Lang sprang to his feet, as a solitary woman emerged from the room he had been watching. "Miss Bennet," his surprised salutation intercepted her as she quickly moved in the direction of the ballroom.
"Oh! Mr. Lang!" Kitty startled. "I, uh, did not see you," Kitty stammered nervously. "Forgive me, Miss Bennet, for taking you unaware. You are making some haste...," Lang's gaze drifted to the room from which she had just exited, wondering anxiously after the person who did not likewise appear. "Miss Darcy...is she unwell?"
"No!" Kitty blurted too quickly, her nature tending not at all toward skillful designs or cunning diplomacy. Kitty looked everywhere but Mr. Lang, as her fingers curled up into a ball and straightened again to their greatest extension as her wrists flexed outward.
"May I not be of service?" Lang fairly pleaded.
Kitty clutched her fan before her breast, it's ribs scraping against themselves as her hands worried a circle around it. "You see...um...It is just that...," Kitty faltered. She had not expected to explain her purpose to anyone save her sister. Then, her hands flew to her sides, as she brightened with sudden satisfaction.
Facing Lang, Kitty announced, "The catch!...Of Miss Darcy's necklace...I need Mrs. Darcy's help with it...With the catch," Kitty finished more decisively than she had begun. Smiling persuasively, she entreated, "Will you assist me in finding her?"
Thoroughly baffled by the woman's performance and altogether uncertain a piece of jewelry should be so uncooperative as to require the aid of not one, but two women, Lang acted in the only way a man might when he finds his powers of discernment entrammeled by the vagaries of a woman's expression.
A slight droop of shoulders accented a small sigh of resignation, as Lang offered his arm to Kitty, "Yes, of course, allow me."
"Lizzy, you must come with me! Oh, pray forgive me," Kitty begged the gentleman's indulgence with a bob, realizing with the disapproving cast of her sister's countenance she had not even allowed the ending obeisance before importuning her sister. "Sir, my sister is most urgently needed..."
The gentleman offered as he looked from Kitty to his partner, "Mrs. Darcy, shall I locate your husband?"
Mr. Darcy?! Oh what a muddle! Kitty complained to herself He of all people is the last one we need. Interjecting before Elizabeth could respond, "No, I thank you, sir. Mr. Darcy's aid will not be necessary. But, sister, I do need your particular help."
The gentleman received Elizabeth's apologetic smile as he adroitly excused himself, with Kitty's special emphasis having not escaped his understanding. Turning to Kitty, Elizabeth demanded with small alarm, "Kitty, what is happened? Where is Georgiana?"
"Georgiana is the reason you must come. She is in the Ladies' Room and will not return...," Kitty hesitated, feeling Lang's presence as much as seeing it at the edge of their exchange. She had slipped from him in seeing Elizabeth and had almost forgotten him in her haste. "...until the catch of her necklace may be fixed," Kitty continued, hoping her change inconspicuous to Georgiana's gentleman. The expression of Kitty's eyes implored Elizabeth not to question her, but to accept her explanation without comment.
Stepping forward, Lang offered hopefully, "Mrs. Darcy, may I take you to Miss Darcy?"
"Why yes, I thank you," Elizabeth agreed weakly, glancing uncertainly at Kitty. The catch was obviously employed as a means of excuse and from Kitty's demeanor she suspected Lang's close attendance was not desired. Accepting Lang's arm, Elizabeth resisted the temptation to look over her shoulder to the person whose gaze she felt fixed upon her leaving.
That a chair was there to receive him was merely good fortune and irrelevant to Darcy's thoughts as his body sank down under his amazement. Indifferent to the presence of others, Darcy slumped back against the chair's rest, his chin crooked to the side with his eyes cast down, visually searching amongst the slippers and shoes of those milling about after the dance's end.
Is this to be born?! Darcy's mind demanded, incredulously.
With his gaze drifting upward, Darcy focused on the path Elizabeth had taken, though it was merely her image he saw as the buttons and tails of those gaily attired played in front of his seat. Darcy's fingers slowly pinched together his brows, rubbing the taught heaviness pressing dully behind his eyes. He smirked sardonically as the evening evidenced its object in his review of recent events. With every means at its disposal, the evening contrived to undertake the day's conspiracy of separating him from his wife! And it would appear to be done meanly so.
Rather than dancing with the one woman he most desired, he had been relegated to the unsavory duty of engaging the one he least desired, but who, to the trial of all his civility, in no way harbored the same sentiment for him. The lady's efforts had been relentless. Being satisfied not with mere suggestive glances and flirtatious witticisms, her every pass had brushed against him and every grasp of hands had offered intimacy rather than propriety, requiring of Darcy a fleetness of thought and movement his weary mind and body were indisposed to give. And which, to his further vexation, prevented the vigilance over the society of Sir Harold and his wife he had intended. Though possessing a flair of drama he was not generally inclined to display, it would have given him great pleasure to come to her aid at any sign of imposition from that miscreant. Darcy had endured however until the end, where upon he had swiftly deposited Lady Thistlewaite amongst a gathering of her contemporaries and quitted her decisively.
Wending his way through the press of people, Darcy had searched for his wife, desperate to know she was well and to entreat her away from the noise and gaiety of the ballroom to a setting more conducive to the confession he sought to make. But the evening's design was not to be thwarted. His progress had proven difficult and slow. Just as he had succeeded in navigating the throng to the treasured object of his quest, his wife--Elizabeth-- had been accepting the hand of another to return to the floor! Disgusted and disgruntled, Darcy had retreated to the fringe of onlookers.
Recollecting himself with a tug to the hem of his waistcoat, Darcy swore to himself he was not yet defeated. Tracking her movement as she graciously navigated the steps, he determined her whereabouts by dance's end and strategically made his way to be in the proper place to receive her. But before he could step forward to make himself known, nay even before the last note had sounded, Kitty had appeared along with Lang and absconded with his wife!
Darcy stood as a new set formed, resolute in his plan to follow them. And with his exertion, the dull ache between his eyes suddenly sharpened to a pain boring its way through his head, outstripping the throbbing sensation in his left extremities for primacy of severity.
Elizabeth slowed deliberately once gaining the hall. "Mr. Lang, you are very kind to see us out. Pray, do not trouble yourself, though. My sister knows the way..."
"Yes. Yes of course, Mrs. Darcy." With a half-bow, Lang allowed their hands to quit his arms' lead, forced to yield to the woman's kind but firm intimation. "Mrs. Darcy," Lang's appeal caused the women to look back to him as they started down the hall, "If Miss Darcy is unwell..., that is, if Miss Darcy requires anything..."
Elizabeth smiled compassionately. "I thank you, Mr. Lang."
Lang waited a proper distance for their removal before slumping dejectedly into what seemed to have become his permanent station for the evening.
"I am most anxious to know of Georgiana. Pray Kitty, apprise me now we are out of Lang's hearing. If she is not unwell and neither is she in need of a jeweler to what do you owe your urgency?"
"Lizzy, it is as you suppose. It is neither Georgiana's necklace nor her health for which we need you. Well, you could say it is her health, for she has made herself terribly uneasy," Kitty clarified with a rush of words, equaling the hastening of her steps. "I have tried to calm her, but I fear you must console her, since you are the source of her distress."
Elizabeth halted in astonishment just as they were to attain the room's entrance, "I?!"
"Yes, you and Darcy. She is resolved not to return to the ball at all."
Lowering her voice so the footman would not hear, Elizabeth demanded in exasperation, "Kitty, I insist you make yourself plain at once!"
Knowing her sister would not budge from where she stood until satisfied, Kitty quickly related the particulars of the true nature of Georgiana's indisposition without elegance or thought of the consequence of her words.
Elizabeth's mouth drew up into a pucker as she chewed the inside of her mouth while listening to Kitty. Despite Elizabeth's best intentions, her vexation had indeed been manifest, regrettably affecting Georgiana's composure. However, with her brother's unexpected gestures of tolerance (the stimulus for which Elizabeth hoped she knew, but was yet unwilling to confidently ascribe), Georgiana had given every appearance of felicity, or at the very least, placidity in the giving of her hand for the dance. Though easily moved, Georgiana's emotions were not known to be fickle. Kitty's account did not conform with what Elizabeth knew to be true of the young woman's nature. The incongruity only furthered Elizabeth's discontent, believing more was to be discovered.
"...I told her Mama and Papa always quibble," Kitty concluded before whining, "Lizzy, you must persuade her all is well between you and Darcy so she will return to the ball. If she will not, I know Darcy will insist upon our leaving and the entire night shall be for naught."
Kitty's appeal brought up Elizabeth abruptly. Irritated with her sister's selfishness, Elizabeth scolded "And what if all is not well between Darcy and myself? Do you only care for your own gratification that you are insensitive to the pains of your own family?"
Kitty's chin hung in contriteness. But impatient for her sister to understand and make the situation right again, Kitty's countenance soon rose to Elizabeth's, her hands waiving anxiously in front of her. "Oh Lizzy, I am sorry if it is true. But even if you and Darcy are quarreling, all you need do is give him one of those looks," Kitty exampled dramatically, "and he will forget all about it." Kitty insisted, upon seeing Elizabeth's doubt, "I have seen how you look at him when you think no one notices. He never looks away as he is drawn in. I think he likes the affect your looks have on him. He softens or relaxes. Well, I cannot describe it. It is one of the few moments I find him not so frightening."
Elizabeth did not know whether she was more angry, amused or appreciative. Kitty still thought more of herself than others, but apparently what she did notice of those around her had produced in her a very simple kind of wisdom. For all her naive belief that employment of physical allurements would dissuade Fitzwilliam from any real anger or remove actual offenses currently standing between them, Kitty's simple observations and conclusions still were not without merit. Had she not just been witness to the very "softening" Kitty was alert enough to observe?
Sir Harold had been only too glad to excuse himself, leaving her alone to consider her husband's whereabouts. She had hoped he might claim the next dance for himself as she had been persuaded to believe him to have wished for the former. But the masculine voice inquiring after her had not been her husbands, but that of Mr. Eihde--an amiable gentleman with whom she had become acquainted through calls upon his wife while last she was in London. Though her disappointment in not being sought after by her husband had been keenly felt, Elizabeth's approbation in accepting his invitation to dance had been no less genuine. She had resolved herself to enjoy his company and soon found his conversation refined and amusing.
Though she had been diverted tolerably well, she had found herself nursing some regret in believing her husband innocent of any enthusiasm for Lady Thistlewaite, imagining him still engaged with that person. Her musings were quickly dispelled however, upon catching the figure of a most handsome man as he watched her from amongst the fringe. Compelled to seek out his image, but unwilling to insult Mr. Eihde by inattentiveness, she had constrained her appreciation of her husband's aspect to the furtive opportunities afforded through her turns and progress down the line. And the zeal of his unwavering regard had been her sweet reward.
From her every vantage, she had found his countenance turned upon her with eyes full of approval and admiration--and marked by that particular sign of his tender passion. Elizabeth flushed with the picture of her recollection. You are a mischievous soul, Mr. Darcy, inveigling my charity with that precious hollow when I am resolved to withhold it. Though he had yet to answer for the open question of his earlier behavior, and no matter how reserved he chose to be about his activities, he had succeeded in drawing her in.
The gentle irony was not unpleasing. If he was so inclined, then she could not be discouraged. It was as her aunt had counseled. His heart was softening and she must wait only a little longer to be reconciled. She hoped anew he would very soon oblige her by being drawn in by one of those looks.
Kitty regarded Elizabeth expectantly. Elizabeth smiled as she sighed, reaching for her sister's hand, "Come Kitty, your thinking is rather muddled, but for now it shall have to do. Show me to Georgiana and we shall get you both back to the ball."
The convivial sounds emanating from the ballroom taunted Lang as he slumped morosely in what had become his chair. Farrow no doubt was imbibing the full bouquet of feminine society. And yet he himself, the one for whom the event had been intended-- in order to secure his consequence in the heart of a particular lady--was joylessly without companionship. With his elbow propped on the arm of the chair, his hand cradling his sulking chin, Lang slid his focus to the ballroom. If Farrow were to see me, he would laugh and call me a fool. Ah, Georgiana, if you are to remain sequestered, is my vigil not then for naught? Perhaps Farrow is right, Lang considered glumly as a figure progressed up the passage with a halting step.
The gentleman was not a guest he recognized. He knew of no one of their acquaintance whose gate was so badly gimped. Lang's gaze lingered with small disinterest on the man's features as a slow, yet determined limp brought him more into view. Recognition simmered in the recesses of his mind, but was hampered by the novelty of the man's hindered steps and the want of a glimpse of his face as the man watched more of the floor in front of him than any distance beyond. On the whole, though, the man was known to him. His dark hair... great height ...Even with his retarded step, the man possessed an impressive mien--one striking at the heart of Lang's immediate dilemma.
Finally bursting forth with a shout of clarity, Lang suddenly realized who he had been observing so casually, Darcy?! Lang's slouch swiftly straightened, as his feelings gave rise. Now I am for it. What a dolt I am just sitting here. How am I to explain? 'Mr. Darcy, sir, I have invoked Miss Darcy's disfavor, though I know not how and she rejects me, hiding herself away. Her sisters have gone in to console her and I...' Lang shook his head in disgust, immediately dismissing the rehearsal of such an inconceivable confession.
Stretching his neck against the constriction of its cloth, Lang summoned his courage and rose to greet Miss Darcy's guardian as he neared. "Mr. Darcy, sir."
"Pray, where is she?" Elizabeth asked Kitty, surprised to find the entire room unoccupied save the presence of a maid who curtsied upon their making the room.
"There, behind the screen, is where I left her," Kitty directed to an ornate partition, covered in the fashion of the Orient and erected for the privacy of those who would wish it, as well as for the approbation of those who would give it.
Georgiana confessed honestly with guilt-laden nervousness, "Oh, I wish you had not come, sister. You must not trouble yourself on my account."
"I understand the latch of your necklace defies all Kitty's efforts to fix it," Elizabeth smiled teasingly, hoping to sooth her sister's humor.
But she feared it was not to be easily done. A deep pink marked the young woman's lower lip where her teeth had chewed incessantly so as to leave it chaffed and sore looking. The delicate cloth, once intended for display of its mistress' fine needlework, was now stretched so tightly between the grasp of Georgiana's hands, Elizabeth supposed it to be rent at any moment.
Placing her hand over Georgiana's, Elizabeth persuaded gently, "Georgiana, will you not confide in me? Do you suffer for Fitzwilliam and myself?"
Elizabeth's genuine concern for her, so sweetly and selflessly expressed, overwhelmed any reserve Georgiana had intended and loosed the flood of feelings she had stemmed 'til that moment.
"Oh, Elizabeth, what is he doing? I cannot believe it of him!" Elizabeth drew Georgiana into a comforting embrace, trying to govern her shock as she attempted to make out the woman's words between her sobs. "Please forgive him...I know he loves you... She could not induce him...He is not such a man... You must believe me!" Georgiana pleaded as Elizabeth guided her upright so their eyes could meet.
As she replaced Georgiana's soaked and ruined handkerchief with her own, Elizabeth tried to speak, but could not for the anguish she met in Georgiana's gaze. True, she and Fitzwilliam had argued, but Georgiana languished under a much greater misapprehension. What had transpired? What had she observed, reducing her to such a state? And to suspect her brother of...inconstancy?!
All at once, Elizabeth knew.
Lang immediately regretted his abrupt salutation as he appeared to have taken Darcy unawares. His steps faltered and a pain-filled grimace consumed his countenance as he used the wall to steady himself.
"Pray forgive me, sir. I did not intend to...that is...are you unwell, Mr. Darcy?" Lang stepped forward to assist him.
Darcy declined any aid, recollecting himself to a more correct stance, "A small problem with the knee. It is nothing. Mr. Lang, are you aware of the location of the members of my party?" Darcy inquired without emotion. He was neither in humor to trifle with small talk, nor was he inclined to be cunning in his purpose.
"Yes, sir, I am." Lang swallowed nervously. Darcy would hold him responsible for Miss Darcy's unhappiness. "Sir, the ladies have all withdrawn to their lounge." Stepping aside, Lang referred to the door just beyond them. Hurrying to fill the silence, as Darcy steadily considered the door, Lang motioned to a place on the back of his neck, expounding anxiously, "Miss Darcy's latch, you see...Mrs. Darcy and Miss Bennet are fixing it."
"Three women to hook a latch?" Darcy doubted, with a questioning arch of his brow.
"Yes, sir," Lang returned weakly.
Lang's discomposure warned Darcy more was afoot than being owned. But for his part Darcy could not see his present circumstance empowered him to act. He might inquire through a note or message conveyed through the servants. But his offer of help could only be met with one response. His help would be rejected either for the lack of need of it or for the lack of want of it. Elizabeth's and Kitty's fingers possessed a far greater nimbleness for the workings of a fine strand than his, if indeed the dubious excuse was true. And if timidity caused Georgiana to withdraw, her sister would be the one with whom she would condole, not her elder brother. Has Lang acted badly toward Georgiana, though? Darcy wondered, evaluating the notion. But that did not seem likely, did it? Lang would not have been dispatched to the ballroom were he the source of trouble. Darcy glanced from the door to Lang, a satirical smile developing from his impression of the person before him. You have more the appearance of a lovelorn lad than a libertine Lothario. No, you are in no danger from me, Darcy concluded as he returned to his contemplation of the door. LOVElorn?Darcy instantly questioned. A flare of pain flamed within Darcy's knee, warning his weight would little longer be endured.
Though Lang was not confident what Darcy's former expression had signified, he was certain of the latter. Darcy had suddenly looked at him, not as though to engage him, but rather to study him. Then just as quickly, pain flashed across Darcy's face and he removed his weight to one leg.
"Pray, Mr. Darcy, will you not sit down?" Lang motioned to his former place. "Or perhaps you prefer the card room? I fear the ladies' withdrawal may be of some duration."
"Of that, you may be certain," Darcy agreed dryly. No matter the purpose, whenever the ladies withdrew, he found the wait usually exceeded his patience, leaving him to wonder at their occupation. Though reluctant to concede, his leg would brook no further imposition, forcing Darcy to accept the offer. "I thank you. However, I believe I shall wait them here." He rarely sought the diversions of the card room, much preferring the society of his wife to that of a room of men who were either abandoned by or escaping their own. And at present, nothing he could conceive could tempt him into another pain-filled step.
But before any relief could be had, a familiar tittering annoyed Darcy's ears, as a trio of women sauntered toward the Ladies' Lounge.
The ache in his head throbbed with the rhythm of the offending sound,Pray, God, visit anything upon me but that woman! Darcy pleaded silently.
Rising awkwardly from the seat, Darcy surprised and delighted the younger man as he modified, "Perhaps the card room would be best, Lang. Will you show me the way." And quickly man! Darcy's thoughts commanded.
Lang brightened and made no delay in complying with Darcy's request. Though he would wish to remain for the sake of entreating Miss Darcy, he was not insensible to the very great opportunity he had just been given to show her guardian every courtesy and to prove himself worthy of his and her approbation.
As they entered the greater part of the lounge, the clattering of women confident of their own station noisily announced more ladies to the room, requiring Elizabeth to draw nearer to Georgiana to protect their privacy behind the screen. She insisted with a quiet earnestness, "Pray, Georgiana, do be forth coming with me. Is this to do with Lady Thistlewaite?"
"Lady Thistlewaite?" Kitty interrupted confused. "Who is Lady Thistlewaite?"
How dreadful! a woman proclaimed dramatically, too involved in her companion's tale to have any care for the presence of others. You might have been thrown from the carriage and trampled to your death in the streets!
"Is she the woman William engaged?" Georgiana questioned cautiously through the sniffles still threatening to dissolve again into sobs.
Another voice marveled, But you say a handsome young gentleman came to your rescue? How romantic. A duo of wistful sighs wafted through the silken material of the screen. Dearest, you must tell all!
"Who was Darcy with?" Kitty demanded peevishly, having trouble understanding the details of the revelations both for their obscurity and for the intrusion of the other conversation.
I might were it not for the gentleman being married and in society tonight, a woman teased with the design of exciting her listeners' into frenzied curiosity.
Now you must tell or we shall not let you from this room!
Elizabeth was anxious to disabuse her dear sister, "Yes, Georgiana, Fitzwilliam danced with her, but I believe you misunderstand..."
...He swept me up into his arms, gently returning me to the carriage's seat. Oh, he was so handsome with his chestnut hair tousled about, leaving the sweetest curl upon his forward....
No longer able to resist the innuendo of romance and scandal tantalizing her ears, Kitty motioned for Elizabeth and Georgiana to listen to the other conversation as she moved to peep between the sections of the screen.
"Kitty," Elizabeth whispered emphatically, "come away from there."
Kitty "shewed" her sister's scolding with a wave of her hand behind her. By peering to and fro, hither and thither, Kitty made out only the smallest and unsatisfying details of the other women, leaving her still to guess at their identity.
His hand brought forward the ribbon of my bonnet, as if to retie it. I tried to move away, my dear ladies, but alas I could not for the intimacy of the carriage. His hand drifted upward, stroking my cheek, 'Fairest Lady,' he says as he comes near, 'Allow me to heal your injury.' I felt the warmth of his lips on mine with such tenderness...
Georgiana's eyes grew ever wider, embarrassed to be in secret audience and yet unable to close her ears to the romantic details.
Before I could draw breath, he brought my hand to his lips, drawing me into the depths of his dark eyes as he whispered, 'Until we meet again.' And with that Mr. Darcy disappeared from my carriage. The speaker was rendered breathless from the retelling of her encounter.
Mr. Darcy?! Kitty wheeled about, finding her astonishment made insignificant by the bewilderment of one sister and the provocation of the other.
Mr. Darcy?! A companion objected disbelievingly. Kitty resumed her now frantic attempts to make out who was speaking. The same Mr. Darcy who spurned every woman's advance until his 'Hertfordshire Beauty' wooed him to distraction? Come now, Lady Thistlewaite, you think us fools to believe Darcy kissed you?
Lady Thistlewaite?! Georgiana paled as a dizziness threatened her senses and her stomach churned with a sickening tumult.
Kitty pressed her eye flat against the frame, nearly upsetting the screen. However awkward, her persistence was finally rewarded with a glimpse of...Darcy with her? Kitty doubted incredulously.
Well, Lady Thistlewaite defended, resentful she was forced to admit exaggeration. He was handsome... Lady Thistlewaite's fan fluttered as she looked into the distance, envisioning the scene. And quite gallant, never tending to his own injury suffered from the calamity--only to mine.
"William is injured?" Georgiana whispered desperately to Elizabeth. She wondered if Elizabeth had known, but could see from her countenance she had not.
Oh, yes, 'tis true. Lady Thistlewaite was only too pleased to expound her hero's merits. Darcy's leg had been badly hurt from being pinned beneath his horse. Though I could not see for myself from the carriage, I overheard my driver implore Sir Harold's protection for fear Darcy would think better of his earlier mercy and return for compensation for having been run down.
Lady Thistlewaite's tone softened to one of willing adoration, Darcy was so commanding with my man, insisting he mind his care of me...
Another woman's voice commiserated, Aye, commanding, gallant, handsome...
And I dare say under good regulation the most sensible of the three reminded sharply. She would not relent until hearing the absolute truth, Pray, Lady Thistlewaite, do admit to us, if none other, Darcy did not kiss you.
No one dared draw breath for fear of missing Lady Thistlewaite's response. The silence she maintained was intolerable. At length, her answer came. Lady Thistlewaite quietly admitted, No, he did not. But I shall not deny him should he ever offer.
Georgiana wilted against the strength of the settee, feeling ill-used and exhausted from the agitation inflicted by the woman's vulgarity. As her sister's pensive steps took her from their settee, she could only wonder at Elizabeth's feelings--to suffer such defamations against one's husband! The gentle shaking she perceived in Elizabeth's person left Georgiana with little question as to the affect of Lady Thistlewaite's indiscretion. It had indeed trespassed upon her sister's emotions without mercy.
"Elizabeth?" Georgiana inquired gingerly, not wanting to be guilty of trespass herself.
"Pray, forgive me, Georgiana," Elizabeth begged weakly through her attempts to compose herself. Elizabeth turned to them as she confessed, "Tis all too much."
"Elizabeth?!" Georgiana repeated, using the arm to pull herself forward as she struggled to comprehend her sister's humor. Elizabeth's shudders had not been from grief, but from mirth! "You are able to make light of this?"
The disturbance she heard in Georgiana's voice, sobered Elizabeth's, "The subject of her discourse is wholly unpleasing, I grant you, Georgiana. However, could you have but seen your brother's countenance upon his surprise encounter with Lady Thistlewaite this night." Elizabeth's eyes twinkled from her remembrance. Elizabeth resumed her place beside her sister, "Georgiana you yourself declared it. Nothing could induce Fitzwilliam to favor another woman with his particular attention..."
"Especially her," Kitty interrupted, distorting her face for affect.
Elizabeth suppressed Kitty with an expression as can only be wielded by an elder sister. A grin betrayed her sterness though, as she continued, "With such a husband as Sir Harold, I think we must show Lady Thistlewaite charity. If Fitzwilliam has shown any kindness, I imagine it to be the only consideration she has received for a very great while. And you must concede your brother is a little naive of the affect of his good manners."
Georgiana smiled kindly. The affect had always been the same when William had called upon her at school. One might have thought William to be the only brother ever to show his sister or her acquaintances any consideration.
"And he is generous. He would never withhold aid were it his to give." Elizabeth paused thoughtfully, "And apparently, not even when injured."
"Do you believe that a faithful account?" Kitty interjected. "I have seen no evidence of it."
Fitzwilliam was suddenly before her as Elizabeth pondered the question--his reserve as he had descended the stairs... the expression she had thought to be detachment... the hour of his return...
"Yes, Kitty, I believe it true." Elizabeth pronounced with a dawning understanding.
Georgiana was quiet as she kept company with her own thoughts.
"But his leg, Lizzy," Kitty objected, with her father in mind, "If it pains him, he would not have come, surely."
"No," Georgiana defended calmly, "He is here because of me. Is he not Elizabeth?"
And for fear of reprisal? A small voice, coming from her heart questioned.
No words were exchanged as wife and sister appreciated the man's sacrifice, each ascribing her own significance.
"Georgiana, would you be terribly disappointed if we returned home?" Elizabeth suggested.
Kitty made to complain, but Georgiana's insistence silenced her reply.
"Of course, we must!" Georgiana added with wrinkled brow, "But he will go most unwillingly if he believes himself the cause."
"Yes, you are right. We must think of a way to take leave without him knowing the true reason..." Elizabeth hesitated, while plotting their excuse.
"We might say one of us has taken ill," Kitty offered meekly, being one to follow when others took the lead and knowing there was no hope of remaining.
Sparing his pride no indignity, Darcy's arm denied him the support he called upon in deference to the feebleness of his leg, landing him in the chair with an undignified flop. Darcy's grimace closed his eyes tightly as he strove to conquer the malevolence preying upon his vulnerability.
The gentleman's earlier refusal of aid had signified his wish to own for himself the nature and extent of his discomfort. And as was fitting, Lang had honored the man's privacy by maintaining his silence on the subject. He would not have considered any inquiry now, but for evidence of his guest's need. While summoning his man, Lang anxiously offered relief he hoped useful, but not intrusive, "Mr. Darcy, my father stocks an excellent cellar...Will you have a glass of port? Or sherry perhaps?"
Darcy accepted succinctly through the pain, "Port."
As his footman responded to his gestures for haste, Lang shifted uneasily not knowing what to say as Darcy remained behind closed eyes, absorbed in his own thoughts. "Ah, here we are, sir..."
Lang received his guest's murmured gratitude as he accepted the proffered glass and then watched as Darcy, with singular purpose, drained it of its contents with one long swallow, leaving him to wonder even more what the man concealed. But he now knew it to be of greater consequence than he had first imagined.
With small chagrin, Darcy contemplated the glass showing at the bottom of the bowl. "Hmm," Darcy apologized for his awkward display as he looked to Lang, "Pray forgive my enthusiasm for its power over its pleasure." Darcy lifted his empty glass, in momentary salute, as he offered modestly "Your father has my compliments on his selection."
"I thank you, sir and I shall be most happy to convey your regards to my father." Lang quickly indicated for Darcy's glass to be refilled. "Pray, avail yourself of all you require...desire," Lang corrected himself. "Would you care for cards or a game of backgammon while we wait? I should hope we have not the time for chess," Lang added wistfully more to himself.
As he allowed the liquid to be added to his glass, the corner of Darcy's mouth curved wryly at Lang's eager discontent in waiting upon Georgiana. Catching the room's ambient light within the liquid's darkness as he laced it around the swell of the glass, Darcy considered the qualities embodied within. If this gentleman was in earnest, intending to bestow his attention upon Georgiana, then he was obligated to discover more of his character. Darcy inhaled the aroma of the wine, this time duly savoring its bouquet before taking an appreciative taste. He had long held the belief the play of one's game revealed much of one's character, especially those engagements requiring more employment of skill and strategy than submission to happenstance--though even those were useful as they often revealed one's decision to either willingly yield or stubbornly maneuver a better end. As the warmth of the liquid made its way along its intended path, Darcy wished for a more favored time, but accepted the opportunity none the less.
Darcy held up the glass again with a final look of evaluation, before confirming his previous pronouncement, "Yes, very fine. If we are to be here for a time then, I should choose backgammon-- though I fear at present, my performance may provide neither of us with any great diversion. Let us hope we will know little need of it."
Lang motioned for a nearby set to be brought before Darcy's chair. "If you will excuse me, sir, I will arrange to be informed of your party's emergence without delay." Lang quitted Darcy with a hasty bow and a meaningful look to his footman, instructing his careful attention to his guest's needs.
As the footman tended to setting the backgammon table before him, Darcy sipped from his glass and watched the comical pantomime of Lang's instructions to his man at the room's entrance. From his gestures, Darcy was without doubt whom Lang described. The detail he showed in height, headdress, jewels, and Darcy guessed color too from the way Lang stopped to consider before gesturing a flow of material, Lang could only be conjuring the image of Georgiana.
Smitten,Darcy pronounced to himself dryly, Wholly smitten. A long draught from his glass, punctuated Darcy's analysis.
Their plan was fixed upon and all agreed it would succeed. Or so they must believe, for it was the only means they could conceive to convince a certain gentleman to quit the ball--an action they deemed most beneficial for his sake, and yet one he seemed determined to avoid for their own.
However, though she had been the very one to suggest the approach they would employ, Kitty still thought to persuade her sisters to stay. "Lizzy, can we not be certain Darcy is injured before we must leave? After all, Lady Thistlewaite might only exaggerate this claim as she did others." Without waiting for her own sister's reply, Kitty plied Darcy's, hoping for agreement, "Georgiana, your brother does not act as though he is hurt, does he? Would he not show some symptom?"
"He has always been of such constitution as to rarely suffer any indisposition. I can hardly think of a time that he has been truly ill," Georgiana admitted, considering her past years with her brother. With the separation of several years and often many miles, it would often have only been through means of correspondence that she might have known if he even had been ill. She suspected there had indeed been times he had been unwell, but did not reveal it to her, believing her to fret about him had she known. "I do recall, however, one circumstance while at Pemberley in which he appeared not at all in health and yet he consistently denied any need as he maintained his day's usual routine. Later, when he had not come down for dinner and neither sent word, Mrs. Reynolds and I went in search of him. We found him dressed for dinner, but slumped uncomfortably in his chamber's chair, as though he had fought the need for sleep until he could no longer fend it off. Even so, it had only been when confronted with his inability to rise the next morning, did he acknowledge he was unwell. My brother is not one to make easily known that which he wishes to withhold," Georgiana expressed kindly, but with regret. Her eyes widened momentarily as she fell silent, suddenly feeling herself impertinent in openly commenting on her brother's behavior.
Elizabeth might have laughed at Georgiana's understatement, as well as Kitty's pout in response to it, were it not for the pink rising in the young woman's cheeks. After all that had gone between she and her husband in the two days passing, she had no reason to believe Fitzwilliam Darcy would begin confessing easily now. But, even without his admission or physical sign, Elizabeth was certain. She was not unsympathetic to Kitty's disappointment, though, nor was she to Georgiana's, even though hers remained unvoiced. This was to have been a grand night for each.
With a gentle firmness, she insisted, "No, Kitty. I am afraid it will not do to stay. I think we must return to the ballroom without delay and make our excuses to our hostess." Elizabeth added with a meaningful smile intended for both her sisters, "And to certain others who take an interest in our party."
Her smile showed a shy complacency from the thought of a gentleman finding pleasure in her company, but in her eyes, Georgiana wore an expression of thoughtfulness. "Elizabeth," she asked, considering carefully her words, "Do you believe all will be well with our return home?"
Darcy flexed his eyes and shifted to a position no more comfortable than the last. But, the change roused his mind for the moment as Lang made his next move with little contemplation while continuing with the details of his conversation.
Darcy frowned slightly before placing his opponent's circle on the bar and sat back with a tired sigh. As he had attempted to mind the steady flow of Lang's conversation, as well as the game's play, Darcy had begun to recognize his constitution to be of such weakened condition the drink's power was affecting him more than he desired. Even the discomfort of the fashionable chair did not prevent the drowsy malaise gradually insinuating itself within his senses. Now as he waited upon Lang's next move, though he strove against it, his eyelids were shutting under a burden proving impossible to withstand. With only a distant realization, did Darcy succumb to that force more powerful than his will.
It was her particular choosing of the word "all" and her uneasy pensiveness that led Elizabeth to believe Georgiana cared for more than merely her brother's physical comfort. Though she had wished to shield Georgiana from the affects of the argument she had had with Fitzwilliam, she realized it to have been naive. Georgiana's nature made her too perceptive to leave her blind to their situation. But whether from the help of laughter induced by the unlikely source of Lady Thistlewaite, or from her awareness of her husband's softened and attentive countenance as she had danced with another; whether from Kitty's insistence of her powers, or Aunt Gardiner's assurances still whispering to her heart; whether from one or from all, Elizabeth could not help but greet their return home with hope. "Yes, Georgiana, I do believe all shall soon be well."
Elizabeth stood confidently, smoothed her dress and adjusted the bracelet adorning her wrist. "Now, Georgiana, do you believe the latch of your necklace to be of the metal to part company with Lady Thistlewaite and suffer the disappointment of your gentleman?"
Kitty had quite forgot the source of her earlier curiosity as she had tried to make sense of everything Elizabeth and Georgiana had expressed. Hurriedly peering through the break of the screen, Kitty announced, "Oh, they have gone, Lizzy! At least I can not see them from here."
Georgiana's relief was acute; she had not relished an encounter with that lady. But it was of little matter, Elizabeth's confidence had already bolstered her courage. Drawing on the benefits of a deep breath before rising, Georgiana squared her shoulders as she assured her sister, "I do not know that any shall be as disappointed as you suggest. However, I do think my necklace strong enough to withstand whatever test might come."
Elizabeth laughed warmly, entwining her arms with that of Georgiana and Kitty. "Come ladies, we have a gentleman to rescue."
Lang stayed his man's words before he could speak them. His guest had only just nodded off and he thought disturbing him ill-advised. Rising, he silently beckoned him to follow.
"Sir, your party is returned to the ballroom" the servant informed when they had attained a discreet distance.
Georgiana, Lang's countenance brightened. But as he turned his back on his footman, Lang's features lost their obvious anticipation as he considered the man as he dozed.
"Hmhmm," Lang cleared his throat again, hoping his guest to rouse this time, saving him the decision whether to act more intrusively.
Darcy stirred as he opened his eyes, allowing the unfamiliar surroundings and the discomfort of his position to gradually inform him of his present circumstance. His eyes grew wide with dismay as he realized he had fallen asleep. How long?! His mind searched through his grogginess. Darcy straightened to a respectable posture, noticing thankfully he had at least not made spectacle of himself by dropping his glass to the floor. "Lang, pray forgive me," Darcy murmured unsteadily. Demanding performance of his senses with a sharp intake of air, Darcy made himself at least alert to Lang's change as he stood before him. "Have you word, then?"
"Yes, sir. I have report your party has resumed the ballroom."
Though he wished for an immediacy in his own return, his body gave no indication of allowing it. The ache of his head had been soothed for the time, but his knee had assumed a stiffness from his repose that defied his furtive attempts to move it. And in his arm was a throbbing covered by a sensation suggesting the cloth of his bandage had become saturated, matting itself to his skin. Darcy frowned, grudgingly acknowledging his defeat. He would be a fool to think he could remain any longer. He knew what it was he must do. But how was it to be done? He prayed God he could accomplish it with the least provocation of anger and discontent from his wife and sisters.
Darcy felt Lang's expectant gaze. And here is a man who will be none too pleased. But it cannot be helped, his thoughts defended staunchly. He could feel pity for Lang, though. It would take him some time to make his way to the ballroom to face the inevitable...
As he placed his glass on the chair's companion table, Darcy suggested, "Mr. Lang, I thank you for your hospitality. May I require more of you? Would you be so kind as to inform my party of my intention to join them with only a brief delay?"
With a broad smile, Lang promised, "Yes, of course, Mr. Darcy. I should be honored to see to Miss Darcy--and Mrs. Darcy and Miss Bennet." Thinking to understand the gentleman's other requirements, Lang motioned to his footman, "My man here will show you." And without any further prodding or encouragement, Lang quitted Darcy with a hasty bow and made to fulfill his promise.
Seeing to it that Lang had first made round the door, Darcy quietly enlisted the footman's assistance in retrieving that instrument which would enable at least his approach to the ballroom.
"Ah, Miss Darcy, you are returned," Farrow greeted as he emerged through the mix of guests to where Georgiana stood.
As Darcy had been nowhere to be seen, she, along with Kitty, had been asked to take up separate places in the room in order to watch for their relation while made their excuses to their hostess.
"I had come to fear Lang would be the only gentleman to claim the pleasure of dancing with you this evening. But now here you are--and I am heartily glad of it, for the next is just to begin." Farrow stopped to allow the affect of his appreciative smile before entreating, "May I claim my dance?" Farrow extended his arm for Georgiana's necessary acceptance.
Georgiana would much rather have had Farrow dance with Kitty. But as she had promised her next to him and since Kitty was not immediately present even if she were to beg his understanding, Georgiana felt compelled to dance with him. Reluctantly, Georgiana placed her hand upon his arm, allowing Farrow's lead to the floor.
Craning to see through and about the people who were not whom he sought as he entered, Lang zealously searched the ballroom for Miss Georgiana Darcy. A foreboding shadowed his feelings as his gaze arrived upon Miss Bennet, standing alone and looking rather discontented herself. Questioning the fix of her eyes upon the floor, Lang followed her line until his were met with the sight of Miss Darcy--dancing with Farrow.
Darcy paused, handing the footman his cane, before depositing the valued coinage in the man's hand.
"Thank you, sir!" The man exclaimed, surprised not only by the gesture, but also by the gentleman's generosity. "I will see that it waits you at the door."
Darcy acknowledged the man's service with a cursory nod as he stared ahead to the ballroom's entrance, already bracing himself to the pain he would know with his next unaided step.
The pleasantries each could conceive while better attending to his and her own fancies had been expressed and neither Lang nor Kitty now spoke for want of any more to say as they watched the set come to an end.
"Lang!" Farrow hailed jovially as he escorted Georgiana to where the others stood, "And Miss Bennet." Farrow spoke her name approvingly, granting him a cheerful reception from the lady. "We have regained our happy party, then. But alas, 'tis for only a short while. Is it not, Miss Darcy?"
As Lang looked with disturbed curiosity from Farrow to herself, Georgiana wondered at Farrow's purpose. Though he had been proper and genteel with her while dancing, his manner suddenly seemed rather taunting toward Lang.
Feeling the awkwardness of her commission's introduction, Georgiana first looked down at her fan before briefly meeting Lang's eyes. However, her explanation was interrupted as a figure appeared to her side, bowing as he inquired, "Miss Darcy, may I engage you for the next?"
Lang was incredulous! First a hint of her leaving, only to be topped by Raleigh choosing that moment to ask for her hand.
Georgiana could feel the heat rising in what must now be crimson-colored cheeks as she looked apologetically to Lang for the confusion he must be suffering and then to Raleigh for the need of her refusal. "Mr. Raleigh, I thank you. Under more felicitous circumstances, I would be honored. However, I must decline."
Lang was at least glad for that!
Georgiana continued, "I was just to explain, a member of my party is unwell and we find we must take our leave."
Raleigh's disappointment was obvious, but constrained as he respectfully communicated his wish for better health on the part of her family and a desire to find himself again in her society. Raleigh threw Lang a look full of meaning as he withdrew, leaving little doubt of his intentions. He had not given up.
The storm in Lang's countenance quelled as he looked upon Georgiana. Taking the liberty of a step closer, Lang voiced intimately, "Miss Darcy, I am grieved you shall not be remaining." Lang hesitated before conceding, "But of course with your brother in such obvious ill health, you must not."
Georgiana's glance to Kitty was full of astonishment. What intelligence does he possess that we do not?!
"Is he oft inflicted in this way or does he limp from his match today?" Lang inquired sincerely.
How am I to answer? Georgiana wondered, shocked to find Mr. Lang to be counted as another possessing more knowledge of her brother than his own family.
Georgiana silently lamented her inability to control the blush she felt again overspreading her skin, but the tumult of her thoughts and feelings only ensured it. Match? Does he refer to chess? William inquired after Farrow's leg. But how does one injure one's leg during chess?! Georgiana pondered again. And yet, we know William to have been hurt from being overtaken by the carriage...Do we not? Their reason for leaving was beginning to take form in her own person as an ache began to press at her temples.
Georgiana answered hesitantly, "My brother does not suffer this often." To my knowledge... She did not wish to give more of a response, requiring her to fabricate more than she knew, but neither was she willing to confess her own ignorance.
"I am glad to hear it. I had thought it perhaps a recurring lameness since he is here tonight. I should wonder at anyone having the ability to dance in such a state," Lang commented freely. Acknowledging her piqued countenance, Lang observed kindly, "But you are concerned for him. Mr. Darcy and Mrs. Darcy are there with Mama. They must be taking leave. Please, may I take you to them?"
Georgiana wondered, as she accepted, if either gentleman heard Kitty's sigh of regret,"I thank you for your kindness, Mr. Lang."
"Mr. Darcy," the evening's hostess lamented as he drew near, "Mrs. Darcy was just telling me your unfortunate news. It is such a pity you are to leave. Are you not certain you will stay? So much of the evening remains before us. Really it is a shame for the gentlemen to be deprived of such dear ladies. Perhaps if she has a lie-down she might do well."
Elizabeth could barely contain her smile. Mrs. Lang's impulsive misunderstanding of whom she had intended when she had related one of their party had taken ill was more than convenient. But even more, was her husband's apparent willingness to accept Mrs. Lang's inference while adding his own. Seeing Georgiana herself, Elizabeth could not wonder though. She did not at that moment appear well.
Upon hearing the reason for their imminent departure, Darcy searched the room, finding Kitty and Georgiana engaged with Lang and Farrow. He was easily convinced by what he observed. He had earlier suspected Georgiana's reason for removing to the Ladies' Rooms was merely a polite excuse and now he was certain of it.
Though a Providential means of leaving, it was not upon his own benefit that he now pondered.
"Mrs. Darcy, is Georgiana well enough to travel?" Darcy queried his wife.
"Yes, I believe she is," Elizabeth hoped Georgiana's farewells were not going badly.
Darcy nodded pensively as he pronounced quietly, "Very well." Turning to his hostess, he declined her offer, "You are most kind, Mrs. Lang. However, if Miss Darcy is unwell, I do not wish her to remain..."
"Goodnight, Mr. Darcy," Lang bid the gentleman and his party farewell with a courteous bow before they descended the stairs. "Mrs. Darcy, Miss Bennet." And with particular emphasis, "Miss Darcy."
"Goodnight, Mr. Lang," Darcy returned the gesture before turning to his wife and solemnly offering her his arm.
As they descended the stairs at a more than stately pace, Elizabeth looked up, wishing him to meet her eyes, but he did not turn his gaze aside from the bottom step. The sentiment she had hoped to find there was not. His feelings were inscrutable.
"More's the pity, old man," Farrow observed with droll sympathy as he came up behind Lang. Lang made no reply as he watched the young ladies follow their escorts down the stairs.
Farrow clapped Lang's shoulder soundly. "Steady on, man. Other fish still swim in the pond." Leaning in as he confided conspiratorially, "One lady has asked after you most persistently..." Giving Lang's shoulder a final jostle, Farrow allowed his advise to take his place as he started back to the festivities.
Recognizing he could not remain at the top of the stairs all evening, Lang relinquished his hold of the woman's image, and reluctantly followed his friend to the ballroom.
As the ladies moved into the foyer, Darcy availed himself of the nearest wall out of their sight. Leaning heavily against its support, Darcy wiped his brow with his cloth. Holding his step firm had taken every bit of his concentration, and though he had keenly wished to indulge his wife's attempts to engage him, he had had no strength to spare. Darcy gladly accepted his walking stick from the attentive footman and with a heave of breath, relinquished the wall's strength, making his way to his family.
"Georgiana, are you unwell?" Elizabeth whispered closely as the three women waited their wraps.
"Elizabeth, even Lang knows of William's affliction!" Georgiana exclaimed in an intense whisper. "I confess I am most heartily confused. William is injured--enough for Lang to wonder at his being here. And yet with us, William does not show any sign of it!" Georgiana paused, accepting her pelisse. "Again a match has been cited in which William might be injured. I cannot see, however, that an occupation such as chess offers such danger, so I must believe him to have engaged in some other. Elizabeth, I fear William has been harmed in a manner we do not know!" Georgiana concluded with alarmed urgency rising in her voice.
"If you are ready, our carriage waits us."
The three women visibly startled from the intimacy of their conference. Darcy found their behavior curious, but only the expression of his eyes gave the slightest indication.
"Georgiana, we shall take you to Erewile* and then Miss Bennet, I will accompany you to Gracechurch Street."
"No!" Georgiana voiced with more emotion than she had intended. Assuming a more moderate tone, "I thank you, brother, but such circumnavigation is not necessary. I am well enough. Let us return home together."
"Hm" Darcy considered briefly, "Let us be off, then."
That Darcy did not insist upon his way, only confirmed for the ladies of his house that he was truly unwell.
Kitty's departure was the only commotion suffered by the carriage's quiet as it had journeyed home, with the sounds of the horses' hooves and the passing of other conveyances serving as the only distraction from the private thoughts being contemplated within.
Upon arriving Gracechurch Street, Kitty had fairly leaped up, nervously insisting Darcy should not see her in. Elizabeth had hurriedly agreed, suggesting Weston see Kitty to the door, in order that Georgiana might not be delayed in her return home. Opening the carriage's door at that moment, as if following direction for his appearance upon the stage, Darcy's man had stood waiting to assist the young woman. Before Darcy could insist, Kitty had quickly bade all well and quit the carriage. The final spoken exchange was even more of a curiosity though. After alighting from the carriage, Kitty had turned back to Georgiana, imploring, "Pray do not keep me in suspense." Looking guiltily at Elizabeth before fixing Darcy with a look of puzzled sympathy, Kitty had let go the door and run up the steps, not waiting for the footman.
In the diffused light, drifting from the house's interior, Darcy had not been granted a sufficient view of Georgiana to know whether she had blushed. But from her fidgeting with her fan and her insistence upon looking only at that object, Darcy had known her to be disturbed by what might have been exposed by Kitty's odd remark. Lang, no doubt Darcy had frowned slightly as he had shifted uncomfortably. That Erewile was to be their next and final destination had indeed been a welcome thought.
Crane wordlessly removed the mistress' pelisse, handing it to the waiting footman. He would not be overstepping his position in the house were he to inquire after their evening, but the discordant manner of their earlier departure advised him to leave the question unasked. If their premature return was due in any part to a continuing disharmony, any further reference to it might only excite suppressed emotions better left unspoken. With the mistress and Miss Georgiana neither possessing her usual composure and the master looking wan and tired as he took his hat and cane, Crane assumed the party more ill than well.
The hour of their return did necessitate at least one question, though--dinner would not yet have been served at the ball--
"Shall I have a dinner prepared for you in the dining room? Or will you be taking refreshment in the drawing room?"
The gnawing emptiness in his insides reminded Darcy he had had no sustenance since breakfast, but any meal served in the dining room was unthinkable! Traveling up and down the stairs again simply could not be done. He was not certain he could traverse their rise now to make the upper floor, to say nothing of his chambers above.
Though he did not realize it, Darcy had been contemplating the stairs with a frown.
"I should not wish Mrs. Hobbes to be put to any great trouble..." Elizabeth paused as she looked to Georgiana expectantly.
Georgiana did not misunderstand her sister's intention as she demured, "Would you think me rude were I to beg your pardon and only take a tray in my chamber before retiring?"
Elizabeth smiled her approval of her sister's ingenuity and of the agreeableness of her idea, "Oh, yes Georgiana, I should think it just what is called for." Turning to her husband, Elizabeth entreated in her mildest voice, "Pray, Fitzwilliam, shall we not do the same?"
Speaking with his wife while protected from interruption was the kind of intimate society he had sought all evening. And if Georgiana was in need of rest, he would not think her neglected because of their absence. If he could forestall his fatigue for only a little longer, his perseverance might be rewarded with sweet reunion with his wife.
Darcy forgot himself as he moved close to his wife, his limp showing as he stepped. "I should like it very much, my dearest."
The depth of emotion in his low murmur swept past his few words, enfolding her in his ardent gaze. Suddenly, they two were the only people in the room. Here was the desire Elizabeth had longed to find.
As the two seemed momentarily lost in the gaze of the other, Georgiana felt it best to take her leave. Speaking to their butler, "Mr. Crane, will you please see to a tray?" Then quietly to her brother and sister with an embarrassed unease, "Good night."
Elizabeth moved to follow her sister as she awakened from the entrancement of her husband's charm. "I will just see to Georgiana..."
Darcy stayed her leave with a gentle clasp of her hand. Remembering what was to be waiting her and possessing every confidence his request had been fulfilled, Darcy gently drew her back to him. Lifting her hand with the support of his own, Darcy's thumb caressed its arch as his lips met softly with the silken material covering her fingers. His tender gallantry captivated her as he wondered only for her hearing, "Dare I hope to find you in your chambers soon, my love?"
Her heart quickened with his nearness. "Soon my husband, very soon," Elizabeth assured with a throaty whisper. The sparkle dancing in her eyes stole his ability to move, rendering him fixed to the spot as she slowly slid her fingers from his grasp.
For the moment, he was content to watch her graceful figure disappear up the stairs.
"May I take your cape, sir?" Crane had appeared from--amusement curved Darcy's mouth--well, he did not know from whence he came.
Darcy's hands rubbed wearily over his eyes before allowing their return to the stairs. With a sigh of resignation, Darcy again contemplated their challenge. "Yes, Mr. Crane, you may."
The butler adeptly removed his master's outer garment and returned to him before he had taken but two feeble steps. "Sir...May I...Hmhm, that is...Perhaps you would allow..."
It was not often Darcy found his man to be without adequate words. But it was a delicate predicament was it not? He had not asked for any help...
Darcy accepted kindly, "I thank you, Mr. Crane. Your assistance would not be unwelcome. Do you think yourself able to bear my weight?"
Each suffered pangs of guilt, while engaging in their improper observation of the gentleman, but neither denied herself the vantage, each believing it the only means of discovering his secret. But what they saw appearing above the rise of the steps only confused them.
The dark shock of hair coming into view must necessarily belong to the one for whom they waited. But there also was the unmistakable white of a servant's livery. And what was more, the white appeared immediately next to that of Darcy's brown as though in close conference rather than the step or two behind as dictated by the man's station. What could this mean? Their silent expression to each other questioned. They pressed more closely against the edge of the open door, peering more earnestly.
"Here, Mr. Crane, let us stop here." Darcy motioned to a settee in the gallery as they labored together to reach it. Darcy slid his arm from around his butler's shoulder, hopping on one foot as Crane helped steady him while he maneuvered to the seat's edge. With the greatest care, Crane lowered his master down onto the cushion. As Darcy wiped his brow with his handkerchief, Crane tried to steady his breathing. A rest from the exertion was needed by both.
Georgiana muffled her gasp behind her hand as Elizabeth grasped her arm. Elizabeth quietly closed the door before moving into the room's interior.
Wringing her still gloved hands, Georgiana declared anxiously, "Elizabeth I have never seen William in such a state! What are we to do?"
Elizabeth paced about trying to bring order to the havoc of thoughts and emotions within. They certainly could not reveal themselves at that moment, catching her husband unaware. That would never do! But, neither could they continue to act upon their ignorance. Not knowing had been difficult. However, enlightenment had proved to be no more pleasing. Elizabeth considered what her husband had concealed. Oh, Fitzwilliam you are a proud man, she disapproved to herself, though not without a greater love that made her wish to run to his aid that very moment.
Keeping her voice quiet so her husband would not detect their presence, Elizabeth instructed, "Georgiana, you will go to your chamber as planned." Elizabeth clasped her sister's hands kindly, staying her objection. "I will meet with Fitzwilliam in our chambers and find whether he shall reveal this of his own accord. If he has chosen to say nothing of it until now, our confronting him together would only meet with his displeasure and certain failure of our purpose."
The delicate crease of Georgiana's brow showed her displeasure as she considered her sister's words. Though her counsel was probably wise, she could not find it agreeable. However, Georgiana conceded, "I will go, but only if you promise to send for me at once if I may help in any way."
"You shall know the very moment you are needed," Elizabeth promised with a smile.
Only years of service to the master enabled James to withhold the oaths coming to his tongue as the man lowered painfully and pitifully into the chamber's chair. "What is to be done, sir?" The master's countenance had no color other than the red lining his eyes, and his body slumped with an alarming fatigue. "A rest for your leg?" James hurried to retrieve the object. "Some brandy?"
"No, no," Darcy breathed weakly as he used his hand to raise his leg onto the rest--the climb had required more of him than he had hoped. And, if he was to remain awake, he must have no more spirits. Pointing to the location of his bandage, "My arm. Will you see to my arm?"
Both men saw to the disrobing of their master, working as gently and quickly as his condition allowed.
Darcy relaxed into the support of the large cushioned chair, as he was finally divested of his shirt. The air against his skin was cool, but not unwelcome counterpoint to the warmth of his exertion. As James began slowly unwinding the cloth enwrapping his arm, Darcy closed his eyes, wondering Are you in your chamber, my dearest Elizabeth?
Picturing her there, he allowed free reign to the images of his thoughts...
Enveloped by the heady aroma of the vine's blossom and flush from her awakening to the ardor they expressed...
"Are you pleased, my love?" His soft baritone invites...
Rushing into his waiting arms, "Oh, Fitzwilliam, they are magnificent. I love you," she promises into the warmth of his chest...
He lay his cheek atop the softness of her loosed hair, inhaling her sweet scent as he asks contritely, "Will you forgive me?"
In her eyes, as she raises her face to him, no recrimination accuses or resentment denies, only love--wholly and freely given accepts. "Yes, Fitzwilliam, I forgive you..."
Her lips are warm and tender, her embrace soft and yielding...
James shook his head with worried doubt as he exposed the wound. "It is a horrid cut, Mr. Crane. Shall we not call the doctor?" James kept his voice low so as not to wake the master with their consultation.
The latch of the door adjoining the master's chambers, gave way with a clatter as the mistress rushed into the room, tendrils of ribbon fluttering along side her as she carried the small bouquet they adorned. "Fitzwilliam!" Elizabeth exclaimed with the joy of a lover's surprise in her voice, "I could not wait..."
Her step slowed, as the realization of shock and fear hindered her movement. Eyes wide with disbelief apprehended singular detail from the frightening scene before her. The brown stain marring the crumpled shirt on the floor... The blood-soaked bandage James hastily hid behind his back... The alarm in his stricken countenance and...
Turning with the slowness of dread, Elizabeth looked to the motionless body slumped in the chair. Kneeling beside her husband, she gently stroked the locks from his forehead. Her hand jumped as his brow twitched at the sensation of her touch, causing her to smile with small relief. The crease of her brow was serious and contemplative as she lightly trailed her fingers down from the curve of his bare shoulder to the loathsome mark disfiguring his skin.
"Mr. Crane?" Her bewilderment making her inquiry almost inaudible as she looked to him for explanation.
Crane's outward calm belied his inner turmoil. His master would be ill-pleased when finding his wound had been discovered. But that was nothing to the very great regret Crane felt at the distress the mistress now suffered. Yet, it was not for him to console her and what little he knew would accomplish no great relief were he to divulge it. It was the master's place to console and inform--if he wished, but at present he could not, leaving the lady wretched. Crane was left in the untenable position of being loyal to both, but helpful to neither.
Crane expressed himself carefully, "Madame...The master has...met with small injury..."
Elizabeth frowned openly as she rose. Looking first at her husband, then to each of his men...She fully comprehended their instructions. Never the less...
The Mistress of the House addressed those in its service with composed authority, "This cut must be seen to and Mr. Darcy moved to his bed. James, you will make it ready--and with sufficient cover. Mr. Darcy must not take a chill. Mr. Crane, I require old cheese from the kitchen, the moldier the better, and fresh bandages."
James hesitated apprehensively, hoping Crane would speak first. He was certain the master would not approve the use of the odorous substance in a remedy as the mistress seemed to intend. To his immediate dismay, Crane's considered response was only that of courteous acceptance.
James began without the sound of confidence, "Mrs. Darcy, ma'am, would you not prefer to call a ..." His counter faded away at the slight tilting of the mistress' chin. She had not been so long in the house for him to know the meaning of her every gesture, but this one he did recognize. She would brook no interference with her plan. And, Crane's serious look was perfectly understood as well.
James corrected himself, "Pray forgive my forwardness, ma'am. The bed shall be ready as you require."
Elizabeth bent down, overspreading his exposed chest with the warmth of his robe, and placing a soft kiss upon his forehead. A smile graced her lips as she rose. She often supposed the gentle rumbling of his slumber, to be the sound a bear would make if it purred. Whenever waking to it in their bed, she would merely wrap herself more deeply in the warmth of her covers and allow the rich tones of his quiet resonance to methodically lure her back to sleep.
Gathering up the flowers she had dropped upon finding him, Elizabeth knelt again at the side of his chair. A small sigh expressed love--and exasperation-- as she covered his hand with her own. "Oh, Fitzwilliam, you foolish man..." The roses laying in her lap bathed the air with their fragrance as she breathed. "You dear, foolish man."
Used with permission, granted by PamelaT., and with gratitude for her ingenious christening of the Darcy's London home.
Continued in Ebb & Flow
© 1997, 1998, 1999 Copyright held by author