Is there any hope to keep Lydia’s identity a secret?
Elizabeth’s heart dropped to her stomach. Her worst fears were being realized. As soon as the thought entered her mind, she felt ashamed of them. Her first priority should be her sister and the ramifications this would have for her.
Darcy was the first to recover. “How did this happen?” he asked coolly.
“As you know, Lydia stayed at Knole with my mother and sisters. Selina bore her child just after Jane and I married. When Parliament ended for the season, she and her husband returned to his estate in Worcestershire. Hearing that they had left, a young man who desired to court Cordelia turned up unannounced at the house.”
Elizabeth steeled herself to hear even worse news. Dorset raised his to Jane, who took over the telling.
“Lydia was out walking on the grounds, and as it was a windy day, it could not hide her present state. Mr. Stanton observed her from his carriage. Fortunately, Lydia was alerted to the presence of a guest when she returned inside and was never seen by Mr. Stanton in any of the public rooms.”
“Then, he does not know who she is? Only that someone on the grounds was with child?” Elizabeth asked.
“He made inquiries,” Jane answered.
She appeared nervous, but it seemed to Elizabeth that the situation was not as dire as they had feared.
“The servants at Knole would not say a thing about it, which only heightened his interest. My mother-in-law had sent an express to us as soon as the gentleman arrived. We hastened to Knole to lend our assistance.”
“I am uncertain that I understand. Does he know Lydia’s identity?”
“No, I think we have dealt with that,” Jane answered, but seemed less than forthcoming.
“Well, what was the solution?” Elizabeth pressed. Surely there must be something more, or they would not have journeyed all the way to Pemberley. Jane cast her eyes to her husband.
“It is well,” Dorset said. “I will tell them, my love. I explained to Stanton that the woman he saw was a former servant who I had an entanglement with.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened, and they swung to Jane. How could she bear the humility?
“Forgive me for being indelicate to Miss Darcy and Miss Bennet’s ears.”
“Surely, some other answer would have sufficed,” Darcy said. “Why would you come up with such a story?”
Dorset flushed. “I have always observed when telling a lie, it is best to keep as close as possible to the truth. There was a lady who would fit Lydia’s description in my past. I put an end to it after meeting Jane, of course.”
Elizabeth’s eyes did not leave Jane. She was looking at her hands, her face pink.
“And the fact that Lydia is with child?” Darcy asked.
“Again, I kept to the truth,” Dorset answered.
Elizabeth fought to keep her expression neutral.
“We have offered to raise the babe,” Jane said softly.
It was not unheard of to take in a husband’s by-blow and raise it alongside legitimate children. Dorset’s mother had done such, as had others like the former Duchess of Devonshire.
“What does Lydia think of this?” Elizabeth asked.
“She is unsure at present.”
“Where is this woman who you have used as Lydia’s stand-in?” Darcy asked.
“I settled her in a cottage on one of the lesser estates in Bedfordshire. Our intention is to take Lydia there as well as they will be due around the same time.”
Darcy squeezed the bridge of his nose. When he let go, his eyes blazed in anger. “You are willing to take on such a reputation? It will be said that you are as much a libertine as your father. Jane will have to face much humiliation, and rumours will abound about her worthiness as your wife.”
Dorset shrugged. “You will have to take it from me that I know more about this matter than you do, Darcy. I know better than you that Society is far more willing to forgive the actions of a duke and that a duchess will be respected wherever she goes.”
Elizabeth could hold her tongue no longer. “It is not just about what Society thinks and says! Did you not consider how Jane must feel?”
Dorset stiffened. “I beg your pardon, my sister, but it is my duty and honour to consider my wife’s feelings. Why do you presume that this was done with disregard to her or without her consent?”
“It was my suggestion, Lizzy,” Jane said. “He confessed his indiscretions before we ever married. I never thought him a saint.”
“You do not mind what people will say about you? You have always hated being an object of ridicule!”
“In time, they will see that Dorset is nothing like his forefathers. Yes, he had a few entanglements, but they were not more than is common for a young man.”
Elizabeth folded her arms over her chest. “What happens if it becomes known that you are caring for one illegitimate child but not the other?”
“We will take in both,” Jane said.
“And are there any others? Shall you be a mother to a dozen before you are even mother to one?”
“Lizzy!” Jane admonished.
Elizabeth flushed. “Forgive me. Surely it is your business, and you should do just as you like.”
Instead of seeming offended, Dorset chuckled. “You do well to defend your sister, Lady Darcy. As Jane says, I am not a saint, like Darcy here. I have a past, but I would say I have never taken advantage of my position the way many peers do. There are no other children in the wings.”
Elizabeth clamped her jaw shut. She could hardly be as flippant about the existence of even one illegitimate child. She took a deep breath and focused on the more significant issue at hand.
“If Lydia agrees to let you raise her child, what becomes of her? Shall she re-enter Society with some story of an illness? What if she comes in contact with this Mr. Stanton, and he recognizes her?”
“If it comes to it, Mr. Stanton can always be persuaded to become a member of the family,” Dorset said. “He already wishes to marry Cordelia.”
“As it is not already arranged, I assume Lady Cordelia has other feelings on the matter?”
Dorset frowned. “She may not have a choice.”
Elizabeth threw her hands up. “If you force your sister to marry this man against her will to keep Lydia’s secret, then what is the purpose of the lies that she was one of your lovers?”
“Stanton did not come alone,” Jane answered. “Only he had a good view of Lydia’s face, but he came with his sister and her friend. By the time we arrived at Knole, the ladies had already written to their friends about what they had seen.”
Despite it seeming like Jane and Dorset had found a solution for their predicament, Elizabeth’s heart continued to sink with each word. “What if the child looks like you, Jane? We sisters all have great similarities. Lydia’s child could very well be taken for yours.”
“Then, let us hope it is a girl,” Dorset answered. “For it would not be the first time a man in my family married a woman after she were in the family way or even after she gave birth to his child. My grandfather was quite the rake. It was not until after my grandmother delivered a healthy baby and survived the ordeal that he agreed to marry her, and even then, only with the promise of financial assistance from the Prince of Wales.”
“And the child?” Georgiana asked.
Elizabeth blinked. She had entirely forgotten that Georgiana and Mary were present for the discussion. Elizabeth had often thought ladies were too sheltered until they were married, but she did not know that she would have wanted them to learn about such things in this way.
“Aunt Mary was given the courtesy title of Lady. She married a distant cousin who was an earl.”
“Do you have many well-off and titled cousins available, your grace?” Elizabeth asked. “For the Darcy and Bennet families do not.”
“With a good dowry and such connections, Aunt Mary had many suitors. They did not care in the least that her parents wed after the birth. We would not begrudge Lydia’s daughter a good settlement.”
“And if it is a son?” Darcy asked.
“He would be born during our marriage and utterly legitimate.”
“You would allow another man’s son to inherit the dukedom?” Darcy asked.
“He would probably not be the first,” Dorset answered. “Society’s ladies are not known for their faithfulness.”
“How very different the peerage is,” Mary observed.
Elizabeth could only silently agree.
“Do you have another suggestion, Darcy? I noticed you did not offer to raise Wickham’s child.”
Elizabeth fumed at her brother-in-law’s insolent remark. She was sure it was intended to wound her husband.
“Indeed, I will not offer such a thing. It is not because I am not sympathetic about Lydia’s situation. However, I do not see the reason to create all these scenarios when the whole truth might do. Lydia made a foolish mistake, but she is one of many who do. They do not all have relatives that are dukes and can reorder things as they choose. She may not have the opportunities that she would if this were all hidden and hushed up, but it does not need to ruin her life.”
Dorset shook his head. “There would be far more scandal if our unwed sister had a child out of wedlock than I did something scandalous which is fixed by marriage.”
There might have been some sense in what Dorset said, but Elizabeth was not so ready for Jane to sacrifice herself. “Despite what you say, I am sure that your grandmother endured censure from some. Are you really willing to take on such a burden, Jane?”
“I am in the best position of all of us to do so,” Jane said. “I do not need the approval of everyone.”
Elizabeth’s heart squeezed for her eldest sister. Jane had always been the kindest person she had ever known. She forever saw the good in people and could bear nearly anything without complaint. Still, Elizabeth’s sense of injustice railed at Jane having to face such a thing.
“You are not the only one who is brave, Lizzy. You have endured hatred and rumours through no fault of your own as you attempt to create the Bluestocking Club. If you can handle that, so can I.”
“Of course, you can, my love,” Dorset said before leaving his chair and raising Jane’s hand to his lips. He glanced at the clock. “I believe it is nearly time to dress for dinner. Jane, do you want to tell them the good news we bring?”
“Certainly. We have brought Lydia with us under the guise of being my maid. It makes a convenient excuse for her to travel with us while keeping her out of eyesight from others. We do not need any more rumours.”
“Lydia is here?” Elizabeth asked.
Jane nodded. “Shall we go and see her then?”
All the ladies went upstairs, but Georgiana decided to allow the Bennet sisters to have their reunion in privacy. Jane pulled the bell for her maid then went to her dressing table. Elizabeth and Mary settled in a couple of side chairs. A moment later, Lydia entered through the servant’s door. Immediately, she went to her Elizabeth. She stretched out her arms, and all four sisters embraced.
“How are you?” Elizabeth asked when they all let go. Lydia wore a maid’s outfit, which was black and far plainer than anything she had ever worn before. “Were they kind to you downstairs?”
“Oh, yes. We have decided that we would say my husband was killed in the war, so I needed to go back into service. Jane took me in out of the goodness of her heart. A lady’s maid may spend much of their time in their mistress’ dressing room, so I do not have to keep up appearances all the time around others. And, after all, it is only for a few days.”
“You did not answer my question about how you are. How do you feel?”
Lydia smiled brightly. “Do not think that I have not spent many hours, days, and even weeks filled with regret over my folly. I have. However, I no longer think my life is over or am so anxious about the future. I am simply trying to live each day at a time.”
“And how do you feel physically? You look very well.”
“Oh, I am quite happy to be out of a carriage! As my belly has rounded, my back sometimes aches, especially on a journey. However, my energy has returned. Her Grace and Selina say that soon I will have an insatiable hunger, and the babe will grow so large and strong that all these cute kicks I feel now will be painful at times. So, I am enjoying things while I still can.”
“Well, rest now,” Elizabeth said, getting out of her seat. “Lay on the bed, and I will see to Jane, just as I used to. When we go downstairs, you must go up to your room and sleep. Do not bother to wait for Jane.” Elizabeth whispered to Lydia with a blush, “No one in this house will find it odd for a married lady to not need her maid.”
Lydia giggled a little before obeying her sister and reclining on the bed.
Elizabeth immediately set to work on Jane’s hair. It might not have been as fashionable as a real lady’s maid could achieve, but she was well-practiced in how Jane’s hair would behave and what would look most becoming. While Elizabeth worked, Mary saw to Jane’s clothing. Elizabeth noted with pleasure that Jane had not transformed into a fashion plate but retained her eye for understated elegance. Bringing in gowns from Elizabeth and Mary’s chambers, they decided to all get ready in one room.
The four sisters chatted while they readied themselves for dinner. Jane told them about her honeymoon. They had visited Eastbourne and Seaford in Sussex. The Downs and chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters sounded so beautiful they stirred Elizabeth’s imagination. She had never seen such beauties as Jane described. In fact, Jane had produced a small sketchbook where she had captured some of the sights. She had never expressed much interest in drawing at Longbourn.
“Lionel takes a great interest in nature, especially geology and botany. We would spend many hours walking on the seashore or near the caves. While he explored, I would sketch. At first, I was not very good at it, but I found with practice that I improved.” Jane gazed out the window. “I should like to draw some of Pemberley while we are here.”
“Of course,” Elizabeth said. “You may spend your time however you wish. How long shall you and the Duke be staying?”
“Do you blame me, Lizzy, for not writing to you? We were so rushed to leave Eastbourne and return to Knole. Once there, we had to worry about pretending all was well while deciding what we could do to mitigate the problem that arose.”
“No, I am not upset at all. I did wonder why you had not written, but I perfectly understand. Nor am I angered that you have arrived with such short notice. I only wish to make you feel comfortable while you are here. Selfishly, I want to know how long I have you before you must depart.”
“I am sure Lionel and Darcy are talking about it just now,” Jane said. “You must understand, that if Lydia chooses for us to raise her child, and we act under the guise that it might very well be my baby, I cannot leave the Bedfordshire estate until after the birth. I would need to appear with child if I were in London.”
An alarming thought entered Elizabeth’s mind. She glanced to make sure Mary was occupied and could not hear them. “If you are supposed to be due in December, then you must be taking precautions that you will not actually fall with child,” she whispered to her sister.
“We are,” Jane said sadly.
“I am sorry. That would be unbearable for me, especially as we are still newlyweds. Are you certain you wish to attempt this?”
“It is what Lionel thinks is best, and I trust him,” Jane answered.
Elizabeth was about to observe that was not the same as saying she wished to do it or saying that she agreed with her husband when the dinner gong sounded. She would have to trust that Jane was as firm in her opinions as she had been before marriage. The Jane that Elizabeth grew up with would not have simply gone along with what someone else deemed correct and best. In the end, it was really Lydia’s decision that would be the final word on the matter.