Have your tissues handy!
The autumn chill stole around Elizabeth as she sat in a chair beside her father’s bed. Bone weariness sapped her of strength, and she might have ignored the cold, but she feared for her father. She must be certain her father was sufficiently covered and then poke the fire before returning to slumber.
Sunshine barely peeked through the window, evident earlier in the day as the trees had shed their leaves. Outside, a bird chirped a cheery tune. As the fog of sleep left Elizabeth, she recognised, with growing dread, that the cold she felt emanated from the icy grip of her father’s hand around her fingers.
“Papa?” Elizabeth whispered more as a prayer than an attempt to wake him.
Vainly, she watched for a slow breath to raise his chest. Squeezing his hand, she felt no indication of life in the digits surrounding hers. Through tear-filled eyes, she viewed his face, the lips now slightly blue.
“Papa!” Elizabeth threw herself on his chest and sobbed.
Underlying the nearly insensible grief that consumed her, one thought filled Elizabeth with sorrow above all others. The person who best understood her and accepted her follies and foibles was now gone from the world. They had shared a thousand secret jokes and sly glances. They could speak to one another with a look or expression more than mere words.
Elizabeth loved her sisters and mother. Jane was the sweetest creature in all the earth. Lydia and Kitty, at least, understood her more vivacious ways. Mary appreciated Elizabeth’s disdain for their mother’s matchmaking and the importance of reading. As a friend, Charlotte Lucas complimented Elizabeth perfectly. However, none of those qualities had ever made Elizabeth feel as though she could be her entire self. She was sometimes too sarcastic for Jane or too severe for her youngest sisters while too lively for Mary. Charlotte disapproved of Elizabeth’s romantic sensibilities. Mrs. Bennet looked upon her second daughter’s ways as entirely foreign. Mr. Bennet was the only person who had seen Elizabeth’s every facet and welcomed each part without reproach. Perhaps it was selfish of her to love him so fiercely based upon his acceptance of her, but it was the truth nonetheless, and Elizabeth keenly felt the loss.
Unaware of how many hours she had cried upon her father’s still chest, the sun was far higher in the sky when she heard the first sounds of others awake in the house. The servants had taken to waiting until summoned by Elizabeth to enter the room. Therefore, when she heard a quiet knock, she knew it was most likely Mr. or Mrs. Gardiner. A moment later, the door creaked open. Elizabeth did not look up, but she heard in the sudden cessation of footsteps the moment the person became aware of Mr. Bennet’s death.
“My dear,” Mr. Gardiner whispered after laying a hand upon her shoulder. “It looks as though he went peacefully. Was it in his sleep?”
Elizabeth managed a barely perceptible nod.
“And you were with him, just as you and he wished. Had you fallen asleep too?”
Unable to speak, she only nodded once more.
“Then all was well in his mind. His final wish was only for you to rest and find solace in his passing.”
“There can be no solace,” she whispered. “He went too early. We ought to have had more time with him.” She ought to have had more time with him.
“Grief is the price we pay for having loved. You loved him deeply, and you will mourn just as deep.”
A shudder wracked Elizabeth’s frame at the words. Heaven help her if it were as deep as the love she had for her father. It would consume her; swallow her up into a black abyss.
“Let me call Meg and the maid. The servants will have to call the undertaker to begin preparing his body, and Meg will see to you and inform the others.”
Elizabeth remained mute as her uncle went on about the various actions that needed to happen.
“Now, what shall we do about Mr. Darcy? I did not have time to speak with you yesterday, and it seemed you got along well, but you need not marry him. At the very least, we can delay the wedding.”
It was too much for Elizabeth. She could not think of marriage and the impending ceremony at present. With trembling lips and tear-filled eyes, she shook her head, sending the tears flying.
“Come, come,” Mr. Gardiner said. “Meg will set you to rights.”
Evidently uncomfortable with her tears, he left in favour of finding his wife and the housekeeper, leaving Elizabeth alone, once more, with her sorrow. The silence was a blessing to her.
A few moments later, Mrs. Gardiner came with open arms and embraced her niece. Finding some measure of comfort in her aunt, Elizabeth lost track of time, and the people who entered and exited the room until her aunt shook her shoulders.
“Lizzy, we must leave the room and allow them space.”
Looking at the doorway, Elizabeth saw the face of the local undertaker. She was to leave her father? How could she leave him and never see him again?
“It is not truly goodbye,” Mrs. Gardiner said as though she read her niece’s thoughts. “You will see him again before the funeral.”
Fat tears streaked down her cheek, burning a path on her now-swollen face. Leaning forward, she pressed a kiss to her father’s cheek. “I love you, Papa,” she whispered. Finally, she let go of his cold hand, knowing it was the last time she would have a touch of affection from her father.
Mrs. Gardiner wrapped an arm around Elizabeth’s shoulder and led her up the stairs. On the landing, she saw the door to her mother’s chamber cracked open. Instead of the loud wailing she had expected from Mrs. Bennet, she saw her mother sitting and staring off in space.
“Does my mother not know?” Elizabeth asked her aunt.
“Yes, she knows. Your uncle and I informed all of your sisters as well.”
Silently, they continued on to the room Elizabeth shared with Jane, who greeted her with open arms. After a few minutes of silent embrace, they moved toward their bed, and Mrs. Gardiner left them to see to further matters. Soon after, Mary crept into the room, followed by Kitty and Lydia. The five sisters huddled together on the bed with Elizabeth in the middle. She had thought she was alone after her father’s death, and although none of them spoke, Elizabeth began to realise she was not the only one grieving.
At Netherfield, Darcy was just breaking his fast when a servant arrived, holding a note with a black seal for Darcy. All the eyes drew to him.
“It is from Longbourn,” he said in answer to their unsaid question.
Darcy frowned as he read Mr. Gardiner’s short missive. Turning to a footman, he ordered his horse.
“Is it bad, Darcy?” Bingley asked.
“Mr. Bennet passed in his sleep. I must go to Elizabeth.”
“Surely not,” Miss Bingley said when Darcy pushed his chair back.
“A woman in grief does not need the company of a suitor. Any daughter who has loved her father,” Miss Bingley glanced at her plate for a moment before continuing, “would not be in suitable condition for company upon his passing. She needs time.”
“Thank you for considering her feelings, Miss Bingley. It does you credit.” It had surprised him, but he supposed being away in Town during the worst of her reaction had been helpful. “However, I am not merely company. I was to wed her today and will, God willing, one day, be her husband. I must offer my support, even if she will not see me.”
“I will go with you,” Bingley stood. Darcy merely raised a brow in question to his friend. “I am determined,” he said.
“Give our condolences,” Mrs. Hurst said before they left the room.
Darcy had pushed his horse faster than he generally did. In a matter of minutes, the two gentlemen arrived at Longbourn. They did not wait for a servant to open the door.
“Elizabeth?” Darcy called in the hall, breaking the strange silence which Longbourn had never had before upon his visits.
Mrs. Gardiner appeared. “Mr. Darcy, thank you for coming. If you follow me to the drawing-room, my husband will speak with you.”
“I wish to see Elizabeth.”
She nodded. “I understand, sir, but she may not be willing to see you or anyone else. She has, understandably, been upset.”
Darcy nodded. He knew she had been close to her father, and Elizabeth’s melancholy would be deeper than one day or even one year could heal.
“Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth’s voice from the top of the stairs drew their notice.
Darcy raced to her side, taking the steps two at a time. He could think of nothing to say. He knew too well there was nothing he could say which would offer any sort of comfort. All the standard niceties were not appropriate either. He need not ask if she were well, he could see she was not. Instead, he simply gathered her hands in his.
“I am so extremely sorry,” he said.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Lizzy,” Mrs. Gardiner said from the bottom of the stairs, “if you are feeling up to it, we should speak with Mr. Darcy about the arrangements. Might you show him to the drawing-room while I order the tea?”
Elizabeth took a deep breath and nodded. She stumbled after a step, and Darcy caught her to him. After that, he looped her arm around his and murmured close to her ear. “There is no need to be the hostess. I know you are feeling unfathomable loss just now.”
Slowly, they made their way to the appropriate chamber and waited for the Gardiners to enter. Once seated, Darcy gathered Elizabeth’s hands in his once more.
“You are freezing, darling.”
“I cannot get warm.”
Casting his eyes about the room, Darcy found a shawl draped over a chair near the window. He placed it around Elizabeth’s shoulders and stoked the fire before returning to his seat. Once there, he wrapped an arm around Elizabeth and hugged her close to his side. Propriety mattered naught to him, despite the surprised glances from Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner when they entered.
“Well,” Mr. Gardiner said once the maid had brought the tea and shut the door after leaving. “I know the timing is inconvenient, but we had better settle this once and for all.”
“My dear,” Mrs. Gardiner said, and her husband sighed before taking a biscuit and leaning back in his chair. “What your uncle means to say, Elizabeth, is that while it is noble of you to believe matrimony was the only course to assist your family in this time. Your uncle and I and Mr. Phillips, too, are prepared to see to you all. Additionally, surely, Mr. Collins will allow you time to grieve.”
“Mr. Collins lies in wait at the inn after we all but retracted his invitation to stay. In fact, it was under the guise of chaperonage that he left. I would not be surprised if he returns once he hears that you all are here. There is no need for us to be poor relations and the subject of pity. If I marry Mr. Darcy, then my sisters and mother can stay in one home and in the community of their birth.”
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner said nothing in response to Elizabeth’s speech. Instead, they turned their eyes upon Darcy with expectant faces. Always the one to take the honourable path, no matter the amount of personal sacrifice it took, Darcy released Elizabeth from his embrace. “As much as it pains me to say this, your relations are correct. Your family will be seen to without our marriage, and I will do everything in my power to make the transition as painless as possible. I understand my aunt holds considerable influence over Mr. Collins. Marrying me is not the only way to see to your family, and I apologise if I ever used your distress to my advantage.”
“What do you mean by that?” Elizabeth asked, confusion in her voice and her eyes.
“I desired you for my wife. I have explained my numerous reasons for such. I offered myself as a viable alternative to Mr. Collins when you had decided to accept his proposal. Perhaps I ought to have talked you out of the idea of marriage at all.”
Elizabeth laid a still frigid hand above Darcy’s and squeezed. “I was not unaware that you used the situation to your advantage. However, you did not coerce me. I have had many days to consider the options and believe this is the best route. My father taught me to honour my promises, and I have promised to marry you. He gave his blessing and made no argument against it. In his final days, he regarded you as a son. I will honour his memory by becoming your wife.”
Darcy’s heart triumphed at Elizabeth’s words. It was not a declaration of love or anything of the sort. However, she did not sound as mournful about it as she had in the past. Perhaps that was because her sorrow was more fixed upon her father’s death at the moment, but Darcy rejoiced just the same. He raised her hand to his lips and bestowed a gentle kiss before tucking her back against his side. His hand rubbed her arm, attempting to give her more warmth.
“Very well,” Mr. Gardiner sighed. “I admit that I would rather have the satisfaction of helping my sister, but we always knew the girls would marry and find husbands. Now, about the date—”
“There is no reason to change it,” Elizabeth said, a bit of her old self re-emerging. “We must marry today or wait until my half-mourning is over. Why wait for so long? Papa had selected this day, and he nearly made it. In fact, perhaps he allowed himself to go so peacefully on this morning when it had been such a struggle for him to live the last week.”
“I fear it is not very romantic to have a bride’s face swollen with tears,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “Also, your wedding day would forever be mingled with memories of your father’s passing. One should be a day of joy to be celebrated every year. With the latter, your pain should lessen in time. This would be a constant reminder.”
“It is perfect then,” Elizabeth said as she pulled from Darcy’s embrace and stood. “Mr. Darcy and I completely understand each other and our arrangement. This is no love match or romantic entanglement. He needs a wife, and I need a husband. I only need one because my father—my previous protector—is dead.” She walked to the door. “Please send for the reverend.”
Darcy watched her leave and gulped. His previous hopes dashed out like a fire on a winter’s night, an ice-cold jolt shot through his heart. Elizabeth Bennet would soon be Mrs. Darcy, his grieving wife.