Modesty & Mischief
Chapter Five: Stirling Manor
The first week of Kitty's visit, she and Miss Darcy set about the business of learning to be friends. Each was determined to like the other, regardless of their very serious differences.
The first morning, Kitty begged to be toured through Pemberley room by room, so Georgiana patiently took her everywhere, fielding a thousand admiring exclamations about portraits and heirlooms as her guest fluctuated between awe and envy. Georgiana in turn wanted to hear every detail of life in Meryton, especially what it was like to have sisters. Kitty tried to be enthusiastic as she described being the second youngest in a set of five girls who lived in the country and had no inheritance.
Next, Miss Bennet and Miss Darcy discussed the fashions of the season together, and compared their wardrobes. Kitty was enamored of Georgiana's clothing, almost bordering on jealousy as she regarded the dozens of little luxuries she had always done without- tiaras, real silk fans, ermine muffs, beaded shoes and lacy gloves. But Georgiana was so honest in her praise of Kitty's simple gowns (which did become her nice figure perfectly) that she was cheered, and promptly showed Miss Darcy how easily a bonnet could be pulled apart and rearranged to one's liking (which Georgiana had never learnt to do.)
Wednesday they discovered that they both liked to ride, and Kitty surprised Georgiana by having a very good seat. Apparently the open country was just as good for breeding excellent horsewomen as any private lessons could be. They jumped and ran together, and Georgiana showed her a half dozen glades around the property that were still quite beautiful, even as the frost of winter began to descend.
By Thursday, the girls took their meals, their exercise, and their music together as if it had always been their habit to do so. Without having to try at it any longer, they were truly growing much attached to one another's company.
Georgiana was not sure whether to be shocked by or enamored with Kitty. Through some of Kitty's statements were far too bold for her taste, she could not help but wish for a little of Kitty's forward spirit when her own was so retiring. Kitty did not flinch from strangers and was never at a loss for what to say next. Perhaps sometimes she did say too much, but Georgiana would rather have that fault, for once, than the humiliating defect of running out of words entirely. In Kitty's presence, Georgiana began to dare a little bit, though in such tiny increments that no one could notice the change take place.
Kitty herself was the happiest she had ever been since Lydia had gone, but in an entirely new way. With Lydia she had been entirely unchecked in her behavior, for now matter how improperly she would conduct herself, Lydia was sure to behave still worse. But at Pemberley, as Elizabeth had hoped, she felt the influence of her new friends sharply. She was aware that Georgiana's address and tone were different from hers, that Georgiana sat, stood, and ate differently, and that her ideas were much better tempered when they came through her mouth. Kitty also perceived how becoming all this could be in a young girl, and began to rise up to Georgiana in the same manner that she had used to lower herself to Lydia.
Elizabeth paid particular attention to Kitty's manner during this time, noting that it seemed quite harmless compared with what she had been alongside Lydia at Longbourn. Kitty was all politeness- a little rough around the edges, perhaps, but that would smooth in time- and Elizabeth felt a surge of pride at her sister's seeming new maturity. At the same time, she was distressed. William had been preoccupied with some inner unrest since Kitty's arrival. Elizabeth knew that this was no coincidence, but her husband was completely reticent on the subject, and she could get no answer to her questions.
Mr. Darcy scrutinized both girls whenever he had the opportunity to do so unseen. He wanted to honor his sister's request that he should not hover over them protectively, but he could not quite release her from his guard. Therefore, he watched and listened from hallways and adjoining rooms, feeling dishonest and very unlike himself. He had never had occasion to feel mistrust where Georgiana was concerned, but there had never been an energy in her life that he could not control, (save one- and he had learned that lesson well.) A week after Kitty's arrival, Darcy was still unsatisfied that his sister was out of danger. Though he said nothing to Elizabeth about his feelings, she could not help but observe his constant wariness, and she was deeply injured that he would not enlighten her as to his state of mind.
It was at the end of seven days that Mrs. Darcy proposed accepting a dinner invitation from Stirling Manor. Elizabeth did this expressly to discover the extent of her husband's trepidation. Did he not want Kitty to come out into society with them? She could not tell from his behaviour, and he would not answer her inquires about his feelings no matter how gently she phrased them. So she decided to test him. If William had any horror of Kitty it would certainly surface now, for Lord and Lady Stirling were among the inner circle of his family acquaintance and he would be loath to expose himself to ridicule before them. But Darcy surprised her by accommodating the invitation on the spot, and her heart eased greatly. Kitty did not discomfit him after all! Perhaps she had only dreamed the tension between them.
Lizzy was partly correct. Mr. Darcy was unembarrassed by the public Kitty, assured by now that she could behave herself well enough. He felt little hindrance, if any, at introducing Miss Bennet to his valued neighbors. It was his sister's welfare only that concerned him; Kitty was hazardous solely as an intimate influence on Georgiana. It was the possibility of subtle corruption, not unconcealed impropriety that plagued him. But Lizzy did not guess at this. She was happier believing that she had been entirely mistaken and gave up interrogating her husband on his feelings toward Kitty, to his great relief.
The evening after the invitation had arrived, all four were in high spirits as they climbed from the coach and regarded Stirling Manor, a large and very pretty estate. Kitty did not think it at all as nice as Pemberley, but she had a feeling that this ungenerous observation was best kept to herself as the party advanced to meet Lord and Lady Stirling.
"Mr. Darcy! Mrs. Darcy!" came Lord Stirling's sprightly greeting. "It has been an age since we last dined together."
"Indeed it has, Lord Stirling."
"Too long," agreed Elizabeth, her arm linked comfortably with her husband's. Lizzy enjoyed the company at Stirling Manor, for the Lord and Lady shared a union of love and confidence which had lasted into their old age, and it gave her faith in the endurance of her own marriage.
"And can this be Miss Georgiana? You are handsomer each time we meet!"
Georgiana blushed. "Thank you, Lord Stirling."
"And will you introduce us to this young lady?" asked Lady Stirling quietly, nodding her silver head at Kitty.
"This is my youngest sister but one, ma'am," replied Lizzy. "Miss Catherine Bennet."
"Well we are pleased to have you here, Miss Bennet!" Lord Stirling twinkled his wizened eyes at her. "I dare say, Mr. Darcy, you have your hands full bringing these fine young ladies into society!"
Darcy chuckled. "I believe I do, sir."
"There is one more in our party who claims an acquaintance with you, Mr. Darcy. May I introduce our grandson, Arthur Stirling, to your wife and her sister?" asked the Lady.
Arthur Stirling came forward, and two young hearts skipped beneath two fashionable bodices. Even Lizzy could not help but notice with approval the young man who extended his greeting to her.
"It is indeed a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Darcy; Miss Bennet," said young Mr. Stirling, bowing to each of them, which made Kitty's pulse race. "My grandparents have spoken very highly of Mr. Darcy's fortunate choice of wife." He raised an eyebrow in Darcy's direction.
"I thank you, Mr. Stirling," replied Lizzy. "I think we are both fortunate."
"And Mr. Darcy!"
"Mr. Stirling." The gentlemen bowed to each other. "You are looking well, and quite grown. You have finished Cambridge, I expect?"
"Yes, and it seems I am grown, though you would never know it. Being in Derbyshire shall always make me feel like a lad of thirteen," replied the young man of three and twenty.
"It has the same effect on me!" cried old Lord Stirling, with a nimble little bounce that make them all laugh. "Now, now, we are all acquainted!"
"Not quite all, Grandfather. Miss Darcy, I hope you remember me?" He bowed, looking at her with unmistakable eyes. The last time he had seen her, she had been twelve years old, and he had hardly taken notice. But the difference between twelve and seventeen is everything, and the charming little girl had vanished, leaving in her place a fully formed woman. He was riveted, and Georgiana was at a loss.
"I remember...of course," she stammered quietly. "It is...a pleasure...to see you again."
Kitty narrowed her eyes at her friend's awkwardness, unsure of what she perceived there and hoping it was noting but Georgiana's usual bashful manner.
"There; now we are finished with formalities! Let us all come in and be settled!" Lord Stirling took his Lady by the arm and proceeded to the dining room, where it was established the Mr. Stirling would sit between Miss Darcy and Miss Bennet, across from the Darcys. Elizabeth observed amusedly to herself that the handsome young man was in a fair way to be admired from all angles. The young ladies glowed with pleasure at the arrangement, each already wishing for an hour alone with the other that they might discuss Mr. Stirling's admirable qualities. That they did not know enough about him to fill an hour would make no difference.
Halfway through supper, however, the happy mood began to take a turn for the young lady on the right, for his head was almost always turned to the left, attempting to engage the attentions of Georgiana.
Poor Kitty had already learned to endure the difficulty of being second best among men's attentions, for Lydia had always taken first with them. To be sure, Lydia's dazzle had been all forward flirtation, whereas Georgiana's attractions were her own modest graces, but what did that matter to Kitty? Being slighted feels the same under any circumstance, and her appetite was suddenly spoilt. She threw down her fork in distaste.
Thankfully, the small clatter did nothing but alert Elizabeth. Lizzy looked from one young person to the other, apprising herself of the situation. She understood the nature of her sister's pettish countenance and instantly felt disquieted, for as much as it pained her to admit it, she was as wary of Kitty's manners as Mr. Darcy. She began to listen carefully to the conversation.
"I have heard such praise of improvements to Pemberley, Miss Darcy. Is it all in earnest?"
"I....I believe so, sir," was Georgiana's faltering reply as she gazed down at her plate.
Kitty seized this thread. "Pemberley is certainly all you have heard, Mr. Stirling, though I do not know of the improvements. I am sure, now you are come here to Derbyshire, that you shall have to come and pay a call!"
"I should very much like that," came his serious reply. But it was aimed entirely at Miss Darcy. Georgiana obligingly turned pink, while Kitty huffed and let her posture fall into a pout. He was not taking any notice of her at all! This was most disagreeable, for she was wearing her best dress in the exact shade of green that became her hazel eyes, and still he preferred all that blue on his other side. Perhaps she was not as well made as her companion, but she was no simp! Georgiana's stammering was becoming truly irritating. Kitty consoled herself that at lest she could form full sentences in the midst of her attraction. She was about to exhibit this talent less than politely when Elizabeth interrupted in a rather choked voice, as if she had swallowed rather too hastily-
"I understand you are lately come home from abroad, Mr. Stirling?"
If Mr. Stirling felt surprise at this interjection, he did not show it. "I am just back from the continent, Mrs. Darcy," he replied, forcing his eyes away from Georgiana.
"And where were you most recently?"
"In the arms of the enemy; France!"
"France!" sighed Kitty loudly toward the object of her admiration. "I'm sure I should love to go to Paris!" She waited for his answer, but none came.
"My studies took me all across Europe, Mrs. Darcy. I have a great deal of interest in painting, and there was much I wanted to see."
Her sigh ignored, Kitty positively sulked. She resolved within herself to speak no more to either Mr. Stirling or anybody else for the remainder of the evening.
"And of course, Miss Bennet," he continued a moment later, "I think you should take any opportunity of travelling. You are very lively; you should like it well."
Kitty broke her resolve at once. "I daresay I shall go someday. Tell me- what did you like best about your travels, Mr. Stirling?"
He paused. "Coming home, I should think," he said quietly, in Georgiana's direction.
This was the last straw on Kitty's patience, and Elizabeth saw it. Kitty turned in her seat to fix an open glare on her companion, and looked as though she would speak very recklessly in another moment. Georgiana felt this, and shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
"That was an excellent supper, Lady Stirling," exclaimed Mr. Darcy with more than his usual energy, giving his wife's hand a meaningful squeeze. She turned quickly to see that he had also perceived the scene across the table, and sighed gratefully for his interruption.
"So it was," agreed Lord Stirling. "Most enjoyable. Let us see here. Do not you play at the pianoforte, Miss Darcy? For I seem to recall your having quite a knack for it."
"I should love to hear that," supported Mr. Stirling. Kitty glowered at him.
"I...I do play," said Georgiana, in the timid voice Kitty was quickly coming to despise. "But so does Miss Bennet! Very well, too- indeed, you must hear her!"
"Do you, Miss Bennet? Then we must be allowed to hear you both," insisted Mr. Stirling.
"Then the thing is settled! We shall be entertained, if you ladies will honor us with your talents." Lord Stirling clapped his hands together.
Kitty's face had relaxed considerably. What a kind friend Georgiana was to speak so kindly of her talents to Mr. Stirling! She felt a pang of regret for her resentments. Let Mr. Stirling do as he pleased; she would not think ill of Georgiana ever again!
Lizzy gave Darcy a look full of relieved understanding as all departed from the supper table. His own look had displeasure in it, which his wife attempted to appease.
"It seems your sister finds it easier to speak up for the benefit of her friends," she observed softly. "She loses her bashfulness there."
"I am only sorry that her friends must provoke her into it," snapped Darcy harshly. It was out before he could retrieve it, and Elizabeth was stung, both by his words and his tone. She withdrew her arm from his as quickly as if it were on fire, and found her way to a small sofa with Lady Stirling, in order that he could not sit beside her. Provoked! Elizabeth knew it was true. But his comment confirmed her earlier suspicions. William was not happy with her sister, and he had kept it from her.
Darcy wished he had bitten his tongue. What on earth could such a spiteful comment accomplish? He searched for Elizabeth's eyes across the room, but she would engage herself entirely with Lady Stirling's conversation and have none of him. He was most unhappily reminded of a scene in a music room at Netherfield long ago, before Elizabeth had learned to love him, and he felt sick at the memory. But he was being honest with his wife, as she had begged him to do for the past fortnight. Kitty had nearly upset the whole evening, he felt sure. Thus comforted that he had rescued the visit from a nasty snag, he turned his mind over to more amiable contemplations, and listened to Georgiana play.
After she had played two very pretty pieces, Georgiana was prepared to relinquish her post as musician. She rose gracefully, and Kitty eagerly went to take her place.
"But shall you not play another, Miss Darcy?" implored Mr. Stirling. "Are we not to hear you sing?"
Georgiana looked to Elizabeth for an excuse. Lizzy had more than once helped Miss Darcy to graciously avoid having to sing before company, for it truly terrified her. But her sister-in-law was not inclined to plead Georgiana's case at present, and took no notice of her anxiety.
Left to her own devices, Georgiana literally wrung her hands. "I do not...sing...so well as I should wish to."
"Oh, I cannot believe that with such an ear for music, you are not also a talented singer, Miss Darcy. Pray, sing for us," encouraged her would-be suitor. She reddened and shot a painful glance at Kitty.
Kitty herself was standing in a most awkward way between her seat and the pianoforte, angrily considering Mr. Stirling. It was enough that he had overlooked her at dinner- must he embarrass her, too? For it was plain that she had gotten up to play, and equally as plain that he cared for no one's playing but Miss Darcy's. It struck Kitty that there was no need for her to be civil if he would not be courteous.
"Let Miss Darcy rest," she said in a tight voice, "and if you are so very fond of singing, perhaps you will let me do it!" Georgiana quickly made way for Kitty at the bench, looking very grateful. But Kitty had volleyed back to despite, and had forgotten her resolution never to think ill of her friend. She would not look at her.
Mr. Stirling did not seem to notice her cold manner. He simply sighed. "Very well, but Miss Darcy, you must promise me to sing another"- but Kitty had loudly cut him off with a run of very bright chords, and Mr. Stirling was forced to close his mouth and sit speechless near his muse. Kitty gained her aim now, for he was finally staring at her with sharp attention- but it was a look she would not at all have liked. Thankfully, Miss Bennet was too occupied with the music to notice this, for there were only shreds of self-control left at her command. As it was, she played and sang unimpeded for a quarter of an hour.
Lord and Lady Stirling had not noticed a strain on any of their young guests throughout the evening, and they did not perceive it now, but the Darcys did. Elizabeth watched Kitty ruin the end of Mr. Stirling's conversation with her strident playing, and prayed her husband had not seen it. She spent the remainder of the musical interlude trying to devise an excuse that would allow them to leave early, before anything else was said or spoiled. Mr. Darcy was aware of Kitty's misstep, and he faulted her for it, however he was so distracted by Mr. Stirling's intense pursuit of his sister that he hardly knew where to concentrate his irritation. Neither of them heard a note of Kitty's song.
It was a lovely piece, and everyone expressed that Miss Bennet had performed it admirably. No one's applause was fulsome as Georgiana's, who finally caught her friend's eye and mouthed her thanks. Kitty only tossed her head haughtily. She took not notice of Mr. Stirling or his preferred lady, but swept past them both toward her sister on the sofa.
Elizabeth found the excuse she searched for as, all of a sudden, her head began to throb quite seriously. She winced in pain, putting her fingertips to both temples. Both Kitty and Lady Stirling inquired after her at once, and the evening came to an early close, much to the disappointment of Mr. Stirling, who had hoped to gain another hour of Georgiana's individual attention. After many warm good-byes and invitations from both houses, he managed to escort Miss Darcy outside, paying her a particular adieu as the families parted. He also bowed to Miss Bennet, but she looked directly beyond him, and the coach pulled away.
No one was in a humour for speaking, at first. Both Elizabeth and William longed to be out of the carriage and away from their young charges where they could have a private battle. Each was silently weighing up the arguments to be made in his or her favor when the opportunity arose for their debate. Neither could believe they were preparing to fight, nor did they want to be the first to make it up.
Kitty and Georgiana were each privately, briefly concerned for the married couple, but their thoughts returned quickly to themselves. Georgiana's heart was wounded by her companion's earlier snub, while Kitty's blood burned with jealousy over Mr. Stirling's attentions. This emotion got the better of her as they rode home to Pemberley, and she could not stop herself from speaking.
"I certainly liked the Stirlings, Georgiana. Have you always known them?"
"Since my childhood, yes," she replied, in a low voice.
"And- Arthur Stirling?"
All three Darcys simultaneously turned a warning eye on Kitty, but she was too keyed up for it to take effect.
"Also since my childhood."
"When did he last see you?"
"I believe it was... perhaps five years ago? Is that right, William?" she solicited, thinking her brother's participation in the conversation might inhibit Kitty's questions.
"It is five years."
"What, not since you were twelve? Lord, what a shock he must have got!" Kitty giggled crudely. "I dare say he wasn't expecting to see you so well grown."
Georgiana was crimson. "I do not"- she began to protest.
"And he is fearful handsome, too- I saw you thinking it."
"Kitty," cautioned Elizabeth under her breath. But Kitty was not to be halted.
"I expect you are both violently in love together!"
This was a favorite phrase that Kitty had used to pass casually back and forth with Lydia, but Georgiana was scandalized- especially to hear such a thing in the company of her brother. The last time he had seen her 'violently in love' it had been a monstrosity, causing them both great pain. She looked at William, expecting to see him mortified.
William, however, wore a look very much like triumph as he whipped around to face his wife. Elizabeth miserably stared out of the window, her head in pieces, her stomach lurching along with the carriage. Kitty had lost her the argument before it had even begun. But she was still determined he would hear her out, and thoroughly.
Georgiana turned her back on Kitty. "I have no idea what you mean," she whispered icily.
Kitty did not care. She folded her arms across her chest and told herself how juvenile Miss Darcy behaved, to take offense at such a little teasing.
Not one member of the party breathed another word for the duration of the ride. Each went his own way upon arriving home. Four doors were slammed viciously at Pemberley that evening, and the servants duly wondered if all the family were quite well.
Chapter Six: First Argument
Elizabeth paced. She could not think what else to do, so she walked the floors of her suite from end to end and then again, filled with more anger than she had felt in over a year. She had been polite. She had been complaisant. She had been everything she felt was dutiful in a wife. Apparently, it was time for her to return to the spirit in which she had first met Mr. Darcy, for loving-kindness did not seem to take effect on him.
"Elizabeth." The voice from the other side of the door was her husband's.
She paused in her pacing. "What is it?"
"We must speak with one another now, before this goes any further."
"Must we indeed, Mr. Darcy?"
"So it is back to 'Mr. Darcy' then?"
"It is fitting."
"Very well, Miss Bennet. Let me in."
Elizabeth composed herself by bringing back to mind the time when Mr. Darcy had meant nothing to her, when she had jousted with him easily and won. When she was calm enough, she opened the door. "What do you mean, sir, by coming in all this state to see me so late at night?"
"What occasion does a husband need to come to his wife late at night?"
"Husbands in general, sir, should think better of their liberty before they abuse it. You would not expect to be received by me a year ago today." Elizabeth sat in a large armchair with great self-possession, and looked at him archly.
Darcy began to pace in her stead. "I see. So I am always and forever to be courting you?"
"What is it that you find so different between the courting and this moment, Mr. Darcy?"
"I should be able to be completely honest with my wife without fear of repercussion."
"And were you not so honest with your fiancee? Truly, sir, one is surprised to hear it from the man who claimed to find disguise of every kind so abhorrent. Do you not remember saying that?" Elizabeth was warming to the match now, remembering her old skill.
"I do." He had said that to her the afternoon of his botched proposal. She was fighting with fire. She had better be careful.
"What then is the difficulty, Mr. Darcy? Do you have something you feel you must conceal from me, or face 'repercussion'?"
Darcy looked at her evenly. "I do."
"Pray, reveal the secret. I am sure you are not afraid of me."
Afraid? Darcy's eyes flashed. "I am uncomfortable with Catherine."
"How shocking. Precisely why?"
"I cannot believe you did not observe my reasons. She showed immodest manners at the home of our friends, allowing her unabashed jealousy of my sister to inform her behavior."
The silence was ominous. "You are very forthcoming now, Mr. Darcy."
"You leave me no choice, Miss Bennet."
"Perhaps if Mr. Stirling had been more appropriate in his attentions to Georgiana, there would have been no cause for anger."
"Mr. Stirling has known my sister all her life, and it is right that he should take some interest in her after not seeing her these five years," retorted Darcy hotly.
"Some!" cried Lizzy. "Are you going to pretend that his interest was only 'some'? Indeed, I do not blame Kitty for her feelings. Arthur Stirling is a very forward young man."
"Which is no fault of Georgiana's, or my own!"
"I only marvel you did not jump in to protect her."
"At least I did not have to. I trust my sister to act in accordance with the requirements of the moment. I do not have to be always jumping in to shield her from embarrassing herself."
"That is quite enough," said Elizabeth in a very low voice.
"I wish it were. You call me dishonest for hiding my feelings these last two weeks, but you cannot bear to hear the truth when I tell it."
"What I cannot bear is that my husband is exactly as proud as he ever was, and has harbored such revulsion for my family all this time. To think I ever assured my father that you have no improper pride!"
"You used to show some dislike of your family yourself!" Darcy shouted. "What is all this sudden loyalty?"
"I love my family, Mr. Darcy, though I see their faults. I only hope to help improve Kitty by having her with us. It is a compliment to Georgiana, though you will not see it."
"No, I will not. There is no compliment in exposing my sister to immodesty and impropriety," burst Darcy. "I am very seriously displeased with this whole business!"
"You sound exactly like Lady Catherine DeBourgh!"
Darcy bucked in livid astonishment, then aimed a serious counterblow. "I always considered you to be a reasonable woman, Elizabeth. I had thought you were more influenced by your father. It seems I was mistaken."
Elizabeth flushed with rage. To be compared to her mother in terms of sense! She tried to strike back, but found she was quite unable to reply, for her eyes were filled with tears and her throat constricted. He had never insulted her this way- her family, her connections- but never herself. But she would not cry. She stood and turned away from him completely as she tried in vain to master her emotion, furious that her tears would fall before him! He did not even come to comfort her, but stood staunchly across the room.
The knock on the door was most unwelcome.
"Who is it?" he barked.
"Mrs. Reynolds, Master. I have a letter for you, and one for Mrs. Elizabeth. They arrived express while you were at Stirling."
Darcy retrieved the letters and dismissed his housekeeper. He laid Elizabeth's on the table at her elbow. "It is from Mrs. Bingley," he informed her. He knew what the letters contained. It had been two weeks since Mr. Bingley had purchased Glenstead, and this express must mean that he and Jane had arrived in their new home today. I must speak to Bingley at once, he thought, for Charles shared his in-laws and therefore some of his frustrations. He had already written to him once to vent his aggravation; perhaps a visit to Glenstead could give him some relief.
"Jane," whispered Lizzy, touching the letter.
"Yes. You will want your privacy, I think." She nodded, keeping her back to him. There was a pause as each waited for the other to speak. Neither party was inclined to make any apology. A moment later, Elizabeth heard him open the door. "Goodnight," he said flatly. The door shut.
"Oh, Jane!" moaned Lizzy quietly, sinking back into the chair. Feeling the letter could never console her, she listlessly tore the seal apart.
"November 8, 18___
I have such wonderful news- you will scarce believe it! Charles kept it secret from me until two weeks ago, as your own husband has been keeping it secret from you. But now I may tell you everything.
Oh, Lizzy, we have moved to a new home in Nottinghamshire, not thirty miles from Pemberley! Can you imagine- we are neighbours!"
Elizabeth gave a little cry of happiness. The news could not have been more perfectly timed.
"The estate is called Glenstead, and I love it already, though we have only just arrived. However, I am preparing to leave it immediately to see you, dear Lizzy! My husband has urged me not to travel anymore, but Little Charles and I cannot wait another moment. I shall arrive tomorrow, with my son.
Charles must stay here for another fortnight to attend to the business of settling in. You will see him as soon as all is arranged, for we want you and Mr. Darcy as our first visitors. It will be such a happy house!
I have truly suffered these past months without your company, Lizzy. It gives me so much joy to know that I will be seeing you in just another day. Give my love to Kitty, Georgiana, and my brother-in-law. I shall be with you almost as soon as you read this!
Your loving sister,
Elizabeth sent up her thanks to God when she had finished Jane's welcome missive. She had never needed her sister's wisdom and temperance more in her life. She fell into an exhausted sleep that night, thinking only of the comfort of Jane.
* * *
The next day at breakfast, Elizabeth broke the happy news to her solemn family. Both Kitty and Georgiana were glad to hear of Jane's coming, but there was no rejoicing between them for they were still feeling quite at odds with one another. Mr. Darcy merely continued eating his breakfast. When he had finished, he cleared his throat.
"Elizabeth, may I speak with you for a moment?"
She assented, and they went together out of the breakfast room
"I hope I may at least receive Jane with your approval," challenged Lizzy once they had reached the privacy of the writing room, but in truth she had no spirit for another quarrel.
Darcy was also tired. "You know I have no issue with Jane."
"I know only what you choose to tell me." Suddenly it occurred to Elizabeth that there was information of vital importance to their family that she had chosen not to tell. Guiltily, she lay her hand flat against her abdomen, trying to sense something there. Yes, it was certain. All that remained was to consult a doctor. But now was not a moment for happy revelations.
"Elizabeth...." Darcy searched for words. "I came to a decision last night. It seems that Charles Bingley will be staying behind at Glenstead for another fortnight. I know what trouble it can be to attend to the business he has there- it must be very difficult. And since he is new to the county- perhaps..."
Elizabeth understood, and felt an ache in her heart. She spoke slowly. "You would like to go and help him to complete his business there."
"I imagine your trunks are already in the carriage."
The Darcys did not look at one another. Lizzy made herself speak only when she could not bear her emotion a moment longer. "Give Mr. Bingley my warmest regards. Send word when you will come back again." She could no longer trust her voice, not even to say goodbye, and she left him there without another word.
When she had gone, Darcy fumbled for a chair, a table, any support. He would never have believed that he would willingly separate from Elizabeth. This was folly and he knew it.
He looked around him in the room for comfort. The early sun splashed across the furnishings and Darcy had an overwhelming sensation that his mother was near him. This had been her favorite room in the house; she had written her letters here each morning. Elizabeth did this, too. How often had he seen each of them here, in just this light? It all looked remarkably unaltered, considering the passage of time.
He found himself sitting at his mother's writing table, marvelling that it was just as it had been when he had hidden beneath it in games with her, years ago. Gently he touched the little drawers and knobs of the desk she had used so well.
It struck him that his mother would neither approve of this dispute, nor endorse his pending departure. She had not raised him to fly from his troubles. Darcy shut his eyes. He would apologize. All this childishness would be over in a moment. They would forgive each other.
But how should he begin? Darcy swatted at one of the little white doors in the desk with his finger as he deliberated.
Abruptly, the little door sprang open at his touch, and a slice of paper peeked out. Lost in thought, Darcy did not check himself, but stared at the writing unconsciously until it permeated the fog of his preoccupation and became clear to him. He could only read a few lines of the paper, and did so without meaning to do it.
"...and of course I will not say a word of Wickham to Miss Darcy while I am there, Lizzy! I would not dare Mr. Darcy's anger. I thank you for your confidence in me, and I will not break my word..."
Darcy shot up from the chair as though it had thrown him. Elizabeth had informed Kitty of Georgiana's trouble with Wickham. It was evident. Here was proof.
The tender spell cast by his mother's memory was destroyed. Feeling ill, Fitzwilliam Darcy snapped shut the offending door, hiding once again the letter that had brought him back to his senses. If Elizabeth was capable of divulging his family's secrets without so much as consulting them, then he was certainly permitted a fortnight with Bingley. One was not half so terrible as the other.
Darcy strode out of the writing room, grimly determined to escape as quickly as possible. He called a servant for his coat, and only stopped to direct a brief note of explanation to Georgiana before setting off for Glenstead.
Chapter Seven:Unburdening:Part One: Pemberley
Mrs. Bingley arrived that afternoon at Pemberley with her infant. Mrs. Darcy had spent the whole day crying in her room, but she rallied herself to be the mistress of her home when she heard the horses ride up outside. Elizabeth flew out to receive Jane, feeling the first genuine happiness she had known since she had first proposed Kitty's visit.
She, Georgiana and Kitty forgot their differences for an hour in order to coo over Little Charles. The three new aunts exclaimed passionately to the new mother that he was the most perfect baby in the world. The sight and scent of the baby keenly affected Elizabeth, and she cradled her nephew to her breast with a faraway look in her eyes while Kitty led them pal mal through the house in an attempt to show Jane everything at once.
Jane was overcome by Pemberley and though she was quite tired, allowed herself to be toured through the greater part of the lower west wing before protesting that she must rest. Kitty and Georgiana were peeled from Little Charles by Mrs. Reynolds and sent off to their music lesson. The housekeeper then took Little Charles himself away for a nap so that Lizzy and Jane finally had a moment to regard one another unimpeded. They embraced in the old way, and walked slowly, arm in arm, to take their tea together.
"Well Miss Lizzy," said Jane teasingly when she was satisfied that all the servants were out of hearing, "this is quite an estate. I remember when you thought you might have to choose between marrying for love, and marrying for more material considerations!" Both sisters laughed at the memory.
"Oh Jane, how I have missed you."
"And I you." Jane shone her clear blue eyes at her sister. "But truly Lizzy, this is very great. My imagination did not go this far when I dreamed what Pemberley must be like. You must be so happy here!"
"Yes, Jane. We are both very lucky"- Lizzy broke off. Her voice had failed her for the second time that day.
Concerned, Jane reached for her sister. "Are you quite well?" she inquired anxiously. Elizabeth made no answer, and Jane was puzzled. In a moment, however, something strange occurred to her.
"Lizzy-- where is Mr. Darcy?"
Elizabeth slumped. "He is gone."
"To Glenstead. We have had a terrible... quarrel... oh, Jane!" She burst into tears to her sister's great alarm.
Jane came around the table and put her arms about her, soothing quietly. "Dearest, it cannot be so very bad. You must tell me what has happened."
Elizabeth confessed everything in a choked voice. She told of the tension of two weeks ago, the tumult of the visit to Stirling Manor, the horrible fight of yesterday, and the dismal parting this morning. Jane absorbed everything, deeply pained for her sister. But she was unable to agree with Lizzy that everything was 'completely ruined'.
"It is not- you know it is not. Mr. Darcy loves you, Lizzy. This shall pass, and all will be forgot."
"If Mr. Bingley compared you to Mama, I think you would not quickly forget it," snapped Lizzy through her tears.
"But he would not do so, for he"-
"For he loves you and does not want to hurt you!"
"For he has not Mr. Darcy's temper. And I have not yours," said Jane firmly. "You have known all along that yours was a marriage of excessive passions. You sought it out on purpose. How often have I heard you say that you would never be induced to marry except by the very deepest love?"
"But I did not want this!"
"Lizzy, you must take it as it exists. You and Mr. Darcy have always been... worthy opponents." Jane's eyes glinted.
"I do not want a husband who is always my adversary!"
"That is not sound, you know it is not. You have had many happy months before this and you have a lifetime ahead. This is two weeks only, Lizzy. You must see it is not everything."
"Must you always be so very good? There is no hope of arguing with you."
"Perhaps there has been enough arguing at present," Jane suggested, stroking Elizabeth's hair.
"We have never fought this way before- not since we have been married."
"Well then, it was necessary! Every marriage must have its little tremors."
"Ha. Name one in yours."
Jane could not, though she searched herself entirely, distressed that she had no example to give. Elizabeth gave a little smile at Jane's willingness to bear such unnecessary anxiety, and they paused together, Lizzy taking comfort in the nearness of her sister. At last to pour out her troubles to an understanding soul! She sighed. Here was Jane, a new mother, saddled with worries of her own, and all she could do was add to her burdens.
"I am sorry Jane," she murmured momentarily. "I should be inquiring after you."
Jane laughed musically. "Don't fret, Lizzy. I assure you, I will bore you half to death with every detail of Little Charles' life, now that we are neighbours."
Lizzy sat straight up and looked at her sister. Little Charles. She was reminded of her own state, and grasped both Jane's hands in hers. "There is something else," she whispered. "Something I have told no one, not even William."
"What is it, Lizzy?" cried Jane in a hushed voice.
"Jane, I believe.... no, I am quite sure of it. Though I must still call the doctor."
"It is not terrible. It is wonderful. Jane, I am going to have a baby!"
Jane's eyes filled instantly with tears and she embraced her sister tightly for her own recent pregnancy had taught her the depth of the experience. She was exultant- until she remembered. "You have not told Mr. Darcy?" she asked quickly. "But why not, Lizzy?"
"Do you not see? It is only just now a certainty, and I- I wanted it to be such happy news"- Lizzy's own eyes filled with tears again, but these were not tears of joy. "How could I tell him when we have been so remote from one another?"
"But you must tell him now- send word at once! All will be forgot in an instant when he knows."
"No, Jane. I want him to come back on his own. I want him to realize his fault, not take pity on my condition."
Jane sighed. "You have always been stubborn."
"Yes. You won't tell?"
Jane cocked her head to the side and considered. "I shall keep it to myself on two conditions. First, you must call a doctor to come this week."
"And secondly, Lizzy, you must be happy! The storm is already over- for this clears away everything."
Elizabeth nodded, conceding to both Jane's conditions. Then she simply held on to her sister, hoping she could keep her part of the bargain.
Part Two: Glenstead
Darcy surveyed Glenstead with a masterful sweep of his eyes. So this was to be the Bingleys' home? It was a fair prospect. Somewhat larger than Netherfield it sat among the hills, its cream colored stones and pillars gleaming. It would suit the felicity of the Bingleys, and shelter many happy hours, but this was not one of them. Darcy's face was drawn. At that moment, he would have traded Pemberley to Bingley in exchange for his perpetually good humour. Charles would never abandon Jane- but then Jane would never give him reason. And this was not abandonment; it was only two weeks' time. Perhaps by then he would have become calm enough to discuss with his wife the letter he had found. But not yet.
Bingley greeted Darcy with no attempt to conceal his surprise. "I say, Darcy! What are you doing here?"
"Fine greeting," he muttered darkly.
"But I expected you would be receiving Jane. She must be just arrived at your house."
"Elizabeth can do it."
Bingley eyed his friend warily. "Something is wrong, I think," he advanced. "Are things not well at Pemberley? Has this to do with that letter you sent? All those blots! Surely it isn't so terrible?"
Darcy was silent. Bingley groaned. He knew this mood. The only way to drag it out of Darcy was to set him next to a bottle of brandy.
"Forgive me, Fitz; I am abominable. Come in! Let us have a rest. My man will get your things."
Still silent, Darcy followed Bingley into the billiards room of Glenstead, which was not yet properly arranged. All the furniture was there, but nothing was in place, and there were no balls on the billiards table. Darcy thought this unfortunate. He would have enjoyed hitting something. But he settled in a chair, and allowed Bingley to bring him a brandy instead.
"So, Darcy!" Charles clapped him on the shoulder, sloshing liquor on to his friend's wrist. "Sorry, old man."
"Bingley, stand back. I am in a foul temper."
"Happy to have you at Glenstead!" returned Charles cheerfully. "You are my very first visitor, you know. I had hoped for you to see it when things were all in place."
"I thought I could help." Darcy took a great swallow.
Bingley nodded. "Ah. So you've come to assist me? Indeed I am grateful, for there is much to do."
"For example?" Another great swallow.
"Well- everything. My wife and son are the joys of my life, but very little help to me where business is concerned."
"Is she?" Darcy said hoarsely, finishing the drink.
"Is who what?" Bingley quickly poured him a second.
"Jane. The joy of your life." This time Darcy drained the brandy at once, and Charles thought perhaps he should hold off on serving a third.
"She is, Darcy. She is an angel."
Darcy reached for the bottle himself. "Very original, Bingley. I don't believe you have ever told me that before."
"Now see here!" Bingley blustered. But he could not imagine what to say. He tried another tack. "How is Georgiana?"
"Perfectly well. She is exposed to all the subtle evils of the human character on a daily basis."
"What? Have you left her with Mrs. Bennet?" Bingley could not stop himself from saying it and it was the right thing, for though Darcy sputtered into the brandy glass, he was laughing. "Yes, that's the spirit, Fitz. You cannot let these things get you so down in the mouth."
"I have tried, Bingley," cried Darcy. "You know I have. But it is impossible!"
Bingley roared with laughter. "Now you've coined it, man! Bennetism! It is truly contagious," he sighed, thinking how glad he was to have 'caught' his Jane.
"So is the smallpox." Darcy finished his third and final swill, and pushed his glass back on the tray, for he knew his limits. He directed a pointed look at his friend. "I left her, Bingley."
"What?" Charles was openmouthed in astonishment. This was far worse than he had feared.
"Only for a fortnight, but the spirit is the same. But tell me, what was I to do?" And he related his version of events to Bingley, who listened intently to everything.
Darcy eliminated from his story only that he had read the letter from Kitty. He did this partly because it pained him to admit he had read his wife's personal correspondence, though he knew he had only done so by accident. The greater part of his reason was that even Charles did not know all of his family's past dealings with George Wickham, and he could not bring himself to tell that tale.
When he had finished enlightening his host of everything else, Bingley poured himself a brandy. "Good God, Darcy. That is very bad."
"Thank you, Bingley."
"But it is not desperate. Quarrels blow over!"
"How would you know?"
Bingley was indeed stumped, for he and Jane had not had anything nearing an argument. But he continued anyway; "You know, I did not think I would, but I do approve of your coming to Glenstead for these two weeks."
"You approve?" echoed Darcy. "I did not think I would ever hear Charles Bingley approving and disapproving of my decisions."
"Well I do. You and Mrs. Darcy are rather... hot tempered people." Darcy snorted, but Bingley pressed on. "I think you will do well to cool your head before you start another argument." He paused. "And besides...." He grinned widely.
"Out with it, Bingley."
"Well Fitz, I really can use your help here. I'll put you right to work. You'll be breaking for home in no time."
"I imagine not," replied Darcy derisively. But he could not help a small smile. Having poured out his troubles and imbibed three excellent brandies, Darcy was somewhat pacified. All that bothered him now was that wretched letter. How could he ever bring it up to Elizabeth without having to explain how he had seen it? He could not, and it vexed him enormously.
Bingley saw that something still preyed upon his friend, and he begged to be excused for a moment. When he returned, a servant followed him, hauling a canvas bag in his arms. The servant tipped the bag onto the billiards table, and out rolled the brilliant-colored balls.
"Come on, Darcy. Let's have a game. I think you ought to smack something."
Darcy picked up his cue and tightened his fist around it. He agreed completely.
Chapter Eight: Surprises at Lambton
Elizabeth was having difficulty keeping her promise to Jane. The first part was easy enough- she had sent word to the family physician and he would come to examine her within a few days- but the second half of her pledge was nearly impossible. How could she be happy, even with the promise of a baby, while William was gone? All the anger she had felt toward him had vanished almost immediately, leaving only a feeling of regret over their foolishness. She soon discovered that it is difficult to be stubborn when one is no longer outraged, and Lizzy had to stay her hand more than once from directing an emergency post to bring him home. Two weeks stretched on and on ahead of her without relief.
Wanting to help her sister, Jane attempted to rationalize Mr. Darcy's absence. She first declared that he must be of invaluable assistance to Charles at Glenstead, and that if her own husband did not depend so much upon his friend, Darcy would have rushed home already. She also reassured her sister that he could not be as angry as he seemed, for after all, he had left Georgiana entirely in Lizzy's care. He would not have done so if he doubted her credit.
Elizabeth was comforted, but unconvinced. After two wretched nights she came to the swift conclusion that she must occupy her time as fully as possible, else she would never be able to bear him gone. Fortunately, there were plenty of tasks to engage her energy, as it lay to Mrs. Darcy to see to the arrangements for the ball. Her first order of business was to organize a trip into town, which she did at once.
It was decided that the ladies would journey into Lambton without Jane, who felt that Little Charles had spent too much time in carriages already. Elizabeth was sorry to lose her company on the excursion, and she begged her to leave the baby with Mrs. Reynolds, for her younger sisters were still barely speaking to one another and Jane always had a pacific effect on such squabbles. But Jane would not leave her infant for a full day, and so Lizzy was left to deal with the Misses Bennet and Darcy on her own.
Kitty and Georgiana were independently thrilled at the prospect of an outing, however neither girl looked forward to sharing the hours. Since the evening at Stirling Manor, their contact had been kept as brief as possible. As there had been no further outings over the week-end, the only time a word had been exchanged between them was at Church, where they offered peace most unconvincingly.
The ride into Lambton was therefore a very quiet one. Kitty alone volunteered a comment as they rode into the town, which Elizabeth contradicted sharply.
"Lord, what a funny little village this is!"
"Stop saying 'Lord', Kitty. I am ashamed you can be so vulgar. And Lambton is no stranger than Meryton."
Thwarted in her effort to make conversation, Kitty turned up her nose and sniffed. She did not suppose that today would be any different than the last two. Lizzy would continue to blame her, and Georgiana would still be injured. (Although, in these two days of brooding silence, it had occurred to Kitty that she had been rather hard on Georgiana- after all, it was not her comrade's fault that Mr. Stirling had been so particular. She had the uncomfortable feeling that it was her responsibility to make amends, but was rather keen to avoid doing it.)
Georgiana only wanted peace with Kitty, but would not attempt to bring it about. It was no accident that she bore the name Darcy; she could be as obdurate as could her brother. As long as her sense of justice told her that Kitty was in the wrong, she refused to make apologies. It was difficult for her to endure the tension between them, but her will was stronger than her timidity in such matters.
All three alighted moodily from the carriage when it stopped outside of the shops. One particular vendor had a very elegant array of stationery and Elizabeth had decided to make her paper purchases here.
"Come in with me, girls. I need your help with the dance cards and invitations." Both girls longed to give their opinions, but when Kitty followed first, Miss Darcy opted to stay behind. She felt childish about avoiding Miss Bennet, but in truth she needed a moment to herself after the stressful ride.
Georgiana sat on the provided bench to take a rest while the sisters shopped within, looking down the street one way to observe the people. It did not take her long to find a diversion- a very small old woman that Georgiana recognized as a neighbor, Mrs. Quincy, fighting a losing battle with an even smaller, be-ribboned Pekinese on a silver chain. The woman tipped this way and that, scolding her "Pansy", who seemed to be intent on knocking her mistress down. Georgiana could not help laughing, and she covered her mouth with her hand to keep from being heard.
"Miss Darcy?" Georgiana whirled around to see whose was the voice on her other side. She paled and blushed by turns when she recognized Arthur Stirling.
"Mr. Stirling." She shot to her feet.
"How marvelous! I knew I could not be mistaken- your laugh is quite singular, you know." He took her hand and bowed to her. She curtsied, pleased and frightened to be in his company again. "Miss Darcy, you look pained."
"No, indeed, only startled, sir." She withdrew her hand.
"I did not mean to surprise you. Pray, sit down as you were- do not make yourself uneasy. Miss Darcy, I am so very glad"- but here the young man cut himself off, for he realized suddenly that perhaps he was too familiar with her. Stirling was not normally a rash youth, but he was now full of feeling that he had not learned to master. He could see in Georgiana's manner that she was entirely unused to such attention as he longed to pay, and forced himself to tone down his address. "You are not alone in town, I think?"
"No, sir. Kitty and Mrs. Darcy are just within."
Mr. Stirling kept back a frown at the mention of Kitty. He had not thought her very appealing, especially at the close of their evening together. Quickly he found another topic. "And are you in town for any particular reason?"
"We are. My brother and his wife are to host a ball, and we are here in preparation."
"A ball! That is splendid! When?"
"Can you not wait for your invitation, sir?" she teased, and then opened her eyes wide, shocked at her own daring. Where had she learnt such an art?
But Mr. Stirling could not have been more pleased with this development. "I cannot, Miss Darcy. I believe I shall expire from the suspense."
"Now you are teasing me."
"Am I?" He looked quite innocent.
Georgiana paused. "Well we cannot have you making yourself ill, sir, so I shall have to tell you," she said in a very soft voice.
"You would not have me ill?" he questioned gently.
"The twentieth of December," was her reply. "There now, stay well." She looked down as she said it, and was entirely pink (adorably pink in her suitor's view,) but universally happy.
So was Stirling. He could have whistled. Instead he observed slyly that the stationery shop was the ladies' currant errand, and endeavored to make them both still happier. "Miss Darcy, what are your sisters doing inside?"
"Mrs. Darcy is choosing invitations..." Georgiana trailed off.
"And dance cards, I expect?"
"Yes," came her whispered reply.
"I do not suppose you will allow it, Miss Darcy, but I must ask." She nodded in anticipation. "When you have chosen the cards, would you pen my name on yours? For I should like to claim the honor of the first two dances."
Georgiana only looked at him for a fleeting moment, but he could not mistake the answer in her eyes. She looked down again. "I shall."
Both young people were rather excited for a moment, and neither spoke- Arthur for fear he would break the spell, Georgiana because she was absolutely tongue-tied. The little bell on the shop door tingled briefly, making them jump- and momentarily, Kitty and Mrs. Darcy were beside them.
Elizabeth had experienced a moment of pure panic inside the store, for she had observed Arthur and Georgiana through the window. She knew she could never keep Kitty from noticing them, and so had maneuvered her sister out of the shop, insisting she must have Georgiana's view of the stationery before making a purchase. It was her intent to control the meeting as much as possible, and to avoid repeating the distress that the young people had incurred at Stirling Manor.
"Mr. Stirling, how pleasant to see you again."
"And you, Mrs. Darcy. Are all your family well?"
"They are, I thank you."
"And Miss Bennet." Stirling bowed, and Kitty curtsied stiffly.
"Mr. Stirling," she returned, without feeling. She duly noted that her companion's expression was as it had been at Stirling Manor. Georgiana was clearly besotted. Kitty's own heart was not touched by his address now, and she knew that she had got over the whole business. Still, she felt she had been snubbed at the dinner party, and could only just bring herself to be civil.
"What brings you to Lambton?" inquired Elizabeth.
"Paint, Mrs. Darcy. I am here to arm myself with supplies." He grinned. "I know it is always the young ladies who are accomplished artists- I am sure I am nothing to any of you- but my studies made me long to try it all for myself."
"I assure you, your base attempts are better than my best efforts," laughed Lizzy. "I was never the most talented artist."
"But you must have been, for I remember Mr. Darcy was always going on about how there was hardly a woman in the world accomplished enough to tempt him, and here he has married you!" returned he, jokingly.
Elizabeth paled slightly, but forced herself to stay light. "Perhaps with any more fine qualities, I would have been too much, even for Mr. Darcy," she said with an artificial laugh. Mr. Stirling laughed, too, not noticing her strain.
A young man approached Mr. Stirling at just this moment and though his arms were full of parcels and his coat shabbier than Arthur's was, he did not seem to be a servant. Kitty, who had eyes like a hawk where gentlemen were concerned, noted immediately that his smile was crooked and his dark copperish hair unruly, but that his gait, build, and countenance were all very appealing. She made sure her shoulders were back as Stirling greeted his friend through the bundles.
"Hullo there; that's more than I expected!"
"You will need every bit of it if you are serious about your study," returned his friend, in the deep lilt of a Scotsman.
"I am serious, I promise you. Mrs. Darcy, may I introduce my mentor in the world of art, Mr. John Douglas?"
"Not Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley?"
"Yes; do you know it, Mr. Douglas?"
"I was taught by Comghall, ma'am."
"The Scottish artist who did the large portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy?" exclaimed Elizabeth. "They are in the great hall. Whenever I walk by them, I feel as though they are human. He is truly an excellent artist."
"Was, ma'am. I'm sorry to say he passed on not two years ago." His eyes were sober, and it was easy to read heartache in his voice.
"I am sorry!" Elizabeth was filled with pity for the young man. "How long were you his apprentice?"
"Nine years. He took me in when I was just thirteen, so I've had my share of grief about losin'im."
"He did wonderful work in his life; that is a consolation."
"Aye, it is."
Elizabeth gestured to the girls. "This is Miss Georgiana Darcy, who is also very well acquainted with the paintings. And this is my sister, Miss Catherine Bennet."
Douglas bowed as well as he could, with all the packages he had to balance. "Pardon me, ladies, but I'm indisposed for bowin' at the moment. Miss Darcy- then those must be your parents in the portraits?"
"They are." Georgiana's eyes were bright. "And I hardly knew my mother, but my brother says that hers is perfect. I know my father's is, and I thank the artist for giving me such a faithful likeness."
"He'd be glad to know it, Miss."
Elizabeth liked the Scot already. He seemed such a dear, rough hewn sort of gentleman. "Mr. Douglas, you must come to Pemberley to visit the paintings," she offered. "We have invited Mr. Stirling as well, and you are both most welcome."
Douglas reddened with pleasure at the invitation. "I thank you! I've heard so much of the great estate- 'twill be an honor I had'na expected, to see it with my own eyes."
"And perhaps we can practice portraiture with the ladies as our models!" Mr. Stirling gave Georgiana a mischievous smile.
"You'll be lucky if I'll be lettin' ya paint kittens. A lady's portrait has to be just right. I'm sure you've had yours done, Miss Darcy?"
"My brother commissioned one for me when I turned sixteen."
"And yourself, Miss Bennet?"
Kitty jumped. She had not spoken a word for fifteen minutes together, and she was not sure she trusted herself now, though she was not sure why. She had never been at a loss for words before in her life. "No, Mr. Douglas," she managed. "No one has ever taken my likeness."
He smiled at her. "Now there's a thing! To be the first to do it! Maybe I'll get the chance for that"- he turned to Arthur- "and you can learn and thing or two by watchin'." Mr. Stirling pulled a face at his friend by way of reply, and all the party laughed.
"I'm sure everyone would enjoy that," encouraged Lizzy. "Will we see you?"
The gentlemen assured her they would come to Pemberley within the week, and took their leave of all the ladies fairly graciously. "Get me to the saddlebags, lad, or I'm like to drop all this like a fool!" muttered Douglas under his breath, losing his grip on the packages. Mr. Stirling gathered a few to himself, and equally balanced, the two men quitted them. All three girls giggled quietly.
The mood was greatly altered after their encounter with the gentlemen. Georgiana happily came in with Kitty to help choose the best cards and colors. They were not at ease, but there was no further malice. Together they settled on slender white cards for the dancing and handsome cream vellum for invitations. Elizabeth approved of both, and stayed behind to collect the order while the girls ran ahead of her to buy ribbons.
Kitty and Georgiana easily found thirty yards of white ribbon for the ladies' card pencils, but both girls had hoped to find something even better as they strolled through the little village- another glimpse of the young men. They made their way slowly back to Lizzy, Georgiana toting the ribbon parcel, each doing her best to be discreet as she scrutinized every shop and horse-post for her object. They did not see evidence of either lad in the tobacconists, or the haberdashery, and neither lady wanted to look in the direction of the tavern.
They had just craned their necks past the smithy to no avail, and decided it was hopeless, when a voice arrested them- the instantly recognizable brogue of Douglas. Instinctively both girls dove behind an enormous tree on the smithy green as both men came out of the inn across the road, speaking quite loudly enough to be overheard.
"That's not a bad tea."
"I've always thought so! I know some people protest against taking tea in public, but I see nothing strange about it."
"You've gone strange from too much time abroad, Artie."
"I hope so," laughed Stirling. "It was grand to live in the continental way. I thought I'd miss it terribly."
"Don' you then?"
"Not anymore. John, you saw her. You must know."
Georgiana paled and grabbed Kitty's hand. Kitty squeezed unstintingly back. This was momentous!
"I suppose you mean the blonde one."
"Miss Darcy!" It came off his lips like a prayer, and Georgiana was suddenly covered in gooseflesh.
"Kitty, this is very bad- what if he sees us?"
"Well I grant you she's quite attractive," said Douglas generously, "but I prefer the looks of Miss Bennet. She looks like she's got some spirit in her- those nice hazel eyes and all. Though I could be mistaken; she was awful quiet."
Kitty nearly fainted with excitement. Georgiana supported her against the tree trunk, and both girls held their breath.
"She wasn't quiet when we met before. You should have seen her at Stirling Manor- quite forward! I wonder what's got her tongue?"
Abruptly, Kitty was in no danger of fainting. She gave Georgiana a look of despair. Mr. Stirling would disparage her to his friend, and all would be lost.
"Who knows with women?" answered Douglas. "They're unfathomable creatures. Speaking of which, where do you keep tyin' yer horses, Stirling?" His voice began to fade as he said this, and the crunch of boots headed behind the inn to the horse-post told the girls that they were out of danger of discovery. Silently, they flew back to the shop where Lizzy had been waiting for half an hour.
"Where on earth have you been?" she began, then noticed they were out of breath and disheveled. "Or perhaps I should ask what on earth you have been doing?"
"Getting ribbons," gasped Kitty. Georgiana laughed breathlessly and held out the parcel to the servant, who piled it atop the larger ones filled with papers.
"Yes; apparently getting ribbons is quite a lot of exercise. That shop is only steps from here."
"We went 'round a longer way."
"The scenic route." Both ladies dissolved into laughter.
Elizabeth could not be angry. She was grateful to see them in such good spirits. It would be a much happier week if someone in the house could be cheerful. "I think it must be time to leave. If we go now, we will be in time for tea," she directed, leading the way to the horses.
"Although I understand there is a very good tea at the inn!" cried Kitty. Lizzy made haste to usher them into the carriage, where they could shout mirthfully in private, exchanging a look of bewildered amusement with the driver before climbing up herself. Racked with hilarity, the young ladies continued to express their glee, and as the carriage reached Pemberley, each girl had to dry her eyes on her handkerchief, so great was the joke.
Chapter Nine: Ladylike Resolves
At home that evening, Kitty and Georgiana began to eye each other once more with trepidation. Once they were past their giddiness, they remembered that nothing had really been resolved between them. Though both ladies yearned to reestablish their friendship and tell each other all they harbored within themselves, awkwardness still remained. After supper, Georgiana excused herself to the music room, Jane following to listen while she busied herself tatting lace for Little Charles' christening dress. Kitty and Lizzy remained at the table for another moment, each looking morose for her own reasons.
"Lord!" sighed Kitty unthinkingly, "What a fuss!" Elizabeth's eyebrows arched in censure. "Well I am sorry, Lizzy. I do not mean to be vulgar; it is only a habit." Her tone was defensive, and she picked at her napkin guiltily.
"The trouble is, you do not care to mend it," snapped her sister. "And you do not care how your habits affect other people!" Elizabeth had meant this as a reprimand, but it left her as a cry and her face crumpled. She left the table hurriedly and went out of the dining hall.
Kitty stared. How could her exclamations have affected Lizzy so much? She sat alone another uneasy minute, trying to make sense of the scolding that had ended in tears. Elizabeth must explain this. She rose and went to look for her sister, finding her in the sitting room, which was gloomy somehow in the pale candlelight. Lizzy looked positively tragic against the red velvet cushions, her head resting in her hand.
"I am sorry," Kitty offered.
"Never mind, Kitty." Elizabeth held up her unoccupied hand palm-out as if to hold her at bay, as she leaned wearily on the arm of the chaise.
But Kitty did mind. She took the seat opposite her sister, adjusted her skirts and tried again. "Lizzy, I want you to tell me something. It is important."
Elizabeth exhaled in exasperation. Exhaustion consumed her and she wanted nothing but to be left alone. Being in Kitty's coarse company put her in mind of Mr. Darcy's objections to her family, and every thought of her husband caused her sorrow while he remained at Glenstead. She did not think she could bear to answer questions at the moment, but a look at Kitty's face told her that she would not give up easily. Elizabeth supposed she might as well give in, if only to make the conversation shorter.
"What is it?"
Kitty pulled her brows together and ventured her question. "Is it my fault Mr. Darcy has gone to Glenstead?"
Elizabeth looked up, surprised. It had not occurred to her that Kitty would ever realize her husband's concern, indeed she tended to notice only what pleased her. "What makes you say that?" she replied, hoping to form a better understanding of what her sister had perceived.
"You said my habits affect other people. He is angry. Perhaps I have offended him." Kitty looked very grave. "Tell me truly, Lizzy."
"I doubt very much you want to hear it."
"I do not," Kitty admitted. "But I am so tired, Lizzy. Everyone is so angry with me, and I do not understand why, though I am sure I should. I know I am not as good as Georgiana, but I daresay I am trying, and I cannot seem to please anyone!" She was close to tears, for beneath her careless exterior lay a very vulnerable heart, which was wounded from days of ill feelings against her.
Elizabeth relented. "Mr. Darcy is angry, Kitty, but mostly for other reasons."
"But he does not approve of me?"
Lizzy considered. She did not want to deceive her sister, for if Miss Catherine were brave enough to ask the question, she deserved the answer. However, she phrased it carefully. "He does not understand you. He raised Georgiana in a very watchful manner and took great pains to see that she became a lady. You have hardly had that advantage with Mama." She sighed. "It is a difficult thing to learn good breeding at Longbourn."
"But I want to be a lady!" cried Kitty passionately. "How can I do it? I say please and thank you; I address people properly; I will stop saying 'Lord' all the time if that will manage it- what else is there?" Despair was written all across her face.
"Oh, Kitty." Lizzy did laugh now.
"Do not tease me, for I am in earnest. Tell me how to change."
It was a good request, if a broad one, and Elizabeth was happy to hear it issue from this particular person. This was precisely what she had hoped for when she had invited Kitty to Pemberley- to see her sister form a new understanding of behaviour and a new delicacy of feeling. It had seemed hers had been too tall an order, for though Kitty at first showed some signs of willingness for change, she reversed her progress at the first sign of romantic dissatisfaction. But here she was, begging for instruction, and Elizabeth was all too happy to share her views.
"I can tell you how to change, but I am afraid it is not so simple as only manners. There is much more work than that to being a true lady in refined society."
"A true lady always takes the feelings of others into consideration."
Kitty opened her hands in appeal. "And I do not?" she demanded.
Elizabeth gave her a very keen look. "Did you think of Georgiana when you were vying for the attentions of Mr. Stirling?"
This was a direct hit. Kitty's eyes flew open, amazed, and she turned an unbecoming shade of red. "How did you know?"
"Oh dear, it was quite obvious."
"It was not!"
"How else could I have seen it?"
This silenced Kitty for a moment, for she could not think of any other possible way for her sister to have found her out. This was mortifying. Was she so transparent? What must Mr. Stirling think of her? She grasped at straws.
"You must admit he was very rude to me, Lizzy."
"Why? Because he liked Miss Darcy best of all?" Kitty frowned, but could come up with no answer, for this was the truth.
"He never even spoke to me."
"Indeed he did. You chose to misinterpret his attention for Georgiana as a slight to yourself. That is not only unladylike, Kitty, that is jealous."
Kitty bit her lip. "I was... a little," she confessed.
"Everyone feels jealousy- only God can mend that"-
"Ha. I know Jane does not," interrupted Kitty.
Both sisters smiled. "Well perhaps not Jane," conceded Lizzy dryly, "but you do, and you are responsible for the proper handling of your feelings, however uncomfortable they may be."
This was a new idea to Kitty, one at which she balked. "Even if I am wronged, I should be mild about it?"
Elizabeth thought of her husband's extraordinary treatment of a certain Mr. Wickham, and her eyes grew deep with respect. "The very best people I know are those capable of the most temperance under the worst possible circumstances. That is the mark of excellent character." She felt her eyes begin to sting, and looked up at the ceiling to avoid shedding tears, for this was not the time to be maudlin. But she was saved from sentimentality by Kitty's next question.
"Do you think I am just as bad as Lydia?"
It was Elizabeth's turn to be shocked. She regarded her sister with care. "I hope not! Though I think you were far too easily led by her wickedness. You are very lucky Papa would not let you go to Brighton that summer, Kitty, for I have no doubt you would have eloped with your own soldier just to copy Lydia."
Kitty was offended. "I never would! I am not nearly so stupid about men as she is, and I am two years older."
"You are not stupid, Kitty, but you are very unwise. Do you not see that the first sign of contention between you and Georgiana was due to the introduction of male society?" Lizzy countered. "You are a different woman altogether when there are gentlemen present."
"What do you mean?" she demanded.
"As soon as you felt attracted to Mr. Stirling, you felt no remorse about disloyalty to Georgiana, and it is not the first time I have seen you behave in that way. Your first priority has always been to secure men's attention, and this is a terrible failing. A woman should always defend her sisters before everyone- and Miss Darcy is your sister now; do not forget it. If you wish to be a lady, you can no longer behave as you once did with Lydia- she would betray another woman in a moment if there was a flirtation to be had."
"Do you hate Lydia?"
Lizzy's shook her head ruefully. "No. I cannot hate my own sister. But I would never wish you to be like her and I am fully glad that you are out of her company forever. She is abysmally silly, and it has ruined her life."
"Do you think she was truly bad then, and not just foolish?"
"Lydia's thoughtlessness, because it was unchecked, led her to wickedness. Yes." Lizzy was vehement. "She will never be well received here because of it, and her husband will never be allowed to come at all. Mr. Darcy does not want his family influenced by such sad lack of decorum."
Kitty blushed. "Do I not influence Georgiana?"
"Is that why Mr. Darcy dislikes me?"
Elizabeth sat forward and took her sister's hand. "I will tell you something to ease your spirit, Kitty. There is a particular reason that I wanted you to come to Pemberley. I actually hoped that you would have an influence on Georgiana."
"I thought she should see how easy you are with people, how fine a conversationalist, how unafraid of strangers."
"But what of my faults?"
"There is where I hoped Miss Darcy might have an effect on you."
Kitty understood, and her mouth parted in an 'oh' as she comprehended Elizabeth's plan. "I think I may have ruined your whole arrangement, Lizzy," she moaned momentarily. "No doubt I have offended Mr. Darcy irrevocably. I know I drove him off with what I said to Georgiana in the carriage!"
"You did no such thing," she replied firmly. "I will not allow you to take all that upon yourself. There is much else that contributed to his departure; I assure you I was equally culpable," not to mention that he takes a share of blame himself, she thought.
"What shall I do to make it up?" wailed Kitty. "I wish I could go back to Stirling Manor and have another try, for I am sure I could behave myself now. Everything is spoiled!"
Elizabeth remembered saying these very words to Jane only a few days before. And what had been Jane's excellent counsel? She endeavored to repeat it for Kitty's benefit. "Nothing is spoiled, you must see that. This is only but a moment in your visit; your first week was lovely and there are nearly three months still ahead of you. Jane and I are here and we love you, and I am sure that Georgiana wants to have you as her friend."
"You and Jane...?" Kitty trailed off, overcome with the full impact of her sister's words. She could not ever remember being told she was loved. The second youngest in a large and noisy family can easily slip through the cracks of attentiveness and affection, and this had been Kitty's pitiable position at Longbourn. Her lip trembled and she turned her head around so that Elizabeth would not see how much emotion the simple words caused in her. "Thank you," she managed quietly, scrubbing out a tear with her hand.
"Now suppose you go and make your amends with Miss Darcy."
Kitty groaned. "What if she hates me?"
Elizabeth grinned to herself. "Oh, I imagine the Darcys are very similarly appeased. All that is required is a full apology, and then I am certain things will be right again."
"But what shall I do about Mr. Stirling? I have offended him, too. And oh, Lizzy, tell Mr. Darcy to come back! Tell him I am better now, and won't cause any trouble."
"I cannot call him back just yet." Elizabeth looked distant, and it took her a moment to recollect herself. "But do not fret about telling everybody you are sorry. If you are truly willing to change, it will show in your conduct. Actions are always much more convincing than words."
Kitty nodded. "I will try to do better."
"That is all any of us can ever do." Elizabeth leaned back again in her chair, feeling as if an enormous burden were lifted. She shut her eyes and raised a hand to her head.
"Are you ill, Lizzy? Can I fetch you something?
"No, no- I am well."
"Then will you excuse me? For I think I had better talk to Miss Darcy at once."
Elizabeth assented with a nod. "Oh, and Kitty," she called after her sister, "you may fetch me something after all. Send me Jane, when you see her?"
"All right, Lizzy." Full of new feelings, her head spinning with thoughts and resolutions, Kitty wound her way down the hallways. There was an odd, fluttering sensation in her stomach, which she guessed was nervousness. She did not have very much experience with apologizing and she had no idea how she would approach the subject with Miss Darcy.
The music room was bright with lamps and candles, but no music greeted Kitty upon her arrival. Instead, she caught the last strains of a conversation.
"I am sure it will all be well. Give her time," Jane was saying. Kitty paused outside the door, desperate to hear what more would be said. What would be well? Give time to whom? Were they speaking of her? She listened very closely.
But what Kitty heard came from within her, a surprising voice she was startled to recognize, instructing her that she must not eavesdrop. Though curiosity clawed at her, she obeyed this new voice, stepping into the archway to make her presence known. Somehow, she knew it was the ladylike thing to do.
"Jane?" Two blonde heads turned in her direction. "I am sorry to interrupt, but Lizzy is asking for you."
"Thank you, Kitty." Jane gathered her sewing and went to the door. "Goodnight," she said, and Kitty could not be sure but she thought she spied an understanding glance pass from her sister to Miss Darcy. But Jane had disappeared down the hall in a moment, and Kitty knew it was not her place to inquire after their conversation. It would take all her concentration and courage to attend to the business at hand.
"Georgiana... I wondered, if you are not too tired... may I speak to you about something?" Her voice seemed very small.
"I am not tired."
Kitty paused nervously and drew an enormous, steadying breath. Georgiana gazed at her with absolute poise, making her own situation even more anxious by contrast. It was better just to get it over with at once; let Miss Darcy rebuke her if she would.
"I must"- she began, but stammered and had to catch her breath. "I must apologize"- there, it is out! - "I must apologize to you for my... behaviour... of the other night. No, do not speak yet, there is more and I must say it. It was very wrong of me to hurt you, for you never did anything to me. What I said to you of Mr. Stirling was dreadful- I was only jealous- it is not your fault he likes you. I am glad he does for you are so pretty, and such a pleasant friend to me! Can you forgive me? For truly, I am very sorry." Kitty's hands shook as she inhaled again, and she could hear blood pounding in her ears.
Georgiana's reply was swift and wordless. She crossed the room and embraced her friend, and Kitty felt it was the most eloquent answer in the world. When they drew apart, Miss Darcy glowed with renewed contentment, and Miss Bennet was weak with relief.
"You are a kind friend," said Kitty gratefully. "I am sure I should not have accepted my apology if I were you."
"I have never had sisters," Georgiana replied as the two seated themselves closely on the little sofa, "but Jane was just explaining to me that even the very closest have disagreements."
Then they were discussing me! But Kitty was glad she had not spied. "I think we certainly qualify now," she laughed. "I have fought with my sisters before, but this was very different. I have been on pins and needles these three days."
"So have I. And I have so longed to tell you everything! It was awful to be so aloof."
"Well Lizzy has given me advice on how to become a lady, so you need not worry this will happen anymore. I hope I shall never embarrass anyone again in my life."
Georgiana laughed. "Perhaps I will not be so easy to discomfit anymore. You will never believe me when I tell you how I behaved at Lambton!" Georgiana offered her friend all the details of her innocent flirtation, and faithfully repeated every word of the exchange with Mr. Stirling.
Even more exciting than the story was the fact that Georgiana trusted her again, but Kitty gasped and thrilled in all the right places. "The first two dances! Oh Lo"- she stopped herself just in time from using her favorite exclamation. "My goodness!" she substituted. "Then you do like Mr. Stirling, Georgiana?"
"I do- I like him very much." She hesitated. "But I think you like him, too?"
Kitty made a very wise face. "I believe I prefer his friend above all things."
"Oh yes! Mr. Douglas was quite handsome." Miss Bennet friend sighed in rapt agreement. "He wants to paint your portrait, so he must admire you."
"I hope he does! I should love to be painted," said Kitty, feeling it was very fortunate to have spirit and hazel eyes.
"Imagine- he would have to stare at you for hours." This was met with another romantic little exhale. "But Kitty, we were very wrong to hide behind that tree. We should never have heard them in private."
"I know it! It was indecorous in the utmost." She looked waywardly at her friend. "But I would not give the information back again."
"Not for the world," agreed Georgiana, who thought it very nice to know that Mr. Stirling thought her more wonderful than life abroad.
"Do you think they will call on us tomorrow?"
Before Georgiana could decide, they heard a familiar step in the hall, and Mrs. Reynolds appeared wearing a wry look, which could only mean one thing.
"But we are not tired!" they chorused together, feeling it was unjust to be arrested when they had so much more to speak of.
The housekeeper was unmoved. "You will be in the morning. Off to bed with both of you- Mrs. Elizabeth's orders."
Reluctantly, two very excited ladies were led off to their chambers, begging Mrs. Reynolds to send up chamomile tea to calm them down. She promised to do it, and deposited each girl safely in her own room. When she was sure they would not race back out again, the old housekeeper made her journey back down to the sitting room, where Mrs. Bingley and Mrs. Darcy waited expectantly.
"Well, Mrs. Reynolds?"
"The young ladies are in bed, Mrs. Elizabeth."
"And how did they seem to you?"
"Oh, they protested, ma'am. Insisted they were not tired, and swore they couldn't sleep without something hot to drink. I've sent them up their tea and I'm sure that they'll be drowsy soon enough, though they were as giddy a pair as ever I've seen."
"What had them in such spirits, I wonder?
"You know how young ladies can be, ma'am. I came upon them and they were thick as thieves, sitting on the same seat and whispering about sum'aught. Who can tell?"
"Who indeed." Lizzy flashed her eyes merrily at Jane, who responded in kind.
"Will you be needing anything further, Mrs. Elizabeth?"
"That is all, thank you. Goodnight, Mrs. Reynolds."
"Goodnight, ma'am. Goodnight, Mrs. Jane." She shuffled out, leaving Lizzy and Jane to beam happily together. They were well aware of just how young ladies could be. Mrs. Reynolds' description left them in no doubt of what had transpired in the music room, and they were heartily glad that at least one household dispute had been set to rights.
Lizzy smiled a half-smile. "We are all as we were, except one," she mused, thinking of her husband.
"Two," contradicted Jane, looking pointedly at her sister's waistline.
"Three then." Elizabeth stood. Placing her hand over the third person, she allowed Jane to take her by the elbow and lead her upstairs.
Continued in Part 3
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