What if Mr. Thomas Bennet’s first born daughter is promised to the elder Mr. Darcy’s first born son?
“Pray, tell me again why you are going through with this scheme of meeting this young woman from Hertfordshire?” Colonel Fitzwilliam beseeched his younger cousin, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Reared with certain guiding principles, the younger man considered his obligation of uppermost importance to his family was to be heir to Pemberley and to beget the next heir after him. Knowing his duty and behaving in a manner to bring it about were different matters altogether. Few people who knew him well were more aware of Darcy’s dilemma than the colonel.
Darcy’s thoughts of his father’s failing health had been a near constant companion of late. Concerned that the elderly man was nearing his final days, Darcy wanted to do something he thought would bring his father a bit of comfort and peace of mind.
He was no stranger to the fact that his father had long entertained the idea of his first-born son marrying the first-born daughter of Mr. Thomas Bennet, one of his closest friends from university. It was all rather informal – this arranged marriage – given one rather material point: neither of the gentlemen had even chosen their own future brides.
In the ensuing years, the elder Darcy went on to marry Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, the daughter of the fifth Earl of Matlock. Not long after that, he begot his only son and heir, Fitzwilliam. As it happened, his wife made a pledge of her own to her sister, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. From their children’s cradles, the two aristocratic sisters had decided that young Fitzwilliam and Lady Anne’s niece as well as her namesake, Anne, were to be married.
For the sake of familial harmony, the Darcys had agreed that when it was all said and done, their son should choose his own bride. So long as he at least entertained the idea of marrying one of the prospective brides that had been ordained for him, then neither parent would have cause to repine.
The fact that his parents’ plans for his future were at complete odds suited Darcy’s purposes perfectly well. For his part, Darcy simply was not ready to take a bride. His father’s dire fate did not change that, but the prospect of reuniting his father with his old friend before it was too late was not without its own appeal. With this scheme, his father would have the comfort of knowing he had kept his word to his friend.
Darcy was not at liberty to share such intimate details of his father’s health with anyone, not even the colonel with whom he had a habit of confiding almost everything.
“As I have said, I am doing so chiefly on behalf of my father. It is the least I can do to repay him for all he has done to ward off Lady Catherine’s insistence that I am to marry our cousin.”
“You would have your father believe you will marry a young woman whom you have never laid eyes on when you have successfully spent the past years since reaching the age of majority fending off beautiful girls and their scheming mamas. Are you certain you know what you are about? Why not just marry Anne and settle the business once and for all?”
“Should I harbor a desire to marry at all, I would have to say marrying Anne is completely out of the question. We may be relations, but, I assure you, we have nothing else in common. However, as I have no desire to marry anyone — regardless of how beautiful she may or may not be, I see no harm in meeting the young woman. Once I have met her and spent the requisite time in her company, I shall simply inform Father that she and I are not well-suited.”
“I say it is a precarious scheme at its best. You might fall in love with the young woman.”
Darcy shrugged. “I might, but as I am not looking to fall in love with anyone in the near future, I believe it is very unlikely.”
“Well, we might as well have a bit of fun with this little venture—a friendly wager if you will.”
He eyed his cousin with some circumspection. “You expect me to make sport of all of this. Why am I not surprised?”
“I have come all this way to witness you take part in this scheme. I feel I ought to have some stake in its outcome.”
“You might leave Pemberley and return to town,” Darcy suggested. “No doubt there is more than one young lady in want of your amiable companionship.”
“And miss out on the excitement of seeing you juggle the affections of both Anne and this other young woman. Pray remind me; what is her name again?”
“Miss Bennet,” Darcy replied. “Her name is Miss Jane Bennet.”
“Indeed. And unless I am mistaken, your friend Charles Bingley and his family are to be guests as well, which means there will be a third young woman vying for your attentions. I wager you one hundred pounds you do not escape this summer a single man whose heart remains unclaimed.”
“Do not be absurd. Besides, if my memory serves me correctly, you owe me in excess of one hundred pounds.”
“One hundred, two hundred, who’s counting?” Extending his hand, Colonel Fitzwilliam asked, “Shall we shake hands on it?”
Ignoring the gesture, Darcy replied, “On the contrary, for how difficult is it for a man who does not pay his debts to embark upon such a gamble?”
His cousin shrugged. “Then, you name the terms.”
“I think I shall abstain. It is one thing to give rise to expectations of marriage in the young lady’s mind. It is quite another to make sport of it. Indeed, I shall not compound the scheme with a paltry bet. Besides, what would my father think were he to learn of it?”
After carrying on in that way a while longer, the cousins were parted, and Darcy was at leisure to reflect on their conversation. He was not about to take his cousin up on the wager that he would lose his heart by the end of the summer. Not that he doubted his resolve in that regard, but it did not seem like the gentlemanly thing to do. Certainly his father would not approve. Causing his ailing father even the tiniest bit of grief was simply not in Darcy’s nature.
His ailing father. The elderly man had no idea that his son knew about his deteriorating health. Since stumbling across the information quite accidentally, Darcy had not breathed a word of it to anyone. It was evident to him that his father did not wish for anyone to know. That anyone would dare pity the great George Darcy of Pemberley and Derbyshire was utterly unfathomable.
I doubt my father intends for anyone to know his secret, save his physician. He has always guarded his privacy most fastidiously.
The elder Mr. Darcy had spoken quite often of his friend from Hertfordshire and how fate had conspired to keep them apart through the years. Just over two decades had passed since the two old friends had seen each other. Having weighed the prospect of entertaining a household of guests at what might prove an exceedingly difficult time for his father, Darcy decided to do so with the thought that being surrounded by friends and family was just what his father needed.
What Darcy had not counted on was the addition of his aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter to the guest list.
“Cousin Anne,” Darcy voiced aloud. Judging by the way she looked at him for the past decade, it seemed, she also cherished the hope of an alliance between the two of them. Darcy had hoped that despite Anne’s frail nature, she would have attracted the notice of some other gentleman years ago.
“How could she?” Realizing he was talking to himself, he shrugged nonchalantly.
It is not as though Lady Catherine allows Anne out of her sight long enough to attract anyone’s notice.
It was true. Aside from the occasional foray into town to visit Lord and Lady Matlock, Darcy’s uncle and aunt, and trips to Derbyshire to visit Pemberley and the Matlock estate, Anne ventured nowhere. She had not even been presented in court. Now, she could best be described as a spinster.
Or, as my aunt Lady Catherine argues, a young woman bound by a peculiar engagement … to me.
He laughed a little in spite of himself, for this was no laughing matter. Upon hearing that the Bennets of Longbourn were traveling all the way from Hertfordshire to Derbyshire, ostensibly to visit the elder Mr. Darcy, Lady Catherine had insisted on coming to Derbyshire, as well. She, of course, had her own reasons. The lady was no stranger to the fact that her brother-in-law was opposed to his only son marrying her daughter, even hoping for an alliance with people beneath their sphere.
Indeed, the one thing that Darcy was convinced his father had not counted on while making his choice was that his friend, Thomas Bennet, would in effect manage his own affairs so poorly that his daughters would have little to no dowries to speak of.
Upon deeper reflection, he arched his brow. Perhaps my father knew exactly what he was about. With Pemberley being one of the wealthiest estates in Derbyshire, the size of his son’s future bride’s dowry likely was of little concern to him at the time. On the other hand, the elder Mr. Darcy had married the daughter of one of the wealthiest gentlemen in Derbyshire, the late Lord Edwin Fitzwilliam, the fifth Earl of Matlock. It occurred to him that his father must surely have thought a lot of his friend Thomas Bennet and for that reason, Darcy was anxious to make the gentleman’s acquaintance as well.
Darcy thought back to all he had heard about Mr. Bennet from his father. A country gentleman from Hertfordshire and master of an estate named Longbourn that was entailed to the male line. A country gentleman who, for whatever reason, had married beneath his station to the daughter of a country attorney – a tradesman’s daughter – who brought little to the marriage. Together they had conceived not one, not two or even three, but five daughters.
Two of the five Bennet sisters will be arriving at Pemberley with their father at any hour, Darcy considered, steering his horse in the direction of the manor house.
If I am to greet them properly, I suppose I ought to head back.
Mr. Thomas Bennet sat across from his two eldest daughters, his thoughts a mixture of varying sentiments. The day had been decades in the making. What a stroke of luck for his eldest daughter to be introduced as a prospective bride to the future heir of one of the finest estates in Derbyshire. What an advantageous prospect for his entire family. Befriending George Darcy during his days at university had been the wisest thing he had ever done in his life. Unquestionably, nothing he had done since had been as beneficial.
He had decided early in life that the terms of the entail on his father’s estate were not conducive to a happy situation for his own future family unless he could beget a male child to inherit after him. Thus, Bennet was more than pleased to enter such an arrangement.
The fact that the bargain had been struck after a long night of drinking and lamenting their own woes of being the first-born son, or, as in both gentlemen’s cases, the only sons. The terms had been loosely defined. Clearly, Bennet held the less risky hand. Should Darcy’s first-born son and heir to Pemberley, which fortunately was not entailed, remain a single man after comfortably attaining the age of majority, Thomas Bennet would present his eldest daughter, provided she was also unwed, to the young man with considerable hope of a favorable outcome.
Decades had passed with a repetition of that agreement in one form or another in each correspondence. Bennet was wise enough to know there were no guarantees, especially given the temperament of young people of the day. Arranged marriages did take place. However, the last thing in the world he planned to do was encourage a marriage if he suspected his daughter and the young man were not a suitable fit.
Tearing his eyes away from all of nature’s magnificence that stretched before him, beautiful Pemberley Woods, he looked at his daughters again. The two of them were as different as night and day, both in countenance as well as in temperament.
The one thing he could say regarding his eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, was that they made his life at Longbourn infinitely more tolerable. The three daughters who remained behind were by far the silliest girls in all of England. Unwilling to concede any share of the credit for the younger girls’ behavior, he held firm to his belief: like mother, like daughters.
I do not know how I shall endure life at Longbourn without my Jane and my Lizzy.
Indeed, if he could boast of but one of the girls as being his favorite, it would have to be his second-born, Elizabeth. Were it she that he was presenting to young Mr. Darcy as a future bride, Thomas Bennet could quite easily doubt the possibility of a favorable outcome.
Obstinate, headstrong girl is how his wife of over twenty years often described their second-born. Indeed, she could be quite stubborn when she chose to be. However, Elizabeth was also described as the brightest jewel in the country. Having always favored her with his highest esteem, Mr. Bennet was compelled to agree with this portrayal of his second-born, and it had nothing to do with boasting.
There was a quickness about her that his other daughters lacked. A man whom others regarded as having a sardonic wit with an uncanny ability to laugh at those whom he regarded as being ridiculous, he could rightfully say that he and his second daughter were just alike in said regard.
Truth be told, he was not certain his second eldest daughter would ever find a man who was truly worthy of her. She absolutely needed to marry a man whom she deemed her superior. In his estimation, Elizabeth might well become a spinster rather than subject herself to the misery which must surely accompany marriage to a man whom she did not admire and respect.
What a relief that I am not presenting my Lizzy to the young master of Pemberley.
Mr. Bennet drew on his pipe as he continued to reflect on how things had come to be. He recalled his old friend citing in his letters on more than one occasion that his son, who was more like his aristocratic Fitzwilliam relations than not, might first appear a bit aloof. Haughty and proud is precisely how the young man had been described. On the other hand, his friend had also said his son had proven on many occasions to be a most loyal friend, and one who would do anything in the world for those whom he cared about the most.
Pray, my Jane will meet the young man’s approval and pierce his elusive facade, Mr. Bennet silently considered. We are all depending on her. The thought of what life would be like back at Longbourn should this alliance not take place gave him considerable pause.
My dear wife would be beside herself with grief. Jane’s marriage is meant to put all the other daughters in the path of rich young men who would marry each one of them in their turn, including Lizzy. With little to no dowry to speak of, such a fate was crucial. He laughed a little despite himself in recollection of his wife’s favorite antics.
Once again, he took up the task of admiring the beautiful scenery rushing by the carriage window. His wife’s words echoed in his mind: “Surely my Jane cannot be so beautiful for nothing. Young Darcy would have to be a fool not to fall madly in love with her.”
Miss Jane Bennet had her own thoughts on the matter. The idea of an arranged marriage was certainly not something she was likely to reject out of hand. If she could change but one thing about the scheme that was evidently planned for her before she was even born, she would have been told of it earlier in life. At nearly three and twenty, she had all but given up the hope of ever finding a husband. It was not entirely beyond the range of possibilities that her youngest sister, Lydia, might be married first, Jane often lamented—but only to herself. Her nature simply would not allow her to do otherwise.
If not Lydia, who was only fifteen, then certainly Catherine, Kitty for short, who was next to her in age, but most likely it would be Lydia who was thought by all who had ever met her to be the first-place contender in the silliest girls in all of England competition. Jane immediately chastised herself for thinking the way she did. Proud to be thought of by everyone who knew her best as the most kind-hearted person in the world, who acted — nay existed, mainly to please others, Jane was afraid she had grown a bit cynical over the years.
Jane would be lying if she denied that the possibility of marrying one of the wealthiest gentlemen in all of Derbyshire and one of noble lineage as well did not intrigue her. Having never seen a likeness of him, she could only imagine what the gentleman must look like. On the other hand, what did it matter? He might well have warts covering his entire body, and it would not deter her in her quest to garner a marriage proposal.
I shall try my very best to accomplish that which my family expects of me.
The possibility that the gentleman might be a handsome man caused her heart to stir. She smiled a little at this thought. A lady might be just as well suited to marital felicity with an agreeable looking man as a disagreeable-looking man, she silently pondered. I am praying for the former.
Again, such thoughts as these caused Jane to rebuke herself.
I must not entertain any such thoughts like the ones I am wont to think of late.
Jaded or not, this was her chance to be the person everyone praised her as being—the person whom she had aspired to be all her life.
Jane sighed. I know that at any moment I am free to choose how I present myself to the world in general, and at this moment, I choose goodness. I choose warmth. I choose optimism. For that is the very nature of the person I am meant to be.
“Jane,” Elizabeth said, thereby interrupting her sister’s silent affirmation.
“Yes, Lizzy,” Jane replied, hoping that her inattentiveness had not been of a long duration.
“You seem rather pensive—a thousand miles away in fact.”
Jane reached out her hand. “Pray forgive me, dearest Lizzy. I am afraid I am a bit overwhelmed by the splendor of all this.”
Elizabeth laughed a little. Accepting her sister’s hand, she gave it a gentle squeeze. “By the looks of things, prepare yourself for a whirlwind.”
Today is everything it ought to be. My Jane shall meet the gentleman whom she very well may marry and with whom she may spend the rest of her life. Elizabeth could not imagine being anywhere but by her sister’s side during such an auspicious occasion, and thus the two of them sat next to each other, arm in arm, as their well-appointed carriage rounded the bend headed for Pemberley.
Everywhere Elizabeth looked she beheld the estate’s natural beauty. When at last the manor house came into view, she gasped on behalf of her sister as well as herself. There stood a massive stone mansion backed by a ridge of high woody hills. In front of it, flowed a large stream, its banks neither formal nor falsely adorned.
Never have I seen such a place as this, Elizabeth silently reflected. Pemberley. Is there any wonder it is hailed as one of the finest estates in all of Derbyshire?
One glance at her sister and she rather supposed their thoughts must have tended along the exact same lines. Both of their faces overspread with contagious smiles.
“Dearest Jane,” Elizabeth remarked, “how fortunate you are. To be mistress of such a place as this must surely be something. How fortunate you are indeed.”
Jane squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. “Dearest Lizzy, I appreciate your enthusiasm over the prospects for my future life, but truth be told, I feel more overwhelmed than fortunate at this moment. What if the gentleman takes one look at me and concludes he wants nothing to do with me? What a considerable distance to travel to be summarily sent on one’s way.”
“Not like you! Jane, do not be ridiculous. I posit Mr. Darcy will fall madly in love with you the moment he lays eyes on you. How could he not? Unless of course, the gentleman is a fool. But even a fool would fancy himself the wisest and the luckiest man in the world to proclaim himself your future husband.”
“We shall see,” Jane replied in a voice that lacked the joy the moment warranted.
“Jane, I can see you are not as convinced of your unmitigated charms as you ought to be. But you need not worry, for I have enough confidence for the two of us. Mark my words, there will be a wedding here at Pemberley in under three months, or my name is not Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Oh, Lizzy! Where would I be without you?”
“Pray you will never find out.”
“Then does that mean you will accompany me on my wedding journey?” Jane bit her lower lip sheepishly. “That is to say, should events unfold as you anticipate.”
“I agreed to spend this time with you here at Pemberley, did I not? I see no reason to abandon you once you have accepted your prince.”
A little while later, a mixture of wonder and intrigue commanded Elizabeth’s thoughts as their carriage drew to a halt in front of the imposing manor house. The number of people awaiting them was such that she had never witnessed before.
What a welcoming reception.
Two tall, very distinguished looking gentlemen were flanked on either side by lines of servants uniformly attired in stark black and white. The older of the two, Elizabeth quickly surmised as being the master of Pemberley, Mr. George Darcy. His countenance was stern and dignified, but there was something about his eyes that gave a real glimpse into his character. While indeed a man to be reckoned with, Elizabeth suspected buried beneath his austere outward appearance was a heart of gold.
The gentleman who stood beside him, much to Elizabeth’s surprise, wore a military uniform.
How could it be that the future heir of Pemberley is an officer? Elizabeth immediately questioned herself in silence. As they were mere moments from meeting their magnanimous hosts for the summer, she suppressed her urge to ask her father how he had overlooked conveying such a fascinating tidbit of information to any of them.
How pleased Mama will be upon learning not only does her eldest daughter stand a chance of being the next mistress of such a grand home, but moreover her would-be son-in-law is a dashing officer.
Not very long afterward, Mr. Bennet, Jane, and Elizabeth descended the carriage and awaited the approach of the two gentlemen. Elizabeth tossed her sister a tentative smile. Any irksome reservations she suffered that Jane might be subjected to a less than desirable alliance faded with each step the eminent gentlemen took.
A good measure of formality was cast aside as the older gentleman eschewed the expected handshake and embraced her father. “Bennet, my old friend, after all these decades it gives me enormous pleasure to say to you, ‘Welcome to my home. Welcome to Pemberley.’”
Her father responded to his old friend in the warm manner that was to be expected of acquaintances who had not had the privilege of sharing each other’s company after a great long absence, and soon thereafter it was time for introductions to the other members of the assemblage.
All at once a quiet hush spread throughout the gathering as all heads swung in the direction of a new addition to the welcoming party. Elizabeth could hardly believe her eyes. She knew without being told that she had been mistaken earlier as regarded the officer’s identity. The tall, handsome gentleman with dark hair, brooding dark eyes, and noble mien who appeared before them was the most beautiful sight her eyes had ever beheld.
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy.
My sister Jane is a most fortunate woman, she could not help but think, even though the gentleman’s eyes were not fixed on Jane. To Elizabeth’s bewilderment, his eyes were fixed on her. She was powerless to turn away. But turn away she must, for this was Jane’s moment, and Elizabeth truly did not want to miss bearing witness to a single second of her sister’s joy.
Elizabeth must have blinked an instant or two, for before she knew it, the gentleman stood by the elder Mr. Darcy’s side and was introduced to her own father. And no sooner had her father been introduced to the officer did the three gentlemen focus their full attention to Jane and Elizabeth.
“Allow me to present my eldest daughter,” Mr. Bennet began, directing everyone’s eyes to Jane. “Mr. Darcy, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, meet Miss Jane Bennet.” Each of the gentlemen, starting with the eldest, greeted Jane in their turn. Elizabeth could not help noticing the decided contrast in the manner of the gentlemen’s addresses. The elder Mr. Darcy’s expression was lively, his manner warm and welcoming—very much the same as it had been toward her father. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s greeting was equally pleasant, but the other gentleman’s – the one that mattered the most – was rather wanting.
Before Elizabeth had too much time to mull over the implications of what such a reception might mean for her sister’s prospects, it was her turn to be introduced. Once again, she detected in the gentlemen the same measure of civility that had been extended toward Jane with but one exception, for she was confident that the younger Mr. Darcy’s eyes held fixed with hers a second or two longer than was necessary—his hand lingered upon hers just a bit longer than that.
The situation righted itself moments after that when the two older gentlemen moved side by side and turned toward the manor house, the colonel took his place by Elizabeth’s side, and finally, the younger man fell into place beside Jane. As the party proceeded inside, Elizabeth threw a look in her sister’s direction and was pleased to observe that Mr. Darcy seemed to be focused entirely upon his companion. What a relief this was for Elizabeth to see that things were exactly as they ought to be.
Soon after, upon entering the grand foyer with towering ceilings, glorious paintings, black-and-white marble floors, and gilded stairways, Elizabeth was pleased to know Jane and she would be escorted to their respective apartments to allow them a bit of a reprieve before joining the rest of the Darcys’ houseguests. It was a much-needed reprieve at that, for the last part of the journey had been filled with such wonderment of what was to come that Elizabeth had not bothered to sleep for fear of missing a single moment of the adventure unfolding before her.
How happy she was upon discovering that she and Jane were assigned apartments just across the hall from each other. Of course, she would have been just as pleased if she and her sister had been assigned a single room, for no doubt they would be spending a prodigious amount of time with each other as they were wont to do while at Longbourn. Aside from a much-needed reprieve to refresh herself, there was but one thing uppermost on Elizabeth’s mind, and that was discovering what her dearest sister thought about Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. On second thought, there was another matter for Elizabeth to dwell upon in private.
What precisely is my own opinion of the heir apparent of Pemberley?