"It cannot be!"
Elizabeth Bennet smoothed the letter in her hands trying to wrap her mind around the truth. That she should have received such a letter was in itself completely implausible, and the contents of said letter were beyond belief. In attempt to grasp reality from what was surely a bizzarre dream, Lizzy reread the letter.
Miss Elizabeth Bennet,
I beg you to forgive me the impertinence of writing you this letter when we have not yet been introduced. You must believe that I would not address you in such a forward manner if circumstances did not necessitate such actions. Knowing my brother's very high regard and admiration for you, I cannot believe you will be terribly offended.
And now I must broach the reason for my writing. Several days ago my brother became ill. I do not know how suddenly the illness came upon him, for by the time I was aware of it, the illness was already quite severe. He has a dreadful fever which Dr. Winters has been unable to lessen, and bleeding has not helped. I am loath to write the words, as writing them makes them seem more true, but I must. Dr. Winters believes it very likely that my brother will not survive this fever.
I am sorry to present such distressing news. In his fever, my brother has called out for you often. When I asked the doctor how I could help my brother, his suggestion was that I should bring you here. I do not know if your presence will help, but Dr. Winters seems to think it might.
If at all possible please come. I am sending a carriage to collect you as well as my companion that she might accompany you back to London. I have also written to your father, requesting permission for you to come.
Your humble servant,
After rereading the letter, Lizzy shook her head and tried to make sense of it. Mr. Darcy admires me? So much so that he would tell his sister? And he is gravely ill? Dying? He wants me to come to him? Does is truly want me or is Georgiana mistaken? Do I want to go?
Lizzy thought through the whole situation as best she could. Although she believed Mr. Darcy was a proud and disagreeable man, she could not help but feel compassion for him. Moreover, she saw that Miss Darcy was clearly distraught to have written such a letter. Lizzy doubted her presence would make any difference; still, she felt that she must go. It is a very hard thing indeed to refuse comfort to a dying man.
Having thus resolved, Lizzy approached her father, who having already read his own letter, was looking at her with confused anticipation.
"Well, daughter, I do not know what to make of this missive? Here I thought Mr. Darcy only ever looked at a woman to find a blemish, but Miss Darcy seems to believe he is in love with you." In love? "I thought you strongly disliked the man, Lizzy? Miss Darcy obviously has a different impression if she believes you will rush to her brother's bedside." Her father was correct, of course, and yet Lizzy felt that she must go to Mr. Darcy. Her father would never allow to rush to the bedside of a man she disliked fervently. Thus, Mr. Bennet must be led to believe that his impression was mistaken. Lizzy would not lie to her father, she would simply manipulate the truth a little.
"So all those times Mr. Darcy was watching me and attending my conversations, you believed he was looking for faults?" This was what Lizzy herself had believed, of course, though as she stated it the idea seemed absurd.
"He looked at you? Did he give some other indication of his regard?"
"Well -" Lizzie had to think quickly, "There were all the times he asked me to dance. Mr. Darcy danced with no one else outside of the Netherfield party." She paused a moment and blushed, remembering Mr. Darcy's comment s as he watched Lizzy and Caroline walking. Then she remembered his comment about ladies improving their minds with extensive reading. Had that been a compliment too? "He complimented me other times, too?"
"And now I suppose you are going to tell me that you, too are in love? Does the gentleman have qualities beyond being proud and disagreeable?"
"Oh Papa! No I will not claim I am in love with Mr. Darcy. I will also not deny that he is a proud man."
"I sense a however?"
"However, Mr. Darcy has a fine mind; he is very intelligent. He is also -" Lizzy sighed here for dramatic effect, "The most handsome man I ever saw."
"Even more so than Mr. Wickham?" Lizzy looked down at her feet. Was she betraying her friendship with Mr. Wickham; after all, Mr. Darcy had treated that gentleman abominably.
Mr. Bennet saw Lizzy's embarrassment and created his own interpretation, "I see how it is. Perhaps you thought your friendship with Wickham would stir jealousy in Mr. Darcy's heart? No doubt you succeeded there." Lizzy thought about her dance with Mr. Darcy and their argument about Mr. Wickham; her cheeks one again turned crimson, which her father interpreted as confirmation of his suppositions.
"I had not thought you the sort to trifle with a man's heart, Lizzy? Admittedly, I am relieved that you were not so taken in by Mr. Wickham's ridiculous tale of woe."
"So you do not believe Mr. Darcy denied Mr. Wickham the living?"
"I do not know either man well enough to discern the details, my dear. Nevertheless, Mr. Wickham's attempts to make Mr. Darcy into the veriest villain are clearly absurd. Especially since he claims he will never expose Mr. Darcy due to his respect for that man's father." Lizzy pondered the matter. The first seed of doubt was placed in her heart regarding Mr. Wickham. She was honestly thankful for that doubt; it reassured her that she was not completely foolish to be answering Miss Darcy's summons.
"So, you will allow me to go?"
"Yes, my Lizzy, you may go to your Mr. Darcy. I hope for your sake that the doctor is wrong about his prospects. You do realize, I hope, that if your young man survives, your going to him will be reason enough for him to expect a favorable answer to his proposals." Lizzy nodded meekly. Was she making the right choice? Still she could scarcely credit Mr. Darcy's preference for her, and she could not possibly believe he would ask for her hand.
"I had best begin packing. I do not know how soon this carriage will arrive."
"Go along. I shall be in my book room. I do not think I was ever more surprised than when I learned of the author of our early morning express. Now I shall be prepared for anything."
Thus, Lizzy retreated to her room and hastily packed her trunk, not knowing how long to pack or what she might need. She hardly knew which dresses she flung into her trunk; it wouldn't likely matter what she wore. Nonetheless, before closing the trunk, Lizzy did grab her finest evening gown and place it inside. In some sense, it was a gesture of hope, for she certainly would not need such a gown unless Mr. Darcy recovered completely. Admittedly, Lizzy did wonder at herself and the implication of including such an item –that she might desire to appear her best for Mr. Darcy's sake.
Just as Lizzy was about to close her trunk, a light tapping was heard at her door.
"Enter." Lizzy expected one of her sisters, but it was Mrs. Hill, Longbourn's longtime housekeeper, who entered.
"Miss Lizzy, I understand you are going to see Mr. Darcy today?" Lizzy blushed.
"I offered a meal and some tea to his man, who delivered the message for you."
"Thank you." Lizzy was confused. To offer refreshments to an express rider was only common courtesy; why was Hill informing her of such actions.
"I spoke with the man while he ate. He told me Mr. Darcy's got the grippe. Says the doctor doesn't know what to do. Well, I remembered when the grippe broke out here at Longbourn a few months back. Mrs. Jenson made that cream, you know the one that smelled like peppermint?" Lizzy nodded and Mrs. Hill continued, "Well it seemed to help a person breathe easier. So, well we still had some and I thought you might take it with you." Mrs. Hill held a jar out to Lizzy, who grasped it.
"Could you give me the recipe in case I want to make more?" Lizzy noticed there was not much left in the jar. Fortunately, Mrs. Hill had already anticipated such a request and handed her a sheet of parchment.
"I hope it helps. Mr. Darcy is a good man." Mrs. Hill paused, "I didn't know there was an attachment between the two of you. Your mama must not know it either or else all of Meryton would know. I truly hope all goes well. You know he was always very kind and generous with the servants. The staff at Netherfield say he treated them very well, indeed. And he made Miss Bingley treat them kindly, too. I daresay she'll be more than a bit displeased that you've been sent to him."
Lizzy was overwhelmed by Hill's speech. Mr. Darcy was kind and generous to the servants? This was news to her. Plus, she was unused to the assumed connection between herself and that gentleman, yet it was not untoward of Mrs. Hill to reach that conclusion given the circumstances. Lizzy would have to become accustomed to such a response.
Once Elizabeth's trunk was packed, she found there was little to do but pace back and forth and fret. She could not concentrate enough to read or embroider, and she dare not practice at the pianoforte so early in the morning. Except for her father and the servants, the household was still asleep, and she had no more desire to speak with her father as he might speak to her more about Mr. Darcy. Ages seemed to pass as Lizzy walked to and fro through Longbourn's halls.
Relief filled Lizzy when the time finally arrived for the Bennet family to break their fast. She was too filled with emotions to speak much, but simply being in the presence of conversation offered her some relief. At least it did until her family members noticed her unusually taciturn manner.
"Lizzy, are you ill?" her most beloved sister inquired.
"No, dear Jane. I am well."
"Lizzy's distracted because she's about to head off to London to see her Mr. Darcy." Mr. Bennet quipped in a teasing voice.
"What?" Shouted five voices simultaneously
"Father!" Lizzy spoke in the angriest tone Thomas Bennet had ever heard from his favorite daughter. He looked at her and suddenly felt ashamed, and when he spoke again it was not to rebuke her for her disrespectful tone.
"I am sorry Lizzy. I should not have teased you while the gentleman you love is at death's door." Lizzy did not reply to her father or to any of the inquiries which followed from her mother and sisters. Instead, she stared at her plate, while her father attempted an explanation. Lizzy scarcely knew what was spoken around her.
Thankfully, Lizzy's miserable breakfast was cut short when a genteel middle-aged woman was ushered into the breakfast parlor and announced as Mrs. Annesley.
"Mrs. Annesley, may I safely presume that you are Miss Darcy's companion sent to bring my Lizzy to London."
"Yes sir, I am here for Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"Lizzy, is ready to depart when you are, madam. Please promise me you will look after her well."
"Certainly, Mr. Bennet."
After many hugs, Lizzy followed Mrs. Annesley to a very fine carriage and her father lifted her in. Thomas Bennet knew then, that life at Longbourn would never be the same. Either Mr. Darcy would recover and Lizzy would marry and leave home, or Mr. Darcy would perish and Lizzy would come home full of grief with a broken heart. Mr. Bennet could not wish for either resolution; nor could he honestly imagine any other.
Once settled into the carriage Lizzy began a conversation with Mrs. Annesley; she truly wanted to interrogate the poor lady –about Mr. Darcy, his illness and his sister- but she resisted the urge and instead muddled through polite conversation.
"Was your trip from London this morning pleasant?"
"Oh yes. I met with no trouble. I cannot say that it was exciting as I slept most of the way."
"I cannot blame you. You must have arisen quite early."
"Indeed. But it was no trouble. I would certainly do much more Mr. Darcy if I could." Finally, Lizzy could turn the conversation to the subject which interested her."
"Have you worked for the Darcy's long then?"
"Only about three months."
"And how is it working for them?"
"It is a very good position. To be honest, I cannot compare it, for it is the only paid position I have ever taken. However, I have known the Darcys for many years, and I was most happy when Mr. Darcy offered for me to become his sister's companion."
"If you do not mind my asking, what was your previous acquaintance with the Darcy family?"
"My husband owned a farm near Pemberley. He always had a good relationship with the Darcys. After he passed on, though, I stayed on there with my stepson. I could have continued on there. I didn't need to take a position, but life with my stepson was not particularly easy. He didn't particularly want me there. Mr. Darcy somehow found out how things were, and since he was looked for a new companion he offered me the position."
"I confess to being somewhat surprised that you were a farmer's wife."
"You would expect Miss Darcy's companion to be a gentlewoman, no doubt? Her previous companion was. However, the Darcy's were much deceived in that woman's character. To Mr. Darcy character is paramount. He would rather have someone he knew of somewhat lower birth."
"I am sure it speaks very well of you that Mr. Darcy approves your character. I know he is fastidious."
"It certainly is a compliment."
"I have heard a great deal about Miss Darcy and her accomplishments. I confess myself to be somewhat nervous about meeting her. She is such a paragon, from what I hear, that she must be disappointed in me."
"Oh I would not worry if were you Miss Bennet. It is true that Miss Darcy is very accomplished, and I do not doubt her brother believes her to be perfection, but in truth she is a rather timid young lady. She is both shy and sweet and I am sure she will like you very much. Her brother's opinion of you, too, is enough to ensure her approbation. She practically worships Mr. Darcy." Lizzy knew not what to reply; she did not wish to tell Mrs. Annesley that Mr. Darcy was not her source of information on Miss Darcy and she certainly did not wish to admit that she was not at all certain of the gentleman's regard for herself.
Taking Miss Bennet's prolonged silence as a need for further reassurance, Mrs. Annesley continued, "At the moment, Mr. Darcy's health is Miss Darcy's foremost concern. However, I imagine she also very much concerned that you will find her lacking and will not approve. She is truly taking a risk in sending for you without having made your acquaintance. It shows her deep love for her brother."
"Mr. Darcy is certainly devoted to his sister. I cannot imagine he would bestow favor on someone who would disapprove of her."
"Nor can I imagine he would bestow favor upon a young lady whom Miss Darcy might disapprove. She believes this also. It is what gave her the courage to write. A genuine affection for her brother is all that Miss Darcy cares to see in the woman he chooses." Lizzy realized that Mrs. Annesley's remarks could be taken as a warning as well as reassurance. Miss Darcy would not be pleased if Elizabeth was insincere in her care for Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth determined that she would be sincere and would not show more affection than she felt; she questioned herself –not for the first time- was her decision to come to London this morning a wise one? Surely, Miss Darcy would quickly realize she had made a grave error in sending the summons to Longbourn. Still, when Lizzy thought of Mr. Darcy feverish and calling for her, she did not feel she could have made any other choice.
"I have not wanted to pry too much, Mrs. Annesley, but I wonder if you know any more details of Mr. Darcy's illness. Miss Darcy's note offered few specifics. The gentleman who delivered the express did mention the grippe."
"I have not been given a great many details about Mr. Darcy's condition. As I am sure you know, he is a very private man and does not like for his business to be widely known. However, I can tell you that his fever has been alarmingly high these three days now, and such a fever is generally expected to decrease in less than two. I can also tell you that the day before he was known to be ill, he was out riding his horse in the rain."
"Oh dear. I cannot imagine Mr. Darcy being ill very often."
"No indeed." Lizzy asked Mrs. Annesley a few more basic questions, but soon found that Mrs. Annesley was giving her rather short answers, mostly monosyllabic ones in fact. Initially, Lizzy thought she had offended the lady, but then gave her travelling companion a closer look.
"Mrs. Annesley, you look exhausted. Please pardon me for making you speak so much. You must need your rest." Mrs. Annesley, who was normally an avid conversationalist, said nothing merely nodding her assent. Within minutes she was fast asleep, leaving Elizabeth alone to her thoughts as they rolled on toward London.
By the time they reached town, Lizzy noticed that Mrs. Annesley's cheeks were quite flushed. When Lizzy wakened her as they reached their destination, she saw that lady's eyes were glassy as well. Reflexively, she leaned over and placed her hand on Mrs. Annesley's forehead.
"Excuse me, madam, but I believe you are quite feverish." Mrs. Annesley quietly agreed.
Elizabeth barely noticed the house she was entering, as her attention was focused on the ailing companion when she entered the Darcy residence. However, she would never forget the warm greeting she received shortly after entering the door. A young lady with fair skin and blonde curls whom Lizzy correctly presumed was Miss Darcy, flung her arms around Lizzy, and then broke away to blush.
"Oh Miss Bennet, pardon me. But I am oh so glad you are come at last!"
"Oh." Lizzy said trying to regain some compusure after the startling greeting, "How does Mr. Darcy do?"
"It is in every way terrible Miss Bennet, but I will tell you more once we are upstairs. Shall I lead you upstairs now."
"Certainly, but first please have someone see to Mrs. Annesley's needs, she seems to have become quite ill." Miss Darcy quickly turned to the nearest footman, and issued instructions for him to find a maid to care for her companion. Then she grasped Lizzy's hands and led her quickly up the stairs.
Before she realized what had happened, Lizzy found herself standing in the master's chambers looking upon the unconcious figure of Fitzwilliam Darcy.