The Oak and the Ash

Chapter 2

Proud Mr. Darcy did not waste an instant in pondering what to do with a hospitable looking chair located in a solitary corner of the bedchamber. Unbecoming to his gentlemanly status, he flung himself into the tempting cushions, so fatigued was his body; and after he had settled in, he moaned aloud and coursed his hands through his thick, dark hair as if yearning to find himself rid of Hertfordshire.
The day had been trying on Elizabeth’s nerves as well. In witnessing her husband’s discomfort she could barely make out whether Darcy’s head in fact hurt him miserably, or that he was merely annoyed by a plague of country tedium, having just quit London. She was at a loss as to how to provide him comfort.

“This room is very pleasant,” she tried her hand at vain diplomacy. “I am sure we will be very comfortable here.”

Darcy felt dusty and dirty, and his clothing had the faint smell of perspiration and farmyard. There was silt in his eyes when he blinked which made the room appear hazy, and the grit in his hair was more than he could bear. He coughed and sputtered and he reckoned there must be the dust of twenty miles of good road rattling about in his lungs. The butler had quit the room with a pledge not to disturb Mr. and Mrs. Darcy again, but to return through the dressing chamber door with a tub and water as the gentleman had requested. Once left to themselves, Elizabeth made for the windows in the chamber and she brought the shutters to a close, hoping the dimness would keep the heat of the day down, and some rest would give Darcy respite from his malady.

“Forgive me, Elizabeth,” Darcy replied to her earlier observation through an irritable and wheezing exhale. He leaned forward in the chair, his elbows on his knees and his hands rubbing his face, and he asked, “What was it that you said?”

“Fitzwilliam,” she whispered so as not to vex him further, “I am truly sorry.”

It was a moment before Elizabeth’s meaning was to reach Darcy’s brain. The anxious young wife knelt before him, her pretty cheeks aglow, proof of her regret at ever having made Mr. Darcy come to the country. Her tender hands rested on the nankeen fabric stretched taut across the bend of her husband’s knee, as she tried to summon a reply from him by a wistful touch.

At once Darcy’s conscience deemed himself a scoundrel for his egregious airs; that by his self-indulgent behavior Elizabeth should be made to feel she owed him an apology. His brain recalled the words of his marriage vows. They were words which at the time had not made the deepest impression on Darcy, though it had not been for his lack of interest. The day the words had been spoken had been a day of trust and commitment; and a bit of longing on Darcy’s part for such ceremony to be over. It had been the day that Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennet had met at the proper time at the church in Longbourn Parish.

The institution of marriage was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity…” the reverend had said, “…and it was not to be taken lightly or unadvisedly.”

A wiser and far more selfless man—a young man who tried his best to change himself for the comfort of the woman he loved, knew now that his troubles were not his alone. Marriage between two people, as Darcy and Elizabeth, was a matter of give and a matter of take. If he were inclined to suffer at present, more than likely so was a devoted wife such as Elizabeth.

The fingers covering Darcy’s face parted to afford him a glimpse of the young wife at his knee. He asked of Elizabeth, “Why should you be sorry?”

“I made you bring me here, Fitzwilliam. I persuaded you to do so in a most conniving way, and I am sorry that it is so insupportable to you,” Elizabeth explained with a sniffle.

Darcy drew his hands away from his face; a face ruddy from the dust and heat, and the irritation from rubbing it so severely. He nodded his head, as if he were to agree wholeheartedly with what Elizabeth had just said.

“Being here is not intolerable, my love,” he replied; a wretched liar by the fact that his ears went a brilliant shade of scarlet as he spoke.

“Oh, but it is,” Elizabeth insisted, having been married to Darcy at least long enough to have become familiar with the condition of his ears. “I am mortified by the things that my family did say to you, and I am equally ashamed for what I did say.”

“And what did you say?” Darcy inquired; capable of issuing a smile for thinking that Elizabeth’s distress at his discomfort was charming.

Elizabeth blushed at the question and rejoined, “You know what I said.”

“Oh, yes; I do remember. Your admission that by some wonder of wonders you have admittance to my dressing chambers; or was it the declaration that I am man enough to shave my own face?”

“That is private and I had no business disclosing such things,” she answered him. “I am pleased that we have few secrets between us, Mr. Darcy, but I fear that I have caused you embarrassment.”

Darcy mused a moment at his mother-in-law’s claim that he was a disagreeable young man. “So you did tell your mother something indiscreet, Elizabeth—I suppose anything said to improve my character in her eyes is a good thing.”

Elizabeth patted his knee with a tender and loving hand; doubtful however that Darcy should be sincere in his desire to pardon her mother. Elizabeth knew Darcy believed her family ridiculous, and lacking in propriety. He was an honest man; this she knew well. Why then should he not say exactly how he felt? Perhaps Mr. Darcy could bend just a little for her sake; a slight adjustment to insure a good and solid marriage, and to spare the feelings of someone who he loved.

“Elizabeth,” his eyes lowered in regret, unable to look at his wife; and he placed the palm of his hand gently over hers, “it gives me no joy to know that your family thinks me disagreeable. Yet, what is more damaging to me than anything is to know that I have never done a thing to make them believe otherwise.”

“What is this, sir?” Elizabeth denied him the chance of resignation. “You did marry me, and give to me a noble name. You did insure, by your generous offer to me, that I should want for nothing.”

Darcy smiled, though he shook his head and said, “That is not enough.”

Elizabeth paused to consider the wisdom in speaking aloud what weighed on her mind; “But your kindness toward my sister and Mr. Wickham certainly counts for something.”

Darcy’s cheeks flushed with red, and he firmly replied, “All that I did for you and I, so that we could have a life together; so that no one could ever say that we did not belong together as husband and wife.”

“You are exceedingly charitable, Fitzwilliam, to make such excuses for the mistakes of my family.”

Darcy sighed; “I think that my clothes are dirty, and my face is sweaty, and that I am a very good actor for showing my misery in front of you. I did not mean to make you feel you must beg for a pardon. I am the one who is sorry; and I will work harder to convince your family of my worth.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am; and as for the means of persuasion you use in urging me to bring you to the country in the future,” he arched a brow to tease, “I will truly be cross if you do anything different.”

Elizabeth smiled; and the footman knocked on the dressing chamber door to announce that water and a bathing vessel had been brought into the adjoining room.

“Go now and take your bath,” Darcy encouraged his wife, “so that I might do the same when you are finished. Things will be better when we are clean and rested; and I might not then be tempted to insult my friend by likening his lap dog to a rat.”

“That was indeed cruel,” Elizabeth admitted, although she grinned.

Darcy chuckled; “Seemingly,” he confessed, “some bad habits are harder to break than others.”

Elizabeth laughed and quit the room for the dressing chamber. When Elizabeth was out of sight, Darcy laid his hands on his head once again, and persisted in his peculiar moaning.

The dressing chamber was quiet and still, and Elizabeth glanced into the tub of water set in the center of the room. She touched the tranquil surface with her fingertips and the water rippled a delightful call for her to step in and wash away her cares. She thought about her traveling case and the lavender water that she had brought. How good it would be to pour some of it into the bathwater, but then she realized that Darcy would no doubt use the water that remained in the tub for his own bath. Though he always seemed to delight in the very clean and soothing bouquet upon her skin when he happened to place a tender kiss upon the nape of her neck, Elizabeth made the assumption that he might not care for the scent of lavender anointing his own person.

She giggled at such folly, for sharing a dressing chamber was more of a nuisance than she had realized. There had always been one alone to be had between Elizabeth and her sisters at Longbourn, and it had never truly bothered her to share it, though occupying such a room with a husband was indeed a different matter. She happened to notice that some of her clothes had been set out of the trunks, undoubtedly by Jane’s maid; and freshly laundered linens sat beside the commode, and were piled high on a blanket chest within easy reach of the bath.

Elizabeth pulled the pins from her hair, and when her tresses were loosened, she tousled them to a delightful state of freedom. She reached her arms above her head to stretch her body, and then bent them behind her to unfasten the buttons of her traveling frock, which was no ordinary feat for a lady. At one point in the operation she considered calling out for Darcy to assist her, but she had no desire to annoy him further by implying that he was only good enough to act as her maid. Having undone some of the stubborn buttons, she shimmied the frock above her head, and discarded her chemise and stockings into a heap on the floor in the hopes that Jane’s maid was to be so kind as to have them laundered.

A sigh escaped Elizabeth’s lips as she slipped into the water of the bath, and when she slid so far below the level of the water as to cover her head completely, her long hair floated about on the surface like the giant lily pads drifting tranquilly upon the lake back home at Pemberley. Elizabeth washed her hair with a bit of castile soap, for lack of anything else available, and she wiped a soft cloth across her face to cleanse away any remnants of dusty and dirty road.

She tried her best to hurry for Darcy’s sake, for he was waiting for the same glorious remedy from their travels, and Elizabeth did not wish that he should be left with tepid water. Such a bath felt divine to her after having endured the unbearable heat, so much so that she leaned back for only a moment and closed her eyes.

She let her mind drift to memories of the past, and she grinned for finding it astonishing that the last time she had stayed at Netherfield house she had so despised the sight of proud Mr. Darcy that all she had wanted to do was to leave the place for Longbourn. There was no better absurdity than to think that now she was visiting the house once more, that her feelings for that very man tended to be so different. Then, she had not been in love with him, and now she was.

The ebbs and flows of life were certainly a prank played on those who lived through them, and in realizing this Elizabeth’s cheeks did blush—if only for the mere fact that now she was sitting in a bathtub in the privacy of Mr. Darcy’s own dressing chamber.

Elizabeth stood up from the water and tugged on one of the linens to free it, and then used it to rub herself dry, and took another to twist it around the length of her hair. She rifled through the traveling trunks for a shift and found one of white cotton within reach. She dashed out into the bedchamber barefoot, tousling her hair all the while with the fresh smelling linen.

“I am finished,” she proclaimed with a smile to please her husband. “You will not find that to be an unpleasant task at all.”

It perplexed Elizabeth to receive no response from her husband; and when she moved closer to the chair where she had last known him to be, there was Darcy, very still; his long legs stretched out to their fullest, his head tilted against the chair back, sleeping as carefree as a baby.

Determined in her resolve not to let good water go to waste, Elizabeth’s hand reached out to touch his shoulder. “Fitzwilliam,” she whispered as her hand met with him; and Darcy sprang forward in the chair, in alarm. Elizabeth backed up, her hands covering her heart, as Darcy yelped out and his legs went splaying.

“Oh dear!” she respired, and fluttered her hands in the air.

Darcy sat forward, his eyes wide open from such a start; and he was a devil of a sight as he tried to recover. Without a word, his tormented body slid down the length of the chair as he attempted to stand and once he did, he teetered like an old man, though he had only recently come by the ripe old age of nine and twenty. Darcy grimaced as he stretched his body as a moth emerging from a chrysalis and he heard the cacophony of his own bones cracking—some in his knees and some down his spine.

He chanced to fix on Elizabeth’s face as his head swooned in circles from such a brief nap, and even in such dullness of mind he considered her a vision of beauty to brighten a cloudy day. “You are a pretty picture,” he exhaled with a puff of his cheeks amid full swoon. “Did I startle you?”

“A little,” Elizabeth’s harried voice turned to a softer and sweeter tone as the beating of her heart returned to normal. “The room is all yours, dear.”

“Very good,” Darcy nodded, recapturing his gentlemanly air, and he made haste for the privacy of the dressing chamber.

Darcy stared at his face in the looking glass from beneath the stark whiteness of a clean cotton towel. There were wrinkles under his eyes, and he noticed a frown reflecting back at him in the glass, and he knew that he was not that old at all, though at times and when he was cross, he had the appearance of age. He gave his hair a vigorous buff with the towel and pulled it from atop his head. His dark locks tousled down every which way, and he moved in closer toward the glass to inspect what he thought looked like a gray hair in front.

“No,” he muttered to himself, and upon closer examination he was pleased to find that the gray hair was only a flaw within the mercury of the glass.

Darcy pitched the towel in the direction of the pile of soiled clothing splayed across a chair and he came out of the dressing chamber in a long pair of trousers and a linen shirt hastily tucked in; prepared should someone come to the bedchamber door. Indeed, Darcy was in a much better humor. He was settled knowing that he and Elizabeth did not have to travel for several more weeks, and twenty minutes of sleep had quite frankly done him some good.

“That was splendid,” he admitted aloud. “I feel so much better that I might even be in the mood to almost flatter Bingley’s mutt after dinner…”

The room was dark and still, and Darcy looked about in search of Elizabeth. The contrast of her white gown gave her womanly figure away behind the dark green canopy of the bed linen. As Darcy drew nearer, he could see her long hair swept against a pillow, her eyes peacefully shut, and she looked innocent as she slept.

A smile spread across Darcy’s face as he looked at his wife, and he stretched his arm out to touch the back of his hand to the coolness of the skin of her cheek, though before he did he pulled away thinking that should he touch her, it might upset her slumber. “Pleasant dreams, love,” he whispered, bending near to her ear, and he quietly returned to the dressing chamber to search his traveling trunks for the book that he had brought from London.

After a time of glorious silence; a quiet only to be found in the country, Elizabeth stirred. Darcy looked up from the book that he read near the window in the comfort of the chair, and he wished that Elizabeth would engage him in conversation. Elizabeth moaned, and ran her fingers through her hair, though to Darcy, it did not seem like an act of ease or peaceful awakening.

“Leave me be!” she muttered; disturbing Darcy’s tranquil thoughts. “No! I would never wish to be your wife!”

Darcy scrambled to his feet and was at the bedside, beside Elizabeth. Her body tossed and turned and her arms flailed about wildly, as if she tried to keep something or someone at bay. Darcy reached out to thwart her thrashing, but in her distress Elizabeth’s fist caught him squarely on the jaw.

Elizabeth,” Darcy said mightily, “Elizabeth—do wake up!”

Elizabeth sat straight up; an untamed look in her eyes, which astounded Darcy simply to witness a side of the woman whom he thought he knew well.

“Elizabeth,” he said again, grasping her arms near to her elbows in self-defense, so as not to be cuffed twice.

Elizabeth took in a deep breath as she finally came to a state of consciousness. “Oh husband,” she shivered, and lunged toward Darcy; clasping her arms around his neck as if she were about to fall, or he were to completely disappear before her eyes.

His arms held her fast and close to him, and his hand reached up to swab the wildness of her hair and dew of perspiration from her face. Her fists held fast to Darcy’s shirt, and he finally writhed free from her clutching hands to catch a glimpse of her tormented face. Elizabeth was overcome with fright and Darcy was shocked.

“What is the matter?” the timbre of his voice rose as he pleaded for her answer.

Elizabeth’s eyes found his face, though the madness of her countenance had now vanished. “A dream,” she said and cradled her palms at the sides of his face. “Only a dream—nothing at all.”

Nothing?” Darcy dubiously denied, “Elizabeth—that indeed was something.”

“No,” she said to assure him. “Only a childish dream.”

“About what, pray?”

“About,” she hesitated to say; “nothing.”

Darcy pulled away from Elizabeth’s grasp. He frowned, determined to know what had happened. “Whose wife do you not wish to be, Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth’s pretty cheeks blanched as her palms continued to caress the beloved face that she had struck, and her lips sought Darcy’s to kiss him and whisper a pledge of devoted assurance, “I would wish to be no one but yours, my love.”

Earliest light had come upon the countryside of Hertfordshire and the faint silhouette of a gentleman leaning against the post of a finely draped bed took shape; wistfully gazing down at the figure of a woman. The gentleman was persuaded not to move lest the yielding ticking be upset, for truly peaceful was the nature of the bedchamber at dawn, and this was the hour of day that Fitzwilliam Darcy favored most.

Though he had no wish to disturb sleeping thoughts—whatever thoughts they may be—Darcy pined for Elizabeth’s fine company. The lure of such a lonely ache overwhelmed him after a time and he gingerly bowed across the billowy surface of the bedcovers, mindful to place a tender kiss on his wife’s lips.

Elizabeth lay unaware of her husband’s presence, quiet in her slumber. This time, when she stirred at his subtle touch, it was a contented whisper of her drowsy circumstance that she was apt to utter, without fret and without fear of unwelcome dreams.

She sighed, lost in sleep,“Come back to me, sir.”

Her voice seemed bittersweet; a melody of lamentation, for she yearned to feel the crispness of a summer breeze flow gently across her skin, and she pined for the touch and affection of an adoring husband. Darcy at first was mindful not to speak, for the memory of Elizabeth’s shocking outcry of yesterday still weighed on his mind.

“Oh,” she moaned and stretched out her arms to reach her husband’s neck and draw him near to her in want of a welcoming favor to her summons, “Do come back.”

“I cannot,” Darcy answered softly—truly grieved that he was unable to indulge the wishes of such a beauty.

“And why not?” she whispered a pouting objection, then pressed her nose to the crease between the course bristles of her husband’s neatly trimmed mutton chop and the tender skin near to his ear. Here Elizabeth did lay in a hazy and heartening sort of nestle; an embrace that lovers come to welcome in the dawn of a new day. There she remained, until she was to hear his pleasing voice offer up the words—words to declare that he would always be beside her in their bed.

Darcy grinned at Elizabeth’s sulky response, certain that at present he alone was the man of her dreams, and he softly chuckled to himself at the sensation of her breathing, which tickled at his ear in a manner that pleased far more than annoyed. How much he wanted to remain in this way was plain by his moan of displeasure at having something more pressing to do; but he dared not dally in Elizabeth’s arms a moment more or the engagement that he had made would suffer an unexpected delay; and together the visitors to the country would find themselves the subject of family gossip.

“For the reason that,” Darcy finally drawled an answer to Elizabeth’s question, “I am to meet with your father.”

Elizabeth soughed, “Not now;” bothered by a commitment made as far in the past, as yesterday.

“Bingley and your sister are waiting downstairs. Do you wish to remain here,” he teased her, “In this big house, all by yourself?”

Elizabeth’s eyes opened at the prospect of Darcy leaving, and she was surprised and quite woebegone to see that he was by now clad in shirtsleeves and waistcoat. Elizabeth was truly cross that her father was in need of her husband’s good opinion. At any other time she would have been happy and proud that her father respected Darcy enough to seek a younger man’s advice; had it been any other time at all.

“But the morning is so pleasant,” she whimpered another objection, her lashes fluttering in the hope that Darcy would give in to desire. “It is a temperature perfect for sleeping.”

“That it is,” Darcy agreed; and Elizabeth’s lips pressed against his.

A sensible man would give in to such an entreaty, but not a man so determined as Darcy. Elizabeth’s heady kisses had always made him reel from the very first time they had engaged in the occupation. Though he rarely did anything to prevent such a circumstance from occurring, he was shrewd enough at this instance to recognize the ill effects when it came to his good discretion and a rapidly approaching appointment.

“Oh, no—no,” Darcy pulled away from such a cupid’s dart, “I am not to fall for this, madam. You are beautiful and tempting, there is no denying that to be true—though I should have will enough of my own and just say no at every attempt to lure me away from my intended purpose. But then you work your spell on me and…”

Elizabeth opened a sleepy eye to whisper a contradiction to his appraisal of her charms; “You would make me out to be a temptress, sir.”

In desperation for his plight Darcy maneuvered his arms about Elizabeth’s shoulders to prevent her from embracing him once again, and with the aid of a man’s strength Darcy pulled her sleepy, rag doll body into sitting straight upright. He held her fast so she would not fall in a faint back into the pillows before he could succeed in persuading her to make ready for the day.

“You have been sleeping a good deal, Elizabeth. Yesterday and today,” he observed.

“It must be the heat,” Elizabeth yawned, “I am so very tired.”

Mischief overtook Darcy as he looked at Elizabeth from another advantage and he bent to kiss the subtle curve of Elizabeth’s shoulder. As he did, his laughter broke free to taunt her charms in payment for what she did so often to him, and the reverberation of his laughing voice teased what morning chill there was to be had, upon Elizabeth’s smooth skin.

Elizabeth was well pleased that her charms had not failed, yet Darcy abruptly stopped as he considered that perhaps there could be some certainty to an inkling that entered his mind in a whirl. “Are you sleeping for two?” he asked rather bluntly, not knowing how else a man should pose such a delicate question.

Elizabeth giggled through a dreamy smile, “I do not believe so.”

Darcy sighed, feeling foolish for having posed speculation before Elizabeth should offer such news. Elizabeth willed herself awake on hearing the crestfallen sigh; and she clung to her husband’s shoulders to steady her weary body enough to inquire in seriousness, “Are you disappointed?”

Darcy smiled, a very daft look for one tending toward undying seriousness, and he shook his head ever so slightly. “I simply thought that I would ask, so as not to appear ignorant,” he was truthful to admit his feelings on the subject. “I should not wish you to think me ignorant, though I must admit that it is all a mystery to me; and quite frankly I would rather that you wait until we are home at Pemberley.”

Elizabeth grinned, slipping through his arms and wilting back upon her pillow; singing out teasingly, “I shall do my best to meet your schedule.”

“Come now, Elizabeth,” Darcy did plead; still in a fair humor and wanting to change the subject, “Your parents are waiting.”

“For the joy of having a grandchild?” she laughed aloud.

Darcy exhaled in exasperation; “Truly—your father is waiting to take a turn about his grounds. There are things that he would like me to look at with him, and neither one of us wishes to go to the trouble of doing so in the heat of midday.”

“Oh, very well,” Elizabeth conceded, sitting herself upright to demonstrate her good intentions of in fact leaving the bed. “If my father wants you, Mr. Darcy—then I suppose I shall have to let him have you—but only for a short time.”

Elizabeth threw off the covers and slipped out of bed, dashing toward the dressing chamber and leaving Darcy behind in a shroud of tossed bedsheets and pointless conjecture as to the behavior of women. As he plucked away the bed linens covering his waistcoat, he happened to ponder the events of the previous day.

Dinner had been quiet and spent in only the company of Bingley and Elizabeth’s sister, after which Elizabeth and Jane had passed the evening with talk of family and the neighborhood in the drawing room. Darcy and Bingley did their best to mind their own affairs and did partake of a game of chess not three feet away from where their wives gossiped in earnest.

Through all that chatter, not one word had Elizabeth spoken of whatever dream she had in her sleep. Darcy did not hear her speak a word of it to her sister Jane; though truthfully he had done a bit of eavesdropping to be certain. This he managed while professing to deliberate on the chessboard, contemplate Bingley’s perpetually ill moves on said board, all the while pushing away Bingley’s lap dog beneath the game table with the toe of his boot each and every time that the tiny cur wandered too close to Darcy for his own sense of comfort. Mr. Darcy was indeed a man of many talents.

Later that night, Darcy had again asked Elizabeth about the dream before they had retired and he had snuffed out the candle by the bedside, but his wife was not inclined to say anything more on the subject, or so she insisted. She simply kissed him goodnight and muttered a few words as to how warm it was in their room.

By now, in the course of their marriage, there was not much that Darcy felt he could not say to Elizabeth for she always appeared forthright and open with him; a fact that made him truly grateful for having chosen a wife of such straightforward character. Never had she truly refused to answer him anything; and in that vein, this instance was to play on Darcy’s insecurities.

He could not think of another thing to do or to say in persuading Elizabeth to give up her secret, through no lack of his trying, and so he made up his mind to forget the incident entirely. Darcy had never cottoned much for the ache in the pit of his stomach as when he was uncertain of the truth of things, or even at those times when he was quite unsure of himself.

It was not long before Elizabeth appeared from the dressing chamber, her hair hastily put up, with nary a normal curl about her face, as when her maid did attend to her dress. Her cheeks were aglow, as if she had taken on some frustrating task, and when she stopped before the figure of her husband who stood in the center of the room, she abruptly turned about-face.

“Would you be so kind as to fasten the buttons,” she uttered the request as she pointed her finger over her shoulder to the back of her frock. “I cannot manage it at all!”

When the Netherfield party arrived at Longbourn, Mr. Bennet was indeed anxiously waiting beside a gig that he intended to drive out to the farmstead. Darcy and Bingley had arrived on horseback, behind the carriage that transported their wives. Elizabeth found that she much preferred to have Darcy ride in the carriage with her, but she did not quarrel when he was disposed not to do so that day, and she settled for Jane’s good company for the extent of three miles.

The sisters barely spoke along the way, for Jane was quiet and pensive, and preferred to look out of the carriage window at the profile of her husband upon his favorite gray mount. Elizabeth found it charming that Jane was still so taken by the very sight of a man whom she now had the pleasure of seeing each and every day; but when Elizabeth thought more on it, she realized, as her attention was detained out of the window by the lofty presence of her own husband, that the very same could be said for her own character.

Bingley greeted his father-in-law at once upon their arrival at Longbourn, but Darcy gave the gentleman a respectful nod, slid from atop the horse, and made haste toward the carriage. He was apt to properly greet Elizabeth’s father with a handshake after he had seen Elizabeth and Jane out of the carriage, and so was the difference between a young man of Darcy’s exacting character and a young man of Bingley’s amiable temper.

“Come now, come now!” Mr. Bennet shouted out. “We must be on our way, gentlemen!”

Darcy glanced at Elizabeth who stood by his side, and he gave her a very respectable smile—a smile that she had grown to know as a loving and tender adieu. A stable boy held Darcy’s horse and offered a palm to assist the gentleman. Darcy took him up on the good offer, and after placing his boot heel in the hands of the groom, was sprung atop the horse with ease. His succinct smile shown again at Elizabeth once he was settled in the saddle, and he tipped his hat to her in as fond and fulsome a farewell as Mr. Darcy was adept at giving in public.

Bingley, on the other hand, lingered before his wife, and disregarded a similar gesture of servitude from the groom, which only moments before Darcy had taken up quite readily. The husband and wife were held by a remorseful gaze of parting between them, and although Elizabeth did her best to pay them no heed at all, she could plainly hear Mr. Bingley fawning over his wife.

Mr. Bennet flicked the buggy whip above the horse’s ears and the animal obeyed the command. Darcy’s mount was anxious to leave as well at the cracking of the sound, but he reined the animal round and called out to his friend, “Bingley—get a move on, man!” and then swiftly caught up to his father-in-law. Mr. Bingley sighed, accepted the assistance of the groom, yet before he could bring himself to leave, he blew an adoring kiss toward the direction of his wife.

Such a sight made Elizabeth snigger, for Mr. Darcy would never be caught in such a manner, and his wife was grateful. Jane, however, seemed so well suited to Mr. Bingley’s character, for he did own all the sociability in the family, and she did possess all the humility.

“You and Mr. Bingley are quite a pair,” Elizabeth teased her sister. “Married six months already and he looks at you as if you were still newly engaged.”

“Yes,” Jane blushed and glanced quickly toward the hems of her skirts.

Elizabeth grinned at Jane’s propensity for shyness and she added for good measure, “Is he still as agreeable as he ever was?”

“Yes,” Jane replied, neither smiling nor frowning, “He is agreeable to anyone and everyone that he meets.”

“Surely that is not a bad thing?” Elizabeth tried to glimpse her sister’s face.

“No,” Jane did admit, turning to walk into the house. “It is not particularly bad.”

Kind Mrs. Hill was waiting at the door to take the ladies’ accouterments, smiling happily for seeing Miss Elizabeth once again. “Dearest Hill,” Elizabeth greeted her with the ease of a smile and a warm embrace of the housekeeper’s well-worn hands, and Hill dutifully took the ladies at once to the morning room.

“Good morning, Mama,” Elizabeth spoke in her light manner and stooped down to place a tender peck on her mother’s cheek so that the poor woman would not have to leave her seat at the breakfast table, lest she risk the beginnings of an ill-feeling head.

“Ah, Mrs. Darcy,” Mrs. Bennet cooed fondly.

Elizabeth sighed, and rolled her eyes for the sole benefit of the amusement of her sisters as she went to occupy her place at the table, insisting, “Lizzy, Mama—please do be at ease enough to call me Lizzy.”

“Very well,” her mother huffed, “though I think you should want me to pay you the respect you deserve in being a woman so very well situated.”

“Respect is a very good thing, Mama—but I am still the same Elizabeth who lived in your house for almost one and twenty years.”

Mrs. Bennet twittered at such a ridiculous proclamation. “I think not,” she touted. “A humble woman cannot know of the joys of ten thousand a year without feeling herself above her unmarried sisters.”

Elizabeth sighed once again, “Yes, Mama—a humble woman can.”

“And is your husband not to take breakfast with us?” Mrs. Bennet continued, never bothering to heed her daughter’s words.

“I know that he will want to have his breakfast when he and Mr. Bingley, and papa come back from their outing.”

Elizabeth seemed annoyed as she spoke, though it did not seem aimed at the fact that like most young men, Darcy would want a meal the moment that he stepped into the house. “Do you know where they are to go?” she inquired of anyone sitting at the table that might favor her with an answer.

Mrs. Bennet shrugged in silence, and Mary and Kitty appeared ignorant to the question, let alone capable to provide a sensible answer to most anything. Elizabeth looked to Jane, and although Jane did not appear any more accomplished at being in the know of the appointments of gentlemen, she looked up from behind her amiable yet retiring lashes and gave her sister a simple response.

“They are to look at a dry portion of land, near to the farmstead.”

Dear me,” Elizabeth tried not to express such an overwhelming sigh of the absurd, although she did a very poor job of it. “That is a pressing matter!”

Jane cordially provided an excuse; “They did not wish to do so in the heat, Lizzy.”

“I cannot find fault in this reasoning,” Elizabeth pressed her lips together in demonstration of her bother. “Mr. Darcy did say the very same thing this morning, and as we know, the gentleman is rarely ever wrong when professing impeccable logic.”

“Well, well,” Mrs. Bennet publicized her opinions of her daughter’s disposition, “someone did get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.”

“Is something the matter, Lizzy?” Jane inquired, more astute in the ways of human nature than one might imagine.

“Nothing is particularly wrong,” Elizabeth sighed while absentmindedly picking a red grape from a stem upon her plate. “I had a wretched dream yesterday and it has come to haunt me ever since.”

Elizabeth’s confession caught the full attention of Mrs. Bennet and her unmarried daughters. “Do tell us of it, Lizzy,” Kitty eagerly encouraged.

Elizabeth was reluctant to do so. It was not something that she wished to put out to the entire neighborhood, and so she kept to her predictable answer of, “It was nothing.”

“Every dream means something, Lizzy,” her mother assured. “If a dream did not have a meaning, there would be no one to interpret.”

“Mama,” Elizabeth laughed, “No one can truly tell you of what a dream means.”

“Oh yes they can,” Mrs. Bennet insisted. “Yes they can.”

Elizabeth looked at Jane, and both sisters were made to giggle aloud. Mary had always been the common sister in the family, rarely participating in the merrymaking created by her mother and sisters for their own amusement; but this day she was inclined to speak her mind.

“Indeed, it is the truth,” she ascertained with authority. “Just the other night I dreamt that I was to meet the vicar along the road, on my way back from paying a call on Mrs. Martin.”

Elizabeth truly did her best not to grin. “Mrs. Martin has been engaged in interpreting the dreams of every silly girl and housewife in Meryton for thirty years, Mary. It is an idle business, for certain.”

“Tis not, Lizzy,” Mary replied.

Elizabeth smirked, “Well then, what understanding did Mrs. Martin provide to you about such a beguiling dream?”

“Simply that I would meet the vicar on my way home from paying her a call,” Mary nodded, “and so I did!”

Elizabeth laughed at the silliness of her sisters and mother. “Mrs. Martin is truly gifted in her sight, Mary,” she giggled, “for the vicar does live precisely between her house and Longbourn, and it does not take a miracle to see it!”

“Do not mock her ability, Lizzy,” insisted Mrs. Bennet, “for she does have a gift for seeing the future, and though I had never told you, she did foretell to me that you girls were to marry fine husbands, from simply hearing of the dreams that I saw in my sleep—and this she did not three years before Mr. Bingley did come into Hertfordshire with Mr. Darcy, and let Netherfield.”

“Three years,” Elizabeth laughed. “Imagine that! Well, I shall not be tempted to let Mrs. Martin interpret my life! There is no story that she could ever tell to amend the course of my happiness.”

“Do not make light of it Lizzy!” her mother scolded her. “Cleverness comes in many forms, and they say that she learned her skills while residing in the country in…” Mrs. Bennet paused a moment, and then whispered the word cautiously so that the neighbors could not overhear, “France.”

“So, Lizzy—pray what did you see in your dream?” Kitty squealed with impatience.

Elizabeth’s pretty pink cheeks blanched for thinking that perhaps there could be something to the interpretation of such a nightmare, and surely if she were to tell her mother of it, Mrs. Martin might be forthcoming with an interpretation. “I dreamt,” she hesitated and plucked another grape between her fingertips, “that I was in Longbourn church, about to be wed.”

“There is no speculation in that sort of dream, Lizzy,” Mrs. Bennet demonstrated her discontent with a terse wave of her handkerchief.

Kitty was greatly disappointed as well. “Seems like more of a fond recollection than a nightmare, Lizzy,” she dismissed Elizabeth’s confession.

“But you did not hear it all,” Elizabeth cut her sister short. She leaned forward as if to tell a well-kept secret, and she whispered, “It was not Mr. Darcy to whom I was to marry.”

Every woman at the table made the same gesture as Elizabeth in leaning forward in their seats, anxiously waiting to hear to whom it was in her dream that Elizabeth had been betrothed. Elizabeth popped the grape into her mouth, chewed it and swallowed it down before she offered her conclusion.

“He was someone,” she shivered, “and he was no one.”

“How can that be, Lizzy?” Mrs. Bennet nearly screeched upon hearing such puzzling nonsense.

“There was a man,” Elizabeth said, “and he had me by the hand in front of all my family and friends gathered in the church. When I looked at him I was certain that he was not Mr. Darcy. I turned about to see you, Mama; and you were weeping, and Papa could only shake his head in lament as if he were truly disappointed in my choice of a husband. It was then that I caught sight of Mr. Darcy, in the back of the church with a book in his hands and he took the book, opened it, and tore the pages into pieces before he walked out of the door.”

“Lizzy,” Jane whispered, “you are frightening me.”

“Oh, Jane,” Elizabeth took in a long breath, “I was myself, terrified, for when I went to run after Mr. Darcy, the other man would not let go of my hand. I called out for Mr. Darcy to come back to me, but he did not, and when I turned about to free myself from the other man, I could not get away and he would not let me go.”

Mary gasped; “That is ghastly, Lizzy.”

“Indeed,” Elizabeth nodded assuredly. “Mr. Darcy would never think to rip the pages from any book.”

Kitty nearly sobbed, her hands to her face in fright. “Who could he have been?”

Elizabeth shook her head, seeming as though she could weep for the memory of her own awful dream. In her mind, she saw the handsome face of her beloved Mr. Darcy, and she thought of how desperately she wanted him to come home.

“Truly, he was no one, Kitty,” she answered as though under a spell, “he was no one at all. He was a man quite simply, without a face.”

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