The Oak and the Ash

Chapter 10

Elizabeth walked slowly by Darcy’s side back to Longbourn house, her gentle hands clasping his arm in support; and Bingley saw to it that his friend was set immediately into a rig bound for Netherfield. Mr. Darcy barely spoke from one place to the next, nor did he smile as he ought in an effort to reassure his young wife that all would be well in their world; and Elizabeth pondered that perhaps her husband had come to a sort of shock and melancholy, and that he would not soon recover.

She had heard accounts of such occurrences; terrible things witnessed by good and sane men, the after effects of which a man could not conquer easily. But she felt that in this at least, she knew Darcy well, and he was not an unbalanced man. That was to say; Elizabeth had never seen him go wholly unhinged, until that very day.

It was the mortification of all events that triggered such a good man’s silence, this was plain, yet what was not fully apparent to Elizabeth was Darcy’s utter exhaustion, bodily and of tormented mind, for the poor man truly had been abused by his fears and scruples, and by the cruel deeds of others.

Once the carriage arrived at Netherfield, Elizabeth did not wait for assistance in disembarking. She stepped out and grasped Darcy’s arm again, while stumbling, he made the attempt to escape the confinement. His naturally solid legs were for the moment feeble and aching from panicked exertion, and his brain, although numbed to the recollection of any recent and miserable event, continued to prod him to breathe in unspoiled air, and made him cough to expel the bad.

Mr. Darcy was alien to such benevolence and aid, particularly from a woman and above all within the discernment of peer and of servant. Everything seemed to cause him discomfort, his random fits of coughing most of all, and he heedlessly pulled his arm away from his wife, declining her assistance.

Elizabeth stopped that which she knew she must do; and she caught the notice of her husband’s eye, a sort of uncompromising look that he could not easily avoid. “It is my obligation to help you, sir,” she whispered pointedly to him, alone, “and it is my heartfelt wish to give you comfort.”

Truly, it was Darcy’s desperate need to be in the custody of Elizabeth’s care. With a tilt of his once proudly held chin he agreed, and he held out his arm; and his wife did carry on with her duty and her desire to see him safe and sound within their apartment at Netherfield house.

“I have sent for hot water and a copper basin, but allow me to call for my man,” Bingley kindly offered his personal valet to Darcy, communicating the objective to Elizabeth at the door of the bedchamber.

She shook her head, replying, “Thank you, but no. I will care for my husband, myself.”

“Sister,” Mr. Bingley stopped her before she attended her husband, “I did not intend to be severe with you before.”

“I know.”

“I must admit,” Bingley paused, searching for the words, “I was quite fearful for what might have happen there at the church.”

“As we all were,” Elizabeth acknowledged truthfully. “You did what you had to do, Charles. For my part, I am grateful that you were there to watch over us, and I should never think you anything but a fair and kind brother.”

Elizabeth’s assurances pleased Charles Bingley, even causing his cheeks to blush ever so slightly for the compliment; and he bowed to his sister with instructions to call him if she should need or want anything.

Mrs. Darcy’s employment of consoling her husband was far from finished. In evidence of the beginnings of atonement between them, Elizabeth helped Darcy to wash, and to dress into a clean linen shirt and comfortable trousers. She made an offer to assist him in shaving the stubble of his beard, but he declined although he made a paltry attempt to grin at what he thought was an exceedingly charitable proposal being as Elizabeth had vowed never to attempt it again.

Elizabeth was shocked to see the emergence of bruises on Darcy’s arms and trunk when she removed his ruined shirt over his head. “Does that hurt?” she whispered, touching a reddish-blue spot by his ribs ever so gingerly with the tips of her fingers.

“Yes,” he inhaled and flinched at her caress.

He set his hands on Elizabeth’s shoulders to steady his body, and stared at her face. In the depth of the gaze Elizabeth perceived her husband’s pain, and she saw his anguish.

Darcy was drawn to Elizabeth, and not unlike a child he slipped his arms around her and clung fast. The feelings that overcame him were singular to his very nature, yet it was wholly right that a man come to so low a consequence should yearn for the love of his wife. Darcy’s need did encompass so many things, for he wanted Elizabeth’s understanding and mercy, and he treasured her kindness and care. Yet above all he longed for her love and prayed that her faith in him was faith everlasting.

All these things Elizabeth had been prepared to give, and she had absolutely no desire to pass judgment or speak censure for any deeds of the last few days. She held her husband, and whispered words of comfort in his ear; but being so very young, Elizabeth did not know precisely what to say, exactly what should be done to temper the suffering of so inscrutable a man.

“You are so lovely,” he sniffled close to her face, stroking her hair with a hand. Elizabeth felt the dew of tears against her cheek. “Shall you remain like this forever?”

She was unsure of his meaning. “People change, my love,” she took in a breath to respond to a matter for which there would never truly be an answer.

“Had it not all gone away,” worried Darcy, barely whispering to be heard, “Had it not…”

Elizabeth pulled away from him as she came to some sensibility and brought him to a chair, then called down for some broth and honeyed tea to be sent to their rooms. Darcy’s cough concerned her greatly, though she did not believe it necessary to send a servant to the apothecary just yet.

Darcy eased his aching body down in the comfortable chair by the window to look out at the countryside. The foul weather spread a darkness over Hertfordshire, and clouds and mist hung low in the horizon. At once Darcy realized how much cooler the air had become, and that the climate of England was once again easy and familiar.

A housemaid brought a tray into the room, and when she set it down on a table the woman glanced at the gentleman in the chair, her blatant expression teeming with a blend of marvel and sport. It was clear to Elizabeth that word of Mr. Darcy’s ordeal had come round through the neighborhood.

“You may go now,” Elizabeth longed to chase the woman away before her husband took offence to the exhibition of amusement offered up by a servant.

Darcy did not happen to notice the woman, or perhaps he did not care, but Elizabeth was intrepid in her defense of her loved ones and she would not tolerate the persistent torment of an excellent man. The servant was gone in an instant and Elizabeth took a ladle of broth from the tureen, and placed a bowl of it in front of Darcy on a small painted table.

“I am not hungry,” Darcy sighed; and wincing, leaned gingerly back against the chair.

Elizabeth gathered up her skirts and sat down on the floor on a cushion beside her husband and the table with the broth. She picked up the warm bowl and placed it squarely in his hands.

“I will feed it to you, if necessary,” she was determined in her remedy.

Darcy was astounded at times by Elizabeth’s manner. She was unpredictable at best, and she was a woman determined to get her own way, for his sake. Though he was exhausted, Elizabeth’s resolve jabbed at a small remnant of his ire and his brows arched ever so distinctly in wonder.

“I do not like the sound of that cough,” Elizabeth went on. “The soot and the smoke did you no good at all, and if you eat the broth and drink the tea it will serve to sooth your throat, and,” she paused to take a breath, “it will make me very happy.”

Darcy’s stare unsettled Elizabeth’s disposition, and his keen silence unnerved her as ever it did before, yet no one but Elizabeth would ever have been the wiser. It always amazed her how Darcy could adjust his temper so easily, one moment austere, the next, tender and kind.

“I know what I say is best,” Elizabeth reiterated her resolve, her lips pressed together tautly and her chin upturned in defiance.

Without further disobedience Darcy did what Elizabeth asked, and he ate the broth and drank the tea. When he was finished, he pointed to a bureau and told Elizabeth where to find the letter received from the north country, a confirmation of the iniquitous character of Mr. Pritchard written by a former employer, a testament that the man had attempted similar schemes in that parish.

“Astonishing,” Elizabeth exclaimed, her thoughts moved to distraction once she had finished reading the missive, her mind in a state of shock for what might have become of the reputation of her husband, and herself. “You should have shown this to me sooner, Fitzwilliam—it should have been in the hands of my father.”

Darcy uttered nothing in response. His eyes glanced out of the window, in avoidance of what was to be exposed of his character next.

Elizabeth unexpectedly mourned for her own innocence in the affair, realizing what Darcy would not be made to say aloud. “You truly did not believe my assurances, did you? You did not believe that there was never another man for me.”

“I wanted to,” he reply, his voice hoarse.

Elizabeth bit down on her lip in condemnation. “Simply wanting to believe in the truth is not good enough.”

Darcy was truly ashamed of his own arrogance and pride in the matter, “I did never believe that our life together was a fraud,” he explained. “I simply had to know if there was ever such a person, real and certain.”

“But why?”

“I saw you married to another man. I saw it in a dream, and I did resent it; and I felt the sting of insecurity and doubt. I could not shake it from my mind, Elizabeth—I could not, no matter how I tried.”

“But I am innocent,” she spoke the absolute truth. “You know this.”

“I do,” Darcy moaned and sniffled.

Even if she had wanted to, Elizabeth could not remain angry. To all appearances Elizabeth and her family were unimpeachable. No one but Mr. Darcy, the curate, her father, and herself would ever be the wiser to the existence of the man in the book, the tricks of a blackguard, and the reasons for Mr. Darcy’s lapse of good regulation.

Elizabeth smiled, and her heart was gentle once again as she beheld such a good man in her sights—a good man, even with his faults. Before her eyes was a man who had sacrificed his pride for the honor of his wife, whether or not he believed in her sincerity and fidelity.

In desperate need of peace Darcy had crawled into bed, and Elizabeth cradled him close, as he had so wished. Before the pendulum of the clock on the mantle had swung back and forth ten times, Darcy was asleep. Elizabeth bent to place a loving kiss on his cheek, and she carefully withdrew her arm from beneath his shoulder.

She found it difficult to rest for her mind was filled with all the facts to the questions that had taunted her in the last few days. She wandered out of the bedchamber and into the great hall, and found herself downstairs near the drawing room.

Mr. Bingley and Jane were sitting together on the sofa, and with a touch of his hand to her cheek the husband did comfort his wife’s woes in losing her parish church, and soothe her fears for his own wellbeing. Even with the weight of her own troubles on her shoulders, Elizabeth was happy to witness the return of their tender union.

Jane withdrew from her husband’s caresses upon seeing her sister’s silhouette in the doorway. “Lizzy,” she sighed, and met Elizabeth with consoling embraces much to her sister’s comfort.

Elizabeth stifled her tears, wanting to uphold the strength that she had shown earlier, and at once Jane let her go, for Mr. Bennet stood behind his second daughter. Elizabeth failed at her attempts at courage, and upon seeing her father, wept openly and clambered into his supportive arms.

“There now, daughter,” Mr. Bennet held her close. “Your Mr. Darcy is not so ill, is he? You two are not in a bad way, I trust?”

“No Papa,” Elizabeth replied with a hiccup. “I believe all will be well.”

“Very good,” her father smiled, but then pulled a letter from his coat pocket. “Elizabeth, this has come to Longbourn, in reply to the express that we sent yesterday.”

“I have no need to read it. Mr. Darcy did receive one very much like it, and I read it some moments ago.”

“Then you know about the curate and his wicked character?”

“I do.”

“My dear,” another voice from behind startled Elizabeth. She withdrew from the comfort of her father to see the Reverend Goodwin. “We have come to make our apologies to your Mr. Darcy. We should have shown his sort of prudence in applying to a man’s former employer before placing our trust in anyone so willingly.”

“Mr. Darcy is asleep,” Elizabeth managed to say, “but it will be a comfort to him that you do not think unkindly of his character.”

“Indeed, we could not!” Mr. Bennet did exclaim.

“What he did Papa, he did for me, and for you, and for everyone in the neighborhood, but they will never know of his goodness, and he intends for it to remain as such.”

“Does he?” Mr. Bennet replied. “Enoch Pritchard is gone without a trace, run off as it were, and all the suspicion our neighbors can muster now lies with his deeds, not those of your Mr. Darcy.” Elizabeth drew in a breath, and was able to smile. “Bring your husband round tomorrow, Lizzy. To Longbourn, where he and I may talk.”

Elizabeth nodded, and said that she would do so, and all at once she found that she was fatigued, and asked if Jane would see her to her bedchamber. Jane was happy to oblige, and she remained in the hallway until Elizabeth kissed her good night, and closed the door securely.

“Darcy!” Charles Bingley shouted, delighted to see his friend downstairs for breakfast. “How well you look after that commotion of yesterday. You are feeling better?”

“Yes,” Darcy smiled calmly, truly happy to see his host. “Better. Yes, much better, Charles. Elizabeth told me you prevented her from entering the church. Thank you, Charles, for keeping her safe.”

“No need to thank me,” Bingley shrugged. “No harm would ever come to Elizabeth on my watch. She is far too dear to us.”

“Yes,” Darcy had to nod in agreement.

Bingley’s footman entered the breakfast room to inquire of the master’s needs. Bingley had no request, but he did defer to Darcy. “Have a horse saddled and brought in front,” Darcy made his application. “I will be leaving after breakfast.”

“Leaving us again? Do you want that I should go with you, Darcy?” Bingley offered.

Darcy shook his head. “There are things I still need to know, Charles.”

“The curate is gone, if that is where your curiosity lies,” the Master of Netherfield provided the information. “He is gone without a trace, and no one seems eager to look for him at all. Our father-in-law is impatient to see you, however.”

“I have no doubt of that,” Darcy sighed and stared at the plate of food before him, all the while repeating in his brain those things he would say in his own defense to Elizabeth’s father.

When Darcy was finished with his breakfast he stood up without delay, bid good day to his friend, and made haste outside and toward the mount that he had requested. He needed some assistance from the groom in reaching the saddle and turned the horse round in the direction of Longbourn.

“Sir!” Elizabeth shouted as womanly as was possible for her distress. Darcy and the horse stood in place until Elizabeth was upon them, her petite body clad in a frock, half boots, and riding habit, though Darcy had never known Elizabeth to ride a horse at all.

“Will you leave without a word of where you are going, without saying goodbye?” she exhaled, and then spoke her desperate plea, “Will you leave me alone here again?”

This time, Darcy would not leave Elizabeth alone. He motioned for the groom’s assistance, reached down and grasped Elizabeth’s gloved hand in his and in one motion settled his wife before him in the saddle. If it pained his bruised sides at all to have lifted Elizabeth from the ground, Darcy did not let on.

A twinge of distress entered Elizabeth’s head, but it passed quickly as the security of Darcy’s capable arms came to envelope her waist, his hands holding the reins before her. “You will not set the horse to a gallop, will you?” she did her best to act as if she did not fret, to behave as if she were brave.

“No,” Darcy chuckled, resting his chin against Elizabeth’s cheek. “From here we will go slowly, my love,” he whispered. “I promise to tell you of any change in plan before it is to happen.”

Though it was not far to Longbourn from Netherfield, the road was well traveled, and as Mr. and Mrs. Darcy passed by carriages and gigs bound for Meryton, the occupants waved and each and every person shouted aloud, “Hello there Mr. Darcy! Good day to you, sir!”

Darcy was puzzled by the reception of the neighborhood, for he indeed had believed that their reaction upon seeing him would be quite the opposite. However, Elizabeth knew the neighborhood well, and she understood that good gossip was spread round as quickly and as easily as bad, and she was never before so happy and relieved for the existence of such a condition.

Darcy reined the horse from the main road for a cart path nearing the churchyard, and a young red fox bounded from the tall grasses, chasing a mouse across the path. The horse startled and sidestepped and Elizabeth gasped and clung fast to Darcy’s arms. His soothing voice calmed the flighty horse and the young woman, certain strength that Darcy had once again come to possess, and to own the truth, Mr. Darcy once again took great pleasure in being needed.

When they reached Longbourn Church Darcy slid from the horse and he reached up for Elizabeth; grasping her around the waist, he placed her feet gently upon the grassy ground. The young couple looked at the church, both troubled by what they saw.

The outer walls and sturdy steeple remained standing, but the roof was gone. The full brunt of any sadness was not felt until they happened inside the church, and there, indeed was a sight of devastation, for walls were charred, prayer books and hymnals were ruined coals, and pews had been burnt beyond recognition.

“Look at this place,” Elizabeth began to lament, but her husband took her by the hand and they walked away toward her father’s house. They parted in the hallway of Longbourn house, she for her mother, and he for the library of her father.

“Sir,” Darcy addressed Mr. Bennet.

“Darcy,” Mr. Bennet appeared relieved to see his son-in-law intact. He motioned to a chair before his desk. “Come and sit down.”

The younger man did so, and waited for his father-in-law to begin. “I owe you an apology,” Mr. Bennet obliged.

“An apology?” Darcy could barely believe his ears. “You are to make an apology to me?”

“Oh yes, I was completely in the wrong.”

Mr. Bennet produced his missive from the north county. “I should not have been so apt to judge a man’s character on his word alone.”

“I suppose not,” Darcy agreed, taking the letter, though still overwhelmed.

“I must say Darcy that I once found your character stodgy and boorish, and inexplicitly guarded, and I advised Elizabeth to pay it caution. She would hear none of my objections, and flatly refused to acknowledge that there was anything distressing to your nature at all.”

Darcy was still far too exhausted to take great offense to his father-in-laws words, and he offered up an apology of his own. “I beg your pardon, sir. I did never intend to cause you or your family embarrassment, and certainly not in your own neighborhood.”

Mr. Bennet chuckled. “My family is now your family, son,” he arched a brow, unable to give the solemn young man a pass. “As far as the neighborhood is concerned, we take what we get and give what we can.”

Darcy sighed and read the letter. “I take it that you know of my problems then?”

“Enough not to want to know any more.”

Darcy chuckled, for there was not much else to be done.

“I have come to admire you, Darcy. I did not ever think that I would see in you the things that my daughter had come to love so well—but I do, and I am glad it has come about.”

Darcy’s face colored at the praise, and he gave the elder gentleman a nod out of respect and appreciation, and smiled. There was silence between the two men from thereon, until Darcy recalled the questions that had been nagging at him.

“Are you certain Pritchard is gone for good then?”

“I believe so,” replied Mr. Bennet. “Whatever he has done to harm you, or attempted—if you think it just, I will help you to look for him and seek out what retribution can be had.”

“What he did was abhorrent,” Darcy admitted contempt for the fellow, “but it is not within our resources to chase him down. Though we should write to the Bishop, a warning to other parishes. In this I would be satisfied.”

Elizabeth was far too curious of what things her father and husband did discuss. She passed by the open door of Mr. Bennet’s library, and gave her father a quick glance.

“You may come in, my dear,” he gestured to her.

“Papa,” she expressed her gratitude in the tone of her voice and a batting of her eyelashes, and then she smiled at Darcy when he stood to receive her. “The church—can it be restored?”

“A fellow from Hertford came this morning to take a look. He gives his estimate at nearly a thousand pounds. The parishioners are prepared to provide some funds, and I shall do what I can to make up the balance.”

Elizabeth shivered at the cost. “It will not be enough, will it?” she knew the answer and looked to her husband. “The books and furnishings, how will we replace them?”

“They will have to wait, Lizzy,” her father said firmly.

It was difficult to cause Mr. Bennet embarrassment, but in his inability to pay for what he had lost, he found humiliation. It bothered Darcy as well, and in true noble fashion, he offered to pay. Mr. Bennet rejected the proposal; and his daughter, out of her love for her family and in knowing her husband’s good situation, protested.

Darcy could see that Mr. Bennet had meant what he had said. The elder man intended to keep some semblance of pride, particularly when it came to the easy advantage of his moneyed sons-in-law.

“Elizabeth,” Darcy admonished his wife, though not meanly or harshly. She ceased her dissent and deferred to the will of her husband, and Mr. Bennet was proud of his daughter. “If your father does not wish my assistance, then I will not be made to quarrel.”

Elizabeth was set down, and yet she did not fuss; she did not tempt nor press her husband further. Elizabeth was a good woman, her father had always known it to be so, and in her young wisdom she completely understood pride for what pride ought to be, and she was glad that her father and her husband had finally come to understand it in one another.

“Will you allow me to direct the rebuilding, Mr. Bennet?” Darcy asked, his enthusiasm for the project evident.

“That I will, Darcy,” Mr. Bennet smiled happily, and shook hands with a truly useful son-in-law.

It was Darcy’s pleasure to stay on in Hertfordshire and be of use to Elizabeth’s family. It was something he could do without having to go as far as to indulge and smile simply to please them, face-to-face. He enjoyed the complexity of the problem as well, for Fitzwilliam Darcy did like a challenge.

In visiting the church and her husband each day, Elizabeth found true happiness once again. Under Darcy’s direction the project made excellent progress, but when the funds ran dry to complete the furnishings and fittings, Elizabeth wished again that her father had not been so hasty in refusing Darcy’s aid.

“Lizzy!” Mr. Bennet came from his library one morning with a letter in one hand and waving a promissory note in the other. “You shall never guess our good fortune! Here, since you shall not guess, I will tell you at once.” Elizabeth was eager to listen. “Here is a note for five hundred pounds. We may finish our project as soon as may be!”

“That is wonderful, Papa! Did Mr. Bingley decide to give more, or Sir William Lucas? I know! Mr. Collins could not bear to see his future parish in ruins, and Lady Catherine did bestow the money on him with humble advice as to her specifications for the renovation.”

“No Lizzy, it is a curious thing. It is from a benefactor—a parishioner of long ago. Here is attached a note…have been told of your troubles, and remember Longbourn church with fondness. This donation will assist you in your efforts to rebuild.”

Elizabeth giggled joyfully. “A parishioner who is not residing in the neighborhood now? Who is this fine man so that we may thank him properly?”

Mr. Bennet paused to read the signature. “William FitzThorold, Esquire; but Lizzy, I admit that I do not remember this man at all.”

Elizabeth did, upon hearing his name spoken so clearly after all those years. Indeed, the pleased and amused smile on her face did without a doubt demonstrate her very fond memories of the gentleman.

“You know of him, Papa,” she coaxed. “He was a young man when he came here, only very briefly, when I was but fifteen years old. I know that I liked him very much, very much indeed, for he had such a generous nature. But he went away before I knew it, and I had only my dreams of him to comfort me, until I met with my husband, of course.”

“Well then,” Mr. Bennet proclaimed, “it will have to remain a secret between us and Mr. FitzThorold. If you were so fond of the man, my dear, we would not want your Mr. Darcy to hear of it, and run the risk of acting the jealous spouse.”

“Oh no,” Elizabeth did humor her father, “I would not wish that at all.”

At last, the repairs to the church were complete, and Mr. Darcy was satisfied with the craftsmanship to the structure and the replacement of all the fittings, and he saw to it that the churchyard was nicely kept and the trees had been trimmed, and leaves and rubbish hauled away for compost near to the farm.

Elizabeth agreed that the church and the grounds had never looked so well, and she owed all the praise to one very fine man. All in the neighborhood were very pleased indeed, and word was whispered round that Mr. Bennet had produced such a son-in-law the likes of whom was envied by no other than Sir William Lucas, himself.

Mr. Bennet was finally bent on allowing Mrs. Bennet to have her dinner party, as long as she had it during an accommodating moon, and before Mr. and Mrs. Darcy quit the neighborhood. Although he was accepted more for being a good man than he had ever been received in Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy did never truly warm to the society. He endured its people well enough, and its countryside he was always inclined to think lesser than that of Derbyshire, but Hertfordshire would forever be the place that he associated with first being in love, and foremost, in being a happy husband.

“So you are to leave Hertfordshire tomorrow?” Bingley asked Darcy over a glass of port after supper but before cards, on the eve of the gathering at Longbourn.

“Yes,” Darcy flashed a smile, mostly to Elizabeth standing by his side. “It has been over two months that we have been here, and I do really need to return to Pemberley.”

“Sir,” Mary Bennet applied to Darcy, stacks of sheet music clasped gloriously in her arms.

Darcy turned round from his conversation to bend down and hear her appeal. The application astounded him, for he had completely forgotten the promise he had made to her to engage in a duet.

Elizabeth could see that he was not keen on the idea, but neither was Mary willing to give up the personal delight of hearing herself perform, and so Elizabeth teased her husband.

“Oh please, Mr. Darcy. You would not deny us the enjoyment of hearing you play the violin.”

“I would,” he complained.

“You are among friends here,” Elizabeth winked. “No one will find fault with the performance.”

Charles Bingley snorted a laugh at Darcy’s trouble and Elizabeth’s coercion. Only Jane seemed to take pity on poor Mr. Darcy.

Darcy’s face went pale, for if he could remember correctly, Miss Mary Bennet had never come to play her part in the duet fittingly for his taste. She handed him the violin, strung and ready to play after he would be so obliged to give it a tune.

He took a step in the direction of the pianoforte, and frowned one last objection in the direction of Elizabeth as she labored to contain a smirk of amusement, and Miss Mary gave Darcy a commanding tug on his coat sleeve.

Darcy tuned the instrument in haste; anxious to relieve any humility he might be tempted to feel for his own poor performance. He brought the instrument to his chin, and the bow to the strings, and he nodded and gave Mary a taut smile, and the room of not so many strangers went silent.

The melody of the tune Morning Rout filled the room, the violin Darcy played picking up the lead, and the pianoforte anxious in accompaniment. Although not entirely masterful, Darcy played his part rather well, and then he slightly grimace upon reaching the portion of their duet that Mary had been so unfortunate in perfecting.

Elizabeth had to laugh on seeing Darcy’s expression, for when Mary Bennet played the pianoforte flawlessly and they completed the performance, both with their varying degrees of humility unscathed, the awe and disbelief in Darcy’s twinkling eyes was priceless.

Mary smiled at him, a genuine beam that he had rarely witnessed from his sister-in-law, and she rose from her chair, gave a curtsy, and went to gather near her mother and sisters and collect her well-earned praise. Darcy followed her, violin and bow still in hand.

“Mary!” he said; Mrs. Bennet and the neighborhood looking on. “That was astounding!”

“Well,” Mr. Bennet shrugged, fairly skeptical, “it was not bad, son. Not bad at all.”

Elizabeth looked to her husband, proud of him and of Mary. “We have been taking the trouble to practice,” she confessed, “while you have been occupied in rebuilding the church.”

Darcy could not keep himself from smiling. “It was very—very good,” he said, and quite willingly he bent down and placed a peck of a kiss on Miss Mary Bennet’s innocent cheek.

Mary’s hand flew up to touch the spot, and she almost dropped the sheets of music that she still clutched in her arm. She could utter no fitting words on such an occurrence; that being the occasion of a first kiss with a man so wholly unrelated to her; and she giggled and walked away to gloat in front of Kitty and Maria Lucas.

“Shall we be on our way, Mrs. Darcy?” the husband urged his wife more than asked, after taking breakfast at Mr. Bennet’s house the following morning.

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

Elizabeth took a look about Longbourn before entering her husband’s carriage, laden with traveling trunks and packages. She had no idea when she would return again to Hertfordshire, perhaps as long as another year, though Elizabeth had set it in her mind that it would not be on the consequence of teasing Mr. Darcy into bringing her back to her childhood home.

She smiled at Darcy, dressed in his nankeen breeches and traveling cutaway, eager to be on the road to Derbyshire. She did not blame him for being anxious, for home was a good place to want to be going.

Elizabeth bid goodbye to her family on this summer day, not minding the prospect of being so confined in a carriage, as the weather was pleasant enough for traveling a hundred miles to the north. Darcy smiled and bowed to his mother-in-law and sisters, and he shook hands with his friend, and of course, with Elizabeth’s father.

The carriage rolled out of the drive, and past Longbourn church. Elizabeth waved to Reverend Goodwin, who had been waiting by the doors of his church to bid adieu to his favorite parishioner.

“How happy I am to know that all is well again at Longbourn, and at the church,” Elizabeth sighed aloud.

Darcy leaned forward to fidget out of his cutaway, more content to be in his shirtsleeves while in the carriage. “And I am happy to hear it,” he replied, somewhat pleased with himself.

Elizabeth smiled, contemplating what sort of response her next comment would bring. “We owe it all to you my love, and to dear Mr. FitzThorold.”

Darcy sat back on the cushion of the carriage seat, he never grinned for the trick, and he never frowned in recognition of the name; that name which he had known to have been inscribed in the church register, the very name that had caused him so much trouble.

Yet Elizabeth could see the proud line of his jaw go taut; and then the handsome curve of his chin did ease, and he reached his hand beside him, placing it over Elizabeth’s. Their fingers intertwined, not in harsh reproof between an angry husband and a rebellious wife, but their fingers did entwine together in happy understanding and longed for reunion; joy between two lovers; and two people who were to become the very best of friends.

~ Finis

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