"What a fine collection of miniatures that is, Lizzy! I had never supposed that it would be so... thorough," Lydia commented, after what had been for her an extremely careful examination of the pictures.
"Yes, I suppose it is that," her sister responded, curtly. It was Lydia's first visit to Pemberley, and touring the house with her guest had been for once a most trying experience for Elizabeth. In her sister's insincere admiration she had discerned the veiled reproach for having abandoned her to a much scantier estate. In all the months she had been married, Mrs. Wickham had not learnt to acknowledge her own part in creating her misfortunes; she had, however, never refrained from relinquishing the burden of that responsibility to others entirely blameless. Elizabeth had not been able to refrain from charity, but she did repudiate the yoke of guilt.
Any reproach, however, would have been preferable to Lydia's current thoughtless discernment. Elizabeth could not but read it as a reference to what Lydia must consider Wickham's true estate. Since her marriage, she had necessarily learnt some of the particulars of her husband's relations with the Darcys, but neither party had undertaken to acquaint her with its entirety. And Elizabeth, with her scrupulous sense of fairness, was forced to concede that having had the entire account from Wickham, her sister could hardly be blamed for placing the blame on Darcy, as she herself had once done. However, she could not but resent such an implication for her husband's sake, and was unwilling to allow the retention of a certain miniature to amount to an admission of his guilt.
The next time Lydia came to Pemberley, the portrait had been removed from the gallery. It is questionable whether her discernment went so far as to have noticed the change. When she left, her sister gave her the largest sum she had yet been able to spare out of her own expenses.
Mr. Darcy had chosen to remain in his study for the greater part of the visit. Since his marriage he had learnt much forbearance, but though he had admitted Mrs. Wickham to his home he was loath to admit her into his company.
It was not until his wife joined him in their bedchamber that night that he looked up from his reading and commented on the alteration she had effected.
"Elizabeth, I noticed that one of the miniatures above the mantelpiece had been removed."
His wife had anticipated some such observation on his part, but she had not realized that he would be so immediately perceptive. The rationalizations by which she had justified it to herself seemed strangely inadequate, and she found herself speaking meaninglessly.
"Yes, is it very noticeable? We should move the pictures around every so often, or they start to settle into their positions, and can never be removed without leaving signs. Perhaps we should have it freshly painted..."
"Elizabeth, you are the mistress of this house. You know that you may do any or all of those things. But you will forgive me for wondering if more than your aesthetic sensibilities are at stake here."
"I'll have the miniature replaced. It was childish of me to ever have removed it."
"You don't have to do that, Elizabeth."
"What do you want me to do? Do you want me to be apologizing to my sister when she should be thanking you?"
"I did not act for her thanks, but I certainly do not need you to apologize for me. What have I done that requires justification?"
"You know what people must think. It has not escaped our neighbors that you are now connected to Wickham by marriage, and as for my family..."
"Yes, I am well aware that there are those who still hold me entirely to blame. It is well that I have wealth enough to compensate for the defect," he muttered bitterly, speaking not entirely without justification. Mrs. Bennet, awed initially by her second son-in-law's wealth and consequence, had by now recovered to a sufficient degree to send pointed hints that he should undertake the rehabilitation of her youngest. Darcy, who had already done more in this direction than he had ever cared to admit to his mother-in-law, did not take kindly to her implication.
"I cannot apologize enough for my mother, but it is by your own desire that she remains ignorant of your part in the matter," she said, exercising much forbearance as she attempted to reconcile her various claims of duty.
"I do not need you to be constantly apologizing, Elizabeth!" he said, unable to keep the vexation out of his voice. Then, in a more even tone, he added, "You do not have to defend your family to me, and I hope you do not feel that you have to defend me to your family."
"It is not that, Fitzwilliam, but can you not see what they think?"
"What they think is entirely inconsequential. I act upon my knowledge, not other people's suppositions," was his dry response.
"Must you always be do inflexible?"
"How would you have me act, Elizabeth?"
"I do not know... I would have you act in such a manner that you might not be misunderstood," she said, plaintively.
"You want to protect me from myself, Elizabeth, and I thank you for it, because I would not wish to be regarded as you once regarded me," he said, softening somewhat.
"I will not bend my actions to suit the understanding of others, Elizabeth. I will act as I must, and others must see me as they will. I was drawn to you from the start because you acted in a like manner."
"It is one thing to run wild as a girl, but surely it is not wise to suit simply my own whims now?"
"Not whims, Elizabeth, but considered decisions. I know you are mistress of a large estate now, and we have a position to maintain in society, but you do not have to change yourself to fit the image of the model mistress of Pemberley. You will never be able to please everybody, but you may well be led astray from your own better judgment in so trying. Trust yourself."
"But what if I am wrong?"
"I will never blame you for any mistake you might make, and neither will anyone else, as long as you meant well. But you will blame yourself if you do not know why you acted as you did."
Elizabeth looked at her husband thoughtfully, but did not reply. Darcy returned to his book. It was not until he put out his candle and came to join her in bed that she spoke again.
"I will have the miniature replaced, Fitzwilliam."
"Do you know why, Elizabeth?"
"I know why you have left it hanging all these years. I always knew. But somehow, I let myself forget that when I saw it as Lydia might have seen it."
"Why?" he asked, turning to face her as he drew the covers about him.
"It has nothing to do with Wickham, does it? It never did. It is a picture of what your father saw in him. Of what might have been."
"Yes, what might have been," he whispered, drawing her close.
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