Content Harry Potter Jane Austen by Pamela St Vines
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From Chapter Three: The colonel enjoyed the ride immensely. Every mile offered further confirmation that his cousin's affections were indeed returned and that pleased him enormously.

Chapter Four

Mrs. Gardiner sank into the kitchen chair with a sigh. Elizabeth was most assuredly her favorite niece, and she had always been full of surprises, but never so much so as today. It was simply too much to take in. Elizabeth had arrived a week earlier than expected to be sure, but her traveling companions were the source of Mrs. Gardiner's bafflement. In addition to Maria Lucas whom the Gardiners had expected, Elizabeth was accompanied by Mr. Darcy whom she had introduced as her betrothed and his cousins. It had also been a most unusual introduction as the gentleman was carrying Elizabeth at the time because of her injured ankle. Mrs. Gardiner still had not recovered from the sight of her niece quite contentedly cradled in the tall man's arms.

Elizabeth, who had maintained an adamant dislike of Mr. Darcy since the earliest days of their acquaintance, now appeared to be glowing with happiness over their engagement; and as for Mr. Darcy--the gentleman was certainly not what Mrs. Gardiner had expected. He was not at all the proud aristocrat of Elizabeth's anecdotes, but instead seemed to be a quiet, thoughtful man whose admiration and affection for Elizabeth was obvious. Although the gentleman had said little, his eyes rarely left Elizabeth's face and recollecting the very particular way in which he had looked at her niece made Mrs. Gardiner smile. Clearly there was much more to their history than Elizabeth had let on. Perhaps, Mrs. Gardiner thought, Elizabeth's vehemence against the man should have raised her suspicions; however, there would be time for questions later. Right now the entire party waited in the parlor and she must return to her duties as hostess.

Shortly after Mrs. Gardiner returned to her guests, the maid arrived with the tea and sandwiches she had requested. All the travelers partook of the refreshments gratefully. However, the lion's share of the conversation fell to their hostess and Colonel Fitzwilliam as Darcy and Elizabeth seemed content to merely gaze at one another and neither of the other young ladies seemed inclined to speak beyond the obligatory greetings and responses. In truth, Maria Lucas was still cowed by the exalted company in which she found herself and Miss de Bourgh was feeling excessively fatigued from the journey. Fortunately the colonel was truly amiable, and Mrs. Gardiner could not help noticing the gentleman's smile of satisfaction whenever he glanced at the young lovers.

In addition to neglecting the rest of the company in her preoccupation with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth committed another breach of etiquette when she extended an invitation to Miss de Bourgh on her aunt's behalf without first consulting her. Knowing that Elizabeth must surely have her reasons, Mrs. Gardiner smoothly reinforced the invitation so that no awkwardness occurred.

"Yes, Miss de Bourgh, we would be happy to have you spend the afternoon with us. You may rest from your travels here while Mr. Darcy assures that all is in readiness to receive you at his home."

Miss de Bourgh murmured her thanks as she accepted the invitation and the two gentlemen rose to take their leave.

"Thank you, my love," Darcy whispered into Elizabeth's ear after kissing her hand.

She blushed and smiled up at him happily from her seat. Darcy had insisted that Elizabeth keep her ankle elevated and not attempt to see them out, so Mrs. Gardiner walked the gentlemen to the door. They each thanked her for her hospitality and Darcy added, "Thank you for your understanding, Mrs. Gardiner. I realize that we arrived unexpectedly."

"You are very welcome, Mr. Darcy," she answered with a smile. "It was a pleasant surprise I assure you. Do not worry about Miss de Bourgh. She seems rather fatigued from your journey, so we will encourage her to rest this afternoon."

"I thank you for that, too, Mrs. Gardiner. Although I have no doubts of my sister's enthusiasm, I appreciate the opportunity to apprise her of recent events privately. We will return later this afternoon for my cousin."

"We shall look forward to it, Mr. Darcy." Mrs. Gardiner found herself liking the gentleman more and more. Yes, he was reserved, but she perceived no false dignity in him and was pleased by his patent regard for her niece. Knowing her husband would be curious to meet the man who was to wed their Lizzy, Mrs. Gardiner extended an invitation for dinner that evening.

"As Miss Darcy is not expecting guests, perhaps you would all be good enough to dine with us this evening--you are included in the invitation, too, Colonel."

The invitation was happily accepted and Mrs. Gardiner returned to the parlor hoping she would receive the answers she desired without having to actually ask too many questions. With Mrs. Gardiner's blessing Maria soon went in search of the children, and Elizabeth's aunt was considering how to best introduce the topic of Mr. Darcy, when Anne--feeling somewhat revived by the tea--spared her the trouble.

"Surely, you are ablaze with curiosity, Mrs. Gardiner," Anne began. "We have come upon you suddenly today and with no forewarning of your niece's engagement to my cousin. Would you like to discuss the matter alone with Miss Bennet or would you perhaps enjoy a third party's view of recent events?"

Mrs. Gardiner laughed at Miss de Bourgh's sly smile and Elizabeth's blush.

"Although we have just met, Miss de Bourgh, I am looking forward to our being related by the marriage of our kinfolk," she answered, "and I must confess that I would be most interested in anything you wish to relate of how this happy circumstance came to pass."

Anne de Bourgh, who had always been silent and wan in her mother's company, proved to have a lively wit and keen intelligence. She regaled her companions with tales of Darcy's silent, brooding admiration of Elizabeth and the jealousy Colonel Fitzwilliam intentionally provoked in him by paying those little attentions to Elizabeth that Darcy in his shyness could not.

"Of course, Fitzwilliam had no idea of the depth of Darcy's attachment for you, Miss Bennet," Anne hastened to add. "The colonel is truly good natured and he would never have tormented our cousin so, if he had realized Darcy had serious intentions toward you."

"I am not surprised that the colonel misread him," Elizabeth answered, "as Mr. Darcy did a very thorough job of concealing his regard from me also. He took me quite by surprise."

"Ah," her aunt said, "but it does not necessarily follow that such a surprise was unwelcome. In fact, subsequent events would seem to indicate that it was not."

In her happiness Elizabeth was tempted to confide all to her companions but then decided she could not. After all, it was not merely her private history but Darcy's as well. Her allegiance was to him now, as assuredly as if he were already her husband, and Darcy would certainly not appreciate her telling others of how she had refused him. In fact, upon further reflection Elizabeth realized that she did not want anyone to know how cruelly and wrongly she had misjudged him.

Instead she said, "Of course, we would not have published our engagement before speaking with Papa, had it not been for my mishap, but under the circumstances it seemed best to make that news public."

Elizabeth blushed as she continued, "While I would not have chosen to injure myself, I will confess that I am happy to have our plans accelerated by that event."

Anne's expression grew serious as she said, "I knew that Darcy held you in high esteem, Miss Bennet, but when I told him that Mama had gone to the parsonage last night-- Well, seeing the look on his face, I knew that he loved you very much. Having observed Darcy's alarm when he feared that Mama would injure your sensibilities, I shudder to think of his grief and distress when he feared you were injured or worse."

Elizabeth broke the resulting silence when she quietly said, "I know how fortunate I am to have secured your cousin's affections, Miss de Bourgh. Please know that I will do whatever is in my power to assure his happiness."

Anne smiled at her fondly as she replied, "I believe you, Miss Bennet, and I am happy for you both. You must not think that I begrudge you either my cousin or your happiness. Those silly plans were Mama's fondest wish, not mine."

Seeing Mrs. Gardiner's puzzlement, Anne explained as she crossed to the chair beside Elizabeth, "It was long my mother's wish that Darcy and I marry, Mrs. Gardiner, although neither of us was inclined to such a match. A marriage of convenience is not what I would wish for, and it is quite obvious that my cousin has been waiting all these years for something more, too--something he has found at last."

Anne took Elizabeth's hand as she continued, "So you see my dear Miss Bennet, by accepting Darcy you have given me a chance at happiness by setting me free from Mama's plans and schemes. Perhaps, it is just the physical manifestation of my vast relief, but I actually feel better. Usually I am fatigued all day long, but I feel curiously revived since our arrival here."

The two young women chatted amiably as Mrs. Gardiner slipped away to give instructions regarding dinner. Elizabeth was delighted to discover that Anne was also an avid reader, and they discussed literature for some time. At one point Anne confessed that it was her fondest wish to be a writer, and after some wheedling on Elizabeth's part, Anne allowed she might read some of her work. Anne rose to retrieve her journal from her reticule, but she immdiately blanched and sank back into her chair complaining of a sudden ache. Concerned by her sinking spell, Elizabeth rang for assistance.

Mrs. Gardiner herself answered the summons. She quickly dispatched a servant for the doctor and then proceeded to assist Anne up the stairs with Elizabeth hobbling behind. By the time they had Anne changed into one of Mrs. Gardiner's nightgowns and tucked into bed, she was sweating profusely and shivering uncontrollably.

"My medicine," Anne managed to whisper.

Mrs. Gardiner looked to Elizabeth who explained, "I do not know what it is, Aunt, but there is some sort of tonic that Lady Catherine insisted Anne take regularly. I believe it was left behind in Mr. Darcy's carriage. Should we send a servant to his house?"

Mrs. Gardiner's suspicions were aroused, but she did not voice them. "Let us wait for Dr. Howard, Lizzy. He is an excellent man and a skilled physician. I think it best we give Miss de Bourgh nothing but water until he has examined her."

After he had examined the patient, the good doctor confirmed Mrs. Gardiner's fears. She and the doctor had adjourned to the parlor leaving Anne to Elizabeth's care.

"I would like to examine this 'tonic' myself," Dr. Howard began, "but based on her symptoms I think it quite likely that Miss de Bourgh is suffering from laudanum withdrawal. Prolonged laudanum use would also account for her pallor and lack of vigor."

"Shall I send a servant to her cousin's to fetch the bottle for you, Doctor?"

"Since you say Miss de Bourgh has just left home and placed herself under her cousin's protection, I believe I should call upon Mr. Darcy myself and apprise him of his cousin's condition." The doctor's expression grew very grave as he continued, "The laudanum treatment may have been begun with the best of intentions, but it is also possible that it was administered to Miss de Bourgh for more sinister purposes. As her protector, Mr. Darcy should be informed. I will either return or send directions after I have examined the tonic. In the meantime, a tea of catnip and feverfew will ease her aches without causing any harm. Give her that and as much water as you can get her to drink."

Mrs. Gardiner nodded and hastened upstairs to get the directions to Mr. Darcy's house from her niece. The doctor soon returned accompanied by both Darcy and his sister Georgiana. Mrs. Gardiner greeted them as Elizabeth was still above stairs with the patient. Darcy hastily introduced his sister to Mrs. Gardiner and then the conversation immediately turned to Anne.

"It is as we suspected, Mrs. Gardiner," Dr. Howard began. "Miss de Bourgh has been taking laudanum for some time. I am afraid she has a rough time ahead of her if we are to restore her health."

"I understand, Doctor," Mrs. Gardiner said. She then turned her attention to Darcy, "Lizzy and I have already discussed it, Mr. Darcy, and we strongly feel that it would be best for your cousin to remain here for the time being. We are both experienced with the sick room and your cousin will require constant attendance."

"Thank you, Mrs. Gardiner," Darcy began, "but Anne is my responsibility--"

"Please forgive me, sir," the doctor interrupted him, "but I must agree with Mrs. Gardiner. Miss Darcy is young to be charged with such duties and your cousin will fare better with the loving care she will receive here than she would with the best of hired nurses. This is more than a physical affliction. Your cousin will be quite emotional and will require understanding as well as physical assistance. I have known the Gardiners and by extension Miss Elizabeth for many years. Your cousin could not have better care."

Seeing that Miss Darcy was clearly relieved and that Darcy himself was weakening, Mrs. Gardiner pressed, "Please, Mr. Darcy, our minds are quite made up on this, and I assure you that I am every bit as stubborn as my niece. Give Miss de Bourgh completely over to our care for several days and then perhaps you might assist us, Miss Darcy, by sitting with your cousin in the afternoons."

"Thank you, Mrs. Gardiner," the shy Georgiana managed, "I would like to help if you will instruct me in what needs to be done."

Realizing that the women were united against him, Darcy acquiesced, "Very well, I gratefully accept your offer, Mrs. Gardiner, but only with the caveat that I might send one of our maids to help with the increased workload. She can either move in for the duration or I will have her come daily whichever you prefer."

Mrs. Gardiner appreciated his delicacy in not assuming she could house another servant; however, that was not a difficulty so she gratefully accepted Mr. Darcy's offer of a maidservant for the duration of Anne's stay in Gracechurch Street.

Pleased to have that resolved so well, the doctor prescribed camphorated tincture of opium explaining that it contained a much weaker concentration of opium and might be of assistance in lessening Anne's discomfort. They would substitute the weaker drug for the laudanum and then begin to slowly wean her from that as well, once Anne's condition had stabilized. Dr. Howard departed after promising to have the medicine brought round right away and that he himself would return tomorrow to check on his patient. When she had seen the doctor out, Mrs. Gardiner returned to Mr. and Miss Darcy who were waiting in the parlor.

"I do wish we had met under less upsetting circumstances, Miss Darcy," she began. "I am afraid tonight's dinner will be a little less elegant than I had intended. I hope you will not mind sharing a simple family meal with us in lieu of a more formal dinner."

"Not at all," Georgiana murmured with a smile. In truth she was somewhat relieved that her cousin's indisposition had precluded a more formal meeting. Georgiana was always nervous with strangers, but the unusual circumstances and Mrs. Gardiner's concern for Anne had caused Georgiana to feel easy with her right away. Georgiana began to hope that she would be as comfortable with her brother's future wife.

"Might I see Anne?" Darcy asked.

"Certainly, if you wish; however, I think it would be too upsetting for you, my dear Miss Darcy," Aunt Gardiner replied. "You might wait for us here, or perhaps you would care to meet my children. I must warn you though. They are not a shy lot and will probably talk your ears off."

Georgiana gave a delighted laugh and said, "In that case, I would love to meet the children, Mrs. Gardiner.

Georgiana was introduced to the young Gardiners and Maria Lucas. Sensing that Maria's diffidence was equal to her own, Georgiana was soon happily settled amongst them in the back garden, and Mrs. Gardiner accompanied Mr. Darcy upstairs. His heart caught in his throat when she opened the door to the room where his cousin lay. Darcy's first thought, however, was not for his ailing cousin, but for the young woman at her side. Elizabeth was adjusting a cool compress on Anne's fevered brow and the tender concern on her face was irresistible. For a brief instant Darcy irrationally wished he were the patient so that he might feel her cool fingers on his face, but then he exerted himself to control such wild imaginings.

Anne had fallen into a fitful sleep at last and they did not disturb her. Mrs. Gardiner quietly expressed her intent to stay with Miss de Bourgh and encouraged Mr. Darcy to assist Elizabeth downstairs so that she might meet his sister. Mrs. Gardiner could barely suppress her smile when Mr. Darcy immediately swept Elizabeth up in his arms and headed for the door without the least bit of hesitation or embarrassment. Elizabeth's cheeks flushed, but she was clearly not displeased. Surely this was to be a marriage of affection on both sides.

"Elizabeth," Darcy growled as he carried her down the front stairs, "might I ask how you managed to get upstairs in the first place?"

"Very slowly," she replied with a grin, clearly pleased by his jealousy.

"I am sorry if it pained you, my love," Darcy answered with a smile, "but I must confess I did not like the thought that someone else might have carried you thusly."

Elizabeth said nothing, but she tightened her arms about his neck and buried her face in Darcy's shoulder. The picture they presented was something of a shock to Mr. Gardiner who entered the front door just in time to see his favorite niece in the arms of a stranger--a stranger who was carrying Elizabeth down the stairs as if it were an ordinary occurrence. Of course, the man's smile of satisfaction and the way Elizabeth's head was nestled into his shoulder were equally notable so Mr. Gardiner cleared his throat and awaited the explanation that was his due.

"Ah, Mr. Gardiner, I presume," Darcy began just as Elizabeth cried, "Hello, Uncle. This is Mr. Darcy."

These greetings did not set Mr. Gardiner's mind at rest as Mr. Darcy continued to hold Elizabeth and she made no attempt to remove herself from his arms.

"Lizzy, it is obvious that there is much I need to know," Uncle Gardiner began with a pointed look at Mr. Darcy.

"Oh, I am sorry, Uncle. Mr. Darcy is merely helping me downstairs because I injured my ankle," Elizabeth naively explained. "We were on our way to the back garden to see the children, but perhaps you would wish a private interview first."

Her uncle's curiosity and rising impatience were unmistakable. Knowing how improper this would appear to Elizabeth's kinsman Darcy hastened to explain.

"I am afraid we have made a mishmash of things, sir. Please accept my apologies for any perceived slight," Darcy said as he moved to return Elizabeth to the parlor sofa. "Miss Elizabeth's ankle is very swollen from a fall she took two days ago and your wife asked me to assist her downstairs. Carrying her seemed the simplest way to spare her ankle and as we are engaged I felt that such a liberty was permissible. I assure you that I intended no disrespect to either you or your niece."

"Engaged?" Mr. Gardiner echoed uncertainly. "Well, it does seem that I am quite behind on the news."

Elizabeth began by apprising her uncle of the furthering of her acquaintance with Mr. Darcy in Kent and their engagement. Then Darcy took up the tale and described Elizabeth's unfortunate accident, which had led them to make their engagement public without waiting for her father's consent.

"--We have left if for Mr. Bennet to decide if we should be married here in London or in Hertfordshire," Darcy concluded. "In fact, we hope to hear from him soon so that we might finalize our plans."

Satisfied by their account, Mr. Gardiner smiled and said, "As this regards 'his Lizzy,' I am certain you will hear from my brother Bennet soon, Mr. Darcy."

"I am afraid that there is one recent complication, sir," Darcy added and he went on to explain his cousin's presence in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

Mr. Gardiner was a kindly man and he offered his condolences for the young lady's sufferings and his assurances that she was welcome to remain in his home until such a time as everyone agreed Miss de Bourgh was quite recovered. Hoping that he might glean more information from his wife, Mr. Gardiner dismissed the pair to continue on to the garden while he went upstairs to see Mrs. Gardiner.

Georgiana's trepidation over her brother's engagement began to fade when she first laid eyes on Elizabeth Bennet. Although she would never have presumed to think ill of her brother's choice of wife, Georgiana had secretly feared that the lady would not be pleased with her. She had always felt so uncomfortable around the women who were constantly pursuing her brother and vying for his attention. Seeing Elizabeth laughing up at Darcy as he carried her like a child set Georgiana at ease and the sight of her brother's happiness as he gazed down at her warmed Georgiana's heart. She had never seen Fitzwilliam so happy or known him to display his feelings so openly. The children were at first shy of the strange man with Cousin Lizzy, but their shyness faded after several minutes of observing the tall man sitting happily by their cousin's side, holding her hand. They were soon swarming over Cousin Lizzy for she was a favorite and upon learning that Mr. Darcy was to marry Lizzy, the children quickly adopted him as a favorite, too. Little Betsy who was the youngest of the Gardiners' four children declared him to be very handsome and proceeded to climb up on Darcy's knee, from which position she began to ply him with questions as only a curious three year old can. Darcy had not held a child thusly since Georgiana was small, but he quickly warmed to Elizabeth's young cousins.

When Colonel Fitzwilliam arrived for dinner, he did not ring the bell, as a proper guest should, but rather followed the happy clatter around to the back of the house. There he beheld an amazing sight for the painfully shy Georgiana was animatedly chattering away with Miss Lucas and Darcy had two of the Gardiner children on his lap while the other two hung over his shoulders. He was evidently entertaining them with some sort of tale as Elizabeth looked on fondly. Seeing his cousin at the gate Darcy laughed and invited him in.

"Excuse me for not rising to greet you properly, Cousin, but I seem to be rather weighed down at the moment," Darcy said by way of apology.

Colonel Fitzwilliam was delighted to join the fray. Elizabeth introduced her cousins who quickly remembered their manners and greeted him quite properly. Upon learning that he was a military man, the boys promptly turned their attention to the colonel, eager for tales of peril and glory. When Mr. Gardiner came outside a short while later to summon the children, he paused to observe the happy scene before making his presence known. Seeing the reputedly proud Mr. Darcy so at ease with his children reassured Elizabeth's uncle that all would be well. He was also pleased by the easy, unaffected manners of Darcy's kinsman.

When Mr. Gardiner had led the children away to have their supper in the nursery, Darcy quietly informed Fitzwilliam of the particulars of Anne's indisposition. After all these years of hearing their aunt boast of her solicitude for Anne's welfare, the colonel was furious to realize that Lady Catherine--whatever her intentions may have been--was the cause of Anne's ill health. His expression was positively stony as he politely excused himself to take a turn about the garden as a means of collecting himself. Puzzled by the strength of the normally placid man's reaction, Elizabeth raised a brow in an unspoken question.

"Fitzwilliam has always been the stalwart champion of anyone he perceived as weak or defenseless," Darcy murmured. "However, this is an unusually strong emotional reaction for him. I am unsure if it is occasioned by a particular regard for Anne or by his particular dislike of our aunt."

Darcy caught his sister's eye and with a slight nod of his head directed her attention to their cousin. Georgiana and Maria had been too absorbed in their own conversation to hear what was discussed regarding Anne, but Georgiana easily perceived her cousin's anger in the manner of his marching about the garden and quickly led Maria into the house. When the colonel was calmer, he rejoined Darcy and Elizabeth.

"It explains so much," he mused. "Remember, Darcy, how we would occasionally see sparks of life and personality in Anne, but then it would suddenly vanish as it had never been."

"Yes, the timing was fortunate," Darcy replied. "Had Anne not neglected to take her 'tonic' in all the upheaval last night, the doctor said she might have been incapable of exerting herself to leave Rosings and we would not have known that she required assistance."

"Yes," Fitzwilliam agreed, "she was quiet this morning, but did not seem lethargic. And as I recall she started to take her 'tonic' in the coach, but then did not. I suppose it was missing several doses in a row that brought her to her present state."

Both men lapsed into silence and Elizabeth knew that each was blaming himself for not realizing the nature of their cousin's plight sooner.

"You must not blame yourselves as that will not be of the slightest help to Miss de Bourgh," she encouraged them, taking Darcy's hand as she spoke. "We must apply ourselves to that which will assist and encourage her. Dr. Howard was insistent that your cousin will recover with time and care, so that is where we must concentrate our efforts."

The gentlemen smiled at her. Darcy completely forgot his abandoned misgivings over Elizabeth's suitability to be his wife, as he wondered what he had done to deserve her, and although the colonel had never been particularly eager to marry, he found himself envious of his cousin's happiness, for Darcy would surely be very happy with such a wife.

As the medicine sent by Dr. Howard had alleviated Anne's symptoms enough to allow her to fall into a more restful sleep, Mrs. Gardiner joined them for dinner leaving their maid Hannah to watch over the patient. Hannah had been with the Gardiners all their married life and had helped with nursing the little Gardiners through various and sundry illnesses. Mrs. Gardiner trusted her implicitly and assured the Darcys that they could, too.

The Gardiners were gracious hosts and everyone enjoyed the meal and the conversation. In fact, Georgiana could not recall when she had enjoyed a first meeting so much and found herself looking forward to repeated visits to the Gardiners' home. Darcy was simply content to be with Elizabeth, and Fitzwilliam thought the only possible improvement to the evening would have been the addition to their company of another single young lady of marriageable age, for Maria Lucas was too young and too skittish to be of any interest.

Aunt Gardiner reluctantly acceded to Elizabeth's insistence that she would stay the first night with Anne. Poor Anne tossed and turned in restless agitation when she slept and seemed incoherent when she was awake. She was not due for another dose of the tincture until morning, but Elizabeth had the herbal remedy Dr. Howard had prescribed at hand. She urged Anne to drink some each time she awoke, as it did seem to ease her pains and help with the fever. When Anne would fall back into her uneasy slumber, Elizabeth would stroke her hair or hold her hand in hopes that Anne would know she was not alone. Anne roused enough to note her unfamiliar surroundings once in the small hours of the morning.

"Where am I?" she asked in panic.

Elizabeth soothed her as she would a frightened child and whispered words of reassurance as she tenderly bathed Anne's face. For all of Lady Catherine's highly touted solicitude of her daughter's welfare, Anne had never been the recipient of such comfort. She clung to Elizabeth, as she sipped the herbal tea Elizabeth urged on her. Encouraged by Anne's response, Elizabeth climbed onto the bed. Sitting back against the headboard, she took Anne in her arms, cradling her as if she were one of Elizabeth's little cousins. She held her thusly, singing soft lullabies until they were both asleep. That was how Aunt Gardiner found them when she came to relieve Elizabeth just before dawn. Anne murmured her discontent, when Elizabeth shifted her onto the nearby pillow.

"All is well," Elizabeth quietly consoled her, "but you must sleep now."

Aunt Gardiner looked on with tears in her eyes as Elizabeth patted Anne's back and softly crooned her back into a sound sleep. When Elizabeth slipped from the bed entirely, Aunt Gardiner hugged her tightly.

"Now, off to bed with you, Lizzy," she whispered. "I do not expect to see you until after midday."

Elizabeth nodded and went straight to her room where she fell into bed most willingly. Whereas Elizabeth had lain awake much of her last night in Kent contemplating the surprise of finding herself in love with Mr. Darcy and betrothed to him, it now seemed as if she had loved him forever. That comforting thought allowed Elizabeth's exhausted body to slip immediately into a restful slumber.

In cannot be said that Mr. Bennet slept well that night. In fact, that gentleman hardly slept at all for he had received Mr. Darcy's express. Unable to conceive of such a material change in his stubborn daughter's opinion of the man, Mr. Bennet was haunted by thoughts of his Lizzy trapped in a loveless marriage. Mr. Darcy had written eloquently of his admiration and affection of Elizabeth, but even if he truly loved her, how long could such feelings endure unless requited and encouraged by their object? Mr. Darcy's letter had stated that his affections and wishes were returned, but Mr. Bennet assumed the gentleman was either deluded by his own desires or somewhat deceived by Elizabeth's attempt to make the best of a bad situation.

Although it was plain they must marry, Mr. Bennet had not been able to tell his wife. Of course, Mrs. Bennet would be delighted by the news no matter what the circumstances of their engagement or the prospects for their happiness together, but Elizabeth's deeply concerned father kept thinking there must be some way around this situation--a way to preserve his daughter's happiness without sacrificing her virtue. Mr. Bennet rose from his sleepless bed before dawn and began preparations for a trip to London. Although his convictions forbade Sunday travel under normal circumstances, Mr. Bennet decided he could not wait another day. He simply must see Elizabeth before the news of her engagement was spread too far abroad.

After spending a good portion of the night awake with Anne, Elizabeth slept Sunday morning away. She was dressing when one of the maids came to say that Mr. Darcy was downstairs. Elizabeth instructed her to tell the gentleman that she would join him shortly and began to move as quickly as her injury would allow. After hastily finishing her toilet, Elizabeth hobbled down the hall, and her heart leapt when she saw Darcy standing at the bottom of the stairs impatiently waiting for her. He bounded up the stairs to assist her, and at the sight of her upturned face, it was all he could do to refrain from kissing her right then and there.

"Soon," Darcy whispered as he caressed her cheek before lifting Elizabeth to carry her down the stairs.

"I believe I could grow used to such attentions, sir," Elizabeth teased him. "I have always found immense satisfaction in a long walk, but you have made the inability to walk inordinately appealing, Mr. Darcy."

"I will happily carry you anywhere you want to go, my love," Darcy whispered as he carried her toward the sofa. "I hope that we will hear from your father very soon as I am anxiously awaiting our wedding day."

"I share your impatience, dearest," Elizabeth whispered and Darcy found himself forced to look away in an attempt to contain his emotion. Unable to meet her gaze, he knelt beside her and allowed his head to rest in her lap. Elizabeth gently ran her fingers through his hair as she soothed him.

"It will not be long, love. I am sure that Papa will answer your letter right away and all will be well."

"Actually," Mr. Bennet said startling them both, "your Papa is here."

Copyright 2007 Pamela St Vines
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