Love's Arrow Poisoned
"An unhappy tale of two who loved with so unusual faith that their affection rose up to heaven and there was deified" - Thomas Lovell Beddoes
Spring seemed to arrive early in Derbyshire that year, as if nature itself wished to express its own approbation of the recent marriage of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Master of Pemberley, to the former Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Hertfordshire. It returned the leaves to the trees and the buds to the flowers, it spread its cloak in variegated shades of green as the fields and woods emerged from the grip of the winter, and it freed the rivers and lakes from the sheets of ice which had held them fast for the past weeks, to the delight of the skater and the despair of the fisherman.
The populace who inhabited or subsisted by the goodwill of the estate of Pemberley - tenant, farm-worker and servant alike - and those from the surrounding villages of Lambton and Kympton, were heard to express the opinion, to any who would listen, that they could not recall having seen it in such a happy and prosperous state for many a year. The Master had been resident at home almost constantly since his wedding and had taken a personal interest in all the estate business and all had noticed a new openness and amiability in his manner which few had experienced before. They declared they had never seen him so happy.
That this was attributable to the new Mistress was commonly accepted by all, and she too had found favour with all who came into contact with her. That Mr. Darcy had married a woman without title or fortune had surprised some; indeed several of the matriarchs of the more prominent local families had expressed views that would not be unfamiliar to those who were acquainted with Lady Catherine De Bourg, Mr. Darcy's aunt. However, most were disabused of these notions as soon as they met the lady; and those who were not were regarded, by those who knew Mrs. Darcy, as merely jealous that they had failed in their attempts to secure for their own daughters the advantageous position she now held.
Daily life at Pemberley settled into a happy routine, which even the departure of Miss Georgiana Darcy to London to continue her studies could not disrupt. Darcy had his estate business and financial affairs to manage. Elizabeth had the joys of discovering Pemberley in spring for the first time, the task of learning to manage such a large household and her charitable works in the local community. Always a good correspondent, she kept in regular touch with her family and friends; there was her Aunt Gardiner's advice and counsel, her sister Jane's newly-married bliss - alloyed by her increasing unease at their mother's interference - and, most recently, her sister Lydia's announcement that she was expecting her first child. More precious still, the times spent together; companionable walks among the groves and woods, lively debates over dinner and intimate evenings before the fire in the library.
In this favourable manner things progressed through the spring and approaching summer. But even the brightest of skies can soon be blighted by unforeseen cloud and one such was lurking over the horizon, unseen but casting its shadow before it.
The late spring sun cast a shaft of dazzling light through a chink in the curtains of the master bedchamber of Pemberley house. One occupant of the bed watched it absently as it travelled slowly across the floor towards the far wall like the hand of some celestial clock. It gradually shortened while it moved as the sun rose in the unseen sky outside the window, and the watcher divided his attention between the bar of light and the other occupant of the bed, of whom only a mass of dark curls and fair cheek were visible, the rest of her face hidden in the crook of his shoulder. The light breathing he could hear told him she was sound asleep, but he knew it would not be long before she would awaken.
His thoughts flitted between his companion, his sister Georgiana - whom he had recently watched with pride blossom into an exceptional young woman - and his estate business, but came back repeatedly to rest less agreeably on a letter he had received ten days previously. Its contents had disturbed him and he could not help fearing that stormclouds lurked on the horizon, threatening the haven of peace and contentment that had been his newly-wedded life. True, the second hand information carried in it may be erroneous or exaggerated, which was why he now awaited the further details he had requested, but every day that passed without them increased his anxiety. This uneasiness was compounded by the fact that he had hitherto not shared the information in the letter with the woman who now lay beside him. He had made himself the solemn promise six months earlier, when she had finally consented to be his wife, that never again would he allow his reserve to threaten the closeness that had grown between them. He knew by bitter experience that his failure to acquaint people with his dealings with George Wickham - and the latter's attempt to elope with Georgiana - had enabled Wickham to spread falsehoods which made many who were ignorant of the real facts believe that he had acted in a vindictive and ungentlemanly manner. More painful still it had caused a breach, which at the time seemed unresolvable, between himself and the one woman he so imperiously wanted to be his wife.
That ladies head, however, was at the moment still nestled comfortably in the crook of his arm and he yet again thanked providence, fate, or whatever agency was responsible for the fact that they had overcome the obstacles that had separated them and were together in the place he had once believed they would never be. But his dilemma remained. Should he speak, and risk paining and worrying her unnecessarily should it turn out to be a mare's nest, or hold his tongue and risk anger and alienation should things take a serious turn and events be taken out of his control? He would not hurt her if he could help it, but he knew she was not the sort of woman who liked to be kept in the dark, the sort who would allow herself to be hushed into a corner when unpleasant things happened, as women usually were. He smiled in spite of himself. He knew men who would go distracted if treated in that manner, and she was as resourceful and intelligent as any man he knew. That much he had learned in the eighteen months he had known her. As he looked again, he saw that the bar of light had crept still further across the floor, seeming to count down the minutes he had remaining to make a decision.
A small movement next to him informed him that his time for consideration was fast approaching an end. He shifted slightly onto his side so he could study her face more clearly and softly traced one finger down the line of her cheek. Her only response was the slight curl of her lips into a smile and he continued to caress her face lightly with one finger, passing it back and forth over her brow, cheek and jawline. She turned her face upwards towards him, which enabled him to more easily continue his endeavours, all the while keeping her eyes closed. Unsure if she was fully aware of his actions or still half-asleep he stayed silent and just allowed his fingers to wake her gently, but his uncertainty was banished when she uttered a very long, contented, "Mmm.."
It was probably that enticing sound as much as the sight of her which decided him. He could not pain her. Certainly he could not broach such an unpleasant subject, one which also would remind them both of past estrangements between them, at the present time. The further information he hoped to receive would surely arrive in a day or two and he would be in a much better position to decide the proper course of action when it did. Why, he may hear something today if his correspondent was diligent and quick in his inquiries, as he had every expectation he would be, knowing him as someone to be relied upon implicitly in such matters. No, he would wait until he knew more before broaching the subject with her. If the worst were to happen and she were to discover by some other means the rumours that had reached him, then he would tell her the truth; that he had not wanted to distress her until he had firm facts to impart and knowing he would have them in days he had delayed discussing it with her. He knew from experience that while her anger could be fierce it was a short lived when she realized it was misplaced; and while she could jump to conclusions she would always be fair when she discovered all the facts. He had been even more happy in the last six months than he dreamed he could be and he trusted her more now than ever.
It was during the short few seconds that these thoughts were passing through his mind that the object of them sensed something unusual was happening. She had been woken up from her pleasant sleep by the gentle caresses on her face and, having given some indication of her awareness and enjoyment of them by her smile and subsequent sigh, had expected them to continue, if not increase in their intensity, but they had unaccountably ceased. Also she could sense, without opening her eyes, that her husband was in an introspective mood by his stillness, and there was a tension in his body, imparted to her as she lay against his shoulder, which was not normally found in him in these moments. She was almost fully awake immediately and pondered its meaning, all the while keeping her eyes closed and her body languid, in case he should sense her awareness. She was as positive as she could be that she was not the cause of any distress on his part, indeed the events of the previous night belied that belief completely. Georgiana? She had been in London some two weeks but had sent a letter only three days previous full of her happiness at her music lessons and her recent visit to the Gardiners'. No, it must be some estate business which occupied his thoughts, though she could not reluctantly come to this conclusion without a slight pang of jealousy that any estate business could be uppermost in his mind at such a time. But she decided she would not question him, as she would not have him believe that she did not trust him to inform her of anything which she needed to know. She knew he had learned a hard lesson from his previous reticence to disclose to people, especially her, his thoughts and actions. She had been incredibly happy these last six months and he had opened up to her more than she would ever have believed possible before. She trusted him and wished to show it. Then his body seemed to relax and his hand was on her face again and she forgot about her meditations.
His hand had recommenced its activity as soon as he had realised that he had unconsciously halted it while attemting to organise his confused meditations. He had almost imagined that he saw her eyes flicker slightly, but on closer inspection he observed that they had remained closed and she did not stir. He wondered if she had sensed his tension, but she did not betray any symptom of it that he could percieve. Her breathing changed almost imperceptibly, however, and he could almost believe he had seen her lips form a small pout before he realised that he had stopped his ministrations. He relaxed, and once he had rectified the mistake he was rewarded with another soft "Mmm" and her arm came up to wrap itself around his neck. She moved in closer and began to softly kiss his jawline.
There was an almost questioning tone allied with the mischievous in her voice, as she said the one word which always had the power, when she uttered it in that tone, to render him helpless.
He wrapped his arms around her and forgot about his meditations.
As they sat at the breakfast table sometime later, Elizabeth stole occasional glances at her husband with an amused expression, contemplating that if he had something on his mind earlier then it had certainly not affected his appetite - or brought about a return to his previous reserved manner. Indeed, he had been positively loquacious. He had caught her looking at him her once or twice, but she had quickly looked down at her food or coffee cup and he had not remarked upon it. Instead he had ploughed on with details of his ideas and plans for the estate in the coming year and local matters, but in a distracted way which piqued her curiosity more than any silence would have engendered. Luckily, this verbiage required but a minimum of response from her, as her amusement increased by the minute at his obvious attempts to speak on any subject but the one uppermost in his thoughts and give her no opening to question him should she have any suspicion that he was preoccupied.
Darcy, his plate full and coffee cup regularly replenished, felt he had started off quite nicely with his attempts to maintain a light tone and avoid any awkward silences which might lead him to dwell on the subject that had monopolised his thoughts earlier. This was rendered more difficult as the time for the arrival of the post grew near and his tension increased, but he soldiered on gamely. However, as the meal progressed, he caught Elizabeth looking at him occasionally with an amused and tolerant look in her eye which made him believe that, as usual, she was more than aware of what he was up to. Indeed, he realized that he was being so garrulous that she would sense something was amiss from that in itself, it being unlike his normal demeanour, even with her in their moments alone. He felt he was babbling, and cleared his throat and took a few sips of coffee.
"Fitzwilliam, you must know by now that I trust your judgement and am sure you will do what is right for everyone concerned."
It took him several seconds, after his initial shock at this statement, to realise that she was referring to his last, rather unco-ordinated remarks, about a small boundary dispute between two of his tenants which he wanted to resolve in the near future, though he could not quite remember whether he had actually solicited her opinion. He heaved a sigh of relief and looked up with a smile of thanks when he caught that look again, accompanied by a characteristic arch of her eyebrows. If he hadn't known before, he knew then that he had been wasting his time and energy in trying to hide anything from her; she would always out do him in any battle of wits. It amazed him afresh that this woman, who at one time claimed to have had no inkling of his most fervent affections could now read him like a book. Since in his eyes she had not changed, except to grow more dear to him than ever, he concluded that it must be himself who had undergone some transformation.
This was certainly no time for staring out of the window while he gathered his thoughts, so he replied rather hesitantly, "Thank you, Elizabeth... and I hope that you know by now how much I, er, value that trust and shall always endeavour to deserve it?"
"Of course I do," she replied, with a smile which this time was not of amusement but of reassurance. She was glad she had managed to ease his mind, without in any way making him feel that she was interfering in matters which did not concern her, and that he had given her an unwitting opportunity to do so.
Darcy pushed his plate away and placed his hand over hers in a gesture of understanding, before slowly raising it and kissing her palm. Elizabeth rewarded him with another smile, this time of pleasure, and he began to lightly kiss her fingers one after the other, before moving his attentions to the inside of her wrist. He could feel her pulse quicken under his lips and heard her sigh contentedly.
These diversions were interrupted rather abruptly by Mrs. Reynolds entering the dining room, carrying several letters in her hand. Darcy dropped Elizabeth's hand reluctantly and gave the housekeeper his attention.
"These have just arrived, sir," she said, handing the letters to Darcy and beginning to clear away the breakfast debris.
"Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds," he replied, taking them and scanning the envelopes quickly as if in search of something in particular.
What he sought - and also dreaded - was among them, and he did his best to hide the effect its presence had on him, but Elizabeth's suspicions were already aroused by his having his letters brought to him in the dining room, rather than placed in his study to await his perusal later. She saw the flicker of his eyes as he recognised what he was waiting for, but did not betray the fact, turning instead to Mrs. Reynolds and asking brightly, "Was there anything for me, Mrs. Reynolds?"
"Yes, Ma'am, two letters. I have placed them on your writing table as usual."
"Thank you, I will read them after we have finalized tonight's menu."
This brief interlude had given Darcy time to collect his thoughts, and rising, he kissed Elizabeth on the temple and said, "I must deal with these immediately, would you excuse me, my dear? I will be in my study if I am wanted, though I would not like to be disturbed unless it is a matter of urgency." The last was said as much to the housekeeper as to her but Elizabeth replied for them both.
"Of course, we will ensure you are not interrupted."
"Thank you. I hope it will not take too long." With a purposeful air he was gone.
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