By the time the ball had ended, Elizabeth was nearly asleep on her feet, with only the euphoria of the evening keeping her awake. She and Darcy said their goodbyes, with promises to call soon, and managed to make their way to the carriage for the short journey to Darcy House. Elizabeth was fast asleep before they had travelled more than a block. When they arrived, all efforts to coax her from her slumber failed and Darcy willingly carried his bride to her chambers. A quick visit to his dressing room to be divested of his formal attire was followed by an even quicker journey to join his wife. Soon he too was asleep, Elizabeth snugly in his arms.
When Darcy awoke, Elizabeth still comfortably in his embrace, it was nearing noon. Darcy enjoyed listening to the deep rhythmic breathing of his wife. She was so beautiful, so peaceful when she slept. He could watch her for hours.
As if she could feel his eyes upon her, Elizabeth opened hers.
“Good morning, William.”
“Hello, but it is no longer morning. The clock struck noon a few minutes ago.”
“I should be embarrassed to be caught still abed, but I cannot find it in me.”
“We did not return to Darcy House until the early hours of the morning. I am not at all surprised that we slept until now.”
“I remember making our goodbyes, but little else.”
“That is because you were asleep before the carriage rounded the corner. Did you enjoy yourself?”
“It was a magical evening, especially when I was by your side.”
“I was restless unless I was by yours.”
“Yet you still managed to dance with other ladies.”
“Only because you were dancing with other men. Very inconsiderate of them to keep asking my wife to dance! Did they not know that the ball was in honour of our marriage?”
“Silly man, that is why they asked! I did save the best dances for you.”
“You would have had a sulking husband if you had not. But I am glad you enjoyed your evening. The only impediment was being in company with Lord and Lady Allenby.”
“As much as I do not desire to dine with them, we must, for Georgiana’s sake.”
“Nevertheless, the prospect of an evening so spent brings me little anticipation of pleasure.”
“I can think of other ways to excite pleasure.”
After a few minutes exploring the possibilities, Darcy murmured, “I heartily concur. Much more pleasurable.”
The HMS Chevening had left port an hour before, bound for the Continent. A cold wind had driven inside the troops and crew not standing watch.
All except one.
Captain George Wickham watched as his homeland receded inexorably into the distance. He could just make out the shoreline now, yet he could not bring himself to look away. For some reason, he believed that he would never again set foot on English soil; the thought was strangely comforting.
Melancholy had settled on him since that cursed, fateful day last November. Try as he might, he could not shake the feeling. As he rode to Newcastle after his meeting with Darcy in Lambton, Wickham finally realized why he had felt so much unease: If he had died that day, no one would mourn his passing.
Everyone who had cared for him, who had loved him, was dead, and he had done nothing to earn the affections of anyone living. He had been so busy seeing to his own pleasure — and survival — that he had never taken the time to solicit the good opinion of another human being with no motive other than the contentment to be found in the acquaintance. Oh, he had made himself agreeable enough, to be sure, when there was profit in it. And look where it had gotten him.
When a man faces such thoughts, he has but two choices: give in to the melancholy, or do something about it. George Wickham was sorely tempted to give in; he was so very close to surrendering to his demons when he remembered his father – and his godfather. They would be ashamed of the man he had become. He was ashamed of the man he had become. What had happened to the devotion to honour, duty, and family that these good men had instilled in him?
On that day, he had come to a decision: He would salvage what was left of his life and do what he could to honour the memory of his father and godfather. Thus did Captain George Wickham undertake two tasks still within his power: He requested a transfer to a unit of His Majesty’s forces that were engaging the enemy, and he wrote two letters to Darcy. Just before he boarded this ship, he posted a thick parcel containing the last service he could perform for the family that had done so much for him. Every word of both letters was seared into his memory.
To Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy,
Please forgive my importuning you so soon after our conversation. By the time you receive this, I will have left England, possibly forever. I have requested, and been granted, a new post in _______ in the service of the Crown. I can never atone for the wrong I have done and the pain I have brought to you, your wife, and your entire family, but I hope that my service in battle may begin to cleanse the stain on my name and my family’s honour. I have no right to expect your forgiveness, but I offer my sincerest apology, and a vow to someday become a man worthy of your pardon.
I gave my word that I would assist you in any way I was able. To that end, I enclose a letter for your sister, Miss Darcy, that I have left unsealed. I leave it to your better judgement to determine if it is to be delivered. This confession is the only thing left in my power to do.
Of the many things in my life I would change if I could, only those times when I could count you as my friend would be constant. I will regret forever that I threw away your good opinion.
I can only add, may God bless you and your family.
Capt. G. Wickham
Folded inside was the second letter.
To Miss Georgiana Darcy:
If you are reading this, your brother has deemed it appropriate that you do so. I believe he is the one person capable of knowing what to do. Please, do not be angry with him.
I have spoken to your brother about my role in the events in Hertfordshire that led to our ‘meeting’ and to his marriage. He knows why I acted in such a reprehensible manner, and I leave it to him to tell you. I deserve nothing but scorn for my shameful cowardice. But that is not the reason for this missive.
I am painfully aware that your brother’s marriage to Miss Elizabeth Bennet has caused you to accept, once again, the assurances of Viscount Drury. Of all the ramifications of my actions, this mortifies me most. You must not marry Henry Andrews. You do not know the man. He is a cold-hearted, cruel being, who cares only for himself and the gratification of his desires. He thinks nothing of hurting those closest to him. He disgraced himself in front of his own mother, laughed at her mortification and pain, then thought no more of it.
You may ask how I know this. I am ashamed to admit that I was present when this particular situation occurred. There is no polite or genteel way of telling you. Drury and I were caught in an indecent position by Lady Allenby. Your fiancé prefers men, and has since before you last broke your engagement. I can offer no proof other than my testimony. We became involved before I left for Cambridge and continued until this New Year.
You must wonder at how I can write of such things, as shameful as they are in the eyes of society. Nothing but my wish to atone for the wrong I have done your family could induce me to make such revelations. I have caused enough pain; I could not stand by silently and watch you enter into a union with that man, and that family.
There is no way to close a letter such as this. I can only hope that I have, in some small way, helped stop a marriage that would bring you nothing but misery.
As the last bit of land faded from sight, George Wickham left the railing to seek what warmth he could find.
“What will you do now, Darcy? Will you give her the letter?” the Earl of Matlock asked. The other men – Mr. Bennet, Richard, and Robert – waited whist Darcy carefully chose his words.
“I am unsure. I know that I must speak to Georgiana, and I must do so before the wedding. But this letter is… remarkable.”
“You have, what, four weeks?” Mr. Bennet inquired. He was troubled by what he had heard and he too wondered how one could pass on such a missive to a gentlewoman.
“Yes, she weds on the 9th of April.”
“Then there is still time for her to change her mind without showing her the letter.”
“That is my hope. But if it does become necessary, at least Wickham had the sense to write without incriminating Lady Allenby, so I may safely show her without raising suspicion in that quarter.”
“A wise decision, Darcy. If Georgiana marries Drury, she need not know what her mother-in-law has done. That would be too much of a burden to bear. They will be living in the same house most of the time.”
“My reasoning exactly, Uncle.”
“Yet you still have doubts that even this letter is enough to change her mind.”
“Father,” Richard interjected, “Georgiana and I have spoken many times about duty. She knows that these types of marriages exist. I have my doubts about her reaction. She may still go through with it.”
Horrified at what he had learned from the letters, and too afraid of what he might say, Robert remained silent throughout the discussion. Many scenarios were bandied about; each had its flaws. No attempt to persuade her was without risks. Robert knew there was only one way that Georgiana would change her mind: if she allowed her heart to rule. He had seen the longing in her eyes, he had seen her reaction to him at the ball; he knew that he alone could save her from a hideous mistake. He would do everything in his power, within the bounds of honour, to prevent the marriage. He knew that even if she did not marry Lord Drury, it was no guarantee that she would marry him, but whether or not he won her for himself, he must do what he could. It might very well end in pain, but he would not give up; Georgiana’s happiness, Georgiana’s very future was at stake.
It was finally agreed that Darcy and Lord Matlock would speak to Georgiana after the family dinner at Haynsworth in two weeks’ time. No one was happy with this course of action, but none had a better idea. If Georgiana had not by then realized that the marriage was inappropriate and unnecessary,
they would make one final attempt to persuade her. If they failed, she would have two weeks to come to terms with this new knowledge of her fiancé and reconcile herself to the only kind of marriage that could be expected with one such as Drury.
As Darcy and Richard left to return to Darcy House, Robert pulled his brother-in-law aside.
“I would like to call on my sister, if that is agreeable.”
“You are always welcome in my house, Bennet. I thought you understood that.”
“Yes, but the situation is somewhat complicated, as you seem well aware.”
“Perhaps seeing you one more time would be a good thing.” They both understood that the unspoken ‘she’ was Georgiana.
“Then I will accompany you now.”
The Darcys’ time in London was filled with activity. Evenings were consumed by assorted balls, excursions to the theatre, and invitations to dinner. The conspicuous support of Lord and Lady Matlock — who made it quite plain that they would brook no opposition to their new niece being granted her due as Mrs. Darcy — all but assured Elizabeth’s acceptance by society. There were, of course, those who had no desire to think well of her; jealously and disappointment over the premature removal of an eligible, rich gentleman were inevitable. But in general, those who met Mrs. Darcy were charmed by her manner, wit, and unpretentiousness; those who were not by and large kept their opinions to themselves, having little desire to alienate the upstart’s titled relations.
Georgiana watched with something approaching disbelief as the resistance she expected toward Elizabeth quickly dissolved into approbation. She was proud of her new sister, she was relieved, but she also questioned more and more her decision to marry Drury. She comprehended that a loving marriage with him was impossible, but still feared the scorn of society if she broke the engagement a second time. Sacrificing herself to appearances — of what little importance did duty seem now — was how she had come to view her impending marriage. Whether her engagement contributed to Elizabeth’s acceptance was uncertain, but she could not but wish that she had waited.
The Bennets remained in London for several days after the Matlock ball, until Mr. Bennet could no longer tolerate the stream of callers for Mary. His youngest daughter, while flattered by the attention, was relieved to be returning to Longbourn. She had yet to meet a suitor who captured her imagination. Robert, meanwhile, called almost every day at Darcy House. He could not stay away.
Robert surprised most everyone by remaining in Town after the rest of the family had returned to Hertfordshire. His avowed reason was the need to attend to pressing business that could not be delayed, not entirely a falsehood; but the true face of his ‘pressing business’ was Miss Darcy.
Their time together always followed the same pattern. They would greet each other, he with subtle fervour, she with subtle caution. He would say little else to her, little else with words, but all that he felt for her radiated from all that he was. What he could not say aloud he would proclaim with his eyes, a look so piercing that not even Georgiana could doubt his unspoken declarations. He would hold her gaze until she could no longer match his. At first this was but a moment, but with each visit, she dared look in his eyes a little longer than the day before.
And so the dance continued until the day before the Darcys were to dine with the Allenby, just two weeks before the wedding.
Georgiana was alone, reading in the library, when Robert arrived. She did not hear him until he greeted her.
“Good afternoon, Miss Darcy.”
“Mr. Bennet!” she cried in surprise. “Please excuse my not hearing you enter. I was reading.”
“As I see. I have come to take my leave. I return to Hertfordshire in the morning.”
Georgiana was startled by the intensity of her disappointment and, she had to admit, a feeling very much like grief. She had come to treasure those precious few moments with him when he called, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that it all had to end. The next time she saw him she would be married.
“I have been away long enough, I must see to my responsibilities.”
“I had assumed you might stay longer, sir. I must also presume that your business is completed. Was the outcome satisfactory?”
“It is still in doubt. But I must away.”
As Robert moved to where she was sitting, Georgiana stood to meet him. He took her hand in his.
“Miss Darcy, I wish… ”
“What do you wish?” she said breathlessly.
“I wish… oh, Georgiana…” Without quite realizing what he was doing, and barely in control of himself, Robert drew Georgiana to him and kissed her, a slow, tentative, yearning kiss that she returned in kind; a kiss full of both promise and love denied. When he returned to his senses, he drew away from her.
“I wish the impossible… Goodbye, Georgiana.”
Robert turned away and hurriedly left the room, but not before hearing her regret-filled sobs. Now, he must return to Longbourn and wait. Wait … and hope.
After Robert had finished taking his leave and departed, Darcy went in search of Elizabeth. He found her in her favourite sitting room – fast asleep.
“Elizabeth,” he whispered in her ear, “Your brother has left.”
“Mhmm, I must have dozed off again.”
“Elizabeth, perhaps we should not be in company as much. You seem so tired.”
“It is nothing that cannot be helped by a little sleep.”
“I know you have not been feeling well, although you have tried to hide it from me. I am concerned. Please, let me call the doctor.”
Elizabeth smiled and ran her hand along his arm.
“There is no need for a doctor, my love. I will be well.”
“How can you be certain? It would give relief to my worry if you would consent to my wishes.”
“William, dearest, there is nothing wrong with me that time will not correct.”
Darcy looked at her sceptically. Finally, Elizabeth sighed.
“I was hoping this could wait, but I see you will not be satisfied unless I tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
Do you remember, shortly after Christmas, that we had to… abstain for a few days?”
“Yes, your courses had come.”
“And have you not noticed that they have not returned?”
Comprehension dawned. “Do you mean …? Are you certain?”
“I can only suspect for now, but Mrs. Thomas agrees. I may present you with an heir around Michaelmas.”
“Then we most certainly will send for the doctor.”
Elizabeth laughed softly, “My dear husband, nothing is certain until a woman feels the babe quicken. If I am with child, that is when we will know.”
“Perhaps by the end of May.”
A smile burst forth on Darcy’s face as he lifted Elizabeth into his arms.
“Put me down! What will the servants think?”
“I do not care.”
Darcy carried Elizabeth up the stairs and into his chambers, then put her down on the middle of his bed. He shut and locked the door after telling the footman that they were not to be disturbed.
“Mr. Darcy, the entire house will know within minutes what you have done.”
“Let them. They know how to be discreet.”
“Indeed, even if the master does not?”
“The Master cares not.”
“This is an enormous bed, William.” Darcy lay with Elizabeth and began to kiss and caress her.
“It is big enough for us, wife and mother of my child.”
“Do you want to continue in my room?”
“No, this time we stay here, where you and my heir belong.”
“But it is not yet certain.”
“Then if not, I will plant my seed in you again and again in hopes that there soon will be. Now stop arguing with me and help me out of these clothes. We are entirely over-dressed to celebrate.”
Neither Darcy nor Elizabeth appeared outside their apartments until the following day. Whilst Richard and Beth seemed unconcerned with their absence, Georgiana felt it most acutely. There was only one reason they remained upstairs, and this further demonstration of their marital bliss did not sit well with her. It only made her more miserable; she would never have such felicity in a marriage to Lord Drury. That she wanted such felicity she could admit; how much less she would settle for was still in question. Affection? Contentment with her situation and her husband? She could not expect even those meagre crumbs from Henry. Every meeting with him since the ball served only to confirm how spectacularly ill-suited they were for each other. She was so very close to breaking the engagement; only the last remnants of her pride restrained her, and the knowledge that whatever her decision, it would be irrevocable.
It is a far cry from acknowledging one’s faults to correcting them. Georgiana had yet to take that last step.
The date of the dinner at Haynsworth finally arrived. Darcy’s joy at the possibility of an heir before the end of the year was tempered by the knowledge that he and his wife would have to spend an entire evening with the woman responsible for Wickham’s vicious attack. They prepared themselves for the meeting, but both were apprehensive, unsure of their response.
They need not have worried. Years of self-control, rigorous training in the social graces, grit, and discipline served them well. As their party was announced, Darcy and Elizabeth assumed their masks with amazing ease. Richard watched them with admiration, unsure that he was as capable of replicating their performance.
Lord and Lady Matlock had already arrived; there were to be ten at table that evening. Beth was a little nervous to be included, but Elizabeth and Georgiana had — almost — convinced her that she had nothing to fear. Beth was a Darcy, and she had already spent many years learning what was expected of her. Tonight was the first of what was to be a lifetime filled with such evenings. The satisfaction she felt in being asked to attend soon overcame her trepidation.
It came as no surprise that the Earl of Allenby was as accomplished in the drawing room as Elizabeth expected him to be. He moved between conversations with practiced ease and despite Elizabeth’s aversion to his wife, she could not help but be pleased with his amiable manners. ‘So unlike the wife and the son,’ she thought. Still, she knew looks could be deceiving; any man who allowed his wife freedom to injure must be regarded with caution.
Georgiana, meanwhile, was busy observing the different couples, a mental exercise she would continue all evening long. When, soon after, they were all seated around the massive dinner table, Georgiana noticed the absence of conversation between the host and hostess. Neither made the effort to attract the other’s attention. Lady Allenby could have been invisible, for all Lord Allenby cared. Other than complimenting the hostess on her superior arrangement, evidently expected, he scarcely spoke two words to his lady, more interested in conversing with those in his immediate vicinity.
Lord Allenby addressed Elizabeth. “I hear that you are from Hertfordshire, Mrs. Darcy.”
“I am, my lord.”
“Pretty country, Hertfordshire. It reminds me very much of Nottinghamshire and the area around Allenby. Not as wild and rugged as Derbyshire, but pleasant enough.”
“Yes, I remarked on the contrasts when we journeyed north. I did not realize your estate was near Derbyshire.”
“A mere forty-five miles from Pemberley, I am told. Such proximity should be a comfort to Miss Darcy.”
“She knows she is always welcome at Pemberley.”
Further down the table, Lord Drury was paying as much attention to Richard as to Georgiana, who was seated next to her cousin.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam, you must be relieved to no longer serve in His Majesty’s Army, considering all that is happening in Spain and America.”
“I assure you, sir, I would have been ready and willing to serve my king and country wherever I was needed.”
“I believe you, sir. I was only remarking that you would likely be heading into harm’s way.”
“I fully understand where my military duties could have taken me. As it is, duty led elsewhere. It is useless to speculate about where else I could be now. I am here, and in the service of my family.”
“You have proved to be a true friend. You must be proud to see what your charges have become.” Drury said, with a touch of the sardonic.
“I hope their parents would be proud of who they have become.”
Lady Allenby was conversing with Lady Matlock. “I received a letter from Lady Catherine today. She informed me that she would arrive Monday in anticipation of the wedding.”
“We received the same news as well.”
“She also congratulated me on the fact that our children have managed to make their way back to each other.”
“So they have. You must be exceedingly pleased to be gaining such a daughter.”
“Yes,” Lady Allenby laughed, “my desire for the match has been well-known for many years. And, I would imagine, quite well-discussed in many drawing rooms.”
Lady Matlock only smiled in response.
The separation of the sexes after dinner lasted longer than any of the guests wished, but the Earl of Allenby was in no hurry to return to the ladies; neither was his son. Once the party was reunited in the drawing room, Elizabeth and Georgiana were persuaded to oblige the others with a song. Neither felt particularly inspired, but their performances were pleasing nonetheless.
After Georgiana had finished on the pianoforte, Lord Drury asked and was granted leave to speak privately with her in the library.
“Two more weeks, my dear. Then we shall finally be wed.”
“Yes, two weeks, Henry,” she answered, with a hint of despair in her voice.
“Come now, we both know you desire a household of your own, now that your brother’s wife has replaced you as mistress of Pemberley.”
“Your mother is still mistress here and at Allenby.”
“That will change as soon as I am Earl.”
“Your father may yet live for many years.”
“Then we could establish a residence of our own in Town.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps that would be best.”
“That sounds more like the Georgiana I remember. I also remember other things about you.” Drury cupped her jaw in his hand. “You used to like it when I kissed you. Do you still?”
He kissed her, more roughly than she remembered. Thoughts of another man’s kiss flooded her mind and she drew away, yet still Drury held her face in his hand.
“Let me go.”
Drury squeezed her chin slightly before at last removing his hand.
“You had better reconcile yourself to my touch soon – for both our benefit.”
“Why, Henry, why do you want to marry me when you treat me as if I mean nothing to you?”
“I told you the truth when I offered my hand. You are the only woman I have ever wished to marry.”
“You must hold all women in contempt!” she spat.
“There now, Georgiana, no need for this. We have years ahead of us to perfect our quarrelling.”
“I have no liking for such a marriage.”
“Neither do I. Do not fear me, or my touch. In the beginning, you will be obliged to submit to your wifely duties often, it is true, but once an heir is presented, we need not often bother each other in that manner. We will both be free to find comfort and satisfaction wherever we may choose. Your reaction makes it more than apparent that you will not find this officious,” Drury said with a smirk.
Georgiana was outraged. “How dare you suggest that I would so easily cast aside my vows, but it appears you have little qualms in doing so. I was right to question your character. Your true self is revealed, and I do not like what I see.”
“Ah, but what can you do about it now? Tell me. The announcements have been made. All polite society knows we wed.”
Georgiana fumed as he continued, “Your precious family pride; how appropriate. Despite your righteous indignation, you, my dear Georgiana, are nothing but a lioness, hunting respectability for your beloved Darcy name.”
Georgiana turned white with fury, but still she did not respond.
“What would happen to your brother, with such a low-born wife, if you backed out now? Would they not be scorned and ridiculed for having such a tainted shrew for a sister? And dear little Beth, what of her? I supposed some newly moneyed man would have her. Is this your dream for your sister? Her dowry is quite the prize, even if she will not be. Come now, be reasonable and accept the bargain you have made.”
Georgiana slapped him and, unable to abide his presence any longer, stormed out of the library. Once in the hall, she commissioned a footman to summon her cousin.
“What is wrong?” Richard said as he hurried to her side.
“I wish to leave, NOW!”
“Has Drury said something to upset you? Has he tried to touch you?”
“Do not speak his name to me. If you will not escort me, I shall go alone.”
“Let me make our excuses to our hosts and then we will be off. I will hire a hackney if need be.”
“Thank you, Richard. I will ask that our cloaks be brought to us. Hurry, I cannot…”
Richard could see that she was shaken and close to tears. A quick squeeze of her hand, and he hastened to tell the Allenbys that Georgiana had become ill and that he was removing her to Darcy House.
Drury did not immediately follow Georgiana; instead, he indulged in a few more drinks, laughing as he rubbed the place where her palm had ‘caressed’ his face. He left the library in time to see Georgiana and Richard walking out the door. Smiling, he told himself, ‘Yes, run from me tonight. In two weeks you will have me to answer to for the rest of your life, my dear Georgiana.’
Lady Allenby recovered with grace from the sudden departure of two of her guests, but she was troubled. What had her son done this time? The lady was also wary of her other guests. She had an uneasy feeling that all was not well. She had schemed for so long to gain by marriage the daughter that should have been hers by birth, to triumph at last over Lady Anne. She would confront her son as soon as all the guests were gone, and they where alone. Until then, she would remain the perfect hostess.
Richard did not wait for the carriage to be made ready; he hired a cab to drive them to Darcy House. Georgiana was in no mood for conversation, no matter how gently he prodded her.
“I do not wish to speak of it, Richard. Please!” she at last said in exasperation.
“Very well. But you realize you will not escape questions from my mother or your brother.”
“I know,” she said through clenched teeth. “You need not state the obvious.”
“You are mistaken, I do. When we arrive home, you may hide in your rooms for the rest of the evening. I will make your excuses. Think about what you are doing, Georgiana. It is not too late to renege. You will always have a home with your family, and my offer remains open. But I will speak no more.”
Claiming concern for their sister, the Darcys soon followed Georgiana and Richard; the Matlocks likewise took their leave. When they returned, Richard made it obvious that he wished to see Darcy, alone.
“I will inquire after Georgiana on my way to bed.”
“She does not wish to be disturbed, Elizabeth. I told her I would make her excuses.”
“Nevertheless, I will offer anyway. The worst she can do is ignore me.”
“As you wish. Goodnight, Elizabeth. Goodnight, Beth.”
“Goodnight. Will you be long, William?”
“I do not know. Do not wait for me.”
Elizabeth blushed before turning to walk up the steps. Darcy watched her gracefully ascend until Richard cleared his throat to gain his attention.
“Whilst I readily admit watching a beautiful woman walking is one of the secret delights of being a man, we should speak so that you may soon follow her to your rooms.”
Darcy shook his head and grinned. “I apologize for my distraction.”
“You need never apologize for that. Care for some brandy in the library?”
“Did Georgiana tell you anything?” Darcy asked once they where alone.
“Not directly. But she implored me not to say Drury’s name to her, and she was steadfast in her refusal to talk about it.”
“They must have quarrelled.”
“If her fury and distress were any indication, I suspect they had a rather violent disagreement. Over what, I do not know.”
“This is a good thing, Fitzwilliam.”
“Yes, I agree, Perhaps time was the answer we sought all along. I told her again that she does not need to go through with the marriage. What she especially needs now is your support.”
“She knows I never desired the match.”
“But have you told her she would always have a place with you, no matter her choice.”
“Surely she knows that, but I will tell her the first time the opportunity arises.”
Richard looked into the swirling contents of his glass. “I also told her that my offer remains open.”
Darcy placed his hand on his cousin and mentor’s shoulder. “You are a good man. But do you not desire a marriage of affection?”
“I have affection for Georgiana.”
“Let me speak more plainly. Do you not wish a true love match?”
“Any man would wish that, but we are not all as fortunate as you. All I desire is to be content in my situation.”
“Do not give up hope then. If Georgiana will not have you, perhaps it is because there is a woman out there who desires your heart more.”
Elizabeth knocked gently on Georgiana’s door.
“Georgiana, dearest. It is Elizabeth. Are you awake? Do you wish to talk?”
Georgiana lifted her head from the pillows, temporarily silencing her sobs. She remained mute, knowing Elizabeth would understand, and after a minute or two, heard Elizabeth’s footsteps as she left Georgiana alone.
At Haynsworth, Lady Allenby confronted her son.
“You said what?”
“I reminded her of the consequences of breaking the engagement.”
“I have raised a fool!”
“Mother, you worry needlessly. Georgiana would no more break the engagement than I.”
“Henry, you blind, arrogant… Did you not see ANYTHING tonight? None of her family approves. They would support her if she abandoned you. This is not the time to be insulting your fiancée!”
“I was just toying with her. Tomorrow I will apologize, tell her I had too much to drink, that I was in a foul mood from some failed business dealing or other such nonsense.”
“I hope she is foolish enough to pretend to believe you. Mark my words, Henry. This time you may have gone too far.”
The house was silent. All had gone to bed hours ago, but Georgiana was still awake. Over and over she replayed her argument with Henry, his cruel words cutting her successively more deeply.
Georgiana was exhausted, but she knew she could not sleep without coming, finally, to a decision. Which path? Such a momentous choice needed extensive self-examination. She must start at the beginning. But when was that? She had grown up with Henry Andrews; he was barely a year older than she. There was never a time when a match between them was not expected, at least by her Aunt Catherine and his mother. Henry had been an easy choice. He was familiar, not a mystery. She had been comfortable with him and thought herself infatuated when they had first planned to marry. Enamoured of him, or of an enviable match? Lady Drury, then one day Countess of Allenby – such was enough to turn most any woman’s head. Then came that horrible time at Pemberley, the sudden loss of her dear father. Henry’s callous behaviour and selfishness had shocked her out of complacency and spurred her to end the betrothal.
After that, she never expected to marry. Well, perhaps not never, but certainly not before William was in full control of his inheritance, possibly not until Beth was settled as well. Marriage to a widower, perhaps, a man not in need of an heir, was what she envisioned. No expectations; a comfortable life with a pleasant companion.
But everything had changed in Hertfordshire. She met him. The one man who, after so many had failed so miserably, succeeded in winning her heart – Robert Bennet was her undoing. Robert showed her what it was to love; she now knew how much it hurt to forsake it, how empty life would be without it. She believed she could have borne it better if Robert had not offered for her. Why, why had he done it? But it was too late now to wonder. The words had been spoken, the damage was irreparable.
Then, only a few days later, William told her what had happened to Elizabeth. None of it made sense. She knew George Wickham from his days at Pemberley. Despite the fact that he had become something of a bounder and a rake, she could not believe that he would assault a defenceless woman, the sister of a schoolmate. In her view, her brother’s actions to redeem Elizabeth only served to ruin them. Such a sister was a degradation, or so she had thought at the time. Their marriage had made her desperate, seeking salvation for her heritage and a soothing of her pride. She forgot her previous misgivings and allowed emotion to overrule sense when Henry offered again – the emotion of fear.
The months spent in company with William and Elizabeth had changed her. Watching the two friends, two people who respected and esteemed each other, gradually fall in love redefined her ideas of happiness in marriage. There, in front of her – every day – was proof that her reasoning had been faulty, that her choice of husband was the wrong one.
Then the Darcys had returned to Hertfordshire and, once again, Robert was there. It took only one evening in his presence to comprehend that he still longed for her much as she longed for him. No one could take his place in her heart. When they danced together at Afton House, she could feel his passionate regard. When he kissed her, she experienced heaven for the first, and last, time. But it had also brought her to the depths of despair.
Tonight, tonight was the worst night of all. She had seen how Lord and Lady Allenby consorted with each other – they did not. It was as if each was oblivious of the other, and each was content with that. Would her marriage to Henry be the same? Two strangers married, neither caring much for the other’s company. So many society marriages seemed like that. But it had not been so for her parents, it was not so for her aunt and uncle, and it was definitely not so for her brother and Elizabeth. If she faced a lifetime in a loveless union, she would have no one to blame but herself. Was she prepared for such a life? Did her family’s honour and her wretched pride carry such a price?
No, it did not.
She had agreed to marry Henry to salvage her family’s honour, but evidently her family’s honour needed no rescuing. William cared not for the approval of the ton and so far, the ton cared not about Elizabeth’s relatively humble antecedents. Her uncle and aunt’s actions alone were all that was necessary to convey their approval of her brother’s match.
Her pride, her vaunted pride, had propelled her into a match most suitable in the eyes of society, and most unsuitable to her true sensibilities. She knew she would always be welcome at Pemberley, married or not. Beth had never liked Henry; Richard had offered to marry her in Henry’s stead. Of all her family, only Lady Catherine would not approve if she ended the engagement. But what was Lady Catherine’s approval worth? She was obviously and vehemently opposed to William’s marriage, yet he was deliriously happy with his lot, despite her objections.
Those who loved her would not reject her if she rejected Henry.
And… it was done.
Tomorrow she would speak to William and tell him what would make him happy: She was ending her engagement.
She would ask to travel to Pemberley as soon as was practical… as soon as she met with Henry. Georgiana knew that her brother would stand with her as she told Henry she never wished to see him again, and he would hold her hand throughout the ordeal. Her little brother had grown into a strong man, she could see that now. He would not fail her, as she had almost failed him.
Exhausted but at peace, Georgiana slept.
The next morning, Georgiana did not come down for breakfast with the family. Darcy retired to his study, so worried about his sister’s continued absence that he did not hear the subject of his thoughts enter his domain.
Darcy looked up in disbelief, but quickly smiled when he realized that it actually was his elder sister. He hurried around his desk and guided Georgiana to the chairs set in front of the fire.
“Georgiana! How are you?” He looked at her closely, but was relieved to see no particular signs of distress. “Since your sudden departure from Haynsworth last night, we have been very concerned about you,” he said gently.
“My departure was sudden, but necessary. William, I… have something to tell you.”
“And I you. Please, Georgiana, before you speak your mind, let me tell you what lays upon my heart. Then I will listen to all you have to say.”
“Georgiana, we have not spoken much about your forthcoming marriage. I have tried to respect your wishes, and I will respect your ultimate choice. But I want you to know, I hope that you know, should you change your mind, you will always be welcome here and at Pemberley. You need not forsake your family, for any reason.”
Georgiana began to cry and Darcy comforted her as best he could. When she was mistress enough of her emotions, she spoke.
“Oh, William, you are truly the best of brothers! I had hoped you would not turn me away if… William, last night was horrible. I… we… Henry and I had a horrible argument after he… He said such humiliating things to me… I could not… I cannot… William, I do not want to marry Henry… and I am so afraid.” Once again, she burst into tears.
Darcy was torn between sorrow and joy. He grieved that his sister had endured so much pain during the past four months; nevertheless, he was relieved that she had, at last, decided against the marriage, without having to divulge to her what he knew about Drury and Lady Allenby. There was, he knew, one last question he must ask her.
“My dearest sister, I must ask you, are you certain in this? There will be ramifications from this path you have chosen.”
Georgiana looked closely at her brother. She knew he was relieved that she had changed her mind, but his concern for her, the desire to protect her from regretting a rash decision, warmed her.
“William, you are my pride and joy. Yes, I have considered this. For weeks I have been wrestling with this decision. I know what I am forsaking. But life as a disgraced spinster is eminently more acceptable than life chained to Henry Andrews. My soul and my dignity are too high a price to pay for fortune and status.”
Darcy was satisfied; she had convinced him that she understood what she was doing. Now, more than at any time in his life, she needed his compassion and support.
“Then let us go to him and finish this. I will not leave your side until it is done. I will also order the necessary arrangements be made, and we will return to Pemberley as soon as possible. You will be safe there from the wagging tongues of our ‘social equals’ until the next poor soul becomes the object of their fascination. It will not take long, it never does, and then we will be left in peace.”
Georgiana wept yet again, but this time in relief and release. The nightmare she had been living was ending. She clung gratefully to her brother, knowing he would stand with her through the nightmare that was to come.
As they began to make plans to visit Lord Drury, to their utter surprise, the man himself was announced. Drury could see that Georgiana had been crying, and that Darcy’s face was grave.
“Forgive me if I have interrupted a family matter. Georgiana, may I have a word with you in private?”
“Lord Drury, you can have nothing to say to me that my brother can not hear.” Georgiana’s tone was glacial.
“Very well, Miss Darcy, if you insist.” Drury eyed the pair warily. “I have come to apologize for my insensitive words last night. I… had too much to drink and… I was upset with some unexpected news I received yesterday afternoon regarding a business venture. I was rude, and it was unconscionable. I have come to ask your forgiveness.”
“You need not apologize, Lord Drury. Your words were exactly what I needed to hear. They made me realize that I cannot, and will not, marry such a selfish, hard-hearted, arrogant, unfeeling man. A life unwed is preferable to the life of misery I would most certainly have with you.”
Darcy was proud of Georgiana; she held her head high as she spoke with conviction and perfect composure.
Drury was stunned; he had never given merit to the thought that Georgiana would break with him again. The nerve of the woman! How dare she do this to him? Again! She could rot in hell for all he cared.
“Have you nothing to say, Drury? Then leave and never set foot in my house again,” Darcy said, his words dripping with venom.
The tension was substantial. Drury lifted his chin in the air, and looked down his nose at brother and sister.
“If this is your choice, madam.”
Unexpectantly, Drury’s face betrayed a smirk. “Enjoy Derbyshire, Miss Darcy. I expect your exile there shall be of long duration.”
Lord Drury turned on his heel and left the house without a look back, banging his walking stick on the nearest objects. He was more than angry; he had been grievously insulted and he was full of fury. ‘The shrew!’ He wandered about in a fog of rage, not knowing where he was going. When he recovered his wits, he had to smile upon realizing where his ramble had brought him.
“Perfect. Here is a place I can get what I want!”
Drury turned into his club, quickly scanning the room in search of his next conquest.
Georgiana nearly collapsed after Drury left. Darcy held her as once more the tears erupted. He began to contemplate how much a woman could cry before there were no more tears left, then decided he did not wish his question answered.
Darcy comforted his sister as best he could, but instinctively knew the only thing that would help was Pemberley, or possibly Robert Bennet. After Georgiana retreated to her rooms, Darcy summoned Elizabeth and Richard and related all that had occurred – from Georgiana’s confession to Drury’s confrontation. It was agreed that a speedy removal to Pemberley was for the best. United in the desire to protect Georgiana, the three set about their most pressing tasks: Richard left to visit his parents, Elizabeth went to meet with Mrs. Thomas, and Darcy undertook to talk to Beth. He found her with Mrs. Annesley, dutifully engaged in her studies. He excused the governess with a nod.
“Beth, I need to speak to you.” Darcy sat next to his sister. “We leave for Pemberley tomorrow.”
“What? Tomorrow? What about the wedding?”
“Beth, there will be no wedding. Georgiana called it off this morning and has already spoken to Lord Drury.”
Beth’s eyes became wide with surprise.
“I will not have him for a brother?” she asked hopefully.
“No,” Darcy smiled, “and neither will I.”
A happy grin broke over her face, until she thought of her sister. “Oh, but Georgiana. She must be upset.”
“Upset and relieved.”
“Do you think she would mind terribly if I went to her now?”
“I think she would love your company. She is upstairs.”
“I shall go this instant… William, this is the best news I have heard since the day you told me you were to marry.”
“I understand, Beth.”
Beth hurried to see her sister, her studies forgotten.
“Come in,” Georgiana responded to the knocking on her door.
“William just spoke to me.”
Georgiana gave her a wan smile. “I supposed you were pleased. You never did like Henry.”
Beth joined her sister on a small couch in front of the fire.
“No, I did not. There is something about him that frightens me. But I am concerned about you. This cannot have been an easy decision.”
“I assure you, it was not. It consumed me until I was, at last, able to see what my family had seen all along – that it was not a good match for me. Beth, this concerns you as well. You may suffer from my folly.”
“I do not pretend not to understand your meaning, but you speak of things four or five years in the future, at least! I have a belief this will all be forgotten long before then. Besides, if a man would refuse to court me for something that happened years ago to a family member, about which he knows none of the particulars, then such a man is not worth my notice. I do so wish to have a marriage like our brother’s.”
“You do not blame me, then, for rejecting him?”
“Blame you? NO! Have you not be listening to me? I want to see you happy, and you would not have been happy had you married that man. Now you will stay with us a little bit longer.”
“More than a little bit, Beth. I do not expect ever to marry after this.”
“Georgiana, never lose hope. Somewhere there is a man like William for you – honourable, kind and amiable. You just have to wait to find him.”
‘I have found him, but he is forever lost to me.’
“Beth, have you been reading novels again?”
“You won’t tell William?”
Georgiana laughed. Beth thought it music to her ears. “No, as long as Mrs. Annesley approves them, I see no harm in it.”
“It is good to hear you laugh again. Never stop.”
“I shall try not to,” Georgiana whispered. “I shall try for you.”
The next day, the Darcys left for Pemberley. It was a credit to the London staff that all the preparations were accomplished in such short order.
Elizabeth’s one regret was that she had no time to inform her family at Longbourn of the details of their hasty removal. She would have to craft letters once they arrived in Derbyshire. Elizabeth worried that Robert would refuse to bring Mary to Pemberley, and she wished to obtain Jane and Bingley’s assistance. She would send word to them, by express, to prepare the way for the two letters she would send by regular post to her father and brother.
It was with a profound sense of relief that the two carriages came within sight of the house. Pemberley always instilled a sense of calm and belonging in a Darcy. This time was no exception.
Elizabeth had little difficulty composing her letters to the Bingleys and her father; it was the letter to Robert that gave her pause.
Several days later, Robert unsealed his letter.
Pemberley House, Derbyshire
1 April 1812
My dearest brother,
I must admit that I have never before been so befuddled as I sit down to write what may be the most important letter of my life. Do not be alarmed, we are all well. What I write will explain why we are once again in Derbyshire and not still in Town.
As you may have guessed, something has arisen in the matter of Georgiana’s engagement to Lord Drury. The day you returned to Hertfordshire, we were all invited to dine with Lord and Lady Allenby at Haynsworth. I know you are aware how awkward and unwelcome this was for me, considering the past actions of the lady of the house – William has told me you know of his meetings with that man – but you will understand that, for Georgiana’s sake, we could not refuse. After dinner, Lord Drury requested, and was granted, a private audience with my sister. What was said between the two we still do not know, but as a result she immediately begged Colonel Fitzwilliam to escort her back to Darcy House. It must have been a terrible argument; the next morning she informed her brother that she wished to end her engagement. William was surprised, to say the least, but we each had separately made it known to her that she would always be welcome to reside with us, for the rest of her life if need be. Lord Drury also called un-expectantly that morning and the separation, so agreeable to all but the fiancé, was formally made. We made haste to leave for Pemberley the next day and arrived yesterday.
Robert, I am at loss as how to continue. It was my observation that whilst Georgiana was first in Hertfordshire, you came to admire her greatly; yet after the day following the ball at Netherfield, you both avoided each other. I cannot but conjecture that something must have happened between the two of you when we called at Netherfield. Whatever happened, and whatever pain you have suffered, is in the past, for I also noticed the altered manner in which you approached Georgiana at the Matlock ball and when you called on us afterwards. You did not flee from her presence, though neither did you speak to her. But your eyes said a thousand words, Brother. You may have thought that no one else noticed, but I did.
And now we come to it. Georgiana is with us at Pemberley, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. I know you were hesitant to come when you knew she would most assuredly be elsewhere. I am concerned that you will now refuse to come at all. Please, you need not avoid Georgiana. Besides, Mary would be disappointed if you broke your promise to visit.
Two months is a long time, Robert. Give her this time and then come. I pray that by June, Georgiana will be willing to accept you as you are, for I know in my heart that is all you ever wished – to be loved for the man you truly are.
If I have erred, if I have misread the situation, I ask your forgiveness. If I have not, please come.
I remain, your ever-loving sister,
Robert was shocked; no word of the broken engagement or the Darcys’ departure from London had reached him. His first impulse was to order his horse saddled and leave for Derbyshire, to her, at once. But then the wisdom of Elizabeth prevailed and he knew that, if he were to succeed with this second chance, he must give Georgiana time. She needed to recover. She needed to heal. Though he doubted she would ever be whole without him, he was convinced she could not begin to heal if he was there.
Jane and Charles had been invited to dine at Longbourn and were anxious to gauge Robert’s spirits. Upon receiving his first letter from Elizabeth, imploring him not to tell Robert the news, Mr. Bennet was eager to learn the details. Now that he had received his second letter, he was fully concerned for the well-being of his heir. If Elizabeth was correct, Robert’s future happiness was at stake.
It was with great relief that the three who suspected Robert’s admiration witnessed his hopeful demeanour. Elizabeth did, it now appeared, have the essence of the matter. Robert had another chance; by the look in his eye, he intended to take it.
When Robert had a letter ready to post to Pemberley the next day, there was also one waiting to accompany it from Mr. Bennet, and another from Jane as well. All was prepared; now they must wait for June.
11 June 1812
The carriage carrying Robert and Mary Bennet at last arrived at Pemberley. Mary was too awed at first to speak, but the sincere joy in Elizabeth’s greeting rescued her ability to articulate.
“You must desire some refreshments. I have ordered some readied for us inside. Come!” Elizabeth nearly dragged her astonished siblings along. “By the time you have had something to eat, your things will be ready in your rooms. The servants are taking your trunks there as we speak.”
Mary laughed at her sister’s enthusiasm.
“And what do you find so amusing, Miss Bennet?”
“Oh, Lizzy, you are behaving like a child opening presents.”
Elizabeth grinned. “Perhaps I am. I am just so happy to see you both.”
The party enjoyed their refreshments. Mary had much news from home and Robert took pleasure listening to his sisters’ chatter.
“Now that your appetites have been sated, I will show you to your rooms. You must want to change out of your travelling clothes. You have all the time in the world to do as you please. Dinner will be served at eight o’clock. I know that after a long carriage ride, I wish for nothing more than a good walk to stretch my tired muscles. Then again, sleep also is sometimes welcome. I can show you more of the house, though I am certain Beth would also be willing…”
Robert’s laughter interrupted Elizabeth’s unrelenting string of words.
“What is it, Robert?”
“Elizabeth, you are doing it again.”
“Never mind. It is quite evident that you are happy to see us. After you show us to our rooms, I for one would love a tour. How about you, Mary?”
“I would love one as well. Miss Beth, will you join us?”
“I would love to. May I, Elizabeth?”
“Of course, dear. Then let me show you to your rooms now and I will collect you in a half hour.”
On the way, Mary commented to Elizabeth, “This house is enormous! Is there any end to it?”
Elizabeth met her sister’s remark with a wry smile. “Yes, I have been told that there is, although I have yet to find it myself.”
“My apologies,” came the unrepentant reply. “It is only a house, Mary.”
“Ah, but what a house, and my own sister its mistress! It is so very grand.”
“Yes, Mary, that it is.”
Beth joined Elizabeth in showing the house and some of the grounds to Robert and Mary. Georgiana politely declined the invitation, and Elizabeth knowingly accepted her reticence. The six weeks that Robert would be in residence would be trial enough.
That evening, after they had finished eating dinner, Darcy stood to gain everyone’s attention. Reaching for his glass, he said, “It is a blessing to have so many of my family with us here today. We lack only the Bingleys for all my brothers and sisters to be at my table. Robert and Mary, you will always welcome at Pemberley – To family!”
The others drank to his toast. Darcy remained standing.
“And speaking of family, I must mention the one who has united us – my wife, Elizabeth. The most remarkable woman in all England – you will forgive me for my bias, sisters – and, the mother of my unborn child – To Elizabeth!”
The surprised assembly quickly gulped their wine then made their congratulations.
“Elizabeth, you are with child!”
“Yes, Robert, as William has just announced.”
“When is the babe due to be born?” Beth asked.
“Sometime around the beginning of October,” Darcy replied.
“That was fast,” Richard muttered under his breath.
“You are certain?”
“Yes, Georgiana. I felt the babe quicken about two weeks ago, though we have suspected for a while. William and I were only waiting for Robert and Mary to arrive to make the announcement.”
“I knew it! I knew something was afoot! You two have been acting differently for weeks now.”
“Months, Beth, months.” Richard corrected.
“I am going to be an aunt!” Mary and Beth simultaneously exalted.
That night, the gentlemen eschewed the separation of the sexes to continue the entire party’s celebration of Darcy and Elizabeth’s announcement. The evening was filled with merriment and great joy. Robert and Georgiana studied each other with intense curiosity, albeit a bit warily, although neither sought out the other. Had each but known it, they shared common thoughts: not as yet comfortable in the other’s presence, but no longer afraid; not fully satisfied with the evening, but not discouraged. They had met again, spent time in each other’s company, and were none the worse for it. It was a start.
Later, in the privacy of his bedchamber, Darcy lay holding Elizabeth, his hands caressing her ever-growing belly
“That went rather well.”
“You always bring that out in me, Elizabeth.”
“I was referring to the announcement and the evening.”
“I know. My vanity enjoys believing that you were speaking of my ‘performance’.”
“Whatever am I to do with you?”
“You need only continue as you have been. I am content with my life.”
“Again you deliberately twist my words, and make it all the more vexing when you say such wonderful things. How am I ever to remain cross with you?”
“That is the point of it all, my love, to deflect your wrath. I like it so much more when you smile at me.”
Elizabeth rolled over to smile and touch his face. “Is this better?”
Darcy smiled back, and his hand resumed its possessive position on her stomach.
“Yes, much. Tell me truly, are you well?”
“You worry too much. I admit that I tire more easily, but the earlier symptoms have passed, and I am no longer experiencing the nausea. Of course, as I continue to increase, some of my clothes no longer fit properly. This is to be expected and Mrs. Reynolds is helping me determine what new things to order.”
“Spare no expense, dearest. I intend to spoil you and dote on our child.”
“It is still four months until the babe is born.”
“Then I shall practice on you. Do you object to my spoiling AND doting on you?”
“No woman in her right mind would.” Elizabeth would not readily admit how much she relished his attention. It would spoil their amusement and give her one less thing to tease him about.
“I love you with all my being, Elizabeth Anne Darcy. I love you, and I love our child, and I want all the world to know.”
“I love you too, and I want to go to sleep.”
“Then I will leave you to your dreams. I only request that they include me.”
“You are insufferable.”
“And you are ravishing. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” Elizabeth said through her contented yawn.
Robert and Mary had been at Pemberley for nearly a week when Robert, with no purpose or destination in mind, wandered through the lovely gardens attached to the house. It was a tribute to their vast size that, in an hours’ ramble, he had not encountered a single soul. This was no deprivation, for it allowed him to be alone with his thoughts, and his thoughts had no other object than Georgiana Darcy. He was pleased with the progression of their renewed acquaintance. The initial hesitation and awkwardness quickly faded and they again were able to enjoy each other’s company. They had yet to be alone together, except for a few moments here and there, but this did not concern him, they had time enough until he would return to Longbourn.
In the midst of his wanderings, he was surprised when he noticed he was no longer alone. Someone was sitting on a bench just ahead. That someone was Georgiana.
Without knowing how he came to be there, Robert found himself standing in front of her. She seemed to be in as much of an embarrassed daze as was he.
“I beg pardon, Miss Darcy. I am afraid I interrupt your solitude.”
“You certainly do,” she replied with a smile, “but it does not follow that the interruption must be unwelcome, sir.”
“Would you walk with me? The gardens are so beautiful, and much better enjoyed in the presence of another. Or would you rather I left you here in peace?”
“I… I would be delighted to join you.”
Robert offered his arm, which she hesitantly accepted. She longed to know what at that moment was passing in his mind; in what manner he thought of her, and whether, in defiance of every thing, she was still dear to him. Together they walked in silence; each wanted to talk, but every subject seemed to carry an embargo, fraught with painful memories. At last, Robert remembered the babe Elizabeth now carried.
“Are you as delighted with the prospect of becoming an aunt as I am in becoming an uncle?”
“William is overflowing with joy, and Elizabeth seems to glow with happiness.”
“Aye, that is true. Yet I believe they would appear much the same if Elizabeth were not with child. They seem very much in love.”
“Yes, you are correct.” A rueful smile graced Georgiana’s mouth. “I admit it was astonishing to witness their growing affection. Perhaps the only one not surprised was Beth, but she is too young to be cynical.”
“The naïveté of youth is a luxury that neither of us can claim.”
“No, we are older, wiser, and… none the better for such knowledge of the world.”
The conversation ceased as they continued to stroll. The next time it was Georgiana who spoke, and she, courageously or foolishly, broached a sensitive subject.
“I would be surprised if you did not know many of the details of my aborted engagement.”
“Elizabeth wrote to me, after you had returned to Pemberley.”
“You must have wondered why I said yes. And why I finally said no.”
“I did wonder. I know on that day I said… I should never have said… I never believed you accepted him because of a desire for a title. You made it perfectly clear that was not your sole consideration for accepting a proposal of marriage.”
“Yet you wondered why I did what I claimed I would not, and so soon afterwards?”
“Yes, I wondered,” Robert said in a small voice.
“You were right when you accused me of forsaking all else but duty. After… Hertfordshire, and William’s wedding, I was angry and hurt. You must understand. After the death of my father, I had, in my own opinion, given up everything for William and Beth. I rebuffed many suitors because I believed my family needed me with them. And after Henry, I became distrustful of the motives of men. Until I met you, I…” Georgiana paused, unwilling to continue on in that vein. “It is irrelevant. The truth is that I resented Elizabeth usurping my place and I worried that her lack of useful connections would be too great an impediment for Beth to overcome when she was older. Please, do not speak; it was an arrogant presumption on my part. I do not claim that I acted rationally, but at the time I believed I had no choice other than to accept Henry’s renewed offer.”
“Miss Darcy, you do not need to justify your actions. It was a difficult time for you. So many changes were happening all around you. I can understand how tempting his offer must have been.”
“You are too gracious. I was a fool, Mr. Bennet. I had sent Lord Drury away once before, and I was a fool to think he had changed in the intervening years.”
“But people can and do change, Miss Darcy. If we do not believe that, we are without hope.”
Georgiana looked sharply at Robert. “Do you believe you have changed?”
“Yes and no. Yes, there are things about me that have changed. I know what it is to have loved and lost. A man cannot help but be changed by that. If it were not so, he is either a fool or a beast.”
“And how have you changed, Mr. Bennet?” Georgiana was afraid of the answer, but the question must be asked.
Robert knew she would ask, but still he was caught unawares. Was he ready to fully open his heart to her? Was it too soon? Most importantly, could he bare another rejection?
“I suppose you would have to ask those who have lived with me this past half-year. They would be able to give you a more accurate assessment than I.”
“But you believe you have changed. You must have some sense of what is different.”
“I am, in essence, the same man I always was.” Georgiana winced. He knew his words had hurt her, even as he spoke them. “But that is not the answer to your question, Miss Darcy,” he said softly. “I see myself as a more cautious man, a man who has begun to learn the virtue of patience, and belatedly, a man who has learned to pay more attention, and to give a begrudging respect, to the values of society.”
“Not every thing society values is worthy of respect.”
“But it is the world that we live in. I was a simpleton to dismiss its importance. It cost me, us, dearly.”
They had stopped walking. Georgiana withdrew her arm from his, and walked several paces away, her back turned to Robert.
“You take too much upon yourself. We both know that.”
“No, I will not allow you to diminish my responsibility. I wilfully ignored the signs that my suit would not be accepted. Your words and your actions should have cautioned me not to press, but I did so nevertheless. It was impossible that you would accept me, I see that now. Your words hurt me, as they should. I never stopped to consider your position. I thought only of myself. Please, forgive me.”
“Any pardon necessary was granted long ago.”
They stood separated for several long, agonizing moments. Robert was trying desperately to find hope in her words.
“And you, Miss Darcy. Have you changed?” Robert asked tentatively.
“Yes,” she answered in a near whisper.
“How?” He needed to hear it from her own lips.
Georgiana was suddenly aware of her surroundings, where exactly they were standing. She checked the house to confirm their precise location before turning to face Robert.
“This is not a simple question to answer.”
“I will listen as long as it takes, if you will honour me with your trust.”
“Let us sit.”
Buoyed by her candour, he led her to the bench. When they had seated themselves, Georgiana began, her voice distant and detached.
“I have not told you in any detail of the day, six years ago, when I first broke with Henry.”
The use of his name did not sit well with Robert; it came as a slap. Still, he understood that the familiarity with which she spoke of her ex-fiancé was a sign of her comfort with him.
“Lord Drury was at Pemberley when my father died. Papa was injured in a fall from his horse. He and William were inspecting the estate when it happened. I do not know if William ever has stopped regretting that day… But I digress. When we became engaged, I convinced Henry to agree to a long engagement. He was not happy, but he consented. I was unwilling to leave my family with Beth so young.” Georgiana wore a bemused smile “I know, some things do not change. Henry came to Pemberley not knowing my father was mortally injured. His behaviour was… unexpected. He was demanding and acted like a petulant child. I was perturbed at his apparent immaturity. Then, after Papa died, he… he had the gall to suggest we not wait the proper time and to proceed with our wedding as planned. The look of greed in his eyes when he suggested he would be a suitable guardian for William and Beth shook me, but it opened my eyes. I sought the help of my uncle to ask him to leave. When he told me of Henry’s reaction to my request, I knew I could no longer marry him.”
“Why do you tell me this now?”
“The confrontation I had with Henry happened right here, in this spot in the gardens.”
Robert stood. “Come, let us leave this place. The memories must be very painful for you.”
“No! Please, I do not wish to leave yet, there is more to tell.”
Robert looked at Georgiana and saw the determination in her eyes. He sat down again.
“If you wish it.”
“The memories of that time are not pleasant, I admit, but I must tell you of another scene that also took place here. Just before we went to Hertfordshire for the Bingleys’ wedding, William… gave me reason to question my decision to marry Henry. Actually, he gave me reason to question many things about the person I was. I spent the remainder of the day in contemplation, mostly in my rooms. You can see them from here. I distinctly remember looking down on this spot and seeing a couple walking, totally oblivious to the world around them. As you may have guessed, it was Elizabeth and William. When I saw them I… I saw the face of true affection, and I knew nothing of the sort existed between Henry and me. I also realized that my character lacked a very important thing. Do you know what it was?”
Robert believed he knew what she would say, but refused to answer.
“Come now, Mr. Bennet. We both know what it was, even if you are too much the gentleman to answer. I lacked humility. I mistook privilege for prerogative. I had done nothing to warrant my station in life, and claimed an accident of birth as my birthright. What a proud and haughty assumption to make. Pride goeth before the fall, and I have fallen, sir, fallen far.”
“You have not answered my question. How have you changed?”
“I hope that I have become less prideful, that my disgrace has taught me not to think meanly of others.”
“I do not think you disgraced.”
“Not disgraced?” Georgiana laughed a mirthless laugh. “You, sir, know very well that I am disgraced. To have broken two engagements, and to the same man – the son of a peer at that – is more than enough to disgrace any woman. You claim to have more respect for the values of society. Surely you must know how they now see me. My money is not enough to overcome such a blemish.”
“There is more to life than money.”
“Yes, but money rules society’s behaviour.”
“It need not be the sole guide of our behaviour.”
Robert stood again and walked a few paces away, his turn to keep his back to the other. He had a decision to make, and he made it quickly.
“You say that you have changed, that you have become less prideful. I admit to seeing this in you. Forgive me, but I must ask more of you. Last November you admitted that you loved me.”
“But not enough?”
“No, not enough.”
He turned towards her, his eyes burning with intensity.
“Has that changed? Do you still love me? I have never stopped loving you. No matter how often I told myself you could never be mine, I never once stopped loving you.”
“Yes. I have loved you all this time.”
“Is it now enough?”
“Robert, I do not know. There is so much more to this.”
“My wishes have not changed. Do I have reason to hope? If you tell me I must wait, I will wait, but, please … please, give me reason to hope!”
Georgiana hesitated. “I do not want to hurt you again… But there are so many things…”
“Do you fully understand what would happen if… Robert, it is not a simple matter of yes or no.”
“Is that not my choice?”
“No, not fully.”
Robert was becoming frustrated. Why could she not see!
“Georgiana, if nothing had happened in Hertfordshire, if Elizabeth and Darcy had never married, you would not have accepted Lord Drury. Am I correct?”
“Would you have accepted another man? Did you see yourself married?”
“I thought I might, someday, marry a man, a widower perhaps, who did not have expectations for an heir.”
“And if such a man were to seek your hand now?”
“No such man would. He would not wish to taint himself or his children with my scandal.”
“So you are determined to become a spinster.”
“Yes, if you want to speak so plainly.”
“Georgiana, I DO NOT CARE! ”
“You say that now, but so much can change in a year, or two years, or five. When you are scorned because of your wife and you have no heir to take possession of Longbourn after your death, how will you think of me then? Could your love surmount your disappointment and regret? Would your love still exist? I could not bear the pain of hurting you that way. It is better to grieve now than to regret later!” Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Georgiana, listen to yourself. You use the same arguments to convince yourself not to have me as you did to accept Drury. You may not say the word, but you speak again of duty! This time you speak of my duty! The only duty I truly owe my family is to be happy. That is all they desire.”
“If it meant that my father and I would have the entail broken prematurely, I would gladly spare no expense if the reward was your hand.”
“That would be unnecessary if you had an heir, and I am by no means certain that I will be able to provide you with one.”
“Why do you believe yourself incapable of becoming with child?”
“My age. Women do not often bear their first child after their thirtieth birthday.”
“Nothing you have said is a valid reason to reject me. What will set your heart and mind at ease?”
“I do not know. I am afraid of hurting you again.”
At last she had said it. Robert rushed to gather Georgiana in his arms.
“We are agreed, then, that to fortune we are indifferent?”
“And family and connections? I am brother-in-law to one of the richest men in Derbyshire, who, I am told, has one of the most beautiful estates in all England. My other brother-in-law is a highly successful businessman and will soon be in possession of an estate of his own. Is this enough?”
“Have I proven that I am constant in my affections? Have they not withstood the suspense of many months?”
“Yes.” Her voice filled with hope.
“Are there any objections remaining, were I to ask for your hand again, other than your concern about your ability to have children and the capricious opinion of the ton?”
“Do you love me?”
“Do you believe that I will always love you?”
“I… I… As much as such a weak woman as I am able.”
“You are not weak, you are a tower of strength and conviction. Not always the correct convictions, else we would have been wed months ago. But you have changed all that was deficient before.”
“I pray it is so.”
Robert dropped to one knee.
“There is no longer any reason for either of us to be patient or cautious. I love you more than words could ever say, and I could never be happy without you at my side. Every day, every time I close my eyes to sleep and every morning when I wake, I wish you were with me! I offer you all that I have and all that I am. Georgiana Darcy, will you marry me?”
No longer hesitant, finally convinced that they both knew what they were doing, finally free to give in to her feelings, and finally trusting that Robert did know his own heart and mind, she said simply: