A brisk outing on a lively mount that morning was agreeable to young Mr. Darcy’s troubled spirits. The clarity and coolness of the morning air on his face served to ease his quick temper and clear his mind of his predicaments; whether or not his troubles were genuine, or simply of his own obstinate design. Darcy commanded the animal to a halt in a pasture, the aspect of Netherfield house quite visible from where he sat upon the stamping and snorting black horse—and the young man did recollect having once seen such a prospect before.
It was a view that he had at one time declared to his friend Charles Bingley as, “pretty enough,” though at that particular instant he had really not meant those words with any sincerity. Fitzwilliam Darcy had not wanted Charles Bingley to let Netherfield Estate, nor had he wanted to remain with his friend in such low vicinity as this campestral neighborhood in Hertfordshire.
To own the truth, young Mr. Darcy had not really known what he had wanted then—he had only been aware that he was not at ease in the company of such strangers as was to be found surrounding the village of Meryton, nor had he ever been comfortable with strangers from the age of eight to eight and twenty. Mr. Darcy was a man changed forever, and although he was vexed at certain events at the present, he was now, and would always be, a happy man for having spent so short a time in what was a quaint and tolerant neighborhood.
At once he felt ridiculous for the demonstration of his childish behavior that morning, and the heightened color on his cheeks gave away proof of his disappointment in himself. Darcy’s conscience overflowed with the recollection of his willful contention toward a most beloved wife. He reined the fine horse around, intending on going back to the house within his sights and extending that apology to Elizabeth that he felt compelled by love and by a gentleman’s principles to deliver, but Bingley had other plans.
“Come on, Darcy,” the eager young man called out, “let us pay a call on Longbourn.”
For some inexplicable reason, and with particular reluctance Darcy gave a nod of agreement. The two young men again were off, on hoof and on wind, headed for the house of their father-in-law.
Elizabeth sat idly in a chair, a cup of tea held in her graceful fingers; yet there was a small frown upon her lips and a distant look of concern on her face as she thought back on the morning. Jane sat across a small rosewood table, espying the face of her dearest Elizabeth.
“Do you wish to visit Mama again today, Lizzy?” Jane sweetly asked according to her nature.
Elizabeth brushed away her gloomy trance. “No,” she respired an answer and smiled, though it resembled no happy smile at all. “Jane, I find that having lived some months away from our mother and sisters, and having been the constant companion of such a complicated and distracting man, has left me wanting some peace.”
“I see, Lizzy,” Jane replied, having stood up from her seat, not truly venturing to guess what her sister had meant by her words describing Mr. Darcy. “I will leave you to yourself.”
“Oh no, sister!” Elizabeth hurried her expression and reached a worried hand across the table, causing Jane to return immediately to her chair. “I would so much like to spend the day with you—I have missed you.”
“My dearest Lizzy,” Jane was fickly grateful to Elizabeth and she gave her sister’s hand an indebted squeeze. “I have pined for your company so very much that I cannot begin to say!”
Elizabeth once again felt selfish. “I have been so caught up in my own silliness and easy life,” she sighed, “that I have neglected you, and for that I am truly sorry.”
To Elizabeth’s astonishment, Jane gently wept where she sat; yet Elizabeth was not alarmed for she knew that Jane wept essential tears that she would not dare show to her husband. Jane wept tears of sorrow for having lost a most wanted baby, an heir to present to her husband. She wept tears of longing for a husband’s companionable regard and passionate touch to be hers once again, and she cried just plain tears for not having sought the confidence of a most beloved sister.
For once Elizabeth was glad that Darcy did not return to her so very hastily that day. She listened patiently to her sister’s chronicle for a good part of that morning—walking arm and arm with her through the gardens as they had done all their lives. The scent of lavender, and ox-eyes, and summer herbs served to calm their spirits; and later, they sat in a quiet drawing room, doing nothing more to busy themselves than learning once again to laugh at their troubles.
“I am afraid, Lizzy, that my husband does not find my company all that agreeable,” Jane confessed.
“Nonsense,” Elizabeth elucidated firmly. “I would not wish to be harsh on you Jane, but perhaps your husband needs your tender persuasion when it comes to remaining at home and in your good company.”
“Perhaps,” Jane smiled, “and perhaps what you are attempting to say is that part of this, is indeed my fault?”
Elizabeth slyly divulged, “It might have been. The credit is yours in the realization of it.”
“And Mr. Darcy—does he always remain at home upon your good advice?”
“He does,” Elizabeth grinned, assured of what she was saying as the truth. “He has his own interests of course, but if I was to ask him to remain with me, or to take me with him, I am convinced that he would.”
“Lizzy,” Jane sighed, “what man would choose not to be with you?”
“I believe, Jane, that you cannot only be a wife in name and knowledge to be a good companion to a man,” Elizabeth replied. “I have found that companionship with a husband takes far more work than that same relationship with a true friend, or even a sister who now lives miles away. In Mr. Darcy’s case, at times it takes a great deal of pains, for we all know that he does not make friends as easily as Mr. Bingley; nor do my husband and I always come to see things in an identical light.”
After having bared her heart and soul to Elizabeth—and upon hearing her sister’s resolve on the subject of how to deal with the mulish mind-set of a man, Jane determined it that she was not to allow Mr. Bingley to ignore her for another instant. She had always suspected that she could use a little of Elizabeth’s willful determination and charming wiles to see her way through life. Perhaps she should have sent for Elizabeth after her loss—but Jane had tried to substitute the ties of a marriage for the bond that sister’s share between them, and that simply could never be done.
What attachments were drawn in a marriage were indeed an extraordinary link to be greatly valued, for so many marriages in the Bennets’ circle were devoid of any such feelings and connections between man and woman; but a clever woman knew that some things were best left unsaid in a marriage, and better spoken between women—between sisters. Jane would never confuse the one with the other again, and hopefully Mr. Bingley would not find the pressures of bestowing wisdom that he did not own upon a grieving wife, to be such a strain upon his scruples.
At length it was Elizabeth’s turn to confess all concerns of matrimony aloud between sisters, and although she truly felt that she had very few significant grievances, she did find that living with Mr. Darcy held certain annoyances.
“Sometimes,” she professed with a furtive grin and a liveliness to her voice, “I wonder at being so in love with the man.”
Jane giggled at such a statement, and Elizabeth blithely continued. “How can a woman be so in love with a man—and be so exasperated with him at the same instant?”
“Indeed—how can we?” Jane said, obviously her good spirits somewhat restored by Elizabeth’s sly musing and sound advice.
“Perhaps I was mistaken before, but these sorts of peculiar feelings do not overtake you when you are friends with another woman—no—or even merely an acquaintance with a gentleman; for I have never felt anything like it before, until I happened to find myself in love with Mr. Darcy.”
“Oh Lizzy,” Jane chided her sister playfully.
“Truly Jane,” Elizabeth teased. “When I knew the gentleman before accepting his hand, indeed he could make me very angry—though I must admit that was before I knew that I loved him. But once I was sure that I loved him and he did unwittingly wound my feelings in that way that he has so perfected in his eight and twenty years,” Elizabeth heaved a sigh, “and then attempt to make amends by an embrace and a kiss, well certainly I do always yield and allow him to do so, but not without wanting to take my hand and box him on top of the head—quite as though he were an annoying little boy.”
“No!” Jane admonished laughingly, “You have never done that—surely!”
Elizabeth laughed at herself, and at her sister’s mortification. “Oh no,” she said, admittedly, her eyes quite wide at her impudence, “nor I am sure, shall I ever! But in my most private of thoughts, Jane, I have wanted to—quite often.”
“Dearest sister,” Jane laughed, “you have always had your mischievous ways. You entertained me with the demonstration of them when we were children, and there were times Lizzy, I must admit that some of your pranks gave me quite a fright.”
“Indeed,” Elizabeth’s merriment gradually ceased to exist. “Perhaps I have gone too far in some cases. Perhaps one day my wicked ways will see me into trouble—and there will be no one to see me out of it.”
“You shall always have Mr. Darcy’s kindness and care, for I think, Lizzy, he cannot bear to see you unhappy.”
Elizabeth smiled tenderly and agreed, “Yes, I shall always have Mr. Darcy—and his good care.”
Jane certainly did doubt Elizabeth’s harsh criticism of her playfulness, for after all, her sister was now a married woman, and not apt to put in danger her love and devotion for her new husband in any way. Elizabeth however continued to feel ill at ease—something she could barely explain, and amid a timid twist of her pretty lips and a private thought, Elizabeth longed once again to see her husband stride through the door and offer to make amends for their quarrel with a tender embrace and a passionate kiss between lovers and friends.
“No, no, not like that at all,” Darcy’s tone of voice was somewhat afflicted, no matter how well he attempted to conceal his frustration. “There is a hold at the end of this measure,” he sighed, and then he demonstrated the method on the newly restrung violin to make his point quite clear.
Mary Bennet took an uncomfortable moment to listen; feeling bullyragged by her new partner, the severe Mr. Darcy. He reminded her somewhat of her impressions of a schoolmaster, staunch and unyielding, and to her thinking, quite condescending in manner.
To anyone else, Mr. Darcy would have seemed quite easy, casually dressed in waistcoat and shirtsleeves, having taken off his day coat to be able to play the violin without restriction, and survive the ever-intolerable heat. When his demonstration was complete, Darcy patiently waited for an acknowledgement from his partner.
“Yes,” Mary finally said, having heard Darcy’s coaching, “that is what I did—precisely.”
Darcy bit down on his lower lip, his forbearance slipping away. “No Mary,” he replied, amiably controlling his irritation long enough to inquire, “Might I call you Mary—given our connection?”
“No, then Mary,” his voice rumbled brusquely, “that is not what you did—this is what you did.” Darcy hastily put the instrument to his chin once again and demonstrated Miss Mary’s notion of playing Morning Rout. “You copied down your part, did you not? Perhaps you did so incorrectly?”
Mary shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, unwilling to believe that she would do such a thing. She may not have had the proper training, like Mr. Darcy and his sister had been able to afford, but she refused to believe by any means that her talents were trifling, or even objectionable to a trained ear.
“You are playing as if you are in a different room altogether, Mary,” Darcy searched his patience to explain. “The violin that I am playing is lead, the pianoforte that you are playing, the accompaniment. You really must watch me for a prompt—I might nod, like so—and then you must commit to memory that which you have copied down if we are ever to hold the measure properly, as a duet.”
“I am not accustomed to doing so,” Mary replied.
“And why not?” Darcy retorted. “Have you never played a duet before now?”
“No, sir,’ Mary spoke plainly. “I have not.”
Upon second thought, this was not all surprising to Darcy. He turned round, not wanting his new sister to notice his disappointment of her talents present by his drawn and pinched frown. He was by no means a proper tutor, nor did he admittedly have the patience for it, and so Darcy was led to believe this whole situation to be fruitless. His hand gripped tight around the bow and although it was terribly dreadful for the healthy state of such a delicate instrument, he took his finger and plucked hard at a tautly drawn string of the violin, the severe sound of which caused Miss Mary Bennet to jolt from her seat.
Darcy turned back around, his composure once more under good regulation. “Will you not attempt it again,” he encouraged her, although his lips pressed tightly together for an instant, and the dimples in his cheeks deepened, “In the manner that I have suggested?”
Mary dipped her chin, in gracious condescension. Darcy took up the violin and Mary the keyboard, and yet she played her portion of their duet on the pianoforte once more—precisely in the same manner as before. “There,” Mary pronounced when finished, “That was much better.”
Darcy had never felt so defeated; would it have been that his nerves had been ripped to shreds daily by the echoing of his mother-in-law’s ridiculous utterances; and simply to save his sorely tested sanity he grinned with care, and said, “Much.”
“Perhaps,” Mary prudently said, not believing the satisfaction of her partner to be genuine, “If Jane or Elizabeth were here, we could solicit an unprejudiced interpretation.”
Darcy felt the insult keenly. Each and every time that he had happened to play a duet with any other person of sense, they would have taken his lead, but not so with Miss Mary Bennet. Darcy would have chosen nothing better to fulfill his stormy passion at that moment than to pitch the violin across the room and through one of his father-in-law’s pane windows, but he was a man of sense and education, and therefore well above any such display of vulgarity.
“One would think it quite clear, Mary, that if you were to do as simple a thing as to await my cue,” he growled, “we would have success, and not be in need of another interpretation. On this we do not need Elizabeth’s advice, and besides, your sister chooses not to be here at present.”
Mary chose not to like the words of superiority spoken by her brother-in-law, no matter how truthful they were. “We had been thinking sir,” she blurted out, “that you were perfectly amiable—like our sister had said.”
Darcy shook the cobwebs of such grievous sin from his mind. “Indeed,” he heaved a sigh, “Quite so. I apologize, sister—truly. I can only offer as my defense the feeble excuse that I have not had the finest of mornings.”
“Ah, Mr. Darcy!” a shrill voice uttered his name from behind, a sound more piercing than that of the violin string which he had so unnervingly plucked. Mrs. Bennet’s skirts did ride an all too absent breeze into the increasingly stuffy room. “How is it all coming along?” she twittered a giggle in Mary’s direction.
“Tolerable,” Mary stated morosely.
“Excellent,” came her mother’s reply. “By the bye, sir,” she addressed her son-in-law by cocking her head to look up at him, “What have you done with Mrs. Darcy today?”
Darcy declined to hide his frown; “Elizabeth is at Netherfield,” he explained, “we had decided it best to engage in our own interests today.”
“I see,” Mrs. Bennet feigned injury. She took a closer look at Darcy and then imparted a very trifling supposition on her part. “Every time that I see you sir, you look taller to me.”
Darcy’s brows knit together pitifully, remembering the truncated statement of masculine style now gracing the sides of his once distinguished cheeks, along with the ridiculous quarrel that he and Elizabeth had engaged in immediately afterward. He realized as he made such a gesture that his head hurt, although he felt that he lacked for no obvious reason why that should be so.
“Oh dear—what nonsense,” Mrs. Bennet said, and then asserted with a giggle, “How could you possibly have gotten taller? There seems to be quite a bit of nonsense going on these days.”
Darcy looked positively smug as he rejoined, “Truly.”
“Indeed sir,” Mrs. Bennet explained astutely whilst flopping herself down upon a chaise-lounge. “Why should you believe it so odd? Even your own wife and her silly dreams—what with marrying another man of all things, and in the sanctity of our very own Longbourn church. Is it not so Mary that I was the one to tell Lizzy, time and time again—let it be that dear Mr. Darcy to whom you are betrothed or no one at all!”
“Mama!” Mary tried to caution her mother, for Elizabeth’s sake.
“I beg your pardon?” Darcy’s voice quavered in outrage and he strode around the chaise to face his mother-in-law, ready to insist upon an explanation.
Mrs. Bennet, however, was always willing to oblige when it came to the art of good gossip and she divulged quite easily, “Lizzy’s dream—I mean Mrs. Darcy’s dream,” For a moment she was stunned at the concern on the gentleman’s face. “You look very ill, Mr. Darcy. Perhaps Hill should fetch a scotch from Mr. Bennet’s cupboard?”
“Thank you, no.”
“Well do not take such drivel to heart, Mr. Darcy. It was only a dream, sir, and not a scandal, of all things.”
“Elizabeth dreamt of another man?” Darcy spoke, though it was unclear as to whether his question was directed to anyone present in the room. His brow arched high in obvious conjecture, and he swallowed the words, “Another husband?”
Mrs. Bennet nodded her head, “Indeed.”
Darcy placed the violin atop the pianoforte, reached for his day coat and turned on his heel. “Forgive me,” was all that he said, and no breeze at all carried him hastily away from the room.
Mrs. Hill was at the front doors, having heard the Mister’s purposeful footsteps upon the wooden floor of the hallway. She had assumed that he would be in want of his hat and riding gloves, though he did not stop his hasty stride to procure a thing other than slipping his arms into his day coat, quite on the fly. Mr. Darcy flung open the door, and Mrs. Hill scurried out onto the steps to see the young man continue his decided gait toward the grounds of Longbourn church.
When Darcy stepped within the hallowed walls of the country parish church, he stopped, and brought a hand to his aching forehead, quite as if he had awoken from a bad dream. He truly had no good reason to be there, other than his desperate need to find out for himself the mysterious name of Elizabeth’s imaginary lover—hoping to quell his curious jealousy. He sensed a venerable presence and noticed the Right Reverend Goodwin, the very same man who had married Elizabeth and himself not six months before, standing before him.
“Good day, sir,” the old man spoke. “Do I know you?”
“Sir,” Darcy bowed and walked closer, “Fitzwilliam Darcy—I am—I believe that I am the man married to the former Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
A beacon of recognition graced the good Reverend’s face. “Ah yes, yes indeed—Mr. Darcy! Why I would know you anywhere,” he said, benevolently taking hold of the younger man’s hand in an affectionate handshake, “—although my eyesight is not as it should be these days, you are unmistakably tall, and therefore one must recognize you.”
“Reverend Goodwin, I have come here…” Darcy was cut short by the untimely entrance of another person.
“Mr. Darcy, allow me to introduce to you our curate, Mr. Enoch Pritchard.”
Darcy bowed once again, although in no humor to extend to this stranger the affection for which he had shown to the Reverend who had joined he and Elizabeth in blissful matrimony.
“Mr. Darcy,” the thin gentleman genuflected deeply, his head coming parallel with the tops of his unpretentious woolen knickers. “I had been hoping for an introduction—having met with your lovely wife only yesterday.”
“My wife?” Darcy seemed disbelieving, and then recovered his composure by stating, “So you have met my wife—you will pardon my ignorance of the acquaintance, but she had not told me.”
“Pity,” said Mr. Pritchard. “Well, indeed you look as though you have come on business Mr. Darcy. I shall not keep you.”
Mr. Pritchard bowed and took his leave; but as he closed the heavy oak door behind him, he made sure to leave it slightly ajar, at least enough to overhear the private conversation of his superiors.
Mr. Enoch Pritchard had come from the North Country, a little place called Wragby to be exact. His father had not been a man of great means, though he had been a small parish vicar, and had insisted that his son follow in his footsteps. The son however, had higher ideals, though not the means by which to obtain them, and so reluctantly he went along with the passions of his father, and not those of his own choosing.
It could not be said the Mr. Pritchard was a happy young man, though it might be said that he was a scheming one. He was sure that his life could be better, and having exhausted all possibilities of any form of minor blackmail to better himself in his own neighborhood, he prudently set out to find a new hunting ground before the local magistrate him put in irons.
If Mr. Pritchard’s choice of a living could not be better, then at least he could find a way to enhance his status—for it was not really money that the man hungered after, as much as it was rank and recognition, and it did not matter much to him if he was wholly undeserving of anything good.
“Reverend Goodwin,” Darcy continued in what appeared to be privacy. “I have come here to ask a favor.”
“Anything my good man.”
“May I take a look at your records—by that I mean the parish register with the accounts of births, deaths, and,” Darcy muttered a little lower, and a little more somber, “marriages?”
“Of course, of course,” Reverend Goodwin motioned his guest toward the narthex of the old structure, and to an old oak stand. “Tis right here.”
Darcy reached out a hand, pausing ever so slightly before opening the hardbound leather covering of the manuscript. He carefully flipped to the pages near to the end and there before his eyes was the consoling sight of the script of his own hand, next to that of his only love, Elizabeth.
Darcy respectfully ran his fingertips over the parchment, which read; on this day – joined in marriage – and the article signed in witness by the Reverend Goodwin, himself, precisely as Darcy had remembered. The young man smiled in relief and satisfaction, if only for an instant; and then he hastily flipped the pages forward until he came to the front of the book.
“It begins only two years ago,” Darcy stated.
“Does it?” the Reverend was not all that astonished. “You are in search of something farther back than this, Mr. Darcy?”
“Well,” Darcy sputtered, “not exactly in search of—that is, well—yes, if you really must know.”
“Mr. Darcy,” the good Reverend held his hand up in the air before him, “I do not truly need to know your business, and if by chance that it would make you easy knowing that I do not know, well then, so be it. If you want my counsel young man, I am convinced that you will ask for it.”
“My wife has only the warmest words of regard for you, sir,” Darcy heaved a sigh and smiled, “and I do understand why that is so.”
“Elizabeth is a good girl,” Reverend Goodwin smiled broadly, “and a lively one at that—you could have done much worse in your choice of a wife. I am afraid, sir, that I will have to get Mr. Pritchard to fetch the old registers from the attic room upon his return.”
“Very well,” Darcy conceded warily, “I shall return later in the day.”
Darcy bowed with genuine affection, and turned to leave the old country church. “Go in peace, dear sir, and may you always remain strong, like the oak,” the Reverend hailed his farewell, and as young Mr. Darcy shut the door behind him, he closed his eyes as well, hoping beyond wisdom that it would always be so.
Darcy did not dare to go back to Elizabeth at present, and given that he had left his hat, gloves, and even something as conspicuous as his horse at Longbourn, he did think it wise to go back there. Mr. Bennet and Charles Bingley were awaiting his return.
“Where did you go off to, Darcy?” Bingley asked quite hastily. “Our mother-in-law said that you bolted, quite suddenly.”
“Yes,” Darcy nodded, although not wishing to say anything more. “Mr. Bennet, have you a scotch?”
“Quite often,” the elder gentleman grinned, but good regulation soon overtook his ideas of sport, and he then placed a palm on his son-in-law’s back and followed him to the seclusion of the library.
Darcy took up his usual defense in front of a windowpane. “You have not been yourself today, man,” Charles Bingley whispered near to his friend. “Will you not trust me with your confidence now? After all, we are brothers by law.”
“It is of no consequence, Bingley,” Darcy replied, his voice low, “Do not trouble yourself.”
Bingley appeared hurt, “Then I will not interfere.”
“Then allow me,” Mr. Bennet spoke up. “Did Mrs. Bennet offend you in some way, son?”
There was a painful pause issued by Darcy’s swaying countenance, and then he chose to answer, “No, sir.”
“I imagine then,” Mr. Bennet made an attempt at good sense, “that it is not easy for newlyweds on their first visit back to the woman’s home. I never did cotton much to being in the company of my own in-laws, save for Mr. Gardiner. Perhaps the burden of just such a thing has caused a discord between you and Elizabeth?”
Darcy could only shake his head, implying that it had not been the case. Mr. Bennet shrugged having thought he knew exactly what the trouble could be, relying on his own experiences. Perhaps there was no trouble at all, for one could hardly ever interpret the man’s frame of mind, when in the company of Mr. Darcy. Charles Bingley rolled his eyes round in condolence of his father-in-law’s efforts, and Mr. Bennet poured three glasses of scotch, and walked one over to Darcy.
Darcy was grateful for the offer, and he held the small vessel before him, and silently looked within. Before long his posture stiffened out of manly pride and much needed arrogance, an emotion he had always relied on to see him through any plight. Mr. Bennet and Charles Bingley had never quite seen Darcy’s determination so provoked by something so puzzling, yet they were exceptionally impressed by Darcy’s style of abandon, when he lifted the glass before him in a toast and said ever so heedlessly of proper restraint, “Bottoms up.”
Mr. Darcy pushed on the heavy oak door of Longbourn church, and ducking his head lower upon entering through the archway he stepped inside the shadows of the narthex, and then stood tall and proud, once again to his full height. He took a quick look around the place, anxious about his purpose there, and he hoped that Elizabeth had not chosen this moment to visit, for he had rather not be made to explain himself to her at present.
Jealousy and suspicion between a man and a woman was a reprehensible thing, and Darcy was well aware of it, but his heart was possessed by the need to know every particular about Elizabeth. There was no refuting his love for her, but at times her unconquerable spirit was a source of discomfort for Fitzwilliam Darcy, and her liveliness interfered with the staidness of his own character. With the differences between them came the good, and in six months of living together the irrefutable excellence of Elizabeth’s character had far exceeded any small hassle in marriage to vex a somewhat priggish partner.
The gentleman eagerly anticipated the presence of Reverend Goodwin, but instead of seeing a benevolent and familiar face, out from the dimness came the reedy build of the parish curate. “Mr. Darcy,” the man grinned, doing very little to lessen the gentleman’s angst.
Darcy nodded, and without further delay, said, “The good Reverend is expecting my return.”
“Indeed, sir. Reverend Goodwin was called away—to Lucas Lodge I believe, but I am expecting you. I have the register you seek in my study.”
Darcy’s skin did crawl with feelings of wonder and dread as he followed the man deeper into the darkness of the archaic structure. He could not say how Mr. Pritchard would come to know in which volume lay his particular interest, nor did Darcy understand that what had appeared to be a confidence shared between him and the Right Reverend, now was common knowledge possessed by this man.
Darcy bent low once again upon entering the small book-filled study, and on a humble desk within did rest a brown leather bound volume illuminated by light and filtered dust, a late day beacon from one small leaded window. Mr. Pritchard pointed a steady finger at the book and motioned to Mr. Darcy to take a seat behind the desk. Darcy did so, opened the volume, and instantly looked for a date to make identification. Indeed it was the correct register according to what Elizabeth had said.
Mr. Pritchard backed away toward the door of the small library and closed it, and then leaned his slight body against it, waiting for Mr. Darcy to take a closer look at the ledger. Darcy leafed through pages of populace history, pausing now and then to casually read them, as if he had taken an idle interest in the welfare of the inhabitants of Hertfordshire. After some time however, and by the presence of the arrant grin upon the curate’s face, Darcy suspected that this device did not fool the likes of Mr. Enoch Pritchard.
At last the proud gentleman turned one last page, and there as Elizabeth had said, was her name scrawled in her hand, and the name of a gentleman; and below were inscribed the words—
On this day – joined in marriage.
Darcy could not faithfully say how the entry made him feel—numb, for the most part. He had desired to observe the existence of Elizabeth’s girlish prank for himself, although it did not make him easy, or happier now for having its illustration set open before him. His manly jaw tensed and his lips pressed tightly together when he read the name of Elizabeth’s imaginary lover, quite as if he should have found it familiar, even if that was impossible.
Darcy was an tireless young man for detail, and so his eyes read further down the page, and straight away his heart twisted in his chest in wretchedness and his mind reeled in alarm as he saw for himself a fateful seal; the bold, witnessing signature of Reverend Goodwin. At that moment, Darcy quite forgot his circumstances. His breathing, deeply drawn and quivering, and the trembling of his chin as he sought to conceal his incensed passions, gave away his utter astonishment and misery upon seeing the existence of such a hallmark.
He stared at the wretched page with the incredulity and resentment suffered by a husband who did indeed feel betrayed by unfortunate circumstance, reading down further—
A marriage of love and mutual admiration—to the advantage of a very lucky girl.
Once again, in his young lifetime Fitzwilliam Darcy did not feel strong and steady as the oak of his admiration, a portentous and masculine mind-set that he had grown to abhor with every test of his will and reason as an adult. He felt as if a colossal storm had passed through his brain, and had uprooted every truthful fact that he cherished as a man and as a husband—and he would have wanted to sob like a child for its effects, though this man would never allow himself such a freedom.
“It is true that Reverend Goodwin has had some trouble with his eyesight, of late,” Mr. Pritchard offered oddly; a bead of perspiration forming on his forehead from the heat and his concern for the intricacy of his own situation. “You see, Mr. Darcy; that is why they are in need of my services. The Reverend Goodwin now only does those things in this parish that I instruct him to do, and this morning I had him witness a few entries in the register, that obviously, he had not been able to see before now.”
Darcy drew in a ragged breath, “This entry is false—and null.”
“No, Mr. Darcy—it would appear that the entry six months ago, the entry in this book over here, the one with Miss Bennet’s signature beside that of yours—is false and null. In the eyes of the law Miss Bennet would have been married by the entry in the register you see before you.”
In his woe Darcy searched his brain for something of liberal consequence to say. “That is utter nonsense!” he finally relented in frustration for what was drawn in black and white before him; and out of disdain for a man who he did not even know, but who seemed willing to revel in Darcy’s misery all the same.
“You have played a deceitful trick on a trusting and kind old man,” a decided husband stated the facts. “No such man exists to have been married to Elizabeth Bennet, and my wife’s parents would never have consented to such a connection on this date, being as their daughter was but fifteen years of age.”
“I beg to differ, sir—but as I hear it, they have done so not only for Miss Elizabeth Bennet, but also for Miss Lydia Bennet, joined recently at very near the same age to a Mr. George Wickham of the Regulars.”
Darcy was furious, and the proof showed on every feature of his face. “I want this page removed from this book at once,” he growled.
“My dear Mr. Darcy,” the slender, contemptible man sighed, “that would be illegal, and highly immoral.”
Darcy ran his fingertips across the page with Elizabeth’s signature and that of her quixotic lover, as if longing to scratch the ink away; or better yet, tear the page from the book, and accomplish its destruction, himself. It would be simple—and beneath him.
“I will ask the Reverend Goodwin to refute this document—you know that I will!”
“You can, but what is the word of an old man whose memory now fails him versus what is written down on paper, with his own hand, bold and plain, as witness? If you do inquire of him, or of your lady’s parents, the scandal will surely come out, and I will have no occupation as you will have done the deed for me, Mr. Darcy.”
Darcy’s cheeks colored behind the neatly clipped and shortened muttonchops. “What is it exactly that you want from me?”
“Well sir,” the man formed a devilish grin upon his thin lips, “I suppose that I could conceal this register, and keep it in my care—safely away from prying eyes. Though that would benefit you greatly, would it not?”
“I say—what do you want?”
Mr. Pritchard scratched at his head in malevolent condescension as he sought to make a good man suffer. “I would truly not like to see how this neighborhood, not to mention your peers in London and Derbyshire would react, should they happen to find proof and come to the notion that you and your lady are not married after all. A dreadful sin and scandal for a gentleman such as yourself.”
Darcy sat back in his chair; his emotions now back in some reasonable check abetted by his contempt and loathing for this scoundrel. He contrived a cynical laugh at the curate’s disgraceful pitch.
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet and I were most certainly married. You cannot hurt me with this.”
“Perhaps not, but it would surely hurt the reputation of the lady,” Mr. Pritchard grew intolerant of Mr. Darcy’s sound reasoning. “How do you know this man does not exist?”
“I know,” Darcy carelessly admitted.
“I think not, for I saw your expression Mr. Darcy when you came across that page—that look of disgust when you realized that perhaps she was not the innocent you had thought to have wed.”
Darcy was pressed beyond his tormented limitations. He clambered up from the chair, his height menacing to say the least, and he reached a long arm across the desk and caught Mr. Pritchard by his scrawny, self-righteous collar.
“You go beyond good judgment, sir,” Darcy growled out in abhorrence, “I know what a gentleman knows. Blackmail me if you dare, cause me to suffer if you must—but do not insult me, and never slander the lady.”
“Very well,” the much smaller man wisely shied away from privileged matters of the heart, and carefully loosened his clammy collar from Mr. Darcy’s grip.
“Say you lock away this book right now, as a favor to me,” Darcy proposed. “I ask you again what it is that you want. If it is money that you seek, then name your shameful price.”
Mr. Pritchard laughed, “Crowns in my pocket are only part of the plan, Mr. Darcy. I am wasted here; you can certainly see that for yourself. I am convinced that it is not my lot in life to have to serve a man, while he has the glory and rights of the position. You have the means of Advowson, Mr. Darcy—the living you are able to give. You will bestow it on me for all time, and with a certain amount of capital besides, we will call the deal square.”
“The living has already been given to a very honorable man.”
“Then take it back—or I shall certainly issue this information to the London papers.”
Darcy truly felt ill, and this time the feeling did not originate from the fateful consequences of a dream. “You are correct Mr. Pritchard, I do feel disgust—if only for you.”
“I will not waste my life, Mr. Darcy—I am desperate, and I think that you can be made to feel desperate as well.”
“Then lock it away,” Darcy demanded, without hesitation, that the book be concealed. “Now.”
Mr. Pritchard stepped toward the register and looked at the page before him. His slender, gaunt hand reached out and he carefully shut the volume. He then turned and placed it in a heavy traveling trunk and fastened the lock securely.
Fitzwilliam Darcy sighed, if only in relief for the moment that a dreadful falsehood was concealed. “It will take me some time to draft a communication to Kympton parish,” the words pained Darcy simply to speak them. “The good man there will need to find another living.”
“You have some time, Mr. Darcy. I am a patient man.”
Darcy contrived a laugh and a sneer, and replied, “Why am I astonished to hear it, Mr. Pritchard?”
This was not the first time that a Darcy had been hurt by a blackguard, and perhaps it would not be the last, but it was truly the first time that Fitzwilliam Darcy felt he himself could hurt another human being, for he had such a rage of hatred in his heart. However, there was no wrath in his heart for Elizabeth and her unfortunate childhood pranks. Darcy truly could not have loved Elizabeth more, for she was his soul mate in this life and he needed no proof on a page to tell him otherwise.
Since the last summer, Darcy had sworn that he would never again live to see Elizabeth cry for having been the victim of vengeance against his own good judgment and reputation. He had no idea how this time he was to prevent such a dreadful occurrence, for he did not know if he could find it in his heart to devastate the lives of innocent and good people in order to save Elizabeth’s reputation and character. Perhaps, because of this, she would end up in tears; but this time those tears would fall heavily upon a man’s shoulders, and not upon a letter held with a woman’s gentle hands.
Elizabeth and Jane came to Longbourn when their husbands had not come home for their supper. Bingley had sent a message to Netherfield saying that Darcy was, for the second time that day, nowhere to be found.
“Where did my husband say that he was going?” Elizabeth inquired of her brother, as her father and mother, and sisters looked on.
“He did not say,” Bingley replied. “He does that quite often, you know—and he always pops back in, eventually.”
“That does not help matters, Mr. Bingley.” Elizabeth turned toward her parents. “Papa,” she inquired, “Tell me truly—what was said between you that might have affronted Mr. Darcy?”
“Not a thing, Lizzy,” her father shrugged off his daughter’s accusations. “As I understand it, he was with Mary and your mother earlier today—when he bolted for the first time.”
“Mama!” Elizabeth cried out.
“Well Lizzy, his very nature is beyond me!” Mrs. Bennet sniffled to show her concern. “One moment we were speaking of your dream and the next Mr. Darcy quit the place in a fuss!”
Elizabeth groaned and stomped her foot childishly. “Is everything in this house meant for public display and ridicule?” she huffed aloud.
The young wife grew furious with her family, and inflicted with worry for the sake of her husband. It was that fear for the happiness of her marriage, which made Elizabeth turn on her heels and begin to walk down the lane away from Longbourn house in search of Darcy’s whereabouts.
“Now, Lizzy,” Mr. Bennet followed her. “He is a grown a man, your husband. I should say that if he is to be a part of this family, he should have to learn to take what abuse he gets, like a man—like Bingley here.”
Charles Bingley followed closely behind his father-in-law, and he heaved a groan of frustration at Mr. Bennet’s ill use of his good and amiable nature. Elizabeth paused for nothing, being so hopelessly affected by the unfortunate ways of her family.
Mr. Bennet added insult to injury. “Mr. Darcy may not approve of you pursuing him, Lizzy, and meddling in his affairs!”
“Papa,” Elizabeth seethed, not thinking that her father would disregard her feelings, “the man is my affair.”
“Very well, Lizzy,” Mr. Bennet stopped and watched his daughter go, with Bingley doing the same behind him. “You are on your own, daughter. Your mother and I shall not smooth this over for you!”
Elizabeth moaned at the possibility of such an occurrence, and she strode back toward Netherfield, her skirts waving wildly with every long and fervent step that she took in vexation. She preferred the solitude to be had in walking than having to sit in the confines of a hot and stuffy carriage and suffer the astonishment of her sister and brother, and their consoling suppositions that Mr. Darcy was certainly to be found in good health. Yet, when Elizabeth passed by Longbourn church, she thought it prudent to step inside, and say a small prayer and perhaps consult Reverend Goodwin as to how a cherished marriage in the eyes of the Church might all go amiss.
“My dear Mrs. Darcy,” Reverend Goodwin was happy to see one of his favorite parishioners.
“Reverend, please—please call me Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth,” he pleasantly sighed. “How do you do my dear? I am just come back to see that the place is secure, before retiring for the evening.”
Elizabeth sniffled and pursed her lips to keep from sobbing out of exasperation. “I will not keep you,” she did her best not to alarm the Reverend.
“Why are you not with your husband, my dear?” the good Reverend inquired. He reached out his benevolent hands to Elizabeth’s cheeks. “You are well, though I believe even with these tired old eyes, I can see that your cheeks are flushed from the effects of this dreadful weather, and your own eyes are red.”
“I am indeed looking for my husband,” Elizabeth admitted. “I have not seen him this whole day Reverend, and he has left the company of his friends without their knowledge.”
“Your Mr. Darcy was here today, my dear.”
“Here? But, why?”
“Perhaps he was looking for some answers Elizabeth—other than that, our conversation was a private one and I shall not betray his confidence.”
“I would not wish you to, Reverend Goodwin—it is simply that I am worried about him.”
Reverend Goodwin shook his head and gently patted Elizabeth’s cheeks, the comfort of his touch serving to calm her spirits. “Not to fret, my dear,” he told her simply. “Your husband is a good man and no ill will come to him.”
“He is indeed a good man, Reverend,” Elizabeth managed to smile. “He is indeed.”
Darcy had returned to Netherfield to find that no one else was to be found at home, and in a manner of speaking, he was grateful for the solitude. He had a matter of pressing business to attend to, and after setting his horse in the capable hands of a stable boy; he hurried into the drawing room, opened the escritoire, and pulled out a sheet of paper. Darcy sat down and began to pen a short missive, coming to the point of the matter quite frankly for he had few things to hide from the recipient of the correspondence; and when he was finished he sealed it, and called for Bingley’s man.
He instructed the servant to have a trusted boy take it into Meryton, and have it sent by express, straight away to London. The urgency with which the gentleman gave his instructions, and the incentive of the silver crown, a fee for the express and an excessive gratuity that Mr. Darcy so eagerly placed within the hand of Bingley’s man, made the good servant believe that the gentleman’s business was indeed critical. Within minutes a stable boy was mounted on horseback, heading swiftly for the peaceful village of Meryton.
Darcy felt a little better having sent the missive, for some things were more easily borne when a man had the support and honorable advice of a trustworthy ally. The turmoil within his mind made it necessary to seek the counsel of those wiser than he in such situations, for he truly did not know what it was that he would do concerning Mr. Pritchard and that villain’s attempts at foul coercion.
A house servant passed Darcy in the hallway, and Darcy thought it best to make a request of the man and have hot water and tub brought up to his dressing chamber. One could always hope to wash away the wickedness of the world by a mere bath; and although he would feel better for having done so, Darcy was sure that it would only be a temporary remedy.
At the foot of the grand stairway sat Bingley’s lap dog. Its minute body recoiled as if it was ready to pounce, preventing Darcy’s posh boots from entering its Master’s domain. The little beast growled at the tall gentleman as Darcy tried to make his way past.
Darcy in his cross mood looked down at it and hissed, “Be off with you, or you will be squashed like a bug!”
The young dog was overcome by the gentleman’s gruff voice and harsh words, and its disposition changed hastily from vicious to docile. It sat back on its tiny haunches, and cocked its head up at Darcy, whimpering in a pitiful melody, a canine plea for mercy.
“Oh bother it all,” Darcy grumbled, for on this day it seemed as though he had managed to make enemies wherever he went, and offend the meek more times than he cared to count; and he was beginning to take it all very personally.
Darcy sat down on the stairway and reached out a hand to scoop up the tiny cur. He held the dog out before him, wisely at first over the floor rather than over any part of himself.
“You will mind your manners?” Darcy inquired aloud of the pup as it dangled before his sight, and he took his other hand and swept back the fur from the dog’s tiny face in an attempt to make out the curious placement of its eyes. It whimpered softly, and Darcy took that as an answer to his question, deeming it relatively safe to place his trust in the small beast.
“There now,” Darcy soothingly spoke as he tucked the ball of fur within the crook of his arm. He stroked the softness of the animal’s coat with his fingertips, and the tiny mutt let out an enormous sigh for its size. “I suppose someone must pay you some heed,” Darcy sighed as well. “Why keep a lap dog if you are simply going to pay it no attention?”
On the expansive steps the two sat peacefully—a proud oak of a man and an infinitesimal best friend, if only for a few precious moments. It was quite a picture of absurdity and a touching display of compassion by man and by beast, and although not one to be repeated often, Darcy did derive some comfort from his newfound companion.
Before he put the dog back down on the floor, he brushed back the fur upon its head once again, as if that would improve the tiny animal’s hearing. “It is as hot as a kitchen hearth outside my friend,” Darcy soughed out a pitiable caveat to the cur, “but hear me well—it is a true fact that this is a cold, cruel world.”