Previous Chapters: One / Two / Three
For the first time in three years, Darcy awoke feeling something other than the weight of his sister’s demise on his heart. At first, it had been a crushing and searing pain which made it hard to breathe or focus. Over time, it morphed into a stony coldness.
Yesterday, he had handed out the Boxing Day boxes to his servants and tenants. In the final year or two of Georgiana’s life, she had performed the task. Darcy could still recall the pride he felt seeing his sister fill their mother’s shoes and doing the duties of a mistress of an estate. He had never understood why she would give that up for George Wickham. Still, his anger with George had reduced to a simmer. He acknowledged the memories of Georgiana but no longer felt despair. However, he also could not feel any happiness as the families welcomed him inside and thanked him for his generosity. In each home joy and love was nearly tangible and yet he could not reach out and grasp it. It was like a puff of smoke which vanished at the slightest movement.
Meeting Elizabeth yesterday changed all that. He felt more with her than he had in years and it had been that way at each encounter. It could not only be her beauty—for he had seen lovelier ladies in London. She was not coy or flirtatious. She did not set out to garner his notice. No, she was refreshingly honest and genuine. More than this, she too had known the loss of a sister. Elizabeth could not understand the similarities in their stories, but soon he would tell her. He had never shared the information with another soul—even his family. However, unburdening himself to Elizabeth seemed exactly right.
Planning to call on her at the inn, he ordered a bouquet of flowers to be prepared from the greenhouse. At the edge of his property, he halted the carriage and plucked a few holly stems to add to the bouquet. If he were feeling bolder, he would have looked for mistletoe. With any luck, he would dine again with Mr. Fisher during the holiday season, and that gentleman might have some hanging. Or, better yet, they could continue to meet privately in addition to public courting.
Darcy shook his head to dispel his wayward thoughts. Private encounters and the luxuries experienced must be reserved for another time. Suddenly, he realised he had been so intent on seeing Elizabeth that he had not considered what to say. She had led all their previous conversations—one nothing but angry retorts, and the other two full of mourning their losses.
He knew the taste of her lips, the feel of her in his arms, the compassion and sympathy of her heart, and the loyalty of her soul—but he did not know if she preferred dancing or reading. If she played pianoforte or would rather indulge in cards in the evening. Darcy smiled as he thought of getting to know all of Elizabeth and for once he did not dread conversation with another.
Arriving at the inn, the maid showed him up the stairs to the suite of rooms the Gardiners rented. The first thing Darcy saw when the door opened was Elizabeth wearing a radiant smile. The next thing was the Christmas decorations, which were so sparse elsewhere in the town. He chuckled to himself as he now knew the reason for her thievery. His eyes were so consumed with her beauty and his mind so pleasantly engaged, he did not register anyone else in the room. A voice he had hoped to never hear again killed his joy.
“Darcy! What are you doing here?” George Wickham asked.
Darcy looked at the man he blamed for his sister’s death. No, that was not the reason rage now built in his heart. It was that George sat next to Elizabeth and, as his eyes now roved the area—had also brought a bouquet. Was George trying to court Elizabeth? How did they even meet? Why did she say nothing during their conversation yesterday? If she enjoyed Wickham’s company then why did she welcome his kisses so much? Was this all a plot against him?
Darcy realised all the occupants of the room stared at him, expecting a response. The colour had drained from his face, but he needed to say something. Elizabeth looked at him, a hopeful expression on her face. “I have requested permission to call on Miss Bennet. What are you doing here, George?”
George started, and even Elizabeth looked taken aback.
“Mr. Wickham is merely returning our call,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Allow me to take these, are they for Lizzy?” She asked as she took the bouquet from Darcy’s hands.
“Yes, ma’am.” He looked at Elizabeth and then Mr. Gardiner. “I hope you will not think it too forward of me.”
Elizabeth beamed. “I do not know of any lady who turns away flowers—and such a beautiful bouquet.”
“You seem to know about Lizzy’s love for holly,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Oh, please be seated.” She motioned to a chair as she belatedly realised she had missed that piece of civility.
Darcy boldly took her now empty position next to Elizabeth. With Wickham in the room, he would not Elizabeth out of his earshot. For a moment, nothing was said. Darcy and Wickham stared at each other with Elizabeth in the middle. How had Wickham known? How did he always try to take what was most precious from Darcy? First his father, then his sister, now Elizabeth.
The direction of his thoughts propelled Darcy to say something. How could he count Elizabeth as so crucial to his life already? Nor did he relish the idea of being in love. He never wanted to experience the anguish of losing a loved one again. “It was delightful to see you at your father’s, Mrs. Gardiner. I am sure your parents are pleased about your visit.”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Gardiner smiled. “My father has relished telling everyone old stories of all my childhood mishaps and pranks. I would blush, but it is a parent’s prerogative to embarrass their child—apparently regardless of age.”
“I would agree with you,” Wickham said. “My father enjoys endless tales of my exploits. Even more than that, he relives the days of his friend and companion Mr. Darcy. Does Mr. Fisher ever speak of the old master?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Gardiner nodded. “He highly revered him.” She paused and caught Darcy’s eye. “However, he also greatly respects the current master of Pemberley. I hope I do not embarrass you too much by saying so to your face, Mr. Darcy.”
Wickham had been inexplicably rude to speak like that and Darcy nodded as he accepted Mrs. Gardiner’s form of an apology. “Few men could hear themselves praised by a gentleman as upstanding as Mr. Fisher and not be humbled. I am pleased to have earned his respect, and he certainly has mine.”
“No greater claim than this can any man have,” Mr. Gardiner said as he raised up his teacup as though in a toast. “To have the respect of his honourable peers is all he could want in life.”
“I would add that a gentleman might want a wife to be a blessing to him. The gift of a loving woman is surely a balm to many a man who has not garnered the respect of their fellows,” Wickham said.
Darcy’s hands tensed. To avoid being noticed, he occupied them with the tea Mrs. Gardiner served them. He remained silent until the others discussed some matter of Lambton life with George. He turned a bit to Elizabeth, who seemed to notice his movement immediately.
“How has your day passed?” he inquired.
“We were surprised to have a visit from Mr. Wickham,” Elizabeth whispered. “I had expected someone else when I heard the knock.” She gave him a meaningful look. “I fear I quite insulted him with the disappointment on my face. I have been attempting to make it up by being as civil as possible.”
Darcy glanced at the man who had been a thorn in his side all of his life. Although he listened to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Darcy thought he could tell that Wickham attempted to watch the interaction between Darcy and Elizabeth. “Your aunt said that he was returning your call?”
“Before Christmas, I was admiring the window displays at his office. He invited us in for tea. We sat with him and his father for many minutes.”
“How was Mr. Wickham?” Darcy asked in genuine concern. The man had supposedly retired for his health sake but then opened his old law practice and became a recluse as soon as George finished his studies.
“Aging and I suppose he does not do much of the work at the practice. However, his pride in his son was unmistakable.”
Darcy knew it to be true. “Have you seen the younger Wickham since then?”
“No. We were busy over Christmas. However, his visit did put us in good cheer for he hopes to host a Twelfth Night Ball at the inn and has asked for our particular assistance in planning the festivities.”
“A Twelfth Night Ball,” Darcy said in a voice which could freeze water.
Elizabeth met Darcy’s eyes. “Yes. Many people enjoy such frivolity, especially at the Christmas holiday. I hear your parents used to host them so you ought not to look as though you have never heard of such a thing.”
Oh, he had heard of them. He only wondered how Wickham was funding it. “What do you imagine my objection is?”
“Me?” Elizabeth feigned innocence. “I did not say you objected to the ball.”
“No, but your reaction to my words was clear. You believe I disapprove. You may as well tell me what you think is the cause of my dislike.”
“I suppose you do not condone anything but pious worship through the holidays.”
“Nonsense,” Darcy said. “I will say, however, if the ball does proceed, I hope to obtain your hand for a set or two.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I do not know that I should grant them to you. I think you will be rather a trial to dance with.”
“I am an excellent dancer.”
“Then I ought to refuse for certain. There is little use in a lady having a superior partner. You will only make me look inept in contrast.” Elizabeth held her lips together as though she were hiding a laugh.
“Do not tempt me to do something drastic before your relations,” he warned.
Elizabeth sobered, but a curious look entered her eyes. “I shall inquire more later. For now, I forfeit. I do not know why you seemed unhappy to hear about the ball if you do not hate dancing or the holiday.”
“I am no friend of dancing,” said he, “however, I cannot like you with another man. Even more, I cannot bear to see you with the man who murdered my sister.”
Beside him, Elizabeth gasped. “Are we not safe?”
“You are perfectly safe,” and he would do his best to ensure she always was. “I will explain more later.”
There was a lull in conversation between the others, and Wickham withdrew his watch. “I must be going. However, I hope this was the first of many delightful visits during your holiday in the area. Well, the second visit I should say.” He glanced at Darcy. “I will bid you adieu and look forward to our next encounter.” He then bowed to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and, turning to Elizabeth, took her hand in his and brought it nearly to his lips. “It has been most enchanting, Miss Bennet.”
Darcy glared at his back as he realised he had never hated the man more. Elizabeth visibly relaxed at his exit.
“Are you well, Lizzy?” Mrs. Gardiner asked. “You seem flushed.”
“Perhaps some fresh air,” Darcy suggested. “I would be pleased to escort you.”
Mr. Gardiner gave his assent, and Darcy beamed with pride to have Elizabeth at his side as he walked the streets of Lambton. He had expected for her to take his arm, however. All thought of what he might say to her had vanished when he saw Wickham in the room. Now, everything he wished to speak could not be said so openly. They reached the edges of the town and Elizabeth ceased her movement. Tilting her head, she stared up at him with a defiant look.
“Explain yourself, sir!”
“What do you mean?”
“I tire of the fluctuations in your character and demeanor,” she said as she rubbed her temples. “You are kind, warm, and generous in one moment and in the next, you are cold and spiteful. You accuse a man of killing your sister and yet I must surmise there is no evidence for he walks free.”
“Do you not see the common reasons for my coldness? My sister is dead, and it is because of him,” he spat the final words. He thought Elizabeth understood.
“No, I do not see any reason. I do not know the circumstances of her death,” she added in a more subdued tone. “However, I think I know enough of your character that if she had truly died at Mr. Wickham’s hands, then you would not rest until justice was served.”
Darcy gently took Elizabeth by the elbow and lead her further down the path. If it were warmer, he would find a hidden tree for them to sit under. He would hold her in his arms as he spoke the painful truth. However, he did not wish for her to catch a chill. Walking would have to suffice.
“You already know that George Wickham has been connected to my family since his birth. I explained that my father sent him to school. He was very fond of George. At the time, it seemed, to me, he took greater joy in the steward’s son than in me. I now realise my father was harsher on me because he was my parent and I would one day bear great responsibility. However, what it meant was that neither one of us were much at ease with the other.”
Elizabeth nodded but remained silent. Darcy was sure this was not the information she wished to know. “My sister had a sensitive and tender heart. Although I soon broke contact with George after my father’s death, she retained only happy memories of him. Too grieved to explain the matter to her—as indelicate as it would be for a lady’s ears—I did not wish to make her think poorly of our father. She never knew of Wickham’s perfidy. After she finished her schooling, she requested to go to Ramsgate with her governess. She was to meet two or three other friends there. I was busy with estate business and could not chaperone her the entire time. However, her friends did not come or did not stay as long as she had thought, I gather because soon the only acquaintance she had in the area was Mr. Wickham. He appeared by design. I discovered later that he had previous knowledge of the governess. He convinced Georgiana that they were in love and to consent to an elopement.”
“You did not think your sister was the only one to think herself run away with love, did you?” He took her small hands in his and squeeze them. “When they returned from Scotland, they visited Pemberley. George did not have sufficient income to keep his wife. There was not adequate space in the house in Lambton, and they had both thought better of their elopement. He thought it would be better to have my sister remain at Pemberley while he worked to secure better arrangements. They would then marry in the church as an elopement would upset Mr. Wickham.”
Darcy sighed as the old pain emerged. He welcomed it compared to the months of nothingness he had felt. “I agreed to the suggestion. I hoped I could convince Georgiana to not continue with the marriage plans. A Gretna Green marriage could be argued as invalid or illegal. She was underage, and in England, it never would have happened. I never would have consented. However, even a Gretna Green marriage is not so easily undone when the couple lives as man and wife.”
Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears. She could guess what came next.
“My sister was soon with child. She felt no remorse at their secret marriage. She was filled only with the joy which I imagine most new mothers feel. She loved that baby, and she loved her Wickham. I chose not to argue, I did not want to risk her health. Plans for a church wedding were halted. They would simply present the marriage as a fait accompli.”
“But she continued living at Pemberley?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yes. We thought it best until George could procure better lodgings.”
“Was there nothing you could do for them? What about the living he had been intended for?”
“It was given to another shortly after he rescinded all claim to the post. As a solicitor there was only so much in my sphere of influence I could do.”
“But you said he killed your sister! He did nothing more than any other husband. You could find yourself in such a position one day.”
As Elizabeth said the words, it felt as though she punched him the gut. Would he one day see her as lifeless as his sister? The thought tore at his heart. Would he give up whatever claim it was she had on him to prevent such an occurrence? Only celibacy and spinsterhood could entirely prevent such a possibility. He could hardly fathom her leaving to return to Hertfordshire let alone never marrying—or far worse, marrying anyone but him.
“Who can I blame, Elizabeth? Who is to blame but George?”
“I do not know,” Elizabeth said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “It is a circumstance of life—an accident. No one is to blame.”
“Then why do you grieve for your sister so?”
“If I had given her more attention. If I had not teased her. Perhaps she would not have desired to marry so young. Perhaps she would not have desired to prove herself. She would not have eloped. She would not have died. I can only blame myself.”
Darcy could not stand the sight of Elizabeth sobbing and shivering. He pulled her into his embrace. He held her close and rested his head atop of hers. Soon, both their tears mingled on his jacket.
“I cannot blame her,” Darcy said. “She was too young. Of course, she thought she was in love.” He gripped her tighter. “I can only blame myself. It is my fault. She wished to leave me. I withheld her dowry. If I had given them her money, they would have had different living situations.”
Elizabeth drew back then. “You denied them her portion?”
“I was convinced it was all George wanted. Thirty thousand pounds is a substantial sum.”
“Why, that would be nearly as much as my father’s income! They could have leased a large house. Far better than living above a solicitor’s shop.”
“It would have still been nothing to Pemberley. It is not as though I made her live in some shack exposed to the elements.”
“You ought to have given them the money,” Elizabeth insisted. “You broke her heart.” She dropped her head and whispered something.
Elizabeth turned to walk away, and Darcy did not follow after her. Her final words echoed in his mind, but instead of seeing that he had broken Georgiana’s heart, all he could think about was those final whispering words. He had broken her heart.