Lady Catherine deBourgh ignored the greetings of her parson as she waited for the fourth member of the Hunsford party to appear through the doorway. When Miss Bennet failed to appear, she heard Mr. Collins say, “…plead a dreadful headache. Of course only such a severe illness could have kept my cousin away from Rosings Park. She, and all of us for the matter, are very conscious of the great honor you do bestow upon us all with your invitation. As I was telling Mrs. Collins only this morning…”
“Yes, yes. You are welcome Mr. Collins. Miss Bennet is ill?”
Mrs. Collins answered before her husband could respond. “A headache, your ladyship. Elizabeth is so rarely indisposed that when she told me she was unwell, I insisted that she remain at Hunsford to rest. I am sure she will be well again come tomorrow.”
The great lady was satisfied with the response. At least she would not have to witness Darcy failing miserably at trying not to stare at Miss Bennet. That was worrisome enough. Tonight she would place him next to Anne and hope a lack of a distraction would prompt him to finally accept his duty. Time was running short.
As they waited for tea to be served, Lady Catherine watched her nephew. Darcy was agitated, and would not sit down. At last he excused himself, claiming he would return shortly. This did not please the Mistress of Rosings, but she assumed he needed to see to whatever it was that so obviously held his attention. When he failed to return after a few minutes, Lady Catherine called for her servant and directed him to inquire after Darcy.
“Mr. Darcy just left through the front door not five minutes ago, your ladyship,” the butler replied quietly. His mistress paled, suddenly fearful.
“Have whatever conveyance that can be ready the soonest made done so immediately,” Lady Catherine commanded in a near whisper. The butler, his face impassive from years of experience, left the room. Once the doors were closed, however, he nearly ran to the stables to relay his mistress’s desires.
Anne’s phaeton was brought to the front not ten minutes later. Lady Catherine was soon driving towards Hunsford, a trio of curious servants watching her go.
To say that Elizabeth was shocked when Mr. Darcy was announced would be an understatement. He was the last person she wished to encounter that evening, and yet there he was in drawing room. He inquired after her health, and then said nothing, though she could see he wanted to say more. Soon he stood and started pacing about the room while Elizabeth sat and stared at him in astonishment, again wondering why he was there. She was about to ask him what was the matter when he turned to face her.
“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feeling will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Elizabeth was shocked. She started to speak and then stopped, unable to answer him. He must have found this enough encouragement and began again.
“As my wife, you…”
What he would have said was lost, as Lady Catherine deBourgh entered the room unannounced. The door hit the wall with a loud thud such was the force it was pushed aside in her haste.
“Stop this at once, Fitzwilliam. You cannot ask this girl to marry you, you are engaged to Anne.”
Elizabeth, shocked as she was by the intrusion, did not miss the note of desperation in the woman’s voice.
“No, Aunt, I am not. I have never offered for Anne nor is there any arranged marriage that I know of, nor papers binding me to your daughter.”
“Your mother and I planned the union.”
“But my father did not. I am my own man, free to marry wherever and whomever I want. If I choose Miss Bennet, then there is nothing you can say or do to stop me.”
Lady Catherine turned to Elizabeth. “Have you accepted him?”
“Lady Catherine!” Darcy interjected. “This is highly improper! You shall not interfere in what is to be the happiest day of my life.”
“Have you accepted him?” she persisted. Elizabeth would have answered, but again Darcy spoke.
“You have not given her the chance.” The great lady relaxed a little.
“Then it is not too late. Miss Bennet, how can you aspire to such a position so decidedly above yourself? You will be censored and scorned.”
“I will not allow you to be treated poorly, Elizabeth. As my wife you will be under my protection, as will your family.”
“Miss Bennet, society will laugh at you, despite my nephew’s promises. He is intended for my daughter. She will not discredit him.”
“Enough, Aunt. I will marry Miss Bennet and there is nothing you can say or do to stop it.”
Elizabeth had watched the two of them go back and forth, not believing she was in such a situation. She wanted to tell Lady Catherine she could have Darcy for a son, that she did not want him, but then he had come so spiritedly to her and her family’s defense. She was not willing to accept him, but a part of her did not want to give the old dragon the satisfaction of having her way yet again. Before she could think of a reply, the older woman spoke.
“You cannot marry her, Fitzwilliam. I need you to marry Anne. She…”
There was something peculiar in her voice and Elizabeth and Darcy both looked at her. What they saw shocked them both. She looked defeated.
Lady Catherine swallowed thickly, “Anne is dying and if you do not marry her, I will lose everything when her cousin inherits.”
Darcy sat down as the words washed over him.
“Is it certain?”
“There is a tumor and it is growing.”
Elizabeth looked at her unwanted suitor. He appeared devastated at the news. “You should have told me. Does Anne know the extent of her illness?”
“Yes, the doctor insisted. Before you ask, she has said that she will marry you if she must.”
“I do not understand. If Anne must marry, then why not Andrew? He needs to marry a rich heiress, we all know that. He would take good care of Anne and you.”
Lady Catherine sighed. “It all goes back to when Sir Lewis and I married.”
Elizabeth had a feeling that she had been forgotten, but she was too engrossed in what was unfolding before her to remind them of her presence.
“He thought he was marrying Victoria. When she refused the marriage our father had negotiated, and threatened to run off to Scotland to marry Arnold instead, I was offered in her place, in a manner Sir Lewis could not decline. He was so angry with my father that after the wedding he refused to…
There is a reason why Anne was not born until several years into my marriage. I had to bargain with him. One child was all he agreed to. If it was a boy, then he would inherit. However, if it was a girl, it was conditional. She could only inherit if she did not marry a Fitzwilliam. If Anne dies unwed, the estate will go to her deBourgh cousin. Sir Lewis would not allow the house of Fitzwilliam the satisfaction of owning Rosings.”
“What about your wedding settlement?”
“I remain at Rosings at will of the owner. Anne would never turn me out, but her cousin has let it be known that he will enjoy ordering my things packed and sent to Afton house. I gave up the right to the townhouse as well in my agreement with my late husband. My dowry remains; at least that I refused to give away. I will be forced to return to my brother when Anne is gone, but at least I will not be completely penniless.”
“I am shocked. I had no idea such a thing could be done. But do you not see, I cannot marry Anne and leave Miss Bennet without protection. She has little fortune and what if something should happen to me before we were able to wed? It could be years, Aunt.”
Elizabeth thought she should speak up, and tell them she really had no intention of accepting Darcy, but the truth of his world struck. Jane, her mother’s best hope of an advantageous marriage, had been abandoned by Mr. Bingley – at Mr. Darcy’s doing no less!
“And if Anne is not dying, what then? The doctor could be wrong.”
“I wish it were so. She grows weaker; I have little doubt in the doctor’s diagnosis. I sent to Town for a specialist after the local doctor said much the same.”
“But what about Miss Bennet? What about me? I love her, aunt. I love Elizabeth Bennet and a future without her as my wife is intolerable to me. Her father’s estate is entailed to your ridiculous parson. Should anything happen to Mr. Bennet they will be without a home, just like you claim as the reason I should marry Anne to protect you for the same. At least you have money to live on. The Bennets cannot have anything near that.”
“But I am your family.”
“Elizabeth would become the center of mine.”
Lady Catherine could not refute him. Elizabeth looked at the woman, defeat threatening to undo her, until…
“What if I change my will, like Sir Lewis did his? What if I make Miss Bennet my sole heir, and pledge to help her should it become necessary before you can wed her? It would give her a dowry near to that of your sister.” Lady Catherine turned to Elizabeth. “Would you agree to delay your marriage to my nephew for those terms?”
“It is not fair to you, my love,” Darcy agued. Elizabeth noted again that he said that he loved her. Would the wonders of the day ever cease?
“I…” Elizabeth stopped, knowing she would need to commit herself one way or another. How had it come to this so quickly? “I think I am overwhelmed by all that has happened here tonight.”
“What you ask of her is too much,” Darcy said to his aunt, clearly unhappy.
“I am not asking her to turn you down, Darcy. Not that she would. That would be foolhardy to the extreme. She would be sentencing her family to poverty.” Elizabeth flinched, and was glad neither of them saw it. Lady Catherine was correct, but Darcy was a proud, insufferable snob! Elizabeth almost missed what her ladyship had to say next. “I am asking her to wait a year, maybe even three. She is not yet one and twenty. She has plenty of time to bear you an heir after Anne is gone.” She turned to Elizabeth. “Think of all the advantages it will bring you. Anne’s dowry, Rosings and the other properties to give to a second son or even a daughter. All I ask is that you let your fiancé marry my daughter and make her final time on earth happy, and provide a home for me after Anne is gone.”
Elizabeth did not think it was such a little thing. She needed to know more of Mr. Darcy.
“Would you have married Miss deBourgh if you had not met me?”
“But would you, if you had learned that this information about her health?”
“Yes, I believe so. I take my family duties very seriously. But I will not abandon you now that I have offered my troth.”
Elizabeth thought at that moment that it spoke well of him. She made her decision. It was the only sensible one to make.
“I think you should marry your cousin and protect Lady Catherine. My mother has long worried about her future once my father is gone. She has just enough from her marriage settlements to survive, but it will not be anywhere near the manner to which she has grown accustomed.”
Lady Catherine almost collapsed with relief. “I will send word to my solicitor in the morning to make the necessary changes to my will to name you as my heir.”
“That is unnecessary.”
“I gave you my promise, Miss Bennet, just as my nephew did.” Elizabeth thought she sounded offended. “My word is just as good as his. I only ask that you do not tell Anne of our agreement. Do not weigh down her conscience in what time she has left on this earth. You will have my nephew soon enough.”
Elizabeth nodded her head numbly. Had she just agreed to marry Mr. Darcy?
Apparently she had.
“And now take me back to Rosings, Darcy. My guests must be wondering what has happened to us both. I hope Anne was well enough to see to their needs.”