Authors: Jane Odiwe
Copyright (c) 2011 by Jane Odiwe
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mr. Darcy's secret / Jane Odiwe.
ISBN 978-1-4022-4527-5 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Darcy, Fitzwilliam (Fictitious character)--Fiction. 2. Bennet, Elizabeth (Fictitious character)--Fiction. 3. Gentry--England--Fiction. 4. England--Social life and customs--19th century--Fiction. I. Austen, Jane, 1775-1817. II. Title.
...To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.
For Jenny, Caroline, Penny, and Mavis, whose friendship and love of gardens inspired this book.
With little exception, the anticipation of a long-awaited and desirous event will always give as much, if not more pleasure, than the diversion itself. Moreover, it is a certain truth that however gratifying such an occasion may prove to be, it will not necessarily unite prospect and satisfaction in equal accord.
Mrs Bennet's musings on the affairs of the day at Longbourn church were similarly divided. The ostrich feathers on her satin wedding hat quivered tremulously as she surveyed her surroundings with a self-satisfied air. Evening sunlight streamed through the long windows of the sitting room gilding her hair and silk pelisse, simultaneously burnishing the top of Mr Bennet's polished pate with a halo of amber softness.
"Hardly has a day passed during the last twenty-three years when I have not thought about my daughters' nuptials with the certain foreknowledge that my beautiful Jane and clever Lizzy would do their duty to their parents, their sisters, and themselves," said Mrs Bennet to her husband on the day that her eldest daughters were married.
"Yes, my dear," Mr Bennet replied with a wry smile, "even when you professed your resolution that they should both die old maids not two months ago, I am sure you knew better in your heart."
"Such weddings as Longbourn and, indeed, the whole county have never seen before," exclaimed Mrs Bennet, fingering the new lace about her shoulders with an air of appreciation whilst ignoring her husband's bemused comments. "Not that there were some matters that would have pleased me better had I been allowed to have a hand in the arrangements myself. I should have liked to host a party if I had been permitted, but Elizabeth did not think it fitting. I am sure our neighbours would greatly have appreciated the celebration, but who am I to be considered? I am only the mother of the brides married to two of the richest men in the kingdom! It is not as if it was a question of money. I am sure dear Darcy would have liked it if not for Elizabeth's opposition. Still, it was something to see the condescension of our neighbours; I daresay Lady Lucas will not feel herself so superior now. But truly, nothing will vex me today; all has surpassed my greatest expectations."
"I am glad to hear it, my dear, because without a doubt, if such long anticipation had been disappointed in some way, I am not entirely sure I could have borne the next twenty-three years with the same equanimity."
"Who would have thought it, Mr Bennet," said his lady, talking over the top of him, "that I should live to see two of my daughters so exceptionally advantaged in married life?"
"Quite so, my dear," replied he, "though I must add that however well placed I believed my daughters might find themselves, I had always planned on exceeding my own five and forty years to witness their felicity. Indeed, possessing the knowledge that your own long surviving line of aged relatives are still thriving as I speak, I must confess that I am a little astonished to think you had supposed to be dead before our daughters attained the matrimonial state."
"Oh, Mr Bennet, you speak such nonsense. But you will not tease me out of my present happy disposition. And, I must say, I received some comfort from the fact that Miss Bingley and her sister Mrs Hurst were forced by a rightful sense of obligation and due civility to treat our family in the correct manner today. Oh, yes, Mr Bennet, I cannot tell you how much it gratified me to see the smug, self-satisfied expressions they generally display upon their ill-favoured countenances quite wiped away. I thought Miss Bingley looked likely to choke when I turned to see Elizabeth and Jane walking down the aisle by your side."
"I did not observe any greater condescension towards our family than that which they usually bestow, Mrs Bennet," replied her spouse, "though I must admit I did not really pay them any great attention. My own thoughts and looks were only concerned with our dear girls."
"What a double blow it must have been for Miss Bingley. I expect all the while she was hoping that Mr Darcy might break his promise to Elizabeth and leave her at the altar. And I am sure, whatever she might have said on welcoming Jane to the Bingley family, that the sincerity of her wishes was entirely false. Well, I cannot help feeling our advantage over those Bingley women. And Mr Darcy was as charming and obliging as ever. I think him quite superior to dear Mr Bingley in many ways, even if I hadn't always liked him."
"I'm sure Mr Darcy would be delighted to hear it."
"I daresay he would, for he certainly needed to earn my good opinion after the way he strutted about Hertfordshire with his proud ways. However, I'm not entirely convinced by Lizzy's partiality, whatever she might protest on his having been misunderstood and winning her round. A man ought to have a tongue in his head, indeed, especially a man of such consequence."
"I should hate to hear you on the subject of despising a man if this is your approbation, Mrs Bennet. And I loathe to be contradicting you once more, but I cannot agree with you. I believe Lizzy to be very much in love with Mr Darcy, as much in love as dear Jane is with her Mr Bingley."
"Well, I certainly think I might fancy myself in love if I knew I was married to the owner of Pemberley, with a house in town and ten thousand a year, at least!"
"I am sure such good fortune helps love along. No doubt, my own prospects animated the feelings you had whilst we were courting."
Mrs Bennet looked at her husband in exasperation. "Oh, Mr Bennet, it was nothing like the matter. There is no comparison. The wealth of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley is a hundred times your consequence, as well you know. La! With Jane and Lizzy so well married; 'tis enough to make me distracted!"
"I am pleased to discover our poverty is in no way dispiriting to your outlook, my dear. But I cannot join you in your exertions. I find myself feeling most melancholy. I am delighted that I need not worry that our daughters will suffer any lack of wealth or hardship; but despite the satisfaction these assurances bring, I cannot help but add that I shall miss them very much."
At this point Mrs Bennet burst into tears. "With my dearest Lydia so lately married and now Jane and Lizzy having left home, I shall have little to do, especially now Mary and Kitty will be gone to their sisters by the bye. I do not know what shall become of me; indeed, I do not. I shall be quite alone in this house with only my memories coupled with the dreadful understanding that William and Charlotte Collins are counting the days to your demise. What misfortune to have our estate entailed away for that odious pair to inherit. It is all Lady Lucas ever talks to me about these days: of her daughter's delight at the prospect of being able to return one day into Hertfordshire."
"Come, come now," insisted Mr Bennet, passing over a pocket handkerchief and rising from his seat with the intention of leaving the room. "I see no reason for tears. I am sure one or all of your daughters will accommodate you when that unhappy day befalls you and, until then, I flatter myself that you will have the comfort of knowing that you are not entirely alone. I am here, or at least I will be when I am not away."
"Away! Do you intend to leave me, sir? Where are you going, Mr Bennet?"
"To Pemberley, of course," came his emphatic reply.
"To Pemberley and you never said a word of it. But do you intend to go alone and without an invitation?"
Mr Bennet stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I suppose if you should wish to accompany me, then you may enjoy your share of the invitation."
"An invitation! Has Lizzy invited us to Pemberley so soon?" asked Mrs Bennet, scarcely able to keep the astonishment out of her voice.
"No, Mr Darcy himself, no less," came the triumphant answer, "has not only issued the invitation, but also expects us for Christmas!"
∗ ∗ ∗
Elizabeth Darcy looked out of the carriage window, her spirits in high flutter as they crossed the ancient stone bridge on the road into Lambton village. Nestled at the foot of a hill, on the western side of the river, a number of stone cottages, a church, and a few handsome buildings formed the landscape. Her eyes were drawn to the rich and romantic scenery of the place, enhanced in beauty by the noble appearance of wood-clad hills, wreathed in mist on this damp, November morning. She could not help but remember her first journey to Lambton, accompanied by her uncle and aunt Gardiner on their northern tour. How different had her feelings been in August when the trees had been lush with greenery, the sunshine dazzling her eyes and burnishing her skin to tones of golden brown. Elizabeth recalled her feelings of dread at the thought of being in near vicinity to that of Mr Darcy and how she had feared visiting Pemberley, the house that was now to be her home. She laughed out loud.
"Are you happy, dearest Elizabeth?" Mr Darcy enquired, taking her hand between both of his and raising it to his lips to kiss her fingertips tenderly.
"I am indeed, though happiness was not the emotion at the forefront of my mind just now. I was engaged in other, quite dreadful recollections, I must admit."
Fitzwilliam Darcy's brows knitted together in consternation. He studied Elizabeth's countenance, noting her expression which had suddenly changed to display a look so serious and grave that he could hardly bear to witness it. "I shall never forgive myself for the things I said to you in the past, nor for the way in which I behaved. I only trust that in time I shall make sufficient amendment. My wish is to make you feel as I do, to have you love me as I love you. Please, Elizabeth, do not dwell on such bleak remembrances."
Mrs Darcy turned her face toward him and, being unable to look anything other than completely amused, caused her husband to look searchingly into the dark, fine eyes which he so admired. "You have clearly forgotten some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure." Elizabeth paused, her curls trembling as she suppressed the mirth bubbling inside. "I am teasing you, Fitzwilliam. I am perfectly happy to dwell on the memories of my first trip into Derbyshire, even if my initial feelings were concerned with mortification and distress. When I first set eyes on Lambton village, I could not help but think of you, and knowing that your estate was but five miles from here, with the possibility of your being in residence, was enough to overturn all my feelings."
"Am I to deduce from this statement that you felt an inclination toward me that was beyond your own will? You always gave the impression of total disinterest, a self-sufficiency and aloofness. This description of your feelings gives quite a different picture. I think if you really had been so indifferent to me as I believed you were then, no such agitation could have been experienced. No one suffers anxiety when they are truly detached from feeling. I suspect that this distress you speak of was the deep acknowledgement that you were falling in love with me, regardless of your resolution to despise me forever."
Elizabeth laughed again, her dark ringlets trembling prettily as she shook her head. "Oh, you insufferable, darling man. I hate to admit it, but I think there may be some element of truth in what you say, although I would certainly have denied it at the time. I felt most uncomfortable at the thought of looking around Pemberley, and yet I was most curious to see the house where I could have been mistress, had I not turned down your wretched proposal."
"Oh, do not remind me of that dreaded conversation at Hunsford."
"No, I shall not be so cruel. Instead I shall remind you that your second proposal was infinitely more acceptable to me, so much so that I am sitting here next to the man who has made me the happiest woman alive."
"Have I made you happy, Elizabeth? I know we are just at the beginning of our life together, and two days spent in exclusive company is hardly enough time for you to know whether or not you were right in your decision to accept me a second time. But I hope you do not regret the outcome. I only want your happiness."
"Mrs Reynolds is a very wise woman, I have come to believe."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"Your housekeeper was the person who made me think again about my prejudice against you. Her description of you as the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted boy in the world could not be without foundation. She, who had known you since you were a child, had to know something of your true character. I suppose it was from that day my idea of you really changed. And what is more, I believe she was correct. I know now just how sweet-tempered you really can be."
Mr Darcy smiled and looked into her eyes at that moment with such evident longing that she felt her cheeks blush. The pressure of his fingers upon her own increased and though she reciprocated with a returning squeeze, it was too much to sustain his gaze. She must keep something in reserve, Lizzy felt, or her husband's vanity, so recently curbed and tamed, might stir again like a beast unleashed. In any case, it would be far more fun to keep him wondering quite how far her admiration for him extended. She turned once more to seek the view through the window, simultaneously extracting her hand from his firm grasp and fussing about with her gloves and the fur tippet around her shoulders. "I thought we were to travel straight to Pemberley," she said as the carriage started to enter the village.
"I have a small commission to fulfil first; we shall not be long," answered Mr Darcy.
As they turned the corner into the main street, the sight that met her eyes was enough to make Elizabeth cry out in surprise; for lining both sides of the road, three people deep, was the entire population of Lambton. At the sight of the carriage up went a roar and a cheer, caps and hats were thrown into the air, and everyone burst into applause. Faces, young and old, peered into the carriage as it trundled past. Voices sang out from every side with wishes of joy.
"God bless you, sir, and God bless you, my lady. Welcome to Lambton!"
So unexpected was the tribute being paid to them that Elizabeth was moved to the point where she could not immediately find her tongue. "Oh, Fitzwilliam," she uttered at last. "Is this wonderful reception for us?"
"For you, my love. I might inspire a certain affectionate respect in my tenants, but I have never seen them turn out like this before." He took her hand again. "Welcome to Lambton, Mrs Darcy. Come, we are expected."