Letters Parts 1-20

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1.

Mr. Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley. He had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go; and till the evening after the visit was paid she had no knowledge of it.

… In a few days Mr. Bingley returned Mr. Bennet’s visit, and sat about ten minutes with him in his library. He had entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young ladies, of whose beauty he had heard much…

Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 2 & 3

7 October, 1811

Mr. Bennet surveyed the two men seated with him in his library. The younger of the two, Mr. Bingley, the new tenant of Netherfield Hall, continued to show himself to be a pleasant, amiable fellow. Such was Mr. Bennet’s impression of him when he first called at Netherfield, and today’s visit did nothing to disprove the accuracy his assessment. The other gentleman, Mr. Darcy, was much harder to make out. Mr. Darcy said little, but it was obvious that in his silence missed even less. His pleasure in the company of so many books was discernable. The gentlemen had been seated nearly ten minutes when the door of the room was pushed open and a small boy burst into the room.

“Grandfather, grandfather! Help me hide from mama!” the young lad giggled as he ran toward the desk where the lord of the manor sat. The next thing the callers knew, the child disappeared and they could hear him squirming to fit into the leg hole space.

A minute or so latter, a young woman appeared in the open doorway. “Papa, may I come in?”

“Of course, dear.” She was smiling and start to speak, “Have you by any chance seen…” At that moment she realized her father had company. The men stood. “I beg your pardon, I did not realize you had visitors. Please excuse me.” She dropped a quick curtsey and prepared to turn and leave when her father’s response stopped her.

“Let me introduce two of my visitors, and then perhaps, you can take the third,” Mr. Bennet pointed straight down to his grandson’s hiding place, “away with you when you leave. Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, this is my daughter Mrs. Collins.” Mr. Bennet stooped and looked under the desk. “Come on out, William, and meet my guests.”

The little boy re-immerged moments later, clinging to the leg of Mr. Bennet who reached down and ruffled the child’s hair. “This is my grandson and heir, Master William Collins.” William hid is head behind his grandfather.

Mrs. Collins seized the opportunity to take her son’s hand to lead him out of the room. “Please forgive our interruption. Come William. Gentleman, Father.”

The three men watched as mother and child walked hand-in-hand from the room. Once the door was again closed, they heard the sound of laughter and the patter of little feet running away.

Mr. Bingley was the first to speak. “Mrs. Collins is in mourning?” She had been dressed completely in black.

“Her husband drowned this past summer whilst on holiday in Ramsgate. You will hear stories of it, I am sure. Such spectacular sources of gossip and speculation rarely come to our little neighborhood.”

“Ramsgate?” Mr. Darcy asked, clearly unsettled by the location. Nearly as unsettled as Mr. Bennet’s daughter had appeared when she had learned that gentleman’s name.

“Yes, they were taking the short time away my son-in-law promised my daughter after he accepted a living in Kent. Why do you ask?”

“I was in Ramsgate with my sister this summer. I heard a man had drowned the night before I arrived. Please express my deepest sympathies to your daughter on my behalf.”

“I will do so.” Once again they heard footsteps run past the door and the giggling laugh of a child. Mr. Bennet chuckled. “William continues to play hide and seek with his mother. It is good to hear the sounds of small children in this house. For years I despaired of seeing an heir of Longbourn once again play within these walls. And to hear Lizzy laugh again, it is music to this old man’s ears.”

Soon the gentlemen were gone and Mr. Bennet returned to his correspondence. It was no surprise to him when a short while later his daughter rejoined him.

“I am sorry about William. I told him he must remember to ask permission before he enters this room.”

“He will learn.”

“Hmmm.”

“It was rather diverting watching the reaction of my callers.”

“Papa!”

“I know. I need to be firm with William and John. You have made that abundantly clear. However, I still insist that you rob me of the pleasure of a grandfather spoiling his grandchildren.”

“I wish it were not so, but they need a father figure in their lives.” She touched her slightly bulging middle. “As will this one some day.”

Mr. Bennet chose not to respond to his daughter’s reminder of his duty; instead he picked up a piece of paper and pretended to study it. “I received a letter today from my brother Gardiner. As promised, he has invested your husband’s money in the same places where his own money is seeing good dividends.”

Mrs. Collins visibly relaxed. “Thank you. I will write to him and Aunt this afternoon.”

“You should rest.”

“I will. This child seems to take more of my energy than the first two.”

“Perhaps it will be a girl.”

“Perish the thought!” She laughed, and added wryly, “Mama wants ‘an heir and two spares’. Nothing less will satisfy her. As if I have any say in the matter.”

“She only wishes hers and your security,” her father gently chided.

“I know. She is right, but I would love to have a daughter to keep me company in my widowhood.”

“You might remarry some day.”

“I highly doubt that. I have done my duty once. I do not intend to marry again unless I can find a man I truly respect. William was a good man, but…”

“He was not what you had hoped for?” She nodded. The conversation turned more serious than the two had had for many years. He asked the question he had long avoided. “Do you regret that I asked you to marry him?”

She thought long and hard before she answered. “I love my children, Father. I cannot imagine life without them. But living with Mr. Collins, wondering what he might say next to embarrass me. As I said, he was a good man, but a wife does not wish to manage her husband all the time.”

“When I allowed the marriage, that was my main concern. You were very much his superior, Lizzy.” Mr. Bennet sighed. “I hope that when this year of mourning is over, that you will discard your widow’s weeds and enjoy the freedom your marital status gives you. Perhaps in time you will find someone to bring you joy that your first marriage lacked. I sincerely hope that the next time a young man comes asking me for your hand that I will be able to consent knowing that you enter into marriage for pleasure instead of duty. And while I know that your first husband respected you, I would pray you will be able to respect your second.”

“I doubt there will ever be another petitioning you for my hand. Such paragons of virtue do not come to Hertfordshire often. And when they do, they are most often already married. No, you will not get rid of me so easily a second time, Papa.”

After she had gone, Mr. Bennet once again turned his attention to the letters on his desk. Snippets of his conversations of the morning returned as he revisited his brother Gardiner’s latest missive. There was no further news into their investigation into the circumstances of William Collins’s death. Mr. Bennet had hoped for progress on that when he read the letter, but besides the confirmation of financial transactions on Elizabeth’s behalf, there was nothing that gave him hope that the niggling doubt about his son-in-law’s demise would soon be answered. It was not the letter he hoped for.

It did, however, bring to mind a letter he had written five years before. What had seemed to be a magnanimous gesture on his part had changed his family’s lives forever.

2 December 1805

Mr. William Collins,
Cambridge.

Dear Sir,

Let me at last offer you my condolences on the passing of your father. I know these words are several months delinquent. I apologize. I should never have allowed my disagreement with my cousin to delay my Christian duty of writing to his grieving son.

As you are undoubtedly aware your father was the heir to my estate, and with his death you assume that position. As such, I wish to invite your to spend Christmastime at your future home, Longbourn. I know there is not much to occupy a young man while classes are in their winter recess. It has occurred to me that it would be prudent that you and I meet, and that you can begin to know your inheritance.

I await your response.

Your cousin,

G Bennet.

2.

Neither man said much as they rode back to Netherfield. Longbourn had been their final call of the morning and the encounter with Mrs. Collins had affected them both, though for different reasons.

Charles Bingley was about the age of the young William Collins when his older brother Samuel had died. What had been a lively, loving home disappeared in the wake of his parents’ grief. Gone was the laughter and joy he now vaguely remembered. It was replace by hushes and warnings to be still in his presence of his mother and father. A year went by, and eternity to a small child, before the somber mood began to lift. When he asked why his mama’s belly grew so round, his father gaily told him he would be a brother again. And then the unthinkable happened and his mother, and newborn baby brother were gone. Mr. Bingley senior never recovered; his passion for his family was replaced by a consuming ambition to make his son a gentleman and his family so rich that his daughters0 would marry extremely well. The only thing he failed to do before dying was to buy an estate.

Thus Charles Bingley found himself in Hertfordshire leasing Netherfield Hall returning the calls of the gentlemen in the neighborhood. He never expected the appearance of a young boy, and the obvious affection of his mother and grandfather to bring back memories long forgotten. Images of his late father, laughing and ruffling his hair flooded his mind and an intense longing threatened to squeeze all his breath from his chest.

Would this foray as master of an estate be the beginning of the rest of his life, or the end of his father’s life’s work? Or neither? Perhaps both? He had married off his sister Louisa that spring, and his younger sister Caroline had enjoyed a wonderful first season. He sincerely hoped that next year would see her wed as well. All that would remain for him to accomplish from his dying father’s charge would be his entry into the gentry.

Yet, the bundle of exuberance and dark curls made him want more. Perhaps the next time he fell in love, he would not fall out of it again. For he had learned from his father that money could not buy every happiness.

Fitzwilliam Darcy, while occupied by his own thoughts, was not insensible to his companion’s mood. He watched with fascination the moods flow over his friend’s visage. Darcy had known Bingley for several years, and one of the things he appreciated about the younger man was his easy and amiable manners. Bingley was not one for melancholy. Even when recovering from his many infatuations, he was never down for long. This was in stark contrast with Darcy’s reserve. Not one to show any emotion, Darcy felt deeply, but only his closest friends and family could detect it. Bingley was his complete opposite and the two men complimented each other, drawing strength from the other.

Something had moved his friend, and Darcy knew him well enough to know that it would not be long before he knew the source of his ruminations.

“Do you remember that I had an older brother?”

“Yes, he passed on when you were quite young?”

“I was only five when Samuel died. Not much older than the Collins boy, I believe.”

“I would guess that he is three or four. About the same size as my cousin’s eldest son.”

“My father used to tell me that I was nothing at all like my brother. In fact, he was more like you. A quiet child, and a quick study. I over heard Father say, on more than one occasion, that he was more cut out in temperament to be the heir.”

“Bingley, nah!”

“Oh, I think he was right. I am more the younger son. Content to live my life with no expectation of responsibility. I suppose that is why this venture at Netherfield is so overwhelming to me at times.”

“You underestimate yourself, my friend. While I admit you are more … open than I, you are very young still.”

“I am older than you where when you inherited.”

“But I knew my father was ill and I had time to accustom myself to the prospect. I also had a very competent steward in place to advise me.”

“I do not wish to fail.”

“You will not, not if I can help it. And Bingley, you are a tenant, for God’s sake. You do not own the place! Not yet at least.”

“As usual, you are correct.” The last sounded a bit petulant to Darcy, but he was not offended. Bingley, for all his easy manners, did have occasional moments of pique. What separated him from other men of Darcy’s acquaintance was how quickly Bingley regained his usual equanimity afterwards.

Darcy did not reply and a few moments of silence stretched between them before Bingley spoke again, proving Darcy’s faith in Bingley’s indomitable spirit to be sound.

“Do you think there are many pretty girls in the neighborhood. I admit I was disappointed not to get more of a glimpse of the famous Miss Bennets, other than Mrs. Collins. She is quite pretty.”

Darcy had noticed. He let out a small laugh at his friend’s new strand of conversation. “Trust you to move from questioning your own manhood to thinking about women, Bingley! Tis one of the reasons I so enjoy your company.”

“Beauty can never leave one in a foul mood for very long.”

Darcy shook his head.

“And you, I suppose, are anxious to dance?”

Bingley grinned. “The is an assembly on the 21st and I still mean to return to London tomorrow to collect Caroline, Louisa and Hurst. You are welcome to stay here or join me.”

“I think I will join you. I would like to see Georgiana. Though I know she is better off in Town with Mrs. Annesley, I confess I miss her more than I thought I would.”

“Why not bring her back with you to Netherfield? My sisters will be here to keep her company.” Darcy was tempted, but the reasons he left her under the care of her new companion and had removed himself to Hertfordshire were still valid.

“I appreciate the offer, but I must decline. At this time, Georgiana’s needs are best met in the city.”

Bingley relented, with one caveat. “The invitation remains open. She is welcome at Netherfield any time.”

<<<>>>

Darcy quickly excused himself when they returned to the manor house. He strode up the stairs eager to retrieve the letter he still carried with his possessions three months after its receipt.

He had been in London finishing up a few matters of business with his solicitors. Having already been delayed three times, he was anxious to head north to Pemberley. The evening before he was to depart, an express arrived. Not recognizing the handwriting he paid the deliverer and tore open the seal. He gasped as he read the header, dated the previous day. Georgiana!

23 June 1811
Ramsgate, Kent

Mr. Darcy,

Sir, please forgive the impropriety of this letter, as we have not yet met. My name is William Collins and I am the new rector of Hunsford and your aunt Lady Catherine deBourgh’s parson. I would never have presumed to correspond with you except that my wife agreed that the need to do so it too great to refrain. In short, I write to you of your sister, Miss Darcy, who is currently residing in Ramsgate with her companion. We believe that something is greatly amiss, and wanted to bring it to your attention immediately so that you may pursue the remedy you feel most appropriate.

As I said, I am the new rector of Hunsford. I am in Ramsgate on a short holiday with my wife. I had long promised to take her to the sea and once we settled into the parsonage, I sent for one of our sisters to come and watch our children so we could travel. Lady Catherine of course, gave us permission. When she learned for her daughter that your sister was staying at our intended location, she charged me with greeting her niece so that we might bring back a report of her when we return to our home. In addition, Miss deBourgh gave my wife a letter to convey to Miss Darcy at our earliest
convenience.

After arriving yesterday afternoon, I sought out your sister, per my instruction from Lady Catherine. I must say that she is a credit to the Darcy and Fitzwilliam families. Such superior breeding! But I digress. We saw her in the company of a young gentleman whom we first thought to be you. After introductions, we learned that the man was not you, but was a long-time family friend by the name of Wickham.

My wife, wonderful woman that she is, was not pleased with this information. She immediately noted a high level of intimacy between this Mr. Wickham and Miss Darcy and became alarmed. We know from Lady Catherine that Miss Darcy is but fifteen years old and not out. Today again Elizabeth spotted the couple, as well Miss Darcy’s companion. The companion seemed inclined to allow more than she ought. Thus my dear wife insisted that I write to you and send this express. She is convinced that your sister is in danger, if only from a broken heart. I suggested we write your aunt, but Elizabeth was adamant that I inform you. And so I have. My wife somehow discovered where you live in London, though she does not know the street number. She tells me this is of little concern and the express rider, with an extra coin for incentive, will discover which house is yours without much delay.

We are staying in the ___ Hotel, should you have need of us, until Saturday, when we will return to Hunsford in time for Sunday services. Lady Catherine only allowed us six days holiday, though I confess that we miss our children and will be happy to return after such a short time away.

I look forward to meeting you, if not in Ramsgate, then when you next visit Rosings and your aunt and fiancee.

Your humble servant
William Collins

Darcy had ordered his coach readied immediately and within the hour he was off to the Kent coastline. He ordered his driver to continue as fast as possible, stopping only to change horses. Even at that pace, it wasn’t until around noon the next day that he arrived. Two nights since the letter was written. Anything could have happened.

Apparently something had. The streets were more crowded than he expected and the final approach to the hotel was slowed. People were walking faster than the coach rolled. He had rapped the roof and as soon as it stopped, he jumped out shouting orders for the carriage and men to meet him at the hotel as soon as they could.

The moment he spied his sister, walking with arm-in-arm with his former friend, was something he knew he would never forget. They were involved in a deep discussion and both were surprised when he called out “Georgiana!”

She smiled and blushed and let go of her companion to rush to her brother’s side. Wickham simply scowled and walked away. Darcy hadn’t seen him since. They retired to Georgiana’s rooms where unable to grieve the brother she loved, revealed the plan to elope. Darcy wrote to Wickham, and that man left within the hour.

Georgiana was heartbroken when she realized that her near-do-well fiancé had abandoned her and wanted nothing more than to be away from the place. As soon as the horses were rested, they were on the road back to London. Forgotten was a visit by Darcy to thank the Collins’s for their warning, and as importantly, to thank them for writing him, and not Lady Catherine. Had Darcy remembered, he would have discovered the death of Mr. Collins sooner than in a letter for his aunt a few weeks later, lamenting her need to once again find a parson.

How utterly unexpected was the belated chance to offer thanks long overdue. Darcy vowed to seek out the Widow Collins once they returned to Hertfordshire and express his gratitude for the role she and her late husband played in saving Georgiana from disaster. He also vowed to discreetly inquire about Mrs. Collins’s situation. There was obviously another child on the way, and if there were a need, in lieu of an outright reward, he would try to help. He owed her that much at least.

3.

Mr. Bennet remained home with Elizabeth while the rest of the family attended their first assembly since their coming out of mourning. He had volunteered to keep his daughter company, though everyone knew that he would have stayed home had Elizabeth still been living in Kent. He would keep his excuse for the next three months while his second daughter remained in her deep mourning, and possible a month longer still while she awaited the birth of her third child.

The other ladies of the house arrived at Longbourn very late. Elizabeth’s mother, her four unmarried sisters and Miss Pope had managed to squeeze into the Bennet carriage after a night of dancing.

Of all the changes Elizabeth’s return to her childhood home had wrought, the greatest was the introduction of Miss Pope into the family party. Elizabeth had met the young woman just a few weeks after she and Mr. Collins had moved to Kent. Miss Pope was employed as a governess to the Metcalfe family and it didn’t take long for her to be impressed by the young woman. She handled her charges with care while displaying the best of manners when forced to endure the condescension of both Lady Metcalfe and Lady Catherine deBourgh.

It only took a few days back in the house with her mother and sisters for Elizabeth to know she had to do something or her already strained relationship with her mother would be damaged beyond repair.

It had been a surprise to Elizabeth that her marriage to William Collins seemed to cause more problems between her and her mother than before Mr. Collins came and Mrs. Bennet worried what would become of them after her Mr. Bennet passed away. All of her mother’s dreams should have been fulfilled with her second eldest wed the heir, but it was not to be. Instead of thanking Elizabeth for the salvation of her and her daughters, Mrs. Bennet began to resent the fact that Elizabeth would one day take her place. Even if Lizzy agreed with all of her suggestions and commands regarding the running Longbourn, her mother would find something to resent of her future replacement. It made living at Longbourn increasingly difficult. Not even the addition of two grandsons helped.

Elizabeth still recalled the exact moment when she knew they must leave Longbourn if she and her husband were to live in peace.

It was not a conversation she was meant to hear, but her mother could never be counted on for tact, especially in the presence of her sister, Mrs. Philips. Her son John was only a few days old when her aunt came to visit. Elizabeth supposed that neither woman thought she would be out of bed so soon, but the new mother could not abide another moment lying down and determine to at least get dressed and go downstairs to the sitting room.

She was about to enter when she heard the strident voice of her mother. “And now that Lizzy has begot a spare, her father and her husband are sure to allow her to take over the management of the household. Oh that I had sons! But no, instead it is my headstrong girl. Once she gets something into her head, she will not be persuaded! I am sure that when Mr. Bennet is dead and gone she will one day decide I am no longer welcome and shall send me to live in the hedgerows!”

“Sister, I cannot believe she would ever do such a shameful thing!”

“If not her, then it will be that husband off hers. A Collins to inherit Longbourn! He didn’t have the decency to take the Bennet name, even after all we have done for him, giving him an estate and a wife and all…”

Elizabeth has heard enough. She was tempted to walk in to defend herself and her husband, but knew it wouldn’t matter. Her mother would only refuse to admit to saying such hurtful words, and her aunt would never betray her sister.

And so Elizabeth encouraged her husband to take a local curacy to supplement their income until he was old enough to be ordained, and it was Elizabeth who swallowed her concerns about Lady Catherine when that great lady offered Collins the parish living at Hunsford. While Elizabeth was unsure what kind of benefactor Lady Catherine would be, managing her own household was then infinitely preferable to living at Longbourn.

Those difficulties that had motivated Elizabeth to encourage her husband to accept the Hunsford living did not disappear during her brief absence and after many days deliberation, she approached her father with a proposition.

One of the myriad of issues between her and her mother centered on her three younger sisters. Elizabeth had come to the conclusion that fifteen was much too young to be out in society. Unfortunately, her youngest sister Lydia had already reached that age and had been attending functions in the neighborhood. To ask that she no longer be allowed to do so was too much; there would be no peace at Longbourn if Mr. Bennet suddenly agreed to such a drastic action. Instead, Elizabeth proposed that a companion be hired for her sisters. She strongly believed they needed a woman who had been raised in the home of a gentleman, who knew the expectations of proper society, and who would be given the authority to over-rule their mother on certain matters. And Elizabeth was prepared to fund the position.

The Collins’s had lived modestly, some might even say frugally all their married life. They had paid for their upkeep while living at Longbourn, and even at that had managed to save more than they spent. There was money enough to meet their needs and Elizabeth was able to impress on her husband both that while Mr. Bennet welcomed them in his household, the education of their children would be their responsibility and thus they must plan accordingly. Elizabeth was determined that unlike her, their children would not be left to shift for themselves. When William was old enough, tutors would be sought and he would be prepared to go off to school like other young gentlemen. His brother would follow him.

The loss of Mr. Collins’ income was a blow, but there was more that enough money in his estate to meet his widow’s needs. Elizabeth had no need for new clothing for a while; she would be in her black gowns for many more months. Thus, she offered to finance the endeavor with certain understandings in place. First, this would not be of long duration. She would pay for a companion until Lydia turned eighteen, or the she and Kitty were married, whichever came first. Secondly, this new resident would answer to Elizabeth, not Mrs. Bennet, and her knowledge of the ways of gentle society would prevail should they be in disagreement with Mrs. Bennet’s. It would be the task of this lady to mold the three youngest Bennets into sensible enough young woman, for neither Elizabeth nor Mr. Bennet expected any miracles. They would settle for respectability. Finally, Mr. Bennet would help Elizabeth with the early education for her boys. Since there would be no governess for at least three years, her time would be devoted to her children and what teaching was needed, he would do himself.

Mrs. Bennet’s acquiescence to the scheme was bought with a not-so-subtle hint from Elizabeth that she would one day be mistress of Longbourn and would have the power to do as she thought best for the welfare of her children before the welfare of her other family. Her father had a frank discussion with his wife and told her that it would be in her better interests to defer to Elizabeth in this matter and to not risk her ire. Her and her unmarried daughter’s future may someday depend on Elizabeth’s good will. He also inferred that the addition of a ladies companion would help her standing in the neighborhood for few families could boast of such a person in their employ.

Fortunately, Elizabeth already had a candidate in mind when she spoke to her father and within a few weeks, Miss Emily Pope was entrenched at Longbourn. Emily was quite ready to leave Lady Metcalfe and her spoiled children. Her father’s untimely death had left her family in very dire straights and if Emily was forced to earn a living, she had told Elizabeth back in Kent that she would rather do so as a ladies companion than as a governess. It seemed much safer for a single woman with little to no protection.

Mr. Bennet seemed to approve of the young woman and so far Mrs. Bennet had not provided to many obstacles to her younger daughter’s new form of education. As expected, Lydia by far was the most difficult of Miss Pope’s charges. But Elizabeth and Jane had both noted the beginnings of improvement in their youngest sibling.

On this night, Mrs. Bennet and her two youngest daughters were full of excitement ready to share details of the assembly and more importantly, their dance partners. The hereto unseen Mr. Bingley turned out to be the handsome young man they hoped him to be. “He danced the first with Miss Lucas, but then stood up with Jane. And then do you know what happened? Later he asked Jane for a second set. What an amiable young man.”

Elizabeth noticed Jane’s blush and could not resist teasing her. “And did you find him as amiable as Mama?”

“His manners were very pleasing, Lizzy. As were his friend’s, Mr. Darcy.”

“Hmmph,” Mrs. Bennet replied.

“Truly Mama,” Jane said in the gentleman’s defense. “He was very polite to me.”

“Eventually, but he refused to ask Kitty to dance when we were first introduced.”

“Mrs. Bennet,” Miss Pope interrupted, “Mr. Darcy’s so called ill-behavior can easily be explained. He was not part of Mr. Bingley’s introduction and you were the one who sought his attention. Later, he did ask Miss Bennet to dance, and then Miss Lucas. The only other women he danced with were the other members of his party.”

“You danced with Mr. Darcy?”

“Yes, later in the evening. During our set he told me that he realized who you were during their call and said he would come again so that he could properly offer his condolences.”

“There Mama, is that not civility?”

“I dare say it is, my dear,” Mr. Bennet interjected. “And now that we have established the Mr. Bingley is amiable and Mr. Darcy is civil, an assessment I agree with based on my meetings with the two men, I shall retire to my bookroom.”

The rest of the family retired not long afterward. It was late, and though they had a night full of excitement, the yawns of the women signaled that it was time for the evening to end.

4.

A few days later, Darcy told Bingley of his intent to call again at Longbourn. Never one to miss an opportunity to be in the company of beautiful women, the master of Netherfield joined his friend.

Mrs. Bennet, Jane, Mary and Miss Pope were in the parlour to receive the gentlemen; the youngest Miss Bennets had left for Lucas Lodge. The one woman Darcy had come to see was unaccounted for. When Darcy inquired after her, Jane answered.

“Mrs. Collins is with my nephews at the moment. I am sure she will be down to join us in a few minutes. I know she was expecting your call and would not wish to miss you.”

Fortunately Mrs. Bennet was aware of Mr. Darcy’s intent and did not attempt to read more into his presence as would have been her want. Instead, she turned her attention to the other caller and noted with pleasure Mr. Bingley’s open admiration of her firstborn. Mary and Miss Pope were left to converse with Mr. Darcy. Mary was learning the art of conversation from Miss Pope. Some awkwardness was to be expected from her, she had not many chances to practice but by the time a few minutes passed, and Elizabeth had joined them, Mary had acquitted herself admirably.

“Please for give my tardiness, my younger son, John, was having trouble settling for his nap.”

“We understand, Mrs. Collins. Nothing can replace a mother’s succor. I trust the lad sleeps?”

“Is William napping as well?” Mrs Bennet asked, surprised.

“No, but Maggie agreed to stay with him in the …”

Just then the door was pushed open and the child Darcy and Bingley knew to be William Collins ran into the room and straight for his mama’s skirts.

“Mama!” the boy cried. “I want to go out to play and Miss Maggie said I must stay inside. Why, Mama? This is our time.”

Elizabeth looked chagrinned. “Please excuse me, gentleman.” She took hold of her son’s wrist and began to walk him out of the parlor, in much the same way as she had the last time the men had been to Longbourn.

“Ahem,” Darcy cleared his throat. “Far be it for me to interrupt Master William’s outing. Perhaps I might join you? The grounds look delightful.”

“What a wonderful idea, Darcy!” Bingley said, and then added, looking hopefully at Jane, “Perhaps I could join you, along with the other ladies?”

“There is no need, gentlemen. I will take William upstairs. Thank you for calling.”

“Please.” Darcy said as he stood and took a step toward the pretty young widow. “Truly, I would enjoy a ramble about your park.”

Elizabeth looked down at her son, who was looking expectantly back up at her and it was decided. “My son and I would be happy to show you the gardens. Let me fetch his coat. We will return in a few moments.”

Several minutes later Darcy and Bingley joined Jane and Miss Pope – Mary asked to be excused to practice her piano – in the foyer. William bounded down the stairs followed more sedately by his mother. Elizabeth had reached that stage in her pregnancy where she could not move with her normal agility and speed.

Mr. Bingley, with some idea that his friend wished for some private conversation, offered his arms to both Jane and her companion. Darcy was left to escort mother and child. William ran ahead of the group towards his favorite spot.

“Do not get too far ahead of us, I need to see you.”

William turned around to respond, “Yes, Mama.” However, he forgot to slow down sufficiently and stumbled. Laughing, he regained his balanced and ran on ahead.

“He is a spirited child.” Darcy commented.

“Too much like his mother, I am afraid. But he is a good boy, well behaved and bright.”

“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me, Mrs. Collins. I have long desired to thank you for your concern for my sister. That it prompted you and Mr. Collins to send me that express, I thank God daily for your intervention. Your letter saved my sister and I am very much in your debt. I only wish I could have said this to your husband as well. Please except my heartfelt condolences on his passing. I feel guilty that my sister was saved the very same day that your husband was lost.”

“Thank you, sir. He would have been very gratified to know that we could be of such assistance to you and your family. He quite admired your aunt, you know. He would have done almost anything for his patroness, Lady Catherine.”

“Yes, well. I am grateful for what he has done for my sister.”

Elizabeth nodded her head and they turned their attention back to William. The boy was happily playing on the lawn of a clearing ahead of them.

“Whilst I was in Town with Bingley, I told my sister I had seen you. She knows about the letter you sent, and of your husband’s passing. She too offers her deepest sympathy for your loss.”

“Please thank her for me.”

“I will. Mrs. Collins, Georgiana is keenly aware of the service that you and your husband performed. She did not specifically send her thanks, but I know her well enough that she would wish me to offer them just the same.”

“We only did what any God-fearing people would.”

“I think you give others too much credit, ma’am. Yours was an uncommon kindness, and I would have you know that if you ever need any assistance that I would be honored to be of service.”

“That is not necessary, sir, but I thank you.”

“I am completely serious in my offer, Mrs. Collins. I am greatly in your debt. You have no idea what a horrible fate from which you have saved Georgiana. The man you saw her with, Mr. Wickham, had … he had convinced her to elope. What makes this doubly humiliating is that he is not unknown to me; indeed he grew up on my estate as his father was my father’s steward. George was also my father’s godson and enjoyed the bountiful favor of my father. Alas, the cur wasted Father’s affections and he wasted the opportunities so generously given him. He is a scoundrel of the worst kind, with no fortune left to his name. As a married woman, you can fully understand what I mean when I say that he can in no way be trusted with women, innocent or otherwise. He would not have made my sister a good husband, or even a respectable one. When I contemplate what my sister so narrowly avoided … can you not see why I am determined to offer my assistance, should you ever need it? Truly, you and Mr. Collins where my sister’s guardian angels.”

Elizabeth could see how affected he was.

“My sister Jane is the only person I would call and angel, Mr. Darcy. But thank you for explaining yourself. I can comprehend your motivations and accept their justice. Should I ever be in need, I shall seek your assistance. Yet I cannot foresee such a possibility. I have two fine sons, and another child on the way. My eldest is the heir to this estate. Through me my family, my sisters and my mother are assured of always having a home. I have no cause to repine.”

“Then I pray that my assistance will never be needed. Still, know that I am your friend, Mrs. Collins. You have won my loyalty.”

Elizabeth curtsied in acceptance. Her eyes shown in pleasure, and then she looked over Darcy’s shoulder and put her hand over her mouth to stay her mirth and pointed behind him with the other. “Perhaps then, since you are my family’s friend, you might like to push William.” Darcy turned and saw that the small boy had wondered over to a swing that hung from the branches of an ancient oak tree. The lad had somehow climbed on it, though the seat must have come up to his chin. He was valiantly trying to pump his legs to get the swing moving, but had not managed much success. Darcy grinned and in a few strides was behind the boy, gently pushing him.

“Not too high!” Elizabeth warned, but she need not have. Darcy was careful not to let the child into danger. He was ever watchful. William laughed in glee.

“Mama! Mama! Look at me!”

“I see you, William boy. You are higher than your mama! Mr. Darcy is an excellent pusher.”

“More!” William cried, and Darcy obliged, though still maintaining what he thought a safe height for the swing to rise.

Bingley, Jane and Miss Pope came upon them, drawn by sounds of laughter.

“Darcy! That reminds me remarkably of a similar swing at Pemberley. I don’t think I’ve ever jumped so…”

“Bingley!” Darcy interrupted his friend.

“What?” Darcy looked at him, willing him to understand.

“Mr. Bingley, my son is nearly four years old and thoughts of what a full grow adult likes to do on a swing are something I would like to avoid for a few years a least.”

“Oh… Right! Pardon me, Mrs. Collins.”

“I think William has had enough, Mr. Darcy.” Once Darcy had stopped the swing, amid protests from its occupant, Elizabeth was quick to try and distract her son. “It is time to see Cook. John will be up soon and you two can eat.”

William started to skip back towards the house. Without warning, he stopped and ran back to Darcy. He tugged on the tall man’s breaches and looked up. Darcy, ever the caring man, crouched down to look the child in the eye. At that the boy threw his arms around Darcy’s neck and gave him a hug. Just as quickly William released him.

“Thank you for pushing me. You are a very good pusher.”

“You are very welcome, Master William. Perhaps I can do it some other time?”

“Can he, Mama? And maybe Mr. Darcy can come swimming with us tomorrow? I bet he can swim good too.”

Elizabeth looked bemused at the pair. “Swim well, love. However, I do not think Mr. Darcy will be able to join us. I am sure he has other obligations, correct sir?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then can you come the next time? Mama is teaching me to float on my back.”

Darcy was extremely amused, if not a little embarrassed. “I would be honored, but I think your mother and I need to discuss this further before I say yes.”

“Good. I want you to come swimming with us.” And with that the rambunctious boy returned skipping to the house.

Darcy and Elizabeth’s companions, who had rejoined them, could no longer keep their laughter at bay. Darcy grinned and Elizabeth smiled ruefully. “Someday you will have children of your own and I will remember this and tease you unmercifully!” To which Jane laughed harder.

Eventually, their mirth was calmed and the party made its way back to the manor house, in their earlier parings.

“I cannot believe William asked you to go swimming with us!”

“He is too young to understand why it cannot be so.”

“He also remembers his father and I together teaching him.”

“Mr. Collins could swim?”

“Yes, my father insisted on it and taught him.”

“And yet he drowned.”

“I know. It makes no sense. But he was found with a bump on his head. He must have slipped and hit his head on the way into the water. That is what the people who found him thought.”

“But you do not?” He asked carefully.

“I am unsure. Oh, please forgive me. This is not a subject for proper conversation.”

“I thought we agreed I am your friend. Is this not the type of thing friends share?”

“Perhaps very good friends,” Elizabeth quipped. “Enough of that. I will explain to my precocious son that you cannot join us swimming.”

“If you wish, and your father agrees, maybe Mr. Bennet would come with us. He is the one who taught your husband after all.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Mr. Darcy, I begin to think you want to do it.”

“It certainly would be a unique experience for me. I had no idea Hertfordshire would turn out to be so adventurous.” His gallantry disarmed her.

“So be it, I will ask my father. Actually, he has talked about taking John out soon to begin teaching him. Perhaps another man present would be practical. Of course, this is all predicated on one small detail yet to be revealed.”

“And what would that be?”

“Only this, I assume you know how to swim?”

Darcy laughed again. “I grew up in the country, with many pounds on my estate. What kind master do you think I would make if I could not inspect EVERY inch of my property, Mrs. Collins?”

“A very deprived one. Every boy raised in the country should have the joy of learning to swim.”

“I have been deprived of very little in my life, I must admit.”

“Upon that, William is counting.”

Thus began a very unexpected friendship. The wealthy bachelor from Derbyshire and the beautiful widow of Longbourn.

5.

That evening, Darcy excused himself from his hosts to write a letter to his sister. Normally he would have stayed with the rest of the party, but he did not wish to chance anyone reading what he intended. Miss Bingley had a habit of looking over his shoulder while he wrote. For a woman so intent on showing her superior manners, she somehow thought that such actions were perfectly acceptable instead of unconsciously rude.

After sharpening several quills, he began to put onto paper that which he had considered since he left Longbourn.

Neitherfield Hall, Hertfordshire

23 October, 1811

My dearest sister,

Today I had finally had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Collins. You expressed your curiosity about the lady whilst I was in London and so I thought to give you details of our first encounter. After breakfast Bingley and I road over to Longbourn, her family’s estate. When we first arrived I was keenly disappointed that she was not present with the other ladies of the family to receive us. We were informed by Miss Bennet, her elder sister, that she was needed with her children and should join us soon. Thankfully, I did not have to wait long for her to appear. Such pleasure was nearly short-lived, as she would have left us again almost immediately after her elder son, young William Collins, slipped away from his room to find his mother. (I have learned that the lad is indeed nearly four years of age.) It seems we had called during the time when Mrs. Collins is normally at her son’s disposal. The lady would have taken him away had I not suggested a turn in the garden. Fortunately, the boy’s mother acquiesced to his plea to go outside with me. Bingley was more than happy to take Miss Bennet and Miss Pope further into the grounds allowing me to speak with Mrs. Collins whilst her son played not far from us.

Before I forget, I must digress to tell you that once again Bingley has found the most beautiful girl in the room and is, predictably, enchanted. I have to admit that Miss Bennet is as lovely woman I have ever seen, and I do not begrudge my friend his admiration. Time will tell if it will come to anything. I will watch over him as I always do and keep him from raising any expectations he is unready to fulfill. Enough of Bingley’s love life.

Looking back on it, I think the delay in speaking to Mrs. Collins was exactly what I needed. By the time we were far enough away from the other to converse, I found my usual verbal reticence had disappeared. Neither you nor I have ever been accused of being loquacious when meeting strangers and I know that my reserve can be misinterpreted as something less flattering. So imagine my surprise to find myself engrossed in deep conversation with a woman who, in all practical purposes, I had just met.

Had you been there in the garden, you would have wondered who was masquerading as your normally tongue-tied brother. Such freedom in my speech, however, led me to reveal more than I had intended to her. Here I must again stop, this time to ask your forgiveness. In my unprecedented moment of glibness, I divulged to my audience that which the scoundrel had tried to persuade you to do. On my honor, I had only meant to convince the lady of the sincerity of my gratefulness and asking her to accept my help, should ever the situation arise where she needed. Unfortunately I was carried away by my emotions in my argument. I am so very sorry, Georgiana, and I ask your pardon. I should never have revealed that which I know still embarrasses you. Please do not be uneasy about her breaking my confidence, for I feel that God has been very gracious to me in selecting the one person in England I do not fear will expose us. Given that Mrs. Collins is the one who convinced her husband to write to me out of her concern for you, I have every belief that my trust in her silence is well-placed. She already had proven her discernment in directing that fateful letter to me and not our aunt. Lady Catherine would have been the one to come for you. Such a thought makes me shiver still today. No doubt she would have leveraged such knowledge into forcing upon me a marriage to Cousin Anne to keep her silence. You know well my feelings on the intolerability of that match.

I do not know exactly what it is in Mrs. Collins that elicits such trust from me, but I must tell you what a delight it was to have an honest and open conversation with a woman of marriageable age that is not looking to capture my attention. We spoke of many things besides Ramsgate. Perhaps it was the black of her mourning attire, or the presence of her young son that put me at ease? I prefer to think it is her inner character shining through. Her eyes, as fine as I have ever beheld, are windows into her soul. It sounds so very clichéd, but it is true! If you had been there you too would have seen the love in her eyes as she beheld her oldest, and her amusement and mortification when the same such boy invited me to go swimming.

Yes, Sister, I am to join Master William and his Grandfather in an outing into a nearby pond! I admit that I am looking forward to our excursion. Little John Collins is to come as well. It should be an interesting time and two is a good age for a boy to learn to swim. Some of my fondest memories of Father are from outings to the west pond at Pemberley. I only hope the water is still warm. There is a decided chill in the evening air even now.

I think I made more than one friend today. Mrs. Collins has agreed with me that we should be friends, and I believe young William Collins would consider me his new friend, too. Who would have guessed that this trip into the “wilds of Hertfordshire” – as Caroline Bingley is wont to call it – would have brought about such a connection? I am glad of it, though. I never thought I would count a woman who is not family as a friend; I am delighted that I was mistaken.

I know you well enough to know that you will ready this letter and wonder at my words. And I also know that you will want to come to Neitherfield to join me. While I do miss you, the reasons for your sojourn in London with Mrs. Annesley remain. You need to be in the company of other young women your age. That can only happen with you in Town and me anywhere else. My absence from Darcy house’s drawing room helps ensures that those ladies who only call on you to gain an audience with me will stay away. So please, enjoy your outings and the friendships you are making. Many will last you a lifetime. Andrew will come and bother you enough to miss me. Our cousin has that gift with both of us, but he has been a wonderful guardian to you. He will see that you are not bored. Before you know it I will return and then we can retire to Pemberley until it is time to return for the season.

I forever remain your loving brother.

Fitzwilliam

Post Scriptum: As I re-read what I had written in preparation of sealing this missive, a profound thought came unbidden. I have even more to be grateful of from Mrs. Collins than I realized.

I would never have written such a letter to you before this summer. Ramsgate showed me that you were no longer the child I had always considered you. Indeed, you are on the cusp of adulthood and are already a lovely young woman. I was a fool not to notice. And while my guardianship of you necessitates a certain level of authority over you, it does not preclude me from acting as your brother as well. I was forced to listen to your reasons for trusting that man, and your willingness to become his wife. I was ashamed to find that had I created an environment where you were starved for signs of affection.

Since then, our relationship has grown to the point where I am eager to share my news, and more importantly, to share myself with you. Had the Collins’ letter not arrived, and you had left my protection, this or any other missive like it would not have been possible. I am afraid my resentment would have been set, and I doubt I would be able to write more than terse words to you. Instead, I have discovered the joy of sister I can confide in, and who will in turn confide in me. To consider how close I was to never experiencing that is almost too painful to bear.

So you see, we owe an even greater debt to this young widow than we knew.

F

Over the following days and weeks, Darcy found Mrs. Collins’ company infinitely more enjoyable than that of the ladies who resided at Neitherfield. He appreciated her intelligence and reveled in her wit. His visits always included time spent with William, and sometimes with young John. He became extremely fond of both boys, and began for the first time to understand the bond his father had forged with his godson and how it survived the disappointment of George’s later formed character. Though to be honest, his father never was exposed to the viscous side of young Wickham.

Mr. Bennet was greatly amused with Mr. Darcy’s offer to take his grandsons swimming with him. Even more surprising was Mr. Bingley instance on being included in the scheme.

Darcy laughed softly as young William and John pulled the Bennet family patriarch along.

“Come along, Grandfather!” the elder of the two small boys demanded.

“Are you so anxious to be wet?” the old man teased back, hastening his steps to match the boys at his sides, and careful not to let John fall.

When they came to the pond, Mr. Bennet helped his grandsons remove their clothing while the other men undressed.

“I will take John, if you would see to William, Mr. Darcy.”

“Certainly. Come with me Master William.”

Mr. Bennet and the groom had already stepped into the shallows when Darcy glanced back to see that his friend had yet to move.

“Are you coming Bingley?” That gentleman just stood looking very nervous.

Mr. Bennet called out in encouragement. “The water is not too cold, I assure you, sir.”

Bingley still would not move. “I … I …”

“I thought you wanted to come swimming?” Darcy asked, a bit annoyed.

“I did. That is, I want to. But … This is rather embarrassing to admit …”

“I think the lad is trying to tell you that he cannot swim.” Mr. Bennet replied, a hint of amusement in his voice.

“Bingley!”

“I grew up living in towns – both in the north and in London. I never had the opportunity!” Bingley cried.

Darcy sighed. “And I suppose you thought that if Master Jonathan was having a lesson you would prevail to have one too?”

Relieved that his friend seemed to understand him, Bingley grinned sheepishly while nodded his head vigorously.

“Mr. Darcy, my man can watch William if you want to look after our newly proclaimed initiate.”

“Are you certain? I do not wish to endanger the children to indulge an ill-timed impetuosity.”

“William swims well. He will be safe if Hal needs to help me with the littler one.”

“Very well. Come on Bingley. Do not just stand there like a simpleton now that you have revealed your true intent.”

Excited, Bingley quickly came to the water’s edge where Darcy waited for him.

“What do I do now?”

“Walk in with me. See Mr. Bennet? The water is shallow for quite a ways in. You will be safe.”

Bingley gingerly made his way out walking next to his friend, and extending his arms to help him keep his balance. Once they had reached Mr. Bennet. Both men looked to the older man for direction.

“Well, what next?” Bingley asked.

With a hint of mischief in his eyes, Mr. Bennet replied, “Why, you blow bubbles, sir.”

6.

The three men, along with the groom Hal, were able to take the boys out three times before the weather started to turn. Both Bingley and John had graduated to a dog-paddle, severely testing Darcy to not give into the impulse to relentlessly tease his host about the grace of his swimming proficiency.

Of course, no one knew what the men were up to other than Elizabeth, Mrs. Hill and Maggie. It was decided that what Mrs. Bennet did not know, would not hurt her. However, no one thought to tell William not to tell his grandmother. Fortune would shine on them once again as he did not betray his swimming companions until after it became too cold to swim. It was this lack of the activity that finally gave away their secret. Mrs. Bennet took the news to be a harbinger of future scenes of domestic bliss for her oldest daughter and Mr. Bingley. For some reason she never concocted similar expectation for Elizabeth and Darcy. Perhaps the woman felt that such a man would not be interested in a woman who had already buried one husband.

The entire Longbourn and Netherfield parties were regularly thrown together at local functions. Miss Jane Bennet had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bingley in those more formal circumstances. They were able to dance again, much to Jane’s enjoyment. Of course, Elizabeth, still in deep mourning, was unable to attend. However, her mother, her sisters, and the ever useful Miss Pope where bountiful sources of information. She grew more and more convinced that at last Jane’s heart had been touched. Elizabeth’s marriage to her cousin had enabled her to exact a promise from her elder sister to not rush into a marriage of her own, but instead to wait until she found a man she could equally respect and admire, and who could afford to support her at least in a manner near what she was used to.

Thus, when Jane had been invited to dine with Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst while the gentleman dined with the officers, it was Miss Pope that insisted that Jane be given the carriage so as not to be caught in the rain. When Jane fell ill, it was Miss Pope that attended her at Netherfield and brought her home four days later – and much to Mrs. Bennet’s chagrin.

Even with Jane in residence recovering from her cold at Netherfield, Darcy still made time to come to Longbourn to see the boys. Elizabeth was grateful to hear of the improving condition of her sister, and Darcy was happy to relieve her of her anxiety.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth had been unable to keep her mother and other sisters from visiting Jane, but Darcy assured her that Miss Pope kept the situation in hand.

“I have Lady Catherine to thank for Emily. I would never have met her had not your aunt given the living to Mr. Collins.”

“Miss Pope seems an imminently sensible woman. I can see why you chose to forgo a governess for now in favor of her influence.”

“Though she has not been at Longbourn for very long, I am appreciative of the changes her presence has brought. Even my mother is pleased that she is here.”

Darcy thought it best to leave that comment unanswered. Elizabeth had previously told Darcy of her agreement with her father to hire Miss Pope. It was another of their improper conversations. However, Elizabeth felt that her friend and erstwhile benefactor deserved to know why his two little protégées lacked a governess where one was rightfully expected. He was displeased when he discovered it, and Elizabeth was too jealous of his regard to let him think she did not know what her children required. It did not take Darcy long to see the wisdom of her choice and to praise her for implementing her plan. The boys were delightful children and he could not imagine any improvement would be wrought bringing a governess. However, he did wonder how Mrs. Collins would fare once her child was born. Who would look after Masters William and John when their mother was seeing to their new sibling? Darcy began to consider how he could be of service to Mrs. Collins then, and, more importantly, whether or not she would accept his help.

Elizabeth interrupted his musings. “William wishes to invite you to his birthday party next week.”

“Which day?”

“Thursday afternoon. Two days after Mr. Bingley’s ball. Our party is nothing too grand. Some cake a punch and a few presents I daresay. His grandfather enjoys spoiling him whenever I allow it.”

Darcy found great humor in this last statement. “I was given to believe that all grandparents desire to spoil their grandchildren.”

“So my father tells me.”

“It is not every day that a lad turns four.”

“Indeed not!”

“I have known him since he was four years old.” Darcy said cryptically.

“Obliviously, since you just met him less than 2 months ago.”

“I beg your pardon; I was just remembering something I overheard my housekeeper at Pemberley say one day.”

“Pardon?”

Darcy laughed. “I have lost you. Let me explain and I think you will enjoy the humor of story.

“My estate, Pemberley, has long been open to visitors wishing for a tour of the house and grounds. As long as it does not interfere without daily lives, we’ve indulged the public’s curiosity.”

“Such as I have heard they do at Blenhiem and Chatsworth. Just how grand is your estate sir?” Elizabeth had looked for a chance to ask him this before; at last her curiosity would be satisfied.

“Larger than Rosings.”

“How much?” She raised her one eyebrow in challenge.

Darcy grew a bit embarrassed. “Twice the size of the house.”

Elizabeth’s eye grew large; the import of his confession changing the mood. “Why even bother with a family like mine? Four or five Longbourns would fit inside Rosings.”

“If I only associate with families who owned grand estates, I would not have many friends.” Darcy said, trying to make light of the suddenly serious conversation.

“And tell me how many people you call friend who own estates the size of Longbourn?”

“Including my neighbors?”

“No.”

“Just you, madam. And your family.” She just stared at him in disbelief. “You have made your point. But you are also distracting me from my story about my housekeeper.”

“Very well, you may continue.”

“My cousin, who is a colonel in His Majesty’s army, came to visit me and my sister. We were headed out for a ride when we heard Mrs. Reynolds, my housekeeper, speaking to some visitors. They must have asked about the owner of the house because my housekeeper said, ‘I have known him since he was four years old. The sweetest child you would ever want. Never lost his temper. And he’s turned out to be a fine young gentleman. The best landlord and master you could ever find.’ You may wonder at my memory, and you can thank my cousin. I drug him from the group. Once we were safely away, I thought he was never going to stop laughing. He would pitch his voice to sound like Mrs. Reynolds and kept repeating her words. Later, he even had the audacity to ask her about what she told people when she was giving tours. She was very happy to tell my cousin that she never hesitated to praise me.”

By this point in his recitation, Elizabeth was trying very hard to mask her mirth, her earlier uneasiness vanished as Darcy intended. Failing, she laughingly replied, “You poor man, to be embarrassed by your housekeeper. She has known you since you were four years old?”

“Yes, she came to work for us when I was still in the nursery. I have known her all my life that I can remember.”

“And are you a good landlord and master?”

“I would hope that I am. My father was a very good man, and he taught me that a content, fairly treated servant or tenant was a loyal, productive servant or tenant. While I admit I do often take for granted the presence of so many who serve me, I do understand that they are human beings, and deserve to be treated better than animals, as some rich men are prone to do. I would be a hard man, indeed, if I did not show compassion and charity to those with less than I.”

“As you do with us?” Elizabeth asked softly. Her mood yet again changing. She inwardly cursed her rolling emotions. At least when this last pregnancy was finally over she would not have to worry about such swings again.

Darcy was a bit hurt by her insinuation, but he could understand why she said it. They both knew they were of very different spheres. He responded kindly.

“You are my friend, not my employee. I came to you, remember? I enjoy spending time with you and your family and I am very honored that Master William wanted to invite me to his birthday celebration.”

“Mr. Bingley is invited too.”

“They do enjoy splashing each other.”

“I would not know,” Elizabeth answered dryly. She had only heard tales of the treks to the pound with two gentleman.

“I did not mean to embarrass you with my story.”

“I know you did not. I did enjoy the picture of your cousin teasing you.”

“You are most generous with your forgiveness. I was very insensitive. I apologize.”

“No offence was taken.”

“Thank you.” Darcy wished to change the subject. “What would William like for his birthday?”

“You need not bring anything. I am sorry if you thought I meant that when I mentioned presents.”

“I want to give him something. I will extend the invitation to Bingley and between the two of us, I think we can come up with something appropriate.”

Elizabeth had no doubt that he would.

7.

Mr. Bingley again decided to join Darcy on his call to Longbourn; he wished to be assured of Miss Bennet’s continued good health and to personally accept the invitation to William Collins birthday party. Riding through Meryton, they spied the Miss Bennets. Mrs Collins was with them. A widow in deep mourning could not freely attend the social events in the neighborhood, but even she needed to visit the shops for certain necessities.

The gentleman stopped to greet the women. It was then that he took closer note of the men with whom the spoke. A couple wore the red coats of the militia stationed in the area. The lone male in civilian dress was someone well known to Darcy, and a man he just as soon would wish never to meet again.

What on earth was George Wickham doing in Meryton? Darcy could see that Mrs. Collins was struggling to keep her features neutral, but that she was uncomfortable. The cur was looking at her, at all the Bennet ladies, in his normal charming manner. He very much doubted George recognized Mrs. Collins. From their conversations, Darcy had learned that Collins had only been in Wickham’s company when they were introduced, and not again after they had sent their desperate express to London. His manners did not betray any recollection of meeting the beautiful young woman. Darcy was relieved of that, but still very unhappy with this latest development.

At that moment the party turned to acknowledge the newcomers. The new man’s face turned red; Darcy’s was already white with fury. Wickham tipped his hat and farewelled the women. With that he scurried away before the men could say anything more.

<<>>

Preparations where underway for the ball Mr. Bingley was hosting at Netherfield. He had promised Miss Lydia Bennet, that she could name the date of the ball once Jane had recovered. Lydia insisted it be as soon as possible, and Bingley laughingly agreed. The 26th of November was chosen and the white soup prepared. Bingley personally delivered the invitation to Longbourn, taking the opportunity to engage Jane for the first two sets. Darcy had come as well to see William – and the boy’s mother.

He was surprised at the pensiveness of Mrs. Collins.

“Are you regretting not attending the ball, Madam?”

“What? Oh no. I do not have the stamina to spend the evening dancing. I am afraid this little one tires me and I am very ready to greet my bed at night.”

“I sincerely hope you are not over-taxing yourself. Perhaps you need a governess after all?”

She laughed lightly, “No, we shall manage. My sisters help, as do Maggie and Mrs. Hill.”

“Then why are you so … quiet? I thought you would be as excited as the rest of the females of the household? Even Miss Pope smiled when Bingley delivered the invitation.”

Elizabeth again grew serious. She looked at her new friend, as if she were trying to decide on something. At last she seemed satisfied and drew in a deep breath. “I wonder if Mr. Bingley knows what he is about? Opening the ball with her will lead to certain … expectations for them both. You and I both know what will happen should he suddenly decide not to continue.”

“I had not thought … no, I had, but chose to ignore it.” Darcy stopped talking, suddenly as serious as his companion. “I have seen Bingley in love before, many times in fact. However, by this point he is usually on his way out of love.”

“You paint a very poor portrait of your friend. Are my concerns then valid? Should I warn her off? I do not want to see my sister hurt.”

Darcy took a moment to compose his thoughts before he answered. “Miss Bennet is very different than those other women, very composed and serene, no false artifice at all. She is the kind of woman who could be the making of my friend, I think, if she were to return his admiration.”

“If?” And here Elizabeth too paused, once again seeming to decide how she should proceed. “I assure you Mr Darcy, I have never seen my sister so fascinated by a man as she is now. While I own that it might be difficult for others to tell, she is great danger of falling in love with Mr. Bingley, once she is assured of his character.”

“Bingley is every bit a gentleman.” Darcy said in defense of his friend.

“So it would appear sir.” Elizabeth sighed. “May I importune on you further?”

Darcy held out his hand gesturing for her to continue walking … and talking.

“After I agreed to marry Mr. Collins, Jane and I had a long talk. You must understand, my marriage was a god-send for my sisters. With me ss the future mistress of Longbourn, they would never have to worry about having a roof over their heads once my father was gone. I was content to be their source of comfort, and my late husband was a good man who treated my very well, and he gave me two wonderful sons, with another child on its way whom I will treasure just as much as my first two children.”

“However?”

“Given the choice, I would do it all again … However, I did not want any of my sisters to feel that they too had to marry the first man who asked them out of a sense of familial duty. And so I made Jane, who is very dear to me, promise me that she would take her time and look for a man whom she could respect and admire as much as he would respect and admire her. One would think that Jane, who sees the good in all she meets, would have found such a man long ago.

She has not, Mr. Darcy. Not in five years has she been as enamored with a man as she is with Mr. Bingley. The years of waiting have instilled a caution in her that I would not have thought possible, yet it is so. Is there any wonder then that she is so guarded with her affections? I agree with her hesitation. Is it so awful to be careful, especially when one is as reserved as she?”

“No, it is not. I am relieved to hear your sister holds my friend in high regard, especially in light of your observation of raising expectations.” Both were silent as they watched William dig in the dirt. “He will be filthy when he is done.”

“Quite, but he is enjoying himself.”

“Will the gardener be upset?”

Elizabeth laughed. “Not at all. I asked him if there was a spot where William might dig and he offered this location, and he also turned the soil so that William would have an easier time of it. We both believe there is nothing quite like a spade and soft soil to inspire a child’s imagination.”

“I suppose this is a better introduction to a shovel than mine; my father had me mucking out stalls.”

“Oh, he will have that pleasure soon enough. Father intends to teach him to ride next summer and he informed me that one of the first things William will learn is how to care for his horse, including keeping a clean stall.”

True to Elizabeth’s prediction, the boy soon explained that he was digging the foundations for a castle he planned to build, complete with tunnels and a dungeon. He had not tired of his task when his mother told him he had done enough for the day. In answer to his protests, Elizabeth assured him that he would be allowed to continue on the morrow, much to William’s delight.

“Will Mr. Darcy help me the next time?”

“I am afraid Mr. Darcy is too tall to be able to dig out the tunnels. His arms are too long.”

Darcy had to bite back a laugh; the child looked thoughtfully at his arm which were crossed over his chest and then back to his “fortifications”.

“You are right Mama, his arms are too big!”

“I would not want to damage your work, Master William, but thank you for thinking of me.”

“You play good for a grown up, Mr. Darcy.”

Darcy bowed, “Well, not good. But thank you.”

Elizabeth’s laugh was melodious. “And now, you scamp, present yourself at the back door. Do not, I repeat, do not go inside until Maggie or Mrs. Hill comes for you. I do not want to get on Mrs. Hill’s bad side for allowing a pile of dirt of a son into the house alone!”

William ran on ahead as he was told, smiling on the way and calling for Mrs. Hill.

“I hope I did not offend you by correcting him.”

“Not at all; you only reinforce what I have told him several times of late. For some reason he struggles with those two words.”

“He is a fine lad,” Darcy observed once again. “You have every right to be proud.”

“I am. Though, poor John will be very disappointed to have missed out on the fun. He loves to dig as much as his brother.”

“I have a feeling he will be indulged soon enough.”

“Yes!”

Darcy offered her his arm. She took it and they walked slowly back.

“We have not spoken of Mr. Wickham. When I saw you Tuesday, I knew you recognized him.”

“I do not think I will be able to forget him any time soon.”

“He though, appeared not to recognize you.”

“I thought so too, but then last evening my sisters spoke with him at a card party at my aunt’s in Meryton. Jane said that he inquired after me, which she found strange. I do not trust him.”

“Have you any reason to think he might harm you? If so I will confront him and tell him to be on his way.”

“Heavens no! I am not afraid of him. It is only the idea of such an appearance of goodness can mask the presence of a cad.”

Darcy grew serious. “He is that and more, Mrs. Collins. I spoke of him before, I but I did not mention the debts he left behind at school and latter in Lambton, the village closest to Pemberley.”

“Lambton?! My Aunt Gardiner spent several years of her childhood in Lambton!”

They stopped their stroll as Elizabeth expressed her delight.

“It is a delightful village. Your aunt is a blessed woman.”

“So she tells me, she proclaims Derbyshire the best of all countries.”

“She will have no argument from me. But we digress. I worry about Wickham. Why ever did he want to know more about you?”

“Know thy enemies?”

“Perhaps. Still, it makes me uneasy.”

“Your words about his past debts make me uneasy. My husband served as a curate here before we moved to Rosings. I looked after many of those merchants as his wife, as it were. They cannot afford to be taken in by him.”

“I will speak to them, warn them about extending credit…”

Here Elizabeth laughed and squeezed her companion’s arm. “Oh, leave that to me. A member of the community, the former curate’s wife, has much more sway than you. A word here and there, to the right women, will see that whatever mischief Wickham can concoct will not succeed. He and his fellow soldiers will have to show their brass if they wants to do business in this country.”

“And the young ladies?”

Elizabeth frowned. “Is that truly the way of it too?” Darcy nodded. “Yes, I will include that warning as well.”

The subject was at an end. Darcy started them walking again. Wishing to lighten the mood, he quipped, “Had anyone told me I would be willingly watching a boy dig in the dirt, I would have scoffed.”

“Undoubtabley.” Elizabeth answered, amused.

“And even worse, that I would be playing matchmaker for Bingley!” Darcy proclaimed

“You approve?” He knew then that she realized he held some sort of sway over his friend.

“Your assurances have answered my reservations. Should Bingley ask my opinion, I will point out the merits of the match. But, in all fairness, I will point out the evils as well. Your sister, while a delightful woman, brings little in wealth or connections.”

Elizabeth sighed. “Yes, I am well aware of those things.”

“I would not consider myself a true friend if I did not point out the advantages as well as the disadvantages of a potential union with Miss Bennet. As a matter of fact, I think a discussion on this subject is long overdue. Your point from the beginning of our conversation is germane. Their opening the ball together will be much talked about. I want assurances from him that he understands the position he has placed himself in before he is in too deep to retreat – for both their sakes.”

“That will be some conversation!”

“Well, Mrs. Collins, I have had much practice. As amazing as my time spent with young William is, even more so are the conversations I have with his mother.”

Elizabeth had the grace to blush. “I have not meant…”

“No, do not apologize! Our talks have not been one-sided. Astonishing? Yes. Invigorating? Absolutely. Delightful? Most definitely. But monologues? No.”

“And on that note,” they reached the pair of doors leading into the back side of Longbourn, “let us rejoin the others.”

8.

That evening Darcy made good on his promise to confront his friend.

“Do you have any idea what the neighborhood will think when they see you standing up with Miss Bennet to open the ball?”

“I had not thought … I only wish to dance with her.”

“That may be your wish, but it will be seen as more.”

Bingley fell heavily into a chair, the weight of the conversation forcing a confession. “I think I may be falling in love with her, Darcy.”

“You fall in an out of love with women all the time.”

“This is different. She … consumes my thoughts. When I am in her presence, I feel … giddy … content … confident? I feel like I have become a different man.”

Darcy did not answer; he took a seat across from his friend.

“I am no expert in choosing a wife, but it seems to me that you are on your way to doing so.”

“Will she have me?”

“Oh no, you are not going to get me to speculate on that. I would rather ask, will she be able to refuse you if you continue on this course? She has no money, no connections.”

“You are not helping!’

“I am trying to make sure you know what you are doing, and the evils of such a match.”

“Then you think I should withdraw?”

“I did not say that either. Bingley, I have learned that the worst thing you can do when faced with an important decisions – and marriage is about the most important decisions you will ever make – that the worst thing you can do is to not take the time to consider every side of the issue that you possible can before you come to a conclusion. In other words, look at everything about Miss Bennet, and then you will better know if she is the one. If you can overlook her lack of fortune and connections, confident that she is worth more than what you might lose marrying the girl, then you will know if she could become Mrs. Charles Bingley.”

“I have your blessing?”

Darcy wanted to strangle his friend at that moment. He would try one final tact. “I will support you if you believe she is worth pursuing and I will leave that decision entirely up to you. This is something only you can decide. Do not rely on me, your sisters, Mrs. Collins, Mrs. Bennet or anyone to tell you what you should do. Miss Bennet is the woman you would be marrying and she is the only one who can assure you that you are doing the right thing.”

Bingley said nothing for a few moments. “You have given me much to think on. Do you mind if I leave you?”

Darcy put up his hand. “Stay. I will go.” Before he left, he had one more word for Bingley. “Bingley, if it is any consolation, Mrs. Collins did say that Jane promised her not to marry the first man to ask her just for the sake of being married. I think that if you did decide to offer her, she would only accept if she wanted to be your wife.”

“How on earth did your come to discuss such a thing?” Bingley brow creased. “Darcy, is there something I should know about you and Mrs. Collins?”

“No, no. We are only friends, as amazing as that sounds. I really do owe her much, but all she would ask of me is my friendship. I gladly give it. She is a remarkable woman and I am honored to be counted amongst those she trusts.”

Bingley, his imagination now engaged, did not appear entirely convinced of the plautonic intent of Darcy’s relationship with the beautiful widow. And for the first time, neither was Fitzwilliam Darcy.

<<>>

The English weather prohibited the gentleman from Neitherfield from calling at Longbourn. Such a succession of rain settled in that the ladies’ shoe roses were got by proxy, as it was too wet and muddy to walk into Meryton.

Elizabeth was happy to wave goodbye to the family’s carriage when it departed.

“At last,” she sighed aloud. Being a spectator to the chaos the house-full of ladies created preparing for a private ball was exhausting. She had spent most of the day with her sons, freeing the servants and Miss Pope to help prepare her sister. The ladies’ companion had finally convinced Mary to pick the piece of music for which she was the most proficient, rather than the overly difficult one she had not begun to master. Together Miss Pope, Elizabeth and Jane had cajoled Lydia and Kitty into promising more demure behavior and Elizabeth had pointedly warned them about indulging in too much wine. Mrs. Bennet was too concerned about Jane completing her toilet to notice any attempts to moderate her younger daughters’ manners by her widowed one.

Mrs. Collins could tell her father wished to remain home. She laughed at the memory of his grim, wistful visage as he looked back at the house before climbing aboard his coach. However much she could commiserate with his desire to miss out on the ball, she did not feel too much compassion. It was his duty to her sisters to escort the family to what should be the event of the year in the country. Elizabeth understood all too well the sacrifice that could be duty to one’s family.

She checked on the boys in the nursery; they were fast asleep as she expected. They only child awake, it would seem. was the one within her. Elizabeth tried to sit and read, but her unborn little one was up and moving about, making it difficult to concentrate on anything other than her future.

Up to this moment, Elizabeth Collins had refused to think about the dangers that lie before her in her childbed. She had born two sons without an inordinate amount of concern. However, each birth was different, and a woman’s most dangerous time in life was when she bore children. What would happen to her little ones should something happen to her? She knew her family would raise them, but her father was aging, and Elizabeth doubted whether he would survive to William’s majority. Without a firm custodian of the estate, Elizabeth worried about how her mother would most assuredly spend more than she aught. Her father had told her that her uncle Philips would see to things, but he had his own family and law practice to oversee. Where would that leave William and John? Where would that leave her sisters?

Despairing of find help from anyone but her uncles, an unbidden thought came to mind. She knew a gentleman who had shown himself a conscientious guardian and friend. Mr. Darcy had offered his help and at last Elizabeth knew what she felt comfortable asking of him. Her children could want no better guardian, and Longbourn no better steward – though she knew he would hire a man to administer the day to day operation, if it ever should come to that.

She would speak of her ruminations to her father on the morrow, after everyone had recovered from their night of revelry. With this course of action decided, Elizabeth and the babe within her were finally able to rest.

When her family returned in the early hours of the morning in noisy commotion, Elizabeth slept through it all.

<<>>

The Bennet party was among the last to leave Netherfield. Darcy stood at the window overlooking the drive. He watched his host hand Miss Bennet into her carriage and then stand alone following the imagined progress of the receding vehicle long after it was lost in the gloom of the night. Tomorrow Darcy would need to have another serious conversation with his friend. The time had come for Bingley to act or retreat, and unfortunately both paths were filled with difficulties.

His evening had been spent in the service of Charles Bingley, though Darcy doubted that man knew it. He had fulfilled his obligations and danced with his hostess Miss Bingley, and then with her sister Mrs. Hurst. He had also claimed a dance from Miss Bennet and afterwards had not intended to dance again. Supper changed his mind.

While they ate, Darcy watched in fascinated horror as Mrs. Bennet held court, loudly proclaiming to all who would hear her how delightful it would be to have another daughter well married to a man of 5000 a year. Miss Pope tried several times to distract the lady, but to no avail. Soon Darcy saw a familiar look of resignation and defeat on the young lady’s face. Though aghast at the words of the older lady, Darcy noted that her husband had done nothing to stop it, seemingly amused at the display. Thankfully Miss Bennet was too engrossed in conversation with her dinner partner – the ever increasingly infatuated Bingley – to notice her mother’s unseemly display. Miss Kitty and Miss Lydia become increasingly exuberant, no doubt helped by the wine plied on them by a few roguish officers from the regiment of militia currently wintering in nearby Meryton. Only Miss Mary seemed to recognize how poorly her family was acquitting itself, though she certainly rushed to the piano forte to exhibit after Miss Bingley has entertained the company.

When the food was cleared and the dancing resume, Darcy took pity on the young companion and asked her if she would stand up with him. Clearly surprised, it took Miss Pope a few moments to answer him.

“I am not inclined to dance tonight, Mr. Darcy. I do thank you for the honor of your request.”

“Then may I keep you company for the next set?”

“I would like that, sir.”

Darcy brought her some punch, and then they found a pair of chairs that were unoccupied.

“Mrs. Collins said she met you while she lived in Kent.” Darcy said to begin the conversation.

“Yes, I was the governess for the Lord and Lady Metcalf.”

“Do you find Mrs. Collins a better mistress than they?” Darcy saw the look of shock on the woman’s face. “Mrs. Collins has told me the circumstances of your employment.”

“Then you know my charges are her three youngest sisters.” Miss Pope sighed heavily, looking to the line of dancers and seeing Lydia and Kitty giggling. “Despite this evening’s wretched performance which you have undoubtedly observed, I had thought I was making progress.”

He could hear how truly mortified she was and tried to relieve some of her distress. “Mrs. Collins speaks very highly of you. Sometimes extraordinary events prompt exceptional behavior.”

“Exceptionally bad, you mean.” She said ruefully.

Respecting her candidness he replied, “The Lady Catherine de Bourgh is my aunt, Miss Pope. And while I do not wish to speak ill of any family member, I am not insensible to the fact that her ladyship likes to get her way and is not easily gainsaid.”

Miss Pope smiled, finally relaxing for the first time that evening. She had too many experiences with Lady Catherine to misunderstand his intent. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy.”

They continued to speak of mutual acquaintances in Kent, and then of Mrs. Collins.

“I have the highest respect for Mrs. Collins.” She said with some amount of vehemence. “She is one of the most capable women I know. She is a very devoted mother and was very good at managing her husband.”

“I never had the opportunity to meet that gentleman. Our paths never crossed,” he confessed.

“Mr. Collins greatly esteemed his noble patroness.” She said with a meaning Darcy understood. Only a weak-minded man would not find his aunt’s normal behavior bordering on rudeness.

“And Mrs. Collins?”

“Mrs. Collins kept a fine house and was willing to listen to Lady Catherine’s advice when it was pertinent. And she was interested in helping the families of the parish. What her husband might have lacked in sermon making, she made up for in practical demonstrations of Christian generosity. The neighborhood was sorry to see her and the children leave.”

When the dance was over, Darcy was very glad to have asked the lady to dance, and even more pleased that she had declined. He had learned much about Mrs. Collins, and of her dead husband.

9.

The late night before meant that the residents of Netherfield did not see each other until the next afternoon. Darcy had arisen and eaten well before any other members of his party. He had just ordered his horse readied, not expecting to see his host for a while, when that man appeared.

“Bingley! I did not envision you up so early today!”

His companion seemed agitated. “I just received an urgent request from Town. I hope to leave within the hour.”

“Whatever is the matter?”

“The business I had hoped to delay until Friday will not wait. There is a dashed large amount of money involved. I must be away! I hope you will extend my regrets to Master William tomorrow as well as present him with my gift. My man managed to find a bilbocatch for the lad.”

“Of course. Let me send word to the stables that my ride is delayed and I will stay with you while you eat.”

After sending word of the change in plans, as well as the need to ready Bingley’s carriage, the two men were back in the breakfast room.

Darcy realized that he needed to say his peace to his friend quickly, to give him time to think about an answer while he was in London.

“I know your mind is on this business of yours, Bingley, but I need to talk to you about something else that is just as important to your future.”

Bingley looked at him for a moment, before his face softened. “Miss Bennet.”

“Yes. I doubt you heard all the talk last night, but everyone is speculating on your future with the young lady.”

“I imagine they have all sorts of things to gossip about.”

“Not like this. Bingley, I am afraid the time has come for you to make your intentions completely clear. When you return you need to either openly pursue marriage or you need to leave the poor girl alone. If you do not, you will be exposing yourself to the censure for caprice and instability and Miss Bennet to the neighborhood’s derision for disappointed hopes.”

Bingley shook his head. “I do not know if I am ready for this.”

Darcy refused to relent.

“Your attentions to the young lady leave you no choice. You are a gentleman of honor; now you must act accordingly. It is your own doing. And Bingley, we have already spoken of the ills of such an alliance, as well as the possible joys.”

Bingley sighed, “I know. This is happening too fast.”

Darcy wanted to give his friend hope for a positive resolution. “Do take heart, old man. I truly believe the lady in question will not accept you if you have not touched her heart.”

Immediately Bingley brightened on the reminder. “Thank you for that. And now I must finish this food and ready my papers. Tomorrow promises to be an eventful day. I shall return by Saturday at the latest.”

“Hopefully a richer man!”

“In more ways than one. I appreciate your concern. You have once again proven yourself a true friend by speaking the hard truths.”

“While not always my pleasure, it is my honor,” Darcy replied wryly.

The two men then changed the subject and spoke of their plans for the coming weeks until it was time to Bingley to depart and Darcy to go for his delayed ride.

<<>>

Elizabeth had to wait until after noon to speak with her father. She had spent the morning with her sons, trying to keep them from waking the rest of the house. It was not easy when they awoke not all that long after the participants of the ball had finally gone to bed.

She cornered her father in his bookroom while the boys were asleep in the nursery.

“You should enjoy these last months of all your children napping in the afternoon. William will outgrow it soon.”

“I am trying to postpone the inevitable as long as possible.”

“You cannot stop children from growing. As a father of five I should know.” Her father sounded a bit wistful to Elizabeth.

She took this as a sign that she should tell him of her determinations of the even before.

Mr. Bennet listened patiently until his daughter finished. “I am not sure I like you thinking so much of our mortality.”

“The events of this year will not allow me to ignore it, Papa.” Elizabeth retorted quietly.

He pinched his upper nose and sighed. “No, they will not. Very well, I concede that contingencies for your children’s guardianship should be made. But are you certain you can trust Mr. Darcy? He is an acquaintance of less than two months. He might not agree to your request.”

“I feel certain that we can trust him and that he will grant my petition.”

Elizabeth then explained their first meeting and his promise of assistance.

Mr. Bennet was surprised at her revelations. “Well, well. I have watched your friendship develop and have wondered at the cause of it. Now I can understand why. I still say we should investigate him before you approach. Your Uncle Gardiner can make a few discrete inquiries in Town. One advantage to his being in trade is that he can ask other tradesmen questions that a gentleman like I cannot.”

“Such as?”

“Does the man pay his bills on time? Is he honest in his business dealings? Word gets around, my dear. No one wants to lose their shirt because they placed their trust in someone unworthy.”

Elizabeth proclaimed, “I had hoped to ask him tomorrow at William’s birthday party.”

Mr. Bennet nodded, and took a few moments to respond. “The fact alone that the man agreed to attend should answer most of my misgivings, but I still think we should contact my Brother Gardiner. Ultimately, though, it is your decision.”

Elizabeth appreciated her father’s remarks. She admitted that his reasoning was sound, and that her children’s future was worth the due diligence he was advocating.

“Will you write Uncle a letter?”

“Of course.”

“And send it today?”

“I am not that dilatory a correspondent!” Elizabeth inclined her head forward looked at him, raising her eyebrows. “Not always!” he said, knowing that his daughter was correct but ready to do his duty in a prompt manner this time. “Now get along with you so I may write to your uncle.”

Elizabeth was thankful for his action; he was not always one who was concerned with his family’s future. At least, not before William Collins came to Longbourn five years previous. Her life was not the only one changed that day, though it was the one altered most.

<<>>

Fitzwilliam Darcy was announced to the inhabitants of Longbourn’s parlor. William Collins, now four years of age, was on his feet to greet his friend, stopping briefly to offer a bow to the tall man from Derbyshire. It took all of Darcy’s years of practice to return the bow solemnly. However, he could not disguise the mirth in his eyes.

The child looked around Darcy, searching. “Where is Mr. Bingley?”

Darcy quickly dropped to his knee so he could look the boy in the eye. “Mr. Bingley received and urgent letter yesterday. He left for London shortly after. He was very reluctant to go, not wishing to miss this party, Master William. But before his left he charged me with delivering his apologies, and…”

The lad had not noticed how Mr. Darcy’s hand had remained behind his back. At that moment he brought his arm around the front and handed William a package.

The boy’s eyes grew wide and he excitedly asked, “Can I open it now?” They turned towards William’s mother, both imploring her with their eyes.

Elizabeth laughed, “Come over here and let us take a look at whatever Mr. Bingley has sent with Mr. Darcy.” William wasted no time sitting on the floor at his mother’s feet, tearing away at the wrappings.

“A ballocatch!”

“Bilbocatch,” Elizabeth corrected.

“My very own bilbocatch,” he said in awe then went to hug Mr. Darcy, who was standing to the side, about his legs.

“Please tell Mr. Bingley that this is my favorite toy ever!”

Darcy laughed, “I certainly will. I know he was disappointed not to be here to give it to you himself, but he did not wish to make you wait until he returned.”

“When will Mr. Bingley come back to Netherfield, sir?” Jane asked.

Darcy had not been paying attention to William’s oldest aunt, but he gave her his full consideration following her inquiry. “When he left, it was his intent to return on Saturday. Of course, there is always the possibility that his business will not be concluded tomorrow as he wished.”

“He will be missed while he is away.” Jane replied. Darcy saw for a moment how pleased she was to hear his news of his host’s impending return, after appearing discomforted following her question. All too soon her features were schooled back to the serene look he had always observed in her, erasing all evidence of her true feelings.

Darcy decided not to tell her that he had left Netherfield that morning just before Miss Bingley and the Hursts had departed for London. He did not wish to pain the young lady before him. In vain Caroline Bingley had tried to convince him that Miss Bennet was the sort of woman he had grown accustomed to separating from her brother. Darcy disagreed with her assessment of Miss Bennet. Jane Bennet, while the daughter of an insignificant country squire, was not the same shallow, fickle young woman with whom Bingley often found himself in love with – and just as quickly not. And while Miss Bennet would undoubtedly make a prudent choice when it came time for her to take a husband, a rich young man was preferable to a poor one after all, and that one detail should not be held against her. Darcy did not believe her to be a fortune hunter. In fact, the more he thought about it the more persuaded Darcy became that having such a steady character as a wife might just be the making of Charles Bingley.

Young William was delighted with his gift, and soon had his two youngest aunts playing with him until one perilous moment when a prized vase was jostled and the youths were ordered to take their game either outside or up to the nursery. They chose the former.

The three left and the others remained behind. Now that the source of excitement had gone, a sleepy young John was content for the moment to remain in his mother’s lap. Darcy thought the tableau enchanting and took a seat near the pair. They chatted for a few minutes.

“I brought a gift for Master William as well,” he confessed speaking softly, noticing the child’s eyelids blinking heavily; he would be asleep before long.

“That was completely unnecessary, but very generous of you.”

Darcy smirked. “You may change your mind when you know what I have brought. Actually, it is a gift meant for both boys, though I think it wise to wait a while before that little one,” Darcy nodded towards John, “is allowed to play with it.”

Elizabeth looked at her friend expectantly, her eyes betraying her curiosity. He took pity on her, knowing she was trying very hard not to ask what it was that he had brought.

“I believe four years of age is old enough to enjoy a set of toy soldiers.” He enjoyed the look of disbelief on her face.

“I do not know what to say,” Elizabeth finally managed. “I fear Mr. Bingley’s gift will quickly be forgotten,” she added, chagrinned.

“Which is why I left it in the entry so you may present it to him later.”

“But he will not be able to thank you,” she said with feeling, unwilling for her friend to forgo the expression of joy such a gift would surely produce.

Darcy smiled, “His earlier display of gratitude was more than enough, even if I was the surrogate giver then. No, it is best this way. You will be better able to establish any rules you wish for determining when and where he will be allowed to play with them. Trust me, if he is anything like my young cousins, he will want to take them everywhere. You will also be better able to emphasize that though I gave them to him on his birthday; it really is a gift for him and his brother.”

Jonathon Collins lay limp in his mother’s arms, having falling asleep during their hushed exchange.

“If you will excuse me, I will take this imp to the nursery and return shortly. I will ask my father to join us in his bookroom and you can explain to him this new scourge you have unleashed upon Longbourn.”

10.

“I could solve your dilemma, Lizzy, by keeping these for myself.”

Mr. Bennet was admiring the miniatures. “It seems an awful shame to waste such things on a child too young to really appreciate them.”

“Father,” Elizabeth drew out, and then laughed. They had decided to wait until the morning to give William his final present. They rightly feared the child would never get to sleep if they presented them to him that evening. Already he had more new toys than he knew what to do with, constantly moving from one to the next, unable to keep his attention focused very long due to the excitement.

“Your Mr. Darcy is even more intelligent than I thought, leaving before his gift could damage our equilibrium.”

Their mirth was tempered by the reminder that the gentleman would be leaving Hertfordshire next week. Mr. Bennet had come to enjoy Mr. Darcy’s company almost as much as his daughter’s. When their visitor announced that his plans to journey to London to retrieve his sister and then to return to his estate in Derbyshire, both of them expressed understanding and their regrets of losing his company.

“William will miss him most, I fear.”

“More than his mother, I think not. His friendship has been good for you, Lizzy. You thrive when you are intellectually challenged, my dear. And for all of your late husband’s devotion, that was something he could never give you. I wish I had thought of that before I consented to the match.”

“I do not regret my marriage.”

“Yet you swear you will never remarry. What else am I to conclude?”

“That I am content with my future, Father. Please let it be.”

Mr. Bennet nodded his assent. They sat staring at the toy soldiers for a while. “Mr. Darcy will be gone before my brother returns my inquiry. I shall have to write to the man, if you still wish to proceed with your request for his consent to be a part of my will.”

“Yes, I do. I would rather speak to him before he leaves, but I will honor your wishes since you asked so rationally.”

“You could slip in a note begging him to accept – or telling him about the boys’ latest antics.”

“You could include a note about the boys’ on your own. It would not be proper for me to write,” he countered.

“I beg to differ. Should I die, you will need to be in contact with the man directly. Why not begin while I am still alive to lend it a degree of respectability?”

“This is silly! You will still be sequestered in this room long after William is grown, still refusing to answer letters in a timely manner, and still forbidding Mama from disturbing your peace while you spend your days reading your books.”

“It was your idea to include Mr. Darcy in the disposition of the estate until William comes of age.”

Seeing her father was not going to relent, she threw up her hands in defeat. “Pax!”

He smiled rather smugly. “So you will include a note?”

“If I must. You can very be stubborn when it comes to fobbing off work on another. Just see to it that you refrain from making this an effort at matchmaking.” Elizabeth tilted her head and looked him in the eye. “I mean it, Father.”

“Very well; I shall not say that I think Darcy would make you a fine husband, if you let him fall in love with you.”

Elizabeth laughed and shook her head, unwilling to admit that her father was most likely correct.

<<>>

The business that had sent Charles Bingley to Town had lasted much longer than he had originally thought. He was unable to return to Netherfield until Tuesday, a week after his ball. Darcy waited for his friend in the library, knowing from the note Bingley sent the night before that he would leave for the country at first light.

A rather distracted man presented himself to Darcy shortly after his arrival.

“When can you be ready to leave for Longbourn?”

“Good afternoon to you, Bingley. I missed your company, too.”

“I have not had the pleasure of Miss Bennet’s company in a week. Stop being so infuriatingly glib.” He replied testily.

“For a man with a reputation of amiability, you are in quit a snit.” Bingley stared at his friend, his brow creased. Gradually he relaxed and at last gave Darcy a sheepish grin.

“I beg your pardon, Darcy. Thank you. I would not wish to frighten our friends at Longbourn with my peevish mood.”

“It would definitely not leave the favorable impression on the woman you wish to formally court. You have decided to court Miss Bennet?”

“Yes, I have.” Darcy looked expectantly at his companion. “I found that the longer I was in Town, the more I thought of her. The more I missed her smiles.”

“She smiles too much,” Darcy quipped.

“She is an angel!” Bingley cried.

“She still smiles too much.” Darcy smirked back. Then he grew serious. “But not this week. She seemed subdued when I called on the family.”

“Subdued, eh? That is very good news for me?”

“That is for you to determine, Bingley. But now that you have made up your mind, I wish you well in your pursuit.”

“Can we go?”

Darcy motioned for Bingley to precede him, “After you. The horses should be ready now.”

“Should be? I gave orders for them to be prepared for our use when I arrived.”

“That was only,” Darcy checked his watch, “10 minutes ago. Your grooms had to see to your mount first.”

“Oh.”

“You should give your valet a raise.”

Bingley grinned. “Perhaps I shall.”

“That I should be so oblivious when I finally chose my mate,” Darcy muttered under his breath. He had waited for Bingley’s coming to see that he arrived at Longbourn in one piece to make love to Miss Bennet. He shook his head at Bingley anticipation. The three miles from Netherfield to Bingley’s angel were covered rapidly.

The scene in Lonbourn’s drawing room that day was almost a farce. Never had so many different parties worked to provide the privacy that the two interested parties craved. First Mrs. Bennet claimed she needed to discuss a personal matter with her two youngest daughters. Next, Mary was then called to her father’s bookroom. Greatly amused, Mr. Darcy excused himself to go see William and John, who were, conveniently, with their mother in the nursery. When Mr. Bingley suggested a walk in the garden, Miss Pope had enough sense to allow the two to walk on ahead – and to rest on a bench when they were far enough beyond her to not protest her absence.

Bingley, whose doubts about her affection for him were erased the moment their eyes first met upon his arrival, was gathering his courage to speak to the young woman who had so captured him. When at last they were truly alone, he took a deep breath and began.

“I missed you whilst I was in Town,” he confessed.

“You absence from the neighborhood was mourned as well. Though my nephew was thrilled with the gift you sent with Mr. Darcy.”

Bingley laughed in delight. “I am very happy it was so well received! I had one as a child and recall fondly the happy hours of entertainment it enabled.”

Bingley stopped and turned towards Jane. “Did you miss me, Miss Bennet?”

Shyly she looked down, and then looked back up again. “Yes, I confess that I did. I hope you will stay awhile now that you are back again.”

“I should like to stay a very long while. I shall, if you will allow me to call on you. To court you, if you will. I… I think… My intentions towards you are of the most honorable kind.” Jane looked down again demurely. Without thinking, Bingley reached over and lifted her chin so she would look at him again. “Do you wish me to call on you?”

Jane blushed prettily and nodded her head while he still held her chin, a small smile lifting the corners of her mouth, her eye alight with pleasure. Bingley was sorely tempted to lean down and kiss her then, and Jane closed her eyes in anticipation.

He felt her tremble and stopped. His nervousness had evaporated once he knew she wanted his attentions. “Soon,” he whispered and then moved back to her side and started them walking again. Uncertainty banished and reveling in the pleasure of a promised understanding, they chatted freely as they made their way back to the house, reuniting with the companion at her chosen bench.

11.

Once in the house, Bingley requested a few moments of Mr. Bennet’s time.

“I wished for you to know my intentions, sir,” he explained to Jane’s father.

“I appreciate that, Mr. Bingley. For my sanity, I hope it will not take you too long to come to the point with my daughter. And if she should say yes, and I consent, I urge you to insist on a short engagement or else my wife will drive us all to bedlam with her talk of weddings and lace.”

Bingley was grateful that he had not yet taken a sip of his port at that pronouncement. It would not do to spew his drink in front of his potential father in law.

Meanwhile, Darcy was sitting on the floor of the children’s nursery, allowing the two young boys to climb over him.

After an initial attempt to stop the boys’ attack on the Dread Pirate Darcy, and being told quiet succinctly that women had no place on pirate ships by the besiegn privateer, Elizabeth could not stop laughing. Her friend was clearly enjoying the tumbling play of the youths, and was, in fact, encouraging it.

“I shall never surrender to ye scurvy beasties!” he proclaimed in his best pirate voice. With glee, William and John renewed their attack. Sensing that he should draw their game to an end, Darcy allowed the lads to push him onto his back. “Mercy!” he cried once they had his arms pinned down. Elizabeth knew he could easily break free had he wished, but she knew he would not interrupt their enjoyment for anything in the world.

“Thank you for rescuing me, boys,” she said and made to stand. Her bulging middle hindered her more day by day. She leaned over the ruffled John’s hair. “But I think it is time you let Mr. Darcy go.”

Reluctantly they crawled off their playmate and Darcy got back to his feet, grinning, and used his hand to try and tame his unruly hair.

“What would the ton say if they knew the great Mr. Darcy was fond of sitting on the floor and playing with children?”

“You are too late, madam. My cousins never miss an opportunity to tease me about that when they catch me doing so with their children. I am afraid that secret is out.”

Elizabeth arched her brow. “Somehow, I think that instead of making you less eligible it is quite the opposite. You children will be fortunate in more ways than one; you will be a wonderful father someday.”

“Thank you. I hope that I will.” He was pleased with her praise. “Alas, I should return to the adults. Mrs. Collins?” He offered her his arm. Elizabeth hesitated.

“Let me call for Maggie to stay with the boys. They are a bit too energetic at the moment to be left alone.”

Darcy blushed guiltily. “That is my fault, I am afraid. I shall keep watch to you return.”

Elizabeth was not long in returning with the maid. She was surprised to find Mr. Darcy sitting with the boys, one on each knee, reading a story. He looked up to the two ladies. Neither said a word, but they allowed the gentleman to finish the book, hearing how close to the end he was when they came in.

Darcy made a point of speaking with the children, “Be good boys and mind your mother,” he charged them. Both nodded their heads solemnly. He gave each an affectionate pat on the back and excused himself. Once he and Elizabeth were out of the room, and the door was shut, Darcy stopped and closed his eyes for a moment and let out a long breath.

“I shall miss those two,” he confessed.

“As will they you. When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow morning. I need a few days in London to see my men of business and to do a little shopping before I take my sister north. Besides that, I promised Georgiana a night out to the theatre. I would hate to disappoint her.”

“I doubt very much that you could disappoint her, Mr. Darcy.” Elizabeth said archly. Darcy’s suddenly forlorn face disagreed.

“I nearly did. I would have, except for you and your husband’s timely letter.”

Instantly, she understood. Without thinking, Elizabeth placed her hand on Darcy’s forearm. In a voice more feeling than she had ever used with him, she pleaded, “You need to leave the past behind you, for both of your sakes.”

Darcy covered her hand with his and squeezed it. He could not speak, only nodded, then tucked her hand in his arm and turned to walk them down the stairs. “You promise you will contact me if the need arises?” he finally asked. “My pledge to assist you still stands. In fact, let us visit your father now so that I can leave directions both for Pemberley and my house in Town.”

When Elizabeth agreed, he led them to Mr. Bennet’s bookroom. Leaving the previous melancholy behind, the three of them chatted amiably until Elizabeth was called away. Darcy was anxious to have a private word with Mrs. Collin’s father and was relieved to have the chance presented without asking the lady to leave.

“While your daughter is away, I would like to make a request,” Darcy began hesitantly.

“About my daughter?”

“Yes, sir. I ask that you write to me when the child is born; it would relieve my mind a great deal to know mother and child are safe. It would not be proper to ask Mrs. Collins herself to do so, and I imagine that she will be too busy to spare me the time to write if it were not.”

“Most likely you are correct, though I suspect that your friend Bingley could deliver the news as well. I assume he will still be in the neighborhood then.”

“You have not had the privilege of receiving one of his missives, or else you would know what a trial it is to understand what the man is saying. I too assume Bingley will remain at Netherfield manner for many months, but he may be called away at any time. I would rather not leave him such a commission, and I will miss our discussions. I would welcome the news coming from you.” Here Darcy paused to weigh his words before continuing. “In fact, Mr. Bennet, I would further ask that you contact me if I may be of any particular service to Mrs. Collins. While I cannot go into specifics, because it involves another, Mr. Collins, God rest his soul, and Mrs Collins were able to perform a great service for my family, and for which I am greatly indebted to them. I have told your daughter numerous times that I am willing to help her in any way that I can, she but need ask. I suspect she would refuse my offer, yet I am sincere. And so I exhort you, Mr. Bennet, to inform me should a need arise for Mrs. Collins or the children.”

Mr. Bennet sat quietly for a few moments, pondering his response. “Elizabeth had told me of this previously. She is fortunate to have such a champion at the ready. You can be assured sir, that if something should befall us, and your assistance would be welcome, that I will seek your help even if my daughter is reluctant. There, is this the reassurance you seek?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“You will be missed, Mr. Darcy. I hope that you will return to our little corner of England again.”

Darcy laughed in relief, “I believe that may depend most on my friend and Miss Bennet.”

“It will be most amusing to watch them make a match. Almost as amusing as watching my wife helping them make the match. I envy you. Safely tucked away in Derbyshire far from such fine entertainment.”

At first light the following morning Darcy bade farewell to his host. Inside the elegant Darcy carriage its owner felt the departure most acutely. He would miss all his friends in Hertfordshire, young and old alike.

<<>

The days following Mr. Darcy’s departure brought a return to normalcy to Elizabeth. The rest of Longbourn was still visited by Jane’s now declared suitor, but Elizabeth was rarely in attendance when Mr. Bingley called. Instead, her days were filled with her children, born and unborn. It was time for William to learn his letters. Elizabeth chose to teach him during John’s morning nap. With little more than two months before her laying in, she found her energy waning and was forced to seek rest as well. Maggie was happy to watch over the boys when their mother grew too tired.

Thankfully, she did not have to wait too long for a reply from her uncle in regards to their inquiry of Mr. Darcy. In short, Mr. Gardiner had confirmed what they had suspected. Mr. Darcy was a well-respected man among the merchants of London who paid his bills on time and was considered a gentleman of his word. Furthermore, no reports of dissolute behavior were uncovered during Mr. Gardiner’s investigation.

“Remember to include a note about the children,” Mr. Bennet reminded his daughter, when they discussed the letter he would write to Mr. Darcy. She had hoped her father had forgotten about his request for an addition to their missive, but he had not. She sighed told him she would do so once he had finished his.

“I will not send the letter without it,” he warned.

“I will leave you to your task, then.” Elizabeth struggled to rise up from her chair. Her belly grew larger all the time as the birth neared. Mr. Bennet frowned.

“I hope that when the time comes that you will not hesitate to ask for help getting up, my dear.”

“I already avoid those seats most likely to hold me captive.”

“You forget I have watched your mother and you through seven previous pregnancies.”

Elizabeth walked around to stand next to her father. She leaned over and gave him a kiss. “You have taken care of both of us before. You will do so once again. Now write to Mr. Darcy.”

10 December, 1811
Longbourn Manner
Hertfordshire

Mr. Darcy

Be not alarmed, sir, on receiving a letter from Longbourn so soon after you quit the neighborhood. We are all well, and my daughter continues to increase as she has during her last two pregnancies. She sends her greetings and I have asked her to enclose a second note within this missive. While such may seem a presumptuous disregard of the bounds of propriety, I have good reason for asking her to do so, as I believe you will comprehend when you finish this letter. Rest assured, I will have seen the note’s contents; consider it an extension of this letter.

I had hoped to speak with you on an important matter before you left for London and your sister. However there was not enough time to make certain inquires after this subject came to my attention. I am now in possession of the necessary information.

The day after Mr. Bingley’s ball, Elizabeth approached me with a request for my consideration. I am afraid that in her time alone the previous night she pondered in depth the realities of women bringing children into the world. While I would rather not think on such serious matters so soon after a night of amusement, I find that her musings show a maturity and a frank understanding of the situation as it stands.

You may ask what on earth this has to do with you, and I will tell you now that should you agree to my request, it has everything, sir.

As you may know, Mr. Collins was my heir. Upon his death, his eldest son took his place in line to inherit Longbourn. I am now legally guardian to all his children, though their mother takes responsibility for every day matters. Elizabeth is, and I fear rightly so, concerned about what will become of them should something happen to her or to me. Currently, upon my demise, my brother Philips would become guardian and trustee of Longbourn until William reaches his majority. You may recall meeting the man. He is an attorney in Meryton and married to my wife’s sister. While Mr. Philips is a capable attorney, he has no experience running an estate. Before now none of us was overly worried about such matters. However, my daughter has correctly stated that finding someone else to become co-guardian and co-trustee with my brother would be wise contingency due to the inherent uncertainly of the next several months of her life.

I agree with my daughter, especially given my age. Based upon your stated willingness to be of assistance to our family, Elizabeth and I ask that you consent to be included in my will as William, John, and the baby’s co-guardian should I absent myself from this earth before they become adults. This is no potential responsibility to be undertaken taken lightly, and I would welcome any questions you might have about the extent and current condition of my estate. Hopefully I will be able to provide answers to assure you that I have done as much as is in my power to protect my legacy for my grandson, and that you will in turn agree to our request.

Elizabeth tells me that her child should be born sometime in late February or early March.

I await your reply.

Your humble servant,
G. Bennet

Elizabeth was very pleased with her father’s letter. He had crafted a letter that said what she would have struggles to impart in such a logical succession. Knowing her recent tendency towards the emotional, she was happy to confine her comments to her children. She had her note ready to be read by her father and dispatched to Derbyshire on the morrow.

10 December, 1811
Mr. Darcy

Your presence at Longbourn has been missed, especially by my sons. In the days since you left for Town, both have asked when you will return to play with them. John is more accepting of my answers than William. I was afraid he might equate your absence with that of his father, but thankfully he has not done so. However, he seems confident that you will return once the weather turns more hospitable again. I hope that you will come back to Netherfield again in the spring. I doubt Mr. Bingley would mind much. He visits Longbourn almost daily, and I suspect he will decide soon that he has spent enough time wooing my sister and move on secure to a more permanent situation. I do not know who grows more delighted with him, Mama or Jane.

I confess that I too have missed your presence, though for conversation instead of digging forts or pushing little boys on swings in the garden. My days are spent with my sons, and though my father and Jane are sensible people, they have other things to do than keeping company with small children and their increasingly uncomfortable mother! I will be happy to soon leave the estate of bearing children behind once and for all.

I hope that Derbyshire is as beautiful in the winter as my aunt claims, and that your time spent with your sister at your estate is peaceful.

Your friend,
E. Collins

12.

As the writer had predicted, Darcy was anxious when he received the letter from Mr. Bennet. He felt honored with the request, and immediately sat down to pen a reply. He did not need an accounting to form his opinion; Darcy could see a well-run and prosperous estate when he saw one. Longbourn may not generate the yearly income of Pemberley, but it was not because of want to expending of resources. Land could only produce so much per acre in use. The buildings all looked in good repair, and there were ample laborers to do the various tasks of a working estate.

Darcy was not insensible to the delay of the request. From what he had learned of Mr. Bennet over the course of their acquaintance, he had little doubt that the gentleman had endeavored to investigate his reputation. He would have had their roles been reversed; Darcy had learned his lesson with Mrs. Younge.

The short missive from Mrs. Collins was an unexpected boon. Darcy appreciated Mr. Bennet’s effort to open a friendly correspondence between him and the lovely young widow. Should worse come to worse, and Darcy did in fact assume the position of guardian and trustee, the two of them would by necessity, need to communicate through the post.

And besides, he did miss seeing the boys… and their charming mother. He answered immediately.

14 December, 1811
Pemberley, Derbyshire

Mr. Bennet,

Sir, I was delighted to receive your letter today. At first I was apprehensive when I ascertained the sender, but only a few lines were needed to relieve me of any remaining fears.

I know only too well the burden and necessity of planning for the succession of an estate and any minors associated with it. I commend you and Mrs. Collins for your foresight on the matter.

I do accept the responsibility of being named in your will. I pray that my involvement would never be needed but in the event of such a time, I can assure you that I will do my best to see to your grandsons’ health, happiness, and education so that your heirs may grow into manhood ready to take on the mantle of a gentleman of gentlewoman, such as is the individual case. As you witnessed, I grew quite found of both William and John and would not want to see them taken advantage of or neglected.

As I said, I hope that such a day will never occur, and that the children grow up in the love of all their family.

Should there be need, I am represented in these types of affairs by Hunt and Lewis, London.

Finally, please thank Mrs. Collins for the delightful note she penned and which you were so kind to include. Assure her of my fondness for her children and my steadfastness as a friend in waiting. And while I am happy to be in the company of my dearest sister, I do miss my calls to Longbourn.

Your Servant,
F. Darcy

<<<>>>

It was two days before Christmas and the Gardiners were due in the afternoon and Longbourn was busy preparing for the added company. William especially was looking forward to playing with his cousin Edward who was only a few months younger than he. Initially, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner intended to come to Hertfordshire alone, but had changed their mind at Mr. Bennet’s urging. He knew how much his grandsons would enjoy playing with their cousins and how much Lizzy loved seeing her god-son Nicholas, the Gardiners’ youngest child. She and her late husband had doted on the boy.

They would stay for a week. Mr. Gardiner’s business would not allow him to be away long, at this time of the year. However, no one thought of that when the Gardiner’s coach pulled up in front of manner.

Despite the chilly December air, William raced out to greet the party, heedless of his mother’s instruction to put on his coat. Mr. Gardiner scooped up his nephew as soon as he stepped out of the coach.

“Omph! You are getting much too big for me to hold up like this,” he said affectionately as he put the boy back down. He tussled the lad’s hair and bent down to whisper in his ear, “I think there is someone inside who is just as excited to see you as you are to see us.” Laughing, Mr. Gardiner reached up to grab first Edward on the ground then young Nicholas. “You boys run along inside.”

The three young lads did not need to be told twice, nearly running into Elizabeth as she was just coming outside with William’s jacket. “Easy there, boys,” she commanded. “William, take your cousins up to the nursery for now. You can play inside while the rest of the Gardiners get settled.”

“Yes, Mama,” William said over his shoulder as the boys were already dashing up the stairs.

Shaking her head, Elizabeth turned her attention back outside. Her uncle had handed her aunt and cousins Marianne and Jane out of the coach. They were greeting the rest of the Bennets on the drive.

The next few hours were spent catching up on all the latest news of the two families. The adults were to attend a gathering at the Philips’ that very evening and so after supper, the younger children were all sent off to bed. Marianne was allowed to stay up a bit longer with her cousin Lizzy. Mrs. Gardiner came to Elizabeth’s room to wish her daughter goodnight.

“Remember what I said about bedtime, Marianne. We do not want to tire out Elizabeth.”

“Lizzy has already told me the same thing!” The three ladies laughed.

“I told her I will be the one needing to go to sleep first, Aunt.”

“I remember how exhausted I felt with my four children when I was as far along as you. You need your rest dear.”

“And I shall see that she has it, Mama,” Marianne said proudly, earning her an affectionate smile from both women.

“Enjoy your evening, aunt.”

“At least it will give your mother a subject to discuss other than her plans for your new wardrobe.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “I have no plans to stop wearing my current dresses until after this little on is born and grown a while. There is no need to change since I have another 7 months total of morning. I do not need lighter clothing just because I am in my half mourning. I would rather save the expense and have something new made when I can wear whatever I choose.”

“But to always wear black, my dear! I can understand waiting until after the birth, but once the babe is here…”

“It makes little difference when I shed my widow’s weeds. And the expense is something I would rather not incur at the moment. The money is needed elsewhere.”

“Would you at least consider a gift of a gown or two from your uncle and I? Something in a grey or lavender for the christening or when you finally are able to return to society?”

“Oh please, Cousin, say yes! I will forego a new dress so Lizzy can have one instead,” Marianne pledged.

“That is very generous, but your father and I can afford a frock or two for the mother of our favorite godsons!”

Elizabeth smiled ruefully. “Somehow I do not think I have a choice on the matter. Very well, I know you know my tastes. Though it is probably prudent to pick out a design and to buy fabric from Town and have it sent here to be made. Who knows what size I shall wear after the baby is born. Just promise me not to include much if any lace. You know my mother.”

Mrs. Gardiner smirked in triumph. She kissed her daughter and niece goodnight and once again reminded them both of Marianne’s bedtime before heading downstairs to join the rest of the family party.

<<>>

Christmas and Boxing Day came and went. Elizabeth had the chance to personally ask her uncle about his inquiries into her husband’s death. Unfortunately, the answer was the same. Nothing new had turned came to light. After a comment from Miss Pope about the presence of the Militia in Meryton, Elizabeth spoke to Mr. Gardiner about Mr. Wickham.

“He was in Ramsgate at that time you say?”

“Yes. I had noticed him speaking with a young woman of our acquaintance and asked about him.”

“I am surprised you remember him after all these months,” her uncle said with a furrowed brow. Mr. Bennet said nothing, but Elizabeth could see him thinking about her comment and coming to what were, no doubt, some accurate conclusions as to the family of the young woman in question.

“William and I were surprised given the age of the girl he was with, that is all.”

“Elizabeth,” Mr. Bennet said drawing out her name, “might this Mr. Wickham have had a reason to harm Collins?”

She was flustered at the question. “I do not know. We were introduced and spoke briefly, but that was the only time we spoke.”

All three wondered what involvement Wickham might have had.

“I think we should speak to the gentleman and see what he has to say,” Mr. Bennet said to the others.

“Will you confront him tonight?” Elizabeth was agitated and concerned. Mr. Wickham might be completely innocent, but then again… he might not. She had always felt something else was at work in her husband’s death.

“Nothing so direct,” her father assured her, “just a few questions to see if he remembers you.”

“I think he does. Emily has said before that he had asked about me. And I wondered if he recognized me that first day we all saw him here. Please be careful.”

“We will. And we do not know that anything sinister ever happened that night. Collins could have simply slipped and hit his head and fallen in the water. He would not be the first one to die that way.”

While Elizabeth wanted assurances that her husband’s death was in deed an accident, she did not want to put her family in danger if it was not. Mr. Wickham suddenly became a very dangerous man to her peace of mind.

“Edward,” she heard her father say as the three of them moved to rejoin the others in the parlor. “I need to speak to Lizzy a moment. Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” Mr. Gardiner left the two, though his face showed that he knew the previous subject was not closed.

Reseated, and the door firmly shut, Mr. Bennet wasted little time coming to the point. “What could you not say in front of your uncle? Might it have something to do with Mr. Darcy and possibly his sister?”

Elizabeth took a moment to consider what she could tell her father.

“I have not been given leave to give details, but yes, it does involve Mr. Darcy. It is precisely why he is so willing to be of use. I told you before that William and I had written a letter relaying certain circumstances that we thought he should be aware of post haste. Well, what we saw was Miss Darcy in the company of a gentleman. Before we left Hunsford, we had been deputized by Lady Catherine to deliver a letter to her niece and as such sought her out to discharge our duty. We knew from her ladyship that Miss Darcy was then only but 15, so you can imagine our concern to see her in the close company of a man whom we soon learned was not her brother. Thankfully we never saw anything that would embarrass the girl should someone have recognized her and the resulting gossip spread to Town.

As soon as we knew the man to be, in fact, and as you might have guessed, Mr. Wickham and not Mr. Darcy, I convinced William to send the note to the Darcy’s London residence. He wished to send one instead to Rosings and Lady Catherine. That missive to Mr. Darcy was dispatched was the day before William died.

“I wish we had known this before now.”

“I never truly made the connection until he showed up in Hertfordshire. As far as I know, William never spoke to the man except for when we first introduced. And I had not remembered the man’s name until I saw him again in Meryton. I also did not wish to mention the Darcy’s name least we inadvertently start rumors about the girl.”

“Still you should have said something before this!”

“I know that now, Papa.”

“I take it Darcy arrived a day or two after you sent the express?”

“I believe so, but I never saw him there. I was too occupied dealing with the drowning to notice the other comings and goings.”

“I will speak to my brother. I think we are at the point in our investigations where Wickham is the last avenue of inquiry. Should he prove as futile as the others, I recommend we lay the matter to rest permanently. Agreed?”

“Yes.” She was ready to move past her doubts as well.

13.

That evening the two men had a chance to speak with the object of their interest. They told Elizabeth the details of their encounter the next morning since she was already asleep when the party returned to Longbourn.

“Mr. Wickham approached me last night, Lizzy.” Mr. Bennet waited for her I digest that information before adding, “I see you are as surprised as your uncle and I were at his approach.

“He asked after your health and offered his condolences. I must say the man has very pleasant manners.”

“He remembered me?”

“Most definitely. According to the gentleman, he processes a keen memory when it comes to names and faces. He said he was very shocked to find you here when he was introduced to you and Collins in Ramsgate, moreover that you were in mourning.”

“He knew nothing of William’s death then.” Elizabeth sounded almost defeated.

“He claims he heard of the drowning, but was on his way to London that very day and did not know any details save that a man had been discovered in the water.”

“Do you believe him?”

Mr. Bennet looked at Mr. Gardiner who shrugged his shoulders. “He said nothing nor behaved in any manner to doubt the veracity of his statements.”

“Then it is true.”

“I did not say I believed him out of hand, dear. He … I pride myself on being a great connoisseur of human folly. He strikes me as a man too smooth. It was as if he were playing a role to a room full of an unknowing audience.

“I think, therefore, that we shall have to see how he comports himself in the future to determine his trustworthiness. In the meantime, your uncle should ask his contacts if they know anything about the man.”

“Mr. Darcy does not trust him.” Elizabeth said, as if speaking to herself.

“Which should tell us something. Alas, the militia will winter in Meryton. I, at least, will have other opportunities to meet Mr. Wickham.”

“I agree with your father, Elizabeth. You recall that your aunt spent several years in Derbyshire, not far from Pemberley and the Darcys. I am sure she would love another excuse to write to some of her friends in that town. They would know who Wickham is since his father’s position as steward of Pemberley would have given him a certain notoriety in that small community.”

They discussed the situation a little more before Elizabeth thanked them for their efforts to bring her peace of mind. She excused herself to tend to her boys.

<<>>

By the time that the Gardiners arrived in Hertfordshire, Charles Bingley was a regular visitor to Longbourn. Most days he arrived not long after breakfast and stayed much longer than the standard 15 minute visit. When the weather cooperated, he and Jane could be found outside walking in the gardens – properly chaperoned by one of her sisters or by Miss Pope. Mr. Bingley’s sisters had come with him twice to call, but they declined the rest of his invitations to join him at Longbourn, nor would they any time soon for they and Mr. Hurst had returned to London the same day the Gardiners.

Louisa’s excuse had been a desire to experience the Twelfth Night balls, but her brother knew they no longer took pleasure in the company of the neighborhood.

After he had spoken to Jane Bennet and her father about his intentions, Bingley informed both of his sisters of his plans. Unsurprisingly they attempted to talk him out of his resolutions. In response, he told them that they had said nothing that Darcy had not said earlier. Thinking that they had an ally in Mr. Darcy, they pressed Charles to listen to his good friend’s advice. Bingley took great pleasure in informing them that he was, in fact, following Darcy’s suggestions, that Darcy felt he owed it to him as a friend to warn him of the necessary evils of the match, but to also speak of the benefits of a match with Miss Bennet. In short, his friend told him to follow his own counsel and not be influenced by anyone other than Miss Bennet and that was what Bingley would do.

His sisters knew that without Darcy’s help, they could not persuade their brother to leave Hertfordshire before it was too late. Therefore, they decided to return to Town leaving Charles without a hostess. They reasoned that he could not invite the Bennets to Netherfield, and thus if he wished to see Jane, he would have to do so at Longbourn and at the gatherings around the neighborhood. Caroline and Louisa hoped, rather than believed, that he would come to see the insipidness of the residents of area and wish to leave for more fashionable company found only in Town. If not that, by his daily exposure to the Bennets in their own home, he would realize that such vulgar relations would do the Bingley name no credit. If neither of these would affect him then they prayed that Jane was too sweet to accept a man who did not want to marry her. This last thought held the most potential, but they were skeptical that any gentlewoman as poor as Jane would act so foolishly to deny the financial stability it would need once Mr. Bennet was gone – whenever that event took place, God rest his soul.

<<>>

It was hard to believe he had been home a month, but the calendar confirmed it. Darcy sat at his desk and shook his head at the many piles of papers before him. Someone always wanted something from him, be it time, patronage or money. His steward did his best to sort out all of the correspondence that arrived for the estate, but there was only so much that man could do.

Darcy liked to be involved in the running of the estate. He was not a gentleman who left all manner of oversight to some hired man. No, he would never trust his fate, and the fate of his descendants to another person. That is not to say that he did everything himself. He had tried that when his father died but only a few months afterward he admitted that an estate the size of Pemberley was too much for one man to run without competent help. And so he began to allow his steward, Mr. Wright, to do his job. Darcy asked that the major decisions and planning would be his responsibility, but the day to day minutiae would be handled by Wright.

So far this had been a profitable arrangement. Darcy was left with time to do the things only he could do, such as when Mr. Wright encountered a situation with the tenants that needed the master’s participation.

However useful Wright was at sorting correspondence – personal which was always left unopened, business, or social – Darcy still had to review and answer more letters than he wished.

That day, though, Darcy was in luck. After too much time spent declining a myriad of invitations to various ball and parties, Georgiana joined him in his office.

“I hope I am not disturbing you?”

“Saving me is more like it,” he said putting down the quill he was using. He forced himself to pay complete attention to his sister. It was a habit he adopted after Ramsgate, and he found it worth the effort. Much of their close relationship could be traced to the moment he put down whatever he was working on and instead focused on his sister.

“Then you will not mind a short stroll outside? The weather is so fine today. Some sunshine and little wind.”

“Indeed!?”

“I for one would like to get out of this house for a while. I thought you might like to as well.”

“An excellent idea, my dear.”

Before long they were appropriately bundled up against the cold and carefully making their way over frozen pathways in the gardens. Gravel and frost crunched beneath their feet and their breathes were visible but devoid yet of any conversation.

“I wanted to thank you for bringing back to Pemberley for the winter. While I did enjoy my time in London, I was ready to return home.”

“From our conversations, and in speaking with Mrs. Annesley, it sounds like you made some new friends.”

“Oh yes! And I have written several of them since we arrived. I find I quite like knowing other girls my age different from those I met in school.”

Darcy smiled down at her in satisfaction. “Then I am forgiven for leaving you in London to go to Hertfordshire?”

“Completely, and I should be grateful to be spared of the attentions of certain members of that house party.”

“Georgiana…”

“Oh, Brother, you know as well as I that you had wished for the same thing. Really, I wonder when the lady in question will take the hint that you are not interested. You have never once, to my knowledge, given any appearance of desiring a closer acquaintance, and I have certainly been as non-committal to her hints as I could be without giving away my real opinion. To think that she took such great pleasure in calling on me is ludicrous; it is evident within moments that when she discovers you are not home when she comes to visit that she loses all enthusiasm for spending any more time in my company. Fortunately, this means she will depart before her fifteen minutes are complete.”

“That may be the longest and most forthright speech you have ever given.”

“I hope you are not displeased,” she replied, thinking she had gone too far in the newfound comfort of her relationship with her brother.

“Not at all. It pleases me that at least one of us is learning to express themselves. Our cousin always claimed you had hidden depths within you.”

“I think we both need to warm up to the topic. But speaking of Hertfordshire, have you any more news from Mr. Bingley?”

“Just one note to tell me he is calling on Miss Bennet. He is unofficially courting her with her father’s permission.”

“Will he ask the lady to marry him?”

“Unless she tells him before he has a chance that she does not wish it, yes, he will propose. His honor is too far involved not to at this juncture. I have never seen him so taken with a woman. It helps that Miss Bennet is a sweet lady, who, I believe, should make him a fine wife if she will have him.”

“The lady would refuse him?”

“If her heart is not touched, yes.”

“How can you know this?”

“Her sister, Mrs. Collins told me.”

Georgiana stopped walking and looked up at her brother. “How on earth did she tell you this? Is there something I should know about Mrs. Collins?”

“I have told you before; she and I are friends. We were both concerned about the attention that Bingley was showing her sister and we discussed it. I know, it is unorthodox, but, well, she is my friend and friends talk about more than just the weather and the state of the roads.”

She could see he was discomposed, and blushing. He also wore the look that said he had said all he would say on the subject.

“I hope that it turns out well. I would hate to see Mr. Bingley disappointed. He has always been kind to me.”

“As do I. His sisters and Mr. Hurst have returned to Town, so Bingley may woo in peace. Their absence will make it impossible for him to host Miss Bennet at Netherfield, but he said he spends a portion of most of his days at Longbourn with the Bennets so doubt it will make any difference.”

“Let us hope his next letter has a happy announcement.”

They smiled at each other and decided it was time to return to the warmth of the house.

14.

It was the middle of a short January afternoon and Elizabeth was taking an opportunity for a nap while the boys were doing the same. Elizabeth was awakened by a very worried looking Jane. “Lizzy, I hate to wake you, but Mama is still unwell and has asked for you repeatedly.”

It took a few moments for Elizabeth to become fully aware of her surroundings. She saw the concern etched on her normally serene sister’s face. “Of course, dearest. Please help me up and I will go to her immediately.”

Jane waited for her sister to swing her legs over the side of the bed. “On second thought, I need a moment. The babe pushes on …” Understanding her sister’s need, Jane retrieved the needed item and gave her sister her privacy. She did not wait long, as Elizabeth came out of her room a minute or two later. Elizabeth stretched her back and then was ready to see their mother.

Elizabeth was surprised to find the drape drawn shut and her mother’s room darkened as much as was possible in the daytime. The overcast skies outside meant that it took the sisters a few moments for their eyes to adjust to the lack of light. As they drew near the bed, Elizabeth was startled to hear a pitiful cry coming from the occupant. That propelled her the last few steps to her mother’s side. She sat on the bed and looked down upon the woman who gave her life.

“Mama?” she asked quietly.

“Oh Lizzy!” She sounded miserable.

“Shhh. Rest.” Elizabeth took the cloth that she could see lain across her mother’s brow and rinsed it in the basin of water on the nearby bed stand.

“My head. Oh, it hurts so much!” she cried.

Gently, Elizabeth brushed back the hair on her mother’s brow and replaced the refreshed clothe. Mrs. Bennet whimpered and then raised her hand. Elizabeth grasped it. “I am so afraid, child. I have never… Promise me; swear to me that you will never abandon your sisters.”

“You know I would never do so. But you will be fine in the morning, Mama. Please look at me, you will be well.”

Her mother shook her head. “I cannot. My visions… it is doubled when I open my eyes and it makes the pain worse.”

With those words Elizabeth’s dread took root. Now she knew why Jane looked so afraid. And then her mother did something she would never forget. She leaned over and put her free hand on Elizabeth’s belly, then released her grip on the other so that both hands spanned the area where her unborn child dwelt within.

“If this be your daughter, name her after me.”

Jane gasped from somewhere behind them. Unbidden, tears began their descent down Elizabeth’s cheeks. For most of her life, she did not get along very well with her mother. Yet, in this moment Elizabeth felt a connection with her that only women who had borne children would understand. And Elizabeth was fearful that none of her sisters would ever be gifted with the same experience as what was happening now. Awkwardly, back aching, she leaned over and kissed her mother’s cheek, which was wet with the elder woman’s own tears. “I will, Mama,” she pledged quietly.

She sat up, unwilling and unable to say more. Jane moved around to the other side of the bed and sat to wait. Mrs. Bennet kept her hands on her grandchild, the closest she would ever come to holding it, softly sobbing for the pain she endured.

The remained that way for perhaps a half an hour, until Jane quietly stood and left the room. A few minutes later she returned with her father. Somber and subdued, he stood behind his second eldest and put his hands on her shoulders, holding her there.

“Harriet?” he said quietly. At last Mrs. Bennet removed her hands from Elizabeth’s middle and reached towards her spouse. He in turned helped lift Elizabeth up from the side of the bed and took his wife’s proffered hands in his own and he assumed his daughter’s previous place. “I will stay with her now, girls.” He did not look up, when he spoke. He did not need to. Knowing better to intrude any longer on such a private moment, the two sisters left and returned to Elizabeth’s chamber.

“I cannot see the children like this, Jane. I would only upset them. Please go and tell Maggie that I am too unwell to return to the nursery tonight.”

Jane nodded and left to fulfill her errand. When she returned she joined her sister in bed, laying down behind her so they find comfort holding the other as they had as children. Exhausted with worry, they both eventually found sleep.

When at last they awoke, they were unsurprised with the news that their mother had passed away while they slept. Their grief knew no bounds.

And Elizabeth Collins was the new Mistress of Longbourn.

16 January, 1812
Netherfield Hall, Hertfordshire

Darcy,

It is with mixed emotions that I write to you. How can one be so elated and yet so desolate at the same moment? I confess that this is my forth attempt at this missive tonight, the first three consigned to the fire. For once in my adult life the page is yet unblotted, and I search for the words to express myself, and frustratingly finding that they do not come easily.

I suppose the best place to start is to inform you that I am engaged. I spoke with Jane Bennet this afternoon and received her father’s blessing as well. She loves me and I am overjoyed. I had planned to ask her soon, but the events of the previous day persuaded me to delay not one day longer. And here we come to crux of my unimaginable conflux of emotions. In the early hours of yesterday morning Mrs. Bennet passed on from this life.

You must be as shocked as I was. There was no warning, no prior illness, just a severe headache and before a day had passed, she was gone. My Jane, and indeed all the household, is distraught. I have not felt as helpless since the day I learned my father was gravely ill and not expected to live. I sat there numbly in the Bennet’s parlor like an idiot not knowing what to possibly say, yet with a deep yearning within my breast to console the woman I loved. I could do nothing more than briefly take her hand and mumble my condolences. Normally words come easily to me; this time nothing I could say would matter one jot.

I went to bed last night feeling utterly impotent, resenting the fact that had this happened even a week from now, I could have at least held Jane in my arms so that she might weep and mourn in the strength of my embrace. After agonizing over the impropriety off it all, I at last I resolved ride over to Longbourn this morning to speak to Mr. Bennet, asking his permission to solicit Jane for her hand. I was up before my staff was prepared for me. I was not hungry anyway. As soon as it was light enough, I hastened to meet my fate. The household was quieter than I can ever remember, and everyone was dressed in their mourning clothes. Had I not such an errand, I would have turned away when I saw the black wreath on the front door. Mr. Bennet allowed me into his bookroom and I could see the man’s distraction. Nervously, I began and surprisingly, he agreed to my request without argument, thanking me for respecting his daughter enough to seek his consent first. He summoned Jane and then left us alone. Needless to say, I offered, explaining the reason for my timing. Jane agreed and thus we were engaged. I held her then.

We cannot celebrate publicly, but the family seemed genuinely pleased with our announcement and the meal that evening, while subdued, was pleasant. We shall wait at least three months for the wedding, and it will be a quiet, mostly family affair. I would be honored if you would stand up with me. We shall wed here, and remain in the neighborhood for a while afterwards. You are welcome to stay with us, and to bring Georgiana as well.

Mrs. Collins asked me if I would be writing to you and when I said that I would, asked if I would convey all the news, and her regards. Her boys do not understand that their grandmother is not coming back. They have, so far, been quieter than usual, sensing the need to listen to their mother’s and aunts’ request. Mrs. Collins is heavy with child, and Jane tells me they expect the babe to come very soon. Needless to say, they are worried for their sister.

The funeral will be held the day after tomorrow to give Mr. Gardiner time to return for his sister’s internment. I shall attend, and then go to Longbourn to comfort my angel again. She cried in my arms after she agree to marry me. Such sweet sorrow.

I will close now. I have more letters to write and sleep appears not to be forthcoming.

Give my greetings to your sister.

Your servant,
C. Bingley

Darcy sat in shock after reading his letter. Never before had his friend written so legibly, and he could feel the swells of emotion with the letter. It had been written a week ago, weather and the muddy roads delaying the post, and even though the funeral had already happened and Mrs. Bennet was buried, Darcy was still greatly saddened. His thoughts immediately flew to Longbourn, and he wondered how Mrs. Collins faired. He hoped she would not be overwhelmed by the situation. Darcy comprehended what Bingley had left unsaid. With the imminent arrival of the next Collins child, Jane was needed to help her sister run the household while she was confined to her childbed. Even if Bingley had tried for a shorter engagement, he likely would have been turned down. As hard as it would be for his impetuous friend to wait, would not matter if they wed in March or in May. They would be married and that was the material point.

Before long he had composed his thoughts well enough to begin his response accepting Bingley’s request that he stand up with him. Once that was completed, he started on a more difficult and delicate letter to Mr. Bennet and by inference to his daughter.

24 January, 1812
Pemberley, Derbyshire

Mr. Bennet,

Within the past hour I received a letter from my friend Bingley informing me of the events that have recently transpired in your neighborhood. Let me first offer you congratulations on securing such a son-in-law. I have never met a more amiable man that Charles Bingley. You should be well pleased with the connection, and with the future felicity of your eldest child.

Yet, it would be better if you could share such joy with your wife. Please accept my deepest sympathies on your loss. Mrs. Bennet was an excellent mistress and I never found anything lacking in her hospitality. I am sure that you all miss her.

If there is anything I can do to assist you, should you have any need of me, please, write and I shall come as soon as I can.

I have received my copy of your revised will. Thank you for instructing Mr. Philips to send it. I am relieved to know all the fine details regarding my involvement in your estate are settled. You must be as well, knowing that your grandchildren will be well protected.

Finally, would you pass on my greetings to young William and John? Tell them I miss our times together and that I look forward to seeing them again when I return to Hertfordshire for Bingley and Miss Bennet’s wedding.

Your servant,
F. Darcy.

15.

The weather had finally abated enough for Charles Bingley to make a call on his fiancée. Winter rains the past two days made the relatively short journey too perilous and while Bingley was willing to risk it, he knew his intended would not be happy with him for trying. Indeed, only those whose livelihood depended upon it where outdoors during the storm, and only as long as absolutely necessary.

It had been two weeks since Mrs. Bennet had been laid to rest. Gradually life returned to something that could be called normal. The calls of condolences had ceased, and the family was all adorned in the mourning clothes that they had shed only several months previously. Elizabeth’s was the only wardrobe that had not changed; she had never stopped wearing black.

Mr. Bingley was in the parlor. Jane had been called away to assist on some household matter and this left her Mr. Bingley in the parlor with Lydia, Kitty and Miss Pope. Mary was off practicing the pianoforte and Elizabeth was with her children. This grouping happened more often that Bingley wished, but he understood it was due to the changes in the household. Since he was now the only steady visitor to Longbourn, he had become a kind of tutorial for Miss Pope to use on her charges in teaching them proper manners for entertaining callers.

Now that the family was in deep mourning, a vast majority of their social life had disappeared. It would be several months before they could go out into society again completely as they had been since September’s Meryton Assembly. Miss Pope’s task, along with instilling a better sense of propriety, was to use the next few months to continue the education on household management that Mrs. Bennet had not completed in her younger daughters. The absence of the previous mistress made the former easier, but the latter more difficult.

Bingley had come that day with the news that his friend Mr. Darcy had agreed to be Bingley’s best man at the wedding. Jane already knew Mr. Darcy would be coming from the letter he father had received the previous day and shared with the rest of the family.

At last, Jane rejoined them and soon the others allowed the couple to have their own private conversation.

“Will Mr. Darcy bring his sister?”

“I believe that is his intent, provided my sisters have returned to Netherfield by then.” Bingley frowned a bit.

“I am certain that they will want to return to help plan the wedding.”

“Jane, they were not exactly the most encouraging of me when I told them my plans. Caroline in particular had hopes for …”

“For what?”

“A more spectacular match.”

“Oh.”

“Please, love. I did not wish to make you feel inferior in any way. It is only that my father expected me to bring our family up into the gentry by raising me as a gentleman and providing funds for the purchase of an estate. Caroline, you know, has hopes of marrying well, even better than Louisa, and wanted the same for me. You are a gentleman’s daughter, but not someone, say, like Miss Darcy.”

“Did she want you to marry her?”

“I believe so. But Miss Darcy is only just 16 and will not be out for at least a year. She represents all that is desirable to my sister – affluent and from a family long-landed. She also holds the attraction of being a Darcy of Pemberley, an estate with an un-married heir.”

“Mr. Darcy.”

“Pemberley is a grand estate, as great as you will find, I believe.”

“Will our marriage cause a rift in your family? You know I would hate to be a cause of such a thing.”

“Do not be uneasy. Caroline told me she thinks you a dear sweat girl. I cannot see her cutting herself off from me just because you are not precisely whom she had in mind to be my wife. Besides, until she marries she is under my protection. She knows that to alienate me is unwise.”

“I find that I am uncomfortable knowing this, Charles.”

“It is Caroline who must adjust her ideas, not you. I have faith that she will accept the inevitable, for I told her in my letter announcing our betrothal that I am in no mind to give you up. You are my angel, Jane. I will have none other.”

“Thank you.”

“There is the smile I love. Tell me though, how is Mrs. Collins?”

“Tired, which is why I have tried to relieve her of most of the everyday details of running the household. The child could come at any time now, though we do not think it will come before at least two more weeks. Lizzy says it has not just dropped down like the two boys did. Whatever that means.”

“I think a new life would help everyone feel better.”

“It still seems so strange not to have Mama here.”

“It will for a while. I remember how it was after my mother died, and then my father.”

“Oh, I am so sorry! Of course you would understand.”

“Do not worry; I never talk about them very much. I suppose it would be easy for you to barely give them a thought.”

“But I should have. I apologize.”

“You are still suffering for the loss of your mother. There is nothing for which to apologize.”

“You are too gracious.” Jane smiled slightly, mortified by her lack of empathy. “Did I tell you that Lizzy asked me to be the child’s godmother?”

“No! But that is wonderful. You accepted?”

“Yes, how could I deny her?”

“Did she tell you who would be the godfathers?”

“No, but she said she would tell me once she had. I think,” Jane paused a moment, “I think she intended to ask Mr. Darcy.”

“They certainly got on well enough when he was here. He probably will not arrive in time for the christening, but that is not important. He takes his responsibilities very seriously; he would be my choice for our children. Our children.” Jane blushed, but he could tell that the idea of their children was pleasing to her.

<<>>

Elizabeth knew her confinement was fast approaching. She would stay involved in the house as long as she could, and would be up out of bed as soon as she had recovered enough, no matter how much her family resisted it. She could not afford to lie in bed for several weeks. There was too much for her to do to allow it. She would be practical, not pampered. With both her husband and her mother gone, there was no one who would tell her otherwise. Her children needed her too much to stay long in a darkened room. The days were short enough as it was.

She had also determined that she would ask her friend Mr. Darcy to be one of her child’s godfathers. Jane encouraged her, once Elizabeth told her about her deliberations. Her father did not protest; Mr. Darcy could be the children’s co-guardian should her father pass on. It would be the first letter she would write to him in its entirety. She would give it to her father to post, but it would be in her hand.

30 January, 1812
Longbourn, Hertfordshire

Dear Mr. Darcy,

Please forgive me the impropriety of writing to you. I will give this to my father for his approval before sending it on to you.

Be not alarmed, I and the children are well. Of course we all miss my mother; Longbourn has changed since she departed. However, life must go on and a new life will soon be squalling, wishing to be fed and held. Such is instigator of this missive.

I find myself in need of godparents for this child I now carry. Jane, my beloved Jane has already agreed to be godmother. Had she been married, I would have asked her husband to fill the office. And while Mr. Bingley will soon gladly accept his office as husband, I find it too much to ask him to do fill the one as godfather to a child as yet formally connected to him.

So I turn to you, as one already committed to the future welfare of my children. Would you, sir, consent to be my child’s godfather? I cannot pledge a given name of Fitzwilliam should it be a boy, but certainly one of your middle names should suffice. My father has told me you have three, Robert, Henry and George. I like Henry the best, though George is my father’s given name. I had planned to name the girl Harriet after my mother but Henrietta Jane sounds very nice. I can hear myself scolding her, ‘Henrietta Jane! Come here now.’

The boys look forward to your return to the neighborhood, albeit however short its duration. Their mother confesses she is eager for your company as well. An infant and a wedding do not generally lend themselves to prolonged visits, you are, as you know, always welcome at Longbourn.

Your friend,
E. Collins

Upon completing the letter, once again Darcy found himself unable to deny Mrs. Collins anything. Of course he would be the child’s godfather, he was honored that she had asked! He would not be there to attend the ceremony, but he certainly hoped to spend a week or two at Netherfield before the wedding. He would bring Georgiana along as well. Afterwards he would deposit her and her companion in London.

While writing to Bingley Darcy suddenly came upon a possible flaw in his plan. As far as he knew, Wickham was still in the area and he had no intention of bringing his sister anywhere near the cur for the foreseeable future. He would just have to ask Mrs. Collins to confirm the rogue’s residency. He had to rewrite his letter to Bingley as well as that to Mrs. Collins. Neither had mentioned anything about his old childhood friend, but he was taking no chances.

That task complete, he went to inform Georgiana of his plans.

“I would like to come even if he is still in the neighborhood.”

“I am not sure that is wise.”

“The chances of us being in the same place at the same time, other than church, are slim. Since I doubt he ever attends services, they are almost none. I am not out and will not be calling on the neighbors or attending local events if it came to that. He would have no reason to call at Netherfield. You said we would not remain there very long anyway.”

Darcy hesitated, thinking about what his sister had just said.

“Let us see what Mrs. Collins says and then we can make a final discussion.” Georgiana looked at her brother thoughtful for a moment. “Yes?”

“I was just contemplating how much we have both changed since Ramsgate. Before now you would never have allowed me to question you, about anything. Today you actually asked for my opinion and did not summarily dismiss it.”

“Georgiana…”

“No, please. Let me finish. I admired your before that man came back into our lives and I admire you even more now. I cannot imagine a better brother. You listen to me, value my opinion, always seek to care for me, and there is nothing that you would have done for me that you are not willing to do yourself. I do realize how very fortunate I am. Thank you.”

Darcy did not know what to say, so he just smiled at her instead – a smile that let her know how truly pleased he was with her praise.

<<>>

Twice before Elizabeth had started her birthing pains in the middle of the night; there was no reason for her third delivery to be any different. She knew her time was imminent, but she was still unhappy to be wakened by her pains after a short time asleep.

What would have been a long day with sleep would become interminable without. Before she could rise, her waters broke to soak the bedding. “Of course this would happen now,” she muttered to no one.

At last she was on her feet and able to change her nightdress. Very slowly she made her way to the housekeeper’s room, careful not to make any sound, stopping once for a pain to come and pass.

“Mrs. Hill. Mrs. Hill,” she whispered as she shook the woman’s shoulder.

“Miss Lizzy…”

“Shhh, I do not want to wake anyone yet.”

“Is it time?”

“It has started, but it is still early. The pains are not yet that close together.”

“Would you like for me to send for the midwife?”

“I think someone should be dispatched to inform her. My waters came just before I got out of bed and the pains are still over ten minutes apart. She can judge if she should come now or in the morning.”

“Yes, ma’am. Well, I suppose I should go change the linens. Shall I help you back to your room?”

“I think I should prefer the kitchen. It is warmer and I can walk there without disturbing the rest of the family.”

“Let me go wake Hal and send him on his way and then I can come and help you there. After that come the bed linens. At this point a little more delay will not matter much.”

Another pain hit Elizabeth then, as well as a multitude of emotions she had kept in check. Mrs. Hill put an arm around her mistress.

“Is it so bad, dearie?”

“I… I am sorry. I just wish mama and William were here now. This child will be born without a father. What is something should happen to me?”

“There, there. This is no time for such thoughts. All will be well with you. The babe is in the right place for the birth; Mrs. Parker told you that the other day when she examined you. You have already brought two children without much trouble. Everything will be fine this time, too.”

Elizabeth wiped away her tears. “I know, I just worry.”

“You just lost your mother, child. But you know she would tell you the same thing.”

“And likely add to it that I need not worry again about this for a while until I catch myself another husband.” She could not help herself; she rolled her eyes.

“She wanted all her girls married.”

“And I alone obliged her, only to lose him,” Elizabeth sighed. “Oh, Mama.”

Deciding enough was enough, the housekeeper made her excuses, “I shall return in a few minutes.”

Elizabeth sniffed and squeezed her housekeeper’s hand before letting it go. “Thank you.”

Mrs. Hill smiled in response and hurried off.

When the family came down to breakfast they were greeted with the news of Elizabeth’s labor. The servants were free to prepare the birthing chamber, readying the fires and the linens. She came in to join them for a while.

“Should you be here, Lizzy?” Mary asked.

“I will be confined soon enough. Let me enjoy my freedom and the sunlight for a few more hours. Besides, it is encouraged to remain active for as long as possible. Do you not remember this from John’s birth?”

“No, not really.”

Elizabeth looked at her sisters and father, all dressed in their mourning clothes. Only Miss Pope did not wear all black. Was it any wonder that Mary forgot? They had all had much on their minds.

“Try and eat a little,” her father suggested.

“I had some fruit and some toast a little while ago. I am not hungry, father. Food is rather unappealing at the moment.”

“Your mother was the same way.” The room was silent except for the sounds of cutlery on plate.

No one spoke much, preferring to concentrate on their food.

“I should go see the boys. Maggie was to see to them for me.”

“Would you like me to watch them today?” Emily offered.

“I would be grateful if you did.”

“Then I will, and your sisters may help as well.”

“That is an excellent plan, Miss Pope.” Mr. Bennet said in support of the scheme. “Jane, I shall send a note to your Mr. Bingley. I could use his company today, if you do not mind.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Elizabeth, let me help you up the stairs to the nursery.” They left but did not go far before a pain gripped her. “When did these start?”

“About midnight. I did not want to wake the household so early. Mrs. Hill has been with me most of the time since then.”

Mr. Bennet nodded. “How close together are they now, six minutes?”

“About.”

“I hope the midwife is here soon.”

“Hill sent word again before I came into the breakfast room, I did not want to alarm anyone so I said nothing.”

“I could see when they came by the look on your face. Let us go assure your boys that their Mama will be very busy today. Just a little longer and you will not have to hide anything more from your family until this child is come.”

She thanked him and went in to speak with William and John. She told them that they would be big brothers very soon and asked them to mind Maggie and Miss Pope especially well that day. They were excited to finally see their sibling, and promised to do as their mother asked. “Remember, I love you both so very, very much.” Her voice held a fervency neither child understood. The adults did, though.

It would be a very long day.

Late that evening, Mr. Bennet sat beside his daughter’s bed. She was laying down her newborn snuggled against her bosom. He had agreed to serve as her scribe. She had a few important letters to write, but was too fatigued to do so. The first was to her Uncle and Aunt Gardiner, announcing the safe delivery of her third child. The second was to Mr. Darcy.

17 February, 1812
Longbourn, Hertfordshire,

Dear Mr. Darcy,

Sir, it is with great pride that I inform you that you have a beautiful new goddaughter. Miss Henrietta Jane Collins chose to enter this world this afternoon. (Both mother and daughter are well, though the mother has relented to her own father’s suggestion that he write her letters on this day at least.)

William and John came to see us a little while ago before they were sent off to bed. Both seemed a bit disappointed to not have a little brother, and were a bit bewildered on how small their sister was. I think they thought they would be able to play with her, William more so that John. I suppose I can understand their feelings; I wished for a brother as well when my younger sisters were born.

Except for certain obvious difference, Henrietta looks much like her brothers did when they were born. Dark brown curls and a precious little mouth and nose. She will charm you when you finally see her as fast as she charmed me.

Your friend,

E. Collins

(Mr. Darcy,

To answer what my daughter has not said, yes, she is doing well. As a man who has five daughters and three grandchildren born under this roof, I can assure you that Elizabeth is as fit as a woman can be hours after giving birth. The midwife was pleased at how the birthing went and said that there were no complications that would make her concerned about Elizabeth ultimate recovery. Of course, ultimately all life is in the hands of the Almighty, but we believe He will grant Elizabeth and Henrietta many years upon this earth.

G. Bennet)

16.

One of the promises Elizabeth had extracted from her father before she went into labor was for a shortened time being kept in a darkened room. With her previous birthing’s, both Mr. Collins and her mother had insisted that she do as convention said and stay in her room with the windows closed and shuttered until the churching ceremony. Elizabeth had struggled with melancholy until the curtains were at last allowed open and the sunlight readmitted to her chambers. She would not wait as long again, not with the shortened days of winter.

Thus two days after the birth of her third child, Elizabeth was able to bask in the sunlight shining through the windows of her room. She had agreed to stay in bed though, and looked longingly at the chair by the window.

“Soon enough, child,” her father said in commiseration. “You have scandalized Hill enough as it is.”

Elizabeth sighed. “I know, I know. I am too sore to want to move, but I know myself well enough to know how hard it is for me to remain idle for long.”

Mr. Bennet patted her hand. “Jane has everything well in hand is in league with Miss Pope, using your absence as a teaching opportunity with Lydia and Kitty.”

“Miss Pope spoke to me about that a few weeks ago. To be honest I appreciate the relief for me, and the distraction for them.”

They both smiled.

“Mary was happy to see to her nephews. She is much better with children than I knew,” her father added.

“I am not too surprised. I am grateful for it. She has brought them to see me several times each day for short spells.”

“I told her to be careful to limit their stays, for the first few days at least. John loves to climb up on your lap and I did not think you were ready for him to be there yet.”

“No, not yet!” Elizabeth cried in laughter. It was a mistake. She grimaced in pain. Her father said nothing but looked at her with a raised brow. She rolled her eyes, acknowledging his unspoken reminder that she was still recovering. Once he saw her acquiescence, Mr. Bennet opened up his coat and pulled out a small package from an inner pocket.

“I bought something for you.”

Elizabeth took it, knowing by its shape that the wrapping contained some sort of book. “You should not have, Papa.”

“I have a granddaughter. I am allowed a small indulgence to celebrate. Open it.”

Elizabeth did not know what to expect, but was eager to see what her father had brought her. It was Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake “Are you inferring anything?”

“No, no,” he chuckled. “I was looking for something new to us when I went into Meryton and this caught my eye. We both enjoyed Marmion so I thought this would be a nice addition to Longbourn’s collection. It is yours, of course,” he said with affection.

Elizabeth was truly moved. “Thank you, Papa,” she said, emotion catching her voice.

He nodded and Elizabeth thought his eyes shown with unshed tears. Neither spoke for several moments.

“Would you like me to read to you?” His voice was a triffle forced. However, before lizabeth could respond, she yawned. “Perhaps later when you have rested,” he amended.

She would have liked to hear the new book, but realized she wastired, so instead f objecting to the delay, she told him “I look forward to it.”

Mr. Bennet stood and leaned over to give his daughter a kiss on her brow.

“Rest now, Lizzy. I will be back later.”

She smiled and closed her eyes as he left the room. She was asleep by the time he was ensconced in his bookroom. He settled down to explore the new tome reaching for the ever present bottle of port.

<<>>

“When do we return to town?”

“I have written Aunt Catherine to inform her Andrew and I will arrive at Rosings on Tuesday, the 24th of next month. Since I promised you at least week of my time between when we arrive in Town and when I travel into Kent, we should leave for London no later than March 13th. It should not take us four days to make the journey, but one never knows. I must deliver our cousin back to his regiment by April 26th, but I only plan to be at Rosings until the 6th. Bingley is to be married at the end of the April and I had hoped to take you with me to Netherfield by the 13th – provided everything falls into place and Bingley is able to host us.”

“We have three weeks then, to prepare to leave. I shall miss Pemberley.”

“So shall I.”

“While I look forward to studying again with my piano master, and meeting with my friends, I do not look forward to crowd and close living spaces of London.”

“We both prefer the country, like our father before us.”

“Mother favored Town?”

“She was much more comfortable in society than Father. I think she was happy here and in London. I was not yet out in soceity when she died.”

“I do not remember anything about her, really. I recall her singing to me, and holding my hand. Not much more than that.”

“You were five years old. I do not remember much from when I was five years old.”

“Do I look like her, truly?”

“Yes, quite a bit I think. You have seen her portrait.”

“Seeing someone in a painting is not the same as in life.”

“It has been a long time since I last saw her. Mrs. Reynolds or her brother or sister would be better judge. However, dearest, you are who you are and not some else. You are lovely, intelligent, talented and kind. I am proud of the young woman you are becoming and look forward to showing you new wonders when we are in London next month.”

Later, Darcy searched out his sister and found her practicing her music. He waved a letter and announced, “I have a goddaughter!”

“Mrs. Collins had a girl?”

“Yes, I just received a letter from Longbourn. She safely delivered Henrietta Jane Collins on the 17th.”

“Wonderful news, brother! Are you certain you do not wish to travel through that corner of Hertfordshire on our way to Town to be there for the christening?”

“You know it is not necessary for me to be there and the issue of where to stay is still there. Bingley does not expect his sisters until a week or so before his wedding.”

That was not the answer she was hoping for. “Will I ever meet the Collins’?”

Darcy laughed at his the expression on his sister’s face. “Of course you will. Patience, my dear.”

“Fitzwilliam, I know you said you do not need to be there for the christening, but I still think you should try.’

“Is this a ply to gain more time with me in London?”

“No, I believe we would be in Hertfordshire most of that time.”

“We? I told you, Bingley has no hostess.”

“You and I both know that his sister will come as soon as she hears you are coming.”

“I… I admit it is likely. However, should we arrive and she is not there, where would we stay?”

“Surely one night at Netherfield would not be wrong, especially if we leave the next morning. However, I do not believe it will be an issue. Miss Bingley will be there if you ask Mr. Bingley if I may come.”

“You have your heart set on this?”

“Please?”

“What about Wickham?”

“Unless Mr. Bingley is entertaining, there would be no occasion for me to meet him. I am not out, and unless I make a trip into town, I would not be exposed to anyone outside our family party unless you initiated the encounter.

I cannot say no to her. “Very well, I will write and ask Bingley if he is agreeable to your scheme.”

In the end, they decided to leave for Town a week earlier than planned.

<<>>

“Emily! At last!” Miss Pope laughed and closed the door. Before, in Kent, when the two women were introduced it was just Emily and Elizabeth. Since she arrived at Longbourn, it was Miss Pope and Mrs. Collins everywhere except in the privacy of each other’s rooms.

“Elizabeth,” The two friends embraced and settled into the chairs next to the window. It was cloudy again today but at least it was light enough to not need candles to see. “Are you certain you are ready to be up and about like you have been today?”

“I have not been up all day, but I could not bear to remain in this room any longer. I needed to see my boys at least.”

“Mary has continued with his lessons in your stead. John just loves being cuddled for a while and then he is content to play. All in all, they are remarkably good at entertaining themselves.”

“It helps that Papa has promised William he can play with his toy soldiers when he has completed his day’s studies.”

“I reward your sisters as well. It was your idea, too.”

“There is nothing wrong with offering incentives, as long as they do not become the overriding motivation for doing what one aught.”

“Agreed.”

“Good. Now tell me the news I will not hear from my family. Aunt Philips has her uses, but she does not hear everything.”

“The benefits of being an employee, you once said in Kent. I asked around in various shops, as you suggested. The towns’ tradesmen have been careful to enjoy the patronage of the officers of the militia while keeping credit very low. I dare say that should they all pick up stakes and leave tomorrow that few will be lamenting their absence, or mourning substantial losses.”

“And what have you heard of Mr. Wickham.”

“I know you have your reasons for distrusting the man, but his reputation here is no different than any other of the officers, perhaps even better. He is generally well liked. His manners are pleasing and he is a great favorite of the Colonel of the regiment’s wife. Will you not tell me why he concerns you so, Elizabeth?”

“I wish I could, Emily. I really do.”

“Hmmm. You always have your reasons and they have yet to prove wrong in the end.”

“Thank you. And thank you for checking for me. I feel better knowing my fellow citizens fare well.”

“There has been talk of a few more girls than usual finding themselves in the family way.”

“We both were expecting that. The allure of a man in a red coat was not confined to my dear mama.”

“You did your best to warn your former parishioners.”

“Those poor girls’ children will be as fatherless as mine.”

“There is a world of difference between a widow and a young woman who allowed herself to be seduced!”

“Yet in the end the child is left without a father.”

“Your child will grow up at Longbourn, knowing that her father would have been master and her brother is. Elizabeth, stop comparing your situation to those girls. It is entirely different in all that matters.” Emily shook her head. “You really do need to get out of this house and outside in the sunshine and fresh air. It will help your mood immensely. If the weather is fair tomorrow, I will personally smuggle you past Jane and your father and Mrs. Hill.”

“I do not mean to be so maudlin.”

“You are allowed just this once.” Emily arose and hugged her friend, tucking the blanket around in concern. “You are fine here?”

“Yes. I cannot go back to bed just yet, but I promise I will before long.”

“I will check on you in an hour. Rest and recover, my friend. This household needs its proper mistress back. Jane does well, but we all know she is only a caretaker.”

“Thank you, for everything.”

“I should be the one thanking you! You rescued me from the Metcalfe children.” Emily shuddered and Elizabeth laughed as her friend had intended.

17.

Mr. Bennet was waiting for Elizabeth to open the post. As soon as he saw the missive from his brother, he went to his daughter. Hopefully it would contain some new information, and give Elizabeth some peace of mind about her husband’s tragic death.

“Would you like me to read it to you?” he asked. When she nodded he began.

Gracechurch Street, London
4 March, 1812

Brother,
My inquiries into Mr. Wickham are complete. He is unknown to my associates here in London. This is hardly surprising given that we knew him to be the son of a steward. He would never have the means to do business with my peers. However, it was worth the attempt. I also took the liberty of contacting a few of my wife’s acquaintances in Derbyshire. Though Lizzy shared what she knew of him from Mr. Darcy, there was also the possibility that the townsmen near Pemberley would have other information. Alas, the most recent appearance by Mr. Wickham was at least a year ago. It is well know that after the late Mr. Darcy’s death that the son discharged all of Wickham’s debts with the understanding that it would be the last that Pemberley would incur from that quarter. When Wickham last returned, those willing to extend him any credit before were unwilling to do so at all. He was not long in the area and everyone seemed relieved to see the back of him.

It seems we have run aground all our leads and should be prepared to take the man’s claims of un-involvement as sincere.

Truly, though it seemed unlikely that Mr. Collins simply drowned, it seems we have come to the point where we must accept it as the truth. Please give my love to my nieces, my two grand-nephews and my grand-niece. And Lizzy, since I know you are privy to the contents of this letter, please put this matter to rest. Your strength is needed for the living.

E. Gardiner.

“I hope you take my brother’s advice to heart, child. There is no evidence implicating Wickham in your husband’s death.”

“I know, Papa. I know. Though I do not trust him, for he is truly a cur.”

“Scoundrels abound; you have been in the world enough to know that now.”

“Unfortunately yes, I do. Which is why I value the good men I know. It gives me hope for the future of my children.”

Mr. Bennet nodded. Neither seemed inclined to speak for many moments.

“You were wise to warn the locals of the dangers associated with quarting a regiment of the militia for the winter. A necessary evil, to be sure. However, with prudence it is still a benefit to the shopkeepers in town.”

“Yes.” She was thinking not only of lost income, but lost virtue as well. She then gathered herself and made to stand. Her father was next to her in a moment, to lend his assistance.

“You are much better, but you are not fully recovered yet. You should still be abed.”

Elizabeth merely shook her head. “I am fine and continue to improve daily. And now I will check on the children. Henrietta will need to be fed soon anyway.”

“And then you will rest?” he asked, his concern in his voice. Elizabeth was warmed to hear it.

“Yes, if only to please my uncle who has taken on so much to set my mind at ease.”

Mr. Bennet heard the mewing of his youngest grandchild. He kissed Elizabeth’s cheek before she left to tend her daughter, smiling as she left. It was a smile tinged with fondness, with a measure of underlying sadness that his wife hadn’t lived to see her namesake. He returned to his desk and the remainder of his correspondence, rubbing at his arm as he settled in to read.

<<>>

As predicted, as soon as Caroline Bingley heard Mr. Darcy was to return Hertfordshire, she made haste to take up the hostess duties at Netherfield. She appeased her conscience with the determination to return to London as soon after the Darcys left her brother’s home as she could manage. It would also give her one last opportunity to try and talk Charles out of his disastrous upcoming marriage.

The subsequent events after her return to the backwaters her brother then called home seemed utterly providential in light of her intent. For the day before the Darcys were scheduled to depart, a note arrived from Longbourn that would change many lives.

Charles, come quickly. Papa is dead.

Jane

<<>>

As soon as Darcy saw his friends unsmiling face, a sense of dread settled over Darcy. A strong handshake and a quick, “We must speak now,” from his normally genial friend confirmed that something was terribly wrong. Seeing that Miss Bingley had greeted his sister and was showing her inside, Darcy nodded and let Bingley lead the way.

As soon as the door of the library was closed, Darcy spoke. “What has happened?”

“Four days ago I received a note imploring me to come to Longbourn immediately.”

“Are the Collins’s well?”

“Yes, but Mr. Bennet is not. He is dead, Darcy.”

Darcy stood still, shock covering his face. “How?”

“No one knows. He was feeling poorly one evening and excused himself to go his bed. A servant found him next morning. He had been gone for several hours by the time he was discovered. It seems he just went to sleep and never woke. I am sorry to bear such ill tidings. I know you liked the man as much as I.”

“No, no. I am just stunned. So much death associated with that family.Tell me, has the funeral been held?”

“Yes, yesterday. I would have sent word but I knew you would be on the road by the time a letter reached Pemberley. No knowing where you would break your journey, I decided to wait to tell you in person.”

“Thank you. How incredibly fortuitous that my sister convinced me to come early for the churching service. I would have been summoned here had I not come.”

“Mrs. Collins said something similar. I know you would wish to make sure your goddaughter was provided for now that her father and grandfather are no longer living.”

“I do, but it is more complex than that. I need to see Mr. Philips tomorrow as well as calling on Longbourn to offer my condolences.

“My God, Bingley. When I left before Christmas both Mr. and Mrs. Bennet looked the picture of health and I return just over three months later and they are both dead! The poor family, so many tragedies so closely together.”

“It makes one wish to not waste any extra time with the ones they love.”

Neither man said anything else for several minutes, both lost in the enormity of the situation the Bennets found themselves in. In the silence Darcy quickly comprehended the position his friend now found himself in.

“Bingley, what I am about to say may shock you, but please hear me out.” He waited for his friend’s signal to continue. “I know it is not considered proper to marry while in mourning, but I think you should marry Miss Bennet as soon as possible.”

“I have contemplated the same thing; I became engaged right after her mother passed for similar reasons.”

“Now that her father is gone, she and her sisters fall under the protection of her uncles. You either marry her right away or wait another three months, leaving Longbourn a bit adrift. I will help with the estate in the interim, but you are the one who can provide security for the family’s reputation. A common license can see you married within a day. Is the settlement done?”

“I have the final copy here with me. Mr. Bennet was waiting for it to be returned from London after my solicitor made our agreed upon changes. All it lacks is a signature.”

“Her uncle can sign for it when you approach him with your intentions to marry right away. You will marry her now if she agrees?”

Bingley walked over to look out the window. His back was still to his friend when he answered. “Yes, as soon as she will have me.”

His friend’s uncharacteristic retreat concerned Darcy. “Is something else the matter?”

Bingley looked up, but did not turn around. “I am not fond of the idea of moving directly into the chambers of my deceased father-in-law. I have dreamed of installing Jane as Mistress of Netherfield.”

Darcy relaxed, knowing he could be of some service. “There is no reason why you still cannot. Mrs. Collins is the Mistress of Longbourn until her son marries. As long as Longbourn as a good steward and enough footman, there is no need for you to reside there instead of here. That is, unless you wish to live at Longbourn until your new sisters are all married off.”

Bingley turned around and snorted. “Caroline would love that.”

“Perhaps it would motivate her to find a husband. And no, I am not a candidate for that position.”

“She thinks you are.”

“I am not,” Darcy snapped. Darcy would not give anyone associated with Caroline Bingley a reason to hope. “I know this is difficult, but all will be well in time. And as much as I would like to hear more details from you, I should go and speak to Georgiana now to tell her the news.”

Bingley suddenly looked Darcy in the eye. “I think she knows. Caroline has told me this is my opportunity to rid myself of the connection.”

Darcy returned his stare.

“If you tried, I would see you sued in court.”

Bingley relaxed his stiff posture. “I have no intention of leaving Jane.”

Darcy relaxed his. “I can see that, my friend. I suppose it is too late to call at Longbourn.”

“I promised to bring you first thing in the morning,” he replied as they made to exit the room.

Miss Bingley was lying in wait for the gentlemen. As soon as they appeared from behind the closed library doors, she was upon them, offering to show Darcy his chambers for the visit.

“I can find it.”

“No, I must insist. I will show you where your sister is at the same time.” Darcy knew she was waiting to speak to him. He concluded it was better to get it over with, and let himself be led off by her.

“Sir, I am so grateful you have come at such a momentous time. Charles will listen you. I have tried to make his see reason, but he refused. Miss Bennet is a dear sweet girl, but now she comes with an entire family. Seven additional persons to be responsible for. Please help me save him from himself.”

Darcy removed her hand from his armed and turned to face her. He did not want her to purposefully misunderstand what he had to say. “Your brother understands what he is doing, Miss Bingley. He is well aware of the responsibility he takes on with his marriage. This does not detour him in the slightest. He is prepared to take Miss Bennet as his wife and frankly, I would be a fool to discourage him.

“In my opinion, that is all your brother cares about. Be very careful, Miss Bingley, to not alienate your brother by continuing this campaign to separate him from Miss Bennet. He will marry her and there is nothing you can do to stop him. Only Miss Bennet can end things now.”

Satisfied with the effect of his speech, he motioned that he would follow her. When they had reached the door of his sister’s room he spoke again. “If you will excuse me, I want to talk to my sister alone now.”

As expected, Georgiana was distraught when he saw her. Her gentle spirit, shaken by the enfolding events, was grieved. He promised to take her to Longbourn as soon as he could, but warned her that it might take a couple days to accomplish. She understood, but still hoped to meet the ladies of that estate soon. Her heart went out to them; the loss of her own father was still fresh enough in her mind, even after five years, to affect her.

<<>>

Though not officially in morning himself, out of respect for the family, Darcy wore black clothing for his call to Longbourn.

Jane and Mary were the only sisters to greet the two gentlemen from Netherfield. Neither Kitty or Lydia was up to the task. Elizabeth was with her newborn daughter. Once Darcy had given his condolences, he gave a look to Bingley and that man asked to speak with his intended alone in the corner of the room. Miss Pope, who was also present, was left with the burden of carrying the conversation between the remaining three. All were relieved when the door suddenly opened and young William ran into the will open arms of his returned friend.

Darcy laughed and then ruffled the lad’s curls. “You have grown since December!”

“Mama says I grow too fast. I telled her I grow too slow.”

“Told her, and you should never contradict your mother, William.”

“She was just teasing me.”

“I know, but now you are the … you are still her son. Listen to her and you will grow into a fine young man someday.”

“That is what my grandpapa said.” William’s smile dimmed. “I miss Grandpapa.”

Darcy held the boy again. “I understand. Now, where are your brother and your new baby sister?”

“John is with Maggie and Mama has Henri.”

“Welcome back to Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth called as she walked into the room. Darcy saw a look of pleasure on her face when she looked at him and her son. It was in contrast to her worn look the moment before. He stood in acknowledgement. She was carrying a bundle in her arms. “Would you like to meet your goddaughter?”

“I would! How does Miss Collins fair today?”

“Asleep at the moment. John will be down in a few minutes as well. Thank you for coming; it has given the boys something to look forward to since…”

“You need not say any more. I looked forward to seeing them as well.”

Elizabeth sat down on the couch next to Darcy and handed him her daughter. He did not hesitate taking the child and showed a confidence that did not surprise Elizabeth.

“You have held a baby before.”

“I was twelve when my sister was born. My mother derived great comfort from watching me hold her. Since then I have held many a child of my tenants. They like it when the master extends his arms to take their children into his care. It is as much symbolic as courteous.”

“And now you do so with your goddaughter,” Elizabeth said pensively. Darcy did not reply, though it was true. John made his appearance then, breaking the suddenly solemn mood. The two boys injected and energy previously missing. And though their loss was never far from their minds, the children were sufficient entertainment to keep darker thoughts at bay.

Elizabeth allowed the boys to remain nearly one quarter of an hour before asking Mary to take the children back to the nursery. Miss Pope offered to help, knowing the mistress needed to speak with the gentlemen.

The weather was clear enough for a walk, but it was still a bit beyond Elizabeth to venture too far from the house. The drawing room would have to do.

The four adults moved to sit closer together. Bingley cleared his throat.

“Mrs. Collins, your sister and I have been discussing a proposal, a new proposal if you will. Yes, you see, I have asked and she has agreed to move up the wedding, and not postpone it as would normally occur during mourning.”

The sisters exchanged a look. Darcy realized the two women must have already discussed the possibilities. He saw that Mrs. Collins looked relieved.

“You do not look too surprised, Mrs. Collins,” Darcy voiced.

“Naturally, once the reality of our father’s passing hit, Jane and I talked about what would happen with her engagement. I told Jane I would support her if you asked to either delay or expedite your union.”

“You understand then, my friend’s desire to bring your family undeniably under his protection?”

“Yes, and it is very welcome. My uncles, while willing and able, do not enjoy the status of gentlemen. I confess it is a relief to know Jane will be settled sooner rather than later. And while she will not be at Longbourn, Netherfield is close enough.” Elizabeth addressed her sister next. “When do you plan to marry?”

“I need to take the settlement to Mr. Philips, and speak to the parson to purchase a license and secure a time. I suppose we could wed tomorrow. Jane, ultimately it is your choice.”

“If we waited until Tuesday, I know for a fact that Mr. Ponder will be available. Do you mind sharing Henrietta’s day with me?”

Elizabeth beamed. “I think it is a marvelous idea.”

“I admit I would feel better not being married the same weeks as Papa’s funeral.”

“And you will have time to pack your things this way,” Mr. Bingley noted. “Very well, Tuesday the 17th of March will be our wedding day. It will give Louisa time to come from London, if she wishes.”

“And possibly our Uncle and Aunt Gardiner.”

“Write to them today and I will see that it is sent immediately,” Bingley assured.

“You will have the christening before the wedding?” Darcy inquired of Elizabeth.

“I think it preferable to after.”

“Very well. Georgiana and I will leave for London as planned after the wedding.”

“You will stay for the wedding breakfast at least?”

“Certainly, but not much past. I would like to be in Town before dark.” Elizabeth nodded in understanding.

They addressed other most pressing issues and then the men took their leave. Jane had a letter to compose and Mr. Philips was expecting Darcy. They also needed to visit Mr. Ponder to secure him for the second ceremony on Tuesday.

The parson was sympathetic to the engaged couple’s plight and readily agreed to perform the ceremony. Bingley provided the funds necessary for the license and left the parsonage with his days as a bachelor numbered the same as the empty fingers of his left hand.

18.

The ride into Meryton was spent by Bingley rhapsodizing on the fine qualities of Miss Bennet. Darcy humored him, understanding that Bingley needed to voice his joy, though with an ever-present undercurrent of restraint due to the circumstance forcing the issue.

Soon enough they were ushered into the office of Mr. Philips. As brother to Mr. Bennet, he was very familiar with the terms of Jane Bennet’s marriage settlement. Reading through them, and seeing what he expected, Philips signed the papers. Before proceeding with the rest of the meeting, he offered the men a drink to celebrate.

“Nothing to fancy, mind you, but serviceable for the purpose,” the elder man explained. The spirits were not the quality Darcy would serve, but then again, few did. They drank to Bingley and Jane’s future felicity. “I shall be glad to walk her to you at church.”

“And I to stand up next to you,” Darcy added to Philips’ toast.

“Thank you, both.” Bingley said with a suspicious catch in his voice. They finished and put away the glasses.

“Seeing as how you are nearly family, Mr. Bingley, you should hear what Mr. Darcy and I would now discuss.”

“I told Bingley that I am named in Mr. Bennet’s estate papers.”

The solicitor nodded. “Mr. Darcy is named as a co-guardian of the three Collins children, as well as a trustee of the estate until William Collins is one and twenty. My brother Gardiner is their other guardian, and I am the other trustee. Also, Mr. Gardiner and I are guardians of Jane, Mary, Kitty and Lydia.”

“Miss Bennet will write to Mr. Gardiner today to invite him and his wife to the wedding. Can they come on such short notice?” Darcy inquired

“If he does not have any pressing business, I believe they will. If he is coming perhaps we should set up a meeting of the three of us to go over the disposition of the estate and to set some parameters of how the three of us will work together to see to the family.”

“I had planned to return to London Tuesday after the wedding, but in light of Mr. Gardiners visit, perhaps I should ask if my sister does not mind staying an additional day, though I hate to impose, Bingley.”

“If you do not mind an absent host, I see no reason why not.”

“The bookroom at Longbourn will serve our purposes. If we meet after the wedding breakfast we can probably conclude our business that afternoon. It will allow my brother to leave early on Wednesday, and you as well if you wish it,” Mr. Philips suggested.

“If we need to meet again, we can do so after I return from Kent. I will travel there on the 24th and remain for two weeks. After that I am at your disposal, and Bingley will be accepting visitors by that time. I believe that he should be included as much as possible, since living at Netherfield he will be more at the Bennet’s disposal than the three of us.”

“Excellent. What I need to know from both of you gentlemen is what to do with Mrs. Bennet’s settlement. As Mr. Bingley knows, when my sister Bennet married, her father settled five-thousand pounds on her. He was very thorough in safeguarding that money to provide for her future. It was given in such a way that neither she nor Mr. Bennet could touch the principal. In addition, her father convinced her to leave the interest alone so that it would grow. She did so until Elizabeth was married. Because she married the heir of Longbourn and they chose to live with the family, Elizabeth’s portion was broken off and a very modest allowance of fifty pound per annum was given to the couple. Still because the initial settlement was allowed to grow, it had doubled by the time of Elizabeth’s marriage. Of course, the money was still Mrs. Bennet’s. At any time she could have taken money the funds had were interest, but her Brother Gardiner and I implored her to leave it alone. Once she passed away, the money was finally formally divided between her daughters. With Jane’s engagement, Mr. Bennet and I had begun the process of transferring Jane’s portion to her, under similar provisions as Mr. Gardiner set in place when Harriet married. Mr. Bennet was surprised it was so large. He always assumed his wife spent most it since the money was kept separate from Longbourn’s books.

“Anyway, it will take a few weeks to finish the transfer, Mr. Bingley, but I have the final amount that your wife will have settled on her. It comes to just under twenty four hundred pounds. Mr. Bingley has agreed to supplement the amount, Mr. Darcy. It is good to know my niece will start her marriage with the same settlement amount as her mother.”

“I wish I could give her more,” Bingley lamented.

“You will need the money to purchase an estate, Bingley. You can always gift her more later if you desire. And that does not include any funds you set aside for children, or money she chooses not to spend from her pin money,” Darcy replied.

“Very true,” Mr. Philips said in agreement. “Now that you both have a general idea of the financial situation of the Bennet daughters, we should discuss the roles each of us will play in the continued maintenance of the estate.”

“I would rather defer the particulars until I have a chance to speak with the steward. I understand the man has not been employed for long?”

“Bennet hired him last year after Mr. Collins informed him that he was leaving to take the living in Kent. I had spoken to him over years about the possibility, so I was happy to assist him in the search. Mr. Grainger came well recommended and seems to be doing an excellent job. Bennet said they had discussed many changes to be implemented this spring.”

“We exchanged notes and I will see him tomorrow to go over the plans and the accounts. While I am all for giving people the authority to do their job, I do not believe in delegating blindly, or abdicating oversight.”

“That is good to hear. I told my brother that while I have a fair understanding of the workings of an estate, I do not have the experience and knowledge of an actual owner. I am relieved to have your assistance. I would wish to end my trusteeship by handing over a prosperous Longbourn to William when he finally comes of age.”

“That is my wish as well.”

After the gentlemen were finished with their discussion, Bingley road back to Longbourn to share the news of the success of his visit, while Darcy returned to Netherfield and his sister. He would take her and Mrs. Annesley, her companion, to meet the residents of Longbourn the next day. Georgiana also consented to delaying their journey to London by a day so that her brother could see to his responsibilities in Hertfordshire.

Fortunately, the weather remained clear and the next morning saw the Darcy coach deliver four adults to the Bennet’s abode.

Darcy introduced the two women of his party to Elizabeth and her sisters. The two companions struck up a conversation while watching their charges in theirs. Seeing the situation well in hand, Darcy went off to meet with Mr. Grainger.

He was pleased to see the changes that the man was instituting around the estate. Darcy had been concerned about the actual state of Longbourn while exchanging letters and information with Mr. Bennet. What he learned had confirmed his suspicions, and also encouraged him that any lagging behind in the use of new and improved farming methods would soon be gone. Likewise, he anticipated a steady increase in profits as the land was put to better use. He would have to personally evaluate the status of the tenants’ dwellings, though the steward told him that they were perfectly adequate and acceptable for the terms of their rents. Still, Darcy was a man who believed that a good landlord and master saw to the needs of his people so that they would not want for the necessities of life and that they would be able to work the land to both parties’ benefit. Simply put, unhappy tenants were a liability to a well-functioning estate.

Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley had long returned to Netherfield when Elizabeth came looking for Mr. Darcy. When she walked into the room and shut the door behind her, she found him sitting in her father’s chair, reviewing her father’s account book. The strain suddenly became too much. Darcy watched in horror as she began to sob. Not stopping to think about what he was doing, he rushed over to her and pulled her into his embrace. He tensed for a moment as a charge rippled through his body from touching her, but Darcy recovered quickly and relaxed his grip on her. “There, there my friend,” he spoke calmly. He continued to reassure her and eventually she calmed. He led her to a chair and sat her down kneeling before her, with his hand on her knee, to assure himself that she was better. Darcy took his handkerchief and dried the tears on her cheek, looking in her eyes and smiling compassionately.

“Forgive me, I do not know what came over me,” Elizabeth said, embarrassed.

“You have suffered many shocks of late, Mrs. Collins.”

She swallowed hard and nodded. Darcy took the opportunity to rise from his position and pulled over a chair to sit next to Elizabeth. He would think on his reactions later. For now, he would concentrate on the grieving woman beside him.

“I am sorry to distract you from your task.”

“I was nearly finished; finished enough for now, actually. I am glad you came to see me, though not happy that it brought you to tears. I wanted to talk to you.”

“I will try not to cry,” she said bravely. Darcy smiled. It was something he would expect her to say.

“Good. I admit I was in a bit of a hurry to review the accounts based on an idea I had. After Miss Bennet’s marriage, the will be three less adults living at Longbourn than there were when I last visited the area. I have reviewed the accounts to confirm my suspicions, and they have affirmed what I conjectured.

“You can afford to hire another two servants.” Elizabeth started to speak, but he stopped her. “Please, hear me out. With your new duties as Mistress of Longbourn, you do not have the time you had before Henrietta to see to your children. You know I speak the truth. They need a nursery maid.

“I am also concerned about the lack of men on the estate. There is the lad that works in the stable and though Mr. Grainger is around during the day, he does not live in the house. Your butler is quite old and I wonder how much help he can be to the female servants. You need another man about the property for your protection. I have several trusted footmen just in London who would be perfect for the household. Say the word and I will have one here on Monday.”

“The children love Maggie,” she cried.

“Let her be their nurse, then. Hire a maid to take over Maggie’s other duties. You are exhausted and we both know that your sister’s departure will only make things worse. The estate can afford it and Mrs. Collins; your children need their mother healthy and rested.” Elizabeth covered her face with her hands and sighed. “You know I am right.” Darcy continued his voice tender and caring. “I speak as your friend. I am concerned for your and your family’s welfare.”

Elizabeth nodded, and then looked away. “I miss Papa.” The pain in her voice moved him. He recognized it as his own from when he lost his father.

“I know.” He was not patronizing.

“I am trying to be strong,” she declared. This was something he understood, the need to be an anchor to her family is this tempestuous time. But he had discovered a few things in the depths of his grief.

“Part of being strong is acknowledging when you need help. Trust me; it took me years to learn that lesson. It was not an easy thing to admit.

“Your new brother would feel better with another man here, too.”

Elizabeth did not doubt it. “Very well, please make the arrangement to have one of your men come. If I am uneasy I can send him back?”

“Of course! If necessary I will keep sending you candidates until you are comfortable. I will even raid Pemberley’s staff if need be.”

“Thank you. I prefer to hire a local girl for a maid. Maggie has not complained, but I know it has been an inconvenience for the entire staff to be short. I should have added another servant after Mama died but I did not want to worry about that with the baby coming.” Darcy just looked at her. “I know, I know.”

Elizabeth changed the subject.

“My uncle’s reply came while you have been shut away. He and my aunt will come Monday and leave Wednesday. He was just here for the funeral, you know.”

“Mr. Philips mentioned it. Georgiana and I will stay Tuesday evening as well. She agreed I needed another day here and graciously allowed me change our plans. I feel like I am breaking a promise but she assured me that I am not, given the circumstances. After London I am for Rosings for my annual fortnight visit.”

“Lady Catherine will be overjoyed to receive you. Will you make her joy complete by finally formalizing your betrothal to Miss de Bourgh?”

Suddenly, the thought of an alliance to his sickly cousin became an abhorrence. “There has never been a betrothal to formalize. My aunt wishes it, and spoke to my mother about it, but nothing was ever done to compel it. No, Mrs. Collins, there will be no engagement to Cousin Anne. Not now, not ever. I need more in the companion of my future life than Anne can provide.”

“She will be disappointed.”

“I beg to differ. While we have spoken of our mothers’ wish, neither of us has shown any anticipation for the match to take place. Anne … Anne prefers not to marry at all, I think.”

“We never spent much time together while I lived at Hunsford, so I would not know her heart.”

“I assure you, a union between me and my cousin would not be a matter of the heart. We rarely have had any time together to speak freely since we were children and even then, she preferred her own company to mine. She always got on better with my Cousin Andrew than with me. Any time I spend with her now, Andrew or someone else is present.”

Conversation came to a halt for a few minutes; neither knew what else to say. At last Elizabeth took the opportunity to say a little of what was on her heart.

“Thank you, Mr. Darcy, for everything.”

“You are welcome. I am finished in here for the day. What is left can be done Monday.”

“Will you see the boys before you go?”

Darcy smiled. “I was hoping you would ask.”

Elizabeth returned his smile, until it faltered slightly. “Are my eyes red?”

“A little, but I doubt anyone will notice, given the situation.”

Darcy put his hands on his thighs for a moment and then stood. He offered his hand to help his companion rise as well. When Mrs. Collins took it, an even greater shock surged through him and his eyes immediately sought hers. Her head had snapped up and look on her face told him she was just as aware of him as she was her. How long they stood like that, he was unaware, until both simultaneously realized he still held her hand; he let go and distractedly motioned for her to lead the way.

Whatever had just happened, at least Darcy knew that William especially would be happy to see him.

19.

Elizabeth held William’s hand in her left, and John’s hand in her right. Both boys waved at the gentlemen who had just left for Netherfield on horseback. Jane stood to her right.

“Three more days and you will be the one leaving.” Elizabeth said pensively.

“I can hardly believe it. But you will be fine without me, Lizzy.”

“I agreed to hire another maid.”

“Mr. Darcy suggested it?”

“Yes, and he is to send a footman from his staff in Town.”

“Charles will be happy to hear that.”

“Mr. Darcy suggested he would. I will speak to Mrs. Hill later to ask her to find a local girl. Maggie will become the children’s nurse.” By this time they were back inside the house and the children were on their way back upstairs.

“She will like that, as will they.” Jane glanced over to her sister. “You have been crying.”

“I had hoped no one noticed. I confess seeing Mr. Darcy in Papa’s study was more than I was prepared to see today.” Jane just nodded her head in understanding. “I will go and speak to Mrs. Hill and then to Maggie. I hope you do not mind, but I will retire for a few hours after that.”

“Get some rest, sister.”

Once Elizabeth had spoken to the two servants, each happy to hear their mistress’s decision, she shut herself up in her room. However, sleep was not forthcoming. She kept thinking about those moments alone with Mr. Darcy.

There were times since Mr. Collins had died that she missed some of the intimate acts that a couple were allowed. Not necessarily the conjugal expression, but more the moments when she felt cherished and safe within the arms of a man. He father and Uncle Gardiner had hugged her a few times, and her boys loved to cuddle, but today was the first time in nine long months that she had the comfort of the embrace of a man. Lord help her, she enjoyed it immensely. She had felt Mr. Darcy tense, and she feared he would release her. Her relief was great when he stayed where he was. Indeed, it was more his touch than his words that had calmed her and while she was embarrassed to lose control of her emotions like that in his presence, she was loath to let him go when the time came.

And then he held her hand.

She must stop this! Mr. Darcy was her friend and that was all. While she knew her status as a widow opened her to a different world of possibilities than that of a maiden, she had no intention of engaging in any activities that could damage her reputation and that of her family. Hertfordshire was not London and she was glad for it. Society might give her a pass, but her love for her children would not. Any thoughts of anything more than friendship with Mr. Darcy must be suppressed. Any thoughts of anything more with any man must be conquered. Her life was set. She would remain at Longbourn as mistress until William took a wife. She had twenty years at least before any change to that life would come.

Yet he held her hand; forgetting that moment might take every one of those twenty years.

Georgiana could tell that her brother was preoccupied and even Miss Bingley noticed that something was amiss. However, after his refusal to intervene in her brother’s impending marriage, Miss Bingley treaded lightly around the man. She did not question him on his mood. Georgiana did, but she was told he just had much on his mind after his meeting about Longbourn that day. Such an explanation made sense and she ceased her inquiries, even as she wished to ask more.

While it was true that Darcy had spent some time thinking about what needed to be done for Mr. Bennet’s estate, his mind was engaged on a more personal subject.

He had held her hand.

Elizabeth Collins was not the first woman, outside of his family, that he had held in his arms. No, he had had the pleasure of embracing quite a few females. Georgiana had made it a point to tell him how much comfort she derived from the times his arms had encircled her, and how his touch had helped her overcome her disappointment of the past summer. However, never before had he been so affected by the experience. He had been reluctant to let Mrs. Collins go when she had calmed. He suspected that if he had the chance again, he might never wish to be parted from her.

What disconcerted him even more was his response to her question about his expected engagement with Anne. He told her that he had not planned on following through with his aunt’s greatest desire. He had not told her the real reason why such a union was now so repugnant to him for when she enquired; he understood subconsciously, in that very instant, that to marriage to anyone save her was intolerable. Now that he had had time to consider the conversation, he recognized the one thing he never expected.

He had fallen in love with her.

It had come on so gradually, that he did not see it for what it was. He loved everything about Elizabeth, everything that made her perfect for him.

It was a terrifying realization.

What made it so difficult was that as much as he loved and admired Elizabeth, she was not what he was looking for in a wife. He could hear his family now. Marry the widow of a clergyman? A woman with three small children and very little to her name? She was the daughter of a gentleman, there was no question about that, but Longbourn was a small, insignificant estate in the middle of an insignificant neighborhood far from anything fashionable. And while her sister was a tolerable choice for new money such as Charles Bingley, Elizabeth was a very imprudent choice for him.

She was not the woman he should pick to be the companion of his future life. He knew she had no such designs on him; she had told him she did not plan to remarry. Keeping their relationship as it was should not be a problem. However, Darcy knew himself well enough to know it would be nigh to impossible. Once he committed to do something, he did so completely. His heart told him a future without Elizabeth was unthinkable. His mind said he was a fool for even considering it.

She fit perfectly in his arms; she belonged there. He had held her hand and in that space of time he was lost.

How would he find his way home again when she could not be there to welcome him?

<<>>

A conversation with Mrs. Collins the day before revealed that it was safe to bring Georgiana to Longbourn Church for the Sunday services, for none of the militia ventured to their little corner of Hertfordshire to worship. For this Darcy was glad. He also knew that whatever desire he had for the Bennets’ exclusive company would have to be put aside. He had left his sister at the mercy of Caroline Bingley most of Saturday. He would return to Netherfield with Georgian after church instead of Longbourn. This also gave him another day to prepare to meet Mrs. Collins. She would not join her sisters in services until after the christening.

Mr. Bingley, on the other hand spent the day with his betrothed and her family.

Monday morning, before heading to Longbourn, Darcy decided to visit Meryton to check up on Wickham. He first called at Mr. Philip’s office to confirm their meeting later that day as well as to ascertain which merchants might be the most vulnerable to the charms of an officer of the militia. Mr. Philips was surprised by the request, but quickly recovered to list a few shops Darcy would want to investigate.

The first establishment he entered was a tailor’s shop. Darcy’s excuse was to make sure that Mr. Bennet’s account was current – which he knew already that is was. Word would spread quickly that Longbourn had a gentleman of considerable means as a trustee, just in case anyone wondered about the finances of the Bennets. As the conversation with the owner wore on Darcy moved the subject from the situation of the Bennet/Collins family to the other newsworthy residents of the area – the militia. The proprietor was quick to praise Mrs. Collins and her suggestions to the wives of the tradesmen to be careful in extending credit.

“They show me their brass before I take on an order, that they do,” exclaimed Mr. Wagner, the old tailor. “I appreciate the business, mind you, but I am not taking the risk with men whose lives are so transient. No credit to them, I told the missus. People who live here, they can have an account. Mr. Bennet, God rest his soul, was a good customer for many years. I was always paid by Longbourn.”

“I imagine it will not be too long before the next Master of Longbourn is a regular customer as well.”

“They sure grow up fast, which is good business for me.”

Darcy agreed and thanked the man for his time, assuring him that he would be seeing Longbourn’s custom again soon. His next stop was the tavern favored by the officers. Though it was early, he saw several men in red coats inside. One of them was the man for whom he was there. Wickham saw his old adversary, but buoyed by the knowledge that he was amongst his fellow officers, and Darcy was alone, chose to address him.

“Darcy! Come to buy an old friend a drink? How charitable of you.” The other officers laughed, though Darcy stood with a grim look on his face.

“Do’n you mind ‘im sir. ‘E’s always wanting som’one else to buy him a pint,” the man serving the spirits bellowed. “’E knows ‘e won’ get anything else from me ‘e don’t pay for first. These redcoats would drink me out of ‘ouse and ‘ome if I let em.”

Darcy was very pleased to hear this. So pleased that he indulged in that small voice that whispered into his ear. He reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins. With a devilish glint in his eye, he handed them to the proprietor and then turned around and looked his nemesis in the eye. “Drink for the house!” Everyone cheered. And then he pointed to Wickham with his chin, “except for George. I and my father before me have wasted enough money on him to last two lifetimes.” Wickham stopped laughing at the pronouncement. A look of pure hate replaced his momentary glee. Darcy held up his hand. “Careful, old man.” He walked over and leaned close so no one else could hear, though the eyes of the room were on them. “Before you get any wild ideas in your head, think on this. Someone bought up your debts in Lambton and I do not think he would be very happy to hear any gossip about any other residents of the area. Do we understand each other?”

Wickham jerked his head up and down, unhappy but unwilling to risk his freedom.

Darcy turned around, fished in his pocket, and then tossed another coin to the barman. “On second thought, give George a glass of your best whiskey. We just sealed a deal.” Darcy bowed to the others, and dipped his head, “Gentleman.” The others raised their now refilled glasses in salute as their benefactor walked away.

A full glass was set down in front of Wickham. Grudgingly he took it in hand and before he could stop to think, downed it all in one drain. The others looked at him, but when he did not speak, they left him alone to stew on whatever had just happened.

Wickham sat there sullenly and said not a word.

Elizabeth noted her friend’s mood when he was announced at Longbourn. Something had put a small smile on Mr. Darcy’s lips. Her heart fluttered a tiny bit at the sight. He was a very handsome man, but even more so when he smiled.

The Gardiners had not yet arrived, but they were expected at any time. Jane had spent the morning packing the majority of her belongings and they were being loaded onto a cart to take them to Netherfield.

Elizabeth asked Mr. Darcy if he needed to use the bookroom again. He did and she offered to escort him there.

“Perhaps now you will tell me why you are smiling, sir?”

Darcy chuckled, and though he was tempted do otherwise, left the door open, but not before checking to see if anyone was about. He told her about his earlier visit to Mr. Wagner’s shop and then his trip into the tavern. Elizabeth’s eyes grew wide at the tale.

“Are you sure that was wise?”

Darcy was in too good a mood to be discouraged. “Wickham now knows he cannot threaten me or my sister with impunity. I have the power to see him thrown into debtors’ prison and after my show today, he realizes that I would do it. In the past, he would have counted on my father’s memory to stay my hand. No more.”

A smile spread over Elizabeth’s face. “I have a feeling that today was a long time in coming?”

“Yes, ten years, at least.”

“You must share this with your sister when you see her next. It might alleviate any residual fears she may still be harboring.”

“I will.”

“I took your advice and asked Hill to find a new maid. It is most fortuitous that I did so as I now must replace Lotte.”

“She is leaving?”

“Yes, with Jane. I do not know why it did not occur to me before. I found a note by Papa yesterday and I realized that Jane would want to take someone with her from the household. Lotte has served as the ladies maid for several years. We will be fine for a few days until we can find a replacement.”

“It had slipped my mind as well that the new Mrs. Bingley would be expected to bring at least one servant with her. Forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive; it has been a trying time and we have all had too much to think on to remember everything. Four days is hardly enough time to plan a proper wedding.”

“Nevertheless, I am glad your sister will have someone with her that she knows and trusts. Even if it means Longbourn will be short-handed for a few days at least.”

“I doubt it will take very long to find someone – on trial, of course. And the other maid’s position is even simpler to fill. We shall endure and Mrs. Hill can help if needed, as can Miss Pope, though I hate to ask much of her.”

“I sent a note to my home in London. I expect someone to arrive by tomorrow. I left it to my butler to decide which footman to send.”

“We have our hands full sorting out all the changes and new faces. But I am happy for Jane. She is so looking forward to being Bingley’s wife, though she tries to hide it for fear of upsetting the rest of us in our mourning of Papa.”

“You appear to be more at peace today.”

Elizabeth shrugged. “Like much in life, some days are better than others. Tomorrow is a happy day. Henrietta will be christened with all three of her godparents present, and Jane will be married to a man whom she adores. I would rather think on those present than those absent.”

Darcy was once again, impressed by the woman before him. Her life had dramatically changed four times in the past year, and yet with all the heartache she had endured she still looked for the good in the situation. This was in contrast to his own tendency to anticipate the worst outcomes, something he had learned through similar heartbreaks.

They discussed the search for the new maids for a while. Before Darcy had a chance to present his new conceived proposal to increase the servants residing at Longbourn, they were informed that the Gardiner’s carriage had been spotted and would arrive in the next few minutes.

“After your uncle and I become acquainted, I want to invite you to join us for least the beginning portion of our discussion about the estate issue with Mr. Grainger. Will you join us?”

“Thank you, yes! I know you and my uncles are now the ones responsible for Longbourn and my family, but I was privy to my husband’s and my father’s expectations and practices when it came to the household and the estate. I would like to know what to expect and any changes being contemplated to the way things are done.”

The greetings between the residents of Longbourn and the occupants of the carriage had a decidedly different feel than those of the previous week. While the loss of Mr. Bennet was never far from anyone’s mind, the reason for the Gardiners presence this time was essentially a joyful one. Though more subdued that normal, all the participants were pleased to be together again. Mr. Darcy was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. It was not long before he learned that was Mrs. Gardiner who had spent several years of her childhood Lambton, a small town only five miles from Darcy’s Derbyshire estate.

Darcy was always willing to discuss his home country, and Mrs. Gardiner was a willing partner in his partiality.

When Mr. Philips arrived, the gentlemen and Elizabeth excused themselves. Mr. Grainger was ready for them in the bookroom. Mr. Gardiner was brought up to date on the changes taking place in the staff. All in all, Mr. Gardiner agreed with what had been decided, and asked what else was planned. At this point Darcy spoke up.

“I feel much better with the additions to the staff, but I admit that I would like to see another male or two on the property. However, I also know that such an expenditure of funds is perhaps not the most fiscally prudent thing to do. With such knowledge, I have considered various options over the last few days, all of which I have discarded until I came upon one as I rode over this day.” The others looked at him, curious to hear what he had to say.

“My London stable master has, over the past several years, been asking me to consider finding a secondary stabling option for the horses I keep in Town. More than once I have her him muttered under his breathe, mind you, about his ‘poor beasties’ and the ‘foul air’ of London.

While I have sympathized with him, I have not done anything about his request. I have had other matters to attend to and not the time to investigate alternatives.

However, as I rode this morning I thought of how I would ride my horse to Kent and how happy old Wiggens will be for my ‘beastie’. And then I thought of Longbourn’s stables. They are large enough to hold two to three times the amount of animals that they do.

This combination sparked the idea of choosing Longbourn as my alternative stabling place for my London horses. While not as close as I would prefer, it is not too far. I am fairly certain that it would cost me less to keep some of my animals here than in Town, and I could send one of my stable hands here to take care of the horses and transport them to my townhouse when they are needed.

What do you think?”

Mr. Philips spoke first. “You will pay board for the animal, as well as the man you send?”

“Yes, I will pay for them both. The servant will also be available to help with the gardening. I noticed that Mr. Bennet spent quite a bit of time working out there and that labor will need to be replaced. The groom I intend to send is a country lad at heart and a little gardening would be something he will enjoy, I think.”

“How many horses are we talking about?”

“Depending on the time of year, as many as six, I think. There could be times when all are needed in town, but I do not think that will happen often. I plan to rotate the carriage horses and the riding horses.”

“This would be rather impractical for you, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth said with some skepticism.

“There will be times when available horseflesh is a bit lean, so to speak. But you underestimate how much I value peace of mind. I take seriously the responsibility of taking care of those under my protection. I am now co-guardian of your children and as such I am willing to “put up with” a few possible minor inconveniences to see that they are well and happy. And this has the added benefit of making Wiggens happy. What I did not learn from my father about horses, I learned from him.”

“You must own many horses, sir.”

Darcy blushed. “Enough to make sure I have enough for my sister’s and my needs.” He took a deep breath, “Do you want this, Mrs. Collins?”

Elizabeth looked at her uncles. “Should I agree?”

“I think it is a very generous offer, Elizabeth, and as long as my Brother Philips can come up with a contract, I see no reason to decline. And another man about the place would be a good thing.”

“Uncle?”

Mr. Philips nodded his head. “I will be happy to draw up a contract draft and send it to Mr. Darcy’s representatives. Mr. Darcy and I can talk more specifics later.”

Elizabeth looked Darcy in the eye, and then smiled. “Thank you.” He smiled and nodded back.

From there the conversation drifted to farming methods and animal husbandry. Elizabeth knew she was not needed and left the four men to their deliberations. She trusted them to inform her of anything that would affect the household.


20.

Elizabeth would look back on the 17th day of March, 1812, as a day of contrasts and juxtapositions. Those few who gathered in Meryton Church that morning were mostly dressed in full morning, and yet, instead of reflecting on a life now gone, they celebrated new life. Henrietta Jane Collins was christened and her mother was welcomed back into services in the church. Once that was accomplished, Jane pledged her future to the man she loved and became Mrs. Charles Bingley. The witnesses were few. The residents of Netherfield and the residents of Longbourn along with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and Mr. and Mrs. Philips.

It gave Elizabeth great pleasure to see Jane so happy. Her marriage to Collins allowed Jane to wait for the right man to come along. It was another validation of the choice she had made in what now seemed like a lifetime ago. Standing there holding her newborn, she was perfectly content.

<<>>

The wedding breakfast was nearly over and Darcy sought out Mrs. Collins to take his leave. His meeting with the gentlemen the day before allowed him to take Georgiana to London after the wedding as originally planned.

“Please give my greetings to your aunt and cousin, sir.”

“I will be sure to do so.”

“Thank you. I wish you safe travels. I know from experience that it is a long journey to Kent.”

“I do not find it so. It can be no more than 50 miles; not too far a distance when one has the proper means to travel.”

“I think your means were much different than mine.”

Darcy grinned ruefully. “Ah yes, I have seen your family’s carriage and suspect it is not as well sprung as my own. I my case, to Kent from here is very easy distance indeed for I will be there soon enough. And then I will return to Hertfordshire for a little while to check in on Longbourn and my goddaughter and her brothers.”

Darcy bowed to leave. Without thinking, he grabbed her hand and placed a kiss on it. “God bless you, madam.” He said and let it go … reluctantly. Elizabeth eyes grew wide at the gesture and she gave a nervous laugh before recovering enough to answer him.

“You will always be welcome at Longbourn. Safe travels to you and your sister.”

Later, as she watched the Darcy carriage rattle down the drive, she caressed the spot where he has kissed her hand.

Half of her wished he had not; the other half hoped he would do it again.

<<>>

In the days that followed Jane’s wedding and the departure of the Gardiners, life around Loungbourn settled into an uneasy rhythm. The five unmarried women – counting Elizabeth and Miss Pope – searched for new routines now that their parents were no longer there to direct them. Of course, Elizabeth’s days were full with the children and such, but even she was a bit at loss as to what the future held.

Miss Pope, aware that time was slowly drifting by, and concerned about her charges, sought out her employer and it being a lovely day, proposed a walk. They spoke of inconsequential things for a while before Miss Pope guided the conversation to the subject she wished to discuss.

“Have you given any thought as to how long you wish me to stay at Longbourn?”

Elizabeth could have been surprised at the question, but she was not. She had been meaning to talk to her friend for days. “I would hope you would stay for a long time, Emily. My sisters might not need you for much longer, but my children will need a governess soon. I know it is not the same as a companion, but at least you know what kind of family you are working for, and I had thought you liked it here.”

“I do like it very much. However, I am not sure I can continue as your sisters’ companion?”

“Why not? I had thought they are all improving. Mary’s piano performance is much better and Lydia and Kitty do not giggle as much as they used to.”

“I agree about Mary and Kitty, but not so much about Lydia. She is still silly and headstrong. Now that your father is not around as a figurehead, she is less likely to listen to me, knowing there is no one to tell her otherwise.”

“I had no idea. I have been so busy. Do I need to speak to her myself?”

“Yes, but, there is more. Elizabeth, can I be completely honest with you?”

Elizabeth looked at her friend, knowing she would not ask if it were not important, and knowing that it would be difficult to hear. She nodded her consent.

“No household can continue indefinitely without a master or mistress. I know you have been hesitant to fully claim your position, but you must do so and very soon. I cannot promise you that I can control Lydia if you do not, and if she ceases to listen to me, you know Kitty will soon follow.”

“Would you have me claim my mother’s chambers?”

“No, at least, not now. Maybe later when you feel ready. I meant things like telling your sisters that while they will continue to be trained in the running of the household, and that you are the one who will make the final decisions. I also think you should claim the chair at the foot of the table as mistress. You could take your father’s place, but it is not necessary.”

“I did not wish to offend Jane by taking precedence of her,” Elizabeth sighed.

“You took precedence when you married Collins, though you may have deferred to her since. Now that she is at Netherfield, that impediment is removed. I also suggest that the rest of the table be adjusted as well. Mary should sit to your right and Kitty to your left. Lydia should be next to Mary and I to Kitty. Hopefully it will be a subtle reminder to all of them of their place in this house.”

Elizabeth saw the sense in her friend’s arguments.

“I will speak to Hill and then tonight at dinner speak to my sisters as well.”

“Thank you. I know this is not easy, nor is it what you wanted.”

“Life does not always give you the choice.” Both ladies knew that truth full well. “Will you stay?”

“Of course, I am needed and I like it here.”

“And will you consider becoming a governess again?” Emily shook her head and grinned.

“We can discuss that in a year. Until then, I will help your sisters learn to become the ladies like their elder siblings.”

That evening as the ladies gathered for dinner, Elizabeth’s sisters were somewhat surprised to see that she had finally taken her rightful place at the table. They did not say too much when she asked them to rearrange their places, recalling how they had done so after her marriage to Mr. Collins and again when the Collins had left for Hunsford. Still, it was a reminder of how things had irrevocably changed at Longbourn.

When Elizabeth spoke about their new places within the family, there was little discussion beyond clarification of a few minor points. One thing was perfectly clear, Elizabeth Collins was mistress of Longbourn whether they liked it or not. If they had issues with her dictates, they could take them up with their uncles, but until she was overruled on a particular matter by their guardians, her word was law.

<<>>

The day after the Darcys arrived in Town, Colonel Fitzwilliam called at Darcy House. His intent was to confirm their plans for their trip to Kent. He was unprepared for the recitation of the trials of the Bennet clan.

“How many god children do you have now, Fitz?”

“Three, not that it is any of your business.”

“Just curious. I knew about Northem’s two, of course. It is good to know that there are not any others to pop up unexpectedly.”

“Andrew!” Darcy was not amused. “My goddaughter was born fatherless. Try and remember that the next time you think her a target for your wit. It makes you look like a heartless beast.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam sobered immediately. “Forgive me, you are correct. It was poorly done and I apologize.”

“I would expect it of your brother, not of you.”

“That was a low blow … but earned,” he said acknowledging with a rueful grin that it was deserved. “Northem is a pompous ass. I on the other hand,” the colonel put his hand over is heart and assumed innocent air, “am the poor spare who cannot afford to offend the ton.”

“Save your acting for the ladies, Andrew.” The men laughed and both knew Darcy had forgiven him, and would not tolerate another jest on the subject.

“Have you been granted leave to go to Rosings as planned?”

“Of course. My commanding officer knows our aunt. It is his way of punishing me.”

Thankfully, Darcy had not yet taken a sip of his drink.

<<>>

George Wickham was rather frustrated. The tradesmen of Meryton were very stingy in extending credit to the militia. No thanks to Darcy, he was sure. Normally he would have left the area by now. However, he could not bear to let Darcy drive him away so effortlessly. He wanted to exact his pound of flesh before he did. Unfortunately, he didn’t have many pounds of his own to spare having lived fairly honestly, paying his way for a change.

He considered his options. Rumor had it that the militia would move to Brighton for the summer. However, that was two months away. Since he was not going to let Darcy run him off, he determined to wait it out. Surely the prospects for a quick windfall were better in that windswept town, much more so than the wilds of Hertfordshire where there was little prospect for the advancement of his personal goals. His one hope, Miss King, had been whisked away before he could induce her into an elopement. However, upon further consideration it was probably for the better. Her dowry was attractive, but nothing compared to his earlier attempt at marrying into money.

No, he would wait for the regiment to decamp to Brighton. Perhaps in that time he might think of some way to pay back his childhood playmate for warning the general populace the evils of extending too much credit to itinerant soldiers. Who else could have done so? Too bad the Misses Bennets were no longer around. He had enjoyed toying with the youngest two, wherever he had the chance to get them away from their companion. Mr. Bennet died at an inconvenient time.

Perhaps Darcy was not solely responsible for his lack of success in charming the local populace. He had recognized Mrs. Collins right away. Her fine eyes were certainly memorable. He had always suspected she and her husband were the ones to inform Darcy of his presence in Ramsgate. Maybe Darcy had confided some of what had happened. She had been alarmed to see him again in Meryton and her companion had done her best to keep him away from the younger Bennet girls before their parents’ deaths took them out of society.

That was certainly an avenue to explore. Surely sometime in the next two months he could find a way to get Lydia or Kitty Bennet alone.

<<>>

A week spent in Town in his sister’s company passed pleasurably, but Darcy was ready to go to Kent. Not that he looked forward to another visit spent side-stepping his aunt. He wanted his yearly sojourn at Rosing over and behind him so that he could concentrate on ensuring that all was settled to his satisfaction at Longbourn. After that was accomplished, he would be free to return home to his own estate.

Darcy had not considered the one drawback of his cousin’s company for the journey to Kent. Twenty five miles spent trapped inside the carriage box with Andrew Fitzwilliam left no room to escape his interrogation. Instead of letting the subject rest, his cousin had lain in wait for this time.

“Now that we are alone, you can tell me what exactly is going on.” Darcy thought about an innocent reply, but knew he would just be prolonging the inevitable.

“I told you that I offered Mrs. Collins my help in thanks for her letter of warning. Andrew, I swear to you that was all I intended to do, to pay good for good, if you will. If you ever meet her, you will understand how quickly my good intentions blossomed into a friendship. Elizabeth Collins is a remarkable woman and any man tired of the inanities of society would be drawn to her like a moth to a flame. I could talk to her like I talk to you. Before I knew it, obligation became delight. I wanted to help her because she was my friend.

“I also admit that part of me wanted to help her children. They are adorable and I am not so removed from my father’s death that compassion for their plight also motivated me.”

“I do not think friendship is the only motivator, Fitz, at least, not anymore.”

Darcy did not say anything for a long time and Colonel Fitzwilliam was willing to wait him out.

“She is not suitable for me,” he said at last.

“She is suitable enough to be called your friend.”

“Friend yes, anything more … such is the way to madness.”

“I agree. I can understand why you would be fascinated by such a woman, but she is so decidedly below you. Imagine Aunt Catherine’s reaction if she found out. Married to the widow of her clergyman? God help us all.” The Colonel softened a bit as he noted Darcy’s slumped shoulders.

“I suggest that before you see Mrs. Collins again, and we both know you must see her again because of your wards, that you need to purge whatever feelings, other than friendship, that you have for her.”

Darcy nodded. After a few minutes of silence he asked, “What if I cannot?”

“Then you have two choices, marry her or marry another, and soon. You would never be unfaithful to your wife, you are not that kind of man. A wife would force you to leave Mrs. Collins behind, You could fulfill your duty to her children through your solicitor or your friend Bingley.”

Darcy had already come to the same conclusion, but hearing them from his cousin did not make them any easier to embrace.

Lady Catherine deBourgh welcomed her nephews with a proprietary air. Darcy could discern the calculating smile of his near relation. He would need to be very careful in his interactions with his cousin Anne. He knew her mother would not hesitate to use the slightest misstep to force a union with Anne – a union neither wished.

The three cousins wasted little time resorting to their normal mode of meeting. Darcy and Fitzwilliam took their horses out to ride in the park and Anne joined them later in her phaeton. Fortunately Anne’s companion, Mrs. Jenkinsen was happy to remain behind at Rosings most of the time she went driving. This allowed the trio privacy in their conversation.

Darcy explained that he had spent quite a bit of time in Hertfordshire since last spring. “I bring you greeting from Elizabeth Collins. She and her children are well.”

“That is good to hear. I felt so sorry for. To lose a husband in such a tragic accident while on holiday. Thankfully she had a home to return to after his death.”

“She seemed content in her circumstances. However, her mother just died as well, and so soon after the birth of her daughter.”

“I did not know she was expecting a child. Mother will be interested to know. I suspect she liked Mrs. Collins better than Mr. Collins, though she would never admit to such. She always complained that she was too outspoken for the wife of a clergyman.”

Darcy smiled; that sounded exactly like Elizabeth.

“What Darcy has not told you is that he is the girl’s godfather.”

Anne looked at Darcy, surprise suffusing her face. “I would not have suspected you knew the family well enough to consent. Their situation is life is decidedly below yours, even if Mrs. Collins father was gentleman. If I remember, the estate is not very large.”

“No, it is not. But Mrs. Collins is a friend and her children are a delight. I was happy to agree to do this for them.”

Darcy spent the next half hour regaling his companions with tales of the Collins boys as well as their forays into the pond for swimming lessons.

“Did Mr. Bennet actually get Bingley to blow bubbles?” Fitzwilliam asked.

“Oh yes, after young William demonstrated.” Anne laughed and Fitzwilliam slapped his knee in glee.

“I wish I had been there!”

“I rather think Bingley is glad you were not.”

<<>>

The two male cousins’ journey to Rosings was more than just a family visit. They were also there as the Earl’s representatives. Since Sir Lewis’ death, the Lord Perryton served as the sole trustee for the estate for Anne deBourgh. She was heiress, but like many women, was not given control of her inheritance. Her uncle was content to leave his sister in place as mistress while Anne remained unmarried, but the management of estate was the Earl’s providence. He had his own properties to take up his time and relied on Rosings’steward to see to the day to day operations, looking to Lord Perryton for guidance on larger matters. Darcy and his son were charged with reviewing the state of the Estate in the spring and the Earl would visit for the same purpose in the autumn. This system worked well and Rosing continued to be prosperous.

So while they did spend time with Anne, either out touring the park or in the drawing rooms, both men also spent time with the steward and inspecting the farm and visiting the tenants. Colonel Fitzwilliam, while not as well versed in the running on an estate as Darcy, was in general an excellent judge of men. Together they had the ability to quickly come to the truth of a situation whenever they encountered a dispute.

Before they knew it, their two weeks in Kent were drawing to a close. The night before they returned to London, Lady Catherine was tired of waiting for the expected announcement.

“Darcy, it is high time you and Anne set a date for your wedding,” she declared, her gaze daring him to object. Darcy stared back at his aunt, not willing to give any hope to his foe.

“Aunt Catherine, that would require a proposal from me and an acceptance from Cousin Anne. Since neither is to occur, it is impossible to do so.”

“It was your mother’s and my fondest wish. You will oblige us.”

Darcy stood, never breaking eye contact. “A wish it might have been, but I am under no obligation to grant something that was just a dream of two sisters so many years ago. There is no contract between our families. There is no inclination on either Cousin Anne’s part or mine. I admit that I have allowed you to persist in your attempts in bringing such a union to fruition; however I have done with it. This fancy of yours will stop here and now for I tell you once and for all that Cousin Anne and I will not marry and there is nothing you can do or say to force the matter. I have the highest regard for my cousin, which she knows, and I wish her well in finding a suitable mate. And that, Aunt Catherine, is my final word on the matter.

“Now, if you will excuse me, I will retire for the evening. Fiztwilliam and I will be leaving as planned in the morning.” Darcy bowed to his aunt, and then to his cousin. “Good night.”

<<>>

Lady Catherine was not up to farewell the two men the next morning, but Anne was.

“I have a letter from Mrs. Collins. Will you see it delivered?”

“Of course, I told you I would,” Darcy said, a concerned look on his face.

“Do not worry about me. Mama will rant and rave for a few days and then she will cease to believe you are serious and begin planning anew.”

“You should go to London, Anne. You should have gone years ago. I know my parents would be happy to help you with the season,” Colonel Fitzwilliam replied.

“They have offered before. If I feel well enough, perhaps I shall.” She turned to her other cousin, “I think it best that you send Uncle Harold next year if you are still unmarried.”

Darcy smiled fondly, “I think you may be correct. Be well, Anne.”

“Be happy, Fitzwilliam. And do not let Andrew tease you too much during your journey. Give my greetings to Mrs. Collins. I would send them to her boys as well but I doubt they remember me.”

<<>>

They were not long on the road when Fitzwilliam asked, “Now that that is over, I can finally ask. Have you decided what to do with your Mrs. Collins situation?”

“You certainly did not waste any time,” Darcy said ruefully. “To answer your question, I have not decided. I will return to Netherfield and see what happens whilst I am there.”

Fitzwilliam nodded, unsurprised by the answer. He looked out at the county side. “Anne was right, you know. You cannot return to Rosings unmarried. Lady Catherine will never allow you to leave if you come and are not, even if she has to drug both you and Anne and bribe a clergyman too marry you.”