Part VI -- The Swing Goes Up And Down!
The garden at Longbourn and the adjoining grounds within its stone walls were of moderate size. As Lady Catherine De Bourgh did once, so condescendingly, put it. You have a very small park here.
She was right, for a park it was indeed not vast. However it was big enough for walking purposes and the shrubbery even offered a certain amount of privacy. It was also rather pleasing to the eye even at this time of year. Many evergreens brightened the colour impression and amongst the large variety of seed capsules deliberately left in some of the flowerbeds to embellish the November garden, were, as Elizabeth pointed out to Darcy, several of exquisite form and shade.
While they always preferred the extended tours in the vicinity of Meryton or Longbourn, even these two lovers of open-air life were sometimes forced to restrict their exercise to this more sheltered area. Mostly due to harsh weather, but on this day, the weather actually being surprisingly mild for the season, they had been told by Mrs. Bennet that the time available before dinner would allow for nothing but a garden tour. Elizabeth had ogled at her fiancé, to see how he would react to being thus summoned, but he bore it well and even smiled when he informed Mrs. Bennet, that they were probably to remain within earshot from the house. This gracious behaviour was commented upon as soon as they were outdoors and on their own.
"I am utterly amazed by your tolerance Mr. Darcy. Mama can be really vexing and I did not think you would be inclined to suffer her ordering you about with this equanimity."
"In such cases as this it is of little consequence, is it not? Besides, a mother is entitled to some authority regarding her children and I suppose it is only fair for me to comply with her wishes, if I insist on the company of her daughter. As a nephew of Lady Catherine's I have endured worse."
He saw to it that their arms were linked. His hand tarried upon hers and the shadow of an almost mischievous grin passed on his face.
"All things considered, there is good reason for her strictness. We have been, from time to time, known to return somewhat belated from our walks.'
Elizabeth blushed to think what the cause for their delays had been. Darcy's face softened as he watched her and warmly assured her.
"I am willing to bear with a good deal of snubbing for the pleasure of walking with you and even to stand the scorn for being late, quite frequently."
She returned his smile and even initially his gaze, but had to lower her eyes, when she was about to lose her breath because of its duration and bothering temperature. She took to observing her shoes closely, hoping that her respiration would soon resume a more regular pace. Referring to the previous topic, she then tried to avoid the incomprehensible message, he seemed to be sending her, by an exclamation.
"I could more easily suffer a motherly superiority, if the requests were sensible and aiming at the improvement of her daughters."
A reluctance to allow for his gallantry to come to an end was apparent, as he selected from her statement the words best suited for his purpose.
"It is very much to be doubted, that anything could possibly be administered by Mrs. Bennet, or indeed by anyone to improve your mind, Elizabeth. To me you are already as close to perfection as can be expected from any mortal being."
She could no longer feign indifference, but was irresistibly challenged by the deep sound of his voice and the affectionate overstatement.
"Come now Mr. Darcy. It will not do to expose me to such flattery. What would become of me, if I were to take your words at face value and walk about with my nose in the air. You might very likely find me insufferable in the end."
Her amusement at this thought was betrayed by the ironical glint in her eye. He gave a subdued laugh and turned to face her.
"I think not. I could not be so blind. Your nose would be just as adorable ...."
His fingertips teasingly pinched the object of his admiration and when a short sound of surprise was heard, his hands took hold of her upper arms. His next words were spoken with an increasing fervour.
"Never before was there a nose to please me more."
The smile in his eyes gave way to gravity, when she hooked her finger to a buttonhole on his great coat while addressing his cravat.
"And I am quite content with the shape of yours, sir. I would not have it otherwise."
His lips were momentarily grazing the tip of her nose and he ran his hands slowly along her arms to press her hands firmly before he let go of them.
After several minutes of strolling silently in happy contemplation, the continuation of their walk offered an opportunity for Elizabeth to give vent to a concern of hers.
Although the outcome of her ill-guarded and unwise behaviour must be considered far less disastrous, than would have been the case without the far-reaching exertions and generosity of Mr. Darcy, the fate of Lydia had not ceased to trouble her sister.
Mrs. Lydia Wickham was in the haven of matrimony, brought there by the joint efforts of a gentleman of whose involvement she knew hardly nothing and her aunt and uncle, towards whom she did not even have the sense to feel grateful. Much less did she express the appropriate gratitude, despite the fact that she should have been able to realise at least their kindness to her and that they had been through a good deal of trouble on her behalf.
Yet, Lydia was safe, however unstable the prospects of her marital happiness might be, the indisputable circumstance being that Mr. Wickham was not a husband to be depended upon. At present, Elizabeth was more concerned about the future of those two younger sisters of hers, who were still to remain at home.
She had been confiding some of her anxiety to Darcy earlier. As the weeks passed, she found his support increasingly valuable to her and began to fully appreciate the significance of having a partner in life, to whom one is always able to turn for advice and consolation.
"I would like to know how to make Kitty realise that life does not consist merely of balls and officers. That clothes might be put to use other places than ballrooms and that she should rack her brain over other things, than who spoke to whom and who danced every dance. She has got more sense, if she would only use her head. It would be hurtful for me to think of her wasting her life in idle diversion. Now ...with Mary it is quite another matter. She is not idle, but she lacks in judgment; she has no proper guidance. If my father would only ...."
Thus they were talking of her sisters, mainly Kitty -- and Lydia. The deficiencies in their upbringing and their indulgence in pleasures .... How they had been too frequently left to enjoy themselves and never really instructed to study books or practice the pianoforte. Elizabeth sighed to think that even their needlework was often started and not finished off.
"My dear, do not distress yourself. The primary responsibility is after all resting with your parents. I am sure you have done what can be expected from you. You have been attending to your own improvement And to such great effect ...."
Her hand was on his arm and he placed his free hand over it comfortingly, seeking her eyes as he spoke his concluding gallantry.
"I thank you sir, you are very kind. But I would like to know that I had somehow helped her avoid following in Lydia's footsteps. They were both too young to be left to their own pursuits. Far too unguarded ..., and we know only too well what that brought about.
"I must say though, that now Lydia is no longer exercising her influence on Catherine, I have hopes that she will improve. If my father has realised what his influence might be worth, she would soon benefit from the consequences of his concerning himself on a daily basis. Even Mary would benefit from his sound guidance.
"It is not always easy to be one among five sisters you know. If you are not the oldest and most handsome or the youngest and your mother's darling or your father's favourite .... I fear Mary and Kitty have been sort of left in the middle to find their own way."
Darcy had listened to her most attentively - but for an occasional stray thought on alluring eyelashes or kissable birthmarks. He was able to sympathise with her worries, for he had given similar matters many hours of thought. His own guardianship for his sister had been a constant matter of reflection from the day his father died; and even more so after the pungent lesson at Ramsgate.
"I gathered from something Mr. Gardiner once said, that the full attention of your father was not available to your younger sisters. That the interest and solicitude devoted to his two eldest daughters was diminishing after Miss Mary Bennet was born ...."
Elizabeth was surprised indeed.
"Have you been discussing the upbringing of my sisters and myself with my uncle Gardiner?"
"Discussing ...that is going too far. I remember his mentioning something to that effect."
Perceiving that her expression was turning into one of agitation, he felt uncertain about how to proceed.
"I can not believe what I hear. Why was this subject ever raised, if I may inquire. Were you trying to obtain a second opinion on my accomplishments?"
"Elizabeth, I implore you. No such thing was necessary. You should be aware of that. You know how hopelessly infatuated I was with you almost from the first moment. That my increasing love for you had overcome every obstacle I had placed in its way and made me wish to spend my life in your company after only a few months of acquaintance. When I met with your uncle, I had long since formed my own opinion, although it is true that I had initially been somewhat reluctant to acknowledge the facts. What did I care about other people's opinion of you, my dearest. No, I believe this was when I was, ... pardon my bringing this matter up, trying to assist Mr. Gardiner while he was restoring the reputation of Miss Lydia Bennet."
But Miss Elizabeth Bennet was allowing her initial anger to obscure her judgment and herself to be carried away by some, partly unconscious, uneasiness, remaining from what had been his opinion of her by the time of their meeting in Kent. Although she heard him talk, she was too indignant to listen properly.
"I suppose you wished to be certain that you were getting your money's worth in return for the deplorable pollution that would stain your name, if you were ever to yield to your inexplicable attraction for me? And I understand that my uncle, eager to facilitate the elevation of his niece, was acting like a man to his comrades. Advertising my advantages. Oh, the mere thought of it.'
Darcy winced at some of her expressions, but began to realise that the injury he had inflicted upon her self-esteem during the first seven months of their acquaintance, was not yet altogether healed. Despite all his effusions of love and admiration, she did not understand the extent of his devotion. Inwardly cursing his failing to foresee this, he was most eager to explain and beg her forgiveness.
"I most sincerely regret, that I have thus upset you, Elizabeth. You can not seriously believe, that I had any intention of insulting you. Those were times of great distress, and your uncle and I spent many hours together. He meant no disrespect; if your name was ever mentioned it was in the context that Jane and yourself are so vastly superior to your younger sisters.
"I know, I found this hard to understand and I might have expressed my thoughts to him. How a sister of yours could have behaved with such lack of regard for propriety. I suppose I told him that the sensible and well-mannered conduct of the two oldest Miss Bennets had drawn my attention on my first visit to Hertfordshire. Please, be not alarmed. You should know better, than to believe me capable of such detestable misbehaviour. I assure you, that I spoke very little of you, never once alluding to my attachment.
"If you do not believe this to be the absolute truth, you must ask your aunt. If I am not very much mistaken, she was, rather cleverly, in her conversation providing me with a few opportunities to talk of you. It was very tempting, but I never once succumbed. You know I did not wish for you to connect my interference in that unfortunate affair to the possible -- and much hoped for -- consequences of my feelings for you. I was afraid that some sense of gratitude would induce you to ...accept me without loving me. I so dreaded that possibility, Elizabeth. Please believe me."
This eloquent speech of defence and the time afforded by its duration provided Elizabeth with an opportunity of reconsidering. She knew Darcy always spoke the truth, and on closer reflection thought the exchange between her uncle and their rescuer perfectly reasonable. When she had somewhat regained her calm, she noticed that his face looked extremely unhappy and his recent expressions of remorse reached her mind.
"There! I have done it again! Did I not warn you that I have this propensity to speak before reflecting! You must forgive my unrestrained outburst. I am not even sure what made me so angry. Perhaps the thought that as strongly as your aunt advised you against an alliance, my own uncle had advised you to venture it. It made me feel ...somehow, like ...a piece of merchandise ...."
Her voice was getting lower as she spoke and with the last sentence it cracked. Darcy was beside himself to see her distressed. He took her hands and bringing them to his chest pulled her closer to him. He looked her straight in the face and pleaded with her for reliance. He was very serious.
"No no, it is I who shall ask your forgiveness. It is painful to understand that by my own behaviour I have occasioned a breach in the trust you are entitled to have in me, your future husband. It must be ..., it shall be mended, I so wish for you to trust me, Elizabeth!
"Have I not made you realise how I respect you? In what high esteem I hold you. A piece of ...no, I will not say it. How could you even think that I ...? I have often been regarded as such myself. You may rest assured, I know how that feels. What it is like being fair game to the husband-hunters in town. I always loathed it and many years ago, I made myself a promise that I would never marry any woman, unless I was able to love and respect her.
"And when I did find her, find you, I was at first very confused. You are well acquainted with the particulars. I was certainly not worthy of your love. But I hope I am now. I am aware that I have been blessed by Providence. Every day I wonder at my fortune. To have been accepted by you, Elizabeth. You are more important to me than you can imagine. I would never let any harm come to you. There must be no reason for you to fear that I want anything, but what is in your best interest."
She had been silently listening to him and when he was finished, she just whispered, 'I do trust you, Fitzwilliam' and stepped closer to rest her head confidently against his chest.
Nobody noticed the couple that stood immovable for several minutes in the shrubbery at Longbourn. They parted with a most tender smile and quietly resumed their strolling along the path. When they neared the old swing, Elizabeth broke the silence reflecting that it had not been there when Jane and herself were little girls.
"It was obtained later to make a pleasant surprise for Mary and Kitty, though I do believe Lydia is the one who has been enjoying it the most, putting it to use whenever there has been an officer or other visitor present to assist her."
"Am I to understand, that you have not tried it lately Elizabeth? I remember Georgiana being highly amused whenever I gave her a swing ..."
He looked at her with a twinkle in his eye.
"Well Miss Bennet, I think you ought to try this idle amusement, now you have an experienced 'pusher' at your service."
He indicated, that they should choose the path leading to the huge oak tree from whose robust branch the swing was hanging. She smiled at him and agreed, that it had been too long since she last had that pleasure. They walked towards the tree and some places the dry brown foliage was hanging down, making a rustling sound against Darcy's head. He removed his hat and was still forced to bend down to be able to advance. Elizabeth smiled as his tall figure made its way with some difficulty under the withered leaves.
"It might be considered inconvenient, but I always thought it is rather nice in that it lends this place some privacy.'
"That does indeed make up for some inconvenience."
Darcy was getting rid of his hat, placing it on a stone bench nearby. He mumbled his reply and stationed himself behind the swing to hold it steady by the ropes, while Elizabeth took place on its wooden seat.
"Are you ready for a flight then?"
When she gave a nod of assent, he pulled her slightly backwards and let go.
It had indeed been a long time since Elizabeth last tried this diversion, probably more than a year and she had almost forgotten the giddy feeling that originated in her belly as she gained speed by bending backwards and stretching her feet in front of her, when the swing was at its hindmost position ...and bending slightly forwards with her legs folded under the seat when at the other extreme.
Her ability to manage on her own forced Darcy to back off in order to avoid being hit. He took his stand comfortably leaning against the stem of the oak, arms folded over his chest while he watched her with amused admiration. Her cheeks turned pink from the effort and the curls surrounding her face flowed in the breeze.
The violence of her swinging soon made him worry and he felt called upon to caution her.
"That is more than enough Elizabeth, please beware, you might fall off !"
She laughed out, but when he became more insistent, asking her to please just be still, she glanced towards him and thoroughly enjoyed the sight. The wind messed with his hair lending him a boyish appearance, but his face was slightly worried and persuaded her to listen to him and so the swing's speed was gradually slowing down. Darcy moved to regain his former position behind her, this time placing his hands round her waist. He began to push her forward, most cautiously.
"Now please allow me to show you how this is done by less courageous ladies. This is how Miss Darcy prefers it."
Elizabeth was about to complain of the moderate speed, since she missed the initial feeling that almost made her lose her breath. However she became aware of another sensation in the pit of her stomach from the warmth of those hands, that were regularly holding her waist for a brief moment and then pushing her away again. She found that she was now less interested in the swing-ride, but increasingly eager for it to bring her back to those gentle hands.
Her eyes were looking up through the intricate pattern formed by the black branches and brown leaves against the grey clouds. The beauty of nature, the joyous sense of freedom from the flying movements and the pleasure of his presence, everything conspired to overwhelm her. She could no more hinder a short happy laughter from escaping her lips, than he could prevent its delightful effect on him.
Either from leaning her head back to look up into the sky or from another cause, she was all of a sudden curiously dizzy. Therefore she asked Darcy to stop the swing, which he did at once by seizing the ropes and forcing it to a halt. She could sense him behind her and since her head was still spinning permitted herself to lean slightly backwards for support.
Darcy found that his arms were almost embracing her. He drew breath and cautiously placed one hand around the wrist of her right hand which was still holding on to the rope.
"Was that too fast for you, Miss Bennet?'
His voice near her ear was low and his thumb was slowly caressing the slip of bare skin on her arm visible between the spencer and her glove. It was just a tiny repeated stroke, but enough to enthrall her completely.
"No I ..., that is I thought ...."
She unconsciously heaved a sigh and turned in the swing to look at him, very carefully maintaining that hold of her right hand. His face was close, but she did not know what to make of the expression on it, it was at the same time tender and distant, as if his thoughts were focused somewhere else? She tried not to look at his lips, for she was so easily tempted to kiss them and she had not forgotten what had happened the last time she did ...Collecting her thoughts, she persuaded herself severely, that kisses were not to be considered. Instead his absentminded countenance gave rise to an attempt at teasing him. There was no indication that he had even heard her.
"Mr. Darcy, where are you and whatever can it be, that so completely makes you forget your present company ..."
But she was interrupted by his gaze; as soon as he heard her pronounce his name, his attention was on her and his eyes were looking into hers with such intense warmth and sincerity as to render her silent and feeble.
Darcy had been contemplating the wonder of his love for her, the immense joy she brought him by her mere existence. He knew he could never love any other woman now. Her effect on him was like a physical tie, half pleasant, half painful, that bound him to respond to every tiny movement of her hand, every curl of her lips and every flicker of her lashes.
"I am in your company, very much so as a matter of fact ..., but there are moments when I look ahead. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that we are so soon to be married. That you are to be my wife, dearest Elizabeth, and that I shall be so fortunate as to travel with you to our London House and then ... to Pemberley. That we shall not be separated any more ....
"It is the fulfillment of such hopes and dreams, that have been on my mind since ...I know not when, ...the vain wishes never left me completely, even after you had refused me, though they were undoubtedly revived after we met in Derbyshire. But even this day I cannot fully conceive my happiness.'
On listening to him her face grew soft, she blinked her eyes to get rid of the tears that were about to blur her sight. She got up from the swing and moved to almost timidly put her arms round his neck.
"I know, Fitzwilliam,' she whispered. 'I know. I have been tormented by such thoughts too! I wake up in the night and I am not sure whether I am still in the misery I was after you left me in Lambton; when I thought I would never see you again. So I fear this is all a dream and that after Jane's wedding you'll be leaving Hertfordshire without me ... ."
Protectively he had put his arms round her and so anxious was he to relieve her suffering, to reassure and comfort her, that he did not care, whether they were within sight of the house or not, as he bent his head to tenderly kiss those tears away from her eyes and cheeks, whispering between each kiss.
"Leave you ...my most beloved ...never ...never ...never."
Part VII--Memories & Flames
Author's Note: This chapter somehow reminds me of the time Pooh and Piglet were walking in the snow and were terrified to behold that they were followed by an increasing number of mysterious footprints ...No less now when Eyoore has mad a short appearance as well! Waving his cracked balloon at you ...
One day, about six weeks after Miss Jane Bennet had been engaged to Mr. Charles Bingley and consequently, when a period of time some ten days shorter had passed since her sister Elizabeth had accepted Mr. Darcy from Derbyshire, a carriage could be seen waiting outside the main house of their father's estate, Longbourn. The equipage belonged to Mr. Bingley and the two gentlemen had arrived in it to collect their fiancées and their future mother-in-law.
This meddlesome lady was very pleased at the prospect and was repeatedly throwing glances out her window to admire the shining pair of bay horses. They were to transport her most impressively to the future home of her eldest daughter. The impending visit was the result of her decision to place her vast experience as mistress of a gentleman's house at her daughter's disposal. More than once she pointed out to Jane, that a visit of some duration would be required, if she were to overhaul the entire house.
"My dearest Jane, you are always so mild and complaisant, so pleased with everything. You certainly lack the experience and the eye of a trained housewife. I really need a good deal of time to establish what changes would be necessary. Such scrupulous attention was never possible when I visited Netherfield as a common guest.'
She spoke thus and was most persistent in convincing her daughter, that unless this was arranged, it would be very hard for her to give advice. There would be no way of telling what alterations should be made for Jane's immediate comfort, when she moved to live there after her marriage. Or what hardships she would suffer if the assistance of Mrs. Bennet was not resorted to.
Jane had never thought of any obvious deficiencies in the equipment of the house, since Mr. Bingley had been staying there for a couple of months and even brought his pretentious sisters at an earlier occasion.
Apart from that, she felt an increasing regard for and trust in Mrs. Nichols, who had already been the housekeeper at Netherfield for several years when Mr. Bingley rented the estate. She could indeed be relied upon to know the particulars of the house and staff.
So far, Jane got along quite well with her. The day Mr. Bingley had introduced Mrs. Nichols to her, declaring that she was soon to become Mrs. Bingley and the Mistress of Netherfield, Jane had expressed her amazement to Elizabeth afterwards. She was grateful for the kind reception she had received from this woman, who had been used to run the house more or less, her own way for so long.
"She shall now have to follow the instructions of a young girl who could be her daughter. It would have been perfectly natural for her to feel slightly hostile towards me, would it not?"
"Perhaps not in this case, Jane! Though I fear, I may have to face similar situations both in London and in Derbyshire. But I must say Mrs. Reynolds appeared to be a very agreeable lady.
"You should bear in mind however, that Mrs. Nichols has been forced to put up with far worse earlier. Imagine what it must have been like, to have Caroline Bingley ordering you about!"
Not even on Jane's good-natured disposition could prevent a malicious smile from passing over her face as her sister spoke those words.
"Oh yes! You are right Elizabeth. And Mrs. Hurst too, I believe! I guess I am an improvement compared to that prospect."
"My dear Jane! No one can have any objections towards having you for a mistress. There can not possibly be anyone sweeter or less exacting in all of England."
The truth being that Mrs. Bennet's advice could be easily spared, but that the mild and obliging nature of her eldest girl protected her from that knowledge. She would not begrudge her mother the visit; in fact she had told Mr. Bingley, that she thought her own happiness was so great and her mother was entitled to some pleasure as well. Her benevolent fiancé had agreed with her readily and even suggested an invitation for tea and dinner should be issued. Hence the carriage.
The weather was clear and dry, so Darcy had asked Elizabeth if she would consider walking back to Netherfield in his company. She always loved to spend time outdoors and she also preferred being alone with him, whenever an opportunity for such intercourse was offered, since there were so very few chances for privacy indoors. Thus it was decided, that they were to walk, and that Mrs. Bennet would travel with Jane and Mr. Bingley in the carriage.
When they had been on their way for about ten minutes, and had left the main road to walk in greater seclusion along a path that winded its trace through a piece of woodland, the sound from several clear voices was heard ahead of them. And indeed, at the next turn, Elizabeth and Darcy encountered a group of little boys accompanied by their nursery maid. The lads, sons of a family in the neighbourhood were making polite attempts at bows to Miss Bennet with whom they were long since acquainted. Though the importance and coinciding temptation of a ball in motion made their attention somewhat defective.
The youngest, a boy about three or four years old, did indeed manage to get his legs all mixed up and lost his balance to fall over. His vexation at this humiliating display brought tears, but also some less appropriate exclamations.
Trying their hardest to execute self restraint and without daring to glance even briefly towards each other, Elizabeth and Darcy quickened their steps to put a satisfying distance behind them. This was managed for several minutes before they allowed themselves to share a look of growing mirth and give in to their pent-up hilarity.
"I do declare this young chap was actually tripping himself up."
Darcy moaned and reveled at the thought.
"I believe you are right sir. But that ball was to blame as well. His attention was deserting it to be momentarily aimed at me and the performance of a gallant bow."
The lady was not less diverted and her contagious laughter showed glimpses of pearly teeth to enchant her fiancé. He made a gracious bow towards her.
"I would say this boy showed excellent taste in his gallantry.'
After they had regained some of their composure, Elizabeth got a pensive expression and turned her head to observe her companion.
"The sight of those boys made me curious. I would dearly like to know how you behaved when you were a little boy, Fitzwilliam?"
She tried to picture him shorter, less masculine with a lanky 12 year-old body and a smooth face, without the dark shades of stubble on his chin. His hair would probably have been hard to control, despite his combing it to make it stay flat with a parting. She smiled at the sight of his curls that were ruffled by the wind.
"Were you always politely bowing to elder people? Good morning Madame. So nice of you to visit us. And how goes it with your husband? I trust he is in good health?
Mocking a childish voice she tried to indicate a most orderly and well behaved young lad by holding her arms close to her body and somehow stiffen her whole appearance.
He was thoroughly amused by watching her performance.
"I fear there is some truth to your scurrilous portrait. I do not believe I caused my parents too much trouble. I always enjoyed the company of grown-up people and could listen to their conversation for hours, if I was not found out. I guess that rendered me a bit precocious."
"I am not surprised. Your manners are gentlemanlike to be sure and they bear witness of a lifelong training. But were you ever late for meals? Did you return from outdoor pleasures dirty or disheveled ...oh wait, I guess you must have, since I know from the evidence of my own eyes, that you still indulge in some less proper behaviour! Such as walking around the grounds of your home less formally attired and soaking wet ...."
She fell silent at the memory and also from observing a slight blush on Darcy's face as he listened to her.
"I ...I know my appearance was unpardonable, I can only refer to my recent arrival and if you remember it was...a rather hot day. The horseback tour in the midday sun had been somewhat uncomfortable ... I was so relieved to be home and the sight of the pond was too tempting. If I had known of your presence, I would never have ..."
She smiled at him and, giving in to an enticing impulse, was so bold as to reach up and briefly brush the thick curls above his forehead.
"I beg you, do not make yourself uneasy, Mr. Darcy. I quite like it when your hair is in slight disorder. As for your appearance at Pemberley, you will not be able to have me think ill of it. I was uncomfortable at the time, but thinking back on it, I believe I cherish the memory. Men are usually so stiff and correct in their attire. It was rather a nice change ...."
He had embraced her placing his hands on the small of her back when she touched his hair and now pulled her closer to kiss her cheek. He was affected by her alluding to his dress and even more so by her approval of its being less sober. His lips moved towards her ear and his voice was slightly rough.
"Elizabeth, you know how to make me speechless'.
The warmth of his mouth sent a thrill of pleasure down her spine and made her hide her face against his shoulder, while she let her fingers run along the hairline at the nape of his neck.
Darcy realized how they were again balancing on the edge and he stood the test by giving her a short hug and release her. Elizabeth was getting used to these sudden turns of his mood and from his guarded hints even bent on giving him right.
She was amazed at her own behaviour, she was sometimes almost brazen .... But it was irresistible, and though he always checked her and brought them back on safe ground, she could feel that he took delight in the short moments of excitement.
From a novel she recalled someone being accused of playing with fire! At the time when she read it, the expression had no deeper meaning to her, but now she believed this was exactly what she was doing. She lit a tiny flame and they were both drawn to it. Then just before it was too late, he smothered the fire.
Now she just pulled an inaudible sigh and continued where they had left off.
"But I want to know about your childhood. Was your mother always pleased with you? Did you never do anything wicked?"
He laughed at her picture of him.
"I did not give all my toys away or display any excessive helpfulness towards Lady Catherine or any other uncles and aunts, as far as I can remember. Have no fear, I was nowhere near little Emilien."
She gave a happy little laughter.
"I take it then that you know of his many virtues. The intolerable little brat!"
Darcy agreed with an ironic curl of his upper lip.
"Yes I heard of him from my governess and I remember secretly wishing he would slip in the mud and get his white little dress all dirty! And then hopefully get punished for his behaviour ...'
"Oh yes, and that he would refuse to eat his wholesome porridge, that revolting dish, supposed to make him a strong and clever little boy! Did you not just hate it, when he had his last spoonful and licked his little mouth to say in his unbearable way. Thank you dear Mama for such a nice and tasty meal. If ever there was a timeserver!"
Her face and her voice attempting to recreate a shrill ingratiating voice were terribly funny and Darcy burst out laughing and actually had to support himself against the nearest trunk.
Elizabeth looked at him in amazement. She had never seen him laugh so heartily before. He was apparently at ease and she felt she saw a glimpse of his true self. She could almost feel how her love for him was increasing again, and as soon as he retrieved some control and was calming down to just moan occasionally and dry the tears from his eyes, she stepped near him to look into his eyes.
"Fitzwilliam, I beg you, will you please remind me to praise Mr. Bingley for his superior judgment."
His eyes were answering her gaze and a smile lingered in them.
"You mean in renting the Netherfield Estate? I have already complimented him on his excellent choice of county."
"I admit that was a crucial decision, but I was thinking of his choice of friends ...."
The sincere affection and admiration visible in her eyes swayed his demeanour. He got serious and seized her hands.
"Dearest Elizabeth! It is a wonderful thing is it not. To have someone to talk to of matters high and low. And to know there is always a response, an understanding and a common basis of valuation. If someone had told me a year ago, that I was about to meet such a person, ...and a woman to that. I would not have believed it! Most precious Elizabeth, I treasure the day I first set eyes on you!"
"But that was when you were not at all attracted to me!"
"Please, do not give any consideration to that ill-considered pronouncement, Elizabeth, I implore you. I knew nothing about you and was simply bad-tempered and angry to be there at all.
"I blamed Bingley for talking me into it, and the fact that he was enjoying himself and sort of attempting to have me equally pleased only vexed me further. I wanted him off my back and ...aware of my displeasure. I have never been any good at that awkward procedure of introduction, small talk and dancing with some lady out of politeness. Besides, my doing so has always been sure to draw an embarrassing amount of attention and speculations ...."
His voice trailed off as he became suddenly worried, that he might appear too conceited. Glancing at her he could observe nothing but an attentive and mildly amused expression, encouraging him to continue his declaration.
"As soon as I had a closer look at you I started to notice things ...to please me ...and pique my interest ."
"You did? What things?'
"Well I think ... your laughter, the way it was brightening the room and ...the glimpse of determination in your eyes was the first ...then your ...general appearance hrm ...."
His ears turned slightly pink, and he looked embarrassed.
"You are beautiful, Elizabeth, you know that and certainly alluring to any man with his eyesight left intact. Hrm yes, ...and then what?
"Oh yes! Your eyes at Lucas Lodge! That's when I got really caught, I think. You were smiling and informing me, you would not dance with me. And in your eyes there was this teasing little sparkle that spoke to me. Come and get me if you can!"
"But Mr. Darcy! How improper! I implied no such thing!!"
"Perhaps not, certainly not consciously, but nevertheless, that was the impact you had on me.
"After that I had no peace of mind. Not that I would, at that time, have been willing to admit it, least of all to myself. I did my best to disregard you, to neglect your affecting me, but it was all in vain. My thoughts were on you, more and more often."
"But you did not approve of my manners! The way I walked over the fields for instance, as we are doing today, instead of traveling by carriage like any proper lady would have done!"
They had arrived at that spot along this path where a stile offered the only possibility to proceed. Darcy took her hand to support her climbing up and then swiftly followed to jump down on the other side of the fence. The circumstance that he barely avoided to land on the dirty surface right beneath the stile, brought back a memory to her.
"Do you remember when I came to visit at Netherfield during Jane's illness? This is the place where I had to jump down, thereby incurring the censure of the refined company at Netherfield on behalf of my mud-stained attire."
Darcy had taken a few strides back to get near the stile, where she was standing, contemplating the best way to evade the threat of the loamy puddle.
"I remember every meeting with you Elizabeth! And I shall certainly never forget how lovely you looked that morning! Your eyes were so clear and your cheeks all rosy! Though I know I considered your manner to be rather improper at the time. Here, allow me to help you protect those tiny boots ..."
He held out his arms to her. Elizabeth, with some hesitation placed her hands on his shoulders and looked down into his smiling eyes. She was confused by her own reaction, when she felt his arms briefly holding her against his body, before he lifted her down to cautiously place her beside him, where the grass was dry. She was, somehow, at the same time embarrassed and pleased to be pressed against this stranger, who was not really a stranger.
To Darcy the sensation of her soft weight, a lavender-scented warmth in his arms was intoxicating and he had to force himself to release her. Beware man, this is highly seductive. He endeavoured to master his bewilderment by connecting on to his earlier thread of conversation.
"I was certainly amazed to meet you at the far end of the garden. It was obvious that you had arrived from the surrounding pastureland. No female acquaintance of mine had ever behaved that way. It was puzzling and ...bothering! You still are ...."
He stretched out his hand to take her arm, but Elizabeth seized it and was about to place it against her cheek, when she stopped halfway and gave him a questioning look.
"Do you need this glove, Fitzwilliam?"
He started, but looking on her in anticipation slowly shook his head. She tried in vain to pull it off; he had to assist her, which brought about a pleasant mingle of hands, smiles and looks.
She tenderly grasped his warm hand and placed the back of it against her cheek. A tiny smile was playing on her lips. He was highly affected and moved softly to free himself. She would not let him, but placed a kiss on it instead. His face lit with a sudden smile of remembrance and he bent forward to ask her in a whisper.
"Will you not give me ...one to keep?"
Now it was her turn to start and look at him in incredulous amazement.
"One to keep, ...Mr. Darcy?! What do you know about that?"
He looked at her secretively and she could see, that he was pleased to have put her in the state of query and surprise, where she would so often place him.
"Suffice it to say, I make it my business to know as much about your every activity, as I can possibly manage. I want to understand everything that has happened to you, to make you the delightful person I am about to wed. Therefore it stands to reason, that I am familiar with this enchanting game. Will you not oblige and play with me ...Elizabeth?"
He had started out in mocked supremacy, but his last sentence was spoken in a low, somewhat raucous, voice and his eyes were supportive of its imploring intonation.
She lost herself in his gaze and again held his hand fondly to her cheek. Slightly blushing she admitted.
"When you look at me like that, you need only ask, and I shall not be able to resist your eyes."
He watched her turn his hand and lovingly bring it to her lips. She kissed his palm and gently folded his fingers over the site of her caress, before she let go. He found the soft touch and warmth of her lips utterly delightful.
"There, sir! Are you content?"
No I am not ! I want to hold you so close you can hardly draw breath and kiss your tempting lips until they ache the way mine do ...not to mention other things even more unthinkable .... He clenched his teeth and struggled to overcome this most unexpected and sudden outburst of desire.
His silence made her insecure, and what she could gather from his face was not lessening that feeling. His jaws were very firm and he did not look at her.
"Fitzwilliam, are you displeased?"
There was a hint of alarm to her voice, that helped him regain his faculty of speech. Perhaps he owed her some explanation, but what could be said?
"No no Madam, quite the contrary I assure you. It is merely the fact that I am ...too pleased by your presence. I so love everything about you, that I can not get enough, but..."
He looked at her, would she get his meaning? Her face was slowly blushing and she answered him falteringly.
"Oh, I do not know what to do about that, ...there is no proper solution is there ...? But you must let me know when my behaviour is to be censured. Since I am too ...ignorant to realise it myself ...."
On her sweet face was so piteous an air, that he could only laugh tenderly and assure her that her behaviour was always to his liking. That he would endure the suffering of self-deprivation to enjoy the constant pleasure of her company.
"I feel guilty all the same. It is as if we were playing with fire is it not?"
He could not help smiling at her expression. A fire was indeed consuming his heart.
"Yes, that would be a way of phrasing it."
"I always thought you ...approved of it, Fitzwilliam ...? I know I do ..."
Darcy looked at her, tucked his glove in a pocket and reached for her hand. He raised it to place a kiss on the inside of her wrist where her pulse was throbbing in a tiny blue artery.
"Can this kiss be pushed into your glove and reach its destination inside your hand?"
He smiled and pretended to do so with his fingers. This charming enterprise was rewarded by her glittering laughter.
"Oh Fitzwilliam Darcy! You are a truly amiable man!"
He pulled her into his arms and spoke softly in a voice tinged with emotion.
"Do you really think so Elizabeth? Do you really? It makes me very happy to hear you say so. May I inform you, that I enjoy every game you play with me regardless of the fire risk involved. It is of little consequence if my fingers are occasionally burnt, even the scorching heat can be endured, as long as you are not hurt my love. I would not have any harm come to you."
She heard his assurances, happily smiling and collecting her courage to whisper in her turn.
"The truth is that I also ...find the warmth from those flames ...too agreeable for me to keep away from them."
He listened to her slightly trembling voice, offering him this sweet confession of her attachment to him and it made his pulses beat faster and warmed his blood. She thought his eyes were very dark, as he held her by her hands at arm's length from him, and she made an innocent declaration, to set his mind at ease.
"Besides I feel very secure when I am with you Fitzwilliam. I always have, ever since the day I received your letter and realised the sincerity of it. Even when we were not as close as we are now, I trusted you completely. It used to infuriate me ...that I was so silly. I still had this feeling deep down inside, that you wished me well."
He drew a deep breath and made another effort to avoid frustrating her trust in him. Sweet enchanting Elizabeth, I beg you, have mercy! Do not feed this fire any further. He squeezed her hands and placed one on his arm.
"You are absolutely right Elizabeth, I do wish you well and have done so almost from the first moment of our acquaintance. Though I was not always clear-sighted in perceiving your best interest. I hope however that my judgment is somewhat improved of late.
"Now I think it would be for the benefit of us both, if we were to proceed to Netherfield and that promised tea. Bingley's cook bakes an excellent apple tart and if we are in luck -- that is, if we are not too late -- there may be some pieces left for us."
His fiancée agreed that a loss of apple tart must not be risked and smilingly joined his small talk as they crossed the last meadow to make a short-cut and gain some time.
Part VIII -- Not Actually Married
He had left London as early as could possibly be done without arousing too much gossip. The reason of course being his urgent wish to be back in Hertfordshire. Most of the time spent in town, after Bingley's return to Netherfield with the ladies, had been devoted to preparations and arrangements on account of his forthcoming union with Elizabeth Bennet.
Since the documents, required in the business part of any marital agreement, had been of a particularly complex and intricate nature due to the considerable proportions of his foreign and domestic assets, a consultation with his steward had been necessary. An unforeseen delay had occurred while Darcy's letter was delivered to Pemberley, to be subsequently read and acted upon by Mr. McDermott and eventually while the steward's reply was brought back to London. When the accurate figures were obtained, he had been happy to place the detailed construction and drawing up of the deed in the capable hands of his most trusted family lawyer.
After he had given his instructions regarding the general contents of the contract and the size of the monetary amounts included, due consideration given to his discussion in the matter with Mr. Bennet, he devoted most of his time to other things. He had to stay in London until those documents were completed, however, for they were not valid unless signed by himself, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Gardiner. Finally he would take them to Longbourn for Mr. Bennet's signature. Apart from these matters, there were several dealings of consequence to him, although not as vital for the legal validity of his marriage.
Those were, to some extent, making up for the loss of her presence. He rejoiced in giving his meticulous attention to matters small and big, anything he could think of to enhance her happiness and comfort. The restoration of the master bedroom at Pemberley no doubt being of substantial import, yet he had decided to wait for Elizabeth's opinion before any redecorating was accomplished. For the time being nothing was to be renewed, save the mattress and other bedding equipment and a letter containing instructions to that effect had already been sent to Pemberley. He knew he could rely on Mrs. Reynolds to see to that.
When he left Hertfordshire with his bride after the wedding, they were to travel as far as London that same day and their arrival to the Darcy's house in town marked the end of the first stage of their journey. He therefore ordered for the rooms that had once been occupied by his mother and father to be opened up, thoroughly cleaned and polished of course, and that even this bedding in its entirety was replaced. He had his own personal belongings moved to his father's former room as soon as it was put in order, and even spent a few nights in it.
One late evening when he was seated comfortably in his armchair reading poetry to nourish his longing for her, he let the volume sink into his lap. He was thinking of Elizabeth, how he missed her clear eyes, the way they might rapidly change from seriousness to sparkling mirth. His memory even brought him the soft lustre of love in them from their shared moments of tenderness and he tried languishingly to remember her mouth and the rest of her face. As often happens, the more eager he grew to see it in detail with his inward eye, the more elusive was her image. He heaved a sigh of frustration and his gaze wandered to the painting. The Lady in the Breeze had been neglected lately and now, when he turned to her for comfort, he found that she persisted in averting her face. Without success he fixated the depicted woman in an attempt to mentally persuade her to face him. Slowly closing his book, he placed it on the table and got up.
He strolled towards the window, but changed his mind as well as his direction and instead proceeded to open the door, that led from his rooms to those of his future wife. Lingering in the doorway he contemplated the great change in his life, that was so imminent. Oh, to caper nimbly in my lady's chamber .... His eyes swept the room, it was not yet ready, the maids were in the middle of their work, which was apparent from the state of it. The windows had been cleaned, but the curtains were missing, so there was nothing to prevent the moon from shedding its light across the bare floorboards and as far as the foot end of the four-poster bed. There were no rugs on the floor and no pillows or bed linen either, which made it all look rather desolate, but he tried to envision the bed soft and inviting and hoped that he would be soon sleeping in it.
A worried expression came upon his face as he stood there staring at the bed, for he reflected, that the sturdy carved mahogany posts rendered it quite impressive, that it did dominate the chamber in a rather obtrusive manner. His gaze traveled to the fireplace, then to the dressing-table and back to the bed. Muttering to himself he finally closed the door and walked back to sit in his armchair and look absentmindedly into the fire.
The next morning he arranged with his butler for some additional furniture to be brought to the chamber where Mrs. Darcy would stay. He also spoke to Mrs. Tuddler to see to it that a special delivery of fruits and flowers from the Pemberley Hothouse would be timed to arrive in London on the day of his wedding. In his every communication he endeavoured to impress the notion on the entire staff, that no effort must be spared to make the mistress feel welcome and comfortable. He wanted the couple of days they were to spend in London before they proceeded to Pemberley as agreeable as possible.
As Mr. Darcy's barouche traveled along the road from London, the daylight was increasing and it looked like it would turn into one of those really wonderful late autumn mornings. The chill of the night hidden in the soil met the slowly warmed air to produce a soft enchanting mist over the open fields. Now and then there was a tear in the grey skies, allowing the sun to point its magic wand to the brownish remains of summer and reveal that pearls of dew were thrown all over the grass.
He could not remember a happier journey of late. This last year most of his traveling by carriage had been made gloomy by ruminations. But this trip was one of sheer anticipation, within a few hours, two hours, one hour he would be back at Netherfield and very close to her. He would have his horse saddled up at once and be off .... Well, ...no, he was invited to dine at Longbourn! There was no escape from the obligation to freshen up and change his clothes first. He frowned at the inevitability of this retardation, for he was getting more anxious to meet her as the distance that separated them grew shorter.
Finally the landscape outside the barouche turned recognisable and he was overcome by excitement of an indisputably anticipative nature. He would never have guessed, that the sight of a familiar barn in the corner of a field or even the name of a village on a wooden sign placed at a fork in the road, could form a perturbation with such agreeable touch to it. He was now definitely in the vicinity of Meryton. For the last minutes he had been more vigilant, so that no hints of human life would escape his notice.
Then all of a sudden, though not really unexpectedly, since he had hoped for such a fortunate coincidence, it was as if his fervent prayers had been heard. Looking out through the window, he was able to discern a small but definitely well-known figure on a low hilltop some distance from the road. He grasped his walking stick and immediately bent forward to knock at the wall behind his coachman. That unexpected sound and his master's voice were sure to gain Mr. Bullock's attention.
"Stop the coach!"
The horses were pulled up and calmed down by the soothing voice of the coachman. Darcy opened the door and descended, before his valet had time to do his duty. He was intently looking up the hill and as a smile slowly spread over his face, he jumped the ditch and began to move with long strides through the tufts of old grass towards the slope, barely taking the time necessary to turn his head and give an instruction over his shoulder.
"Just wait for me here, please!"
Some two weeks earlier Bingley's carriage had transported the two couples and Mrs. Bennet to London, where the gentlemen and the ladies all had different errands caused by the upcoming nuptials. When this journey was first planned, the intention had been to combine their varied business in town with some joint pleasures. A visit to the theatre perhaps, even other social events were mentioned and a matter of no little satisfaction had been, that they would be at a distance from the improper comments and prying eyes of Meryton. The Bennet sisters had contacted their aunt and uncle Gardiner and had been promptly invited to stay in their house in Cheapside, while they procured that part of their trousseau which was best obtained in town.
They had rejoiced at the prospect when this letter first arrived, until Jane calmed down and worded the inevitable fact, that their mother would insist on partaking in those purchases. It would soon be seen that Miss Bennet's fears came true. Every attempt to advise Mrs. Bennet against this enterprise with reference to the lack of space in the carriage -- which had certainly never appeared smaller -- or reassuring expositions concerning the capability of their aunt in every aspect and most particularly in matters of fashion, had been to no avail.
Was she not the Mother of the brides to be? Was she not quite as well acquainted with the London warehouses as her sister? Could any other woman know better than herself what her daughters would need to start their married life? Of course she would be welcome to stay in the home of her own brother.
She had been almost insulted, when Elizabeth implied that it would mean more trouble for the Gardiners to have three guests instead of the two intended and invited. It had fallen upon Jane to make Lizzy see reason and allow Mrs. Bennet this last possibility to exercise her maternal rights. Fanny Bennet wrote a letter to her brother, to inform him that she wished to accompany her daughters.
Alas, their expectations of the excursion were somewhat faded, when they had to tell the gentlemen of the unwanted addition to their company. Elizabeth was furtively observing Darcy as Jane informed them. A hint of a shadow passed on his face, but it was hard to tell even for her. Many years of training had taught him to keep his feelings from affecting the apparent composure of his countenance. She reflected, that she must remember this and never allow herself to be fooled by his outward calm. The next minute his eyes sought hers. He raised his brows and smiled ever so slightly. Smiling back she made a resigned gesture and rolled her eyes.
There was, however, nothing to be done. Most reluctantly Mr. Bingley considered the possibility of his accompanying the coach on horseback, but Jane looked so disappointed and he himself would also prefer to travel with her. Darcy did not really consider going on horseback an option, since he was to return bringing his own carriage. So even if the coach was rather crowded and even if the conversation was different from the one they had initially hoped for, none of the four young travelers would have forgone the pleasure. The fact that Mrs. Bennet had a tendency to doze off, provided several opportunities for sweet gallantry and amorous gazes. Both couples took delight in the intimacy forced upon them by the restricted space. Either because Elizabeth was less virtuous than her sister and quite generous with her alluring glances, or because Darcy was more passionate than his friend, that pair of lovers even exchanged an affectionate pressure of the hand now and then.
Though the ladies were staying at Gracechurch street and the gentlemen in Darcy's house in Portman Square they were to meet for dinner almost every day. During the first day Mrs. Bennet acted as if she intended to visit every warehouse and every dressmaker there was. The thronging crowd in the streets, the unaccustomed noises and sights of London in addition to the nervous agitation of their mother had the young ladies nearly worn out on their return in the afternoon. So little had been actually achieved, it seemed to Elizabeth, that they had been in and out of shopdoors all the time, without much time to reflect. She was even glad that they would dine en famille and not meet the gentlemen until the next day.
The ladies all went to bed early, though Jane and Lizzy met briefly in the latter's bedroom to talk, the way they were used to from home. The passed day had provided them with subjects enough for discussion. In spite of her forbearance even Jane had to unburden her heart after the trials of the day.
"Oh Lizzy, I quite despair that we will ever be able to find the appropriate gowns. I must think of a way to make mother calm down. Though I am sure I do not know how that could be accomplished."
Elizabeth pulled the pins from her hair and started to brush one curl at a time while she made a wry face at the mirror.
"Indeed, Jane! Oh Mama! She was never fuzzier than today. I feel absolutely exhausted. I fear this day might bring a nightmare! But I am determined to find at least one dress tomorrow. Surely we can not rush around as if we were in a henhouse where the fox paid a visit. My only comfort is her prospective sons-in-law were spared the spectacle."
Although agreeing in essentials with her sister, Miss Bennet's good-natured disposition induced her to moderate her first pronouncement and seek a reason for Mrs. Bennet's behaviour.
"Perhaps coming here was too great a strain on her? She is not often away from Longbourn. I hope tomorrow she shall be less excited to find herself in London, ...when she has had time to adjust to it."
"Oh Jane, you are such an angel, I really believe you shall have to procure an extra gown, ...one that allows for wings."
They laughed and embraced to say good night. Jane stopped at the door and her face lit up when she turned to comment on a happier circumstance.
"Is it not pleasant to know there will be guests for dinner tomorrow?"
"Uhum, better think of that, before you fall asleep. The merry meeting with our lords and masters .... The dreams provoked by such expectations, should be a lot more agreeable!"
There was a bashful giggle and then the door closed behind her sister. Elizabeth was preoccupied as she sat staring at her reflection for a while, before she placed the hairbrush on the dressing-table. To meet with such a lord includes all joy .... An introverted smile slowly appeared on her face as she bent forward to blow out the candle.
Continued in Part 4
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