An Absent Lover
After three weeks of ordering wedding clothes in London, the elder Bennet sisters had been pinched, pricked, poked, and pressed into their trousseaux and were soon ready to return to Hertfordshire with their fiancees in tow. Not that the gentlemen had been idle in town. Charles Bingley was spending his afternoons in his club accepting the toasts and good wishes of his friends and spending his evenings in the company of his intended, Jane Bennet, at soirees and dinners held in their honor. Fitzwilliam Darcy, on the other hand, was tidying up business affairs for his estate, Pemberley, and trying to find moments alone with Elizabeth Bennet, away from the constant interference of the girls' mother. These moments were few, so it was with a sigh of resignation that he acceded to Mrs. Bennet's request that she and her daughter visit his home one more time before they left.
"For it makes no sense to me to take all these new clothes back to Hertfordshire and then have to bring them all back again after the wedding," Mrs. Bennet explained. "Lizzy, all you will need at Longbourn is your wedding dress and bonnet and your traveling gown. Oh, I shall weep again when I see your wedding dress. I am so sad, Mr. Darcy, to be losing both my dear girls at once. And Lydia just married too." She held a handkerchief up to her nose and sniffed.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at her bemused fiancee. They both knew full well that Mrs. Bennet was exceedingly happy to have her daughters married and to two of the richest men in the country.
The day before they were to return to Longbourn, Darcy accompanied Elizabeth and her mother back to his house on Berkeley Square. Piled on top of the carriage was a trunk full of Elizabeth's new clothes. Her mother had insisted no expense be spared for either of her daughters. While the money she had spent would not sit well with her husband, Mrs. Bennet knew that the reward of having her daughters so well married would soon make up for the cost of sending them off in style.
Georgiana Darcy greeted the Bennets warmly at the door. She had arrived while the whole party was in London and would stay on at the house with her companion, Mrs. Annesley, until just before the wedding. The few weeks Georgiana had spent getting acquainted with her soon-to-be sister had been satisfying and the fondness they felt for each other was affectionate and sincere.
"Oh, Elizabeth, I hope you will let me look at your new gowns before they are put away," Georgiana exclaimed as coats, hats and gloves were given to the footmen. "My gowns are woefully out of style and my brother will not give me a penny for a new one."
Darcy raised his eyebrows in surprised protest. "I had no idea you were so poorly attired, Georgiana. The last bill I received is surely not one month old."
Georgiana grinned mischievously at her brother and patted his arm. "But a lady must have a new gown every week if she is to be in vogue in London."
Darcy smiled, realizing his sister was fast learning the art of coquetry from his Elizabeth. But Mrs. Bennet was not as quick.
"My dear Miss Darcy. My girls have had to learn how to change a bit of lace here or a ribbon there to keep the same gown looking new. But I suppose you need not learn to do that, not with your fortune." She sighed. "How glad I am that Jane and Lizzy will not need to do that anymore either."
Darcy was not about to admire the new gowns of his fiancée while they were unpacked so he quickly excused himself to see to some letters which had just arrived in the post. The ladies moved to the room which would be Elizabeth's bed chamber where the trunk had been deposited. It was with great excitement that Georgiana watched each gown be removed. Mrs. Bennet was not as interested, having supervised every detail of the frocks beforehand, so she busied herself looking about the rooms belonging to the future Mrs. Darcy. She opened a wardrobe here and a drawer there.
"Look, my dear, not a speck of dust," Mrs. Bennet was holding a finger up for her daughter to inspect. "I ran my finger over that mirror. That silly housemaid at Longbourn is forever forgetting to dust over the mirrors. You will have superior servants here, Lizzy."
Elizabeth continued to busy herself with her gowns but Georgiana smiled politely.
"Where does this go to?" Mrs. Bennet asked as she opened a door from the dressing room. "Oh, Lizzy, look. This must be Mr. Darcy's bedroom."
Elizabeth's head shot up while Georgiana's smile faded.
"Mama, please, there is no need to go in there."
"Why certainly I will. Come, girl, don't be shy. You'll have to go in there sometime though I'm sure he'll come in here when he wants you."
It was too late. Mrs. Bennet was already in Mr. Darcy's room, looking attentively around her.
"Hmmm, a bit dark. Needs a woman's touch, my dear." Noticing she was alone she called, "Lizzy, come here. There is no need to be frightened. A woman married 25 years has long ago ceased to be frightened by a man's bed chamber. Not that I ever go in your father's but I used to and you must learn to be brave too."
Elizabeth stole a guilty look at Georgiana who was quite silent but all agog. She went into Darcy's room to try to lead her mother back out again. What if his manservant, or even Mr. Darcy himself, entered his room just now!
Mrs. Bennet was settling herself on the edge of the bed. "The mattress is not as soft as yours but you need not sleep here."
"Mother, please," Elizabeth whispered.
"Just five or ten minutes will do it. Now he will come to you most times but I think it good to surprise your husband every now and again. Men are nothing but big boys and love surprises. My dear, if you like, I will try to explain what will be expected of you. It is not very pleasant but you will get used to it."
Elizabeth jumped at the sound of a knock on the door but soon realized the knock was on her own door. "Mother, please, we must leave this room. You can tell me all about it another time. Please, Mama," Elizabeth begged.
She managed to lead her mother out of Mr. Darcy's bedchamber and had just closed the door from the dressing room when the housekeeper's head peeked through her own bedroom door.
"If you please, madam," the housekeeper curtsied. "Mr. Darcy requests that I take you to his study if you are finished. He has some urgent news."
"Of course," Elizabeth replied. She stole a look at Georgiana to see if she was quite recovered but her expression was inscrutable. "I am sorry we disturbed your brother's room. I hope he will not mind."
"Oh, I am sure he will never know," Georgiana said smiling at Elizabeth. Then her smile turned serious. "But I hope this news is not too urgent. You are not yet finished here."
"Mama, will you finish this for me? I will take Georgiana with me to Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth was not sure if she should leave her mother alone to wander further into Mr. Darcy's private chamber but thought the evil was less than bringing the ideas of Mrs. Bennet on the marriage bed to her soon-to-be husband's attention.
Mrs. Bennet readily assented as she poked through the new nightgowns and Elizabeth and Georgiana hurried to Darcy's study.
Dismissing his manservant as Elizabeth and Georgiana walked into his study, Darcy then turned to his fiancee and smiled ruefully at her.
"Elizabeth, I am afraid you will learn too soon how busy Pemberley affairs keep me. I am afraid something new has arisen which will require my presence there." He began to falter as he watched her nose get pink and her eyes fill but she kept her voice strong.
"Will you need to be there long?" she asked.
"I had hoped my attorney could handle the transaction without me but there have been some complications regarding the purchase of new land. I want to try some new breeding stock and will need..." Elizabeth turned away. " I am sorry, Elizabeth, it is very boring, I am sure."
Elizabeth reached for his hand which he took. "No, it is not that. But the wedding is but four weeks away. Can this not wait?"
Darcy had calculated it would take ten days to complete his business but seeing Elizabeth's sad eyes, he vowed to make it shorter.
"If I leave tomorrow, I will return in one week."
"Do you promise?" Elizabeth looked searchingly into his eyes.
Darcy began to open his mouth but closed it quickly. Always a man of his word, he knew he could not promise this. He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed it. "I can not promise, my love," he whispered. "But I will move heaven and earth to return to Longbourn in one week."
Georgiana felt intrusive watching the look between her brother and Elizabeth and left the room quietly before they noticed.
Dinner was with the Gardiners that evening but Elizabeth took little pleasure in it. Luckily her aunt and uncle had not invited anyone else but Bingley, Darcy and Georgiana so she did not need to be charming and entertaining. With envy she watched jovial Bingley amuse his hosts and happy Jane smile at him in appreciation. Her sister would not lose the company of her fiancé for even one day for he would be accompanying them back to Hertfordshire tomorrow.
When it came time for the gentlemen and Miss Darcy to leave, Mrs. Gardiner guided her niece and Mr. Darcy out before her and then delayed the others behind her by asking Mr. Bingley to give his opinion of a painting to the right of the fireplace.
"Does the subject not look remarkably like Jane, Mr. Bingley?" Mrs. Gardiner asked. She was sensitive to her niece Elizabeth's feelings and wanted to give her sometime alone with Mr. Darcy but knew she would not be able to hold the others back for long.
"Well, Mrs. Gardiner, I have little taste in fine things so my opinion can count for naught but I can tell you that no painting will ever do justice to Miss Bennet. This subject's hair is not nearly as golden as Jane's and I can't imagine anyone's eyes could be as blue." Mr. Bingley suddenly reddened. "Oh, I beg your pardon, Mrs. Gardiner, for I just realized this painting is of you!"
"Indeed it is, Mr. Bingley, but I take no offense, I assure you. Jane and I are not of the same blood, of course, but Mr. Gardiner has always thought there was a resemblance."
"I say, there is a resemblance," Mr. Bingley saved himself. "Though I must also say that I have been struck by the similarity in features between yourself and Miss Darcy. And of course there is no family connection there, either."
"At least not yet," Mrs. Bennet said. "But enough of this, I am ready for bed. Come girls," she motioned to her daughter and Miss Darcy. "Where is your brother by the way?"
Georgiana murmured that she did not know as the group left the drawing room and proceeded to the hallway downstairs. Mrs. Gardiner was relieved to see Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy standing below, though quite apart. Elizabeth's eyes were red but she gave a smile to the group descending.
"Here you are," she called to them. "We wondered what had happened to you."
"And we wondered what had happened to you," Mrs. Bennet sniffed as she looked closely at her daughter. "Well, I suppose you have said your good-byes and must be off, Mr. Darcy. I am very vexed you will not be coming to Hertfordshire with us tomorrow."
"And I am very sorry not to be accompanying you there but I am sure Mr. Bingley will see you home safely."
Georgiana and Mr. Bingley had gathered their coats, hats, and gloves so there was no more reason to delay his departure. He gave his farewells to his hosts and Mrs. and Miss Bennet, then took Elizabeth's hand in his one more time and raised it to his mouth. As he kissed it, he looked up into her eyes and was relieved to see her smile.
"Just one week," she murmured.
"One week," he said straightening up and with one more long look he was out the door.
Part 3: If I Spend Another Month in the Country without Darcy, I Shall Be an English Patient
Returning to Longbourn the next day meant several days spent writing overdue letters and visiting relatives and friends not seen for several weeks so Elizabeth was able to keep her mind busy. At least until she would let her mind wander as she listened to her mother and Aunt Phillips discuss more wedding plans and then let it settle on the pleasing dimples in Darcy's cheeks when he smiled his boyish grin or his errant curl forever falling on his forehead. Every evening she spent alone in her room to write him another letter. Some were short, some were long, but all were about how she missed him.
Each morning she waited in the front sitting room waiting for the post to come and was pleased on the third day to receive her first letter from him. She smiled as she remembered this was really the second letter she had received from him and opened it to find that the contents were much different from the letter written in anger and despair eight months ago.
"Mmmm," she sighed as she curled herself in the most comfortable chair in the room. "My first love letter. This is almost worth being apart."
She read the letter through three times, then hurried back to her room to write him another letter of her own. That evening she wrote him again.
The next day, Lizzy smiled broadly as Hill handed her the post for her which again contained a letter from Darcy. If he would write her every day, then this week would indeed go quickly. In fact, it was already the fourth day so her wait was halfway over.
Her smile soon faded though when she read the news Darcy feared to tell her. His business would keep him away from her for ten days after all, not seven. His apologies were profuse and his condemnation of himself intense. Elizabeth hurried back to her room to tell him to be less harsh to himself. She was waiting impatiently but faithfully and her joy at seeing him would be heightened by the extra three days away.
The next day brought no letter from her fiancé and Elizabeth was morose all day. She had written him last night and again this morning. Surely he could be just as diligent. When Bingley came to dinner that evening, Elizabeth grew irritated with his cheerfulness and excused herself quickly from the company of her beloved sister and Jane's dear fiancé. She returned to her room but vowed not to write to Darcy until she received a letter from him first. She went to bed quite unhappy.
Thursday, Elizabeth received a short letter from Darcy but it was full of love and yearning and she felt quite satisfied. No letter came on Friday but Saturday arrived with yet another letter. He was no longer at Pemberley but had been forced to travel to Shropshire where he would be for three more days. As Elizabeth quickly calculated the days she read Darcy's apologies again that he would still have to return to Pemberley to finish his business before he could return to her. He would not be able to begin his journey to Hertfordshire until at least Wednesday.
Knowing that no letters would come for her the next day, Elizabeth resolved to take this news in the best possible way. She would not pout, she would not cry, she would not be angered. Putting a brave smile on her face, she entered the drawing room where her mother and Jane were sitting.
"Did you get a letter from Mr. Darcy today?" Jane inquired anxiously.
"Yes, I did. He has been traveling again, this time to Shropshire. I am afraid this will keep him away from us a little longer."
"Oh, dear Lizzy," Jane consoled her. "I am so sorry to hear that, for I know how very much you miss him."
"I hope Mr. Darcy will not be gadding about all over England after you are married, Lizzy," Mrs. Bennet said. "There are so many dangers on the road, especially in that part of the country. I shouldn't be surprised to hear he had been robbed or worse."
"Mother!" Jane exclaimed.
Elizabeth merely smiled, used to her mother's exaggerations.
"Well it is very ungracious of him to leave us here wondering when he will return. And just three weeks until the wedding," Mrs. Bennet continued.
"He will be back soon," Elizabeth said but was afraid to believe it too much.
As the post arrived on Monday, Elizabeth felt any icy dread. A letter from Darcy was handed to her but she opened it with great trepidation. As she had feared, he was remaining in Shropshire an additional two days and still had yet to return to Pemberley. He did not expect to be in Hertfordshire until the next Monday.
No letter arrived for her on Tuesday. Mrs. Bennet watched her daughter closely as she tried to smile. "I suppose no news is better than bad news," Elizabeth said.
But bad news arrived again on Wednesday . While Darcy's business in Shropshire would soon be complete, he found he'd have to spend three more days than planned at Pemberley. He would be in Hertfordshire by next Thursday. Elizabeth noticed that he made no promise to accomplish that. Although her mother was in the room, Elizabeth could not control herself. She flung the letter in the fireplace and watched it catch on fire.
"Lizzy, my child, what are you doing?" Mrs. Bennet attempted to fish the letter out of the fire but it was too late.
"He will not be returning until next Thursday," Elizabeth said trying to control her shaking voice. "He said he would be back in one week and by then it will almost be three."
"My dear, calm yourself. Sit down, sit down. Let me get you a cup of tea," Mrs. Bennet soothed. After calling for tea, she sat down next to her daughter and patted her hand. "I'm sure everything will work out well. I remember when I was engaged to your father. He left to go fishing two weeks after our engagement and I did not see him again for one month. I did not get nearly as many letters as you do either."
Elizabeth tried to be consoled by her mother but was still shaking, she knew not whether from anger or sadness. After Sarah left them alone with their cups of tea, Mrs. Bennet continued.
"Lizzy, before Mr. Darcy left, you did not do anything to make him angry, did you?"
"What? No, Mother, I am sure he was not angry."
"And in your letters, you did not write anything to make him ... Well, you know, perhaps you said something to give him second thoughts."
Elizabeth flashed her eyes at her mother.
"My dear, you do speak your mind, you know. Not all men find that appealing."
"I have done nothing to give Mr. Darcy second thoughts, Mother. And I am sure he is not having any. It is just this horrible business of traveling here and there. What does he have a steward for? What does he pay his attorney and agents for? He is getting married in less than three weeks and must know I need him here." Elizabeth's voice began to break. She cleared her throat and began again. "It is clear to me that his breeding stock is more important than his wedding."
"Why of course a wedding is not as important to a man as it is to a woman, Lizzy. And in a way, you are a piece of breeding stock too, you know."
Elizabeth looked exasperated.
"Well that is what a wife is to a man," Mrs. Bennet defended herself. "I must tell you what happens when you are married."
"Please, Mother, not now." Elizabeth stood up and walked upstairs to her bedroom to be alone with her misery.
The rain poured down all day Saturday and Sunday matching Elizabeth's mood. A letter had arrived from Darcy on Saturday full of remorse. It lifted her spirits slightly to see how much he was suffering too.
"Lizzy," her mother interrupted her as she read the letter for the fifth time. "Is it good news?"
"It is no news, Mama. Or at least, not bad. He thinks he will still be here on Thursday."
Mrs. Bennet still looked worried. "Dear, you have not had much practice receiving letters from gentlemen. Perhaps there is a sign from his letters you have missed."
"A sign of what?"
"I do not wish to distress you, dear, but is there any reason for you to think Mr. Darcy may be changing his mind about marriage?"
Elizabeth's cheeks flushed as her ire rose. "Of course he has not changed his mind!"
"Ssh, my dear. You are probably right. But may I read your letters? Perhaps there is something there..."
"Mama, these are his letters to me. I can not let you read them. They are meant for no one else. I assure you, there is nothing in the tone of his letters that could make anyone think he has changed his mind."
"I may be able to set your mind at ease."
"My mind is perfectly at ease, thank you." Still, Elizabeth could not keep her foot from twitching.
On Monday, the wedding was but two weeks away. Elizabeth attempted to calm herself by talking a long walk and practicing the pianoforte, something she had long neglected. She knew, however, that her patience would soon be tested, for the Bingley sisters had arrived at Netherfield with Georgiana, and the entire Bennet family was invited to dine there the next evening
To steel up her courage for the dreaded dinner at Netherfield, Elizabeth spent Tuesday morning rereading all of Darcy's letters to her since he had gone north. Each one brought a smile or a sigh but each one also improved her spirits considerably. No one could mistake the tone of his letters, full of longing for her. She saw the post come and waited happily for her next love letter from Darcy.
Hill smiled broadly at her as she did indeed hand her a letter from her fiancé. Elizabeth ran to the window as she tore it open and settled down for more words of love. But it was not to be. Darcy had to tell her he would be required to stay five more days at Pemberley. Some livestock was arriving and he absolutely had to be there for its arrival. He would be at Longbourn on Tuesday, less than one week from the wedding.
Elizabeth jumped up from the window and was just about to throw this letter into the fire when Jane entered the room. She turned to her sister with flaming cheeks and tearful eyes.
"Elizabeth," Jane hurried to her. "Are you all right?"
"No, I am not all right," Elizabeth said in a shaky voice. "He will not be back now until next week."
Jane did not need to ask of whom Elizabeth was speaking. She took Elizabeth's arm and led her to a chair, made her sit, and knelt down beside her.
"Oh, Jane, Jane," Elizabeth paused to collect herself but the tears would come. Finally she could speak again. "He has been gone for almost three weeks. Three weeks! He promised me he would be back in one. Well, he did not promise me. Perhaps I should have seen that as a sign."
"Dearest Lizzy, he will be here before the wedding. He will return for you. I know he loves you and this hurts him too."
Elizabeth snorted. "He told me he would move heaven and earth to be back with me. I see that his breeding stock is more important to him than me."
"No, Lizzy. The time that is most important for you to be together is when you are married. We have been so busy preparing for the wedding. What time would you be able to spend with him anyway?"
"You are able to spend time with Bingley. You see him every day. All I want is to see him. Oh, Jane, I am beginning to be afraid that Mama may not have such foolish ideas after all. Perhaps he does have doubts."
"I think not, Lizzy. I know that Charles has no doubts of Darcy's love for you."
Elizabeth fell silent.
"Charles has told me he thought Darcy would always carry an air of unhappiness with him. And then he fell in love with you and he has changed completely. Charles says he has never seen him look so happy and when he talks about you, he can not stop smiling. Lizzy, I know Darcy loves you very much. And just think how happy the two of you will be when you meet again next week. All those weeks away. I envy you the anticipation of your meeting again."
Elizabeth was finally able to smile. "I dream about it every night. Jane, if he does not come next Tuesday, I do not know what I will do."
"He will be here."
"Oh dear. I must face Caroline Bingley tonight. What delight she will take in knowing Darcy is still away."
"You and Mr. Darcy have your whole lives to be together."
Elizabeth stood up and smoothed her gown. "Well, I suppose I owe my fiancé a letter. I will tell him how disappointed I am. He deserves that much. I shall be brave until next week."
Bingley and Jane entered the drawing room with the rest of the Bennets behind them. Mr. Hurst, Bingley's brother-in-law, rose to greet the guests with a few mumbled words but Bingley's sisters, Louisa Hurst and Caroline Bingley, remained seated. The two ladies held out their arms for Jane to come greet them with a kiss, but were less affectionate with the rest of the Bennets. Georgiana, hurried to Elizabeth's side and reached for both her hands.
"I am so happy to see you again, Miss Bennet," Georgiana said with a sweet smile.
"Please call me Elizabeth and if I may, I will call you Georgiana. I am very happy to see you too."
"London felt so empty once you and my brother left. I have been looking forward to coming to Hertfordshire ever since."
The Bingley sisters were continuing to talk with Jane but Caroline's ears pricked up when she heard Georgiana's brother mentioned. This was the opening she was waiting for.
"I am sure Hertfordshire will feel just as empty, at least until your brother returns, Georgiana," Caroline spoke up. "I understand he has been some time away."
"Yes," Elizabeth said clearly. "But he will be returning next Tuesday."
"Tuesday!" Georgiana was surprised. "I understood he was to return to us this Thursday."
"Perhaps his letters have not caught up to you just yet," Elizabeth said. "He has written to inform me things are still not settled at Pemberley and he must remain just a few days longer."
"My, my," Caroline said. "And the wedding so near? I certainly hope nothing else will cause his delay or he may not arrive at all."
"Darcy will no more likely miss his wedding than he would miss eating and breathing," Bingley interrupted. He was determined not to cause distress to Miss Bennet.
Remaining silent on this subject for now, Caroline resumed her conversation with her soon-to-be sister on the London season Jane just had to be part of. No inclusion of Elizabeth was mentioned and this suited her perfectly well.
During dinner, Elizabeth had the misfortune to be seated directly across from Miss Bingley. Due to the shortage of males, her right hand companion was Mary and her left hand companion was Mr. Hurst, a male to be sure, but not much of a dinner conversationalist.
"Pray tell me, Eliza," Caroline said, "when exactly was Mr. Darcy supposed to be in Hertfordshire?"
"It was difficult for him to know. He had hoped to be here by now and is most regretful to not be able to attend this dinner party."
"I never knew Darcy to be this attentive to such business at Pemberley. Surely his steward could have taken care of everything at such an important time."
"I know him to be very conscientious of his duties. His presence was required to sign papers as well as inspect this new venture."
"And all alone, I suppose," Caroline smirked. "He has always been a very solitary man. Too much company makes him irritable."
"You have not seen him often, Caroline, since his engagement," Bingley called from the head of the table. "I have never seen him so pleasant and eager to please his company than when he is with Elizabeth."
Elizabeth smiled gratefully at Charles. He gave her a wink and a big grin and returned his attention to Jane. Miss Bingley decided to refrain from commenting for the time being.
After dinner, the ladies waited in the drawing room for the men to return from their port. Caroline settled herself next to Elizabeth and smiled widely. Elizabeth was reminded of a drawing she had seen of an African hyena in a book of her father's.
"I wonder, my dear," Caroline said, "that you seem not very excitable. Brides-to-be are often nervous and with the bridegroom so far away and the wedding so near, I am sure I would be very fretful."
"Everything has been prepared."
"And all one is waiting for is the groom."
Caroline lowered her voice and took Elizabeth's hand. It was all Elizabeth could do not to pull it away. "My dear Eliza, forgive me. But have you given any thought to the possibility that Mr. Darcy will not return?"
"Whatever could you mean?" Elizabeth asked sweetly.
"Men can be as capricious as women. It would be a tragedy for you if he has changed his mind."
"Miss Bingley, I can assure you he has not changed his mind. All his letters to me speak the truth of that to me."
Patting her hand, Caroline soothed, "I hope you are right, dear Eliza. I can only hope you are right."
This was too much. Elizabeth pulled her hand away from Caroline's vise-like grip and abruptly stood.
"Georgiana, will you play for us?"
"But the gentlemen have not yet returned," Louisa Hurst spoke with some surprise.
"Then play, Georgiana. The music will surely draw them back in." Elizabeth went to stand at the pianoforte where she would not have to look at Caroline Bingley. If she had, she would have seen a very triumphant smile on her face.
Tuesday finally arrived, cold and wet. Fretfully, Elizabeth waited indoors for the post to arrive. Her last letter from Darcy had arrived last Friday. In it he told her he would be with her on Tuesday. There were to be no more delays. He had promised. Hill entered the room with a letter for Elizabeth. She was almost afraid to take it from the housekeeper when she saw Darcy's familiar handwriting. With shaking hands she opened it.
My dearest Elizabeth,
By the time you receive this letter I may already be returned to you. Nothing has gone right on this journey. It has only been my stubbornness that has kept me here. I had to see this business through and every stage brought a new problem. I would fight the world for you and yet I let a few cows get in the way of seeing you. Nothing can ever make up for the time I have had to spend away from you but it is done. If I am not yet with you, I will be with you very soon, and Elizabeth, you will not be able to prevent me from kissing you so ardently that your father will demand I marry you before the day is through....
"You have received a letter, Lizzy?" Jane asked as she entered the room with her worried mother close behind her, urging her on. "Oh, I am sorry, we are interrupting you."
Elizabeth smiled as she looked up from her letter. "Oh, Jane, he will be here today. I have no doubt."
Mrs. Bennet was not so sure. "When did he write this letter?"
"Oh dear, if something else has prevented him from returning since then, I don't know what I shall do," Mrs. Bennet wailed.
"Mother," Jane said. "There is nothing you need do. Mr. Darcy will be here. He has promised Lizzy."
"Very well. But I shall not be calm until he is sitting in this room. But now I am glad to have you girls here alone. I have been meaning to talk to you about your wedding nights. No one ever prepared me for the shock of it, and I vowed I would never keep daughters of mine in ignorance."
Elizabeth had not yet finished her letter and was not about to have her mother prevent her. She stood. "I must wait for your lesson, Mama, for I want to finish my letter. Please excuse me." She turned and ran from the room.
"Hmmph." Mrs. Bennet looked irritated. "Well Jane, you at least will listen to me."
Jane looked up at her mother with fearful eyes.
Jane still looked dazed at suppertime. Mr. Bingley had little luck cajoling a smile from his dear heart. Elizabeth was afraid her sister had been somewhat affected by her mother's advice but was too anxious for Darcy's return to ask for her sister's confidence. She sat nervously by the window attempting to read a book but her attention was too often drawn outside by any noise that might signal a visitor.
The time moved quickly and Elizabeth grew more agitated with each passing minute. All eyes were on her as she paced the room or idly turned the pages of her book. Mr. Bennet peered over his glasses at his daughter with a concerned look. Mrs. Bennet wore a stricken expression as she twisted her handkerchief. Jane and Bingley sat in a corner murmuring to each other and casting quick glances at Elizabeth. Even Mary and Kitty, usually too immersed in themselves, looked worriedly at each other.
Bingley walked over to the window where Elizabeth was sitting. He spoke quietly to her, "I did not wish to worry you but I understand it was snowing in the north today. The weather may have delayed Darcy. It may be that he will not be able to arrive until tomorrow."
"No, he will be here," Elizabeth said stubbornly. "He promised me."
"Then I have no doubt." Bingley smiled at her and walked back to Jane.
Mrs. Bennet could stand no more of this. "Elizabeth, I must speak with you. Come into the sitting room." She stood and hurried out of the room. Elizabeth had no choice but to follow.
Closing the door behind her, Mrs. Bennet rushed to her daughter and grabbed her shoulders. "My dear, do not despair. We will make Mr. Darcy marry you. We will have him arrested if he does not honor his engagement."
Elizabeth brushed her mother's hands off her shoulders and spoke indignantly. "Mother! Do not be ridiculous! Mr. Darcy is not backing out of his engagement."
But Mrs. Bennet seemed not to hear. Her eyes lit up as she spoke, "I know. We will get Bingley to fight him. I do not think your father can win but Bingley may have a good chance. Why, they are such good friends, Mr. Darcy may not want to fight him and will marry you to keep from having to kill him."
"Please Mother," Elizabeth moaned. "Mr. Darcy will be here today. He promised me."
"Well it will soon be tomorrow if he does not hurry up. It is almost ten o'clock."
Elizabeth returned to the drawing room only to hear Bingley saying he thought it was time he left. She turned pleadingly to him for she knew his leaving meant he no longer held out hope Darcy would be returning that night. A sound of horse's hooves in the courtyard spun her away from Bingley and she raced to the window. It took only one second for her to see it was Darcy.
"Is it him? Is it him?" Mrs. Bennet asked anxiously.
Without a word, Elizabeth flew out of the room, not even pausing to pick up a shawl, and burst through the front door into his arms. Darcy could not even speak as she kissed every part of his face she could reach--his chin, his cheeks, his lips, his nose.
He whispered to her, "Lizzy, your mother is watching us from the window." But he did not let her go.
Elizabeth lay her head on his shoulder and breathed him into her. "I knew you would come, you promised me."
"I was delayed by the weather but I could not spend another day away from you. I know I've disappointed you so many times already. Please forgive me." He brought each hand to his mouth and kissed it. Elizabeth knew she was helpless to resist and reached for him for one more proper kiss.
As she broke away, she breathlessly asked him to come inside.
"No, Elizabeth, I can not. I am dirty and my clothes are all in disarray. I lost my hat several miles back and I am sure I carry the smell of horses on me."
"You smell wonderful to me. Come, come," she said pulling him behind her. "My mother will not believe it is you unless she can see you in the light. And I am freezing out here."
He followed her reluctantly into the drawing room where she presented him to her parents.
"See Mama, he has come today as he promised."
"Oh, Mr. Darcy," Mrs. Bennet simpered. "We are so honored you are visiting us today. You must be very tired from your journey."
"Mrs. Bennet, I beg your forgiveness for intruding at such a late hour. I left Pemberley late yesterday afternoon. When we stopped to rest the horses, I hired another carriage and rode through the night. The snow delayed us for some hours in Kettering. We were finally able to continue but when we stopped to rest again, I knew it would be too late to arrive today if I waited, so I bought this horse that is outside. I don't even know its name but it served me well for it got me here today."
"Then I shall send my groom to feed and water this noble steed," Mr. Bennet said. "And let me get some brandy for you. You look like you could sorely use a drink."
Mr. Bennet was laughing quite openly at his daughter's lover and Mr. Bingley could barely contain his smiles.
"I say, Darcy, you don't even know the horse's name? Did you not even look at its teeth before you bought it? I never knew you to do anything so rash in your life."
"Come, sit down." Mrs. Bennet pulled Darcy to a chair and tried to push him down into it.
"No, please, Mrs. Bennet, I am not fit for company."
Elizabeth took his arm and sat him down next to her. "Indeed, sir, you look very fit," she whispered. Although his hair was tousled from the wind and there was two days worth of beard on his face and his collar was dirty and he smelled of leather and horses, Elizabeth had never seen him look so handsome. But then perhaps it was the long absence from him that made him look so tempting.
Darcy grinned at his fiancée as he took the brandy from Mr. Bennet. Elizabeth had been clutching his arm but quickly dropped her hand when his smile made her realize what she was doing. She spoke not a word while Darcy conversed with Mr. Bennet and Bingley about his venture. Mrs. Bennet beamed and nodded her head as if she understood all about Darcy's business.
Finally Darcy stood, suppressing a groan caused by his stiffness. "I should not have sat so long and I am keeping you up. Bingley, do you think it time to go?"
Everyone rose and followed the young gentlemen to the door. There were no more private moments for Darcy and Elizabeth. He kissed her hand once more and smiled into her eyes.
"When will you here tomorrow?" Elizabeth asked anxiously.
"I will be here before the sun is up for two hours. I promise."
Elizabeth watched Darcy as he walked out the door and mounted his still unnamed horse. She raised her hand in farewell as he did the same and she turned away to go upstairs with a very satisfied smile on her face. Her lover had returned.
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