~ ~ ~ ~ Copyright 2020 Wendi Sotis ~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ Cover Art Copyright 2019 Matthew Sotis ~ ~ ~ ~
WITH MY WHOLE HEART FOREVER
~~ Sample ~~
~ Monday, 15 July 1811 – Longbourn Estate, Hertfordshire
Miss Elizabeth Bennet spooned soup past her patient’s lips, breathing deeply the perfume of asters, coneflowers, delphinium, and lavender from the bouquet she had hand-picked on the way here, hoping to brighten Mrs. Smith’s depressed mood.
Elizabeth dabbed at the woman’s chin with a cloth. Poor Mrs. Smith. With one arm broken, the other shoulder sprained, and a substantial lump on her head, the tenant’s wife was barely able to do anything for herself, much less for her family, and guilt weighed heavily on her shoulders. Mrs. Smith tried to hide it, but Elizabeth was sure melancholy had set in.
The Smith children’s laughter drifted in from the courtyard, and Elizabeth could not help but be thankful, for the sound could only cheer her patient.
A moment later, high-pitched shrieks belonging to Elizabeth’s youngest sisters obscured the pleasant chorus, grating on Elizabeth’s nerves. She hoped the sound did not affect Mrs. Smith in the same way.
Kitty and Lydia, age seventeen and fifteen respectively, were never willing to admit to the gravity of any situation. Mrs. Smith required assistance and rest. She did not need to be subjected to the never-ending racket of her sisters’ squeals.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth brought them with her, a practice she had learned from her elder sister, Jane — the angel of the family who was wise beyond her years and just as discreet. Since Kitty and Lydia would do almost anything to avoid doing anything to help inside the house of a Netherfield tenant, if she brought them along, they would remain outdoors and keep the youngest children entertained after their meal. While they did so, Elizabeth could tend to her patient’s needs without interruption.
Elizabeth fed Mrs. Smith the last few drops from the bowl.
“Oh, Miss Lizzy, I cennot thank ye and ye sisters enough. Ye always comin’ to the aid of others, even when yer family’s not obliged ta do so.” The woman blinked moisture from her eyes.
“You are very welcome, Mrs. Smith. You know we would not leave you to fend for yourself. Mr. Jones says you cannot use your hands for another two or three weeks or else your injuries might not heal fully.” Elizabeth rose, walked to the kitchen table, and rested her hand on the basket she brought along with her earlier. “Here is bread and cheese for tomorrow morning. Cook sent enough for Mr. Smith and the older boys to bring along to the fields for tomorrow’s mid-day meal, as well.”
Mrs. Smith sniffled. “I don’t know what we’d do without your family’s help, and that o’ all our neighbours.”
All except the owner of Netherfield, who should be taking care of his own tenants. Elizabeth quietly blew out a breath. There was no sense in wasting her energy brooding over the thoughtlessness of their neighbour.
She shook her head, truthfully adding, “It is a pleasure to be useful.”
Elizabeth wrapped the bowl in cloth and laid it in the other basket that Jane had left there the previous day. Longbourn’s staff would wash up the contents when Elizabeth brought it home.
“Call out to Kitty or Lydia if you need anything. I must be going now, but my sisters will remain a while to finish their game with the children. Do not forget, my sister Mary will come after today in my stead. I must prepare to travel north on Wednesday. With your permission, my sisters may bring our small young cousins to play with your children beginning on Thursday.”
“They’ll be welcome. Enjoy your holiday, Miss Lizzy,” Mrs. Smith said.
Elizabeth gave the cooking pot filled with the nourishing stew that Longbourn’s staff prepared for the Smith family a hearty stir and then hooked the handle of yesterday’s basket over her arm to take with her. “I pray you will heal quickly, Mrs. Smith.”
A few minutes later, at the property-line dividing her father’s estate from that of Netherfield Park, Elizabeth climbed to the peak of Oakham Mount. From here, she could see much of her family’s grounds. Even though Longbourn House was two miles away, she could spy the smoke from its chimneys. In the opposite direction was Netherfield’s grand manor, a beautiful example of Palladian architecture, which stood about a mile from the Mount.
As Oakham Mount was her favourite place to rest during her daily walks, Elizabeth had often stood here, thinking it a shame for such a beautiful home to lay vacant for the past five years, ever since the former owner had passed on.
No one in the area had ever seen the current owner.
Elizabeth’s Uncle Phillips was the local attorney tasked with corresponding with the London attorneys who represented Netherfield’s owner whenever the need arose. Uncle Phillips had informed the residents of the area, by way of his wife, whose preferred amusement was the passing on of gossip, that the estate was now owned by a gentleman who, when he was not at his larger estate, was busy in London, and had no time for the more recently inherited Netherfield.
However, when the steward came around after every harvest to collect the rents, his disagreeable attitude prompted a new wave of gossip to circulate. The most popular excuse for the owner’s absence was that the county of Hertfordshire was not good enough for a family of the upper ten thousand to set foot in themselves.
Whether or not the owner of Netherfield Park was truly too snobbish to come to Hertfordshire, Elizabeth could not excuse the man for ignoring his tenants’ needs.
The steward made it plain that the owner refused to reinvest any of the farms’ profits into improving the tenant houses, nor would he release any of the tenants from their leases, though they were eagerly awaiting the expiration of their contracts so that they could move on. All replies to Uncle Phillips’s letters to the London attorneys stated the owner would authorize repairs to be made, but the funds to do so were never made available.
The previous autumn, Elizabeth’s father cleverly visited the Smith’s house the day the steward arrived in the area, and he waited many hours before the disagreeable man came to collect the rent. Mr. Bennet then took the man for a tour of the cottage, pointing out all the repairs that were needed, including a roof which had been patched up so often, there was little of the original left to be seen.
Unfortunately, the steward hired a man to replace the roof who was not experienced in such renovations. His errors led to the roof’s collapse, which was the cause of poor Mrs. Smith’s current state. It was a miracle none of the children were injured, as well.
The other landowners in the parish pooled their resources and repaired the damages, but they rightly expected to be reimbursed. However, all pleas went unheeded. The gentleman had not been heard from since.
Elizabeth could only pray the owner of Netherfield Park would soon pass the property on to the next in line to inherit or sell it to someone who would not dismiss their responsibility, nor the beauty, of this place as easily as the current landlord.
A whiff of sweet honeysuckle pushed all unpleasant thoughts from Elizabeth’s mind. Purposely looking away from her neighbour’s house, she turned in a slow circle, drinking in the landscape of her beloved Hertfordshire.
While on holiday, she would miss these familiar surroundings, but the way her Aunt Madeline boasted of the beauty and grandeur of Derbyshire, where her aunt had spent her youth, Elizabeth greatly anticipated the upcoming journey through that county. Their final destination was the highly praised Lake District. On their return trip, they would stay at the inn at the village near the tenant farm where she grew up, and her sister currently resided with her family.
At the same time, she recollected how sorely she had missed her family during her visit to her friend Charlotte’s new home in Kent last month. She could not help but wonder if she would have similar nostalgic longings during this trip.
Time would tell.
Elizabeth glanced at the position of the sun and sighed in resignation. She should return home to begin packing.
Tomorrow would be quite busy, then the following morning, the Gardiner family would arrive at Longbourn. As soon as the horses were rested, the three adults would be on their way, leaving the Gardiners’ children behind in the Bennet family’s care.
At least the trip to the Lake District promised more amusement than the previous one to Kent.
The following morning, as Mrs. Hill took her bonnet and spencer, the housekeeper gestured towards the table in the entryway. “There’s a letter for you, miss.” Mrs. Hill curtsied and left her.
Elizabeth retrieved the missive.
“Ah, Lizzy.” Her father’s voice came from behind her.
Elizabeth turned. “Papa.” She moved onto her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “I was taking a last look around before my trip.”
“Good, good.” Her father cleared his throat. “But I was thinking, are you certain you would like to travel again so soon and not remain home instead? I have done without your conversation for far too long while you were in Kent, and there is nobody else in the area who plays chess nearly as well as you do.”
“I will miss you as well, Papa, but you know how I like an adventure.”
“You have been so busy with the Smiths, we have not had much time to visit since your return. And yet, you would prefer a daily dose of rocks and trees to your eccentric father’s company, would you?”
“Papa! I would not—” The twinkle in his eye told her he was teasing her. She chuckled. “Think of this trip as a reward for my having to put up with Mr. Collins first here, twice last winter, and then at Hunsford for several weeks in the spring.”
Her father widened his eyes and glanced up the stairs.
Yes, she had spoken too loudly. Any time her mother heard the name “Collins,” she had one of her nervous fits. Last winter, her mother had hoped one of her own daughters would marry their cousin, but in the end, it had been Elizabeth’s good friend Charlotte Lucas who had accepted the clergyman’s proposal.
Her father gestured for her to follow him into his study. Elizabeth took her usual seat before his desk. He closed the door and settled into his chair.
“You have a letter?”
“It is from Charlotte.”
He shook his head. “Ladies’ habits are so different from those of men. Had I just returned from a visit to one of my friends, I would not expect a letter from him for six months, at least. Meanwhile, you have just spent every day of the past eight weeks with Charlotte, and now you receive a letter from her the moment you return home.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “I have been home for a fortnight, Papa.”
“Still, what could Mrs. Collins have to say to you so soon?”
“Now that I have become acquainted with all the people she comes into contact with daily, I am certain there is a great deal more for her to say than ever before. I accompanied her on visits to the parishioners, and she knows I should like to hear how they are.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You made the rounds with her, did you?”
She nodded. “Charlotte is always a pleasant companion.”
“Are you certain you were not also avoiding her husband’s company?”
“I did much rather take a walk about the grounds or go along with Charlotte on her visits than to spend the day with my cousin. After he had finished showing off every aspect of Hunsford Cottage, his favourite subject of conversation alternated between the numerous and excellent virtues of his benefactor, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and a thorough inventory of my own shortcomings.”
Her father’s eyes twinkled with mirth. “May I remind you that he greatly approved of you until you rejected his suit, Lizzy? Even if he was a sensible man, from what you have told me of his patroness, I fear you would have had an unhappy life if I had listened to your mother and made you marry him.”
“Again, I thank you for refusing permission, Papa. I am delighted I am not in Charlotte’s place, even though it does mean she will someday become mistress of Longbourn.”
“Does Mrs. Collins enjoy being at the beck and call of the great Lady Catherine’s attention as does as her husband?”
“Charlotte is a saint, in my opinion. Though I choose to believe Lady Catherine means to be helpful whenever she insists her way is better than everyone else’s, I would not have been able to hold my tongue the way Charlotte does.”
Her father chuckled. “I do not doubt it.”
“Honestly,” Elizabeth continued, “it is my opinion that her ladyship’s interference in others’ lives is her way of amusing herself. Her daughter is too ill for them to often journey into Town, so she has little else to do other than insert herself into the lives of others.” Elizabeth sighed. “As you have surmised, whenever Lady Catherine was present, both Charlotte and Mr. Collins were required to wait upon her.”
“I would like to have seen how meek little Maria Lucas behaved in such a setting.”
“Maria was so frightened of the ostentatious grandeur of Rosings Park — and her ladyship — that she did not open her mouth once during any of our visits. If not for Colonel Fitzwilliam’s presence, I am certain I would not have been able to endure so many calls to the great house.”
“Remind me, my dear, who is Colonel Fitzwilliam? Lady Catherine’s son?”
“Goodness, no! He was such a pleasant gentleman, at times, it was difficult to remember he was related to her at all. The colonel is her ladyship’s nephew — the son of Lady Catherine’s brother, the current Earl of Matlock. The colonel and I were quite happy to entertain each other on several occasions. Apparently, her other nephew was scheduled to visit at Easter as well, but he had some pressing matter come up suddenly and was not to arrive until after I left. I believe his name was Mr. Darcy.”
Her father suddenly sat upright in his chair.
“Are you unwell, Papa?”
“I am well, child; worry not. It is just that Darcy is the name of the man who owns Netherfield. I wonder if he is the same.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “It could be. From what Lady Catherine said of him, I did not feel the least bit deprived by his absence. He sounded as if he were a male version of his aunt and nothing like his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam.”
Her father leaned back in his chair again and steepled his fingers over his middle. “You seem quite taken with Colonel Fitzwilliam, Lizzy. Should I expect him to call upon me?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “We are friendly acquaintances, sir, and that is all. He is a second son.”
“Ah! Second son of an earl… accustomed to the style of living of his father but without the expectations of an inheritance.”
“I believe you are correct. The colonel was careful to mention it — in an off-handed way, of course. I expect he must marry a fortune.”
Her father nodded.
She was sure Lady Catherine learned the size of her dowry from Mr. Collins before she arrived and warned the colonel away from her, but she did not want to say this aloud, especially not to her father.
Her father said, “My ridiculous cousin and his benefactor seem made for one another.”
Elizabeth smiled. “And I expect Charlotte will never be bored. There is always something to occupy her, though I do feel sorry that her husband expects her to follow every single one of Lady Catherine’s edicts, whether or not Charlotte agrees.”
Her mother’s muffled voice could be heard through the door. “Lizzy! Oh, where is that girl?”
Elizabeth started to rise from her chair, but her father put out his hand.
“Stay. Let your mother wait. It is good for her.”
Elizabeth resettled into her chair and blew out a quiet breath. After twenty-three years of marriage, her father should know that her mother’s agitation would double in intensity every minute she was kept waiting, and therefore, making her wait was not beneficial for anyone. It was not the first time she suspected he prevented her from going to her mother on purpose to rile her up.
Mr. Bennet rolled his eyes. “Your mother is awake early this morning.”
“We are going to the modiste in Meryton.”
Elizabeth sighed. “We must retrieve my new travelling gowns.”
“Then you may cheer up, Lizzy. You will not disagree over the amount of lace on your gowns this time, for travelling gowns are notoriously plain.”
Elizabeth smiled. “There is that.”
“And here.” He took some coin from a drawer and handed it to her. “I will give you some extra pin money so you can visit the bookshop whilst in the village. Find something to take along with you to read during your travels.”
“Thank you, Papa.” She rose and made her way around the desk to kiss his cheek.
The clack of heels in the corridor was accompanied by her mother mumbling, “…never to be found when I have need of her! Always wandering about alone — and without a hat. Freckles on my daughter’s nose and cheeks! Such a disgrace …” Her voice trailed off.
Elizabeth guessed her mother must have walked on into the parlour.
“Now, off with you, dear girl.”
Elizabeth widened her eyes. Goodness! Her father would remain safely behind as he sent Elizabeth out to deal with her mother’s wrath alone?
“The sooner you go, the sooner we can spend time together this evening. Perhaps we can complete the chess game we started last night. I would hate to leave the game unfinished for several weeks as you gallivant around the countryside on your tour of the Lakes.”
After completing their business at the dressmaker’s shop in Meryton, Elizabeth, her sister Jane, and their mother made a visit at Lucas Lodge, for Mrs. Bennet simply had to explain every detail of Elizabeth’s new gowns to her friend, Lady Lucas.
As Elizabeth settled into her seat in the Bennet coach for the short drive home, the glare her mother directed at her made her suspect she should have suggested to Jane that they walk the remainder of the way home.
“Elizabeth Rose Bennet, why must you always cause me so much trouble?”
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. What have I done this time?
She looked at Jane, who shrugged her shoulders slightly.
Once again, Elizabeth met her mother’s gaze. “I do not understand to what you refer, Mama.”
“You are resolved that I should be thrown out of my home, destined to live amongst the hedgerows when your father dies.” Her mother frowned and fidgeted with her reticule for a moment before looking up again. “For months now, I have not heard one word from Lady Lucas that did not involve her daughter’s new position as your cousin’s bride. I could not be more familiar with every feature of Mrs. Collins’s new home and every one of her duties as a clergyman’s wife if it were I who visited her recently instead of you. Why did you insist on corroborating every detail she boasted about?”
“I do not understand, Mama. The next time Lady Lucas brings it up, am I to refute her observations? Should I decline to answer?”
“Of course not, child. That would be rude.” She huffed. “But it is all so irritating. I should be the one crowing over my daughter’s new home, not Lady Lucas.”
Elizabeth sat back against the seat and allowed her mind to wander as her mother continued to protest being mistreated. She glanced at Jane, who stared out the window, avoiding both of her companions’ gazes.
The entire family had become quite familiar with these tirades since Elizabeth had refused Mr. Collins’s proposal. Still, there was something more than weariness etched in the lines of Jane’s profile today. There was guilt. Shame. Self-reproach.
Last autumn, there had been a gentleman of some consequence — a Mr. Henn — visiting one of their neighbours. The circumstance had worried Elizabeth. Jane seemed to have little interest in Mr. Henn, at least not in the way she should have if she were to marry for love and not convenience. However, Elizabeth had not been certain Jane would disobey their mother’s order to accept the offer if he proposed.
Soon after Mr. Henn’s interest in Jane was apparent, Mr. Collins arrived, declaring the purpose of his visit was to find a wife amongst his cousins. Of course, Jane’s superior beauty drew his attention first, but Mrs. Bennet made short work of redirecting Mr. Collins’s consideration towards her second eldest, Elizabeth. She had fully expected to marry off two of her five daughters within a short time.
As Elizabeth tried desperately to dissuade Mr. Collins’s attentions, Jane’s would-be suitor became distracted by a lady who suddenly inherited a fortune.
A single day after Elizabeth’s refusal of her cousin’s offer, which was supported wholeheartedly by her father, Charlotte and Lady Lucas came to call, dashing all of Mrs. Bennet’s hopes, and answering Elizabeth’s prayers. Along with announcing Charlotte’s engagement to the inconstant Mr. Collins, they also passed on the news of Mr. Henn’s betrothal to Miss Gibbs.
Mrs. Bennet had never fully recovered from the loss of the two gentlemen she hoped to call sons-in-law in one short, quarter-hour visit, especially when both gentlemen married ladies many considered spinsters instead of marrying her own daughters.
Jane was of such a delicate disposition, she could not have coped with having to hear her mother harp upon the absence of a proposal of marriage from Mr. Henn. Fortunately, as Elizabeth was so accustomed to hearing about her own shortcomings from her mother, the almost constant reproaches barely touched her.
Even though Jane never mentioned it, not even to Elizabeth, whenever their mother grumbled about Elizabeth’s refusing Mr. Collins, Elizabeth could see that it weighed heavily on her sister. Jane seemed to look upon the continuance of her unattached state as a failure as opposed to an escape from a cold, loveless marriage.
Therefore, Elizabeth was relieved that her mother concentrated her ire on her refusal of Mr. Collin’s offer instead of blaming Jane for not catching Mr. Henn. It all worked out in the end.
Elizabeth startled when her mother exclaimed, “Lizzy, pay attention! While you were in Kent, how often did Mr. and Mrs. Collins speak of inheriting Longbourn?”
“They could hardly bring up the subject in front of me, Mama.”
“Well, perhaps not, but I am certain they talk of it constantly whenever you are not there. I have heard from others in the neighbourhood that Lady Lucas has boasted of it several times. It is quite beyond me why you did not wish to take my place as mistress of Longbourn when your father is dead. I am certain the Collinses plan to push us out the door the moment Mr. Bennet is cold in his grave. Where will we go? What will we do? I do not know. If my brother does not take us in, we will starve.”
“Father is quite healthy at the moment.”
“But that can change at any time. I know. It is what happened to my own father. One day, he was healthy as anyone, and the next, the midwife was preparing him for his funeral. My brother took me in, and it was a good thing, too, because when Mr. Bennet came to Town on business, he was invited to stay with his good friend, my brother. That is how we met. It was a constant worry of mine that he might not remain interested during my mourning period, though he did, thank the good Lord. But Edward has no more single gentleman friends from school for you girls.”
Elizabeth struggled not to widen her eyes too much at the thought, for if Uncle Edward did have more unmarried friends from school, they would be closer to her father’s age than her own.
The carriage pulled into Longbourn’s drive. Conversation ceased while the ladies stepped down, entered the house, and allowed the servants to help them from their wraps.
Elizabeth’s father stepped into the hallway, caught her eye, and displayed an exaggerated smile while gesturing towards her mother.
Elizabeth shook her head.
He quickly ducked back into his study.
Elizabeth bit back a smile as she followed her mother and Jane into the parlour, where her younger sisters were all assembled.
Mary was bent over a massive tome, her lips moving as she read. Kitty and Lydia were at a small table, remaking a pair of bonnets.
“Good morning, Lydia, Kitty,” their mother greeted them. “Mary, sit up straight.”
Mary did as she was told without looking up from her book. Jane snatched up her embroidery and settled herself on the settee near the window, going to work on it immediately.
Lydia shot up from her chair. “Mama, why did you not wait for me to awaken before going into Meryton? I wanted to get some new ribbon for my bonnet.”
Mrs. Bennet smiled widely and produced a packet from her reticule. “Here you are, dearest. I believe it is the exact shade you were looking for.”
Lydia tore open the paper. Her expression fell. “It is too dark.” She squinted her eyes and tilted her head. “But I suppose I can make use of it.”
“What about me?” whined Kitty. “I need ribbon, too.”
“Oh, you can make do from the scrap box, Kitty.” Their mother waved her hand as if shooing away a pesky insect.
Elizabeth felt a pang of pity for Kitty.
Mary finally looked up from her book. “One should be thankful for what one has instead of always wishing for more. Envy soils the soul.”
Kitty stuck her tongue out behind Mary’s back. Jane caught Kitty’s eye and shook her head, scolding.
Their mother took her usual seat, where she could survey the entire room and lifted a fashion magazine from a table.
Elizabeth sighed and picked up her own embroidery. She took a seat near Jane.
Why did their mother do nothing to correct their behaviour? Was she so blind?
The downstairs maid, Sally, scurried into the room, taking directions from Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth caught Sally’s eye and smiled as she left the room. Their mother never took into account that servants are people who have feelings.
Mrs. Bennet lowered her book to her lap. “And another thing, Lizzy.”
Elizabeth took in a deep breath and looked up from her embroidery.
“Make good use of this trip with your aunt and uncle,” her mother continued. “Befriend any young lady you meet, for you never know who might be of use to your family. Inquire discreetly about her relations. If you find a lady who has a rich, single brother, ask her to come to stay with us for a few weeks. When her visit is at an end, her brother will surely come to collect her, and I am certain he will fall in love with Jane instantly. For whom could not love Jane?”
The matron smiled brightly at Jane, then met Elizabeth’s gaze with a frown once more. “Oh, you must do as I say, Lizzy. Do not disobey me again.”
Elizabeth stiffened and blinked several times. Even the idea of what her mother suggested filled her with distaste. The chances were low that she would even meet a young lady to befriend during her travels, let alone one with a single, wealthy brother.
Tension drained from the muscles in her shoulders.
If she did not argue now, life would progress much more smoothly for her father, Jane, and her other sisters while she was gone.
She nodded her head once to acknowledge hearing her mother’s wishes, at least.
“What do you think of Mama’s edict that I should find a new friend during my travels — one who has rich, unmarried, male relations?”
Elizabeth tried to remain still as she watched Jane’s expression in the mirror as she worked. Her sister was much more patient than was Elizabeth, so when Jane offered to braid her hair, Elizabeth agreed. Besides, it was nice to spend some time with her best friend before her trip.
“She means well, Lizzy.” Jane’s experienced fingers continued to tame Elizabeth’s unruly, waist-long locks.
As usual, when seeing them both side-by-side in the reflection, Elizabeth marvelled at how different their colouring was. Her own green eyes and dark brown hair were almost opposite to Jane’s pin-straight blonde hair and light-blue eyes. When meeting the Bennets for the first time, many did not even take them for sisters.
“If I do meet a young lady along the way, shall I ask how many brothers she has and refuse to speak with her again if she has none? And what if she has younger brothers? Or if they are not even as well off as Papa? Shall I turn up my nose at her?”
Jane giggled. A few moments later, she raised her eyebrows. “I had a dream last night.”
“Oh? Do tell?”
Even in the low light of the candle, in the mirror, Elizabeth could see her sister’s blush.
“In the dream, I met a man with golden hair, lighter in colour even than my own. He was all that was amiable and the most handsome man I had ever seen. He was everything a gentleman should be. And I – I thought perhaps he cared for me.”
“If he had any intelligence at all, he would. You are the sweetest lady who has ever lived, Jane, and the most beautiful in all of England. If you showed even the slightest bit of encouragement, I am sure he would fall madly in love with you in an instant.”
Jane’s blush deepened. “Should I, Lizzy?”
Elizabeth raised both eyebrows. “Should you what, dear?”
Jane bit her bottom lip. “Encourage a gentleman’s attention before I am certain whether I am interested in him?”
Elizabeth pondered the question for a few moments before answering. “Charlotte has said she learned from observing others’ behaviour that a lady must indicate her interest in a gentleman as soon as can be, for a man will never feel confident in his perception of her feelings unless she is rather obvious. She also told me that doing so moves him from like to love almost instantly, and from love to an offer of marriage soon after.” Elizabeth paused. “I always thought her theory was ridiculous. In my opinion, a lady should first get to know him better to ascertain whether she really likes the gentleman before putting herself forward, for everyone is on their best behaviour when they first meet. But since Charlotte is the only one of us who is married, mayhap she was correct after all.”
Elizabeth laughed, but it faded quickly when she noticed Jane barely smiled. Had she upset her sister?
The plait finished, Elizabeth held the end as Jane tied a ribbon around it.
Jane said, “I would not wish to be labelled a flirt. But…”
“Do what makes you comfortable, Jane. Remember, Charlotte has always felt differently than we — for years, she has believed that happiness in marriage depends upon chance. Her conviction that a lady should consider only the degree of expected comfort and protection she would gain when she married and not take into account affection, proves she was never a romantic, as are you and I.” Elizabeth turned to face her sister.
Jane moved towards the bed and wrapped an arm around the bedpost, hugging it to her side. “But Lizzy, what if—” She inhaled a trembling breath. “Would you hate me if I told you I was beginning to think that Charlotte’s view of marriage might be better than ours? It is certainly more practical than waiting for a love match.”
Elizabeth stared at her sister for a moment. “What do you mean? We have both always sworn we would marry only for the greatest mutual affection.”
“Up until recently, I wished to marry a man I loved and who loved me — one I respected above all others — but now, I am beginning to think more realistically.”
Elizabeth’s chest tightened. She opened her mouth to speak, but Jane began again.
“As soon as Charlotte and Miss Gibbs were married, our neighbours began to stare at me as they whispered to each other. It led me to consider…” Jane furrowed her brow. “Part of my mind has decided that if any man offers for me, I must accept.”
“Really, Jane! You can do so much better than to settle.”
Jane looked at her directly in the eyes. “Lizzy, I am approaching three and twenty. The women of the neighbourhood are saying that I will soon be a spinster, if they have not already labelled me as such. No man has ever proposed to me — not even one. There is no guarantee that anyone ever will. Has it never occurred to you that gentlemen might have been persuaded against asking one of my sisters to marry them because I — the eldest — have no prospects?” Jane took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I think that is why Mama insisted all her daughters should be out at the same time. She was the younger daughter, after all, and was forced to wait until our Aunt Phillips married before she even debuted into society.”
Elizabeth was speechless. It was true, she had never thought of any of this, but Jane could not give up her dream of marrying for love!
“At times, I am confused.” Jane walked to the window and looked up at the stars for several moments before turning back. “And yet, at other times, part of my mind is relieved that Mr. Henn was interested in me when Mr. Collins came to visit last year and also that Mr. Henn’s attentions ended in nothing. After seeing how Papa stood behind your refusal of Mr. Collins, I know he wishes for all of his daughters to be happy in marriage instead of marrying for convenience. If someone I did not like was to ask me now, I would feel more comfortable refusing him, even if it meant I might never marry.”
Elizabeth let out a breath she had unconsciously been holding. She rose and embraced Jane. “I am so happy to hear at least part of your mind is sensible. Promise me you will listen to that second portion, dear. You deserve love.”
Jane pulled away and met Elizabeth’s gaze. “We both do.”
“Jane, I know it is not proper to ask this question, but I must…. if Mr. Collins had asked you to marry him instead of asking me, would you have accepted?”
Jane looked away. “In all honesty, I might have, though only after a great deal of soul searching.”
“Dearest, your happiness is important.”
“As is yours, Lizzy; therefore, I want to make certain you know that, even if I have to listen to Mama speak of it until her dying breath, I am glad you refused Mr. Collins. I know how miserable you would have been married to a man you could not respect.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I would much rather be a spinster aunt to all my sisters’ children than marry a man I did not love with my whole heart, forever.”
~ Wednesday, 17 July 1811
The next morning, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner arrived with their three children. Kitty and Lydia took the youngsters into the garden whilst the parents headed inside with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Jane, Mary, and Elizabeth. After luncheon, Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle piled into the coach and began their four-day journey northward.
On Saturday, the third morning of their trip, as Elizabeth and the Gardiners broke their fast, the coachman came into the dining room. “This express came for ye, Mr. Gardiner.”
With great emotion, Mrs. Gardiner asked, “Is it from Longbourn, Edward? Did something happen to one of the children?”
Uncle Edward turned the missive over and shook his head. “It originates from Derbyshire, dear. It seems it was sent to our home in London and then on to Longbourn. Thomas must have anticipated our travelling schedule and forwarded it here.”
Aunt Madeline’s shoulders relaxed slightly, but her attention was wholly focused on the letter. “Derbyshire? From my sister, then?”
Uncle Edward passed off some coin to the coachman to pay the express rider and then broke the seal. “It is from your sister’s husband. It seems your sister and her two eldest boys have fallen ill. The doctor’s prognosis is good, but only if they remain abed.”
He lifted his wife’s hand in one of his and gave it a squeeze. “However, your sister is only becoming weaker because she is caring for the family at the expense of her own health. Their sons also keep trying to get out of bed to go to work, even though they can barely stand. Our brother-in-law begs for your assistance with the household and the children and for my help with the farm.”
Uncle Edward raised his eyebrows. “It has been many years since I have done any farming, but I am sure it will come back to me once we are there.”
He turned to Elizabeth. “I am sorry to disrupt your holiday, my dear. If we were closer to Longbourn, we could turn around and return you there before continuing to Lambton, but as it is…”
“Do not fret, Uncle,” said Elizabeth. “I shall be happy to come with you. I will assist Aunt Madeline with the housework, and I am quite good at caring for the sick.”
“I will not risk your becoming unwell, Lizzy,” her uncle said. “I will send a note to your father detailing our change in plans and promising that you will not be exposed to this illness.”
Her aunt said, “This will not be what you are used to, dear. While it is a large, lovely farmhouse, it is still a tenant farm, not a gentleman’s manor house. I am unsure of the sleeping arrangements, but since I lived in that house all of my youth, I believe you and I may have to share a room. Edward will have to sleep with the youngest boy.” She looked at him with an expression of apology. “My maid might be able to help us both dress, but she will also be needed to assist with the housework. For all else, you will have to tend to yourself. Of course, nothing further will be expected of you. My nieces and I will be responsible for the cooking.”
“I can be of some use, can I not? If I am called upon to help in the kitchen, I promise never to breathe a word of it at home.” She winked at her aunt. “In fact, I became quite good at making pies whilst visiting my friend Charlotte in Kent. Once, I even helped her dress a roast.”
“Your assistance with the children would certainly be welcome,” her aunt said with an air of relief. “The surrounding area is quite beautiful if you care to explore it on foot. If my family recovers quickly enough, we may still be able to travel a little and see some sights.”
“Then it is settled,” said her uncle. “I believe from here we can retrace our course and arrive at the farmhouse in a matter of hours.”
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy knocked on the door to his sister’s bedchamber. He paused. The only sound he could make out through the door was his sister’s sobs.
His heart squeezed painfully.
He knocked harder. The sobbing ceased.
“Georgiana? Please let me in.”
He pressed his ear against the cold wood of the door. The rustling of skirts gave way to banging sounds, which raised his anxiety to the point of panic.
He had posted a footman outside her windows; thus, he knew she could not be trying to escape again — trying to distance herself from him, imagining that he was better off without her in his life. And certainly, no one could have gotten past his staff and into her rooms to harm her.
The banging started up again. What on earth was going on in there?
Darcy pulled a set of keys from his pocket. With trembling hands, he fumbled through them, searching for the one that would open this door. He should have listened to his cousin Richard and put it on a separate ring so it would be more readily available. Or perhaps he should have removed the lock completely.
Before he could find the correct one, the door swung open.
He breathed a sigh of relief. Georgiana was safe!
He took a step forward, placing his foot where it would be in the way if she chose to slam the door, as she had done four days ago, which was the last time he had seen her.
As she backed away out of the shadows near the door, his eyes widened.
The maids reported she had not shown an interest in much of anything since they left Ramsgate two weeks ago, but he had not expected to find her in such a state as this.
Georgiana might be safe, but she was not at all well.
Her cheeks were marred with red patches. A bird’s nest of knotted blonde hair was plastered to her head. She had always been a bit too thin for her frame, but now, her gown hung almost as loose as if she were a child trying on her mother’s dress.
Georgiana looked up. Her eyes were swollen and ringed with crimson. Her mouth was chapped, her lips cracked.
Good Lord! He never should have indulged her wish for privacy.
“Georgie,” he breathed.
“Do not call me that,” she whispered.
“What?” he croaked past a throat tight with emotion.
“It is what he called me,” she answered with a trembling voice.
Darcy reached out to touch her shoulder, but she moved away, out of his reach.
Did she still blame him for surprising her at Ramsgate and chasing George Wickham away from her? For preventing her from ruining her life by eloping with the cur?
During their discussion following her attempt to climb down from her balcony several days ago, Darcy thought she had understood why he had done it. She told him she listened to his interview with Wickham. She heard Wickham admit that he never loved Georgiana… that he only wanted to marry her to gain control over her thirty-thousand-pound dowry.
What changed since then?
Darcy cleared his throat and took in a deep breath in an attempt to remain calm. “May I call you Georgiana?”
“No!” she cried. “Nothing that reminds me of George Wickham.”
She backed away further. At least she had not tried to lock him out again.
“Ana,” she whispered. “I shall only answer to Ana from now on.”
Had Wickham tainted every aspect of his innocent little sister’s life?
Darcy should have challenged the scoundrel to a duel and struck him dead.
When Georgiana left school, he should have found a companion for his sister himself and not trusted his aunt to do it for him.
He should have refrained from paying off Wickham’s debts through the years and allowed him to go to debtor’s prison long before he harmed his sister.
And he should have allowed his father to see Wickham’s true character instead of protecting the elder Darcy from the pain of knowing his godchild was, in truth, a reprobate.
Darcy blinked, trying to clear the red of his rage from his vision.
But would his father have believed it of Wickham, his favourite? Or would the elder Darcy have thought his son was jealous of the attention he paid his steward’s boy? Would it have been for naught?
If he had done these things, would none of this be happening now?
If his sister had known what Wickham was, would she have been safe from his charms?
Darcy cast off these thoughts. There was no sense in dwelling on what he could never know. Living in the past would help no one. He could only control what would happen from this day forward.
“What can I do to ease your pain, Ana?”
The name almost choked him. Would calling her “Ana” remind him of his failures as her guardian for the remainder of his life?
“Nothing will ever ease my pain,” she murmured.
Snippets of memories of his sister the way she was before the events of this past summer flooded his mind.
Perhaps he was going about this in the wrong way? Stubbornly putting one’s all into rising above a challenge was a trait all their Fitzwilliam relations shared, including Georgiana. And himself.
He would find a way to help her.
“Ana,” he pronounced carefully, “if you give up, Wickham wins.”
She straightened her neck, almost imperceptibly. Her eyebrow twitched.
Excitement bubbled in his chest. Had he hit upon the correct theme? “I am certain he still has spies in the area — those who remain loyal to him instead of to the Darcys, whether their reasons are naively innocent or they perceive they have been wronged by our family in the past, as does Wickham. If you spend your days in your rooms, pining over what you thought he was instead of facing the truth of who he is, Wickham will know of it.”
Darcy’s stomach churned. A minute passed as she stared at the carpet with a blank expression.
“If you surrender to despair, he succeeds in exacting his misguided revenge upon our family, even if he does not have the prize of your dowry in his pocket.”
Two minutes more. Three.
Just as he opened his mouth to speak again, she said, “I would like to play the pianoforte.”
He nodded. It was a start. “Shall I send word to the kitchens to prepare water for a bath, then?”
One slender hand made its way to her hair. A hint of a blush tinted her cheeks. “Yes, please.”
“And perhaps a light meal?”
He walked over to her dressing room and knocked. Georgiana’s personal maid peeked around the door.
“Miss Darcy would like some broth and toast, Marie. And have a bath drawn for her.”
Relief settled over Marie’s features. “Yes, Mr. Darcy.” She curtsied and closed the door.
Georgiana peered up at him, looking more like a frightened deer than a girl of fifteen. “What can I do to make you forgive me, Fitzwilliam?”
“Dearest, you must understand there is nothing to forgive. You were deceived by a master — one who fooled even our father while he was alive. The only thing I ask is that you learn to forgive yourself.” Darcy kissed his sister on the forehead. “I love you, Dove.”
Her lower lip quivered. “You do?”
His heart ached at the surprise in her voice.
“Absolutely.” He pulled her into a brotherly embrace and pressed his lips to her knotted hair. “No matter what happens, I will always love you.”
There was a tremble in her sigh. “Thank you.”
“For saving me.” She pulled away and looked up at him. “Again.”
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