Here is the last chapter and the Epilogue from, A Love Most Ardent.
I was going to post these next week but unforeseen circumstances will see me out of action for a few days.
So, I hope you have enjoyed reading, A Love Most Ardent, and if so, please leave me a comment.
Darcy anxiously tore open the missive he had just received from Mr Bennet. It was brief and to the point.
Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy,
I would be obliged if you could call on me
at your earliest convenience.
There was no clue in the few short lines to tell Darcy if it was to be good news or the very worst of news.
Nevertheless, as soon as he had finished breakfast, he called for his horse to be saddled and rode to Longbourn, both eager and dreading to learn of his fate.
“Come,” Mr Bennet shouted in reply to Darcy’s firm knock.
This time, Darcy had decided, he would not leave for a second day without speaking to Elizabeth. Regardless of her father’s opinion of him, or the decision he had made, at this moment in time he was still officially engaged to Miss Elizabeth.
It was a different picture this morning as he entered the study, for Mr Bennet was sitting at his desk and appeared to be in a more cordial mood.
“Come in, Darcy, sit with me, there is a lot to discuss,” said Mr Bennet, as he waited for the wary young man to sit in the chair opposite him.
“Now,” Mr Bennet stated as he clasped his hands together and rested them on the pile of paperwork laying on his desk. “I cannot deny that your total disregard for the proprieties, or for Elizabeth’s reputation, did not shock me to the core, because it did. However, your apology, along with your willingness to shoulder all the blame, cannot be ignored. Therefore, if you still wish to marry my daughter, I will not object.”
Mr Darcy was shocked at this unexpected declaration by Elizabeth’s father and sat wide-eyed and motionless for a minute or two. As the realisation sank in, that Mr Bennet would still permit him to marry Elizabeth, and with his blessing, he began to effuse.
“I can assure you, sir, you will never have cause to regret your decision today. I will take your concerns to heart and…”
“Mr Darcy,” interrupted Mr Bennet, “I have not yet finished. I am sure you can comprehend my trepidation at the prospect of a long engagement. Clearly, you and Elizabeth have become as close as a man, and a woman can be without the benefit of a minister. As her father, it is a great concern to me.” Mr Bennet paused to study his would-be son-in-law, then said, “Now, I understand you are in possession of a special marriage license?”
Baffled as to how Mr Bennet knew about the license, Darcy merely nodded in the affirmative.
“Good, good,” said a visibly relieved Mr Bennet. “Then I must insist that you use it as soon as the arrangements can be made.”
Mr Bennet gave a little chuckle. Not only was he relieved that there was a solution to this predicament, but also by the shocked expression on Mr Darcy’s face.
“But, sir, what changed your mind? I do not…”
“Honestly,” Mr Bennet said as he rested back in his chair, “I was fighting a losing battle. You see, Elizabeth is determined to have you and you are obviously very much in love with her. You wear your love for Lizzy like a badge, sir. And once Lizzy has set her mind to something, there is no dissuading her.” Darcy felt the heat of his blood rush to stain his cheeks.
Mr Bennet gave a knowing smile and shrugged his shoulders.
“Who am I to shatter young love’s dream? I am not so old that I cannot remember what it is like to feel the heat of passion course through a young man’s veins, sir,” he said with a rueful smile. “Now, get along with you, I am sure somewhere about the house Elizabeth is waiting for you.”
Darcy felt in need of some fresh air and walked out of the house in a daze. When he managed to clear his thoughts and stir himself, he found he was still walking in the garden. Heading towards the back parlour, he thought aloud, “It is done, as simple as that, it is done.” He was to marry Elizabeth as soon as her mother and the Reverend Muir could arrange it. No Banns, no fanfare. A small family wedding in the church adjoining Longbourn, probably followed by a small wedding breakfast.
“What is Mr Darcy doing creeping about the garden Lizzy? He is acting most peculiarly.” Kitty said as she watched her sister’s fiancé slowly walk towards the room they were sitting in. “He appeared to be talking to himself.”
Elizabeth knew he must have been to see her father and stepped through the open French doors and hurried outside to meet him.
“You have spoken to, Papa?” she asked with some urgency.
“I have,” he replied, his mind still unable to take in all that had been said.
“Then Father has told you that we may marry? Are you not happy, Fitzwilliam?”
“I am, of course, I am, but I was convinced, right up to the moment I entered Mr Bennet’s study, that he would refuse his consent. I had even contemplated us eloping!”
“Though I understand your sentiments, I could not have been the second daughter of my parents to elope, sir, not after Lydia. But that is all extraneous now, we are engaged and soon to be married!”
Finally, the reality of the moment roused Darcy from his confused state.
He was to marry Elizabeth!
“We have been fortunate indeed, Elizabeth. But I cannot fathom what changed your father’s mind. Do you know the reason behind his change of heart?”
“Indeed, I do,” Elizabeth said with a smile. “It was all Jane’s doing.”
Elizabeth linked arms with him and gently guided him further around the house.
Eventually, they came to a more substantial part of Longbourn’s gardens, where the manicured lawns were interrupted only by the odd rose or lavender bush and a few scattered trees for shade.
There, standing beside a large patch of lavender, was Jane, looking every inch the gentleman’s daughter. With her wicker trug hanging from one arm and her scissors in the other hand, Jane was cutting some of the lavender stems and placing them in her basket. Her straw bonnet, trimmed with lilac ribbon shielded her face from the morning sun, while the sprigs of purple flowers on her white muslin dress complimented her occupation perfectly.
As they approached, Jane looked up and greeted them warmly.
“Mr Darcy, I see you have found Lizzy.”
“Good Morning, Miss Bennet, I fear Miss Elizabeth found me.”
They exchanged salutes, and then Elizabeth turned to Jane.
“Jane, dearest, explain to Mr Darcy your conversation with father last evening; how you persuaded him to change his mind.”
“Oh, Lizzy, as if I have any control over father’s decision making,” Jane laughed softly.
Placing her scissors and basket on the grass, Jane joined her sister and Mr Darcy as they took a turn around the garden.
“I really would be most interested to discover what convinced Mr Bennet to look favourably upon our union, Miss Bennet?”
Jane did not want thanks or praise for what she had done. Lizzy’s happiness was reward enough. If anything, she was repaying Mr Darcy for reuniting her with her own beau, Mr Bingley.
With her usual modesty, Jane recalled the events of the night before.
She had found her father sitting in his usual chair by the fire, rubbing a hand over his brow. He looked tired.
Jane pulled up the paisley covered poufy, and sat at his side, resting her hands on the leather arm of his chair.
“May I speak with you, Papa?”
“I have worries enough child, do not add to my burden for goodness sake,” he said a little unkindly.
Jane was undeterred so spoke first on another matter.
“I thought you should know that I am of the same opinion as Mr Bingley, father, about moving north to Derbyshire when we marry. I fear Mamma did not take Charles seriously when he said we would not be living at Netherfield Park.”
Mr Bennet patted Jane’s hand.
“Very sensible, my dear. Now, if that is all, I have a lot on my mind at present.”
Jane knew her father was indicating for her to leave, but if she was able to relieve him of at least one of his burdens, then she must stay and try.
“Papa, I have just come from speaking with Lizzy.”
“Have you, now? Then you know the predicament that lies before me?”
Jane paused. She must approach the situation with tact and diplomacy.
“Papa, Lizzy loves Mr Darcy, and he clearly adores her.”
“Oh, of that I have no doubt, Jane, but they almost pre-empted, their marriage vows, and that is unforgivable.”
Again, Jane paused. She knew she must not condone what happened between Lizzy and Mr Darcy, for though she was older than her sister, she was just as innocent of the physical side of marriage as any maiden should be. Though Jane did not think Lizzy would have let things go that far without the benefit of a preacher first.
“Is it, Papa?” she asked softly, “Is it really unforgivable to love someone so much that you let your heart rule your head for one, brief, moment?”
He showed no sign that he had heard her question.
Was he even listening to her?
“Forgive me if I speak plainly, father,” she said a little louder, “but if you forbid Lizzy from marrying Mr Darcy, she will only do so when she comes of age in a few months’ time.” Her voice softened again, “You could not bear to be estranged from Lizzy, father. You know it would break your heart.”
Mr Bennet looked at his eldest child. Jane, who saw only the good in everyone, and had come to plead her sister’s case. He smiled ruefully, before saying, “You are quite right, Jane, but what else can I do? I fear I must separate them for now, or at least until the banns have been read. I cannot risk another scandal in the family so soon on the heels of Lydia’s thrown together marriage.”
“But Papa, you do not have too. They can marry within the week if you will give your consent. Mr Darcy has a special license!” she said with quiet enthusiasm.
“No, no, my dear, you are getting confused with Anne De Bourgh. It was Anne who had the special license,” said Mr Bennet in a well-meant yet patronising tone.
“No, Papa,” Jane said firmly, “Mr Darcy has one for him and Lizzy too.”
“Are you sure, Jane?” asked Mr Bennet, now fully alert and staring at her intently.
“Quite sure, Papa,” Jane replied with a small amount of hesitation.
“Did Mr Darcy tell you this?”
“Well, no. But, Fletcher, Mr Darcy’s valet told Mr Hill, and Mr Hill told Mrs Hill who told Cissy. It was Cissy who told me.”
“Oh, Jane,” Mr Bennet said as he began to rub his brow again, “you cannot always believe the servant’s gossip. This man Fletcher was very likely confused with Mrs Galbraith’s license too.”
Jane did not consider herself to be gullible and hoped that she could tell the difference between gossip and fact.
“Will you at least ask Mr Hill, Papa?”
Mr Bennet turned to Jane with a warm smile.
“If it will please you, my dear. First thing tomorrow I will speak to Hill.”
Jane could ask no more of her father, so she gave him a kiss on his tired brow and returned to her room. She had done all that she could, but in her prayers, she would ask that it was enough.
Darcy smiled as Jane finished her narration. Fletcher had always maintained that he was above the other servants in Mr Darcy’s employment, purely because he did not indulge in below stairs gossip and tittle-tattle. Darcy made a mental note to remind Fletcher of this lack of discretion the next time Fletcher scolded one of his fellow servants for gossiping. Though his tease would be a good-natured one. Servants of Fletcher’s calibre were few and far between.
“I cannot thank you enough, Miss Bennet, for your intervention on our behalf,” Darcy said with heartfelt sincerity.
Jane blushed, as she usually did when paid a compliment, but the rosy hue of her cheeks merely enhanced her already beautiful face.
“I thought only to bring you as much joy, Mr Darcy, as you have Mr Bingley and me.”
“You give me too much credit, Miss Bennet. I only speeded up Charles’ return. I am quite convinced, given enough time, he would have come to the same conclusion had I not intervened.”
“Oh, goodness,” said Elizabeth in good humour, “enough of the mutual admiration you have for one another,” Moving between them, she linked arms with them both, saying, “I am getting married, and there is much to do.”
Together, they made their way back to Longbourn and immediately sought out Mrs Bennet, who was more than happy to hear there was to be another wedding after all. Only this time, it would be different. This time, it was one of her daughter’s that was getting married. Not the marriage of two stranger.
Though passable in Mrs Bennet eyes, Lizzy did not have the classic beauty of Jane, and she feared she might end up an old maid after refusing her cousin’s proposal. Yet here she was, engaged to Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley who had ten thousand pounds a year. Good fortune had indeed been kind to smile upon her family so, and Mrs Bennet had never been happier.
Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth thought to herself as she lay curled up in the arms of her sleeping husband.
They had been married one whole day and yet so much in her life had changed already.
It had taken her mamma and the Reverend Muir just three days to organise her wedding, and though it was almost a duplicate of Miss De Bourgh and Mr Galbraith’s, she had not minded in the least.
Mrs Bennet and the staff at Longbourn had been a force to reckon with as they assembled a second wedding in a fortnight. The mistress of the house took sole charge of organising the bride’s dress, the bridesmaid’s dresses, the ladies to arrange the floral decoration for the church, the guest list, and finally, the entire wedding breakfast. There was nothing that she did not oversee or approve of personally.
Mr Darcy had put his servants at Darcy House at her disposal, calling on them to ferry supplies from the capital that the local retailers had sold out of, and the kitchens at Netherfield Park had helped prepare the cold food, for their ice house was much bigger than the one at Longbourn.
It seemed that all the invited guests, as well as some uninvited ones, wanted to be present for Elizabeth’s wedding. The opinion of the town was that Elizabeth was by far, the most likeable and friendly of the Bennet sisters.
Colonel Fitzwilliam had arrived back at Netherfield Park with Miss Darcy only the day before the marriage, with Georgiana professing to be more than happy to be a bridesmaid, along with Elizabeth’s sisters.
“It will be such a change to have sisters, Elizabeth,” Georgiana exclaimed.
“Indeed, and now you shall have five,” Elizabeth replied with a warm smile.
Lydia had, of course, made a fuss, insisting that she should be the matron of honour, but as Charlotte had arrived at Lucas Lodge two days before the nuptials, Elizabeth had overridden Lydia and her mamma objections and asked Charlotte to be her matron of honour instead.
“Perhaps, if you are very nice and do as our parents bid you, Jane will ask you to be her matron of honour at her wedding,” Elizabeth had advised her.
Mr Collins had thought it prudent to leave Hunsford as soon as possible after accepting Colonel Fitzwilliam’s kind offer. Lady Catherine had made her displeasure felt quite keenly and ordered him to vacate the parsonage as soon as he could make the necessary arrangements. Though truthfully, Charlotte was feeling homesick and a trifle delicate. She had been unwell almost every morning since discovering she was with child. And, though he was a preacher and ministering to the sick was part of his parochial duties, he had always felt decidedly uncomfortable around people that were unwell, especially when their sickness was violent and unpredictable.
Mr Bingley had been astonished that Darcy should ask him to stand up with him as best man, instead of his cousin Richard. However, he was a proud as a peacock to be at his friend’s side as he married the sister of the woman he loved. And as for Mr Bingley’s sisters and Mr Hurst, they would only know the wedding had taken place when they read the announcement in the London newspapers.
Jane had given herself the job of separating Elizabeth and her mother whenever she deemed it necessary. Every time Mrs Bennet clapped eyes on Elizabeth she went into raptures about how clever Lizzy was to catch a man of Mr Darcy’s calibre, and him with ten thousand pounds a year. She also effused at how Mr Darcy could introduce Elizabeth’s unmarried sisters to other rich gentlemen. Thankfully though, when in the presence of Jane, Mrs Bennet remembered to curb her tongue sufficiently enough for Lizzy to remain calm.
Mr Bennet, now wholly reconciled with losing Lizzy to Mr Darcy, took every opportunity to spend some time alone with Elizabeth. He knew that all too soon, another would become the most important man in her life, and though it was the way of the world, he did not relish life at Longbourn without at least one of his sensible daughters to talk to.
Colonel Fitzwilliam had been happy to take a backwards step and let Bingley stand up with Darcy. Knowing how vengeful his aunt could be when thwarted, Richard had discreetly dispatched two of his best surveillance officers to keep an eye on Lady Catherine’s movements. If she intended to try and disrupt Darcy’s wedding as she had Anne’s, he had no intention of being caught unprepared. Though having received word from his men that she appeared to remain at Rosings, Richard was taking no chances. He stationed himself at the church door, vigilantly checking all who entered.
Elizabeth looked beautiful as she walked up the aisle on her father’s arm, from her white gown embroidered with satin knots of pink, to the red rosebuds woven into her perfectly dressed hair. No-one would think the wedding had not taken months to plan. Everything was perfect.
Darcy, resplendent in his cream trousers, navy tailcoat, and silver embroidered waistcoat, could not help but turn and watch as his bride walked up the aisle. So often he had imagined this day would never come, and now that it had, he did not want to take his eyes off her for one second.
“Dearly beloved, we gathered together here in the sight of God,
and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man
and this Woman, in Holy Matrimony…”
Reverend Muir had said with trepidation as he stood in front of the congregation. Though he had conducted many marriages, he had not felt this nervous since he had been ordained. Thankfully, there were no objections, no interruptions as the couple were finally joined in holy matrimony.
From that moment, everyone in the congregation, and especially the bride and groom, breathed a sigh of relief. Before she knew it, Elizabeth was married, had partaken of a delicious wedding breakfast, and then dutifully thanked everyone for their good wishes. However, now she was in the carriage and on the way to Darcy House, her focus was on the man sitting beside; her husband.
With his arm possessively slung over Elizabeth’s hip, and his hand rested on her stomach, Darcy had slipped into a contented sleep. Only then, as he lost consciousness did his hold loosen.
Elizabeth shyly snuggled backwards, bringing their bodies closer together, but still, Fitzwilliam did not stir.
Though intimate contact was new to Elizabeth, as Darcy’s body fell slightly away from her own, she felt robbed of his touch as their bodies separated.
Raising herself up on one elbow, she plumped her pillow, trying not to wake him, but her efforts were for nought as he stirred.
“Unless you want me to ravish your delicious body again, Mrs Darcy, I suggest you cease what you are doing and come back to bed,” said his now familiar baritone voice.
Elizabeth peeped over at him.
A broad grin had spread across his mouth and his eyes, though still shut, crinkled at the corners.
Elizabeth proceeded to pound at her pillow. Once…twice…
She let out a squeal of delight as his arm tightened around her waist and he rolled her onto her back.
“You are most distracting, Mrs Darcy,” he said teasingly, “How is a man to sleep when he is sharing his bed with the most beautiful woman in all of Christendom?”
Darcy now closed any remaining space between them, then raised himself up onto his elbow and gazed down at her.
Her hair was tousled and spread out over the white cotton pillowcase like a fan, while her lips were ruby in colour and slightly swollen. He must have kissed her a hundred times last night. Yet he knew, even if it were a thousand times, it would not be enough to quench his thirst for her.
“You are really here? In my house…in my bed….in my arms?” he whispered.
Elizabeth stopped laughing and reached up to cup his cheek in her palm.
“I am here, Fitzwilliam, and I am yours, yours forever my love.
Darcy caught her hand in his own and turned it over, then proceeded to place a long, lingering kiss on her upturned palm.
He lowered his head and sought her lips once more – those soft, pliant, lips that she now gave to him openly, willingly, lovingly.
Elizabeth reached up and curled her fingers into his dark locks, pulling him closer to her, seeking his lips with an urgency of her own until there was no denying her.
The moon had risen and set, and now the sun was high in the sky, but still, the lovers did not emerge from their room. Only the empty plates and the occasional squeal of laughter signalled to the servants that the master and his new wife were in residence. A pattern that they came to recognise for many years to come.
Till next time,