The Oak and the Ash

Chapter 4

The afternoon was insufferably long, particularly to the steadfastness of young husbands. Warm, humid days of midsummer had certainly come, this year more so than ever; and all there was to do for couples dispassionate to life’s present offerings was to sit peacefully and nearly still, and stare vacantly at the papered drawing room walls of Longbourn house.

“It is disagreeably hot, even for a game of chess,” Charles Bingley was made to complain from his seat upon a sofa.

Darcy stretched back in his chair and sighed; stifled to his ears by the neck cloth and proper attire that he thought suitable to wear when in the company of his new in-laws. It was so; that without the good opinion of his valet, Darcy was a poor authority on fashionable attire and the weather. He had never really been good at it, though he knew what he liked and he knew what he did not; and he was finding that having dismissed the good servant, even for only a fortnight, had come to be a nuisance.

To his friend’s comments on the weather Darcy mumbled in concurrence, “Yes, quite.”

Darcy longed for the North Country more and more. He pined for the comfort of his own quarters at Pemberley; at least there he would have been at liberty to shed the pesky neckerchief, his waistcoat, and any other troublesome apparel as he saw fit. There was something about the apartments of his home, the rooms that had once been occupied by his parents, and now were his and Elizabeth’s together. They were spacious and peaceful; the spirit there was uncomplicated and gave Darcy great relief and immeasurable comfort.

It had been an awkward time in Hertfordshire, for gone were the days of uproar in the hallways of Longbourn house. Fitzwilliam Darcy did only know those sorts of days within Mr. Bennet’s household—those days after Darcy’s engagement to Elizabeth, and those leading up to their wedding day. They were times when inhabitants and servants of the humble house had many fulfilling things to do in preparation of such a joyous event; and there were two young men in their midst to learn how to please.

Darcy was indeed far more contented when ceremony and circumstance was finally completed; and he was bent on revealing a gentler, less taciturn aspect of his character to the woman who happily was now his wife. A good character it truly was, and Elizabeth was glad to acquaint herself not with the prig and proper son of prosperity, but with a worldly and sensuous young man; an inexperienced husband with feelings that ran deep; a man with hopes and expectations similar to those harbored within her own heart.

Their first hours as husband and wife had been awkward however, as they would for any two people who truly did not know one another well; for in a way both Darcy and Elizabeth had felt as if they strived far too much for flawlessness—having been deemed throughout the neighborhood as the most perfect match, and having received what both had longed to have and to hold. Upon the guidance of all their friends and relations, Elizabeth had longed to portray the proper wife, and Darcy the ideal husband.

However, there were ways of living life that no one had ever bothered to put into plain words, and during the tender hours of one dark winter night the newlyweds had discovered it far more inspiring to be timorous in a new love for one another, and later gratified by an extraordinary sort of connection. A bond was made; a love truly born; and an alliance was fulfilled, and all other feelings were simply tossed aside.

It did not take long for Elizabeth and Darcy to become settled in their marriage partnership however, for truly both had hoped for such a blissful state of being to improve their lives, long before they had ever met. Although many a woman had been pressed upon Darcy, he now had the object of his affections and desires, and the misery that he had felt so constantly within his soul each and every instant that Miss Bennet had denied him her good favor, had vanished forever.

Elizabeth now had someone whom she could truly esteem and someone to lend her character the credibility of which she pined for; though it had not simply been those things in which Mr. Darcy could give. She found as she learned to love him wholly, that she wanted to give to him everything that he had so unselfishly given to her, for Elizabeth felt that Darcy was indeed deserving of the affection and devotion of a woman of his choosing.

There was nothing else to do on such a warm, summer day, than for young couples to sit and ponder those things—things that made them truly fortunate in having found one another. There was nothing else to be done, than to sit and contemplate the past, and to look forward to a future to come.

“I shall be quite glad to walk out this evening,” Elizabeth declared while fanning a small playbill she had brought from London for Kitty, before the curls resting upon her forehead. “Very, very, glad,” her coy smile and the language of her eyes as she spoke conveyed a message to her husband.

Darcy grinned, and Bingley’s curiosity was roused. “You are out for a stroll, are you?” he asked, and quickly looked toward his own wife as if the idea should be taken under serious consideration by more than one couple. “Are you to walk to Meryton?”

Darcy was quick to grimace; displeased at the interest taken by his friend. “I think not, Bingley,” he was eager to conclude. “We are as yet undecided as to where such an expedition might lead us.”

“Not to fear, Darcy,” Bingley chuckled at the elusiveness of his friend. “I know when I am not wanted, and besides, I think that Jane and I are for Meryton. There is hardly a soul to be found in the shops these days, though I gather that folks will be milling about the footpaths in the evenings happy to look into windows. Perhaps that is the only society to be had in these parts—is that not true, my dearest Jane?”

Elizabeth was the only member of the party to notice her sister’s dull reply. Jane sighed, most unhappily, or so Elizabeth thought, and Mrs. Bingley was made to agree with her husband.

“I do not care a jot for the inconvenience of this heat, Darcy,” Bingley’s nerves prevailed for want of some amusement. “Come my good man—cribbage in the parlor!”

Darcy shrugged. “Do you ever grow weary of seeking an occupation, Bingley?” he asked, quite on the edge of good manners.

“Never,” Bingley replied in cheek, knowing of his friend’s sarcasm.

Darcy cast a pert glance in Elizabeth’s direction. In the last few months Elizabeth had learned to read the meaning behind her husband’s taciturn gestures, and she smiled in silent acknowledgement to him, that in this request by his friend, he was not to dodge.

“Oh very well, Charles,” Darcy sighed. “Cribbage it is.”

As Darcy got up from his chair and passed by Elizabeth, herself still so calmly seated upon the sofa, the coattails of his cutaway fluttered by her and she reached out a hand and the fabric of them tickled her palm as he strode by. Simply a surreptitious touch was all either of them needed to be aware that they preferred to be left to themselves, and that every moment that kept them from their walk out, and from each other, was torture.

“A walk to Meryton with your Mr. Bingley sounds lovely, sister,” Elizabeth had to confess.

“Yes, Lizzy,” Jane smiled to make Elizabeth feel better. “Though I would wish to lose ourselves in the very same manner as you and your husband.”

“Mr. Darcy is a creature of solitude,” Elizabeth wore a crooked grin, “and Mr. Bingley is not, though both can be very agreeable.”

“Oh Lizzy,” Jane soughed out in impassioned sorrow that she could conceal no longer, “I did believe once that being the wife of such an agreeable young man was all that I could ever have desired. He is so happy in his countenance to others—and so melancholy am I for the prospect of it, each and every moment.”

Elizabeth grew concerned. “Dear Jane,” she distressed, and moved to sit beside her sister and grasp her hand within her own. “What troubles you so?”

Jane’s expression grew even more miserable, and she made her sister promise that she would never speak a word of it, not even to Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth agreed, though it pained her to believe that she would not be able to confide in her husband, for within a few days Elizabeth had more things to conceal from Darcy than she had ever imagined possible, even for her own introverted character.

“Almost a month ago,” Jane spoke lowly, “I was brought to bed and fell amiss, Lizzy—and I lost that, which is most treasured in a marriage. I lost our baby.”

“Oh dearest sister,” Elizabeth was shocked and grieved, and she brought Jane’s hand to her cheek. “Why did you not write—why did you not say?”

“It was very early on, and not so painful Lizzy, though it most certainly was a dreadful experience—and I know for Charles as well.”

“Jane, I could have come to you—Mr. Darcy would most certainly not have objected.”

“No, Lizzy,” Jane said, a tear welled up in the corner of her eye, “We spoke of it to no one; it was for us to own for ourselves, and for us to grow closer together, though it brings me to my present anguish to tell you that it has done very little for the happiness of our marriage. Charles seems to find every excuse to join in society, and to keep quite far away from me.”

“So is this the reason for the little dog?”

“Yes—things between us are not as they were.”

“Jane, you must walk to Meryton today,” Elizabeth was resolute for her sister. “Your Mr. Bingley wishes it, and it will be serene and companionable from here to there. You are his wife and he cannot stay away from you forever, and seeing that he would wish you by his side only demonstrates to me that his heartbreak must be healing.”

“I hope that is so, Lizzy,” Jane smiled. “I will walk out with him—I believe that I would follow him anywhere.”

After Mr. Bennet had finished and retired to his study from an early dinner at Longbourn, Darcy found it fitting to insist that Elizabeth join him out of doors. Elizabeth went to find her bonnet, while Bingley followed Darcy out into the yard.

“Have a fine time in Meryton, Bingley,” Darcy nodded to his friend.

“I shall Darcy,” Charles Bingley replied, “I am looking forward to it.”

“Very good,” Darcy grinned. “Oh, by the way, as long as you are there might I ask you to take the trouble of stopping by the mercantile, on the chance that they might keep strings for that old violin.”

“I would be happy to do it.”

“Thank you,” Darcy said obligingly. “Then I shall see you at Netherfield, late—or in the morning.”

“Are you not to come back here and take the carriage?”

“No,” Darcy blushed a little. “It will not be dark until near to ten. I think that Elizabeth and I can find our way. Not to worry about us, Bingley—we are excellent walkers.”

“Very well, Darcy,” Bingley nodded, accepting that his friend would rather be in the good company of his wife this night; and Bingley thought the idea to not be so bad at that.

Elizabeth sprung from the front doors of Longbourn house, her cheeks aglow in her anticipation of such a rendezvous with the gentleman of her affections. “Good evening, brother, and a very pleasant night, should it happen that I not see you again.”

“Apparently, you shall not,” Bingley winked, and Darcy shrewdly tugged on the back of Elizabeth’s skirts with his fingertips, and raised his other hand in a hail of farewell to his friend.

Happily free, the young couple walked down the lane for a time, not quickly, though not very slowly either—barely speaking a word. They walked down the same lane toward Meryton where it had been that Mr. Darcy had again spoken of his unchanged feelings, and thus persuaded Elizabeth Bennet to marry. Unlike that day, however, and when they were out of view of prying eyes, Darcy reached his hand out, and Elizabeth placed her bare palm within his, and as their fingers clasped together their arms carelessly swayed to the cadence of their gait.

At the cross roads to Lucas Lodge, Elizabeth stopped and cast her eyes in the other direction toward a path leading from the roadway; and to which course Darcy quite readily agreed. The path was neither flat nor steep, but ideal for enticing one into hastening on their way.

Though it was not genteel to do so, Elizabeth began to skip along, leaving the proper Mr. Darcy behind. This evening Fitzwilliam Darcy was not to be outdone by a slip of a girl, and although the sight was uncommon indeed, the gentleman tucked his walking stick beneath his arm and grinned. Mr. Darcy certainly had a devilishly long stride, and Elizabeth laughed at the likes of him coming on quickly in chase, until he caught up to his scampering wife, with no trouble at all.

Elizabeth’s playful squeals while she ran were meant not to dissuade him, but to tempt her husband into sharing in the mischief, and in this occupation he willingly obliged. Darcy laughed and carelessly reached out for her, only for Elizabeth to lightheartedly dodge his grasp, and draw him in to playing her sport.

Darcy stopped for a moment to wonder at his lack of success. With his eyes agleam at the thrill of such a chase he began to loosen his neckerchief, lest the exertion of his run cause him to perspire any more. He shimmied out of his cutaway, and threw it down to the ground followed by his hat, his walking stick, and the white streamer of an unfurled cravat.

Elizabeth untied the ribbons of her bonnet as she skipped backward all the while watching Darcy shed his gentlemanly accoutrements. When the ribbons flowed free, she whisked the bonnet from her head and let it fly through the air, falling wherever it would land.

Darcy exhaled a laugh and shook his head in marvel, “I have always found you a tease of a thing.”

“Only for you,” Elizabeth called back still laughing in her flight.

Elizabeth’s petite pace was no contest for Darcy’s lanky gait, and when he caught up to her once again, he threw his arms about her waist and gave her a lively whirl. “No more,” he breathed out, “no more.”

“You surprise me, my lover,” Elizabeth was bold in calling him just that. “You can be very brash, indeed!”

“You do not know the half of it,” the dimples on either side of Darcy’s cheeks deepened as he spoke and he nuzzled her neck with his chin and Elizabeth regaled him with laughter. He placed her feet back down on the ground, took in a deep breath, and seated himself upon a patch of soft grasses below.

Elizabeth was curious, and she plunked down beside him, her skirts billowing as she did so. “Have you played this game before, sir?” she asked of him demurely.

“Never,” he was steadfast in his smiling response, lounging sideways on his elbow and wiping away the perspiration from his forehead with the edging of his shirtsleeve, “but the expectation of it was well worth the wait.”

They sat upon the softness of the green grasses beneath them, breathing the balmy air; the beating of their hearts returning to what was natural for both. “Come here,” Darcy solicited of her and Elizabeth obeyed, reclining beside him on the tender grasses, the summer’s answer to a blanket of comfort.

Darcy bent over his wife, his gaze intent upon hers and his fingers stirred the curls of her hair, and he confessed, “How I love this season. It may be humid, and our chambers stifling and our tempers short, but there is fire in my heart and the glow of summer in your cheeks, fair Elizabeth, pleases me no end—and I would wish these days to go on forever.”

“Did you always find the summer so agreeable?” Elizabeth managed to inhale; her fingers seeking his as she tried to find words enough for practical conversation.

“No,” he replied, “I believe the feeling came upon me seeing you last summer.”

“Last summer?” her brow rose in an arch of doubt, “We were together but very little last summer, Fitzwilliam.”

“True,” Darcy acknowledged, “but the few days that we did spend together, made for the summer of my dreams.”

Elizabeth’s countenance melted as Darcy’s lips touched upon her own in a kiss of devotion and fidelity. No other man was ever to make her heart beat in such a way; and Elizabeth would never lament having ever known only one man.

“Fitzwilliam,” she uttered his name, feeling some guilt, “I am mortified to say that earlier today I felt myself quite jealous.”

Darcy pulled away to look at Elizabeth’s face; bewildered at what she had only now said. “I was teasing you,” he replied, “when I said it.”

“I know,” she woefully acknowledged, “though I did not see the humor for there was some truth to it.”

Darcy was silent a moment while pondering his own feelings on the subject. “Elizabeth,” he finally supposed, “I gave you no reason for jealousy and distrust, and I should think that an unfit way to behave in our marriage.”

“That is quite true,” Elizabeth was embarrassed to admit. “I did not distrust you at all, Fitzwilliam, but why should I be jealous of my own family? I am happy that they admire you so—it is that they took you away from me, if only for part of a day; and in my childishness I felt—jealous.”

Darcy sat up, turning away, much to Elizabeth’s disappointment. “There will be no more thoughts of that,” he said, steady and self-assured, slipping back into his correct character.

“No,” she whispered as she sat up, anxious at his disapproval as her fingers wound tightly through the wisps of grass beside her.

Darcy turned abruptly back toward her and Elizabeth leaned backward once again as her husband boldly pressed himself against her. “You silly woman,” he bemoaned and kissed her again, much to her relief and delight.

Elizabeth sighed in liberation. “You will forgive me then?”

“It never did happen—did it?” Darcy challenged, and Elizabeth understood his cue and shook her head vehemently.

Darcy and Elizabeth remained sheltered in their embrace, in their thicket for lovers for what could have been some hours. Darcy lay comfortable in repose, his head resting upon Elizabeth’s harboring knee.

“I suppose it is not quite true,” he serenely said. “I did always have a partiality for the summer.”

Elizabeth’s fingers ran through the curls of his dark hair, “So did I.”

“I like the smell of freshly mown hay,” he sighed, “and the wave of wild oats upon the hills; fields of yellow mustard, and the hue of the midnight sky—no more so than as in the North Country when a storm approaches. Have you seen it, my love?”

Elizabeth bent over to answer her husband and to caress the temples of his forehead, “Oh yes.”

“I have spent hours watching the shimmering of a school of perch in a lake, and listening to the sounds of crickets—or whippoorwills calling to their mates. I have wondered why it is in the summer that red deer so boldly leave the forests for a meadow of green grass,” Darcy stopped to grin at his presumption, and then insolently stated, “Though it occurs to me that perhaps their reasons are not so ordinary as to simply find food.”

“Tiny little bats fluttering in that midnight sky in search of moths, when all the birds have gone to sleep,” Elizabeth added her own conceptions of a peaceful night.

“Indeed,” Darcy replied and closed his eyes, drinking in the favors of summer.

“That last summer, after I left you to return home,” Elizabeth confessed, “I spent many hours looking toward the sky, believing I would not see you again, and when I was in bed and could not see the sky, I stared up at the canopy and tried to remember your face in my dreams.”

“Early morning,” Darcy answered with another sigh as if he knew precisely what Elizabeth had felt, “in the stillness before dawn.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth bowed down to place a kiss upon his dark curls, “in the stillness before dawn.”

In another instant the silence of midsummer was disturbed by the sounds of giggles and Darcy opened his eyes and looked over in the direction from which the reverberation came. “What the devil is that?” he asked.

“Those Lucas children,” Elizabeth replied. “They are to be found everywhere in the summer—everywhere that they should not be.”

Darcy slowly rose to his feet and he reached out and grasped the silver handle of his walking stick. “You go that way, my dear,” he whispered and slyly pointed with the stick toward the right, “and I am for this way.”

Three young children heard the sounds of Elizabeth’s shoes crunching the twigs beneath her, and they squealed and ran in the opposite direction, only to stop abruptly upon meeting with the tall, austere Mr. Darcy and the business end of his outstretched walking stick arresting them against the trunk of an old oak tree.

“What is it that you do? Spying on people?” the gentleman spoke gruffly.

“Nothing, sir,” the tallest boy replied in a quaking voice.

Elizabeth stood quite near to Darcy, and tugged on the back of his waistcoat, wishing him to continue. The very sight of the wide-eyed children made her wish it possible to laugh aloud, though that would indeed spoil the amusement.

“Nothing, sir,” Darcy recounted the boy’s words with a tisk between his teeth. “Has anyone ever told you that it is ill-mannered and loutish to meddle in the affairs of others?” The children nodded vigorously, hoping that the sober gentleman would let them be on their way. “Where do you come from?” Darcy insisted on knowing.

“Lucas Lodge,” the littlest girl began to whimper.

“If ever you are seen here by me again,” Darcy feigned anger, “I shall take the matter up with your father, and it will not go well on you.”

The middle boy shuddered and promised, “We shall never be a bother to you again!”

“Good,” Darcy nodded, and looked down toward Elizabeth, grinned and winked. When he glanced back up he fully expected the children to have dashed off, though the three of them were so awestruck by Mr. Darcy that their feet could not move an inch. They stared up at him, never having seen him so easy in dress, and casual in manner, and they barely moved a muscle until Darcy inquired gruffly, “Well—what are you still doing here?”

Upon those words the impish children were gone, flying back up the path, their footsteps heard scampering down the lane. Elizabeth could finally laugh, and she did so readily along with Mr. Darcy.

“Come on Mrs. Darcy,” a smiling Mr. Darcy said, “We have barely accomplished our mission and walked at all, and it is still some three miles to Netherfield.”

Before long their travels brought them back by Longbourn, passing before Longbourn church. “Oh do come in, Fitzwilliam,” Elizabeth begged of Darcy. “You have not been to this old church since the Sunday after our wedding.”

Darcy could not refuse his wife, and he held open the heavy oak door and let Elizabeth through. It was cooler inside the stone walls and Elizabeth found her favorite pew and Darcy took a seat beside her.

Elizabeth felt impish, still reeling from the effects of the character of a good-natured husband and his merriment. “I did always want to be married in this church,” she sighed angelically.

Darcy chuckled and recalled, “And so you were.”

“Oh yes,” Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled though the light within the church was quite dim. “Once in play and once for certain.”

“Once in play?” Darcy queried at Elizabeth’s odd choice of words.

“Once,” Elizabeth sidled near to Darcy’s shoulder and slipped her arm through his, “in the summer when I was but fifteen years old, Jane and I came here to sit. There was no one else inside, just as there is now; and there had been a morning wedding. The marriage register had been left on the pulpit, and I was curious to leaf through the pages. The names of handsome men and virtuous young ladies seemed to float off of the sheets of parchment, and I imagined it that I had been a bride that day.”

Darcy grinned at the fancies of a young girl, and he brought Elizabeth’s tender hand to his lips and placed a kiss upon her palm. Elizabeth’s tales of her liveliness never ceased to amuse him, and he was sure that this one was to delight him more than most.

“Somewhere in that book,” Elizabeth spoke mysteriously, carried away by such a merry happenstance, “is my name, and that of a gentleman of whose looks and character were invented solely for my own amusement.”

The easy grin on Darcy’s face immediately disappeared and his hand reached to her chin, turning her face upward. “What?” he said, his frown alarming Elizabeth.

“He was not real, Fitzwilliam,” she insisted, “and the register would not have been witnessed.”

“Are you certain?” Darcy spoke in great distress.

Elizabeth’s lips pinched together in ill humor. “Yes,” she said hastily. “Am I to do nothing correct in your eyes today, husband?”

“Right or wrong, Elizabeth,” Darcy groused in disbelief, “first you tell me that you are jealous, and now to hear of another man, fictitious or not—I am quite done in, indeed.”

“You cannot be jealous, Mr. Darcy.”

“Not at all,” Darcy replied, angry still. “Not at all.”

Elizabeth sighed crossly and slipped her arm away from Darcy. He sat back awkwardly against the pew, and neither one said a word to each other about the unfortunate book containing the name of Elizabeth and her imaginary lover.

Nothing needed to be said, but everything of such a fateful consequence had been heard. Not only had a gravely displeased husband heard it, but also the new curate whose presence behind the couple was unknown to them; and for the sake of the prospect of his own good fortune, Mr. Enoch Pritchard was inclined to keep his good knowledge of the existence of such a book a well-guarded secret.

“Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth appeared quite astonished to see him standing before her on the grounds at Pemberley. “I had not thought you to be here at all.”

“That is true,” he concluded reticently, “for we have only now arrived, my dear.”

Darcy looked to the heavens, feeling the fine rain drizzle down upon his face. What a pleasant sensation it was to know that the heat of midsummer had passed. He overlooked his prudent feelings and rejoiced in the accomplishment of having quit Hertfordshire, at least for the time being.

“Is it not excellent to finally be at home Elizabeth?”

“Pray, sir?” she queried oddly. “Home?”

“Oh yes,” he sighed, looking over his beloved landscape, so green and crisp, like memories of his boyhood, “Yes indeed—to be home at last.”

“Do come in out of the rain, sir,” Elizabeth told him.

“Soon,” he replied, not wanting the feeling to end. “I will very soon.”

To Darcy, Elizabeth appeared quite troubled for her cheeks looked reddened as if she were embarrassed of him, and she abruptly turned round and held out her hand; and poor Darcy noticed the gloved hand of a man reach out for hers as the gentleman came into view.

“It has been some months since we last saw each other, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth nodded curtly.

“Has it?” Darcy swallowed, a queer feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Some months?”

“Many pleasant events have transpired after you left us in Hertfordshire.” She glanced up at the peculiar gentleman; Darcy’s jealousy growing acute for what he witnessed, for Elizabeth’s eyes shone brightly for this man, much as they had once for Darcy himself.

Darcy, utterly bewildered, held out his hands and whispered in his misery, “Wife?”

“Quite happily,” she whispered back to him and she turned toward the nameless gentleman. Her smile was merry and her heart full of happiness, it was easy to see, and she declared ever so plainly for Darcy’s humbled ears, “May I acquaint you with my husband, sir.”

Darcy’s face went ashen, and the green grounds of Pemberley turned gray and began to spin round and round. “Pray, excuse me,” he managed to speak, and although it seemed as if he could not keep his footing on the rain-soaked terrain, he made haste toward the security of his house, his boots slipping and sliding in the mud that had so newly formed upon the ground, his proper attire dirtied and soaked through from the rain.

In the very next instant Darcy was sitting bolt upright in bed, his face sweaty, and his body trembling though there was nary a chill to the air. It was nearing dawn, and although it seemed as if the room continued to spin round and round, Darcy managed to look about him to see a woman sleeping in the bed beside him.

“Good god,” he soughed out, his hands streaming through his dampish hair.

The woman beside Darcy stirred; and when she sleepily turned her head upon the pillow to give him a full vision of her slumbering face, his moan became bittersweet and Fitzwilliam Darcy respired a laugh somewhere betwixt sheer fright and utter elation. Elizabeth’s fair beauty did indeed lie calmly beside him, and Darcy could barely grasp his relief upon knowing for certain that she was the woman he had believed on good authority to be his wife.

Darcy’s poor countenance made him slip out of bed and stagger to the dressing chamber; and if he had not known himself better, he thought perhaps that he was to be ill from the shock of such a nightmare, and all that spinning—and he groped about for the chamber pot on the chance that he should be pressed to make hasty use of it.

With the handle of the pot clutched in one hand, Darcy stumbled to a chair in front of a vanity. A washbowl and pitcher had been set to his right, and he placed the chamber pot down to pick up the pitcher and pour water into the bowl. He reached above for a towel hanging neatly over a rack, tossed it over his shoulder and splashed the cool water onto his face with his shaky hands. The action made him feel somewhat better, at least good enough to know for certain that the other vessel would no longer be necessary.

Darcy dried his face and when he pulled the white towel away, he once again noted his appearance in the glass. He thought that he did not look as old as he had upon observance a few days past when he had arrived in Hertfordshire, but this time he thought himself young—he thought that he looked ridiculous for having dreamed of such nonsense, and he considered himself as childish as a sensible man could possibly get.

“Fitzwilliam,” Elizabeth’s anxious voice pierced through the door and the stillness of the morning. “Are you unwell my dear?”

Darcy considered the bold and chivalrous line of a gentleman, but then he sighed, wishing for a little tenderness from his wife. “Yes,” he groaned, “a little.”

“I am coming in,” Elizabeth said, turning the handle to the door and making haste toward her husband whose elbows were slumped onto the plane of the vanity top. Her first response was to lay her palm across his forehead, and although his skin felt damp she was satisfied that he at least had no fever. “Is your stomach upset?” she asked him.

Darcy nodded, his head propped up in his hands, and he choked out, “Something like that.”

Elizabeth grabbed a cloth and dipped it into the bowl of cool water, twisted the excess water from it and laid it across the back of Darcy’s neck. “This horrible heat,” she lamented for her husband’s sake, “and we should never have gone to bed so angry at one another,” she bemoaned for her own benefit.

Darcy simply moaned, soaking up the coolness of the cloth; and Elizabeth’s undivided attention and merciful remedy. Elizabeth plunked the cloth back into the water, twisted it once again, and placed it back on Darcy’s neck. With her other hand she brushed back his hair clinging to the perspiration on his forehead and although Darcy felt awkward for the way in which Elizabeth unselfishly attended to him, quite as if he were her child, he managed to carry on with looking pathetic for want of her continued compassion.

“Better?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

Elizabeth took his hand into her own and she kissed the back of it, with nary a care for her own well-being should Darcy truly be ill and lamentably contagious with some ghastly disease. “Come back to bed, my darling,” she said, for though at times they did argue, she would always love him the very next day.

Darcy shook his head, “I cannot—I promised Bingley that I would ride out with him this morning.”

“No,” Elizabeth replied, and then having the brighter idea, said, “I could tell him that you are unwell.”

“I am well,” Darcy smiled. “Truly, I am.”

“For certain, Fitzwilliam?”

“Yes, Elizabeth,” he chuckled at her mothering ways, “I am a grown man—and I would not tell you a lie.”

Elizabeth frowned and gripped tighter on Darcy’s hand. ”I suppose you think that I have?”

“Not at all,” Darcy answered honestly. “I apologize for the argument last night. It was childish—really. Can we put this all out of our minds, Elizabeth?”

“I would like it if we did,” she replied.

“What does it truly matter,” he sighed, “who we had known before meeting each other? As long as now we are married—happily married.”

“I did not really know any man before meeting you Mr. Darcy, excepting for a made up man put down in a church book—and just who, pray, did you know, sir?”

Darcy groaned, his head now beginning to pound as if he had gotten completely foxed the night before. “No one of any consequence—and no one who I would wish to know now.”

Elizabeth sighed, truly curious as to her husband’s past, yet knowing it was better not to be informed of everything he might have done before he knew her. “Then we would best put this from our minds.”

Darcy nodded and smiled. He glanced at himself again in the glass, and he rubbed a hand across his cheek and chin. “Will you hand me that cup and brush, and the straight razor?”

Elizabeth did as she was asked, and then she turned and left the dressing chamber to Darcy’s privacy. She kept the door ajar however, should he still be ill and might happen to need her; and she thought about crawling back into bed. The bed did not look all that inviting, for it occurred to Elizabeth that Darcy must have slept quite fitfully that night, for the bedsheets on his side of the bed were in quite an uncommon shambles.

She stepped closer to the bed and she picked up Darcy’s pillow, and felt the dampness on the casing. In all her nights as living as his wife thus far, Elizabeth had never known Darcy to be so restless a sleeper; quite the contrary in fact for she had spent nearly every night peacefully nestled in the crook of his arm.

Elizabeth startled when she heard Darcy groan once again, and impose some expletive uncommon to his ordinarily fastidious language. She bolted through the doorway, to find it odd that he was not ill at all, but bent very close to the mirror attempting such an effortless task as shaving his face.

He turned about, irritable with something or other, and grumbled out, “Whose idea was it to dismiss my valet?”

“Yours dear,” Elizabeth timidly replied.

“Mine,” Darcy sighed. “It was a very bad idea—and I will depend on you to remind me of the difficulties the very next time it should enter my head.”

Elizabeth grinned and humored him by confirming, “Yes, my dear.”

“Here,” he said, holding the razor out toward Elizabeth and pointing a finger at his cheek, “Will you do me the favor—just near this spot here? I cannot get it even with the other side.”

Elizabeth blanched at the thought of harming him in some way. “I have no skill with it, Fitzwilliam,” she respired.

“No matter. It is not as if you are to hurt me, my love. I trust you.”

Elizabeth was flattered by her husband’s confidence in her, although in this instance she had none in herself, and she reached out and took the straight razor from his hand. Darcy pulled another chair round to the vanity and they each sat down, facing one another, with Elizabeth intently surveying the contours of a familiar, yet very new face.

“Oh, I cannot!” she abruptly shied away. “Your muttonchops look perfectly tidy to me.”

Darcy reached out for her arm, the very arm still wielding the razor. “Please, Elizabeth,” he encouraged her, and he held her wrist, moved her hand and the razor boldly to his face, and then assisted her in an initial abrade of his beard. “Not so terrible, eh?”

Elizabeth’s lips pressed together and she shook her head. Darcy turned his face to the side and he waited patiently for Elizabeth to accommodate his request. She mustered the nerve to try it once again, fully expecting him to flinch, but he did not, and her resolve improved slightly for the better.

“Surely you must have had the acquaintance of other chaps before meeting me,” Darcy began a cheeky conversation, though in a hush so as not to upset Elizabeth’s hand. “Your friend Sir William Lucas would have seen to that.”

“Only with those men whom I might have considered as a dancing partner when at an assembly, Mr. Darcy,” she uttered, and then held her breath as she gave his steady face another brave pass over with the razor.

Darcy grew braver still, and he dared ask, “And this fellow in the church register—tell me, what was his name?”

“I cannot now remember,” Elizabeth told him, and whether or not it was the truth or a little white lie to save her marriage, was only for Elizabeth to be certain.

Darcy’s jaw grew tense, much as it had upon knowing he was to come into Hertfordshire some days ago, and Elizabeth took in a hasty breath when she thought her hand might slip and the razor might miss its intended path.

“Do hold still, Fitzwilliam.”

“How can you not remember something like that?” Darcy protested, growing cross once again, and not heeding his wife’s good advice. “I should think it difficult to be married to a man whom you do not know.”

Elizabeth grinned, “That is why I never had my father go to the trouble of arranging a marriage on my behalf.”

Darcy feigned a chuckle as Elizabeth pulled back the razor, “You know what I mean—how could you simply make up a lover, without having a look—a face, a name in mind?”

“How could a lady of flesh and blood who you might have known before meeting me, be of no consequence to you now?” Elizabeth’s mood flared as cross as Darcy’s.

“Well you must have written some name in that blasted book,” Darcy’s lips tightened after he spoke.

“Do you want me to make the muttonchops look even or not?” Elizabeth huffed. “If so, you will do well to be still—or you will certainly lose that deaf ear of which you were so hasty to make clear to my mother.”

Darcy’s cheeks went red at the direction of the conversation and at Elizabeth’s scolding. There are times when a good man truly does he is being irrational, and for Mr. Darcy, this was one of those times.

“Then you will not say?” Darcy was exasperated.

“I cannot say,” Elizabeth felt the same, and she reached out her free hand, pinched Darcy’s chin between her fingers, and placed the razor on his face for one last stroke.

“Cannot, will not—pray, which is it?”

“You are jealous, Mr. Darcy!” Elizabeth paused to be amazed, and Darcy growled and flinched. “Oh!” Elizabeth uttered hastily, and pulled the razor away. “You moved—you certainly did move, and oh dear—oh dear me!”

Darcy’s eyes grew wider than Elizabeth had ever seen, and he muffled a yelp and reached a wary hand to his estimable hide. Elizabeth quickly set the razor on the vanity, and that indeed was the very last time that Mr. Darcy ever sought such a favor of his wife, and it was indeed the very last time that Mrs. Darcy ever brandish such a weapon as a straight razor.

“Good morning, Darcy,” Charles Bingley greeted his friend as the gentleman stepped into the morning room to have his breakfast.

“Bingley,” came the only reply.

Mr. Bingley smiled broadly, having had a very fine evening the night before. “I hope, Darcy,” he said, “that your walk out was a success.”

Darcy glowered from beneath tautly drawn eyebrows. An attendant poured the gentleman his tea, after seeing Mr. Darcy make an impetuous gesture toward an empty cup. “Yes,” he said, “and no.”

“You look different, Darcy,” Bingley speculated.

“How so, Bingley? I would think that throughout our friendship there have been plenty of occasions for you to have seen me cross in the morning.”

“Not so much cross, Darcy,” the clueless gentleman stated, “However, you do look taller.”

Darcy groaned and sat down at the table. “That is all that I need,” he said and then pointed to his cheeks. “Not taller Bingley—the muttonchops, they are shorter.”

“That is quite a statement of fashion Darcy, though I do believe that they are to be longer this year instead of shorter.”

Darcy made an effort to respond to his friend’s observations, as civilly as proper decorum would allow, but on second thought he deemed it best to keep his ill-humored reticence hot under his own collar. He recalled being mortified, and quickly taking a look in the glass to see his meticulously clipped beard bristles to be at least an inch shorter than was the usual.

When he had glanced back at Elizabeth, his frowning features willing to demonstrate to her his humiliation at the reflection of the one on his right having been cropped off below what was certainly considered fashionable—she had the nerve to look as if she would burst out laughing, and in this, Darcy did not find any humor at all.

“It is only hair, Fitzwilliam,” she had said, making light of her blunder.

“It only took me a year and a half to get it just so,” he had been completely juvenile in his reply.

Darcy knew then that it was not just the ruination of the trophy of his manly whiskers which vexed him, but the prolongation of such a ludicrous argument, and the information of Elizabeth’s haunting, fictitious lover—a man, no doubt, of vogue trappings.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Bingley disrupted Darcy’s ire by handing him a small paper package. “The violin strings.”

Darcy took in a breath, and then heaved a sigh to clear his mind of his ill feelings, “Thank you, Bingley.”

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