For Darcy, those first few weeks passed in a blur of activity. There were all the usual duties of the estate and of his position; the friendly curiosity of the neighbourhood to be contended with, at church and at Pemberley; and, of course, arrangements to be made for Jane's comfort.
While it never occurred to him to ask what she required, he and Georgiana offered everything they could think of. The latter, at first, was more successful; Jane cheerfully accompanied her to shops, sat for drawings and seemed happy to remain still for hours, listening to Georgiana play and sing.
"I have no ability myself," she confided to Darcy, with a rueful smile, "but I do love music."
He looked at her and tried to think of something to say. "You are not completely without talent," he said finally. "I have heard you sing at church."
Jane, sufficiently acquainted with his manner of speaking to take this as intended, smiled even more brightly. "Thank you."
For himself, Darcy found that this sister had a rare facility for contentment, neither demanding nor wishing anything to improve it. He could offer her little but a few childish memories, protection from ambitious young men and their equally ambitious mothers, and Pemberley. Even the last of these had, at present, little to recommend itself; the woods were bare and desolate at this time of year, the grounds covered in snow, even the stream frozen as often as not.
Jane might have disagreed, but he had not yet been driven to discussing the weather with her - and as she was not a great walker and his stables had few mounts appropriate to a lady, she only left the house when Georgiana's palfrey could be spared.
This, at least, he could remedy. A cousin of his mother's, Lord Carrington, took justifiable pride in the horses he bred, and lived scarcely a stone's-throw away. Darcy sent a letter to him, detailing his requirements and pointedly inviting him to call at Pemberley.
Carrington accordingly came, and in common with almost the entirety of their sex, fell into incoherent babble after one glance at Jane. Darcy took him off to the study as soon as civility allowed.
After a few moments of marked inattention, Carrington said, "That was our little Jenny?"
"That was Jane, my sister," said Darcy, enunciating slowly and carefully for the benefit of Carrington's diminished faculties. "She is fond of riding, and I wish to provide a horse for her. The price is of no object."
This seemed to penetrate Carrington's daze. "Price? I should think not! It will be an honour to provide some small convenience for my cousin."
Darcy stared. Then he smiled very pleasantly. "It would indeed; sadly, I did not offer it to you."
"I should very much like to - welcome her to the family. It would hardly be inappropriate to offer her a gift."
Darcy brought him to see reason, of course - it took about ten minutes, and in the end he bought his sister a fine mare for a quarter of its worth. His scheme had not extended that far - or indeed, any farther than introducing Jane to the relation least likely to oppress her spirits. Nevertheless he was pleased, and reflected with some complaisance that his plans always seemed to accomplish more than he intended.
He presented the mare to Jane as soon as possible, with no particular pomp or ceremony, and started at her reaction. He had expected - hoped - she would be pleased, but it was nothing extraordinary. She would have likely had two or three by now, if those detestable Bennets had not forced her into a life far inferior to that which she deserved; instead she wept with gratitude because he, her own brother, had provided her with a horse.
Sometimes, he thought it fortunate Mrs Bennet was already widowed.
Elizabeth wanted to love her family.
She could not say exactly what she did feel. It was odd and thrilling to pass a portrait and see her own eyes set in another's face. Cecily, more like a younger sister than a cousin four years her senior, was already dear to her. -Elizabeth had never before felt herself a steadying influence on anyone. She had tried with Kitty and Lydia, to no avail, but Cecily was older, and felt the weight of who and what she was far more keenly than they ever had - more keenly than Elizabeth did, for that matter.
Yet she could not feel she knew the others half so well. James' self-command never wavered, and for all his kindness and consideration, he seemed almost unreal - somebody's idea of the perfect brother or the perfect vicar, rather than an actual person. Eleanor - well, too little could not be said on that subject. She scarcely saw the earl or his sons.
Oh, they were all her blood, and the ties of kinship could not be ignored; yet, without the habits of dependence, the connections that were built through years and years of shared experiences, it was impossible to feel quite what she ought. She missed her camaraderie with her father - with Mr Bennet - laughing over silly books, or games of chess, or some sly, witty joke that only they would understand. At the same time, even her grief, even her memories, were tainted by the knowledge of what he had been and what he had done.
She missed Jane, too, even more than she had expected. Elizabeth had always recognised and praised her sister's serenity, candour and generosity of spirit, but she had not realised how much she also relied upon them. Jane's frequent letters could hardly the fill the breach. Indeed, in some respects, they made matters worse, for Jane was so cheerful and encouraging, so obviously content in her life, that Elizabeth felt her own ingratitude all the more keenly.
I am trying to be happy, she wrote to Jane, but I do not quite know how. I have never needed to try before.
Elizabeth looked at the letter, longing to pour out her heart - but not like this, and not when it could only spoil her happiness. Thankfully, Lord Ancaster was generous with his paper; she crumpled it up and threw it in the fire.
Besides, her life was not all grief and apathy and discomfort. She could easily think of other things - absurdities which had delighted her, hours of gaiety and laughter with Cecily, even Lord Milton's witty incivility. Of course, now there was nobody to share the absurdities with, while Cecily's exuberance and the general discord forced her into weary solitude.
Then the weather took a sharp turn for the worse. Nobody was permitted to venture outside, not even the gentlemen - and certainly not Elizabeth. Her usual refuges within the house always seemed to be occupied, the cousins unable to go anywhere without stumbling upon one another.
Elizabeth's spirits were then so low, her patience so exhausted, that she really felt she could not endure a day more of it. Yet the next day came, and she hurried to the library only to overhear Edward and Eleanor's voices raised in another quarrel.
Elizabeth ran away. Her legs seemed to move of their own volition; she had no idea of a destination, no thought of anything but getting away, and could never remember how she reached a part of the house she had not seen since her first week at Houghton.
She paused for breath, came to her senses, and was promptly furious with herself for having been so silly.
"Good morning, Miss Fitzwilliam."
Elizabeth's head snapped up. Lady Ancaster's wizened old servant stood before her, his expression grimly pleased. "Theodore," she said blankly, and realised that she had never been told his proper name. He looked slightly bewildered, but continued,
"Her ladyship will be very pleased to see you."
"Oh! I did not - " Even then, Elizabeth could not bring herself to selfishly disregard the feelings of anyone. "I did not know if she could receive visitors today."
"She is in excellent health today."
Elizabeth swallowed. "Well, I - please take me to her, then."
She followed him reluctantly, her imagination conjuring up scenes more bewildering and wearying than any she had lately endured. She really felt that she would like to sleep for a fortnight.
"Miss Fitzwilliam, madam," said Theodore, ushering Elizabeth into the countess's parlour.
"Oh! How delightful!" she cried, her face alighting with pleasure.
"Good morning, Grandmama," said Elizabeth.
She forced herself to smile, almost overcome with pity. Provoking as the last week had been, to spend all her days in solitude, never setting eyes on anyone but the servants - how much worse must that be?
Elizabeth's gaze had been fixed firmly on the floor, but she steeled herself to meet Lady Ancaster's clouded one.
She almost stared. Her grandmother's grey eyes were clear and lucid.
"My dear, you are very flushed. Are you feeling quite well?"
"Oh - yes," she stammered. "I - I must have been too long by the fire. My health is excellent, ma'am."
"That is a great comfort to me." Lady Ancaster dismissed Theodore, then smiled at Elizabeth. "Now you must make yourself very comfortable, and tell me how you are settling in at Houghton. This all must have been a great shock to you."
Elizabeth perched on the edge of a chair. "I - well - yes, of course, but everybody has been so kind . . ."
"Oh?" said Lady Ancaster serenely. Well, that is a very pleasant surprise."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Love is not always blind, my dear." The countess' eyes twinkled. "Of course, our family has many fine qualities. Undoubtedly, they all mean well - but I would not expect that to often translate into real, active benevolence. It so rarely does, you know."
Elizabeth dropped her eyes. "Yes, I know."
"There is James, of course. He does have a kind nature - but then, it is often crippled by his shyness. No, he would not dare much towards you - afraid of appearing to presume, I expect."
Elizabeth's eyes widened. "I never thought - he is reserved, of course, but I did not believe him shy."
Lady Ancaster considered. "Reserved? Oh, no, I should not say that. He is very much drawn to people, very friendly when his timidity is forgotten. Perhaps you are thinking of Fitzwilliam; I often confuse them for one another."
Elizabeth felt more bewildered than ever. "James and - Richard?"
"Oh, no!" Her grandmother laughed. "Fitzwilliam - I know you have met him, he said so in his letters. Why, he was the one to discover you - ah! now I understand. I meant your cousin Darcy; Fitzwilliam is his Christian name."
"I see." Darcy certainly seemed more akin to her brother than careless, ebullient Richard, but anybody would be. She could not imagine mistaking him for James, of all people. Finally, she said, "I was thinking more of Cecily, ma'am. She all but worships the ground Edward and Eleanor walk on, but I - I accidentally overheard her censure them over my clothes, and she procured an excellent maid within days."
"Ah! Yes, I can see it of her. Cecily is - " Lady Ancaster paused, and seemed to change her mind - "very fond of you, is she not?"
Elizabeth smiled. "I believe she is."
"That would make all the difference. Well, for your sake, I am glad that somebody is thinking of these things, that you are not greatly distressed by all that has happened."
"I - " Elizabeth flushed, her eyes dropping to the floor. She lifted them with a sudden rush of anxiety. "I am trying not to be, madam. Sometimes it is more difficult than at others."
Lady Ancaster's customary serenity shifted into a sort of sorrowful compassion. She reached out and took Elizabeth's hand between her own. "Oh, my dear girl. I am so sorry."
Elizabeth smiled shakily. "You need not be; nobody could be less at fault for this entire affair than you, ma'am."
"That would not prevent my feeling it," Lady Ancaster said, "even if it were true; but it is not. This particular honour, I am afraid, belongs to my grandchildren - all of them." Her grip tightened about Elizabeth's hand. "I insist that you listen to me, while I can still make myself understood. You have obligations of obedience and gratitude, and I would not have you forget them, but happiness is not a debt you owe to anybody. In the course of a month, you have lost your home, two sets of parents and a sister. You have as much right to grieve as any of us - and we have never stopped."
"I am not like that. I have always been happy," said Elizabeth in a low voice. "It has always been my nature to be happy. I can laugh myself out of anything."
She saw tears fall on to her grandmother's frail, wrinkled hand and realised she was crying.
"I am sorry. I do not mean to - it is just that I want to go home." She paused. "That is terribly silly. I have only ever lived in other people's houses."
"Not at all," said Lady Ancaster, discreetly offering a handkerchief.
Elizabeth scrubbed at her eyes. "I could laugh it off, if it were just one thing. Instead, I am so tired, all the time. Everybody I know is gone. I cannot remember anything, and I cannot escape any of it for a single moment. It is like the starling said: I can't get out - I can't get out."
The words seem to hang in the air, echoing in Elizabeth's ears. She raised horrified eyes to her grandmother.
"Yes," Lady Ancaster said softly, "It is hard, is not it?"
In Derbyshire, too, the weather grew cold and bitter. Darcy and his sisters had become accustomed to riding out together, and they were reluctant to give it up.
Still, they accepted the change with good enough grace; it was nothing very terrible, after all, to be spared the prying calls of their neighbours for a fortnight. Jane, who had never in her life so much as entered a kitchen, let alone managed one, found that her new responsibilities came easily when learnt in peaceful isolation, while Georgiana was always happiest amongst her family alone.
Darcy, for his part, had so much to do - and found other people so trying, in general - that he felt almost as glad of the respite as Georgiana. He had a sister to instruct, to plan for, and to become acquainted with; he wished to make her at ease while also making her understand her responsibilities.
Half the time, they seemed to fall naturally into their old childish relationship and habits; he led, and she followed; she fussed, and he scolded; he smiled, and so did she. During the other half, however, they were almost strangers - a grown man and woman, too quiet and reserved to know how to fill the long silences, trying to do the work of eighteen years in a matter of weeks.
Familiarity would come with time, he decided; and indeed, they grew more comfortable, and had more to say, with each day that passed. And finally, the odd constraint between them disappeared, after the storm passed and - of all things! - a letter from Bingley arrived.
It had, apparently, been misdirected to Pendleton and then Pembury - which, in retrospect, Darcy thought he ought to have expected. Bingley's delight at the good news, his compliments to Miss Darcy and Miss Georgiana, and his cheerful acceptance of Darcy's invitation, took over an hour to decipher. Darcy smiled, shook his head, and decided to inform his sisters of their expected guests.
Georgiana, somewhat to his surprise, was practising alone in her favourite parlour.
He glanced around. "Georgiana? Where is Jane? - I expected to find her with you."
"Upstairs, I think - she said she needed to write some letters." She studied her music. "Oh, 'tis the left hand! Now I understand!"
Jane was, indeed, upstairs, sitting in the pale, delicate room their mother had prepared for her, opening and closing drawers. "Fitzwilliam!" she cried, her eyes shining as she caught sight of him.
It struck him, for the first time, that she liked him. Darcy, who from quite early in his life had neither known nor cared what anybody thought of him, felt awkward, embarrassed, and immoderately pleased.
"Good afternoon, Jane," he said, still flushed. "I - er - wished to inform you that - that I have invited Mr Bingley and his sisters to come to Pemberley, not long after Christmas. I hope that is satisfactory to you?"
Inexplicably, she, too, coloured. "Oh! yes. Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley were so kind and agreeable - and Mr Bingley too."
A dozen sharp replies sprang to his mind; Darcy firmly suppressed them all. "Yes, he is. Er - forgive me, but are you looking for something? I should know where it is; my mother used to spend hours here, and I often stayed with her. Nothing significant has been changed since she died."
"Oh! It is nothing, really; the maid said there should be fresh paper here, but I could not find any."
"It used to be kept in the right drawer." He walked over to the writing table, and reached inside. "Ah, yes, it had slid back."
"Thank you! I worry so much about Lizzy, you see, that I - "
As he lifted several pages out, something else fell to the floor.
"What is that?"
"Letters," said Darcy, bending down to pick them up. They were old, but still sealed, and bound together with a faded, fraying ribbon. All were addressed simply to Jane.
After one long moment, he placed them in her hands.
"Did - did my mother . . .?" Jane's eyes widened, her fingers curling about the letters,.
"I presume so. That is, at any rate, her handwriting; I should know it anywhere." He coughed. "Er - I shall leave you to read in peace, then."
"No!" She clutched his arm. "Fitzwilliam, you cannot - please stay with me. I cannot face them by myself."
"Very well." He paused, examining her strained, white face. "Would you like me to read them to you?"
She relaxed her grip on him, scrubbing at her cheeks like a child. "Yes. Yes, I would. Thank you!"
Darcy could not quite look at her. He gazed steadily at his mother's letter, then cleared his throat. "My dearest Jane . . ."