I am sorry this took a little longer than I planned to post. I had my lumbar puncture on Wednesday and ended up getting the dreaded spinal headache from it. After 80 hours of torture, I decided to go to the ER and try something called a blood patch. That had its own issues but I am now headache free! I’ll be sending this story to the editor soon!
Ten years later
Darcy smiled politely as person after person entered his London house. Beside him, Elizabeth greeted each guest with a charming smile and welcomed them to their home. This evening, they hosted the founding members of the London branch of the Society for the Preservation of Feminine Talent. Elizabeth had named the organization thus to not garner anger at the idea of encouraging independence for ladies while also not infantilising them.
The foundation formed shortly after their marriage and served the Lambton area first. Eventually, Elizabeth took the idea to influential members of urban populations such as Manchester and Birmingham. Last year, they opened a branch in Liverpool. Expansion to London would be their most extensive yet. Of course, quite a bit of the notoriety belonged to the influence of the former Miss Angelina Maria Lucks.
Shortly after arriving at Pemberley, Darcy had sent his solicitor to confirm from Miss Lucks that she was, indeed, Lydia Bennet. She admitted her real identity but desired no assistance from the Darcys and planned to take the London stage by storm with hopes of marrying nobility. A few years ago, she married an aging lord who needed a new countess after his wife’s death bearing their fifth son. At first, there was still no connection to the Darcys. However, a political rival of her husband dug up proof of Lydia’s fallen status. Society, in general, did not think well of actresses, but Lydia had managed discretion in any affairs she had. The supposed proof, however, was not from Lydia’s time with an acting troupe in Scotland or her elopement with the still-at-large George Wickham. No, someone had visited the South Mimms Inn in Hertfordshire and swore there was once a serving lady who called herself Lizzy Smith and looked just like the new Lady Randall. Lydia could have defended herself and lay the blame on her sister, but she never did. In turn, the extremely respectable Mrs. Darcy befriended the countess. Rather than taking lovers like most of the aristocratic ladies, Lydia had turned her activities toward charitable works after retiring from the stage. Between the two sisters, the Society garnered more attention than expected.
After dinner, and the requisite separation of the sexes, Elizabeth took a moment to explain the purpose of the Society to the assembled guests.
“My good lords and ladies,” Elizabeth said, “we meet this evening to discuss the founding of a new branch of The Society of Preservation of Feminine Talent. It is my belief every woman has talents given to her at birth and are deserving of protection.”
“Protection, you say?” an older man asked. “They ought to have fathers to protect them.”
“I agree, sir,” she answered. “However, some do not. Death is no respecter of persons. We may be at peace now, but war may come again, and disease is never far away. Additionally, not all men who bear children are capable of being responsible parents. Indeed, some abuse their wives and children.”
The older gentleman harrumphed. “Then family ought to involve themselves.”
“Again, sir, that is not always possible. The fact is, some ladies leave the protection of the homes to which they were born. What is she to do? Seek employment when she has no experience or training? The results of such a gamble are seldom in the lady’s favour.”
“What does the Society do, Mrs. Darcy?” a lady from the back asked.
“We do have ministers and physicians, but that is not all that is required to assist the ladies and it is not always easy to find those services given from people with the desire to help and not condemn. The Society provides safe homes and healthy meals for our ladies. From the working classes, we teach them valuable skills which can lead to employment. For the gentry, we fill any gaps in their education and keep them immersed in proper society befitting their station. Most importantly, for both groups, we minister to the damaged psyche of our guests.”
The old gentleman stood up and thumped his walking cane. “Are there not workhouses? Are there not churches? You reach beyond your scope, madam.” He shuffled past the others and stood before Darcy. “Sir, you ought to call your wife to order.”
“She has things well in order, sir, and I fully support her,” Darcy replied.
Shaking his head, the gentleman exited the room, and Darcy had little doubt, the house. This portion was always the most difficult for him to watch. He could hardly conceive of anyone not finding his wife brilliant and was still her most steadfast supporter. In turn, during their ten years of marriage, Elizabeth had been there for him in countless times from the wrath of Lady Catherine, to the unexpected death of his Uncle Joseph, even to inheriting control of Rosings and all the strain of managing two estates after his cousin Anne’s demise.
His eyes met Elizabeth’s, but hers did not shine with tears of rejection. She stood erect, pausing to allow others a moment of decision before she continued. A few others excused themselves, but the vast majority remained. Whether they achieved their goal this night or not, Darcy could barely restrain his pride in his wife’s confidence and courage.
“Now, that we have that over with,” she smiled, and the crowd chuckled. “I wanted you to listen to the testimony of some of our ladies and other benefactresses.”
Elizabeth ceded the floor and came to Darcy’s side as three different women gave their stories. They ranged from as extreme as Georgiana’s experiences to as mild as Elizabeth’s. The other patronesses spoke about the statistical data of the women they helped. The majority of them came from the middle class to lower gentry families. They never turned away a working-class woman, but their primary goal had always been to help the women who no one believed could have terrible families. Shocked gasps and disgusted mutterings ripped through the room when the final patroness explained one in four of the ladies they helped, regardless of social class, had been sexually abused before adulthood.
Elizabeth had a final speech to close the presentation portion of the evening. Afterward, it would resume as any regular dinner party, and card tables would be brought out. In another room, ladies were welcome to exhibit on the pianoforte.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Elizabeth beseeched, “do not merely take our words on the matter. Visit our facility in Bloomington. We have not invited you here to raid your purses. Our Society is already well-funded and has established our newest location in a respectable neighbourhood, and with all we could need. The meaning behind this evening’s presentation was purely educational. Now, that you know of a need, I only ask what your compassion would have you do.”
The crowd applauded, none heartier than Darcy. When she reached his side, he raised her hand to his lips. She still claimed his act of kindness had saved her, but all Darcy could think about was how many ladies she had saved in the years since.
Slowly, through years of patience and firm boundaries, they had resumed visitations with Jane and Mary. Mrs. Bennet had refused to ever accept any responsibility for matters but wrote civil letters, and they had seen her a few times while they visited the Gardiners, who had fully apologised to Elizabeth. Neither the Gardiners nor Mrs. Bennet were welcome at any Darcy property, but Elizabeth did not lack for company. She had found a faithful, steadfast sister in Georgiana, who while much healed had not yet married, and a loving relation in Darcy’s paternal aunt Katherine Sneyd. Elizabeth had made many acquaintances via her work with the Society, and several of them were her bosom friends. None of it surprised Darcy, he always knew she would be well-loved.
After their guests left, Darcy escorted Elizabeth to their chamber. Holding her to his chest as they fell asleep, he considered then, as always, how thankful he was for finding her at the inn of a small Hertfordshire town. He could hardly fathom what life would have been like without her, but it certainly would not have included four bright-eyed children with Elizabeth’s smile. Nor would Darcy have known the deep fulfilment one could have when assisting others. The most significant difference of all, of course, was that he would not have the woman he loved beyond all others and who completed his heart in his arms. He had loved her then; now she was imperative to his life. Marrying Elizabeth was not an act of compassion. He had no more choice in the matter than he had in drawing breath into his lungs. She was the greatest gift he could ever conceive, and he would forever be grateful for the second chance which led him to find her.
Thanks so much for reading!