Lasting Impressions by Pamela St Vines
Confessions and Connections
By Aaran St Vines
Jane Austen, Emma, Chapter 49
The ensuing days were full of happy activity at Longbourn. To Darcy's great delight the Bennets had extended an open invitation for him to spend as much time with them as he was able. Thus Darcy hurried out the door each morning and Bingley knew not to expect him for dinner.
Although Mrs. Bennet had the other girls busy with preparations for the wedding, she demanded little of the bride. In her mind, Elizabeth's primary responsibility was to keep Mr. Darcy happy, and if Elizabeth could accomplish that, Mrs. Bennet was quite delighted to supervise everything else herself.
Thankful for any time he could spend in Elizabeth's presence, Darcy especially enjoyed those rare moments of privacy which allowed him to speak to her without the restraints demanded by propriety. The normally reserved gentleman found himself surprisingly eager to express his affections and assure Elizabeth of the fervor of his regard.
In an ironic twist of fate, the lively and outgoing Elizabeth often found herself tongue-tied in the face of his endearments. In the excitement of the moment, she had proclaimed her love for Darcy on the day of their engagement, but Elizabeth had said nothing more of her feelings since then. Darcy, however, was not discouraged. He of all men understood her reservedness, and he was confident that his affections were returned, as it was every day implied in the way that Elizabeth looked at him, the way she said his name. Having full assurance from her conduct that their attachment was mutual, Darcy discovered that Elizabeth's shyness pleased him. Her demure acceptance of his words of love and her reluctance to return them was eloquent proof that she had never played at love and flirtation.
After all the coquetry and machinations Darcy had witnessed in the 'first circles,' Elizabeth's glowing reticence was like a breath of fresh air to him, and for now Darcy was quite content to enjoy his own newfound ability to speak of his love. It delighted him to see Elizabeth blush and to know that his whisperings had disconcerted her.
They were enjoying a rare moment alone in the sitting room favored by the family in the mornings. Darcy knew that someone would be bustling back into the room at any moment, so he leaned closer to Elizabeth and softly murmured in her ear, "I love you, Lizzy. Will you not tell me that you love me, too?"
Elizabeth was decidedly pleased by Darcy's declarations, and she definitely did not want him to cease expressing his affections. Having lain awake for sometime the previous night considering how to encourage him to continue until she could comfortably respond in kind, Elizabeth now replied with a sparkle in her eyes that belied the seriousness of her words.
"Mr. Darcy," she said in mock solemnity, "I begin to fear that I may have been deceived regarding your abilities. I was under the impression that you are quite intelligent. Yet, you seem to have difficulty in remembering vital information."
Darcy was not the least bit disconcerted by this new tact. He laughed and leaned in once more to whisper, "It is vital, Lizzy, for it makes me happy to hear it. Please say that you love me."
Sighing as if he were asking a great deal, she turned to him and said quietly, "Very well, Mr. Darcy, I still love you."
Elizabeth's mocking frown quickly dissolved into a tremulous smile as Darcy's expression grew serious. With his eyes never leaving hers, Darcy raised her hand to his lips and kissed it tenderly. He then clasped her hand to his chest and whispered, "You need not say anything that makes you uncomfortable, dearest, for I do love you, Elizabeth, and I know that you love me."
Elizabeth could not speak for a moment. It was as if his soul lay bare before her. Without effort or forethought she found herself leaning towards him to whisper, "I do, Fitzwilliam. I do love you."
He drew her into his arms and held her close, gently kissing her brow. "I am glad we are to be married soon, Lizzy. Thank you for agreeing to a brief engagement."
They sat thusly for some time enjoying the new feeling of intimacy between them, and strangely no one interrupted them. Finally Darcy pulled away and said with a smile, "Now, my love, I think a change of activity is required unless I am going to throw aside my honor and take you to Gretna Green."
"I am rather attached to your honor, dear sir," Elizabeth responded with an answering smile. "What distraction do you require?"
After a moment's consideration Darcy replied, "Perhaps a walk to Oakham Mount. I am rather fond of the place."
Rising, Elizabeth extended her hand to him and replied, "Come then, Fitzwilliam, let us see which of my sisters can be spared to accompany us."
They were soon walking out with Jane and Kitty for companions. As they neared a narrowing of the way, Darcy whispered, "Would you mind if I walk with Miss Bennet for a bit, my love? I know she is dearest to you, and I would like to know her better."
Elizabeth's answer was a ready smile and a nod, and she was soon walking ahead arm and arm with Kitty enjoying the day. Darcy and Jane followed them in companionable silence for several minutes before Darcy roused himself to speak what was on his mind.
"I hope you do not mind my company, Miss Bennet. I realize that you are Miss Elizabeth's dearest sister and so I was hoping for the opportunity to further our acquaintance."
"I do not mind in the least, Mr. Darcy," Jane reassured him. "Lizzy is very dear to me, as well. In truth I would find it most difficult to part with her if I were not certain of her happiness."
"Please know that her happiness is of the greatest importance to me, also," Darcy replied. "Although our acquaintance is brief--in fact, some would say that becoming engaged on such short acquaintance is very unlike me, but I feel that in essentials I know your sister entirely. I realize there are many particulars I have yet to learn, but I am eager to make those discoveries. Miss Elizabeth is quite unlike anyone else I have ever known."
"Lizzy has always been unique," Jane said with a smile, "and I think you are well suited to one another. However--"
Jane's expression grew serious as she considered how to continue. After a moment's pause she said with a sigh, "It has not always been easy for her. Lizzy's liveliness, her intelligence, her inner strength-- Our mother has never understood her and she has spent considerable energy trying to force Lizzy to become someone she is not."
"Your mother--" Darcy echoed in puzzlement, "but she seems to regard your sister's abilities so highly."
"I am afraid that is a rather recent development, Mr. Darcy. Mama only began to think so well of Lizzy when--" Jane broke off in embarrassment.
"When I became your sister's suitor?" he asked, having readily perceived what recent event might have changed Mrs. Bennet's perspective.
Seeing Darcy's darkening visage, Jane gently tried to explain. "You must not think ill of Mama, Mr. Darcy. It is only natural that people fear what they do not understand. I myself would find it impossible to forgive her oppression of Lizzy, were I not confident that Mama's primary concern has been for Lizzy's happiness. Mama could not envision a man who would admire Elizabeth for her 'oddities' as Mama calls them, and she has worried that none would admire her enough to overlook them. It is a sad truth that as a gentleman's daughters without independent means, marriage is our best hope of securing a safe and hopefully happy situation. I think our mother has been excessively fearful for Lizzy's prospects. You must realize that we have little acquaintance outside of Hertfordshire, and in this limited society there are very few marriageable young men."
Darcy nodded, seeing the truth of Jane's words. He shuddered to think of his beloved Elizabeth left destitute by her father's death and forced into a loveless marriage or the dreary life of a governess. In that light her mother's fears were quite justified, although he bristled to think that the woman could have so underestimated her daughter's worth.
Seeing Jane's anxious expression, Darcy endeavored to set her mind at ease, "I do understand, and I shall endeavor not to hold your mother's misguided fears against her. I must confess that I am still at a loss to understand your reasons for addressing this, since your sister's future is no longer in question and you obviously do not desire to set me at enmity with Mrs. Bennet."
Jane sighed with relief. It was awkward to speak of such things, but she was determined that Elizabeth's husband would have the benefit of understanding her family and how they had shaped her.
"My intention in relating this history is simply to help you better understand Lizzy," she explained. "I believe that Mama is now sincerely aware of my sister's merits, but life at Longbourn has not always been easy for Lizzy. She has always had to be very strong to remain true to herself, and she is not used to relying upon anyone else."
"But the two of you seem to be so close?"
"We do love one another dearly, Mr. Darcy, but there is also some reserve between us--at least on Lizzy's part. Because her--uncommon virtues have not always been prized or encouraged, Lizzy has grown used to hiding bits and pieces of herself away. I have often worried that she keeps her deepest feelings and worries to herself. Seeing you together, I am convinced that in time Lizzy's deep affection for you will overcome that habit, Mr. Darcy. My concern is that you might misunderstand her at some point in the meantime and think that Lizzy does not trust you when in fact she does."
Darcy was deeply moved by Jane's concern and her revelation. He thought with satisfaction of Elizabeth's words of love earlier that morning and the deepening bond between them. Placed in the context of Jane's confession, it was far more significant than he had realized.
Smiling down at his companion, Darcy offered her his arm, "Thank you for trusting me, Miss Bennet. I take your meaning and I shall not forget what you have said."
By unspoken agreement, they increased their pace and soon overtook their companions. Kitty and Jane walked a bit ahead on the way back to Longbourn, allowing Darcy and Elizabeth a degree of privacy, and the couple strolled along in contented silence for some time.
Although sensible of the touch of Elizabeth's hand upon his arm, Darcy was preoccupied with thoughts of Jane's admission and the new sense of closeness he felt with Elizabeth. When he could contain his feelings no longer, Darcy stopped and took her by the hand. Elizabeth gazed up at him expectantly, but Darcy found it difficult to speak seeing the unguarded affection in her eyes.
Lifting one hand to caress her cheek, he finally said, "Elizabeth, my love, you have changed me and for that I am grateful."
Her reply was a sincere look of puzzlement, and Darcy happily explained his meaning. "I did not think myself capable of such deep feeling, and I certainly never expected to care for anyone the way that I love you."
It was a profound relief to articulate his emotions. Darcy gently kissed her hand and moved as if to resume their walk. However, Elizabeth stopped him by drawing his hand back to her cheek and whispering, "I love you, too, dearest."
Darcy was overwhelmed. He wanted to take Elizabeth in his arms. He wanted to cavort across the fields. He wanted to shout his joy from the rooftops. That is what he wanted to do, but Darcy settled for leaning in to rest his forehead against hers and whispering, "You have made me the happiest of men, Lizzy, by loving me and allowing me to love you. Tomorrow I must away to London and Georgiana will return with me, so we will have few moments of privacy then, but know that I am thinking of you every minute and longing for the day when you will become my wife."
"I am also eager for our wedding day to arrive, Fitzwilliam."
Realizing how fragile his self-control was at the moment, Darcy merely smiled as he returned Elizabeth's hand to his arm and the pair resumed their walk. Suddenly recalling something Jane had said, Darcy glanced down with a mischievous grin.
"I must say that I am most grateful that your father's estate is in Hertfordshire, my love," Darcy said.
"I am equally happy that your friend Mr. Bingley chose to let Netherfield Park," Elizabeth replied mistaking his meaning entirely.
"Thank you for that sentiment, my dear," Darcy continued. "However, I was considering the matter of geography from a whole other view as I now believe we were fated to meet, Elizabeth, no matter where you resided. Yes, I am most grateful that you grew up in Hertfordshire, my love, and I shall forever be indebted to this marvelous county for keeping you safe for me."
"I must confess that I am agog with curiosity, Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth answered, "as I do not understand your meaning. Why should Hertfordshire be considered safer than any other county in England?"
"Oh, forgive me, my love," Darcy said in delight. "I did not mean to be cryptic. I was thinking on my earlier conversation with your sister in which Miss Bennet commented on the dearth of eligible bachelors in Hertfordshire, a circumstance for which I am extremely grateful. Otherwise you might have been spirited away by another before I arrived on the scene."
Elizabeth choked back a laugh as she exacted her revenge. "I suppose the society is somewhat limited here in Meryton, dear sir, but you are mistaken in assuming that there have been no other offers for either of us. Of course, those gentlemen were not from Hertfordshire. Perhaps that is the source of your misunderstanding, Mr. Darcy."
Darcy was startled to silence. Pretending not to notice his sudden glower, Elizabeth continued on as if musing to herself, "Yes, I think that explains the misunderstanding entirely. So, Mr. Darcy, do you not think we are living through a great age of poetry?"
"Elizabeth," Darcy said tersely, "I do not wish to seem boorish, but you must explain. I cannot bear to go through life wondering if every man I meet was one who happened to propose to you."
Satisfied that he had been suitably punished for his presumption, Elizabeth turned to face him. "I love you and only you, Fitzwilliam. I am sorry if my teasing has disturbed your peace, but you were entirely too smug. Jane and I have both had admirers. You must remember that we have spent considerable time with our aunt and uncle in London."
"And other offers?" he asked.
"Yes," Elizabeth answered him gently. "Of course, Jane as the eldest and the prettiest of us has excited far more interest than I have. I have only had 2 offers of marriage, Fitzwilliam, yours and one other when I was very young. It was most uncomfortable to reject him, so I quickly became adept at deflecting attention from gentlemen who did not interest me. Jane, bless her, is too sweet and kind to resort to such tactics and has had to turn down several such requests."
"May I ask why you rejected the gentleman?" Darcy asked. "I trust he was a gentleman and not someone wholly unsuitable."
"No, he was not wholly unsuitable," Elizabeth answered softly. "He was a gentleman of great worth and respectability and I liked him very much."
"Then why would you have--"
"Risked my future by refusing to marry him?" Elizabeth finished his question.
Darcy nodded. He knew that she loved him and that she was pledged to him, but he found himself desperate for her answer.
"I have always been resolved that only the deepest love would induce me to marry," Elizabeth replied, "and yet, I might have faltered if he had cared for me less. I was newly out in company and inexperienced. I did not understand the depth of his feelings until it was too late."
"Too late," Darcy repeated in alarm.
"Yes, if I had understood his feelings were growing beyond friendship, I would have distanced myself until I knew his heart was safe," she explained, "but, alas, I only thought he felt friendship for me until he made his declaration. I would not have injured him for the world."
"And yet you refused him," Darcy said with no small satisfaction. "However, I must confess that I do not understand why you might have been tempted to accept the gentleman had he loved you less, Elizabeth."
"Do you not?" she gently queried. "Think on it, Fitzwilliam. Two friends with a sincere regard for one another and an easy camaraderie between them might grow to love one another as man and wife and be very happy together. There is an equal exchange of affections and expectations in such a union, but a marriage where one partner loves the other desperately and that love is not returned--"
Turning to him with tears in her eyes, she continued, "Surely, you understand my character too well to believe that I would be able to pretend such affections. Therefore, he would have been most unhappy eventually, and it is difficult to say which of us would have been more miserable. I would have been continually burdened by the guilt of disappointing him and he would have been constantly trying to win his wife's heart. Although he was disappointed at the time, I am convinced that the gentleman is far happier now without me than he would have been had we married."
Darcy clasped her hand tightly to his chest. "I do understand, Lizzy," he whispered. "I am afraid I was a bit jealous to think of another man loving you, but I am only sorry for him now. I know how bitter my own disappointment would have been had you refused me."
The thank you she whispered was so soft that Darcy barely heard it, but he had to smile when she gazed up at him impishly and said, "Ah, but I am afraid there is nothing I could long refuse you, dearest."
With that she suddenly tore off down the path, quickly leaving a laughing Darcy behind. Soon the dignified gentleman from Derbyshire was running after her. With his longer legs it was no great feat to overtake Elizabeth, and they were both still laughing when they rejoined Jane and Kitty in the Longbourn garden.
Bingley's morning was not so enjoyable. He had decided it was time to visit Caroline. Bingley felt it his duty as her brother to ascertain her physical well being during her confinement, and being of a sanguine disposition he also harbored some small hope that Caroline had begun to regret her misdeeds. Bingley quickly discerned that she was entirely unchanged in either respect. Caroline appeared very well indeed and also wholly unrepentant. She answered his polite inquiries coldly and maintained an attitude of proud disdain until Bingley bid her good day and turned to leave. Realizing he fully intended to continue her punishment, Caroline decided to sacrifice some dignity in an attempt to gain his sympathy. After all, it was a gambit that had worked well with her brother in the past.
"Please, Charles, do not leave me here," Caroline beseeched him. "I was distraught when I wrote the letter. If you will but release me, I promise to apologize to Mr. Darcy."
"And what of Miss Bennet?" Bingley asked evenly. "And Lady Catherine? Your falsehoods have also imposed upon them."
"Of course," Caroline replied, "I will write to Lady Catherine today if that is your wish."
"And Miss Bennet?" Bingley persisted.
His sister blanched. To humble herself before Elizabeth Bennet would have been unthinkable a few short days ago, but Caroline simply could not face another day of solitude. It was now Wednesday, and she had been confined to her room since Saturday. The intervening days had been very long with only Monique for company. Although an excellent maid, the girl left much to be desired as a conversationalist, and for all her pride in being a very accomplished woman, Caroline found it difficult to fill the tedious hours. She had never been a great reader, her needlework was laughable and criticizing those of her acquaintance was not so very amusing without an audience. Caroline bit back the harsh refusal that was her genuine response and swallowed her pride.
"Certainly, Charles," she answered stiffly. "I will make whatever amends you think necessary."
Bingley eyed her carefully. Given the degree of Caroline's contempt for Elizabeth Bennet, this was an important concession or would be if she were sincere. It was Bingley's hope that his sister's character was not beyond repair. However, he knew Caroline far too well to believe this was anything other than an attempt to avoid further punishment. Her antipathy for Elizabeth Bennet was too strong and it had taken Caroline entirely too long to answer. "Still," Bingley thought, "it may be a beginning."
"Very well, Caroline," he replied aloud. "I will consider what you have said."
"Is that all you have to say?" she asked, choking back the rancorous tirade she longed to unleash. She had expected an offer of such great condescension on her part to be eagerly accepted.
"Yes, I believe it is," Bingley replied evenly. "I can think of nothing further to discuss at this time. Is there anything more you wish to address, Caroline? Perhaps something you would request for your diversion during your confinement?"
"Then you will not relent?"
Hearing the trace of bitterness in Caroline's tone, Bingley answered her firmly, "No, not at this time. I hope rather than believe you to be sincere. However, apologies alone will not atone for your transgression. I think it best that I leave you to your thoughts. Please ring for Monique if you require anything further."
"Louisa," Caroline blurted out as he was leaving the room, "might I see her?"
"Perhaps," Bingley answered. "I will consider it."
With a brief nod, he left the room, locking the door behind him. Caroline waited until Bingley's footsteps had retreated down the hall, before giving vent to her rage. When she was certain he would not be returning quickly, Caroline grabbed up the first thing her eyes happened upon and threw it across the room. However, that act engendered little satisfaction, and the sound of shattering glass brought her back from the brink of a full-blown tantrum. Previously it had been Caroline's custom to take great delight in such destruction as it not only relieved her hostility, but also afforded her the need to purchase new things afterwards. However, with the return of reason, Caroline remembered that there would be no shopping expeditions in her immediate future. She rushed across the room and retrieved what had been her favorite mirror. Alas, now it was a beautiful empty frame. The entirety of its glass lay in shards upon the floor.
Caroline wanted to weep, but even in solitude her pride would not allow it. "Charles may do what he will," she thought bitterly, "but I will never be sorry. I only hope Lady Catherine heeds my advice. After all they are not married yet."
Darcy left for London shortly after daybreak the following morning. He planned to see his solicitor, procure the marriage license and return to Netherfield with Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley on the following day. However, Darcy was loathe to leave Elizabeth for even such a short time, and the bittersweet knowledge that Elizabeth and Jane would be arriving at Netherfield later that morning made it more difficult for him to depart.
Although Darcy hoped there would be no incident resulting from Caroline's letter to Lady Catherine, he was particularly anxious that nothing occur while he was in town. Elizabeth had assured him she would be safe during his brief absence. However, Darcy took little comfort in her assurances as Elizabeth had never met his aunt and did not know just how vitriolic Lady Catherine could be. Mindful of Darcy's worry over the matter, the family at Netherfield was equally anxious to minimize any harm resulting from Caroline's faux pas. Each did their best to set Darcy's mind at rest, but Louisa Hurst had finally resolved his dilemma by inviting the two eldest Bennet sisters to stay at Netherfield while Darcy was away. She had attempted to pretend the invitation had nothing to do with the prospect of trouble from Lady Catherine, but Darcy was grateful nonetheless.
"It will give us a chance to become better acquainted with your fiance, Darcy," she had insisted, "as you are so very possessive of her time and attention. I would also welcome the Miss Bennets' assistance in preparing a suitable reception for Georgiana."
Darcy was vastly relieved. He knew that Bingley and Hurst would protect Elizabeth in his stead as best they could; however, it was disappointing to think that she would be at Netherfield while he was not. Realizing he must content himself with the thought of seeing Elizabeth upon his return, Darcy urged his horse on.
The Miss Bennets were warmly received by Louisa Hurst later that morning. Although Elizabeth did not expect Lady Catherine to come tearing into Hertfordshire based upon Caroline's letter, she was grateful for Mrs. Hurst's invitation. A respite from her mother's constant bustle over the wedding was most welcome, and it was Elizabeth's hope that the company at Netherfield would distract her from the pangs of missing Darcy.
Elizabeth had felt strangely bereft when she awoke that morning to the knowledge that Darcy was already gone from Meryton. Having always fancied herself to be a very independent young woman, Elizabeth was surprised to realize that her disposition was no longer hers alone to command. Darcy's presence had become entirely necessary to her happiness and contentment. Even as she responded to Mrs. Hurst's welcome, Elizabeth found it oddly comforting to simply know that Darcy had inhabited this house. She felt an irrational urge to seek out his chamber as if the nearness to his things would make up for the absence of him, and Elizabeth could not help smiling at her own foolishness. Mindful of her companions, Elizabeth exerted herself and she was soon able to fully attend the conversation around her.
The day passed more quickly than Elizabeth had hoped it would. The Hursts and Mr. Bingley had proven to be very agreeable company and were happy to speak of Darcy as often as she wished. Elizabeth would have been vexed with herself had she realized just how often she turned the conversation to her soon-to-be husband. Her hosts, however, found this evidence of her affection for Darcy to be very gratifying and Jane was delighted by their gracious indulgence of her sister. Of course, Jane could not help also noticing how often Mr. Bingley directed his conversation to herself and it pleased her greatly. Bingley's gentleness had put her at ease from their first meeting, and Jane found his manners equally engaging upon closer acquaintance.
When the ladies withdrew to dress for dinner, Bingley and Hurst lingered in the library for a quiet chat about several estate matters. They were just rising to follow the ladies upstairs when a very flustered servant burst in upon them and announced, "Lady Catherine de Bourgh."
Before Bingley could draw breath to instruct the servant to admit their guest, Lady Catherine herself stormed into the room ungraciously pushing the frightened servant aside.
"Where is he? Where is my nephew?"
Bingley nodded to dismiss the servant even as he turned to the task of introducing himself as her host and welcoming Lady Catherine to Netherfield. Lady Catherine's answer to his introduction of Hurst was nothing more than a snort as she took a seat and repeated her inquiry.
"Where is my nephew?" she demanded. "I have no time for pleasantries. I must see Darcy at once."
"I am afraid that Mr. Darcy has gone to town, Lady Catherine," Bingley replied.
"Ah, so he's come to his senses," Lady Catherine interjected before Bingley could elaborate. "I knew he would recover himself and not marry a country nobody. Well, it appears I have no further business--"
"Excuse me, Lady Catherine," Bingley interrupted her with great politeness, "but I believe there has been some misunderstanding. Mr. Darcy has gone to town on business and plans to return tomorrow, bringing Miss Georgiana and her companion with him. He will then remain here until the wedding next week. Perhaps you would like to stay for the wedding as well."
"The wedding!" Lady Catherine shrieked. "I see it is well I have come. There will be no such wedding. My nephew is related to the finest families in England and he will not marry--"
"Lady Catherine, I presume."
The quiet voice immediately drew all eyes to the doorway where stood a very calm, very still Elizabeth Bennet.
"Miss Elizabeth," Hurst said as he quickly crossed the room to meet her. He protectively escorted Elizabeth to a seat as far from Lady Catherine as possible.
Recovering from his momentary shock, Bingley made the obligatory introduction and then lapsed into silence. Lady Catherine merely glowered at Elizabeth for several minutes before addressing the company.
"Please leave us," she said. "I must speak with this young woman alone."
Uncertain of how to reply to such a request, Bingley was grateful that Hurst spared him the trouble by speaking first.
"I am afraid that I cannot grant such a request, Lady Catherine. As our guest, Miss Bennet is under the protection of my brother Bingley and myself and your conduct thus far would not induce me to indulge you."
"Yes," Bingley added, "I fear that some misunderstanding may have resulted from the unfortunate actions of my afflicted sister and, therefore, feel that in Darcy's absence, we must be a party to any discussions you wish to have with Miss Bennet."
"So you refuse to oblige me," Lady Catherine said scornfully and then directed her gaze upon Elizabeth. "You must be very pleased with yourself, young woman. My nephew has resisted the wiles of fortune hunters who were far more beautiful and better connected than you are. I shudder to think what arts and allurements you must have used to tempt him."
"I have used no schemes or arts upon your nephew," Elizabeth coolly replied before either man could jump to her defense. "It might well please you to think so ill of me since we have not been acquainted previously, but for you to cast such dispersions on your own nephew is reprehensible. I am shocked that you who have known him all his life would think so meanly of Mr. Darcy as to imagine that he would behave ignobly or debase himself--or his family--in any way. Mr. Darcy's wealth is as nothing compared to his integrity and I am proud that he has chosen me to be his wife."
Elizabeth rose and crossed the room. She paused in the doorway and turned to say, "If you should decide to apologize to your nephew for so belittling him, I shall be happy to forgive you, but until such time I have nothing further to say to you. Good day, Lady Catherine."
Elizabeth managed to reach her chamber before bursting into tears. It was there that Jane and Louisa found her a short while later, Mr. Hurst having alerted his wife.
"There, there, Lizzy," Jane soothed her as they helped the distraught Elizabeth to her bed.
"Take this, Miss Elizabeth," Louisa said, offering her a glass of wine. "It will help to calm your nerves."
Elizabeth silently accepted the wine and found she did feel somewhat calmer.
"What of Lady Catherine?" Elizabeth finally managed to ask.
"She has fled Netherfield and I daresay Hertfordshire as well," Louisa answered with a smile. "My husband said that you were magnificent."
"I am so proud of you, Lizzy," Jane whispered. "I know that I would have been too upset to say anything with such a woman attacking me."
"I know that what I said was correct, but I was angry and now I fear I was disrespectful of--" Elizabeth dissolved into tears anew. "What if I have ruined everything? What if Mr. Darcy--"
"Do not entertain foolish worries, my dear girl," Louisa said. "Mr. Darcy's only concern in this will be for you. He has never expressed any great regard for his aunt and I doubt that it will be a terrible imposition upon him to have a breach in their relations. You must calm yourself or he will be very angry with himself for not being here to protect you from her."
That drew a small smile from Elizabeth. It did sound very like him, and for his sake she would exert herself to forget the violent emotions of the day. For Darcy's sake, she would calm herself, so that she could truthfully assure him all was well when he returned.
"We will delay dinner to give you a chance to compose yourself, Miss Elizabeth," Louisa said with a smile. "It is no trouble I assure you, and I fear for the gentlemen's sanity if you do not join us for the evening. Both of them are quite beside themselves with worry. I will go down to assure them all is well and leave you to your sister's care. Take as long as you need, my dear."
The following morning saw a flurry of activity in the guest wing of Netherfield. The ladies had resolved on a number of improvements to the rooms chosen for Georgiana. In addition to bedecking her bedchamber with flowers from the Netherfield conservatory, they had decided to transform the adjoining chamber into a sitting room for her personal use. This would allow the reticent young girl a personal retreat among the unfamiliar environs. The room was entirely refurnished that morning with pieces chosen from various locations throughout the house. A small escritoire was placed just so and stocked with various fine papers and utensils. A selection of appropriate books was placed on a shelf beside a comfortable chaise. One corner of the room was furnished as a small sitting area where Georgiana might entertain guests or enjoy the companionship of Mrs. Annesley. The finishing touch was the addition of a small easel and a variety of drawing supplies positioned by the east window.
When all was arranged Elizabeth eyed the room with satisfaction. Louisa and Jane had gone to freshen up after their morning's exertions, but Elizabeth lingered, reviewing each detail. She made a few minor adjustments, but all in all Elizabeth was very pleased with the room. From what she knew of the girl who would soon be her sister, Elizabeth deemed it to be a perfect haven for Georgiana. With a sigh of satisfaction Elizabeth hurried off to change so that she would be ready to welcome Darcy and Georgiana to Netherfield.
Georgiana Darcy vacillated between eager anticipation and nervous agitation as they journeyed from London. She was delighted by her brother's happiness but anxious at the thought of meeting so many strangers. Darcy sought to distract and reassure his sister with cheerful conversation and anecdotes about the Bennets and Hertfordshire in general and his beloved Miss Elizabeth Bennet in particular, but the nearer they drew to Meryton, the more prone Darcy was to lapse into silence. Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley shared several amused glances at his uncustomary abstraction. Clearly his thoughts were on Miss Bennet.
In his eagerness to see Elizabeth, Darcy barely restrained himself from leaning out the coach window as they drew up to the house. He could not, however, restrain his smile when Darcy glanced up to see Elizabeth standing at the drawing room window unabashedly watching for his return. Her smile of welcome warmed his heart. She could not come rushing into his arms anymore than Darcy could abandon his sister at Bingley's doorstep to race up to the drawing room, but it was enough to know that Elizabeth was as eager for their reunion as he was.
The formal introductions were soon accomplished and Elizabeth set about the more daunting task of becoming acquainted with the shy Miss Darcy. Georgiana returned every smile but said little. Thinking that it might be easier for them to converse without so many onlookers, Elizabeth suggested that perhaps Georgiana would like the opportunity to rest after their journey. Darcy appreciated Elizabeth's concern for Georgiana's comfort but he was quite irritated when Elizabeth insisted that she would show his sister to her quarters.
"That is really not necessary--"
"Of course it is not necessary, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth agreed with a smile, "but it is something that I want to do. This will give us a chance to chat and we promise to return in time for dinner."
Darcy realized she was not to be dissuaded. He was perplexed when Louisa murmured something to Mrs. Annesley and all five ladies swept from the room. Muttering under his breath, Darcy crossed the room and poured himself a glass of wine. Bingley and Hurst could scarcely contain their laughter at Darcy's fit of pique.
"Really, Darcy," Hurst chided him good naturedly, "you must allow that Miss Bennet will not always be able to devote her every moment to your amusement. There will be servants to manage, parties to plan, friends, relations, not to mention children of your own one day--"
"Yes, Hurst," Darcy interrupted him, "I understand your point. However, Miss Elizabeth and I have spent some portion of every day together since we met excepting yesterday and I had hoped-- Could not Mrs. Hurst have shown Georgiana upstairs?"
"Sit down, Darcy," Bingley urged. "While the finer points escape me, I know that this is a momentous event for the ladies. They were bustling about all morning readying Georgiana's chambers."
"But could the servants not have done that?"
"So you or I would have supposed," Bingley agreed, "but the workings of a woman's mind are far beyond my comprehension. They not only personally inspected Miss Darcy's bedchamber, but they also redecorated the adjoining room as a private sitting room for her use during her stay."
"But she will be here for scarcely more than a week," Darcy protested.
"My thoughts exactly," Hurst agreed, "but the ladies--especially your Miss Elizabeth--wanted your sister to have every comfort. They went up and down the stairs a dozen times at least, choosing furnishings from different rooms. The servants were run ragged and Bingley and I finally fled. It was a most unlikely day for shooting but trudging through the brush was infinitely preferable to being drawn into their project."
"Yes, it was quite an undertaking," Bingley agreed. "I know that servants were dispatched to Longbourn at least twice to fetch things that Miss Elizabeth deemed necessary to outfit the room to her satisfaction."
"And heaven help me," Hurst moaned. "I think their morning enterprise has inspired my wife to redecorate the townhouse."
"Well, I can see that marriage will be most educational," Darcy agreed dryly, his good humor restored. "If one small sitting room can wreak such havoc, I pray my wife never decides to redecorate Pemberley in its entirety."
"If so, you will have our sympathies and an open invitation to hide at Netherfield," Bingley replied with a smile. "However, I think you will be very happy together, Darcy, and I am happy for you."
The sudden earnestness in Bingley's tone alerted Darcy that all was not as it seemed. "I sense more than your previously expressed good wishes behind that remark," he said. "Pray tell me what I am missing here."
His companions exchanged a glance and at a nod from Hurst, Bingley began. "I am afraid that we had a visit from your aunt yesterday."
"Lady Catherine was here," Darcy uttered in shock. "Tell me everything. I must know. Is Elizabeth-- Was Lady Catherine unkind to her?"
"In all honesty," Hurst replied, "Lady Catherine did not get very far with her attack before your lady stopped her and rather magnificently, I might add. Lady Catherine began by insinuating that Miss Bennet is a fortune hunter who has somehow taken you in and at that Miss Bennet would hear no more."
"Yes," Bingley added, "your Miss Elizabeth was far more affronted by Lady Catherine's lack of respect for your judgment and character than she was by any slurs against herself. She chided her ladyship for casting dispersions upon your integrity."
Darcy felt his eyes moisten. After so many years on his own, it moved him deeply to think of Elizabeth more concerned with defending his honor than her own.
"I shall never forget the look in Miss Elizabeth's eyes," Hurst said softly, "when she informed your aunt that until such time as her ladyship apologized to you, Darcy, she would have nothing further to say to her."
"And what was my aunt's response?" Darcy asked.
"It was amazing. Lady Catherine had stormed into the house, ranting and shouting," Bingley explained, "but after Miss Elizabeth spoke to her thusly, Lady Catherine said nothing. She simply left the house without another word to any of us."
"And what of Elizabeth?" Darcy whispered.
Meeting Darcy's gaze, Hurst softly replied, "I believe she was most distressed at the time. However, we left her comfort to the ladies and Miss Elizabeth seemed to rally quickly. She rejoined us within the hour, and we passed a very pleasant evening. Perhaps that accounts for the ladies' morning project. There is nothing like pleasant occupation to distract one from unpleasant memories."
"This is entirely my fault," Darcy said, rising to pace the room. "I know my aunt's failings. How could I have believed that she would react rationally in such a circumstance?"
"Darcy you must not blame yourself. Hurst and I were in the room and we could not prevent Lady Catherine from saying something unpleasant."
"At least I am grateful that you were there," Darcy allowed. "I shudder to think of Elizabeth facing such a character alone. Do you think that Elizabeth blames me?"
"I am certain that she does not," Hurst said. "She was staring out that window for hours just to see you return. That does not seem to be the act of a woman who is upset or angry with you."
The recollection of her dear face watching him alight from the carriage brought a smile to Darcy's face. "My thanks to you both. You are true friends. I cannot imagine what damage might have been done had Lady Catherine accosted Elizabeth at Longbourn."
Both men assured Darcy that no thanks were necessary and by tacit agreement their conversation turned to inconsequential matters. Darcy was beginning to worry about what could be keeping the ladies so long when a servant entered and presented him with a note from his sister.
Darcy could not help but smile as he recalled countless "tea parties" he had attended when Georgiana was small. It all came rushing back--the sensation of forcing his taller frame into a small chair to join his sister and her dolls around the little table, Georgiana's chubby little hands carefully pouring imaginary tea from a toy tea pot into tiny cups, her childhood lisp. Gesturing to the note in his hand, Darcy rose and explained, "Excuse me, gentlemen, but I have been invited to tea with my sister. Could you please direct me to her rooms?"
Bingley and Hurst exchanged a laugh.
"Just head towards the guest wing and ask any servant," Bingley advised. "They all know the way."