(Read the prologue: Somewhere in Hertfordshire, July 1790)
Part I: 1811-1812
Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. – Pride & Prejudice
At Christmas, when everyone is consumed by a mad desire to bring the outdoors in, festooning their windows and doorways with that greenery usually reserved for the landscaper’s manipulation, one need no particular excuse to deck the halls, garland the banister, and indulge in the abundant gaieties typical of the season. When that most joyous of all occasions – a wedding – happens to correspond to this festive time of year, the merriment must needs be all the more splendid.
The Bennet family had nothing less than outrageous good fortune to celebrate. Had you asked Mrs. Bennet a mere six months past what she required to achieve perfect contentment, she would have unhesitatingly declared, “Might I see just a few of my girls comfortably settled, I should have not a care in the world.” As having one’s heart’s desire so expeditiously fulfilled could render even the most staid character deliriously happy, Mrs. Bennet might be reasonably expected to attain heights of exaltation never before achieved by mankind.
Marrying off more than half one’s excessive number of daughters was no everyday occurrence, particularly not so very advantageously. Mary’s match might not be the monetary windfall of her sisters, but by breaking the entail she far exceeded all her family’s expectations. This ball, held by Mr. Bingley in honor of his future wife, was merely the first in a season of continuous festivities, to culminate in the annual Twelfth Night celebrations at Pemberley. It was an event Elizabeth would host as the new mistress of that very fine estate, though she had never yet placed a foot upon its grounds. Mrs. Bennet’s triumph should be complete, and though it must in no way be underestimated, for it was excessive indeed, discontent besmirched what ought to have been a perfect occasion. What could cause such irritation to maternal feelings? A not unreasonable sense of indignation at seeing the honors of the evening usurped: “I know not how Jane can bear to dance so complacently on Mr. Wickham’s arm, when it is she who should be leading the set. I have a strong notion to tell Mrs. Wickham precisely what I think of her behavior, Mr. Bennet!”
“By all means, my dear. If the bride can summon no shame for herself, why should you not be the one to supply the deficit.”
“But it is intolerable! If any daughter of mine were to abandon all her friends and elope, making herself and her relations the talk of the neighborhood, she certainly would at least know better than to flaunt her actions so shamelessly! The lady ought to have remained in Scotland, or anywhere else, at least until after her brother’s wedding.”
“For once, Mrs. Bennet, we completely agree. It would have been a great deal more convenient, but Mr. and Mrs. Wickham, who might not be as enlightened as you and I, do not seem to have taken such considerations to mind when making their plans. As they are here, and Mr. Bingley cannot deny his sister the rights of a bride without fueling a great deal more gossip than that with which he must already contend, I commend our daughter in making the best of her situation.”
“Dear Jane always behaves just as she ought, but I know not what such graciousness under so much provocation will do to my nerves!”
Mrs. Bennet was not alone in her irritation. Elizabeth, despite her determination to relish the dance, could not be blind to the feathered headdress of Mrs. Wickham, which seem to constantly intrude itself upon her line of vision. For abstract reasons, its presence reminded her of the changes ahead, and her struggle to remain in the moment failed against visions of the grandeur to come. Becoming Mrs. Darcy was no small undertaking, and while Elizabeth maintained no delusions that a Miss Bennet was bred to the task, she did have faith in her ability to succeed, even flourish, with Mr. Darcy assistance. He had already shown a great desire to ease her transition, and it was for this reason the new year would begin with a Twelfth Night party at Pemberley, rather than the customary ball. Mr. Darcy could not be so cruel to either himself or his new wife as to interrupt the first weeks of their marriage with hundred of guests. He already worried that entertainment on any scale might overwhelm her, knowing far better than she the true size and scope of her future home, but Elizabeth was insistent. “By your own admission, this event has only been cancelled on two occasions in your lifetime: both when the house was in mourning. This is a happy occasion, and I will not let it be associated in anyone’s mind with times so opposite.” And with many reassurances that the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, would bear the vast share of the burden, a point on which he could have no doubt, the matter was settled that it should be a small party, only family and their nearest neighbors.
With such joyful intimidations before her, Elizabeth still had depths of emotion to bestow upon the new Mrs. Wickham – haughtily leading the steps on her brother’s arm, betraying not the slightest bit of shame for her behavior, and acting just as if she deserved the honors assumed – but as Elizabeth had herself instructed Mr. Darcy to pay neither she nor her far more offensive husband the slightest bit of mind, it would not do for her to betray her own indignation at the former Miss Bingley now. She must not be allowed to spoil the evening.
Turning a teasing smile towards her partner and catching his eye, she began to laugh. “Oh no, Mr. Darcy! This will never do!”
He gazed at her contentedly. “Whatever could you mean, my dear? I have never before so enjoyed a ball.” He looked around in confirmation of the sentiment. In one corner of the room he saw Georgiana giggling with Kitty Bennet, behaving just how ladies their age ought at a ball. Though he could not say so much for Lydia, he was pleased to see her father standing over her, ready at any moment to intervene. If he could overhear Mrs. Bennet’s laments, he was also able to ignore them, and the image of Mr. Collins and Mary sitting in the corner, no doubt discussing some deep topic no one else could ever find the slightest interest in but themselves, inspired a sensation that everyone had their perfect someone in the world, and those in the room were a testament to the fact. The Wickhams were like specks on the wall in the presence of his Elizabeth, but he could even be optimistic about their uncertain future. Though they were sure to prove a burden to Bingley, he felt Caroline might very well prove the making of Wickham, as she would both hold the purse strings and insist he conduct himself respectably. Never before had he looked on the world with such beneficence.
“But we must pay some care for our audience. We have expectations to meet, Mr. Darcy.”
“I thought we were performing quite nicely. Do you not see Sir William’s pleasure?”
“Oh yes, Sir William Lucas is the great arbiter of the art! It must be his invaluable time at St. James that renders him such a worthy judge. However that may be, I referred not to the accuracy and grace of our steps, which I have no doubt are sublime, but the inescapable notion that this is but the second time we have ever danced, and again we commence in total silence. We really must have some conversation, even if it just regarding the weather, lest the neighborhood conclude we already have grown tired of one another.”
Now he laughed. “Impossible! Anyone with eyes may instantly perceive my delight!”
It was true, and those persons in the room who knew Fitzwilliam Darcy best – those possessing that insight into a character only a shared childhood can provide –
knew how truly anomalous was his current mood. To Georgiana Darcy, her brother’s joy was her own, but the same could not be said for George Wickham, who found it galling that Darcy should have wealth, position, and love to boot. He had no such delight in his own bride, though pleased enough with his catch. He barely even knew Caroline, and beyond a shared yearning for Pemberley and dislike of its master could not say what they had in common. But a thousand pounds a year was no small gain, and as it was very pleasant to enjoy the smiles of his future sister, he found pessimism hard to sustain. He would capitalize, as he always had, upon his old friend’s blessings. Having quite lost any hope for their personal relationship after foolishly pursuing Georgiana, he now saw an opportunity for restoration, as soon he would be forever linked to the family through marriage, however distantly. This time he was determined to put the connection to better use.
Another in the room had not dissimilar thoughts to George Wickham, though hers were born of far better will. Charlotte Lucas had closely watched as the extraordinary happened to the Bennets – a total reversal of fortune – while her own prospects remained abominably bleak. She too wished to make good use of her connection to the Darcys. She was invited to the wedding at Pemberley, and she was determined to make the most of the opportunity.
There was no reason to suppose Charlotte would not prosper in her cause, but Mr. Wickham was that very evening to encounter a stumbling block in his pathway to paradise. Mr. Darcy, always mindful of form, asked the new Mrs. Wickham to stand with him. Though the lady’s gloating insinuations and abhorrent lack of shame disgusted him, he was determined to dance with her, and for reasons compounding more than mere formality. Pride and familial duty were at stake. No one must think he bore any ill will towards the new couple, for the sake of not just Georgiana, but Bingley as well.
If Mr. Darcy’s emotions were complex regarding his partner, hers were fantastic. Mrs. Wickham (who was feeling very smug in her elopement and, as so many had noted, not in the least ashamed) knew it was he had who warned the fathers of Meryton to keep their daughters away from George Wickham, and more abominable behavior she could not comprehend. To think that Mr. Darcy could treat so shabbily he who ought to be most dear, as Wickham had been to his father before him, caused her resentment to swell. This was a troubling sensation, as she needed Mr. Darcy; his consequence must be as dear to her as her husband’s, irrevocably connected as she believed them to be. Something ought to be done to rectify such wrongs, and she had enough self-righteous anger and personal interest to make the attempt.
“Is it not felicitous, “ she began insincerely, “that two such friends as you and I should discover happiness in such an out of the way place as Netherfield?” He politely, but silently, acknowledged this sentiment. “My brother too! You remember that I was not in favor of his engagement, but I cannot now censure another for following their heart, not after having done the same myself.” She sighed in happy affectation.
To this he could easily agree. “When one meets the person most suited to themselves, social consequence proves little barrier.”
She tried not to grimace. “I doubt that had even such similarities of circumstance not formed a natural relationship, our friendship would find solidity in the close connection provided by your and my brother marrying two sisters.”
He looked quizzical. “Indeed? It is precisely the kind of connection most would term distant.”
“Come, Mr. Darcy! Surely we must put the past behind us. Your misunderstanding with George can be of no consequence now, and though I completely understand that you may not acknowledge the true nature of your association before the world – indeed, how could I want you to? – it is well past time for my husband to be restored to those rights and privileges due to him, especially now that Charles’ union eases appearances.”
Darcy could barely contain his ire. To hear his sister’s misuse dismissed so casually! “If you refer to the living at Kympton,” he said with forced calm, “your husband seems to have once again failed to remember that he was generously compensated for the holding’s worth, when he professed himself inclined towards the law. If he has squandered the money since, it cannot be a concern of mine.”
“Oh!” resentment broke through her facade “How can you be so cold! You should be ashamed, Mr. Darcy, to treat your father’s son so infamously! I scarce believe it, but I do think I must pity Miss Elizabeth her future husband!”
Though the content of this conversation had done much to distress him, it had not previously caused him to miss a step, but the magnitude of what Mrs. Wickham had just alluded to stopped him still on the dance floor. Instinctive breeding came to his rescue, and he quickly recovered himself, but just because his feet began to move once more, do not think the shock of her words had dulled. He knew not what to say or how to respond, and his silence led her to believe she had struck a blow. With bravado she persisted: “I see my words have caused you pause, and I am sorry to have interjected such a personal matter into a ballroom conversation, but Justice will demand her dues.“
“Mrs. Wickham,” Mr. Darcy hastily interjected, before his partner could be suffered to proceed any longer under such delusion, “I will not engage in supposition regarding whom has imposed such fantasy upon you, but it is my duty, as your friend … “ he paused, not knowing how he might delicately say what needed to be expressed. He thought of how Elizabeth would proceed under like circumstances, and a rather inappropriate smile overtook his mien as he formulated his words. “Forgive me,” he began, as she looked at him with suspicion, “but I must tell you of your husband’s revered father, Mrs. Wickham, whom I knew from the moment of my birth until the time of his death. He was a thoroughly good man, and a great friend to my own honored father. Our families were perhaps on terms of greater intimacy than is typically the case in such relationships, a stunning example of which is the presence of many a Wickham’s countenance amongst the collections of portraits at Pemberley. Surely you remember seeing the likeness of the late Mr. Wickham when you visited last? It is just a small watercolor, done by my mother in her first years at Pemberley, and I would not typically expect a guest to recall it, but as it bears such a striking resemblance to his son, perhaps you might?”
She blinked at him blankly, and the color began to drain from her face.
“Are you alright, Mrs. Wickham?” Mr. Darcy asked with real concern, all humor gone. He could not know to what degree her husband’s misrepresentations had influenced the socially conscious Miss Bingley’s decision to flee to the border with a man lacking in gentility, but the distress of his friend’s sister was perfectly clear. He escorted her from the floor and towards her brother, but Mr. Wickham intercepted him, a worried look on his face.
“Caroline?” he questioned, looking between his pale wife and Mr. Darcy nervously, suspecting that his prevarications had just been exposed. If so, married life was about to become far more difficult than he had planned. “Is everything all right, my dear?”
Mrs. Wickham surveyed her husband with a sinking sensation. He looked very well, so much must be said for him, but without the Pemberley connection it was all empty packaging. She had never before been so angry before, and she vowed to have her revenge upon him, but she also knew she had little recourse but to make the best of her circumstances. He was educated and had every appearance the gentleman. No one need ever know he was the steward’s son. Forcing herself to remain passive while George claimed her arm from Mr. Darcy, she thanked her partner in a cold voice, intended to convey all she could not say to either him or her husband, and allowed herself to be led towards a quiet corner of the room.
Mr. Darcy almost pitied his nemesis, so effective was the chill Mrs. Wickham’s ire had cast, but his amusement would not be long suppressed. It was yet another example of a perfect match, for surely no two people could deserve each other more than the Wickhams. Finding Elizabeth sitting on the far side of the room from that unfortunate couple, whom he happily cast from his thoughts, he readily made his way to her side. There he learned he actually owed Mr. Wickham a debt of gratitude, for so determined had Elizabeth been not to show that same favor to him as her fiancé had bestowed upon his wife, that she declined his hand when offered, claiming fatigue. Thus it was that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy had no compunction in sitting out the rest of the night and never leaving each other’s side.
Charlotte smiled from across the room at the man’s obvious devotion to her friend. Such attachment was very charming, undoubtedly, and when it came to an end, as it was most certain to do, they would have abundant good fortune to keep the inevitable aggravations with each other to a minimum. Perhaps the greatest blessing of a large house, she mused, was the freedom such space provided from inconvenient company.