Mrs Reynolds had done all Darcy had asked of her in his note, sending for a surgeon without delay and deploying a maid to ready a chamber for the sick man.
With the aid of two footmen and a flat board, they had conveyed the captain upstairs, and Darcy left his housekeeper to bring tea for Elizabeth and her friend in the drawing room before seeking out his sister.
He found Georgiana in the small parlour she had taken to using.
‘Fitz! I did not realise the time.’ She put aside her book and Darcy indicated they take the chairs beside the hearth. ‘How is it we have an injured naval man in our home?’
Darcy briefly outlined what had occurred. It was no challenge to spare the details, for he had so few.
‘Poor Miss Anne Elliot.’ Georgiana’s sympathy was obvious. ‘And poor Captain Wentworth. How is it they are acquainted?’
‘I believe they were once…’ Darcy’s voice petered out. Betrothed. Much as he had anticipated being by now.
‘Brother? Is there anything wrong? You are pale and drawn.’
Darcy shook his head. ‘Pay me no mind, my dear. It has been a rather trying day thus far. Miss Anne Elliot was once engaged to the captain. I know not the reasons for their separation, but it is evident the lady is extremely distressed by the gentleman’s prognosis.’
‘Could she not stay here, to be with him until the end? It seems unkind for her to have to leave, for she may not be there when…’ Georgiana stopped. ‘How terribly sad.’
His sister was right; it was both sad and cruel, and Darcy ought to be feeling for Anne and her captain rather than wallowing in his own despair.
Your selfish disdain for the feelings of others…
Darcy winced as Elizabeth’s words struck him anew. Then, he felt Georgiana take his hand as she came to kneel beside his chair.
‘Fitz, your face is alarming me. I feel your sorrow for the poor man and his fate, but you must not dwell upon it.’
Recalling himself, Darcy gave Georgiana’s hand a squeeze before releasing it and getting to his feet.
‘I am quite well. We must await the surgeon’s verdict, but there is little to be done unless the captain awakens soon.’
‘I am grieved.’ Georgiana followed Darcy as he crossed over to a writing desk. ‘Do you require Mrs Annesley to act as chaperone? I am well able to spare her.’
Taking a seat, Darcy was assailed by conflicting emotions over Elizabeth being in his house.
‘Miss Bennet attends Miss Elliot, and we can spare a servant to be in the room if need be.’ Georgiana came to stand by his side. ‘The captain is hardly in a position to compromise a lady, my dear.’
‘I know, Fitz.’ Georgiana watched him select a pen and dip it in the ink. ‘Are you writing to Richard?’
‘I promised Miss Anne Elliot I would send word to Reverend Wentworth—the captain’s brother—of his being brought here. The reverend believes him to have perished but has since left the district.’
‘Is there any chance he will discover his brother’s situation before it is too late to wait upon him?’
‘The news will have to await him in Shropshire, for it is the only known direction. I believe he was to be married today and travelling north to the Lakes before taking up his new living.’ Darcy summoned a smile for his sister. ‘We must have faith, Georgie. As long as the captain breathes, hope remains.’
As Darcy set pen to paper, his sister returned to her seat, and he penned his missive whilst his mind grappled with the captain’s situation. If only the timing had not been so unfortunate, Captain Wentworth would have been able to go to Monkford and have kin around him in these final hours.
Sitting back in his seat, Darcy set the pen aside. Perhaps the man was not so ill-served as he supposed. Despite the separation of so many years, Miss Anne Elliot’s devotion could not be questioned.
Darcy reached for the seal, then slumped in his seat as sadness gripped him once more. Would his passion and admiration for Elizabeth haunt him indefinitely also?
Welcome though the tea tray had been, and warming as the brightly burning fire was, Anne’s mind remained in turmoil.
‘I struggle to comprehend all that has come about, Lizzy. First, Frederick has perished at sea. Then, he has not. In his conscious ramblings, he speaks my name and arrives at Kellynch. Now’—Anne’s voice hitched–‘even now, he lies upstairs in a stranger’s home for what may be his final hours, unaware of all of this.’
‘It is a great deal to assimilate, dear Anne. It is no wonder you are conflicted.’ Elizabeth pointed to the teapot. Would you care for more?’
Anne shook her head. ‘I cannot face it.’ She willed the door to open and bring intelligence of Frederick’s condition. ‘Why would he say my name?’
Elizabeth leaned towards Anne and took her hand briefly. ‘Perchance you were his last conscious thought?’
‘If only it were so.’ Anne’s cheeks became chalk white as a hand shot to her throat. ‘Oh, Lizzy!’ She turned frantic eyes on her friend. ‘He said ‘Kellynch’ too. His memories of my home cannot be good ones. He must have recalled an awful time in his life as he felt his own near its end. I do not think I can bear it.’
Elizabeth put an arm about her. ‘Take one moment at a time, dear Anne. Be thankful he has been brought home to England and will be assured the best of medical care for as long as he may need it.’
Holding back impending tears, Anne nodded. Elizabeth was right. She must be grateful for the small mercy of seeing Frederick once more, of having gained her point with her father over attending him.
‘You are wise, Lizzy. I shall do my best to take comfort from seeing Frederick again, of being able to hold his hand in mine, and I shall endeavour—’
They both started as the door opened, and Mr Darcy came into the room.
Getting a little unsteadily to her feet beside Elizabeth, Anne grasped her friend’s hand tightly.
‘The surgeon—a Mr Parker, from Martock—has examined the captain and left. The gentleman is as well as should be expected after such a journey, but he remains unconscious and with no sign of waking at present.’
The tightness in Anne’s throat threatened to overwhelm her, and Elizabeth seemed to sense her struggle, picking up the conversation.
‘Has he given any indication, sir? Any hint of what we may expect?’
‘Mr Parker has made the captain as comfortable as he could but said there was little aid he could offer. He says the blow to the captain’s head must have been severe, but he believes there is no fracture and the contusion, though extensive, is already beginning to fade. An apothecary will be best placed to provide the care Captain Wentworth requires now.’ He smiled kindly at Anne. ‘I understand our local man is a Mr Robinson, and a note has already been despatched to request his services.’
Anne felt as though she were clinging to Mr Darcy’s words like a drowning man takes hold of a life raft.
‘There, Anne. All is as well as we can expect for now.’ Elizabeth’s spoke gently, and Anne turned towards her. ‘An apothecary will likely provide a stimulating tincture or some such, it may rouse the captain.’ She addressed the gentleman. ‘Anne had hoped to sit with Captain Wentworth for a while, sir. Is it possible?’
Mr Darcy inclined his head. ‘I will ask Mrs Reynolds to show you to him. I can place a servant at your disposal.’
Anne’s grip on Elizabeth’s hand tightened. ‘Lizzy will be with me.’ She noted the strained look Mr Darcy sent her friend before walking over to pull the bell. Was he recalling the argument with Elizabeth?
‘I hope you comprehend, sir, how much I appreciate your taking Captain Wentworth under this roof until…’ Anne faltered, then added, ‘I shall never forget your kindness.’
‘Please, do not speak of it. I take no credit for doing what is right.’ The door opened to reveal the housekeeper. ‘Mrs Reynolds, would you be so kind as to show Miss Elliot and Miss Bennet to the captain’s room? Excuse me, ladies. I must return to Kellynch.’
Mr Darcy turned on his heel and left the room, and Anne and Elizabeth exchanged a quick glance before joining the housekeeper who led them out into the hall.
‘May I ask after Miss Darcy?’ Elizabeth addressed Mrs Reynolds as they mounted the stairs. ‘We would not wish her to be distressed by all this.’
‘‘It is kind of you to enquire, Miss Bennet. She is well and has been with Mr Darcy, who has explained the situation.’
They were soon on the landing, and Mrs Reynolds pushed open a door into a pleasant room, with ample light streaming in through the windows and a fire crackling warmly in the grate. A servant rose from a seat beside the bed, placing a damp cloth onto a tray bearing a pitcher and bowl of water.
‘Greening, you may return to your duties for now.’
As the servant left the room, Mrs Reynolds invited Anne to take the seat beside the bed, and Elizabeth took an armchair a short distance away.
‘Ring the bell’—Mrs Reynolds pointed to the pull rope in the wall beside the mantel—‘should you need anything or there is any alteration in the gentleman’s condition.’
Silence settled upon the room, only disturbed by the arrival of a kitchen maid with more tea, and although Elizabeth placed a cup by Anne, beyond a whispered ‘thank you’ they did not speak for some time.
Elizabeth was soon lost in her thoughts. Mr Darcy was a conundrum, one moment angering her beyond reason, the next displaying a strong compassion for his fellow man and—
‘I believe Frederick’s breathing improves. It was weaker when we first arrived, I am certain of it.’
Moving to stand beside her friend, Elizabeth watched for movement of the sheet as the captain’s chest rose and fell. In truth, it was barely discernible.
‘I cannot believe I am here with him.’ With a hesitant hand, Anne reached out to touch the injured man’s hair before tentatively running a finger down the side of his face. ‘This shadowy growth brings me comfort. It is a sign of life.’
‘It is indeed. Talk to him, Anne. Let the captain hear your voice.’
Elizabeth returned to her chair and the afternoon passed with them exchanging a little conversation now and again but with no alteration in the captain beyond the indistinct movement of the sheet upon his chest.
Anne kept up a low-voiced monologue, and Elizabeth drifted back into thought, her mind grappling with her fluctuating emotions towards Mr Darcy. His anger from yesterday seemed all but gone, but there was a strange awareness about him, a constraint to his regard, as though fearful he might display something he would rather not.
Unbidden, Mr Darcy’s words seared through Elizabeth’s mind.
‘In vain have I struggled…my feelings will not be repressed.’
What on earth had been Mr Darcy’s meaning? Then, colour flooded Elizabeth’s cheeks as a sudden notion took hold of her.
‘No,’ she whispered, shoving it fiercely aside. ‘That would be unfathomable.’
Despite the admonishment, however, the memory of the gentleman’s expression as he spoke those words returned, and she—
‘Here we are.’ Elizabeth started and looked up as Mrs Reynolds swept into the room, a gentleman in her wake. ‘Mr Robinson is arrived to treat the patient.’
The newcomer placed a worn leather bag on a table before walking over to study the lifeless captain. Then, he turned around.
‘Ladies, if you would be so kind as to leave the room? Mrs Reynolds, if you would assist?’
Darcy felt no real obligation to wait upon Sir Walter, but as he would rather be where Elizabeth was not at present, it was a welcome release to escape from Meadowbrook House.
He took himself to task on the walk back to Kellynch. His confrontation with Elizabeth had happened; it could not be undone, and he must stand by his earlier declaration to the lady. It must be forgot; all of it. Regulating his mind with the aid of occupation was a given; restraining his recalcitrant heart, however, was entirely another matter.
‘Damned foolishness,’ Darcy muttered as he took the step up to the imposing portico and rapped on the door.
The butler let him into the house, showing him into the great hall just as Miss Elliot sailed into the room.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Darcy.’ She curtsied elegantly, and Darcy performed a cursory bow.
‘It was unfortunate you had to leave earlier. My father wished to speak to you on a matter of some urgency.’ She waved an imperious hand to dismiss the butler and took hold of Darcy’s arm.
He gently but firmly released his arm from her grip, and the lady’s gaze narrowed.
‘As I am aware. If you will excuse me, ma’am, I shall await your father here.’
With that, Darcy walked over to the bookshelves lining the far wall and began ostensibly perusing the titles, relieved to hear the swish of Miss Elliot’s skirts as she swept from the great hall.
She returned directly with her father in tow, who strode over to Darcy.
‘Come, sir. We have business to discuss.’ Sir Walter reeked of brandy.
‘I cannot fathom what possible business could concern us both, Sir Walter.’ Darcy replaced the book he held and turned back, but the gentleman was already walking away.
‘My study, Darcy. if you would be so obliging.’
Obliging Sir Walter was the last thing Darcy felt inclined towards, but the desire for distraction was genuine and his curiosity got the better of him. He would give the gentleman five minutes of his time, and then he would go on an extensive walk before returning to Meadowbrook House.
The apothecary had promised to return to pass the night at the captain’s side but had warned that the next six and thirty hours would deliver one outcome or another. If the injured man did not regain consciousness soon, there was little the apothecary could do to change the inevitable path down which Captain Wentworth seemed destined to tread.
Elizabeth and Anne had lingered for the rest of the afternoon in the sick room, but there was no alteration in the gentleman, his shallow breathing sometimes the only sound to be heard when Anne’s voice trailed away.
She had grown wan and forlorn as the day had faded and no further signs of life had come from the captain, whose hand Anne clasped almost constantly. It therefore took all of Elizabeth’s efforts to persuade her from the gentleman’s bedside, but the impending dusk finally convinced Anne she could linger no longer.
It was a solemn walk back to Kellynch, but with Anne wrapped in her reflections, Elizabeth’s mind returned to the inconsistency of her fluctuating sentiments towards Mr Darcy and growing puzzlement over his words meaning what they hinted at.
‘Will you keep me company until dinner, Lizzy? I do not wish to be alone with my thoughts just now.’
‘Yes, of course.’ Elizabeth welcomed the proposal as she followed Anne into the house. She had no desire to be alone with her thoughts either, for they were not serving her well.
No sooner had they entered the great hall, however, when Sir Walter appeared.
‘Anne. I wish to speak to you. Come.’
Anne exchanged a look with Elizabeth as Sir Walter headed for his study. ‘I will meet you in the small sitting room, Lizzy.’
With a troubled heart, Elizabeth watched Anne disappear down the corridor in her father’s wake. How much longer could her friend endure this strain?
Dusk had fallen before Darcy could face returning home, though he had left Kellynch Hall within a half hour of his arrival. Walking for miles around the estate had done little to shed the feelings assailing him, however, and when he reached Meadowbrook House, he stood for a moment, staring at its benign façade.
Was Elizabeth still within? Then, Darcy assessed the darkening skies. No, she would have returned to Kellynch. Frustrated to feel disappointment instead of relief, he strode towards the boot room. This was no time for such indulgence.
Ten minutes later, Darcy was prowling the house in search of his sister. Mrs Annesley had last seen her in the music room, but it was empty, as was the drawing room, the small parlour, and the breakfast room.
Heading upstairs, Darcy hesitated as he reached the door to his sister’s chamber, but then it swung open.
‘Fitz! I thought I heard a step.’ Georgiana raised her cheek for his kiss, and he followed her into the room, wishing they were anywhere but Somersetshire. What hellish sort of week was this? Firstly, Elizabeth’s damning of his character, then…
Marshalling his thoughts, Darcy took the chair opposite his sister, fixing her with a keen look.
‘Forgive me, my dear, but there is a matter we must discuss. I am going to be brutally candid, and by return, I expect full and open honesty from you. You do understand, Georgie? I would not ask it of you in such a way if it were not of the utmost importance.’
The colour had drained from Georgiana’s face, but she nodded. ‘You are scaring me, Brother. But, yes, I understand, and I promise to speak the truth.’
‘Are you still…does your attachment to George Wickham endure?’
A deep pink filled Georgiana’s cheeks, and she lowered her head.
‘Dearest?’ Darcy tried to soften his voice, though impatience for an answer gripped him. ‘I do not wish to pain you, but it is imperative I understand the reality. Be not afraid of speaking honestly. Do you remain enamoured of the man?’
Georgiana’s head shot up. ‘No! How could you think so? I am ashamed of my foolish inclination and could not regret it more.’
Much as he did not wish to distress his sister, Darcy knew he must press on.
‘But you keep a letter from him between the pages of your book.’
At this, Georgiana leapt to her feet, and Darcy stood too, stepping forward to take her hands in his.
‘Please, Georgie. Tell me the truth.’
Her eyes were pleading, and Darcy’s ire stirred. If that scoundrel did still have a hold upon her, he did not want to be accountable for his actions, should Wickham ever cross his path.
‘It is not what you think.’ Georgiana spoke urgently, holding tight onto Darcy’s hands. ‘I promise you. I merely keep the letter to remind me, daily, not how much I loved him, but never to fall again for such false promises. I do not attend to its content, it is but a marker for my text, but also a constant reinforcement of my foolishness and gullibility.’ Her voice broke on the last word, and Darcy released her hands and put an arm around her, holding her close.
‘I know what it cost you to save me, Brother.’ Georgiana’s voice was muffled against his chest, and Darcy lowered his head to better hear her. ‘I have lived with the guilt these past months, learnt a lesson I wish never to forget.’
Georgiana straightened up, and he released his hold on her as she took a step back to peep up at him. Her eyes were no longer full of guilt. ‘I have no feelings for George Wickham other than hatred and distrust.’
Darcy’s heart clenched in his chest. Much as Elizabeth Bennet feels for me…
He cleared his throat. ‘Thank you for your honesty, Georgie. Forgive me for forcing it from you.’ He dropped a kiss on her cheek. ‘I am immensely proud of you.’
Georgiana sat down as Darcy reclaimed his own seat, wishing he felt as at ease as he normally did when sitting there.
‘I am so relieved, Brother.’ Georgiana gestured towards the small pile of books on her bedside table. ‘I could not work out what had happened to it, other than it must have fallen from the pages. I have been searching everywhere for it.’ Her face reflected her relief. ‘I did not realise you had found the letter.’
‘I did not.’
A hand flew to Georgiana’s throat. ‘Oh no! Please tell me it was Mrs Reynolds, not one of the other servants who…’ Her voice faded as Darcy shook his head.
How he hated to do this to her.
‘It was Miss Elliot.’ Darcy spoke through clenched teeth, his recent interview with the lady and Sir Walter burning through his brain.
‘Miss Elliot? But how…when…?’
‘When she paid her call upon us. You had retired to your chamber to rest after the ladies visited, do you remember?’ To Darcy, it seemed a lifetime ago. ‘Miss Elliot returned with a request for a carriage to take her home. I was bound for Yeovil and bade her await me in the drawing room. I can only assume she discovered it then.’
Georgiana face reflected her horror. ‘She did not…she would not read it?’ Darcy’s expression must have confirmed the truth of it. ‘How dare she?’
‘But—’ Georgiana frowned. ‘Brother, how do you know of this?’
Darcy rose from his seat and strode over to the window. ‘When I was at the Hall earlier, I was obliged to meet with Sir Walter. Miss Elliot was there, and she’—he broke off, anger consuming him as he recalled the meeting.
Georgiana came to join him, taking his hand in hers. ‘She told you she had seen it?’
Darcy nodded. ‘Worse than that, she has passed it to her father.’
‘No!’ Georgiana’s face was all confusion as she dropped his hand. ‘But why? Of what possible importance could it be to Sir Walter Elliot?’
Darcy stared out across the grounds of Meadowbrook House. The snow had all but gone, and all was grey and desolate in the fading light.
‘As an instrument to further his own interest.’ Darcy turned around. Georgiana’s face reflected her despair, and his heart went out to her. ‘I am grieved to say, Sir Walter is threatening to expose your plans with Wickham and cause a scandal around us.’
‘But you prevented the elopement!’
‘He claims it is all in the telling. I do not think he cares if the report misrepresents the facts.’
Georgiana’s eyes were full of tears, and Darcy put his arms around her again, holding her close as she sniffled into his waistcoat.
‘They will not harm you, Georgie. I will protect your reputation with everything I have.’
Darcy held her tightly, but then Georgiana raised her head, her forehead furrowed. ‘What is his purpose? I cannot see how Sir Walter benefits from making such a threat.’
‘His barter for keeping silent is that…’ Darcy forced back the bile rising in his throat. ‘That I take Miss Elliot as my wife.’
You can read Chapter Twenty HERE!!
Copyright © 2020 Ada Bright & Cass Grafton