Elizabeth reached the top of Oakham Mount just as the sun crested the horizon. It was another day closer to the deadline no one talked about. They had been given six months until they would most likely have to quit Longbourn, and already six weeks had elapsed. Uncle Gardiner would arrive that afternoon and Elizabeth was determined to speak privately to him about her future.
This dawn, she would not dwell on those things. Instead, she would try to forget. She would pretend she had not a care in the world. She was the old Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn – a gentlewoman by birth and a respected member of the community.
Unfortunately, the sight of the black gown she wore shattered the illusion she had conjured. She was still Miss Elizabeth Bennet, daughter of a gentleman, but the shame of his death and her sister’s ruin had cost them much of their previous respectability. Her uncle need not have worried about them entertaining the neighborhood; most of their neighbors no longer called. Had it not been for Jane’s kind spirit and Charlotte’s steadfast friendship, Elizabeth wondered if she would still be sane. Her guilt-ridden conscience continued to plague her, no matter what Jane or Charlotte or her Aunt Gardiner said. However, their love and support did help make her regret bearable, but only just.
Her hollow cheeks and ill-fitting dresses testified to the fact that she should be eating more, and taking better care of her health and appearance, but she could not fully rid herself of the depression she had felt since her father’s death. That was why she was out so early this morning. She would spend a little time remembering what was, and then she would return to the house to wait for her uncle. She was determined to convince him to help her leave Longbourn.
Mr. Gardiner was with Mr. Grainger when Elizabeth eventually found him in what used to be her father’s bookroom. Longbourn’s steward now used it as his workplace. It was close to the back of the house and most of the time the family did not know when Mr. Grainger was within or out visiting various parts of the estate.
“Lizzy! Come and sit with me. I’ll have Hill bring us some tea. Mr. Grainger and I were just reviewing the books. You and Jane have done remarkably well in helping your mother to live within her means.”
“You give us too much credit. Mama has run Longbourn for many years. She understands how to live economically when needed. She informed me that, since she became mistress, there have been a few years when the harvests were poor and money was scarce.”
“If you two will excuse me. I will leave you alone now.” Mr. Grainger bowed and left.
“You are thinner since I saw you last. Have you been unwell?” Mr. Gardiner worryingly inquired after the steward had gone.
“I have been well. I have not had much of an appetite since Papa died.”
“You need not skip meals to save money,” he said seriously.
“No, no. It is not that. Some days I just forget to eat. I will sit down to eat in the evening and suddenly realize it is my first meal of the day,” Elizabeth admitted.
“You should eat better. Your mother will worry about you if you do not.”
The corner of her mouth lifted a hair at his teasing. She appreciated his efforts to coax a smile. “I know. I will try.”
“Good. Now tell me truly, have your spirits begun to recover at least a bit?”
“A little. The shock has worn off, I suppose. Though I still expect to see my father, and on some days the knowledge that I never will is …” Elizabeth stopped to compose herself. When she had done so, she continued, finally touching upon the subject she had come to discuss. “I have resolved to work toward putting this grief behind me, Uncle, and I need your help.”
“I want you to find a position for me as a governess or as a lady’s companion. I cannot stay here.” Elizabeth could no longer hold back her tears.
“You would work? Elizabeth there is no need for that. Your mother’s portion, along with your uncle Philips’ and my help, will provide enough for all of you to live on.”
“I do not wish to be a burden.”
“You are not a burden. Listen to me. You are a young woman born for a better life than that of a servant.”
“Oh, Uncle.” Elizabeth’s tears turned to sobs.
“There, there.” Mr. Gardiner gathered her in his arms as if she were his own daughter. She was as good as one now, if she would only accept it. He held her long after her tears had stopped.
“Do you feel any better?”
“A little. I am sorry.”
“No need to apologize. You have been under a great strain. If you are ready now, there is something the two of us need to discuss.” Elizabeth blew her nose and nodded. Mr. Gardiner took her hand in his and continued. “There is no need to go into service, if you wish to help your family. I know this will come as a shock to you, but a few days ago someone came to me and made an offer of marriage for you.”
“What?!” She was shocked. “Who?”
“The man who is to inherit the estate should the Collins child turn out to be female.”
“The mysterious heir?”
“One and the same. As it turns out, I know the man from various dealing we have had. He knew my connection to your family and approached me.”
“Why would someone I have never met make an offer?” Elizabeth cried.
“Marriages are arranged all the time,” Mr. Gardiner calmly replied.
“Oh yes,” Elizabeth rolled her eyes, “when great wealth is involved. But who am I to be considered in such a way?”
“Elizabeth, I have come to admire this man. I firmly believe he would suit you well, and he is a good match. Surely you have figured out that he is wealthy?”
“Of course. He is being so generous to us.” She frowned. “Uncle, I have sworn to help my family in whatever way I can, but an arranged marriage to some unknown stranger? Is it fair to him? I have no doubt he could do much better.”
“The gentleman is single and in need of a wife. He had a great respect for your father and he wants to help your family. The idea of a marriage was suggested, and I told him that if he were serious about marrying one of you, you are the Bennet daughter I would choose for him. We discussed it, he came back to me, made his offer for you, and I am here delivering it.”
Elizabeth sat back and shook her head in disbelief. “This reminds me too much of Mr. Collins seeking his life companion at Longbourn. We all know how well that turned out for me.”
“I assure you, Lizzy, this man is no William Collins.” He squeezed her hand. “Take some time to think about it. You can give me an answer before I leave.”
Elizabeth bit her lip. As frightening as the prospect was, there was no reason to delay what she had decided weeks before.
“I have thought about nothing but my future lately. Is he a good man, Uncle?”
Mr. Gardiner smiled softly. “He is a very good man. In time you would make him the best of men.”
Elizabeth hesitated for only a moment. “Then I accept.”
They were both relieved, but for different reasons. Elizabeth could not quite put hers into words, but her uncle felt he had just successfully played matchmaker. His wife would be proud of him when he told her his scheme had worked.
“It will need to be a long engagement. You still have nearly five months of mourning ahead of you,” he said, stating the obvious.
“It will give me time to adjust to the idea,” she agreed. “Can you at least tell me my betrothed’s name?”
He uncle grinned. “I told him you would ask that first. No I may not, not yet.”
This surprised Elizabeth. Then again, their whole conversation had been one huge surprise.
“Why ever not?”
“He has his reasons, though I tried to convince him otherwise. He also suggested that you might want to keep this between us, at least until after Charlotte Collins delivers her baby.”
“I do not like this secrecy.”
“I know, and I would prefer some other way as well, but it was your fiancé’s request and I feel we must honor it.”
Elizabeth was still troubled.
“Please, trust me. When you finally meet and announce your engagement, you will understand.”
Elizabeth sighed in resignation.
“Do we tell my mother?” she asked with trepidation.
Uncle Gardiner chuckled. “Not yet. However, to bring all of you some respite, I have been authorized to inform her of his decision to extend her allowance to a year instead of six months, and that he is disposed toward extending it again. That should help calm her fears. Lizzy, he will see to it that your mother and sisters are cared for. I know him well enough to guarantee that.”
“He sounds too good to be true.”
“Only a good man, niece. Only a good man.”
Despite the request for secrecy, even Mr. Gardiner could not expect Elizabeth to keep the news from Jane. As could be predicted, instead of rejoicing in the security Elizabeth was providing for them, Jane worried about her sister’s happiness. It was why Elizabeth loved her so dearly. Elizabeth assured her that she was content. There was plenty of time to prepare for the marriage, and she would meet her intended soon enough. Elizabeth also reported their uncle’s words of praise for the unknown gentleman.
She thought of the two men who had wished to marry her. The first was dead, and while he was a good husband for Charlotte, Elizabeth knew she would have been miserable with him. As to the second gentleman, Elizabeth wondered how different it would have been had she not overheard him say of her, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” He had evidently overcome his first impression and fallen in love with her, so in love that he wished to marry her despite her unsuitability. Unfortunately, she had not learned her initial impression of him was just as wrong until it was too late.
Elizabeth knew she would always remember Mr. Darcy and his unexpected devotion, but if she were to have a peaceful life with her future husband, then she must stop thinking about what could have been. A life with him now was nothing more than an impossible fantasy.
Amazingly, a sense of calm settled over Elizabeth after her conference with her uncle. Her future, while still somewhat shrouded in mystery, was set. It was a decided improvement over her determination to enter the uncertainty of the governess trade.
News of Mr. Bingley’s return to Neitherfield spread quickly through Meryton. No one had heard that the lease on the property had been renewed at Michaelmas, and a ripple of anticipation washed over the town when it was discovered. However, the excitement diminished somewhat when the news that the wagon preceding the inhabitants of the manor house held only the possessions of a single gentleman. Mr. Bingley came alone.
The first call he paid was to Longbourn. Even Mrs. Bennet came downstairs to receive him.
“May I offer my sincerest condolences for your loss, Mrs. Bennet?”
“Thank you, sir.” Mrs. Bennet smiled, perhaps her first true smile in over two months. “You have been missed in the neighborhood.”
Bingley looked embarrassed, but he answered her candidly. “I regret my absence was much longer than it should have been. However, I hope to correct my error and intend to stay through the winter.”
“That is welcome news!”
“Unfortunately, and to my great regret, I will be unable to entertain. Both of my sisters will remain in the North until the Season. I find myself all alone.”
“We are in your debt regarding a dinner invitation, Sir. I wish that I could extend one now, but…”
“I understand, madam. When such a time arises I shall willingly accept an invitation. However, I hope it will not be an imposition for me to call on your family in the meantime?”
“You will always be welcome at Longbourn,” she answered fervently.
“Thank you.” Bingley was quite elated at this implied pardon by Mrs. Bennet for his previous abandonment, and could not keep from stealing a glance toward Miss Bennet as well, before recalling that someone else desired a pardon. “Oh, I nearly forgot. How awful of me. My friend Mr. Darcy sends his greetings. I was a guest at Pemberley this summer, and when I told him of my plans to return to Neitherfield, he specifically charged me with remembering him to you.”
“Mr. Darcy performed a great kindness for us. I thank you for conveying his message. If you should write to him, please extend our wishes for his health and happiness.”
Bingley wisely decided it was not the time to tell them he expected the subject of their conversation to call in person before another month had passed.
Charles Bingley had been in the neighborhood for over three weeks and became a frequent visitor to Longbourn. He made a point of addressing Jane on his second one, since Mrs. Bennet had monopolized his attention during his first.
The mood around Longbourn improved with each of his visits. Mrs. Bennet again dreamed that her eldest would become mistress of Netherfield. Such a match would secure their future.
Jane Bennet’s dreams were much less ambitious. She never expected to see Mr. Bingley again, and his initial appearance caught her so much by surprise that she was glad she had not been required to speak to him. Once it was over, she felt she could meet with him as a common and indifferent acquaintance. Elizabeth would have none of it; she told Jane that she was in danger of making Mr. Bingley fall even more in love with her than before.
It was during one of his calls that word came from Lucas Lodge; Charlotte had gone into labor. The notice was more than normal neighborly courtesy; Longbourn’s future was tied to the birth.
Elizabeth wanted to be with her friend during the birth, but her mother had categorically refused Elizabeth’s request when she had broached the subject weeks before. She wondered if her mother’s decree might have been different had she known about Elizabeth’s engagement; likely it would have been, but since that was still a secret, it was useless to speculate.
After the arrival of this momentous news, Mrs. Bennet had suggested a walk and Mr. Bingley was quick to agree. Elizabeth sent Kitty a look that suggested she should stay behind. A few minutes later the two eldest Bennet siblings could be found walking on either side of Mr. Bingley. It was the first time they had had a chance to speak to him without their mother present, and Elizabeth had inquiries to make.
“Forgive my directness, Mr. Bingley, but how much did Mr. Darcy tell you about our father’s passing?”
“I know more than the neighborhood does, if that is what you wish to know. Mr. Darcy told me he found your father, and everything else related to that discovery. Please do not hold it against him. He knew my determination to return to Netherfield and judged it best that I should know all of the details before I came back here. I am grateful he chose to enlighten me. Drawing rooms can be very challenging when one is not aware of the latest gossip.” Bingley paused, blushing slightly before he added, “…and I suppose Darcy knows me well enough to foresee how I might very well make a mess of it without the knowledge. He would not wish for something to be inadvertently uttered in your family’s presence that might cause any of you further harm, nor would I wish to unwittingly be the cause of it.”
Elizabeth, who could not think of an immediate response to his admission, rewarded him with a comforting smile.
“We are glad you returned.” Jane said demurely.
Bingley turned his head toward Jane and unconsciously flexed the muscle in the arm she held. “As am I, Miss Bennet.”
For several minutes, Elizabeth doubted very much if he remembered there was another Bennet sister holding onto his other arm. His gaze was completely focused on Jane. Elizabeth did not mind in the least.
Long after he departed, the joy Elizabeth derived from seeing Jane happy again remained. Unfortunately, it ebbed the next day when news came from Lucas Lodge. Charlotte Collins had given birth to a daughter in the early hours of the morning. She was well and resting but the girl – oh the precious little child – was born with the cord wrapped around her neck. The babe never had a chance to even take one breath. Elizabeth wept. Would the sadness never cease?
On her way to visit Lucas Lodge after the heartbreaking news, it dawned on Elizabeth that despite her refusal of Mr. Collins a year ago, she would soon become mistress of Longbourn after all. She stopped and shook her head at the irony of it all before returning her attention to her errand.
The first of the ships that had left London after Mr. Bennet’s murder had returned to port. Darcy had a man on board each vessel within hours of their tying up to the dock. Members of the crew were questioned but so far no confirmation of Wickham’s whereabouts had been discovered. Darcy was not surprised. He believed Wickham had chosen a vessel that would take him as far away from England as possible.
Meanwhile, letters from Lancashire reported there was little doubt that Lydia was with child. It was still too early for the quickening, but Mrs. Gardiner’s sister-in-law believed it was only a matter of time. She also told the Gardiners about a young girl prematurely thrust into womanhood, broken-hearted, confused, and nursing feelings of betrayal. Unfortunately, Lydia was also unable – or unwilling – to accept her culpability. She blamed her circumstances on her father’s temper and Wickham’s violent reaction. She believed, if not for that, she should be married now, not masquerading as a fictitious man’s wife.
It was painfully and regrettably obvious to everyone; Lydia had learned nothing.
Word reached London that Mrs. Collins had delivered her child and that the baby girl had not survived. Darcy felt both relief that the waiting was over and sorrow for Mrs. Collins, and he prayed she would soon recover. Having lost Longbourn, at least she would not have to support a child out of whatever money her husband had left her. It seemed such a callous appraisal of the situation, but he rather hoped that she might see it in a practical light and take some solace from that once she finished mourning for her daughter.
Yet, despite the tragic fate of the Collins babe, the events at Lucas Lodge had at last resolved the question of Longbourn’s ownership. There were only a few papers to be signed, then the estate would be his. The unexpected entail had become a boon to his peace of mind. The Bennet ladies would keep their home.
The temptation to ride to Hertfordshire was great, but Darcy knew he needed to heed the advice he had given to Bingley. It would appear avaricious to return and claim his inheritance so soon after the death of Mrs. Collins’ daughter. He would wait a few weeks before joining Bingley at Netherfield.
Darcy was thankful that Bingley had refuse to allow either of his sisters to come to Hertfordshire after they had lied about their role in separating him from Miss Bennet. The prospect of sharing a house with his good friend without needing to deflect the attentions of Miss Bingley was very appealing.
One thing niggled at the back of Darcy’s mind, though. Georgiana knew nothing about his arranged marriage, and presently he had no intention of telling her or anyone else. He had, however, informed her that he was going back to Netherfield and of his hope to secure Miss Elizabeth’s consent to wed. This had made her happy. She wanted the best for her brother and had come to realize that his happiness depended upon his winning Elizabeth Bennet for his wife. While having only briefly met the lady, Georgiana’s impressions of her were positive, and she was fully prepared to love Elizabeth for her brother’s sake.
Worried that Bingley would encourage him towards courtship, Darcy had re-sworn his friend to secrecy about the entail immediately upon his arrival at Netherfield. Elizabeth still did not yet know the name of her betrothed, and if Bingley let the identity of Longbourn’s new master slip, then she would know at once. Darcy did not wish for that to happen at the moment. He already feared her reaction to the news, but it could be worse if revealed in such a way, and he first required a little time to discover what he needed to know before shedding his anonymity.
Bingley was happy to be of service in arranging Darcy’s first encounter with Elizabeth, which occurred at Longbourn. The men were announced to a drawing room full of astonished women. Mrs. Bennet immediately took charge of the greetings.
“Mr. Darcy! Mr. Bingley did not tell us you were expected! You are very welcome, sir.”
Darcy made a point of bowing over the widow’s hand. “Thank you, madam. I was unsure when I would arrive and asked Mr. Bingley not to announce my intentions to visit. I hope you will not hold it against my friend.”
“Of course not. We will never forget your kindness to us in our greatest hour of need. You may come unannounced as often as you please.”
Darcy saw Elizabeth shift rather uncomfortably. Perhaps in the past his hostess’s remarks would have struck him as gauche, but now he could receive her attentions for what they really were – a matron who was happy to see him and grateful for his help during an extremely difficult time, and as an eligible bachelor for one of her daughters. She was also a widow facing her greatest fears: five – or rather four now that her youngest had been sent away– unwed daughters to support on a small allowance. Brought to the brink of calamity, Mrs. Bennet knew how perilously close they had come to achieving it. He wished he could give Elizabeth an encouraging smile, but she would not look at him.
They stayed nearly an hour and Darcy spent much of it observing the room’s inhabitants. He could now see how much pleasure Miss Bennet took from Bingley’s attentions. He knew he was a fool to have missed it before. Then again, he had never called at Longbourn during his first visit to Hertfordshire. Perhaps Miss Bennet shared his inclination to be more relaxed when she was at home with people she knew and trusted. He also came away from the call with one welcomed piece of intelligence – Elizabeth had resumed her walks. He remembered how much she enjoyed her rambles in Kent, and he was glad she had recommenced them in Hertfordshire. She also appeared to have recovered her appetite. Mr. Gardiner had told him how wan Elizabeth looked when he presented Darcy’s offer of marriage. She was still thinner than he remembered, but her face had a healthy complexion. Hopefully, this signaled the return of his beloved’s normal, lively self.
After his first call to Longbourn, Darcy determined to speak with Elizabeth, alone. He recollected her preference for morning walks, and decided to ride to his new estate each morning in the hope that he would encounter her.
On the second morning of his scheme’s implementation, he saw her. He hurried to where she was and asked permission to join her. She immediately agreed.
“I must admit I have been anxious to speak with you,” Elizabeth said without preamble.
“I thought you might. I have a good idea about what you wish to discuss.”
Elizabeth took this as an invitation to begin what could become a very painful interview. “Why did you follow us from Derbyshire? When I discovered it, I was stunned. When you left the inn in Lambton I believed you never wished to see me … us again.”
“When you told me what had happened, I knew before I quit the room that I would follow your party south. I left early the next morning for London, determined to help your father and uncle find your sister.”
“But why? Why should you go to such trouble to find a man you rightfully despise?” she entreated.
“I felt responsible for the situation. Had I taken the trouble to reveal his character when I was in Hertfordshire, this could never have happened. I had a second chance to thwart him through my letter to you, but instead I asked you to keep the information to yourself. Not that you could have shown anyone that letter. It was reckless of me to put your reputation in danger.”
“There are people more responsible than you for what happened ,” she said defending him, “but I am grateful for your sense of honor. On behalf of my family, I thank you again. My uncle reported your aid in the search. I shudder to think what would have transpired had you not been the one to find them, or had they not been found so quickly. The shame of a murdered father and a missing sister has been difficult enough. Had the full truth come out in the papers, we would never have been able to show our faces in Hertfordshire again.”
Darcy appreciated her attempted vindication of him but would not allow himself to be absolved of all blame. He replied graciously, “You are welcome, Miss Bennet. However, every day I wish I had not delayed my journey. Had I left immediately, I would have been in Gracechurch Street early enough to prevent your father from going to fetch Miss Lydia on his own.”
“You cannot be certain of that,” she responded.
“We shall have to agree to disagree, Miss Bennet.”
“As you wish,” she conceded. “You have allowed me to thank you. I should be satisfied with that.”
“You are not?” he asked curiously, wanting to know what she meant by such a statement.
“I feel I owe you a great debt sir. One I can never repay.”
He was disappointed; it was what he feared. He did not want a sense of gratitude to be the impetus for her acceptance of his suit, he wanted her affectionate regard. At least she no longer barely tolerated his presence. It was a start, and he would take it.
“Your friendship would be recompense enough. Miss Bennet, I know we share a difficult past, but perhaps you can forgive my poor manners and we can begin anew. Might we?”
“I will forgive you if you will forgive me for my incivility.”
He shook his head, chagrinned.
“Your words were well aimed; I deserved to hear them.”
“But I willfully misjudged you regarding Mr. Wi … ” She stopped; she would not name the villain in front of him.
“And I never gave you any reason to doubt him.” Darcy did not wish to argue about who was more to blame, so he offered a truce. “In the interest of a new friendship, you should know I pardoned you many months ago.”
She exhaled, evidently relieved. “And I you.”
Darcy smiled mischievously. “Shall we shake hands on it, friend?”
Elizabeth returned his smile and extended her hand. Darcy grasped it and tried desperately not to caress it before letting go. Soon he hoped to win such a privilege, but not today. One step at a time.
Several weeks passed and the end of the year was quickly approaching. Darcy met Elizabeth several times while she was walking and he called at Longbourn whenever Bingley did. Netherfield provided him with the necessary privacy for two meetings with Mr. Philips to finalize the transferal of Longbourn’s ownership. When all was settled, Darcy readied for one more meeting with Elizabeth. He made sure he had several items safely in his pockets when he mounted his horse to go in search of her. Following this day, there would be no more secrets between them.
The crisp December morning air was invigorating. There was a frost on the ground and Elizabeth knew that winter was almost upon them. She wanted to spend as many mornings outside as she could before it arrived and became too cold.
She spied a rider approaching and knew it must be Mr. Darcy. He had sought her out during her walks for the last few weeks. Not that he had admitted that fact to her, she just knew it. As in Kent, their paths had crossed far too frequently to attribute it to coincidence.
He had said he wanted to be friends, but deep in her heart she knew friendship was not his goal. She should not encourage him. As an engaged woman friendship was the only thing they could ever have between them.
Yet Elizabeth had not put a stop to their rendezvous even though she realized the danger in allowing her feelings of affection for the man to continue to deepen. It would only lead to heartbreak. She would marry the heir of Longbourn and Fitzwilliam Darcy must be relegated to nothing more than her fondest regret. Still, Elizabeth found it difficult to discourage him.
Once the pair greeted each other, Darcy asked Elizabeth if she would take him somewhere new, someplace that was a favorite of hers. She pondered his request for a few moments.
“How far are you willing to walk?” she asked.
“Any distance. I have all day if needed.”
“The question then remains; can your horse keep up with us?”
“I do not think that is a problem.” Darcy was looking past her down the road. Elizabeth turned and saw Mr. Grainger riding towards them.
“Ah! Longbourn’s steward,” she said as she waved to the approaching man.
“I thought I recognized him. I will request he deliver my horse to your stables. I can retrieve it after our walk.”
Mr. Grainger agreed, of course. He would not refuse his master.
“May I ask where we are headed?”
“I thought I would take you to Oakham Mount. It has a wonderful view of the countryside, including one of Longbourn. I suppose the prospect from there is nothing very spectacular to someone from Derbyshire, but it is one of my favorite places in the world.”
“Then I thank you in advance for sharing it with me.”
They walked for nearly an hour, the last twenty minutes up the incline of the hill. When they reached the summit, Darcy took a good look out over the land. Initially, he had difficulty locating Longbourn, but then he saw it standing proudly below him, as it had for nearly 200 years. Darcy thought of the man who was Elizabeth’s and his common ancestor, Jonathon Bennet. Had he too come up here as a boy to survey the land that would one day become his? And later, after Longbourn was divided and sold, could he bear to return to the place to mourn what was taken from him by his firstborn’s betrayal?
He shook himself from his musings. Now was not the time for such thoughts.
Elizabeth had wandered over to a smaller overlook. Darcy joined her there, standing close beside her.
“I can see why this is one of your favorite places. The prospect is lovely.”
“It is. It draws me back again and again.”
“As you do me, Elizabeth.” She looked at him in alarm as he continued. “Surely you do not think me so inconstant as to cease to love you?”
She turned and stepped away from him, hugging her arms around herself.
“No, you must not,” she pleaded. He moved closer.
“I cannot deny what is in my heart. Why does this frighten you so? I thought you had changed your mind about me and accepted me as your friend. Your comportment in my presence has taught me to hope that I could be something more to you. Have I misjudged you again?”
“No, What you say is true. I do count you as a friend but…”
“I am not free to become anything more.” Darcy moved behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. She moved away, refusing to look at him. “Please, I beg you, do not make this any harder than it is. I am honored that you still care for me, despite all that has happened between us, but there is something you should know.
“Six weeks after my father died, my Uncle Gardiner came to Longbourn to approach me on behalf of the man who now owns our estate. That man made an offer and I have accepted. My uncle assures me that he is a good man, and that I will be happy in the marriage.
“As welcome as the possibility of a future at your side is to me, you must understand why it can never be. I have given my word to the gentleman who now holds my family’s fate in his hands. I must do my duty and honor my acceptance of his proposal. I am sorry. I can assure you that had I been at liberty today, my … my …”
Elizabeth composure failed and she began to weep. She had wept too many times since her father had died. Darcy came up to her and pulled her into his arms. She tried to resist. “I cannot,” she protested, but he would not release her. Eventually she stopped struggling and let him hold her. When her sobbing finally ended, he let her step out of his embrace without any opposition. Again she stepped away, returning to the overlook. He took his place by her side, careful not to come too close this time. They stood without speaking for some time until Darcy finally broke the silence.
“Do you remember when you asked me why I left Pemberley to search for your sister?”
“Yes, I do.” She shook her head in mild disbelief. “I still maintain that you claim too much responsibility for the actions of others.”
“I told you only one of my reasons, Elizabeth.
“You must realize now that there are more. Even more compelling than my sense of guilt was my love for you. I thought of how you would be affected should they not be found. I shall never forget your devastation that day. I would do anything for your happiness.”
Elizabeth raised both hands to her face and rubbed it tiredly.
“There is one more reason why I felt I must help. May I tell you?” She nodded. “The day we met unexpectedly at Pemberley, I told you I had come ahead of the rest of my party because I had business with my steward. I finally spoke with him about that matter after you and the Gardiners left to return to Lambton. My steward had received some correspondence that he felt I needed to see as soon as possible. These two letters had come for me.” He pulled a packet of papers out of his inner jacket pocket. “I think you should read them now.”
She looked up at him as he extended the letters to her. Elizabeth took them and examined the envelopes. Her eyes widened as she saw that one of them was from her father and she looked at him in confusion. He put his hand on the missive from Gardiner & Philips and advised, “Read this one first.”
Elizabeth quickly opened it, her eyes moving back and forth as she read its contents. She gasped, looked up quickly to him in amazement before returning to it. He could see she was trying to comprehend the enormity of the information. As soon as she finished her uncle’s letter, she opened the other. Tears again ran down her cheeks and her free hand covered her mouth.
At last she said in a soft voice full of wonder. “It is you… why did you not tell me?”
“Before I answer, you need to understand. I love you beyond measure, Elizabeth, and I want nothing more in this world than for you to be my wife. However, because I love you, it shall be your choice. You may end our engagement and I will give Longbourn to you – as much as I am able within the terms of the entail. You will have complete control of the estate, and its income, for as long as you live. Your mother and sisters need never worry about being cast out of their home. They will live at Longbourn as they always have. Since no one but you and I and your Uncle Gardiner know of our engagement, no one else need know it has ended. You need not marry me out of duty. You may follow the dictates of your heart.
“The other alternative is to become my wife, even if you should choose me for my wealth. If it brings you to me, I will be richer still.
“Tell me what you wish, and it shall be so. I am yours to command.”
When he finished his declaration they were staring at one another. Elizabeth moved to be closer to him.
“Who am I to go back on my word, especially when it coincides with the desire of my heart.”
Darcy grabbed her hands. “Please say it.” He needed to hear her say the words that would bind them together.
“Yes, Fitzwilliam Darcy, I want you. I will be your wife.”
Her acceptance brought such joy to them both that the only possible response was to seal the agreement with a kiss. The first led to a second, and then a third. After a few more, both felt overwhelmed. Elizabeth desperately clung to him, her mind in a haze. He was not faring much better.
Once her breathing slowed, she wanted him to answer her earlier question. “You still have not explained why you kept your identity from me. You once said that disguise of every sort is an abhorrence. Did you do it because you thought I would reject you?”
“When I said that, you had rejected me. Then your uncle suggested I renew my addresses to you…”
“Was this my uncle’s idea?”
“It seems your aunt had told him about Hunsford.”
“Oh. I had not considered … I am mortified that he spoke of this to you.”
“I admit I was surprised that he knew I had offered for you before, but then he told me he could tell I still cared and asked if I was willing to propose again. The possibility of having you for my wife under any circumstances was more than I could resist, so I told him I would.”
“Did he also volunteer to be your proxy?”
“No, I asked him. I was afraid you would say no again but I felt that you would accept me because of your family if I was the unknown heir. I was so desperate for you that I was willing to continue withholding my identity. Your uncle disagreed. He thought I should come to you with the complete truth and then let you decide. I grudgingly agreed with him, though the risk of another refusal still troubled me.”
“Yet he still came and asked me on your behalf without telling me it was you!”
“That was your uncle’s doing – and yes, I know I just said he thought I should come myself. He noticed how unsettled I was and I shared my fears with him. He did not say a word to me for several minutes. When he spoke, he had changed his mind and urged me to let him be my proxy.”
“Did he explain the reasons for his change of mind?”
Darcy smiled. “He said, ‘I worry that Elizabeth’s guilt will not allow her to make herself happy. If she knows it is you, she may decline just to spare you the connection. Does that remind you of anyone, Mr. Darcy?’ I was caught out and he knew it. I agreed to his initial request that I propose, all the while knowing that I would travel to Hertfordshire and see for myself if your opinion of me had changed. As I told you, I would not have married you if you truly did not want it. I love you too much to take advantage of your sense of honor and duty for my own selfish desires.”
Elizabeth laughed, signaling her pardon. “I must forgive you both for being less than forthright with me. Your hearts were in the right place, and I have no complaints about the result.
“We owe my uncle and aunt a debt of gratitude. Uncle Gardiner was correct at the time when he approached me with your suit. It was much easier for me to accept an offer of an arranged marriage from a stranger than it would have been to receive yours. You should also know that I had already determined I had no choice but to agree to marry the first respectable man who asked. I would have said yes had you come in person then, but I would not have the happiness I have now for I did not love you so well as I do today. You are everything I could desire in a spouse, and there is not a more enjoyable duty for me than to become your wife.”
The two spent hours together up on Oakham Mount and then wandered through the countryside. They had much to discuss, and more to reveal. Elizabeth took him around Longbourn and showed him his estate through her eyes. They agreed to delay the announcement of their betrothal one more day in order to allow Mr. Philips time to inform Mrs. Bennet of the identity of the mysterious long-lost Bennet heir.
Jane and Bingley were told that night. Neither Elizabeth nor Darcy could keep such wonderful news from their closest confidants. Darcy felt Bingley deserved to know because of his steadfast friendship; Jane would be able to see the joy radiating from Elizabeth’s very being, and would wonder at its cause.
Mrs. Bennet was ecstatic when Elizabeth informed her of the engagement; she would have such a wealthy son-in-law and could not stop talking about their good fortune. The fact that she would not have to leave Longbourn sent her into rapturous effusions.
Bingley proposed to Jane before the New Year. Plans were made for a double wedding at the end of February after the ladies came out of mourning for their father.
Darcy finally learned which ship Wickham had boarded and where he had gone. He had traveled to the West Indies, specifically the island of Jamaica. This information was passed on to Darcy’s cousin, and Colonel Fitzwilliam informed the war department of the deserter’s last known whereabouts. Wickham had made a mistake – he stayed on that island. It was still a part of the British Empire and His Majesty’s troops would eventually find him. Then he would hang for his crimes.
On a cold, gloriously sunny morning on the last Wednesday of February 1813, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire, was united in matrimony to Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn, Hertfordshire, in the bride’s tiny village church. Joining them at the altar was Mr. Charles Bingley, who wed Miss Jane Bennet. After the wedding breakfast, both couples left for London to begin their married lives. Bingley had little desire to reside in the same house as his two sisters. They had come for the wedding, but he had yet to forgive them. The Darcys, on the other hand, wanted some peace and quiet alone before traveling to Derbyshire.
Longbourn was left in the capable hands of the steward Darcy had hired. Mr. Grainger was proving himself to be an excellent choice and Darcy had him in mind to replace Mr. Wright when that man was ready to retire from Pemberley. The Darcys never stayed much in Hertfordshire while Mrs. Bennet was alive. Elizabeth allowed her mother to continue as mistress of Longbourn in her stead. It kept her mother occupied and away from Derbyshire. Both Kitty and Mary came to stay at Pemberley for long stretches at a time, and under the Darcys’ care they outgrew most of their silliness. The one Bennet daughter who never did, though, was Lydia. She never had the chance.
A month after the double wedding, word came from Lancashire. Lydia had gone into childbirth. It was much too early, two months to be precise. The labor was long and difficult. Lydia did not survive nor did the child. It was the tragic end to two lives.
Elizabeth had difficulty mourning Lydia. She loved her sister, but Elizabeth still held a great deal of resentment toward her. Three lives had been lost because of the destruction the selfish girl had wrought, including Lydia’s own.
Instead, Elizabeth took comfort in the arms of her loving husband. Her uncle’s hope was fulfilled. At least some good had come from the loss of her father, and both Elizabeth and Darcy had forgiven themselves enough to be grateful for it.
They were even more grateful when nine months after the news of Lydia’s death had reached Derbyshire, Elizabeth gave birth to Jonathan Edward Darcy, heir of Pemberley, and the new heir of Longbourn.