Continuing Tales

Inevitable Change

A Pride & Prejudice Story
by acuppajava

Part 8 of 21

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Inevitable Change

A few days later, Lizzy and her aunt and uncle Gardiner departed for Meryton, as Lizzy had resolved. She'd determined her best course of action was to meet with her mother and sisters, and discuss with them the family's sudden turn of fortune. Elizabeth was grateful to have the calming presence of her aunt and uncle beside her; she was barely able to stomach the thought of her mother's reaction to the captain's generosity, much less to Lydia's conquest of such a rich man. She'd had so little amenity with her mama, after leaving Longbourn – they barely corresponded with one another, mostly through brief messages in Jane's letters.

Even though she knew she would return in a little over a fortnight, the physical act of leaving Mr. Darcy was unbearably hard. He'd walked her to the carriage where the Gardiners sat, waiting. With Georgiana and Caroline looking on, there was little to be said between the two. He quietly wished her safe journey, and handed her into the coach. She watched him as the horses pulled away, unconscious of Georgiana's fervent waving and calling out, "Hurry home!" and Caroline's narrow figure, standing with arms crossed, glaring at her. Elizabeth saw Darcy alone, his beautiful, solemn face looking up at hers, diminishing as the wheels of the carriage moved forward.

Mrs. Gardiner was not unaware of Lizzy's melancholy. The visits Mr. Darcy had paid to her at the Gardiner townhouse, and employing Elizabeth as his sister's companion – Mrs. Gardiner had taken these actions as a clear indication of the direction Mr. Darcy's heart was drifting. But then, after Christmas – there was no substantial news. Mr. Darcy had fallen ill, then regained his health and left Pemberley for a time, so Lizzy had reported. She wrote extensively about Georgiana Darcy, and described the balls and parties she'd attended. Her spirits were high and gay - it had been a tremendous change from the girl who'd anxiously prowled around their home when she first arrived from Longbourn. No word about Mr. Darcy, though, for quite some time. And then, the stunning announcement: when he returned from his travels, he was suddenly engaged to Caroline Bingley. Elizabeth had no other embellishment or commentary about the matter. Simply, he was to be married. Caroline Bingley was a fashionable sort of girl, Mrs. Gardiner had to admit, but somewhat churlish in nature, not at all like Lizzy. It seemed Mr. Darcy had drifted in an entirely different direction.

In the rocking carriage, once she was assured Mr. Gardiner had shut his eyes for a brief slumber, Mrs. Gardiner turned to Lizzy. In a hushed tone, she inquired, "You are quiet, my dear. Are you well?"

"Quite well, Aunt, thank you." Elizabeth murmured, and cast her gaze out the window.

"Miss Darcy was quite animated in her farewells – she has quite an admiration for you, Lizzy."

"And I for her. She is very sweet, and a dear friend. I shall miss her while I'm away."

"And Mr. Darcy – he is very kind to you, I see."

"Hmm. Yes, yes, he is…" Elizabeth wished her aunt would not pursue the line of discussion, but it was not to be.

"Lizzy, I had thought – after seeing you with Mr. Darcy at Pemberley, after he had called on you so many months ago, I thought perhaps he would've approached you with some special intentions. It is hard for me to understand how it is that he still holds you in such favor, when he has gone on to marry another young woman."

"Aunt Gardiner, as I had explained all those many months ago, Mr. Darcy never had intentions for me." But she could no longer lie to her aunt. "Actually, he had made a proposal to me – asked for my hand - over a year ago. I…I refused him."

Maddie Gardiner had to hold her breath, so she would not burst from the shock of what her niece just confessed. Refused the hand of Fitzwilliam Darcy? Heir to the Darcys of Derbyshire, landlord of three-quarters of Derbyshire County? Calming herself, she serenely stated, "Well, Lizzy, my darling, you must've had good cause to turn such an offer down."

"I…I did…or so I thought I did – I did not know him then, as I do now – I…" and her voice broke, and she began to weep. "Oh, Aunt! I have been so foolish!" And she went on to explain her feelings for Darcy – at first hating him for his haughty manners and demeaning comments, and then despising him for what she believed to be his ill use of Wickham and his interference in Bingley and Jane's courtship. Then finally, she spoke of how wrong she was in her judgment of his character – he was noble, and fair, generous and kind. His love and loyalty were hard won and once obtained, never wavering. She could see all of it now, and feel most deeply her own love for him – love that could never be returned.

"Lizzy, Lizzy – how much you've borne! And there's been no one to tell!" Elizabeth silently nodded through her tears. It was true – she'd not told her sister Jane any of it, for Jane was happily preoccupied arranging for her marriage to Bingley. There was no point on discussing it with her – Darcy was preparing for his own marriage, besides.

Mrs. Gardiner pulled Lizzy's head to her shoulder, allowing the girl to vent her sorrow fully. In due time, her aunt said, "Lizzy, dear, we must not wallow too deeply in these matters of the heart. I'm afraid what's done is done – he is a married man now, and well out of your reach. You are very young, my sweet, and now you are in a very advantageous position; you have the sea captain's gifts- allowance and a dowry! Elizabeth, surely you see that there will be many, many more opportunities for courtship now – even more than when you were at Longbourn!" Mrs. Gardiner wrinkled her brow slightly, scolding herself for sounding so much like Elizabeth's matrimony-mad mother. "Never mind about any of it, Elizabeth. You do not wish to hear about other men now, but time will change that. Time will take away your sorrow."

Elizabeth snuffled quietly at her aunt's side, having no longer the energy to weep outright. She could not see how time would fill the ache in her heart; the thought of another day or another was pointless to her, if she could not be with him. The two of them, aunt and niece, sat silently as the carriage rambled through the countryside away from London.

They finally approached Meryton in Hertfordshire, a few hours before sunset. Meryton was a small village supporting a few shops, an inn and the assembly rooms located on the central road. Mrs. Bennet and her daughter, Kitty, had settled into the spare rooms located in Mr. and Mrs. Phillips' residence – a two story building which housed Mr. Phillips' law practice as well. There was very little excitement in Meryton, aside from that long season when the militia was located on the outskirts of the sleepy burg. Assembly dances occurred frequently enough, for the population of the countryside demanded some variety in their social gatherings; however, very little else ever happened in Meryton worth noting.

That afternoon, however, there was a notable gathering in the streets outside of Office of J. Phillips, Solicitor; the babble from the small crowd was enough to wake Mr. Gardiner from his deep slumber. Lizzy, too, roused herself from the stupor she had fallen, and peered curiously out the window. In the crowd, she spied Charlotte Lucas-Collins weave around the townsfolk gathered around the doorway; trailing behind was Elizabeth's sister, Mary, carrying a rather plump, red-faced baby.

Mr. Gardiner, in his usual understated manner, declared, "I say, there's a bit of a ruckus outside your mama's residence, Lizzy. I shall tell the driver to allow us to disembark here – he can proceed forward to the inn and remove our trunks hence." With a rap of his cane on the roof of the carriage, he drew the attention of the driver, and the small party climbed down onto the crowded street.

Lizzy spied the people gathered at the door were focused mainly on the fantastic being that had been posted outside as sentry. He was a tall, thin, man, brown-skinned and clothed in jewel-colored oriental robes, chest bare and head wrapped in a turban. His deep, brown eyes remained straight ahead, staring into space, and his bare arms were crossed in front of him. He apparently was guarding entrance to the storefront office, though why was still uncertain to Lizzy and her aunt and uncle.

In the crush of the crowd, Lizzy found her voice, "Charlotte! Charlotte!" Charlotte Collins turned to see the face of her long-ago friend, and she gasped with pleasure and relief.

"Elizabeth! I am so glad to see you! I was not certain if you would receive my note! Can you gather this wonder? It seems your youngest sister has created quite a stir in town! But let us go in so I may tell you of all that has transpired."

"Yes, let's do, because it is evident to me that I am quite behind the times." Elizabeth acknowledged Mary with a quick embrace, and the young women led the way to the door, with the Gardiners not far behind. They all froze at the prospect of addressing the intimidating figure guarding the door. Lizzy gulped and spoke first to the stone face. "Excuse me, sir, we are relatives and friends of Miss Lydia Bennet –Lydia Durham – we wish to speak with her."

The man silently bowed and stepped aside, allowing the group to step into the law office. Mr. Phillips was there at his desk, looking over papers of some nature. He greeted the party with great enthusiasm, and pulled aside Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. "Fanny is upstairs with Mrs. Phillips and the girls. Lydia arrived last evening, and she's brought along the captain's accounts – Gardiner, perhaps you'd take a look with me and see just where things stand for our nieces." The gentlemen had always shared a common concern for the Bennet girls; they knew Mr. Bennet had depended upon the appearance of male progeny to inherit Longbourn, thus saving his daughters and wife from financial disaster. It was not to be, however, and both Mr. Gardiner and Phillips felt a tender paternal concern for the girls and their futures. Mr. Gardiner agreed readily to assist Mr. Phillips, and Mrs. Gardiner led the rest up the back staircase to the parlour.

Charlotte lingered at the end of the staircase and pulled Lizzy aside. "Elizabeth, I must speak with you before we join the party. I must beg your forgiveness."

Elizabeth eyed Charlotte with some suspicion. "I do not know why you ask it of me – you were, after all, bidden to do what your husband would ask of you."

"That is it, precisely, Elizabeth – Mr. Collins would not bend in his decision to acquire Longbourn, not after Lydia – well, but now all that has changed, hasn't it. I was able to forward the Captain's letter to you only after my – dear - husband had opened it and perused its contents. I saw the news the letter contained: it seems that Lydia's fate has radically changed, as has yours."

"It is good news, I suppose. And better yet, if your Mr. Collins has been apprised of the situation, we can be certain that Lady Catherine DeBourgh also knows of my fallen sister's good fortunes." With a glimmer in her eye, Elizabeth grinned at her friend. "News such as this travels whether the message is welcome or not. I would've like to have seen Lady Catherine's face when she was told. But it is very hard to believe – Lydia, in her circumstances, to have married such a man."

"I think your doubts will be cleared when you have heard the full story. Come, let us join the group."

Elizabeth heard her mother before she saw her. "Ha! My little girl, married to a rich sea captain – with such a fortune that we must rely on my dear brother to sort out her pin money!"

"Oh, mama, I shall be well taken care of, but I would hardly say rich – not yet, at least! My Captain is a clever man, and hopes to own half of India by the next year!" Lizzy shut her eyes briefly, trying to steady herself before being exposed to Lydia's coarse, bragging behavior, and then stepped into the room. Mrs. Phillips was there, as was Kitty and of course the triumphant Lydia. Standing behind Lydia was another Indian servant – this one, a slight woman, wearing her long black hair woven into a braid that hung straight down her back. The silk sari that was draped across her chest and abdomen was the color of the sea, with beads sewn in delicate swirls along the borders. A single jewel decorated her forehead. "Oh! Elizabeth has arrived! Alyah – fetch some tea - oh, and for Mrs. Collins as well!" The servant bowed and went to do Lydia's bidding. The Phillips household staff could only stand by in silence, observing this intruder in their midst.

"Sisters! What think you! I'm a married woman now, before all of you – even Jane, I daresay! I suppose she didn't want to be shown up, that's why she's not here to greet me home!"

Lizzy gazed at the bronze silk Lydia wore with the lace edge, and the elaborate feathered turban. "Lydia, you must know that Jane is at this moment traveling with her husband, Mr. Bingley. They are married just recently."

"Yes, yes," Lydia exclaimed, bringing the matter back to her point. "I've heard Elizabeth, but I've been a married woman months longer than she! Elizabeth, do you like my turban? It's all the fashion in Paris and Europe – everything Indian is fashionable now, do you not know? But Lord, it is so good to be back in civilization!"

"Yes, my dear, but living afar from your home is well worth it if you have high connections!" Then, she added with a sigh and a small whimper, "… although I shall miss you dearly once you've settled in India for good." Mrs. Bennet gave a righteous look to Elizabeth. "Some know what it is to sacrifice on behalf of their family's happiness. Lydia will no doubt suffer living so very far from her familiar home – and in such a country!"

"Oh, la, mama – the Captain and I are building a lovely home in the hills – our home overlooks all of the village, and the sea beyond. And I shall have loads of servants and footmen and gardens! And the parties, the parties will be splendid! I hear the other ladies and gentlemen of fortune hold balls every week!"

"Oh! Then you shall have to order many new dresses while you are in town, my girl, and I know the best shops for fabric!" Mother and daughter squealed with excitement, and Lizzy could not help but roll her eyes at their enthusiasm. She glanced about the room, and looked upon her younger sisters, Mary and Kitty. Mary was unchanged in appearance since Lizzy last saw her, but there was a softness in her gaze as she busily engaged little Sebastian with his toy rattle. Kitty, however, stared jealously at the favored child Lydia, as Mrs. Bennet continued to heap her praise upon her. Lizzy felt a slight tremor of sorrow for her sister Kitty – always wanting some of her mother's light to shine upon her, but somehow always missing her mark as Lydia upstaged her again and again.

Mrs. Gardiner addressed Lydia, "Congratulations on making a fine match, Lydia. You can only imagine our surprise when Elizabeth received your Captain's letter. We were filled with concern at your…disappearance with Mr. Wickham. We are most aggrieved that he would connect to you in such a….manner. You must know how keenly we worked to retrieve you from that cad."

"Oh, I had the Captain write you to explain everything while I traveled home for my shopping holiday. We married ladies have so very little time for correspondence, you know."

Lizzy was curious to hear more about Lydia's disappearance with Wickham. "Lydia, how is it that you were bound for India with Mr. Wickham? I find it hard to credit him with such a pioneering spirit. What precipitated your trip?"

"Oh, yes, Wickham. Well, as you know, we were to be married – that was our plan when we left Brighton. Only, Wickham was in debt – up to his knobblies, he used to say! So, we had to live cheap in London for a bit, until he could straighten out his accounts. That's when he saw Mr. Darcy."

Elizabeth grew pale. "He saw Mr. Darcy? In London?"

"Yes, but luckily Darcy did not see him. He said he owed Darcy an enormous amount of money, and that Darcy was mercenary enough to put out a warrant for him if he didn't pay, so that's when he booked our passage to India."

Mrs. Bennet gleamed at Elizabeth. "Can you imagine that fiend Mr. Darcy, ruining the lives of two young persons in love? All over money he didn't hardly need, what with his ten thousand a year and half of Derbyshire! Lizzy, I'm afraid your Miss Darcy's brother is a most notorious skinflint! Better be certain he is paying you fair wages!" Elizabeth closed her eyes in pain. Her stomach lurched, thinking how close Mr. Darcy had been to catching the pair – how different things could have been if he had been able to save her family's name! She wanted to scream her protests to her mother, she wanted to defend Darcy, but saw no good coming from it, not and have her mother jump to conclusions about her attachment to the man.

Lydia spoke up, "Mother, you must remember it is Wickham who is indeed the scoundrel, for he made me sell my best frock for gambling money! Still, it was a lark joining him on his adventure – pretending to be cousins! It makes my heart race still to think of the thrill – if we had gotten caught! And well, I shall miss him in his redcoat – and the way he filled his breeches!" She giggled and threw a knowing look to Kitty. "Kitty, don't you remember the officers at the Netherfield ball? How handsome they were!"

Elizabeth, swallowing back her indignation, scolded Lydia, "You're a married woman, now Lydia, not a girl. There is only one man you may admire now."

Kitty chimed in, "Yes, and though he's not as fine a figure as Mr. Wickham, I am certain you are pleased to have been on his boat when Mr. Wickham jumped when he did."

Elizabeth caught her breath – "Jumped? Do you mean to say, he jumped off the ship?"

Lydia rolled her eyes impatiently. "Yes, didn't I say he was gambling? He'd taken up the sport while we were en route, and he fell into some bad luck. He'd started sporting with the gentlemen on board, and was racking up some obligations, so then he tried to win back some of his money playing cards with the crew at night. I told the Captain he was studying the stars in solitude – wasn't that clever?"

"How do you know he j-jumped – that he didn't just fall, as the Captain wrote in his letter?" Elizabeth felt the hair on the back of her neck rise – out of anger or shock, she knew not which.

"He told me he was going to do it – to save himself, the cad. Some on the crew had threatened to kill him, you see. He planned it all – he mapped out the boat's route with Captain's maps, and found the right time to do it – while the boat was a few miles from a string of islands in the Indian Ocean. He joined the crew for one last game, provided them with strong spirits so they were good and drunk, and threw himself overboard as they slept it off – I really don't know if he made it to shore or not…though, he excelled in swimming – athleticism was one of his virtues, he told me so."

Elizabeth murmured to a scandalized Charlotte, "…athleticism? Well, and add a love of astronomy to the list as well, if he only had the opportunity between card games. Yes, Mr. Wickham was very nimble, able to contort and bend out of any confinement." She turned once more to her sister. "But Lydia, did you not love him? Is that not why you ran off with him to begin with?"

Again, with a roll of her eyes, Lydia declared, "Oh, there were some parts of him I loved, no doubt." This set Kitty tittering, but she stopped when Lydia turned a sharp look at her. "But I did not love the feeling of my empty stomach when we could not afford to eat, or the smell of his breath when he drank his rum, or the sound of his voice when he berated me for acting like a child. Me – acting like a child – when it was I, I who had given up my family and friends for his sake! How I suffered on his account! He was a cad, and I do hope the sharks ate him properly!" She set her mouth firmly and sniffed audibly, in a precise imitation of her mother, Mrs. Bennet.

Kitty smirked, "He provided you a good Captain to take away the hurt, though, didn't he, Lydia? Wasn't he the one who told you to seek out Captain Durham the next day, and spin the tale that he must've fallen overboard?"

"Yes, he did make those recommendations to me, which I did choose to act upon, but it was all my own doing to capture the Captain, wasn't it?" She looked down at her hands, folded primly in her lap. "Not that it was too terribly difficult, the man hadn't seen a proper young lady in ages, what with piloting a ship to the Orient year in and year out, for decades."

"Capture the Captain and capture his castle, isn't that right, my darling dear?" laughed Mrs. Bennet, and with her Mrs. Phillips and Kitty. Mrs. Gardiner and Mary smiled uncomfortably, except for Elizabeth, who was so exasperated she could not even pretend to enjoy the visit any further. She, instead, excused herself and went below to see her uncles. Her mother's cold reception to her and Lydia's endless manipulations had set her mind to work.

When she'd set out from the Darcy's London townhouse, she had some thought to pool her funds with her mother and unwed sisters and seek to regain some standing in society. Perhaps a purchase of a small farm not too far from the home she loved, close to Netherfield and Jane, where they could live together again as a family, and begin to receive calls again. She would forget about Darcy. Her allowance and dowry would be enough to attract some other eligible young man. She wanted to use the opportunity to turn back time.

Hearing Lydia's wild stories, told with absolute disdain for the proprieties and morals she'd espoused all her life had changed her mind. How could her mother embrace Lydia while continuing to castigate her for refusing to wed a detestable man? Lydia had been compromised in the cruelest of ways, but she had celebrated the matter as an adventure – a lark! And Kitty would have done the same, if she had half the imagination Lydia had! Poor Mary was in the middle of it all – seeing and hearing about her family's downfall on a daily basis – and especially Sundays, thought Elizabeth grimly. For she had no doubt Mr. Collins still practiced some sermonizing even though the he bore the title of gentleman farmer.

She determined she would take this Captain's gift to her and use it to start anew. She had made her decision, and would not look back.

Inevitable Change

A Pride & Prejudice Story
by acuppajava

Part 8 of 21

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