With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms.
— Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 61
About halfway through December, Elizabeth had the dubious pleasure of meeting her nearest neighbours, Lord and Lady Cardwell of Shiringham. The former was a cipher; the latter could have given Lady Catherine lessons in dignified impertinence.
Elizabeth and Darcy vacillated between annoyance and amusement; Georgiana suffered no such indecision. Plainly, she was terrified of the disagreeable pair, and likely the rest of humanity into the bargain.
Elizabeth, preoccupied with her new husband and responsibilities, had not concerned herself much with her sister-in-law. She had been friendly and open, no more. However, Georgiana's perpetual timidity and anxiety could not but provoke concern, and a desire to do more for her.
'Come, Georgiana,' she said, as cheerfully as she could. 'We are sisters, and we have hardly spoken five words together.'
Georgiana, obedient as always, accepted her arm and walked beside her, but said nothing. Elizabeth wracked her mind for any subject which might set the girl at ease.
'My uncle and aunt could never settle on an age for the house,' she finally began, 'but of course, you would know.'
Georgiana flushed up, but answered readily enough, rattling off information so quickly that she almost tripped over her tongue. Clearly the tales of her family's past had been drummed into her head as thoroughly as into Darcy's, and just as clearly, she shared her brother's fascination with their past. For the first time, Georgiana's dark eyes shone with animation and feeling, as she talked of Sir Alain d'Arcy, a brave Norman who saved the Conqueror's life and received the Pemberley lands in return. Little but the chapel remained of that earlier manor — then she cut herself off.
'I hope not boring you,' she said penitently. 'I can get very dull when I talk about family history.'
Elizabeth gave her a warm smile. 'My dear Georgiana, Pemberley is my home now; your family is mine. Nothing could interest me more — except your brother, and on that subject I can get unbearably tedious, so let us return to Pemberley. The chapel is really that old?'
'Ye-es, though I think the extra wing was added later.' Georgiana shot her an uneasy glance, then squared her shoulders. 'We do not use it any more, it is so small and old, but I could show you, if you would like. Nobody has been there for years but I know where it is.'
Elizabeth assented eagerly; she had loved Pemberley from the first, and the chapel had already captured her imagination. Her pulse quickened as Georgiana, walking with an easy, graceful confidence more akin to her brother than herself, led her to the small dark room where the earliest masters and mistresses of Pemberley had knelt in prayer.
Plainly, it had not been used for that purpose in some time — she should have known, of course. They always attended the grand church in Kympton. Still, she was surprised to see the ancient place filled with what could only be called clutter: statues, piles of books, faded tapestries and literally dozens of covered paintings. Seven or eight were arranged in a suspiciously neat half-circle, leaning against assorted furnishings; the rest had been stacked here and there with little care.
Elizabeth stood in silence, the frail sunlight shining through a multicoloured glass window, said something to Georgiana. Then she asked,
'May I look at the paintings?'
'They are as much yours as mine,' said her sister-in-law, with a befuddled look, and wandered off.
Elizabeth took a deep breath, then reached out a curious hand to the nearest painting. She lifted the sheet, prepared for — she knew not what, and —
— and met the cold dark eyes of a younger, and somehow wearier, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Elizabeth could not keep back an astonished gasp, inadvertently drawing Georgiana's attention. The girl joined her, a small black blur in one hand, and her own eyes widened.
'Why,' she exclaimed, 'that is my mother!'
Elizabeth started. True, the languid, wistful demeanour had nothing of Lady Catherine about it, yet the resemblance to the woman's living sister was far greater than that she bore her younger self.
Then, she looked beyond the picture's enigmatic subject, to the boy standing behind her, his face dominated by a familiar pair of brilliant grey eyes. The arch of the brows, pallor of the skin, even the high slash of cheekbones, all but the expression of acute misery were unmistakably Darcy's.
Georgiana said, 'I thought all the other paintings had been destroyed, except Lord Ancaster's. Fitzwilliam said — '
Destroyed? thought Elizabeth, and remembered the Earl bringing his sisters' portrait as a peace offering. He had spoken, to be sure, as if it were the only one, and yet — 'He must not know,' she said, nor your mother's family.' She tore her eyes away from her youthful husband and found herself staring at the object in Georgiana's hands, a skinny black kitten.
Elizabeth instantly recalled Darcy and Fitzwilliam's tales of her husband's first true friend, a volatile feline he had rescued at the tender age of four. An involuntary smile crept across her face. 'Why — did you find that here?'
Georgiana lifted pleading eyes, as green as those of the creature in her hand. 'Yes, under one of the pews. He looks so hungry — do you think there is anything we can do for him? I'm sure it is not proper but I do not think Fitzwilliam will be angry — '
'Oh! he shan't be, I assure you,' replied Elizabeth, her mouth twitching, and whisked the girl away to her brother.
Darcy, of course, could not have been less angry; instead, he abandoned his estate business to take Georgiana, Elizabeth, and the kitten to the kitchens, where (to general amusement) he instructed his sister on the proper care and management of starving animals. Elizabeth stood a small distance away, watching them with a tenderness almost unknown among the sharp, fierce feelings which generally ruled her.
'You do not mind?' Georgiana whispered, lifting her head to gaze at her brother with a frank, unconditional faith Elizabeth could not imagine in any of her own younger sisters.
'Of course not,' said Darcy. His mouth twitched, then firmed, all mirth leaving his face. ''I will never disapprove of an act of kindness, my dear, provided that you consider the ramifications and carry it through to the end. Never leave such an endeavour half-done, however; it is better to do nothing at all than to raise hopes and then dash them, particularly when the recipient of such kindness has no other dependence than on your good will.'
'Yes, sir. What am I going to do, then?'
Elizabeth gazed at their heads bent together, dark hair falling over pale, earnest faces. They were not the same, not at all, but sometimes so very similar, for all the years and miles which had so often separated them. She could only smile at the sight.
My dear Lizzy,
I wish you joy. If you love Mr Darcy half so well as I do my dear Wickham, you must be very happy. It is a great comfort to have you so rich, and when you have nothing else to do, I hope you will think of us. I am sure Wickham would like a place at court very much, and I do not think we shall have quite money enough to live upon without some help. Any place would do, of about three or four hundred a-year; but however do not speak to Mr Darcy about it, if you would rather not.
Elizabeth sat very still, giving her tumbling thoughts enough time to slow into coherence, and re-read the note. Oh, it was so very Lydia, the tone and manner were perfectly hers. That admitted no doubt; it could only have come from Lydia's pen and Lydia's ambition. And yet —
And yet it was equally impossible not to see Wickham's mind and sentiments behind every word.
True, their income was hardly sufficient for a couple so heedless and extravagant as they; but Elizabeth was not so foolish as to think that any money she sent would be saved up for expenses. Of course not. At best, Lydia would buy a new bonnet or trinket before Wickham ever saw it — yet something must be done for her and, in time, for their children.
Instinctively, Elizabeth glanced at her husband. He sat with his usual tranquil intensity, legs stretched out and cheek resting against his hand as he read Self-Control, one of his sister's novels. On his face was a familiar expression of amused distaste.
He would know what to do, how to manage such an endeavour. He had done it often enough before. She bit back bitter resentment at the thought. Did it always come back to this, time after time? No wonder he so loathed Wickham; but she loathed him more.
Georgiana struck a dischordant note on her harp, and after a few moments' mutterings, turned to her brother.
'Try E,' he said absently, his eyes still fixed on the book.
The song began again, lilting and lovely, and this time continued unhindered.
For several moments, Elizabeth watched them, her husband and his sister, a sense of fierce protectiveness rushing through her veins. It was not an unfamiliar sensation, of course — someone had to watch over Jane — but it felt different from what had gone before. They were different; elegant, even sophisticated, but at the same time so peculiarly innocent. Tears sprang to Georgiana's eyes at the smallest, most insignificant kindnesses; and Darcy, worse still, seemed always so surprised that she should put herself to any trouble over him.
Wickham. How dare he?—how dare he impose himself, after all that he had done to them? And how could she bring this back to them? No; neither would endure another moment's pain for his sake, not if Elizabeth had anything to say about it. She would think of something, herself; some way to make him understand that Darcy would not be prevailed upon, never again.
She sat in a daze of thought, making plans and discarding them with equal rapidity, and only remembered to hide Lydia's note away with the arrival of a servant.
'Mr Gardiner, Mrs Gardiner, Master Gardiner, Miss Gardiner, Miss Amelia Gardiner, and Master John Gardiner,' he intoned, and at the sight of her family, Elizabeth sprang up, Darcy immediately behind her.
'My dear aunt!'
'Sir, madam — I hope your journey was pleasant . . .'
Elizabeth had never been so delighted to see them.
The next morning was bright and clear, so Elizabeth and Mrs Gardiner went out in the promised phaeton. The gentlemen were outside as well, but Mr Gardiner expropriated Darcy almost immediately, and with their wives' permission they left, talking of business and politics while Amelia trailed behind.
'You look very well, Lizzy,' said Mrs Gardiner. 'I can see that marriage becomes you.'
Elizabeth blushed and laughed. 'My marriage, perhaps. I never dreamed that it would be . . . what it is.'
'Of course not. How could you have known?'
It all crowded her mind, rubies and silk and strands of pearls — haughty servants, tedious accounts, disapproving relations — the lovely lane beneath the Spanish chestnuts, where she often wandered arm-in-arm with Caroline and Honoria — Georgiana's shy adoration . . . and, of course, there was Darcy. She thought of him matching his stride to hers as they walked together, his hand warm against her back — or meeting her gaze across the room, his fleeting smile expressive of all the understanding and shared amusement she searched for. That, somehow, was as dear to her as his lips against her hand, the quick flash of passion in his eyes and her own.
Elizabeth turned to Mrs Gardiner, crying impulsively, 'Oh, aunt, I am so happy!'
Mrs Gardiner studied her niece's radiant face, then smiled and touched her cheek. 'And I am very happy for you, Lizzy. Now, what have you been doing with yourself?'
'Oh, I hardly know where to begin.' Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth caught her aunt's faint shiver, and held out her enormous silver muff.
'Thank you, dear. It it very different from Longbourn?'
'Yes. No.' They both laughed. 'You know how it was; Papa managed nearly everything and Mama would not have let us within ten yards of the kitchen. I was never mistress of a house; this would all be much simpler if I had been, though rather less interesting.'
'I daresay you would have found something to pique your interest,' Mrs Gardiner said dryly. 'Pemberley is not Longbourn, after all.'
'No, not at all!—there were only eleven servants to remember, at home. I keep confusing the parlourmaids. Mrs Reynolds tries to help, but . . .' Elizabeth could not help smiling. 'Oh, I could not get along without her, but her memory!—she can remember what happened ten or twenty years ago, but not last week. If not for my Sarah, I should never discover most of what passes here; she brings me most of the gossip. If only she could manage my hair half so well!'
'Your hair looks lovely, Lizzy.'
Elizabeth fingered the strands about her neck. 'It is so dull and lank,' she said mournfully. 'It never stays curled for more than a half-hour, and Sarah — well, I am very fond of her, but I did not bring her for the sake of my appearance. She is improving, though, which is more than Roberts can claim; my friend Honoria's maid has been taking her in hand.'
'Mr Darcy's valet.' Elizabeth's mouth twitched. 'Oh, I should not laugh at the poor man. You see, he is about Mrs Reynolds' age, but he has been with the family much longer, and he is the most dreadfully condescending, self-important little man you can imagine. He positively worships the ground that my husband stalks on, and he makes it clear with every glance that I am a vastly unworthy successor to the Lady Anne . . . or rather, he tries to. He might be more successful were he not stone-blind.'
Mrs Gardiner's warm laughter rang out. 'Oh, Lizzy. Only you — and only he! The two of you are very well-matched, I think.'
Elizabeth smiled ruefully. 'Of course we are,' she said.
For awhile, they talked largely of inconsequential matters, Elizabeth interrupting her own conversation to point out particular beauties of the park. Mrs Gardiner observed it all with a sort of bemused delight.
Once, she looked towards Lambton and said,'I grew up a stone's throw from Pemberley, and I thought nothing in the world could be grander or more lovely. I never — '
Before she could finish the sentence, however, the last curve in the circuit brought them near the stream and Darcy, Mr Gardiner, and Amelia. Both women smiled at the sight of their husbands, Mr Gardiner speaking rapidly, full of energy and enthusiasm, his hands moving in quick dramatic patterns, Darcy leaning against a tree as he listened with grave interest, neither supercilious nor condescending, yet from the tilt of his head to the heel of his boots, every inch lord of the manor.
'Mama!' cried Amelia, and both men turned in some surprise, then immediately joined them, walking over to stand beside the phaeton.
'Well, Margaret,' said Mr Gardiner, 'you have finally been all around the park, so you may be happy now.'
'I hope, madam, that Pemberley has answered your expectations,' added Darcy, looking at Mrs Gardiner as if she were twenty years his senior instead of five.
'How could it not? You have carved yourself a very pretty piece of heaven, Mr Darcy.'
'Thank you, Mrs Gardiner,' he said, his eyes briefly lingering on the wood, 'but it is not to my credit.'
Elizabeth shot him an incredulous glance. 'If your relations are to be trusted, it is. Colonel Fitzwilliam told me that when he first returned here, he scarcely recognised it for Pemberley.'
'Well — ' he hesitated, colouring a little, then said, 'I daresay his partiality leads him to exaggerate.'
'Oh, that must be it, of course!' She shook her head and turned to her uncle. 'Perhaps you would care to join my aunt, sir? I did not mean to steal her for so long; and I really must walk. Aunt, you can take him through the north part of the wood.'
The Gardiners assented, so Elizabeth sprang out of the carriage with only a very little assistance from her husband.
'Resting still fatigues you, eh?' Mr Gardiner gave his niece an expressive smile, which Elizabeth cheerfully returned.
'I am afraid so, sir.'
'Amelia, let Mr Darcy help you into the phaeton,' said Mrs Gardiner.
Amelia gave the horses one frightened look and attached herself to Darcy's trouser leg.
'Oh,' Elizabeth said, taking Darcy's arm, 'we would be delighted to have her with us, aunt.'
'If you are certain she would not be an imposition . . .'
'Of course not,' said Darcy, favouring the little girl with a slight smile.
Amelia beamed and accepted Elizabeth's outstretched hand. 'Good-bye, Mama, good-bye, Papa!' she cried, and soon they were gone, Mr Gardiner's arm around his wife's shoulders.
'Would you care to explain that performance?' Darcy enquired in a low voice, shortening his strides to match Elizabeth's and Amelia's.
'I thought they might enjoy the scenery,' Elizabeth said innocently. 'They have very little opportunity for it in London, with so much to keep them at home, and the house is so small and — crowded.'
'The scenery,' he repeated. 'I see. The north wood, after all, may be an inconvenient distance from the house, but it is quite scenic.'
'That is exactly what I thought.' Their eyes met over their little cousin's head in a quick flash of understanding.
'Cousin Lizzy,' Amelia announced, 'are you really married to Mr Darcy?'
Elizabeth laughed. 'Yes, indeed! You may ask him yourself, if you do not believe me.'
'Amelia!' she cried, and the child scowled, turning her bewildered gaze from Elizabeth to Darcy.
'You are very nice,' she informed him, 'and I like you much better than Mr Wicked.'
Elizabeth made a peculiar gasping sound; Darcy said solemnly, 'I am honoured, Miss Gardiner.'
'But . . . but if it was me, I should not want to marry someone so much prettier than I was!'
Elizabeth and Darcy stared at her; then, unable to restrain themselves any longer, they both burst out laughing.
'I beg your pardon,' Darcy managed. 'I — I am very flattered.'
'You should have married Jane. Then you would still be my cousin — and Lizzy could have married Mr Bingley! After all, he is only so pretty as she is, so you would all match.'
Darcy looked both amused and slightly ill. 'Unfortunately for your aesthetic sensibilities, Miss Gardiner, people seldom marry to match.'
'Well, why do they, then? Why did you?'
'Er,' he said, and shot a glance at his wife. She only grinned. 'There are any number of reasons. We did so because . . . we wished to be together.'
'Oh. But why — '
Thankfully, Amelia's attention was then diverted by an intrepid squirrel, and for the next twenty minutes, the Darcys talked of birds and beasts with an enthusiasm the subjects rarely afforded.
Bhavana: Yes, that's something. She's not on the General Tilney or Sir Walter Elliot scale of awfulness. As for the painting, bear in mind that it's of Lady Anne and Lady Catherine. Given Darcy's ginormous quarrel with her, Lord Ancaster thought he might be very offended and assume some other meaning than what was intended. However, it's still the only (known) painting left of Lady Anne, and Georgiana can hardly remember her, so for her sake, Lord Ancaster went through with it. Thank you!