A Fortunate Mishap by Pamela St Vines
By Aaran St Vines
From Chapter Four:
"It will not be long, love. I am sure that Papa will answer your letter right away and all will be well."
"Actually, your Papa is here."
"Papa, you came," Elizabeth exclaimed in surprise even as a mortified Darcy quickly rose and began his apologies, "Mr. Bennet, I do apo--"
Recovering from her own astonishment, Elizabeth realized the cause of Darcy's embarrassment. She grasped his hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze even as she interrupted him. Knowing that her father generally followed the easiest course of action, Elizabeth was anxious to cajole him out of any ill humor before he injured Darcy.
"Really, Papa," Elizabeth scolded him with a smile, "it is more characteristic of Mama to prowl about in hopes of ferreting out my secrets. I begin to fear that I was wrong to think that one decoy diary was sufficient."
Elizabeth understood her father well. Remembrance of the diary escapade brought a reluctant smile to Mr. Bennet's lips, and he began to recover from the shock engendered by his walking in upon such a tender scene.
Seeing Darcy's puzzlement, Elizabeth said, "I suspected Mama of reading my diary several years ago, so I began making false entries--most of them were quite sensational--things I had read in one of Mrs. Radcliffe's novels. As Mama has never cared for reading in general, she did not recognize the episodes and believed them to be real. She finally went to Papa carrying tales that a sensible person would never have believed."
"Yes," Mr. Bennet took up the tale. Even though he knew his daughter was maneuvering him, he could not help but admire the skill with which she did so. He was also sincerely amused at the recollection. "Your mother was thoroughly convinced that the Longbourn attics were haunted and that Jane was being secretly courted by a dark and mysterious count from the continent. I think she would have been willing to put up with the ghosts, had the count only been real as well."
Darcy stifled a laugh at the thought of Mrs. Bennet stirred up over such nonsense.
Seeing the younger man's smirk Mr. Bennet added dryly, "Yes, Mr. Darcy, I must confess that I have a very silly wife. You on the other hand will have a very clever one."
Turning his attention to Elizabeth, he continued, "Well, Lizzy, I have not read your diary, but it seems now that perhaps I should have. I rushed to London despite my scruples against Sunday travel, hoping to save you from a terrible fate, but now it would seem that I have been totally misinformed. Surely you did not expect me to dispose of my favorite daughter by mail."
Mr. Bennet bent to kiss her brow and said, "No, you certainly cannot be married without your Papa in attendance especially to--"
Pausing, he turned his attention to Darcy and continued with a modicum of tact, "--well, I do not know exactly what type of man you are, sir, but I am confident that we do not know one another. I suggest we begin to remedy that, Mr. Darcy, with a private interview after I have spoken with Lizzy."
Having regained his composure, Darcy gave Elizabeth's father a proper bow and said, "I do apologize for any--"
"No further apologies are required at this time, sir," Mr. Bennet interrupted him. "I realize that you will soon be my daughter's husband and in truth, I find it very difficult to be angry with a man who is willing to kneel before my daughter. I do, however, expect you to exercise better discretion for the duration of your engagement, sir--however few days that may be."
"Yes," Darcy acknowledged with embarrassment, "of course, sir. Be assured that I will take care to avoid a repeat of this afternoon."
"I have no doubt of it," Mr. Bennet replied with satisfaction. He found it quite amusing to seeing Mr. Darcy--whom he had thought to be so rigidly proper--so totally discomfited. His amusement, however, was short lived and Mr. Bennet's expression quickly grew more serious as he remembered exactly why he had come to town.
"I will confess that your letter took me wholly by surprise, Mr. Darcy, but I will speak with you about that later. At the moment I am anxious for a private interview with my daughter. As Lizzy seems quite comfortable where she is, perhaps you would oblige me by leaving us for the time being."
It did not escape Mr. Bennet's notice that Darcy looked to Elizabeth to determine her wishes in the matter before acceding to his request. Only when she had smiled and nodded her assent did Darcy murmur, "As you wish, sir. I shall take a walk and call back in half an hour, if that meets with your approval."
Darcy's patent determination to please Elizabeth greatly pleased her father. He even gave the younger man a small smile as he replied, "Yes, that should be sufficient, Mr. Darcy. Thank you for your indulgence."
After bowing to her father, Darcy took Elizabeth's hand. "One half hour," he murmured, "I cannot promise to stay away any longer, my love."
His lips gently brushed her hand, and Darcy quitted the room, softly closing the door behind him. Mr. Bennet gazed at his daughter not knowing where--or even how--to begin their discussion. For her part, Elizabeth returned his gaze evenly with no embarrassment or self-consciousness. Her calm, collected submission to his appraisal banished any remaining doubts her father may have entertained. It assured him that Elizabeth did not consider marriage to Mr. Darcy to be an imposition in the least--it was what she wanted. Although he was relieved to know that he need not fear for Elizabeth's happiness, her father now comprehended that he had raced to London eager for answers, but had come armed with the wrong questions.
Mr. Darcy had written that their affection was mutual, but it had never occurred to Mr. Bennet that such might actually be the case. After all, his superior knowledge of his daughter's character and opinions insisted this could not be so. If he must bear the irritation of knowing he had been wrong, Mr. Bennet decided he was at least due the indulgence of have his curiosity satisfied. After all, it was very difficult to reconcile the tender scene he had witnessed upon his arrival with what he knew of the young couple's history.
"Elizabeth Bennet," he began, "I came here prepared to console you and even to see if there might be a way around this marriage. While I am delighted to learn that my fears for your future felicity were unfounded, I would also like some accounting for this material change in your opinion of Mr. Darcy."
Mr. Bennet began to pace as he continued, "You have constantly assured me--and everyone else of your acquaintance, I might add--that you despise Mr. Darcy and now I walk in upon a scene that would indicate otherwise. As your father, I would like to understand. I have never considered you to be frivolous, but this total change of attitude toward Mr. Darcy would seem to indicate the type of flightiness I might have expected from one of your younger sisters."
Although she had not been the slightest bit discomfited by her father's walking in on them, Elizabeth was extremely embarrassed by how grievously she had misjudged Darcy. Taking some small comfort in the knowledge that Papa found such human failings quite amusing, Elizabeth began her explanation.
"I trust you will find my folly most diverting, Papa, and as my father, you deserve to know the truth. I only hope you will not be too disappointed in me when you learn of how foolish I was--"
Elizabeth told her father nearly everything that had transpired between herself and Mr. Darcy including the unhappy history of Wickham's relationship with the Darcy family. She only omitted two particulars fearing that her father might hold them against Darcy as unconscionable liberties--that Darcy had written a letter to her after she refused him and that he had kissed her when they were alone for the night.
Mr. Bennet who had listened largely in silence asked pointedly, "Is that everything, Elizabeth?"
"Yes," she answered calmly, "I do believe that is everything you need to know, Papa."
Her father noted the subtlety of Elizabeth's reply. However, he was not foolish enough to press her. Obviously there was something she had not told him, but Mr. Bennet trusted implicitly in Elizabeth's integrity. He was confident she would have omitted nothing of true consequence. Clearly they must marry and Elizabeth was not at all dismayed by the prospect. As Mr. Bennet had already seen enough to convince him of Darcy's regard for his daughter, he decided there would be no purpose served in forcing her to confide what were probably embarrassing details.
He choose instead to address the material point, "My greatest concern has been for your contentment, Lizzy. Am I now to understand that you no longer find the thought of Mr. Darcy distasteful--that you actually like him?"
"I do not just like him, Papa," Elizabeth replied. "I love him."
Even as a great burden lifted from his shoulders, Mr. Bennet felt the sorrow of knowing Elizabeth would call Longbourn her home no more. Although he hated the thought of losing her to another, Elizabeth's father found himself surprisingly eager for Darcy's return. He must know the man who had won his daughter's heart. Mr. Bennet did not have to wait long, for Darcy returned promptly at the appointed time. Even as he greeted her father, Darcy was searching Elizabeth's face with concern, anxious to know that she was well. Her clear eyes and radiant smile reassured him of her happiness, but once his concern for Elizabeth had abated, Darcy felt no little trepidation regarding his own interview with Elizabeth's father. After the obligatory pleasantries, the two gentlemen retired to Mr. Gardiner's study for their discussion.
As the father of five, Mr. Bennet had long ago determined that the broadest enquiries often yielded the most interesting answers. "Well, sir," he began, "I would like to hear what you have to say for yourself."
"As I was walking," Darcy began, "I thought about your earlier comments, Mr. Bennet, and I feel I must begin by apologizing for the alarm my letter must have surely caused you. I was under the misapprehension that you were not aware of your daughter's previous low opinion of me. Had I realized that you knew of her former--," Darcy paused as he searched for the correct term, " her former--abhorrence of me, I would have shared more details with you in my letter. It must have been very distressing for you to think that Miss Bennet was to marry someone she so thoroughly detested. As my sister's guardian, I do have some understanding of a father's concern for a beloved child."
Darcy's directness and his sincere apology affected Mr. Bennet greatly. He felt his own foolishness, realizing that his former dislike of the man had been based solely on Elizabeth's hastily formed ill opinion, and Mr. Darcy's use of the word 'abhorrence' had engendered his sincere sympathy.
"I see that Lizzy was telling the truth when she said that her rejection of your first proposal was very thorough," he said softly. "It must have been a bitter blow for you."
"Yes, sir," Darcy said, his jaw involuntarily twitching as he recalled his distress. "I thought I could not possibly be any more miserable until Mrs. Collins came to Rosings the following day to tell me that Miss Bennet was missing. As unhappy as I was over your daughter's rejection of my offer of marriage, it was as nothing compared to the anguish I felt when I feared for her safety."
Mr. Bennet nodded sympathetically but he was shocked to stillness by Darcy's next statement.
"I think I must also apologize for your daughter's injury, sir. I feel that I am to blame."
"How so?" Mr. Bennet inquired. "You cannot be faulted for her twisted ankle or the subsequent fall. I am grateful to you for finding Elizabeth and caring for her, sir."
"Still, I must bear some responsibility, Mr. Bennet," Darcy insisted. "If I had not presumed to write Miss Bennet that letter--which was very improper of me--I do not think she would have ventured so far from the parsonage--"
"I am sorry, but I do not understand you, sir," Mr. Bennet interrupted him. "What letter?"
Darcy was astonished, "Do you mean she did not tell you?"
Seeing Mr. Bennet's genuine puzzlement, Darcy explained his ill-considered decision to defend himself from Elizabeth's accusations and warn her of Wickham's true character in a letter, even as he berated himself for the impropriety of it.
"--I do apologize for confusing you, sir. I assumed your daughter would have told you everything. I cannot help but feel that if I had not erred in giving Eli--Miss Bennet that letter, her ankle would be whole and sound today," Darcy said. "I suppose my apology makes little sense for while I am sorry for being the cause of your daughter's injury, I must confess that I am eternally grateful for the opportunity that same injury gave us to put our misunderstandings behind us."
"Clearly Elizabeth 'forgot' to mention your letter," her father said dryly, "but I do appreciate your candor with me, sir. Knowing something of my daughter's former opinions and her temperament, it helps me to understand how so much changed in such a short span. Elizabeth is an intelligent girl. Knowing that she had all day to consider your explanation and defense of your actions, I can more readily understand how the two of you were able to resolve your differences so quickly and completely.
"No doubt Lizzy was trying to shield you from my wrath by not mentioning your letter," Mr. Bennet added with a smile. "However, as what's done is done and I am assured that my daughter truly wants to marry you, Mr. Darcy, I see little point in playing the affronted father now."
Mr. Darcy's willingness to be forthcoming even to his own detriment won him favor with Mr. Bennet and the two men lingered for some time in the study. Darcy even consulted his future father regarding the decision he and Elizabeth had made to let it be misunderstood that they were engaged before her accident.
"Normally, I would never stoop to deceit of any kind--"
"You need not justify yourself to me in this instance, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Bennet interrupted him. "I believe you to be an honorable man and as it is my daughter's honor that is at stake, I wholeheartedly endorse your decision as sensible. I am also impressed that you consulted Lizzy in the matter. Most young men are not quite so wise going into marriage."
Feeling far more comfortable with Elizabeth's father than he had thought possible, Darcy went on to sheepishly confess his error in not consulting his bride to be about his Cousin Anne's situation. His expression grew grave as Darcy related his cousin's current state and his concerns that this might have been done to her deliberately. Mr. Bennet was shocked. Although he often complained about his youngest daughter being too lively and too loud, he could not believe that any parent would resort to such measures to control a child.
"Please be assured, Mr. Darcy," he said, "of my concern for your cousin and best wishes for her to make a full recovery."
When their conversation turned to the wedding itself, the gentlemen agreed it was time to return to the parlor and consult with Elizabeth. She was vastly relieved by the conviviality between her father and Darcy, having felt some anxiety herself as their absence lengthened. In fact, had it not been for her injury, Elizabeth would have been sorely tempted to listen at the door so great was her curiosity.
It was now a matter of course that Elizabeth and Darcy must marry in London. The prospect of their going into Hertfordshire was rendered unthinkable by Miss de Bourgh's indisposition, but they decided to delay the ceremony until the following week in hopes that she would be well enough to attend by then.
"I already have an appointment with my solicitor tomorrow morning regarding another matter of business," Darcy said, "and I will make the necessary arrangements for the marriage settlements then. Would you care to withdraw to Mr. Gardiner's study again, Mr. Bennet, so that we might discuss the terms I have in mind?"
His polite inquiry caused Elizabeth considerable bewilderment. Indeed, she could not help wondering exactly her father and Darcy had discussed for so long if the financial issues were not even addressed.
"No, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Bennet replied, "that will not be necessary. I will be happy to read the settlements after your solicitor has finished them. I am assured of your affection for my daughter, and I know that you are more than capable of supporting a family. As I am willing to entrust Lizzy's future happiness to your keeping, it is a relatively small matter to trust that you will provide for her appropriately."
Darcy was both pleased and surprised by Mr. Bennet's answer. Very few fathers--including those whose daughters had independent fortunes--would have been so unconcerned with the details of their daughter's pin monies and household allowances. Realizing that Mr. Bennet was far more concerned with Elizabeth's long-term happiness than he was with her material advantage in marriage increased Darcy's respect for the man, and understanding something of Elizabeth's father enabled Darcy to more readily comprehend why she was so unlike her mother.
It was decided between them that Mr. Bennet would call on the local clergyman the next morning to arrange a time for the ceremony and Darcy would secure the special license they required after seeing his solicitor. Although he would not have believed it possible, Darcy was much happier when he left the Gardiners' than he had been upon his arrival. Everything required for them to marry would be settled tomorrow. All that remained then was to inform his uncle of his marriage plans and wait for the day itself to arrive.
As Mr. Bennet intended to remain in London until after the wedding, he sent Mrs. Bennet an express after the ceremony had been scheduled to apprise her of the news. Now that he himself was sanguine regarding Elizabeth's future happiness, Mr. Bennet wrote a letter certain to delight his wife and assure her whole hearted endorsement of the union. Of course, he thought with some distaste there were already at least ten thousand reasons his foolish wife would rejoice in the match as that was Darcy's reputed annual income. He embellished the story without compunction, even to the point of deceiving his careless wife to ensure that her indiscrete ravings--and Mr. Bennet knew that he could count on her to be indiscrete--would cast a favorable light on all concerned and predispose Hertfordshire to view the match with a favorable eye
My dear Mrs. Bennet,
I have news that will gladden your heart. Our own Lizzy is engaged to Mr. Darcy. It seems that Mr. Darcy has thought highly of our daughter for some time, but is somewhat shy. Evidently the silence that we mistook for prideful distain was merely the awkwardness of a tongue-tied young man in love.
I have also learned that Mr. Wickham's tales regarding Mr. Darcy are outright lies. I will tell you more of Mr. Wickham in person, my dear, but for now know that he is never, ever to be admitted to Longbourn again. I also do not want the girls to attend any functions where they will be in his presence. I insist that you enforce these restrictions immediately.
(Mr. Bennet thought with some satisfaction that Wickham's reputation in Hertfordshire would be in tatters within hours of his wife's having read that.)
But back to the happy news regarding Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, it seems that they were much thrown together in Kent and that Mr. Darcy was more successful in expressing himself there. He has secured our daughter's affections and her hand. Of course, our Lizzy is our Lizzy and things do have a way of happening to her. The morning after Mr. Darcy's proposal Lizzy went on one of her rambles. In her distracted state she wandered far from her usual haunts in those environs. That would not be a matter of significance; however, Lizzy slipped and sprained her ankle so badly that she was unable to return to the parsonage.
Of course Mrs. Collins knew nothing of their engagement at the time so she did not seek Mr. Darcy's aid directly, but after Lizzy had been missing most of the day Mrs. Collins appealed to him for help. It seems she already suspected Mr. Darcy of some partiality towards our daughter. The gentleman immediately set out in search of Elizabeth while his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam organized a full-scale search of the neighborhood. By the time Mr. Darcy discovered Lizzy's whereabouts it was nearly nightfall and in attempting to walk on her injured ankle she had fallen and knocked herself unconscious. Fortunately Mr. Darcy was able to revive her and there are no lasting repercussions from the bump on her head. However, the doctor says it will take some weeks for her ankle to fully heal.
Being as Lizzy's location was quite remote and in a heavily wooded area Mr. Darcy determined that it was far too dangerous for him to attempt to carry her home in the dark, and they were forced to wait for dawn. I have talked with them both and I am assured that Mr. Darcy was a perfect gentleman; however, the situation in itself is compromising and to protect Lizzy's reputation from any unfortunate gossip we have decided to hasten their wedding. I am sorry you will not get to fuss and plan over this daughter's wedding, my dear, but surely you will understand that due to Lizzy's mishap it is best they wed quickly.
(Mr. Bennet chuckled as he thought that Mrs. Bennet would welcome any reason to hasten the marriage of a daughter to a man of such considerable fortune. Thinking of Darcy's fortune, Mr. Bennet realized it would be wise to reinforce that point before he ended the letter. In truth, Darcy had yet to return from his solicitor's and Mr. Bennet had no idea what the marriage settlements were to be; however, the purpose of this letter was not to inform his wife, but to manage her.)
Mr. Darcy has already been to his solicitor regarding the settlements, which are more than generous. Of course, that is not surprising considering how he dotes on our Lizzy. Mr. Darcy has also procured a special license for the ceremony, which will take place a week from Thursday. I will remain in London with Lizzy until she is wed. Unfortunately circumstances preclude my bringing the rest of the family to town at this time. Mr. Darcy's cousin Miss Anne de Bourgh accompanied them from Kent and she is staying with Lizzy at her aunt's house. Sadly Miss de Bourgh is recovering from an illness and needs quiet and rest. Please watch over our other girls with particular care until I return.
Mr. Bennet knew his wife well and his letter elicited just the response he had hoped for. Mrs. Bennet read it over several times with rapturous delight. She then had Jane read the letter aloud several times more while she dressed to go into town, for such news must be shared with their neighbors immediately. By nightfall, all of Hertfordshire thought warmly of the shy young man who had been so in love with Elizabeth Bennet all this time and despised the scoundrel who had dared tarnish the good Mr. Darcy's name. As for Elizabeth's mishap that had necessitated the hastening of her wedding-- Well, the good people of Meryton had known Elizabeth Bennet all her life and they chuckled affectionately at her latest escapade. Given her life long propensity for odd injuries occasioned by her love of physical activity, it was fondly dismissed as something that would only happen to Miss Lizzy of Longbourn.
Mr. Wickham immediately sensed the change in public opinion, but he could not determine its source, as the local populace now universally avoided him. His requests for credit were suddenly denied and any merchant's daughters disappeared the moment he entered a business establishment. His fellow officers knew that Wickham had fallen out of favor with the locals, but as they were also outsiders, no one confided to them why the young man who had previously been praised to the skies was now an anathema to the townspeople. In fact, Wickham's fellow officers were now under considerable scrutiny for even associating with such a blackguard. After several days of being shunned thusly, Wickham chanced to overhear two women who had not observed his approach talking about the engagement.
Wickham was shocked--Elizabeth Bennet was to marry Darcy. It could not be--certainly not after he himself had deigned to pay attention to her. How could Elizabeth settle for the prim and placid Darcy after enjoying the attentions of a more exciting man? Wickham resolved to visit the Bennets. He was, after all, a considerable favorite with Mrs. Bennet and the woman loved to gossip as much as she despised Fitzwilliam Darcy. Yes, Mrs. Bennet would be the very person to enlighten him.
Such foolish conclusions merely prove that George Wickham was far more adept at charming people than he was at understanding them. His view of the world and its other inhabitants was entirely shaped by his own desires with reality playing little part in it. Although he had admired Elizabeth, Wickham had never understood her and he had certainly misjudged her mother. Had he comprehended Mrs. Bennet's character, Wickham would have realized that Darcy's choice of her daughter would immediately assuage her earlier dislike of the man. As it was, Wickham was astonished when the servant refused him admittance to Longbourn saying that the family was out, for he could distinctly hear the ladies within. Surely Darcy was behind it. Wickham enjoyed plotting his revenge as he rode back to town; however, those schemes were quickly forgotten upon arriving in Meryton and finding a message waiting for him from Colonel Forester commanding his immediate presence.
As it would happen, the local merchants had called upon the colonel while Wickham was making his fruitless trip to Longbourn. Alerted by the rumors of Wickham's perfidy, these men had exchanged information regarding the credit each had extended to Mr. Wickham. When the sum exceeded his annual income in the militia, they had stopped tallying Wickham's debts and gone to his commander for assistance. The colonel was, of course, quite willing to intervene; however, Wickham never answered his summons.
Knowing he had fallen from favor in these environs, Wickham quickly concluded his commander's request did not bode well and that Hertfordshire was no longer a safe haven for him. Wickham hastily rifled through their billet, taking anything of value and rode away on his 'borrowed' horse. When he reached London, Wickham sold everything including the horse and booked passage on a ship bound for the Americas. He had briefly contemplated fleeing to Africa or the Near East, but Wickham had no ear for languages and a gentleman who lived by his wits was dependent upon his tongue to make his way. Acknowledging those realities, he decided that America was best. In the former colonies English was still the language of opportunity and yet he would also be beyond the reach of the crown. Little did Wickham know that he would arrive in the United States a mere two days before it declared war on Great Britain, but the further adventures of George Wickham are another story.
Meanwhile Anne was recovering slowly in London. Elizabeth continued to spend the nights with her, while Aunt Gardiner and the maids attended Anne during the day. The new medicine had eased the worst of Anne's physical symptoms, and after several days her former lethargy was replaced by irritability and a general sense of disquiet and discomfort. The special tea helped with the aches and the slight fevers, but it was soon discovered that diversion was the best way to ease her fractiousness. Someone reading aloud to Anne was most effective in drawing her attention away from her discomfort and to that end Georgiana proved to be quite as adept as the more experienced nurses. Since Mr. Bennet had little to occupy his time he soon volunteered to spell the ladies by reading to Anne with one of the maids in attendance as chaperone. It proved to be an agreeable change for the patient.
Anne had grown so easy with Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth that she often whined and groused when they sought to distract her, much like a weary child venting her frustrations on her mother. Ann exerted herself, however, to behave properly for her younger cousin and even more so with a gentleman in the room. Just as repeated physical activity strengthens the body, this exertion seemed to strengthen her self-control and Anne's fits and tempers began to abate. Once Mr. Bennet had led the way, the other gentlemen were eager to be of assistance and Mr. Gardiner and Anne's masculine cousins were soon taking turns entertaining her. Darcy and Fitzwilliam were relieved and gratified to actually be of use to their cousin.
The days passed quickly and by the following Sunday Mrs. Gardiner deemed Anne well enough to come downstairs for dinner. She and Anne conspired to surprise everyone else, and to that end Mrs. Gardiner sent the rest of the household off to attend church services. Once the family had departed she assisted Anne in bathing and then helped her to dress for the first time since she had been stricken. It had been decided the previous day that the Darcys and Colonel Fitzwilliam would meet the family for services and then return to the Gardiners' for the afternoon. Therefore, the hue and cry was great when everyone returned from church to find Anne waiting with Mrs. Gardiner in the parlor. In consideration of Anne's fragile nerves, the children were quickly shuttled off to have their meal in the nursery.
After luncheon the party moved into the back garden to enjoy the fine day and the children were permitted to join them. Anne was comfortably settled on a chaise and wondered at finding herself part of such a congenial group. Sundays at Rosings had been exceedingly melancholy--so much so that Anne had dreaded Sunday above all other days. Today, however, was anything but gloomy. When the general conversation was buzzing about them, Anne reached for Elizabeth's hand.
"Thank you, Elizabeth," she whispered. "I fear that you have taken the brunt of my ill humors, and I am sorry for the sleep you have lost on my account--"
"Do not think on it, Anne," Elizabeth quietly replied. Somewhere in the long nights formalities been them had been abandoned, and a mutual fondness had been birthed. "I have always been noted for my strong constitution, and I have certainly rested far better knowing that I would hear you if you needed me than I would have several rooms away."
"Still, it has helped me more than you can possibly understand," Anne insisted. "Just to know that I am not alone when I wake up is tremendously comforting. Thank you, Cousin."
"You are most welcome, Cousin," Elizabeth replied with a ready smile.
Having observed the familiarity between Elizabeth and her cousin, Georgiana watched for an opportunity when she might speak to them without being overheard. When Darcy left his place at Elizabeth's side to join the other men in a game with the children, Georgiana slipped into his former seat.
"I must confess--" she haltingly began, "that I am somewhat envious--"
"Envious," Elizabeth gently interrupted her. "How so, Miss Darcy?"
"Well, I have always wanted to have a sister," Georgiana continued not daring to look at either of her companions. "When I hear you addressing one another so fondly and with such familiarity, I wish--"
She found herself unable to continue, but Elizabeth had heard enough to understand her. She immediately moved to embrace the younger girl.
"Dear Georgiana," she said, "I, too, wish for us to be as true sisters, and I certainly never meant for you to feel left out. Please forgive me. I was afraid of pressing you. You are so gentle and soft spoken--so truly good natured-- Well, I was concerned that I might inadvertently force you into accepting a degree of intimacy beyond that which you would prefer."
Eager to also reassure her young cousin, Anne explained, "Little has been said of it, Georgiana, but Elizabeth has actually been sleeping with me so that I do not become fearful or anxious in the night. It has caused us to become close very quickly, but still she is only my cousin while she is to be your sister."
Georgiana gazed at them through tears of happiness as she asked, "Then might I address you both as would be fitting for sisters?"
"Of course, dearest," Elizabeth replied while Anne nodded with a smile. "It would make me very happy to know that you are my sister by choice as well as by marriage."
Darcy was somewhat puzzled when he happened to glance over and see the three of them obviously suppressing tears. But as the ladies were also smiling beatifically he did not dare venture to intervene. The afternoon afforded no opportunity for private conversation with Elizabeth, but Darcy's curiosity was somewhat satisfied when Georgiana made repeated references to "Elizabeth" on the ride home. He would not have thought it possible for his happiness to increase, but such burgeoning affection between the two people who were dearest in the world to him added immensely to Darcy's joy.
When Dr. Howard called the next morning he announced that he was very pleased with Anne's progress and encouraged her to spend as much time up and in company each day as she could tolerate. The doctor then asked for a private word with Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth. Although Anne was greatly improved physically, he cautioned them against allowing her to spend too much time alone.
"-- While Miss de Bourgh's physical recovery is well begun, she will be vulnerable in other ways for some time. A tendency toward despondency, for example, is not unusual. Therefore, I prescribe that she spend very little time alone. In addition to assuring that any drastic downturn in her well being is noticed right away, cheerful companionship will aid in keeping discouragement at bay."
Surprisingly it was Georgiana who offered a possible long-term solution. She had arrived at the Gardiners' shortly after breakfast and was included in the discussion as a matter of course.
"Perhaps it would help if Anne and I shared a room for a time after she comes to us. Elizabeth has been sleeping with Anne here and it helps her--but after the wedding--," Georgiana trailed off momentarily embarrassed, but then she forced herself to continue. "If we were sharing a room, Anne would not have occasion to be alone too often, but it would happen naturally. I think she might become nervous if she felt like we were watching her too closely."
"But my dear Miss Darcy, are you sure this will not be too great a sacrifice?" Mrs. Gardiner asked. "After all you are used to having a certain degree of privacy."
"No," Georgiana answered with a smile, "you and Elizabeth have seen Anne through the most difficult days. I am ready to do my part to assist my cousin and I would not consider it a hardship to share my room with her."
Elizabeth found herself feeling unaccountably shy after Georgiana's veiled reference to "after the wedding," but she forced herself to meet Georgiana's gaze.
"Thank you, Georgiana," she said. "Although she has not said as much, I think Anne is dreading being alone again."
Dr. Howard agreed that it was an excellent notion. However, he suggested that Anne continue at the Gardiners for another week after the wedding to ensure that she was well on her way to recovery before she was subjected to the trauma of a change of surroundings and routine. Mrs. Gardiner assured him of her agreement that Anne must not leave them too quickly.
"--I think she should finish out a full three weeks with us. That will give my niece and her husband a week to settle in before Miss de Bourgh joins their household. Perhaps you would agree to come and stay with Anne here after the wedding, Miss Darcy."
Georgiana was delighted and relieved by the invitation as it was just what she had hoped for. She smiled shyly as she accepted.
"Thank you, Mrs. Gardiner. I would love to stay with you. I could take Elizabeth's place with Anne at night and I think it would be good for us to become better acquainted. Anne and I have spent so little time together."
"Thank you, my dear," Mrs. Gardiner said as she patted the blushing girl's arm. "It will work out well for all of us--"
Promising to call back in several days to see how Miss de Bourgh fared, the doctor left the ladies to work out the details. It was quickly decided that Georgiana's companion Mrs. Ainsley would be given time off to visit her daughter and Georgiana would move to the Gardiners' the day before the ceremony. Georgiana apprised Darcy of her plans that evening. While he was grateful for her consideration, Darcy was somewhat surprised that Georgiana had made all the arrangements without even consulting him. Her natural shyness had been compounded by a complete lack of confidence in her own judgment after the Wickham debacle. Such a change was exceedingly gratifying. It gave him hope that the damage done by Wickham would not be lasting.
Their brief conversation had the additional effect of causing Darcy's thoughts to turn in the heretofore dangerous direction of considering the reality of Elizabeth as his wife. Holding Elizabeth and kissing her seemed more a dream than a memory, but knowing that she would become his wife in three days time made it difficult for Darcy to think of anything else.