Later that afternoon, Georgiana stood at a window in her room, her emotions at war within her. Her brother’s words had shaken her and it was some time before she was able to gain any semblance of control over herself. She spied a couple walking in the garden below: William and Elizabeth, oblivious to the cold, walking arm and arm along the path, their affection for each other evident for all who cared to see. Georgiana contrasted the vision of the strolling lovers with the impression in her memory of the last time she had walked with Henry along those very same steps nearly six years before. She realized that he never had any true affection for her, and she could not recall whether she had felt anything for him beyond pride at securing such a fine match and an eventual countess’ coronet. Any tender feelings she may have had died long ago, and try as she might, she could not resurrect them now. She remembered another walk in another garden with another man — Robert Bennet — and heard the echoes of his ardent declarations of love as he proposed marriage to her at Netherfield. Her gaze again fell upon the lovers in the garden, Robert’s sister and her brother. They had stopped walking and stood, heads close together, sharing a private moment. Even at this distance the love they had for each other was palpable.
She could bear it no longer. The great stores of emotion within her soul burst open at last, the tears falling like floodgates opened. Georgiana wept and wept, the grounds of Pemberley looking in through her windows as the only witness. Finally, when the tears would come no more, she nearly collapsed as she groped for a nearby chair. She was exhausted, yet amazingly calm. Acceptance of the folly of her pride, despite her mortification that she had allowed it to consume her, brought about an unexpected euphoria. Her soul seemed cleansed by her tears; she was beginning to find the courage to do what she knew she must – break her engagement.
The prospect of marrying Henry was now entirely repugnant, just as it had been five years ago. She had accepted him a second time in a desperate attempt to salvage her pride, but she had hidden behind the guise of familial duty long enough. In marrying a man indifferent to her, all duty would be violated. She understood now that she had been almost completely wrong. She had worshipped hollow gods, and allowed society to hold sway over her opinions. She had come dangerously close to choosing the golden idol that was pride, position, and wealth, over the higher laws of humility, family, and compassion. ‘What ordinance of heaven have I transgressed? I shall be taught by suffering my sin …’
Georgiana considered the ramifications of ending the engagement. She had paid a small price the first time, but to break a second engagement to the same man would be scandalous – and a severe blow to the Darcy name. Drury would be furious, and his influential family embarrassed; there was no telling how they might retaliate. Georgiana reflected on the irony; it seemed likely that her actions would cause more difficulty for the family than anything she imagined would happen to them because of William’s marriage.
Or would it? Would it matter? Any acrimony by the Allenbys would be deflected by Aunt and Uncle Matlock; Elizabeth’s acceptance by society might be a more difficult task, but the end result would be the same. And should the ton not embrace her, it would make no difference to her happiness, or William’s. Beth would still have a dowry of £ 30,000 and an earl for a grandfather. Georgiana knew too well what was really important in the marriage market; Beth would not suffer a lack of suitable prospects.
No, the Darcy name would be as little damaged if she broke with Henry as it would be enhanced if she went through with the marriage; Georgiana alone would reap what she had sown. Unless she cried off, she would be bound for the rest of her life to a man who cared nothing for her, a man she did not love. If she ended the engagement, any expectation of a future offer from a respectable man — or one without motives of his own — would be destroyed. It was a daunting prospect. Her wealth made her an attractive catch, but she was nearing thirty, with little time left on the marriage market, and she would be tainted by scandal, exposed to the censure of the world for caprice and instability.
Richard, too, must be refused if he renewed his offer; he was a better man than Drury could ever be, but she would not so burden him, and although they were on good terms, it would never be more than a marriage of convenience for either of them. There was but one man in the world for her — and she had refused him. Remorse nearly overwhelmed her; it was inexpressibly painful to comprehend that her mistaken pride had cost her the one thing she now fervently desired: to marry for love. How heartily did she grieve over every ungracious remark, every expression which might justly make Robert hate her. He must think her devoid of all proper feeling. It was hopeless. He could be only a man whose proposals she had refused, and whose merit she had undervalued. She could not expect a renewal of his love; no, she could not think of it, for that way lay madness.
The question remained. Did she have the courage to do what she knew in her heart she aught? If she never married, Pemberley would be her sanctuary – the nieces and nephews to come, her vocation. The path ahead came to a junction. Which direction would she choose?
Georgiana did not to go down to supper that evening. She ordered a tray and awaited its delivery. When the expected knock came, she bade the servant enter with her food. What she was not prepared for was the bearer.
“Elizabeth, what are you doing here?”
“I hope you do not mind, but I brought a tray for the both of us.” She handed Georgiana her plate. “William told me about your meeting. When I discovered you had gone to your rooms and had not been seen since, I thought you might want some company. Do you wish me to stay?”
Georgiana gave Elizabeth a shy, genuine smile. “Yes, please stay.”
Elizabeth took her own plate and began to eat. She was not afraid of the silence. She knew the Darcy siblings well enough by now to know they would speak when they were ready, and not before.
“When did you know you loved William?”
“Is it obvious?”
“It has been for a few weeks.”
Elizabeth blushed. “It seems as if everyone could see it except the two people involved. To answer your question, I do not have an answer. It came on so gradually, I cannot affix an hour or a date to it. I only know that one day I discovered that I had fallen in love with my husband, without noticing when it had actually happened. I was so afraid of harbouring feelings that would be unrequited, as we spoke of shortly after I arrived at Pemberley, that I believe I ignored what was happening to me.”
“But now you have told him, and he has told you that he feels the same?”
“Yes, and it is so wonderfully new to us, as well as so unexpected. Neither of us entered this marriage with any expectation of falling in love. That such deep feelings have developed is a precious gift we are determined to treasure.”
Elizabeth silently watched her sister. When she saw no signs of derision, she was emboldened to ask, “Georgiana, this is difficult for me to ask of you, yet I sense it is the time to do so. Will you now give us your blessing? It would mean a great deal to us both, most especially to your brother.”
Georgiana could not look at Elizabeth; she was embarrassed and ashamed to be reminded of her opposition to her brother’s marriage. “He hardly needs my blessing. You are married.”
“But he would like it just the same.”
Georgiana lifted her head and gave a small smile. “Yes, yes I will. You deserve as much. And you are correct, it will make William happy.”
“Will you tell him before you leave Pemberley? I think he would like to hear it before you leave us.”
“Elizabeth… I… I will do so before you leave for Hertfordshire.”
Georgiana fell silent again, and Elizabeth waited for her to continue. “Elizabeth, I need a woman with whom to confide. Will you listen?”
“Of course, that is why I came to you.”
“When you were preparing to marry William, did you dread the day?”
“Not at all. I accepted it quickly. There was no need to dwell on what had brought me to the altar. I was more intent on making the marriage a success. Why do you ask?”
“I find myself dreading my wedding day.” Georgiana stopped, mentally rehearsing her next words. “I accepted Lord Drury for a variety of reasons. I blamed William, and you, for forcing me into it. I believed that I had to restore the Darcy family name and honour by marrying the only son of an earl. Yet all the time I was too proud to admit that I was not ready to relinquish my place in this household, or in William’s and Beth’s lives.
“Now, as I contemplate what my life will be like with Henry, I wonder if I have made a horrible mistake. Have I so buried my good sense under the weight of family pride that I am unable to judge wisely? Would I marry him were it not for my wrong-headed belief that your marriage somehow damaged the family? If I end this engagement, what will become of me, of you, and of William and Beth? Please tell me, am I a fool?”
Elizabeth looked intently at the woman before her, searching for the right words to say, praying for wisdom.
“Georgiana, a fool is a person who chooses what is easy over what is right. I cannot tell you what to do; that is your decision alone. I can tell you this: you will always be welcome at Pemberley, whatever you do.”
“Can you forgive my unkind words and behaviour?”
“Certainly. We all say and do things we later regret.”
“Thank you, Elizabeth. But tell me, what would you do if you were in my situation?”
Again, Elizabeth paused to choose her words. “I believe I would look deep within myself and ask what would, in the end, bring me and the ones I love the most happiness. You must discern what the cost of contentment is, and if it is what you are willing to pay. If it is as Vicountess Drury, I wish you happiness. If it is to remain, possibly forever, Miss Darcy, you will always find a home here.”
They continued sitting together in silence, as Georgiana considered Elizabeth’s sage advice, the food lying untouched. She retreated further into herself, Elizabeth’s presence forgotten. Soon the tears began again as the indecision and fear returned. Was she brave enough to do what she knew would bring her happiness? A handkerchief pressed into her hands brought her back to her company.
“Forgive me, Elizabeth. You came to share a meal, not my tears.”
“Do not be ashamed of tears, Georgiana. They too have been my portion. They are not an evil to be shunned.”
At last, when Georgiana’s tears had ceased, she noted the time. “Elizabeth, you should go now, it is late. My brother will be angry with me if I keep you any longer.”
Elizabeth had enough grace to blush. “He will not be angry. Are you certain you do not need a companion any longer tonight?”
“You have been more than generous with me. Do not worry. I just need some rest; it has been a trying day. Go to William.”
“Georgiana, whatever your choice, you always will be welcome here with us. You need never leave Pemberley; it is as much yours as it has become mine.”
“Thank you, Elizabeth. You are a more than worthy successor to my mother as Mistress of Pemberley. You have proven me wrong in so many ways.” A wry smile touched her lips. “I thought your union with William was a degradation to the Darcy name, now I suspect it was its salvation. You have saved us from our selfishness, Elizabeth. How can I ever repay you?”
“You owe me nothing; the debt will always be mine.”
“We both know that is not true. Leave me now, Sister.” Elizabeth and Georgiana smiled, each understanding that, at last, they truly were… sisters.
The next day, Darcy found Georgiana in the gallery, looking at the portrait of their parents.
“You sent for me?”
“Hhmm. When will you have a likeness of Elizabeth painted?”
“When we are in Town.”
“Good. The present Mistress of Pemberley should have her portrait hung here, amongst her predecessors. You should have a new one done as well.”
“Elizabeth said the same when I showed her these.”
Georgiana laughed softly, “I am not at all surprised. She sees that you are a man now, not the boy you were when this was taken.”
“I promised to sit for a new one if she agreed to a picture of the two of us together. Elizabeth also noticed how much you resemble Mother, and that all three of the Darcy children have her eyes.” Brother and sister stood together in silence, their minds awash in the memories of their parents. “You do not take exception to Elizabeth’s right to have her portrait here?”
Georgiana dropped her head. “William, I spent all of yesterday thinking about what you said. I have done you and your wife a great injustice. Can you forgive me?” Darcy did not answer. “I was wrong, my presumptions and behaviour indefensible. I have been wilfully blind. Anyone can see how content you are. Elizabeth is a fine woman; she possesses in great measure at least one thing that is sorely lacking in me.”
“And what is that?
“Humility, William. Mother had it, too; I just never understood it until now. I have spent my entire life trying to be the woman she was, but something has been lacking. I have felt it most acutely since her passing. Now I know what it was: I allowed pride and conceit to cloud my reasoning. I have shown contempt when I should have shown compassion; I have thought meanly of the world, that the unfortunate souls outside our circle lacked sense and worth compared with my own. Mother understood that it was only an accident of birth, not a birthright, that made her “Lady Anne.” She would be disappointed to see what I have become.”
“You are too hard on yourself. You assumed the responsibility of raising Beth and me at a very young age.”
Georgiana gave a small, mirthless laugh. “And I was so proud of how well I raised you.”
“You did a fine job. Beth is a wonderful girl and will, undoubtedly, grow into a fine woman.”
“Elizabeth will see to that now.”
Darcy was unsure if his sister spoke with jealousy, regret, or surrender. Georgiana felt, rather than saw, his uncertainty. She finally found the courage to look her brother in the eyes.
“Elizabeth is a fine woman and will be a wonderful example for Beth. I no longer fear for our younger sister or her future. William, I am happy that you and Elizabeth found each other, and I wanted you to know that you have my blessing. It is long overdue.”
Darcy embraced his sister, an unusual sign of affection between them. “Thank you, Georgiana. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
In the privacy of the empty gallery, the two siblings stood holding each other, the tears silently spilling down both their cheeks washing away the misunderstandings and animosities, beginning to relegate them to the past.
“You will always be my dearest elder sister.”
“And I will always be proud of you.”
It took the Darcy party two days to reach Netherfield.
“Bingley! Miss Bingley, thank you for your kind hospitality.” Darcy could not help giving Bingley a hearty pat on the back.
“You look remarkably well! Welcome back to Hertfordshire. It is a pleasure to have your family as guests at Netherfield. My housekeeper will show them their rooms, in case Miss Darcy and Miss Beth have forgotten where they stayed last time. You and Mrs. Darcy must be anxious to continue on to Longbourn. But before you go, you must come in and have some refreshments.”
It had been decided that Georgiana would accompany the family party to Hertfordshire after all. She was uneasy about seeing Robert again, but reasoned that their siblings’ marriage would occasionally throw them together in company. Better now to begin to inure herself to his presence. Had she been more honest with herself, she would have admitted that she was anxious to see how he behaved, and whether she might be able to regain his good opinion, if not his regard. She owed him, at the very least, an apology; her penitence was not yet over.
As the travellers made their way inside, Bingley took advantage of the commotion for a private word with Darcy.
“Any news from Wickham?”
“Yes, I have met with him. I will tell you what he had to say when we have some privacy. The situation is more complicated than you can imagine.”
“We have been invited to dine at Longbourn tonight. Perhaps we can discuss this with Bennet and Mr. Bennet after dinner?”
“That was my intention. Fitzwilliam knows all and can add his perspective. Enough of this, it is time for you to play the attentive host – though I suspect you would rather be a guest at Longbourn right now.”
Darcy and Elizabeth did not tarry long at Netherfield; she was anxious to see her family and he was disposed to grant her every wish. Even before the carriage had come to a stop, the Darcys heard Mrs. Bennet’s agitated exclamations.
“I was convinced that you had been beset by robbers!”
“Oh, Mama!” Elizabeth kissed her mother’s cheek. “We stopped first at Netherfield to see Colonel Fitzwilliam, Georgiana, and Beth settled in their rooms.”
“Oh, my Mrs. Darcy, let me look at you! Such fine clothes and so elegant! You must promise to call on our neighbours tomorrow!”
Elizabeth gave her father and Darcy a resigned smile, but to her mother said only, “Of course, Mama.”
At last Elizabeth was allowed to escape the attentions of her mother and greet the other Bennets. She was nearly in tears from the happiness of being with her beloved family again. Once inside the house, she was surprised when her mother pulled her aside for a quiet word.
“I did not wish to discomfort you before you arrived, but seeing you now, I do not believe I should have been concerned.”
“Mother, what are you talking about?”
“Well, your Uncle and Aunt Gardiner and their children will being staying at Longbourn in addition to you and your husband.”
Elizabeth still was at a loss to understand, and her look of confusion hastened her mother on.
“We have only one room to offer, but from the looks of it, I do not think you adverse to the arrangement.”
Comprehension finally came, and Elizabeth blushed.
“Which room, Mother?”
“Your old bedroom.”
“But the bed?”
“There is a new one, big enough… for two to sleep in. It was one of the changes your father allowed me to make after you were wed. He seemed to think you would not mind your room becoming a guest room”
Elizabeth blushed even more. So, her father thought she would return and want to share her bed with her husband. Perhaps that was why he smiled at that long ago day in the library.
“Though we have no alternative, I am sure William will understand the lack of extra rooms.”
Mrs. Bennet smiled.
A large party gathered for dinner that evening, the largest since before the Darcys’ wedding. It did not take Richard long to become a favourite with his pleasant manners. Beth enjoyed the expanded company after two months of the small family party at Pemberley. The only people who did not derive pleasure from the assembly were Caroline, Robert, and Georgiana. Caroline was painfully aware of her scant few days remaining as mistress of Netherfield Park. With no acceptable suitor available, she viewed the evening as an exercise in tedium. The debacle of Robert’s marriage proposal was a painful spectre haunting the two principals. Both laboured to meet as indifferent acquaintances, but the hurtful words each had spoken still echoed in the chasm that remained between them.
After dinner, the gentlemen made their escape to the Library and Mr. Bennet’s port.
“Gentleman, take care not to drink all of my port this evening. It would not do to enjoy it all in one evening when we shall hear of nothing but wedding plans for the entire week.”
The gentlemen laughed at the sardonic remark of their host. Darcy waited until all had sampled their drinks before broaching the unpleasant subject of Wickham.
“We ought to be preparing my friend here for the rigours of marriage, but I must beg your forbearance and introduce a distasteful subject. There is a matter that I must discuss with you, and I wish to be done with it as soon as may be. I hope that I may profit from your collective wisdom.” The gentlemen silently assented. “I have met with Wickham.”
“Already?” Robert exclaimed.
“Yes, he has taken a commission in General _______ Regiment in Newcastle. The General gave Wickham leave to discharge his debt of honour to me at the earliest opportunity.”
“Who is it? What excuse of a gentleman commissioned Wickham?”
“There is no gentleman.”
“No, Robert. When he said he was doing the bidding of another, he spoke the truth.”
Understanding slowly dawned on the three gentlemen from Hertfordshire.
“A woman?” said Bingley incredulously.
“Yes, a woman,” Richard confirmed. “Darcy told me all the particulars of the meeting.”
“But who?” Robert asked.
“Lady Allenby.” The name hung in the air for what seemed like minutes.
“Lady Allenby, the mother of your sister’s fiancé?”
“Yes, the very same. And now you see my predicament. Georgiana’s forthcoming marriage complicates everything.”
“Was Lord Drury involved?” Darcy looked at Robert, and saw his friend’s – his brother’s – agitation.
“No, it was all Lady Allenby’s doing.”
Darcy told, as guardedly as he could, why Wickham had felt compelled to carry out Lady Allenby’s scheme, but did not disclose what he knew of Lord Drury’s proclivities. If they could not stop Georgiana from marrying Drury, such information must be known to as few people as possible.
“But why, Darcy? Why did Lady Allenby have Wickham attack my daughter?” Mr. Bennet saw him hesitate. “Please, Son. Do not feel you need to spare any of us pain. The truth is always, eventually, the least difficult knowledge to bear.”
Darcy looked sadly at Robert before resuming; Elizabeth’s brother would be devastated by what he had to say.
“Lady Allenby has long desired Georgiana as a daughter. When Georgiana broke her first engagement, Lady Allenby made her displeasure known about Town. It was rumoured she never gave up hope that a marriage would take place. Shortly after Wickham came to Hertfordshire, he journeyed back to London. Whilst there he saw Lady Allenby and it was then she learned that Georgiana was… seen to favour Bennet’s attention. Lady Allenby wanted Bennet, or his family, disgraced to assure that Georgiana did not attach herself to him.”
Robert was stunned. “It was because of me?”
“In a manner of speaking. I am sorry, my friend. Lady Allenby saw you as an obstacle to her dreams and desires. Her object has always been my sister.”
“Elizabeth suffered because of me…”
Mr. Bennet went to his son. “Robert, it was not your fault. Do not blame yourself.”
“How can you say that to me, Father? Elizabeth was … was … handled by that barbarian for nothing! Nothing! There was never any chance of an understanding between Miss Darcy and me. My sister was torn from her family, from her home, and nearly ruined — for nothing!” Robert was distraught, nearly wild in his anger and pain. “You expect me to feel no remorse, no shame? What kind of a man, a brother, do you think I am?”
“Robert, stop this! Are your sensibilities so lost to your grief that you cannot see your sister for what she now is? Look at her husband, your friend, and now your brother. Do you not see what the rest of us see? Open your eyes, Son! Elizabeth is not unhappy. It is quite the opposite.”
Robert forced his eyes away from his father and looked at Darcy. He saw the distress on Darcy’s face, but he also saw something else – contentment. Darcy had always been dignified, but now Robert could see a new maturity in his friend, a certain composure and assurance, although sorely tried in the present circumstances. Darcy was different somehow; his marriage had changed him, and for the better.
“Bennet, as much as I wish that Elizabeth had never met Wickham, I will never regret marrying her. Nor does she regret marrying me.”
Darcy held Robert’s gaze whilst the import of the declaration slowly penetrated the other’s mind. Gradually Robert’s face relaxed, and a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“You were always the one to see the positives and potentials, Darcy. It appears that I have failed to understand the realities.”
“But the question remains, Darcy. What will you do with Wickham’s information?” Bingley asked.
“Fitzwilliam and I have discussed this at length, but I do not believe there is anything I can do. How is a person such as Lady Allenby to be touched? What can I do that would not have the potential to bring more harm to my own family? I will not risk causing Elizabeth more pain. On this, I am resolved.”
“There is no need to make any decisions now,” Mr. Bennet said, “but I am concerned for your sister, Darcy.”
“Darcy and I agree,” Richard replied, “but, again, this is a most delicate situation. If Darcy confronts Georgiana with the truth of Lady Allenby’s involvement, it could drive Georgiana away from her family forever. All we have for proof is the word of George Wickham. Georgiana knows her brother is not happy with the match, and she may think that he believes Wickham only because he wishes to stop the wedding. If we confront Lady Allenby, she would most certainly deny everything, and to openly accuse her of taking a lover is unthinkable. The distrust created might force Georgiana to choose sides, and I am in no way convinced that she would choose ours. We must also meet with my father and solicit his advice before deciding upon anything.”
“That is all well and good, Colonel, but I suggest that you make haste to inform his Lordship.”
“Our intention, Mr. Bennet.”
“Thank you for discussing this with us, Darcy. As distasteful as we have found it, the truth is always preferable, as is sharing your burdens with your kin.” After one last long look at Darcy and at his son, Mr. Bennet resolved to change the subject. “Enough of this, a toast! To Darcy and Elizabeth. May you continue to grow in your understanding. And to Bingley and Jane. May you never exceed your income!” The gentleman smiled at the elder man’s wit. “And now it is time to return to the ladies. At least two of us do not mind.”
Darcy and Elizabeth were finally alone.
“This was your room?”
“Yes, and I never imagined sharing it with a man.”
“I am surprised by the size of your bed. A bit larger than one expects for a little country Miss,” Darcy teased.
“The bed is new. One of my mother’s improvements.”
“I shall have to tell her how much I approve, although sharing a smaller bed would not be so very disagreeable. I would just have held you closer to me.”
“Fitzwilliam Darcy, you will say no such thing to Mama. I could not bear the mortification if you did.” Darcy began a trail of kisses down Elizabeth’s neck. “William!”
“We are alone,” he replied, unrepentant.
“Someone may hear.”
“I can be quiet. Can you? Or should we make certain the bed does not squeak. In the event that it does, we shall just be a bit more adventuresome. That chair looks sturdy enough.”
“Do not look so scandalized, though that is a very becoming blush, my love. I know how much you enjoy my attentions, no matter the time or location. There was just last week at Pemberley in the…”
Elizabeth had had enough and silenced Darcy with a passionate kiss.
“I can be quiet.”
“And I will do my utmost to see that you are not. Come here, Mrs. Darcy!”
The difficulty of sharing a room to dress was overcome by Elizabeth’s retreat to Jane’s to prepare for the day, much as she had done before she had married. Jane, showing a rare glimpse of mischief, decided that it was a perfect opportunity to discompose her married sister.
“I was surprised that you did not come to talk with me after we retired for the evening.”
Elizabeth blushed and looked at her sister, wondering why now, of all times, Jane determined to make sport of her.
“I was tired from travelling and wished for a good night’s sleep.”
“Sleep?” Jane enquired, her eyebrow raised in disbelief.
“Sleep, Jane,” Elizabeth said, then completed the sentence silently. ‘After William was finished, that is.’
“Is the new bed as comfortable as your old one? That bed went to Mary.”
“It was comfortable enough.” ‘I was too exhausted to notice. At least it did not squeak.’
“Lizzy, you will tell me… about… what to expect?”
Elizabeth laughed at Jane’s turning the tables on herself. “Of course, but not now. We will talk before your wedding, that is a promise.”
When the family assembled for breakfast the next morning, Elizabeth at last was able to speak to Robert about the invitation to Pemberley.
“Robert, you must come! I am depending on your company. Mary cannot come unless you bring her. With Georgiana marrying, it will be too quiet. Please? Papa has told me your presence at the estate is not required then.”
“Robert, say yes! I want to go to Pemberley!”
By the time he reached Derbyshire, Georgiana would be gone; nevertheless, Robert was still hesitant to agree. He was not certain he could endure the remnants of her presence as he walked amongst the halls and grounds of her childhood home. But to refuse would require that he explain himself, and that he was not ready to do – not yet.
Seeing the earnest enthusiasm on his youngest sister’s face, Robert relented. “If I agree, at least I will have some peace from you, Mary. Very well, we will come.”
“Excellent! We can leave the women and go after my trout.” Darcy added, “I am going to Netherfield this morning. Will you join me, Bennet?”
“What about Elizabeth?”
“Mrs. Darcy will be making calls with me today,” Mrs. Bennet crowed. Elizabeth had resigned herself to this fate before arriving at Longbourn, but was consoled by her pleasure at the chance to renew her acquaintances with the young women in the neighbourhood.
“I have other business to attend to today; perhaps tomorrow. Give my greetings to your sisters and Colonel Fitzwilliam.”
On Sunday, the inhabitants of Longbourn and Netherfield attended church before breakfasting together. It was an uneventful service until Mr. Holloway read the scripture of the day.
“Hear the Word of the Lord. From the book of the Psalms, the First:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away
Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.*
“This is the Word of the Lord, Let us pray…”
Darcy heard little of the country parson’s homily, the morning’s reading overthrowing everything else. Since he had learned of Lady Allenby’s role in Elizabeth’s attack, he had considered numerous scenarios to expose and punish her infamy. But somewhere along the way, the desire for justice was being transformed into an obsession. Only the promise to consult with his family – and concern for Elizabeth — had prevented his taking action. Darcy now saw that he had pursued a solution with a determination not unlike that of Lady Allenby’s. If he continued in this manner, would he be any different than she? His desire to see the woman ruined had overtaken his desire for justice. This must stop. He would seek counsel, wise counsel, and if nothing acceptable could be done, let it rest. Society would eventually exact its own penalty on Lady Allenby, and he would be able to observe it with a clear conscience.
That evening, Darcy met with his father-in-law whilst Elizabeth joined Jane in her room.
“Have you given further consideration to Wickham’s information?” Mr. Bennet asked.
“Yes, I have spent quite a bit of thought on the matter.”
“To what conclusions have you come?”
“The reading in church this morning gave me much to think on.” Mr. Bennet was old enough to know that Darcy was not changing the subject and waited for him to continue. “As I meditated on the words of the Psalm, I came to a realization: if there is an honourable way to confront Lady Allenby, it will come to light in the proper time. For me to single-mindedly seek revenge makes me little different from her – I will not allow myself to become that kind of man.”
“Well said, Darcy. I too have meditated on the situation. Would you care to hear my thoughts?”
“Yes, I value your opinion.”
“The root of the problem with Lady Allenby is not Elizabeth, it is your elder sister. Lady Allenby’s intent was not to destroy my family’s reputation, but to secure Miss Darcy for a daughter-in-law. Thanks to your intervention, my family’s name was spared, but your sister’s hand was won by Lord Drury. As I see it, if Miss Darcy marries Lady Allenby’s son, that is the end of it. Lady Allenby’s plan will have succeeded, and there is nothing you could do to repay the evil she has heaped upon your family. Therefore, the only way to thwart Lady Allenby is to prevent your sister from marrying Lord Drury.”
Darcy had not considered the situation in this light. Of course! Mr. Bennet had the right of it.
“I acknowledge the truth of your words, sir, but how can I stop the wedding?”
“You have not told me everything Wickham told you.” It was not a question.
“No, sir. Some of what he said is not for me to reveal. But I can tell you this: I was more determined to stop Georgiana’s marriage, after I heard Mr. Wickham, than before. Unfortunately, I do not see how I can do so without risking a permanent estrangement.”
“Then you have a dilemma. Is what you know enough to compel your sister to break the engagement?”
“Yes, possibly, but she is convinced she must marry well to restore the family honour after I married so decidedly beneath me – her ideas, not mine, sir. She does not know your worth.”
“I take no offence. If you cannot tell me the nature of Captain Wickham’s revelations, I advise you to judge which is the greater evil: forcing her to break the engagement with all its attendant repercussions, or sentencing her to a lifetime of marital desolation? That is for you to decide, Son. I cannot help you more.”
“Four more days and you shall be Mrs. Bingley!”
“Can you believe it, Lizzy?”
“I had a suspicion that it might come to this the first time Mr. Bingley came to Longbourn. Whilst it was not unusual for a man to admire you, it was unusual for you to take pleasure from such attentions.”
“He is the most amiable of men. It is good to see you as happy with your Mr. Darcy.”
“Fate has smiled upon us both. Are you ready for your move to Netherfield?”
“Most of my possessions are ready to be taken there. The few things remaining will be packed away on Wednesday. Oh Lizzy, to think that both of us will be gone from Longbourn and Mary will be the only Miss Bennet. Sometimes it is too much.”
“At least you did not disappoint Mama as I did when I wed. I suspect that your wedding will be an occurrence the likes of which little Meryton has never before seen, and that there is not a single detail that has not been reviewed five times already.”
Jane laughed. “Mama has been most attentive.”
Elizabeth laughed along with her sister before growing serious. “What of Robert? He appears in no better spirits then when we saw him before Christmas, in Town.”
“You are perceptive as always. He has not been himself since the ball at Netherfield.”
“He came with me to Netherfield that next day and walked with Miss Darcy. I wish I knew what transpired between them. I can only speculate that words unpleasant to both must have been spoken. Georgiana never speaks of Robert.”
“Charles has encouraged Robert to confide in him, but to no avail. I agree, something must have happened. Lizzy, do you… do you think Robert offered for Miss Darcy and she refused him?”
“I suspect that is exactly what transpired.”
“Tell me, Jane, has Father spoken to you about your marriage settlements?”
“I expect you were as astonished as I was.”
“More so, I imagine. You have not told anyone, either?”
“No, Papa has not given me leave to do so.”
“If Miss Darcy knew, do you think it would change her opinion?”
“That is not an easy question for me to answer. I would be disappointed to learn that Georgiana would marry Robert if she knew of his wealth, but not if she believed him without fortune. On the other hand, connections and social position seem as important to her, if not more so, than affluence.”
“But her own brother is Robert’s brother-in-law!”
“I did not say that I agree with her reasoning. She has been instilled with certain ideas of duty, rank, and class that are not the same as ours. Such lifelong beliefs are not easily discarded. For that alone, I thank Papa for withholding from us the true value of our dowries. I have seen enough examples of inflated self-worth to last me forever!” Elizabeth paused as the clock chimed. “It is time for me to say goodnight. William should be finished with Papa by now.”
“Don’t forget your promise… ”
“Patience, Jane. I have not forgotten. We have a few more nights and I want you to sleep well, with very proper dreams.”
Elizabeth heard a pillow hit the door as it closed.
The Gardiners arrived on Monday afternoon. The presence of four young children did much to enliven the already chaotic Longbourn household. Every bed was taken, and little silence was to be found before the last candle was extinguished for the night.
Bingley’s family arrived as well, and the last few days before the wedding on Thursday saw an unprecedented number of comings and goings between Longbourn and Netherfield. Robert and Georgiana did their best to avoid each other and were, for the most part, successful. On those occasions when they were thrown into company together, each strove to meet the other with civility and brevity of address. Robert’s love for Georgiana had not abated, and although he hid it well, the torture of each moment in her presence was exquisite. Georgiana tried to mask the regret and longing in her eyes, but was not entirely successful; Robert saw it and knew what it meant. Despite the stinging censure that was her refusal of him, she loved him, of that he was certain; but he also knew that honour forbade him from pleading with her to forsake Lord Drury. She had refused him, she was pledged to another, and there was nothing left to do.
Georgiana was disgusted with her hostess. Caroline Bingley was everything she detested: haughty, vain, proud – so unbecoming in a woman, much less one who lacked good breeding. Her latest attempt to ingratiate herself into Georgiana’s good graces drove the older woman into the library, where her cousin was reviewing his correspondence.
“If that woman calls me ‘my dear Georgiana’ one more time, I will scream!”
“The rewards of being Miss Darcy.”
“It is not funny, Richard. The woman exasperates me. To think that because my brother is her brother’s friend that I wish to be an intimate acquaintance is absurd!”
“Do not forget, soon to be brothers.”
“You are not helping.”
“My dear cousin, why do you take her so seriously? After the wedding, it is unlikely that you will meet more than rarely, if at all.”
“She has an over-inflated opinion of herself and her station in life.”
“Ha!” The word escaped before the Colonel could stop himself.
“Ha? What do you mean by that?”
Richard picked up his paper and started to walk out of the room. “A rather ironic statement coming from you.”
Georgiana stared dumbfounded at the closed door.
The wedding of Charles Bingley and Jane Bennet was the event of the winter. Mrs. Bennet was in her glory, little Longbourn Church was filled to overflowing, and the wedding breakfast was held at Netherfield because of the large number of guests. Elizabeth and Darcy stood next to the couple as they said their vows and sat next to the newlyweds as they enjoyed their wedding breakfast. The Darcys’ trunks were packed and two carriages where made ready to remove the entire party to Darcy House. Elizabeth and Darcy said their farewells to the Bingleys after the last of the guests departed.
“I cannot thank you enough for coming this week, Lizzy. I was gratified to have you with me during my last days at Longbourn.”
“Thank William, it was he who consented to the scheme.”
“I did. And I thank you for your reassuring words last night. Between you and Mama and Aunt Gardiner, I believe I am as ready as I can be.” The blush in Jane’s cheeks could not disguise the hint of anticipation in her eyes.
Elizabeth threw her arms around her older sister. “We will talk more when you come to town, Mrs. Bingley. Remember, Charles loves you,” then she added with a wink, “and Caroline will be with her relatives.”
“Oh, Elizabeth, I have missed you so, and now you are going away again. Until London, Mrs. Darcy.”
“We expect to be your first dinner guests. Until London, Mrs. Bingley.”
Darcy extended his hand to help Georgiana out of the carriage. The past several hours were a blur to her – they had left Netherfield after the Bingleys’ wedding breakfast and had just arrived at Darcy House in London. She recalled little of the conversation and none of the passing scenery. Her companions had quickly discovered her inability to concentrate on discussion and, mercifully, allowed her to sit in silence.
In truth, Georgiana could not decide which was more distressing: being near Robert at Netherfield and Longbourn or facing Henry in London. At least in Hertfordshire, Robert did not seek her out; in Town, Henry would.
Since leaving Pemberley, Georgiana had anticipated that the distractions of London would soothe any nerves frayed during her time in Hertfordshire. She realized too late that she had been deceiving herself; her time in Town would be infinitely more taxing. Lord Drury would be sure to call the next day, and soon the first of the society galas would be upon her. The following week, Lord and Lady Matlock were holding a ball in honour of Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage. It would be Elizabeth’s formal introduction into society. Georgiana had quickly put a stop to any talk of also celebrating her betrothal. The night was for the married couple, not the engaged one.
The family retired early, claiming fatigue from the rigours of the day. Darcy was in his room preparing for bed when there was a knock at the hall door. His man answered and brought Darcy a note. Immediately recognising the flowing hand of his wife, Darcy excused Morton for the evening. By this time the valet had grown accustomed to his master’s new behaviours. Morton recognised the signs of a husband violently in love with his wife.
The pressed paper was one Darcy had personally selected for Elizabeth. It reminded him of her: delicate, refined, full of potential. He broke the seal, an intertwined ED stamped in wax.
To the Master of Pemberley,
The Mistress of Darcy House demands your presence in her chambers. Toute de suite, mon bien-aimé.
Darcy laughed at his wife’s cheekiness and passed through the door connecting the two rooms. Memories flooded his mind when he saw her at her dressing table, in the same gown she had worn on the first night she asked him to come to her. Elizabeth, who had been brushing her hair, stopped and smiled to him in the mirror. When Darcy regained his senses, he was standing behind her, silently asking for the brush; it was the one he had given her. He closed his eyes as he began to rhythmically brush her tresses, reliving the first time he had done so. When Elizabeth stopped his hand and said, “That is enough for tonight,” his heart swelled.
“Is this what you wish to do each time we move between Pemberley and Town?” he said with a laugh.
“Perhaps.” Elizabeth smiled back at him, but then grew more serious. “But at this moment I am thinking only of the present.”
He began a trail of kisses down her neck, and soon she was no longer seated, but confidently ensconced in his embrace, returning his increasingly passionate kisses. Darcy deftly picked her up and began to carry her towards his room.
“No, William. I want to remain here.”
“But you have been in my bed since we went to Pemberley,” he said with a hint of petulance.
“You are master there, I am mistress here.”
“You are mistress at Pemberley as well.”
“Please, William. I want to stay here.” Darcy looked at her with a touch of consternation. “I do not ask much from you.”
Darcy relented and set Elizabeth down on her bed. She immediately pulled him to her, smiled, and said no more.
It was in one of those precious moments that lovers spend embraced, after the pleasures of their committed love, that Elizabeth chose to speak again.
“William, I know you wished to take me to your bed tonight, and that you were bemused when I preferred that we stay in my chambers.”
“Will you now tell me why? I admit I was surprised.”
“So much has happened between us since that first time we were together as husband and wife. You have become my life. My one regret has been that I was able to give you my body before I was able to give you my heart. To me, this bed was a symbol of my late-blooming affection. Before this night, there was but one omission from these rooms: the mark of our love. Now it is here, as it will be for the rest of our lives.”
Darcy’s eyes glistened with tears as he listened to his beloved’s words, and he was nearly overcome with emotion.
“Tomorrow we can go to your bed. I have yet to lie in it.”
Now Elizabeth was puzzled, “Whyever not?”
“Do you trust me?”
“Then allow me to choose the time. I will know when it is right.”
“As you wish.”
“For now, I desire to lie with my beautiful wife in no other place than here. We have many memories to make before those from our previous stay in London are outnumbered.”
Lord Drury did indeed call at Darcy House the following morning, along with Lady Allenby. Darcy and Richard had gone to Afton House to confer with Lord Matlock; the ladies were in the drawing room when the visitors were announced. Georgiana saw Elizabeth tense, which puzzled her, but she had no time to consider it before her fiancé and his mother entered the room, claiming her complete attention. By the time Georgiana introduced Elizabeth, she could no longer detect any discomfort in her new sister’s comportment.
Lady Allenby, on the other hand, had noticed. Mrs. Darcy was all that was polite and courteous, but Lady Allenby, a veteran of too many drawing rooms, could not fail to notice the subtle difference in Mrs. Darcy’s manner towards her new sisters, and even the governess, compared to her distinctly reserved air towards the lady and her son.
Viscount Drury’s behaviour towards his fiancée was all that was polite and proper, and he played the part of a devoted suitor to perfection; but now Georgiana could see it for what it was — an act. She had seen the way her brother treated his bride; she remember how Robert would look at her. There was no passion in Henry’s demeanour, nor even particular affection, only cold civility.
‘You need not to do this,’ a voice whispered in the deepest recesses of her heart. Georgiana heard, but still she had not the courage to act.
“Shall I escort you to the ball?” the words jarred Georgiana back to her guests.
“No, Henry, I will come with my family.”
“Remember to reserve the first dance for me.”
At the end of the visit, Drury kissed her hand. “I will call again soon,” he said, then turned to help his mother into the carriage. Lady Allenby called out to Georgiana: “You must come see me at Haynsworth. We have much to discuss about your apartments.”
“I shall send word when I am able to visit.”
“You are a welcome addition to the family, my dear. I look forward to your call.”
Neither Lady Allenby nor Viscount Drury said much on the way home. They had spoken little since she had discovered her son with Wickham. As repulsed as she was by her son’s proclivities, she was even more humiliated by the knowledge that they had shared the same lover. Still, Henry was her son, no matter where his tastes lay. She had harboured the hope that marriage might change his habits, that he would come to prefer his wife’s bed. Seeing the decided lack of affection between him and his intended was a serious setback.
But most worrisome was the meeting with Mrs. Darcy. For some inexplicable reason, Lady Allenby had the odd sensation that Mrs. Darcy knew. But that was impossible! Wickham would not have revealed… would he? It was possible. Wickham was in the North; he had specifically joined a regiment nearer his home country… Derbyshire… Pemberley! Could Wickham have confided in Darcy? If Mrs. Darcy knew, she could only have been told by her husband, Georgiana’s brother. How much did she, or her husband, know? Surely Wickham would not have admitted to … Henry? Suddenly, all of her plans and schemes seemed once again balanced on knife’s edge. If Georgiana discovered…
“Henry, did you notice any change in Georgiana’s address towards you?”
“No,” Drury answered, managing to convey both boredom and irritation. “Why should she? She is quite aware that this is a marriage of convenience. Sentimentality is for fools.”
“Something is amiss, I can sense it. You must be vigilant if you want a suitable marriage, and her £30,000.”
Drury hissed in annoyance. “Mother, you have been reading too many novels. Georgiana has no thought other than her duty to her family. She will not break the engagement again; the scandal would be too great. The Darcy name means too much to her.”
“Nevertheless, until you meet her at the altar, you must not assume that she is won.”
At Afton House, Darcy and Richard informed the Earl of all that Wickham had revealed.
“And Georgiana knows nothing of this?”
“That is correct, sir. She does not even know that Wickham was in Lambton. Elizabeth knows that I met with him, but I did not tell her about Drury.”
“A wise decision. I can imagine the news about Lady Allenby was unsettling enough.”
“Indeed it was. The greater concern now is stopping the marriage. You know as well as I that if we were to tell Georgiana that her fiancé… prefers men… she will react badly. I am not certain that she would believe us. I fear that she would see this as just another attempt to change her mind.”
“Yes, it is quite a predicament. For now I counsel this: Wait. I will make some discreet enquiries. I never trusted Drury, but I confess that nothing of this nature has been rumoured about him. I hope that I learn something useful. But William, even if I turn up nothing, you must tell Georgiana before she marries the man.”
“I know, Uncle. Mr. Bennet gave me the same advice. He does not know the specifics, but he is aware that I have information about Drury that is damning. He reminded me of the duty I owe my sister, no matter what the cost is to our relationship. If I truly love her, I must tell her and I must make her believe me. I cannot allow her to proceed with this marriage, no matter the risk of permanent estrangement.”
“Bennet was always an astute man. He is correct. The price of love is sometimes very high. If it were not, it would not be love.”
“Father, why not speak to Drury directly? After you have made your enquiries, confront him with what we know. You have dealt with him in the past. Perhaps you can make him see that this marriage is impossible and he will be more inclined to ask Georgiana to release him.”
“That was a thought I had when we started today. Perhaps when Darcy talks to Georgiana, I can speak with Drury. But I warn you not to assume that I will be successful. It would be just like Drury to call my bluff. He knows that I can do nothing if Georgiana will not break the engagement.”
“Still, it seems as good as plan as any, Uncle.”
“I wish I could just refuse to give my blessing as head of the family, but to do so would only cause another, potentially more damaging, scandal. The engagement has been announced. I cannot withdraw approval now without explanation, and what could I reasonably say? You can imagine the sort of gossip and speculation. Georgiana would be ruined if she does not marry the man, and left with little chance of reconciling with her family if she does.”
“Yes, hence the dilemma. We have some few weeks before the wedding; let us use it wisely.”
The time spent preparing for the ball at Afton House was frenzied with activity. Elizabeth’s last time in Town prepared her somewhat for the numerous trips to the shops for fittings and such, but she was still fatigued by the effort.
Georgiana spent one afternoon at her future home with Lady Allenby, but the rest of her time had been consumed with the ball as well.
At last came the night of the ball. Darcy and Richard patiently awaited the ladies downstairs. Georgiana was the first to appear, resplendent in a wine-coloured gown, a ribbon of matching hue woven whimsically through her golden tresses. Darcy wondered if he had ever seen her more beautiful than she was tonight.
“From the looks on your faces, I take it that you approve?”
“You look magnificent.”
“Agreed, Cousin!” Richard seconded. “I shall be the envy of every man in the room. Until your fiancé comes to claim you, that is.”
Darcy was about to say something more when he heard a door close. He looked up; there stood Elizabeth, regal in a dark green gown. Darcy’s mouth went dry; entranced and enchanted beyond all reason, he held out his hand to her. A look of love and adoration burst forth in a smile as she made her way majestically down the stairs. Darcy handed her down the remaining steps, brought her hand to his lips and then tucked it possessively around his arm.
“You, my dear, are too lovely for words,” he said proudly.
“If you were not correct, I would be very put out, Brother,” Georgiana teased. “You had barely finished praising my beauty before your goddess appeared.”
“If you are finished, the carriage awaits,” Richard interrupted the banter. The gentleman helped the ladies with their wraps and escorted them to the carriage.
“Thank you for wearing the pearls,” Darcy said.
“I have it on good authority that you specifically chose this necklace when you discovered the details of my gown.”
“My aunt went out of her way to see that I knew the exact colour of your gown, explained what jewellery would look best with it, and even went as far as to instruct me on where such an item could be obtained. Did she not think I could do so on my own?”
“Let us think that she would prefer not leave anything to chance, or to a man’s taste.”
“I specifically picked one she did not suggest.”
“She will be sorely disappointed.”
Darcy again looked appreciatively at Elizabeth. “I think not.”
Drury was quick to find Georgiana when he arrived. “Thank you, Colonel, for escorting my fiancée this evening.”
“I felt it my duty to assure her safe arrival at the proper house.” Richard winked at Georgiana before relinquishing her to Drury. “Cousin, I look forward to our set together. Drury. If you will excuse me, her ladyship is summoning me. She must have found another single woman of good fortune in want of a husband.”
“Georgiana,” Drury began after Richard left. “You look enchanting this evening. I shall be the envy every man here tonight.”
“William may disagree…” Georgiana stopped in shock as a familiar figure strode towards her.
Drury noticed Georgiana’s agitation.
“If your card is not yet full, I wish to engage you for a set.”
“It is not full, sir.”
“The fourth, then?”
“Yes. Oh, please forgive my manners. Mr. Bennet, this is my fiancé, Viscount Drury. Henry, Mr. Bennet is Mrs. Darcy’s brother.”
Robert forced his gaze away from Georgiana and gave his attention to Drury.
“How do you do, sir?”
“You know Miss Darcy from her time in Hertfordshire, I presume?”
Robert’s eyes were involuntarily pulled back once again to stare at Georgiana. “Yes, and I offer you my congratulations. You are marrying a fine woman, Lord Drury.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bennet.”
“If you will excuse me, my party awaits.”
When Robert was safely out of hearing, Drury said, in a particularly petulant manner, “Was it necessary that you agree to dance with him?”
“You know that it was. This ball is in honour of William and Elizabeth. I could not very well insult her brother!” Georgiana was of two minds – quarrel or conciliation. An argument could create a scene, and she did not wish to embarrass her family. However…
Drury grasped her arm. “You will not dance more than one set with him.”
“I shall dance with whomever I choose, as often as I choose. I resent your assumption that you may decide with whom I may associate – or dance. If you believe that I will submit to such highhandedness, you are quite mistaken.” Georgiana was agitated again, this time in anger.
“I expect you to associate with your equals. You will soon be an Andrews, a viscountess, and the future Countess of Allenby; I expect you to behave accordingly.”
Georgiana pulled her arm from his grip, drew back her head, and replied with an affronted air, “I was born a Darcy. I know my obligations and my duty.”
Drury snorted in derision. “It is for the Darcy name that you embrace the name of Andrews,” he said with a patronizing smirk.
“Never dare question the honour of my family or my name. I am warning you…” Georgiana was interrupted from unleashing her tirade by the opening strains of the music for the first dance. “We will continue this discussion later. The set is forming and we must take our place.”
The dance began; neither was inclined to speak, each seething in anger. Georgiana was more and more convinced that she was making a monumental mistake. Drury’s presumptive behaviour had only further reinforced her doubts. She could not believe his arrogance! She fleetingly thought that he might be jealous of Robert; but no, jealousy implied affection and there was more fury than fondness in Drury.
Drury was, indeed, angered by Georgiana’s obvious regard for Robert Bennet. He had observed that she had not met the man with composure, and it was obvious to Drury that Bennet was a threat. No one, much less this country nobody, would stand between him and his revenge on Georgiana for humiliating him six years ago. The very thought was enough to throw him into a rage.
Georgiana could see the fury in Drury’s eyes and was content to be silent, until it occurred to her that to force him to speak would vex him further. He had insulted her; let him suffer for it!
“Do not my brother and his wife look well together?” Drury said nothing. “Come now, Lord Drury. It is your turn to say something now.”
“Do you talk by rule when dancing? Or do you do so now only to provoke me?”
Georgiana gave him a smile, but a patently false one; he knew it was not genuine.
“It would be odd for us to be entirely silent for a half hour together,” Georgiana continued. “What might people think of an engaged couple not speaking to each other? But now we may be silent.”
Drury knew she was mocking him and the words he spoke about his expectations for her behaviour. He was determined not to allow her to have the upper hand. Georgiana saw that he was becoming less unsettled and resolved to give him little quarter.
“I was taught that a true gentleman does not refuse to form a new acquaintance when his lady makes the introductions.” The effect was immediate; the fury returned to his eyes.
“You take an eager interest in that person.”
“Anyone who knows him cannot help but hold him in the highest esteem!”
“With his few connections and lack of wealth, he will not be accepted amongst our circle.”
“He is my brother-in-law, and my uncle is an Earl. His oldest sister is married to Charles Bingley, one of the most esteemed businessmen in Town! These are not connections to be dismissed.” The irony of her defence of Robert was not lost upon her.
“Connected with the son of a tradesman? Yes, a truly valuable connection!”
“Perhaps, then, it is for the best that you do not seek to further your acquaintance. To lose such condescension will be his gain. At least he will not suffer from your friendship for the rest of his life.” ‘As I shall, if I marry you!’
“You are one to talk about prejudice. We both know why you agreed to marry me.”
It was Georgiana’s turn to be silent, but Drury was not about to let her remain so. She had initiated this.
“What, my dear Georgiana? Have you nothing to say to me now?”
“Only this: I have been contemplating your behaviour tonight in an attempt to make out your true character.”
“And what is your success?” he asked warily.
“I do not get on at all. You puzzle me exceedingly. You wish to marry me, but you deliberately provoke me. What kind of a man are you, Lord Drury?”
“I am what I am,” Drury said, then added, “Perhaps it is best that you do not pass judgement at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance this evening would reflect no credit on either of us.”
“But if I do not discover who you truly are now, before we marry, I may come to regret it for the rest of my life.” She spoke with perfect seriousness, something that totally escaped Drury.
Drury said nothing; Georgiana was at a loss. She knew that she had deliberately provoked him, but not even she could say why she had done so. Was it because she was disconcerted by Robert’s presence? Or was she indeed attempting, albeit rather late, to take the true measure of her fiancé’s character? Perhaps she was, simply, a coward, hoping to incite Drury to react badly, forcing her to do what she had not the courage to do: break the engagement. Whatever the reason, she knew had behaved badly; Georgiana was a little ashamed of herself.
The music finally was over and Drury escorted Georgiana to her family party. “You will have more pleasure here than in my company at this time.” He bowed, then left the ballroom.
Lady Allenby watched her son leave the room. She left her husband’s side to intercept Drury.
“For God’s sake Henry, what are you doing arguing with Georgiana?”
“You worry too much, Mother. She was intent on provoking me and I was in no mood to be conciliatory. She knows what she is doing: practicing.”
“Fool! Do you know who is here? This is not the evening to be trying to your fiancée.”
“You mean Robert Bennet, I suppose. Yes, we were introduced. By Georgiana as a matter of fact.”
“I see. I presume he was the reason for your infantile behaviour?”
Drury sneered in derision. “He is no real threat. Georgiana will marry me; no insignificant country squire can stop it. My future wife is as proud as you are, Mother. She knows my value as a marriage partner — and his. Now leave me alone, I have more pressing matters to attend to than the misgivings of a woman!”
“Mark my words, if you are not careful, you will ruin all our plans.”
“Our plans? You astonish me, madam. You never recovered from the loss of George Darcy, did you? Or was it the loss of Pemberley? Thirty years is not enough? I suppose that was the one thing in life you wanted but could not have. Pathetic. But I grant you, George Darcy was a handsome man, and I would not have minded him in my bed, either.”
Drury stalked off, once again leaving his appalled mother behind.
Whilst Georgiana had gone to greet her fiancé upon arriving at the ball, Darcy and Elizabeth had gone to greet their hosts. Lord and Lady Matlock received them with a pleasure evident to all, and duly noted by curious members of the ton.
“William, Elizabeth, welcome.” Lady Matlock said as she gave Elizabeth an affectionate kiss on the cheek before continuing. “You look stunning this evening, my dear.”
“I daresay my nephew will have a difficult time relinquishing you to other gentlemen for the dancing,” the Earl added.
Elizabeth laughed. “I believe you are correct, my lord. He can be very possessive.”
“No doubt. And I am now your uncle, too, Elizabeth. Enough of this formality.”
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet appeared beside the Earl.
“Lizzy! You look exceedingly beautiful this evening. Darcy, my daughter has never looked happier.” Mr. Bennet beamed.
“Thank you, sir. Elizabeth had been looking forward to seeing her family again so soon.” Darcy turned to Mary. “I am especially happy to see you here tonight, Mary. This is your first London ball, I believe.”
“Yes, Papa relented and allowed me to attend.”
Mrs. Bennet interrupted, “It would not do for Mary to have remained in Hertfordshire. She must be here to honour your marriage!”
“Sir, it appears you had little choice in the matter.”
“No, Son, I did not. But one ball will make little difference. We shall return to the quiet of Longbourn, and in a few more years, Mary will make her triumphant return.”
“Mary, you must reserve a dance for me.”
“Of course, William. At least I will have one partner this evening.”
“Mary,” Elizabeth leaned in to speak more privately, “you are beautiful. Believe me, you will not lack for partners tonight. Enjoy yourself.”
Mary gratefully squeezed her sister’s hand. “I shall try.”
Jane and Bingley joined the growing group.
“Mrs. Bingley!” Elizabeth cried. She looked closely at her sister; Jane radiated happiness and contentment.
“Mrs. Darcy, it is good to see you.” Although Jane blushed a little under Elizabeth’s steady gaze, the sisters shared a private moment of joy and complete understanding.
Elizabeth turned and asked to of no one in particular, “The only person missing is Robert. Have you seen him?”
Lord Matlock answered. “I believe I see him talking to my niece. Ah, here he comes.”
All eyes turned to Robert, many faces reflecting surprise to learn with whom he had been speaking.
“Robert,” Elizabeth greeted her brother, “you must promise to dance with all your sisters tonight.”
“After my two oldest have danced with their husbands, I am at leisure.”
Lady Matlock laughed. “A prudent answer, Mr. Bennet. Will you also be dancing with my niece? I suspect that you have just asked her.”
“Yes, my lady. She has agreed to stand up with me after she fulfils her other obligations.”
“Good! She rarely dances with those outside her family party. But I suppose that now you are part of her family party as well.”
“Yes, I suppose I am.” And he fervently still dreamed that he would be so much more.
When the music signalled the first dance, Lord Matlock motioned to Darcy to lead the set. With no little pride, he stood opposite Elizabeth.
“Mrs. Darcy, I am the envy of every man here tonight!”
“Mr. Darcy, I am the most fortunate woman in the room. Who could resist such a partner, sir?”
Darcy smiled in satisfaction as they made their way up the set. “You dance like an angel.”
“How could I do less when my partner is such an accomplished dancer? I remember our last ball, at Netherfield. Your skill impressed me then.”
“It seems so long ago.”
“And so much has happened since.”
“Do you regret it?”
“The end result, no. I only wish…”
“As do I Elizabeth. That is the only thing I would change, to spare you the pain and mortification. But I would marry you again in an instant.”
“And I would do the same, although I know you married me for my money.”
Darcy laughed. “Every shilling, madam!”
“Aha! You finally admit it!”
“Certainly. Your rumoured dowry was more than a temptation for me.”
“Yes. What more could a man wish for than a wife who would bring £100 per year? More than enough pin money I would say.”
“Enough, William!” Elizabeth laughed. “Jane looks so happy.”
“Mrs. Bingley appears well pleased with her partner.”
“Mr. Bingley looks besotted with his. It is fortunate that they dance with each other.” Elizabeth’s gaze was caught by another couple. “But Georgiana and Lord Drury do not seem to be enjoying their dance.”
“Ah yes, perhaps they are quarrelling. Let them be. Georgiana needs to understand what she is marrying into.”
Elizabeth longed to tell him that Georgiana had doubts about her forthcoming marriage, but she could not; Georgiana had not given her leave to do so. She could only hint.
“Even if she will be unhappy?”
“Even better if she realizes it before the wedding. We both know it will be better if she comes to understand that on her own.”
“When will you tell her about…”
“I still do not know, but it must be done soon. I cannot, in good conscience, withhold such a thing from her and allow her to marry without knowing.”
“You are the best man I know.”
The evening progressed, and the dancing continued. Elizabeth and Jane made a splendid impression on those they met, and more than one single gentleman wondered if there where any more such jewels hidden in Hertfordshire. The person who benefited the most was the last remaining Miss Bennet. Mary found herself the unexpected recipient of many requests for dances; the end result was the heady delight of an evening spent most agreeably engaged. Her father, meanwhile, wondered what he had gotten himself into by consenting to bring her to London for the ball. More than one interested young man was excessively pleased to learn that he might call on Miss Bennet at Afton House for the remainder of the Bennets’ stay in Town. Mr. Bennet groaned; Mrs. Bennet was delighted. Two daughters most advantageously married could very well lead to a third. Only one thing more was needed to make her joy complete: a wife and heir for her son. Unbeknownst to her, Robert was intent on discovering if there yet was any hope that he could secure Georgiana for such a position before it was too late. He knew that if he did not act, somehow, in some way, he would regret it for the rest of his life. He believed that she loved him, and he knew that he still loved her; he now also knew that he could not just walk away in defeat.
When Robert learned of the ball a few weeks previously, he had, at first, rebelled against the idea of attending. Love for Elizabeth, and the respect due her marriage, eventually outweighed his despair over Georgiana, and he became resigned to attending. After seeing Miss Darcy in Hertfordshire, and experiencing their shared longing when they were thrown together in company, Robert resolved to make the most of this last chance. He would meet her, in her own family’s home, and he would remind her what she had forsaken. Robert was too honourable to directly ask her to choose him over Drury, but he could look at her, hold her hand, and will her to know that he still loved her.
Robert watched the first set with grim determination. The contrast in the couples was astounding. The delight that Elizabeth and Jane took in their partners was as evident as could be. Even Lord and Lady Matlock smiled and laughed as they moved through the patterns. Georgiana and Lord Drury were strikingly dissimilar. It was obvious that they were quarrelling and that Georgiana was unhappy. The gentleman’s feelings were more difficult to discern, but Robert thought he detected nothing but annoyance.
When Drury led Georgiana towards the family party, Robert saw how she fought to regain her composure. By the time Drury strode away, it was all Robert could do not to lead her straight out for the next dance. He finally tore his gaze away from Georgiana only to espy Drury and Lady Allenby engaged in an apparently heated discussion. He watched in fascination as Drury evidently said something to his mother that mortified her before leaving her in obvious discomfort. Robert could not but glory in the woman’s suffering – the woman responsible for the most awful day of his life. But this momentary elation soon was tempered by the glimpse into the family that his beloved was about to enter. To have Georgiana marry another was hurtful enough; to have her marry a man whose family was so malevolent was heartbreaking.
Robert waited to collect Georgiana for their set. She obviously had not known that he would attend the ball, and he had shamelessly used this to his advantage to gain her consent to dance with him. Each succeeding set allowed Georgiana more time to recover from the shock of seeing him there, and she was able to meet Robert with something resembling an air of tranquillity.
The music began, as did their dance.
“Miss Darcy, you look magnificent this evening, easily the most beautiful woman in all London.”
“Mr. Bennet, whilst I thank you for your compliments, you exaggerate. What would your sisters say?”
“That I speak the truth.”
“My brother may disagree, as well as Mr Bingley.”
“Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Bingley do not count. They are my sisters, as I have said before.”
“Nevertheless… well, I thank you.”
“How are your wedding plans proceeding?” It was time to begin the dance within the dance.
“Smoothly for the most part. Lady Allenby is determined to be of service.”
“She has long desired you for a daughter.”
“Yes, I suppose so. Did you know that she and my father were thought to marry at one time?”
“I have heard as much.”
A shadow passed over Robert’s face and Georgiana wondered at it. But as quickly as it appeared, it was gone again.
“Tell me, have you made plans where you shall live after your marriage?”
“Henry desires to return to the family estate. Allenby is just to the east of Derbyshire. We will be only about forty-five miles from Pemberley.”
“What is forty-five miles of good road? You will be able to visit frequently if you so choose. It is certainly much closer than Hertfordshire.” Georgiana looked sharply to Robert. “You will be much closer to you childhood home than my sister.” He continued smoothly with a slight smile on his face.
“Yes, but I doubt we will be much at Pemberley.”
“Will you not miss your brother and sister? Has not your new sister gained your approval? Elizabeth and Darcy look very pleased with each other. It makes one wish to have a marriage like they obviously have.” Robert paused for effect. “Do you not agree?”
Georgiana was reluctant to answer. “Despite everything, they have made a love match after all.”
“Both of my sisters have. I only wish the same,” Robert made sure he looked Georgiana in the eye, “for Mary.” Only they both knew it was not Mary to whom he was referring.
“Mr. Bennet, I owe you an apology for my harsh words last fall …” Robert interrupted her.
“There is no need, Miss Darcy. My respect and opinions are unchanged. I could never hold your words against you. That… incident is in the past, and there is nothing we can do to change the past. We can only hope for more civility in the present and in the future.”
They continued the remainder of the dance in silence. Robert was pleased with the exchange, Georgiana was in turmoil. At last the music concluded and Robert led Georgiana to be claimed by her next partner. Before he released her gloved hand, he brought it to his lips for a kiss. They both felt the heat despite the fabric between them.
“I desire only your happiness… ” He did not have to finish the sentence. They both knew what was left unsaid.