A Young Lady of Pemberley
If you are ever fortunate enough to visit the county of Derbyshire, you could not employ your time better than by applying to be shewn around the very large and very beautiful Pemberley House. Chatsworth notwithstanding, there is no finer private residence in the land; its grandeur and magnificence is unparalleled, the gardens are well-tended and laid out, and its rooms are filled with priceless treasures and rare paintings.
It is amongst these paintings - in the Long Gallery, if memory serves - that there is a portrait of one particular young lady who had the good fortune to live in this house some time ago. Much has been written about her ancestors, and her parents are known to be some of the best and most benevolent that ever lived. There is however, very little that describes the young lady herself, and her adventures in the year that she entered society will be related here, in order to do this lady a service by recording her tale on the page.
Miss Elizabeth Darcy, as her portrait will attest, was an extremely beautiful girl. From birth it was confirmed by all that she was destined for great things. She had her mother's sparkling eyes and her father's commanding countenance, but it was debated for quite some time whether or not she was a true mixture of Darcy and Bennet. Her maternal grandmother loudly voiced the opinion that the babe had her aunt Jane's beautiful features; whereas her aunt Georgiana confided in Mr Bingley that she was really too curly-haired to be wholly Bennet. From such flattery and focus of affection, Beth might have grown to be rather spoilt and disagreeable, but Fate chose to be kind to the Darcys and she was soon followed by a sister, Jane and a brother, William, whose similarly fine qualities merited equal praise.
These siblings were several years younger than Beth however, and until she was five years old, this girl was privileged enough to be companion to her mother; their relationship was one of such fondness and warmth that no mother and daughter in all the world could have been more attached. Mrs Darcy, as her husband's wife, set the example to her eldest child of great goodness and compassion, directed towards those on the Pemberley estate and the village; at the same time, Elizabeth instilled in her daughter her characteristic love of laughter and merriment, and by the time our story commences, Beth was well known amongst general acquaintance for her sharp wit and love for all that was ridiculous and diverting, as her mother had been before her.
If Miss Darcy had one fault however, it was that she was sometimes rather too outspoken in defence of what she felt to be just and right; she was a passionate reader of all kinds of literature - novels, poetry and history, philosophy, geography and the classics were all available from her father's vast library; her knowledge of these, fuelled by her mother's playfulness and wit, led her to a propensity to question everything posed by others in conversation. Her opinions were in no way unfounded, for she had a sound judgement, nor was she prone to outbursts of extreme passion or feeling. Her mode was to calmly make her points - and they were often many - one after the other, and to retaliate until her opposition could not possibly respond. Her father was fond of debating with her thus, and often picked a topic solely to cajole her into discussion; Mrs Darcy was likewise confident of her daughter's abilities, and only worried that her tendency to defend her beliefs might portray her as rather too argumentative at times.
When Beth was eighteen years old (the year immediately preceding my story), she was prepared for her entry into London society; Mr Darcy's townhouse was aired and made ready, and Mrs Darcy herself journeyed with her daughter to the capital. After one evening at Covent Garden however, Beth was struck by a severe case of the scarlet fever and was ill for several weeks. She stayed in London for the duration of her illness (tended by her heartsick mother and father) but by the time she was sufficiently recovered, the season was all but over. This, together with her appearance (marred by the loss of her lustrous hair) persuaded her parents to repair back to Derbyshire and to wait until the next season to present their daughter.
Beth was bitterly disappointed; the few glimpses of town had excited her anticipation, and to have been sent home an invalid seemed a journey half begun - nay, not even half, for she had met hardly anyone of note, and had not been presented formally. She had spent the last twelvemonths buried in her favourite volumes of poetry, stroking her hair to see if it was grown back yet, and longing for the hands of the clock on the library mantle to move faster.
She was doing precisely this one morning when, hearing the hour chime, she suddenly decided to go downstairs and see what she could find anything in the post amuse herself. With her book in her hand, she descended the staircase and was in time to receive the letters that had just at that moment been delivered. The first two were addressed to her, and the one on top was inscribed in her grandmother's cursive handwriting:
You are too good to me, I am sure; I have been very well pleased with the cushion you sent me. Tell your sister Jane that the stitching is perfectly acceptable, and that her mother, I declare, could not embroider half so well at that age. I have put your gift in the sitting room, and I must say it becomes the room well. Even your grandfather agrees, though I think he is rather jealous that he has not got one himself. Be so good as to make up another and I daresay either he or I would put it to good use. Your aunts send their best love - Mrs W says to remind you that she will be taking the sea air in Bournemouth soon, so please direct all correspondence there. Aunt Mary also asks me to say that she is forwarding some new music for your piano - although why she cannot use up her own writing paper to tell you, I cannot say. My health, you will be sorry to hear, is no better. Do tell your aunt Bingley that her recommendations did me no good - I declare it is the presence of so many grandchildren that upsets my poor nerves so. I confess I shall be glad to see them leave - they are so dear, but your aunt Catherine has stayed nigh on two weeks, and I can stand very little more, I think. Is your mother still being attended by the same doctor who visited when your brother was born? Tell her that I shall write suggesting a better one - your aunt Bingley saw one Mr. Barraclough, who attended upon Lady Jersey, and if that is not recommendation enough, I do not know what is. Remember me to your parents, and do write as soon as possible about that extra cushion.
J. Bennet, etc.
Beth smiled in spite of herself - a letter from her grandmother Bennet never failed to lift her spirits. Repetitive it might be, but it also provided much needed news from Hertfordshire - she had indeed forgotten that aunt Catherine was going away, but it rather alarmed her that Aunt Mary was sending yet more music to learn; Beth felt another recital looming in the not too distant future.
Her heart leaped with anticipation as she recognized the elegant hand on the next letter as that of her aunt Georgiana, and she pulled the letter open and read its contents. With a gasp of delight, she ran into the next room, which happened to be her mother's morning saloon, to wave the missive aloft. The letter ran thus:
My dear Beth,
Thank you for your most charming letter of the 19th. I shewed it to your uncle and we were both extremely diverted - your poetry has much improved! I feel our separation most keenly since Sir Henry and I departed Pemberley last, and I hope this letter finds you well. I trust your mother's condition is not preventing her from her usual activities, and I beg to be remembered to her also. Please remind your father that the picture he has promised me from the back parlour needs to be sent to London and not to Nottinghamshire - your uncle wishes it to be hung in our own morning room in Grovesnor Square rather than at Horsham. I am reminded of Mrs Darcy again and I now come to the actual reason I write to you. Since it is unlikely your mother will be able to accompany you into town this year, should you like to come to Grosvenor Square and be your cousin's companion this season? I have consulted your parents, and they both agreed to the plan by return of post yesterday; you would travel down to us early in February with your Papa, and you are then welcome to stay as long as you chuse. Discuss it with your mother and send me word as soon as you can when you have decided. You cannot refuse - I promise you much amusement, and all the delights of the season!
Only the omniscient powers of Providence could work in this way; for here was an ideal opportunity presented to Beth. The fact that Mrs Darcy was in the family way again had worried Beth recently as the season loomed closer, but she had refrained from mentioning it out of politeness.
There could, of course, be no other alternative but to accept; Beth duly consulted first her mother, who had been informed of her sister-in-law's plans already and heartily consented; it was (Mrs. Darcy attested) her dearest wish to see Beth enjoy the season this year, even if they were to be parted.
"Consider, Beth, for you might be able to see out the season to its end this time!" Mrs. Darcy said, half-teasing her daughter, for she remembered that Beth had been a most tiresome patient when she had had the scarlet fever. "You will have the advantage surely, for you have seen no less that eight days worth more of London than any of the other young ladies."
"You are very kind to point that out Mama - such a notion had not occurred to me."
"I am in earnest, you know. Let me see . . . you know the way to Covent Garden, the cost of a yard of muslin from Smith's, how many times a week the household across the street has its flowers delivered. Yes, I believe your success will be inexorable. Consider - the more you know of town, the more impressive it will seem to all those other debutantes. Do you not think so, Fitzwilliam?"
"Indeed. Beth, you need none of Latin and Socrates - leave them here at Pemberley. Remember the way to the opera house, and you will be an immediate success," came Mr Darcy's curt response.
Mrs. Darcy then, was in profound earnest; and her husband no less so.
"Shall Beth have a new wardrobe, Mr Darcy, before she goes away? Can your budget stretch to such a expense?" She arched an eyebrow, and Beth smiled at her father innocently.
"I should think so, Lizzy," returned Mr Darcy evenly, sitting at the large desk writing to his sister, and not looking up. "No daughter of mine will attend court in an old gown."
"Are you saying that only the latest fashions can make our daughter beautiful and worthy of acceptance at court? For shame! I had thought that you especially would be amenable to adorning her as little as possible, for do not the plainest and poorest girls make the best matches?" Mr Darcy looked up upon hearing this remark.
"Arguable," he replied with a smile now playing about his lips. "But you must concede that she will not be half so well received without some new effects. I hear that feathers are quite the thing, Beth, buy a dozen of those."
"Thank you sir," replied Beth, "but I really cannot think of a single thing I need. I have been ready to go to London these six months at least. I could be fit to leave in less than two hours!"
"You flatter us, Beth," laughed Elizabeth, "with such eagerness to be gone from Derbyshire. Are we not good enough in comparison to town?" Beth leaned over and lay her head on her mother's shoulder.
"Dear Mama, you know I meant no such thing; but I do so want to see London again, you can't imagine. I could be ready tomorrow if I had to be - there, does that sound more practical?"
Mr Darcy stood up and looked down at his wife and daughter. "I am sure you will be a success and make us proud." He smiled. "Just do not buy too much green satin, Lizzy. You know how I detest green satin." And he strode out of the room, leaving the women to begin searching for a catalogue containing all they would ever need to send Beth off to London with the dignity that a young lady of Pemberley deserved.
The journey by coach to London was the longest ever undertaken by Beth - quite literally. She had never been further than London in her life, not even to visit her Bennet relations in Hertfordshire. Her geographical knowledge was limited only to Derbyshire, which she knew as well as her own face, and once beyond its borders, Beth sat back and began to talk to her father.
Beth's relationship with Mr Darcy was probably the most significant in her life thus far, apart from the sacred one with her mother. As a child she had been in utter awe of him; he had always been affectionate and loving towards her, but his manner had not been understandable until she had grown older and was capable of engaging him in more intellectual ways. To those who did not know him intimately, she knew he appeared rather haughty and proud, and it was true he refrained from engaging in conversing with people he felt were not worthy. He was however, very charming and easy with those he felt comfortable with; Beth being one of those fortunate few, felt that he was the only man in the world whom she could love and trust wholly.
The town house belonging to Sir Henry Mallory lay in the exact centre of Grosvenor Square, and like all the others surrounding, it was immensely large, immaculate, and faintly ostentatious. Inside, the rooms were spacious and exquisitely decorated, but Beth's first impression when she was ushered in from the street was that it was devoid of any character; at Pemberley, there were hundreds of paintings depicting her ancestors and living relations; glass cases displayed miniatures of the present Darcys; and there was always a child playing somewhere on the floor, or a frilly maid dusting something in a corner. At number twelve Grosvenor Square, there was utter silence as Beth and Mr. Darcy were shewn into the parlour. A grandfather clock ticking on the far wall and a spidery plant near the fireplace were the only signs of life; there were no servants coming hither and thither with trays or newspapers as there were at Pemberley; no children playing a loud game of skittles in the hall; Beth could not even see any pictures of the house's current inhabitants, only generic depictions of seascapes and English fields and the ancient ancestors of the Mallory family.
Beth sighed loudly in the absence of the noise she was used to, and then, as if on cue, Lady Mallory entered the room and it suddenly seemed brighter somehow. She embraced them both, and invited her brother to stay for tea.
"Thank you Georgiana, but I have an appointment with my solicitor in Chancery," Mr. Darcy replied, and he turned to make his farewell to Beth:
"Have a wonderful time; I am sure you will be well cared for, but do write to us as often as you can." Horribly, Beth felt as if she wanted to cry. Sniffing, she held her father close, and then he released her, taking his leave.
Beth and Georgiana stood at the door to see him off in the carriage, the aunt holding her niece around the shoulders. As they waved, Georgiana whispered,
"I had forgotten how much Fitzwilliam might miss you." They entered the house, and Beth took off her bonnet.
"Oh, I daresay Papa will manage without me; Jane will command his attention while I am absent, I am sure." Georgiana laughed.
"You are his eldest child, Beth, and his feelings towards those in his care are always constant and strong. I ought to know . . ."
Beth was about to reply, when at that moment, the front door opened, and not five seconds later, Sir Henry came into the parlour. An extremely winsome and charismatic man, the house instantly seemed to come to life completely as he removed his hat, put down the newspaper and greeted his niece, all at once. The generic pictures on the walls were now shewn to be studies of Horsham, his country seat in Nottinghamshire, and of his father who had won his baronetage fighting alongside Wellington. Never had any man so owned and thoroughly belonged in his dwelling and for the first time since her arrival, Beth felt truly content and welcome.
"Why Beth, you are early!" he was exclaiming, as he greeted her merrily. "So that was Darcy's carriage I saw just now?"
Georgiana replied that it was, and greeted her husband tenderly. Slightly embarrassed, and feeling like an intruder in the house, Beth requested to be taken to her room, as she wanted to settle in. Sir Henry disappeared into the study, calling on Beth to "only ask" if she found anything wanting or amiss; his wife then led Beth up the grand staircase to the guest rooms.
Beth found the room into which she was shewn immediately to her liking. It was light and airy, the windows facing the square and gardens outside; it was papered in a pale yellow, a pleasant contrast to the sapphire shade on her bedroom walls at Pemberley; she had a delicate washstand in the corner, a large ottoman at the foot of the bed, and a writing desk under one window, already furnished with paper and ink. Beth decided that the hesitant feelings she had experienced in the parlour were no more than nervousness, brought on by the unfamiliarity of the place; for what need has a guest bedroom for personal touches placed by the host? Beth saw before her a blank, onto which she could project her own personality.
Thanking her aunt, Beth opened the bag containing her personal effects and began to arrange them on the dressing table.
London, in the year 1834, at the beginning of the season was a vibrant place, with an atmosphere so exhilarating with the sights and sounds of city life that it made Beth's head swim.
It was the prospect of the season though, and not the city itself, that so excited Beth, for she was no stranger to London; her debut, although rather short-lived, had familiarised her with the basic geography of that area, and she had become accustomed to the vibrancy and constant life she had glimpsed from the window of Darcys' town house in Chelsea. Now a whole season spread itself out before Beth, like a gift waiting to be unwrapped; she was as independent as she ever would be, and despite the expected presence of her aunt as chaperon, the prospect of a summer to please herself had a great appeal. Her senses reeled, her stomach ached with butterfly-like nerves, and she slept fitfully on that first night in Grosvenor Square.
It was in this disposition that Beth was escorted by Lady Mallory to the first ball of the season a few days after her arrival in London. Sir Henry had not deigned to attend, but the two ladies had attired themselves in elegant, if rather tightly fastened dresses, and sent for the carriage. Beth was wearing a brand new ball gown - delicate peach satin with matching shoes and flowers in her hair; the white gloves that came up past her elbows were her mother's, borrowed at the last minute from Elizabeth's boudoir drawer because Beth had mislaid one of her own. As they crossed the courtyard, which was strewn with horses and carriages, Beth felt her stomach tighten. They had formed an elegant queue of guests waiting to enter the building, and Beth caught glimpses of the elaborate headdresses and trains that several of the women were wearing. Despite the beauty of her own gown, she felt very young and provincial, and the feeling was familiar from the year before. Georgiana divined her niece's thoughts, and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze:
"You look exquisite, Beth."
Beth smiled modestly at this, and straightened a little. She had been similarly anxious a year ago before illness had made her leave town. Well, she had aged, had she not? Neither illness nor nerves would prevent her from enjoying the evening. The queue moved forwards and the two women entered the ball.
It was a lavish affair, given by some lord or other; the company had formed groups of acquaintances in corners and by fireplaces, where the men stood together muttering over glasses of brandy, and their women sat in coven-like groups, sliding judgmental eyes over every passer-by. Beth followed her aunt, as she weaved effortlessly through the crowds, throwing waves and nods of acknowledgment to her left and right. She came to a halt at a group of people who looked not half so critical. In the midst of the women was an older lady who seemed to be seated a few inches above the others. In a loud voice, she was talking and giggling to her neighbours with enormous gestures of the hands that was causing several ladies to move back in alarm. When this woman caught sight of Georgiana, she stood up and held her arms open. Beth could now see she was dressed in a vivid green colour, which did not quite match her green gloves and shawl. She had a round, ruddy face and little black eyes.
"My dear 'Ana," she was saying, clasping Lady Mallory. "We had quite despaired of you!"
Beth thought this was rather unfair, for they were not late at all, and she half suspected that these ladies had arrived early, the better to gossip over everyone as they arrived, one by one.
"This is my niece, Miss Elizabeth Darcy," Georgiana announced to the ladies, who had been eyeing Beth with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. At the mention of the name 'Darcy,' they all exchanged glances and nodded most courteously. "Beth," Georgiana added, "this is Lady Bradstock."
"My dear Miss Darcy, a pleasure, quite a pleasure." Her Ladyship's voice had an almost foreign quality to it - it was not quite French, nor Spanish, nor German. "What a divine creature, I do declare. You have the features of your father, I think - there, I see that look! You did not know I was acquainted with your father. Such a man! And to think, you reside at Pemberley, the very jewel in the crown of our country's heritage. I always say that country houses are the ornaments that adorn our landscape. To be sure, in France . . ."
And so she continued, effusing her opinion on Beth's home to the company, who twittered in agreement, and laughed at the necessary places in the speech. Beth meanwhile was desperately racking her brain, but nowhere had she ever heard a mention of this Lady Bradstock at Pemberley. Who could have forgotten such an acquaintance?
"I can tell you now, I intend to be your great friend, Miss Darcy," Lady Bradstock was saying, "and therefore I feel comfortable enough to call you Elizabeth - no, no! That is much too formal, so stiff and opinionated. Have you a shortened name? Eliza - yes, I believe I shall call you that. Now Eliza, are you new to London, a debutante perhaps?"
"No," replied Beth politely. "I have . . ." But Lady Bradstock had clapped her hands together loudly in joy. Almost simultaneously, the orchestra had ceased their warming up and sounded the opening notes of a minuet.
"Then you already know my dear city? Excellent, I could see it straight away, of course, that you were not the shy and hesitant type. Now, I must hear simply everything about you and your family. Have you a beau?"
Beth did not like the tenor of this question, but answered it crisply in the negative. Immediately, Lady Bradstock took it upon herself to seek out a dance partner. After several minutes, the lady's eyes fell upon a tall man who was standing just at the edge of the set, watching the movement of the dancers with seeming amusement. Lady Bradstock whooped, and exclaimed,
"I believe I have found your true love, Eliza - and without a partner, no less. A lawyer, my dear, he knows barely a soul here. Mr. Wickham, I say, over here!"
The name caused Beth and Georgiana, who had been standing behind Beth's chair, engaged in conversation, to jump. Lady Mallory (unseen by her niece) turned a chalky white; Beth, on the other hand, went scarlet and hissed to her tormentor,
"Oh, please, ma'am, I had much rather not dance right now."
"Nonsense child! Rather sit and talk to an old woman indeed - besides, he is coming over already."
And so he was. Beth observed the casual gait and manner of her would-be partner, and was surprised to find herself pleased at the idea of a dance with this Mr. Wickham. He was incredibly handsome, with large blue eyes and a firmly set jaw. His build was not slight, but graceful and strong at the same time. He had evidently dressed carefully, for both his coat and trousers were a corresponding shade of dark blue; his hair, Beth decided, had been deliberately sleeked back for the occasion. This vision approached the circle, and bowed smoothly.
"Oh, dear Mr. Wickham, you must dance with the lovely Eliza Darcy here, for the dancing is begun, and she has no partner."
Beth could have ignited with embarrassment, but instead tried to maintain a passive expression. The gentleman's brow had furrowed and his cheek had coloured slightly, but he bowed and addressed Beth.
"I should be most happy to oblige. Clearly, I would not be incommoded, for w-who could refuse so lovely a lady?"
He stammered a little but there were murmurs of approval from the surrounding ladies, and Mr. Wickham held out his hand and led Beth to the set. They were silent for the first few turns, but the gentleman soon alighted on a topic, stammering again.
"And so Miss Darcy . . . that is an interesting surname, not very common, I believe. W- where are your family from?"
Beth gave the name of Derbyshire, and was startled to see a look pass across his eyes; it was a look her father often used when talking of something unpleasant, a blank, dark look that frightened her. For a moment, he said nothing, and then spoke again.
"And do you reside at Pemberley? That would mean you are Mr and Mrs Darcy's eldest daughter?"
"Yes, I am."
The gentleman said nothing for several minutes, and the look that overcame his face was so pensive and sad that Beth wondered if he was quite well. Her own mind was far from peaceful - his name had excited as much alarm as hers had done for him. Could it be that he was . . . no, surely not?
"You dance well, Miss Darcy." Mr Wickham suddenly said. "I see from your manner and skill on the dance floor you are used to the amusement."
"Indeed, Mr. Wickham," Beth replied, grateful that he had chosen to speak again. "I have a large family, and I am used to attending assemblies and always dance when I visit them. How else is a young girl to learn?"
"Quite so, but I am sure you will concur that to some, the art of dancing is bestowed by divine will. A-all the practice in Christendom could not improve the blunderings of some, and the steps will appear magical when performed for the first time by others."
Beth felt well and truly complimented, and the conversation moved on to Beth's stay in the city; she told him of her aunt and her house in Grosvenor Square, her plans for the season, and her thoughts on the evening's festivities. Mr. Wickham, in contrast, told her only that he was staying with his mother indefinitely while his father was out of town. Beth did not notice this taciturn withholding of information, but instead lost herself in the dancing. She danced the next with another young gentlemen, then another, and only stood up with Mr. Wickham for the last dance, where she was now exhausted and longing for home. Her partner, however, appeared as he had before, and she accepted his invitation to dance the last. She had not nearly learnt as much of him as she had liked; Mr Wickham, however, said no more about himself but continued to ask her about her own interests and life in Derbyshire. Tentatively, Beth spoke a little more about her family.
"I have an aunt, Miss Lydia Bennet as was, who married a Mr Wickham. Perhaps he is some relation of yours?"
Immediately she regretted being so reckless with her tongue. Mr. Wickham released Beth and took a step backwards. Putting his hand to his head, he swallowed.
"Thank you, Miss Darcy, but I have mistaken the time. It is very late, and I am engaged with business early tomorrow."
Before Beth could respond, he bowed (more clumsily than before) and retreated, leaving Beth alone amongst the swaying couples. By now, the whole party was fatigued, some having gone home, and the rest staying only for the sake of their hostess. None then noticed Beth stumble off the dance floor towards her aunt, who had been watching her niece all night.
"He left," Beth said lamely. Georgiana agreed that he had, and coughed.
"Shall we leave? I am quite exhausted." Georgiana picked up her fan from the table and stood up.
"Who was he?" Beth asked suddenly, and her voice seemed loud. "He was a Mr. Wickham, but which one? Should I have known him?" Georgiana shut her eyes tight, and put her hand to her head.
"Oh, my dear, this is exactly what I had been dreading." She opened her eyes. "That young man was indeed Thomas Wickham, your aunt Lydia's child. He is your cousin." Holding out her hands, she murmured that they really out to leave, and guided her stunned niece out of the room.
It will undoubtedly be divined by the reader that Beth slept very little that night. At first she felt embarrassed and bilious; how dare such a beguiling young man abandon her amidst the other dancers? He could not be a gentleman, for he had not explained himself beyond a few words. She then felt disappointed and utterly confused. Could it be possible that she had danced with her cousin and not have realised it till pointed out to her? True, they had never met, and Beth had seen no picture of him; but to someone who knew every member of her family as well as her own soul, it was a bitter blow.
And why indeed was she not acquainted with this young Wickham? For she had seen nothing in his earlier addresses to cause alarm or offence. In truth, Beth admitted privately to herself as she lay awake, Mr. Wickham had impressed her better than any other man she had ever met thus far. He had been attentive and bright, more so than any of the monotonous and indistinctive gentlemen she had danced with at the assemblies in Lambton. Why had she never met him before?
The facts concerning the Wickham family were thus: following the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet to Mr Darcy, Beth's aunt and uncle had made brief and intermittent appearances in her life. She had never seen the senior Mr Wickham, but had heard his name mentioned several times in reference to his career in the regulars, and his rise to the rank of lieutenant - the latter she had heard from her grandmother, who had been most proud of her son-in-law by this time. No time had been given to Beth for any kind of chance encounter either, for Mr George Wickham had gone to his great reward on the battlefield of Waterloo. Mrs Wickham was a more familiar figure to Beth - she had visited Pemberley more than once, but never for more than a few days. Mr Darcy was always courteous, but said very little while she stayed and kept to his study; her mother was slightly more welcoming. Beth was always struck by Lydia's constant high spirits, for she understood that mother and son had no fixed home, but travelled continuously from place to place, and had very little money. Beth had the strangest notion that her mother was responsible for providing her aunt with the occasional loan of money, but had never dared ask. As to her cousin, she was aware from her grandmother that he now lived in Chancery, and was studying for the bar, but until last night had never seen him in the flesh.
The name of Wickham kept Beth awake for most of the night, and it was with a fitful headache and a mind far from rested that she came down to breakfast the following morning. Lady Mallory, seated opposite her niece, greeted her politely but mentioned nothing of Mr. Wickham. Her aunt's silence was unnerving, and Beth was for once grateful to Sir Henry, who kept up a lively stream of topics as they ate.
"I trust that the ball was diverting last night? I shall see my good friend Mr Godley at my club today, and I shall ask his opinion. Did you sleep well, Elizabeth? Your aunt and I agreed you would be comfortable in that guest room, for it catches all the sun in the morning, did you not observe? I confess - I am not a great lover of light rooms, but you ladies - I know - are prodigiously fond of them. Is it not so, Georgiana?"
Georgiana agreed, and Sir Henry excused himself, still with his mouth full, satisfied that his views on womankind were just. A short pause followed his departure, and then it was Georgiana who spoke first:
"Beth, I must speak to you about last night. It did not occur to me that the Wickhams would be moving in the same circles as ourselves - I understood that they were resided in another part of the city. How your mother would fret if she knew you had met Thomas like this. And your father! He would be angry with me, I am sure. I should not have let you dance with the gentleman." She looked so doleful that Beth flew from her chair and took her aunt's hand.
"You are not to blame, aunt," she reasoned. "The meeting could not be helped, and besides, it was over before it had begun. We barely spoke two words together." Beth hung her head as she said this, for what had passed between them had indeed been nothing of import; and yet she could recall the whole conversation clearly, as well as the intense look on her cousin's face as he heard her name.
Georgiana acknowledged the remarks of her niece, and left the room somewhat appeased. Beth however, was still churning all that had occurred around in her head. The discovery of any relative whom one has never seen must always be intriguing, and the fact that it was Thomas Wickham only added to Beth's curiosity and determination to see him again. She saw nothing wrong with her intentions - for they were family after all. Her father, perhaps, would raise some objection, but her father always objected to any man approaching his daughter and besides, he was not here. The embarrassment of last night was forgotten, and she saw it had been a blessing of the best kind. At last, she could acquaint herself with this branch of the family.
Beth's stay in London now chiefly became an exercise in people-watching. This was usually done for her own amusement, but now was an earnest and constant lookout for her elusive cousin. At the theatre, her eyes sought out every face in the audience; in the park, she examined every passer-by as she strolled out with Georgiana; at dances and balls, she prayed that he would appear to lead her down the set.
Fate, however, preferred to tease her, and she heard only reports of him from acquaintance. Anne Vyne said he danced "exquisitely;" Lady Bramston praised his looks and "quiet demeanour;" and Mrs Noakes admitted that she had been rather taken with his blue coat. Beth heard all this, and could have wept with frustration, for she seemed always to have just missed him at such and such a place. It really was too bad.
It is a truth, nonetheless, that Providence provides us with what we want only when we are not thinking about it. It was several weeks later, when Beth was standing in front of a shop-window and carefully weighing whether she ought to purchase the lace displayed, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to see the very Mr. Wickham she had longed for all this time.
Once again, he seemed to Beth's eyes (trained in the example of her father) to be most immaculately dressed; a plain green coat with matching gloves was topped with hat and cane complete; overall, the effect was most pleasing. Moreover, his air was much more encouraging than previously; his cheeks were pink and his eyes sparkled - Beth observed that they were those of his mother.
"Pardon me Miss Darcy, for disturbing you, but I saw you from across the way, and I felt I must apologise to you; my behaviour when we last met was not as it should have been. I should not be surprised if you were questioning my character entirely. I really am most deeply sorry. Can you say anything to put me out of my misery?"
All this was delivered in a most heartfelt and implicit tone, and its effect on Beth was profound. Immediately (caught off guard by his repentant manner), she accepted the apology; she professed that she had been most alarmed at his departure that night, and concerned as to whether there had been something amiss. But now, these worries alleviated, they fell into step together and strolled off down the street.
"I tell you," Mr. Wickham added, "my chagrin worsened later when it occurred to me that we are cousins after all."
"I suppose we are."
Beth was struck suddenly with pity for him; she thought of all of her other cousins - the familiar Bingleys especially - and it saddened her to think that Thomas Wickham knew none of them. Now more sensitive to his exclusion than ever, they continued.
It was as if the last fortnight had never taken place. The two exchanged their news and topics of mutual interest. They walked together in perfect rhythm, broken only when Mr. Wickham stopped and retraced their steps, in order to retrieve Miss Darcy's scarf. When they reached the end of Bond Street, Mr. Wickham suddenly looked hesitant.
"Miss Darcy, I know I ask a lot of you, but it . . . would give me great pleasure if you would come and take tea with my mother and myself tomorrow. Your aunt is invited too, naturally. Is she not with you today?"
The past was now forgotten - Beth accepted and explained that she had only been quickly into the booksellers to collect an order, all without hesitating. She curtseyed and walked away calmly, and only when around the corner did she skip leisurely back to Grosevnor Square, happy for the first time in days.
If only more people in the world would think through the consequences of their actions, how much simpler life would become! No sooner had Beth arrived in Grosvenor Square, than it struck her that it would be tremendously difficult to get away the next afternoon, and make her way alone across London. She would have to make her excuses to her aunt and uncle (lie even!) and slip out unnoticed. But how to get there? She had some money - given by Mr. Darcy in Derbyshire - for transportation, but the prospect of taking a carriage ride to Chancery daunted her, for that was where the Wickhams resided.
Common sense soon prevailed though, and she decided to tell her aunt about her meeting with Mr Wickham. She prepared her argument carefully and entered her aunt's morning room fully intending to defend herself as befitted her nature. Georgiana was immensely surprised, but in turn startled her niece by revealing to Beth that she had after all obtained permission from Mr and Mrs Darcy to allow them to visit Mrs Wickham.
"So I believe that we could see them this afternoon Beth, if that is your wish. Really they ought to call upon us, but since they have no precedent to do so, I believe that it would do no harm for us to visit this once."
Beth was never so surprised by and thankful for her aunt's forethought as that day, and she spent quite an hour dressing herself for the outing. She deliberately picked out her newest and most becoming items, and she and her aunt left Grosvenor Square at exactly three o'clock in the afternoon.
They were deposited outside a large but rather shabby building with a bright blue door. The maid who shewed them in announced that the mistress and young master were expecting them, and with a faint jangle of nerves, Beth stepped into Mrs Wickham's drawing room.
Immediately, she noticed all the 'things' - for no other word described them all. Tiny miniatures, paintings (cheap ones, apparently) and vases; pincushions, clocks and sculptures - all vied for places on the shelves. There were no books, Beth marked, but certainly there was no space for them anyway. All these odd trinkets were crammed haphazardly into the room like items in a museum spare room - there was even a sword mounted over the fireplace.
And the woman who presided, as if in the eye of a storm, over this jumble could only have been Lydia Wickham. Rather plumper and curlier that Beth remembered, it was undoubtedly she. As soon as she saw her niece, she arose and put her arms out wide.
"Oh, my dear Beth, how good you are to come and see me! Tom, your cousin, said you might not, but here you are and just as beautiful as ever! You are more than welcome, milady," she bobbed towards Lady Mallory, "You are always welcome indeed, as I have so few visitors here."
She took out her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. Beth was strongly reminded of her grandmother Bennet, but she only smiled and chose a chair with the least cushions on it, gazing every now and then at the door for her cousin.
"I have ordered the tea," continued Lydia, "but I have only Nell to assist me, so I expect it to take a while. Your cousin went to find something or other upstairs that he wanted you to see, so you needn't worry that I shall pester you alone! Now Beth, I want to hear absolutely everything about London. Have you been to the theatre yet? Yes? And the Bradstocks, have you seen them? You know, Wickham helped Lady Bradstock from her carriage once, and I really think she was gratified, but that was quite twenty years ago. And I declare . . ."
Lydia continued her monologue, dropping names of various aristocrats wherever she could, to the chagrin of Lady Mallory; many of the names were clearly familiar to her. Beth however kept her eyes and ears out for the appearance of Thomas Wickham. She was desperately trying to guess what he could have to shew her, but was unsuccessful. Thankfully, he entered the room about ten minutes later with a small book in his hand. He greeted Lady Mallory courteously, and then sat on the sofa next to Beth.
"I am sorry I was not here to greet you, but I was so busy I did not hear you arrive." Beth smiled ruefully.
"And what was so important that it kept you so engrossed?" She gestured to the book. "Was that what you were looking for?"
He looked down at the book and nodded. "We have moved about so much that sometimes I forget where I keep it. The trials of having a father who was in the regulars, I'm afraid." He looked up. "Do you not recognise it?"
Beth took the slim volume and opened the pages. "Why, it is one of mine! I mean, it was mine, until Mama persuaded me to send it to you along with some other items . . . I forget what."
"Five other books - all by Scott, and some mathematical apparatus," recited her cousin. "They were much appreciated. I do not believe that my mother acknowledged them more than a brief letter of thanks, but I used them often, the books especially."
Beth turned to the title page. " 'Frankenstein.' I remember Papa was glad that I was giving it away - he did not think it was suitable reading for a young lady. He did not know that my mother had bought me another copy."
Mr Wickham laughed. "It is rather controversial I know, even now, but I have read it many times."
"So have I," replied Beth, running her fingers along the worn cover. "It is a little tattered; it must have been a favourite of yours, Mr Wickham."
"It is a compelling tale. A man punished for the rest of his life for one mistake," he murmured. The book was taken back and held tightly in his hands. Beth was perturbed, but continued.
"How odd that at one point, we must have been reading it both at the same time. Almost like we were in the same place, but not quite meeting."
"Well, no more of that now," announced her cousin more cheerfully, sitting up and laying the book aside. "We are to be proper cousins, and you are to tell me all about yourself. You are to call me Tom, and may I call you Elizabeth?"
"Beth, if you please! I know no less than ten Elizabeths, including my own mother. Beth is mine alone, you see. There is no other Beth in the family."
"Tell me about our family," asked Tom eagerly, leaning forward. The topic was one close to Beth's heart, and without further ado she began to list their shared relatives. She was still explaining how many children her aunt and uncle Bingley had when it was time to depart for Grosvenor Square.
Chapter Four: The Bingleys make their Entrance
It was coincidental that Beth should have been speaking of her Bingley relations at this time; admittedly she spoke of them often, but it was at precisely at this moment that they were arriving in London for the season. Beth had been anticipating their arrival - particularly that of her cousins - but had not expected to see them for another week. It was therefore a great surprise and a pleasure to hear, upon her return to Grosvenor Square, that aunt Jane had called upon Lady Mallory and her niece in their absence.
Jane Bingley had not changed in the least since her marriage; still compliant, agreeable and beautiful, her role as wife and mother had corresponded perfectly to her nature. Her home for nearly twenty years now had been that of Alworth Park in Cheshire, and family legend alleged that the magnanimous Mr. Bingley had only taken the estate on the proviso that the mistress' bedroom be kept exactly as it was, having heard Jane express her awe at its decoration when they had toured the estate.
Such congeniality and correlation of mind in a marriage has its natural results, and the Bingleys were blessed in time with no less that four sons. Daughters had never made an appearance, but this had never seemed to trouble either parent; indeed, they were so prodigiously fond of their Darcy nieces that it would be difficult to imagine how their affection would stand a daughter of their own. Beth, for her part, spent vast amounts of her time at Alworth, and she and Mrs. Darcy were always welcomed by Jane. Mr. Bingley was sometimes in residence, or else out seeing to his estate, which he had come to cherish as if it had always been his own. There was usually one son staying in the house, who would greet their dear Beth and aunt Darcy jovially, and then proceed to tell their latest stories from university or school. Beth delighted in them all, not least because they were dependable dancing partners when there were few men willing to engage themselves.
Lady Mallory and Beth called upon Mrs. Bingley the day after their visit to Lydia; the house was in Chelsea, so they did not have to go far, but Beth was somewhat disappointed to hear that only two cousins had come to town.
"John and Sam are still in Derbyshire," explained Mrs. Bingley, shewing them to the sofa, before sitting down herself. "John is obviously too young, and Sam decided to remain in the country with Sophy."
"And how does he enjoy married life?" asked Lady Mallory with a wink. The wedding of the Bingleys' second son has been a source of great pleasure to the whole family not six months ago. Samuel Bingley had declared to his father that he could not wait to marry Miss White; a living had been found near Derby, and his domestic felicity had ensured that his family had seen very little of him in the following months.
"He deigned to visit us at Alworth before we left," replied Jane with a smile. "He and Sophy are anticipating an arrival already - that is why I called upon you so hastily yesterday."
The two other women made much jubilation and cries of delight over this announcement - and both asserted that Jane was far too youthful to be a grandmama. Beth, a niece to everyone else, was thrilled at almost having one of her own; for she was decided that it should be a girl already, for her aunt Jane's sake.
"It would be nice, to have a granddaughter," mused Jane. Her dreamy expression suddenly cleared and she looked mischievous. " Young Charles and Henry are with their father at the moment, and we all hope to see you both at the theatre tonight."
"What is that look about, Mrs. Bingley?" asked Lady Mallory, with a sideways look at her friend.
"I believe an acquaintance of my son's will be attending also, and he has expressed a wish to meet our beloved Beth, that is all."
Beth was intrigued, and agreed that she would now certainly be going to the theatre. Her attentions to her toilette that evening were especially careful, and Sir Henry, making a special effort himself, called her 'a vision.'
The Haymarket theatre was not too crowded that night; the performance was 'Romeo and Juliet' and it having run for several days already, the Mallorys were at leisure to walk inside and assume their seats. Beth scanned the crowd looking for her relatives, and soon found the familiar faces of her aunt and uncle, and their third son, Henry. She greeted them all enthusiastically, especially the latter, whom she had not seem for several weeks.
"How goes the reading Beth?" asked Henry over the noise as the audience began to move into the auditorium.
"Dismal," returned Beth. "I cannot make head or tale of that awful volume you gave me. What do I care for politics? It had so little impact that I can barely remember anything that happened in it."
"But Mr. Disraeli is a marvellous writer; besides, I thought you were a clever young woman. You are forever telling us so."
"I said no such thing. Now, where is Charles, and this mystery gentleman I am to meet?"
Henry gestured vaguely to the corner. "They were taking some snuff, and I lost sight of them. The gentleman - you'll love him, I know - is a friend of Charles' from Oxford. Mama says he is a relation, although I see no resemblance."
"A relation? I seem to be collecting more of them every day . . ."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Never mind." Beth waved her hand dismissively. She would mention Tom Wickham at a more opportune moment. "What is his name? Your mother would not so much as hint earlier on today."
"His name is Collins. You remember that frightful clergyman who went to live with the old woman in Kent? Lewis is the only son."
Beth's stomach lurched at the name. "Mr. Collins married Mama's friend Miss Lucas; and they live at Hunsford parsonage, not with Lady Catherine. And my great-aunt passed away. Do you not remember us all in mourning at Pemberley?"
It was Henry's turn to be dismissive. " Not really. Lewis is rather a decent chap - very shy though - doesn't talk much, and I don't think I have ever seen him dance."
"You compare him with your own conduct?" laughed Beth, following her various aunts and uncles as they walked to their seats in the theatre. "I daresay he is taciturn because he can get no word in edgeways. You are cruel, Henry. Now be quiet, I see Charles."
Charles' handsome curly head was indeed visible. Evidently he had gone to his seat to wait for his family, for he was craning to glimpse them amongst the rest of the audience. When he spied Beth, he took her hand graciously and clasped it tight.
"You look well, cousin. I hope Henry has not been bending your ear." Beth however was staring at the young Mr. Collins and made no answer. Immediately Charles introduced them. Mr. Lewis Collins was an odd-looking young man; Beth had never seen the elder Mr. Collins, but she had seen her mother's friend 'Charlotte' several times. Her features had been passed on a little to her son, but he was overall rather pale and sickly looking. He stooped, and wrung his hands together so much that Beth almost wanted to grasp them and make him desist. He hung his head and when his eyes met Beth's, his wan complexion turned a violent pink. Compared to the striking and burly Charles and Henry, he looked positively feeble.
"You . . . you stay with your aunt, I understand?" he stuttered, and Beth felt rather sorry for him.
"Yes, she has been very kind. And whom do you reside with in town?" she asked gently.
"I am staying at an inn in Cheapside." His tone was almost apologetic, and so Beth characteristically took charge of the conversation.
"May I enquire after your parents, Mr. Collins? I have not seen your mother for some time, I hope she is well."
The young man's eyes lit up at this and his tone became more confident. "She is in excellent health, thank you. She has been assisting Miss Anne de Bourgh in making new to the household at Rosings. I believe she has been quite invaluable; Miss de Bourgh is very busy and has many demands on her time. My mother has been indispensable."
"And your father - is he still engaged as parson to Hunsford parish now her Ladyship is no longer alive?" The light, which had appeared when Charlotte was mentioned, now dwindled in Mr. Collins' eyes.
"He still tends to his parish yes, but I think he feels the loss of his patroness most deeply. He has employed a curate to attend to the needs of the village. May I offer my condolences, Miss Darcy, on the loss of your great aunt. I understand Pemberley House mourned her deeply."
Beth vividly recalled putting on black bombazine upon hearing that Lady Catherine had gone to meet her maker. The attire of her family had indicated the degree of mourning, but not each individual's true feelings. Beth suspected that her mother mourned her great nemesis only because it denied her further chance to tell her some well-aimed home truths.
Beth was about to respond, when Charles pulled her elbow and guided her to her seat as the play started. She unfortunately found herself next to Henry, who kept a running commentary of the play throughout the first act:
"How can Juliet be only thirteen? Surely she would not be allowed down to the party? . . . that Nurse ought to lock her in her room . . . and why would she find him even remotely attractive? . . . Beth, do you think Romeo was an agreeable young man, because I surely do not. Far too much to say for himself!"
With such a monologue buzzing in her ear, Beth found it hard to concentrate on the events onstage, and her eyes began to wander over the audience. A glance upwards to the gallery revealed Tom Wickham at the very front. Unlike her, his eyes were fixed on the stage, intently following the fate of the lovers. When the curtain came down for the interval, she tried to catch his eye. He looked down and the intense look on his face was broken by complete delight as he recognised her. He got up, and Beth leant over and whispered to Lady Mallory. Georgiana got up and smoothly walked to the pit-door; when she returned, she was leading Tom to the party.
"May I introduce Mr. Thomas Wickham?" Sir Henry bowed courteously, and after a short pause, the Bingley party did the same. Presumably Mrs. Darcy had written to her sister, for Jane shewed great composure, and behaved as if she had seen her nephew but yesterday.
"I am glad to see you, Tom. You look very well. I hope you will join our party," called the elder Mr. Bingley, standing up and gesturing to a chair. Tom moved forwards, and then stopped as he got a look at Charles and Henry.
"You do not recognise us, Wickham, I daresay," said Charles. "We played together in the mud at Alworth a decade or so ago." Henry nodded and added gravely,
"We are above such wholesome amusements now, you know."
Tom laughed heartily, and said he remembered it very well. The three young men sat together, and as the play began again, Beth could hear Henry saying loudly,
"But you see Tom, how can Juliet marry that idiotic boy? Don't you agree she should marry that Paris chap instead? More money, and not half so d_ ed dismal!"
Beth saw Tom nod his head solemnly, and was delighted as he then leaned forwards and smiled broadly at her as the lights dimmed for the final act.
Chapter Five: An Evening at Mayfair
Beth now found herself surrounded by the very best of company - namely that of her beloved family. She and Lady Mallory were rarely separated during the morning, and with Mrs. Bingley, they would promenade in St. James' Park and down the Mall, or visit a museum. They would dine all together, and then meet up with their respective gentlemen in the evening. Theatres, dances, and concerts were all enjoyed, but after a week or two, Beth began to despair.
The reason for her desperation was namely that she had made very few new acquaintance for whom she felt any real appreciation or regard. Her male relations - Charles, Henry, Mr. Bingley and Sir Henry Mallory - danced with her at intervals, and she was grateful for their eagerness to stand up with her. However, there were hardly any other young men whom she could form any kind of acquaintance. Grateful as she was for the company, it was as if the crowd of cousins and uncles around her was warding off any potential suitor or friend. In truth, Beth had never felt so surrounded by so many people in her life before.
Whether the next important visit for Beth will therefore prove a blessing or a further frustration, I cannot tell, as it involved no young men. To be certain it introduced another three people into her acquaintance in town, but it came at the cost of being presented to two women whom Beth hated more than she could say.
The visit came about like this; Beth and Lady Mallory were in the parlour on a perfectly sunny and innocuous morning, when a letter arrived for her Ladyship. Beth was playing with her young cousin Catherine on the carpet, but sat bolt upright when Georgiana read the letter aloud.
It was from her uncle Bingley's sister, Mrs. Gibson, announcing that she and Mrs. Hurst were in town, and would Lady Mallory be so good as to come and see them that evening? Georgiana immediately sent a reply by return of post, and turned carefully to her niece.
"It will be a pleasant evening, I am sure Beth - Caroline promises a game or two of cards." She paused for a moment, and eyed Beth warily. "Mr. Bingley and your aunt will be there too, I am sure." Beth nodded, and they both turned their attention back to the baby.
Beth's head was, however, thumping already. An evening with both of them - how was it to be borne? Beth detested Mrs. Hurst and Mrs. Gibson with a passion so violent that not even her mother knew of it. It was certainly no secret that both Mrs. and Miss Darcy were no great lovers of the Bingley sisters, but Beth merely declared indifference when their names were mentioned. They were after all, relations of her beloved uncle Bingley.
She had been fortunate enough to avoid them for the past year or so. Mrs. Gibson, formerly Miss Caroline Bingley, had married her husband a mere twelve months after the Darcys wedding at Longbourn. One month after that Mr. Gibson had died in his sleep, leaving his wife a vast sum of money. A widow now for many years, she lived contentedly in Bath and London, enjoying her status and complaining only that the journey between the cities still took one so long. Mrs. Hurst had not fared half so well as her sister, her husband living for a further eighteen years after the marriage of the Darcys, and it had only been a week since his widow had cast aside her mourning clothes for her former wardrobe. With her sister at her side, she had returned from Bath to the apartment in Mayfair to which Beth was now invited.
Beth saw no reason for jubilation at the prospect of such an engagement. She was (surely) tolerated because of her kinship with Mr. Bingley and of course, her father. When Beth was five, Mrs. Gibson had paid a visit to Pemberley to call upon her "dear Georgiana." The steely eyes had scanned the young girl from head to toe, before declaring coolly that "young Miss Eliza is truly her mother's daughter." Georgiana, then only two and twenty years old, had smiled but Beth had not liked the remark, nor the icy demeanour of this vision in black. Ever since, she had the distinct impression that the Bingley sisters viewed her with an amount of disdain and even pity, as if she were something pure that had been tainted - and something irritating to be endured.
Nonetheless, one did not visit such women unprepared, and so Beth took extra care in dressing and arranging her hair, so that there was nothing for them to whisper about or even silently note. She wore her most expensive dress, and fastened ivory combs in her hair. She checked in the glass - no freckles or blemishes to be cruelly focused on, nor was there a hair out of place. She was as prepared as a soldier in battle, armed up to the hilt in chain-mail. Ignoring the promise of rain, they set off beneath the looming black clouds.
The small apartment in Mayfair turned out to be a large accommodation set back from the street, well lit with Argand lamps. The parlour was sparsely but expensively decorated, with tasteful marble statues and busts placed strategically in corners. In the centre of the room, the two sisters sat bolt upright like pieces in their collection, cold smiles fixed on their faces. Mrs. Gibson rose as Beth and Lady Mallory were announced, and trilled,
"Dear Georgiana, a pleasure to see you, as always!" She brushed a cheek against Lady Mallory's, and then turned her gaze to Beth. "And Miss Darcy. So kind of you to come." There was a pause and the countenance of Mrs. Gibson displayed several feelings that seemed to contradict this assertion utterly.
Beth was faintly surprised when Mrs. Gibson leaned forward and took her arm. She was led forward further into the centre of the room, under the direct gleam of the chandelier overhead. Beth braced herself for an icy interrogation of her movements over the last weeks. Instead Mrs. Hurst beckoned in the direction of the ante room beyond Beth, and a young woman entered.
She was quite small, but strongly built with a fine form and pretty features. She moved across the room and curtseyed, maintaining her elegant demeanour throughout. "Lady Mallory, Miss Darcy - may I present our ward, Miss Dale? Anna, this is our sister-in law and her niece."
The introduction made, the ladies all sat down - Georgiana and Beth on one sofa, facing the Bingley sisters on the other. Miss Dale chose an upright chair, placing her hands carefully in her lap. Beth was intrigued; so far, this young lady (easily the same age as herself) had not spoken, and she longed to find a companion to talk to tonight. Unfortunately, the Mrs. Hurst and Gibson chiefly controlled the conversation towards their dear Georgiana, and spoke only about Miss Dale and not to her.
"It was quite a blow when her dear mother passed away," Mrs. Gibson was saying, as if the subject were not there. "The three children were provided for, of course, but one felt compelled to help dear Anna. Such an accomplished young lady, wouldn't you say, Louisa?"
"Indeed," piped up Mrs. Hurst. "Her playing has improved considerably under your guidance, Caroline. Oh, and she is painting the most exquisite screen, Georgiana."
"Stokes," Mrs. Gibson suddenly called to the butler. "You and a footman bring down Miss Anna's screen from the parlour. You simply must see it, Georgiana," she added, turning back. "I have not seen such elegance in brushwork since you took up the art."
By the time the screen was shifted down and displayed, the conversation had moved on, but Lady Mallory eagerly praised the young girl's work. Even Beth admitted that it was very fine, but was still frustrated by the girl's silence, and desperately sought an occasion to sit next to her and talk properly.
This opportunity came very soon after the screen was dragged back upstairs, for following the exit of the butler, came another liveried servant announcing Mr. Bingley and his wife and son. The sisters stood up immediately, so that Beth saw but could not hear her relations' arrival over the cries of "Jane, my dear!" and "Why Charles, we did not expect you!"
Jane greeted her sisters-in law, and after being introduced to Miss Dale (who now uttered a how do you do), rushed over to Beth and embraced her.
"Dear Beth, what a story I have! The rain delayed your cousins for over half an hour. I have left Charles at home - he is a little unwell, I am afraid, but your uncle believes a rest and some brandy will restore him. . ."
"You are no storyteller Aunt," laughed Beth. "A story that concludes with your bringing only Henry makes for a rather awful tale." They glanced at Henry, who was standing nearby with his father, and both were laughing heartily.
"Elizabeth!" sighed Jane, "Too cruel, and you will not let me finish. Your cousin will be well again because dear Tom Wickham came to call this afternoon."
"Tom? Did Tom call upon you?"
"Yes, he is there now, I hope. He was really so kind. He insisted we set off, and that he would sit with Charles in the library. They were deep in conversation when we left. Were they not, Mr. Bingley?" Jane tugged at her husband's sleeve.
"What? Oh yes, Mr. Wickham is a fine fellow. I should be pleased to know him better." As her brother spoke, Mrs. Gibson looked up from her discussion with the remaining ladies.
"Mr. Wickham? I take it you are talking about the son, the father being departed from this world - I heard that Mr. Thomas Wickham was in employment in town, of course. I did not know you were intimately acquainted with him again, Charles."
Mr. Bingley looked uncomfortable. "Now Caroline, he is a good sort of fellow. Nothing at all like his . . . he is immensely gentleman-like. And a nephew, to boot."
Mrs. Gibson and Mrs. Hurst exchanged looks, and seemed as if they were about to either laugh or gossip fervently. Beth stepped forward.
"I agree, uncle," she replied to Mr. Bingley. "I believe him to be the most agreeable man I have met in London. In fact, I cannot understand why we have not met with him sooner."
The silence was rather awkward - the Bingleys looked at the floor, Miss Dale looked puzzled; only the sisters kept the same amused expression on their faces.
"Come!" came Henry's jovial voice eventually - an bright smile still on his face. "Are we to eat tonight, Aunt Gibson? I have thought longingly of a hearty feast all day." Caroline took her nephew's offered arm, and led the way into the dining room. Beth, flushed and rather hot with anger, walked in alone, and spoke very little during the meal.
Chapter Six: The Young People go out Together
The silence had, however, not lasted for Beth had finally engineered a conversation with Miss Dale after dinner, when the ladies had stood around the pianoforte, listening to Georgiana play a waltz. The young women had talked for a good twenty minutes, until Mrs. Gibson had called Anna to the instrument.
Beth had been pleasantly surprised; once a polite greeting had been uttered, Miss Dale had been extremely unrestrained. Beth had described her situation in London and where her family were currently residing (Anna had been particularly concerned about Mrs. Darcy's condition). In turn, Beth had learned a great deal about her companion.
Anna had two siblings (a sister and brother like Beth) neither of whom she had seen for several months. Miss Ruth Dale had taken a position as a governess in Lincolnshire, and her brother was first lieutenant on board a Mediterranean sloop. Mrs. Dale had indeed passed away quite a while ago, leaving her children very little money or security. This lady had been the only niece of Mr. Gibson, and so Anna had been acquainted with Mrs. Gibson for some time before she had been offered a place to live.
"My brother and sister had already found employment, you see Miss Darcy," she had explained to Beth. "I was to likewise travel North to live with a friend, when Mrs. Gibson was kind enough to take me in. I believe I am quite a project to her."
Beth had never heard such an understatement; if Anna's accomplishments were half so great as had been hinted, then Mrs. Gibson would indeed take it as her duty to further them. It was just in the nature of the spiteful old widows, thought Beth cynically. How cruel, to keep such an agreeable girl and exploit her like a caged bird!
Nonetheless, Beth now sought out Anna whenever she could, and felt truly that she was grateful to be let out from the cold apartment in Mayfair. They were escorted by Mrs. Gibson rarely, for she was occupied chiefly with entertaining her own circle of friends. The girls therefore were usually taken out by Mrs. Bingley or Lady Mallory, and the three had an excellent time. They walked in every park, saw all the paintings the museums had to offer, and bought more material than they would ever need for clothing. One Saturday, they were even taken out by Sir Henry in his chaise, and the girls were delighted to be driven out in such a smart carriage.
It was this latter event that gave Lady Mallory an idea; she sent out several notes and letters to the Bingley and Wickham household, and arranged (solely by herself) an expedition for the young people of their acquaintance. They all had plenty of transportation between them, she explained in her letters, and they could spend all day out in the countryside if they took something to eat and drink.
Charles and Henry Bingley acquiesced to this, and set about arranging the day themselves in place of Lady Mallory. Beth was naturally invited and she looked forward to the day immensely. Charles also requested that Mr. Lewis Collins should join the party, for he had been seen little in town besides the occasional theatre visit or small ball. He was applied to at his inn, and Beth found she was pleased when his acceptance was reported by her cousin. She was even more delighted when Tom Wickham agreed to come too.
Anna was eventually permitted to attend by her guardians, after a lengthy debate amongst the Bingley sisters; various obstacles and frustrations were put forward, the most important being that Anna's sister Ruth had been invited down from Lincolnshire to spend the weekend in town. It seemed futile to Beth, until Georgiana suggested that Ruth go on the outing too. Anna and Ruth were thus to attend, on the stipulation that Mrs. Gibson's nephews were to take express care of them, and ensure that the day was enjoyed, "but with the utmost propriety."
This was why, on the bright hot Saturday morning of the trip that Anna was delivered to Grosvenor Square under strict instructions to impugn anything vulgar or dangerous that might impugn her honour; and also why she carried with her a large parasol and white gloves.
"Mrs. Gibson would not let me leave without them," Anna explained, rubbing at the thick material. Beth stared, and then with her own bare hand, pulled off one of the gloves and tossed it into the nearby carriage. Anna smiled warily, and then ripped off the other.
Miss Ruth Dale was introduced; she was almost exactly like her sister, although of a slightly less rosy complexion, and with a startling head of auburn hair. She was genial and eager to be near her elder sister, of whom she was evidently fond.
The transportation arrangements took quite some time to settle, and they were in the Square for nearly half an hour before setting off. Upon receiving a letter from his son detailing the party, Mr. Collins had immediately recommended his son's use of the gig (brought down from Kent), for the express use, he wrote, "for those dear offspring of the illustrious Darcy and Bingley families." Charles had also provided the company with his landau. There was then, no shortage of space, but who should sit with whom took some time to settle, and only slightly later than arranged did they set off - Mr. Collins driving Miss Darcy in his gig, and the others in the carriage with Tom riding on horseback beside them.
Their designated spot was slightly beyond the city boundary, on a large open heath with a beautiful view and wide open lawns on which to stroll. A space under the trees was found, food was brought, and the party settled down to something to eat after the exertions of the morning.
"I should like to drink a toast," called Henry after several minutes silence. "To Lady Mallory, who suggested this splendid idea - and let us hope that there is enough wine to get us through the afternoon!"
"Henry!" warned Beth. "If you cannot speak like a gentleman, I shall take the Miss Dales on a very long walk away from you." She sipped from her glass and surveyed her cousin over the rim.
"And I should be very sorry for it," replied Henry. "I will modify my conversation accordingly." He raised his own glass at the Miss Dales, who both blushed.
"Wonders never do cease," observed Charles, clapping his brother on the back, and they all laughed. Beth was especially glad to see Mr. Collins laugh and enjoy himself. She had had the strangest notion that he was a joyless sort of young man, but now she saw that when encouraged he was amiable and even entertaining. He told amusing stories of Oxford with only a slight stammer here and there, whilst Charles cut in occasionally to agree or embellish a fact. More interesting still was Mr. Collins' frequent glances at Anna, who between Beth and her sister.
"Mr. Collins looks this way a great deal, Anna," whispered Beth. Anna looked up and blushed again.
"I had not observed him do so. He is an agreeable man, is he not?"
"Oh, yes," returned Beth. "I was pleased he could come out today. I suppose Mrs. Gibson would not approve though."
"There is very little of which Mrs. Gibson does approve," answered Anna, with a laugh. "She rejects every young man I come into contact with. Certainly she has hinted that I must make a good match, to ensure her continued patronage."
"And what of your own feelings?" Beth felt indignation on her friend's part. "Are you not to marry for love?" "If I am very lucky," replied Anna with a smile. "I shall simply have to fall in love with a rich man, shan't I?" *
The food was quickly eaten, and once the group were suitably rested, Charles suggested a walk towards the church in the distance. Trying to brush the grass from their clothing, they all stood up and divided into parties for walking. Charles and Lewis strode ahead, the former a good six inches taller than his companion. Henry strutted next, with Anna and Ruth on each arm. Beth was happily paired off with Tom at the rear.
"I have enjoyed today, Beth. Thank you for inviting me," said Tom not far down the path.
"It was not only I. Charles and Henry wanted you here, I know. If only we had Jane and Will here, Sam and John too. We would have bats and balls galore - plenty to amuse ourselves."
"What about kites?"
"Of course there would be kites," laughed Beth. There was a pause, and then Tom spoke up again.
"I have not told you - my mother was talking about you yesterday. She told me about a time you threw her ribbons all over the floor and she had to tell Father to buy new ones. Apparently he was most unhappy with you." He smiled ruefully. "But I forget you never met him."
"It is peculiar that he was such a stranger to me," said Beth awkwardly, because Tom had that awful black look of his, "when he was no less an uncle to me than Mr. Bingley."
"He was a good father; I have wanted for nothing," replied Tom, although Beth was not convinced by his tone. "I confess I sometimes did not see him for days - his duties took him all over the country. I have nothing to reproach him with - though I should like to have been part of all this earlier on in my life." He gestured to the walkers ahead. His hand fell and he stopped, pulled himself upright and looked down at Beth. "Do you know, I never think such gloomy thoughts as I do when I am with you. What a pessimistic influence you have! Come!" He took Beth's hand, and they ran down the path to catch the others up.
The day out on the heath had several results; Beth and her companions were very sunburned when they returned to London (Anna was chastised for not using her parasol), and they were exhausted by the walk and game of battledore and shuttlecock that had taken place in the afternoon. Moreover, they all met together more frequently, with the exception of Miss Ruth Dale, who was obliged to return to her employer on Sunday evening.
Beth, meanwhile, had resolved on a capital plan of her own; the season would draw to a close in a few weeks, and she had long desired Anna Dale's company at Pemberley. Naturally the visit could not be made until the new Darcy sibling had arrived, but the two girls had arranged it between themselves, and Beth had received permission from Mrs. Darcy in a recent letter.
Mrs. Gibson however, was another matter. She was most reluctant to let her ward out of her sight for even a few days - the day at the heath had only proved that Beth was a bad influence, despite her high breeding and aristocratic connexions. Beth did not hear this from Mrs. Gibson's own lips, but she suspected the truth, and took desperate measures to persuade the woman - she called upon the Bingley sisters herself in Mayfair to plead her case.
"Miss Dale would be taken care of, and receive every possible attention in Derbyshire, Mrs. Gibson," said Beth, sitting precariously on the edge of the sopha.
"I am sure of it, Miss Eliza, but you understand I do not care to be without her, especially now that the season is drawing to a close. We have engagements."
"My father has particularly requested that she visits us - he was sure that you would not refuse," replied Beth, standing up and gazing down at the window. She had not played her trump card. "Our pianoforte has recently been retuned. It has the most beautiful tone, you will recall, and the proportions of the music room at Pemberley are perfect, as you know Mrs. Gibson. Miss Dale would give a heavenly performance. Who could not in such conditions?"
That resolved it; of course Mrs. Gibson recalled the pianoforte at Pemberley! Had she not played it herself more than once? Anna was immediately sent for, and once applied to, permitted to journey to Pemberley when Mrs. Darcy sent for her.
Dancing on the wings of happiness, Beth skipped back to Grosvenor Square, her head full of the things she would show Anna and the events she would plan at Pemberley. She was through the door and halfway up the staircase when she heard voices in the parlour. It was Lady Mallory and - most unexpectedly - her aunt Lydia. They were in the middle of tea, and when Beth entered the room they both looked up. Lydia squealed and clapped her hands.
"Beth, I have been waiting for you. Her Ladyship has been most kind to entertain me meanwhile." She was clad in a bright purple dress, made from a material that crackled when she moved. Beth sat beside her and helped herself to a cup of tea, but could not ignore the violent colour out of the corner of her eye.
"I was telling your aunt," continued Lydia, "Your cousin has talked of very little else besides you. But I am glad he has a friend in town - I worry sometimes for him, Lady Mallory, he can be so reserved, especially with ladies. Most unlike his dear Papa! But it is good to think that he has befriended his cousins. Perhaps your brother might do something for him, Lady Mallory, now that he is acquainted with them. I always said that he ought to go into the Army like his father, but Mr. Wickham insisted that he should study for the bar as it brought in more money . . ."
Lady Mallory did not have time to invent a suitable response, for there was a sudden knock at the door, and a letter was hastily brought in, "an express, your Ladyship" added the maid hurriedly. Georgiana tore it open, and scanned the page.
"Oh, Beth. It is your mother - her labours have begun, and your father writes to ask that you come home straight away! To soothe the children." Beth stood up.
"But the baby is not due until next month!"
"Poor Lizzy!" exclaimed Lydia. "But perhaps if she has a good doctor . . . ?"
"Indeed," agreed Georgiana standing up and whisking the letter back in its envelope. "Beth, you must pack at once. I shall take you to Pemberley myself in your uncle's carriage. Hurry upstairs, and I will follow directly. Calm yourself," she added in a whisper as they left the room, "Lizzy is strong, and it does not do to speculate."
Even so, her hand trembled as she turned and went back into the parlour. Beth noticed this, and with a thumping heart ran upstairs to pack her trunk.
End of Volume I
Volume II: In Derbyshire
Chapter Seven: Back to the Nursery
The large brougham belonging to Sir Henry went at a steady pace throughout the long journey back to Pemberley; to Beth however, it seemed to move slower than she could ever imagine. She tried to sleep, but rest eluded her and she sat bolt upright for the most part, clasping the hand of her aunt.
They arrived at Pemberley early in the morning, and Beth was not surprised to see that the sky was overcast and that a light mist covered the park as she stepped down onto the driveway. The house seemed awfully silent - the servants who assisted them inside were grave as they moved about, and the familiar rooms seemed to Beth cold and draughty. There was no sign of either her mother or father.
Throwing their travelling garments away, Georgiana and Beth ran up the vast staircase, through the portrait gallery to the wing housing the family rooms, and down the corridor to Elizabeth's room. Outside sat Darcy, impeccably as always, but with hair that looked as if hands had been raked through it several times, and eyes stained bloodshot. He stood up as the two women ran up to him, and opened his arms.
"I never shall get used to this. My Beth, how quickly you came. Did you come in Sir Henry's brougham?" He smiled weakly, and his voice, although cheerful, was rather too high and stilting. Beth put her arms around him and inhaled the aroma of brandy from his clothes.
Beth released him, and his sister embraced him also, her tiny form and white gown contrasting to his tall, dark figure.
"How is she, Fitzwilliam?"
"The child was born early this morning - a girl. She is perfectly healthy, but Lizzy is rather weak. The doctor will not let me in to her, though I should break the door down if I though it would not distress her."
He collapsed then, sinking to his chair and covering his face with his hands. Beth watched for a moment as her aunt tried to comfort him, and then she burst into tears. The worry that had been fermenting on the journey from London had nearly broken her, but the image of her father, distraught and not at all like his usual self, was too much.
The sound of his daughter's sobs made Darcy look up, and when he saw Beth he pulled her down onto her knees beside him and held her hand.
"Forgive me, my dear. It has been a very long night, that is all."
"Of course it has," agreed Georgiana gently, standing up. "Beth, I want you to go to Mrs. Reynolds directly and get a cup of tea for your father and myself. And tell her that breakfast can be prepared as normal for the family at ten o'clock."
Wiping her eyes with her fingers, Beth stood too, and walked off down the corridor in the direction of the housekeeper's office. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw brother and sister hold each other close, before Georgiana knocked softly on the bedroom door.
Georgiana was with her sister-in-law for a good half-hour, and when she came out, a beam of relief was visible on her face.
"She is asleep now," she declared, entering the morning room and sitting beside her brother. "Now, I have spoken to the doctor, and you may see her, Fitzwilliam, when she has rested. The doctor suggests that you have a good breakfast, or you will be of little use to Lizzy at all."
Mr. Darcy nodded his agreement, and the shadow in his eyes lessened somewhat. By the time they had eaten breakfast, the mood of the family had considerably improved. Doctor Michaelson, in thanks for his vigil at Mrs. Darcy's bedside, was invited to eat with them, and he spoke optimistically about both the mother and child.
After the meal, the doctor took his leave, promising to return in the afternoon, and Georgiana took her brother up to see Lizzy and the child. Beth went to her room, and began to unpack her belongings herself, relieved to have a task in which she could immerse herself for a while. She was deciding whether or not to write a letter to Anna Dale, when a housemaid entered and said that "the mistress is askin' for you, Miss Eliz'beth."
For the second time that day, Beth ran to her mother's room. Inside, the curtains had been pulled open and Elizabeth was sitting up in her bed, looking pale and tired, but peaceful. Beside the bed, Georgiana sat holding a blanket, from which a dark head of hair peeked. Mr. Darcy stood beside them, glancing every moment at the bed, and then the blanket Beth rushed to the bed and took her mother's hand.
"Oh, Mama! I have missed you!"
"And I you," whispered Elizabeth, smiling. "Did you set London alight? Am I to be well in time for a wedding?"
"Lizzy," scolded Georgiana. "You must rest." A cry suddenly came from the blanket, and Georgiana soothed the baby.
"Here, Beth," she said, offering the bundle. Beth tensed - she had never held such a tiny baby before. Georgiana's daughter had been a month old before Beth had even seen her. This new sister seemed less than half the size than Catherine had been and twice as pink. Her hair was black like Beth's own, but her eyes were tight shut as she yawned. As her aunt placed her in Beth's arms her hands reached out and stretched upwards.
"I love her," Beth breathed, and her parents smiled. "Does she have a name?"
"Not yet," replied Mr. Darcy. "We need to think of one soon."
"Come, we must leave Lizzy to sleep some more," came Georgiana's voice. "She must be exhausted. Beth, would you go and check on your brother and sister, please?"
The room had grown warm, and so Beth was partly glad to return the baby to her crib and, after kissing her mother and father, walk out onto the landing. The nursery wing was a very short distance away from Mrs. Darcy's bedchamber - the mistress, it was assumed, did not care to be too far away from her children in such a large house. Beth travelled down the corridor and turned into another, which contained large windows floor to ceiling that overlooked the lawns outside. Beth strode down it and then up a flight of stairs that led into the nursery.
The nursery parlour was a small, cosy room, with little of the ostentation of the reception rooms downstairs. As she shut the door, Beth inhaled the familiar scent of lavender and hot tea and toast that pervaded the room - whatever the hour. The room was, however, vacant but as the door shut with a resounding click, a small figure bounded in wearing a long white nightdress.
"Beth, you fiend! How could you not come up and see me - I suppose nursery breakfasts are not good enough for you now. How was London?"
The form of Jane Darcy embraced her sister, and Beth laughed, and answered breathlessly:
"You love breakfast, you greedy girl, whether I am there or not. I ate with Papa and aunt Mallory, and then I went to see Mama."
Jane's striking features darkened, as an indignant frown appeared. Letting go of Beth, she sat down on a plump sopha near the fire and drew her knees up to her chin.
"Lucky," she exclaimed. "Nanny Wheeler says Will and I are to be scrubbed and dressed before we see Mama or Papa today. I used half a cake of soap on my hands this morning before eating, but it made no odds. Have you seen the baby, Beth?"
"Yes, and she is perfectly lovely," replied Beth. "Mrs. Wheeler is quite right to keep you in here though. You would frighten the poor love if you came barrelling up to her as I know you would."
Jane glared, and was about to respond when a red faced woman bustled in through the door, carrying a bundle of linen. When she saw Beth, she dropped the linen on the table and put her arms out.
"Miss Elizabeth, I thought I heard your voice!" Warm, soft arms were out around Beth and the young woman laughed.
"I have been gone a few months, that is all, Nanny."
"And a world of difference it made, Miss," observed the lady, who then glanced down at Jane, who was curled up in the chair and had picked up a book. "Feet, Jane!"
"When am I to see the baby?" Jane sulked, standing up. "She is my sister, after all."
"When you are ready," she was told by Mrs. Wheeler. "Now go and tell Master William that Miss Elizabeth is here."
Jane obeyed, and returned hand in hand a minute later with William, a beautiful boy with a head full of dark curls. When he saw Beth he took a running jump at her and kissed her.
"Were there any ships in London, Beth?" he asked, looking up expectantly. Jane laughed, and Beth shook her head.
"No ships, dearest, but I saw an Admiral and when I mentioned your name, he said that as soon as you were old enough, we are to send you directly to his ship to captain it to India."
William looked immensely impressed and puffed up his chest. "Did you hear that, Nanny? I'm to go to India!"
"Not today, Master William," replied Mrs. Wheeler, pushing him in the direction of the night nursery. "Now dress, both of you, and I'll send down to her Ladyship to ask if you can see your Papa. No lessons today, seeing as how it's a special occasion."
When the younger Darcys had left the room, Nanny began folding up the linen at the table. Absently, Beth began to help her, humming quietly.
"I 'spect you rubbed shoulders with all sorts, Miss Elizabeth, on your travels. Lords, ladies and all that?"
Beth immediately thought of the raucous Lady Bradstock and nodded. "I suppose so, Nanny. It was such an awfully big place though, I made only a few acquaintance there."
"I hear you found young Master Thomas," sniffed the woman. "I hadn't thought of him in years. Still as beguiling as ever, I assume? Image of his father, as I recall and just as tricky."
"I liked him very much," frowned Beth. "He was good company everywhere we went."
"I daresay, Miss Elizabeth, but there's better to be had out there. You'll be wantin' someone with a nice house and a bit of land, not poky lodgings in Doctor's Commons."
"What do you mean Nanny? I was glad to meet him because he is my cousin. "
But Mrs. Wheeler was not listening. She had carried on, listing various eligible young men from Derbyshire and the surrounding areas. Beth hadn't been sure that her old nanny had understood what had occurred between herself and Tom in London. A small alarm had sounded in Beth's mind: was that what people were assuming?
" . . . and did your Papa tell you that a new family have taken up residence over in Taston? A gentleman and a lady called not three days ago. A most charming couple, they have a son and a daughter, apparently."
"Have they rented Taston House?"
"Yes Miss, so I believe. There now, you'll see Derbyshire ain't more dull than London."
"Hmm," returned Beth, pulled a crease smooth in the linen as she folded.
Chapter Eight: The Smell of Roses
The humid and misty weather lasted only a few days after the birth of the baby. The atmosphere turned warm and the sun shone, encouraging the residents of Pemberley to venture outside once again. In this way, Beth was able to write letters whilst sitting in the rose garden. She wrote a long letter to Tom, explaining her hasty departure from the city, but mentioning nothing of her conversation with Mrs. Wheeler. An even longer one was dispatched to Anna Dale, apologising profusely for having to put off her visit to Pemberley and suggesting a date one month from now, at her mother's insistence.
Mrs. Darcy had made a characteristically swift recovery. In less than one week, she claimed to be well enough to leave her bed, and within three days of leaving her bed, declared that she was well enough to leave her room. Mr. Darcy railed at this notion, until Elizabeth reasoned that to detain her in a stuffy room when the weather was so fine was hardly beneficial. Her husband conceded and a bath chair was moved into the rose garden so that Beth and her mother could sit together in the sun. Occasionally the baby was brought or Jane and Georgiana joined them, but sometimes they were left alone and then Beth was urged to recount her experiences of London. Mr. Collins, new of goings-on at Rosings and of Elizabeth's beloved nephews - all was recounted from daughter to mother.
"And what did you think of Thomas Wickham, Beth?" asked Mrs. Darcy one morning. The baby was on her lap, and she was stroking her downy black hair as she spoke.
"He was very amiable, I liked him very much indeed."
"So I understand from your aunts," Mrs. Darcy arched her eyebrow. "Is he handsome?"
"Yes, I suppose he is. He dresses extremely well, and his manner is very engaging."
"I can imagine . . . Beth, I shall be honest with you. I know little of Tom, but I understand him to be an honourable and pleasant man. Your father and I will always welcome him at this house, but as your cousin only. Anything else would be inappropriate, to be frank."
"What do you mean, Mama?" The same alarm had sounded in Beth's mind again, and she blushed. "Do you mean that I . . ."
"He is the only gentleman you have mentioned with any degree of enthusiasm," countered Elizabeth, shifting the baby in her arms.
"I have mentioned Henry, Charles and Mr. Lewis Collins as well, but I would no more marry them than Tom. I understand you," she added. "you see I have returned unmarried again, and fear I will engage myself to him."
"Your father worries that you will marry someone unworthy Beth - and so do I, for that matter. There was a time long ago that I was drawn to someone very like you are now." Elizabeth laughed. "I know myself well enough now to see his unsuitability, especially when I compare him to your father. Lord, were that chapter of my life to be put down, what a novel it would make!" Mrs. Darcy's eyes shone and she gazed at Beth.
"Your aunts have told us of your time in London, and I repeat that Thomas can be tolerated only as your cousin. I place this constraint only for your protection. Do not be taken in as I was. The name of Wickham can bring only distress and misery to you." Elizabeth reached over and took her daughter's hand.
"Come, dearest. You were thinking of a name for the baby."
One hour later, the family had assembled in the parlour and all agreed that the baby should be officially known from now on as Rose Anne; a tribute to Darcy's late mother, and to the favourite flower that bloomed in the spot so beloved by Mrs. Darcy and her daughter.
Chapter Nine: Alworth
Upon hearing that Mrs. Darcy's labours had begun, Jane Bingley had requested her husband's carriage immediately and had set off from London not two hours after Beth and Georgiana. A most unpleasant accident had prevented her arriving at Pemberley on time - the carriage collided with another, and although Mrs. Bingley was unhurt, she had been obliged to travel on to the nearest inn and arrange a post chaise to take her the rest of the way. She eventually reached Pemberley at noon the day after Beth and Lady Mallory, and had spent several days at her sister's side before sending instructions to Alworth to have the house prepared. Hard on her heels however, had been Mr. Bingley. Hearing of his wife's unfortunate mishap, he had ridden immediately from London and was due to arrive in Cheshire presently.
Her aunt's arrival was all the more welcome for Beth in the days following her conversation with Mrs. Darcy. She had been immensely upset by her mother's words; she had no current intention of attaching herself to Tom Wickham, as the implication seemed to be that he was an unsuitable connection overall, despite her mother's assertions to the contrary. Even though they were by now, many miles apart Beth still longed for his companionship and felt his loss as keenly as that of Anna. Mr. Darcy was notably silent on the matter, and for once Beth dared not challenge him on the subject. There seemed to be something that ran deep in the family where Tom Wickham was concerned and Beth had not the stomach to test it right now.
Mr. Bingley arrived on the Tuesday following the birth of Rose Anne; Beth's aunt and uncle settled themselves at Alworth, and it was not a week before a picnic had been planned while the weather was still fine. Mrs. Darcy excused herself, telling her sister that she still felt rather unwell to travel; her husband's relief was evident, but he accepted the invitation with his daughters, and the picnic was set for the twelfth of the month.
The day dawned hot and sultry; when Darcy, Beth and Jane set out in the carriage at half past nine in the morning, the sun was already strong, and Beth was glad she had brought her parasol. The hood of the carriage was pulled back, and the travellers enjoyed the slight breeze on their faces as they picked up speed down the roads.
The countryside was alive with activity; until they reached the edge of the Pemberley estate, Darcy continually tipped his hat to his tenants and labourers in the fields. The image was an immensely attractive one - the landlord and master of the estate travelling out for the morning with his two lovely daughters, chatting amongst themselves and all looking forward to the day ahead.
Alworth was easily spotted from the road that the Darcys took. The house stood up high on a hill side, surrounded by a picturesque parkland with a small woodland to the right. The house itself was not modern - it had been built by a merchant banker who had become bankrupt in the year 1740. Various tenants had lived in it since then, but inexplicably, none had stayed long. Under the tenancy of the Bingleys however, the estate had thrived and grown. The land was properly farmed by Mr. Bingley's tenants, some twenty five servants were employed to efficiently run the household, and a new wing was built when the couple was newly married, which made the house perfectly symmetrical and a joy to behold. Never would it rival Pemberley, but it was uttered amongst the populace of Cheshire that the stately home was a desirable addition to the county as a whole.
Mr. Darcy and his daughters arrived at Alworth in good time, and as they swept up the drive, a carriage that was an exact copy of their own became visible near the entrance. In it sat a young man, impeccably dressed, and a young woman equally so. Mr. Bingley and his wife were craning to talk to the couple, both of whom were chatting animatedly. When the Darcy's carriage pulled to a halt beside them, greetings were called and the couple descended to be introduced.
"Darcy," said Mr. Bingley, "may I present Mr. Stowe and his sister? Their father has recently taken on the lease at Taston House."
Darcy nodded coolly; young Jane stared unashamedly at Miss Stowe's elegant gown. Beth also found herself gazing at the woman, who was in fact very similar in figure and appearance. She had lustrous dark hair which was coiled around her head in a most attractive manner. Her eyes were bright and alert, scanning the people around her, they in turn regarding her as if she were a butterfly in a specimen box.
The gentleman was her twin in looks and demeanour; he was quite simply beautiful, with fine features and deep brown eyes that twinkled as he regarded Beth. His manner suggested something of a superiority, but Beth attributed it to his being in company with Misters Darcy and Bingley; many times had she seen young men dwarfed by these men. Mr. Stowe promised to match them in stature.
"Miss Stowe told me earlier, Beth," offered Mrs. Bingley, "that she is acquainted slightly with your uncle in London."
"Only very slightly," added Miss Stowe. "He and his wife were at a cotillion that Richard took me to in June." She gestured to her brother, who was standing, like a colossal statue, cane in hand. He beamed.
"My sister and I are extremely attached, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Stowe declared. "It is a relationship that I treat with nothing less than complete devotion and attention."
Darcy, who had been silent, nodded his approval, and they moved to one side, and began a conversation. Bingley and his wife turned their attention to the loading of the carriages, leaving the Darcy sisters alone with Miss Stowe.
"You seem to have spent some time in town, Miss Stowe," ventured Beth. The woman smiled.
"Ah, I do so love London, Miss Darcy; I would rather not be anywhere else. Do not mistake me, Cheshire is a fine county, but are there really engaging enough attractions compared to town? I think not."
She gave a tinkling laugh, and looked at Beth with all the expectation of mutual feeling and belief. Beth frowned, however.
"I am sorry to contradict, Miss Stowe, but the country has many advantages over town, as I am sure you will see today. Jane, do go and ask Papa if we are to take our carriage out for the picnic."
Miss Stowe's countenance was frozen through a lack of any suitable response to her prospective new friend. She remained by the carriage as Beth moved swiftly over to her uncle Bingley, who was directing a hamper to the back of the landau.
"Are we to have the pleasure of Samuel's company today, Uncle?"
"Unfortunately not, Beth," came the reply, and Bingley's face wore a downcast look. "He and Sophia are visiting friends in Birmingham."
"A sad loss," lamented Beth with genuine feeling, and she glanced at Miss Stowe, who was staring hard at her shoe and poking at a scuff on the toe.
"We expect them back in Derbyshire in a few days," added Bingley brightly. "Now go and tell your father that we are ready to set off."
The picnic turned out to be rather an enjoyable affair; only two carriages were required to transport the party over the hill to a wide open field belonging to the Alworth estate. Jane and her cousin John ran off into the copse to play; Darcy and Bingley, separated by business and family matters, had much to discuss and so Mr. Stowe was left to entertain Mrs. Bingley, Beth, and his sister; and he did so admirably. Lively, witty and with an excellent temper, he laughed and chatted for the whole day, and Jane Darcy was permanently sat beside him, listening to his every word.
Beth was diverted by him; he was amiable and praiseworthy, and yet she could not but help compare him with Tom. His conversation was undeniably amusing - but did it not gravitate always around himself? Tales of his deeds and encounters - did he mention a robber then? - were profuse; this was not an anomaly in the conversation of a young gentleman, but was there not also something rather congratulatory in his tone, a glance around as he paused to see the effect of his words on the ladies? Jane and Miss Stowe were the perfect audience - they gasped and tittered in the correct places; Mrs. Bingley was also attentive, but serene and unreadable to her niece. Beth herself was entertained and yet not wholly convinced.
Miss Stowe turned out to be more than an irritation during the rest of the day. She complained loudly that she had no parasol - she was sure to burn her delicate skin - she was certain that she had sat not on the blanket but on a rogue patch of damp grass - her new gown would be ruined. And when the food was brought, she murmured to her brother (although Beth easily heard) that there was a noticeable lack of cakes in the fare.
And so Beth was forced to summon up all the enthusiasm she could when an invitation was given to the Darcys to spend one evening at Taston House in the next fortnight. And it was with more than a little trepidation that Beth looked forward to improving her acquaintance (as she felt was inevitable) with these new, and somewhat irksome, neighbours.
Chapter Ten: Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Bingley
Beth determined to think little of Mr. and Miss Stowe over the next few weeks, but circumstances were decidedly against her. Her mother in no way required her assistance in managing the baby - Mrs. Wheeler did quite well alone - but Beth herself felt obliged to be her mother's companion and helper at Pemberley whilst she was at home. Mrs. Darcy was most certainly not demanding such help from her daughter - quite the opposite - but it was congenial to their relationship to spend time together, and so she made only a few objections, in the days after Lady Mallory's return to London.
It eventually occurred to Beth to question why she might want to stay at home at such a period; a new family in a neighbourhood is always an occurrence of the highest import, and everyone at Pemberley besides Beth had visited Taston House to pay their respects to the Stowes - from Mr. Darcy himself all the way down to the second chambermaid, who took it upon herself to befriend her corresponding equal at Taston, and thereby affirming herself as a reliable and popular conduit for gossip and news.
Beth however, had managed to avoid setting foot in Cheshire for a whole nine days after her uncle Bingley's picnic at Alworth. She realized that she, quite simply, could not abide either of the Stowe offspring, and resented the constant assertions from all quarters that both of them, in their turn, would "do" for her; Miss Stowe as a female companion, and her brother - something even more repugnant. Beth could not think clearly why she disliked them so much; she had acquainted herself very little with them in their short time spent together. True, she had been rather cross at some of the tactless and snobbish remarks from her and she had fervently taken against the vain manner of him; but was this only folly and stubbornness on Beth's part? Sick and weary of hearing the name Stowe on the lips of everyone, she had decided against them purely because all around her had decided for them.
What surprised her the most was her father's open admiration for Mr. Stowe; the reserved nature of Mr. Darcy did not permit him to spill over with compliments and recommendations for a person, but he did, in his way, demonstrate an obvious respect for the young man. This alarmed Beth most of all; Mrs. Wheeler, Mrs. Reynolds and the other women she knew had hinted at Mr. Stowe's suitability for the young lady of Pemberley, and they clucked and twittered as if he were a fine purse which Beth Darcy most certainly should purchase immediately. Her father's feelings, though not so blatant, seemed to suggest likewise; that Mr. Stowe should be offered up to her as a handsome and most desirable match.
It was clear to Beth that she must be polite through all of this; it would simply do no good to refute and berate him to those who were so enamoured of his person - she would emerge as a sulky and ungrateful young madam. And so, she continued to avoid his company, and did so successfully until she ventured out to visit her cousin Samuel.
This Bingley cousin was the same man who had recently married his beloved, and had taken a living about three miles from Derby in a small village called Beanwell. Beth loved her cousin Sam quite as well as his brothers; he was nearest her age, and had been a good playmate, having an inexhaustible sweet temper and talent for amusement. He was the only Bingley thus far to have entered a profession (a fact that quite maddened his aunt Caroline), and had done so entirely from inclination, having read The Vicar of Wakefield at the age of twelve. He had expressed a keen desire to live in a parsonage and set a matrimonial and domestic example to his flock; Mr. and Mrs. Bingley had supported their son's wishes wholeheartedly, and his aunts Gibson and Hurst had vowed to boycott Goldsmith forever.
It was a day after Beth had inwardly acknowledged her dislike for the Stowes when two letters arrived at Pemberley for her. The first was from Anna Dale, reporting that her sister was visiting her in London again; the second was from Mrs. Sophia Bingley, offering to accommodate Beth between Saturday and the Sunday of the following week. Her mother agreed to the visit with all her heart, and on Friday afternoon, Beth was travelling down to Beanwell eagerly anticipating a pleasant stay at the parsonage. Sophia's letter had spoken warmly of the welcome she would receive, and the joy Beth would cause to her cousin, who was missing her company exceedingly. Mr. Darcy had offered to take his daughter down himself, but Mrs. Darcy had suggested that Beth might go alone; she could go in the carriage herself, and as it was not so far, no harm could come of such an arrangement. Now, sitting in the landau by herself, Beth came to imagine herself a married woman, playing a game in which she was a wife returning to her husband and son. The fantasy did not last long, and Beth grew sleepy in the morning sun.
She arrived at Beanwell in good time, and was deposited at the parsonage to be greeted by her cousin and his wife with all the jubilation that Sophia's letter had promised. Beth kissed the young Mrs. Bingley warmly and asked how she was feeling.
"Quite well," replied she, "though Sam keeps me hard at work tending to his every need."
"Now, Sophy," chided Sam, clasping his wife's waist, "that is not true at all! When have I ever treated you in that way?"
"Three times yesterday you asked if I had got you lemon curd out for tea, and three times I said yes!" cried Sophia, though her eyes were laughing, and she giggled. Beth felt rather embarrassed, and hoped that she would not be witness to such scenes during her visit, sweet though they were.
"Oh, Beth," said Sam suddenly, "we will be receiving an additional visitor tomorrow morning. Brother Henry is riding down from London; apparently he has done with town for the season."
"He has probably seen all there is to see at the theatre," laughed Beth, though she was somewhat relieved that there would be a fourth in the parsonage whilst she stayed there.
Her room was small, but comfortable and clean, and she was treated to a fine dinner and evening of entertainment, when Sam sang for his cousin and wife, until Beth could clap no more and Sophia claimed that his the sound of his voice was causing their child to kick rather awkwardly.
When the party all said good night, Beth climbed into bed, and felt truly content for the first time in days. She had been admirably looked after, entertained completely, and - moreover - she had not heard the name Richard Stowe for a full six hours.
Henry arrived upon the hour the following morning, ebullient as ever, with a shining face and eyes. He greeted his brother heartily, and kissed his sister in law soundly. He was, however, more than surprised to see Beth at the parsonage, and said so.
"Did your mother not tell you that I was coming to stay?" Beth was puzzled; it was not like her aunt Jane (nor her own mother) to share such news. Fortunately, Henry's brow cleared, and he smiled:
"Ah, of course, Mother did mention it. I forgot."
Unsure, whether to feel offended or not, Beth observed her cousin Henry for the rest of the day. He and Sam went out hunting in the afternoon, and at dinner, he was as entertaining as ever. That evening however, whilst Sam and Sophy were setting up the pieces for a game of chess, Beth watched Henry sit for at least thirty minutes at the desk, writing a letter. The anomaly here (and what made Beth especially curious) was that Henry was notorious for never writing letters, and his family had long given up urging him to write and send word of his circumstances when he was away. But, lo, there he sat, laboriously writing out at least three sheets, his eyes never leaving the paper. Beth, sat on the other side of the room, had a great urge to get up and look over his shoulder, to sate her curiosity.
The following Sunday morning, the mystery deepened. A letter was delivered to Henry at the breakfast table; just as no letters were written, so none were usually received, and even Sam and Sophy looked interested. Henry, moreover, did not open the letter, but glanced at the handwriting and tucked the packet into his pocket.
Beth was now transfixed; she liked nothing more than a mystery, and tho' she knew perfectly well that it was none of her business, she continued watching her cousin for the rest of the day. At church later in the morning, she did not listen to the sermon, but intently stole glances at Henry beside her, whose countenance was serene and happy. He sang the hymns with such vigour and feeling that Beth was quite shocked, and attributed his especially good spirits to the possibility that he had been well pleased with the contents of his letter.
Beth saw nothing more untoward than her cousin's good humour until late that afternoon, when she placed a letter of her own on top of the stack in the parsonage hall. There were at least three others on the table, and as Beth put hers (addressed to her grandmother Bennet) on top, the stack of envelopes slid a little, and scattered across the surface. Beth picked her own up and the one nearest to it, and saw with a frisson of glee that the back was addressed in Henry's large, laboured hand - it must be the letter he had written out so carefully last night. But she dropped it hastily back onto the table and dashed quickly out of the hall when she saw the address and recipient of the letter lovingly spelt out: Miss Dale, currently residing in Mayfair, London.
Chapter 11 Chapter Eleven: An Unexpected Feeling
Beth's return to Pemberley was an unexpected blessing; she was far from ungrateful to Sam and Sophy for inviting her to Beanwell, but she was equally glad to be away from Henry, for she had found it utterly impossible to converse with him without wanting to interrogate him on the subject of the clandestine letter.
Could he and Anna really be attached? Beth could scarce believe it; they had met only at the Heath picnic all those weeks ago, and she had seen little in the behaviour or manner of either to suggest any peculiar regard. But here was a letter from Henry, she had seen it written, addressed to Anna herself! It was by no means a reprehensible connexion in Beth's eyes - both were amiable and dear to her, and there could surely be no apprehension on her uncle Bingley's side, as Henry was not the first born. Mrs. Gibson might, however, object; improving the standing and accomplishment of Anna was obviously a darling project, but her design was surely not to make her agreeable to Mrs. Gibson's two young nephews.
She said nothing to a soul - not even to Mrs. Darcy when she was returned to Pemberley. Afraid, for once, that she had discovered too much already, and still curious to see how Henry would conduct himself from now on, she remained silent.
Events in Derbyshire now seemed calmer; Georgiana was returned to her family in London; Mr. and Mrs. Bingley were settled at Alworth, and awaiting only the arrival of their grandchild, and Mr. and Mrs. Darcy were attending to their fourth child. There were no more visitors or travelling for the moment, and Beth relaxed and enjoyed the amenities of her home at her leisure, breaking only to visit the nursery to see Will and Rose Anne. Jane, in Beth's absence, had been increasingly out of the nursery to be company for her mother, and although her temper was nowhere near as sweet as Beth's, she was now seen often around the house, usually sitting on the floor in someone's way, or else by her father's side, chattering endlessly.
The good fortune which had previously enabled Beth to avoid the company of Mr. and Miss Stowe now deserted her, for, before long an invitation was issued from Mr. Richard Stowe requesting Miss Darcy's company on a visit to Derby. His mother, the note explained, was making a day trip and had offered to take her children to see the sights. Apparently, Miss Stowe had especially asked that Miss Darcy be a member of the party, and begged her brother to apply to her father for permission. To Beth's dismay, permission was given, and on Thursday next, Beth found herself squashed into the Stowe's landaulette with Miss Stowe and her mother, listening to the sound of Mr. Stowe riding close behind. A clap of thunder sounded above and Beth closed her eyes, confirmed in her opinion that this would indeed be an acutely awful day.
Mr. Stowe senior had been from home when she had arrived at Taston House. Mr. Darcy had suggested that Beth be taken there, as Taston was on the way to Derby, and so the Stowes would not have to make the journey to Pemberley and back again. She had been greeted by Mrs. Stowe, a small and chirpy woman who was so alike her daughter that Beth stared and stared until she remembered her manners. Bundled into the landaulette, she had felt as though she were being kidnapped, and she tried in vain to be optimistic.
The mother and daughter gossiped non-stop on the journey about common acquaintance, and occasionally looked to Beth for confirmation. She in turn was struck by the sheer viciousness of her companions - one was criticised for arriving late to a party, and it was insinuated that she was conducting a liaison outside of her marriage; another - apparently a family friend - was declared a bore, and a liar. Beth had heard such derision in London amongst strangers, and was only partially shocked to hear it now from acquaintance. What did anger her was the coolness of manner and ease of expression in which Mrs. and Miss Stowe put down and insulted these so-called friends and neighbours. It was inhuman and hypocritical, for Beth had no scruple to believe that such things would never be repeated to their faces.
They arrived in Derby mercifully quickly, and Beth jumped from the carriage happily and inhaled sharply, feeling as if she had been immersed underwater for the last hour. Around her, the town functioned (as towns do) in a bustle of activity and industry. There was no market that day, but the various establishments were open to sell their wares, and the ladies wasted no time finding the draper's and haberdasher's. Mr. Stowe excused himself, and promised to meet them later in the market square. The ladies, therefore, spent a happy morning rifling through fabrics, and even Beth had to concede that Miss Stowe in particular had a good eye.
It was quite after noon when Mr. Stowe tapped on the glass of the milliner's shop and called them outside. Rather embarrassed, Beth followed the others outside, carrying a small box containing a bolt of lace.
"And did you have a pleasant morning, Miss Darcy?" asked Mr. Stowe, eyeing the box suggestively. "Has my sister bullied you into buying something totally useless - shame on you, Mariah."
"Miss Darcy happened upon some very fine trimming for a gown, which her maid will, I am sure, will put to good use, brother!" retorted Miss Stowe, laughing.
"I am sure Miss Darcy needs no such adornment, but I nonetheless look forward to seeing this gown at our next ball," said Mr. Stowe, and Beth, to her horror, blushed. Mr. Stowe offered his arm, and furthermore Beth took it. The other women were walking ahead, and chattering loudly on the strength of the word "ball." Beth and her companion walked along quite amiably, Beth pointing out various places along the way that she remembered visiting as a child. To her surprise, she found that Mr. Stowe was, on his own, rather charming. He still had a tendency to revert the conversation back to himself - if Beth pointed out the stable-yard, he mentioned his horses back at Taston, and when she noticed the gentleman's club that her father had once visited, he interrupted with an anecdote about the Carlton in London. He was, however, diverting to a point, and Beth could not help but think that she had been foolish to reject him as an acquaintance so hurriedly.
She was about to speak of the past few weeks, when a cry came from the two women ahead. Mrs. Stowe was pointing across the street, and clapping her hands.
"Richard, look! There is an exhibition!"
Beth frowned, recalling no permanent exhibits in Derby; but as she looked across the street, she saw a large, colourful sign advertising a show-room of the carnival variety. Beth blanched; she hated such attractions, and had had little contact with them as a child, to her relief. The Stowes, however, were all grinning, and made every sign of crossing the street to go inside.
"I do so love show - rooms," Mrs. Stowe was crowing. "I saw the Sicilian Fairy in London, oh, but that was quite ten years ago now. You know, I met your father at a fair in Brighton, beside a tent with a two-headed dog inside . . ."
"Mother," said Miss Stowe, rather sharply, "Miss Darcy does not wish to hear that. Now, shall we all go in? Richard, you shall pay."
"I am sorry," said Beth suddenly, finding her voice. "You will have to excuse me, but I cannot go inside the show-room."
There was a silence, and then Mrs. Stowe exclaimed loudly:
"Oh, my dear, there is no need to be alarmed! The exhibits cannot harm you, they are grotesques, that is all. And we have Richard to escort us." She looked up proudly at her son, who was frowning and peering at Beth in worry.
"I am not afraid," Beth retorted. "But I do not wish to go inside and see such sights. It is cruel and I do not want to go in. With your permission, ma'am, I will remain here."
Muttering under her breath, Mrs. Stowe wheeled around and clutching her daughter, she marched across the street and into the building used for the exhibition. Mr. Stowe remained rooted to the spot for a moment, and watched his mother stalk off. He then turned and sighed.
"Miss Darcy, I cannot apologise enough. My mother is impulsive and . . ."
"Please do not apologise, Mr. Stowe," replied Beth. "It is I who am sorry, I seem to have ruined our day out. You see - I do feel so strongly about such places."
"As do I," answered he sympathetically and, lowering his tone, "you have principles, Miss Darcy, and you abide by them. Why should you feel guilt or be reproached? You are to be admired, not censured, believe me."
He offered his arm again, and Beth took it. They wandered down the street, and Beth found herself urged into conversation again, and did not mind half so much anymore when Mr. Stowe began another anecdote, this one about his recent time at Oxford.
Chapter 12 Chapter Twelve: Tom's Letter
There was some surprise between Mr. and Mrs. Darcy when their daughter recounted the events she had witnessed at Derby that day; Mrs. Darcy expressed shock and admiration on Mrs. Stowe and Beth's part respectively. Mr. Darcy remained taciturn and only spoke to praise the honourable actions of Mr. Stowe in escorting his daughter until his family returned.
Beth, in retelling her story, realised that she had indeed painted Mr. Stowe in an unusually heroic light. He had done nothing so very unexpected in remaining with her whilst his family were inside the exhibition, and Beth would have been most surprised if the most discourteous of men had not done the same. Even so, she found that her disposition towards Mr. Stowe was now less vitriolic than before; she esteemed him, thought him a gentleman, and in short, was not sorry to have him for an acquaintance.
His sister was another matter; Miss Stowe, far from apologising for abandoning her friend in Derby, was instead eager to know all that passed between Beth and her brother; she fervently believed that she had been the means of throwing them together in this way, and blatantly saw herself as some kind of matchmaker of the highest degree.
Beth, somewhat amenable now to the companionship of the brother, was still (and perhaps more) immovable in her dislike of the sister. What could have been a common and heartfelt female acquaintance had been marred by Miss Stowe's hypocrisy, cruelty, and as Beth believed, downright imbecility. This lack of friendship at Taston reminded Beth of her friend Anna Dale, and in turn of the clandestine letter from Henry. Beth thus sat down and wrote a short letter to Mayfair, addressed for the eyes of Anna only:
Pemberley, August 1834 My dear friend,
The mutual trust and friendship that exists between us begs that I write to you. You need not conceal from me any longer that which has been hidden for so long. Needless to say, I shall tell no one, but rest assured I am eager to do all that I can to help. Did you imagine that I would refute the match, or fail you as a friend by encouraging you to sever the connexion? I am so far from disliking the man in question that I would go so far as to say that you are as good a match as I could ever imagine! My dear Anna, write me a sweet note in reply, and I promise to be
Your friend and sister,
Beth could hope for no more than a letter in return, and fervently hoped that one such would relieve her mind, and confirm her hopes. Her dear friend would be part of her family! They would see each other nearly every day, for something would surely be found for Henry when he married.
She had sent this letter when it occurred to her that she had neglected her brother and sisters of late; straight away, she went to the nursery, only to discover that Jane and William were out in the grounds - their father had taken them on a walk around the lake. Rose Anne was downstairs with Mrs. Darcy, and the nursery was quite empty. All this came from the lips of Mrs. Wheeler, who had found herself with no charges to look after that afternoon, and so had invited Mrs. Reynolds the housekeeper up to tea. When the two old women greeted Beth, they urged her to come and join them.
Beth was by no means adverse to their company; indeed, they were two of the dearest ladies in the world, and loyal staff of her father's, but she could think of several tasks that would occupy her better than afternoon tea in her old nursery. Nonetheless, she did not seem to be rude, and so she pulled up a chair and helped herself to a scone.
"I hear that the mother was an actress," continued Mrs. Wheeler, as if Beth had not entered, and Mrs. Reynolds tutted.
"Quite shocking, upon my word; and how did she come to marry Mr. Stowe?"
Beth pricked her ears up, and listened closely whilst she helped herself to jam.
"They say he met her in Bath when she was entertaining there; he made her a very pretty present of a jewel or two, and they were wed within the month."
"But to think," exclaimed Mrs. Reynolds, putting down her cup, "that she has raised such fine children. I still say that Mr. Richard is a very handsome and deserving young man, and if his father could afford to make such handsome presents, who is to say his son cannot do the same?"
Both women fixed Beth with pointed stares, and she wondered whether they had only just remembered she was there. The conversation now turned to the various jewellery they had seen in the course of their careers, and Beth was rather sorry for it. Any information that came her way regarding Mr. Stowe was now worth hearing; for although she was now mistress of all his exploits and adventures in Oxford and London, she felt as though she only knew him slightly. She could not say what he believed or what he felt in his heart of hearts; what he wished for the future, and what he feared. This fact bothered Beth, because she herself feared that she would, at some point, receive an offer from Mr. Stowe, and her answer was far from decided.
Luckily, Tom sent her a reply to her last letter, and Beth received it just when she was contemplating Mr. Stowe, and it prevented her reaching any definite decision. Unluckily, it was rather a sad and melancholy letter that left Beth with the additional worry about her cousin so far away:
August 1834 Hunsford, Kent. Dearest Beth,
Your sharp eyes will glean from the above that I am in Kent; having removed there with Collins when he left for home. I have been welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Collins most generously; indeed I suspect that Lewis has not invited many friends into Hunsford, and so I am something of an anomaly. Mr. Collins is a most curious man, and he makes many demands on my attention. His son has been kind, however, and we spend much time out hunting and walking in the vicinity of Rosings Park. It is a pretty property, and the mistress of the house has made many improvements, I am told by my host. You may be wondering why I have removed from London, especially as you may have heard that my father has returned from the North. In truth, my firm was kind enough to suggest a short respite from my work, for I have been rather irksome of temper since your departure into Derbyshire. I feel your loss keenly, and I pray that we might see each other soon. I intend to remain in Kent no longer than a fortnight, for my employer will allow me no more leave than that. Write me a pretty letter in return, so that I may hear of you and be glad to be your cousin, Tom W.
Beth was disconcerted; the general tone and feeling of the letter was barely recognisable as the voice of Tom. His previous letters had been full of anecdotes and stories of his and Lewis' adventures in town, and he teased her of all the ladies' favours they had her acquired since she had fled town and "ceased hampering them." There was none of that here, and Beth was intrigued as to the cause of this sudden and new brevity of writing.
Chapter Thirteen: Inside the Chancel
It was during the following morning that Mr. Darcy announced that he would take his family into Roeminster for the day after tomorrow; Jane and William had begged him on their walk, and on consulting his wife, Mr. Darcy had arranged it all. Beth was far from unhappy; Roeminster was a small town about ten miles from Pemberley, with few shops, but a beautiful appearance, pleasant walks and a magnificent cathedral in the centre. The Darcy children had all been familiar with the place since they were babies, and regarded any time their parents took them as a particular treat. It was thus only a little perplexing that Mr. Darcy revealed that he had invited Mr. and Miss Stowe too. For a moment or two, Beth was annoyed at the prospect of intruders; and then it occurred to her that Mr. Stowe was now a ready acquaintance, and she could act as guide to him at Roeminster, showing him all of her favourite places and landmarks.
The weather was a little grey when Beth and her family prepared themselves for yet another day out; and yet this promised to be the best of all our heroine's day trips this year. Her family were all in excellent spirits - Jane especially was buoyant - and moreover, Miss Stowe had declared that she was indisposed, and could not attend upon them to Roeminster that day. Mrs. Darcy and her children got into the carriage, and the gentlemen rode alongside them. Conversation was lively between Elizabeth, Beth, Jane and William, who all voiced their opinion of the day's itinerary.
Despite Jane and William's protests, the first place that the party visited was Roeminster cathedral. It was a truly awesome building, containing several stained glass windows and ornate statues. Beth was immensely fond of going inside and enjoying the serene atmosphere, and she was inside before anyone else. Mr. Stowe was close behind, followed by the Darcys. As usual, Beth made her way to the altar, where there was a large blue piece of stained glass which reflected sunshine onto the floor in a sapphire pool of light.
Unfortunately for Beth, Jane and William grew restless, and complained loudly that they wished to wait outside. Mr. Darcy, compliant as ever to his beloved Jane, took them both across the square to the stables, leaving Mrs. Darcy alone with her daughter and Mr. Stowe. As they were all trying to decipher the Latin epitaph on one particular tombstone, the verger appeared, and, recognising the mistress of Pemberley, offered to translate. Mrs. Darcy was grateful, and then requested a tour of the rest of the building. She and the verger disappeared around the corner, leaving Beth standing at the altar, where she lit a candle. All went quite for a moment, and Beth sighed deeply. Mr. Stowe's voice came suddenly from behind her, and she realised he was at her very shoulder, leaning forward urgently.
"Miss Darcy, I must speak, taking this opportunity to declare my feelings, and beg that you would consent to be my wife."
The words were so loud and sharp in the silence of the chancel, and so hastily spoken that they completely startled Beth. She turned around quickly and said the first thing that entered her head.
"I beg your pardon?"
Mr. Stowe laughed and rubbed the end of his nose. "I am asking you to marry me. You cannot be surprised, I am sure. You surely had some knowledge of my intentions."
"Indeed, Mr. Stowe, but . . ."
"And why should now not be the time?" he continued, cutting Beth short. "Alone here, in this beautiful place, with your family treating me as one of them. Oh, Miss Darcy, you cannot know how I have agonized over you, how I think of you as my wife . . . we could even marry here, at this altar if you wish, for I understand you are fond of the place." "Mr. Stowe," exclaimed Beth, taking a step back, "you are too hasty; I have made you no answer."
"Can there be any other answer than yes?" He frowned, and Beth saw that this was said with pure confusion. Vanity! It had not occurred to him that he could be refused, and had proposed rhetorically, expecting no actual response. If she had ever been undecided in her opinion of this man, it was now that she made up her mind. She straightened her back a little and crossed her arms.
"You have not mentioned your feelings to me before now," said Beth, "nor have you spoke of any direct intention to marry."
"Is this not the better way to propose marriage? If I had spoken of it every day that we met, you would have tired of the subject. You would have thought me foolish and dull to talk about what I wish and what I hope for." Here he took Beth's hand, and caressed it. "Miss Darcy - Elizabeth - I may say that since I first saw you, I have felt love like nothing I have experienced before. You are to me everything I could wish for in a wife. You are a lady in the purest sense; you are a member of one of the noblest families in the kingdom, whose amenities and connexions have made their mark on you most effectively; and the situation and circumstances of your immediate family bode well for our future happiness."
"I do not understand you, Mr. Stowe," returned Beth, who had by now closed her mind to such empty flattery; she doubted not that her family connexions merely represented the Darcy fortunes, and her lady-like appearance was undoubtedly justified by the rare times in which she had been silent.
"Your mother and your aunt in Cheshire are lucky in their children, I would say. Eight children between two sisters are the natural results of true conjugal happiness. Mrs. Darcy has recently been blessed with another child, is that not so? So late in her married career - your parents must be very . . . content with each other." His eyes glimmered. "I confess, I rather anticipate a house filled with so many children of my own."
Beth did not speak at first, but then she recollected herself, and wheeled around and began to march back down the aisle, uttering a short "good day." Her name was called several times, and then a strong hand was clamped around her arm, pulling her back.
"Let go of me," Beth cried, and movement at the corner of her eye revealed that Mrs. Darcy and the verger were returned from their walk around the cathedral. Beth could not tell if they were looking this way.
"You cannot walk away, Elizabeth," Mr. Stowe was saying, still clutching her arm, "until you speak to me. What is all this hesitation and questioning? I am intoxicated by you, I must marry you. Now, what have you to say to me?"
"Mr. Stowe," cried Beth, pulling herself free and facing him, "I am more offended than I can say. Your mode of address is wrong, sir, all wrong! You say you are intoxicated by your feelings for me, yet at no point have you said that you love me. Why must you marry me? There is no must about it, sir. Because you would sleep easy at night? Because my father is your acquaintance? Because your sister wishes it so? These are not reasons to enter into matrimony, Mr. Stowe, with any woman, but least of all with me. I will not marry you, sir. Now, I would be grateful if you would let me go outside to my father, and I will believe that this exchange never took place. Good day, sir."
And Beth marched on back down the aisle, pulling the door open and exiting with a loud bang, as the draught blew inside, past the stunned figure of Mr. Stowe, and over the candle, which blew out sharply in a puff of smoke.
End of Volume II
Volume III: In Hertfordshire
Chapter Fourteen: Back to the Hert of the Matter
At first, Mr. Darcy did not perceive anything to be wrong. After a inestimable amount of time, Mrs. Darcy, Mr. Stowe and Beth had exited the cathedral. From a distance, they looked exactly as they had before. However, further inspection of each person's countenance revealed a myriad of differing emotions. Mr. Stowe was sullen and down cast, Mrs. Darcy was serene, but clasped her daughter's hand tightly; Beth herself was pink-cheeked and looked close to tears.
Recognising in his daughter's face the usual symptoms of a recent outburst, Mr. Darcy guessed what had happened inside the cathedral. Silently and without excitement, he ordered the carriage and announced that it was time to leave. No one made any reproach except Jane, who was quietened with a glare from Beth.
Mr. Stowe took his leave at the turnpike road, leaving the Darcys alone with each other; if only this had the effect of lessening the awkwardness between them all! Mr. Darcy galloped off towards the house, and inside the carriage, Beth was faced with her mother - for William had fallen asleep, and Jane gazed sullenly out of the window.
Beth felt tears brimming in her eyes, but refused to let them fall. Convinced of her parents' mutual disappointment in her, and embarrassment after the turn of events, she gave way to her feelings of complete and utter misery. Never had she been so thoroughly shocked and alarmed than today; the proposal itself had been no revelation - indeed, its prospect had darkened every day she had spent at Pemberley - but the nature of the offer, his manner of address were abhorrent to her in the highest degree. It had pained her to cause such a scene, with her family in such close proximity, and he surely must have been injured by her words; and yet, it would have caused more pain to accept him. Two people trapped in an engagement under such expectations as his (she shuddered) could never happily marry; and surely her parents would not endorse such a match for their daughter?
Nanny Wheeler was in the hall to take her charges from their parents, and Beth noted her disappointed countenance when she saw that Mr. Stowe was absent from the party. The good woman then caught her master's expression, and hastily removed Jane and William to the nursery. Mr. Darcy mutely removed his outer garments and disappeared into the morning room. His wife followed, gesturing to Beth to remain outside for a moment, and closed the doors. Beth pulled off her gloves, and sat timidly on the edge of a hard backed chair. She heard Mrs. Darcy's voice say "Fitzwilliam . ." and then murmuring from both.
After five minutes (for Beth had counted them exactly on the grandfather clock beside her) the door opened and Lizzy leaned out. Ushering Beth in, she went into the centre of the room, and sat on a long sopha between her husband and daughter. Mr. Darcy was standing at the fireplace, hands behind his back, fixing Beth with a dark stare. Beth swallowed and moved to face him. Mrs. Darcy was the first to speak.
"Your father, Beth, feels that several matters need to be discussed between ourselves."
"Mama, I . . ." Beth paused, suddenly aware that her voice sounded hollow and echoed around the cavernous room. "Papa, I want to apologise. To you both."
"Why are you apologising, Beth?" asked Lizzy, looking truly confused. Her father remained silent.
"I realise that I put you in a difficult position today. You must understand that I will not marry him."
"There is nothing to apologise for Beth," replied Lizzy, looking over at her husband, who shifted slightly and finally spoke:
"I understand that you refused Mr. Stowe when he made you an offer?" His voice was characteristically low and deep, but with an unusual waver that upset Beth. "Have you refused him?"
"I have, sir." Beth's own voice was hard and determined. "I cannot marry him. It would go against my very person to accept him."
"What did he say that angered you so, Beth?" asked Mrs. Darcy. "There must have been something."
Beth thought quickly. "His whole manner was wrong, sir. He is a fine man, but not for me. I cannot say exactly what he said, suffice it to say that he is the last man in the world whom I could ever marry. His conceit is not to be believed and his manner of offering himself to me was repulsive. Do what you will to me, Papa, I shall not care."
"I see. And you are absolutely certain?"
"I am, sir."
"Then there is nothing else to be done. Thank you Beth. You may go."
Beth left the room gratefully, shutting the door quietly before dashing upstairs. It seemed as though her father was not nearly as disappointed as she had thought. It took her from the lower landing to her bedroom doorway for the feeling to dwindle slightly; for she could not help thinking again that she had let both her parents down. Had she made a dreadful mistake in refusing Mr. Stowe? She had, after all, took quite against him from the moment they met, despite the attraction everyone else around her seemed to feel. In the solitude of her room, and after the conversation with her father and mother, the grounds on which she had rejected him seemed quite distant already.
She glanced at her writing desk, and the sight of her cousin's letter poking from the drawer jolted her from these doubts. Tom! Tom would never have insulted her and her family in the way Mr. Stowe had! He, who had more cause for resentment than any other man in England, was more gentleman than Mr. Richard Stowe. All that pain and hurt which she could recall to mind had been evidential in his countenance, but never had he made a cross or reproachful remark to her. He would never treat her in the way that odious man had! Were he to make her an offer, it would be perfect, and respectful, and stemmed from a deep love . . .
Beth gasped at the turn her thoughts had taken and sat down on the end of the bed. Tom and Tom only was the man she would ever accept. He was the benchmark for which all other men could be measured. It was as if a dark room had had its curtains thrown wide open, and Beth saw all her mind crystal and clear. She loved Tom so much that Mr. Stowe could not even be fairly compared. Her rejection of Mr. Stowe - from the very first - had simply and purely been because he was not her beloved Tom. Her decision must have been the right one. She could not marry the heir to Taston when her heart was this full of another.
But what was to be done? Mrs. Darcy had been very clear that her father would never approve of a match between his daughter and the son of Mr. Wickham, no matter how much happiness it would give her. Just as the new knowledge of her attachment buoyed her, so it lowered her spirits accordingly. It ought not to be even attempted surely; the hate ran deep there, and she could not bear to give her father such pain, could she? Unsure of everything now, she took herself down to dinner, reliving the events of the day over and over in her head.
Mr. and Mrs. Darcy spent much of the evening exchanging light pleasantries and reminisces about London, which Beth was invited to contribute to. When the last remove had been cleared away, Darcy leaned forward and addressed his daughter.
"My dear, your mother and I have talked this afternoon, and we have a proposal to put to you." He glanced at Mrs. Darcy, who smiled encouragingly and nodded. He cleared his throat and continued.
"Your mother has written to Longbourn and asked that you make a visit to your grandparents for a short duration. What say you?"
"Am I to be banished, sir?" replied Beth, tears suddenly filling her eyes. "I thought I was not to be blamed for the events of today."
"You are not banished from Pemberley, Beth," said her mother, moving her chair forwards and taking Beth's hand. "Your father merely feels that it may be awkward to stay in Derbyshire at present. Mr. Stowe's family are out often in society of late."
"I do not want you unhappier than you already are, Beth," added her father feelingly, and this brought a fresh sob from Beth. Mrs. Darcy rushed to embrace her, and she smiled weakly at her husband.
" I know my father will be pleased to have you there, and you can send my mother all the news from Derbyshire, my sweet. Can you be my envoy? You will save me a deal of paper for writing."
Beth laughed and wiped her eyes. "Yes, Mama. I should be very glad to see Longbourn again. I shall miss you both, of course."
She stood up and made her way from the dining room carefully. She was halfway across the hall before she realised that her father had followed her out. He called her name and she retraced her steps as he clasped her tight in a tender and reassuring embrace.
Chapter Fifteen: Longbourn
Beth had visited Longbourn so often that she knew when the carriage was at the village boundary by instinct. Nonetheless, her heart was lifted as it always was as the view from the window revealed the familiar houses and farmland that wended the way to Longbourn House.
The house still stood, like an old friend that has waited patiently always knowing that one would return. The brickwork had weathered even more since last time, and the roses growing around the driveway were less abundant, but it cheered Beth's heart to be here again. It was not Pemberley, but in an odd sort of way, she felt like she was coming home.
Her grandmother was waiting in the doorway as the carriage pulled up. Beth jumped out and moved to greet her. She was barely able to express thanks before Mrs. Bennet began.
"My dear child, you are very welcome! How tall you are now, so like Lizzy at that age, but twice as pretty, I declare. Rather like Jane I think; and Darcy, Darcy's features! How glad I shall be to have Mrs. Long see you again. I hear you saw my dear Lydia in town? Was she well? You must say when next you see her that she is not to be always buying that cheap kind of meat; I buy quite the most expensive kind in Meryton, and my health is greatly improved. Get yourself in now, I have so much news I shall hardly have time to tell you all."
Beth privately doubted this very much but was happy after her journey to be inside and to have some tea. She had barely sat down in the sitting room and poured some tea for her grandmother before Mr. Bennet entered the room. He aged every time Beth saw him, but his agility and caprice had never waned, and he darted across the room to greet his favourite grandchild.
"How are you, my little Beth? Come here in disgrace, have you?"
"Nothing like, Mr. Bennet," interrupted his wife. "You know very well Beth is here to visit us now that we are so few. As to this Stowe gentleman, Beth, I shall certainly not speak of it, although I hear he has quite a fortune and reputation as good as any young man in Derbyshire. But what does that signify, for you are hardly in need of any money. I always knew that any child of Lizzy's would never be in want of that. Is it not so, Mr. Bennet?"
"Quite so, my dear. Once the girls left Longbourn, I never had to worry about them ever again. My job as a father was done and I slept better every night than I did since they were born."
"Oh, Beth, I do have such terrible time sleeping of late," said his wife. She began a lengthy soliloquy on the tiredness she suffered, and the effect this had on her nerves. Mr. Bennet retired back to his library, leaving Beth alone to bask in the meaningless and wonderfully nonsensical chit chat of her grandmother.
After a very pleasant and restful night's sleep (for Beth at any rate) Longbourn was graced with visit from two more of its family members. On hearing that Beth was staying there, Catherine and Mary had journeyed over together to pay their respects. Both women lived in not ten miles from Longbourn; Mary resided in a small house not far from her husband's offices in Meryton. Catherine lived still further away, in the parsonage of Elbury where her husband was vicar. Beth liked her aunt Catherine well, for upon her marriage to Mr. Maddox, she had come to live in his parish not far from Pemberley. Mr. Maddox however, always intent on improving himself, had taken another living which happened to be in Elbury, the neighbouring village to Meryton.
The aunts were glad to see their niece, and if they knew ought of the proposal in Roeminster, they spoke nothing of it. News was exchanged, and both women expressed their happiness over the safe delivery of Elizabeth and Rose Anne from harm.
"Our family certainly is increasing," observed Mrs. Bennet gleefully. "So many grandchildren! I remember when you girls were born, Kitty, there were so many of you. No sons, though. I could wish for Lizzy that another son had been born. Dear Jane is so lucky to have her sons. Such fine young men!"
"Rose Anne is so beautiful, Grandmama, and healthy too," answered Beth, "we are grateful for that."
"Mama," said Kitty suddenly, "did I tell you that I have heard from Tom?"
Beth was about to say more about her new sister, but stopped when her aunt spoke. She had not heard from her cousin in so long, and was desperate for news of his recent movements.
"He has been in Kent with Mr. Collins' son," continued Kitty, "tho' I cannot understand how they came to be such friends."
Mary looked perplexed, and Mrs. Bennet scoffed.
"Such a handsome young man is Tom! That young Collins sets my hair on end; why should he pester my dear boy so? I daresay it is to boast of what he shall inherit some day." She gestured with her hand around the room, and Beth lifted her head.
"They formed the acquaintance in London, Grandmama. Mr. Collins junior is very amiable, nothing like his father, I think. Tom and he are quite good friends, tho' I agree, I cannot think what they have to talk about."
"You can ask him when you see him, Beth," came Kitty's voice. "He comes to Longbourn this week to visit us."
Beth's heart leapt; she was to see Tom, after all this time! She did not hear the rest of the conversation; her mind full of what she and Tom would say to each other, how they would laugh at her portrayal of Mr. Stowe, perhaps even of the odious proposal? How much they would have to entertain each other with, it would be as if the last month had never happened, and they were back in London again!
Chapter Sixteen: A Pretty Kind of Wilderness
Beth waited at length for Tom to come into Hertfordshire; over the following three days, she learned that he had stayed for quite some time in Kent with Mr. Collins junior, but they had parted ways and Tom had expressed a desire to see his Bennet relations before returning to his job in Chancery.
Beth formulated several plans and draft conversations that might frame the talks she would have with Tom. Her own feelings could not be spoken of, that was certain. For one thing, it was by no means certain that he reciprocated them; they had but recently met, and it was perfectly possible that he was used to yet calling her cousin. Moreover, there was nothing to be done; it was fruitless to pursue it whilst the animosity between their fathers stood as it was. Beth knew from information she gleaned that Tom was to stay only a day or two in Longbourn and she would not spoil that for anything. She had come to mend, and mend she would, with Tom to talk to.
He arrived, as was customary with Mrs. Bennet's grandchildren, at a completely inappropriate time; Mrs. Bennet had decided to take a short respite from the inertia of the day with a nap on the sopha. Barely had her head touched the pillow than Tom was announced, his luggage was brought in (rather noisily) and he had taken a seat as close to her as was possible.
Actually, Tom had arrived at precisely the right time, for Beth had decided to sit at the window seat in the sitting room, the better to watch for his approach. She had not sat for five minutes before she had seen his horse on the drive, and ran to greet him. Their meeting was everything that was feeling and heartfelt; they clasped hands, and said they were very glad to see each other after so long. Beth saw that Tom had grown very brown, and showed signs of fatigue in his countenance that alarmed her slightly. She ushered him in for refreshments, and directed him, unfortunately right to the sopha where her grandmother had decided to sleep.
Tom, for all his politeness, could answer only a few questions from Mrs. Bennet (chiefly relating to the style of living enjoyed by the Collinses) before expressing a desire to walk out in some air with Beth. Mrs. Bennet saw the advantages in this notion, and agreed heartily. Barely had her two grandchildren walked onto the lawn before she was fast asleep again.
Beth and Tom walked in silence across the lawn, and did not speak until they were in the little walled garden that, Beth recalled, her mother had so infamously crossed swords with Beth's great aunt de Bourgh. It was a startlingly pretty place, a wilderness of roses and shrubbery that Beth had become fond of walking in during her stay at Longbourn. She chose a seat on a stone bench, and sat looking out over the garden, inhaling deeply. After a moment, Tom joined her.
"I truly am glad to see you," he began, and Beth smiled.
"I do not doubt that; I am often complimented on the excellence of my company," she replied and Tom laughed.
"London seems like such an age away, does it not? That abominable dance, the tea at my mother's house, remember we talked about 'Frankenstein'. . ."
Beth saw an opening for one of her prepared speeches and interjected:
"I have read some excellent good books here, Tom. You must ask grandfather to let you into the library. Of course, he will not let me in alone, and so I have to be passed novels through the gap in the doorway, but then I really do not mind as long as I am reading, you know . . ."
Tom laughed aloud and Beth, after a pause, did the same. They laughed together for a minute, Beth hardly knew why, until Tom stopped and smiled ruefully.
"Beth, what am I to do?"
"I beg your pardon?" Beth stopped laughing and frowned.
"I said what am I to do now?"
"What do you mean?"
"I love you very much, you know, and I know that you know that. I simply do not know what to do now."
Beth started and then began to cry; she then felt so embarrassed that she forced herself to stop a little, and wiped her eyes.
"I am sorry," she laughed, "I love you too. Very much."
"I do. And I have thought about this for quite some time now."
Tom smiled. "When I was at Hunsford, Mr. and Mrs. Collins talked of you often - how you must have blossomed, your Season in London, how well you and I must have acquainted ourselves. You cannot imagine how they tortured me."
"You might be surprised," Beth replied, leaning over and plucking a handful of grasses.
"Be serious, Beth," said Tom, standing up. "If we love each other, we should marry. I am not rich, but we could be happy."
"I do not care about the money," cried Beth, "but my father . . .and your father. We cannot marry whilst there is such bad feeling between the Darcy and Wickham families."
"I know, I know." Tom began to pace. "What else can we do? My parents ran away to marry . . ."
"But, Tom, I . . ."
" . . . which I would never ask you to do, Beth. I could never ask you to elope. I think too highly of your parents - and you for that matter."
"I could talk to my father. You could talk to him too!"
"Would Mr. Darcy listen to you?"
Beth thought about this, and then bowed her head. Mr. Darcy loved his daughter well, but he would not permit Beth to dictate to him; she knew that his feelings ran deep and that no amount of persuasion could change his mind.
"Then there is really nothing we can do?"
"I cannot see anything to be done." Tom came and sat beside her. "You must think me the most idle lover in the world. If I were better, I daresay I would move heaven and earth to marry you. It seems that I have not enough courage."
Beth reached out and kissed his cheek. "You are a perfect gentleman. And were circumstances different, I would not hesitate."
Tom took her hand and held it gently. "We will always see each other. And there will be no obstacle to us writing as often as we will. I shall always hear and think of you."
There was a pause and Beth suddenly panicked. "Is that it? Is this the way we are to part? I don't know what to say - Tom!"
Beth began to weep again, and Tom clutched her tight. She returned the embrace as hard as she dared, feeling as if her whole heart were breaking.
Chapter Seventeen: A Man unmasked
The time that Beth spent at Longbourn passed quickly; it often seemed that the whole village moved sleepily in comparison to Pemberley; at that great estate and in the village, there was always someone or something happening to be prepared for. At Longbourn, the greatest excitement of the day was usually whether or not Mrs. Bennet would serve the fish that evening. Beth revelled in the minutiae of the day to day life with her grandparents, and was almost sorry to return to the familiar life in Derbyshire.
Tom spent a total of three days staying at the house of his aunt Kitty, paying daily visits to Longbourn House as well. He and Beth walked often in the gardens and sat for several hours together amusing Mrs. Bennet who was extremely glad to see her two favourite grandchildren together. Tom even persuaded Mr. Bennet to permit him into the library, and armed with a list from Beth, procured her some tomes that not even Miss Elizabeth Bennet knew had resided there. Beth and Tom did not speak of what had passed that day in the wilderness but they took every opportunity of making each other happy in the time before Tom left for London. The day he departed lay heavy on Beth's heart; she kissed him as a cousin and went back into the house and tried to be cheerful as much as her sensibility would allow.
Beth herself left for Derbyshire exactly three weeks after arriving at Longbourn; the journey was (or seemed to her) rather long and she was deposited at the entrance to Pemberley weary of spirit and of body. Mrs. Darcy was waiting to greet her, with her sisters and Beth to her horror found tears spring to her eyes again as she embraced them. Mr. Darcy, she was informed by her mother, had taken William to a meeting with the house steward and so Beth enjoyed a peaceful afternoon with her female relations. Rose Anne, now a round pink baby of two months, had a wonderful time on the lap of her eldest sister and Jane found that her sister was a tolerable co-conspirator in a tease that involved Jane's intent to run away to London and marry the King.
"I think he is married already, dearest," laughed Beth. "Perhaps someone a little lower down the social scale."
"But then I could not live at the palace," countered Jane, helping herself to another cream tea, "and I would so love to have one of those big white dresses."
"You do not need money, sweetness, as long as you marry someone you love," said Beth dreamily, and Mrs. Darcy gave her an odd look. Nothing more was said on the subject, however, as Jane turned the conversation to her newest collection of flowers (picked, as it turned out, from Mrs. Darcy's rose garden).
Beth did not see her father until late that afternoon; he greeted her warmly, and as far as Beth could tell, without prejudice or reproach. She told him all the news from Longbourn, and mentioned only that Tom had made a fleeting visit during her stay. Lying to her father did not give her any joy, but it had a distinct advantage compared to telling him all that had happened. She was most certainly not prepared to discuss that topic with Mr. Darcy.
Life continued, as it always does, and Beth soon found that she had ample enough to amuse her in Derbyshire. She had been most gratified, upon her return, to learn that the Stowe family had removed to Margate to partake in some sea-bathing. Very few of the surrounding families seemed aware of Mr. Stowe's proposal to the young Miss Darcy; those who did said nothing of it. Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Wheeler, Beth supposed, were disappointed but were kind to Beth in their own way. Beth felt truly able to enjoy the air and breathed deeply, safe in the knowledge that she would not have to worry about further proposals from that quarter.
It therefore came as something of a shock when she was called into her father's study a week after she returned from Hertfordshire. The message was so short and terse that Beth actually ran into Mr. Darcy's most private room. Inside she was greeted by the sight of her father and mother in deep conversation with a very familiar face. It was Mr. Lewis Collins, even paler than usual, his hands wringing at a most alarming rate. He was seated, and Mr. Darcy was standing before him, stroking his chin and looking most grave. When Mrs. Darcy saw Beth approach, she stood up and guided her to a chair.
"Beth, you recall Mr. Collins, I trust?"
Beth said nothing, but inclined her head cautiously. Her initial fear had been that she was to be made love to again by Mr. Stowe, but something in the atmosphere of the room was perturbing her even more now. Mr. Darcy, eyes black, gestured to the young man.
"Mr. Collins brings news of a most serious nature, Beth."
"Is it someone at Hunsford?" tried Beth, her eyes wide. Her father shook his head and looked embarrassed.
"It seems that we have all misjudged Mr. Stowe, Beth. Mr. Collins here heard that he had made you an offer of marriage."
"How?" exclaimed Beth indignantly, glaring at Mr. Collins, who cowered slightly.
"Mrs. Bennet related the news to my grandmother," replied he, "and she, in turn, mentioned it in a letter to Hunsford." He paused and looked up at Mr. Darcy, who nodded grimly. "I recognised the name from my time at Oxford. We were students there for some three months."
"Why so short a time?"
"Mr. Stowe was . . . sent down from Balliol for . . . undignified behaviour. I did not see or hear of him again until I read the letter."
"Undignified behaviour," repeated Beth. "But what has this to do with me?"
"I am afraid he was a gambling man, and was indebted to several firms in Oxford when I knew him." Mr. Collins cleared his throat. "I know that his intention was to go back into the country to ask for his father's aid. When I heard that he had made an offer of marriage, naturally I thought . . ."
"You thought that he intended to marry my daughter to gain her dowry," finished Mr. Darcy shortly.
"You did well to come here," said Mrs. Darcy keenly, "such a deed shows true friendship and a caring heart."
Mr. Collins looked acutely embarrassed and took his leave, on the understanding that all was safe and well where Beth was concerned. When he had gone, the Darcys and their daughter returned to the study, where Darcy addressed Beth directly.
"Elizabeth, I apologise for my actions where this young man was concerned. I was blind to his true nature, and I know that you must have been greatly mortified by his attentions when all around you were promoting them. I understand that the family have retired to the coast indefinitely; they have no intention of returning to Derbyshire at present, so you need not worry on that score."
Beth expressed her thanks and took leave from her parents to allow her mother to comfort Mr. Darcy in her own way. Her father seemed to blame himself, which Beth could at first see the logic in. Had he not complimented him and encouraged him at every opportunity? Then, she felt sad, for it clearly preyed on his conscience more than her own. She could not help but be gleeful at the justification of her own scruples; she had never been fully comfortable with Mr. Stowe, and his end was no less than she felt he deserved. It was very hard tho' that Mr. Darcy took so much upon himself, and she resolved to make amends with him in whatever way she could.
Chapter Eighteen: Lady Bradstock comes calling
Beth did make a considerable effort to appease her father, with good results. He seemed very much diminished by Mr. Collins' news, and Beth went to some pains to divert him. She engaged him in lively discussion, left out books she thought he may like, and made several watercolour sketches of Rose Anne and William, which were added to the collection mounted on his study mantelpiece.
Because of this effort on Beth's part, Mr. Darcy consented to allow Anna Dale to make her long overdue visit to Pemberley. Beth wrote to invite her, and was accepted most graciously by return of post. Anna arrived in Derbyshire to great welcome from all of the family, who were curious to meet her, and customarily hospitable to such an amiable young lady. Mrs. Darcy was able to learn of Mrs. Gibson's health; and Mr. Darcy learned that his sister also was in the best of spirits.
Beth and Anna were keen in their appreciation of each other, and Beth spent many hours devoted to her friend's comfort and amusement. She pointed out all of the best places in the park, and gave Anna a thorough tour of the beautiful house. They were rarely apart, and talked often. Beth had almost forgotten about the mystery of Henry's letters to Anna, having being rather intent on her own lovers. Most curiously, Anna claimed that she had never received the letter of support from Beth on this issue, and did so in such a manner that persuaded Beth not to pursue the topic again.
One sunny day when Beth and Anna were walking back from a journey into Pemberley village, they were greeted in the lane by a large carriage which slowed down alongside them. Beth's heart sank when she heard the loud tones and saw a flash of magenta silk at the window; the glass was put down and Lady Bradstock's large head appeared.
"Darling Eliza, I chanced that I might see you somewhere in the vicinity. And Miss Dale too, I believe. Lovely creatures, nymphs indeed! I have just called upon your dear mother at Pemberley - such a lovely house, it takes my breath away, really it does. I am touring the stately homes, Eliza, as I always do about this time. I was at Chatsworth yesterday and I declare the Duchess was quite enchanted to see me again. Have you a beau yet, Miss Eliza? But then you left London so suddenly! Hardly a chance to ensnare anyone! At least Miss Anna there has the advantage over you!"
Anna looked at the ground and turned pink. Beth however, did not notice and asked Lady Bradstock to repeat her last sentence. Lady Bradstock giggled and shuffled in her seat.
"Not know! Miss Dale there catches my drift. Your friend, my dear Eliza, made quite an impression on a young man when you were out of London. There I see that look!"
"Lady Bradstock, I . . ." tried Anna, but Lady Bradstock was quicker.
"Not this year, Eliza. I believe you were quite ill last year with the scarlet fever (you recovered remarkably tho' my dear), and Miss Dale formed an attachment to a very nice young gentleman of my acquaintance. His mother, you known is a dear friend."
"Mrs. Bingley?" asked Beth, her mind full, of course of Henry and his letter. Lady Bradstock, however, shook her head and giggled again.
"Bingley, no indeed! Collins is his name. From Kent, I recall. His father's patron was an acquaintance of mine before she departed this life. Very hard and mean spirited but there, one should not speak ill of the dead. Collins, was it not, Anna?"
Beth could not look at Anna, but she sensed her pain. By great good luck, the horse suddenly jolted the carriage and Lady Bradstock was reminded of her next appointment. She drove away shouting down the road that they must all meet together in town soon. The two girls were left in the dusty lane, silence between them. Anna spoke first.
"Oh, Beth, please do not laugh at me!"
"Why should I laugh?" asked Beth, bemused.
"I know what you must think, but . . ."
"If you wish to turn clairvoyant then I must disappoint you. I am surprised, but why should I laugh? Mr. Collins junior is a very good man, and I cannot think why you are not already married."
"He waits for a living to fall vacant near Hunsford, and I fear to tell Mrs. Gibson until he has the means to support us."
"Ah, Mrs. Gibson. Well, I daresay she will find a new protégé. And I must commend both of you; for I was completely taken in. Really, such acting ought to be on stage at Drury Lane. I had no idea that you and he were attached."
"He and I met very early last year in London. He seemed so kind and different to the other gentlemen in town."
"And have you been writing to him all this time?"
Anna revealed this to be true, but insisted that it was of the greatest of secrets and that Beth was sworn to keep it until Mr. Collins senior could secure his son's comfort; or at least procure a living that benefited from a patron of Lady Catherine's ilk.. Beth agreed and sealed the promise with a kiss to her friend. As they walked back to Pemberley, Beth felt immense happiness on Anna's part. It was not until she was in her room, and washing her hands for tea that a last question occurred to her: if Anna had been receiving letters from Mr. Lewis Collins, then to whom had Henry been writing to?
Chapter Nineteen: Down by the Lake
Anna and Beth talked even more following the encounter with Lady Bradstock. Anna was keen to speak of her future with Mr. Collins, and Beth indulged her, with more than a touch of envy in her heart. She found it hard to imagine finding such happiness with any man other than the one denied to her.
The topic did turn to Tom Wickham towards the end of Anna's stay at Pemberley, for she was wanted back at Mayfair to spend Christmas with Mrs. Gibson and Mrs. Hurst. A visit was promised to Alworth, and so Beth was not disheartened, as the Bingleys were frequent visitors to Pemberley over the Christmas season.
It was rather colder than it had been, and the girls were obliged to wear scarves and gloves to walk around the lake; Mrs. Darcy would not permit them to walk further, for fear of catching cold. They meandered around the edge of the water, reminiscing of London, and talking of Mr. Collins again.
"I fear you will have an enthusiastic father in law," laughed Beth, her breath clouding before her in the air. Anna laughed.
"I imagine, tho' that there are worse. Think of your cousin Tom, for he has no father living. What an asset that is by your standards. I cannot imagine any lady refusing him," she added lazily. "I liked him immensely, especially on that day we spent on the heath, remember Beth? He was so entertaining. I see him not half so well as I should like in town."
Beth, to her horror, burst into tears, and Anna rushed to her side.
"Beth, Beth? Are you ill? Should I run to the house and fetch Mrs. Darcy?"
"No, thank you. I am well. But you spoke of Tom, and I really rather miss him . . ."
Anna did not speak at first, and then offered her hankerchief, adding, "You love him, am I right?"
Beth wiped her eyes, and smiled.
"Forgive me, but I should not speak of it."
"Why not? If you love him, then what can prevent you from marrying?"
"Circumstances, our parents. My father would never consent . . . He and Mr. Wickham - my uncle - were not on speaking terms. He may as well be in China for all love does for us."
"Can you not talk to Mr. Darcy?"
"No, I should not wish to hurt him. Think how it would appear to him - his daughter attached to the son of his greatest enemy. I could not hurt him in that way, he would think I had contrived it deliberately."
"You believe I exaggerate? No, I cannot tell Papa. I shall keep it to myself and it will pass - like the scarlet fever did last year. I can write to him and converse as a cousin, and that will suffice for us both."
"Oh, Beth!" Anna held her friend close and did her best to provide comfort; however, it was a good ten minutes before Beth was sufficiently composed to return to the house. They left a trail of footprints behind them on the frosty ground, and it was this that Mr. Darcy followed as he moved out from behind the tall bushes near the lake; he had heard every word of what had passed between his daughter and her friend.
Chapter Twenty- The Pemberley Christmas Party
Anna departed for London two weeks before the Christmas season began, with much thanks on both sides. Beth had grown greatly attached to Anna and would be forever in her debt. She had not spoken to Miss Darcy of Tom, and sought only to divert her now from the melancholy of reflection. Beth's spirits revived gradually, and she was back to her usual self almost by the time Anna left. Mr Darcy himself was rarely seen by Beth, although she made no odds at this; winter was a hard time, and as a landlord, he took pains to ensure his tenants and the residents of Pemberley were comfortable at this time of year. As well as this duty that took him out of the house, the preparations for the Christmas party took precedent and ensured everyone's movements were made all the more frantic and unpredictable.
It was commonly held in the county of Derbyshire that the Darcys of Pemberley hosted the best Christmas parties to be had in all England. Prior to his marriage, Mr Darcy had never thought it worth his while to celebrate Christmas in any other way that that which he was accustomed to; save for a few weeks' shooting with a choice selection of acquaintances, whom he had invited for the sake of appearance, and for the love and duty he felt he owed to his sister Georgiana.
Such a meagre and unhallowed approach to the Yuletide season, naturally could not be borne, and on the occasion of Mr. Darcy's marriage, his lady insisted that the doors to Pemberley be thrown open, and the holiday observed with all the merriment and high spirits she was used to; for Mrs. Darcy was of a family that, in times gone by, had enjoyed many parties and assemblies at Christmas, and she was eager to carry such traditions into her married life.
"But Mr. Darcy," she had implored very early on in their marriage, "consider only that it would be a blessing for the estate; work would be provided by way of preparation for above a month, and would it not be fine and glorious to commemorate our wedding anniversary at the same time - for I sincerely hope you have not forgotten?"
Mr Darcy replied that he had not, and conceded that, with the changes that had already occurred to his household, there could be no harm in agreeing to his beloved wife's request.
Thus, from then on, it was customary for the estate of Pemberley to begin preparations for the Christmas party as early as November. Floristry and decorations, dainties and choice meats from around the country - all were lain at the doorstep of Pemberley every year at this time in anticipation of the revelry, and you can be sure that the assembly became almost legendary throughout England, where the company was more than congenial, the dancing and revels were exhilarating, and the host spared no expense to fill your glass to the brim as you stepping over the threshold.
This year, Beth allowed herself to indulge in the innocent pleasures and anticipations of the customary preparations. None were apt to become more excited than the Darcy children, who peeked down the stairs between the balustrades whenever they could, to observe the comings and goings, which their mother presided over with her characteristic directness and eye for detail. One particular Tuesday Jane spied a selection of geese being delivered that were so 'monstrous' in her own words, that she feared they might be ill and die should they eat it all. Mrs. Darcy chanced to overhear this story, and whilst comforting little William, had scolded Jane with much tutting - but likewise with more than a grin of mirth.
Mrs. Darcy, left to her own devices, drew up her particular guest list. Aside from the handful of friends and acquaintances from what she termed the 'fashionable set,' her immediate family were sure of an invitation. Letters were dispatched to Mr and Mrs Bennet, Kitty and her husband, Mary and hers, not to mention Sir Henry Mallory and Georgiana. Magnanimously, Mr Darcy himself suggested that Lydia also attend, tho' no mention was made of Tom.
Thus it was on the third of December that the guests descended. Her daughter was positioned, at her own instigation, at the front of the drive, that she could descend on each of the guests and welcome them. Her aunt Jane was the first to arrive, driven in the Bingley's landau from Alworth. Beth greeted her with much jubilation. Henry, Charles, Sam and Sophy (together with their newborn daughter) were likewise welcomed, although Beth barely managed a how do you do and a curtsey to her uncle Bingley before he was whisked away by her father - Beth distinctly heard the word 'port' on the air as they stepped inside out of the cold winter chill.
Mrs. Darcy, with a playful shake of the head directed at her husband, entreated her daughter to come in too, but Beth would brook no alternative. After twenty minutes or so alone on the driveway, she was about to admit defeat and run inside, when she spied on the horizon the well-worn carriage belonging to her grandparents. Tucking her shawl further around her shoulders, she jumped for joy - and also to mobilise her rather cold limbs - and waved until the carriage trundled up to the front door.
The elderly but still remarkably agile frame of her grandfather emerged first, followed heavily by his wife; she was chattering all the while, but Beth could barely make out her words.
"My dear Elizabeth!" she cried, kissing her granddaughter soundly. "Whatever are you doing out in such weather? I said your Grandpapa on the way here, I hope that Lizzy has a good fire, did I not Mr. Bennet, for you know my rheumatism suffers when I travel, as do my poor nerves."
Mr. Bennet did not reply, but with a merry smile, and the smallest hint of a wink at his eye, he bent and planted an affectionate kiss on his granddaughter's forehead.
"Lead on then, my Beth." She complied, and taking the arms of her grandparents, passed through the main entrance and across the hall into the reception room. As the door was opened from within, Beth was caught up in a wave of hot air, lively chatter and the smell of mulberries and fresh oranges. Glad to be out of the cold for a while, she came into the room properly to savour the heat, for she noticed that snowflakes were beginning to appear on the other side of the windows. Her father and uncle had returned from Mr. Darcy's study, and were standing by their respective wives at the fireplace. The younger children were all in the corner, playing an alphabet game in one unruly heap, although Beth's sister Jane was unsuccessfully trying to keep the game orderly by issuing impromptu rules. Soon, when Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were safely positioned by the fire, every adult had a glass in their hand, and Mr. Bingley led a rousing toast in tribute to their host.
The only event to cause any disturbance of this happy scene was at Beth's insisting on going outside again, so as to see if any other of her relations were on their way. Her father stamped his authority on this occasion and vociferously declared that she would almost certainly catch cold.
"And you would no more see any guest approaching than you would a hand in front of your face, Beth." Mr. Darcy gestured to the window and they all gasped to see the now rapidly falling snow. The children leapt to the window with cries of delight and instantly began to talk of sledges and snowmen; the adults, on the other hand - particularly Mrs. Bennet - were sure that the bad weather would add several hours to the journeys of the rest of the party. * In the end, all turned out well. An announcement that aunt Catherine was here relieved everyone and upon hearing this, Beth jumped up and left her cousins. Here came Kitty, bursting in on her relations in the reception room, carrying several parcels under one arm, and holding the hand of her daughter in the other.
"Oh, Lizzy, I am sorry we are so late! I said to Mr. Maddox, I was sure the snow would delay us by at least a day. Could I possibly have these presents sent upstairs somewhere - they are for the children, and I want them to be a surprise. Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley - a pleasure to see you again. Papa - and Mama! did you not get my note yesterday morning, I was sure I told Ruth to send it - Mr. Maddox wondered if you would like to have travelled with us, for we brought extra blankets, and I know how you suffer in extremes of weather." She turned to her husband, who was standing mildly behind her, holding the hand of his other twin daughter. The Reverend Andrew Maddox always seemed passive where his wife was concerned; although, according to Mrs. Darcy, Kitty had greatly matured by the age of seven and thirty, her effervescence and ebullient style prevailed, and Beth always got the impression that her uncle Maddox, although clearly fond of his wife, found her just a trifle too much.
Dear Beth!" Here Kitty turned to her niece and embraced her. "You look so beautiful, as always." She glanced around the room. "Where is your aunt Georgiana?"
"She is due tomorrow," replied Beth, aware that her father's sharp ear had caught the sound of his sister's name. "My uncle had some business in town that detained him, but we expect them some time in the afternoon."
Her aunt joined her sisters and Beth was left alone for a moment, conscious suddenly of her father, abandoned amongst a sea of his wife's relations and their spouses. His countenance as she observed now seemed odd and she observed that he was watching the window and the clock intermittently. She approached with a small platter.
"Are you quite well, Father?" she asked, offering him some confectionary.
"Indeed, my dear, I am perfectly well. Do you not wish to sit and hear the news from your aunts?"
"No indeed, I can talk with them tomorrow. You must know I would rather not be anywhere else."
Mr. Darcy smiled indulgently. "Very admirable Beth, but I fear you make a poor hostess. Your mother is keeping all of her relations happy by herself."
"And what a good job she makes of it too, do not you agree?" Her father nodded, and Beth sighed.
"Are we still friends, Papa? Tell me that we shall always be friends."
Mr Darcy's smile faded a little as he took in her question and then he beamed.
"Of course we shall, my dear. How could I not be friends with you? Now go offer Mr Maddox some marzipan. I think he is in need of it."
Mr Maddox was standing near the sopha where Mrs Bennet lay, listening to her august and rather loud opinions of what a proper sermon ought to consist of. Beth kissed her father, and with a skip, hurried to rescue her uncle.
She continued thus, talking to as many relations in turn as possible, until the door opened and the butler appeared.
"Mrs Wickham and Mr Thomas Wickham, Mrs Darcy."
A shrill cry from Mrs Bennet and an "ah, excellent" from Mr Bingley, Charles and Henry masked the gasp of surprise from Beth. Was Tom really here?
He was indeed, clad in a blue coat similar to that he had worn when they first had met, and he led his mother into the room with all the dignity she could expect. She saw, with much sympathy that he was nervous; his hands shook slightly as the door was shut behind them, and the family moved forwards to greet the Wickhams.
"Lydia my love!" screeched Mrs Bennet, reaching out for her youngest daughter, who whisked herself onto the sopha and began a lengthy and detailed account of the journey from London. Tom was left in the centre of the room, approached by each uncle and cousin in turn as his hand was shook and his back clapped firmly. A drink was pressed into his hand by Henry and he had expressed his gratitude at least three times before Beth could get close to him, and when she did, he smiled broadly and kissed her hand.
"Beth, I am so pleased to see you again. Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas to you too, cousin."
Tom's smile faltered at the word, and he put down his drink.
"May we speak together somewhere. I had no idea that so many people could be so loud."
Beth glanced around, but everyone seemed in conversation with another, and so they slipped through the doorway and into the breakfast room next door.
"It is really so good to have you at Pemberley, Tom." "And good for myself, I assure you. Beth, will you marry me?""Tom!" exclaimed Beth, taken aback. She looked over her shoulder to check no one was listening and then she took a step forward and hissed,
"You know we cannot, we talked of the obstacles at Longbourn. Please importune me no longer, I cannot! It is cruel, really cruel."
Beth made to leave the room and return to the drawing room, but Tom caught her hand and pulled her back.
"Beth, you will not let me finish. I do not mean to give you pain, but I must speak. I ask you to be my wife, because I can ask you."
Beth was silent, not knowing quite where this declaration was going to.
"We can marry, Beth, we can marry. I ask you now because there is no obstacle, nothing to reproach me with, no other you have promised yourself to."
"But, my father, Tom, he is the obstacle. How can you ask me again, knowing that he will never approve."
She pulled away and moved towards the doorway. She went no further tho' before she caught sight of her parents, standing several yards away in the centre of the room. Mr Darcy had his wife's hand in his, and both were looking earnestly into the breakfast room where Beth now stood. As Beth coloured and made to come back into the room, she saw her father's look; his eyes were not an angry black, but warm and clear, full of happiness and hope. He nodded and then kissed Elizabeth. Wrapped in each other's arms, they walked down the room to where Mr and Mrs Bingley stood. Beth sighed deeply and pulled the door to the breakfast room shut.
"Papa?" she asked the silence, her back still to Tom, her hand on the door handle.
"He came to my chambers in London. Fairly took me by surprise, I must own. We talked for several hours, about you, about my father, and about myself. Suffice it to say that he had a change of heart regarding me and my intentions to you. He freely gives his consent to our marriage. That is, if you still wish to marry me?"
Beth made no answer, but ran to embrace him, feelingly and without restraint.
"What made him change his mind?" she asked into his ear. Tom released her and shrugged.
"I suspected from his words that you had spoken to him. He understood that you were very unhappy, and that you had bowed to his wishes forsaking your own. Did you not speak to him?"
Beth, of course, had not directly, but for now it did not matter. They remained in the breakfast room for some time, and when they emerged, it was only Henry that commented, prompted by his concern that his two favourite cousins had missed, not only the onset of a blizzard, but the best part of a bottle of Mr Darcy's finest port. * The marriage, when it took place, gave as much pleasure as it ought when one cousin marries another, for one family has double the happiness to revel in, from both bride and bride-groom. The ceremony took place on a fine spring day at the chapel in Pemberley village, where the entire Bennet, Bingley, Darcy, Maddox and Mallory family arranged themselves, the best to see the bride and to be seen to be singing as loudly and as feelingly as possible.
Beth and Tom wed in mutual and total bliss; both satisfied that they were pleasing themselves and their beloved relations. Their happiness on this day must be the measure for the rest of their marriage, and in truth they were immensely content for the rest of their days. Tom's occupation in Chancery took the young couple into London, and here they made their life and where their first son was born; Tom's great good luck and skill at the bar soon procured him favour in chambers and he was able to purchase a country home quite close to the Derbyshire border.
Mr and Mrs Darcy loved their daughter so well, and her happiness had its effect on them. Beth could never be replaced at Pemberley, but their companionable relationship was their reward and their remaining children gave them as much pleasure as ever before. Jane Darcy, upon coming of age, was welcomed to her sister's house, and made a tolerable impression upon the gentlemen in town that Season.
Anna Dale, upon returning to Pemberley in the New Year, was delighted that Beth and Tom were to be married, and her friend's end greatly enhanced the pleasure of her own. She and Mr Collins were married in Kent soon after a living near Rochester became available. Correspondence between the parsonage and Beth's home in London became a regular expectation and the women remained constant and true friends.
Mrs Gibson was greatly distressed upon Anna's marriage to this mere country parson and for some time, did not deign to write to her ward. Her reaction waned somewhat when it was revealed that Anna was perfectly happy, and cared very little what Mrs Gibson thought. Mrs Gibson took stock, realised that no one was especially concerned with what she thought, and retired to Italy with her sister and her considerable fortune.
One thread remains to be tied up; namely that of Henry and his letters directed to 'Miss Dale, Mayfair.' When Beth was happily ensconced in London, she spent some time reasoning this out; Tom could not fathom it either. In the end, she took it upon herself to invite Henry to come and explain himself.
Henry, characteristically, was blunt and pleased to clear up any misunderstanding; the letters had been written to none other than Miss Ruth Dale, the governess sister of Beth's great friend.
"We met each other that day on the heath, and I was so taken with her that we promised to marry as soon as she could work out her notice in her household."
Beth then questioned why, since the expected three months notice had come and gone, they were still not married. Henry replied, quite simply and in such a way that Beth could not answer, that it was such a delicious secret, that he had decided to keep it a little longer, the better to enjoy the joke and see the look on Beth's face when he eventually told her.