A gasp tore from Elizabeth’s mouth, and she raised up on an elbow. “Do you mean he—but she was a child! Why would he?”
“Some men have such vile hearts. I have learned we are not alone in this. It took years for him to develop a deep enough bond with Georgiana for him to…to consummate their relationship.”
The first time he spoke the words aloud, Darcy thought he might pass out. This was only the second time, and it was hardly better. Bile rose in his throat, and he bit his tongue to replace the taste in his mouth with blood.
“And your father never knew? No one knew? How could no one have knowledge of this?”
“Georgiana says it began when she was ten and ended when she started her courses. She started them late—for a time the physician was greatly worried for her. Apparently, that is not unusual in these cases.”
“I suppose by that age she would not be under a very watchful eye of a governess or bound to the nursery as much.”
“No, and he was always welcome to walk about with her. Do you understand? Most of the time she endured this hell was after my father died. When I ought to have protected her! I was too busy with everything else in life to notice. In the year after her courses began, he visited less and less. I had thought it was due to his aging. Georgiana’s moods varied wildly, and I believed sending her to school would be for the best. She needed the company of other girls her age.”
Darcy could feel the dampness from Elizabeth’s tears, his own fell on her hair. For several minutes, they said nothing to one another. Darcy allowed Elizabeth time to wrap her mind around what he had shared and consider any questions if she had them. He could not imagine revealing the truth to any other lady he knew. Something he had learned in the last several weeks was very few people could accept such scenarios as he had just described. He was told that people often did not mean to be cruel, but they simply could not accept a reality in which children were harmed in this way.
“Is your sister well? I can only imagine…” Elizabeth choked back a sob. “I can only imagine such things would wound deeply.”
“She is healing, at last,” Darcy said. “I cling to the proof of her improvement. Experiences with her abuser confused her greatly. She hated him but loved him. She loathed herself. She said nothing of this to me until recently. It was all too easy on a visit to Pemberley to transfer her feelings to memories of another man who gave her attention but had more promise of returning. I had not seen Wickham in nearly three years when he came asking for the living which was intended for him. He had voluntarily given it up after the deaths of our fathers as he intended to study the law. I gave him three thousand pounds in exchange for his agreement to give up any claim to the church. He spent two or three days in the area before seeking his request, as though two days of good behaviour would make up for my ill opinion of him for the better part of a decade.”
Disgust filled Darcy anew. “I did not know about the abuse. It was inconceivable to me that our friend would be so evil or that such atrocity even existed. Wickham, however, I knew and distrusted. Still, I did not enlighten my sister about him. About a year later, she completed her schooling, and I hired a companion for her. They asked to holiday in Ramsgate. I did not know the companion had previously known Wickham, who arrived soon after them. I unexpectedly arrived a day or two before their intended elopement.”
Elizabeth shook in his arms as sobs racked her.
“I am very sorry, my love. If I had exposed Wickham’s actions against my family, I could have prevented his wounding yours.”
“No,” Elizabeth cried. “No, you could not. Kitty eloped with another man. Lydia would have been just as eager to marry anyone—or especially any soldier. She was desperate to take precedence and get away.”
“Perhaps,” Darcy said as he stroked Elizabeth’s back. “However, she probably would have chosen a man who would actually marry her. I mean no insult, but Wickham would not be tempted to the altar by a woman with less than twenty thousand pounds, I would wager. If I had any way of supposing she had a tendre for him—”
“Exactly,” Elizabeth said. “You never would have suspected it. You cannot be held responsible for the thoughts of a silly girl.” She searched his eyes. “How did you know about this?”
“Georgiana grew sick in the same way your sister Jane did after the situation at Ramsgate. She had told me in happiness and had not supposed I would be so vehemently against their union. It seems nearly impossible for me to consider what she could have been thinking. I can only believe that her rationale was damaged so severely that she was incapable of proper thought.”
“Did she attempt to take her life?”
“No.” Sadness filled Darcy’s heart as he considered the painful loneliness Georgiana must have experienced. “I wrote to Wickham, and he immediately left the area. She was heartbroken that he did not even try to persuade me. After we returned to London, she grew morose, as I said. One day, I came to her chamber unexpectedly and found her cutting herself. I could scarcely believe it, but she had scars up and down her legs where she had been self-abusing for years.”
“But you got her help,” Elizabeth said in a sad voice which made Darcy realise she was comparing his actions with her parents.
“I hardly knew where to begin. I sought our rector, and he suggested religious training. I found physicians and more clergymen. One of them recommended a woman named Mrs. Annesley who had once worked in a hospital for the mad. Her husband had been a vicar. She combined her understanding of treating the ill with her faith.
All the others had told Georgiana she was lazy or faithless. They prescribed medications and stern treatment. I was not to coddle her. I must be harsh and blame her, let her know her errors, the potential shame she could bring to the family. She rarely spoke, but unless it was apologetic, I should not indulge it. Mrs. Annesley suggested allowing Georgiana time and space. We should be supportive and let her come to us in time. After a few weeks, she seemed to improve, but Mrs. Annesley told me it would not last. After a period of forced cheerfulness and what looked like a return to her usual self, we found her bleeding and curled up in a ball in her closet.”
Darcy took a deep breath, aware of Elizabeth now stroking his back as he had done for her. “When she recovered from that episode, she finally broke down and talked about the abuse. She did not see what was wrong with eloping with Wickham when they loved each other. She was certain he loved her because of the intimacies he took. Intimacies which she thought were perfectly natural since she had been taught them so young. She had been taught correct principles from others, but they came too late and had only confused her.”
A shudder racked through Darcy’s frame as he considered the next part. They were coming to the betrayal which stung the most. “My hatred for high society comes from this situation. I approached my uncle, an earl, who knew the gentleman very well. I asked what we could do. The man is also a peer, and I knew suits against them do not fare well and was uncertain if there had ever been such an allegation. I also did not wish for Georgiana to have to testify or for her name to be brought up at all. My uncle, at first, refused to believe Georgiana’s claim. After speaking with her, he accepted her story but said we should do nothing. He said these things happened, and they were unfortunate, but it would be much worse to discuss them. He went so far as to say that if I sought justice or spoke of it to anyone else, he would deny it all and cast aspersions upon her and me.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I would say I cannot believe family would treat you in such a way but I, too, know that pain. I am proud of you, though. When denied the opportunity to seek legal redress, others would find the man and give their own justice by the sword or a gun. However, I do not think that sort of revenge gives the peace one desires. It would create a scandal, and you could even be hanged for it. You have been exceedingly strong, sensible, and honourable when others would not be.” She pressed a kiss where her head lay over his heart.
Darcy could not hardly see the merit of her words. He did not feel as though he had done anything heroic. He simply loved his sister and would not give up on her, just as he would not give up on Elizabeth. That is what one did when they loved. Exhausted, they spoke no more, and Darcy fell into a restful sleep for the first time in months.
Elizabeth awoke with her back pressed against Darcy’s check. He wrapped his sore arm around her waist, and his breath tickled the back of her neck. She had lain awake for a considerable time the night before as she thought about all Darcy had said. She had been so sheltered before leaving Longbourn. She knew leaving was the right decision and yet she had supposed it was the harshest life a gentlewoman could have ever had. She knew there were whisperings of very young prostitutes.
One time while visiting the Gardiners when she was fourteen, she saw an excessively pretty girl who could not be much older than she was standing outside a tavern. A man approached her and put a coin in her hand before they walked around the alley and out of view. Elizabeth had seen such things in passing many times. It was a fact of living in London and not in the Mayfair district. Gracechurch Street was not a dangerous area, but you could buy all manner of things in Cheapside and the flesh was one of the best selling commodities. Ladies such as her were often run off. Shopkeepers in the district did not want them offending families or well-to-do ladies, but Mrs. Gardiner had explained it would be worth the risk if they had even one client who paid more. Elizabeth recalled the scene only because of the girl’s youth. She had very few of the womanly looks about her. For years, Elizabeth held it in her mind as an acknowledgment that at least her life was better than that girl’s. She had never considered that such things could have happened to her sisters or neighbours, under the noses of their parents and guardians.
Elizabeth also had not thought such deviants wore gentleman clothes. Even after her disillusionment with Wickham, she acknowledged he had always been merely pretending to be a gentleman. His father had been a solicitor and then a steward. Despite Wickham’s words that his father had been devoted to Darcy’s, she supposed the elder Wickham would not have become his steward if he were not offered more money. What existence did he have before if becoming a servant—albeit a high and independent servant—made more money than being a solicitor? She supposed it must have been like all the poor country curates. It was far easier to be educated at University and seek employment than it was to find a position.
Having the highest opinion, previously, of her Uncle Gardiner and many of his merchant friends, Elizabeth did not presume that good values were only found among the gentry. However, her other uncle was often given to over-indulgence of port and was as crude and vulgar as his wife. By contrast, she had never seen such displays from her Bennet relations. She had to admit to herself that the gentry were more polished. She had fooled herself into believing it meant there could be no ugliness in that world.
Poor Miss Darcy! Elizabeth could not conceive going through the trials the wealthy young miss did. To be used by George Wickham as part of his dispute with her brother and for her inheritance did not surprise Elizabeth. She had never considered it before, but the wealthy had their trials. A few weeks ago, she might have meanly even thought that it was fair compensation for all they could enjoy with their riches. However, to be attacked by a family friend…
Elizabeth knew she had never been assaulted but what of her sisters? Jane was always uncommonly beautiful. Did she hide a secret such as Miss Darcy which caused Mr. Bingley’s defection spiral her into grief? She could think of no one who visited as often as it sounded like Mr. Darcy’s friend did. Mr. Bennet did not have many friends. He was a private man and disliked Society. She did visit the Gardiners in London. Elizabeth hesitated to consider if her uncle were capable of such things but then she acknowledged the point must be that it was well-hidden. However, in Miss Darcy’s situation, the man had befriended her to the exclusion of others. Elizabeth could not recall that ever being the case with Mr. Gardiner or anyone else Jane had ever known.
Mentally shaking her head, Elizabeth resolved that Jane’s melancholy must have derived entirely from Bingley. From Bingley to his sisters, Elizabeth’s mind jumped. Did the false friends understand the cost of their actions? They made her their plaything. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst had promoted a friendship with Jane and then abandoned her when they returned to London. Everyone had taken their willingness to befriend Jane as proof of Mr. Bingley’s growing attachment to her. Mrs. Bennet had declared Jane would soon be the mistress of Netherfield and only stopped short of ordering wedding clothes by Jane’s pleading and her husband’s adamant declaration that he would not pay the bill. Elizabeth had laughed at the folly of it all at the time.
She had laughed at so much. She had always chosen to laugh rather than cry. There was no shortage of heartache or grief in the world. Instead, she latched on to the fleeting moments of joy she could find. Her desire to find mirth made her excuse the behaviour of her family. She had told herself, sometimes a thousand times a day, that they meant no harm—indeed they were harmless. Mr. Bennet’s teasing criticism of his wife held no evil. When it descended to his daughters, well it was just his way of showing affection. Her mother’s anxious wailings about their future were nothing but a conscious bid for attention and distinction. With five daughters about, there was always one who could soothe her. Sharp words from her mother to Elizabeth were always well-deserved or due to the matron’s silly and ill-formed mind. Elizabeth only saw the rough edges of her family due to her proximity. Surely all others saw them only in a good light. However, if they did not, it did not bear worrying about. Elizabeth did not care for the opinion of strangers.
Then, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy arrived in Hertfordshire and turned everything on its head. How she had hated Mr. Darcy! Even more, Elizabeth hated how she cared for his opinion. His rejection at the ball stung. His continual disapproval of the Bennets and Meryton bothered her far more than she wanted to admit at the time. After Lydia and Kitty eloped, Elizabeth could see that it was because she knew it was all well-deserved censure. Now, she considered that during all this time the wonderful man holding her had been through hellish trials she could barely conceive.
Even now, she felt the proof of his ardent desire against her. She suspected he was awake, but he made no move to seduce her or take advantage of his state. Elizabeth had suggested they share the bed and while they slept, their bodies had found each other. In the days since, she grew to understand the strength and comfort one could draw from the embrace of another.
Darcy loved her so much! Her heart fluttered at the thought. If she could turn back time and be the Elizabeth Bennet he had known in Hertfordshire, she was sure she would be in love with him by now. Darcy was the most honourable man she had ever met. It was not a façade he wore only when times were easy. He did not placate or charm but instead was honest and frank. He was reserved, it was true, but that was no crime. There was a time when being of good character and loving her was all she had ever wanted in a spouse. It was all it would have taken to win her heart. Maybe someday, it would be again.
Elizabeth stroked the hand that rested on her waist.
“Good morning, my love,” he whispered into her neck.
A shiver ran down Elizabeth’s spine, and goose pimples erupted over her flesh. She was beginning to love how he could affect her. “Did you sleep well?” she asked.
“I have not rested so well in months. Thank you for listening and your understanding last night.” He nuzzled his face into the space between her neck and shoulder. “Your skin is so soft,” he murmured as he kissed her exposed flesh.
Darcy’s hand around Elizabeth’s waist tightened. His palm stretched almost entirely from under breast to her hip. The single motion of reflexively clenching his fist, resulting in a moderate increase in pressure has his digits ran over her covered skin combined with his growing ardour was the headiest sensation she had ever felt. He ran a finger in lazy circles over her side, making her dizzy as she arched her neck to give him further access to explore.
She felt him take a deep inhale against her and hold it before releasing his breath. She imagined he ached in longing as she did.
“We should rise for the day,” he declared before releasing her and sitting up.
Elizabeth had never hated the idea of awakening more.