The Oak and the Ash

Chapter 7

Elizabeth tapped on the painted door of her father’s study. She had done this often as a girl; a gesture of confidentiality between father and daughter to announce that Elizabeth was in need of Mr. Bennet’s good company and advice.
Mr. Bennet answered her call by hastily opening the door, and Elizabeth slipped inside the room, indeed thankful to have such a caring rapport with her father. His gentle nature gave her comfort that at least she was to have a somewhat easy conversation with someone residing at Longbourn—and perhaps he might make her laugh as well.
At once the father observed his daughter’s melancholy, for although Elizabeth did well to conceal any wretchedness she might have felt over the last few days, the worry line upon her pretty brow betrayed her feelings. Her father was not an ignorant or selfish man when it came to his daughter’s well-being, and so he squired her to a chair and inquired of his dearest girl’s circumstances by professing a fatherly observation.

“There is no joy in you, my Lizzy. What can I offer as a remedy?”

Elizabeth plunked herself into the chair and heaved a pronounced sigh. Her fingers twisted round a wayward lock of her hair as she contemplated things she knew and things she did not.

“Papa,” she finally said, “what do you truly know of this curate, Mr. Pritchard?”

Mr. Bennet cringed for he had not considered the curate to have anything to do with Elizabeth’s troubles. “Not much at all, my dear, nor am I likely to want to know any more than I do, for he may take that as an invitation of a more familiar acquaintance. Your mother still has two daughters at home you know, and to my good fortune she has not asked me to pay a call on this fellow, yet.”

His reply made Elizabeth laugh for his sport; however the worried crease above her brow remained. “Do you believe my husband may have a point; that more should have been known about Mr. Pritchard’s past before his appointment here?”

“Darcy?” her father questioned with a guffaw. “My Dear, I cannot understand his purpose for such questions at breakfast this morning on the subject. As far as I know these two men have no connection—and frankly, I am determined not to think of it any further.”

“Oh Papa,” Elizabeth had cause to cry out, “I can do nothing but think of it, for I know Mr. Darcy well enough. In this instance, he would not pry in the affairs of others short of a very good reason. I find his curiosity in the matter more than peculiar; I find it unsettling. What if Mr. Pritchard is not so harmless a fellow?”

“Pish posh, Lizzy, what could he possibly do to cause Darcy any concern?”

“I cannot say, but Mr. Darcy seems to have some suspicions about the man, and to own a confidence between us, my husband now forbids me to go near Longbourn church. To what wicked end do you think he would prohibit his wife to visit a church?”

“I have not the foggiest notion, my dear.” Mr. Bennet appeared annoyed; his eyes glowering above the spectacles slid low upon his nose, “Your husband forbids you your freedom, does he?”

Mr. Bennet still held a harsh opinion of Darcy, and Elizabeth was sorry for it and quickly yearned to dispel the notion. “He has been nothing but good to me, Papa. It is only in this instance that he has chosen to make such a demand. That is why I find his manner so—so confusing.”

“Daughter,” Mr. Bennet chuckled at what he considered to be the dullness of a woman in love, “Tis not unlike your young man to behave coldly upon first impressions. Are you so besotted with the fellow that you have forgotten this fact?”

“Oh, but it is unlike him,” Elizabeth countered in fairness. “Mr. Darcy is detached to be sure in the company of strangers; but he is not so steely in nature, he is not so cold a man, unless he has formed an acquaintance and is desperate to see it dissolved. My husband’s principles forbid him the display of pointless duplicity when his facts are assuredly correct, and I for one have come to believe that we could all dispense with needless pretense more often than not.”

“And your theory for all of this unusual conduct?”

“I have none,” a sigh escaped her lips. “Every behavior Mr. Darcy has had since being in Hertfordshire is so very distressing, yet I wonder if it has to do with the book.”

Book? What book?” her father asked, and Elizabeth, undone by the recollections of her own impudence, informed Mr. Bennet of her girlhood prank.

The effect of the story on Mr. Bennet was far different than it had been on Darcy. The elder gentleman laughed excessively at the antics of his spirited daughter, said that he thought it a very good joke, and asked her why she had never told him of it before.

“I am ashamed of myself, Papa,” Elizabeth declared. “It was a childish thing to do, and I believe the information of it has hurt my husband’s feelings greatly.”

“How should it, Lizzy?” was Mr. Bennet’s retort. “Is he that squeamish—can the man not see the humor in the playfulness of a girl?”

Elizabeth was unwilling to admit to her father that her husband possessed diffident wit. That was simply not the case, although such an august man as Mr. Darcy did plainly not share in most of what was found to be comical to as unvarying a country gentleman as Mr. Bennet.

In thorough distress for her situation, Elizabeth uttered, “What if he has fallen out of love. What if he finds me tedious, and ridiculous?”

Mr. Bennet ceased his laughter to skeptically eye his favorite daughter. “Is that what you think, my dear—that your Mr. Darcy is no longer in love with you?”

“I have considered the possibility.”

“Now that is laughable,” her father soughed aloud incredulously, to ease Elizabeth’s mind. “My child, people do fall in and out of love for I can attest to the truth of it; but I could not believe it of Darcy. I cannot believe it of a young man who yearned so violently to marry a girl as Mr. Darcy did want to marry you. Not such a man who was bent on applying for the woman’s hand twice in one year.”

Elizabeth was surprised by her father’s report. “And how did you come by the information that Mr. Darcy did make me an offer more than once?”

“When the man came to ask for my consent to the marriage, believe me he made no ordinary application, my dear. I have never known as proud a man to take quite a turn to the humble, unless he was truly struck in love, Lizzy.”

Elizabeth blushed, for she would always think with adoring partiality on Darcy’s unshakable resolve to have her as his wife. Yet, she had wondered in the past few days whether or not he could still love her so faithfully, and ardently as he had before they married; before they had come back to Hertfordshire.

Not every man did love his wife with such constancy as Mr. Darcy had seemed to want to love Elizabeth; yet Elizabeth was not so daft a woman to fail to realize how faithless some men could be when the novelty of newly-wedded bliss began to wear thin. Perhaps such men could even invent reasons to leave their wives in the country to pursue their own vices with the temptations of such a place as Town. Elizabeth’s unproven suspicions of her husband’s odd behavior only served to fuel her angst.

“That was then, Papa,” she had to admit. “For just a few days ago Mr. Darcy’s countenance did wholly change.”

“Elizabeth, you have been married a few months. Men do not lose interest in a woman in merely half a year! Trust me, dear—it takes a little longer. Unlike your mother, you must give our sex some credit for having a span of attention greater than that of a common gnat.”

“He was so very upset by the name in that book,” she countered, “and he did go to Longbourn church to see it for himself, and when I asked him why such a name would hurt him, he absolutely refused to say and we had such a row.”

“Pray, what name did you give this invention of a lover, Lizzy?” her father was curious.

“I do not recall,” she spoke in all honesty.

It was all too much to bear, and Elizabeth’s voice faded to a sob. Mr. Bennet was bewildered, and indeed grieved to see his dearest daughter so troubled.

“Lizzy,” Mr. Bennet groaned, “with all that had been said throughout Hertfordshire to give me cause to dislike Darcy, I simply cannot abide with the talk—I find I like him very much. I accept your assurances that he is not a tyrant. I would think your love and devotion for him proof enough that he is a good man. Go to the church, my dear, and see what was written in this book.”

“I will not,” Elizabeth, to her credit was the steadfast and excellent wife Darcy had hoped her to be. “I promised him that I would not.”

Mr. Bennet was impressed by his daughter’s faithfulness to her husband. “Well Lizzy,” he spoke with his own resolve, “I made no promise not to go to the church.”

“Will you go and find the book, Papa—and bring it here to me?” she dried her tears with a pretty handkerchief she had pulled from her sleeve. “I must know what it was that now gives us pain.”

Mr. Bennet smiled for any brief happiness he could bestow upon his beloved daughter. “I will my dear—at once.”

“Darcy!” Colonel Fitzwilliam exclaimed on seeing his cousin within the drawing room of his family’s fine house in Town. The Colonel surveyed his cousin closer, and swiftly pointed to a chair. “Sit down, man—you look frightful.”

“I rode from Longbourn directly here in the midday sun—I would not recommend it,” Darcy said, and obligingly took a seat.

The house of Darcy’s maternal relations was an extraordinary place. Where Number Seven Wilton Crescent was elegant and suitable to such superior taste as Fitzwilliam Darcy afforded for living quarters of which he only frequented a few months out of every year, his uncle’s house in Grosvenor Square was an exhibition in privilege, the sort only bestowed on nobility.

The house itself was purposed for balls and parties, reverie and merrymaking to amuse the peerage and the political. Its outer façade was hewn of Palladian stone, the structure bearing a grand and covered entry with kews and livery yards aplenty. Within, the house ceilings were sculpted and gilded, the floors geometrically parqueted, and blues, reds, and greens damasked the walls in between, a different color for each and every room. Only the finest portraits and landscapes embellished the lines of grand hallways. The furniture was ornate rococo and the grand dining room outfitted with oriental-influenced Staffordshire china and shining silver accoutrements.

Darcy’s uncle was an Earl; and so Darcy’s cousin Edward would be, upon succession. Edward was a fine figure of a man; fair in color, tall and well built, though his countenance could be called hardheaded and difficult. Edward was not as handsome as Darcy, or as fine of feature as his brother, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, though Edward did not discredit what it was to be a superior man, by any means.

As assuredly as his house was intended to be a centerpiece of superiority, Edward was as well; a man born and bred for exhibition in society. His clothing was as stylish as could be for his day, though he strayed away from the most ridiculous and gaudy fashions of a dandy, much to the relief of his brother and cousin.

Edward’s manners had not been intended for foppery; although those manners had indeed improved from his boyhood. He could be bawdy, and at times impetuous and rough around the edges. His father, the Earl, had always glibly supposed that Edward was put on earth to be the ruin of the Fitzwilliam family simply by opening his mouth to utter a single syllable.

Edward Fitzwilliam had barely a care of what others did think of him per say. He was his own man, and not even his elegant and difficult wife could change him for her notion of the better. The marriage had been arranged; a marriage for the purpose of respectability; though not of love. Edward rarely ever listened to his wife on any subject, and he delighted in the fact that he could elude her notice for a whole day on end simply by reading the newspaper in a Covent Garden coffee house.

Edward loved his brother, the Colonel, however; as he adored and respected his cousin Darcy, and though it did not outwardly seem likely, he would do anything within his influence for the sake of either one of those gentlemen.

Edward entered the drawing room upon hearing his brother’s voice. “To whom are you speaking, Richard—yourself? Is that the best company you can muster in London?” he chuckled and then gave a start. “What the devil are you doing here, Darcy?”

Darcy tried to moisten away the dust from his parched lips so that he was able to speak some sense. The Colonel poured a glass of scotch for his cousin, who indeed was very grateful for the kindness once it was handed his way.

“You are fortunate that you found us at home,” Edward stared down at Darcy, and then glanced subtly toward the Colonel. “Another day and we would have made for Scotland.”

“I am sorry,” Darcy managed to reply breathily. “I will not keep you from your pleasure.”

“Nonsense, Darcy,” the good Colonel reassured. “You know better than to pay any heed to Edward. The man knows nothing; for our travels to the country can wait.”

The elder Fitzwilliam groaned, though he then grinned at the sport of the repartee, and added, “I should have it be known that on some subjects I am an authority.”

“You must need to return to your regiment, Fitzwilliam.”

“Have you not heard, Darcy?” Edward chuckled. “Our father has seen to it that Wellesley does find a place for my brother here at Horse Guards.”

“I am reduced to the occupation of a pencil pusher,” the Colonel grumbled. “It is awkward at best for my reputation.”

“Being at Horse Guards will allow you to cultivate a reputation, Brother,” Edward snorted, then reflected their father’s concern, “Tis wiser you remain here than take up a position at the Front.”

“I believe it was a scheme, Edward—so that I should find myself a wife to satisfy our parent’s notions of how my life should be greatly improved,” the Colonel added with scrupulous humor. “Darcy’s marriage has ruined it for us all.”

“He needs to find himself a proper wife, eh cousin?” Edward shrugged off his brother’s grievances. “His life is far too simple the way he has it now.”

Darcy sighed; for at any other time he would have been happy to include himself in the conversation, and tease his cousin.

“Did you receive my express, Darcy?”

Darcy nodded to the affirmative. “I did receive the message that you sent, and I am obliged to you both; but I was compelled to come to London immediately, though I truly do not know why, now that I am here.”

Darcy’s miserable appearance, not to mention his vague indecision, astonished Edward and the Colonel. Colonel Fitzwilliam had done what Darcy had asked him of him in a letter sent from Netherfield. Darcy had asked the Colonel to make inquiries as to census records.

“As far as our information affords,” the Colonel said, “there simply is no person by the name you describe under the age of eighty and above the age of five. There is no record of anyone of gentle breeding in all of England, unless he is the most common of blackguards.”

“Elizabeth would not have been so imprudent as to choose a blackguard.”

What?” the Colonel was dumbfounded.

Blackguard,” Edward repeated with authority, as though his brother was hard of hearing.

Darcy took the opportunity to explain the circumstances of his misery to his cousins. Both men were astounded to hear of such a tale, though Edward said that he was not at all surprised that there were such scoundrels in Britain as the likes of this curate to pray upon an unfortunate happenstance.

Edward had made inquiries of his contacts near Lincoln into the character of Mr. Pritchard and had received such a scathing recount of the man from former parishioners and employers as to make it plain that the fellow was not to be trusted, nor should he hold a position of any sort in a house of worship. This missive he had forwarded on to Hertfordshire and Darcy; and this had been the letter which Darcy had received just that morning.

“I was not surprised to read it,” Darcy divulged. “This man demands everything from me—everything that in good conscience I cannot give.”

“What is to be done?” asked the Colonel.

Darcy, uncommon to his character, shook his head in desperation, and answered, “I am at a loss.”

It was silent for a time as each man contemplated the predicament. Colonel Fitzwilliam and his brother had nothing further to offer Darcy, and so they both stood quietly observing their cousin.

“Precisely, why are you here, Darcy?” Edward finally broke the silence; a thought occurring to him. “If you cannot in good conscience separate your man from the living at Kympton in favor of the demands of this wretched curate, then there is only one other thing to do.”

“I will not detach a good man from the living—even if I could.” Darcy looked up at Edward. “But I cannot allow this villain to ruin the good reputation of my wife.”

“The reputation of your wife, or yours?” Edward was so bold as to ask.

“Both; her reputation is now a reflection of my own,” Darcy’s brows knit together. “There are problematic feelings in this family concerning my marriage. You know that as well as anyone.”

The elder Fitzwilliam brother chuckled. “Ill feelings on the part of Lady Catherine and her daughter? Pay them no mind.”

“That is easier said than done.”

Edward deliberated his thoughts aloud; “I think you find discomfort in the antics of your wife, Darcy.”

Darcy had no reply; though he glowered at his cousin; and Edward knew he had struck a nerve.

“I like Elizabeth, Darcy,” Edward continued. “From what I know of her, she has a good wit, and most of all, she has the proper nerve. You do not give Elizabeth enough credit for refusing to bend to the demands of our Aunt Catherine. We would all be better off if we were able to speak our minds as easily as your wife. I suspect she does not even bend to your will, Darcy.”

“That would be true,” Darcy moaned.

“The embarrassment of this affair will last a season at best for there is no solid evidence of a body to match with this name written in the marriage register; unless this lover were to somehow show his face and claim his rights. And then what? An annulment to a marriage of six or seven months? No one would scarce place any culpability on you.”

Darcy was sickened, and it showed on every feature of his face. He stood up and approached Edward; “I will never part from Elizabeth,” he said through a sniffle of disgust and rage brought on by the mere suggestion.

Edward was adamant in his censure; “Then call this what it is—claptrap. If you are looking for instruction on behaving as a man, Darcy, then the best that I have to offer is to tell you to go back to Hertfordshire and make amends for your weakness in leaving your wife so abruptly. Then tell this wicked curate that you are not of a mind to give credence to any sort of blackmail.”

Not many people could reproach Fitzwilliam Darcy in such a way; besides Elizabeth only Darcy’s cousins were allowed the indulgence. Colonel Fitzwilliam rarely delighted at Darcy’s discomfort, but he did this day.

Although the Fitzwilliam family had a reputation for conducting themselves with fairly good conduct, the Darcy family had a stauncher outlook on the matter. Being a product of both relations, young cousin Darcy had been doomed to live his life chained to the stresses of good regulation. The Colonel believed it high time Darcy learned to relax his expectations of himself, and the expectations he placed on others; and realize that indeed all men possess human frailties which at times cannot be helped.

Colonel Fitzwilliam went to the doorway and called for the footman. “Show Mr. Darcy to his room,” he said, not inquiring as to whether Darcy would be staying the night. “Make sure his horse is put up in the kews.”

Darcy bowed; willing to accept the hospitality of his cousins for his own house would not be open and staffed. He was keenly mindful of what Edward tried to convey in so hard a lesson. Instead of being embarrassed for what people might happen to think of Elizabeth for her girlish prank; Darcy should be mortified for allowing his imagination to best his sensibilities.

The Colonel put a hand to his cousin’s shoulder, a show of affection and understanding. “Darcy, love and expectation often mix about as well as oil and water. If you are to love Elizabeth, do so for what she has to give to you alone; not for how you would wish her to be to satisfy your relatives.”

Before he followed the footman from the room, Darcy stopped and tipped his chin in acknowledgement of Edward, in humbled indebtedness for his counsel, harsh or not.

Colonel Fitzwilliam looked to his brother when Darcy had gone. “That was necessary, though somewhat cruel, Brother,” he said.

Edward sat in a comfortable chair and grasped a handful of hazelnuts from a sterling compote on a side table. He popped a couple into his mouth and chewed them halfway.

“Do you think he can be persuaded to let go that last bit of pride?”

“Perhaps,” the Colonel had to admit, “In this instance a little humility is the only remedy.”

Edward grinned; satisfied. “As a member of this family there are some accomplishments to which I can lay claim—and I have always fancied bringing about a little humility in this family.”

“Lizzy!” Mr. Bennet called for his daughter the moment he stepped into his house. He had gone to the church and had brought the Reverend Goodwin back to Longbourn.

Elizabeth peered from around the corner of her father’s library and waved to the gentlemen. Upon seeing her they both scurried down the hallway and Mr. Bennet shut the study door firmly behind.

“My dear,” he said breathlessly. “The book is not to be found.”

“There is no book?” she was confused.

“Indeed there is a book, my child,” Reverend Goodwin took her trembling hands into his own. “I would believe that the book has been taken; for I know that I had asked Mr. Pritchard to locate it for your husband just yesterday, and your husband did acknowledge to me that he had seen it with his own eyes. Are you sure that Mr. Darcy does not have it in his possession?”

“I would think not Reverend. For what purpose would he want it in his custody? Besides, I know in my heart that Mr. Darcy would never be a party to stealing property not his own.”

“I am inclined to believe you dear,” the good Reverend nodded.

“Lizzy,” Mr. Bennet said, for once in his life determined; “we are to write directly to this parish from whence came the curate. Hand me a sheet of paper!”

“Come in,” Darcy said at hearing the sound of a knock on his bedchamber door. He had been staring out the window, looking down at Grosvenor Street below, and he turned in time to see his cousin the Colonel step inside the room.

“Edward wishes to know if you care to accompany him,” Colonel Fitzwilliam sighed, his hands clasped behind his back. “He is to go to Pero’s bathhouse for a swim, as he prefers to call the activity.”

Darcy raised a contemptuous brow, though he grinned at the impropriety of his elder cousin. “Thank you, but no,” he said.

“He says it will take your mind away from your troubles.”

“To be sure,” Darcy was sarcastic, “though somehow following one shameful performance with one far worse would be unbefitting of my character—but you go, Fitzwilliam. I am content to remain in this room for the evening.”

“No, cousin,” the Colonel chuckled, “I can well do without that sort of society; however much I am now expected to fit into Edward’s world.”

“He is a scoundrel,” Darcy rolled his eyes.

“He is,” Colonel Fitzwilliam agreed. “And he would be the first to tell you so. He does, however, care for you Darcy, and he greatly envies what you have.”

“What I have?”

“Your marriage—what love and respect we all know is shared between you and Elizabeth. His own marriage is not so happy; such a union never is, when the choice is forced upon you.”

The Colonel stepped to the doorway and caught the attention of a passing servant, instructing the man to tell Edward that he and Darcy were to remain at home.

“Do you mind if I talk with you for a while?”

“Not at all,” Darcy smiled and he offered up a chair to his cousin.

Both men sat down, though the conversation that continued afterward was thin. “So,” Darcy sighed, “you are situated here in Town.”

The Colonel nodded to the affirmative. “The Earl and my mother think it unlikely that I would find a suitable wife on campaign in Spain—and I should tend to agree. I am furloughed for a part of the summer and it seems I will be going to Aberfeld with Edward and his wife. My parents are living there by now and they are to present me to the eligible daughters of some of their friends; so I was told; and so also I was instructed by my father to make my choice. Things are quite black and white with His Lordship, as you know, although I find keeping up appearances to suit him to be quite a taxing thing, Darcy.”

Smiling empathetically at the predicaments of his favorite cousin, Darcy had to agree. “It was always a fine thing to do in the summer,” he sighed at the recollection, “Spending time in Scotland.”

“Indeed, we always found pleasure there, cousin—did we not?”

Darcy nodded and grinned; the dimples in his cheeks plainly fixed and a glimmer of cheerfulness showing in his eyes for the memories of his childhood, and on growing into manhood.

Colonel Fitzwilliam leaned forward in his chair, to suggest of Darcy, “Why not bring Elizabeth to Scotland. You are welcome at any time. Come; take her away from all of this nonsense.”

Darcy anxiously ran his hand through his hair. “It is tempting, Fitzwilliam. Quite.”

“You could come to Aberfeld Park and then go back to Pemberley from there. This fellow will forget his threats and grow weary of such a game, and you will never hear a word from him again.”

“Perhaps,” Darcy agreed, but then pointed out the adverse, “but what am I to do from then if he does not go away—never show my face henceforth in London, and forbid Elizabeth from ever seeing her parents and Hertfordshire again? What is to keep him from hurting someone else, Fitzwilliam?”

“Must that be your concern, Darcy?”

“Yes,” Darcy did retort with certainty. “For the things I choose to ignore always come back to haunt me, cousin. Edward is correct; I have not managed this at all as I should,” he continued. Darcy had lived the last few days feeling wholly alone. Old emotions came back to torture him—feelings that Darcy had possessed so often before there was Elizabeth, those feelings that he had hoped never to experience again.

“It is hot and I am tired, and I have such anger within me, cousin. That it was a time I could see this curate’s head on a pike on London Bridge—I would wish it so, and not feel guilty.”

“That is ungentlemanly, Darcy.”

“I suppose it is,” Darcy replied, “but tell me what you are feeling on the day someone endeavors to hurt your family; your wife. This person has caused me to question my choices, and for that I am truly ashamed. I left Elizabeth; and I came to London because I could not manage things to my satisfaction.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam grew troubled. “You cannot expect to know everything on your own, Darcy. You are a new husband. I cannot say that I would have done things differently. There is no shame in you coming here, and I, myself, would have turned to my family for guidance.”

Darcy agreed, but spoke bitterly of himself. “Elizabeth deserved an explanation. One that I denied her when I left.”

“Go back to her, Darcy.”

Darcy took in a breath. “Fitzwilliam, I wanted to go back the moment that I arrived here this afternoon. All I want is to hold Elizabeth in my arms and sleep the whole night through in comfort and peace.”

“Tomorrow morning we will make another inquiry before you leave for Hertfordshire, though I know it will be fruitless.”

Darcy speculated in a whisper, “I cannot believe Elizabeth may well have loved another man.”

“There is no other man, living or dead,” Colonel Fitzwilliam assured his cousin. “The man whose name is written in that ledger is simply a fiction of a young and mischievous girl, dreamt of long ago when she was but a child; you, Darcy, are the only man for Elizabeth.”

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