Chapter Forty Three
Kitty sat up suddenly, recognizing the blush for what it was. "Mary Louise Bennet!" she cried, jumping up on her knees and peering at her sister's face. "Are you in love with someone?"
"Kitty!" Mary's blush deepened.
"You are! You are! Oh, good Lord! Who'd have guessed? Who is he? Do I know him?"
"Oh, don't use that serious voice on me, Mary Bennet! Go on, who is he? Has he said anything? Have you?"
"Nothing has happened … not really …"
"Tell me everything! Immediately!"
Whether or not Mary told her everything can hardly be determined, but it was well into the early hours of the mourning before the two sisters fell asleep, too tired for any further considerations of the complexities of love, grief, and guilt.
The day before Christmas dawned late but lovely, the sun stretching its beams cheerfully as if awakening from a deep sleep and setting the freshly fallen snow sparkling in its path. It had been five days since the dramatic capture of Mr. Harrington and life in Meryton was beginning to settle back into its old familiar patterns, barring a few small changes.
Elizabeth had braved the cold and snow this morning to retrace a few of her old familiar haunts, feeling the need to have some time and space to put all of her 'ribbons' back in order. Jane, lovely as she was, could only help so much. Of course, the house was quieter than usual. Mr. Bennet had yet to venture below stairs following his near death experience, and Mrs. Bennet spent a great deal of her day above stairs as a result – reading to him, if that could be believed! With the Bennet family patriarch and matriarch out of sight and out of mind, the sisters had busied themselves with finishing off the last details of Kitty's new room and getting the house back in working order. Not to mention the preparations for Christmas! Elizabeth found herself even more grateful than she thought she might be to have Kitty home again – although she was occasionally very solemn and was not nearly as rambunctious as she used to be with Lydia, she did bring a sense of light-hearted silliness back to Longbourn which had been much missed over the past month. Elizabeth had mentioned it to Kitty, but Kitty's response had been strange – she had frowned thoughtfully, hesitated, and then spoken:
"Do you really still think me so silly, Lizzy?"
Surprised, Elizabeth had hastened to reassure her that she did not.
"It is only … I know that I have been quite silly, and I suppose I might always be, but I do not feel very silly these days – not mostly."
Once reassured that Elizabeth had been impressed with her sense and sensibility since her return home, Kitty had been cheered again, but the encounter had left Elizabeth wondering when she would finally begin to understand her sisters. She had always prized her own judgement of character – how had she been so blind to the characters of her own sisters? How could she still miss that which was so clear if one only looked?
She had endeavoured to notice her sisters in the lead-up to Christmas – noticing the increased intimacy between Kitty and Mary as they bantered back and forth (Mary dry, Kitty silly) over where to hang the mistletoe and the holly, noticing the way that Kitty watched Jane and Mr. Bingley with longing (was there someone she was missing?), noticing the way that Mary took advantage of every opportunity to go into town. In Jane there was nothing new to note – every day seemed to see her lighter and happier. Mr. Bingley called daily, along with Mr. Darcy and Georgiana, and nothing else could be required to make Jane the happiest of all women.
Whether this served to make Elizabeth happy was another question entirely.
This was not to say that she did not enjoy their visits – she enjoyed the company immensely, and she found that she missed having the constant presence of friends in the house. Longbourn seemed very quiet with their absence, although Kitty's return did help to restore some of that esprit. She enjoyed chatting with Georgiana, although the girl's conversation was often monopolized by Mary (who missed her calm, piano-playing companion) and Kitty (who was a little bit jealous at first but quickly realized that she could be an excellent new friend). With Mr. Bingley's interest entirely in Jane, Elizabeth had often found herself in conversation with Mr. Darcy.
He had never again made a comment nearly so flirtatious as the one he had made in the hallway that day – indeed, Elizabeth was beginning to believe she had imagined it – but his regular appearances even when his family was in town, in conjunction with his wittier-than-average banter and his long, meaningful stares, seemed to suggest to Elizabeth that she and Mary were not entirely mistaken in supposing he may hold some regard for her.
A part of Elizabeth was annoyed with the lack of substance in their relationship – she had enjoyed despising him, and she rather believed she would enjoy being in love with him, but this intermediate nonsense was inane and frustrating. She wanted to pull him aside and demand that he make his intentions clear, but that was as absurd as it was impossible. Not only would she never find an opportunity to do so, but she didn't believe for a moment that a man of his stature (physical, moral, or otherwise) could be worked upon in such a way. If only he didn't look so intently at her – it sent shivers down her spine and caused her hairs to raise all along her arms. Whatever her feelings for Mr. Darcy (primarily frustration, it seemed), she suspected that indifference had never been and never would be a part of them.
Putting aside her feelings for Mr. Darcy for the moment, Elizabeth tried to define her feelings in regards to Lydia and to the death of her murderer. Mr. Harrington. It seemed absurd to believe that her sister's murderer had sat in their parlour having tea merely days afterwards, and even more absurd was the idea that he attempted to pay court to Kitty so soon afterwards! Elizabeth shuddered to think what might have happened if Mr. Harrington had not thoughtlessly given Kitty that handkerchief – or what might have happened if Mrs. Gardiner had not recognized it as belonging to Lydia! Elizabeth shook off those thoughts as well, unwilling to give into fear now that the danger had passed.
A part of Elizabeth had been hoping that some wonderful intrigue would be discovered. She could admit this to herself now, alone and cold as she wandered her favourite lonely paths in the woods, as she wouldn't admit it to anyone else. She was disappointed. She had wanted there to be some reason behind the murder of her sister. She had wanted it to make sense. Perhaps a love story gone wrong (the baker's son, perhaps?) or a smuggling ring discovered – something to justify the loss. Instead, they were merely told that the man was mad – diseased – and had not been thinking clearly. Lydia had trusted the wrong man. Madness, somehow, did not seem reason enough. Unfortunately, that was all the explanation they were to receive. The man had been mad. He was paranoid. No one could have predicted it, no one could have prevented it. The way of the world. So sorry for your loss.
It was maddening, the sympathy. Although Lydia's name had now been cleared (as much as it ever could be), she had now been made into some sort of martyr by the villagers. Elizabeth had gone to Meryton only once since Mr. Harrington had been publicly accused, and she had hardly been able to walk from one shop to the next without being stopped by some well-meaning (or not) individual that wanted to offer their sympathies and declare how they had always known Lydia was a good girl, and no one could predict the behaviour of a mad man, and how could the Harrington's not have known, and the poor dear girl, really it was such a shame, and best wishes to Mr. Bennet.
Jane seemed to have found peace in knowing that the murderer had been apprehended at last and would see justice in God's kingdom, her only concern was for how Mr. Harrington's family must be suffering. Elizabeth, sinful though it might be, could not bring herself to feel a great deal of sympathy for them. She prayed that sympathy would come soon, as she felt it was unchristian to harbour such bitterness, but she did not think she could feel sympathy until she could feel peace.
Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.
Sighing, Elizabeth reached down to scoop up a handful of snow. She rolled it in between her gloved hands, packing it tightly.
Why didn't she feel any peace?
Elizabeth pulled her arm back and launched the snowball towards the nearest tree with all of her strength. It shattered immediately with a dull thwump, falling to the ground in pieces, and Elizabeth sighed again.
It was strange to contemplate celebrating Christmas when peace and goodwill were the furthest things from her mind. Joy was not in her heart. How could she rejoice in the birth of Christ when she was still mourning the death of Lydia?
Spying Longbourn's smoke stacks through the trees, Elizabeth slowed her steps.
God, give me peace, she prayed. God, give me joy.
As if in answer to her prayers, a sudden joyful chorus of shouts and greetings rang up the path from Longbourn and Elizabeth smiled – the Gardiners had arrived!
Elizabeth picked up her skirts and ran down the hill towards Longbourn, not minding about the snow or how unladylike it might be. She was out of breath when she reached the gates and the frozen air hurt in her lungs, but she forgot all of it when Freddy spotted her and came running as fast as his little legs could carry him.
"Lizzy!" he shouted. "Lizzy, we're here! We're here for Christmas! Have you got me a present, Lizzy?"
Elizabeth gathered him up in her arms, snowy boots and all, and spun him around with a delighted laugh.
"Freddy! I'm very pleased to see you, too! How do you do?"
Freddy, chastened but not truly apologetic, gave the obligatory apology.
"But really, Lizzy, is mine a good present? Can I have it now? Will we have mince pies? And chocolate?"
"First you must come inside and say hello to everyone, and then you may have all the mince pies your mother will allow!"
Freddy squealed and squirmed to get down. Elizabeth set him down, and he was immediately off to his mother to beg for dozens of mince pies.
"Lizzy!" it was Meg who found her next and slipped her gloved hand into Elizabeth's.
"Hello, Meg! How are you?"
"Very well, thank you. How are you?"
"Very well, thank you very much. Are you excited for Christmas?"
"Oh, not really," Meg attempted to shrug nonchalantly, but Elizabeth saw the shine in her eyes and recognized the eldest child attempting to be grown up. She hid a smile.
Meg didn't get a chance to reply, because they were now all ushered inside. Caught up in a flurry of coats and hats and gloves, no one but Elizabeth spied Mrs. Gardiner pulling Kitty off to the side. If Elizabeth had been a step further away, she might not have heard the quiet words, but as it was –
"Kitty, I have something for you."
"Mr. Stone said you never got to finish reading it. I did think that your father had it in his library, but Mr. Stone could not rest easy until I agreed to give you this one. Apparently there were a few … extra … in the warehouse."
Elizabeth saw a package handed to Kitty and a blush covering her cheeks.
"Oh. I –"
"Kitty, did Mr. Stone ever…?"
"I – not exactly. I didn't really think – that is, I didn't know if he –" Kitty stopped short, clearly embarrassed.
"Well," Mrs. Gardiner seemed satisfied, clasping Kitty's hands in her own and patting them gently. "You know that you're always welcome to come and stay with us, and I hope you shall come back soon – provided, of course, that you don't leave us in such a fright next time?"
The modest chastisement (for it was modest, indeed, compared to the lecture Elizabeth had given her when the circumstances of Kitty's arrival at Longbourn were uncovered) was left hanging as Mrs. Gardiner immediately departed to sort out her children, but Elizabeth could practically feel the heat from Kitty's cheeks. Kitty tucked the package close to her chest and turned and dashed up the stairs.
Elizabeth resolved to speak to Kitty about this Mr. Stone later, perhaps in the privacy of her room before bed. Clearly there were a few things about Kitty's stay in London which she hadn't shared with the rest of them.
Mary had enjoyed a very quiet morning until the arrival of the Gardiners, passing her time on the piano-forte wondering if Georgiana would come to visit them again today. After the Gardiner children had been settled upstairs and the littlest ones put down for a nap, the adults returned to the parlour to settle themselves with a nice cup of tea. Even Mrs. Bennet joined them, taking a short break from Mr. Bennet's bedside to come down and hear the latest from London.
It was as the small party was absorbed in a discussion of the latest imports from the East Indies that were just becoming fashionable among the higher sets of the ton that an event of the most surprising nature occurred – so surprising, in fact, that for many hours afterwards Mary wondered whether or not she had imagined the entire thing.
Mr. Hill opened the door, cleared his throat, and announced the arrival of a Mr. Philip Greengrass.
Mary caught her breath, and Kitty immediately sent her a knowing grin. Nobody else seemed to have realized the significance of such a visitor and in fact seemed to be struggling to place the name. He entered the room – tall, pale, clutching his gloves and hat in a white-knuckled grasp that seemed excessive for a social call.
Still, this was the first time he had ever called upon her. They had met a few times in Meryton in the past week and had a number of meaningful conversations, but Mary hadn't thought that he would be so bold as to call upon her until well into the new year. He cleared his throat.
"I would like to request a private audience with Miss Mary," he announced, his voice surprisingly strong.
The whole room seemed frozen, blinking at him stupidly.
He repeated himself, "I would like to speak privately with Miss Mary."
Mary thought, briefly, that she had been certain that she owned arms and legs and a mouth, but at the moment they seemed to have simply disappeared. At last, Elizabeth roused and began to usher people from the room. Distantly, Mary heard Kitty giggling and whispering something that sounded like 'good luck,' and she saw Elizabeth grasp Mrs. Bennet's elbow and pull her to her feet.
"But – my tea -?" Mrs. Bennet protested weakly.
It was merely moments before they were out the door and it was shut behind them. Suddenly, as if the click of the door had woken her from a deep sleep, Mary felt wide awake – indeed, rather as if her entire body had come alive with a foreign excitement. She stood, moving quickly towards the piano and resting her hand against it to regain her balance. Feeling as though she had regained some equilibrium, Mary then turned to face Mr. Greengrass. He stood a few feet from the door, not having moved an inch since his entrance, and watched her carefully.
What did she say now? Good morning? Is anything the matter? Would you like some tea? Do take a seat? What was the proper protocol when a man entered and demanded a private audience?
"Mr. Greengrass," she managed at last, her voice only a little weak. "May I help you?"
"Will you marry me?"
"I – what?" Mary put a hand to her heart and sat quickly on the piano bench, her knees no longer able to support her weight. Surely he had not asked what she thought he had asked? It was so insensible, so illogical! It was not at all like the man she had come to know.
"I don't understand –"
"I'm in love with you."
"I've been in love with you for months. Please say you'll marry me."
"But – how …?"
"I have just received word from my sister – my father is not much longer for this world, and I must return home immediately. It will be months before I can return, and I cannot leave without knowing … I know I don't have much money, and I know we can't marry until you have finished mourning for your sister, and then I for my father, but … marry me. Please."
Mary took a few deep breaths, struggling to force her brain to function properly and make sense of all of this new information. Concern, fear, and excitement coursed through her veins in equal measure.
"I – um – yes, alright."
The words escaped before she had even realized what she was going to say, and it took her nearly as long as it took Mr. Greengrass to process the words.
"I know – um – er – sorry? Was that – erm -?"
"Er – yes – it was…"
A long pause. Mary hardly knew how to feel - she had experienced a great many awkward moments in the course of her life, but this one topped them all. Were proposals always this awkward? She could hardly look at him, uncertain of his reaction to her stammered acceptance, and instead ran her fingers across the smooth piano keys to seek some degree of normal feeling. All at once, he was beside her, impossibly tall, hands trembling.
"I – um – may I -?"
His words asked a question, but Mary couldn't comprehend what question he was meant to be asking much less what her answer ought to be. She looked up at him, confusion written on her face, only to be met quite suddenly by his face at her level. She blinked, stunned and already drowning in those dark eyes.
What had he asked her?
She had only a split second to ponder this question before his lips met hers and everything became quite abruptly crystal clear. It was long, beautiful moment – a moment when her mind was both blank and buzzing, when her heart was beating both quickly and slowly. Her head rushed.
It didn't last long – not nearly long enough.
Is this what temptation women must resist? Is this how women fall from grace?
"I must speak to your father."
"I – of course," Mary agreed, blushing all over. "He is abed – perhaps my mother could -?"
The parlour door opened with a bang, startling the newly engaged couple and causing Mr. Greengrass to take several quick steps backwards, nearly toppling a potted plant in his haste.
"Oh, my dear Mr. Greengrass!" Mrs. Bennet cried, her eyes shining with tears and her hands clasped over her heart. "Oh, my darling Mary! Oh, who'd have ever thought it? The first daughter to be engaged! Oh, Lord, my nerves! Come, come, Mr. Greengrass – I shall take you to Mr. Bennet, though I'm sure he could not possibly prevent such a happy union! Oh, Lord, how happy you shall be!"
Mr. Greengrass, eyes wide, allowed himself to be led from the room by Mrs. Bennet's iron-tight grasp on his arm. Mary watched him go, cheeks flushed, heart pounding, and lips tingling. She very nearly raised her hands to her lips, but she remembered herself just in time.
"Mary! Oh, Mary! Congratulations!" Kitty was the first to congratulate her, positively brimming with gladness. "Can you believe it? How romantic! Oh, Mary! "
"I had no idea of your having even liked Mr. Greengrass!" Elizabeth exclaimed, stunned. "Isn't he Uncle Phillips' clerk?"
"He's the one who gave her that book," Kitty informed the family proudly. "You know that green one she carried with her everywhere? It was him! Isn't he sly?"
"We're very happy for you, Mary," Jane was quick to add lest the disbelief of one sister and enthusiasm of the other entirely overwhelm her. "Only … are you very sure? It was very sudden, and I will gladly go and speak to Papa if you would like some time. I'm sure a courtship would be possible …"
"Thank you, Jane," Mary spoke at last, smiling with a strange, impossible glee. Her smile was too wide for her face, and she felt as if she may very well float into the air and go off with the fairies. "Truly, I am pleased. I simply hadn't expected … that is, I didn't think he would ask me … not this quickly … but I am pleased. So, so pleased!"
Once the sisters were satisfied that Mary was, in fact, truly very pleased, congratulations poured in from all sides and all manner of speculation began in regards to when, where, and how elaborate the wedding could be. The Gardiners quickly offered to help with the selection of a wedding gown, and Kitty began detailing visions of the Longbourn chapel done up in spring lavender.
Mary took it all in, but she hardly knew how to absorb congratulations and her own happiness at the same time. It was too much – entirely too much!
It was not long before Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Greengrass returned with Mr. Bennet's permission, pending a discussion with Mary.
Mary obediently went to her father, still very much abed but at least sitting up with a book. He looked up when Mary opened the door, put the book aside and beckoned for Mary to sit beside him. Mary took the seat that her mother had only just recently vacated, trying to contain her smile to no great effect.
Mr. Bennet, his face seeming much more lined, weary, and papery than usual, took Mary's hand in his own and squeezed it gently.
"Are you sure, my dear? It hasn't been very long, and it will not be an easy life. Are you prepared for this challenge, Mary?"
Mary let her smile loose, squeezing her father's hand in return.
"I'm very sure, Papa."
He smiled and pressed an affectionate kiss to the back of her hand.
"Then I shall wish you all the happiness in the world. Now go and tell your mother she may start planning your wedding – and yes, you may all have new dresses."
It was a very merry party of Bennets that attended the midnight mass to celebrate the arrival of Christmas day. Bundled up against the cold and huddling together for warmth, the girls chattered and giggled all the way to the church. Each bearing a lantern that cast a warm glow upon the snow and cheeks rosy with cold and good cheer, it was a picturesque scene. For the Netherfield Party, standing just outside the church, it was a scene that brought smiles to all of their faces – excepting, perhaps, Miss Caroline Bingley.
"Good evening!" Mr. Bingley greeted the party when they were near enough to hear him, beaming brightly. He rushed forward to offer his arms to Jane and Elizabeth, all conviviality. "No Gardiners tonight?"
"I believe it was a long day for them," Jane explained with a smile several degrees brighter than it had been before Mr. Bingley's arrival. "Traveling with small children can be rather difficult."
"Well, we are all terribly pleased that you were able to make it!" Mr. Bingley assured her happily. They joined the Netherfield party and exchanged greetings – Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr. and Miss Darcy, Miss Bingley.
Lady Fitzwilliam was quick to claim Kitty's company, having grown strangely fond of the girl after rescuing her from the pub in St Albans, and Colonel Fitzwilliam offered his arm to Mary with a cheerful smile. Georgiana claimed the other, eager to ask her friend why her smile was quite so broad. Mr. Bingley had eyes only for Jane, quickly absconding with her, leaving in the churchyard the awkward party of Miss Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley, Lord Fitzwilliam, and the footman and maid who had escorted the Bennet sisters to the mass.
There was an uncomfortable silence before Lord Fitzwilliam at last offered his arm to Miss Bingley, leaving Mr. Darcy to escort Miss Elizabeth. Rather than following the party directly, Mr. Darcy paused in the porch. The bright glow of a multitude of candles from inside the church cast a warm light over their features, the cheerful chatter of friends greeting friends, and the distant sound of the organ being tested for the carols seemed to create a strangely magical aura about the couple which made them both reluctant to move.
"Are you well, Miss Elizabeth?" Mr. Darcy asked at last.
"Very well, Mr. Darcy – and yourself?" Elizabeth replied, attempting to return a teasing tone to her voice. Somehow, though, it didn't seem to work.
"Surely you cannot be ignorant of my feelings," he spoke quietly but passionately, pressing her hand with his own and pulling her close. "Surely you must know – you must allow me to express how ardently I love and admire you."
Elizabeth's breath caught and her grip on his arm tightened.
"I have tried to stay silent, but it will not do. If I stand a chance, if you would allow me to pursue you, you must tell me so at once. I shall not bother you again."
His eyes held a power and passion which Elizabeth had never seen in another and she had to remind herself to breathe lest she swoon like so many novel heroines. What words she used she could not afterwards recall, but she did manage in some manner to persuade Mr. Darcy that although her feelings were in a great confusion of late, she could never be believed to be indifferent to his person and would certainly welcome his attentions. How many terrors Mr. Darcy may have experienced over the course of this conversation could not be speculated, but the joy which suffused his face when its conclusion had been reached could not be doubted.
Although both would likely much rather stay forever in the porch of the church, staring into each other's eyes with all the joy of a deep understanding, they did at last remember themselves when the organ began to play the opening stanza of the first carol and together entered the church. Stepping into the glow of the candles in the church felt like stepping into a star, or perhaps it was their own happiness which created that glow. Whatever it was, that glow went with them long after the gospel had been read and the carols had been sung. It accompanied them on the cold, snowy walk home, and it settled with them into their coal-warmed beds afterwards. It was a glow which grew to encompass their dearest friends and family when, on Christmas morning, permission was officially granted and their joy could be shared at large.
Although the Bennet family wore black that Christmas, it was generally agreed upon that their joy far outweighed their grief. Lydia's stocking was hung by the chimney with care, and memories of many Christmases past were recalled with great fondness as they sat by the fire enjoying their mince pies and presents, musing what Christmases future might bring. Mr. Bennet was set up in a large, cosy armchair by the fire and swaddled with so many blankets and sweets and kisses that he could want for nothing. The laughter of the Gardiner children decked the halls with laughter, and not even Mrs. Bennet's nerves could be disturbed on that day.
Late that night, long after Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had gone to bed and the children had been settled in the nursery, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner stood in the threshold of the parlour observing the remains of the day. Kitty was curled up in the window seat, eyes drooping with sleep and her new copy of 'Macbeth' lying abandoned on her lap. Mary sat at the piano-forte, smiling to herself as she quietly pressed out the tune of Greensleeves. Jane and Elizabeth had claimed the sofa nearest the dying fire, Jane carefully smoothing Elizabeth's curly head where it rested in her lap as they gazed thoughtfully into the whispering embers. Various wrappings and trimmings were still scattered about the room where no one could be bothered to pick them up, and the remains of a lovely Christmas tea still were spread upon the corner table.
Sighing happily, Mrs. Gardiner leaned against her husband. He wrapped her up in his arms warmly, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.
"Very," Mrs. Gardiner replied, "but so very happy."
Mr. Gardiner hummed his agreement. If you had asked him a week ago whether or not this would be a happy Christmas for their family, he would have decidedly answered 'no.' Now, however, he could not deny that somehow they had managed to find some happiness even in the face of stunning, overwhelming grief.
They are stronger than they think, he mused calmly. They'll be just fine.
And they were.
"I can see it! I can see it!"
"I can't see! Move over!"
"Oh, Mummy! Look!"
"Isn't it beautiful?"
"It's a castle!"
"Does Lizzy really live here?"
Mrs. Gardiner smiled and pulled Freddy back into her lap – he was nearly too big to fit in her lap these days.
"Yes, darling, Lizzy really does live here," she assured them, sharing a small smile with her husband over their heads. "It is a beautiful home, but do remember that we are visitors here. We must remember our manners. After all, we do want to be invited back again, do we not?"
A chorus of agreement rose up from the ranks, but no amount of chastisement could keep them from craning their necks to get a better look out the windows as they pulled up the drive towards Pemberly. The house, with woodland behind and lake in front, seemed like something out of a fairy tale all covered in snow. The road had mostly been cleared, but the driver was taking it slowly anyways and it allowed the family plenty of time to take in the sights.
Their carriage was the first, and behind them were three more carriages. The convoy had left Netherfield (where they had all gathered at first) nearly two days ago to begin the journey to Derbyshire to celebrate Elizabeth's first Christmas as Mrs. Darcy. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy had insisted on hosting the entire family, although everyone had tried to assure them that they would understand if the newlyweds would like to have their first Christmas by themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy had insisted, and so here they were – four carriages worth of guests arriving on their doorstep a week before Christmas.
They must have been seen coming up the drive because they pulled up to the front door to find Mr. Darcy and Georgiana waiting on the front steps, wrapped up warmly against the chill, waving merrily in greeting. The carriage had barely pulled to a stop before the children were tumbling out into the snow and running to greet them. Mrs. Gardiner rolled her eyes at her husband as he handed her out of the carriage in a rather more graceful manner and they shared a small, amused smile.
Luckily, the Darcy siblings were by now very well used to dealing with the exuberance of the Gardiner children and were smiling very happily as there were besieged with stories from the trip and questions about what was to come.
The next carriage deposited Mr. and Mrs. Bennet as well as Kitty and Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone made it a particular point to assist Mr. Bennet from the carriage. Although he had long since recovered enough to make small trips to Meryton, Netherfield, and even London, Pemberly was much further than he had travelled in a long time and the journey had been a struggle for him. Darcy descended from the steps to greet them, shaking Mr. Bennet's hand firmly and then Mr. Stone's.
"It was very kind of you to include me in your invitation, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Stone thanked him sincerely, offering him a warm smile – well, as warm as Mr. Stone ever could be. "Very generous, sir."
"Nonsense," Mr. Darcy smiled in return. "We are very happy to have you, I assure you. How was the journey?"
"How are all journeys?" Mr. Bennet asked dryly. "Longer, harder, and much more exhausting than they are ever purported to be. I dare say a cup of tea would be very welcome. Where is my daughter?"
"Here, Papa!" Kitty teased him.
"Elizabeth is inside," Mr. Darcy assured him. "She is waiting very eagerly with all of the tea, coffee, and hot chocolate you could possibly drink."
"Oh, Mr. Darcy," Mrs. Bennet breathed. She hadn't taken her eyes off the house for a moment, and he imagined he might have seen her counting the windows under her breath. "My Lizzy lives here? Oh, Lord, Mr. Darcy!"
"Welcome to Pemberly, Mrs. Bennet," Mr. Darcy said, careful to maintain a serious mien. He was beginning to see, now, how Elizabeth had for so long been able to laugh at her mother. It was so much easier than being annoyed.
He was rescued from any further praise of his house, or any enquiries regarding the number of windows, by the arrival of the third carriage which emitted the newlywed Mr. and Mrs. Bingley and the not-so-newlywed Mr. and Mrs. Greengrass.
"Darce!" Mr. Bingley cried joyfully, clasping his friend's hand with great delight. "Can't believe I haven't seen you since our wedding! How are you? How is your wife? Where is your wife?"
"She's waiting inside with warm drinks for everyone," Darcy explained, grinning broadly. "We're very well, thank you – welcome to Pemberly! Welcome to Pemberly, Mrs. Bingley!"
"Thank you! Oh, it's just lovely, Mr. Darcy – I can see why Elizabeth writes so much about it," Jane beamed in return.
"Philip, Mary," Mr. Darcy greeted the other couple, married long enough now that the novelty of calling them by their married names seemed a little trite. "Welcome to Pemberly."
"Thank you so much for the invitation," Mary spoke for them both. "We've been looking forward to it ever since we received your invitation."
"The pleasure is ours, I assure you."
"Mary!" Georgiana's cry quickly drew that couple's attention as they turned to greet Mary's particular friend, leaving Darcy free just in time for the last carriage to pull up. He reached the door as it opened and was ready and waiting to hand down his aunt, Lady Fitzwilliam. Lord Fitzwilliam followed, with Richard and Charlotte immediately after.
They seemed relaxed – Darcy had been concerned when he last saw them that their truce would not last. Richard's parents had agreed to the match on the condition that they have a long engagement – eighteen months – which would give them time to prepare Charlotte for her new responsibilities and to plan the wedding of the season. Thus far, it seemed no one had collapsed from the pressure. In fact, Richard and Charlotte seemed incredibly relaxed. Perhaps Charlotte was doing better than expected?
After greetings on all sides had been exchanged, Darcy and Georgiana led the large party into the house. The entry hall was a riot of activity as servants took charge of wraps and luggage. Chatter and laughter filled the hall as everyone proclaimed their admiration of the holiday décor.
"Mr. Darcy," Mr. Bennet spoke up above the crowd. "Where is my daughter?"
Mr. Darcy smiled.
"This way, Mr. Bennet."
Mr. Darcy pushed open the double doors to the front sitting room and stood aside, giving the crowd in the entry hall a lovely framed view of the picturesque scene – tall windows on one side overlooking a wintery wonderland, a fire roaring in the grate of a large fireplace, tea and coffee service with various sweetmeats and pastry set out on the sideboard, and in the centre of all of this, pushing herself to her feet with a great deal of difficulty, was a very pregnant Elizabeth Darcy.
"Papa!" she greeted him cheerfully, moving to meet him with a broad smile.
"Lizzy," Mr. Bennet returned, his eyes shining with sudden tears. "My clever girl – what is this?"
"Happy Christmas, Papa!" Elizabeth laughed. They embraced warmly – as much as they could with Elizabeth's stomach in between them – and the rest of the crowd took that as their signal. Elizabeth was immediately bombarded with hugs, kisses, questions, and exclamations of delight.
Somehow in the midst of Mrs. Bennet's lectures about the importance of producing an heir and Mr. Bingley's slaps on the back and Freddy's curious questions about where babies come from, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy managed to see everyone settled with a hot drink and a bite to eat. Once everyone had been fed and watered and the shock of Elizabeth's pregnancy had worn off a little, the party dispersed to refresh themselves in their rooms. Only Jane hung back, assuring her husband that she would follow momentarily.
"Lizzy, I can't believe you didn't tell me!" Jane chided her, although her warm smile soothed the chastisement into an affectionate tease. "Is this why you insisted on hosting Christmas?"
"Fitzwilliam wouldn't hear of me travelling in my condition," Elizabeth confirmed perhaps with some of her father's dry tone. "I am still three months away from confinement, but I am grateful now for his forethought. I'm afraid that travelling at this stage would be uncomfortable for all of us!"
"So soon! Why, Lizzy! You were only married in May!"
Elizabeth laughed heartily. "Why, Jane! You were married at the same time – are you really so surprised?"
Jane blushed and shook her head.
"I suppose I ought not to be. How did you know that you were pregnant, Lizzy?"
Elizabeth looked around quickly to be sure no one could overhear them – indeed, Georgiana and Fitzwilliam were speaking quietly in the hall, and there were only a few servants clearing away the tea service.
"I thought there was something the matter when my courses didn't come. Of course, I have missed courses before, but never for two months together. Our doctor suspected pregnancy, and I felt the quickening perhaps a month or so later."
"I have missed two courses, Lizzy," Jane whispered, a strange mixture of fear and elation colouring her tone. "Do you think I could be…?"
Elizabeth took her sister's hand in both of her own and squeezed it warmly.
"Dear Jane! Our doctor will be attending me tomorrow – stay with me at that time and we shall pose the question to him, shall we?"
In the wake of such an exchange of information there could no question of the mutual affection and delight of both sisters. To share the joy of a wedding day and then, shortly thereafter, to share the joy of their growing families …!
Jane was quickly shown to her room to rest, and Mr. Darcy very quietly insisted that Elizabeth also be shown to her room to rest. A very small battle of wills took place in the corridor until Elizabeth did, eventually, admit that she was rather tired, but he was to wake her with plenty of time to dress for dinner with no excuses.
That the arrival of so many guests had been greeted with such happy news could only bode well for their holiday, and the Christmas season did, indeed, far surpass all of their expectations. Much joy was to be found in the sweets and hot drinks, roaring fires, and ever-falling snow. Sleigh rides were organized, blades were acquired for skating parties, and all manner of parlour games were practised with great enthusiasm. That Jane shortly upon arrival had a lovely Christmas present prepared for her husband, and that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy could share in their joy, could only add to the present cheer. The two newlywed couples could often be caught out watching the Gardiner children with intent – whether it be curiosity, fear, longing, or hope – and the older generation took to sending each other knowing smiles whenever those couples were caught out in such a manner.
That Kitty and Georgiana were occasionally caught throwing similar looks of curiosity and longing at the married couples in their moments of romance could hardly be wondered at, and it could equally be supposed that Mr. Stone's presence at Pemberly caused a few raised eyebrows and suggestive winks. It was generally known that Kitty had spent the better part of the autumn with her aunt and uncle in London, although it could not be said that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were particularly eager to rid themselves of their last remaining daughter. Whilst they had grown accustomed to a quieter household in the autumn, they had been very glad to have Kitty returned to them in the winter – that she had returned without her heart was very much evident, and Mrs. Bennet was already planning an elegant spring wedding with rather more mixed emotions than she had planned the first three.
After Mary's wedding to Mr. Greengrass in April, with the double wedding of Jane and Elizabeth to look forward to in June, the Bennets were speedily pronounced to be the luckiest family in the world, though only a few months before, when Lydia had been killed, they had been generally proved to be marked out for misfortune. That the family's return to Meryton bore news of two new children to be expected could only further confirm that the Bennet family, in spite of their adversities, was truly a very lucky family indeed.
That Charlotte Lucas had made a match with a future Earl was generally proclaimed as the most shocking thing to happen to a native of Meryton, except perhaps the murder of Miss Lydia Bennet, and was spoken of just as often, if not more so. That this event could be complained of, praised, or used to prove the prominence of Meryton over other neighbouring towns in any given conversation was a matter of course, and it must be said that the Lucas family certainly gained in consequence as a result.
To speculate upon what may or may not have happened after this Christmas would be difficult at best, but there were a few things which may naturally be supposed to have happened with relative truth.
That Kitty would wed Mr. Stone in a lovely spring wedding was expected. That Mr. Stone's position in the ranks of trade and in wealth, helped on by Mr. Gardiner and his own ambition and natural skill, would rise over the course of their lives could only be natural. Their London home was a place which never lacked in books (particularly Shakespeare), in warmth, or in company, but unsurprisingly one would never there find a single embroidered handkerchief.
Mary, the Bennet daughter who had never been expected to marry, had shocked the neighbourhood by being the first to do so. As a natural consequence of Mr. Greengrass being the well-liked and respected clerk of Mr. Phillips for two years before wedding that man's niece, it did not surprise anyone when Phillips & Smith, Ltd., had, shortly after Mr. Smith's retirement, become Phillips & Greengrass, Ltd. While Mary would never, perhaps, live up to her aunt's reputation as a hostess and the social star of the Meryton populace, it was generally agreed upon that one could always rely upon Mrs. Mary Greengrass for sensible and philosophical conversation when one was tired of gossip. Whether or not Mrs. Bennet ever took advantage of this opportunity for sensible conversation when calling upon her daughter can only be guessed.
The most beautiful Bennet daughter was the rising star on the Meryton social scene for little more than a year before she and her new-born babe were whisked away by her husband to the North where they settled not more than thirty miles from Pemberly, an occasion which could only serve to increase the happiness and intimacy of both families. That not more than a month could pass without a carriage passing between the two estates would surprise none who knew the sisters.
While Charlotte's match with a future Earl had shocked Meryton, it was less shocking that, upon marriage, said couple were often found at Pemberly or at the Darcy townhouse. Colonel Fitzwilliam (who did insist on being called Colonel except when absolutely necessary) was found to have an unsurprising knack for politics, and his influence in the House of Lords, helped along by his naturally gregarious nature, was a great tactical and steadying presence over the next few decades of enormous change in England. Charlotte, for all of her middling country upbringing, was considered a great success in the London social scene. A word from the new Lady Fitzwilliam could make or break a lady's reputation in the ton, and one may only suppose that said lady wielded her power with equal authority and compassion.
As for our dear Elizabeth and her Mr. Darcy, their passion forever remained Pemberly. That they raised their children to be generous and selfless was no more surprising than their children also being occasionally rather proud and, now and then, a little bit prejudiced. Georgiana lived with them for only a few years while she, much encouraged and helped along by her sisters, enjoyed an exhausting two years of 'being out' before a kind, clever young man managed to snatch her up. Such close relatives of the Fitzwilliams would ever maintain a sterling reputation among the London set, even before they managed to win over the indefatigable Lady Catherine, and it was generally agreed that Mrs. Darcy hosted the most elegant, interesting dinner parties. Many grand ideas and important decisions were hashed out and debated at said parties, so that a Darcy dinner party was soon synonymous with intelligent discussion, worthy company, and good decisions being made for the future of England. As for the future of Pemberly – could it ever be less than prosperous?
As for the Harringtons, it could not be supposed that their residence in Meryton would ever be peaceful following the confession and death of their son and heir. Highfield House being sold to another family, the Harringtons took themselves to a rather larger town in Devon where, knowing nothing of the family's unfortunate circumstances, the townspeople welcomed them warmly. Pen and Harriet made good matches with local men of good reputation, and their brother's infamous deeds only ever haunted them in their memories.
Lydia's grave was always well-tended - by villagers who remembered her liveliness, by young girls who heard her story and thought it tragic, and most of all by the very sister who had always greatly resented the teenager's exuberant selfishness.
It is sometimes said that the darkest of trials will produce the brightest stars, that the hardest circumstances will produce the softest hearts, and that the greatest pressure will produce the most beautiful jewels. While the Bennet sisters moved on with their lives and dispersed across the country, they were long remembered in Meryton as the brightest jewels of the county – in spite of, or perhaps because of, that most untoward circumstance.
AN: I can't believe it's over.
First of all, thank you so much for being my faithful readers through this story! I know it's been a long time coming, but you've been with me through some of my most incredible life changes (getting married, moving to England!) and I'm so grateful for all of your encouragement! I've never been able to finish a full-length story before, fanfiction or otherwise, and I'm so glad you able to help me do this! Your comments, questions, and insights were invaluable in helping to shape this story.
Secondly, if you see my story anywhere else, will you please let me know? I have given permission for people to provide links to my story from other websites, but nobody else has permission to publish this story under my name or any other. This is the ONLY official version of this story, and I don't want to have to take it down for copyright reasons because I hate when other people do that. I like being able to come back to good stories and read them over and over again, and I want that for all of my dear readers. I currently have no intention to publish this story - I intend for it to stay on this site indefinitely, but I thank you very kindly for the suggestions!
Thirdly, it's not really over! While I am going to be massively busy and won't be able to manage a full-length sequel for a long while, if ever, I will be setting up a series of one-shots with missing scenes and mini-epilogues. There is so much still to explore which just couldn't be covered in this story - Elizabeth and Darcy's courtship, more Jane and Bingley moments, those meetings between Mary and Mr. Greengrass in Meryton, and so much to cover with Kitty and Mr. Stone's relationship! Quite frankly, I think Kitty and Mr. Stone deserve their own full length story - there's a history with his family that I never got to bring into this story and so many lovely pieces of their year-long courtship which I would have loved to write for you. I am about to be massively over-loaded with work as I'm starting my new job in my new country with my new husband by my side, but I really hope you'll come and find me again in a few months.
Miss you already!