Chapter 21

            On Tuesday morning, Elizabeth was waiting for only a few minutes before Darcy arrived at Oakham Mount. Her smile turned to concern, seeing his demeanor.

            “Mr Darcy, has something happened? Is Georgiana well?”

            “Oh, Georgiana, yes… yes, she is well. Forgive me, I have been practicing what I would say, and now am afraid to speak.”

            “You do not need to say another word. You need not tell me, I release you from the courtship.” Elizabeth turned to hurry back to the path, prepared to return home.

            “No, please, I do not wish to end our courtship. Well, I do, but only as I wish to ask you to be my wife.” Darcy caught Elizabeth by the arm, spinning her around and into his chest. “Please, dearest Elizabeth, say you will be my wife. Be my partner in life, love me as I love you, make me the happiest man in all of England.”

            Elizabeth had tears threatening to overflow from her eyes. “You cannot mean such. I thought a courtship would have put you off from your desire to marry me. You are part of the first circles of society. I am nothing in comparison. Do not tease me in such a cruel manner.”

            “I am not teasing Mi…Elizabeth. I love you. Never in my life have I loved anyone as I do you. If you wish, you may ask my sister and cousin. Even Bingley. They will tell you that you are my equal. As for society, you may ask those closest to me how I feel about society. The only joy I have in town is attending the theater and opera, visiting the museums, and walking in Hyde Park. Well, and visiting the bookshops in London, to see if there are any new additions to add to my libraries. I do not attend many dinner parties or balls unless my aunt, Lady Matlock, insists. You are welcome to speak with Georgiana and Richard, Bingley will tell you the same. I am not comfortable in large groups of people, especially those with who are not of my acquaintance. My words seem to tangle and come out wrong when I speak with strangers.”

            “But you spoke to me easily, without even being introduced.” Elizabeth was astonished at his claims.

            “That was different. You were new to me, but you were alone when we met. There was something about you that was welcoming. Perhaps the way you spoke to me that day, allowing me to feel comfortable in your presence. But since I met you, I feel like we have been able to open ourselves to each other. We can speak honestly with each other. We have learned more of each other in such a short time, which is something we could not have done in the drawing rooms of the ton or at balls. You are the most incredible lady of my acquaintance and you have stolen my heart. Deep in my heart, I know that no other will ever measure up to you.”

            “What of your family and friends? They will not accept you marrying someone like me. My family would be frowned upon by members of the ton.”

            “As I said, I do not care. Those of my family and my closest friends will accept us. They are all that matter to me. Lord and Lady Matlock will support us, Richard assured me last night. Lady Matlock especially, as she thinks of me as one of her sons, and she has long wished for the three of us to marry and have children. She wishes to be a grandmother.”

            That pronouncement brought a chuckle from Elizabeth. “Her longing would allow for a wife who has family members who are questionable?”

            “My aunt has never cared about skin color. One of the women’s groups she belongs to actively assist those who are poor, including some of the freed slaves. There are more freed slaves in London than one might think. During the war with Spain, many who escaped slavery made their way to London.  They identified by the name Blackamore. Records have been discovered showing that between fifteen hundred and sixteen hundred and forty, there were more than three hundred and sixty dark skin people living in England and Scotland.  King James the sixth is said to have had black slaves as some of his coach porters. Mostly, their jobs, when they are able to find work, are usually out of sight of the population. In seventeen hundred and seventy two, Lord Mansfield estimated there to be fifteen thousand black people living in England and Scotland, yet we rarely see them as they keep hidden.”

            “Giving aid does not mean she would be accepting of such family members being attached to her own.”

            Darcy shook his head. “My dear, I beg you to understand that your family will be treated with the dignity and honor they deserve. You and those you hold dear will be respected. Allow me to tell you how ardently I love you.”

            The tears threatening to overflow began streaming down Elizabeth’s cheeks. Her head began nodding. “Oh, can there truly be so wonderful? Can one die of happiness?”

            “Is that a yes to my proposal?” Darcy held his breath in anticipation.

            “Yes, yes…a hundred times yes.” Elizabeth replied.

            Darcy could not control his joy. He wrapped his arms around her body, pulling it to his chest, holding her against him. “You have made me the happiest of me. Oh, my dear, you have opened my heart in ways you cannot imagine.”

            “As you have opened mine. I have spent too many years afraid of allowing anyone inside. But you found a way inside my heart and forced the doors thrown open. I love you, Mr Darcy.”

            “No, no Mr Darcy. My name is Fitzwilliam, though my family calls me William.”

            “As my family calls me Lizzy.”

            “My Lizzy.” Darcy said as he placed a kiss on the top of her head.

            “My William.” Elizabeth sighed as she spoke against his chest.

            The pair stood there, locked in place, Time stood still as they silently spoke volumes with their hearts. Only when they heard someone coming up the path to the top of the mount did they return to the real world. Darcy was surprised to see one of his men coming towards them.

            “Mr Darcy, we received word that something is in the works to set people against the Bennets. A man has been seen in the villages surrounding the area, asking for men who would be willing to assist in taking back Longbourn’s inheritance from those he deemed inferior.” Joseph stated when he could see his employer.

            Elizabeth looked up into the eyes of the man to whom she had just become betrothed. Could they not have just one day to enjoy together, without all the hatred and inability to accept people for who they were? “It appears Mr Collins has taken further steps towards his goal to inherit Longbourn.”

            “There is nothing he can do to keep your brothers from inheriting.” Darcy spoke in a calm and soothing voice.

            “Yes, there is. He can kill my family, especially my father and brothers. With them gone, Collins would be able to take over Longbourn and throw the rest of us off the estate.” Elizabeth began fighting sobs that threatened to overwhelm her.

            “Collins will not be allowed to achieve his plan. I will do all in my power to protect you and your family. Have no fear, Lizzy. Please do not fret.”

            “One of my brothers has already been shot, our home was set on fire. All because father’s idiot cousin cannot accept the fact that Papa’s marriage to Mamma, and their children they have, breaks the entail. How can the man be so foolish as to believe he can inherit?”

             “Sir, Miss, it also appears that the man has someone backing him with some wealth. He is offering to pay those who aid him.”

            Elizabeth frowned. “Mr Collins’ family was not wealthy. That was part of the reason they wanted Longbourn so badly. They wanted to be members of the landed gentry and have the wealth my father and grandfather had accumulated over the years.”

            “Why would someone fund his endeavors? It does not make sense.” Darcy replied. “There is something more at play here than we know. We had best make our way to speak with your parents.”

            Nodding her head, the engaged couple followed Joseph down from Oakham Mount and to Longbourn’s dower house.

            Seeing his daughter accompanied by Darcy, as they entered his study, Mr Bennet smiled. He had hoped that his beloved Elizabeth would find a love match. Her devotion and loyalty to the family was a blessing, though it would prove difficult if she did not have a loving husband who adored her.

            Then, Bennet noticed his daughter’s expression. Something was wrong. “What has happened?”

            “First, Papa, Mr Darcy has something to discuss with you, then we have some news for you.” Elizabeth stated. Making no attempt to leave the room, she took a seat in front of the desk.

            Surprised at Elizabeth’s refusal to allow the men to have a private discussion over the engagement, Darcy gave a small chuckle. He was certain that his life would never be dull being married to Elizabeth Bennet.

            “Mr Bennet, I have spoken with your daughter, and she has made me the happiest of me by accepting my hand. I know that it is sudden, as we have known each other for a short time. Know that I love your daughter and will love her always.”

            “There is no need to ask if you can afford to have a wife and family, as you are one of the wealthiest men I know. It has been obvious to my wife and I that the pair of you were in love, whether or not you admitted it. The main question I have is when do you plan to wed?”

            “As soon as possible. I will make the journey to town to speak to my father’s cousin, the Archbishop, for a special license. Then we can marry whenever and wherever we wish.”

            “Is there a necessity to not wait for the banns to be read?” Bennet’s eyebrows were drawn together, concerned for his daughter.

            Noting the look on Bennet’s face, Darcy shook his head. “Not what you are thinking. Your daughter’s virtue is still intact. We discussed the fact that my aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh will attempt to cause problems. She desires me to marry her daughter, which neither her daughter nor myself wishes for such an arrangement. Lady Catherine was recently in London at my uncle’s, Lord Matlock, home spewing her nonsense. It is one of the reasons Richard came to visit. He came with a warning of my aunt’s instability.”

            Mr Bennet turned his eyes to his beloved daughter. “Lizzy, is this your desire as well, to marry as soon as possible?”

            Elizabeth’s eyes were shining with joy. Her father knew instantly that his favorite child would not be under his protection soon. It would be difficult to have her living in another home, especially when she would live at Pemberley.

            “Very well, you have my approval. Now, shall we speak with your mother to select a date?”

            “It would be best if we include Mamma in the other matter we learned this morning. Perhaps even Jane, Sam, and Phillip, as it concerns them as well. Mary and Thomas are too young.”

            Concern grew as the older gentleman nodded his head. “I believe we should gather in the parlor. Mrs Hill can see that the twins remain upstairs.”

Chapter 22

            As they gathered together, everyone had identical looks of concern on their faces.

            “We learned this morning that there is a man who has been making the rounds through the county, attempting to hire others to aid him in what he calls righting a wrong. He claims that he has been cheated out of his inheritance. Somehow, this man has the funds to hire people.” Darcy began.

            “The only person who can make such a claim is my cousin. It is a ridiculous claim, as Samuel is my heir. There are no legal merits to the claim. If Samuel is unable to inherit, then Phillip, followed by Thomas are my heirs.”

            “Papa, did Mr Collins’ father have the funds to make it possible for the son to hire people to assist him? Whatever he is planning, I cannot imagine it will be cheap.” Elizabeth asked.

            “As far as I am aware, the Collins’ were poor. That was the reason his father despised me for inheriting Longbourn and hoped that I would never have a son, so he would inherit the estate. His grandmother and my grandfather were siblings. The current Mr Collins’ grandfather was furious when I was born, as I was the heir. He had insisted that his son, Mr Collins’ father, should have been heir, as he was born the year before I was. But he was not the son of the male heir, as it was my grandfather’s sister from whom he was descended.”

            “Where could he have gotten the funds to be hiring as he is?” Samuel was attempting to sort out the details in his mind.

            “Someone wealthy must be backing the man. Whether it is someone who believes Collins, or one of the men who believes that slavery is appropriate, I cannot be certain. There are people in the world who do not like the fact that, though slavery is not illegal in England, it is considered to be inappropriate. I pray that in my lifetime, we see the end of slavery in our country.” Mr Bennet explained to his eldest son. It pained the gentleman that his children suffered from the narrow minded people who could not see past the surface and care about what made the person who they were.

            “I wish to hire some men to investigate what is happening. I hope we can find the benefactor quickly.” Darcy announced.

            Maggie shook her head. “Though we are grateful for all you have done, Mr Darcy, we could not allow you to pay for services for our family. Certainly, Mr Gardiner could assist in discovering who is behind Collins.”

            Mr Bennet chuckled. “Forgive me, my dearest, as I forgot to tell you of a more joyous event that is to come. Mr Darcy has asked for our daughter’s hand in marriage and Lizzy has accepted him. He will be riding to London to purchase a special license for them to wed.”

            “A special license? Is that necessary? Are the two of you in a rush to marry?” Maggie peppered the couple with questions.

            “Mamma, we are in love, We are also attempting to avoid any difficulties with William’s aunt, who wishes for him to marry her daughter. William’s uncle, brother to the aunt in question, has concerns over her behavior. He sent his son, the colonel, to warn William.”

            “How sad that you will not be able to enjoy all the pleasures that a betrothal can bring to the couple. Dinner parties, a ball, shopping for your trousseau.”

            “Mamma, you know that I do not require such. Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, Aunt and Uncle Phillips, Sir William and Lady Lucas, their families, and a few others, to join our families is all that I require. William, your sister and cousin are here. Would your aunt and uncle come from London?”

            “I will speak with them while I am in town. Bingley will stand up with me. So, I have no other requirements. We can have gowns made while we are in London after the wedding. Georgiana goes to the same modiste as Lady Matlock, which will make it simple enough to get an appointment.” Darcy responded.

            While the two were discussing these items, Bennet looked lovingly on his wife. He knew that she had given up much by marrying him, including a fancy wedding and wedding breakfast. Her gowns had been made by one of the tenant wives who was an excellent seamstress. Did Maggie resent all that she denied for marrying a gentleman of England?

            Feeling his eyes watching over her, Maggie took hold of Bennet’s hand, squeezing it tightly. She did not require looking at him to know what he was thinking. Leaning back against him, Maggie spoke softly.

            “I regret nothing, Thomas. I love you, more than life itself. Our children have been such wonderful blessings as well. How could I ask for more? I only wish to be sure that Lizzy does not mind having a simple wedding and resent it later.”

            Hearing her mother, Elizabeth knelt before Maggie. “Mamma, new gowns and fancy parties mean nothing to me. You know how I abhor such people as those who treat you and our family with disrespect. You, Papa, Jane, Sam, Phillip, Mary, and Thomas have been the most precious family I could ever have imagine. You will be with me as I marry William. As is all that matters to me, those I love being with us to celebrate our joy.”

            Tears were trickling down Maggie’s cheeks. Reaching out a hand, the mistress of Longbourn caressed the cheek of her most defiant child. “My dear girl, I am so proud of you and so pleased you have made a love match, as your father and I did. I am certain your mother is looking down on you, filled with joy at what a fine you lady you are. A more generous heart I cannot imagine. I am so grateful that I was given a chance to become your mother.”

            The two leaned forward, wrapping their arms around each other. Mr Bennet had to turn his head, removing a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes. These people would soon be his family. Since the deaths of his parents, Darcy had not had such a family bond as the Bennets shared. Knowing they would soon be his new parents and siblings, Darcy’s heart opened even wider. All the wealth in the world could not have come close to the love Darcy had experienced since meeting Elizabeth Bennet.

            “I should make my way to Netherfield to inform my family and Bingley of what is happening.” Darcy stated.

            Mr Bennet shook his head. “Invite your friend and relations to join us. Then we can discuss the wedding and the danger of Mr Collins and his plans.”

            “Are you certain?”

            Maggie laughed. “You are soon to be family, so of course you should invite your closest friend and your relations to join us. There is much to plan if we are to accomplish everything quickly.”

            Darcy sent a message to Netherfield, and the response was unsurprisingly quick with the party arriving within half an hour. Mr Bingley had instructed his carriage to be prepared and standing ready since he had risen from his bed that morning. He, Georgiana, and the colonel had all been eagerly awaiting a message.

            Georgiana could not contain her joy any longer, though she surprised her brother and cousin by first running straight into Elizabeth’s arms. “Oh, Lizzy, I am so happy you will really be my sister. How soon will the wedding be?”

            “We hope by the end of the week. William will make the journey to London to attain a special license and to speak with your aunt and uncle.” Elizabeth had a delighted tone to her voice as she spoke.

            Richard looked at his cousin. “Bingley and I had a wager on if you would allow the banns to be called or if you would require a special license. As a wedding gift, I will make the journey to London and speak with my parents. Have no fear, as it is Tuesday, I will return in plenty of time for you to be married by Friday. Hopefully, I will bring my parents with me. If you require anything else brought from town, make a list and I will beg my mother’s assistance.”

            Giggling, Georgiana swatted Richard’s shoulder. “As if Aunt Rebecca requires a reason to shop.”

            “Tis true, Sprite. But this is one occasion that even Napoleon’s army could not prevent my mother from participating in at least some aspect.” Richard laughed openly. “Bingley, do you have sufficient rooms for my parents if they join me?”

            “Of course.” Bingley was pleased that his sisters and Hurst were not at Netherfield. Caroline would have fainted from the news of an earl and countess coming.

            “Colonel, would you be kind enough to deliver a message to Edward Gardiner? He lives near Cheapside.”

            “Of course.  I will ride back to Netherfield and have my horse prepared. When I return, I will gather any messages to be delivered in town and any lists. I should be able to arrive at my parent’s townhouse long before the afternoon has ended.”

            Discussion was had of any items that might be needed for the wedding. When the discussion of the gown Elizabeth would wear to marry Mr Darcy, Mr Bennet looked between his two eldest daughters.

            “Jane, as you are the eldest, the honor should go to you, though if you are willing, I have your mother’s wedding gown in a trunk in the attic. She was of similar size, so any alterations could be made in little time. Would you be offended if Lizzy were to wear the gown? You would always be welcome to wear it when you marry.”

            Clapping her hands together, Jane jumped up and hurried towards her sister. “Yes, yes, if Lizzy wishes to wear Mamma’s gown, it would be a pleasure to see her wear it for her wedding.”

            “Are you certain, Jane? It is your right, as the eldest.” Elizabeth searched her sister’s eyes for any signs that Jane was not being honest.

            “Of course, you silly ninny. Our mother would be so pleased to have you wearing the gown she wore on the happiest day of her life. I can wear it when I am fortunate enough to find a man who loves me as Mr Darcy does you.”

            “William, please call me William. You are to be my sister by the end of the week, so there should be no more formalities.”

            Mr Bennet wrote his note to his first wife’s brother, and to her sister in Meryton. The second would be sent to Mrs Phillips by way of one of the grooms.

            The list was made, messages written, and the colonel was soon on his horse, heading for town.