Elizabeth sighed over her book, and wished yet again that the saloon was not so near to the music room that the sounds from within could still be heard. She supposed herself ungrateful for thinking such a thing, for the sound emanating from that room was the reason for Pemberley's no longer being exposed to the screams of Bess Bingley, and that the sound was produced by others was the only reason Elizabeth herself could even be in this room instead.
The sound was the melody to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," which had been hummed by poor Mrs. Padgett as one of the few things that seemed to calm Bess, and then painfully transcribed to pianoforte by Elizabeth. Hummed, it offered the baby some comfort, but on the pianoforte, it utterly captivated her, even when played quite poorly.
It was played quite poorly with great frequency, for Elizabeth had – recognising its simplicity – made it the first piece that Jane, Charles, Sarah, and Mrs. Padgett were to learn on the pianoforte. This freed her from the need to be called urgently into the music room every time Bess fussed, so that she could play and calm the baby. Yet it meant she was subjected instead to that same song on an ongoing basis.
Based on the current style, Elizabeth assumed it to be Sarah doing the playing, for it spoke of some attempt at refinement and proficiency, rather than the plodding, hesitant searching of notes that characterised both of the Bingleys. Elizabeth knew that it would be at least several more days more before her husband returned to Pemberley with Mary, but she hoped they would arrive as soon as possible. Sarah, at the least, would soon require new music and more instruction, and although Elizabeth had initially instructed her own sister, she suspected Mary would take some measure of enjoyment in being applied to as a teacher, and thus have more patience for it than Elizabeth did.
As well, Mary's arrival would also mean the return of Darcy, and Elizabeth missed him deeply. She had written him – a tender letter that contained little in the way of news, aside from the fact that the pianoforte continued to placate the baby, and that she had been instructing the new music pupils. His contained more, although much of it mundane. He had concluded his business at both Hoares and Drummonds, and thoroughly reviewed all of the accounts at their London house. Some of their acquaintances had by now returned to town for the little season, and he had called on Lord Anglesey, Lady Tonbridge, and the Gardiners. With all of these things completed, he was ready to depart for Longbourn, and although Elizabeth appreciated all of the news contained within, it was the sentiments that followed which filled her with both love and longing.
Sarah's rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" had ceased, and Elizabeth decided to take her book to the music room, which was now the most popular room in the house. In that space, Jane was sitting quietly, with little Bess sleeping in her arms, and Sarah had already left the room. Elizabeth realised there must be some degree of awkwardness for Sarah, to be playing an instrument in a room where she was not invited to spend her leisure hours, and that if Sarah continued to be as dedicated a pupil as she was now, some accommodation should be made for her in the staff rooms.
As though Mrs. Reynolds had been reading her thoughts, Pemberley's housekeeper appeared in the door to the music room, curtseying, and, upon noting the sleeping infant, making her way over to where Elizabeth sat with very soft steps, and handing over a letter.
"There's a letter come from Miss – Lady Stanton," she whispered. "I thought you should like it at once."
"Indeed, thank you, Mrs. Reynolds."
Mrs. Reynolds looked as though she wished to wait for the opening of the letter, to learn whatever news it might contain – Georgiana was well-loved among Pemberley's staff, particularly its housekeeper, and Mrs. Reynolds had not been very enthusiastic about the idea of the young lady's leaving home and eventually setting up a household of her own. Recollecting herself, however, Mrs. Reynolds made her curtsey to leave, but Elizabeth stopped her.
"Wait, Mrs. Reynolds – I had wanted to ask. Is there a pianoforte, down in the staff rooms?"
"There was, ma'am. My predecessor, Mrs. Woburn, liked to play very much. But none of us plays now – excepting Sarah, I suppose, now that she is learning. It's been moved into storage, these ten years or so."
"Do you think it might be brought out, and tuned and repaired, if repairs are needed? I should like for Sarah to have an instrument more convenient for her to practise on, in addition to her assisting us with Bess, up here."
"Of course, ma'am. I shall have it brought out, and send for the tuner in Derby. Should you like me to have the pianoforte in the state rooms tuned as well? The music room and blue drawing room were just done."
"Oh, yes, I suppose so. Thank you for thinking of it, Mrs. Reynolds," Elizabeth said, by way of covering that she had entirely forgotten there was a pianoforte in the state rooms.
The state rooms were not something Elizabeth – or anyone else in the house, excepting the maids who cleaned them once a week – gave much thought to. They had been converted over from other spaces by Darcy's great-grandfather when the house was completed, under the hopes by that man of someday hosting the royal family. Such a visit had never occurred, nor was there any likelihood of it, unless there was some falling-out of significance between that family and the Cavendishes, which would preclude their staying at Chatsworth, and so the state rooms sat generally empty but for two purposes. The first was to provide those who applied to see the house with spaces which could be viewed when the family was in residence, and the second was to house any nobility who came to stay with them. Thankfully, the apartments had two bedrooms which could be entered entirely separately, otherwise Elizabeth was not certain what she would have done for her last house party, with two earls in residence; even determining precedence for dinner had required a quick look at Debrett's.
Once Mrs. Reynolds had left, Elizabeth turned to Jane and gave her a silent smile, for she had hardly greeted her sister upon entering the room. Jane now finally wore the smile that should be expected of her, that of a most kind-hearted mother to a baby who was not constantly terrorising the whole house. Jane was also as understanding as ever, and encouraged Elizabeth to read her letter, and share whatever news Georgiana should have.
Elizabeth thought it odd, upon looking at the letter, that it was addressed to both her and Darcy, for Georgiana usually wrote them independently, as they each preferred observations on different aspects of Georgiana's travels, although certainly knowing that all the news of her letters should be shared between them. It was also rather thin for a letter from Georgiana. With curiosity and a little concern, she read:
"My Dear Brother and Sister,
"I hope I do not alarm you by writing to both of you together, but I have news which should not be delayed. Mr. Wickham is alive – Matthew and I encountered him while shopping today."
Elizabeth gasped, thankfully not waking Bess, but it was a sound which could not go without some manner of explanation to Jane.
"She writes that Wickham is alive – they have apparently seen him."
"Oh my – what does she say? Was he badly injured, in the battle?"
Elizabeth was hesitant to read the letter aloud before she had read it herself, for anything Georgiana should write to her about George Wickham would by its nature be sensitive. Jane knew already the full history of Wickham's wrongdoings, but anything that dealt with Georgiana's feelings upon seeing him again, and was addressed only to her and Darcy, must be kept private. Therefore, Elizabeth paused briefly to summarise for Jane, as she continued to read:
"He was very surprised to see us, and I believe if he could have avoided us, he would have. Matthew was not shy about pointing out to him that Lydia was in mourning, and he said that he had been trying to decide whether to send word to her that he lived or not, but I do not think he ever had serious intent of doing so.
"He did not receive any injuries in the Battle at Waterloo. It seems instead that he decided to fall as his comrades were falling, and pretend at being dead for the course of the battle. When it was over – I hate to think of this, but I shall tell you of it – Matthew indicated that he had robbed the dead of their purses, and Mr. Wickham did not deny that he had done so, which I can only take as an admission that he did, for he was dressed very fine, and gave no evidence of having any other source of income. Even if he did not do this, there can be no doubt that he is a deserter, having left the army following the battle and then making no attempt to reestablish contact.
"I hate to be the bearer of this news, although it will release your sister from her period of mourning. I suspect that you would agree with me in thinking it might have been better for her had he been truly dead, and you must know that it weighs heavily on my mind that I narrowly escaped the fate which she now faces.
"Aside from that, however, seeing him again has not injured me in any way. I am merely glad once again at my brother's intervention, and that I find myself in a far happier marriage. Matthew and I are both well, and I expect we shall not see Mr. Wickham again.
"I hope this letter also finds you well, and that little Elizabeth is by now doing better. Please give the Bingleys my best wishes.
"Your loving sister,
Jane did not seem to mind that Elizabeth read the last few lines of the letter silently, so shocked was she by that which had come before.
"I can hardly believe it," Jane said. "There must be some misunderstanding. Perhaps they did not fully comprehend him, and he has been trying to make his way to Lydia, and is not truly a deserter."
"Oh, Jane, I wish for Lydia's sake that you were right, but I do not think so. Lydia and the Fitzwilliams spent a great deal of time searching for Mr. Wickham, after the battle. If he had wished to be found, he might have been found then, and if not, he has had ample time to make his situation known to her. Georgiana indicated he was well-dressed – certainly he could have spared a little money out of what he devoted to his wardrobe to send word to her. Georgiana has no difficulty in getting letters to us."
"But Georgiana is with the official delegation."
"Indeed, she is. And perhaps I would feel more lenient towards Wickham if he had asked for her assistance in sending a letter to Lydia. But he did not, and I assume he will not. Jane, we must face that our sister shall – for as long as he lives – remain trapped in a marriage with a man who has no intention of supporting her, or even living in the same country as her."
"Poor Lydia! Will you write to papa with this news?"
"No. Lydia is a married woman, and perhaps if we treat her as an adult, she shall act more like one," Elizabeth said, hoping this was true, although not entirely sure that it was. Certainly Lydia had been quieter, since going into mourning. "I shall write to her directly with it."
"But what if she decides to go join him in Paris?"
Elizabeth could not imagine doing so; if she had been in Lydia's place, she would have been furious. Yet Jane did have a point – Lydia might very well give Wickham the benefit of the doubt, as Jane had initially, and decide to go to him in Paris, just as she had followed him to the Netherlands when war had once again broken out.
"She might do so. At least if she does, Georgiana and Matthew are there. Perhaps her presence would convince Wickham to act more honourably, although it would mean we might not see much of her again, if Georgiana is correct that he cannot return to England."
"Oh Lizzy, I cannot imagine having to make such a choice."
"And you will not have to, because you did not elope with such a man," Elizabeth said.
Jane had not even once held a tendre for him, as Elizabeth had, she could not help but think, with a rush of shame. She had been taken in every bit as much as Georgiana by his lies, although the lies he told her were of a different nature, and had, for a time, helped to poison her mind against the man she now loved with all her heart.
"I hope you will be more sympathetic in your letter than that, Lizzy, or you should let me write it."
It was very tempting, to allow Jane to bear the burden of giving the news. Jane would likely be more kind in doing so, but also much less firm in indicating that Wickham had done wrong, and with Lydia receiving the letter, that firmness would be of utmost importance. Still, Jane's admonishment was a goodly reminder to be sympathetic, while also being firm.
"I will, I promise, Jane. I had better do so now."
Elizabeth considered writing Darcy, as well, whom she knew would want to know as soon as possible. In addition to his longstanding enmity with Wickham, that Georgiana had been the one to discover him alive would be quite troubling to him. Elizabeth was glad that Georgiana had given her reassurances at not being injured by seeing him, and that she had written so in her own careful hand.
Perhaps it was better, though, that Darcy be able to see this for himself, and given he and Mary had likely already departed for Pemberley, or would well before even an express reached Longbourn, she would have to wait to inform him in person. For now, however, she had a most unfortunate letter to write.
The letter was written, and even given over to Jane for review, before it was sent into Lambton with a servant the day following, so that it could be posted. That servant returned with not one but two letters from Lady Harrison, formerly Caroline Bingley, one addressed to Jane, and the other to Charles.
There was not time for these letters to be read before dinner, but they were brought out following it, while Elizabeth was taking her turn on the pianoforte.
"Caroline writes that all is wonderful at Hilcote, and she is quite settled in as mistress of the house," Jane said. "She is planning to redecorate the drawing room first, in the style of Mr. Hope, and then the mistress's chambers. The rest of the house will follow."
"That is strange," Charles said. "She writes that her decorating budget will not cover a quarter of what needs to be done, and she is quite unhappy that Sir Sedgewick intends to put so much of her dowry into improvements on the estate, rather than the house. Oh – I suppose I was not meant to share all of that," he finished, his face falling.
"I do not know how Caroline would think you would not discuss it, at least with me," Jane said. "Will do you anything to intervene?"
"I do not think there is anything I can do," Charles said. "Sir Sedgewick is her husband now, and the marriage articles were fairly generous, as regarded her pin money. I expect Caroline wishes to make more changes to the house immediately than they can afford. She would have done the same at Netherfield, if she had continued on as mistress of the house. And I can hardly argue with his putting more of the money into improvements on the estate. If they improve its returns, it would ultimately be better for them both in the long-term."
"Still, I feel badly for her," Jane said. "She was so happy about moving there and setting up her household."
Elizabeth felt Caroline had been rather more happy about bragging to her acquaintances about how happy she was, instead of being truly happy. Still, like Jane, she could not help but feel a little sympathy towards Caroline, who had, perhaps concerned she was running out of opportunities as she grew older and neared the age where she would begin to lose her looks, married an ill-looking man without even seeing his estate.
Not too much sympathy, however. This was Caroline, after all, and Elizabeth suspected that the rooms at Hilcote were more than sufficient, and Caroline simply wished to show away by redecorating them all, instead of seeing the money spent more wisely. Caroline would favour furniture such as that in Elizabeth's overdone bedchamber, a final remnant of Lady Anne Darcy's more grandiose taste, although at least Lady Anne had been able to afford her own taste. Elizabeth thought again idly that she should begin her own redecoration of those rooms; perhaps she would make her start after the baby was born, for she was not in such a rush as Caroline seemed to be, perhaps because she spent more of her time in the master's bedchamber, anyway.
Online beta is now over for this story, and the remainder has now been removed in preparation for publication. Loyal, feedback-giving readers (you know who you are, I know who you are, and I appreciate you very much) may contact me for a review copy if they wish for one.
You can keep up with publication progress via Twitter (sophturner1805) and my blog (sophie-turner-acl DOT blogspot DOT com), as well as my writing progress on the third book in the series.
The first version of A Constant Love will remain posted online to give readers a chance to preview the series, however, they should be aware that it received substantial edits before publication.