Saint Agnes’ Eve

4 – The Storm

Darcy was the first to awaken, early in the morning, as was his custom when in residence at Pemberley. He experienced a moment of disorientation before realizing that he was in his wife’s room, in her bed, and that he had been there all night. He could not resist burying his face in her tousled hair and breathing its sweet scent. To his surprise, she was instantly awake; her eyes flew open, and she turned and regarded him with astonishment.

“Good morning, my beautiful wife.” Darcy smiled and brushed her lips with his own. “Have you slept well?”

“Like a stone,” she replied. “But what—why are you here?”

“You do not remember asking me to stay?”

Elizabeth blinked, pushed her hair out of her face, and blushed becomingly. “Oh, and so I did. Such a dreadful thing for me to do. I am ashamed of myself.” Her smile vanished, and she dropped her eyes.

“And why is it so dreadful?” He lifted her chin. “What is wrong with a husband and wife sharing a bed for the night?”

“But so very—so, so–” she stopped speaking, and the corners of her mouth turned up. She gave a small chuckle followed by a hearty laugh which transformed her face and lit up her eyes. Darcy could not help but join in. “It is so very unladylike,” she finished.

Darcy could hold back no longer. He gathered her more closely into his arms and began to kiss her. The chaste kisses they had shared up to now soon gave way before his increasing ardor as his tongue played with her lips, teasing her, begging her to open to him. When he felt her response, shy at first, but increasingly passionate, he said against her lips, “This is to your liking, my darling?”

“Yes,” she breathed, and threw her arms around his neck.

At that precise moment they heard the knock at Elizabeth’s door. Darcy threw on his dressing-gown and walked barefoot, interposing himself between the doorway and the bed. He opened the door to reveal Cooper, his valet, who neatly managed to avoid looking into the room.

“I am deeply sorry for disturbing you, sir, but the circumstances of the weather require your presence downstairs.”

“Thank you, Cooper. I shall come to my chamber in a few minutes. Please see that Mrs. Darcy’s maid is sent to her.”

Darcy closed the door and turned back to Elizabeth who was now getting out of bed. “Shall we continue this later, Mrs. Darcy? I find your kisses are becoming more and more difficult to resist.”

“Yes, please,” sighed Elizabeth. She put up her face for one more kiss, but Franklin could be heard bustling in the dressing-room. “Until tonight?” She blushed furiously at her audacity.

Darcy’s laugh rumbled in his chest. “Yes. I shall be counting the hours until tonight. But I do hope you will join me for breakfast in a few minutes.” With that they parted.

Elizabeth greeted Franklin cheerfully and was soon dressed in another woolen gown and petticoats. She ventured a look outside and saw that snow had begun to fall. “Franklin, what do you suppose Mr. Darcy will be doing today?”

“He and some of the men will take baskets to a few of the tenants in greatest need, most likely. It will not take long, because they had baskets only a week ago. The men will just look in on them to ensure they can get through the storm without trouble. Mr. Darcy is a good landlord and a good master, as was his father.”

“Thank you for telling me.” Elizabeth smiled at her maid in the mirror, and in another few moments, her hair was done and Franklin pronounced her ready. She ran lightly down the stairs to the breakfast-room, where Darcy was already seated.

“Franklin was telling me about what you will be doing today, Fitzwilliam. How many visits will you make?”

“I believe we have three or four, and all are near the house. The purpose is really to see to it that they have what they need in terms of firewood and so forth to get through a few days without neighbors who would usually assist them.”

“How long do you think it will take? And should I go after breakfast and offer to assist with the food baskets?”

“There is no need, dearest. Everything is prepared and loaded into a wagon. Two other men and I will accompany the driver on horseback. It is nearly eight o’clock, light enough for us to depart in a few minutes. Our most serious errand will be taking one of the younger men to stay at the Martin farm for a few days. Mr. Martin broke his leg about the time of our wedding, and his two boys are full young to handle feeding and milking the cows if the storm is bad. An able-bodied man will be of great use.”

Elizabeth sighed. “I hope soon to be able to visit the tenants myself. I feel badly for not having been out to them yet.”

“You will do very well indeed, Elizabeth. You have not yet had time to begin. However, it is customary for the menfolk to take over this task when the weather is as bad as this promises to be.” Darcy took her hand across the table. “We should be home by mid-day or a little after.”

They rose from the table and were approached by Mrs. Reynolds. “Good morning, Mrs. Darcy. Mr. Darcy.” She handed Darcy a note before continuing. “Here is a list of the cottages to be visited, sir. There are only three altogether, and we have prepared a small basket for each one. You already know about Mr. Martin. Jenny Thompson gave birth to her first child two days ago. She is doing well, and the babe is robust and is feeding well. Their basket includes nourishing custard and wine jelly for Jenny and some other supplies a new mother might need. Mr. Thompson is with her, and their needs are not urgent. The only other person who needs a visit is old Mr. Fretwell. We have prepared a good stew for him which he can heat easily, but you may wish to check on his supply of kindling. He has plenty of firewood of course. All is loaded in the wagon, and they will be ready to depart in about a quarter-hour.”

Darcy looked at the list. “All are within two miles of the house, and Mr. Fretwell is the most distant. We can easily make a circuit. It is pure chance that it has turned out this way, but it will certainly work to our advantage. Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds.”

“Godspeed, Mr. Darcy. We shall have a hot meal waiting for you upon your return.” With a smile for them both, she was gone as quickly as she had arrived.

Elizabeth and Darcy walked arm in arm to one of the side doors adjoining a lane that led to the barn. Elizabeth grasped Darcy’s scarf and settled it more snugly around his neck. “Take care of yourself, Fitzwilliam.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. To Darcy’s astonishment as well as her own, her kiss was eager, inviting, passionate. Her soft lips tempted him to taste her more deeply.

Darcy could not help but respond, moaning against her lips and pulling her as close to himself as he could, his arms tightening around her. He raised her chin with one hand an instant before his lips found hers. As before, she could feel his gentle, playful tongue begging her to open to him. With no need for thought, she complied, imitating him shyly, offering her mouth to him. Her knees grew weak, and she felt a delicious shiver as she clung with both hands to his woolen scarf. The feelings, the sensations he was awakening in her were exquisite. She wanted—oh, she wanted—but she knew not what. She pressed herself against him, and to her shock, felt that most secret part of him, firm and erect, pressed closely against her.

Darcy, for his part, experienced a fierce joy as he felt desire spark, ignite, and catch fire in his Elizabeth—knowing that he was the cause. It took all the strength of his will not to pick her up and carry her upstairs. He broke off the kiss, whispering against her lips, “That pleased you, Lizzy?”

“Oh, yes. I am only sorry you must leave. Promise me you will return home safely and kiss me again.”

“I will be back, and I will kiss you that way for the rest of our lives.”

She placed her hands on his chest and brushed his lips with her own before taking a step back. “I will hold you to your promise.” When he put his hand on the door to open it, she called him back. “Fitzwilliam! Please tell me you do not think I am naturally bad! Please promise me that you do not think I am wanton.”

He laughed down at her and then grew serious. “You do not have a naturally bad bone in your body. You are all that is good. What happens between the two of us cannot be bad, so long as it is pleasing to us both. I have been a fool for not realizing it sooner. But I will make it up to you.”

He kissed her again more gently, but no less passionately than before. Then he put on his hat, buttoned up his heavy coat, opened the door and was gone. The falling snow seemed to dance in the air before her eyes. She brushed her hand across her lips, feeling that she could somehow still taste him, wishing that she could call him back to her arms. He was needed, and she resolutely turned and went downstairs to Mrs. Reynolds.

5 – The Wait

She found the housekeeper in the comfortable room that served as her parlor and office. Mrs. Reynolds stood up with a smile when Elizabeth entered.

“Please sit down, Mrs. Reynolds! I came to ask where you keep the basket of sewing for the poor and needy. I feel the need to keep myself profitably engaged today.”

“Yes indeed, Mrs. Darcy. The basket is kept here, in my office, and your assistance will be very welcome.” Mrs. Reynolds went to a table in the corner and returned with a large workbasket. “You will find that the articles in here have been cut out ready for sewing. There is a goodly supply of thread along with needles, pins, scissors, buttons, and everything necessary to the work. It is good of you to offer to help. This work never ends.”

“I am not talented at embroidery or fancy work, but I can sew a straight seam and put in a hem. This is just what I need to work on.”

“I will send someone to you with work candles. Where will you be sitting?”

“I plan to sit in my small sitting room near Mr. Darcy’s study. Would you please also send to Franklin and ask her to send my thimble? It is in my trinket box since I have not sewn a stitch since my arrival here.”

Elizabeth picked up the workbasket and went to her sitting room, where a footman was already busy placing and lighting the work candles. He built up the fire, and a second footman came in to bring the requested thimble. Elizabeth was soon busy with a child’s shirt, and after she had stitched up one side, she looked out of the window. The snow was falling fast now, and the grass had acquired a good covering. She needed the work candles. The normally bright, sunny room was rendered gray and gloomy by the gloomy weather outside.

She permitted her thoughts to stray to the kisses she and her husband had shared that morning. For her, at least, they had been transformative. She had not had the slightest idea of the depths of feeling he could awaken in her or that she could be entirely ruled by those feelings. She had wanted the kisses to continue forever, and their parting had felt cruel. Above all, she was immensely glad that his regard for her had not diminished. She treasured his assurance that she was not wanton or bad. Elizabeth returned to her sewing with a will. It was just the sort of work that would prevent her from worrying too much about him.

Her fingers flew, and she had just finished setting in the second tiny sleeve when Mrs. Reynolds entered carrying a tray with tea, fruit, and sandwiches. “It is past noon, Mrs. Darcy. I thought you might be hungry after such an early breakfast.” She set the tray down on a nearby table.

“Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds. I was getting a bit hungry.” Elizabeth gestured to the chair opposite hers. “Will you sit down and join me? I have been thinking of this sewing all morning, and I have some questions.”

Mrs. Reynolds thanked her, and the two were soon settled with tea and sandwiches.

“I did not bring my workbox when I left Longbourn,” Elizabeth began. “My mother was convinced that great ladies would have no time for plain sewing, or as she called it ‘ordinary’ sewing, and my proficiency at embroidery is very poor. She carried the day, and I managed to carry off only my thimble.”

Mrs. Reynolds smiled. “Your mother is very genteel. But Pemberley is such a large place that it takes many hands to keep up with the needs of the poor. Even Mr. Darcy’s mother busied herself with it whenever she could.”

“I thought she might have. And perhaps because I never developed a talent for fancy work, I did become proficient at garments just like the little shirt I have been finishing this morning. My sister Jane and I did all of that work for the needy on my father’s estate. I can only hope and pray that our sister Mary will pick up where we left off. But this leads me to my question. I should like to get a workbox or a small work table and place it in this room. I could then gather several pieces at a time from the large workbasket in your parlor and have a ready supply close at hand. Anything I need in the way of supplies can be easily purchased in Lambton, I am sure. I wonder if there is an appropriate piece of furniture somewhere in Pemberley.”

Mrs. Reynolds smiled. “I believe there is just such a table in the attics. Let us get through today, and I will send one of the men up to fetch it down.” She stood and curtsied. “I had best get back to work now.”

“Thank you for sharing luncheon with me, Mrs. Reynolds.” As the housekeeper turned to leave, the wind picked up with a gust that rattled the windows. “Have you any idea when they will return, Mrs. Reynolds?”

“We can look for them by mid-afternoon, Mrs. Darcy.”

Elizabeth sat back and resumed her sewing. She had hoped to see her husband sooner. Much sooner. A glance at the window showed no features of the landscape at all, just whirling, white snow. She continued to sew, finishing the first tiny shirt and starting the second. As her needle flashed, she listened to the clock, hearing it chime the hours of one. . .then two. . .then three. It began to grow darker outside, and as the clock chimed four, a footman came in with more candles. He built up the fire but had no news about Mr. Darcy and the other men.

At five, Franklin entered with her own workbasket. “I have finished all of the mending, Mrs. Darcy, and I am at liberty to work on items from the poor basket now.”

“Thank you, Franklin. You are welcome to sit here with me, since I have these work candles lit. And the fire is warm.”

Elizabeth had just finished the second shirt, and the two women selected soft squares of flannel to be hemmed into washing-flannels and soft receiving blankets for babies. They worked quietly and companionably, saying little until the clock struck six.

Mrs. Reynolds entered with a tea tray, and once again, Elizabeth invited her to sit. She poured tea for the three of them, and after thanking her, Mrs. Reynolds spoke. “I have ordered dinner held until Mr. Darcy’s return, ma’am.”

“An excellent idea, Mrs. Reynolds. This tea is very welcome, but I find myself with little appetite.”

As she spoke, there was a sudden commotion in the hall. Elizabeth put down her teacup with shaking hands and flew through the door. Darcy stood in his greatcoat, earnestly conferring with Mr. Hughes, the butler. Elizabeth ran to him. Her anguished cry brought the other two women running as she threw herself into his arms. His greatcoat was covered in blood. “Fitzwilliam, you are hurt!”

6 – The Homecoming

No, no, my dear.” He shrugged out of his coat and handed it to the footman before taking her by the shoulders. “Tis not my blood. One of the men has been injured in an accident. He will recover, but it fell to me to tend to him as we brought him home in the wagon. No harm has come to me.” He kissed her forehead, not wishing to do more in front of the servants, and turned to Mrs. Reynolds. “Ah, Mrs. Reynolds. Young Thomas has met with an accident. He was splitting kindling for old Mr. Fretwell, and the axe slipped. He has a severe gash on his lower leg and has lost some blood. Nothing vital was injured. Cook is with him now, but I feel sure she will be wanting your assistance.”

“Thank you, Mr. Darcy.” Mrs. Reynolds curtsied and was gone with the butler following her.

Darcy turned to a footman. “You might as well dispose of that coat, Frederick. I fear it is ruined. Fortunately for me, it had recently been demoted to third-best, else Cooper would never have permitted me to hear the end of it.” His inner clothing had not been affected by the injury.

Once the small army of servants had vanished, he took Elizabeth in his arms and kissed her soundly. “You worried when we did not come home on time,” he murmured. “I am sorry. Thomas’ wound is severe. He will recover, but it took two of us to tend him in the wagon so he would not lose too much blood. I am sure you have seen similar accidents on your father’s estate.”

Elizabeth smiled ruefully and nodded. “I have, indeed. I am usually much more intrepid than this. Let us attribute it to the nerves of an almost-new bride. I should not have worried so.”

“I must go upstairs and change. I am not fit to be around a lady. One more kiss.”

“Fitzwilliam.” Elizabeth looked up at him and blushed most becomingly as she realized she could not say what she wished to say. Not yet. “Could you not wait a while? Dinner will not be served until we order it. I thought perhaps—perhaps . . . “

“What did you think, my darling? You have only to ask.” Darcy smoothed the hair back from her rosy face.

“I thought perhaps I might come up with you.” She put her hand to her mouth and lowered her eyes.

“Of course, you may.” He placed her arm in his and covered her hand with his own. “Let us go up now. We can send for supper later.”

When they got to her door, he said, “Dismiss your maid, and when you have done so, come through the door between our rooms.”

Elizabeth laughed at herself after she had bid Franklin goodnight. She was full of what her mother would call “tremblings and flutterings.” She had her husband’s assurance that he did not find her wanton or wicked after their shared kisses, or even after she had begged him to sleep in her bed the previous night. She could still hear his soft laughter, his gentle assertion that she was all that was good. Would he still think so when she had shared her most secret desires and wishes? Should she keep them to herself? Or was it wrong of her to keep secrets in this most tender, most intimate aspect of their marriage? She drew a deep, shuddering breath and reflected that if there were no trust here, then it could not exist at all. Her heart beat rapidly, and she wondered if her legs would hold her up as she knocked quietly at their communicating door.

Darcy had not had a great deal of time to himself that day. However, the first hour or so of the errand had been quiet and free from trouble or interruptions, providing him with time to consider what had occurred. His wife was clearly a passionate woman, and the nature of their physical relationship must have left her frustrated and wanting more. She was innocent, bless her, and she might not even be fully aware of what she was missing. She was one of the most intelligent people he had ever met, but she might not have the words to speak with him about all of this. He had decided that the best approach would include gentle encouragement and quiet attention to any confidences she cared to share with him. Whatever transpired, this night would be for her. He opened the door.

Elizabeth ran into his arms, holding her face up ready for his kiss. He had not bathed or changed his clothes, and he smelled of cold air and laundry soap, traces of sandalwood, and sweat—all underlaid by his own indefinable scent. Once again, Elizabeth’s knees grew weak. Once again, Darcy felt her passion spark and catch fire as she responded to him. She essayed a kiss of her own, and he grew light-headed at her caress.

“Let us go and sit down by the fire,” he finally said.

“Yes. When you kiss me that way, I am not sure my knees will continue to hold me up,” she laughed.

They sat, and she immediately put one arm around his neck and with the other hand began playing with the tresses of his hair. “It is so soft,” she said. “And–and–” Here she stopped, blushing to the roots of her hair.

“And what? You are so pretty when you blush. Tell me.” He brushed her lips gently with his own.

“I love the way you smell. When you leave me after—after we—well, after you visit me, I find your pillow and put my face on it, and it helps me imagine that you are still there. It is comforting.”

Darcy found this assertion most intriguing. “There is a remedy for that, Lizzy. We might share a bed, you know. Tis a surefire remedy against cold and loneliness as well.” He took her hand and began kissing each part of it—fingers, knuckles, the back of the hand, and the sensitive wrist—before moving on to the other. When he had finished, he looked at her again and said, “And what else? Tell me another thing that will make you blush so becomingly.”

She hung her head. “It all makes me blush, Fitzwilliam, for I have no idea what may be right and good and what may be entirely dreadful and wrong.”

“Lizzy, none of it is dreadful or wrong.” Darcy sighed, for he knew this conversation was of great importance to their future happiness. “You and I have allowed our parents—my father and your mother—to invade the privacy of our bedchamber and to dictate to us what is gentlemanly or ladylike. They do not belong here.”

“Then let us tell them ever so politely to leave.” Elizabeth thought for a moment. “Suppose we were just Lizzy and Will Darcy, settling into our little cottage with our vine and fig tree. And suppose we loved each other as much as you and I do. What would we do then?”

Darcy thought for a long moment. “Each of us would do our best to learn what pleased the other, and we would do those things, and our own happiness and pleasure would also be increased.”

“I want to please you above all things, Fitzwilliam.”

“Then let me give you pleasure, Lizzy, and that will please me above all things.” He stopped and smiled down at her and pulled her onto his lap. “Now, come over here. We are far too formally attired for this occasion.”

Darcy awoke far into the night, hearing a distant clock chime three. Instead of the usual chilled sheets and icy-cold room, he felt himself surrounded by warmth. He lay curled around Elizabeth, spoon-fashion, and under one of his cupped hands he could feel her breast and the steady beating of her heart beneath it. His chin was on her shoulder, and he was breathing in the fragrance of her hair. The heated air surrounding them seemed to shimmer in the dim firelight, with faint traces of lavender and sandalwood and love. He could not remember ever feeling this warm, this comfortable and at ease, even in his own bed.

Once she had made the remark about banishing their parents from their bedchamber, Elizabeth had shyly unveiled to him a wholly different attitude with respect to their marriage. So long as she remained in the shelter of his arms, she was by turns bashful and wanton, hesitant and demanding, plain-spoken and tongue-tied. She followed his lead, and he tried to coax her gently along, reassuring her that every whispered desire, every stammered question, was delightful to him, and that her wish was his command. The first moment she found bliss in his arms, his own joy was boundless.

He could feel himself stirring to life, and he tried to still his thoughts so that he would not waken her. In that effort he was not entirely successful; she turned and murmured something in her slumber and threw an arm across him with that endearing proprietary air. He found he liked this position better. It reminded him of those nights he had visited her when he had soothed her to sleep. He had never realized until the past two nights that Elizabeth awoke of her own accord in the dark, cold hours after midnight. He dared to hope that, having satisfaction tonight, she might sleep her fill and awaken refreshed in the morning. She burrowed into his side, murmured again, and then grew quiet and still. Darcy’s thoughts slowed. His eyes closed, and he drifted into sleep—alone with his wife for the first time.

To the Library

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