Just a final note here. You should know by now that I don’t write perfect people. Darcy’s made some mistakes, Wickham’s made some mistakes, Elizabeth has made some mistakes. As I said in my previous post, if you can’t handle a less than evil Wickham, don’t read this story. I have plenty of others that do offer that. I am saying this bluntly. I share on my blog and free forums to give back to the JAFF community, not to get editors. If you notice a typo or word usage error etc., I’ll gladly hear about it but the truth is that will be fixed by my final editor and proof reader. My stories have already been through the plot development stage. Your opinion is as valid as ever and feel free to vent it. I just wanted to be sure others understood that I don’t write for someone’s good opinion and won’t change my stories for them. If a comment is intended to make me change my story or my mind, it’s not going to happen. If that displeases you and can lead to frustration then maybe skip commenting.
Elizabeth wiped at her eyes all the way back to Lambton but was determined to regret Mr. Darcy no more. She could never love a man who had such a cold heart. She had thought there was more to him. She knew it was due to pain more than hatred. While she pitied him and her heart yearned to comfort him, there could be nothing else.
The time of her visit to the area was drawing to a rapid close. They would leave the morning after Twelfth Night, making the ball Mr. Wickham planned her last day in the area. They now saw him every day at either the inn, the office, or Mr. Fisher’s. At each encounter, Mr. Wickham fixated conversation on the ball. It was evident to Elizabeth that all of his hopes and dreams were centered on the plan. His enthusiasm caught to others, and soon there was not a resident in Lambton that did not look forward to the ball. Elizabeth heard of it everywhere she went.
“There is not a man on this earth as good as young Wickham,” the milliner said to a customer one day.
“How splendid it will be to enjoy Christmas in the old way once more,” the customer replied. “I suppose he inherited more of the Christmas spirit than the new master of Pemberley did.”
“His father would be ashamed,” the milliner agreed.
It hurt Elizabeth’s heart to hear Mr. Darcy spoken of that way. Elizabeth could see all too easily how it might appear to him. George Wickham was once again the favoured man. Elizabeth asked him about it one day.
“Do you not see how it might appear to Mr. Darcy?” she asked.
“Why should you care what Mr. Darcy feels about my ball?”
Elizabeth had no ready answer.
“If you were to ask me, you care rather too much about all things Mr. Darcy. You have not been alone on all those walks have you?”
Elizabeth blushed. “I suppose you will tell to beware.”
George shook his head. “Darcy would never dally with a lady’s feelings. If he has given you encouragement, then I wish you joy. He has earned the admiration of the worthiest lady, and you will have the love and devotion of an honourable man. I congratulate you most sincerely.”
“There will be no need for congratulations,” she said and avoided George’s eyes. She would not let him see her cry. “I have offended him too many times and spoken too openly. And he…he cannot forgive you.”
George touched Elizabeth’s arm so she would look at him. “Have you refused him due to our friendship? I would never wish you to deny your heart.”
Elizabeth’s lip quivered. “He did not ask, and I did not refuse. We value different things.” She attempted a shrug, but it seemed more like a shudder. “You do not wish him ill?”
“I have never wished him ill,” George said. “I can understand too well his reasons. I was not entirely truthful in our first conversation about him. Forgive me, I wished to impress a pretty new acquaintance. However, I will give my dear wife’s brother the benefit of acknowledging he has many reasons to distrust me. I can never deserve his forgiveness.”
As Lambton came to life with Christmas decorations, a somberness settled in Elizabeth’s heart. The very thing she most looked forward to, she now dreaded. The name of Mr. Darcy fell from everyone’s lips and continually in the disappointed way the milliner had spoken. She longed to tell them the truth—to illuminate the reasons why Christmas was too difficult for him to celebrate with the sort of joy he once had. Explaining it to others would be a violation of his privacy, but also would make her acknowledge that he was unlikely to ever change.
At last, Twelfth Night arrived. Elizabeth had spent the day packing and rearranging her clothes so she might avoid the incessant conversation of all things ball and Wickham related. Her aunt had imagined an attachment between them and did much to promote it.
When Elizabeth arrived in Derbyshire, she was eager for Christmas festivities to erase the heartache she had endured since Lydia’s death. Now, seeing each decoration was merely a reminder of the pain Mr. Darcy must be feeling. How she wished she had not left things as they were between them.
At the appointed hour, Elizabeth dressed in her finest gown. It was nothing like a real ball gown, of course. She had never thought to bring one. Since Mr. Darcy would not be in attendance, she hardly felt it mattered. There was no one she desired to impress.
“Do you not look forward to this last evening with our friends?” Mrs. Gardiner asked. “I think Mr. Wickham planned the entire thing out of preference for you.”
Elizabeth kept a sigh to herself and only shrugged her shoulders as she glanced out the upper window. “The sooner we leave Derbyshire the better.”
She heard the steps of her uncle behind her. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Chin up, Lizzy. He is not worth all that. I always thought great men were very fickle in their manners.”
His words crushed Elizabeth’s heart even more. It was not Mr. Darcy’s manners that were the problem. He had loved so deeply and been hurt too many times to try again. She was not enough to replace all that he had lost.
“I say, Maggie, come and look,” Mr. Gardiner said. “What do you think is the matter out there?”
Although Elizabeth had directed her eyes out the window, she had not really been paying attention to what was outside. Now, she saw a crowd of people being barred from the inn. They called back names in anger.
“I will ask Sally what is going on,” Mrs. Gardiner said and left to inquire with the maid stationed to the floor. She returned a few minutes later, frowning. “They are not admitting the lower classes. Now, the proprietor says he will not allow anyone not paying for a room since his dining rooms will be used. He is demanding a ticket price to cover the empty rooms.”
“I thought Mr. Wickham had arranged everything with him.”
“So had I,” Mr. Gardiner said. “He seemed most scrupulous.”
“There must be some mistake,” Elizabeth said.
The others agreed, and they made their way below. A few burly men stood with folded arms at the entrance of the inn. The proprietor spoke with Mr. Fisher, dressed for the ball, who looked nervously around the area already filled with several merchants in Christmas finery before leaving to talk to Mr. Wickham. When they had finished, Wickham made his way to their assembled group.
“This is an awful mess,” Wickham hung his head. “I had not thought Stevens would demand a ticket price. If he were going to do that, he might have said it when I spoke with him. I do not know that I would have agreed, but it is too late to change plans now.”
Mr. Gardiner frowned. “It was likely a deliberate move. I suppose you do not have a contract.”
“For a ball?” Wickham sadly shook his head. “I may be a solicitor by trade, but I do not agree with contracting everyone and everything. I have paid for the use of the tavern area and the staff. He can hardly be less any rooming business for it. What can he be thinking?”
“It is no use in worrying about what has made him do this,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “The better use of our time is to consider on what to do. There is a large crowd of people who were expecting Christmas festivities. They grow angrier by the moment, and I think many were half in their cups before arriving.”
“Outside,” Elizabeth said. “We shall hold the ball outside.”
“Is it not too cold?” Mrs. Gardiner frowned.
“Not if you are dancing,” Elizabeth grinned. “Some of the shopkeepers could open their front room. Clear out their stock and open the area for those who are cold.”
“It might work,” Wickham nodded. “However, there is the matter of refreshment. I do not think Stevens will give us the use of his staff or kitchens.”
“Whatever people have ready, they can bring to share. We shall feast and make merry, and it does not need to be grand or elaborate.” Elizabeth felt as though the Christmas spirit was finally catching in her again.
Wickham and her aunt and uncle agreed with her suggestions. Mrs. Gardiner left to tell her father and friends of the change in plans as did Mr. Wickham. In a matter of minutes, Elizabeth and Mr. Gardiner were corralled in helping shops clear their front room or bring out refreshments from their kitchens. The whole of Lambton, save Mr. Stevens who now pleaded for Wickham to return to the inn and there would be no ticket sale, had turned out to help. The site brought tears to Elizabeth’s eyes. To see so many people working together toward a common goal was nothing short of beautiful.
Knowing the ball would be an abbreviated affair, the attendants packed as much amusement as they could into a short time. Elizabeth had never seen a more energetic group of dancers, heard livelier music, tasted sweeter wine or better food. There was not a single face without a smile except hers. She was glad it all worked out well. That she knew, but she could not be light-hearted when her heart rested five miles away with a man who would never again now the thrill of joy. While everyone else was consumed in the entertainment, she slipped away to a secluded corner to hide her tears of pain and regret.