Chapter 35It was to Alex Clifton's credit that, after making discreet inquiries as to Geoffrey's whereabouts, he was able to secure him an excellent situation in Yorkshire, a distance far enough from Hertfordshire to ensure that the young man would no longer be subject to his father's fury or present a continuing temptation to Alex himself. Geoffrey remained in Yorkshire two years, then grew restless and left, leaving no word as to his destination. Alex hoped, rather than believed, that Geoffrey would be able to find some sort of personal happiness. They were of the same breed, he and Geoffrey, and Alex knew happiness for their kind was at best fleeting and always elusive.
Alex was true to his resolve to be more of a husband to Caroline. The very night that Geoffrey left, he went to Caroline's bedchamber, where, fortified with a combination of spirits and fanciful thought, he was able to complete the act of love with her once more. In the darkness she would never be Caroline, but always Charles. It was in the light of day that his pain became unbearable, because he would never know the joys of everyday life with his beloved. To even contemplate the possibility of two men living together openly as loving companions was ludicrous beyond belief! Such an arrangement could never be countenanced, as it was an affront to the laws of both God and society.
So Alex was forced to relegate even his fantasies of Charles Bingley to the exclusive realm of sexuality. It was his deepest, most cherished secret, let loose only in the dark of night, and put firmly back in its place when morning had broken.
The Christmas season at Pemberley was joyous and magical. Elizabeth and Darcy could not help but think of their own babe, due in less than three months, as they celebrated the birth of the Christ Child.
Their lovemaking was as frequent as ever, if somewhat more awkward due to Elizabeth's ever-increasing size. Afterwards, Darcy would most often lie awake, his heart so filled with anticipation that he could not sleep. He resisted the impulse to awaken his wife just so he could hear the sound of her voice. Darcy had always been a worrier, and concern for Elizabeth's well-being and that of their unborn child occupied his thoughts constantly. Life had never been so perfect, and he still feared that at any moment, it might all disappear. His mother's health, he remembered, had deteriorated when she bore Georgiana, and soon after, she was gone forever. He could not bear such grief again.
These were thoughts he would never share with Elizabeth. Her own mother had given birth five times, in rapid succession, her only travail that none of the resultant offspring were male! It was most likely, he reassured himself, that Elizabeth had inherited her mother's capacity for easy delivery and rapid recovery. (And, most fortunately, had not inherited her mother's silliness and easily frazzled nerves!)
On Christmas Eve, Darcy sat at the head of the long dining table at Pemberley, looking down its length at all those dearest to him. Elizabeth sat to his right, her hand resting on his knee, Georgiana to his left. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mary, Kitty and Lydia sat on one side of the table, Charles and Jane Bingley and Alex and Caroline Clifton on the other. Jane held little Charles in her lap.
Next Christmas, Darcy thought proudly, with the grace of God, my own little daughter will be in my arms. He remained utterly convinced that the baby would be a girl, and that she would resemble Elizabeth.
As dinner was served and cups of punch were raised to toast the occasion, Darcy could not help but steal a glance at Alex and Caroline. He had been most pleased at Alex's announcement of their expected child, believing it would give his friend purpose. Caroline seemed happier now, he thought, than before she married. Perhaps expectant motherhood had softened her? Alex, he noted, stoically avoided any private contact with Charles Bingley, and he admired him for it. Alex's secret was one which Darcy would never reveal to anyone, not even Elizabeth, to whom he confided everything else.
Elizabeth tired easily these days, and Darcy politely excused himself to his guests before ten so that he and Elizabeth might retire for the evening. Elizabeth chided him, insisting he should remain in the parlour with his guests, but he steadfastly refused.
"Really, Lizzy," he whispered as they mounted the stairs. "Did you think I would allow my wife to sleep alone on Christmas Eve?"
She smiled, remembering that now legendary night in Hertfordshire when he had arrived at Longbourn to "collect his wife." Since that evening, they had shared a bed each and every night.
Elizabeth sighed and wrapped her arms around Darcy's waist as they reached the top of the stairs. She looked up at him, happy tears in her eyes.
"Thank you, Fitzwilliam."
"Being so insistent."
He bent down to kiss her, then carefully lifted her into his arms.
"Off to bed with you now, little mama," he said.
Elizabeth had no need for her maid that Christmas Eve, as it was her husband who carefully removed her soft burgundy velvet dress and chemise. He lay her gently down on the bed, a down pillow cushioning her head, then knelt at her feet to remove her slippers and roll down her stockings, as she was quite incapable of bending forward to do so herself.
"So beautiful," he whispered, spreading her legs apart to kiss the insides of her knees, then working his way up the soft flesh of her thighs. His hands stroking her swollen belly, wherein lay his unborn child, he pleasured her with slow strokes of his tongue until she called out his name, begging to have him inside her.
"Not yet, Lizzy, not yet. The taste of you is too sweet," he responded, putting his tongue to work with renewed enthusiasm. When finally he spread her nether lips with his thumbs and slid his tongue inside her, Elizabeth reached down to place her hands on his shoulders, desperately trying to pull him atop her.
Lizzy, not like that," he said, standing and placing another
pillow under her bottom, then lifting her legs up and around his
waist. He quickly let down the fall of his breeches and thrust into
her, taking care to keep the bulk of his weight off her. He was so
aroused, and Elizabeth so warm and tight around him, that he could
not hold back. She had already been at the edge when he entered her,
and easily took her pleasure along with him.
It was a cold night and Darcy stoked the fire before undressing and getting into bed next to Elizabeth. He kissed his wife and then, as had become his custom, he placed his lips on her belly and kissed his daughter.
"She kicked me!" he exclaimed, as he settled Elizabeth into his arms to sleep.
"Is it any wonder, Sir? You insisted you were taking me upstairs to rest, and rest, it seems, was the last thing on your mind!"
"Will you ever stop teasing me, Lizzy?"
"Never! Do you want me to stop?"
He grinned in the darkness.
On Christmas morning, Elizabeth awakened with a start at half past eight o-clock, an hour later than was customary for her. Darcy had already arisen, and he stood across the room, looking out the window. Elizabeth, feeling chilled, sat up and pulled the coverlet tightly around herself, admiring her husband's manly form, displayed most becomingly in his deep blue jacquard dressing gown.
Darcy sensed her eyes upon his back and turned around, a faraway expression in his eyes.
He quickly recovered himself from his reverie and said "Happy Christmas, my love."
Elizabeth extended her arms to him.
"Come! Why do you look so somber on this joyous day, Fitzwilliam?" she asked.
He hesitated. How well his wife knew his moods!
"I was recalling Christmas last," he replied, "so far from home. A most unhappy time in my life. I thought...I thought I had lost everything."
He sat on the bed next to Elizabeth, and she put her arms around him.
She smiled and kissed him. Sometimes he worried her so, recalling the past with such melancholy.
"You must learn to adopt some of my philosophy, William. Think only of the past as it gives you pleasure."
"There was no pleasure then, Elizabeth. None at all."
"None at all, you say. Hmm...let us see. With whom did you spend Christmas Day last year, Fitzwilliam?"
"With Georgiana, as you are well aware."
"And you took no pleasure in her company?"
"I...of course I did. You know how fond I am of my sister! We were in Rome, both of us keenly missing our traditional English Christmas, but the Italians make quite an occasion of it, and..."
He stopped speaking abruptly at her triumphant smile.
"There!" she said. "You have recalled something of last Christmas with pleasure, have you not?"
"I see," he said, somewhat disgruntled. "You have made your point."
She began to laugh.
"And now you are laughing at me!" he exclaimed, but Elizabeth noted the beginnings of a smile on his lips, try as he might to suppress it.
"I adore you, Fitzwilliam. I am with you this Christmas, as I will be every Christmas hereafter. And when we go downstairs to breakfast and you are witness to the particular kind of chaos that accompanies a Christmas celebrated by the Bennets, you may well long for the relative peace and solitude of last year!"
"I think not, Lizzy. I might well long for a Christmas celebrated with none other, save my wife! But alone? Never!"
"We are at leisure to celebrate alone now, William. For a short time, at least," she said, reclining seductively on the pillow.
"Whatever is your meaning, Elizabeth?" he asked innocently, but he began to untie the sash of his dressing gown as he spoke.
"Come under the coverlet with me and I will show you," she answered. Darcy obeyed unquestioningly.
The beautiful vision of his beloved wife astride him, her body soft and pink and ripe with impending motherhood, touched something deep inside him. His eyes closed, Darcy surrendered to her desire, accepting the precious gift his Elizabeth offered him this blessed Christmas morning.
Caroline Clifton shook her husband awake.
"Alex! Alex, let us dress and go downstairs. I am famished!"
Alex awakened reluctantly. He had been having a most pleasant dream and had not wanted it to end.
"Happy Christmas, Caroline," he said, remembering the day. He waited for his wife to exit the bed first so that he might wrap his dressing gown around himself before she noticed the state of arousal occasioned by his dream.
He rummaged in his trunk to find the box containing Caroline's Christmas present.
"Caroline," he asked suspiciously. "Were you searching in my trunk? This box is most definitely not where I placed it last night."
Caroline, now half
dressed, blushed in a manner that was almost endearing.
"Yes, Alex, I confess I was. I know it was rather childish, but I was worried that perhaps...well, I do have something for you, and I did not want to present it to you unless you had something for me."
"What is your meaning, Caroline?"
"Never mind, Alex. I am fully aware that ours is not the sort of marriage that lends itself to sentimental expression."
Alex was stricken at the implication.
"Caroline," he said slowly. "Did you truly believe I would not have a Christmas present for my wife?"
She would not look at him.
"I was unsure, that is all."
He put his hand under her chin, forcing her to meet his eyes.
"Caroline, whatever my shortcomings as a husband, and I know there are many, be assured I will always treat you with respect and give you everything that is your due as my wife."
She nodded. Everything except your heart, she thought.
He leaned down and softly kissed her lips, then handed her the velvet box.
"Might I assume you already know what is inside?" he asked drily.
"Well, yes," she admitted with a slight smile. "And they are lovely," she said, taking the strand of lustrous pearls from the box.
"May I?" he asked, taking them from her hand and standing behind her to fasten them around her neck. On impulse, because she seemed so uncharacteristically vulnerable this morning, he kissed the back of her neck when he was done.
And perhaps because he felt an unfamiliar tenderness for her, or because it was Christmas morning, or because he had not yet fully recovered from the physical effects of his dream...or perhaps because of a combination of all these circumstances, Alex Clifton was able to make love to his wife Caroline face to face, and for the first time, the spectre of Charles Bingley was nowhere to be found in their bedchamber.
Annabelle Elizabeth Darcy was born in March, precisely nine months after her parents' marriage, and Robert Charles Clifton in mid-April, less than eight months after Alex and Caroline's September wedding. Some eyebrows were raised at the timing of the birth and Charles Bingley briefly contemplated questioning his brother-in-law about it, but was dissuaded by Jane, who rightly pointed out that his sister was well married with all claims to respectability. Most importantly, Caroline appeared content with her situation in life. She occupied herself with her estate and her son, and if her marriage lacked something in passion, there grew a degree of respect and companionship between herself and Alex that was agreeable to both. That is not to say that their marriage was sexless, but Caroline always sensed that Alex's thoughts, except on rare occasions, were somewhere else when his physical self was united with her own. She wisely chose to ignore it, a fortunate circumstance, as the truth would have been impossible for her to comprehend. Alex's deep, abiding love for Charles Bingley lasted until the end of his days, but he never again allowed that love to exceed the bonds of propriety and masculine friendship. As he grew older and his sexual needs became less urgent, he grew more content with Caroline and with his life in general. Charles was his dearest friend; Caroline his wife, with whom he found fault less and less as the years passed. If perhaps they not could love each other as completely as a husband and wife should, they could bestow their love unconditionally on their children, and each receive it back, in a roundabout manner, from the other through those children. It was not perfect, but it was enough for them, and they were content with it.
It was because of his marriage, Alex Clifton reasoned, that he was able to find true happiness finally in his role as a father. For that, at least, he would always be grateful to Caroline. At long last he was able to love two other people, not only deeply, but openly, with society's approbation. Caroline, to the surprise of all, was a devoted, if rather skittish, mother. It was Alex who was the calming influence, Alex to whom little Robert, and later Clarissa, came for comfort for a skinned knee or bad dreams. Alex was gentle, patient and kind, and as his children grew older, always listened to them closely and counselled them wisely.
And perhaps most poignantly, having been forced to conceal his true nature for all his life, he always encouraged them to pursue their fondest dreams and please themselves before all others. The result of this encouragement was that both Robert and Clarissa, while respectable and all that was good and admired, were free thinkers and, in some ways, non-conformists. Clarissa, in addition to marrying and bearing three children, became a writer of no small renown in literary circles and Robert a noted reformer in the House of Commons, and Alex was prodigiously proud of both of them. It was of great comfort to him that something wonderful had been made possible by his own denial of his most basic nature, even though it was often at the cost of his personal happiness. If in some ways he found vicarious fulfillment through the achievements of his children, it was far preferable to the lonely and dangerous life he might have led otherwise.
Such was the fate that befell Geoffrey King, his former lover. He had left Yorkshire for London, where he met an untimely end after a confrontation with a group of sailors. Large quantities of spirits were consumed, and accusations of deviant behaviour were made and vehemently denied. Despite those denials, Geoffrey was found early next morning in the narrow alley behind a tavern in a disreputable section of London, beaten to death. He was but 25 years old. When Alex heard of his death, he retired to his library, closed the door, and sobbed soundlessly into his folded arms.
There but for the grace of God goeth I. May the Lord
have mercy on his
Little Annabelle Darcy, a mirror image of her mother, was the light of her papa's life. Perhaps because of the circumstances surrounding her conception, she was an avid horsewoman, riding fearlessly from the age of 3. The Darcy family grew rapidly, Annabelle being followed by twin brothers Bennet and Benjamin Darcy, then two sisters and a brother. Georgiana Darcy married a sea captain, Martin Prentice, and after ten years of marriage bore her only child, a daughter, Anne. The Prentice family spent as much time at Pemberley as they did at their own home in Kent, because Anne was happiest when in the company of her Darcy cousins.
Jane and Charles Bingley had five sons, the youngest, Thomas, born when little Charles was ten. They were five tow-headed angels, all as even tempered and as fair of face as their parents. They had their scrapes, of course, as boys do, but in general, Netherfield was calmer and quieter than one would expect of a house that held five growing boys!
The Darcy children, in contrast, were a rollicking group, despite their father's reserved demeanour. Like their mother, they were excellent walkers...or, more accurately, runners...and their footsteps echoed throughout the halls of Pemberley. That elegant estate, once so placid and pristinely clean, was filled with childish laughter and strewn with toys and muddy riding boots until the old housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, threatened to thrash the lot of them. She loved them all as dearly as she did their father and Aunt Georgiana, and they knew her threats were empty ones, but they obeyed her nonetheless. When the children were old enough to understand, their grandfather delighted in telling them the story of the night their serious papa had ridden from Aunt Jane's house at Netherfield to Longbourn to "collect their mama." It was one of those stories that seemed to grow in detail and outlandishness each time it was told! Darcy was tolerant of his aging father-in-law's mischievious nature and, ever practical, he soon learned to utilize the time his unwieldy brood was thus occupied to steal an hour's interlude in his bedchamber with his wife. It was, in fact, as the result of one of those interludes that the seventh and final Darcy child, another son, was born, on Darcy's forty-ninth birthday. Annabelle was then 19 and engaged to be married to John (Jack) Fitzwilliam, son of Darcy's cousin Richard.
Robert Clifton was married at the age of 30 to a woman some eight years younger than himself. His wife was not conventionally beautiful, but she had a presence and demeanour that attracted attention wherever she went. She was highly intelligent, outspoken (sometimes to a fault!) and good-hearted, all qualities that served her well as she worked tirelessly alongside her husband for social reform. Her kind nature and sense of whimsy made her an excellent mother to their four children and there was a mischievious sparkle in her warm brown eyes that never dimmed, even as she grew older.
Her maiden name had been Frances Jane Darcy, and she was the fifth of seven children born to Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy of Pemberley.
And so finally, through her grandchildren, Caroline Bingley Clifton had that elusive Darcy connection!