Chapter 1: Natural Frailty
"...through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen." Darcy recited the Collect for the first Sunday in Advent,* his prayer book closed upon his thumb, as he stood alone in his family's pew at St ------ 's. The morning had dawned reluctantly, seeming determined to shroud its rising with a fog drawn up from the snow-covered earth. It seeped, cold and pitiless, into the bones of man and beast and seemed to cling to the very stones of the sanctuary. Darcy shivered. He had almost foregone the services, his temper unimproved by the passage of the night, but habit had pulled him out of bed and, knowing his staff had arisen early in the expectation of his attendance, he dressed, broke his fast and departed.
His dark green frockcoat buttoned high against the cold, Darcy surveyed the richly appointed hall, its architecture and furnishings encouraging his eye to travel upward to the soaring ribs of the ceiling and the grandeur of the coloured light, now muted, that fell from the great windows. He noted, with little surprise, that although this day marked the first Sunday of that season of joy, the church was not overfull. It rarely was. Few of the families whose names graced sumptuous gifts of panel, stained-glass, or plate deigned to grace the repository of their munificence with their actual presence. That, however, had not been the Darcy family's practice and although he stood alone, in his mind's eye he could well imagine his forebears, standing in sober reflection in the pew beside him.
The first Scripture reading of the morning was announced and Darcy opened his prayer book to the selection for the day to join in the reading.
"Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law..."
The click of bootheels and rattle of a sword in its sheath echoed in the vastness behind him, distracting Darcy from the text. In the next moment, he was forcefully nudged down the pew by a scarlet-clad shoulder.
"Good Lord, it's wretched weather! Thought you might stay home this morning. Need to speak to you," Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam whispered loudly into his cousin's ear.
"Quiet!" Darcy tersely whispered back, half amused, half annoyed at Fitzwilliam's characteristic irreverence. He skewered a corner of his prayer book into his cousin's arm until he surrendered and reached for it. "Here...read!"
...if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself...
"Ouch! Fitz. Is that bloody 'loving thy neighbour?'" Fitzwilliam looked at him accusingly as he rubbed his arm.
"Richard, your language!" Darcy murmured back. "Just read...here," he pointed to the place and Fitzwilliam bent his head to the text, a large grin on his face.
...let us therefore caste off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness...
"That leaves out the Army..." Fitzwilliam quipped to him out of the side of his mouth, "Navy, too."
...not in chambering and wantonness...
"Down goes the peerage."
"Richard!" Darcy breathed menacingly.
...not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.
"Finished off the entire ton with that one," he glanced over his shoulder, "but, none of them are about, so here endeth the lesson."
Darcy cast his eyes to heaven and then stepped heavily on his cousin's booted foot, for which encouragement to piety he was rewarded with an elbow in his side. They sat down, Darcy putting space between himself and Fitzwilliam. Another grin flickered across the Colonel's face as the two turned their attention to the Reverend Doctor's sermon upon the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 21.
By the time the good Doctor came to the multitudes of Jerusalem spreading their garments and branches in the way, Fitzwilliam had leaned back and, with crossed arms, fallen into a pose that could well be mistaken for a nap. Darcy shifted his position, placing his boots closer to the footwarmers, and assayed to attended to the sermon which had departed from the text and now drifted into the realm of philosophical discourse. It was rather the same sort of plea to the rational mind and self-interested morality that he had heard expounded innumerable times before. The "infirmity of the nature of man" was lamented, the "occasional failings and sudden surprises" of the petty transgressions he was heir to, lightly touched upon and softly laid at the feet of the "natural frailty" that resided in the human breast.
Natural frailty! Darcy stirred at the familiar expression and looked down at the tips of his boots, his lips compressed in an unforgiving line as, he tested the appellative against his own experience at the hands of a certain other. The exercise produced unwelcome implications. Was he tamely to accept "frailty" as the explanation, nay, the excuse, for such invidious behaviour as Wickham had visited upon Georgiana and himself? Was he expected then to pity Wickham, then, for his weakness, succor him? Resentment, as bitter as it was cold, reawakened in his chest and the Reverend Doctor was attended to with a more critical ear.
"In such times," intoned the good Doctor, " we must lay hold of the unqualified mercy of the Supreme Being who will, in nowise, hold us to such a strict account as will end in our disappointment, but who offers us now in Christ the cordial of a moderated, rational requisition of Divine justice. If sincerity as been your watchword, the performance of your duty your creed then, with justified complacency you may rest upon the evidence of your lives."
Evidence! What complacency could Wickham's "evidence" afford him? Surely, he is beyond any claim to mercy! Darcy's umbrage protested, a niggling unease attacking the edges of his certainty. He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest, mirroring in knife-edged attention what his cousin did in slumber.
"And, if exempt at least from any gross vice," the Doctor continued, "or if sometimes accidentally betrayed into it, on its never having been indulged habitually, he may congratulate himself on his inoffensiveness to his Creator and society in general . Or if not even so," the Doctor delicately cleared his throat, "yet on the balance being in his favor, or, on the whole, not much against him, when his good and bad actions are fairly weighed, and due allowance is made for human frailty, he may with assurity consider his portion of humanity's contract with the Almighty fulfilled and the rewards of blessedness secured."
Darcy stared at the pulpit in confusion. His mind and body forcibly communicating afresh to him the odium of Wickham's deeds, his reanimated rage forged new links in the chain of his soul-deep resentment. Would Wickham escape even the bar of eternal justice? "On the balance... not much against... fairly weighed...due allowance!" Wickham, himself, could hardly have pled his case with more eloquence and sympathetic appeal! Darcy's jaw tightened, a dangerous, darkling eye the only relief from a chilling, stoney countenance.
The Reverend Doctor continued. "To that end, 'Know thyself' as the philosopher says and, in prudence of mind, conduct yourselves according to the advice of St. James as to useful good works and, certainly in the performance of one's duty. But always, my dear congregation, moderately, as befits a rational being. Thus endeth the lesson. Amen." The Doctor closed his Bible upon his notes, but Darcy could not so easily shut up his roiling anger and indignation. His whole being demanded action, but he could neither move to relieve it nor guess what course would satisfy its demands.
The choir stood to sing the recessional, the rustle of their unison movements and the triumphal cords of the organ rousing Fitzwilliam from his inattention. He sat up straight and blinked, owl-like, at his cousin. "Did I miss anything?" Fitzwilliam yawned as they came to their feet.
"It was much the same as always," Darcy replied, averting his face from his cousin or the chance observance of other parishioners. He was not yet in control of himself and he desperately wished for privacy. Richard would need but a glance to know something was amiss. Taking advantage of Fitzwilliam's ritualistic endeavors to shake loose from the effects of slumber, Darcy slowly retrieved his hat and prayer book. A diversion was required.
With a studied carelessness he turned to his cousin, "Save for when His Grace, the Duke of Cumberland ran down the aisle, confessing to the murder of his valet.**"
"Cumberland!" Fitzwilliam's eyes sprang open and he swiveled half-way 'round before catching himself and turning on Darcy. "Cumberland, indeed! Badly done, Fitz, taking advantage of a poor soldier worn out in the service of..."
"In the service of the ladies of London, shielding them from the terrors of a moment of boredom!" Darcy snorted. "Yes, you have my unalloyed sympathy, Richard."
Fitzwilliam laughed and stepped out into the aisle. "Shall you mind me stretching out my boots under your dinner table today, Fitz? His Lordship and the rest of the family left for Matlock last week and I'm sore in need of a quiet meal away from the soldiery. I think I'm getting too old for kicking up continually," he sighed. "Settled and quiet would, I believe, answer all my ideas of happiness. In truth, s'beginning to appear highly attractive."
"'Settled and quiet' was exactly what you were during the greater part of services this morning, but," he smiled tightly as his cousin protested his perception of the matter, "I'll not berate you upon that score..."
"As you said, it was 'Much the same as always.'"
"Yes, quite so," Darcy drawled. "Rather, tell me the name of the 'highly attractive' lady with whom you aspire to be settled and quiet."
"Now, Fitz, did I mention a lady?" The heightened colour around Fitzwilliam's stock belied the carelessness of his question.
"Richard, there has always been a lady." They had, by now, reached the church door and, with more reserve than usual, Darcy nodded to the Reverend Doctor. As they stepped out from the doorway Harry, who had been watching for them, motioned for the carriage which smartly rolled forward to the curb.
"This is the most deuced-awful weather," Fitzwilliam shivered as he waited for Harry to open the door. "I hope we are not in for an entire winter of it. Glad the pater and mater left for home when they did." He climbed in behind Darcy and hurriedly spread a carriage robe over his legs. "Bye-the-bye, Fitz," he squinted across at his cousin as the carriage pulled away, "is that the knot that cut Brummell off at the knees? Show your poor cousin how it is done, there's a good fellow. The Roquefort is it?"
"The Roquet, Richard," Darcy ground back at him. "Not you, as well!" ~~~~~~&~~~~~
"Fitz?...Fitz, I don't believe you have heard a thing I have said!" Colonel Fitzwilliam put down his glass of after dinner port and joined his cousin's vigil at his library window. "And it was rather witty, if I must say so myself."
"You are wrong, Richard, on both counts," Darcy replied dryly, his face still set toward the panes.
"On both counts?" Fitzwilliam leaned in against the window's frame for a better look at his cousin's face.
Darcy turned to him, his lips pursed in a condescending smile, "I heard every word you said and it was not witty. Amusing?, perhaps, but not anything that would pass for wit." He lifted his own glass and finished off the contents as he awaited Fitzwilliam's counter to his thrust.
"Well, I shall be glad, then, to be considered 'amusing' according to your exacting taste, Cousin," Fitzwilliam paused and cocked a knowing brow at him. "But, you must admit that you were not devoting your whole attention to me and have not acted yourself today. Anything you can tell me?"
Darcy glanced uneasily at his cousin, silently cursing his acute powers of observation. He had never been able to hide anything from Richard for long; he knew him far too well. Perhaps the time had come to speak his concerns. Taking a deep breath, Darcy turned back to the warm haven of his library. "I have had several letters from Georgiana in the last month."
"Georgiana!" Fitzwilliam's teazing smile faded into concern. "There has been no change, then?" .
"On the contrary!" Darcy plunged on to the heart of the matter, "There has been a very marked change and, although I welcome it most gratefully, I do not entirely comprehend it."
Fitzwilliam straightened, "A marked change, you say? In what way?"
"She has left off her melancholy and begs forgiveness for troubling us all with it. I am instructed-yes, instructed," Darcy repeated at the disbelieving look Fitzwilliam returned him, "to regard the whole matter no longer as she does not, save as a lesson learned." Fitzwilliam uttered an exclamation. "And that is not all! She writes that she has started visiting our tenants as our mother did."
"Is it possible?" Fitzwilliam shook his head. "The last time we were together, she could not as much as look at me, nor speak above a whisper."
"There is yet more! Her last letter was most warmly phrased and, if you may be persuaded to believe it, Richard, she offered me advice on a matter about which I had written her." Darcy walked over to his desk while Fitzwilliam pondered his words in stunned silence. He opened a drawer, withdrew a sheet and held it out to his cousin. "Then, when I had returned to London, Hinchcliffe showed me this."
"One hundred pounds per annum to the Society for Returning Young Women...." Fitzwilliam read. "Fitz, are you playing me a joke, because it's a d-mned poor one."
"I am not joking, I assure you," Darcy retrieved the letter and faced his cousin squarely, "What do you make of it, Richard?"
Fitzwilliam cast about him for his port and, finding it, threw back what remained. "I don't know. It appears incredible!" He looked at Darcy intently, "You said her letter was 'warmly phrased.' She sounded happy, then?"
"Happy?" Darcy rolled the word about in his mind, then shook his head. "I would not describe it so. Contented? Matured?" he looked to his cousin in an uncomfortable loss for words. "In any event, I will join her at Pemberley in a few days time and I intend to keep her by me." He paused, "I bring her back to Town with me in January."
"If she has improved as you believe..." Fitzwilliam allowed his sentence to dangle as he stared into his empty glass, his brow knit.
"Do you go to Matlock for Christmas or must you remain in Town? You could then see for yourself and advise me, for I would value your opinion, Richard," Darcy's steady look into his cousin's eyes underscored his words.
Fitzwilliam nodded, acknowledging both the import and singularity of Darcy's request, "I am granted a week's leave and had not yet decided where to spend it. His lordship will be much pleased to see me at Matlock and her ladyship will, of course, be cast into transports that all her family are home. Shall you host the family for a week as in Christmas past?"
Darcy nodded and after replacing the letter in his desk, he poured his cousin and himself more of the port. He tipped the glass to his lips after saluting him, letting the pleasant burn slide smoothly down his throat as he closed his eyes. There was more he wished Richard's views upon, but how to begin?
"I have seen Wickham," Darcy's quiet announcement broke the silence like the crack of a rifle shot.
"Wickham! He would not dare!" Fitzwilliam fairly exploded.
"No, we met quite by accident while I was accompanying Bingley in Hertfordshire. Apparently, he has come upon enough money to purchase himself a lieutenancy and has joined a militia stationed in Meryton."
"A militia! Wickham? He must be at the end of his resources, or hiding from pressing obligations, to do so. Wickham, a soldier! I wish, by G-d, I had him under my command!" Fitzwilliam paced the length of the room, then turned and demanded, "Did you speak with his commanding officer? Tell him what a villain he's acquired?"
"How could I tell him?" Darcy remonstrated in response to Fitzwilliam's glower. I would be called upon to furnish proof that I, nor you, can ever give." Darcy held Fitzwilliam's blazing eyes with his own until the latter's shoulders slumped in acknowledgement. Darcy indicated the armchairs by the hearth and both sat down heavily, their faces turned away, each from the other, in private, frustrated thought. For several long minutes the only sound in the room was a wind come blasting against the window panes.
"Richard, how do you account for Wickham?"
Fitzwilliam raised a blank face, "Account for him?"
"Explain him." Darcy bit his lower lip, then let out the breath he was holding and expanded on a question that had plagued him for over a decade, "He received more than he could have dreamt of from my father and was put in the way of advancing well beyond his origins. Yet, he squandered it all, even as it was given and repaid all my father's solicitude with the attempted seduction of his daughter." He paused, took another swallow of the port, then continued in a lowered voice, "Would you call it a 'natural frailty'?"
"Natural frailty! He's a blackguard, and there is the beginning and end of it!" Fitzwilliam roared. He stopped, then, and mastered himself before continuing in a more subdued tone, "And so he was from the start, as you have cause to remember. I may be only a year older than you, but I saw him playing his hand against you even when we were children."
"My father never saw it," Darcy slowly swirled the liquid in his glass.
"Hmmph," Fitzwilliam snorted, "as to that, I am not entirely convinced. Your father was an unusually perceptive man. I can not help but think he had Wickham's measure, although why he did not act, I can not say. But in one thing he was deceived. I do not believe he could ever have conceived of Wickham's harming Georgiana. Nor could any of us! We knew him to be a sneak thief, liar and profligate, but " Fitzwilliam pounded the arm of his chair, "even we, who suffered his tricks, could not guess the depths of his viciousness!"
"Perhaps he only fell into it accidentally. The pressures of his debts...time against him..." Darcy recalled the morning's sermon.
"Accidentally fell into it! Fitz...it was a cold-blooded, carefully planned campaign! Probably was about it for months!"
"But Richard," Darcy faced his cousin directly, his countenance awash with confliction, "human frailty can not be so summarily dismissed. I make no claims to be immune from its effects and you, surely, do not, as you appeal to it regularly! We all hope that, given its consideration, the balance will weigh out in our favour for our attention to duty and to charity."
Fitzwilliam cocked his head to one side and looked deeply into his cousin's eyes. "That is true, Fitz," he replied slowly, "and I am no theologian...or philosopher, for that matter. That is rather your line than mine. But, if you are asking me whether we are to excuse Wickham's behaviour to Georgiana because he could not help himself, or if, in the end, his scale will be tipped to the good, I beg leave to tell you, Cousin, you may go to the Devil! For, barring sudden and immediate sainthood, the creature's a rogue of the deepest dye and will remain so. Even the Army can't change that!"
A knock at the library door prevented Darcy from addressing his cousin's position. He called permission and Witcher entered carrying a silver tray on which lay a folded note.
"Sir, this just came and the boy was told to wait for a reply."
"Thank you, Witcher," Darcy replied, plucking up the note. "If you would wait a moment, I shall pen a reply directly." The seal broken, he unfolded the sheet and immediately recognized Bingley's scrawling hand.
It is the strangest thing, but Caroline has removed to Town and shut up Netherfield saying she cannot be happy in Hertfordshire! and intends to stay in London for Christmas. Louisa and Hurst as well. Needless to say, I have removed myself from Grenier's and am now comfortably at home. (As comfortably as may be, in all events) Therefore, please present yourself in Aldford Street for dinner on Monday evening, as I will be quite absent from the hotel. That is, unless you would rather dine at the hotel. Please advise me!
Darcy looked up at Fitzwilliam, "It is from Bingley. He desires my advice on whether we should dine at his home or elsewhere." He rose from the chair and went to his desk.
"Good Heavens, can't the puppy decide even where he will eat without your help?"
"It would appear not," Darcy chuckled mirthlessly, "but I can not fault him at present as I have been the instrument of his misdoubt." He reached for his pen, inspected the point and dipped it into the inkwell.
"You have been encouraging him to depend upon you far too much, Fitz." Fitzwilliam warned him.
"That is the irony of it." Darcy wrote his reply that Aldford Street was acceptable. Miss Bingley would, he knew, be quite incensed with him if he avoided her at this juncture. "Until a few weeks ago, I was pushing him out from under my wings. But something arose in Hertfordshire that proved beyond his powers and I am forced to play Mother Hen once more. Here, Witcher," Darcy sanded and folded the note, then placed it on the tray. "Now, let us leave the subject!"
"I am yours to command, Cousin!" Fitzwilliam sketched him a bow. "What do you say to a few racks of billiards before I must report back to the Guards? And perhaps," he added slyly, "we might agree to a little wager on the results?"
"Shot your bolt already this month, Cousin?"
"Blame it on the ladies, Fitz. What's a poor man to do? Natural frailty, don't you know!" ~~~~~~&~~~~~~
"A few racks of billiards" later, Darcy found his purse a bit lighter and his cousin's smile correspondingly broader. Although, for Richard's benefit, he made a show of chagrin at his losses, he was in nowise displeased to part with the guineas that would see Fitzwilliam comfortably through to the end of the quarter. Darcy knew his cousin to be generous to a fault with the men-boys, really-under his command, particularly those who were younger sons, as he was. Richard looked after them rather like a Mother Hen himself, making sure they wrote home, rescuing them from scrapes and roughly cozening them into creditable specimens of His Majesty's Guard. But such shifts required expenditures that his quarterly allowance could not always cover without curtailing Fitzwilliam's own varied activities. Applying to his lordship for additional funds was not a course his cousin desired to pursue on a regular basis. Therefore, Darcy unfailingly made his box available to his cousin for interests which they shared, such as the theater and opera and, for those they did not, the occasional wager on the roll of a ball or turn of a card provided what was lacking. This arrangement was never acknowledged by either, of course, but was understood, the funds needed being generously lost on the one hand and graciously received on the other.
"Well, old man, I shall display some unwonted mercy and take myself off to the Guard before I win Pemberley from you." Fitzwilliam stretched out his shoulder muscles before reaching for his regimentals. He slid the guineas into an inner pocket and shrugged into the scarlet.
Darcy feigned a grimace, "So you keep saying, but the day has not yet come, nor will it, Cousin." He picked up his own coat and led the way out to the stairs, Fitzwilliam behind him. "You will come, then, Christmas week?" he asked.
"Depend upon it," Fitzwilliam replied as they descended the stairs. "You have me confounded with this news of Georgiana and, even did I not share guardianship of her, I should be concerned on the basis of our close relationship alone. Besides, it has been too long since we have shared Christmas! Her ladyship will be in high gig to have me home and spend Christmas at Pemberley again." They reached the hall and Fitzwilliam turned a serious mien upon him. "She has been concerned about you, Fitz, about both of you, really. This invitation will, I am sure, ease her mind."
"My aunt's solicitude is appreciated," Darcy assured Fitzwilliam that his mother's interest was not taken amiss, "and I confess I have been negligent in my correspondence with her of late. That shall be remedied; I shall write her tonight!"
"Then, I'll leave you to it. Do me a kindness and tell her you saw me today, that we dined together, etc., etc." A sudden thought seized him, "And don't fail to mention I was in church- there's a good fellow! She will be glad to hear from you, of course, but doubly glad to know her scapegrace of a son spent a sober Sunday. I would write her myself, but she will believe you."
Witcher opened the door at his master's nod and the cousins gripped each other's hand in a firm, familiar manner. "I shall so write, Richard," Darcy promised solemnly, but then laughed, "although retrieving your character to my aunt seems rather a lost cause at this late date." At Fitzwilliam's answering crow he added mischievously, "Perhaps if you made attendance a habit..."
"Ho, no! thank you, Cousin. Just write your little bit and all will be well. Good-bye, then, until Christmas! Witcher!" Fitzwilliam nodded at the old butler and, pulling his cloak tight, ran down the steps of Erewile House and into the hack summoned for him while Darcy turned back to the stairs and the not unpleasant task of writing his Aunt Fitzwilliam.
The sun had long surrendered in its battle against the clouds and fog. Vacating the field to his sister moon, he had already retired to observe what she could make of it when Darcy committed the final syllables of his letter to paper. As he sanded and blotted the missive, he noticed the darkness without with regret. Now, not only the weather, but the light was against any notion of a brisk turn about the square to work out the cramped sinews of his limbs and the perturbation of his mind. He lay the letter on the silver servier for Hinchcliffe to post in the morning and arose from his desk with a groan.
"Wickham!" Darcy went to the window and, leaning one arm against the frame, peered out into the night. The square before him was unnaturally silent, the sound of any horse or carriage passing by being muffled by the pervasive fog. The morning's sermon had caught him off his guard and unsettled what had previously been a fixed disposition of mind. The sensation was most disagreeable and his attempt to reason it out with Richard had proved utterly useless. The question still remained: How did one account for Wickham and men like him? and, further, was he prepared to believe that Wickham was in little worse a position in the eyes of Eternity than himself?
Richard had misunderstood him completely, thinking he wished to find excuse for Wickham's actions. He could not have been farther from the truth! Darcy's hot resentment of the man rose effortlessly, testifying that it was as implacable as ever it was, perhaps more so as he seemed to be intimately involved in Elizabeth Bennet's poor opinion of him. No, Richard had not recognized the debater's form he had adopted to explore the issue in a safe, objective manner, but had responded with the heat of a passion revolted with such niceties. Now was added to that resentment feelings of injustice at the hands of a Supreme Judge who would allow such a villain to pass Heaven's bar merely by the addition of a few paltry good deeds performed, no doubt, to his own temporal advantage. The entire idea was intolerable! But, there was no one with whom he could puzzle it out, leastwise not immediately to hand, and it was getting late.
Darcy straightened, walked back to his desk and blew out the lamp upon it. Standing motionless in the dark library, he wearily reviewed the morrow's duties. In the morning he must clear his desk of any remaining items of business. Then, at half-past two, present himself in Cavendish Square and commission Lawrence to paint Georgiana's portrait on their return to Town. Lastly, he was expected at Aldford Street for dinner with Bingley and his sister.
He closed his eyes and another groan escaped him. Bingley! If all went well, that coil, at least, would be cleared. He prayed that Caroline Bingley had followed his directions precisely and restricted herself to disinterested affirmations of the doubts he had planted in her brother's mind. If she had tried to bully him into giving up Miss Bennet, Darcy knew that all his subtleties of suggestion will have been for naught and he would be confronting a Bingley with heels dug in and head lowered in mulish obstinacy.
The thought chilled him. He had not considered failure. If, against his family and friend, Bingley insisted upon Miss Bennet... Even in the darkness, Darcy's gaze easily found the shelf on which the book containing the embroidery threads reposed. He did not need to see them; he knew the count of the colours: three green, two yellow and one each of blue, rose and lavender. Would he cut the connexion or stand by Bingley? Stand by him, surely! But at what cost? Perhaps, very little. It well may be that Bingley, the married man, would no longer be interested in the attractions of Town and, as relations between the wed and their bachelor fellows did tend to thin... Darcy shook his head. No, Bingley would remain Bingley. Although his company at some events may fail, Darcy could not doubt his continued warm regard. And that would mean...
"Elizabeth." He had not meant to think it, let alone to say the name aloud, but it echoed in the darkness of the library and fell softly against his ear. Darcy gripped the edge of his desk with painful force and commanded himself not to be a fool, "She dislikes you, idiot! That should provide proof enough against being in her company." Before he could berate himself further, the door to the library suddenly swung open and the blaze of a lamp held aloft caused Darcy to blink and cover his eyes.
"Mr. Darcy!" The lamp was lowered and set on a hall table. "Your pardon, sir. I heard a sound and, as the library was dark, we could not think what it could be." When his eyes had finally adjusted Darcy was able to discern his butler in the doorway with one of the sturdier footmen behind him armed with a kitchen faggot. "With that business in Wapping, sir. All those poor souls murdered in their beds..."
"It is quite all right, Witcher. Understandable, I suppose," Darcy looked askance at his staff, "but we are a goodly distance from Wapping!"
"Yes, sir," Witcher bowed his head, "I guess it is the fog, sir. Has everyone a bit nervous not knowing what is behind or a'fore you. Just the kind of weather for mischief." He motioned the footman away to his post and then bowed to Darcy. "Your pardon, again, sir. Shall I leave you this lamp?"
"No, you may take it with you. Good night, Witcher."
"And to you, Mr. Darcy." Darcy waited until the elderly servant descended the stairs to the servant's floor before starting up them to his bedchamber. Sleep would be his only recourse of escape from the piercing uncertainties of this day. "'To sleep' but, dear G-d, not 'to dream,' I beg you."