Probably not very original, but I had to write it once it came to me all the same.
This is a companion piece to In the Depth of Winter, and events of that story will be referenced. It's pretty short if you want to play catch up.
Chapter 1, A Joy and a Fear
It was an afternoon heralded by April rains in the Nottinghamshire countryside. The drizzle fell over the grass and trees in a light, refreshing shower that seemed to revive the deep jades and gingers of nature. Far from going into hiding away from the water droplets, robins called to one another as the flitted across the overcast sky. It was on this day that Charles Bingley II made his debut into the world.
At the moment, baby Charlie was wailing with all the volume his newborn lungs would allow for as the midwife wrapped him in a blanket. "He is a fine boy, miss. Healthy and strong."
Jane's brow was still gleaming with perspiration from her exertions, but her face had utterly transported, the pain she had endured all but forgotten, the instant she laid eyes on her son. Elizabeth used a cool handkerchief to daub Jane's forehead and cheeks as she had been all throughout the labor. She could scarcely believe it: her sister was a mother.
The midwife approached the bedside and gently placed the baby in the waiting arms of his mother. Jane was enraptured by the tiny face of her boy. After a few moments of being rocked, Charlie's cries quieted and he nuzzled into her, pacified by her scent.
"Is he not handsome, Lizzy?" Jane asked in awe of what she held, her voice barely above a whisper.
"The handsomest baby I ever saw, Jane. I am so very happy for you," Elizabeth beamed. Lowering her glance at the small bundle gathered to Jane's breast, she spoke in a low coo, "Hello, Charlie. I am your Aunt Elizabeth, and I love you very much already."
The two sisters remained transfixed by this newest addition to their family a minute more.
"Could you bring Charles?"
Elizabeth gave a kiss to Jane's temple. "I shall send him up that way the three of you may be alone together."
She went from the room and started to make her way on, hastening her step with every passing second as she considered the nervous condition her brother-in-law was still gripped with since he did not know it was over.
Elizabeth navigated her path through the corridors of Verburry with a much surer step than she had the week before when she first arrived to be with Jane for the birth. Charles and Jane moved to the estate in Nottinghamshire not two months past. They had come to realize that being so close to everyone in Hertfordshire was perhaps too much even for their gentle dispositions, and consequently had taken up a manor in the county bordering the east of Derbyshire, much to the sisters' shared happiness at being so near to each other once again. One week ago when Jane's time had all but arrived, Elizabeth and Darcy left Pemberley for the short travel to Verburry.
The Darcys, however, were not the only ones who had come for the occasion. Elizabeth unfastened the drawing room door to find every head turn in her direction. Louisa Hurst was sitting on the sofa with her sewing in her lap, while Mr Hurst was involved in his usual strenuous activity of napping on every conceivable surface that was not a bed. At the moment, he snored in a slouched huddle beside his wife, and he alone had not looked to Elizabeth for news of Jane when she entered. Georgiana sat a little way from everyone, perched at the piano bench in the corner, though the lid still covered the keys.
Caroline Bingley stood before an occupied armchair. She glanced carelessly over her shoulder and her face visibly darkened at the sight of Elizabeth. The figure in the armchair Caroline lingered over was Darcy, who had a vexed expression on his own countenance before he turned to his wife. Elizabeth met his gaze but soon was forced to direct her attentions to another.
Charles had leapt to his feet when the door opened to reveal Elizabeth there, and her brother-in-law now stood perilously close to her as his eyes communicated the barrage of questions his lips could not quite seem to frame.
She took up his hand between her steady ones. "Jane is asking for you. She would like to introduce you to someone."
A half-mad grin split his face, and Charles scampered out of the room at an undignified gait that became no one but an anxious husband and expectant new father.
Elizabeth looked to the others and announced, "It is a boy. We can now call ourselves the aunts and uncles of little Charlie Bingley."
The reaction in the room was altogether tepid. With a bob of her head, Mrs Hurst resumed her needlework and Mr Hurst slumbered on. Caroline merely looked as if she had been told it was still raining.
Darcy, on the other hand, rose and came to Elizabeth; the sour look on Caroline's face intensified. "How fares your sister?"
"Jane does well. She is beside herself for joy."
"I am glad of it. Bingley was beginning to go out of his wits. I had to ply him with a glass of port before his nerves bested him." Darcy surreptitiously took her hand in his and brushed his thumb over the inside of her palm, adding in a softer tone, "And you?"
Elizabeth smiled at him reassuringly and curled her little finger around his. He had become excessively protective of her ever since the accident at the pond four months ago, very often to the point of rendering it absurd, but she had not the heart to scold him for it. In a manner of speaking, he had been the one to sustain the greater injury from that ordeal. "Tired, but happy." After a moment's thought she said, "A little hungry too."
"As are we all, I dare say. I shall go see the cook about fixing something since Bingley will in all likelihood not be down for some time."
"I had better send word to Mama and Papa about Jane. They will want to know as soon as possible, and if I can get the letter ready for the post-chaise it will reach them by to-morrow morning." The corners of Elizabeth's mouth twitched, "Papa writes that my mother is still lamenting that she could not be here herself and shall settle for nothing less than a moment by moment account of her first grandchild. For the sake of her nerves."
Darcy's eyes flashed with a laughter he did not feel proper to voice in company, but she read it as well as if he had. With the slightest tightening of his hold on her hand, he released it, the only sign of affection he would allow himself to show in a room full of people though he would have liked nothing more than to kiss her.
As he left, Elizabeth sat down at the davenport desk situated at the far end of the room and drew out a sheaf of paper to begin her letter. Before she could do more than dip her pen in the inkwell, a shadow was cast over the parchment. Caroline was standing over her.
Elizabeth grimly smiled to herself. Though she had become Mrs Darcy over a year ago, Caroline continued to call her 'Miss Bennet,' and she very much suspected Bingley's sister would do so until her dying breath. It was the last means she had left to refuse acknowledging Elizabeth as her equal or worthy of being Darcy's wife. To the credit of Caroline's cunning, she refrained from ever addressing Elizabeth nominally in Darcy's presence. For her part, Elizabeth did not tell him of the slight because it was just that—slight. She married the man she loved with her whole heart and knew he loved her in return. Caroline's feeble attempts to offend her were more likely to invoke pity than anger.
"—to whom do you write?"
"To my parents, Miss Bingley."
"Ah," Caroline said, barely hiding her contempt for the named relations. "Tell me, Miss Eliza, does baby Charles look more inclined to resemble the Bingley or the Bennet line?"
"I hardly know," Elizabeth responded, carefully keeping herself in check. "Is it not too early to tell such a thing?"
"Not at all! The Bingleys have a very distinct look to them that is pronounced even at birth. If you did not notice it, then I am afraid Charles will have more claim on his mother's family than our own."
The provocation was clear. So, Caroline would carry her resentment of the Bennet sisters on to their children and show disdain for a very baby, her own brother's child? Elizabeth did not allow herself to retort, and putting her pen to paper, started to scratch out the good tidings.
After a few minutes of stiff silence, Caroline had not gone. Moving closer still to Elizabeth, she murmured in an altogether different tone, "Well, at least Charles has been given an heir. Now he can give up this whole business of having children to carry on the family name and inherit his estate."
Elizabeth was again torn between being angered by the insult to her sister and feeling sorry for Caroline. If she discussed having children with such cold indifference, as if it were truly a matter of 'business,' it was because she did not understand what it could be to experience it with a loving husband.
"Darcy, on the other hand…" Caroline continued in a silky voice. Now Elizabeth stopped writing altogether to meet her gaze. "…well, he has yet to be so blessed." Her emphasis of the final word gave the impression of it being a curse that crossed her sweetly upturned lips. "Tell me, Miss Bennet, your mother seemed in no danger of such blight, but is barrenness common among any members of your kin?"
Elizabeth found she could not speak.
"Miss Bingley," came an abrupt call.
Caroline turned with a fleeting look of alarm passing over her features only to discover Georgiana behind her.
"I was wondering if you would accompany me in a duet piece I have been eager to practice."
Seeing danger averted, a syrupy smile glued itself to Caroline's face. "Certainly."
Elizabeth glanced at Georgiana and knew at once she had overheard something of the conversation. She never spoke to Miss Bingley if she could help it without being impolite, their natures being so different. She was getting Caroline away from her intentionally. Miss Bingley, as it were, was unconscious of the true motive of Miss Darcy's invitation and sauntered over to the pianoforte with a self-gratified air. Grateful as she was to Darcy's sister, Elizabeth scarcely found it in her power to convey her thanks with a simple nod. It was difficult for her to maintain her composure, let alone resume her correspondence. Be that as it may, she attempted both.
When Darcy came back into the drawing room, he found her sitting at the desk with the finished and sealed letter laying before her as she fixed a blank stare upon it.
"Elizabeth?" his deep voice was concerned.
She roused herself. "I must get this into the housekeeper's hands," she said affectedly, getting up with the letter in her white-knuckled grasp just as Darcy stooped over her.
She all but fled from the room.
Dinner was a somber affair despite the cheerfulness the occasion warranted.
As Darcy had predicted, Charles stayed to the room with his wife and child after briefly ensuring that his houseguests were being tended to. The circumstance was perfectly acceptable, even endearing. Caroline, however, objected in a long-suffering tone to Mrs Hurst how negligent their brother was being when they had come all this way to bear him company.
Now, the Darcys, the Hursts, and Miss Bingley were gathered at the table.
Elizabeth ate little despite her earlier assertion of having an appetite, and Darcy did not fail to notice it. Georgiana too would peek up from her plate now and again to study her before she caught her brother looking her way. Whenever that happened, Georgiana quickly pretended to be thoroughly absorbed with her bowl of l'oille.
It grew late and the party finally retired. Darcy naturally went to their bedroom, but Elizabeth headed for Jane.
She gave a low tap at the door and was beckoned by a faint 'come in.' As quietly as she could, Elizabeth went inside. Jane was resting comfortably on the bed, propped up by pillows. Charlie was sound asleep in a bassinet in the nearest corner of the room where his father hovered close by, admiring his son.
"How are you feeling?"
Jane's eyes were bright as they came to focus on her sister. "Wonderful. I never dreamed I could love anyone as much as I do Charles, but Charlie…"
Elizabeth smiled at her. And yet, another feeling was stirring in her breast besides content for her sister. Was it…wistfulness?
"Is there something the matter, Lizzy?"
"No," she lied at once, censuring herself for betraying any sign of her inner turmoil in the midst of the happiest day of Jane's life.
"You seem…sad." As usual, Jane's selfless heart had interpreted her sister to the quick.
"Jane, I expect anyone would when compared to yourself in this moment," Elizabeth parried the remark and forced herself to maintain her smile. "I shall leave you to your rest. Good night."
"Good night," Charles mouthed from his place by the bassinet.
"Good night," Jane returned, looking after her unsurely.
Elizabeth slipped into her bedroom quietly though she knew Darcy would not yet be asleep. Just as she thought, he was sitting up in wait for her.
She prepared for bed wordlessly by the light of the fire. When she climbed between the welcome sheets, Elizabeth felt Darcy seek her under the covers so that he might pull her to him. She allowed herself to at least find comfort in his embrace, kissing his hand before replacing it at her waist.
"Is there anything you wish to tell me?"
In spite of the semidarkness, she knew he was looking at her as if to read in her countenance what she had to say.
Even in the shelter of his arms, Elizabeth could not bring herself to tell Darcy what was disturbing her mind. He did not press her, and soon the slow, steady sounds of his breathing came from beside her.
She could not find sleep so easily. Every time she shut her eyes, Caroline Bingley's sneering face materialized and her words rang loudly in her ears. She had watched Elizabeth with a gleam of triumph in her eyes for the rest of the night, and they both knew Caroline had indeed won something in the exchange they had earlier: she had finally succeeded in striking fear into Elizabeth's heart that she would not be enough for Darcy.
End Author's Notes
Raise your hand if you hate Caroline Bingley.
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