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The Oak and the Ash


Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth find it troubling being back in Hertfordshire for the first time after their marriage.

Drama / Romance
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Chapter 1

It was the calends of June, near a full moon, and the weather was becoming exceedingly warm. Good people began their flight from London, away from the gregarious season for the comfort of a country estate. For some it was a shame that the heat and discomfort of the city should drive them from their pleasure of fashionable balls and politic dinners, and endless rounds of whist, yet for others the flight out of Town was sheer delight to their taciturn and aloof countenance.

Oddly, there was a smile on Fitzwilliam Darcy’s face the whole of that day, for leaving London had to be one of those things that pleased him no end. It was not always so, for in his youth the marvels of London held an attraction; it was the place for a young man to be seen, and in many ways a place to learn to be a gentleman, but Darcy found as he came to be more of his own man that those of exalted society held little interest for him. The gentleman longed to be elsewhere of late, and he yearned to be in the fine company of one person in particular.

He grinned the entire time that his valet did shave his chin that morning. The steady man with straight razor in hand, at least once, was made to tell his master just how precarious such an outpouring of feeling at that precise instant could be, yet Mr. Darcy persisted in his blithe celebration of adieu despite any such well-meaning caveats.

The remainder of the household staff perceived the cheer spread across Mr. Darcy’s handsome face as the gentleman settled their wages that morning and praised them for a job well done. They had never known their master to be so daft in mien and impulsive in spirit as he had been this season, and although the change was not wholly unwelcome, the very sight of him grinning in such a manner was still a little disconcerting.

A smartly outfitted chaise and four waited at the front of Mr. Darcy's townhouse. Its excellent dark wood was washed and lacquered, and buffed to a shine, and the polished brass fittings glimmered in the morning sun. The top and rear of the carriage was laden with brown leather traveling trunks full of garments secured from London’s fine tailors and dressmakers, and brown paper-wrapped packages purchased from the shops on Bond Street and the arcades at Covent Garden.

The excellent pairings of Cleveland Bays leading the equipage were anxious to leave the city, and they snorted and stomped their hooves, craned their massive, proud heads and rolled their eyes in their eagerness to be let loose on miles of well-traveled road. Almost the same could be said for the footmen post at the rear of the vehicle, for although it was mid-morning; the heat approaching that of midday, and a proper postilion’s attire, gave rise to even a faithful servant’s impatience.

The carriage was ultimately bound on a journey northward, with a few stops here and there; yet before it would travel the familiar road home to Derbyshire, the coach would make a stop for a brief time in one other neighborhood in England. It might have been said that at one time Fitzwilliam Darcy had found the society in Hertfordshire confined and unvarying, however a certain happy circumstance had come about to alter his narrow opinion of the place. A fortnight near the village of Meryton would not be so bad—no, it would not be so bad at all, for there was the companionship of family to be had, and some sort of camaraderie and sport between gentlemen and friends, and no doubt the climate in the country would be far more agreeable.

Mr. Darcy’s tall and superior figure was clad ever so coolly that day. His man had selected nankeen breeches for him instead of the usual traveling buckskin, for buckskin, in Mr. Stevens’ highly proficient opinion, would have given the master more fits than not in such weather. A thin linen waistcoat with scarcely any lining served the same principle, and a traveling cutaway with shoulders loosened a tad completed the outfit.

Darcy strode down the hallway of his family’s stately townhouse toward the anteroom. It was his practice to spend part of the season residing in London, as it was the habit of his parents, and of his father’s own parents before. The family had come by way of Number Seven Wilton Crescent with the substantial dowry of Miss Julia Briggs-Faye, Darcy’s paternal grandmother.

She had wed Cyril, head of the Darcy household when he was but six and twenty, and she merely seventeen. In return for her dowered contribution to the marriage, and for her devotion to a benevolent and landed husband, Julia Darcy became the illustrious mistress of a grand estate called Pemberley and within five years bore her husband two sons. Though the Darcys had been a family of property before the union, they were better off for it, and Julia’s family had a daughter well enough placed in society for their own comfort. It had all been happily arranged for the gentleman and his wife, while love between them had very little to do with it all.

Darcy paused a moment at the end of the hall to inspect a small portrait in a gilt oval frame, the likeness of his grandmother, which graced the wall above the wainscot. The image had been taken when she was a young woman. Her hair was powdered white, and she sported the most curious smile, as if the artist himself vaguely amused her in some way. Darcy could remember very little of her, though he did affectionately recall that she was a hard-headed woman whose eyes sparkled brightly when she happened to find a blemish with anyone; and as a boy, he esteemed her and she had spoiled her grandson.

Once near the anteroom Darcy’s expressions betrayed his delight at glimpsing the pleasing reality of a young and beautiful woman. At once he thought how much she did bear a resemblance to the portrait of his grandmother as a young woman, in character and in figure, though in this liaison, love had been prevailing.

The woman was dressed similarly in consequence and fashion to Darcy’s own taste, that being light and comfortable for a summer day’s journey. Her cream-colored traveling frock was modest and unaffected; though new to her wardrobe at her husband’s insistence, for one could see even through her outward beauty that she was indeed a humble girl by nature. She wore a bonnet the hue of hazy blue, its supple satin ribbons securing it by a bow impeccably tied beneath her chin. It was not so much her attire that made her such an embodiment of loveliness in the eyes of the gentleman standing at the threshold, but her liveliness of attitude and the healthy glow of her skin, and particularly her smile when she happened to turn round and direct it tenderly toward her husband.

“Shall we be on our way, Mrs. Darcy?” the husband prodded more than asked, almost with a spirit akin to that of the impetuous horses just beyond the doorway.

“Yes,” the pretty woman replied, her voice filled with pleasing agreement.

Mr. Darcy took his wife gently by the arm, yet she lingered a moment longer. Elizabeth Darcy gave a last glance about her, drinking in the atmosphere of a house in Town the likes of which she had never known. To think that she should now reside so near to His Grace the Duke of Wellington when he should be in town and at his grand house called Apsley, set her mind utterly awhirl.

Elizabeth had not been so certain that she would take to living in Town, particularly throughout the spring and early summer, a time when the country landscape came alive with wild and fragrant blossoms and called her out to stroll among its beauty. This was something at least that Mr. Darcy did pay great attention to, for in this regard he thought perhaps that his young wife could find herself quite homesick.

He strolled down the crescent and through the neighborhood parks with her, more than he ever went out alone to a club or on a matter of business. If he did happen to be away from the house he made certain that Elizabeth had the accompaniment of a trusted footman and her maid when she did walk out. However, it was simply not the same for Elizabeth, for she had never needed a chaperone to stroll about the countryside, but she could understand her husband’s concerns, and she did willingly obey.

After a time, the neighborhood came to know Elizabeth quite well. The genteel widow who lived at Number Ten would greet Mrs. Darcy happily as she walked by, entreating her to stop and speculate about the condition of the weather and perhaps now and then take tea at a little table in the side courtyard. The young woman would speak of her joy in being a new bride, and the old woman would delight in hearing it, and she would recall her former happiness, and now and then lament the loss of a beloved husband.

The two small children who lived at Number Sixteen would anxiously wait for Elizabeth to pass by their drawing room window, ready to pounce on her once out of the door and beg her to play at marbles with them, if only for a few moments. Elizabeth always obliged them, and when she had stayed long enough, and she was to leave, the children waved and sang out their happy goodbyes, and the stale city sounds were masked by the sweetness of the laughter of children.

Elizabeth could not deny that the pristine park beds and the flowers lining the boxes along the arc of their street were beautiful, and that the people who she met along the way were affable and unlike any townsfolk that she could have anticipated, but she thought it all the more wondrous when Darcy was at her side. When they did walk out together, the neighborhood noticed them from their windows and deemed them the happiest couple to be seen in many years. They mused at how the lady did take pleasure in her man’s attentions, and even though the London landscape was at its finest, how the man did only have eyes for the beauty of his lady.

It was difficult for Elizabeth to suppose that she now shared this place, the splendid home of someone—someone who was the dearest man to ever capture her heart. All this she now enjoyed in conjugal arrangement with a man whom she could never have imagined would have made her such a generous offer of marriage.

Perhaps in her youth the former Miss Elizabeth Bennet did have some inkling of her fate and fortune. A life such as this had been the desires and fancies of a young and playful girl; and the mischief that she had made in her play one day, some years ago when teasing her older sister in the church at Longbourn could never have been taken with any seriousness. Within the parish chronicles of that very old and beloved place, there existed proof of a young girl's impishness—an autograph in Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s hand; an evidence of a mischievous arrangement in the annals of Longbourn’s history.

Elizabeth’s dreams for her good fortune had grown dim with the years, yet at nearing the age of one and twenty she was of a mind to refuse the offers of other men, despite the urging and wishes of her mother. These were men whom Elizabeth found that she could never marry, and the whole purpose in ever quitting her father’s house was solely to be upon the condition that she were to fall hopelessly in love.

Elizabeth did fall in love, admittedly to her own family, although when it did happen, it was not the sort of instant revelation that befalls the character of a heroine written in the pages of tales and fables. In the case of the gentleman now at her elbow, she could not say, for although he had admitted that he had admired her from almost the very beginning of their acquaintance, he had resisted any temptation to fall under love’s spell— or at least he had resisted it, for as long as a sensible man possibly could.

There was no question of their love for each other now. Elizabeth adored Darcy, and Darcy cherished Elizabeth, and nothing could ever come between lovers so absolutely devoted. Marriage had been proposed upon the recognition of the gentleman that he was indeed besotted in love, and the question had finally been answered favorably when the maiden was smitten beyond her power of reason. The couple, in favor of their joy, quite forgot what vexing events had happened between besotted and smitten, and their happiness was now to be complete.

Nothing ever came between two such lovers; nothing that is, excepting for a touch of pride and a twinge of prejudice, and perhaps a bit of jealousy between them, and some well-meaning relations thrown into the mix. Indeed, the summer in England that year was coming down warm, and who at that moment was to know of such a change in temper? Who could ever know of such a brewing storm to come?

The footman opened the front doors of the townhouse and Darcy gave his instructions to the driver of the carriage, and then settled his wife inside. He sat himself beside her, stretched out his long legs, and then swiped his hat from the top of his head, tossing it to the seat across from him, along with his unneeded gloves and walking stick.

“On to Hertfordshire,” Darcy sighed; the dark curls of hair surrounding his face already moist from the humidity in the air.

Elizabeth glanced at Darcy’s noble silhouette, lit from the side through the glass of the carriage pane. The sinew at the edge of his clean-shaven jaw was tense, and there was a slight tic beneath the bristles of his fastidiously clipped facial hair. With a twitch of his aristocratic chin and manly lips, he sat back against the soft leather of the seat and raised his hand to rap on the ceiling of the carriage.

“Have you misgivings on going to Hertfordshire?” Elizabeth inquired of him, placing a tender touch on his arm before he was able to perform the task he had intended.

Elizabeth had been the one to pose to Darcy the possibility of extending a visit to her family before returning north to Pemberley. Her inquiry had been the well-conceived design of a clever young bride, for upon heeding the advice of many a practiced wife, she had whispered her desires in her husband’s ear very early one sleepy morning.

“Misgivings?” Darcy feigned ignorance. “Not at all, my love.”

Elizabeth smiled at his contrivance. “Pray sir, you can tell me the truth of it. I should think you to be on edge, by your peculiar attitude alone.”

“I am always somewhat on edge before a journey,” he explained tactfully, and then grinned at whatever game she played, and tousled his damp hair with his fingertips. “There are many things to consider, my dear—and one never knows what shall happen from here to there.”

Elizabeth wondered at Darcy’s turn of phrase. It had not taken her long to recognize the signs of his discomfort, for that was an aspect of his character in which she had once taken for pride and conceit.

“We could go to Derbyshire directly, if you would rather.”

“Not a chance,” his expression when answering told of his astonishment at being thought indifferent. “You want to see your family, Elizabeth. It is only right that you should wish it, and we have no plans to be this way again for some time.”

“Then all is well?”

“A fortnight at Netherfield—or Longbourn,” he stopped to swallow a disconcerted breath at the notion of living in the house of Elizabeth’s parents, “is perfectly fine with me.”

Elizabeth smiled in a manner that had always been greatly pleasing to Darcy’s senses. “It will be wonderful to see my parents and sisters again, and I have certain plans for us, dear husband.”

“Plans?” replied Darcy, grinning with hopeful thoughts.

“Indeed,” Elizabeth dallied with him, her arm slipping through the crook of his own. “To walk again amongst the hedgerows in quaint conversation with you, Mr. Darcy—down the lane to Meryton.”

“Walk?” he logged the complaint incredulously to trifle with her as well, “Hedgerows? I was depending on some other distraction as compensation for being made to spend so much of my time in the country—and for enduring the extraordinary company of my in-laws.”

“Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth did her best not to grin too immodestly, “what shocking things do husbands think? You know full well that there are only so many distractions to be had in Hertfordshire. Once you have dined with four and twenty families, there is little else to do.”

Such a show of charming wile a man could never refute, and so Darcy, grinning, let out another sigh. This time his sigh was quite different in character than the last, and he let down the window and called out, “Drive on!”

Longbourn house was in a sorry state that morning, albeit very often it did appear as if that was its natural condition. Mrs. Bennet, the mistress of the house, seated herself at the breakfast table after her husband had settled in for a late meal, and she took her napkin from beneath its modest silver setting, and used it to fan the still air about her flushed face.

“Mr. Bennet,” her voice pierced the warm, motionless air within the breakfast room, a room that faced full east; referring to her husband in such a shrill manner, even when quite on their own, “at what hour are we to receive them?”

“Lizzy did write, Mrs. Bennet,” her husband returned the affection adeptly, “that we are to see them an hour or two after the stroke of midday.”

Mrs. Bennet gasped. “She is Lizzy no longer, you know!” she censured her husband’s informal address of their now married daughter. “Mary! Kitty!” she directed her remaining daughters, “your sister is now to be known in Meryton as Mrs. Darcy, and we are not to forget it!”

Mr. Bennet was bewildered by his wife’s reproach. “Are you suggesting, Mrs. Bennet,” he posed the question as he cut the food on the plate before him, “that Elizabeth is no longer our daughter?”

“Of course she is our daughter,” for once Mrs. Bennet showed some pride in her second born child. “But she is now a married woman, and her husband is highly regarded in his neighborhood—he is a well-bred and proper gentleman, and he may not take well to our fawning and preening over Lizzy as we did when she lived at Longbourn.”

“Do you hear that girls?” Mr. Bennet recognized his girls in haste; “We are not to flatter Elizabeth ever again!”

“I never flattered her a jot,” Mary insisted.

“Mr. Darcy is more than proper,” Kitty added her thoughts. “He may as well be frightfully handsome and the richest man in Derbyshire, but I do not see how Elizabeth can be so in love with the man. One cross look from him and I would wish to quit his house forever!”

“That is the difference between you and Elizabeth, Kitty,” her father pondered. “With Elizabeth, I am in no great danger of having her come back, however much I should wish it—though I cannot in good principle say the same for her silly sisters.”

Mrs. Bennet added her own farthings worth on the subject. “One can only hope that you girls are very well placed with good-humored young men, and soon.”

Mr. Bennet smiled at his own thoughts. “I should speak to my son-in-law, Mr. Wickham,” he delighted in teasing his harried wife, “and ask for his pity on us. Perhaps he would be so kind as to send up as many friends he can in the regulars as potential husbands for our daughters, Mrs. Bennet?”

“Oh, Mr. Bennet!” his wife hissed in dispute, “The man is poor as Devonshire dirt, and no doubt his friends are in dreadful straights as well—that will never do for our dear girls!”

“Good morning!” the agreeable resonance of Mr. Bingley’s voice upset the conversation. He had not been announced upon his arrival, for he was by now a regular caller at Longbourn and such formalities had been eclipsed. He held a chair away from the table for the comfort of his wife Jane and then took up his usual place near to his father-in-law. “Were you speaking of Devonshire?”

Mr. Bennet acknowledged his eldest daughter’s husband with a nod of his head. “Mrs. Bennet was enlightening us as to the poor state of Devonshire dirt,” he answered the young man, “that is to measure it against the very rich dirt to be found in the hill country of Derbyshire—I should imagine.”

Charles Bingley dismissed the discussion with a shake of his head and an amiable, yet ridiculous grin. It was well known that the lowlands produced better soil than in the higher grounds, and that farming in Derbyshire was not the foundation of its wealth. Bingley was never truly sure of what was being said at Longbourn house when he happened to visit the place, and in many months of making the attempt to figure it all out, he had quite learned the lesson to quit the occupation entirely.

“Sir,” Mrs. Hill, the Bennet’s longtime housekeeper stood at the doorway. “A carriage is coming up the drive.”

“Ha!” Bingley elated, “Darcy is prompt as ever!”

“Heavens!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed, “Oh! Hill! Hill, set two more places at the table! Quickly! Quickly!”

Boots and petticoats began to scuttle about to glimpse the sight of such a splendid vehicle coming up the drive, yet Mr. Bennet was inclined to calmly finish the last few bites of his breakfast before quitting his table. He was the last to step from the front doors of Longbourn house, yet the carriage had only then pulled to a halt. He smiled with pleasure at such ceremony as a smartly presented footman leapt from his perch on back, pulled down the carriage steps, and opened the door for the occupants inside.

A familiar complexion came out into the light of day. The young woman’s bright eyes and happy smile enlightened the atmosphere of her former home, as she looked about at the anxious faces of all those whom she loved so dearly.

“Oh, papa,” Elizabeth sighed as her father stepped to the forefront to greet his daughter. “How well you do look.”

“Aye, Lizzy,” he spoke, then winced for fear of a sharp hand to his back, a blow of reproof from his missus for using his favorite daughter’s name so carelessly. “I am well enough, and happy to still be here on this earth to see you come home to Longbourn.”

“Papa,” Elizabeth grinned at her father’s cynical manner. “I have another home now, and it pleases me very much, but it is wonderful to visit the place which will always hold so many fond memories for me.”

Mr. Bennet chuckled at his daughter’s prudent response and gave Elizabeth a kiss on the forehead. “That is a good girl,” he commended her in a whisper of sentiment. “I was sure that one of my daughters would make a good wife, though you had little illustration to recommend it as an occupation of choice.”

Darcy poked his head out through the window of the carriage, which was odd indeed, for his convention as master was to boldly step out, ready to be by Elizabeth’s side. Elizabeth turned round in that instant to see him behave so strangely, and such an absurd sight made her laugh. It was quite entertaining to think that he behaved in such a way to suppose himself quite safe—after all, Mr. Darcy was a grown man who never exhibited a childlike flaw, or hid behind the mothering skirts of a woman.

“I welcome you to Longbourn, son,” Mr. Bennet extended his greeting to Darcy, much to the pleasure of Elizabeth.

With that said, Darcy stepped from the carriage, and one could almost hear the astounded gasps as he stood up to his full, and on first glance, somewhat ominous height. “Thank you, sir,” he said. His voice was deep and sincere, and his eyes were a gleam in his appreciation to be regarded as a member of a family.

“You are ahead of schedule, Darcy!” Bingley made his way toward his friend.

Darcy clasped hands with the young man, indeed happy to see a familiar face among those he still considered to be more like strangers than family. “Early, yes,” he whispered, “it is wretchedly hot in London, and I am glad to be rid of the place.”

“Always the same, fastidious Darcy,” Bingley laughed. “I can depend on you to never change, and say exactly what it is that you think.”

At once, Darcy looked about, and he nodded his greeting to Elizabeth’s sisters and mother. Each in turn dipped a curtsey, far too awestruck by the man’s build and position to do much else. In his own awkwardness, Darcy clinched his hands together behind his back, and only when Elizabeth did slyly slip her hand into the palm of his, did his composure ease, and the flush of inhibition on his face retreat.

Elizabeth was concerned for him no longer for she had always considered Darcy a man of sense and education, and hence she could not take his discomfort in the presence of people who were relatively harmless, with too much gravity. She let loose her comforting grip of her husband’s hand, and went to embrace her mother and sisters.

They deferred to her, inspecting her fine attire and examining her cheeks for proper color, to be absolutely positive that Elizabeth had been well cared for as a Bennet girl ought. Darcy found the sight poignant in a way. That Elizabeth’s family should care for her so deeply made them seem more respectable in his eyes. To Darcy, Elizabeth was deserving of many things, not the least of which was love and respect.

Darcy turned round, as if to give his driver instructions, though as yet he was uncertain what was to become of them. “It is arranged for you and Elizabeth to stay with us,” Bingley laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We can all go to Netherfield my carriage after our visit.”

The two friends exchanged a guarded look between them. “You are too kind, Bingley,” Darcy was quick to whisper.

“Kindness, Darcy,” Bingley returned in a like manner, “has everything to do with it.”

“Drive on to Netherfield,” Darcy called out to his driver, “stable the horses and have our things brought into the house.”

The two gentlemen stood out on the grounds for some time watching the carriage drive out of sight, realizing that the others had by now gone into Longbourn house. “It is good to see you, Darcy,” Bingley exhaled happily, truly meaning every word.

Darcy smiled, “As it is to see you, Bingley. I have missed your good company.”

“Have you?”

“Yes, indeed.”

At once there was an awkwardness between old friends which was a trifle disturbing to each. On Darcy’s part it was on being in Hertfordshire once again, a place where he had done little to recommend himself in society. For Bingley it was in now being a wedded man, and in wondering how he was to remain the doting husband that he had come to portray, and manage Darcy’s esteem as a friend.

“How do you get on, Darcy?”

Darcy took out his handkerchief and swabbed it across his forehead. “Very well,” he answered, stuffing the starched white cloth back inside his coat. Again the awkwardness between friends was unsettling, and the conversation thin. “And you, Bingley?”

“Quite well myself,” Bingley finally exhibited his true fashion of speech. “Marriage is a fine thing, Darcy. A woman to care for you, and to keep your house—a comrade who takes great interest in what you happen to say and think…”

“Comrade,” Darcy chuckled at his friend’s expression, and then smirked, “A comrade in arms of sorts. In the respect that you mention, marriage is a good thing Bingley, yet do you not find it a pleasure to return the compliments and favors to such a devoted woman?”

“Yes,” Bingley was wary to admit, and Darcy found that to be an odd happenstance. “Yes—I suppose there is satisfaction in it.” Bingley was quick to change the subject. “Let us go inside, Darcy,” he motioned toward the house.

As Darcy stepped across the threshold of his wife’s childhood home, he felt that odd angst which he had possessed when entering the halls of Longbourn. It was feeling that Darcy had felt within the hollow of his stomach at a time when he had not known of Elizabeth’s attitude toward him, and again it had emanated from his anxiety in being an eligible suitor for her hand.

After their engagement had been announced, Darcy had felt a queer concern in being touted all through the neighborhood as Elizabeth Bennet’s illustrious lover, whereas in privacy between them, that was not objectionable in the slightest. Belief of the label being placed on him by the local establishment as the moneyed man come to sweep away Meryton’s finest jewel, had nearly made the collected Mr. Darcy ill at every instance, and he was never so happy as when he had been away from such community gossip.

Beside all of this, Darcy had always felt himself so damnably tall in the house as compared to anywhere else he had ever been. Perhaps the ceilings at Longbourn were lower than most country houses, yet that did not seem likely, and Darcy was forever at a loss for an explanation.

When they were left to themselves, things were contented between Darcy and Elizabeth. Their close bond was ideal between the two of them, for each had their differences of character in complement to the other. Like an ancient oak standing in a finely groomed and sprawling park, Darcy rooted himself in deep. His feelings and understanding of life grew slowly but assuredly, at every twist and every turn for each passing season. He was to love and keep Elizabeth for an eternity, for when someone formed an attachment to a Darcy man; he understood the connection to be for a lifetime.

Elizabeth was new to this noble rule, although a promise in her eyes was indeed something honored and kept. However, nothing ever seemed to bring her lasting distress or to take root at her feet, and her position was akin to a sinuous ash in a forest bed, swaying with the ebb and flow of the wind. Elizabeth’s mind grew and changed swiftly and her character reached high at every opportunity of enlightenment. One would never have thought that such an attachment would flourish, but thrive and grow it did.

“Do have a seat at my table, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth’s father coaxed his son-in-law.

Darcy gladly took a place beside Elizabeth, and before he could politely refuse, Mrs. Bennet had the housekeeper set a heaping plate of food and a cup of tea directly before the gentleman. Elizabeth winced at her mother’s eagerness to please, for Darcy rarely ever opined that such commonplace hospitality was good form and practice in the appearance of civility.

“I thank you for your kindness,” Darcy muttered for the sake of Elizabeth’s feelings, wanting to push the plate away yet resisting any inducement to do so, “I have already had my breakfast, though I would be obliged to keep the tea.”

With a curtsey, the housekeeper swept the plate away. The lack of good conversation between Darcy and Bingley had at once made its way into Longbourn house and to Mr. Bennet’s humble table. Darcy was at a loss to say anything, an aspect of his character that at times he would gladly exchange for a little so called ‘joie de vivre’.

“How did you like London, Lizzy?” Kitty asked enthusiastically. “Oh!” her hand flew to her mouth, “I did mean to call you Mrs. Darcy, Lizzy!”

Elizabeth blushed at the mention of her married appellation. She quickly glanced in the direction of her husband, who nothing more than stirred his tea with a spoon far too small for his fingers, and she replied, “Kitty, you may always call me Lizzy. What would give you the notion that you could not?”

Both Elizabeth and Darcy were witness to Mr. Bennet’s victorious smirk directed at his wife from across the length of the table. Mrs. Bennet tossed her napkin into her lap in abhorrence, and Darcy wondered just what it was that had transpired between his new relations to provoke such a war of will; and then he thought he was better off for not knowing.

“Is your house in town as handsome as they say, Lizzy?” Kitty continued. “Aunt Gardiner says that it is first rate—a splendid place in a lovely quarter, and that you did invite our aunt and uncle there on many occasions.”

Elizabeth smiled, “It is indeed most splendid.”

“Do you have many servants? Do you have your very own maid, Lizzy—and does your husband have his own manservant as well?”

Elizabeth did feel somewhat awkward at the question, “We do, Kitty.”

“Why of course Mr. Darcy has his own manservant!” Mrs. Bennet interjected. “There is not a decent gentleman in this day who would consider wasting his time on such menial tasks as giving himself a proper shave, for goodness sake girl!”

Mr. Bennet threw up his hands in defeat, and from the corner of her eye Elizabeth could see Darcy cringe. Elizabeth was desperate for some way to prevent her own, and her husband’s embarrassment. She looked feebly across the table at Jane, though her good-natured sister offered no immediate distraction, and this in turn gave Elizabeth great vexation.

“Mama,” Elizabeth hailed, saying more than she should in an attempt to thwart matters, “Mr. Darcy is in every way a gentleman, but he is more than capable of performing those undertakings himself. I know for certain that he is capable of using a razor.”

At this intimate assertion of personal hygiene, Darcy blanched; and Elizabeth went scarlet.

“Nonsense, Lizzy! Why should he spend his time on such daily trifles?” Elizabeth’s tactless mother was apt to argue.

“Why indeed?” Mr. Bennet posed. “He might very well slip up and cut off a deaf ear.”

“Or sever an artery,” Darcy murmured.

The gentlemen in the room laughed at Darcy’s disdain, as Mrs. Bennet plucked up her napkin and again dabbed it to her face. Elizabeth was mortified that her parents should take up such a quarrel, and that her sisters, and even she herself should continue to display such country manners.

Kitty however was truly impressed with everything that she had heard. “May I come and stay at your house Lizzy, when you are next in London?”

Elizabeth bit down on her lip, for this was the last incivility for the morning that she could bear. She had not forgotten how to reproach the insolent behavior of her younger sisters, and at once she exclaimed, “Kitty! That will be quite enough!”

Darcy frowned and leaned back against his chair, the look of mortification on his face hardly quelled at all, and Elizabeth was certain that he would not endure the horrid manners of her family a moment longer; but then Elizabeth was to be proven wrong.

“You may indeed come to our house, Kitty,” Darcy was generous in his offer. “When next we are in Town, Elizabeth will write and I will send a carriage for you and Mary.”

“You see Kitty!” Mrs. Bennet shrilled; knowing how it would be once one of her daughters had been thrown into the path of a prominent young man. “Mr. Darcy is not a disagreeable a man!”

Elizabeth was left numbed by the vulgar display of her family; and so soon upon the advent of her husband’s first visit had it been accomplished, was indeed unfortunate. Elizabeth wanted to cry at the infidelity of her feelings, but there really was no point in it, for no one in the room would take pity on her, excepting perhaps for dear Jane. Elizabeth glanced warily in Darcy’s direction, and much to her vexation she happened to notice the same tautness of his jaw as she did witness in the carriage just that morning, as well as a similar tense twitch to his noble chin and lips.

Elizabeth was indeed happy to be staying at Netherfield, though in a time past she had been happier to leave the place. Darcy appeared relieved to be quitting Longbourn, and Elizabeth could not say that she blamed him for his perceptible haste in bolting from her father’s house and toward the opened doors of Mr. Bingley’s awaiting carriage. Tomorrow would be soon enough for another visit to Elizabeth’s childhood home, for the gentlemen had made plans at Mr. Bennet’s request to have a look about the estate, to see what could be done about its failing condition.

Again, Darcy settled himself in the carriage seat next to Elizabeth, though with Bingley and Jane across from him, he had no room to toss his hat, or to stretch out his long legs. Bingley’s carriage was smaller than Darcy’s chaise, and with four people fit snug inside, and on such a warm day as this, it would be an uncomfortable three miles to Netherfield.

Breathing at this point was a luxury one could ill afford, and Darcy reached across Elizabeth and let down the carriage window in an attempt to give them all some air. He had an irritable scowl upon his face as he did it, and Elizabeth rolled her eyes in furtive reply to him, perfectly comprehending his discomfort. Had Darcy been in any less of a hurry to leave Longbourn, Elizabeth might have suggested that they walk, and in feeling the humidity that four bodies produced in a chaise and two that afternoon, she almost got out and let it go without her.

Charles Bingley took his good time in saying his adieus, and by the time that he settled himself in the carriage, Darcy was very cross. Bingley smiled lovingly at Jane, and took her hand within his own, patting it gently.

“Are you quite sure that you are ready to leave, my lovely wife?”

Jane replied readily, “Yes, dear.”

“You have left nothing behind?”

Elizabeth began to fan her reddened face with a limp kid glove, and Darcy reached into his coat pocket, pulled out his handkerchief and swabbed it across his upper lip. “Pray, Bingley,” he said in fervor, “if your wife has left a thing we can fetch it on the morrow. Otherwise, have your man head for Netherfield this instant before we all melt into a puddle.”

There was a bit of a breeze as the carriage lurched forward, and Elizabeth sighed in relief though the glove still helped to assist the air into the carriage faster than not. When they reached Netherfield, Darcy waited for Bingley and Jane to exit the carriage, and then he scrambled out of it himself, and reached back in for Elizabeth as swiftly as he could. There was no need for the carriage steps to be let down, for Darcy lifted her out of the vehicle in one fell swoop and placed her feet on the ground.

“Are you quite well?” he asked of Elizabeth, his arms about her waist to steady her as she swooned. “You look very pale.”

“I am fine.”

“Come into the house,” he whispered to her, “and have something to drink.”

They walked up the steps into the house and through the anteroom to the drawing room, Darcy’s arm about Elizabeth the entire time. The drawing room was located in the center of the house, and it remained cooler than most of the other rooms. Darcy took Elizabeth to a chair, and then strode as a man on a mission toward a decanter of water set on the top of a cellaret.

“Do you mind, Bingley?” he asked of his friend, then poured out a glass of it and handed it to Elizabeth without awaiting Bingley’s blessing. Elizabeth drank it down, and Darcy handed one to Jane, and then helped himself. He walked toward the mantelpiece against the wall, turned his back toward his hosts and drank down the contents of the glass as if it were the last drop of water on earth.

“Good Lord,” Darcy sighed out in respite as he set the glass upon the shelf. “It has been some time since the country has seen such heat.”

“Quite true, Darcy,” Bingley replied, sounding the authority and looking unflappable. “We have not had a drop of rain for weeks and the farmers are beginning to complain. Perhaps you would like to ride out and I will show you the toll already wrought on the crops.”

“Tomorrow perhaps,” Darcy replied. “I do not think that I could breathe for the dust filling the air. If it is no trouble, Bingley, Elizabeth and I would like to rest.”

“Oh yes,” Elizabeth nodded in agreement.

“I will have my man show you to your chambers. What about your valet Darcy—and Elizabeth’s maid? We have not separate chambers for them adjacent to your apartment, and there shall only be the one dressing room in the guest chambers.”

“Not to worry, Bingley, we sent them on ahead to Derbyshire. Stevens does usually take a holiday at this time of year, and as it has already been pointed out so eloquently, we can manage ourselves.”

Elizabeth blushed at Darcy’s remark, though she understood his vexation. One’s mood betwixt the heat and the company deteriorated quickly, although Elizabeth felt it was not in her husband’s duty to point it out so willfully.

“Then my man is at your disposal, Darcy,” Bingley offered generously, “and one of the housemaids may attend to Elizabeth.”

“Thank you, Bingley,” Darcy nodded in gratitude. “If you would have your man bring up some water for a bath, I would be most obliged. As for the dressing chamber, if Elizabeth does not mind, we can certainly share it between us.”

“I do not mind at all dear,” Elizabeth was agreeable to that as well.

Mr. Bingley called for the butler, and the servant was quick to attend them in the drawing room, though he looked more like a porter to Queen Charlotte as he carried a small animal within the crook of one arm. “Were you wishing me to bring her to you, sir?” the man asked.

“Oh yes!” Bingley laughed at his forgetfulness and took the little ball of fur into his hands. “I quite forgot.”

He held the animal up for his friend to inspect and the little thing squealed and snorted like a baby pig anxious to be fed. “What is it?” Darcy promptly asked, not wishing to take too close a look.

“A new puppy, Darcy,” Bingley replied, and then gazed lovingly toward Jane, “A little housedog. A companion for my dearest, sweetest Jane.”

Darcy groaned at the mere sight of the hairy little thing and at his friend’s mention of his bride the whole of that day by every endearment ever fixed in the language of modern civilization.

“I imagined that you were her companion, Bingley?”

“Indeed I am!” Bingley chuckled, “but when I cannot be here, little Lucy does keep her in fine spirits.”

Elizabeth had regained her composure from the heat, and Mr. Bingley brought the little dog down toward her so that she was able to see it somewhat clearly. It appeared as though the creature had no eyes, although Elizabeth was convinced that they must be hiding somewhere beneath the shock of bristly hair sitting atop the dog’s tiny head. Its ears stood straight up and compared to the rest of it were quite bare, and its nose was the same color as its body, and only recognizable by the fact that it was moist and twitching.

“Lucy,” she repeated the name with a giggle.

Lucy,” Jane sighed in affirmation though she barely found it amusing.

Bingley was eager to ask the opinion of his friend. “What do you think, Darcy?”

Darcy knew of no such flattery for what he saw before him, though he had no wish to insult his friend, so instead he posed another question entirely. “Is it to get much larger?”

“Not hardly,” Bingley provided an answer. “It is not the sort of dog that you take out to the moors to scare up partridge, Darcy. It is what they call in fashionable society, a lap dog. They are all the rage—you must have seen them when in Town?”

“I suppose that I have,” Darcy looked to Elizabeth for support, although poor Elizabeth was at a loss as well, and had determined to have no part in it. “I had never really paid much heed to them Bingley,” Darcy continued, “Perhaps a lady did bring one out to a coffee house and that is where I have seen it, though I believe that I did mistake it for city vermin.”

Elizabeth laughed aloud and Bingley looked crestfallen. Jane simply was ambivalent to it all, and poor, bewildered Darcy clarified his statement by adding, “Well, Bingley—one never really knows what they will see when in Town.”

“It is darling, brother,” Elizabeth did finally take pity on poor Mr. Bingley. “Are its legs very short?”

Bingley put the dog down on the floor, and immediately the little creature found its verve. It pranced about, dwarfed by the size of Bingley’s boots, and jumped against them with its two front legs, begging for more attention from its master. Elizabeth laughed at the sight of it, and at its infinite vitality and twitching little manner. The little dog raced about in circles, inspecting the tops of the shoes of everyone in the room with its trembling little nose. When it finally scurried near to Darcy, and he was sure that the Bingley's were not looking, he shuddered and gave it a little shove beneath its back legs with the tip of his boot.

It was clear to Elizabeth that the little creature was offended, and it came back to serve up its vengeance on the perpetrator of such a transgression. It sidled up beside Darcy right foot, and left a small puddle next to where he stood.

“Bingley!” Darcy was incredulous.

“Bad dog!” Bingley chastised the tiny beast with a vigorous shake of his finger near to the dog’s moistened nose. “Bad dog!”

Elizabeth had always been convinced that in this life one ill turn begot another, and the little beast had proved her point. At least there was one soul in the neighborhood who would not cower in Mr. Darcy's company.

“I am truly sorry, Darcy,” Bingley handed down the apology. “There is no reason why she should take such a dislike to you.”

Elizabeth could barely keep her composure. “Is there not?” she spoke beneath her breath.

Darcy indignantly stepped over the puddle, though he was always the portrait of civility, and he reached his hand out to Elizabeth. She took a hold of his fingertips and stood up, pausing to curtsey to her brother. Before following the butler to their chambers, Darcy paused and addressed his friend.

“Bingley,” he sighed, “Mrs. Bingley. If you will excuse us, we will see you at dinner.”

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