Summary: After Elizabeth’s rejection, Mr. Collins turns his attentions to Jane who considers the idea after Bingley’s absence. Although Elizabeth chooses to save Jane from such a fate and is certain her life will be lived in misery, a second chance ensures she is the happiest creature in the world.
April 10, 1814
Hearing the baby cry, Darcy rolled over and sat. Elizabeth disliked relying on the nurse but the poor babe was teething. Sometimes there was nothing anyone could do to relieve the pain or make the babe happy. Elizabeth was exhausted and Darcy wanted to allow her to rest. Shuffling in the dark to open the connecting door from the mistress’s chamber to the small nursery, Darcy was surprised to hear Elizabeth already walking around with the baby, humming a tune.
Did he not just leave her in their bed? Something was not right. He shook his head and as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he took in his surroundings. He was not at Pemberley, but in the small sitting-room attached to his bedchamber at Rosings, and Elizabeth was not his wife, but rather, Mrs Collins. Yet it was her voice on the other side of his sitting room wall. With anguish, the last two years came flooding back to Darcy. He had just returned from a long stay at Bath with his sister, still weakened from the illness which took hold of her over eighteen months ago, to settle affairs at Rosings after the death of his cousin, Anne de Bourgh.
It was the only thing that could draw him back to Rosings. Since Easter in 1812 he had spent all of his energies focused on his duties as Master of Pemberley and brother to Georgiana. In some ways it was easy to purge his selfish nature, everything he most wanted in life he would never have.
Elizabeth walked the floor of her bed-chamber and sitting room with baby Jane. She mused that the baby seemed to have captured more of her own disposition than that of her sweet, gentle, and departed namesake. Allowing her daughter to suck on her finger to relieve the pressure of teething gums, she smiled down on Janie.
“You were worth it all, my love.”
“Papapapapa” the baby cooed. Elizabeth gave little Janie a sad smile, the only kind she could manage these days. The child was only now experimenting with syllables and it seemed she preferred “Pa” to any other, especially “Mama”. Elizabeth had never loved William Collins but, in the near two years since he left this earth, she had come to value him a little. Certainly her life as a new mother, and coming to terms with the deaths of so many loved ones so near together might have been a little easier if he had survived.
Elizabeth shook her head. No, that was incorrect. He passed before she even knew she was with child. She cringed to imagine Mr Collins as father to her child. Besides that, she was in love with another. He would never be hers, but at least she did not also belong to another man any longer. At any rate, Anne de Bourgh had become Elizabeth’s dearest friend and provided shelter for her, even after her death. Anne’s cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, inherited Rosings but there was a clause in the will stating Elizabeth and Janie could remain forever at the Dower House.
It was not in Elizabeth’s nature to dwell on sadness and heartache. She had not seen her family since Christmas 1812, her mother refused to acknowledge her daughter’s birth. She passed her confinement at Rosings with the quiet company of Anne. Since Janie’s birth, Elizabeth’s life had been full and centred on her child. The words she spoke earlier she believed with all her heart. She could scarcely guess what life might bring them next, but being mother to Janie was worth every trial. She allowed herself to consider the past two years with a degree of fondness, even amidst the tribulations.
30 months earlier
November 27, 1811
“Jane, you cannot be serious!”
“Caroline’s letter makes it quite clear. Mr Bingley is not to return to Netherfield this winter, if ever, and she is certainly desirous of a match between her brother and Miss Darcy. I was mistaken and believed his regard deeper than it was.”
“He loves you Jane and he will return. You must not marry Mr Collins instead! I know you cannot respect him.”
“Lizzy, you must make allowances for differences of temper. Do you think because he has not secured your regard he is incapable of gaining the esteem of any young lady? And think of all the happiness I can bring to my family. He may never ask me, but if he does I will accept.”
Elizabeth’s lips set into a thin line and she abruptly left Jane’s side. Upon entering the drawing room, where her mother was fluttering near Mr Collins, Elizabeth announced quite clearly she wished for a private conversation with the gentleman. Her mother emptied the room faster than Elizabeth could blink.
“Mr Collins, I have seen the attentions you have shown my eldest sister and I confess it has inspired feelings in me I never knew before. I was mistaken to refuse you. Please allow me the honour of accepting your proposals.”
Mr Collins seemed astonished, if only for a second, and then a smug grin crept across his face.
“My dear Elizabeth,” he said as he walked to her and kissed her hands.
Elizabeth tried her best to not cringe at his touch. Soon he would be allowed so much more, forever.
The news of their engagement was met by her mother with the most extreme shrieking. Mr Bennet attempted to talk Elizabeth out of it, and Jane seemed quietly relieved of the task of marrying the obsequious parson.
Before Christmas, Elizabeth was married and settled at Hunsford Parsonage. Her primary source of joy was the plan for Jane to visit in March, after an extended stay in London with their aunt and uncle.
In the months following her marriage, Elizabeth met Lady Catherine’s intrusive questions with her usual spark, which seemed to confuse the great lady most of the time. Elizabeth attempted civility, but she could see her inability to fawn displeased her husband. Growing up, Elizabeth had faced the constant disapproval of her mother, so to have her husband share the sentiment did not concern Elizabeth. She could respect her husband no more than she could respect her mother.
It also meant whatever imaginary feelings Mr Collins had conjured within himself before the marriage quickly evaporated, and she had to suffer little of his attention day or night. In fact, she encouraged him to be out of doors, or to visit Lady Catherine to repair any damage his wife had done, frequently. Elizabeth was not happy, but she managed something near acceptance, until she read any letter from her elder sister.
Jane had gone to London with secret hopes of seeing something of Mr Bingley, the gentleman she fell in love with during his brief stay in Hertfordshire. She called on his sisters, who had treated her with the appearance of tender affection while at Netherfield, but was met with the barest of civility. Bingley’s sisters led her to believe he was soon to be engaged to his dearest friend’s young sister. Georgiana Darcy had spectacular wealth, connections, and accomplishments.
Jane’s heart was broken, and Elizabeth welcomed her to Hunsford with anxiousness. Although Jane was melancholy, Elizabeth was relieved to see her sister in otherwise good health. If it were not for the arrival of Fitzwilliam Darcy that Easter, life might have been drastically different for them all.
Four months later
March 24, 1812
Darcy’s hands were sweating as he and his cousin followed Mr Collins to the Hunsford Parsonage. His aunt mentioned in her most recent letter that the new Mrs Collins had been acquainted with him in Hertfordshire, and her sister, Miss Bennet, had recently arrived to stay with the couple. It appeared he had been correct in separating his best friend from Jane Bennet, since the lady married where her mother told her to. But at last he would see Elizabeth again.
He had expected his fascination with the lady to cease when he was no longer in her company, but he was mistaken in himself. He undoubtedly preferred her to every other lady of his acquaintance. As the months slipped by, he realized he would be willing to take on the degradation of a connection to her relations in trade, and he could accept his in-laws’ numerous improprieties. Plenty of members of the ton had far more scandalous families. Darcy had the highest pride in his own legacy, but hoped marriage to Elizabeth did not mean he had to socialise with her family. They never came to London, and Darcy would not finance their trips. Once married, he and Elizabeth could visit Longbourn a few times a year; it was close enough to London. Pemberley was too far away for the Bennets to visit on their income.
Yes, it could all work out nicely. The only problem was that he had not kept an acquaintance with the Bennets and his only way of doing so, through Miss Bingley keeping in touch with Miss Jane Bennet, was destroyed with his agreement to protect Bingley. In the back of his mind he was aware of his hypocrisy, claiming Bingley should not marry Jane Bennet while he schemed for a way to meet Elizabeth Bennet again, but he pushed it aside. He had been right to caution his friend, if for no other reason than the lack of affection evidenced by Miss Bennet. He had almost accepted some plan to meet Elizabeth’s London relations when his aunt’s letter arrived. This would be his redemption, his salvation. He could meet Elizabeth again at Hunsford, propose, and other than a meeting or two and the wedding, would scarcely need any contact at all with her abominable family.
Now he sat in the Parsonage’s sitting-room, drinking in his fill of Elizabeth’s fine eyes and shiny, dancing curls. Darcy realised he had been silent since entering and extended some civilities.
Looking toward Mrs Collins he said, “This seems to be a very comfortable house. Lady Catherine, I believe, did a great deal to it when Mr Collins first came to Hunsford but I am certain the present lightness is owed all to you, Mrs Collins.” The compliment was genuine; he was surprised at the taste the present parlour afforded.
He was startled to hear Elizabeth reply, “I thank you Mr Darcy.”
In horror, he saw Mr Collins bound over to Elizabeth, put a hand on her shoulder and begin to speak, but Elizabeth interrupted. Her eyes looked strained, and there was a twinge of pink on her cheeks as she spoke. “I assure you she could not have bestowed her kindness on more grateful objects.”
Darcy looked incredulously at Jane, who gave her sister a sad smile.
“Oh, Lizzy! You forgot your lace cap again.”
“Forgive me.” Elizabeth murmured. She stood and searched the room for one. She looked in the mirror hastily as she placed it on her head. “I had just returned from a walk.”
Darcy’s heart shattered to see her spirits so low; to think of how often she must feel the need to flee her own home.
Mr Collins had sidled up to Darcy and whispered to him. “My dear Mrs Collins and I have but one mind and one way of thinking. There is in everything a most remarkable resemblance of character and ideas between us. We seem to have been designed for each other. And I wish you every bit of such similar felicity in your upcoming marriage to Miss de Bourgh.”
Before Darcy could stutter some response, the parson continued.
“And I believe you have done much to increase your betrothed’s affection by paying your attentions elsewhere instead of at Rosings for all these months. I know from experience. Mrs Collins rejected my proposals at first and claimed no great affection for me until I began to bestow my attention on my cousin Jane, and then Mrs Collins came gratefully to me. We have been blissfully happy since mid-December. So you see, sir, I am certain Miss de Bourgh will prove quite an eager bride.”
Mr Collins appeared entirely insensible that the occupants of the room had turned bright red during his speech as it grew in volume. That Mr Collins had been pushed towards Elizabeth had been evident to Darcy at the Netherfield ball, but he had no worries she would accept him. It had been abundantly clear Mrs Bennet expected Jane to marry Bingley. Shortly after the ball, Mr Collins must have proposed to Elizabeth, who refused him. Mr Collins then turned his eyes on Jane, undoubtedly encouraged by the absence of Bingley, and Elizabeth intervened on her sister’s behalf. The torment Darcy now understood—of seeing Elizabeth married to this ridiculous man, a man she could not respect and who could not treasure her—was his own doing!
He sat numbly in his chair, incapable of speech, as Collins carried on and on, and Colonel Fitzwilliam talked with the ladies, making them laugh. Elizabeth occasionally glanced at Jane, appearing to search her sister’s face, but more often than not looked mostly disconcerted. Jane was not in the best of humour either. Darcy perceived the difference in the way she accepted Colonel Fitzwilliam’s attentions to the way she had accepted Bingley’s, and making him increasingly uneasy.
“Mr Darcy.” Elizabeth’s voice was the only thing that could register in his mind at this point, and he turned his eyes to her.
“Pardon my distraction…” He could not bear to call her Mrs Collins.
“My sister was asking you if Mr and Miss Bingley, and Mr and Mrs Hurst, were in good health when last you saw them.”
He looked at Jane, who was quite pink. “Very, I had the pleasure of seeing them the day before last.”
Jane looked excessively relieved. Before he knew it, she had tears streaming down her face. “Oh, thank goodness. My aunt had written of several families in the area contracting a fever. You are certain Mr Bingley…that is, all of them, are quite well?”
Jane’s concern for Bingley was unmistakable. “Miss Bennet, I assure you the Bingleys and the Hursts were in the best of health when I left Town. I will be happy to forward your concerns to Mr Bingley and his family, though, and they do you great credit.”
Elizabeth looked at him sharply as he spoke, and Darcy was sure she perceived the truth. It was impossible to explain his regrets to her. As a married lady, he was only allowed to speak to her with the barest civility on a confined selection of topics, and under the present circumstances, found it nearly impossible to speak at all. But the distress and concern on her face for her sister, a sentiment he understood entirely, caused him to act when nothing else could. He simply could not allow Elizabeth to think ill of him.
“How long do you remain in Kent, Miss Bennet?” Darcy asked.
“I shall depart in two weeks.”
“And do you return to London?”
“Only for a day, sir.”
“That is quite unfortunate. My aunt informed me of your visit in her most recent letter, and I made mention of it to my friends when I recently spoke with them. They regretted they not had more time to visit with you while you were in London, and enthusiastically hoped to see you again.” It was near the truth, for Bingley certainly hoped to see Miss Bennet again; he still spoke of her.
Jane’s eyes lit and she looked to Elizabeth, who smiled and nodded. His message had been received. It now fell to him to explain the matter to Bingley and hope for his forgiveness.
At long last Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed ready to depart. Darcy looked around uneasily. He could never bear to call here again; to see Mrs Collins again.
While collecting his hat and gloves from the table near the main door, he overheard Elizabeth and Jane, who trailed behind. “You see, Lizzy! I told you Mr Darcy was not so awful. There was no wilful deceit to keep Mr Bingley from me. And I still believe Mr Wickham misunderstood the will.”
Darcy was blessed with sensitive hearing and so was well able to detect Jane’s whisperings to Elizabeth. The same could be said for his cousin Fitzwilliam, for suddenly Darcy was being hurried out the door. He had missed his chance to have even one last look at Elizabeth. He was left with the shattering knowledge that she had never even liked him and doubted his character entirely.
Darcy left the next day. He could not bear to be near Elizabeth any longer. Before his departure he also made it plain to Lady Catherine he would never marry his cousin Anne. Their reactions were entirely as he expected. Anne was clearly relieved and Lady Catherine spewed forth nothing but vitriol. He could almost wish for a permanent breach in the relationship. He knew not how he could ever return to Rosings and see Eliza…Mrs Collins, again.
Instead of returning to Pemberley in June as usual, he employed several masters for Georgiana through August. He could not in good conscience force her to remain in London during the most blistering month, but he loathed returning to Pemberley with the sure knowledge Elizabeth would never be its mistress.
Around four months later
August 7, 1812
“Oh Anne! It is in every way terrible!” Elizabeth sobbed on her now best-friend’s lap. She had just read a letter from her sister Mary recounting her youngest sister Lydia’s elopement with Mr Wickham.
“I should have told my family the truth of Wickham, after you revealed it. Oh, wretched, wretched mistake!”
“Shh, Elizabeth. It was not for you to tell, and who could ever guess a sister would act so foolishly?”
Elizabeth sobbed for a few minutes more and Anne spoke again. “Elizabeth, look at me. Your family will need you. If Mr Collins is to go to London to help your relations, you must take the barouche box to Longbourn.”
“But your mother…”
“Leave her to me.”
Nearly five months later
December 24, 1812
“Happy Christmas, Mama.” Elizabeth gingerly stepped down from the carriage, before stiffly embracing her mother.
“How can you say such a thing? Your first return to Longbourn since the death of dear Jane and your father, and you tell me it is a happy Christmas? This has been a most dreadful year.”
Elizabeth tried to swallow her tears of fury. She had given up much for her family’s sake and could barely tolerate beholding the estate now.
Her mother patted her daughter’s swollen belly, which was beginning to show she was with child. “I am certain the next year will be better. You will do your duty and bear a son. You owe your departed husband that. If only Lydia and Wickham were here!”
Elizabeth cringed. She alone knew the truth of how Lydia and Wickham were discovered in a squalid hotel in London. Wickham had never meant to marry Lydia at all. Her aunt refused to divulge more information than that.
Elizabeth could only imagine how much her uncle had to put out to bribe Wickham and settle the marriage.
How unjust it was that her disgraceful sister and her foul lover never became ill when a dreadful fever ran rampant in London. Both Elizabeth’s father and husband fell ill while searching London for Lydia. She was thankful that although the Gardiner family was affected, they all survived. It took her beloved Jane in August, as well. Dear Jane had just become engaged to Bingley in June. It was small comfort that Jane’s life ended at its happiest time.
Now her family’s very future swayed in the balance. Mr Collins left no will. Elizabeth had not known she was with child when he died. If she bore a son, he would be the rightful heir of Longbourn. If a daughter was born, the estate would pass to yet another distant male relation. Said relation was already married, with sons too young for Mrs Bennet to attempt to foist on one of her daughters. They knew nothing of the new heir’s character; who could say if he was mean spirited? At any rate, there would not be room enough for his family, in addition to the remaining Bennets, to all live at Longbourn. At least her friend, Anne de Bourgh, insisted Elizabeth would always have a home. Now Lady Catherine was gone; there would be no quarrelling over the matter.
Elizabeth knew she should be aggrieved at the loss of her husband, but she could not. He had never been cruel to her, but by his death Elizabeth had escaped the discredit and misery her father cautioned her of. The hazard of a marriage of so unequal affection had become quite clear in recent months. Not only could she never esteem her husband, her heart belonged forever to another.
April 10, 1814
Darcy could hear the baby fussing again. Elizabeth surely must be exhausted. Why did she not call for the nurse? Coming to a decision, he pulled on his breeches and strode from his room. He knocked lightly on the door he now knew to be Elizabeth’s sitting-room.
There was a pause, but then she opened it. Her eyes grew wide. “Mr Darcy!” She quickly curtsied.
He bowed. “M…” Darcy still could not bear to say her name. “Pardon the intrusion. Might I be of service in some way?”
“Oh! I am sorry if Janie woke you. We are not used to having guests in this wing.”
“It was no trouble, I was not asleep.” Darcy doubted he could ever sleep knowing Elizabeth was in the house.
“May I call the nurse for you?”
Elizabeth blushed. “I thank you, sir, but there is no nurse.”
“What can you be thinking?” he cried.
For a moment he saw a flash of Elizabeth’s ire, something he remembered fondly. Then she did something that surprised him exceedingly.
“Mr Darcy, might you come in here to continue this discussion?”
She did not move more than a step back as he came into the room, and her scent, still lavender, washed over him. She immediately shut the door. It was quite late and the rest of the house was certainly asleep. Still, it would not do for anyone to know Darcy was in her rooms.
“Mr Darcy, would you care to tell me how you believe you may help me care for my daughter? Or do you desire to tell me I am being ridiculous for not employing a nurse?”
“No, it is only that…I fear you will exhaust yourself. Why do you not employ one?”
“Anne allowed me to live here out of the goodness of her heart. She would not hear of me becoming her companion. At first I did not want to return to Longbourn, to sit waiting to know if I bore the heir. After Janie was born, I could not face my mother’s scorn.”
Darcy had heard Mrs Bennet reacted against Elizabeth. He still felt the need to repress his instant outrage at such behaviour. He had arranged with Mr Gardiner to provide the remaining Bennet ladies a comfortable cottage in Meryton, if they must leave Longbourn.
Darcy looked at the infant in her mother’s arms. She was as stunning at 10 months old as her mother was as a woman. How could Mrs Bennet be anything but grateful for this beautiful, darling child? He did not see any recognizable traces of Mr Collins but it hardly would have mattered to Darcy. It was love at first sight. He loved Elizabeth and he loved her child.
Elizabeth must have perceived the way he was staring at her child because she cleared her throat and gave him an odd look, before continuing.
“Other than the unexpectedly large portion left to Janie, I have no income of my own. Mr Collins left me nothing. A nurse can do nothing I cannot provide. I have no home to maintain or guests to entertain, nothing to take my attention. Anne was more than happy to allow me all the time in the world to dote on Janie.”
“But she has a fund that is to be used for…”
Elizabeth turned her eyes on him and he caught his mistake. He never meant for her to know. It was supposed to appear as an anonymous bequest from a distant Collins relative.
“Why, Mr Darcy? Why have you done so much for us?”
He closed his eyes. He detected no surprise in Elizabeth’s tone. She knew. How did she know? Darcy had asked Anne to keep a watchful eye over Elizabeth and the baby and Anne vowed to keep the confidence. The letters from Anne, which detailed Elizabeth’s contentment with life and joy in her daughter, was the only thing which could assuage the pain in his heart over the last thirty months.
She must have seen his confusion at her obvious knowledge. “Anne told me before she passed. I know it all and I can go no longer without expressing my gratitude for the generous compassion that induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications. I know you found Wickham and Lydia and…” her eyes filled with tears.
“Elizabeth, do not make yourself uneasy.”
His words seemed only to upset her more. She sat on a sofa, sobs racking her small frame. He sat next to her, his heart clenching more than he thought possible to bear. Seeking to give her some comfort, he took Janie from Elizabeth’s arms. She acquiesced, but Darcy could not stop his impulse to touch her in some way. He wrapped one arm around her and lovingly rubbed her shoulder. She buried her face in his chest. Darcy was torn between the feeling of completeness at having Elizabeth and her child in his arms, and knowing that, once again, he seemed to cause her anguish.
Eventually she stilled and fell into an exhausted slumber. Easing her out of his arm the best he could, he reclined Elizabeth on the sofa. Janie finally seemed ready to settle and, while he had not held a child since Georgiana was one and he twelve, he lovingly rocked and sang to her. She soon fell asleep but, rather than placing the babe in the crib in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, he settled in a chair across from Elizabeth’s sleeping form. His heart was in his throat as he held her baby in his arms, wishing he could claim mother and daughter for his own.
Elizabeth awoke and groggily looked for the crib, thinking she was in her bedroom. She quietly gasped seeing the man with the baby, sleeping together. She realized she had fallen asleep from relief and fatigue, after finally releasing her tears. Mr Darcy had settled her on the sofa. He had remained with them, asleep in the chair across from her. Janie’s precious face was nestled cosily onto his shoulder, her thumb in her mouth. Gingerly she lifted her child and took her to the crib.
Returning to the sitting room, she was unsure of how to proceed. It was entirely improper for Mr Darcy to remain, but she could see he needed the rest. She desired to speak further with him on several material points. But beyond that, she admitted she was simply happy to be in the same room with him; to see him again at last. When he first entered she could see he was as handsome as ever, in her eyes, but also tired and wearied as though he had lived through a great battle. Now he seemed at such peace. She decided to cover him in a blanket and allow him his rest. She curled up on the sofa, planning to keep watch over him.
She next awoke to Janie’s happy babbles. “Papapapa.”
“No, darling. Try saying Mama. I am sure she would be delighted.”
Darcy looked at her then, interrupting his migration of the room as he bounced Janie in his arms. “Good morning, Elizabeth.”
She smiled a little at his improper familiarity. She would have hated to hear “Mrs Collins” from his lips.
“Good morning, Mr Darcy. Good morning, Janie.” How curious! Usually Janie desired to nurse instantly upon waking, but she seemed exceptionally content with Mr Darcy.
“Has she been awake long?”
Elizabeth rose to take her daughter. “I must tend to her.” She paused. Colonel Fitzwilliam was now a resident of Rosings and the servants would be awake and there were appearances to keep. “Perhaps we might continue our discussion in the small blue drawing room in two hours?”
Darcy quickly agreed and discretely exited Elizabeth’s sitting-room.
Darcy leapt from his seat and bowed when Elizabeth arrived. Elizabeth explained Janie was asleep. She had asked a maid to watch over the babe. After the obligatory greetings they sat in strained silence. Darcy decided to forward the conversation.
“You must have many questions for me, but it might be easiest if you explain what you know first.”
Elizabeth met his eyes and seemed to search him for a long moment. “Very well.”
She chewed her bottom lip, clearly remembering things she would rather forget in an attempt to decide where to commence.
“I had always believed you were at least partially the reason Mr Bingley left Netherfield and did not return for the winter of ‘12. Your strange behaviour, even for you, when you arrived at the Parsonage near Easter confirmed this suspicion. You seemed most interested in Jane’s reaction to news of Mr Bingley. Knowing your character as I do now, I can only assume you once believed she did not care for him and had counselled him accordingly.”
“That is correct. I apologize. I was gravely mistaken…” Elizabeth waved her hand at him and he stopped short.
“Do give Mr Bingley the justice of being his own man. My sister and he discussed his transgressions before their engagement. I suppose she should have left him in no doubt of her affections, but surely you can see it is an intimidating thought to expose one’s emotions for all to see, when one has a private nature.”
Darcy gulped. He certainly knew how terrifying it was to love someone and have it not returned. He hoped he had been wise to conceal his affections from Elizabeth, where Jane had been unwise. Or was that yet another hypocrisy? He and Jane Bennet had been more alike than not in some ways.
“It was very kind of you to alert Mr Bingley of Jane’s presence in town. They were able to spend a few happy months together before they perished.” They were both silent for a moment. Although Bingley and Jane had been separated for many months their love was such that Bingley lost all desire to fight the fever after Jane passed.
“It was no more than my honour demanded.”
Elizabeth nodded her head. She knew he believed that to be true, but she sincerely doubted any other man would do so.
“You also made the acquaintance of the Gardiners and visited them frequently. I could not make you out and, as my friendship with Anne deepened, I asked her about you.” Elizabeth studied her hands and whispered, “She told me about Mr Wickham.”
Tears flooded Elizabeth’s eyes. That moment of protecting her pride had cost her and the Bennets dearly. “I chose not to say anything to my family, or warn them in any way. The regiment was soon leaving Meryton and, even after Lydia went away with Colonel Forster and his wife, I said not a word. Truthfully, I was ashamed of my past prejudices and did not want anyone to know. My pride brought my family terrible suffering.”
Darcy could not bear Elizabeth’s tears and he rose to sit beside her, giving her his handkerchief. “No, no. It was my pride. I did not wish to lay out my dealings openly before the world. I believed my character would speak for itself, but I was too blind to see how selfishly I disdained the feelings of others. I endeared myself to no one in Hertfordshire. Of course they would all trust Wickham over me.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “We will not quarrel over who shares more of the blame.”
Darcy could not agree but remained silent.
“You know my father and Mr Collins, along with my uncle, searched London for Lydia and Wickham unsuccessfully. My father never saw Longbourn again. He fell ill while at the Gardiners’. The whole house did, but mercifully only he and Jane succumbed.
“Naturally as soon as Mr Collins arrived in Kent he visited Lady Catherine. He fell ill there and never returned to the Parsonage. Then Lady Catherine and Anne soon fell ill. Somehow Anne survived, although she was weak until she finally passed, as you know. It was explained you could not attend Lady Catherine’s funeral because the doctor ordered Miss Darcy to Bath to recover.
“I returned from Longbourn the day after Mr Collins’s return, and had no contact with him, for he was already sick. The doctor would not allow it and Lady Catherine insisted I obey. I…I should have been there with him. It is a wife’s duty but I could not force myself to it. I was secretly happy Lady Catherine was adamant; she absolved me of being ungenerous towards the man I married.”
“Although you did not know it yet, you carried Janie. Would you have risked your health and hers if you could do it again?”
Elizabeth vehemently shook her head. “No, Janie is worth it all.”
“Then I insist you forget these reproaches.”
Elizabeth marvelled anew at just how good and kind Darcy really was. “Until just before Anne died, I had assumed my uncle found Lydia and Wickham. But I know now that Mr Bingley informed you of our troubles and you risked your health. You and Miss Darcy were stricken with the fever, yet you abandoned your sick bed to find the scourge and make him marry my sister.”
Darcy tried to speak but Elizabeth would not allow him. “But there is more! You settled Wickham’s debts and paid his commission. Then after learning my father and Mr Collins had passed, you created an elaborate hoax. You made it seem as though my father had set aside more funds for my mother and sisters then he had, and you bought a cottage for them, should it be needed. An anonymous bequest was made from a distant Collins relative to any children William Collins might have, which was your doing as well!
“Anne’s will left Rosings to Colonel Fitzwilliam, and there is a clause stating I may live in the Dower House as long as I like. Janie has ten thousand pounds put aside for her in addition to everything I save from the interest it earns. I will make it all part of her dowry. She will not be looked over due to her lack of wealth.”
Elizabeth’s last words were like a knife in Darcy’s heart.
“Elizabeth, I regret so much the pain my actions caused you. If I had not counselled Bingley against your sister, you would not have married Collins. You thought only of sparing Jane. She and Bingley would not have been in London and fallen ill.”
“No one forced me to marry Mr Collins. Jane did not have to consider marrying him and give up on being reunited with Mr Bingley or perhaps loving another man. He had not even made an offer for her! It was nothing but my own officious interference. I cannot truly repent it, for I love Janie so very much, but I made my own choice.”
“You are too harsh on yourself. If I had not pushed for us to leave Netherfield, I would have eventually shared the truth about Wickham, I believe. Your youngest sister would be safe from him, they never would have eloped, causing your father to enter the city. Lord knows I was more selfish and unfeeling than Wickham could ever be.”
“You cannot say such a thing!” Elizabeth cried. “Do not ever let me hear again you holding yourself responsible for that man’s actions!”
Darcy was shocked by the intensity of her voice, especially when she continued.
“You are the best man, the most honourable man. You must not say you are worse than he. He is in every way despicable and you…” She took a deep shuddering breath. “You are everything noble and just. You sacrifice your happiness to fulfil your duties. You care for all those in your charge, and even those for whom you have no official responsibility. You would lay down your life for those you love. You are tender and kind. What does Wickham know of these things? You made a mistake in judgement, but so have we all. Please, sir. No more of these words. You are not responsible for the fate of my family.”
Elizabeth hoped her admiration for Darcy was obvious, and her profession of it not abhorrent; she would not repeat her elder sister’s mistake. Anne had been firm in her insistence that he loved Elizabeth and had since meeting her. Elizabeth could scarcely hope it was still true, but she did observe that he held her in some kind of special regard. Why he would ever want her now was beyond comprehension. She spoke the truth earlier; displaying love openly was a terrifying prospect, but she had never been one to hide her true feelings. She likely would never see him again after he completed his duties as Anne’s executor, but she could not let him go without allowing him to know her heart; now it was up to him.
Darcy sat in stunned silence for some minutes before summoning the nerve to reply. “I am exceedingly sorry, I did not think Anne could be so little trusted. I never meant for you to know. I am sorry if this information makes you feel indebted to me. I accept your thanks but that is all I can accept.”
Elizabeth felt as though she had been slapped. “You will not accept my love? Foolish girl! How could I ever have thought differently,” she murmured. Angry tears of rejection and impotence filled her eyes.
Darcy closed his eyes in pain. “Nothing would make me happier than to have your love, but you offer gratitude and obligation instead. I have no wish buy your affection. I must earn it or not have you at all.”
Elizabeth’s face revealed her disbelief. “Gratitude! Of course I am thankful for how you helped my family, once I had learnt of it, but my love for you is of longer standing. I loved you before I knew of your involvement with Lydia’s affairs and settling my family. I loved you after I learned your character. You did the truly honourable thing in reuniting my sister with Mr Bingley; however briefly, they were together. You bore, and still bear, such abuse from Wickham. You must know he slanders your name whenever he can. You take the affront to protect your sister. I once thought you prideful, but no man of pride could bear those insults without ardent love.
“Anne told me of your admiration, and I never believed it, but I realised you must never have despised me as I had assumed. I married a man I did not respect only out of love for my sister, and despite his professions, he did not love me. I was but a silly girl. I expected to be unhappy, but my ideas of what would bring me happiness in marriage were so abstract I could not fully mourn what I lost by marrying him. While he still lived I began to wonder what it would be like to be truly loved, to be consumed with love. Of all the gentlemen of my acquaintance, you are the only one I have seen with that capacity. Steady but passionate, sacrificing everything for another. I see it in the way you care for your sister, in the way you revere your father and mother’s memory; in how you love your estate.
“And I confess now to my greatest sin. I coveted that love. I wanted it for myself even while I was married to another.”
Elizabeth’s face was scarlet and she covered it with her hands as she shed hot stinging tears. She felt Darcy’s arms around her, engulfing her, as she had long imagined in her dreams.
“Oh my love. My darling Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth looked up at him in confusion, and at last she understood the love that had always been reflected in his eyes. She could not think clearly given her relief and leaned forward to kiss him, but he stopped her.
“No, I want no more misunderstandings. I love you, Elizabeth. I have since nearly our first meeting. I once was arrogant and selfish, perhaps I still am. I am but a man. But I can promise you this: I already love you more each day than the last, so much so that I cannot apprehend how I still live from the crushing feelings. It does consume me; it steals my breath yet is what keeps my heart beating. I am nothing without you, nothing at all. Will you consent to be my wife? Let me love and cherish you. You and Janie both.”
Elizabeth smiled and soon dissolved into laughter. “Oh, Fitzwilliam. You have made me the happiest creature in the world.”
Darcy could only state his own happiness and added, “Perhaps we had to face so much sorrow to know so much joy.”
Elizabeth responded as passionately as a woman violently in love, and finally with leave to express it and have it returned, can be supposed to do.
They married two weeks later and Janie eventually welcomed three brothers and two sisters into the family. They were all loved equally and dearly by their parents. Darcy and Elizabeth were so constant in their love and joy that not even the occasional presence of Mrs Wickham at Pemberley or the near constant requests for money from the Wickhams and Mrs Bennet could affect their happiness.
When their children asked them about their courtship, they would only explain: “There were many trials, but we only remember the past as its remembrance brings us pleasure. It was worth it all and now we are the happiest creatures in the world.”