A Fortunate Mishap by Pamela St Vines
By Aaran St Vines
In the original novel, Jane Austen refers to Darcy's uncle as the Earl of ----. I have chosen to follow her example in this story. Consequently, any references to the Earl and his wife will read as "Lord ----" or "Lady ----" except in the few instances where a family member uses the more familiar address of "Lady Sarah."
From Chapter Five:
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.
Fitzwilliam Darcy found sleep elusive that night. A conversation with Georgiana had stirred his memories of being alone with Elizabeth in Kent and now Darcy's mind was whirling with thoughts of Elizabeth and their imminent marriage. He was not alone in his preoccupation. Having received a letter from Darcy earlier that day, Charles Bingley's mind was also much on his friend's impending nuptials.
I write with what may be surprising news. Although my disposition tends toward melancholy, you may now consider me to be among the happiest of men for I have secured the hand of my chosen partner in life and we plan to be married in two weeks time. I trust that you will be pleased for both of us as my bride to be is one whom you number among your neighbors in Hertfordshire--Miss Elizabeth Bennet. I must confess that my regard for her began even in the earliest days of our acquaintance; however, I foolishly chose not to act upon my feelings. Miss Bennet happened to be visiting her friend Mrs. Collins in Kent when I paid my annual visit to Rosings Park this spring, and that serendipitous meeting has led to my present happiness.
My only pain at present is the recently gained knowledge that I have injured you, my friend. I mistakenly believed I was being of assistance when I encouraged you to quit Netherfield last autumn. I now deeply regret my efforts to dissuade you from acting upon your feelings for another young woman of Hertfordshire. I wish I had not intruded into your private affairs, not only because such actions on your part might have led to closer ties between us, but also because I now have reason to believe that I was entirely in the wrong in my assumptions. Although my interference was kindly meant, it was interference nonetheless, and I deeply regret my actions. I hope that you will be able to forgive me as I highly value your friendship.
Miss Bennet and I have decided upon a small, private ceremony here in London. We shall remain in town a few weeks and then venture into Hertfordshire for a brief visit before continuing on to Pemberley. We are both most pleased that my cousin Miss Anne de Bourgh has agreed to make her home with us for the foreseeable future and it is our hope that the change of scene will improve her health. She and Georgiana will, of course, be accompanying us into the country. It is also planned that the eldest Miss Bennet will go into Derbyshire with us, so as you can see the ladies will have me quite outnumbered. May I prevail upon you, Bingley, to take pity upon me and to join us at Pemberley? I am confident that all of our party would be delighted to add you to our number.
Your contrite and devoted friend,
Bingley had read the letter so many times that it was now firmly etched in his memory. He had been quite angry with Darcy after the first reading which was a novel sensation, as Bingley rarely lost his temper and then it was usually in response to extreme provocation by his sister Caroline. Several readings later Bingley realized he could not recall any prior instance in which Darcy had injured or provoked him. Bingley was not one to hold a grudge and his anger was soon conquered entirely by his belief in the sincerity of Darcy's apology. By the time Bingley had committed the letter to memory, his integrity had forced him to the painful acknowledgment that the fault was primarily his own. Darcy may have offered ill advice, but he had chosen to ignore his own opinions of Jane Bennet's character and motives, simply because his friend held a differing opinion. The decision to drop the acquaintance had ultimately been his own. It was an uncomfortable admission, but having always been of a sanguine disposition, Bingley was soon smiling at the prospect of renewing his friendship with the eldest Miss Bennet.
By Bingley's calculations Darcy would be married within the next several days as the letter had been dispatched almost two weeks ago. It had originally been sent express, but its delivery had been delayed by the recipient's rapidly changing address. Bingley had been traveling all spring. Although he would never be avidly sought among the first circles, Bingley was an amiable man of respectable fortune. As such he had many friends and his society was also solicited by numerous acquaintances. In an attempt to put thoughts of Jane Bennet behind him, Bingley had accepted one invitation after the other, necessitating that Darcy's letter be forwarded several times before it reached him in Wales. With his fondest hope restored, Bingley could not remain angry with his friend. He resolved immediately to accept Darcy's invitation to Pemberley and found himself eagerly anticipating the prospect of joining the Darcy party.
Bingley continued awake a while longer contemplating possible means of hastening this happy reunion. He swiftly dismissed the prospect of journeying to London straightaway, as his sister Caroline was there. Bingley had no desire to endure Caroline's sure displeasure over Darcy's marriage. Bingley smiled as he realized that foregoing London would also allow him to evade what would surely be a bitter argument with his sisters about accompanying him to Pemberley. After their continual harping all last winter on the many reasons for eschewing such a match, Bingley knew Caroline and Louisa would be far from helpful in his attempts to secure Jane Bennet's hand. Although his sisters would be most desirous of accompanying him to Pemberley, Bingley was determined that he would make this visit alone. To forestall their machinations to insinuate themselves into his plans, Bingley decided to wait until he reached Pemberley before writing to advise Caroline and Louisa of his stay there.
Bingley dismissed the notion of meeting the Darcys in Hertfordshire almost as quickly, as it seemed highly likely his sudden return to the neighborhood would occasion considerable gossip. No, he thought, Darcy's suggestion veiled as an invitation was the best course of action. He would wait to renew his acquaintance with Miss Bennet at Pemberley. Bingley resolved to send a reply to Darcy's town address by express the following morning assuring his friend of his forgiveness and his delighted acceptance of the invitation. Perhaps if she were convinced of his intentions, the new Mrs. Darcy would smooth the way for him with her eldest sister.
It would have gladdened Bingley's heart to know that he required no such assistance to woo Jane Bennet. Although she had endeavored mightily to hide it, Jane had not forgotten Mr. Bingley, and since learning of Elizabeth's engagement to his particular friend, Jane had been able to think of little else. She was half in agony and half in hope that her sister's marriage would result in her seeing Charles Bingley again.
Although Jane was of a much quieter disposition than Elizabeth, her feelings were of no less depth and she still thought of Bingley with great admiration and a considerable sense of personal loss. It was impossible for Jane to think truly ill of anyone she held in high esteem. Therefore, she had long since convinced herself that she must have misunderstood Mr. Bingley's attentions and thus was solely to blame for her own unhappiness. Her affectionate heart had remained constant and Jane could not refrain from hoping that Mr. Bingley's feelings might grow to match her own upon further acquaintance.
Although Mr. Bingley was uppermost in her thoughts, he was not the only reason Jane happily anticipated her trip into Derbyshire. Longbourn without her dear Lizzy had already become quite difficult to bear. Jane had long respected Mr. Darcy's integrity and intelligence and having been assured by Elizabeth of their mutual affection, Jane was elated that all had worked out so well for her dearest sister--and for herself, Jane reflected. As Mr. Darcy's sister and cousin were to be living with them, Jane did not fear intruding upon the newly married couple as she might have under other circumstances, and it was planned that they would all remain in Derbyshire until the autumn demanded the Darcys return to town for the season.
Jane knew that the Bingleys usually made an annual visit to Pemberley as Caroline had certainly boasted of it often enough. Although Jane had no wish to see Caroline Bingley again, she would have willingly endured far worse than the sister's company for the pleasure of the brother's. Jane's last thought before succumbing to sleep was, "Perhaps if we meet again without all the gossips of Hertfordshire going on about a match, things will work out differently."
Meanwhile in Norfolk, Lord and Lady ---- were less preoccupied with thoughts of how the impending marriage would affect themselves than they were with concerns of what its ramifications might be upon Darcy and Georgiana's futures. Their knowledge of the impending marriage had been delayed by the simple fact that Lord and Lady ---- were not at home when Darcy's letter arrived. As they had originally planned to be away for some few days, the housekeeper had been instructed to simply hold any correspondence. Their visit to their friends in Cambridge had proven so enjoyable, however, that Lord and Lady ---- had extended their stay, and consequently had arrived home only that afternoon. Darcy's was not the only letter regarding the marriage that awaited them. It was unfortunate, yet not to be unexpected, that along with the letter of invitation from Darcy and letters endorsing the match from their son and Georgiana, Lord ---- had also received a letter denouncing the engagement from Lady Catherine. Had Lady Catherine managed to rein in her temper enough to cast dispersions only upon Elizabeth's character and lineage, the impact of her indictment would have been far greater. However, in her outrage Lady Catherine had made the significant error of also criticizing Darcy for his lack of judgment, an inclination to indulge his base passions and a total want of family feeling.
While Darcy's aunt and uncle had no first hand knowledge of Elizabeth Bennet, they had known Darcy all his life. He was certainly not without faults. After all, his temper and stubbornness were well known among their family circle, but Darcy could hardly be called self-indulgent or neglectful of his duty to his family. In truth, his uncle and aunt had often privately shared their fears for Darcy's happiness, as everything in his life seemed to consist of duty and obligation.
"I cannot believe Catherine's accusations of Darcy," his uncle finally ended their debate over the news. "However, we have no personal knowledge of Miss Bennet. If you can tolerate a long day's journey, my dear, we will be in London tomorrow evening. Then we will have the opportunity to at least meet Darcy's bride before the wedding."
With his wife's agreement, Lord ---- instructed the servants to have their trunks and the carriage ready for departure at first light. There was nothing more to be done until they reached London.
Darcy's visage was grave, indeed, when he left his home shortly after breakfast the following morning on a matter of business. This would have been entirely unremarkable several months earlier, as Darcy had demonstrated a marked tendency toward solemnity since the loss of his father. Of late, however, Darcy's mien had steadfastly reflected his happiness at having procured Elizabeth's affections. Therefore, the servants were all uneasy, hoping that nothing had arisen to interfere with the master's happiness. In truth, Darcy's lack of cheer was precipitated entirely by concern for his cousin Anne's situation.
While visiting the Archbishop's offices two weeks earlier to procure a special marriage license, Darcy had also made a polite inquiry for assistance regarding a will validated by the church some years earlier. Darcy was very grateful that the cleric from whom he had purchased the marriage license had shown no idle curiosity regarding his request. The man simply referred him to Father William Henderson, adding that unfortunately the Father was currently away making a tour of the ecclesiastical courts on the Archbishop's behalf. Darcy had left his card in hopes that his message would be relayed and to his gratification it had been. Darcy had received a letter from Father Henderson yesterday, expressing his willingness to meet at Darcy's earliest convenience.
Darcy was surprised when he was shown into the priest's office. Not only was the large desk strewn with books and stacks of documents, but there were also books and papers in all but one visitor's chair and another stack of books on the floor nearby as if they had been hurriedly moved in anticipation of Darcy's visit. This was certainly the priest's private study as it was totally lacking in the formal, almost forbidding grandeur of the public rooms in the building. Father Henderson himself was also most unexpected. He was a small, wizened man who smiled cheerily and gestured for Darcy to have a seat.
"Thank you for seeing me, Father Henderson," Darcy began. "I understand you have been traveling and I appreciate your prompt response to my inquiry."
"Certainly, Mr. Darcy," the priest said, "I was told you have some questions regarding a will that was validated by the church some time ago. We take any hint of irregularities in such matters very seriously. Would you please tell me what you know of the circumstances and why you are concerned?"
"I am here representing the interests of a female cousin, sir," Darcy said. "May I assume that any information I share regarding her circumstances will be regarded as confidential?"
"Of course, Mr. Darcy," the priest said as he sat forward in his chair. "I must confess that I had assumed you were acting for someone else. These inquiries are usually made by disgruntled ne'er-do-wells who have been disinherited. I share that information to explain why my assistant made discrete inquiries into your own character and situation as a matter of course, even before I returned to town yesterday. Knowing that you are a man of considerable fortune, I thought it highly unlikely that you would be instigating such an investigation on your own behalf."
The priest paused and stared at Darcy silently a moment before continuing, "I trust you are not offended by my having done what I deem necessary to protect the church and those who rely on it for justice."
Darcy was surprised by the priest's practicality and candor, but he was not affronted in the least. "Thank you for speaking frankly, Father Henderson. I would be equally frank, but I must be assured that this information will not be shared--even with your fellow clergymen."
The priest's eyebrows raised slightly as he wondered what was afoot, but he calmly replied, "I promise you, Mr. Darcy, that whatever you have to tell me of your cousin will be kept in the strictest confidence. I will guard that information as if she had confided in me herself as part of her confession."
Darcy nodded as he said, "I have reason to fear that my aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh has contrived to deprive her daughter Anne of her rightful inheritance. I do not know the terms of my late uncle's will, but he was a man of considerable fortune and it seems highly unlikely that he would not have taken steps to provide for his only child."
"I would admit that it is unusual for a man to overlook his issue in such matters," Father Henderson agreed, "but you intimated he died some years ago. Please tell me why such suspicions have arisen at this particular time."
"Although my aunt has always made a great show of her solicitude for her daughter," Darcy said, "she has never been particularly kind or thoughtful of anyone else's sensibilities, least of all Anne's. Recently I quarreled with my aunt over a matter of no little consequence--"
"Would that be your impending marriage?" Father Henderson asked quietly.
"I see that your assistant is thorough," Darcy said with a nod. "While it is her right to hold her own opinions, my aunt crossed the line of decency and behaved deplorably not only towards me but also towards someone I esteem highly. I felt I had no choice but to break off all relations with Lady Catherine, and I hated the thought of leaving my cousin behind with no other companion. At best my aunt is selfish and vindictive, but I have also begun to wonder if she is entirely rational. I offered Anne a home and my protection fully intending to provide for her myself if necessary. However, shortly after accepting my offer and leaving home my cousin became ill--"
Father Henderson could see that the young man before him was struggling to regain his composure. He rose and poured Darcy a glass of sherry and then waited patiently until he was able to continue.
"Thank you. I have no little difficulty controlling my temper concerning this situation," Darcy explained. He then sighed and continued, "The physician summoned to attend my cousin diagnosed her malady as--laudanum withdrawal. He could not say whether the laudanum was begun for a valid medical purpose or not, but he definitely affirmed there was no reason for her to currently be using it."
"How is the young lady now?" Father Henderson asked gently.
"Much better," Darcy answered with a slight smile. "She has been under the care of the young woman who will become my wife in two days time--and her family. While the doctor has encouraged us to be careful of Anne for sometime to come, she is stronger in every way. There are several pertinent details that have caused us to suspect my aunt's motives in the situation. I find it an extraordinary coincidence that this treatment was begun the summer before my cousin was to be presented to society. Equally notable is the fact that the doctor who prescribed this 'tonic' and has continued to provide it for almost ten years has never met or examined my cousin."
Gone was the merry, smiling man who had first greeted Darcy. Father Henderson also seemed taller in his fury.
"Mr. Darcy, please be assured of the church's cooperation in ferreting out the truth of the matter. When and where was the will validated?"
"My uncle died in 1801 in Kent," Darcy replied.
"Excellent," the priest replied with a sardonic smile. "The Diocese of Rochester has changed bishops twice since then which should help speed this along to a satisfactory conclusion. Although we are sometimes loathe to admit it, the clergy is made up of mere men and we are sometimes unwilling to acknowledge our mistakes. The current bishop is an excellent man. In the interest of discretion, I suggest all inquiries be made directly to Bishop King and in person. I shall write a letter of introduction assuring him of the Archdiocese's particular interest in this case."
Although the matter was far from concluded, Darcy felt somewhat lighter when he left for Gracechurch Street with the letter of recommendation in his pocket. At Darcy's request the priest had recommended both Colonel Fitzwilliam and himself to the bishop. It was Darcy's hope that Fitzwilliam would be able to travel into Kent right away, but if not, he would manage it himself before leaving town for the summer.
Colonel Fitzwilliam had just finished dressing for his dinner engagement that evening when his batman announced the arrival of his parents. Hoping this sudden appearance was evidence of their excitement over Darcy's imminent marriage rather than a harbinger of something less pleasant, the Colonel checked his cravat, brushed imaginary lint from his sleeve and sallied forth to meet them.
After the obligatory greetings were accomplished, Lord ---- said, "I can see that you are going out, son, so we will not keep you, but please plan to drop round after you have kept your engagement. Your mother and I are very anxious to speak with you. We would have come to town sooner if we had known what was going on, but we were away from home. We only received your letter--yours and Darcy's--yesterday. "
Thinking it best not to dance around the matter entirely Fitzwilliam ventured to say, "I assume this is about my cousins. I will see all three of them at dinner and will happily convey the news that you have come to town."
"So it is true then? Anne has left Rosings?" Lady ---- inquired.
Fitzwilliam barely had time to nod before his father asked, "Are you having dinner at Darcy's?"
"No, sir, at the home of Miss Bennet's aunt and uncle--"
Lord ---- did little to hide his disappointment. As a close relation, he could take liberties with Darcy that would not be excusable with strangers. Rising he said, "Well, we had best not keep you then."
"Thank you for understanding, sir," Fitzwilliam said. He was pleased that their first inquiry had been regarding Anne. Interpreting this to mean that their concern for her overshadowed any worries regarding Darcy's marriage, the colonel was eager to allay his parents' fears. "However, I do think it is of great import that we speak now. Please sit down. There are some serious matters to be addressed that Darcy and I agreed were best not included in a letter. I will just send a note to Darcy explaining my tardiness."
Fitzwilliam poured each of his parents a glass of wine and rang for his batman, before dashing off a quick note.
I am delayed on a matter of unexpected business. Please explain this to our hosts and insist that they not wait dinner for me. I hope to join you for dessert.
The note was ready when his servant appeared and the colonel charged the man with delivering it to Darcy personally.
"--If he is gone from home, you will find him at the Gardiners' home."
His parents exchanged a quizzical glance. Obviously their son was well acquainted with these people if his servant required no other directions. Fitzwilliam saw the exchange, but felt no inclination to remark upon it. Instead he refilled his parents' glasses and poured one for himself. He noted the almost predatory expression his mother wore, a look the colonel knew from experience meant she was determined that her curiosity would be satisfied.
"I do apologize for not having been more forthcoming," the colonel began as he sat back with a sigh, "and I assume by your tearing to town immediately upon your return home that you also received a letter from my aunt."
Lord and Lady ---- nodded but neither said a word. They merely waited for their son to continue.
"I know not exactly what objections Lady Catherine expressed to you regarding the match, but I know the objections she raised in Kent and can assure you they are wholly unfounded. My aunt has long deluded herself that Darcy and Anne would eventually marry. However, that disappointment does not excuse her base accusations against Miss Bennet and my cousin."
Seeing the glance that passed between his parents, Fitzwilliam was certain that Lady Catherine's letter to his father had been every bit as ill-conceived and malicious in her railing against the marriage as he had feared.
"I do not even want to know how Lady Catherine has chosen to slander my cousin and Miss Bennet this time," he said pointedly. "I would simply like to tell you the truth. Darcy first met Miss Bennet last fall when he was staying with his friend Bingley in Hertfordshire. While Miss Bennet has neither fortune nor exalted connections, she is a young woman of excellent character and manners and the daughter of a gentleman. She is also extremely lively and intelligent, and the first woman for whom I have ever seen my cousin show any partiality or regard. I could see immediately that Darcy favored her, but I did not fully comprehend the depth of his feelings until he spoke with me after they had become engaged."
"So Darcy has elected to marry for love then?" Lady ---- asked.
"Yes, Mother, he has," Fitzwilliam replied, "and the only person to be displeased by this development is Lady Catherine. Anne made it very clear while we were still in Kent that she had no desire to marry Darcy and was delighted by his engagement. I have never been excessively fond of Lady Catherine, but I have now ceased to have any respect for her. Her deportment during the last several days of our visit was abominable. She demonstrated a complete lack of discretion and care for the honor of our family. It was her outrageous behavior that resulted in Anne fleeing Rosings and placing herself under Darcy's protection. Darcy himself was so grievously offended that he has completely severed all ties to our aunt and to Rosings."
The colonel was pleased to note a hardening of displeasure in both his parents' features, as he knew their displeasure was now properly aimed at Lady Catherine.
"I must admit that when Darcy first offered a home to Anne, I thought there was little chance she would accept, but I am very grateful that she did. We all left Rosings together--Miss Bennet, her friend Miss Lucas, Anne, Darcy and myself. When we reached London, it was deemed best that Anne remain with Miss Bennet at her aunt's while Darcy informed Georgiana of her arrival and had her quarters prepared."
"That is sensible, but hardly seems an important detail," Lady ---- brusquely interrupted.
Although she was not known for her patience, Lady ---- sincerely regretted her snappish remark when Fitzwilliam went on to relate how Anne had fallen ill shortly after he and Darcy had left the Gardiners' that day. It was all the colonel could do to remain relatively calm as he described the doctor's diagnosis and Anne's suffering as her body craved the laudanum she had taken regularly for years. His parents were stunned.
"--I think Mrs. Gardiner may have suspected what was wrong with Anne before the doctor examined the tonic," the colonel added. "From what Darcy said she and Miss Bennet had quite made up their minds that Anne was not going anywhere until she was well--even before Doctor Howard confirmed the source of her indisposition."
"But surely--" Lady ---- began.
"Surely, what, Mother?" Fitzwilliam interrupted her. "Georgiana is too young to bear such a burden and Darcy and I could not have cared for Anne as Miss Bennet and her aunt did during those first horrible days. For one, it would not have been proper, but a far more important consideration is that neither of us would have known how to comfort her.
"I will spare you the gruesome details, but Anne was extremely ill and those women tended her as lovingly as if she were their blood. You know how Darcy is. He initially insisted that Anne should be moved to his home and no expense would be spared--"
"That sounds wise to me--" his father began.
"Have you ever seen someone suffer opium withdrawal, Father?"
"Of course not," Lord ---- murmured.
"The doctor was equally insistent that Anne should remain at the Gardiners' because this is not like an ordinary illness. Although poor Anne has endured much physical suffering, it has also affected her mind and emotions. The doctor was adamant at the outset that she would need the support of friends and family, not the ministrations of hired nurses. I am fully convinced his counsel was correct, and I am everlastingly grateful that Darcy was able to put Anne's needs above our damn family pride."
"How does she fare now?" his mother quietly asked.
"Much better," Fitzwilliam said with a genuine smile. "Anne is still somewhat frail and prone to fits of despondency. The doctor cautioned us that her spirits will need to be supported for some time, but I see in her now the laughing girl I had all but forgotten. Like Darcy's ladylove, Anne is a wit, but her wit has a bit more barb to it. We can never repay Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Bennet for what they have done for my cousin.
"Once Anne's physical symptoms began to lessen, the rest of us were allowed to help amuse her and keep her company, but it was Miss Bennet and her aunt that saw Anne through the worst of it. Even now Miss Bennet sleeps with her because my cousin is prone to nightmares and periods of anxiety. I also think Miss Bennet has endured the worst of Anne's fits and foul tempers. Yet, she is not resentful. On the contrary when you see them together you will no doubt be impressed by their sincere regard and affection for one another. My poor cousin has led a very solitary life. I shudder to think what would have become of her if Darcy had not entreated her to come away."
Lord ---- reached for his wife's hand. Both their faces were grave.
"This is difficult to comprehend, Richard," he said. "I know Catherine is selfish and opinionated, but she always seemed so solicitous of Anne's health."
"Father, I would encourage you not to speak her name to Anne or Darcy at this point. It is entirely possible that this was done to Anne intentionally--"
"Surely you do not believe Cather--"
"I realize she is your sister, sir," Fitzwilliam said harshly, "but I fully believe that Lady Catherine is more than capable of subjecting her daughter to such treatment simply to keep Anne under her domination. According to Anne's recollection she began taking the tonic the summer before she was to come out--fortuitous timing if her mother's goal was to retain control of both Anne and her inheritance. It also strikes us as most unusual that the doctor who prescribed the tonic never examined Anne. Lady Catherine met with him, but Anne was never even introduced to him. I have been somewhat preoccupied of late with attending to Anne and my duties at Horse Guards, but you may be assured that once Darcy has taken Anne into Derbyshire, I fully intend to get to the bottom of this."
After a long, heavy silence, Lord -- said, "Please let us know if there is some way we can be of assistance to you, Son, or to Anne."
"Thank you, Father," Fitzwilliam rose and took his father's hand briefly before leaning down to kiss his mother's cheek. "Goodnight, Mother. Since we have had our talk I will not plan to call later this evening, but if you like, I will call for you tomorrow morning and accompany you to the Gardiners' so that you can see Anne for yourselves."
"Good evening, Colonel," Mr. Gardiner exclaimed as Colonel Fitzwilliam followed Maggie into the dining parlor. "We are delighted you were able to join us. Now our party is complete."
The colonel had scarcely taken his seat when Maggie reentered from the kitchen with a tray bearing his dinner. He smiled even as he teasingly chided his cousin.
"I see love has so clouded your thinking as to make you an untrustworthy messenger, Darcy."
"Do not scold him, Colonel," Mrs. Gardiner answered before Darcy could attempt an explanation. "I am certain Mr. Darcy relayed your message faithfully. In this case the fault is mine. Please forgive my presumption, Colonel. Perhaps, it is the result of mothering a brood of young children, but I must insist that you eat something. I know that you were detained on business and, therefore, I assume you have had no dinner."
The colonel allowed Mrs. Gardiner was correct and thanked her sincerely. He then happily ate his meal while the conversation continued around him. Having served in the field, Fitzwilliam was used to temporary privation, but he was excessively hungry this evening. Perhaps it was the result of the exchange with his parents. Whatever the cause, he was ravenous and greatly appreciated Mrs. Gardiner's insistence that he eat. The colonel was also impressed by her methods. She had done it so well, as if he were obliging her by having his dinner while the others lingered over their dessert. Yes, she will be up to Mother's harshest scrutiny, he thought. Fitzwilliam pulled Darcy aside for a private word as the gentlemen were leaving the table and explained the exact nature of the business that had delayed his arrival.
"--I have promised to accompany Mother and Father on a morning visit on the morrow to introduce them to the denizens of Gracechurch Street. Should we mention that this evening or shall I just bring them around at the appropriate hour?"
After a quick whispered consultation the cousins decided not to make mention of the planned visit to the others. Darcy was confident that he need have no fears of what would meet his relations if they were to arrive at the Gardiners' unexpectedly, and he wanted to spare Elizabeth the anxiety and worry he suspected would be occasioned by foreknowledge of their intentions. While Darcy had every confidence in Elizabeth and those of her relations that were currently in town, he was not quite so sanguine regarding his own family's prospective behavior. While he had never considered his Aunt Catherine as an exemplary figure, her crass behavior had shaken his faith in the family as a whole. Although Darcy doubted his uncle the Earl would exhibit anything but correctness in his public behavior, his uncle's wife Lady Sarah could be somewhat scathing in her remarks and quick to judge. Darcy resolved that he would take care to be in Gracechurch Street tomorrow before his family arrived.
It had become Georgiana's custom to repair to the Gardiners' shortly after breakfast each morning. It had also become accepted as a matter of course that Darcy would follow later in the morning after he had attended to any necessary correspondence and matters of business. In the hope of devoting himself solely to Elizabeth in the first days of their marriage, Darcy was being most diligent to keep current in all his other obligations.
Georgiana, however, was not unduly surprised the following morning when Darcy expressed a desire to accompany her after breakfast instead of remaining behind, as had been his habit. She merely assumed that as the wedding drew near her brother was becoming more impatient to spend time with Elizabeth. Darcy was doubly glad he had eschewed other matters when they arrived in Gracechurch Street to find Elizabeth and Anne in the back garden with the children. Anne had initially been leery of the Gardiners' children, having never been around little ones. As her physical condition improved Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth had contrived seemingly natural ways to place Anne in the children's company. Anyone esteemed by Cousin Lizzy was considered a paragon as a matter of course, so the young Gardiners universally admired Anne. As her nerves grew steadier and her fears of saying or doing something wrong lessened, Anne became genuinely fond of them. That particular carefree joy which is unique to happy children and the children's unabashed admiration of her were as balm to Anne's injured psyche.
This particular morning Elizabeth had persuaded Anne to read to the children and a charming sight they made. Anne was comfortably situated on a chaise in the garden with the children scattered around her. It turned out that Anne had a gift for mimicry and her animated rendition of the familiar tale enthralled the children. Elizabeth sat nearby ostensibly sewing, but in reality she was on the alert for the first sign of fatigue or melancholy in her charge. Elizabeth's fierce protectiveness of Anne had done what Darcy would have heretofore believed impossible. It had increased his admiration and affection for her. When the story was ended Elizabeth insisted the children go play and allow "Miss Anne" to rest. They rose to obey albeit somewhat reluctantly. However, Anne's promise of another story in the afternoon quickly restored their smiles, and the young Gardiners were soon occupied with a game of tag on the far side of the garden.
Elizabeth and the three cousins were soon engrossed in conversation. Indeed, the time passed so quickly that Darcy was surprised when a servant interrupted them to announce that guests had arrived and they were all requested to join Mrs. Gardiner in the parlor. It was far too early for a morning visit, or so Darcy thought until a glance at his watch revealed that the morning was nearly gone. Having delivered her message, the servant took charge of the children and bustled them off to the nursery.
As the others wondered aloud who their callers might be, Darcy was suddenly uncomfortable with his decision not to inform them of his uncle's intended visit. It had long been Darcy's way to contain his emotions behind an inscrutable visage. Elizabeth was extremely grateful that he was not so reserved in expressing his ardor for her in private, but she had quickly grown accustomed to watching for and deciphering the almost indiscernible clues to Darcy's thoughts and feelings when they were in company. Hence, she alone observed his uneasiness.
"What is it, dearest?" she gently asked. "You seem preoccupied."
"I must apologize to you," Darcy began, wondering how it could be that she already knew him so well. He was not disturbed by Elizabeth's ability to seemingly read his mind, but it was still a novel experience for one who had habitually kept his deepest thoughts and feelings to himself. Meanwhile, Elizabeth waited patiently for Darcy to continue.
"I am truly sorry," he said quietly, "for I fear I have made another grievous error in judgment. The guests waiting in the parlor are undoubtedly Colonel Fitzwilliam and his parents. He told me last night they had arrived in town and were anxious to meet you, and I decided not to tell you before hand. I thought it might cause you to worry--but I see now that I should not make decisions for you particularly when they are based on nothing more than assumptions."
Elizabeth could not help wincing inwardly as she thought of her mother's everlasting nervous complaints, and wondered if that had brought on this attempt to shield her. Did Fitzwilliam really consider her to be so like her mother? The thought merely increased her irritation with him.
"While I appreciate your concern for my feelings, Mr. Darcy," she began coldly, "I am not such a delicate creature that you must fear for my nerves. Nor am I a child who requires someone else to make my decisions for me."
Elizabeth felt the desire to rage at him, but realizing Georgiana and Anne were awkwardly looking on, she took a deep breath and said, "Perhaps we should continue this discussion another time, Mr. Darcy. It would be rude to keep our guests waiting."
Sensing the anger behind her coldness, Darcy reached for her hand and said, "Please, dearest, I think it is important to discuss this now. Anne, Georgiana, would you be so kind as to go in and make our excuses? We will join you presently."
"Of course," Anne replied with considerable satisfaction. She was immensely pleased to know that Elizabeth would stand up to her cousin. Overall Anne thought very highly of him, but in her opinion Darcy had become far too accustomed to having his own way. Having one's own way was not evil, in and of itself. However, accepting that as the natural order of things was a step along the path to the very dangerous position of assuming it was one's right, and Anne did not want to see her cousin follow in her mother's footsteps. Yes, she thought, Darcy has chosen well. Elizabeth will not allow him to go so far wrong. Smothering a smirk Anne led a horrified Georgiana away by the arm.
"Come away, Georgiana," she urged. When they had reached the confines of the house, Anne stopped to reassure her young cousin.
"Do not worry," she said. "They are very much in love, but they are both strong willed and stubborn. That is bound to produce disagreement from time to time, particularly in the early days of their marriage, but you need not fear. Surely there have been times when you disagreed with your brother."
Georgiana blushed as she said, "Why, of course, but I never--"
When she did not finish, Anne supplied, "But you never told him? That is the difference in a younger sister and a wife. Remember Darcy initiated this discussion by owning he was wrong, and it was he who insisted it take precedence over the guests waiting in the parlor. He wants their marriage to be a partnership of equals as much as Elizabeth does. I would also warrant that Darcy will be able to offer a far more effective apology in private."
That elicited a giggle from Georgiana and the two were still smiling broadly when they reached the parlor. The cousins entered the room arm in arm as a matter of course. Colonel Fitzwilliam could not help feeling triumphant, as it was clear that his parents were taken aback by the changes in both their nieces. Gone was the look of anxiety that Georgiana almost habitually wore in any company beyond that of her guardians, and as for Anne--she hardly seemed the same person. Although Anne was still pale and thin, her complexion had lost its sallowness and she now moved purposefully. Gone was the languid air and her eyes--that change was most remarkable of all. They sparkled with a combination of intelligence and merriment. The contrast with Anne's former vacant expression was shocking.
As Lord and Lady ---- were clearly struggling for composure, Mrs. Gardiner quietly excused herself to allow them a more private family reunion. She could not help wondering why Lizzy and Mr. Darcy had not come in with the others as she firmly shut the parlor door and headed for the kitchen.
Sensible of their waiting guests, Darcy and Elizabeth were, in fact, quitting the garden at that moment. After all, it is entirely reasonable that a disagreement beginning with a confession of wrong and an apology would be settled quickly. After Elizabeth had the satisfaction of expressing her displeasure with his actions, she had been glad to conclude their quarrel by accepting Darcy's apology. Feeling somewhat overcome by an odd combination of relief at Elizabeth's forgiveness and admiration for her fiery temper, Darcy had dared to kiss her for the first time since they had left Kent. This resulted in their quarrel being all but forgotten as thoughts of tomorrow took precedence.
Mrs. Gardiner ceased her wondering at the young couple's delay when she met the pair in the back hallway. Their tightly clasped hands and abstracted smiles bespoke of a private moment of some sort between the two. Aunt Gardiner was not excessively concerned as they were to be wed the following morning, and she had full confidence in both their characters. However, she was anxious that nothing appear amiss to Mr. Darcy's relations.
Aunt Gardiner greeted them without the slightest trace of surprise or censure in her tone and then added, "Please join me in the kitchen for a cup of tea. I believe Lord and Lady ---- were quite overwhelmed by the changes in Anne. Do not worry. Anne did not appear to be the slightest bit disturbed by the reunion and she has Georgiana and Colonel Fitzwilliam for support should she require it. No, I think it best we leave them alone for a few minutes before returning to introduce you, Lizzy."
Aunt Gardiner's purpose was, of course, two fold. Taking a cup of tea would also allow the young lovers an opportunity to fully return to earth lest someone else perceive the nature of their delay. Remembering the import of this meeting, Elizabeth gratefully accepted the offer and led Darcy into the kitchen. She knew a cup of tea would calm her nerves and allow enough time for her to recollect herself. Although it was not planned for such an effect, the result of Lord and Lady ---- spending a short while with Anne before meeting Elizabeth was immediate acceptance and approval of their new niece.
After seeing the changes wrought in Anne by their loving care, Darcy's highborn relations were no longer prepared to find fault in Elizabeth and her family. Knowing his parents' penchant for snobbery, Colonel Fitzwilliam was all but sniggering at the way they graciously greeted Elizabeth and expressed their delight with the match. His father congratulated Darcy repeatedly on his fine choice and his mother well nigh begged the privilege of hosting a family dinner party that evening so they might all become better acquainted. Mrs. Gardiner graciously accepted the invitation on behalf of her extended family and Colonel Fitzwilliam could not resist a surreptitious wink to Darcy as they took their leave.
Elizabeth was delighted by the invitation, but it was quite clear to Darcy that she did not apprehend its wider significance. He had long admired Elizabeth's fierce independence and her egalitarian views. Yet, Darcy found himself surprisingly affected by the realization that Elizabeth's pleasure in the event rested solely in the fact that these were his relations, not in their rank. He silently blessed her wholesome country upbringing and Elizabeth's resulting naivete as to the merciless duplicity of the upper classes. For his part, Darcy all but sighed his relief that she would not have to learn those lessons through bitter personal experience.
The mere fact that his aunt and uncle had hastened to town and then entertained Elizabeth's family before the wedding would constitute a public endorsement of the match, and if they were prepared to support the marriage, there was little that Lady Catherine could do to harm them. While Darcy had been prepared to brave the world's disapproval for Elizabeth's sake, it was far better to know that she would be spared the snubs and slights of London's fashionable society, for no one who valued rank and social standing dared offend Lady Sarah. As the daughter of a duke who had subsequently married an earl, Lady Sarah knew that only the royal family unequivocally outranked her and she made certain to remain on excellent terms with several members of that family as well. Tonight's dinner party assured Elizabeth would be properly respected as his wife. In a moment of self-revelation Darcy perceived that not terribly long ago he would have been worried about Elizabeth's acceptance in society for selfish reasons, but now his concern was almost entirely for her sake and the rest was for Georgiana's.
And so it was that when Georgiana remarked on his silence during the carriage ride home and asked if anything were amiss, Darcy was able to reply quite sincerely, "No, Georgiana, everything is as it should be."