In the distance, footsteps could be heard upon the stairs along with hushed whispers.
A sudden squeal shattered the silence of the evening.
"Lord, Mr. Bennet!"
A door shut.
Mr. Darcy squeezed his eyes shut, blushing heavily.
Longest day of his life.
The next day dawned bright and cold, and a long ray of sun cut across Longbourn's guest bedroom to peel open the eyes of one particular dark-haired gentleman. Mr. Darcy awoke with a start and, upon realizing that it was, in fact, sunshine, quickly sat up in bed, taking the coverlet with him.
Mr. Bingley grunted his displeasure and rolled away from the sun. Darcy jumped out of bed and, wincing against the cold rug, went for the bell to ring for his valet. He then quickly moved to the rug before the fire which was already roaring in the grate. He shivered, trying to peer out the window without leaving the warmth of the hearth. It looked cold, but manageable.
"Bingley!" he called. "Bingley!"
"Eh?" was Bingley's articulate response. Darcy raised an eyebrow. God, I miss my room.
"Bingley! Wake up!"
"It has stopped snowing. We must gather a search party."
"Mmm … pardon, Darcy? What was that?"
"Morning. No snow. Search for my cousin."
"Wha-? Oh, yes, right." Bingley sat up, blinking against the sun with his fair hair sticking straight up on one side. Darcy turned towards the fireplace and allowed himself a smirk. Bingley would never be a morning person. God help Miss Bennet if she agreed to marry this man.
Darcy's valet entered the room, cool and collected as always, and bowed his greeting. Darcy acknowledged him with a nod.
"Samuels, Mr. Bingley and I will need our warmest clothing today," he instructed his valet. Samuels nodded. Bingley yawned. "Tell me, Samuels, has the family broken fast?"
"No, sir," Samuels reported. "The family does not usually breakfast for another half hour yet. Mr. Bennet and Miss Elizabeth are awake and in the library, if you are seeking company."
Half an hour should be adequate time to make a plan, Darcy mused. He didn't waste a moment – as soon as his cravat was tied, Mr. Darcy was at the door.
"Bingley, I will be in the library with Mr. Bennet," he informed his friend.
"I'll be down momentarily," Bingley confirmed, still rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
Darcy descended the stairs with as much grace and possession as he could manage, but he was eager to be making headway. The library door was propped open, framing the picturesque scene of father and daughter sitting by the fire with their respective books. As always, his eyes were drawn to Elizabeth, and he took in her image with a fond eye – her feet curled up in a particularly feline manner, her mourning gown like a dark shadow against the ruby-toned armchair, her cheeks pale with winter and mourning and weariness, but her eyes alert, alight with understanding and enjoyment. His enjoyment of this scene took but half a second, and the next moment he found himself rapping his knuckles against the door frame to politely introduce himself. Mr. Bennet looked up, startled, and Elizabeth quickly readjusted her frame to a more lady-like position, a blush darkening her pale cheeks.
"Mr. Bennet, might I have a word?" he asked quietly.
Mr. Bennet raised an eyebrow but beckoned for him to enter. Elizabeth rose, hesitating.
"Please, Miss Elizabeth," Darcy said gently. "Have a seat. I see no reason to keep knowledge from you which you will soon discover anyways."
Elizabeth did so, curiosity painting her features in a new light. Darcy, unable to sit still, took himself to the mantle so that he could at least stand in one place. He had no wish to make a fool of himself pacing across the floor in Bingley's stupid manner.
"I believe that you met my cousin, Lord Fitzwilliam, on Sunday?" Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth both nodded their confirmation of this fact. "He left immediately after the service to ride to Kent, and thus should have been safely there before the storm hit. Yesterday, however, Mr. Bingley received word from his housekeeper that my cousin's horse returned to Netherfield on Sunday night without any rider."
Mr. Bennet put down his book entirely, not even bothering to mark the page.
"Two days in such a storm!" Elizabeth cried, raising a hand to her mouth in horror.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam was snowed in at Lucas Lodge and must be informed, and a search party must be mounted at once now that the snow has stopped and made such a feat possible."
"You are in luck, Mr. Darcy," said Mr. Bennet wryly, "in that our neighbourhood has recent practice in that fine art and will be well prepared to assist. Might I suggest that you ride ahead to Lucas Lodge? You may there inform your cousin and arrange for a party to search the road and surrounding wood between there and Meryton. I shall launch a search party from here and head towards Meryton as well, although it is unlikely he took this road if he meant to head to Kent. Mr. Bingley may ride to Netherfield and do the same. We will meet in town and consider further plans if he has not been found by then."
"I agree, that is a sensible plan," Darcy nodded.
"As my party will likely be the first to Meryton, I will take the trouble of informing the local authorities to have everything prepared for … whatever may happen. Sir William is our local magistrate, as I believe you know, so I trust it will not be very difficult for you to bring him along as well."
Elizabeth stood and then promptly sat again. "You cannot believe…"
"It is too soon to know what to believe," Mr. Bennet assured her. "Whatever has happened, I am sure Sir William would prefer to be involved."
"Indeed," Darcy concurred, hastening to reassure her. His cousin was an able horseman. Darcy had no doubt that something foul had befallen him, and he despaired of finding him alive – he had despaired of such last night. He anticipated a day of searching followed by a month of mourning. He dreaded telling Richard. Much as he worried, however, there was no cause to alarm Elizabeth – already her face was pale with understanding and alarm. They all heard the clatter of footsteps on the stairs.
"Righto, I'm ready!" was Bingley's game remark as he came stumbling into the room, bleary-eyed and solemn. "What's the plan?"
Elizabeth rose again, this time rather more steadily. She whispered something briefly to her father and excused herself from the room. Darcy explained the plan to Bingley slowly, aware that his friend was not yet entirely awake, and the plan was affirmed by Mr. Bennet.
"Simple enough," Bingley agreed easily. He opened his mouth to speak again, but Elizabeth returned in that moment, rapping her knuckles gently against the open door.
"Mrs. Hill has kindly seen to putting out a few items with which you may break your fast if you have a moment to spare," she noted quietly. Relieved to not have to wait an additional half hour, or leave without any sustenance, the gentlemen gratefully removed to the dining room for breakfast. Elizabeth once again absented herself, leaving the men to their small breakfast. Darcy wondered why she did not join them, but he did not have to wonder long – she returned shortly with Miss Bennet, looking pale, sleepy, and concerned.
Miss Bennet immediately took a seat beside Bingley and began speaking to him quietly, her usual reserve seeming to melt away in the wake of her sleepy alarm. Her attentions seemed to help wake Bingley, and Darcy was tempted to smile at the obvious preference the two showed for each other. With Bingley it was ever-obvious, but Miss Bennet's emotions were not often shown – it was reassuring to see them now. It was impossible not to hear their low conversation – whispers of concern, promises of safety and warmth and security. Darcy could not listen long without embarrassment.
He turned to Elizabeth for conversation. She sat beside him watching her sister with a soft, fond smile, but her brow was still furrowed with concern. The situation was clearly worrying her.
"Miss Elizabeth, I wonder if I could beg a favour of you," Darcy began quietly, not keen to have his conversation overheard by Bingley, Miss Bennet, or even Mr. Bennet.
Elizabeth turned to him and raised an eyebrow to encourage his conversation, clearly unwilling to commit to a favour until the favour was heard. He almost smiled at this small testament to her rational mind.
"I wondered if you might inform my sister of these events in the … gentlest way possible," Darcy continued slowly. "She and my cousin are not very close, but Georgiana is very sensitive. I do not wish to alarm her, but I also wish her to be prepared should we discover the worst. I'm afraid I bear very little hope of finding my cousin alive and well."
Elizabeth nodded, understanding softening her face. "Of course, Mr. Darcy. I shall endeavour to inform her in the gentlest manner I can contrive."
"Thank you, Miss Elizabeth."
Charlotte was glowing.
She knew it.
It was embarrassing – humiliating, honestly! Her joy was evident for all to see. For a woman who prided herself on being able to keep her emotions in check and behave in a rational manner, it was an affront to her senses.
Yet she could not stop it.
It was the second morning which had seen Colonel Fitzwilliam trapped at Lucas Lodge. Although the storm had passed and he could leave, she had found him in the breakfast room quite at his leisure.
She released a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding, and she felt the glow again. She had awoken early, stricken by a sudden terror that she would find him gone, rushed to dress, and had only barely managed to keep herself from hurtling down the stairs in a very unladylike manner. She had paused but a moment in front of the door to catch her breath and swept into the room with every appearance of composure, only to lose that composure promptly upon finding him comfortably situated in the chair which had come to belong to him over the course of the past two days.
Fitzwilliam stood to greet her, a broad and easy smile gracing his face.
Charlotte flushed, her body betraying the pleasure she felt in hearing her Christian name spoken with such tender tones.
"Colonel. Good morning."
Fitzwilliam smiled and moved away from the table to approach her. He captured her hand and brought it to his lips. Her flush deepened, and she averted her eyes bashfully.
"Your family is still abed, Charlotte. It is Richard."
"Richard," she breathed obediently, steeling herself to meet his gaze.
She met his eyes and lost herself.
"You are up early," Fitzwilliam noted. He kissed the inside of her wrist lightly.
A long beat later, Charlotte replied, "Yes."
Fitzwilliam grinned at her. "The snow has stopped."
"'Tis possible to ride again."
"I must away to London – my parents have not answered any post, and they may not know about Edward's trip to France. I must also see my solicitor to arrange the settlement."
"I may not be back for a week. More, possibly."
"Will you miss me?"
Dear Lord, such a kiss!
She wanted to protest his leaving, but she knew he had to go. He had to tell his parents – they deserved to hear their story in person. Would they be happy for them? Would they be angry? Would they approve? She was not wealthy. She had a small dowry, connections to trade, and a family of no consequence. He was the son of an Earl. She had not even beauty to recommend her! How could they possibly approve?
But when he kissed her, all of these concerns disappeared into the mist and she was happy. Elated, even! How could this beautiful dream end? How would she survive if it did?
"The past two days have been … wonderful, Charlotte," Fitzwilliam murmured, so close that she could feel his warm, coffee breath against her cheek. "I will return as quickly as I can. You know that."
A sound upon the door. The lovers stepped away from each other, startled. Footsteps in the hall – but it was just the butler going to answer the door. Who would call at such an hour? The two exchanged worried looks – what could be the matter?
"I must see Colonel Fitzwilliam immediately!"
Fitzwilliam paled and hastened to the hall, Charlotte following with fear in her eyes.
It was Mr. Darcy standing in the hall, face red from the chill and eyes wild with worry. He spotted Fitzwilliam and reached him within two heavy strides, taking his hand in his own firmly.
"Good God, Darce, what is the matter?!" Fitzwilliam cried with rather more feeling than sense.
"Edward's horse returned to Netherfield alone on Sunday evening," Mr. Darcy said solemnly.
Fitzwilliam paled, and Charlotte put a hand against the wall to support herself. Oh, God!
"What has been done? What attempts have been made to recover him?" Fitzwilliam demanded.
"The weather has prevented any attempt," Mr. Darcy informed him grimly. "Mr. Bingley and I-"
"Bollocks!" Fitzwilliam cursed furiously. "I should have been told at once! We should have-"
"Richard, listen to me!" Mr. Darcy insisted, his voice strong in the face of his cousin's anger. "There was nothing we could have done then. We will do everything we can now. I am here to rouse the search party. Mr. Bennet is leading the search from his home, and Mr. Bingley is on his way to Netherfield now to do the same. We must gather what men are available and begin – we will meet the other parties in Meryton to assess the situation."
Charlotte took this opportunity to speak, quickly and sensibly, "I shall fetch my father." She promptly disappeared.
Within half an hour, all of the men at Lucas Lodge were bundled against the cold and prepared for the search. Their faces were grim. None expected a happy ending to this hunt.
Charlotte met Fitzwilliam by the door as he, Darcy, and Sir William prepared to leave. She adjusted his collar, and he clasped her bare hand in his gloved one.
"Be safe," she said softly so that she would not be overheard by the other men. She was overflowing with emotion, but knew no words to express such feelings – worry, love, heartbreak, anger, relief.
"I will," Fitzwilliam promised. His eyes showed a storm deeper and colder than that which had kept them indoors for the two days past, and Charlotte feared the results of such a fury. How would his heart bear the pain? His brother! He kissed her hand briefly and was gone – into the bright, cold sunshine with Mr. Darcy and Sir William at his heels, all with expressions befitting a funeral.
Charlotte shut the door against the cold and turned towards the kitchen.
She would not worry now. There was much to do.
Mary and Elizabeth had taken up Kitty's usual place in the window seat. Mary had a book open in her lap, and Elizabeth was struggling with some embroidery, but neither had much enthusiasm for their occupations. Their minds were elsewhere.
It had been almost an hour since the search party had left, and the only reminder of the event was the footprints which now marred the white expanse of the front lawn. Mary had learned of the recent events when they had come down for breakfast – Elizabeth had drawn her and Georgiana aside to inform them of the news. She spoke gently and with great optimism, but Mary knew she spoke as such only for Georgiana's benefit. Georgiana had smiled weakly, nodded her understanding, expressed her thanks for being informed, taken a few bites of pastry, and had since been summoning mournful tunes from the piano-forte. Mary saw how this pained and worried Elizabeth, and she felt how much it pained and worried herself. She had no particular interest in the life of Edward Fitzwilliam, heir to the Matlock estate, but she deeply felt the pain of her new friend – and, dare she think it, her future sister-in-law.
Both girls, however, were very aware that there is nothing to be said to ease the pain of one worrying for a lost loved one. They left her to her own devices, but kept her company in the parlour all the same. Jane was watching over Mrs. Bennet, who had taken to her room in a fit of nerves over the idea of Mr. Bennet joining the search for the lost man.
Mary missed Kitty. She did not know why, exactly, as Kitty was not exactly a help in such situations. There was nothing Kitty which could do to make the situation better. And yet, Mary wished she were with them at Longbourn to share in these events. Mary was not ready to face another funeral.
"There is no chance that he is still alive, is there?" Mary asked quietly so as not to draw Georgiana's attention to the conversation.
Elizabeth shook her head very slightly. "I think not."
Mary sighed. "Poor Georgiana."
"The entire family will suffer a great deal, I'm afraid," Elizabeth noted mildly, her brow furrowed with concern. "As we know all too well."
Mary shivered, an ominous feeling reaching frosty fingers into her quick-beating heart. Every time she forgot, she remembered. Every time she thought her feelings had dulled with time, the wound wept afresh. Grief was exhausting, and Mary ached that her new friend should know such exhaustion.
"I worry for Charlotte," Elizabeth commented quietly. Mary raised an eyebrow questioningly – how could it affect her? "She is engaged to marry Colonel Fitzwilliam – if the family approved of her for their second son, I wonder if they will retract that approval now as the fiancée of their heir."
Mary nodded, a sad quietude settling over their window seat as the two sisters contemplated the new future ahead of them all. Mary worried for Charlotte, and for Georgiana, and for Elizabeth – for she would surely feel Mr. Darcy's pain keenly, and such unhappiness may even further delay the resolution of their mutual happiness.
Yet her mind returned traitorously again and again to Mr. Greengrass.
Was he out there, searching? Would he be there? Would he care? He could have no interest in such a man, but it was the Christian thing to do. He had searched for Lydia. Was that because it was the Christian thing to do, or was it because she was the niece of his employer? Or was it because he had murdered her and wanted to appear to be innocent? But that could not be! She could not imagine it of him! Perhaps he had helped because he did hold tender feelings towards Mary after all – perhaps he had done it all for her? But such conjectures grew ever more ridiculous.
Her father had become very solemn upon learning of Mr. Greengrass' sudden interest in her, and that worried Mary more than she cared to admit. Did he know something about him? Was there something evil lurking within the erudite clerk which was hidden to her? But was there not evil lurking within all of the sinners of the world? What sort of vices did this man have? He had every appearance of good, but they had all learned their lesson with the wolf in sheep's clothing, Mr. Wickham. She yearned to trust this kind, awkward man, the first who had ever expressed an interest in plain, bookish Mary Bennet. But was that wise? Had not Lydia suffered from offering such trust? Did not Elizabeth now suffer from her own hasty first impressions of the goodness of gentlemen?
Mary allowed her eyes to rest briefly on the green book sitting beside her on the window seat, then turned her eyes firmly back to the treatise in her hands.
There was no sense in dwelling on such matters. She ought to focus on her friend's pain and how to help her through it – that was her true Christian duty. But she knew from experience how difficult it is to offer help to someone in the midst of their grief, especially one still in denial. Georgiana had not yet accepted the idea that her cousin was probably dead. Even now, her blonde curls swayed and trembled as she attempted a livelier piece. When she did accept it, Mary needed to be ready to comfort her.
Not with words, for they did not do feeling justice.
But Mary would be there anyways.
And still, she missed Kitty.
Kitty had a headache.
This was not surprising. In fact, it was entirely expected, excepting that Kitty did not think her headache truly had anything to do with the bump on her head.
Rather, it had much more to do with the gorgeous, serious Mr. Stone sitting beside her, reading Shakespeare with the most deliciously deep, soothing voice, and to do with the handkerchief in her hand which been brought down for her by one of the maids who was entirely ignorant of the significance of such a handkerchief – a handkerchief given to her by one Edgar Harrington!
Her entire body thrilled to be near Mr. Stone in this semi-darkness, listening to him meander his way through the words of Shakespeare and feeling his heavy gaze falling upon her with such a weight. Yet her mind turned again and again to Edgar – holding his handkerchief and remembering his laughter, his warm smile, and the immense sympathy he felt for her loss, and the way he had so daringly hinted at the possibility that his future may, in some way, be dependent upon Kitty…!
She fingered the embroidery upon Edgar's handkerchief (a very badly done concoction of roses and lavender) and watched Mr. Stone in the dim lighting of the parlour, and her conflicted feelings were torn asunder yet again by an unshakeable feeling of overwhelming guilt.
What right did she have to contemplate suitors when Lydia would never have the chance to do the same?
But at the same time, there was no reason to become a spinster! Lydia would never want that for her!
How could she allow a man into her thoughts without being able to share those thoughts with her best friend? She longed to tell Lydia about the two men. Lord, how they would have laughed! Lydia would surely have dismissed Mr. Stone out of hand, as Kitty herself had done at first – gorgeous, of course, but far too serious!
Kitty felt very serious these days. Most of her life had been whimsy and feeling, bonnets and barouches, dancing and flirting. In mere moments all of that had changed. Kitty felt like a different person. She did not feel like herself. It was like something was broken, and she could not put it back together again. Humpty Dumpty, indeed!
Would there always be a piece of her missing? Would she always feel incomplete? Could something else fill that hole? Mary would probably suggest religion as the answer, and Jane would suggest focusing on other people. Those would not work for Kitty. Being busy around the house had helped, but she had been sentenced to idleness once more with her injury. Would a romantic interest suffice?
"Miss Bennet," Mr. Stone said quietly.
Kitty looked up, startled. He had closed the book and was looking at her very seriously. Kitty blushed.
"I beg your pardon," she apologized. "My mind wandered."
He offered her a small smile, and Kitty's heart fluttered.
"I suspected as much. I should not have disturbed your thoughts, but I'm afraid I must take my leave of you."
Kitty caught her breath, stunned. A part of her had known that this situation could not last forever, but she had never considered when it would end.
"Leaving? So soon?" she managed, trying to not betray the quiver in her voice. She had come to rely upon his presence, and she felt now that the world was crumbling beneath her feet. She had felt like this before. Lydia had done this to her. How could Mr. Stone do this to her? How could he?
Mr. Stone smiled gently, looking down at the book in his hands as if it held all of the answers to all of their questions.
"I'm afraid I must," he replied. "The snow has stopped, and the street sweepers will have gone by now. There will be much to attend to at the office. Your uncle will need me there."
"Of course," Kitty consented unwilling. "Of course you must go."
She felt her eyes smarting with tears and struggled to hold them back. One escaped, and she prayed the darkness of the room obscured it from his view. When had she become so attached? Had she become mad from hitting her head? Such ridiculous behaviour! He was nothing to her only two days ago, and now -!
"We have not finished Macbeth," he noted.
"No, we have not," Kitty agreed. "But it is no matter – I'm sure I heard only half the words for all of my distraction."
This was a lie – she had not attended very closely, but she had gotten the gist of the story and was very interested. Much better to pretend she was not. No. She was not interested. Of course.
"Nevertheless, I strive to finish the tasks which I begin," Mr. Stone said. His voice was so calm, and steady, and solemn – Kitty wished for such steadiness in her stormy heart! "Would you allow me to return to finish this with you?"
Kitty was sure her heart stopped, but at the same time was sure that it had only just begun beating normally again. It was as though he had taken a great burden from her shoulders, there was such relief to know that he would return! And yet she was astonished – what could he mean by it? What sort of paltry excuse was this, the desire to finish tasks one has started?
"If you like," Kitty granted tentatively.
Mr. Stone rose, leaving the book on the small table by the sofa, and bowed in a very gentlemanly fashion.
"My best wishes for your good health, Miss Bennet," he offered.
"Good morning, Mr. Stone," she replied.
Mr. Stone left – his footsteps quiet on the rug and his dark eyes burning in Kitty's mind. She could hear him in the hall, speaking quietly with her aunt and uncle. She heard them escort him to the door. She heard her uncle promise to see him at the office in an hour's time. The door closed. Kitty breathed again.
For several long moments, she studied Edgar's handkerchief once more. (Honestly, she had thought Pen and Harriet's embroidery work was better than that!) Lydia would have enjoyed seeing Edgar again – he was jolly and funny and sweet, and he was certainly quite handsome now. He could make her laugh even in the midst of her grief! He had known Lydia! She would have thought him an excellent suitor, excepting his lack of a red coat. Lydia would never approve of Mr. Stone. Did that matter?
It was Lottie – her blonde curls seemed abnormally bright in the dark room, and her eyes were wide with caution and interest.
"Kitty, may I come and sit with you? Mama said I might if I was very quiet."
Kitty smiled. "Of course, Lottie. Come and join me."
Lottie dashed into the room quickly and perched on the edge of Kitty's sofa. Seeing her closer, Kitty saw that her eyes were bright with tears.
"What's the matter, Lottie?"
"Meg doesn't want to play with me," Lottie reported sadly. She sniffled a little bit. "She says I'm a baby, but I'm not a baby! I'm not!"
"Of course you're not," Kitty assured her. Her heart twinged a bit – she had complained of just such a thing when she was a child, but no one had ever paid any attention then. "You're a perfect little lady, Lottie, and don't you mind a word anyone says otherwise. In fact, why don't you find the sticks and we'll have a nice, grown-up game of Spillikins, just you and me?"
Lottie sniffled again. "That's not a baby game?"
"No, it's a very grown-up game. Promise."
Lottie brightened. "I think they're in the nursery. I'll fetch them. You won't move?"
"Not an inch," Kitty promised, crossing her heart faithfully. Lottie dashed away again, slowing her pace to a careful walk in the hallway where her parents could hear her. Kitty smiled fondly after her, rearranging her pillows to support a better sitting position.
AN: Thank you all for your immense patience with me! I am still working on this, I promise! I have now officially moved to England (yay!) and am in the midst of wedding planning craziness! The wedding will be July 5th, so you can probably expect to not have any updates until well after that. But I did want to get one more chapter in before the true madness begins! I know you're all impatient for Elizabeth and Darcy to get a move on, but you'll have to continue being patient - there is a time for them, and it is not yet. :) I apologize for whatever mistakes you've found - I typed this up very quickly! Hope you're all enjoying your summers! 3