. However, as the tour progressed, the grandeur of the place where her daughter would soon preside as mistress unleashed her normal exuberant self. If Darcy was offended by his bride’s mother’s exaltations, Elizabeth could not fault him; for all the earlier restraint, her mother was her mother still. Elizabeth loved all her family, but she was not blind to their faults and the predisposition of some to unseemly behaviour.
Finally, the party arrived at the family wing and the mistress’ chambers. They were delightful, if not a bit dated.
Darcy pulled Elizabeth away from the others. “How do you like your rooms?”
“Most pleasant. I will be comfortable here.”
“It is yours to do with as you please. It is exactly as my mother left it.”
“Perhaps ‘exactly’ is not the proper word, but nothing has been changed since her passing. My father wished it to remain as it was.”
“And you continued to honour his request.”
“I suppose I thought I would leave it to the next mistress to decide.”
“Did this extend to your own quarters?”
“No, I could not stay in them as they were. Too many memories of the former inhabitant. I had my rooms redecorated. Do not feel that you need to retain these unaltered.”
“I admit that the style is not exactly to my taste, but I am in no rush to redecorate for the sake of change itself. I have quite enough to hold my attention in the immediate future.”
“Very well. But you will promise to address this at a later date.”
Elizabeth laughed. “You may depend upon it! I am not overly fond of certain colours that now adorn the walls.”
“Then I shall have them changed at once.”
“Fitzwilliam.” Elizabeth paused before proceeding further, afraid that her mother or aunt had heard her use his Christian name. “All in good time. In general, the accommodations are delightful, and I can certainly wait until I have time to devote my attention to it.”
“Elizabeth,” Darcy leaned a little closer, “I have a confession to make.”
“I never liked the colours my mother chose, either.”
“Then why have you not changed them?”
“I have told you. I wished to leave it for the next inhabitant of the suite.”
“In that case, perhaps I shall give it my earliest attention. Would that please you?”
“Most definitely. When we are in Town after the wedding, we can look at fabrics and such.”
“A reasonable plan of action.” Elizabeth moved away from him. “But I think the others grow weary of our private conversation.”
“I have monopolized you long enough. Let us have tea before you must return to the Gardiners’.”
Lady Victoria arrived at Gracechurch Street the next morning to collect Elizabeth and Jane for a day of shopping. The previous day’s brief meeting had done nothing to discredit Elizabeth in the older woman’s eyes, but it had not caused her to bestow her blessing, either. If Elizabeth was intimidated by the prospect of spending the day in the company of the sole Darcy relation who did not already disapprove of her, she did her best not to show it. Some credit must be given, she admitted, to Jane’s calming presence; her older sister always was a good influence on her.
The three ladies were deposited in front of Lady Victoria’s favourite modiste. Elizabeth had never shopped in this particular street, as she knew such places were beyond her family’s means. But she was to be a Darcy and Fitzwilliam had pledged to supplement Elizabeth’s funds to enable her to dress like a Darcy. For the first time in her life, her choices would be guided by the dictates of fashion, not the dictates of prudence and economy. She was determined to relax, attend to the task at hand, and enjoy herself.
Once settled in a comfortable private room, designs and sketches were produced for the ladies’ perusal. Elizabeth and Jane had similar tastes in clothing, but this did not preclude Elizabeth from asking her soon-to-be aunt’s advice.
“Lady Victoria, I know Mr Darcy wishes that I choose gowns appropriate for an evening out, but I am afraid my country upbringing does not serve me well here. I have little knowledge of what is now fashionable in Town. Perhaps you would help me choose suitable styles for such gowns?”
“A reasonable request.” Picking up several sketches, Lady Victoria calmly handed them to Elizabeth. “I think you will find that these designs are the height of current fashion.”
Elizabeth shared them with Jane and noted the daring cuts. “I have seen something similar in the fashion magazines. These are indeed beautiful, but I believe they require considerable discernment when selecting the appropriate material. Here again, my Lady, your advice would be both invaluable and welcome.”
There now, I have done it. I have asked for her assistance in the most respectful way I know. The next move is hers.
Lady Victoria’s eyes revealed nothing as she regarded Elizabeth for a moment; she nodded, called for their things, and escorted the sisters to the elegant establishment of a respected silk mercer where some of the most beautiful fabrics Elizabeth and Jane had ever seen were being brought out for approval. Lady Victoria made subtle suggestions; Elizabeth quickly understood and was able to request the most suitable materials. Jane’s knowledge of her sister’s preferences was a perfect complement to the older woman’s knowledge of fashion’s tastes. In less time than she would have thought possible, Elizabeth had selected the patterns and materials for nearly a dozen of the many exquisite gowns required by the woman who would become Mrs Darcy.
Such taxing endeavours required tea. Lady Victoria suggested a shop just down the street and they decided that one block was not too far to walk. Seated with tea and cake, her ladyship began to question Elizabeth.
“My nephew has told you of his desire to have you presented at Court after your marriage.”
“He has spoken of this.” Elizabeth’s voice held little pleasure.
“You not wish to do so?”
“My wishes are irrelevant. I accept that it is expected of the wife of Mr Darcy of Pemberley and if my husband desires it, I will submit to it. I understand his reasoning well enough. He thinks of the future and of our children. It is for him and for them that I would do this, no matter how little pleasure I may find in the idea.”
“So you would rather not make your curtsey.”
“Lady Victoria, I do not find validation of my worth as an individual in the rituals of the privileged. Neither do I scorn the honour. I simply do not require it for my own happiness.”
A smile tugged at the corners of the older woman’s mouth. “Well said, Miss Elizabeth, well said.” Lady Victoria took another sip of tea, then addressed Jane. “Your sister will miss you, I think, Miss Bennet.”
Elizabeth noted the change in Lady Victoria’s tone and expression and was relieved to discover that Darcy’s aunt did not seem to hold her in derision. She still was unsure how the lady felt about her, but Elizabeth began to hope they could, eventually, share the kind of camaraderie that she had with her Aunt Gardiner. They chatted for a while longer and then continued on the ever-expanding mission to clothe Elizabeth as befitted her future station in life.
Later that evening, Darcy called upon his aunt at the Arnold residence.
“Your Elizabeth is neither conceited nor too vain.”
“All women are somewhat vain, Darcy. A worthy woman does not allow her vanity to overrule her good sense.”
“You approve of her, then?”
“At this time, I do not disapprove. She seems a clever, witty, unpretentious woman. You could have done much worse, even amongst the Ton. However, she has much to learn, and you will spend a small fortune just to see her suitably attired.”
“I have foreseen this. Is it your intention to help Elizabeth spend my money thusly?”
“She will need someone to help her. You would only be in the way.”
Darcy smiled at his aunt’s teasing; he knew it to be a sign of her growing respect for his intended bride.
“You have taken it upon yourself to see her clothed as befits her station. Are you also willing to assist her preparations for the forthcoming season and her presentation at St James’s?”
“Will you be in Town much before then?”
“No. Only a few weeks, at most, before April.”
“That could present a problem. When would I be able to call?”
“I see your point. This is why I wish to invite you to Pemberley, if Michael and Helen can bear to let you come.”
“I think my son and his wife could be persuaded to part with me.” Lady Victoria rolled her eyes. “Poor Helen. I think she has had the most difficult time of us all since my husband’s death. I love her dearly, but I sometimes wish she would exert herself more as the mistress of the house that she now is.”
“She shows character in deferring to you.”
“Think of it as you may. Oh, I appreciate her concern for my feelings, but you mistake me. She needs to grow into her role, and sometimes I think my presence hinders her.”
“All the more reason to come to Pemberley.”
“Have you considered that I might do the same to your wife?”
“Miss Bennet is not Helen.”
“For your sake, I hope not. You need a wife to challenge you.”
Darcy smiled. “I agree. Please come to Pemberley.”
“Please speak with Miss Bennet.”
“I will, although I am certain Elizabeth will agree that you are indispensable. If that is not enough, I will tell your son that I am abducting his mother, and he need not bother trying to get you back.”
Lady Victoria laughed. “You are a Fitzwilliam – much too accustomed to getting your own way. Speak to Miss Bennet; if she agrees, I will come.”