Are you beginning to understand Elizabeth’s feelings better? She’s terrified on several fronts.
Darcy enjoyed the meal as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner made sure to entertain as well as draw him out and speak on topics that interested him. He extended his offer to have them dine at Darcy House on his next journey if Elizabeth joined him. After the meal, Mr. Gardiner invited Darcy to his study while his wife checked on the children.
“I did not expect you to act so swiftly. Indeed, you might have suggested Matthews pay his bill while remaining in Meryton.”
Darcy toyed with Mr. Bennet’s old watch, which he now carried with him everywhere. “I know Matthews well enough to say that he would never pay a tradesman.”
“Yes, so I have heard from the other shopkeepers. How did you do it?”
“I promised him an invitation to a dinner party which would introduce his daughter to a few eligible bachelors.”
“That is all it took?”
Darcy shrugged. “Everyone has a weakness. Matthews’ is his daughter. He can be cold to all the world but her. He wants only the best for her, which is noble, but his beliefs about mixing with trade disgust me.”
“Well, I thank you for your actions. I do not know that I will ask again, though. I would hate for you to gain a reputation as my lackey.” Mr. Gardiner winked.
“You may as well,” Darcy said between laughs. “He will tell others and grossly exaggerate, I am sure.” He frowned, and his brows lowered. “Indeed, I hope it does not harm your business.”
“Oh, I do not think it will. I will not regret it if men who never intend to pay me steer clear. However, I know my goods are superior, and they will be back before long.” He cast a look at his glass of port. “I suppose a thousand pounds seems small to you.”
“Not at all.”
“It is for the girls, of course. My nieces and sister, I mean. I would not have had it in my head to do something more for them, but I had thought Matthews would keep his word. I suppose he charmed me as I do not usually fall for it when others lie.”
“That is understandable. What did you have in mind for them?”
“I thought I would add a thousand pounds apiece to their income. I know you and Bingley do not need it.”
“We do not,” Darcy nodded. “That will not over-extend you?”
“Not with the money from Matthews.”
“It is a very sound idea. Perhaps I will match it. They could certainly use the income now. Two thousand pounds upon marriage and then an additional fifty pounds per annum upon their mother’s death would be an attractive dowry to a gentleman with modest aspirations or a clergyman,” Darcy paused, “or well-to-do merchant.”
“You would not oppose a match that brings you closer to trade?”
“I learned last summer that I would not deter any suitor if my sister’s heart was attached, and he was a worthy young man.” Darcy turned the watch over in his hand once more.
“What do you have there?” Gardiner nodded toward Darcy’s hand.
He held up the watch face. “Upon cleaning out Mr. Bennet’s library, Elizabeth found an old gift she gave her father.”
“I remember that,” Gardiner said. “She was pleased as punch to give it, and he had it with him always. I think he said it began to fall apart.”
Darcy nodded. “Indeed. The painting on the front began to wear as well. Is it a good likeness to a younger Elizabeth? I must say I was astonished when I saw your eldest daughter.” He handed the piece to Mr. Gardiner.
Peering at it, Gardiner smiled. “I had not noticed how much Emily favours her at that age. Lizzy has much of the Gardiner looks about her. Or did, at least.” He handed the watch back to Darcy. “My sisters’ eyes and hair turned lighter as they aged, whereas Lizzy turned darker.”
“But the expression is much the same, do you not agree?” He could not take his eyes off the amateur portrait of his younger wife. If he ever travelled without Elizabeth again, he would hope to take a miniature of her.
“Have you told her yet?”
“I do not understand what you mean. What was I to tell her?”
Gardiner said nothing, and eventually, Darcy looked up at the man perplexed. Sighing, Gardiner refilled Darcy’s glass of port. “Have you told Elizabeth that you are in love with her?”
Air clogged in Darcy’s throat. Of course, he had not said such a thing to Elizabeth. It was untrue! He admired and respected her; he cared deeply for her. She was his first thought in the morning, last thought at night, and he would lay down his own life for her as any husband should for his wife.
Yet, his logic failed. Did he not know dozens of husbands who did not feel one fifth for their wives what Darcy felt for Elizabeth, and they were otherwise honest men? He did not consider the profligate men with mistresses. No, there were plenty of men who had married, like he, for convenience, and yet the name of their wife did not bring a smile to their face. They had never gazed in adoration at images of them. Accepting the terrifying truth, Darcy reached for his drink and threw it back in a single gulp. Then, he turned his eyes upon Elizabeth’s uncle in what he was sure was a panicked expression.
“I did not know you had not realised it. Bennet knew. We had discussed it on his final day—that is what meant when he said you must tell her.”
Darcy’s stomach roiled at the thought. “Sir, I do not think she would appreciate the sentiment.”
“Why do you think that?” Gardiner leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach.
“She has made it abundantly clear that she accepted my proposal only as a means to help her family.”
“You have been married over a fortnight now. Surely she sees you as more than that.”
“If I recall, you counselled her against marrying me.”
“Only because I doubted her attachment to you. When she refused to give you up, all my doubts about your worthiness melted away.”
Darcy furrowed his brow. Could Elizabeth really be falling in love with him?
“You should tell her,” Gardiner prompted again. “I, of course, have no insight into her heart. However, if you ever hope to have her love you or to keep her love, you must tell her. Love cannot grow or be sustained where there is no encouragement.”
And yet, Darcy had fallen in love with Elizabeth despite having no encouragement from her. Was he really so foolish? Additionally, he doubted Mr. Gardiner’s words that love would fade if not adequately encouraged. He may have only just realised his passion for Elizabeth, but he also knew it would never end. Was a woman’s love so different?
“At the very least, it makes falling in love more difficult,” Mr. Gardiner said, answering Darcy’s unspoken question. “Perhaps the most hard-headed and stubborn may persevere with no hope. You are in luck there. Lizzy is quite obstinate when she chooses to be.” Gardiner assessed Darcy over the rim of his glass. “Not unlike you, I think. It will serve you well in this endeavour.”
Slowly, a smile emerged on Darcy’s lips. Yes, he could be stubborn about this. He could spend the rest of his life showering Elizabeth with love and encouraging hers to blossom. Indeed, the thought of doing so came easier than all his protestations of merely treating her well out of duty. Turning Mr. Bennet’s watch over in his hand once more, an idea emerged on how to begin.
“I thought Mr. Darcy was to return last night,” Kitty said as she entered the breakfast room.
Elizabeth barely registered the feeling of all eyes upon her. She stared down at her plate of toast, willing herself to eat it.
Upon her silence, Bingley cleared his throat. “Darcy wrote that he would be delayed a day. He should arrive this evening.”
“Oh,” Kitty said in reply. She busied herself at the buffet and then took a seat near Elizabeth. “Lizzy, I thought you would like to walk with Lydia and me to town today. You used to enjoy that.”
Did she? There were times when Elizabeth was uncertain she had ever enjoyed anything. “I might.”
“I beg you would be circumspect,” Mary said from across the table.
“No one expects us to stay cooped in the house until our mourning is entirely finished,” Lydia said while scooping sugar for her tea.
“That is correct,” Jane said with a sigh. “However, we do not know what is being said in town regarding our departure from Longbourn.”
“Well, if you had allowed us to tell others—” Kitty harrumphed.
“Adding gossip to the situation would have helped nothing.”
“Well, I am sure the Lucases will never believe Mr. Collins. They were such good friends to us.” Lydia sighed. “I do miss Maria.”
“Sir William is the local knight and has never been known to be discourteous,” Jane said. “Regardless of what Mr. Collins and Miss King have done, we must learn to coexist with them as we intend to live in the area.”
“Perhaps we will go to London with Darcy and Lizzy—or even Pemberley. Although I should like London most.” Lydia spoke with animation.
Kitty nudged Elizabeth. “When do you leave for London?”
“I am uncertain.”
“I thought you were invited to a dinner at Twelfth Night?” Kitty said.
Elizabeth shrugged. She did not prefer to think about London and how she might embarrass Darcy. “You will have to ask Mr. Darcy. Please excuse me, I have no appetite.”
Elizabeth left the room and waited for a pang of disgust. It never came. Her sisters had been acting ridiculous, and she could not summon even a tiny amount of annoyance. She began to climb the stairs. Mrs. Bennet still rarely stirred from her room.
“Lizzy!” Jane called after her. Elizabeth waited for her sister on the steps. “You go rest. I will sit with Mama.”
“Then who will walk with Kitty and Lydia?”
“Caroline and Louisa have offered to do so.”
“I am exhausted.” Elizabeth could not sleep at night and instead took to napping several times a day. Yesterday, she slept nearly all day. Still, the fatigue never abated. Jane looked at her with concern. “I am only tired, not unwell. Do not worry about me.”
Jane merely smiled and squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. Returning to her chamber, Elizabeth sighed in relief. The others entirely exhausted her. The bed beckoned to her, and she slipped off her morning gown before crawling into it.
When she awoke, the room was dark, and she heard footsteps on the floor. Slowly, Darcy came into focus.
“I did not mean to wake you,” he said before placing a hand on her forehead. “Are you ill?”
“No, I was only tired.” Elizabeth shook the sleep from her head when he removed his head. “I did not mean to sleep for so long. Did you just return?” Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and she saw the dust on his clothes. “You did not need to visit me before refreshing.”
Darcy stroked Elizabeth’s cheek. “I wanted to see you first.” He kissed her lips.
Elizabeth could not name it, but there was something different about the brief kiss. “Have you eaten?”
“Then, I will call for a tray to be brought up for us. It will be ready after your bath.”
There was a quiet knock on the door adjoining their rooms. “Ah, there is Jones now. I will tell him about the tray. You continue to rest.”
He propped up pillows around her so she might sit but remain in the bed. Elizabeth looked at him curiously as he left for his chamber.
She had dozed while he washed, and the next half-hour passed as mere seconds to her. Soon, he returned to her room with wet hair and clean clothes. He stroked his whiskers.
“If I recall, you enjoy the growth. I would not deprive you of it this evening.” He laughed, and his eyes twinkled, little lines forming around them.
Elizabeth sighed at the visage. He sat next to her and drew her hands in his.
“I missed you terribly.” He raised her hands to his lips.
Had she missed him? She hoped he would not ask; she had hardly noticed the days passing. That was no fault due to him, of course. She did feel a twinge of relief at his absence. She did not worry about failing as a wife when he was gone. On the other hand, everything seemed dull, and she had the sensation of floating away with nothing to ground her.
“Before we eat, there is something I wished to give you.” Darcy pulled a small box out of his pocket and placed it on the blanket near Elizabeth. He watched her closely.
Elizabeth gave him a timid smile before reaching for the box. Slowly, she opened it, surprised when she saw a man’s watch. She glanced back at him.
“Open it,” he said, still watching her face.
Elizabeth blushed, as it seemed he would look nowhere but at her. Opening the new watch, she admired the handiwork of a skilled craftsman. It was far superior to the watch she had bought her father so many years ago. Her eyes caught on an engraving, but despite the few lit lamps, it was too dark for her to see. She lifted the watch from its case. As she brought it closer to her eyes, she saw, Elizabeth, my love etched beneath a small inset portrait of a profile which did look similar to hers.
“William,” Elizabeth’s voice shook. In all her fears about their marriage, this would be the worst. She must be the most abominable woman alive for not returning his love! He deserved it possibly more than any other husband had deserved a wife’s heart. However, she had nothing to offer him.
“Are you unhappy with it? I thought Lincoln did an excellent job of repairing it, but perhaps you disliked that I took your father’s watch without your permission.”
“I do not think this is my father’s…”
“Not your father’s!” Darcy took the watch from Elizabeth’s trembling hands.
“Was…was there a mistake?” Elizabeth prayed the wrong one had been sent to him, and he had never thought to check it before leaving London. There were thousands of Elizabeths in the world.
Darcy laid it back down in the box. Slowly, he gathered Elizabeth’s face in his hands and turned it so she met his gaze. His blue eyes looked intense and soft. Loving, Elizabeth thought with growing dread.
“The only mistake is that I had not meant to show you that one until later—when you were ready to hear my declaration. However, I did commission it, and I mean it.”
Elizabeth blinked. Mentally, she pleaded for him to not say the words which might kill her.
“I love you, Elizabeth.”
His lips met hers until there was a knock on the door to the hallway. It must be the maid with their supper. Only then did he appear to notice the tears which flowed from Elizabeth’s eyes and the look of shame and fear on her face.