Modesty & Mischief
Chapter Twenty-Four: The Ball: In the Music Room
Kitty had been a half-hour alone in the music room, and was just beginning to gain her strength again. In a moment, she would go back out and join everyone. She would ignore Lydia, avoid Mr. Newcastle, make herself forget John Douglas, and get through to the end of this night. What a catalogue of difficulties! It was supposed to have been such a happy event. She sighed and sat at the pianoforte, indulging herself to play a very melancholy piece, which spoke her heart far better than she could do.
Two people heard the music and followed it. One was of course Mr. Newcastle, who had no idea how to navigate Pemberley, and was having terrible luck finding the room of which Lydia had told him. When he heard the playing, however, he knew in which direction to head. Quickly he went toward Miss Bennet, ready to affiance himself to her before she could run away another time.
The other listener was Mr. Douglas. After hearing Mrs. Bennet's odious lamenting over poor husbands and her unmarried daughters, he had sought, like Kitty, to escape the ballroom for a more reflective spot. He went to the gallery to look at the artistry of his master, which had always been an instant cure for his heavy heart. But this time it did not take effect, and Mr. Douglas continued along the great hall and down another passage, lost in thoughts of Miss Bennet and Mr. Newcastle, hardly looking at the paintings that hung all around him. Before he knew what had happened, the ballroom and dance music were far behind, and a new kind of song met his ear. It was poignant and sweet, just the balm for his spirit, and he stopped gratefully to listen. A moment later, the player of it began to sing, and Mr. Douglas felt his heart drop with a pang into his gullet.
Miss Bennet. Pulled by some force toward the sound of her singing, Mr. Douglas was soon standing just outside the archway that separated him from the music, wondering what to do next. He did not have to wonder very long.
Mr. Newcastle was already in the room with Kitty, though she was too much wrapped in her music to have noticed him. He startled her now by applauding rudely, before the song was halfway done.
"Mr. Newcastle! What are you doing in here?" she asked, ungraciously, angered to have been observed by him in such a private moment.
"I think you know. You play very well, Miss Bennet, but pause a moment." It was not a request. "I will speak with you.
He said this in such a way that Kitty felt perversely like refusing him the opportunity to do it. But as she had already endured him as a partner, been mortified by her mother in front of Mr. Douglas, and come across Lydia engaged in the worst possible vice, she was rendered insensitive to all further agonies. She knew why he had come, and resigned herself to it.
"Very well, Mr. Newcastle. What will you say to me?"
"I have spoken to your mother."
"I know it."
"She is in support of me. Just know that. I have already sought and gained her approval for what I wish, and that must influence you now."
"Sir, do not continue. You have already made yourself clear, and I do not want or need to hear anymore."
Mr. Newcastle was incensed. "I hope that your apprehension has nothing to do with that artist who has been paying so much attention to you." Kitty blushed and turned away. Mr. Douglas, outside the door, felt his heart pound as he listened for her answer.
"He is not your concern," she whispered.
"He certainly is. It think it my duty to tell you that a man such as he, with little to offer, must be expected to seek out a lady of fortune in order to make his way in the world. It is the way things are; though you are naŒve to such opportunists, I am sure, being such a young girl. Allow me to protect you. Do not be taken in by such designs, Miss Bennet; I assure you that his interest is only mercenary. I, on the other hand, am not in want of anything. Therefore you may be sure that I come to you with honorable intentions. Choose the worthier man. Be my wife."
It was said. Kitty paused a moment to absorb the impact- for there must be an impact. None came! She had always imagined, (being romantic,) that her first proposal would have a rather magical effect, but she remained entirely untouched. He was completely undesirable to her, even in terms of riches, and she gazed at him, wondering how it was that such a well-positioned and handsome man held no power whatsoever over her heart.
"Well?" he barked, when she continued in silence for another minute.
"I am almost tempted to accept you, Mr. Newcastle," she said. "It would be a fitting punishment to you if I said yes."
"Almost tempted? What can you mean? It is yes or no. Give me your answer, Miss Bennet."
"I shall, once I have said my piece. You call Mr. Douglas an opportunist, but I suspect that you are the man who deserves that name, not he."
"I have already said that, being a man of independent fortune, yours is of no consideration to me."
"Even so, naturally, you must have talked to someone? Found out my inheritance?"
"Not a soul." This was true. He was entirely dependent on his own observation for the faulty conclusions he had drawn.
"You ought to have checked into things, Mr. Newcastle. You think me very rich, do you not?"
"It little matters!" Mr. Newcastle was red in the face and his beauty had quite gone, so bent was he in his frustration.
"Oh no? Then it will not bother you to know that my own dowry amounts to exactly five hundred pounds. Nothing more."
All the heat and color drained from his face, leaving him quite dreadfully pale. It was clear that this was exactly the opposite of his expectation, and his mouth moved, soundless and fishlike, against the still air. Kitty smiled at him. "I give you leave to retract your proposal, sir, if you wish."
"Retract- I would not- but Miss Bennet!" he spluttered. He was trapped. To take back his proposal would be to admit that he had only desired her for what she could add to his family fortune. To continue would be to offer himself to a woman who would not benefit him materially in any way. He could not think how to proceed without doing damage: either to his image or to his pocketbook, neither of which he could bear to see tarnished.
But Kitty was tired; this was a very wearing kind of triumph; and so she took mercy. "Never mind, Mr. Newcastle. I will spare you that embarrassment. Let me answer your original proposal." He flinched. "No, sir, I will never marry you." His shoulders relaxed. Kitty sighed. "Go back to the party. I am sure you no longer desire my company."
He certainly did not. Humiliated and enraged, Mr. Newcastle ran from the room, so in haste that he did not see Mr. Douglas standing two feet from the door, privy to all that had just occurred.
Is it possible to imagine the state of Mr. Douglas- the tension in which he had lived those past five minutes? He had, all the while, been vacillating wildly between a wish to burst in and toss Mr. Newcastle from the window, a desire to hear Miss Bennet's uncensored responses, and a strong feeling he ought not to be listening at all. But who would not have listened at such a moment? Is there such a saint? Still, he felt unjustified in standing there, and even now, watching Mr. Newcastle disappear down the corridor, Mr. Douglas hesitated to interrupt Miss Bennet. He stood in the hall, at a loss.
Within, Kitty pounded out a chord, and let forth a little scream of relief and heartbreak. There would be no more Mr. Newcastle! Neither would there be any more Mr. Douglas. Overcome by the tangles of opposite emotion within her, she lay her head on her arms, and wept all across the keys.
Mr. Douglas forgot his indecision; at the first sound of her in pain, he went to her without a second thought.
"Miss Bennet. Don' cry. Please." He thrust out his handkerchief as she tried in vain to recollect herself at this most unexpected consolation.
"I am not crying," she protested, wondering how he had come to be there.
"Then what are these here?" Mr. Douglas touched her cheek, ever so softly, and came away with a tear on his finger, which he examined with all the seriousness of an apothecary. "You're cryin' all right."
Kitty laughed, and sobbed, and hid her face in his handkerchief. "What an awful night! I cannot believe it!" she wailed, and proceeded to cry herself out, while Mr. Douglas looked on in sympathetic agitation. "I am so sorry, Mr. Douglas," she said with a hiccough, when she could speak again. "I wish that I could explain- but too much has happened."
Mr. Douglas took a deep breath. "You don' have ta explain. I know what just happened."
"Were you listening, Mr. Douglas?" Kitty was bewildered.
"I didn' mean to! I promise, I was just walkin' along, lookin' at the artwork, when I heard you start to sing, and I came to listen to that. The rest I heard by accident. I would have gone away and let you be- but I couldn't stand by with you weepin'."
"But you heard....then you know...."
"That I'm an idiot?" He laughed. "Aye." He looked at her. "I shoulda listened when you told me before, but I just thought you'd fancy that kind of life- the kind he could give ya. Most women would."
"I only want happiness. He could never give me that."
It was on the tip of Mr. Douglas' tongue to say that he could give it, that he would be honored to try to make her happy; but just as he took a breath to speak, Kitty sighed and put her head in her hands, clearly worn out. The poor girl had dealt with enough already this night. He would have to wait.
"Mr. Douglas, he said such awful things."
"I'd like to have kicked him," came a muffled voice from behind Kitty's palms.
Mr. Douglas grinned. "I think you did a fine job of that, in once sense, Miss Bennet." They both laughed, and Kitty picked up her head.
"I was rather hard on him."
"You were tremendous."
Kitty blushed, remembering how she had defended him, and looked down at her hands once more. "I am much better now, thank you Mr. Douglas."
"Is that so?" he looked sheepish. "Then I'd like to ask, if you're not too tired- would you finish that song you were playin' before? You got a bit cut off, and I'd like ta hear the end."
Kitty gave no answer, but smiled and lay her fingers on the pianoforte. She first began to play, and then to sing- but she almost stopped again abruptly when she heard herself. Suddenly her voice was rich with tones that had never been there, and she was afraid it would reveal the power of her feelings. Mr. Douglas listened with a full heart, scarcely believing that this woman would sing for him alone. He sat back and shut his eyes, reveling in the sound of it.
"Oh, Catherine," he sighed unthinkingly, when she had finished. "That's gorgeous."
Kitty shivered to hear him speak her Christian name. Never had she realized the import of such a little utterance; never had 'Catherine' been said in such a way; she was sure of it. Both were silent for a long moment, and only when the dying fire went out altogether, leaving them in semi-darkness, did Mr. Douglas make himself come to his senses.
"It may be a bit unseemly for me to stay in here with you, Miss Bennet." She agreed, but could not rise. Her knees told her they might buckle if she tried to use them at all.
"Will you help me to walk back Mr. Douglas? I am- tired." If she felt a little silly asking this, she needn't have, for Mr. Douglas was proud to offer his arm and support her, happy for such a ready excuse to come to her side. Kitty allowed herself to lean against him, letting her head fall onto his strong shoulder, where all the hollows and curves seemed to fit together. She rested, and he steadied her as they slowly went toward the party.
But they were not to reach the ballroom, however they desired it. The hindrances in the house still numbered one, and that one met them at the end of the hall.
Chapter Twenty-Five: The Ball: The Rescue
Mrs. Bennet had begun by this time to tell anyone who would listen of her daughter Kitty's engagement to Mr. Newcastle of four thousand a year. She had a mob of women by the ear a little while after supper, and was prolonging the details of her announcement with a hundred unnecessary sighs and hand gestures, when Mr. Newcastle himself passed her by.
"Sir! Oh, come and see your mother!" she called gaily. "This is whom my Kitty is to marry," she informed her party. "Is he not a dashing gentleman?"
Mr. Newcastle turned to her stormily. "Madam, you presume too much. Do not imagine that I shall ever be a relative of yours."
Mrs. Bennet was thrown into confusion, and glanced surreptitiously around her at the ladies, who were eagerly listening to this little drama. "I am sure you are joking!" She managed a little laugh. "For you told me all would be settled! Pray, do not tease my nerves, Mr. Newcastle. Have you not proposed as you intended to?"
"Never. Not once I discovered that your daughter has been dishonest with me from the first," he spat, most injudiciously. The ladies all gasped.
"My daughter? How can you say so?" cried Mrs. Bennet in a dither. "You swore to me that the attachment between you"-
"I never swore." Mr. Newcastle tossed his head in disgust. "Cease at once making all this public. How crude. Fortune-hunters, the lot of you!"
"What is the meaning of this?" Mr. Stirling cut into the conversation, having heard the last phrase. "Are you abusing this good woman in the Darcys' home?" He was now determined to defend the Darcys with his dying breath, and Georgiana, still on his arm, supported him.
"Mr. Newcastle, whatever are you doing?" she demanded.
"He is abusing me! Yes, indeed, for he made me believe he would propose to my Kitty, and here he has not kept his promise! Oh, I shall faint! Mercy on me!" She swooned, and was caught by the throng of women who were inclined to take her side of things after seeing Mr. Newcastle's unabashed rudeness. Once it was clear that the ladies would attend Mrs. Bennet, Stirling and Georgiana backed Mr. Newcastle into the hall.
"Stay out of this, Stirling" hissed the unrequited lover, his back against the wall. "It is nothing to do with you."
"You are offending my dear friends. You must leave this house at once if you cannot control yourself."
"You do not have to ask me. I shall quit this abominable party as soon as I can find my poor sister. Our parents are already gone, thank goodness. What a loathsome group you are!"
"What?" Georgiana questioned, peering at him. "Has this to do with Kitty?"
She had hit a raw nerve, and he turned on her. "Your friend is a fool and I am glad to be rid of her."
"Not another word, Newcastle," threatened Mr. Stirling, taking a menacing step forward. "Get in there and find your sister. I will show you out."
"I know where to find the door. Get out of my way." Mr. Newcastle pushed between them and went back into the ballroom to claim Felicity.
"Oh!" cried Georgiana. "I know she has rejected him. Hurrah for Kitty!"
"What did I do?" Kitty asked curiously. She and Mr. Douglas had just come down the hall together, and she drew apart from him now to attend to her friend. "Georgiana, you look feverish."
Georgiana and Mr. Stirling quickly apprised the other two of current events, and just as quickly Kitty returned her own story of Mr. Newcastle's second failed proposal.
"I knew that must be it! There was no other occasion that could have made him so beastly."
"He needs no occasion," leveled Mr. Douglas, his hands in fists. "I'll help you show him out, Artie. Where'd he get off to?"
"Inside, to fetch his sister."
"She is gone!" Mr. Newcastle was back, wild-eyed. "She was at supper with Mr. Weldon, but that is all I could find out. Both of them are disappeared. Your sister," he turned accusingly to Kitty, "told me earlier that Mr. Weldon is an excellent man. But I no longer trust any member of your family. He is surely a rake, if he is a great acquaintance of yours."
Mr. Douglas was physically kept back by Mr. Stirling from responding to this attack on his Catherine. He would have broke free, but Kitty lay a quick hand on his arm.
"No, he is right," admitted she. "Mr. Weldon is no good man. Are you sure they are together?"
"So says your sister. She claims she does not know where they are- I know she knows! Awful!"
"We must find them at once!" cried Georgiana. "Goodness only knows what may be happening." She and Kitty ran ahead of the gentlemen, too much convinced of Mr. Weldon's intentions to think of Mr. Newcastle's discourtesies, or anything else. Mr. Stirling, who knew enough of Mr. Wickham now to believe only evil of his companions, followed close behind them. Mr. Douglas was therefore left alone with someone he would rather have injured than assisted.
"I suggest you go look for Miss Newcastle," he growled. "I wouldn't be standin' anywhere near me, if I were you."
Mr. Newcastle hurried off in the first direction his feet thought to carry him.
All the young people separated to increase their odds of finding Felicity quickly. Kitty went back to the music room where she had discovered Lydia in Mr. Weldon's embrace. Mr. Stirling ran to the back of the house. Mr. Newcastle, completely lost, went in a circle and came back to the ballroom, while Mr. Douglas scoured the front halls and adjoining rooms.
Georgiana, who feared the worst, went upstairs to the more secluded rooms. Her intuition, sharpened by her own experience with a man very like Mr. Weldon, led her straight to the upstairs sitting room, which door was shut tight. She drew a deep breath, and threw it open.
There they were, in a passionate tangle on the sofa. Georgiana fought off a wave of nausea, remembering how close she had come to such scenes herself, pressed again and again by Mr. Wickham. She almost ran from the room in distress. But Miss Newcastle was in need of help, and so she gathered her bravery and stood firm.
Felicity sprang to her feet in horror, and Mr. Weldon glared.
"Miss Darcy! We were only"-
"It is all right, Miss Newcastle. I blame him, not you. Now come away from there." Georgiana held out her hand to this girl, whose confusion reminded her so much of own, long ago, as she looked from Miss Darcy to Mr. Weldon, and back again.
"Do not pretend to be an angel, Miss Darcy," sneered Weldon, getting to his feet beside his conquest. "I have told her all about you. You are no innocent, and can have nothing to say here."
"Miss Newcastle, leave off him, I beg you."
But Felicity did not move. "Yes, Miss Darcy," she said slowly, "I imagine you cannot have anything to say about such things." She held close to Mr. Weldon, who had flattered her beyond her capacity for resistance, and to whom she believed herself truly attached. Never had a man been so arduous of her, so interested in everything she had to say! Was this not love at first sight? She was not keen to give it up, in any case. "Let us alone."
Georgiana shook her head. "No. You are right; I am not... innocent of such romances as this. But I can say something of the way in which they result. This man has probably told you that he loves you already?"
"I do love you, Felicity," said the villain with all the sincerity it was in his power to exercise. She looked at him with her wide, pale eyes, trusting it was true.
"He wants your money, if he is at all serious. More likely, he just wants a bit of fun." Georgiana swallowed hard. "I hate to give you such pain, Miss Newcastle. But I tell you the truth, from my experience."
"Then your suitor did not love you!" cried Miss Newcastle, unable to let go of her feelings.
"And neither does yours."
"Indeed, he does not!" Kitty, who had run upstairs after finding the music room vacant, was now in the door. "How could he, when I found him with another woman, not two hours ago?"
"You did not!" Felicity turned a shocked face to her lover. He only smiled. Kitty pressed on.
"My own sister, Mrs. Lydia Wickham." Georgiana and Miss Newcastle gasped together. "I should have gone to my brother at once," seethed Kitty, directing herself to Mr. Weldon, "but I never thought you would have a chance at this with any decent girl among us."
Miss Newcastle saw with horror that this was indeed the truth. Mr. Weldon was laughing, and he gave her no more than a shrug and a raised eyebrow by way of apology. She flew across the room to her friends, disgusted and shaking, wanting very much to be a 'decent girl' again. Kitty and Georgiana escorted her from the room and down the stairs at once.
"O, God!" Miss Newcastle wept. "Please do not tell anyone- I should be in so much- my reputation- what shall I do?"
Georgiana, who remembered these feelings far too well, was quick with reassurances that it would be kept quite private, and then she delivered the crying lady to her brother.
Mr. Newcastle waited impatiently in the hall with Lydia, whom he had dragged most unceremoniously from the party in order to gain intelligence of his sister's whereabouts. She was highly provoked at having been so uprooted, and whined openly.
"I want to go back to the dancing! Come, Weldon, where have you been? I've had supper without you, and you shall go hungry, but I don't care. Let us go back"- but she did not achieve her goal. Georgiana and Kitty corralled the four of them- Lydia, Mr. Weldon, and the Newcastles- into one group together.
"You will all go now," said Kitty seriously. Lydia balked.
"You have no authority over who does anything! I dare say we shall stay as long as we like!" She tried to flounce back past them, but Georgiana stepped bodily into her path.
"I have authority, Mrs. Wickham." There was no fear in her at all, and no doubt of her power. Kitty marveled as Georgiana pointed to the door, ordering their exit with the most Darcyesque aplomb. It was irrefutable. The hostess and resident of Pemberley wanted them out, and so all four troublemakers slunk in that direction, having their last word as they went.
"Goodbye, Felicity, my darling," cooed Mr. Weldon.
"Oh, Felix!" she sobbed, "Please let us go home!" She violently tugged her brother to the carriage. But he remained a moment, fixing Kitty with a cold stare.
"You shall regret your choice, Miss Bennet." There were many things that Kitty wanted to say to that, but she boiled them down to one simple, poised phrase.
"Goodbye, Mr. Newcastle."
He pivoted imperially away, led by his sister's yankings, allowing her to rush him to their horses. They heard him say only, "Whatever have you been doing, Felicity? You look a fright," in a rather cruel voice, before the lady dissolved completely into hysterics. The Newcastle carriage went as swiftly as they could command it, and they were out of sight almost at once.
"I must say goodbye to my mother," complained Lydia, making one last break past her sister. Kitty grabbed her by the wrist.
"If you do go back in there, then I shall tell everything I saw to all our family. Who do you think will speak to you then?"
Lydia shook with anger at being thus impeded, but knew that Kitty was serious. Therefore, not wanting to jeopardize the financial gifts of her rich sisters, she gave up her aim, for if they did know of her infidelity, they surely would not ever send her money anymore. Lydia could not let that happen. After all, she needed money even now. "How am I to get to London?" she pouted. "I am sure I have nothing for the fare."
Georgiana quickly arranged her passage with a servant, thinking that any expense was worth being rapidly rid of such a pair of louts.
Kitty only watched her youngest sister as she clambered up to her seat, wishing there was some way, some final way to break through to her, to teach her the lesson she so soundly deserved. But it is the unfortunate truth that those who are most in need of lessons are those most seldom taught them, for it is only the willing soul that can be modified. Lydia therefore happily settled herself in the elegant coach and four, and called up Mr. Weldon to sit beside her. "You must go by the inn at Lambton," she directed the driver, "for all our things are there. Lord, what a party this was! I dare say I shall not forget it."
"Nor I," laughed her companion, who had nothing further to protest. He had come to a very fine ball, been intimate with some very fine ladies, and now would have a very fine ride home; all at no cost to himself whatsoever. It was all quite agreeable. "And when we get to London, you may have the pleasure of telling all our adventures to George."
"Yes, my husband will get such a laugh! He has not lost his sense of humor, if some people have." She looked pointedly at Kitty, who gazed pityingly back.
"Goodbye, Lydia," she sighed.
The coach lurched to a start, and threw Lydia across into her partner's lap. The last thing Georgiana and Kitty could hear were the sounds of muffled laughter and a few squeals, before all was quiet again.
Neither girl moved. The silence was too beautiful.
Slowly, quietly, and with clasped hands, they went back indoors, but they did not achieve the ballroom. Upon reaching the grand staircase, both of them collapsed, exhausted, and sat together, breathing deeply for a little while.
Georgiana could not have said why it was, but the smallest tickle of laughter prodded at her in the quietude. She swallowed a tiny flutter of it, then another, but was presently overcome with a merriment that she could not harness. Try though she might, it only became more difficult to suppress, and in a moment, serene Miss Darcy was in a fit of laughter on the stairs.
Looking at her, Kitty was first shocked, then amused, then drawn in utterly. She began to giggle, too, and the feeling of it soon burst open inside her, making it impossible to stop. All the tension, all the fear and anger in her heart left her in great, gasping shrieks of laughter. Together, the sisters completely lost their senses, and fell back in a most unladylike manner on the steps as glee continued to work itself upon them. It was in this pose that two gentlemen, who were a little worried to see the girls so hysterical, discovered them.
"Are you quite all right?" ventured Mr. Stirling.
"We are!" cried Georgiana, doubling back up and over her knees.
"Have they all gone, then?" Mr. Douglas asked, looking at Kitty in amazement as she tried to gather herself to speak, and only managed a shout of mirth. Georgiana answered for her.
"We- we tossed them out!" managed Kitty, shrieking once more. Georgiana clutched her approvingly, and the two girls held on to one another as their fit continued.
"What a couple of women," murmured Douglas, rather enjoying the sight of Catherine so out of control with her happiness.
"I say they are marvelous. Getting rid of that riff raff all on their own!" Stirling was also looking admiringly at his sweetheart, prostate in her perfect gown, perishing in giggles.
"Quite pretty, aye."
This was the way to sober the ladies. They made haste to stifle the last of their laughter, endeavoring to deserve these compliments by ceasing to scream and roll about. Each girl managed to compose herself with the help of a handkerchief and a bit of vanity, and they took the offered hands of their respective gentlemen, rising gracefully once more. They did not, however, catch eyes, for this would certainly have meant a renewal of the fit. They could scarcely maintain composure as it was.
"Now that the house is safe again," chuckled Mr. Douglas, "can I take you up on that dance we were tryin' for, Miss Bennet?"
"Oh, with pleasure!"
"And you, Miss Darcy? This will be far too many dances for us, if you let me, but perhaps you will allow just this tiny breach of decorum?"
"I certainly will, sir."
The two couples, now free of all prior impediments to their pleasure, went in to lead the last dance of the evening, and a rousing orchestra greeted them with the Sir Roger de Coverley. Now it felt like Christmas! Everyone was standing, all their friends and neighbors, and even Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were still wide awake and taking part in the festivities. It was a vigorous dance, and it went on forever, quite making up for all the lost time the young people had suffered that evening. For Kitty and Georgiana, nothing was sweeter than this after such a long night as they had endured, and they enjoyed it all the more for having borne such trials.
No one wanted to leave after that, though it was nearing two o'clock, and so the good-byes lasted quite as long as had the arrivals. With praise and affections did the guests depart, two young men being quite impossible to get rid of until the very last moment, when they were treated to very heartfelt personal adieus. At nearly three in the morning, the inhabitants of Pemberley stood in the windows and waved off the final carriage, laughing among themselves that it had been an excellent ball, and that sleep had never been more exciting a prospect.
Indeed, it was well done! The great house closed its wide doors with a happy groan against the cold, and every candle was extinguished as all of Pemberley fell into a deep, well-deserved, slumber.
Chapter Twenty-Six: Betrothal
Pemberley seemed extremely quiet after all that had led up to the ball. Kitty and Georgiana both held their breath from breakfast onward, for they felt sure that something of last night's chaos must eventually reach the ears of Elizabeth and William. But they heard nothing, nor caught any glance of silent approbation, and were almost willing to believe that the whole fiasco might have come off without leaving a single trace.
The Bingleys departed that day with all their party, and Jane gave Kitty an invitation to come at once to Glenstead whenever she left Pemberley. Kitty was tempted to imagine that she might never have to live at Longbourn again if she were very fortunate, but knew that she would go home as planned. Her father must be miserable with no decent company about, and three months was quite long enough to leave him in such straits. But she promised her oldest sister that she would come as soon as possible, and hoped that she would be able to help with Little Charles.
The Bennet party was gone the day after that. Elizabeth did inform her parents of her pregnancy as they were just about to depart, and was heartily glad she had waited, for her mother instantly went into an unbearable tirade of joy and advice.
"A baby! Mercy on me, Lizzy! What were you doing at a ball? You should be upstairs every moment, for if you walk about, your feet will swell up and then you will be sorry! Oh, if people had known - scandalous! - however, I shall say nothing. But I know you will want me to tell your Aunt Philips? Surely you must want her to hear it all. Yes, yes, and the Lucases, of course. Oh, bless me! Congratulations, my dear girl! Let us hope you can give Mr. Darcy an heir right off, and be done with it. Lord knows I tried with your father! Perhaps you will have better luck. If it is a boy, your duty is all over!"
"All over?" repeated Darcy quietly to his wife, when all her family was safely away in their carriage. "I surely hope not. It had better be a girl, Elizabeth."
Kitty was already in mourning that her visit was half-over, but she could not stay deep in sad thoughts for long. Her spirits were supported by the promise of yet another month with her friends, one friend in particular being her sweetest consolation. That afternoon, she and Georgiana were prepared to receive the gentlemen they most admired, and they rejoiced that they might finally be able to put all their duet rehearsal to good use. They were waiting to do just that, when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy called them both into the sitting room, and asked for an explanation.
"Ladies," began Lizzy, "I know that something must have happened at the ball, which you have not told us."
Kitty looked at Georgiana. Something indeed! However, "What makes you say that?" she attempted, in a tone of unconvincing innocence.
"Three things: first; Lydia went away without so much as a word. Surely something must have occurred to keep her from asking us to pay her fare to London! And I cannot imagine why she did not try to stay here a little longer. She went far too easily, if I know her at all."
Georgiana hid her eyes by looking into her lap. Lydia had indeed done everything that Lizzy had anticipated, and more.
"Second; Mama has been in a terrible fit about Mr. Newcastle, and she keeps repeating that you have lost four thousand a year, Kitty, but that 'she will not mind it, for he is insufferably rude and made her a fool before everyone.' I am sure you listened to her plaguing us all about it, but she would not explain herself on the point, except to say that he was meant to be your husband and backed out of the agreement most publicly."
Kitty grimaced. She had indeed heard her mother droning on and on about Mr. Newcastle, and it had taken all her might not to respond to any of it. She had hoped the mindless chatter would draw no attention, and pass unnoticed.
"Third; we received this note today, from Miss Newcastle." She handed it over, and the girls sat close to read it together.
"My dear Darcys,
Thank you for inviting Felix and I to your party. We are unused to the kind of hospitality we have been shown at your house, so I hope that you will forgive our early departure from the ball, and our lack of adieux. My brother and I would like you to know that we are going away to Bath already this season. Quite early, I know, but we can no longer bear such limited society! I am sure you understand, and will no longer look for us to call. Perhaps we may meet again when circumstances require it, but otherwise, I doubt very much our being acquainted in future, as we do not plan to be often in Derbyshire.
Best Regards &tc.,
"Well ladies?" queried Mr. Darcy. "What does it mean?"
Carefully- very carefully- and with a great deal of looking to one another for assurance, the two misses set forth one account after another of all that had taken place on the evening of the ball. By some mutual discretion, they avoided speaking of the particulars of Mr. Weldon's involvement with either Mrs. Wickham or Miss Newcastle, but all else was disclosed.
Georgiana related the conversation she had overheard between Mr. Weldon and Miss Newcastle on the dance floor, and told of her subsequent admission of all the events at Ramsgate to Mr. Stirling. Her brother was grieved that she had been made to expose herself, but she gave him every assurance that Mr. Stirling's opinion of her was only better for it, and he was somewhat appeased.
Kitty gave them the particulars of her mother's involvement in the humiliation of herself and her poor dance partner. Elizabeth's sympathy was keen, having endured much of the same herself not long ago, and she railed at Mrs. Bennet's incurable tongue. Then did Kitty tell of Mr. Newcastle's awful proposal, her own refusal, and the comfort offered her by Mr. Douglas. She blushed as she told about the latter, and gave only the bare facts necessary to continue her story, but all three who listened saw that she was in love with the gentleman, and were glad of it.
Georgiana picked up the tale with an account of Mr. Newcastle's rudeness to Mrs. Bennet, and the search for Miss Newcastle, at which point Kitty gingerly depicted their encounters with Mr. Weldon and his ladies, sanitizing the truth until it was made almost unrecognizable. Finally, the two girls together related the way in which they had rounded up the undeserving guests, and dismissed them from the house.
Elizabeth and Darcy sat stunned, and regarded their sisters as though each were some strange, foreign animal. They had never heard of one ball causing so much grief, of one night holding such utter bedlam. And that it had not roused the rest of the guests- amazing! That there had been nothing public, save the nasty accusations of Mr. Newcastle- unbelievable! That Kitty and Georgiana should have managed it all alone- that one girl so shy, and the other so impossible, could have behaved so marvellously together for the benefit of so many- indeed, it was nothing short of a miracle.
"You should have come to me!" was Darcy's first cry.
"I knew you would say that," sighed Georgiana. "But, William, we came through it! I am glad to know that I can trust myself now, in any situation."
"Yes, any situation," echoed Kitty, feeling she was ten years more experienced for the events of one night. "And I think- well, did we not do the right things, Lizzy?"
"You did, Kitty. You both..." Elizabeth shook her head. "I am so very...!" But Elizabeth could not find a way to adequately express her astonishment.
Darcy was also lost for words. "Nothing shall surprise me after this," was all he could manage. A maid arrived at that moment with word that Mr. Stirling's carriage had arrived, and so the ladies left their brother and sister together to sort through their bewilderment.
Glad to have been absolved of the whole evening, both Georgiana and Kitty put it away in the past, saving only those memories that were sweet to them. Their positive recollections were so strong that this was simply done, and those same feelings were reinforced not three minutes later, when Mr. Stirling and Mr. Douglas bounded into Pemberley, bearing gifts.
"What is all this?"
"Christmas, my dear Miss Darcy, is not three days away. Can you not guess what all this is?"
"Presents!" exclaimed Kitty, irrepressibly. "But we have none in return- or perhaps we do, after all," she recalled, thinking of the duets. "Why do we not all go into the music room and exchange them together?"
This plan was very much approved. The four went off together, and for once, Mr. Darcy did not follow them to supervise. This was very fortunate, for the nature of the call certainly would have been stifled in his presence.
The young ladies were finally able to share the songs they had been practising for a month. Neither gentleman could have wished for a more wonderful gift, nor could the ladies have wanted for a better audience. Equally as stirring as the music they made were the faces of their young admirers as they listened. Both were raptly attentive, each to his own muse, and there was a fair amount of blushing at their impassioned compliments when all was done.
"Now, Miss Bennet," said Mr. Douglas seriously. "I want to give you somethin'." He held up a long, thin package, simply wrapped in brown paper and string. With it, he motioned questioningly toward the door.
Understanding that he wished to be alone with her, and having just such a wish herself, Kitty followed him out of the room at once, throwing a glance of pleasure to Georgiana. Miss Darcy was equally as satisfied to be left only in the company of Mr. Stirling, and Kitty shut the door almost entirely as she left, to give them privacy.
Mr. Douglas led her to the sitting room, which the Darcys had momentarily quitted. He handed her the little parcel. "It's not much, but I think... well, open it."
"I should like anything that came from you." He blushed, and they smiled at each other. Kitty carefully pulled open the string and unfolded the paper, revealing a set of beautiful paintbrushes with polished handles, and fine, perfectly shaped horsehair tips. "Oh, Mr. Douglas! How can you say these are not much? Why these are very dear- you should not have- but they are so beautiful." Her eyes shone.
"You like 'em then?"
"I love them." They both blushed even more deeply. Kitty shook it off first, and laughed. "I only wish I knew how to use them!"
"Well that's good, because the other part of the gift is that I'll teach ya, if you want me to."
Kitty could not think of anything that she wanted more, except perhaps... she blushed again, thinking of her dearest hope. But this was a very close second! "Thank you," she said warmly, touching his hand gently. "What a happy Christmas!"
He took the hand in his own, and held it tightly. "I am glad if I can make you happy, Miss Bennet. I remember you sayin' that's all you really wanted." He raised her hand and kissed it, and at that moment, Kitty really did know happiness. He opened his mouth again to speak, looking quite determined, and Kitty felt faint.
"Kitty!" Georgiana and Mr. Stirling were at the door. Kitty flew to her feet, taking the honoured hand and instinctively pressing the back of it to her mouth. Mr. Douglas trembled when she did this, knowing it was just where his lips had been, and rather wished that the other two would go away again. Those thoughts were quickly driven out, however, when Georgiana crossed the room, holding out a hand, which flashed with a jewel never seen there before.
"We are engaged!" she cried, not knowing whether to weep or laugh as Kitty let out a shriek and clasped her tightly.
"You are the first to know it," added Mr. Stirling, and Mr. Douglas, who was quite as surprised as Kitty, shook his hand and pounded the young man on the back as he laughed for joy.
"Oh, Arthur, hurry. You must go to my brother this instant. And I must find Elizabeth! But you go first." Georgiana's excitement and love made her more than ever a beautiful woman, and Kitty especially admired her voice- the way she had said 'Arthur' with such tender confidence.
Arthur took his fiancee's hands in his, hardly able to leave her, even on an errand to secure her forever. "Go, go, and do not return until you have succeeded!" she laughed breathlessly. "I cannot bear to wait!" He tore himself away for her sake, and, squaring his shoulders, marched off to find the formidable guardian whose blessing he was to procure.
Kitty and Mr. Douglas fell to congratulating Georgiana, until such time as her lover did return, quite pale, with this message;
"He says we may marry- in four years."
"Four years!" Georgiana went paler than her beloved. "What? Is he serious?"
"Oh, very serious," muttered Mr. Stirling, pounding his fist into his palm. "He seemed to think it was a very generous reply!"
"He requires you at once, in the study. I am going now, but do not worry. I will think of something- I shall come back tomorrow, and the next day, and every day after that until we are married, and if it takes four years, then we shall spend it together!"
Mr. Douglas had to steer him out, for he was so swept up by his own enthusiastic avowal that he could hardly remember which way to go. When they had gone, Georgiana gave a look of mute horror to Kitty, who kissed her cheek, and sent her on her way to the study to hear what her brother had to say on the matter.
With Georgiana gone, Kitty began to hum contentedly, sure that her friend would be able to reduce her sentence by a year, or even two. She was full of feelings for the betrothed couple, and fell to turning over her paintbrushes in her fingers, one by one, memorizing them by touch. In so doing, she noticed that they each bore a miniscule etching, carved in the wood where the bands attached the hairs. She squinted to see what it could be, and read "C.B.~J.D."
What a thrill did this give her heart! Their initials, so close, done so carefully by the artist. He must have made the gift with his own hands- she could see it now, as she examined the craftsmanship. These were not shop-bought brushes. Impetuously, she kissed the tiny inscription, wishing it were the engraver himself, and thinking that no rings, however they sparkled, would ever parallel this bit of polished wood and horsehair wrapped in paper. No, it was not the ring she envied, but the promise that accompanied it. As Kitty regarded again the initials and felt the grooves under her finger, she flushed, and hoped that her promise would come quite soon.
Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Dam Breaks
Mr. Darcy sat at his desk, his hands folded, his eyes glazed. Had he just given Arthur Stirling permission to---? It was beyond his comprehension, and yet the lad's eyes when he had begged for Georgiana's hand... what else could he have done? He knew Mr. Stirling to be a loyal gentleman with good humour and a strong understanding; knew him to be the sole heir of two fine estates; knew that he truly loved Georgiana and would endeavor to make her happy all the days of her life. His sister would never want for anything material, or anything loving. And yet it was with a heavy heart that he had given his assent, and a still heavier one with which he regarded his only sister as she came through the door and took his hands.
"Four years?" she whispered, clutching them tightly. "William, you are joking."
Darcy was startled. He had not anticipated this - truly; he had been in such a stupor that nothing but the fact of her engagement was very clear to him. Four years - what was she about? Of course it would be four years. "You are too young, Georgiana, you know that."
"I am seventeen!"
"Precisely. You have only been out one season, and you did not even go out."
"Why should I want to go out and have seasons when I am in love with one man?"
Darcy was jolted completely out of his daze, upon hearing these words issue from the girl before him. Regardless of how many times he had resolved to treat her as an adult, she would insist on becoming an eleven-year-old in his mind, frail, fatherless and dependent on him for everything. To hear such a child say that she loved only one man was frightening. He shook his head.
"You do not know that yet."
Georgiana's lips were white. "I do. William, I love him. I love him! Do I have to" -- she had been about to say 'elope'. She knew this was very unwise, and swallowed the offending syllables. "Why will you make us wait four years? I am sure you have some very good explanation, and I am waiting to hear it." She sat still, and in her silence, Darcy was flustered. What explanation did he have?
"I want to make sure..." Darcy trailed off. He did not have any very good reason. He knew it was useless, but struggled lamely onward. "Elizabeth was one and twenty when she married me."
"And I am to do exactly as she has done?"
"Well...why not?" he pleaded, frantically searching for some better excuse to forbid the wedding for as long as possible.
Georgiana laughed now, and released her grip on his fingers. "William, you are going out of your mind. My poor brother." She sighed happily. "I know you will not do this to us. A year is quite long enough, do you not think so?"
"A year? You want to wait another year?"
"William, be serious, please. I am only seventeen. I am eighteen next month, and then I do want to spend one season in London before I marry. I think it will be lovely to go to all the balls and things, as part of our courtship!" She sighed, thinking of the joy of walking into every event on Arthur's arm, properly able to dance each and every set with only him. It would be a wonderful summer! "Then I will spend one last winter here, arranging everything, and be married just after the New Year. I will be nineteen. That is enough time, William, in my view. But what is your opinion?" The answer she received was utterly unexpected.
Darcy sighed raggedly, and rather threw his arms around his sister, letting out a sob. He had never shed a tear in her presence, and she opened her eyes wide at the shock of it, but for once in her life, Georgiana was the one to comfort William. "It is all right, dearest," she soothed, stroking her brother's curls. "I will never really leave you. We shall live here, not in Sussex. We shall be neighbours. You will always have me; always, always."
Mr. Darcy only continued in his helpless state, having realized for the first time in the seven years since his father had passed away, that he needed his sister as much as ever she had needed him. Perhaps he had expressed such agitated control over her life because he could not bear to lose her. Perhaps because she had been his only real companion for a handful of gravely lonely years. Perhaps it was due to her looking so much like their mother. Whatever it was, it surfaced in him now, and Georgiana rocked him on her shoulder for a long moment, her eyes shut, murmuring words of solace until he was recovered.
When Darcy raised his head, he did not know quite what to do with himself. He felt rather embarrassed, now that the mood of the moment had got beyond him, and he turned his head sharply to avoid looking in his sister's eyes. Rarely, if ever, had he expressed so much emotion of any kind before her, and it was awkward in the aftermath.
"William?" She held out her handkerchief, which he took, still looking somewhere between the window and the bookshelves, not really focusing. He blotted his face with an abrupt pat or two, trying to recover his usual masterful demeanor. It would not do. He could not pick up where he had left off. This was all new territory to him now, and there was a pause as he searched out how to proceed.
"Georgiana," he said finally, an openness in his voice that she had never before detected, "You have my entire blessing. He is a good man. He does not deserve you- but no one ever will. And I think your plan is... much better than mine." He laughed. "You actually have a plan! I did not expect.... Well." He looked at her now, too far past his old ways to be longer ashamed of his tears. She looked back, with joy in her eyes, and made words of her feelings.
"I love you, William."
"I love you, Georgiana."
He touched her face, and one of her little curls, and then his hand dropped back into his lap. Smiling now, she excused herself to find Elizabeth, and as her brother watched her go through the study door, a pang shot through him. "Goodbye," he said, almost inaudibly, and certainly to himself. He went up to his room, quite exhausted from his emotions, and, though it was not yet four o'clock in the afternoon, Mr. Darcy fell dead asleep.
When Elizabeth had heard the whole story, both of the engagement and the following conversation, she rejoiced for Georgiana, and ached for her husband. As soon as she had expressed all her happiness for her young sister therefore, she climbed the stairs and lay next to Darcy, to hold him as he slept like a child.
* * *
The next morning, Colonel Fitzwilliam was applied to for his consent as guardian. He readily congratulated his young cousin, for his own heart was rather inclined toward all romances everywhere, just at the moment.
Mr. Stirling kept his word and came back next day to Pemberley, and every day after that, to sit with, walk with, speak with his beloved. He was, needless to say, overjoyed that the four years of courtship he had feared were now only twelve months, and he felt that his little fiancee was very clever to have managed everything so well.
Christmas day brought another party; the Radkes gave a jubilee that several of the nearby families attended, and Georgiana was able to make her engagement public to all her friends, increasing the excitement of the holiday by a hundred-fold. All the young ladies gathered around to fuss over and to quiz her about all that had happened. She gave them modest details, shining her eyes all the while across the room at her Arthur, who proudly received all the good will the gentlemen had to give.
Kitty was excused from the fawning and petting of the couple, for she must occupy herself with Mr. Douglas, who was also in attendance. He had been engaged in a commission for three days, unable to join Arthur at Pemberley, and Kitty had felt his loss acutely. She attempted to seclude herself with him as best she could in a room filled with people, and tried to thank him for making the brushes with his own hands. But it was impossible; interruptions abounded, and Georgiana finally claimed her sister's companionship (for she needed a rest from being the center of attention, and did not want to answer any more questions.) Kitty only managed, "Call on us soon?" before she was taken from his side.
"Tomorrow," he promised.
But although Mr. Stirling made his regular pilgrimage to the Darcy household the next day, Mr. Douglas was not with him.
"He is gone to London," explained Arthur, with a serious look at Kitty. "I am to express his great regret that he had to leave this morning, on account of a commission he received there."
"But will he not be back in a week? For he is to begin your portrait, Lizzy, surely."
"No, Kitty," said Elizabeth with regret. "I have decided to wait until the baby is born. I am showing rather more than my vanity will allow, for a likeness." Elizabeth patted her belly, which was indeed beginning to protrude noticeably, as she entered her fourth month of pregnancy.
"When was this decided? Why did no one tell me?" Kitty cried, bereft.
"I only just decided- Mr. Douglas does not know himself. I will send him word, that he may stay and complete the job before him."
"No!" Kitty felt dangerously close to a tantrum. "Why could he not - how shall I - that is" - she shut her mouth miserably as they all watched her, for she knew she had no real recourse. No promises had been made; she could not blame him, and her feelings were not yet for public discussion.
Mr. Stirling knit his brows, wanting to relieve her spirits, but unsure of how much detail he was at liberty to disclose. He finally settled on - "I believe there was a high price offered - a fashionable family, you know - I am sure his hurry was only an attempt to secure the job before it should go to someone else."
But Kitty, crushed that Mr. Douglas had gone off without even a word to her, was now unable to bear the felicity of the engaged couple beside her, and so Mr. Stirling's words fell on ears that were deaf to reason. She hurriedly excused herself to be alone.
She went to the pianoforte at once, and played the same song she had done the night of the ball- the one that had called him to her through the passageways. This time, the music only served as a reminder that he was gone, and she found she could not continue. She fought against her childish selfishness, but so violently did she want him back again! She had been looking forward to a final month at Pemberley with Mr. Douglas included. In fact, she had dared to hope he might ask her for her hand before she returned home, so that they might never truly have to part.
But they were parted. And who knew when he would return? A month at Pemberley without him seemed bleak, and suddenly the snow outside the windows, which had only just seemed so festive, looked pale and cold under the naked trees. But perhaps it would be only a week- two at most? Kitty attempted to find comfort in the thought. And how could she not enjoy another month with Lizzy and Georgiana?
However, Georgiana was not the same. Her attention went to her betrothed whenever he was near, which was now almost always. Though Kitty was truly happy for the couple's good fortune, it would be difficult to share Georgiana so completely, especially without a love of her own to occupy her days. Kitty was determined to continue as truly in friendship as ever, and not to begrudge Georgiana a single moment of her deserved joy, but it would be a struggle. She felt very alone, and longed desperately for news that Mr. Douglas would be back in Derbyshire before she quit it altogether.
The New Year came and went, and Colonel Fitzwilliam left Derbyshire for London amidst many tender farewells- one lady's more poignant than the rest, who coupled her parting words with a promise that they should meet again in February. A week of January went by as if it were an afternoon, and yet no news of Mr. Douglas arrived. London was entirely silent for yet another week, and after almost three, Kitty was done with wishing. Indeed, Mr. Stirling brought a letter in the third week, but it did not give the hoped-for assurance of a swift return. Mr. Douglas' first portrait in the city had been so well praised, and news of his talent had circulated with such rapidity that he was now receiving more requests than he could possibly accept, and so it seemed he would make his home in London for quite some time.
Kitty was fiercely proud of the dear young artist, and wished she could tell him how glad she was that the country was beginning to appreciate his exceptional gifts. But she had no way of communicating with him while he was gone, and no prospect of going to Town herself. Knowing, therefore, that his work would keep him far from her, Kitty sunk into a deep sadness, from which she only rallied for Georgiana's sake, during their last week together at Pemberley.
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Last Day
It was unbelievable to both Kitty and Georgiana that the trunks were all packed, and that the coach would come around the very next morning to bring Longbourn's lost daughter back to itself. The last items Kitty had lain away were her paintbrushes, unused, still gleaming happily in their little paper parcel, making her poor heart wring up inside her. How would she ever see him now? Who would he meet in London? Had he forgotten her already? She shut the lid on her trunk abruptly, hoping to bury these distressing questions deep inside it, along with her souvenirs of Mr. Douglas' heart. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked around her at the room in which she had lived so happily all winter. How could she ever go back home?
But go she must, for the winter was ending, and Georgiana would no longer be at Pemberley in a week's time. She would go to London for the early season, along with all the usual throngs of fashionable people who could not bear the stillness of country living any longer. If it had been in her power to bring Kitty, of course she would have, but she was to stay with Caroline Bingley, and not in the family townhouse. Elizabeth was now in confinement, and she and William would await the baby in the country. Obviously, they did not approve of Georgiana staying in town alone, and since her governess was long a thing of the past, it had been arranged for Miss Bingley to receive her. And go she must, of course, for Arthur would be there, and they had plans to travel down to Sussex so that she might meet his family.
Kitty could not be bitter, for it was all perfectly reasonable, but she could, and did, let forth a couple or three very telling sighs. She longed to go to London. That everyone in her close acquaintance would be there made it even more appealing an object than it already was, for Mr. Douglas and London were synonymous to her now. She could hardly stand to see everyone preparing to go and be in the city where he lived, while she returned alone to a house far from him. Kitty told herself it was no use; perhaps, as she most feared, he was already attached to someone else. She would not want to see that, in any case. Her heart revolted against the thought. Maybe it were better she did not go to London.
"Kitty?" She jumped at Georgiana's voice in the door. Still deep in her maudlin suppositions, she let her sister lead her down to dine in the beautiful hall for the last time- on this visit at least. The family all settled to eat, each feeling gloomy to be losing Kitty. Even Mr. Darcy was attached to her. Her spirit, now that it was curbed from grossness, reminded him of Elizabeth's, and the friendship she had shown Georgiana had made an indelible impression on his heart. There was a mutual silence while the soup was brought in, in which they all looked at her with love. Kitty could hardly imagine eating, so heartbroken was she, and it was rather a quiet supper.
At bedtime, in her nightclothes, Kitty walked the floor of her room, attempting to seal each memory in her mind forever. Here was where her trunks had first been; here had she cried with Georgiana; here Hannah had dressed her hair for the ball, and here had she become a lady, as she had so desperately wished. She sat in the window and let her forehead fall against the cool glass. Below, a servant walked toward the stables, swinging a lamp. All around the house, wind swept through the firs. Pemberley was even beautiful in the middle of the night. How awful to have to leave it.
Georgiana crept in and stood by the bed, watching Kitty as she stared out her window at the darkness of the vast estate. Kitty only realized her presence when there came a very audible gulp, and she turned to see that Georgiana was crying.
"I do not want to say goodbye!"
Kitty moved to embrace her. "Oh, it is only a matter of months before.... perhaps.... next winter...." And then she wept as well.
"I shall miss you."
"So shall I."
"Kitty," Georgiana sniffled, "what are you going to do about Mr. Douglas?"
Kitty stood back in surprise. Georgiana had been so occupied with Mr. Stirling that they had not spoken of any other hearts for quite some time, and this was rather unexpected. "I do not know," she said honestly.
"Have you written to him?"
"How could I?"
"Shall I ask Arthur to"-
"No." Kitty took her sister's hand. "It is all right. I shall go home, and make my father happy, and that will help me to recover."
"But he loves you. I am sure of it. I know he will come for you!"
"Please do not say that." Kitty wanted to believe the words so badly that they caused her actual pain, and she could not allow herself to hold out false hope. "I must go on from this." Georgiana shook her head.
"You are too good."
"I am only trying to be," admitted Kitty, with a laugh, though a tear escaped along with the sound. "But I am sure I am not used to the effort. You have changed me, Georgiana. I am an improved person."
"Oh, no. It is you who have helped me."
"Truly, have I?"
"We are equal, then."
A grateful clinging and sisterly kiss were exchanged, observed by Mrs. Reynolds as she shuffled by the door. She had seen Georgiana's candles still burning, and the young lady herself out of bed, and was on her regular tour of the halls to tut at the girls to go to sleep. When she happened upon them in this embrace, however, she only shook her head and smiled, wiped away a tear, and supposed to herself that it was high time these young women managed their own bedtimes. They did so very soon, and when Georgiana had returned to her own chambers, Kitty blew out her candles and cried herself to sleep.
* * *
On her last morning at Pemberley, Kitty rose early, dressed quickly, and was out of the house on a walk before the rest of the family had stirred. She wanted one final reverie in the lanes that she had come to love so well, and the cold air stirred all her senses. Slowly she went along paths she had tread with her friends, stopping when she came to the place where once Mr. Douglas had surprised her. She smiled ruefully, thinking of poor Mr. Newcastle and his thwarted attempts to win her hand, even in this very wood. I may as well have said yes, she thought, then shook her head. No; even if she would not be truly happy, she could not have submitted to such a misery.
She sat on the bench that had snow across it, not caring for her coat or gown, and shut her eyes. If she listened very carefully, she could almost hear the horse's hoof-beats again, crisp against the icy ground as they had been, thumping toward her just at the crucial moment- yes, she heard them! Her memory brought the sound back to her with startling clarity. Kitty strained to listen for more- if there was a horse, then perhaps she would also hear-
"Miss Bennet? Miss Bennet! It is you!"
Her eyes flew open and she jumped from the bench. She was aware of nothing but that she was running- stumbling rather- through trees and up onto the avenue, clutching her wet gown in fists until she reached the road, where she let go her skirts and stood wondering at the very vivid ghost that her memory had set forth before her.
"Mr. Douglas." It was part of a gasp, a breath, a sigh, and she felt rather dizzy. She groped for a tree to steady herself. What she felt was a hand taking her own. Quite real!
"How is it that I always manage to find you here in this spot?" She could not answer. "It's no' important. I'm glad you're here. Miss Bennet, forgive me. Forgive me for stayin' away. I only took those commissions so I'd be able to ask you- so I'd have enough to be sure- oh, Miss Bennet."
She stared at the apparition, who was slowly becoming beautifully real to her. His ruddy hair, his crooked smile, this was his hand in hers, and was he asking her to--
"Mr. Douglas, please, what are you saying?"
"I'm sayin'- I'm askin'- but you'd better think first. I'm no' worth much; I'll be dartin' off to paint portraits at all hours; we'll have no tremendous home, mind"--
"Stop, stop!" Kitty cried. "Ask me!"
Mr. Douglas grinned at her breathless impatience, her confidence in his intention. This woman! She was not to be disappointed for another moment. "Catherine, will you marry me?"
"John!" Finally permitted to utter that fine syllable, she did so with all the voices of the angels, and in the one word was her answer to every question. But she gave him another, to ease every doubt. "Yes."
He took the hand already in his, and kissed it with the humble, grateful relief that every man feels when he hears that answer issue from the lips he loves. She flew the back of her hand to her mouth, as she had done once before, and looked at him over it with hazel eyes that held an absolutely celestial light. This time, however, he stepped close to her. Gently he removed her hand from her lips and replaced it with his own mouth. They stood that way for a long, tender minute, not moving, hardly breathing, and then he put his arms around her and she collapsed against him entirely.
"Must you return to London?" she whispered.
"Aye. I rode all night, and I can't afford to stay gone. I only came now because I got a message from Stirling sayin' it was your last day, and I'd better come quick. Not that I coulda waited any longer." He tightened his arms around her. "I'll leave again this afternoon, I expect."
"So will I, for Hertfordshire. What shall we do?"
"I don' know. But we'll think of somethin'." Hand in hand, discussing their options, John and Kitty walked the horse down the avenue to Pemberley. Every few moments, one would look at the other, and they would have to stop their discourse and gaze amazedly at each other. It was therefore a long walk on which very little business was decided, but which provided both their hearts with the satisfaction that no matter how long or often they must be apart, nothing would ever divide them again.
When they came upon the family in the breakfast room, their felicity was immediately apparent, for Kitty's waist was rounded by Mr. Douglas' proud arm, and two pairs of more spirited eyes were never seen. A general cry of love, congratulations, and welcome went up around the table, and Mr. Stirling, who had arrived early to see Kitty off, was as boisterous as the rest. He sprang from the table with Mr. Darcy, who came to Mr. Douglas and shook his hand.
"You are a lucky fellow, Douglas." Kitty beamed to hear him say so.
"I know it! Should I be askin' your permission then, since she's away from her father?"
"You have it. But may I take a moment of your time?" Darcy nodded to Mr. Stirling, who looked as though he were fighting off a laugh, and the two men escorted Mr. Douglas into the next room. In their absence, Georgiana and Elizabeth wished Kitty every joy they could possibly think of, sighing in raptures as Kitty told the details of all that had just occurred.
The gentlemen returned soon after, bringing a very shaken Mr. Douglas. He held out his hand for Catherine, who hurriedly acquiesced, and left the room with her questioning eyes turned upon him anxiously. Stirling and Darcy returned to their breakfasts, keeping their faces focused merrily downward. Georgiana watched Mr. Douglas' pale countenance as he took Kitty out of the room, and turned to her brother in mock accusation.
"You certainly seem to have that effect on suitors," she teased. Mr. Darcy did not answer, but smiled into his eggs, and shot a quick glance of high good humour at Arthur, who answered in kind.
When the new lovers had reached the little writing room, Mr. Douglas set Kitty at the desk and stood before her, his hands open in disbelief. He shook himself as though to wake from some impossible dream.
"He's goin' to give me an education."
"He would'n' take no for an answer. He wants me to go to seminary." Douglas' voice was hoarse with emotion. "He's settin' me up for a clergyman, Catherine."
Mr. Douglas nodded.
"Oh, John! Your dream!" Kitty leapt up to embrace him, and he caught her and kissed her, still shaking his head.
"Aye. Mr. Darcy remembered me sayin' so. What a great man he is! And you'll never believe me when I tell ya, Kitty."
"He's been plannin' with Artie- I'm ta have the livin' at Stirling Manor." Kitty gasped, and drew back from him in the disbelief he had predicted. "It's all settled- they were keepin' it secret- jus' waitin' for me to ask your hand."
Kitty needed to hear no more. Blinded by joy, she burst back into the breakfast room, where Darcy stood, looking sheepish and amused.
"Oh, Mr. Darcy!" Kitty ran to her brother and pitched herself into his arms, embracing him for the first time (though it would not be the last.) Bemusedly he petted her head, grinning at Elizabeth and Georgiana, who were openmouthed in shock.
Once she had collected herself, Kitty turned to Mr. Stirling and thanked him with her whole heart, spilling the news to her sisters in a rush of tumbling, laughing words. And once they knew all, and their surprise had turned to wild happiness, Arthur Stirling and Fitzwilliam Darcy found themselves in the enviable position of having not one, but all three of the most excellent ladies in Derbyshire fly at them in a passion. It must be said that they enjoyed the moment very much indeed.
Mr. Douglas went to London, Kitty to Hertfordshire. Her father was so overjoyed to have her home that he would have consented to anything she asked, and therefore permission was granted for his daughter's engagement to Mr. John Douglas, artist and soon-to-be clergyman. Mrs. Bennet, injured that Kitty had not caught a richer man, was less inclined to give her blessing, but soon the idea of four daughters married and another shopping expedition for wedding-clothes eased her mind, and she became as giddy as Catherine herself.
A month after, when Kitty knew that all her friends were happily settled in London together, she began to pine for their society. It grieved her heart that she could not share this season with John and all their acquaintance, but she bore it very well, working all the time to improve herself, and to keep her father entertained with song and conversation. During this time, he came to value her almost as he had Elizabeth, and they began to grow in a friendship that would last all their lives.
It was late in April when the Gardiners of Gracechurch Street in London received a letter. It was sent express from Longbourn.
"My Dear Brother-in-Law,
Please forgive me the rush in which I am about to entreat a favor. I promise it is necessary, and hope that you will be able to oblige me with little inconvenience to yourself, or your dear wife and children.
Though I have only just brought my daughter Catherine home from Pemberley, and am not eager to part with her, I must have her away at once, before she is damaged.
My daughter Mrs. Wickham has come home again, this time dragging her husband behind her. You will remember, sir, that he is the very best of men, and you must imagine my delight at being made his host another time. It seems he is penniles, to my great shock, and much as I would wish to, my excellent wife denies me the entertainment of turning him out.
I cannot think of Kitty being here in these circumstances; it is from such influences that I mean to keep her very carefully for the rest of her young life. Therefore I ask you to take her in at Gracechurch with you until I can empty my home of these two strange creatures I am required to call kin. I know Kitty will be quite safe with your family, and continue to be the fine woman she has recently become.
I thank you most impertinently in advance, from the bottom of my heart.
Yours in Faith,
p.s. Keep me in your family prayers, for I am greatly in need of
Kitty's Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, though remembering her to be a rather insipid, unremarkable and silly girl, could not deny her father's appeal. They sent for Kitty at once. When she received the letter of invitation from her Aunt Gardiner, and the warm consent of her father that she might go at once, Kitty felt that her forbearance over the last few months had been more than rewarded. She was packed off to Gracechurch Street by two days following, and her aunt and uncle quickly perceived the great improvements she had made since last they had known her. In their care, did Kitty spend three of the most enjoyable months of her life.
London, that summer, was all the young lovers could have wished for. Even Colonel Fitzwilliam resigned from his position as the country's most determined bachelor, and took Miss Campbell as his fiancee. The season hastened merrily from its beginning to its end: Kitty did learn to paint; Georgiana and Arthur danced every set with no fear of impropriety; and John Douglas saw his last necessary portrait finished with a sigh of relief before the fall set in, and whisked him away to begin his studies.
In the country, things were quieter, but equally as happy. Little Charles was christened, and his godparents often required him at Pemberley, claiming they must practice their skills upon him. And in July, Elizabeth perversely produced, not an heir, but a tiny girl, whose father fell at once in love with her, claiming her eyes were the finest he had yet seen. He begged to call her 'Elizabeth', but the new mama would not hear of it, professing that this child should have an identity all her very own. She was therefore named Clara in an effort to give her a clean slate, and the little cherub was spoiled terribly by her Aunt Georgiana, when that happy lady came home from her first and last social season as a single woman.
Georgiana's nineteenth birthday made her Mrs. Stirling, and she and Arthur settled at the Manor with the Lord and Lady. This situation lasted but a six-month, as Lady Stirling sadly passed on at that time, and her husband preferred to relocate to Sussex, to be near his son. Thus was young Mrs. Stirling made mistress of an estate, and she was often seen consulting with the Mrs.' Darcy and Bingley on just how a thing ought to be.
At the end of his education, the living at Stirling Manor was waiting for him, and John Douglas ushered in his bride. (It must be told here that at the wedding of her fourth daughter, Mrs. Bennet did what she had always threatened, and fainted dead away at the ceremony. It must also be said that this pleased no one so much as Mr. Bennet, who would allow no one to revive her.) With the arrival of Catherine Douglas in Derbyshire, the sisterhood became a very pleasant and pretty quartet, and many babies and balls, frustrations and reconciliations were shared among them in the following years.
The Manor parsonage, or Brookevale as it was more familiarly called, became an art house of the best kind, for John Douglas was finally able to provide for a family, yet paint what he liked. He would do a likeness from time to time, if it were a person he cared for, and his portraits, so rarely done, became the most well-paid and sought-after in England. (In Derbyshire he was also famous for his sermons, which were always full of warmth, and blessedly short.) He produced a number of personal works of incredible beauty, and also one of particular genius. A long time later, it would hang under glass in a very important museum, preserved for all time and all students of art to imitate. It was marked 'Anonymous' and titled only 'The Woman', but if anyone had been alive who knew her, they would have named her in an instant, so intensely exact was the rendering.
As it was, no one recognized the lady, but thousands would stand before the canvas and wonder, awed by the impossible light in The Woman's blissful hazel eyes.
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