All the Pleasures Prove
Miss Elizabeth Bennet had never fully imagined that Pemberley was such a grand estate, yet when she had first laid eyes upon it, its vast size and impressive majesty had quite instantly taken away the breath within her ever-inquisitive breast. The determined young woman had been of a mind to think unkindly of the place. Its Master's ill manners when she had known him in Hertfordshire had left no hint of affections or good thoughts upon her heart, whether he was of means or not, but Elizabeth found at first seeing such a happily situated plot of earth that her spirit could uphold few ill feelings to either splendid manor or single man.
When he spoke to the friends traveling through the North Country with Miss Bennet, Mr. Darcy spoke obligingly. It was for him to prove pleasure and assurances of welcome to the woman of his admiration, and to her friends, and he did so by the demonstration of his easiness, contrary to the character of the man that Elizabeth had stowed away in her brain. When the gentleman inquired of Miss Bennet herself as to whether she approved of his dear Pemberley, her eager and agreeable reply gratified his wounded heart, and for once in some time Mr. Darcy truly did feel some ease.
From almost that day on, the connection of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet was bent on admiration and esteem, although they, each one in turn did not always know it. In one manner or another each did their utmost to prove pleasures to the other for the sake of amends to their earlier ill conduct. They practiced such particulars in courtship, and then in marriage, and they made great endeavors to live by them, for it was not to be said that a union between two people who differed so often in their opinions, was ever easy. Pleasures proven to each other they did accomplish, as truthful friends, and as gentle lovers, until that is, the day that they were blessed as devoted parents, for gradually and inadvertently they put aside their own desires for the sake of the tender needs of their children.
In the very next grand manor in that region of Derbyshire lived the former Miss Georgiana Darcy who had recently been wed to a very agreeable man. The entire neighborhood thought her privileged; and although she had always been a very fortunate young woman with a noble family to her name and the copious sum of thirty thousand pounds in dowry, folks thought her far luckier for having captured the fancy of the humble, yet dashing Mr. Ethan Bristoe-Hart.
He adored her, there was no denying--and it did not matter to Brit Hart that his new wife was of a contrary character than his. Georgiana was often inhibited in spirit, and he was not. She was inclined to be quite serious in nature, and he was not. In truth they resembled another couple dear to their hearts, that of their relations Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, though quite the opposite husband and wife, to be sure.
Together the young couple were not however, as versed in the skills of proving pleasures to one another, as were their relatives, for they had not had as tottery a liaison as the Darcys. They had pleased each other from the very beginning, in mind, person, and manner, and all that remained of such a whirl of fancy for Ethan Bristoe-Hart and Georgiana Darcy was to live happily ever after as a contented and dutiful husband and wife.
Darcy looked about the grounds of his home for a quiet place to take refuge for a time. For the past few days he had felt vexed and put upon each instance that someone had demanded a moment of his time. It was the appointed occasion of year when farm tenants were obliged to settle their accounts to the estate that sustained them. Mr. Rawlings, Pemberley's steward always tended to most of this business for he was a very trustworthy man, but he made no resolute decisions on the providence of those who were dependent upon the great estate without the consultation of the Master, oftentimes to Darcy's great annoyance.
The Darcy children also commanded their father's time, for it was late summer and their spirits ran high. They knew that the winter months in Derbyshire would be long, and they would be made to remain indoors well into the springtime. Their interruptions came in applications to accompany him if they knew their father was to set foot out on the grounds, and it also seemed to Darcy that they quarreled and sparred with each other quite often, in their pursuits for the desired attentions.
Through all of this Darcy had found that a minute usually became an hour, and an hour became three, and he had accomplished nothing that he had originally intended the whole of each day. His fair mood declined, and it had come to this--a want of seclusion and a peaceful opportunity to ponder his own slighted pleasures.
The fine gravel that lined the promenade crunched under the weight of Darcy's boots as he strode by the orangery, and he glanced through the windows to see if his wife was to be found within. The orangery was one place that Elizabeth did like to go in her own quests for peace, for it was removed from the house itself, and the chance for solitude within its bright and cheerful walls was afforded quite easily. One could hide themselves away, tucked back in the corner on a wooden bench behind the foliage of the tender plants growing within the structure, however Elizabeth was not to be found there.
A little farther lay a formal garden of roses, equally as secluded, hidden by the orangery itself. It was not easily overseen from the house, and it was surrounded on three of its four square sides by formidable Gothic walls. The roses received full light, however there was an alcove shaded by old trees, grown extraordinary in shape and size over time. This is where Elizabeth sat, her hands carefully clasped atop the cloth of her skirts, as she pondered the last remaining petals of a pale and withering bloom.
"I have been found out," she sighed upon Darcy's approach.
Her husband stopped before her, hearing what he perceived to be her displeasure in catching sight of him. "I am sorry," he spoke, as if his honor had been injured, "I will not impose, if that is what you wish."
"Oh husband," Elizabeth exhaled uneasily at her own ill temper, "that is not what I meant. I would happily see you--that is if your intentions are to sit with me and be a heartening companion."
"But?" Darcy arched a guarded brow.
"But," Elizabeth smiled patiently, "if you are here to enlighten me of some insurrection among the household or our children, I shall surely wish you gone."
Darcy nearly cringed at his wife's lack of temperance. "Well," he replied as he sat down next to her, impertinence forming on his lips in an attempt to tease her, "I have not heard of any insurgence as yet--but the day is very young."
Elizabeth's smile dulled to a look of bewilderment, realizing as she did that Darcy had oftentimes had a talent for making her feel poorer in spirit with his blunt candor when she longed to feel better. Even so, at most times she did admire him for his frankness, and she reached out her hand and laid the palm of it on top of his.
"I was feeling very cross," Darcy continued, "so I came out here, in what now is apparently the very like notion as you."
"I am at the end of my sensibilities, Fitzwilliam. Prudence did fret this whole morning because she was made to take a bath, and Christian," she heaved a sigh, "Christian did..."
"I do not want to hear it," Darcy cut his wife short of her tale with an outstretched palm before her astonished eyes. "Perhaps later on, when I am of a more peremptory mind, but not now. Neither of us is of a humor to ponder it at present. Let us find some suitable conversation or simply sit here in silence."
"Suitable conversation?" Elizabeth laughed just a little at his choice of words, for the idea of what was right and properly discussed between the parents of four young and mischievous children did make her wonder.
"Yes," Darcy replied. "Like those things which were said between us when we had very few cares."
"'Tis difficult to remember such a time," Elizabeth was grimly honest and a little suspicious of Darcy's want for ignorance.
"I know--but not impossible, I am sure. There were moments," Darcy leaned back against the rampart wall, "when all that was exchanged between us were whispers of passions. Can you not remember those?"
"I remember the kindness of a man," Elizabeth sighed, her spirits so low at the moment that she had forgotten the mutual connection of love and esteem between them.
"Is that all?" Darcy was forlorn. "Kindness? I had thought that there had always been much more between us."
"There has been," she admitted humbly. "Yes."
Darcy thoughts turned inward. He was shocked by Elizabeth's terse words, yet more so by her unfeeling manner in seemingly referring to their union as a 'has been'.
"What did we talk of then?" his face grimaced as if the strain of recalling such distance memories pained him exceedingly.
A rebellious smile appeared on Elizabeth's face, and she nuzzled up against her husband's tense shoulder. He did not move or return her embrace, for he found himself more annoyed than before.
"Do you remember the debate we once had on fashion?" By the anxious blush, which overtook Darcy's features, Elizabeth knew that he did. "Georgiana had chosen a very beautiful gown for a dinner party, and you disapproved of it."
"I disapproved," he rejoined, "for the cut of it, if I recall, left very little to a girl's respectability and not much to a man's imagination."
Elizabeth cast her eyes sideways at him. "But the cut of it, my dear, was very similar to a gown of mine, and you had no objections at all to seeing me wearing it."
"Ah, yes," Darcy acknowledged with a compensated sigh, "the recollection of that row is swiftly coming back to me. What was good for a wife was not good for a sister. What was the conclusion--my shallow display of principles was not to be born? All this I came to know, whether or not I was the Master of this house."
Darcy relaxed his composure and chuckled, and then laid his arm over Elizabeth's shoulders. He whispered near to her ear, leaning in to place a kiss on her cheek, "Oh yes, my love--those were the good days."
Elizabeth's laughter rang off of the walls surrounding the rose garden, with Darcy's in accompaniment and for a few moments at least, both husband and wife had forgotten about their present predicaments. Darcy slid his body down on the bench, so that he and his wife came face to face.
"Now I remember why I cannot recall our conversations," he whispered truthfully, "for you did most of the talking and I was perfectly content to take pleasure from hearing your lovely laugh and to silently marvel at your beauty."
"And I, sir," Elizabeth replied in a breathy elegy, "was ever content to have it so."
Longed for silence overtook the pair, and they took all the pleasure they could derive from an ever so brief gaze into the loving eyes of the other. Darcy kissed Elizabeth, and then his conscience waned, for he had hoped that what Elizabeth had said was true. He had always longed to know precisely of her contentment--with her situation, and with himself as a companion, and there were times in their lives together that he had doubted the facts before him.
"I hope ladies fashions never change," Darcy muttered after a time, and although Elizabeth was amused by his words, she had to wonder why he had chosen that moment to part from their embrace in such a show of melancholy.
"Mama!" an informant's small voice shrilled, nettling the nerves of two diffident lovers. "Mrs. White needs you!" Hannah wailed. "Prudence is crying most severely for wanting you, and Christian and Andrew are playing tower of London and shouting 'off with her head!'"
Elizabeth glanced at Darcy once again. He said nothing of comfort, nor did he prove his part in their union by an offer of assistance as he simply looked down at his hands clasped before him. A disappointed wife left her ambivalent husband for the trouble that ensued within their house.
That evening Fitzwilliam Darcy settled himself into a comfortable chair in the Stag Parlour of Smythdon Manor. This was Brit Hart's haven, for he had come to Derbyshire in search of a plot of land, perhaps with a herd of deer or two residing within its preserve. If it was fine game he sought, Brit Hart certainly found it in the form of the Red and Fallow Deer and wild sheep and cattle that freely roamed the South Pennine fells.
The room was masculine in every detail, from its dark and sturdy mahogany furnishings to its walls dressed with the prizes of game stalked and snared. It was far different from the rest of the aristocratic house, which in such a short time, Georgiana had outfitted to suit her own feminine tastes.
In this one room however a chap could sit and smoke his meerschaum pipe, partake of a good glass of port, and be left to the business of a man. It was a fine room for a fine gent, and its earthy colors and multihued pennants from contests past mingled well with Brit Hart's jaunty sea-green eyes and his tousled locks of auburn hair.
It was in this room that many an excellent hunt was planned, and many a gentlemanly bargain struck with only a handshake to settle the arrangement. It was in just this room that a man could ponder the differences between himself and the gentler sex.
"I am very glad, Darcy," Brit Hart said as he sat across from his friend and brother-in-law, "that Georgiana and I have the pleasure of having you all in our home. It is only right that we reciprocate your fine hospitality now and then."
"Right," Darcy chuckled, finding humor in the situation. "I would say that it is blasted brave of you, Brit. One does not often receive invitations to dine in good company--with their young brood in tow."
"Brood or no, Darcy--I am pleased to be a part of your family."
A glimmer of pride flashed in Darcy's eyes upon hearing of the satisfaction of his friend. Darcy had to admit that the gentleman had fit very well into their family, and Georgiana appeared as contented as Darcy had ever hoped for.
"And how do you and my sister get on, now that you are married--what, barely a month?" Darcy grinned.
"Amazingly well!" Brit Hart was eager to reply, and easy to smile his pleasure. "I have never been so happy," he blushed, "and I am well pleased that your sister is so attentive a wife. She is not all that shy, you know."
Darcy swirled the claret within his glass and leaned forward to taunt his friend. "I take it by such an exhibition of felicity, that you have not had occasion to have engaged in your first quarrel?"
Now it was Brit Hart's turn to chuckle. "We have not," he replied in good authority, "nor are we likely to engage in one soon, for we are perfectly matched--perfectly."
"Oh come now," Darcy was incredulous, yet still in a fine, amiable humor. "Not even a small disagreement can escape even those so perfectly matched."
His friend shook his head in reply, and Darcy admittedly was in awe. "Elizabeth and I did not have to be married to have a good row--we were very good at it from an early acquaintance."
After a moment of silence Darcy nurtured a sigh, a distant look upon his features, "I do remember what it was like--to be so happy and contented--and so pleased with one another."
"You are not happy at present?" Brit Hart inquired, his lips pursed together with some concern on hearing such a sober confession from his friend.
"No, no," Darcy swiftly interrupted any ill speculation, "it is not that at all. It is only that somewhere along the way..." Darcy's voice trailed off to nothingness as his mind thought back over the course of a decade of marriage.
Brit Hart was loath to interrupt his friend, although one could plainly see the anxiousness inscribed upon his face to know of what his brother spoke. After a moment of soundless stammering to find the words to encourage Darcy to divulge such mystery, he finally whispered, "What is it then?"
Darcy glanced up and he grinned when he met the gentleman's concern. "You know, Brit--all that newly wed passion and romance does not last forever, however much we would wish it. Your life does take a turn, and when you take on children to the mix--there does not seem to be opportunity for those pleasures once enjoyed."
Brit Hart sat back in his chair, somewhat mortified on hearing the truth. "Do not tell me that," he exhaled incredulously. "All that I have ever been as a husband has been a newly wed one. I should say I do not truly want to know what comes next."
Darcy smiled, "Elizabeth and I can barely find the opportunity for a conversation in private these days. Even when we send the children to bed each night there is the constant disruption of one being frightened of the dark or another in dire need of a glass of water. By the time all is settled within the house, it seems a pity not to take advantage of the peace and go to sleep directly. Elizabeth is oftentimes worried because one child is feeling ill, and I am most times aggravated by the unruly behavior of another. No, if my wife and I do speak at all it generally involves one of the things I have just mentioned. Discourse of parents--not lovers--and that is the fact of it."
"I shan't believe it--you are making quite a joke, Darcy."
Darcy laughed plainly, "Then believe as you will Brit, and remain blissfully ignorant--for as long as you can--and I shall see the day come to say I told you so."
Brit Hart extended his hand to his friend, in gentlemanly wager. "That you shall not, Darcy."
Supper that evening was splendid, the fish fresh and pure, caught that day from a fast running trout stream, and the venison the finest to come from the land that anyone had ever tasted. The dining table had been laid out perfectly and the children had wondered at the placement of three glasses of varying height at the tops of their plates, and more flatware of various shapes than they were accustomed to seeing at their own daily table.
Young Christian had usually done his best to emulate the good manners that his father possessed, but he did not always get it right. He waited as patiently as a hungry boy thought fit until he saw which set of silver his father was to pick up to eat his fish. Darcy however was far too engaged in conversation with his brother-in-law to delve directly into his meal, and Christian's concentration tottered on the edge of doing what was expected by his venerable father, and whimpering to be fed.
Brit Hart's eye caught sight of the lad; the boy's determined face intent on staring at every move Darcy made, as if to will his father into the desired activity, and quickly. The gentleman chuckled at the sight, and obligingly for Christian's sake he waggled a finger in the direction of the correct place setting before him, showing the boy what was proper, yet never disrupting his conversation.
Brit Hart was satisfied with the evening, and with the accomplishment of his wife as Mistress of the house. "A very big hart he was," the gentleman proclaimed when Andrew complimented the meal. "Did you know that is what our red deer are called--the male is not a buck, but a hart?"
"Just like you!" Andrew giggled to encourage his garrulous uncle.
"Just like me," Brit Hart laughed favorably at the fanciful analogy. "It is this time of year that you can hear the roar of the red deer through the hills in the still of the evening. So proud and noble, heads held high, the points of antlers seeming to touch the tops of the trees."
The children were enchanted by their uncle's discourse, for Brit Hart could tell a very good tale, far better than their father could. He in turn enjoyed their youthful attention and enthusiasm and always favored them with his good imagination and fanciful flare.
"Do they really roar?" Hannah asked with wide-eyed curiosity and awe. "Like lions and tigers do?"
Christian and Andrew looked to one another in ominous speculation, and Prudence, seeing the anxious faces of her siblings, scrambled into Elizabeth's lap and drew her little body closer to her mother.
"They do," Brit Hart replied in a quick clip, "when they have won their battles and they call out to their mates, 'come live with me' and the ladies of the party cannot resist such might."
Elizabeth found her brother-in-law's conversation diverting, and she giggled her own enthusiasm for such tales as she snuggled to her young daughter. The children urged their uncle on with eager whispers to continue.
"Good god," Darcy groaned, then chuckled at such whimsy, "leave it to you to romanticize a forest beast. Brit you have quite gone over the top with this sentimental drivel. My sister may swoon over it, but I really must insist that you cease."
Brit Hart never gave much heed to his friend's inclination for reality, and in turn laughed heartily at Darcy. "Oh Darcy--you quite take the amusement out of it!"
"Is that so?" Darcy regaled. "I am all for the amusement of it, Brit--but you do not put them in their beds." This he said and nodded his head in the direction of his children. "It is I who must suffer the consequences when they proclaim that they cannot sleep for hearing the roars of phantom red deer all through the night."
Upon hearing such fatherly reason, Brit Hart shrugged in overthrow and let the matter go. The children were disappointed at not having heard more, but no one was as displeased as Elizabeth was. Her eyes looked up at Darcy as she studied him in his success, and she thought to herself how often it was of late that she disapproved of his staunch reasoning. He had never been exceedingly playful in conversation or deed, to his children or to her, yet there had been times when he had surprised Elizabeth with his merriment, though admittedly those instances could be few and far between.
That night, in the carriage, on the ride back to Pemberley house, Elizabeth recalled her annoyance with Darcy's manners. She was loath to approach the subject with him, for it was not becoming for a wife to censure her husband. Her feelings however oftentimes commanded her nerve. With Prudence sound asleep in Elizabeth's arms, Hannah and Andrew slumbering next to her on the seat, and Christian laying across Darcy's shoulder and gently murmuring, she felt she could speak her peace.
"Was it truly necessary to disrupt Mr. Hart's conversation at supper, Fitzwilliam?"
Darcy was startled from his drowsy gaze out of the carriage glass. He stared at the shadow of his wife's figure in the darkness, and his cheeks became warm with the fervor of reproof. "Do you mean Brit's absurd allusion to those red deer?" he asked.
"Yes," Elizabeth replied abruptly.
"Then, yes--I felt that it was necessary," he replied. "I should not always have to agree with him--though we are brothers. I take it that you do not approve?"
"If I may be so bold to do so--then yes, I do not approve."
Darcy bit down on his upper lip, being somewhat unaccustomed to Elizabeth's blatant censure of him. She had been known to disagree with him on occasion, and that was something that he had thought strengthened their feelings for each other and therefore their marriage. He had always taken some pleasure in knowing that she was not a meek wife, avoiding confrontation at all costs therefore compromising her own character, and for just that reason Elizabeth had become the object of Darcy's desire.
Of late however, Darcy felt that Elizabeth had something in deeper design on her mind, and his own patience was thin already from his dealings concerning money and the give and take of it. "Elizabeth," he sighed, "whatever is on your mind, have liberty to speak it. Do not leave me to wonder why you are angry."
"I am not angry," she replied incredulously. "I simply think that things could be different now and then."
"Things?" Darcy inquired somewhat bitterly, and Christian stirred upon his shoulder. He lowered his voice and soothed the boy back into slumber by a few pats on the back, asking, "By things, do you mean me?"
Elizabeth glared at him intently before letting her ill spirits come out into the open. "Why can you not be easy--why can you not be more like Brit Hart?"
The coach came to a halt in the courtyard of Pemberley house, and the footman approached the door with a torch in hand. The light it gave off illuminated the interior of the carriage; at least enough for Elizabeth to glimpse the taut yet disciplined features of her husband's face looking at her, reckoning a reticent yet astonished riposte.
Brit Hart sat in his study that night, leaning back in repose on a fine leather chair, his polished boots propped up on the footstool before him, and the London Gazette he had received in the post that day deftly held open in his hands. He was quite at ease, reading all the news to be had from society before retiring to his chambers; yet now and then he lowered the paper to consider the connections of that evening. Darcy's comments had somewhat unsettled him, not so much in the fact that Darcy had teased him about his newly wedded bliss or the marriage spat that even common sense told him would one day be inevitable; but that to Brit Hart, his new brother and sister had looked rather woeful together.
Georgiana tapped softly upon the door of the study, and her husband's green eyes peered over the top of the leaflets of paper as he pronounced in his own Cornish-bred lilt the words, "Come in."
Georgiana did just that, and after she smiled sweetly at her beloved mate, she glanced about his precious room, her brows having cause to arch, quite on the sly, at such virile ostentation. Mr. Hart's study, though a matter of opinion, was not at all his wife's idea of good breeding, yet he had let her have her say over his house since their marriage, therefore she could not deny him this one particular whimsy.
The new husband grinned and he patted his hand upon his knee and Georgiana settled herself upon his lap in a private moment of affection. Brit Hart tossed down the newspaper to the floor and with a banded rollick consistent with the state of newly wedded joy they smiled at each other and giggled, their noses pressing together, their lips touching for a lingering lover's kiss.
"I am so very happy," Georgiana sighed, once liberated from such an intimate embrace.
Brit Hart sighed as well, although it was not the sound of a contented man, and the frown that overcame his sculpted features, gave Georgiana cause for concern. "Your brother and sister," he whispered, "have they ever been unhappy?"
"What do you mean, Ethan?"
"Unhappy," he continued with a peculiar grimace. "Unhappy in marriage?"
"I do not know," Georgiana replied, now quite uneasy. "I do not want to know of such things. I have always thought the two of them very much in love--though I do know of one instance, upon the loss of a child, that they were both very low."
"Dear me," Brit Hart was dismayed, "I had not known."
Georgiana nodded her head sadly. "You will not say anything of it to my brother, Ethan--will you?" she inquired in earnest upon the realization of what she had done. "He should surely not understand my meddling. He will think me an idle gossip."
"Is it gossip when you tell such things to your own spouse?" Brit Hart now grinned in wonder of the assumption. "I never thought to keep secrets from one another--you know that. I have told you nearly everything of my family. Besides my dear, who shall hear you? Surely not these proud beasts--for even if they did, they shall never be persuaded to repeat the tale."
Georgiana's glance drifted up to examine the head of the poor, extinct red deer, which hung on the wall above them. She gave a shudder, and then buried her face against her husband's undaunted shoulder.
"Oh Ethan--those creatures frighten me at times! They follow me with their eyes, they do."
Brit Hart snorted a chuckle. "Nonsense, my lovely Georgiana," he paused to kiss her fears away tenderly, "'Tis not possible--and besides, not a thing shall ever harm you, as long as I live and breathe."
Georgiana was satisfied in knowing that what he said was the truth, and she did believe most wholeheartedly that he would always take good care of her. She was curious however as to why her husband took such a great interest in the liaison of her brother and his wife.
"What gives you reason to think that Elizabeth and my brother are unhappy?" she pouted, as if still a young girl, and one who had not gotten her own way.
Ethan Bristoe-Hart shifted his eyes away from his wife's gaze, ashamed of himself at having been caught at gossiping. "Forgive me, my dear. I did not say that they were unhappy--I simply asked if they had ever been. Your brother does claim that things between a husband and a wife change over time. I had the impression that it was their own marriage to which he referred, for he was somewhat melancholy when he said it."
"Perhaps things do change, Ethan." Georgiana sat up taller, resembling more of the woman she now was. "As much as I love my nephews and nieces, they are all very quick in wit and exceedingly precocious, and therefore very trying to one's patience," she proclaimed in good authority. "In that respect they do remind me very much of my brother, though I do adore him without a doubt, but it would not surprise me if Elizabeth did grow weary of being surrounded by such attitudes by five fold."
Brit Hart was amused at such an observation by Georgiana, and he was somewhat astonished at her prejudiced verdict. Although their union was up to now very brief, he had never known his wife to take such a stand on anything, let alone declare, so staunchly and wordily in fact, the troubles of a woman. He was indeed quite smitten by it.
"Perhaps," Georgiana then grinned prettily, hoping to entice her husband's good opinion and attempt to lure his mind from their family relations, "if they were to be left to themselves for a time, I am sure Mr. and Mrs. Darcy would be as utterly content as we are."
"That is the answer!" Brit Hart exclaimed, almost tossing poor Georgiana off of his lap in his enthusiastic revelation.
"The answer?" Georgiana queried, wrapping her arms swiftly around his neck as to not be flung to the ground, "Pray, what was the question, Ethan?"
Brit Hart placed his hands upon his wife's innocent cheeks. "The answer to their woes," he admitted, "your brother and your sister. We shall take their children for a time--just enough time to give them back that which they have most assuredly lost."
Georgiana's eyes widened in distress, though she took great care not to let her husband know her precise thoughts to his plan. She was sure that her brother would never go along with the idea, and even if he did so, Georgiana was certain that Elizabeth would not, so there really was no cause for any sort of alarm.
"The six of us," Brit Hart grinned like a child, himself, "we will not spend a trifling moment, with walks in the woods and stories to be told--just think of how we shall laugh. It shall be the same as being with my family again, like being with my own brothers. We shall all have a grand time together, Georgiana, and you my dear will know the bliss it is to come from a very large family!"
Darcy lay his drowsy son down in the child's bed, and he pulled the fine coverlet over him until the nursemaid could change the boy into his bed clothing. The father looked down at the figure of his beloved son and Darcy thought to himself how flawless the boy appeared when he was so sweetly sleeping. It was not always the case that Christian was an angel in repose, for when he was awake the boy was apt to be more of a spirited puck as opposed to any cherub that had been put on earth to make Darcy's life carefree and easy.
Darcy reached down, his fingers lightly stirring the wispy locks of the boy's hair. How he did love the child, through elation and woe, laughter and tears, it really made no difference, for in this father's eyes his son could not have been more perfect. Christian was a sliver of Elizabeth and a slice of Darcy, but yet altogether he was a warm and loving person wholly of his own design. Darcy had always believed that his children were created of the virtues that Elizabeth had to give. Now and then he questioned what it was that he had bestowed on them.
It took Darcy some time to amble through his house that night, down to the stillness of his study. His own room did not have the masculine singularity that the study of Smythdon Manor possessed, but the atmosphere of it was all of Darcy's own device. It was pristine and orderly not encumbered by many a useless article, yet it was undeniably the dwelling place of a gentleman. Most times it served much the same purpose to Darcy that Brit Hart's room did to that gentleman, that being a place to ponder the differences between oneself and the gentler sex.
An Italianate mantle clock pinged half past eleven and a low rumbling of distant thunder echoing through the countryside followed close behind. Darcy sat down behind the sturdy desk, drew out the day's ledger and gave the writing implement he had picked up between his fingers a twist. He did not feel much like working this late in the night, but his thwarted feelings kept him from his chambers. Instead, Darcy occupied himself in observance of the tip of the pen, and he engaged his mind in speculation of whether he should mend it or not.
Darcy heard his name and gave a start. He let the pen drop from his fingers onto the desktop, and Elizabeth slipped into the study, without consent. Darcy pushed the pen away, feeling somewhat ridiculous at having been caught doing nothing more notable than contemplating the point of it. Surely in the eyes of the world, Brit Hart would not have been found to be so idle a man.
Color was spread across Elizabeth's cheeks as she stood before the desk, and before her husband. The sound of rain pelting steadily against the study windowpanes made her heart beat in anticipation of what she felt she must say.
"I really must apologize--I really must," she insisted, her face pinched with vexation and grief. "What I did say to you earlier was heartless--truly, and I am sorry for it."
"Very well," Darcy sighed, without much feeling to it, though his eyes did reflect some hint of pain. "Your apology is kindly accepted. Good night, then."
"Is that all?" Elizabeth breathed in; knowing that her cruel comment in the carriage was deserving of more censure than she had only now received, and believing as most married folk do that the remedy of a spat could oftentimes be worth the grief of it.
"Yes, my dear, that is all. I do have some business that I was not able to accomplish during the day--it will not wait."
Elizabeth was indignant, for she had never known Darcy to behave in a manner so ambivalent to her. Even before they had known each other well, Darcy had always been curious to know her reasons for anything she had done, right down to her rejection of him at Hunsford. That inquiry had taken fortitude, strength, and downright gall. In Elizabeth's estimation, Darcy's apathy was simply some pretense on his part to vex her.
"Where is the fire in the man?" she demanded of him. Her insult would not let the matter be. "Where is that irrefutable fire that has always been within you, Mr. Darcy?"
"Put out," Darcy jeered, behaving more in the manner of the man himself.
"But why?" Elizabeth desperately longed to know.
"Put out, doused, smothered--call it what you like, madam, but pray do not use my indifference as an occasion to make comparison of me to another of your esteem."
Elizabeth could see him clench his fists as he sat back in the seat, and when the moment of his utmost frustration subsided Darcy opened his palms and used them to grip the arms of the chair. His never-ending struggle to maintain his good decorum and civility under any circumstance astonished her at times.
Elizabeth herself strained to conceal her frustrated emotions. "I realize that I have hurt you, Fitzwilliam--but it was not how you think. There is no person who I esteem more than you."
"I apologize for my misinformed impressions," Darcy spoke cynically.
"I suppose," she said, "that I should know my own mind, for one moment I ask you to be easy and the next I desire your verve. It is only that of late you are not yourself."
"No, I am not," Darcy did agree, "and neither are you."
Uneasy silence overtook them both, for neither truly knew the cause of their unhappiness, and neither knew what to do to remedy it. It appeared that this was a moment of truth in their lives, both wanting solitude, yet both wanting the harmony, the nearness, and the companionship of the other that they had grown so very familiar and so comfortable with.
"I know that I am difficult, Elizabeth," Darcy admitted bleakly. "I have my own ideas on how things should be, and when I become disenchanted with it--what would you truly have me do? Shall I disregard my feelings and say nothing?"
"Do say what you must, sir. Do say what you always have--precisely what you think, and then be done with it." Elizabeth then smiled tenderly, almost pleading with him for things to return to usual. "Be done with this odd temperament my love and come to our bed. Come to our bed and love me as you always have--it does prove much."
Darcy's brows furrowed and he looked to Elizabeth as if in disbelief. "It is always easy, is it not?" his voice faltered. "We goad and we push, and we find all the fault that we can with one another--and then because of our desires, because we have something so desperate to prove to each other, we forgive and all the strife is forgotten."
"Yes," Elizabeth respired, "that is a marriage--that is our marriage."
"It may be a marriage," he agreed," but is it love?"
"Indeed," she insisted. "Our love has never been easy. It was not instant, and did not come without sacrifice--but it is devout. It is worth all the effort that we put into it, and if we have to prove it over and over again by all the passion that we can muster when over tired and put out, then let it be so."
"Well then listen to me wife," Darcy spat out, raising his voice in anger that he could no longer conceal. "I will love you, for I have not been able help myself for these ten years on--but I will not be measured to another!"
"There will never be another!" she insisted. "When you walk into a room, husband, you do still take my breath away as surely as it had been when I first set foot here--when I first saw this place, and when I began to see you in a different light."
Darcy stood up, turning his back to his wife for only an instant to sate his ill spirits. When he turned back round his expressions were different--more familiar and compassionate toward Elizabeth, yet in another moment his eyes wandered behind her and he frowned, and then let out a heavy sigh of remorse.
"Christian," Elizabeth shook her head at the child's ill timed interference, "what are you doing down here?"
The boy had come in search of his parents, for he was sure that the rumbling outside of his bedchamber window was not that of thunder, but of the roars of the phantom red deer running across the hills of Pemberley, as his uncle had said. At present however, Christian was more frightened of the vexation that reddened his father's cheeks and of the sorrow that filled his mother's eyes.
"You still love us?" the boy asked of his father, then innocently looked to his mother for an answer.
Darcy knelt down and motioned for the boy to come to him. Christian did so without hesitation, and Darcy's fingers lightly stirred the locks of the boy's hair as he smiled and said, "We love you--we love all of you, more than you shall ever know. It is only that there are things to be done, Christian--there is much to be done and we are quite worn thin."
"I will not be a bother to you, Papa," the boy spoke plainly. "I promise not to be."
Elizabeth held out her hand, and the boy dutifully placed his small palm in hers. She led him to the door of the study to take him back to his bedchamber, yet before he could leave the room, Christian turned back around and gave his father one last look of uncertainty, believing perhaps that he had gone too far in demanding his father's absolute love.
Darcy did go to his chambers soon after, to glimpse Elizabeth sitting on the bed before him, her hair loosely covering her shoulders. The delicate gossamer nightgown that she wore adorned the curves of her figure as though she was the likeness of an entrancing woman, so carefully engraved, who bedecked the prow of a great sailing ship. Elizabeth's beauty was invariably the reason for Darcy to forget his woes, and if he could remain in one place for the rest of his days, he was sure it would be here, and he knew it was with her.
It was in this room which they shared together, that things truly were different between them. Here the husband and wife were honest with each other, yet there was no insult between them for they remained loving, and compassionate. It was here that they truly had little to prove to the other, for pleasure dwelled beyond the confines of proof.
Darcy sat down on the bed, his hand reaching out to touch the willful glow of Elizabeth's cheek and his affection-starved lips brushing against the fullness of her own. This one sensation did light the true fire within the man. It was astonishing how one faithful touch could say so very much, and extraordinary how so very much could be consummated, without vain wishes and needless words.
The early morning light crept into the Master's bedchamber at Pemberley house, as surely as it did each and every morning. Darcy stirred and rolled over to search for that most comfortable place in his bed, the one that was not such a nuisance on the nether part of his spine. His mind edged into consciousness, yet his body was unwilling to follow suit.
It was abhorrently unfair--he managed to suppose drowsily, that he should have to begin another day in the manner of the last several. Another day of strife and bother brought about by the dealings of business and the lack of courtesy by his holdings and his household; counting the incessant pestering of tenants, servants, children, and even on those few occasions, his wife. It would be another day of angst-ridden feelings, and so soon upon the occasion of the last one was indeed cruelty most foul to an industrious man.
Darcy brought his hands to his face, rubbing the numbness of insentience from his cheeks and wearing down the cobwebs of sleep from his eyes. His wits would not allow him to open them, no matter how hard he tried, until he took his finger and voluntarily pushed back one of his obstinate eyelids to be assured of the presence of daylight.
"Good morning," he heard a pleasing voice coo near to his ear.
Darcy merely moaned something unintelligible in reply and let his eyelid fall back into place. It did not take long for him to drop back into sleep, until he felt the fingertips of two subtle hands upon his shoulders, jostling him awake from such a motionless and deliberate posture.
"Hello there," Elizabeth soughed again, cheerfully trying to stir him. "Has the flame gone out once again, dear husband?"
"Tell me that it is not really morning," Darcy moaned in a coarse, dull voice; eyes still shut. "Tell me that not a soul awaits me anywhere in this house--in fact, pray tell me that we are not even in this house, but on holiday somewhere near Land's End and..." here Darcy paused to grin something devilish, "...that Brit Hart is looking after my children."
Elizabeth propped herself up upon her arm, and she studied the man intently. She smiled at his failing, that he should make such a wicked suggestion, and then she let her amusement fade into that of temptation. "Were it only so," she said sighing at the possibility and at her own weakness for thinking it, and then her disenchanted mind, together with her willing body tumbled lightly across her husband's chest in her own attitude of repose.
Darcy yawned and slid his arms around her, and then with a faint snore he fell back into a passive sleep. Elizabeth did lay very still, her eyes wide open, one ear engaged upon the ticking of the clock on the hearth and one rapt upon the soothing beat of Darcy's heart--tick, glum--tick, glum.
"Would it not be a pleasure to be on holiday," she whispered, sans the manner of a question. Her fingers began to drum nimbly upon Darcy's chest to the rhythm drubbing in her ears. "Would it not be utterly agreeable to lay here all day with you."
Elizabeth sat back up, looking down at Darcy's idle figure with the hint of an irritable frown. "No matter, my love--I know it shall not happen."
Darcy's eyes finally opened at hearing her speak, and he beheld the image, hazy as it was, of the woman he loved. Her handsome face came into clearer view a moment later upon his blinking several times and upon her nearness as she made his face her object of nearsighted study.
Darcy's brain, however dim it was at the moment, was willing to recollect his last fitting thoughts before he had drifted to sleep the night before. It really had not been so much thought that he had owned then, as opposed to sheer feelings. They had been feelings of complete and legitimate love for a partner in marriage followed instantly by pangs of passion for one woman alone, even though she had found fault with him hours before, as it may be. Forgiveness was indeed a divine truth, and the only way Darcy knew to classify what he had truly felt when with her was to brand it his own idea of ecstasy.
Darcy wished sincerely that he could hold that feeling untouched with him always. How he wished the delight of what truly was a matchless pairing would never subside at the onset of duty. Outside of the teachings of his faith and the virtuous preaching of the parish vicar, he wondered how did a man and wife keep the flame in their hearts always?
Elizabeth was smiling at him, though it was not a wholehearted smile to say the least, but a smile that was puzzlingly fetching, and in confidence, knowing. Darcy beamed back in much the same manner, and it was a singular, yet not wholly a disagreeable way to begin a day.
The moment did merit the delight of a kiss, and so Darcy leaned forward while catching Elizabeth's face between his hands. Elizabeth's smile grew broader as he kissed her, and two lovers who had grown all too comfortable with each other, giggled, quite as if they were those relations who were newly wed and undeniably blissful.
A knock upon the door disturbed the interlude, and the couple parted from their embrace to look each other face to face, mortified by yet another badly timed imposition.
Elizabeth went to see what it was about. "Mr. Rawlings is awaiting you in the study dear," she delivered to Darcy the regretful news.
"Of course he is," Darcy protested, quite as if he had known from erstwhile experience that the day would begin in such a manner. "Damned way to begin a day, and bother all this business," his countenance once again took on that surly disposition that goaded Elizabeth's spirit into wishing her husband easy, like Georgiana's new husband.
"What business?" she inquired, quitting any thoughts of stirring him, therefore perching on the edge of the bed, in pursuit of her slippers.
"This business of settlement," Darcy replied, sitting up with a groan and running a hand through his unruly hair. "What comes round each and every year, I do truly dread."
"Dread? You should dread that your tenants settle their accounts with you?" Elizabeth grinned, eyeing him shrewdly; "I should think that any man would take pleasure from the offering up of income."
"I should think that any wife would find the same equally as satisfying," Darcy laughed until he was cuffed with the down casing of a yielding bed pillow. "Honestly," he continued, "If you would have the truth, it is not as uncomplicated as you might think, Elizabeth."
"And why not?"
Darcy pondered the answer before glancing over at her somewhat in cheek. "It is a time when people do not come to see things eye to eye."
Elizabeth crawled back up on the bed to sit close to him, and she pushed out a determined chin before him, willing her husband to enlighten her. Darcy rarely ever discussed the economy of the estate with her, and she had always been curious as to the workings and dealings of it. Until now, responsibilities of her own had prevented her from making an all out inquiry, but she felt perhaps that this was one way in which she and her husband could benefit from cozy camaraderie. Darcy saw no great harm in giving the interpretation a go.
"Those tending the sheep wish to negotiate their earnings each year," he said, "and the cottagers and miners seek the same. I shan't even mention what the gamekeeper and gardener think is an appropriate salary for it would no doubt make your hair stand on end. More and more men pack up their families every year for employment in the mills in Manchester or on the docks of Liverpool. There may come a day when folks here may question whether or not I can keep this place afloat, let alone turn the profit of which we are accustomed."
Elizabeth was astonished at such talk. "We are by no means destitute, Mr. Darcy." Her eyes widened in alarm, "Are we?"
"No, we are not," he replied with a grin of amusement upon seeing her fretful countenance.
"I know for certain from your own admission, that there is more income than that which comes directly from this land."
Darcy's eyes pierced Elizabeth's discerning gaze. "There is, and that is our business--not to be public and not to gossiped about."
"You do nothing unethical or immoral, Fitzwilliam--as do some men."
"Elizabeth, where and how those men choose to make their profits, I have no say. I do know however that more and more of society's gentlemen make their money in trade, and fewer of us thrive as we did from our lands. I should never find it a fit business to profit from the ill-begotten advantage of another in another land--so do not hazard to think it."
"I would not," she replied, most adamantly, "but what of the ill-use of those who live right here?"
"What ill-use?" Darcy marveled at the words, and at the statement itself.
"Fitzwilliam, I have seen how they live--I have been to the cottages. It is not as though they all live here in the splendor of this house."
"Really?" he queried in astonishment of his wife's position, and then was made to call her on it, "They may not be favored as we are, but do they live in squalor? Are they homeless and cold?"
"No, I would not claim that, but you do know that last year was particularly difficult--for it was so cold and wet all through the seasons that sheep died and crops were lost as they were set out and water did flood the mines. Some people find it difficult simply to feed their families well Mr. Darcy, while we eat very well at our table and our most trying concerns in life are what fine imported linen to buy to cut into a new frock for Michaelmas."
"Not my frock," Darcy quipped.
"I am serious, husband," Elizabeth rejoined.
Darcy sat silently, worrying the edge of the fine sheets between his fingertips, now and then letting out a sigh of unease. At length he spoke in a manner deserving of the nature of the subject.
"I know that your feelings are in earnest Elizabeth, and it is true, things this last year were not good by half. These people must see it as much as I must, and we all have found the toll of a bad year to be difficult. But, if I were to meet the demands of everyone, each and every time that they were bid, then what would be left for our own children? There must be some give and take on both sides."
Elizabeth eyed her husband from beneath furrowed brows. She wanted to believe him, but she wished it from hearing the honest truth, not simply by way of awe and fascination for a steadfast husband and provider.
"There will be little concerns for us, Elizabeth, in our times," Darcy continued. "The worry comes in the destiny of our sons, and of their children to come. There must always be a place for a Darcy to live here--for a Darcy to make his living here. Yes, it is true that we are dependent upon these people for our income, but they are reliant upon us as well. It is a partnership--and as the master of this place my patronage is not to be taken for granted."
Elizabeth was mute. She was torn between a woman's love of family and a mistress's loyalty to those who looked to her for kindness and relief, and she could now see how her husband was caught in the middle of his obligations as well. She was not sure that she agreed wholeheartedly with just how Darcy did view things, she had never in their whole association been positive of that truth. She was sure of one thing, however--that life for everyone was not always overflowing with pleasures, and that every person in every society had something they must prove.
Darcy placed a trifling kiss upon her forehead and left her for his dressing chambers. In the time that it took him to roll the tension from his neck, stretch out his arms, and glance out of the window at the morning fog, Mr. Steven's, Darcy's valet was upon him.
"Good morning, sir," the man greeted and held out a tray with a single card on it.
"A caller?" Darcy queried, "This early?"
A nod was all that was necessary for the faithful servant to convey the required response. Darcy perused the name inscribed upon the card and kept an indignant groan in check. He turned over the card to find a note hastily scribbled upon the back of it.
Must speak with you. Will return shortly. Brit.
"He even has the gall to rise before the crows," Darcy mumbled to himself in wonder of the man's verve.
"Miss Darcy," Mr. Steven's dared say as he brushed the nap of Darcy's morning coat, "I mean, Mrs. Hart is quite fortunate in her acceptance of such a man."
"Is that the hum about town, Stevens?" Darcy questioned, although he observed with some discomfort of countenance his clenched lips in the glass after he asked it.
"Hum," Darcy nodded, and then added a wave of his hand in a flashy gist. "Talk. Is that what people say?"
"Yes, sir. Everyone--townsman, tradesman, servant and the like find Mr. Hart..."
"Easy," Darcy finished the man's sentence for him.
The Master of Pemberley strained another nod, as if he must agree; yet he was reluctant to do so. It was wrong that he should feel annoyance at the mere mention of the goodness of a friend, and now a brother. Yet despite all of his misgivings, he could not help but feel the stinging insult each and every time someone mentioned Brit Hart in the manner in which Darcy himself now wished to be known, particularly upon the application last night of his own wife.
Brit Hart and Fitzwilliam Darcy had always been unspoken contenders as young men. They had vied for superior position amongst their classmates at school, and they had always battled to see who was the better bowler at cricket. They had spent many hours in rehearsal as casual musicians in the music room at university, only for Darcy to discover sadly that Brit Hart possessed far more talent than he when it came to having a keen ear for a ready note. They had even sought the attentions of the same woman for a time, although the challenge was brief and both were made to give up, upon her favoring another fellow altogether.
Now here was a contest to match no other. Who in the neighborhood was to be the better master, the better husband--and the better man?
"Well, Mr. Rawlings," Darcy spoke clearly upon entering his own study, "what is so important this day that you could not wait to bring me news of it until after I have had my breakfast?"
"Sir," the unstrung man replied, "I apologize for the intrusion so early this day, but I have news that you may not find agreeable. Your proposal of yesterday has not been accepted by the tenant farmers near Potts Shrigley."
"They are hoping, by application of your benevolent nature, for a more substantial increase."
"Oh, stop beating about the bush. Are they hoping or demanding, Rawlings?"
"You may choose which ever one you like sir, but their answer is the same. They claim to be insulted by the offering, and they say that they will seek occupation elsewhere if you are not willing to oblige them."
Darcy sat down behind his desk, frustrated and indignant. "Oblige? How can they do that, by god? We have had a long-standing relationship with nary a difficulty between us--and where will they go besides?"
"To negotiate with your neighbors, sir."
"My neighbors?" Darcy breathed out incredulously.
"I imagine," the steward toyed with the brim of his hat before answering, "Mr. Ethan Bristoe-Hart, sir."
Darcy bit down on his lip and his nostrils flared out in momentary awe. "Pray," he seethed in a particular whisper, "I have heard my brother-in-law's name revered far too many times in the last few hours to give me any peace of mind at all. Do not speak it again in the course of this conversation."
Upon hearing footsteps Mr. Rawlings glanced toward the doorway, alerting Darcy of an unwelcome intrusion. It was Elizabeth, and although she had been privy to what her husband had only just said in provocation, she did her best to pass it off as a gentlemanly rivalry between relations.
"I came to offer you some breakfast, Mr. Rawlings--or at least some coffee perhaps," she said, her voice trembling as she stepped into the room and moved to query Darcy with a deliberate glance.
Mr. Rawlings stood up from his chair, "I thank you, ma'am, but I must be away to my duties."
"Is there some trouble, sir?" she asked of Darcy. "Is there to be some trouble with Pemberley's tenants?"
"Do not make yourself uneasy, ma'am," Mr. Rawlings answered for the Master. "This is no unusual occurrence between men, and I have dealt with situations such as this before."
"I am uneasy, sir," Elizabeth snapped in retort, far out stepping her place in what was always a gentleman's vocation. "What concerns this place, affects us all!"
"Elizabeth!" Darcy's ragged voice was meant to startle her. "That will be enough."
No sooner had Darcy supplied the upbraiding and Elizabeth came to take offense to it, did a frightful noise pierce the drawn silence. An object flew through the study windowpane, causing glass to fly about the place in every which direction.
Mr. Rawlings was disposed to hit the floor, his hands above his head as if dodging a battlefield cannonade. Darcy reached out and wrenched Elizabeth's body to the ground behind the formidable desk in a swift, vigilant movement, unbeknownst to him as to whether it was an instinct of gallantry or cowardice.
"Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth shrieked.
"Be still," Darcy ordained, shielding her body with his as he dared look above the plateau of the desk.
The room was now quiet, and there on the carpeting amidst a pile of glass was a stone the size of a conker hull. Shouts were heard in the hallway outside of the study, as servants rushed to see what the commotion was. Through the bustle of people standing outside the doorway strode Brit Hart, his hand clutching the scruff of a lad's coat collar, and Georgiana wide-eyed behind them.
"What a way to begin the day, eh?" the gentleman laughed as he looked over the mess, and what was left of the wits of three once sensible people.
Darcy stood up and tugged on his displaced waistcoat, then he lifted Elizabeth from the ground and placed her on her feet. "What the devil is going on?" the poor man managed to croak out the words. "Was someone trying to hurt you?" he looked to the frightened boy.
"Lord no," Brit Hart grinned. "By the looks on your faces one would think you had believed yourselves the victims of some villainous plot."
"Were we not?" Darcy groused; one hand placed over his chest.
"Good heaven's no, Darcy--you were not the prey, only the bystander. The quarry was a raven out on the lawn and Andrew here, the awkward huntsman. Next time lad," Brit Hart stopped to tug back on the boy's collar and look him square in the face, "throw the stones away from your father's windows."
Darcy thought that he could expire dead on, his heart thumped so rapidly that he could barely utter a word for what he had thought had only just happened. All he could do was to stare grimly at his young son and the boy found that he could not repent for his mischief. His stammering nonsense got in the way of an apology upon seeing his father's exasperation and in foreboding of what was to come, he was confident of his ultimate humiliation.
"Sir," Mr. Rawlings bowed his head, bidding his employer a good day as he twisted at the hat in his hands.
"Come again after midday, Rawlings," Darcy exhaled the words. "In fact if you would all care to have your breakfast, Andrew and I shall join you directly."
The servants, knowing full well when they were not needed, went back to their duties and Elizabeth and Georgiana traded reeling glances. Brit Hart was far too eager at the notion of food to give much of a care. Likewise he was well acquainted with the misfortunes in which a boy could get himself into, having been a mischief maker himself--he was far too acquainted with them in fact to fret about the state of affairs between an angry father and a naughty son. He grinned, and with a swagger held his arm out in escort to the ladies.
Although the man was known to be a gentle father, it was not astonishing to anyone within the great house, when Mr. Darcy's son was heard to wail upon the employment of his father's strap, a penalty in reprimand of the boy's misconduct. In fact to those who would be expected to tidy up the remnants of glass on the study floor, much as they did every other shambles to be made by the Master's progeny, the sound of two or three caterwauls from the lad in addition was an obliging sound, indeed.
A hush fell over the morning room when Darcy did enter it, with his elder son in tow. The father conducted the boy to his chair and Andrew clambered into it the best that he could, without giving a wince for his predicament. Everyone looked to Darcy, tarrying from their meal until the Master of Pemberley did settle himself in his chair, unfurl his napkin, place it on his lap, and nod to the attendant that he was in want of toast and tea.
There was a certain degree of respect shown to Darcy in veneration of his authority as the head of his household, and women and children alike did know enough to observe it. As a gentleman in society did show a lady every civility in proof of his good breeding, a man's kith and kin did return the compliment when under his roof. Everyone, including a shamed son and a rankled wife, was obliged to show his or her deference, everyone excepting of course Ethan Bristoe-Hart.
The two gentlemen seated at the table were equals. They were the same in age and similar in stature, and they were commensurate in good breeding, and in wealth. The only advantage was on Darcy's side, being that he was a native to the North Country, but the noble station of Ethan Bristoe-Hart's family in the South of England made him nearly as consequential in the eyes of the neighborhood, and nearly as proud.
That gentleman sat back in his chair when his host entered the room, and he observed, without a word, a father set down his now amended child. Brit Hart did lift his cup and saucer before him, and when Andrew raised his penitent gaze away from the introspection of the shape of his plate in brief notice of his uncle, the amiable man offered the boy a warm and sagely nod.
This indeed did make Andrew feel somewhat better, though it did nothing for Darcy's temperament. He was still very cross with anything and everything, and there was no better proof of it than when he growled at Christian as the boy did kick at Andrew's boot under the table and hazard to giggle at his brother's recent misfortune.
"Do not try my patience, boy," Darcy bellowed out in dispatch, and once again the room became ghastly still.
Brit Hart was the only soul within the place taking any enjoyment in his meal. He cleared his throat to speak his own mark of wisdom, while cutting his eggs and black pudding diligently into a pile of hash upon his plate.
"Take care, Darcy. These things do happen."
Darcy scowled at his brother-in-law over the rim of his own teacup. "Indeed," he replied after swallowing a sip of the strong blend, "I admit that here they do happen most often."
Brit Hart grinned, whilst chewing a mouthful of hash. "You have better behaved children than you realize," he refuted. "Now my father--there was a man put to the test, with six sons in his household to try him in every way possible. When I finally left my father's house for that of my own, he did make a gift of the strap that he kept in the top drawer of his desk. It was a token of his esteem, he said, for my full-fledged genius at mischief."
Brit Hart's fond recollection did make everyone at the table snigger, excepting of course for Darcy who only managed a queer grimace of doubt. One could never truly know if Mr. Hart told the absolute truth, for most of what he did say, he said in the fashion of tongue-in-cheek.
"It is of no matter now," he expressed a concluding remark on the subject, "for I have far outgrown any propensity for mischief or meddling."
To this suggestion only Georgiana did giggle. She did a fine job to conceal it behind the material of her napkin, though Elizabeth did wonder at the oddity of such an outburst from the likes of her genteel sister.
"Pray, Brit," Darcy changed the subject, rather pointedly, "what is so pressing to have sought me out this morning before the crack of dawn? You barely give a man a chance to come to his senses before he realizes that you have been at it hours earlier--out to defeat him at his own game."
"What game is that, Darcy?" Brit Hart smiled, and Darcy's sober glare told him he was to receive no answer. "'Tis not a pressing matter--but I would discuss it with you post haste, for your benefit."
Darcy was peculiarly contentious upon believing his brother conceited. He snorted out a defensive laugh, "Have you to tell me that you are to solicit the tenants of Potts Shrigley away from my employ?"
"What?" Brit Hart respired, his knife and fork hovering in mid air above his plate in his astonishment, barely a smile to his countenance.
"Mr. Hart," Elizabeth interfered without delay. "Do have more pudding."
This time not a soul did dare breathe as two friends eyed each other mistrustfully. Brit Hart did not move a muscle until Darcy looked away in discomfort. Everyone in the room was now awed, for the Master of Pemberley himself looked as if he had been the one to receive the business end of an implement of reproach.
Brit Hart calmly laid his knife and fork upon his plate. A long, melancholy sigh escaping the man, rare to his lively character--and he remembered the reason that he had come to Pemberley that day.
"Darcy, you look quite done in. It occurs to me that even the best of men does need some distance from his duties now and then and that is the reason that Georgiana and I are here."
Darcy was still unwilling to trust in his friend's goodness. His frustration was apparent as he did turn back to scowl at Brit Hart.
"We would extend an invitation to your children to come and stay at Smythdon for a few days," Brit Hart said. "We find it far too quiet and lonely for us there, and having them for a time would certainly liven the place up."
Darcy strained a chuckle, "That it would."
The father looked to his children, to see their happy faces beaming in hopes of his approval to such a plan. He then eyed his sister, noticing that her enthusiasm did not quite match that displayed by her husband. Darcy could never be quite sure of Georgiana's feelings, for she did not express them as successfully as most people were apt to do. She had learned to mask them quite well, a tribute to her brother and his own character, and Darcy wondered whether that practice would one day be her downfall and his as well.
Lastly, Darcy looked to Elizabeth. After a decade of dwelling in her good company, he could well discern that she was not agreeable to the proposal. Elizabeth's face did not disguise her feelings well and that had always made Darcy uneasy.
"Elizabeth," Darcy spoke in a low, passive tone, "I would have a word with you in the hall."
With a brief utterance of apology, Darcy stood up to leave the room, and Elizabeth did follow him, without argument. Once in the hallway she gazed at him sideways, questioning his purpose to be as mischievous as the self-proclaimed mastery of Mr. Hart.
"Sir?" Elizabeth queried of her taciturn husband; her arms folded before her in a gesture to confirm her need for answers.
"Elizabeth," he said, "I should like them to go."
"You would send away your children? That is most unlike you for you have always been the protecting father. Pray, tell me why?"
"Because I am worn," Darcy sighed.
"You are in a very ill humor--I will give you that," she proclaimed in repartee. Darcy grimaced and nodded silently in agreement. "What is the matter, husband?" Elizabeth became concerned. "You have been this way for days and I have never before witnessed it in you for so lengthy a time. Will you not let me help you?"
"When my children are gone from this house."
"Is that all it is, Mr. Darcy--that you are in need of a holiday from your children? I would think there to be more to your agreeing to this. Does this have to do with Mr. Hart?" Elizabeth made the implication.
Darcy's face reddened and he turned his back to her. "He is cocky," he proclaimed in authority. "I fear that I find my brother-in-law to be smug in his new found affluence, and the gnawing of it sits here," he turned back toward Elizabeth, his finger tapping near the base of his throat, "and I grow vexed at the burn."
Elizabeth did not know what to say to that. Her dark and puzzling eyes stared at her husband, and Darcy, never great having command over his composure when she did look at him so, felt uneasy.
"Perhaps my children will show him that being a father is not always as effortless as he would like to think."
Elizabeth's stare bore into Darcy's soul and her point hit its mark. "It that for you to prove to him, Mr. Darcy?"
In his discomfort, Darcy could not answer Elizabeth in truth. "Why must we quarrel?" he whispered. "When I say an article is black, why must you claim that it is white? Why must reason always overshadow love? I know that I can love you without question, fair Elizabeth. Can you say the same about me?"
"Oh Fitzwilliam, is that truly how your feelings tend?" she sighed out in vain discernment. Elizabeth truly pitied the man for his mistaken notions, and she was now compelled to show him just how wrong he was to think it.
Darcy took in a breath, holding it for hope of a pleasurable answer. "Show me, Elizabeth. Be my love," was what he begged of her, and she smiled and nodded her head to his wishes, without prejudice.
Elizabeth knelt down on the ground to kiss and embrace her children before they embarked into the Harts fine carriage. Darcy watched from above and his brain did admit that their departure would leave a void, not only in his house but in his heart as well.
Elizabeth handed Prudence to him, and Darcy nuzzled what was her chubby little neck and kissed it to the sounds of her delighted giggles. When his other children were in their seats, he placed his littlest daughter into the carriage, into the arms of his sister.
"I know that you are good children," he told them while leaning in through the door. Hannah stood up to kiss her father's cheek, her chin quivering at never before having left her dear parents.
"I shall miss you, Papa."
Darcy took her hand and kissed the innocent little palm. "And I shall miss you. And you," he said to Christian with a wink, then looked proudly to Andrew and gently to Prudence to conclude, "and you and you."
He closed the door to the carriage and gave the open windowsill a pat. "I shall trust you with what I hold most dear, Brit Hart."
The gentleman stiffened his back and sat taller in his splendid equipage. "You can count on me, Darcy. There is no reason to fret."
As the carriage pulled away, on its journey of all of those long three miles to Smythdon Manor, Elizabeth stood next to her husband, her arm through his and she heard him mumble lowly. She could not quite make out his words, though she thought that he did say in earnest, "I shall count on you, indeed."
Elizabeth Darcy was humbled by difficult emotions as the carriage carrying her children drove out of sight. When she could no longer see the contour of the splendid equipage, she turned to her husband, supposing a comforting word from him. He too watched the vehicle leave, and then he bowed his head. He gazed down toward the toe of his boot as he gave the fine gravel beneath him a kick, and he let out a dull and lingering sigh.
In eight years neither Darcy nor Elizabeth had ever dwelled at Pemberley without their dear children. In that time they had rarely spent a moment when they were not made to behave as proper parents. For on the rare occasions that they had considered any insurrection of their parental obligations, their precocious youngsters had instinctively made the allurement of freedom quite regrettable. Now at liberty to pursue her own desires for a few days at least, Elizabeth felt bewildered simply for having the opportunity for solitude.
It was a peculiar thing to Elizabeth not to have to tend to a little being and not to have their tiny hands clinging to her skirts, needing this and wanting that from her. She was not sure that she much cared for the experience, and by the manner of Darcy's breathy lament, Elizabeth wondered that having his children gone might feel strange to him as well.
Elizabeth tried her best to put the little ones she loved so dearly from her mind for a time. She was more than affected by the sad state of her husband, for in the annals of their marriage Darcy had never needed her so severely as he had expressed earlier that morning when he had asked of her to let their children go. At least, to Elizabeth, he had never before seemed to imply his desperation for her attentions so willingly--so earnestly. Darcy was dear to Elizabeth, as dear as any person could ever be, for he alone had been her one true love, and she was still in love with him to this day.
Elizabeth now turned her sights on him; regarding the line of his features--his stalwart chin darkened by the eclipse of a late day beard, his benevolent lips drawn to a pinch out of worry, and his aristocratic nose cast downward rather than held aloft in its usual attitude of nobility. Those handsome looks that were so familiar and much loved by Elizabeth now seemed unpolished and cruel. It became clear how worn he was, as he had said all along, and how unlike her good knowledge of the man Darcy's sullen silhouette did convey to her.
He finally looked to the horizon, bored with his tedious examination of the gravel, and his gaze met the penetrating eyes of a devoted wife. "Madam," he said, an arm outstretched to proposition Elizabeth in the direction of which he had intended on going.
In good faith, Elizabeth took hold of Darcy's arm. She walked in silence beside him for some time; happy not to be denied at least the pleasure of the strength and assurance his grasp had always held for her. Darcy was unwilling to utter a word however, although Elizabeth watched him keenly, wishing for some sort of companionable discourse. Each time that she looked to him, and studied the burden that he wore on his brow, she thought the better of pressing him into conversation, and she was wise to let him be.
They walked through the grand courtyard of the house itself, their footsteps echoing off of the towering walls, a very lonely and abandoned sound. They passed through the portico to the expanse of the rear facade, past the formal gardens, and down to the park below. As they strolled, Elizabeth came to feel awkward in the silence, as graceless and as fickle as she had felt so many times in the company of her taciturn consort.
She could not say how many times in their acquaintance that she had wanted to know his thoughts when he had been in such a state--though she was sure that those times had been many. It was at such a moment as this that Darcy made her feel uneasy, and Elizabeth wished that after all of this time, that he would have thought of her as not solely a wife, but as a proper friend besides.
After a time, they came to the banks of the lake and here Darcy paused. The afternoon air was heavy and still, in preamble of a late summer rainstorm. The water of the lake appeared as smooth as artisan's glass, and the reflection of the house was mirrored flawlessly in the water itself. To Elizabeth it looked as though there were two of Pemberley's grand dwellings--two great houses, sworn duties of which a Master and a Mistress would always have to contend.
The sight of such perfection, such magnificence brought memories flooding back to her brain, remembrances of a time when Elizabeth had not been as easy with her situation as she had now come to be. The very sight of the pale stone edifice brought back memories of when she had been a very young and a very uncertain wife, and the very sight of her new home had been a daunting visage indeed.
Without a sound--without nary a breath or a blink of an eye, Darcy stared at the likeness as well. Elizabeth found herself desperate to know of what he concealed deep within his mind, and she could not keep silent a moment longer.
"I must admit," she spoke softly so as not to alarm him, "that there was a time when I was quite overcome by the sight of it."
The sound of Elizabeth's lovely voice gently roused Darcy from his reverie. The soft sound, the sweet melody of it was something he could never slight, and Darcy turned to her, his eyes becoming affixed on the elegant curve of her ruby-colored lips and his attention hung on the prospect of every turn of phrase Elizabeth was to utter next.
Elizabeth's eyes did find the mindfulness of her husband, and her lips did form into a condoling smile. "When I first came here as your wife," she swallowed with the indecision of what she was to reveal, "I remember how very small I felt next to this place."
"Small?" Darcy chortled drolly.
"I recollect," Elizabeth continued, "how lacking I thought of myself, and how tall and splendid I thought you were. How I admired you, Fitzwilliam, and it was plain to me how very much you belonged here for you did prove it by how dignified you did present yourself."
Elizabeth imitated her husband's customary deportment, and her performance did make him grin with embarrassment. "I could never see the need for such pride in a person," she admitted to him, "until I saw you here in this element, and I found it all perfectly natural."
Elizabeth moved closer to Darcy, their bodies so intimate in rapport that either could perceive the beating of two miserable hearts. Elizabeth's face looked up toward his and she affirmed to him all that she had concealed in the years of her marriage.
"It was then that I was persuaded of how much I had to prove if I was to be the sort of wife deserving of the favor of such a man. You awed me completely, Mr. Darcy, by your reason and by your wit, and by the grace in which you did govern such a formidable place. I must tell you that I was frightened for my own success of it--for how could anyone ever compare to the likes of you?"
It was Darcy's turn to feel small. "How little we truly understood each other then," he sighed in recognition of his own dereliction. "I was very proud, indeed, but I believed that my singular success was that I had captured the heart of such a fine woman--and I still believe it to this day. A person less selfish would have inquired as to your comfort then, but I took it for granted that you would find living here as pleasing as did I."
"I did find it pleasurable, my dear," Elizabeth grinned and her eyes widened. "Just, overwhelming besides."
"Would it ruin your fine memories of me Elizabeth, to know that I was uneasy as well?"
Elizabeth smiled once again, more willingly than she had in days. The spirit revealed in her beautiful round eyes was enough of a reply to tempt Darcy to go on.
"There was much that I felt that I had to prove, my love," Darcy acknowledged as anxiously as Elizabeth had done with her own confidences. "Although I had lived here all of my life, this place seemed different when I brought you here. The vastness of this estate was never such a great matter before, but once we were married, the weight of this place sat on my shoulders like the whole world as though I were Atlas himself. More than ever did I need to see it succeed--for your sake, and then for that of two tiny infants, then three, and then four. I needed to know that it would continue, for my line and for my own peace of mind--and I still do."
"What can I say to persuade you, Fitzwilliam?" Elizabeth implored in earnest. "What sort of remedy may I offer for being such a burden?"
"My dearest, Elizabeth," Darcy replied in a modest whisper, "say nothing--you and our children have never been a burden. But you are all a great responsibility--one I gladly and willingly accept as a husband and as a father."
At the moment, Darcy's confidence did falter, for there was more that his heart yearned to reveal. It was true that he felt alone, and sorry for his predicament besides--and he felt the need for the condolence that only a woman could give him.
"I only wish at times that you would look on me," he affirmed with a blush uncommon to his masculine expressions, though what he was to say was clear. "Look on me not as a tall and unaffected man, as you did when we first knew one another."
"You are still very tall, sir," Elizabeth laughed a little. "Though I have come to look on you differently now. More friendly like, and far and away more loving than I would ever have imagined, although you are still very proud."
Darcy smiled, and it did his mind good. "There was merit to those days, Elizabeth. There was something thrilling in being naive and uncertain. I find myself thinking back on that time with fondness. Tempt my soul as you did when blissful hours ran together and all that was worth winning in this whole world was a moment of your love."
Brit Hart surveyed the faces of the motley brood before him. Eight dark eyes, lined up by age and rank, studied his features and watched every move that he made. All that the Darcy children were to observe however was the gentleman scratching at his auburn-hued muttonchops in bafflement of what was to be done to amuse them.
It had been often in his youth that Brit Hart's zealous nature had gotten him into trouble, but until this moment, when he was made to be dependable, as a parent ought, had he fully grasped the responsibility. Georgiana remained behind her husband, prepared to back him up, although she was as perplexed with her mate's failing courage, as he was.
"Ethan," she whispered near to his ear. "There are things I must do. The children's rooms have yet to be opened, and instructions must be given for supper. Do you think that you can get by without me for a little while?"
Brit Hart chuckled, and whispered back to her. "Get by? I should say so, my dear," he nodded, although he seemed somewhat skeptical of his own assurances.
Georgiana left her nieces and nephews, who continued to wait for their uncle to make the first move. Any suggestion on his part would do to satisfy the interest of four children under the age of ten, however Brit Hart was unskilled in performing such duties.
"We are having a fine time of it," he declared with an uncommon stammer, once left completely on his own. "Well then, what do you do at home at this time of day?"
"Play," Andrew pressed the gentleman.
"Play," Brit Hart repeated with a puff of his cheeks. "Well then, let us think of what to play--or would you rather do it by yourselves?"
"No, Uncle Brit," Christian replied in his artless humor, "you will do very nicely."
"Play! We could make believe that we are on the hunt! I should like to see that big red deer in your study. May we--please?"
"Very well," Brit Hart was agreeable to that, and he pointed down the hallway and the Darcy children followed one another in a very tidy line. "Have you been with your father on a hunt before, Christian?"
Christian and Andrew glanced over their shoulders, shocked by the gentleman's impulsive inquiry. "How we wish!" Andrew exclaimed. "Papa says we may not go--not until we are older. Perhaps you could change his mind about it, Uncle?"
"No, no," Brit Hart waved his hands before him. "If that is what your father says, then that is as good as any law. It is not an uncle's place to interfere with what a father decides."
The boys grimaced at their lack of success with their Uncle Hart, but the problems of children are very short lived. When they came upon the study, the children were afraid to go in before their uncle did, and so they stopped just short of the doorway. Brit Hart squeezed himself past them, for children never really seem to know what it is to stay out of the way. Prudence grasped a hold of his trouser leg as he passed by, and she was dragged along with him, past her brothers and sister, until the gentleman reached back, plucking her from his hem, and tucked her beneath his arm for safekeeping.
"Come in," he coaxed, "come in. Is this what you wanted to see?" He pointed to the taxidermic figure ominously poised above a dark marbled hearth, and he grinned broadly at its nobly suspended state.
Andrew, Hannah, and Christian stared up at the emerging trophy; eyes round in awe of its sheer stature. Only Prudence was oblivious to the spectacle of it, for at her tender age, the smaller the thing, the more astonishing it was apt to be. She wriggled her little body within her uncle's grasp, and he did the sensible thing and put her down on the floor.
"That is astounding!" Andrew exclaimed, his youthful mouth agape in fascination of the big, red bust of a thing.
Hannah wrinkled her nose in disgust; "It is dreadful!"
"It is not!"
"It is so! It is stiff as a board!" The wispy hairs at the back of her neck bristled at the very thought of it. "Are those really its eyes, Uncle Brit?"
"Children," Brit Hart intervened, willing to shed some sense on the subject. "It is simply an object to look at--I suppose its beauty is a matter of taste. Andrew may like the looks of it, Hannah, but you do not have to feel the same."
Christian was senseless to the row ensuing between his siblings. He could not remove his gaze from the expired creature, and in his dumbfounded astonishment he whispered beneath his breath, "Where is the rest of it?"
"It is dead, silly," Andrew stated. "You have the rest for supper."
"Blech," Christian grimaced and his throat retched closed. He turned to his uncle, innocence spread across his angelic face. "What really happens when you die?"
"Oh, good heavens," Brit Hart wheezed, wishing to discuss anything but that. The subject of mortality was not one that he wanted to address with his young charges; for that knowledge, along with the enlightenment of what transpired between the birds and the bees was something Darcy, as their father, would no doubt have the delight of elucidating.
"Papa told us that old Sir Walter did die," Hannah did add her own comments to the commotion. "He did live here, you know."
"Yes, I do, Hannah," was the only reply Brit Hart could offer, a finger pressed to his throbbing temple, obviously still shaken by the previous quandary.
"Papa says that his spirit will always live here," she asserted, while taking a quick glance over her shoulder. "Have you seen him lately?"
"No Hannah. I am sure that your father meant what he said in the reverent sense."
"In the what?"
"Your father meant that Sir Walter's spirit would always live here--as long as we remember him, and remember the good things that he did. I am told that he was a very fine man."
"He could not hold a candle to you," Hannah grinned to flatter her uncle, "I am sure!"
Brit Hart smiled and gave her a wink. "We shall see, my dear--no doubt this is a test, and I am beginning to think that your father had it all designed before the thought of it had ever occurred to me. I had forgotten how cunning he is." The Master of the house took a quick glance about him. "Where is your sister--the little one? Prudence!" he called out anxiously, "I say, Prudence!"
"She is over there," Hannah pointed in the direction of the study desk.
Prudence sat on the floor, her chubby little legs poking out from beneath her muslin skirts and sprawled before her. She closely inspected an object held tightly within her hand.
"What have you got there?" Brit Hart mumbled, and when he was close enough to the child to see any detail, he was mortified to find that Prudence had his treasured meerschaum fast within her sticky little fist.
"Here now!" he gasped, "Be a good girl and give that to your uncle!"
Prudence took the pipe and hid it behind her skirts. Her generally innocent and rosy cheeks turned brighter in color and her miniature lips puckered up as she blurted out a simple, yet prevailing, "No!"
Ethan Bristoe-Hart had never in his whole life bore witness to such a thing. He was dumbstruck, for this went against every circumstance that he had ever known to happen between an imperious adult and a chaste and obedient child.
"No?" he repeated in incredulity.
"No!" Prudence reiterated.
"See here lass," Brit Hart held his large palm open before him, "Give it to me--this instant!"
"Papa says that she is headstrong," Hannah retorted, standing behind the gentleman in support of his objective.
"That is putting it mildly," Brit Hart grumbled beneath his breath.
"Once she took his violin bow, and it was quite some before he got it back, and even then it was broken in two."
"Lord," Brit Hart seethed and then he speedily inquired, "How did he manage to get it back?"
Hannah bit down on her lip and shrugged, "He went to the door and bellowed for Mama, I think."
"I would say that was a very sane strategy," Brit Hart concluded, and he stood up and made haste to the doorway. "Mrs. Hart! Mrs. Hart, you are needed at once!"
Within moments Georgiana was at the threshold, winded from her haste in answering the unfamiliar bellow of her newly wed husband. "Dear, dear--what has happened?"
"That little one has my pipe and will not give it back!" he stated his grievance with a virile pout. "She shall certainly snap it in two!"
"Is that all?" Georgiana exhaled. "I had thought that there was a terrible accident, Ethan!"
Brit Hart glared over his shoulder at Prudence. "There surely will be if the little darling does not hand over my pipe!"
"It is only a tobacco pipe, dear," Georgiana replied in her mild manner.
"Only a pipe?" he mocked incredulously. "I got that from an apothecary in Bristol for thirty shillings. That was a fair amount of money when I was younger--in fact, it still is! That is a Turkish meerschaum," he waggled a finger at it, "and is surely irreplaceable."
"How do you know?"
Brit Hart's whole face turned red. Realizing that within ten minutes he had begrudgingly come full circle from where he had not wanted to be in the first place, he bawled out, "Because the fellow that sold it to me has..." he paused in mid-breath to choose a description wisely, "...expired!"
Sweet Georgiana was vexed by such a display, and she could not believe what she was hearing. The man that she had thought so mature and sensible, had within the half hour become a no better than a child himself.
"Let us show the children to their rooms, Ethan," she tried her best to be reasonable, since it was becoming apparent that no one else in the house could hold that occupation for very long. "Prudence, come with me." Georgiana reached out her hand, and the child took it, still clasping Brit Hart's meerschaum in the other.
The poor gentleman was reluctant to leave his study without first securing his property, but he followed along silently as his wife lead the way to the guest chambers. The room was large and spacious, and there were two large beds, one on either side of the room, each stuffed to the ticking with soft goose down.
"I think that this will do nicely," Georgiana sighed. "You may all stay here together, so you will not be lonely."
Christian inquired vigilantly of his host, "Where do you sleep, Uncle?"
Still in a cross humor, Brit Hart's lips twisted into a grimace. "I hardly think that my sleeping arrangements are any of your concern, Christian."
"Well, where shall we go if we are to need you in the middle of the night?"
"Why should you need me if you are asleep?"
Christian shrugged, for he found his uncle to be somewhat thick for a father figure. "I might."
Brit Hart shook his head, as if trying to shake off a bad dream. "You shan't need us, Christian--all will be well as long as you stay in your bed and stay asleep."
"Well," Christian hesitated, "I will do my best."
Prudence let go of her aunt's hand, and she padded off to stand next to her uncle and give his trouser leg a tug. He looked down at her, baffled by the gesture.
"What do you think she wants?"
"She wants you to pitch her on the bed, Uncle," Andrew informed him. "Papa does it all the time, and she loves it."
"Really," Mr. Hart grinned and again held out his palm before him. "Give me the pipe and I shall gladly give you a toss."
"No!" the little girl pouted, one hand behind her and the other mercilessly pulling on Brit Hart's trousers leg. "Up! Up!"
Brit Hart's teeth clenched at his failing and he picked Prudence up, dangling her before him. "Then give the pipe to your Aunt Georgiana," he tried another tactic, as benevolently sounding as he could muster.
Prudence held out the meerschaum--a gift to Georgiana, but before she could take hold of it, the delicate instrument fell to the wooden floor, and shattered into pieces. Prudence's angelic face startled, and her little lip quivered at the shocking sound. It was only a matter of seconds before she began to cry--a despondent wail that sent shivers through Brit Hart's spine.
"Not to worry, Prudence," he held her close to his chest in condolence, although he felt like bawling, himself. "'Tis not of great concern, child."
She pulled away from her grasp of his neck, her round, weepy eyes locked on his face, and his heart was moved by such a precious show of remorse. Children truly could command one's sympathy, and Brit Hart was a soft touch. As quickly as she had begun the waterworks, Prudence dried her tears, and she giggled in childish glee and pointed to the bed.
The gentleman was by no means a fool, and it did not take a walking stick rapped against his skull to drive home the intelligence, that he had been had. It had only taken the melodramatic pretense of one tiny child, and the ceaseless interrogations of three others--not to mention the artful dodging of their father. There was nothing else to be done, other than to toss Prudence, giggling in her sheer delight, into the soft ticking of the feather bed, and to rifle through his belongings for another, less palatable tobacco pipe.
Once again Elizabeth beheld the image of her husband, not haggard and worn as before, but peacefully sleeping beside her. Not in so many months had she seen him lying this comfortable in his bed and it brought her own heart joy to know that she could soothe such a savage temper in Darcy, by loving him so unquestionably.
Elizabeth listened to the reverberating echo of thunder rumbling down the Pennine fells. The booming sound of it made her feel strong and whole, as if she were floating near to the firmament itself. She had to admit that an hour in Darcy's good company alone, with no disruption by servant or child, was as close to heaven as her earthly fancies would allow. She had lately overlooked what a splendid companion he truly was, and she was sorry for all the time that she had lost in not behaving as a proper companion herself.
They had gone to their apartments after their walk, to be assured of remaining quite alone. Darcy's plea had made every tender impression on Elizabeth, and when the door to their chambers was closed, she turned to Darcy as he stood in the center of their private parlour. He resembled more of an uncertain youth, than he did an irrefutable man, and when he gazed at her, he seemed to know that Elizabeth had thought it.
"There is a sad soul inside this grown man's clothes," he sighed and tugged at his neck cloth to loosen it. "How many times have I wished to be a liberated sort?"
Elizabeth needed to take his concerns upon her own self for once, and so with great resolve her loving hands reached beneath the shoulders of his dress coat and she removed the burden of it from his back.
"Your troubles are my troubles, sir," she whispered, "and my delight, yours. I shall listen if you want me to, and I shall speak only if you desire it. Perhaps then you may feel free, for every duty that you own lies beyond that door, and there is only compassion to be found in here."
Darcy touched Elizabeth's cheek with the palm of his hand. He felt agreeable enough to sit in his chair, and he tugged on Elizabeth's hand, until she was compelled to sit along with him. He spent time talking, to Elizabeth's gratification--talking of times together when newly married and not long in love. Together they spoke of things that mattered little to anyone else, save for the renewing courtship of two bereft lovers, and then the conversation waned, though at that instance neither soul seemed to care at all.
It was not likely that Darcy and Elizabeth would ever fall out of love, but they were both sure that it took some doing to remain happy in it. It was a thing to be worked at, and neither this man nor wife would henceforth neglect it. Before he had closed his eyes and drifted to sleep, carefree and blissful in Elizabeth's arms, Darcy had expressed his gratitude for her indulgence of his nature.
"I am very glad," he had whispered, "that a woman was put on earth to tender a man's suffering."
"Is that all I was put on earth for?" Elizabeth whispered as she nuzzled to him.
"No," Darcy replied in profound honesty, tugging wistfully on a lock of her flowing hair, "I shall always be thankful for having found such a friend."
The declaration moved Elizabeth's heart deeply. A friend, he had said of her--and knowing that very part of his mind was worth more than Darcy and Pemberley could ever give to her. She was finally sure that she had done something of use for him and now hours later as Darcy slept she watched him breathing easily. To bethink her achievement everlasting Elizabeth traced his silhouette before her candid eyes, with her fingertips, so she would never come to forget how noble it truly was.
There is always a culmination to every good thing and so it was for Elizabeth's triumph. Her happiness was made brief by a knock upon the door, and Elizabeth stole away from her bed to discover the trespasser.
Mrs. Reynolds was on the other side of the door, and she rung her hands together and her eyes appeared to widen upon seeing the Mistress scantily clad in her bedclothes so early in the evening. "Are you ill, ma'am?" she asked of Elizabeth, though the Mistress did ease the good servant's mind with a resolute shake of her head. "Then ma'am, may I inquire as to whether the Master is in your company?"
"He is indeed," Elizabeth replied whimsically.
"I bring him an urgent message, ma'am."
"You may enlighten me as to your message, Mrs. Reynolds."
Mrs. Reynolds thought the better of doing so, though she had no desire to quarrel with her Mistress. "Mr. Rawlings is waiting in the Master's study. He says that it is most urgent that he see Mr. Darcy."
"Oh, Mrs. Reynolds!" Elizabeth gasped in censure, though she lowered her voice so as not to be heard by anyone but the housekeeper. "The poor man now sleeps more soundly than he has in weeks. I do not care what is so important, for my husband does deserve some peace." Elizabeth shook her head adamantly; "I shall not wake him."
"Ma'am," the housekeeper refuted. "Mr. Darcy has always seen his steward--no matter the circumstance or the time of day."
"No," Elizabeth sighed, knowing that she was doing the proper thing as Darcy's wife and most importantly, as his friend, "he will not see anyone. Not this time. Pray, good woman, go and tell Mr. Rawlings that Mr. Darcy is occupied and will speak with him on the morrow--after we have had our breakfast, and not a moment sooner."
Continued in Part 2
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