[Location: Longbourn garden---a joyous celebration for Jane & Bingley within; time: evening after Elizabeth accepts Mr. Darcy's proposal; setup: Elizabeth's pre-Pride & Prejudice history includes—among other things—a physical assault by a spurned suitor from which she was narrowly rescued from a terrible fate by a mysterious stranger, with his best mate hard on his heels. The incident was the talk of Meryton.]
by Penny Freeman
Behind the house at Longbourn, behind the carefully groomed lawns and gardens meticulously planted to reflect its tasteful fashion, marshaled into order for inspection by the neighbors, behind a long and tall stone wall and through a little arched door which guarded the breach, tucked neatly out of sight where it could bring no shame to its betters, a small patch of dirt had been given over to the whims of little girls. To mark the distinction, because it was so marked and so distinct, they called it Francesca’s Garden.
Had any outsider been allowed to frequent that garden (which rarely happened), initiated to the secrets beyond that curious door, if they were familiar with the Hermitage, a quaint little cottage on the grounds of a local abbey, they would suppose that the Bennets copied their more prosperous kin. They would have been mistaken, for it was entirely the opposite. The Mastersons, especially the gardeners of Oakhaven, knew that such as Francesca’s Garden grew from within. Anything else, no matter the grandeur of the scale, was simply a monkey aping the actions of a man.
Once, when Elizabeth was just a girl and still unafraid of approaching her mother, she asked her why they called it Francesca’s Garden. Her mother’s eyes turned soft and sad. She attacked the soil beneath her spade until she had dug up enough courage, then leaned back on her haunches and looked to her daughter, her eyes shimmering with tears. When Elizabeth considered her mother’s timeless beauty, she thought of that day in the garden as she knelt in the dirt surrounded by a riot of blooms.
Her mother told her that her father used to call her as much once, her name in a tongue strange and foreign. They had been young, before the hardships and disappointments of his life had ground all the romance out of him. But that was long ago. Before she broke his heart.
It seemed the only tender thing Lizzie had ever heard her mother say of her father – since she was old enough to gauge such things for what they were, at any rate. She never asked of it again. She never asked regarding their hardships and their heartbreak, for she knew beyond doubt her father’s had been her mother’s own. She could not ask her for that unspoken grief seemed far more than she could bear.
But her mother loved that garden. In it, everything was given over to whim and fancy. The fruit trees trained upon the walls worked their will with it, refusing to allow its stony demeanor. Each girl had been given a plot of her own as soon as she was old enough or interested enough to ask for it, and Mrs. Bennet carefully educated her daughters in the magic arts prerequisite in possessing a green thumb. Lizzie felt close to her mother there. At least, she had done.
But mother and daughter never recovered from the events of ‘ten. They never returned to what they had been, as tenuous as it had been, and the events of the preceding twelve-month had only aggravated the situation. Since Lizzie turned down yet another offer, that which Mrs. Bennet felt her one remaining hope, as well as her family’s, she had been cold and distant, scarcely tolerant, but Lizzie could not blame her. She had wrought upon her family enough shame to last a lifetime, but even so – or especially so – she could not consent to marrying Mr. Collins. Her mother simply refused to accept that she would never wed.
It was to that garden Elizabeth fled, not as a machination to draw the laughing Mr. Darcy away from the festivities within. Rather, she fled to escape his gentle eyes, his loving heart, his obvious determination to dance. He was such a good, honorable man. She loved him so desperately, her soul wailed.
But she had been schooled in silence long since and so she simply wandered the grassy paths of the garden which separated the raised beds. The moon began to rise behind the firs of Longbourn’s pretty little wilderness and she paused to drink in the beauty of it, to capture a bit of peace.
“You will catch your death.”
Mr. Darcy’s tender voice accompanied a cloak gently draped over her shoulders, his hands lingering there, coming to rest. She ached for him to wrap his arms about her and knew he fought against the impulse to do so.
“Would that it were so,” escaped her as she stepped away.
Mr. Darcy failed to feel the affront. “Tell me.”
Silent, Elizabeth wandered away from him, her arms wrapped about herself to ward off the chill of her empty future. She wandered and he trailed after her, silent, patient, still. She stopped, unable to flee him, unable to force herself away. She knew herself drawn to him, especially there in the darkness and seclusion of the garden. She need but close her eyes at his touch and the world would fall away.
“My father thinks very highly of you.”
“Why would you say that?”
“He gives you the time of day.”
Mr. Darcy smiled at the truth of it but said nothing.
“Was it terribly dreadful? He kept you for more than an hour.”
“You are the world to him, darling. He would not give you up to just anyone.”
“No,” Elizabeth breathed. “Not again.”
“He wished to ensure that I secured you for the right reasons.”
“My father has never cared for fortune hunters.”
“Elizabeth – ”
She turned to him to gaze up into his face. For what she must do, he deserved that much respect. He deserved far more. “I release you,” she breathed. The heartbreak in her eyes spoke far more than her voice ever could. She cursed herself for her weakness, but it was so. “I will not – I cannot marry you.”
Mr. Darcy’s eyes but grew more tender, more embracing at the denial.
“The shame shall be on me. None need know unless you wish it. Only my parents – they shall never tell anyone, but I can stay here no longer. I shall go away. My uncle – my father’s friend can help me find a position somewhere, perhaps as a lady’s companion.”
“Better a governess.”
Elizabeth raised her tear-filled eyes to him, startled at the change of feeling in his tone. She failed to understand him. He took no affront, and yet he turned into a casual if concerned acquaintance as she spoke. The distance grew between them with dizzying speed, faster than she ever imagined possible. She stared at him across a vast expanse and felt she knew him no longer.
“I will change my name,” she forced herself to say. “I will bring no further shame to this house.”
“Is that all?”
“I wanted to thank you, Mr. Darcy.”
“I care little for rehearsed denials, Miss Bennet, no matter how well-practiced.”
Elizabeth flinched at the sting of his words as they drove home with deadly accuracy howsoever misfired. “For my day. I wanted to thank you for my wondrous day.”
“I had planned an entire life together, Elizabeth. I drew up an itinerary.”
Elizabeth wailed a sorry little laugh at his self-deprecating humor. She knew then he had drawn away from her, affording her distance between them to make matters simpler, but when she mustered the courage to return her gaze to him, he was himself again and she was his. She knew he could not stay away.
“I have a friend,” she managed, unable to keep the tears from her voice. “Once he told me I would find the one for whom I searched. He said I would look into the eyes of that one and all my shame would vanish. I would forget all else but the love in those eyes.”
“He explained to me why he would not speak as I explained why I would never accept anyone.”
“A curious suitor.”
“No. Not a suitor.”
“Are you certain?”
Elizabeth gazed up into those eyes she yearned to see for so long. She lost herself in their tenderness such that she could not speak. She could do naught but surrender to their silent professions.
“Forgive me,” he murmured softly, again taking her shoulders in his hands. “I would die to be him, Elizabeth. I would surrender all I have, all I am, to own your heart. I do not wish you to marry me out of obligation.”
“No, Mr. Darcy,” she denied. “No. He knew I would find you one day. You came to me, beloved. You came to me and nothing else mattered. All my past vanished.”
“Say that again.”
“You came to me.”
“No,” he denied with frustration. “After.”
Lizzie’s brow drew down in confusion. “Nothing else matters.”
“Call me ‘beloved’, my heart, my soul.” He fairly dropped on his knees and begged her, even as he towered over her and held her face in his hands. He pleaded and she could not deny him. “Name me your own.”
“Beloved,” she breathed. “My beloved, I cannot be your wife.”
“Do you love me, darling?”
“More than life itself.”
“And I love you more still. How can anything else matter?”
“You don’t know.”
“But I do know, darling. I know all.”
“Your friend – ”
“He will never return.”
“He spares us both.”
“He would speak if he returned.”
“I would deny him.”
“As you deny me?”
“No. Denying him – would not . . . It is not the same.”
“Why not?” He again loomed over her, although his voice became a tender caress. He failed to touch her, but she felt him claiming her even still.
“Because I do not love him as I love you. I never loved him – I never loved anyone. I never knew the meaning of the word until you.”
“You love your friend though he does stay away.”
“He knows my secrets.”
Darcy swallowed hard and pushed back his own sensibilities. “He knows what happened in ‘ten.”
Elizabeth’s breath caught. She forced herself calm, although she could not stem her tears. “He cares not. He loves me enough to turn a blind eye to the rest.”
“You would be happy.”
“No, beloved. I would wish for death. I would betray him with every thought of you.”
“Little bird,” he murmured, turning her to him, “my little bird, do not flutter so.”
Elizabeth tended to flutter all the more at the frontal attack. In point of fact, he so overwhelmed her, she nearly flew. Mr. Darcy obviously felt the most certain way to prevent it was to drop to his knees. There on the grass before her, he caught up her hand and held it to his cheek, then turned and kissed her palm, her wrist, allowing his lips to linger. Despite every resolve to do so, she could not draw away.
“Did you know you are my little bird, dearest Elizabeth? I came after you with a net and you flew. But if I sat very quietly, you would hop near, and when I waited for you to learn to trust me, you at last came and perched upon my shoulder to serenade me your sweet song. You are my own little bird and I cannot do without you. I have tried for ages and get on very ill.”
“I cannot allow it, Mr. Darcy. I will not have you take a harlot to wife.”
“Tell me,” he urged her, and because he entreated her, she did. Then, after she had disgorged the entire sordid tale, after she revealed all, withholding nothing, he held her as she wept out four long years of grief. He held her and rocked her and sang a gentle tune and she at last began to gain some peace.
She failed to recall exactly when he sought out the stone bench upon which to sit. She never noted how she came to be ensconced on his knee. She but knew she belonged there, in his arms, her face buried in his neck. They fit, perfectly, and as he held her and sang to her, she knew she had at last come home. She could not give up the comfort of her nest, no matter how she tried.
“You are not such an one,” he said gently at long last. “The actions of that wretch – you are a victim, darling – of his violence, of his abuse, of the stupidity and negligence of those whose greatest concern was to protect you and to prevent all harm from befalling you. The only person who displayed the least bit of sense in the entire matter was you. You, my precious Elizabeth, are as pure and as innocent as the driven snow.”
“But the Hermitage – ”
“You would not be yourself if you could stay away from the Hermitage. How could you abandon Madeleine when she was so far from home, in a strange and foreign land, and she even unable to speak to the servants?”
“You know Madeleine?”
Darcy blinked at her, attempting to recall what he had said. “Mrs. Montmorency?”
“You know her?”
“I told you. I know everything. Everything.”
“As I said, Masterson has long been my friend. We have been friends since we were lads together at school. I did not – that is to say, Bingley did not come here by accident. We have kept an eye on Netherfield, and Masterson told us when it was available to let.”
“Then, you know why I cannot marry you.”
“Do you love me, Elizabeth?”
“If I were to relate such a tale to you, would it matter the least jot to you?”
“It is not the same.”
“It is exactly the same. Men have no more right to – ”
“It is not. I am penniless and portionless. At best, I can claim myself a gentleman’s daughter, nothing more. I make myself high. I refuse to remain in my proper sphere. And you . . . ”
“I am marvelous me.”
“Yes!” she insisted. “You are Fitzwilliam Darcy and I have no right to you. This will come back to sully your name. I know it. I make myself high.”
“I make you high, little bird – insomuch as you enter my sphere, I bring you. It is my choice. But in everything that matters – everything – you are so far above me, I will strive all my life and never deserve you. I will never reach such heights.
“Your friend – I know he could have made you forget. I see in your eyes that you could have loved him as every man dreams to be loved. He is the one that deserves you, not I.”
“I love you, beloved. I want you.”
“Are you going to turn away the love between us – a love so great it eclipses such as his? All for fear of what other people think? I love you, Elizabeth. When I see your own heart in your eyes, no one, not my friends, not my connections, not those I love as my brothers – none of them matter. Devil take me! When I see your love for me in your eyes, they all cease to exist.”
“I am so afraid.”
“Darling, I am terrified you will wake up one day and realize you chose the wrong one – that a single quirk of fate determined the matter.”
Elizabeth could but throw her arms about his neck and wail.
“Hush,” he soothed, again taking to rocking her. “Hush now. Be still.” Attended so assiduously, she could not help but comply. When she quieted, he drew her away from him that he may gaze into her eyes.
“Words are powerful things. They create. They destroy.”
Elizabeth could but nod her head in agreement.
“Promise me you will never again refer to yourself thus, Elizabeth. Promise me you will cease believing it.”
Elizabeth ducked her head, unwilling to commit. She had been using it a great while indeed.
“It makes me want to hit something,” he insisted.
Elizabeth flew back into his neck and refused to emerge. He fell silent and allowed his touch to soothe her, which he knew was a great allowance indeed. Even so, he waited until she was ready and could hear his words rather than her own self-condemnation.
“I have loved you so long, Elizabeth. I have loved you from the first moment I saw you.”
“And I you,” she confessed, and he never thought to argue the point with her.
“I have a name for you.”
“I have as many names for you as facets which glimmer and glisten in you.”
“Three, then? Cross, surly and impertinent.”
He smiled but refused to be distracted from his purpose. “My heart spoke this name when I saw you at Pemberley – pure and clean, devoid of any unhappy past, free from any recrimination. It is Pemberley and Pemberley is you, loveliest Elizabeth. I would that you know your name in my heart.”
“Mr. Darcy – ”
“I had not returned home since my father’s death, darling,” he confessed. “He closed the house when he went to Parliament and I could not bring myself to open it again. Instead, I flew. I abandoned Georgiana and buried myself in my duties because I could not bear the thought of my life without him – without my mother. I could not return to Pemberley. For years I could not.”
“Hush,” she whispered. “You don’t have to do this.”
“I do. You need to know. You need to know that after last spring, after you set me to rights again – ”
“No, Mr. Darcy. You set me – ”
“I need to tell you, Elizabeth. Please let me tell you.”
Elizabeth ducked her head, shamed, penitent, which he could not bear to see. Rather, he raised her chin to raise her gaze, to lift her up into his sphere.
“I was not supposed to be in Kent. I had responsibilities. I had duties. Every morning I awoke and told myself that was the day. I would return to my post and finish the task set before me. But I could not, little bird. I could not draw away. I could not leave you behind.
“After we – came to understand one another, I at last saw how I had failed my sister. I was not the only one suffering. I determined to make Georgiana’s life better. I resolved to take her home. But I had to do it alone. Elizabeth, I was so afraid. I was afraid to go home. I could not return to my father’s empty house with a great horde of connections looking on. I came ahead. Facing my home without my family, that was my business there that day.
“As I came, as I rounded the house and saw that one particular spot in that crook of the river, I thought, there my mother often stood. I thought it, and there you were, in your natural place. It was no longer my mother’s garden, my mother’s home. When I saw you there, I knew you its owner and me the stranger. I could do nothing but attempt to secure you to come home.”
“Mr. Darcy – ”
“You are Pemberley, little bird, and my heart named you my own. I went to Pemberley to face my demons and found my salvation instead.”
Unable to bear such an onslaught of worshipful devotion, Elizabeth again fled to his neck.
“Lisa,” he breathed in her ear. “You are my Lisa, a work of infinite worth, of timeless beauty, of unfathomed depth of soul. You are my Lisa and nothing else matters. Nothing matters but this.”
He knew she would hide away, but he could not allow it. He was a master tactician and knew to strike when the opportunity presented itself, availing oneself of the enemy’s weaknesses, making short work of it with one fell blow. He drew her away from him and held her face in his hands, preventing her escape.
“My Lisa, would you do me the great honor of accepting my devotion?”
“Promise me to never again refer to my wife in words ground into your heart by that wretch. I pray you, promise me.”
“I promise, beloved,” she breathed, unable to deny him anything when he named her thus.
Darcy took a deep breath, forcing himself into some semblance of control although his eyes would follow his thumb as he traced the fullness of her lip. She trembled in his hands. She verily melted. And his thumb insisted on touching her. It demanded the caress.
“I would kiss you,” he whispered, managing to escape as far as her eyes.
The lass in his hands simply blinked and unconsciously wet her lips.
“I want to kiss you, dreadfully.”
“You kiss dreadfully?”
“Any lips other than yours are dreadful.”
Elizabeth bit her tongue to silence it, colored a furious pink and closed her eyes, her only escape.
“If I kiss you, I would be no better than that wretch. You would believe I lied to you. My actions would speak far more strongly than my words ever could.”
“I don’t care.”
“I do.” Feeling her cringe, he pressed her. “As much as I want to kiss you, little bird, I want it to be perfect more still. I want that between us to be free of regret or reproach. But, blazes! I want to kiss you.”
Knowing him, or learning to know him as she did, she forced herself to accept what he told her at face value. She would keep her promise, even in her heart. He thought he would go distracted from the look of utter devotion in her eyes.
He swallowed hard, the battle raging within him mighty indeed. “Perhaps we had best go in the house.”
He gazed upon her, caught between his good sense and his inability to return to the noise and the press. He knew beyond doubt he could not. He could not again pretend she was nothing to him – less than nothing. Not just then. “I told you I left town last summer after – everything,” he began tentatively, expecting her to duck her head in shame, thus unsurprised when she did. “I went to Vienna.”
Elizabeth looked up at him, surprised, confused. “Vienna?”
“I installed Georgiana at Pemberley knowing I must again soon be on my way, but I did not wish to defer. My uncle, the earl, is a diplomat. He often travels abroad on the King’s errand and I frequently accompany him. There are few men he trusts and I sometimes serve as his attaché. Particularly since last spring – ”
“After the war. He went to the Vienna Conference?”
“Just so. I and his son with him.”
“But what are you doing here?”
Elizabeth again ducked her head to hide her laughing eyes, for the picture he painted of himself seemed his very antithesis. However, he refused to allow it and to look upon him disintegrated her control. “You do not believe me,” he charged.
“I fear I cannot,” she laughed.
“I am the moony, spoony Mr. Darcy, I assure you.” His eyes sparkled and danced as she fought against his efforts to undo her. “All of Vienna knows it, I fear. My cousin said I made myself ridiculous moony and morose by turns. I had such a reputation after only a fortnight, a bent and broken-down old dowager determined something must be done to provide for my relief. She took me in hand.”
“And what was her prescription? Bleeding? Blistering? Mustard plasters?”
“Nothing so scientific. Rather she provided an old folk remedy.”
“Toadstools and eye of newt. A dead cat buried in a graveyard under a full moon.”
“Worse even still. She taught me a folk dance.”
“Indeed,” Elizabeth laughed, extremely diverted. “And did you learn?”
“Indeed, I did. She was very patient with me and my stumbling, bumbling feet. I am certain it was painful for her, but I learned to dance – against the day, as she told me, and I could not persuade myself otherwise.”
“And what did you then?” Elizabeth wondered, again caught within the spell he cast over her.
“Why, I waltzed all the way to Hertfordshire, of course.”
“Lisa,” he murmured, taking up her hand, “my bride, my wife, would you dance with me?”
—A Chaotic Mind