The first thing Sophia Gardiner noticed on arriving at Longbourn - once the children had flown to their cousins, the carriage been sent to the stables, and orders given for the unpacking - was that her sister-in-law was unusually querulous. Sophia had known the elder Jane Bennet only since her marriage, but Edward said she had been full of sensibility from childhood. Still, the fretting expression on her face belonged to earlier stages of their acquaintance, when Mrs Bennet had been desperately grasping at the hope of a boy to follow Lydia, or when Kitty had been desperately ill with the influenza, and Mrs Bennet terrified the other girls would take it. In the end Mrs Bennet had reconciled herself to five daughters and no sons, and Kitty had recovered from the influenza, recurrent cough aside. Probably this storm would pass too; Sophia shared a look with Edward, and hoped that whatever it was it would break after Christmas.
The second thing Sophia noticed was that the militia were quartered in Meryton. Even had they not driven through the town, it would have been impossible to miss this. Sophia’s two youngest nieces spoke of nothing else, and Sophia’s brother-in-law begged ironical pardon for his shatterbrained daughters as he bore Edward off to the library for masculine refreshment.
The third thing Sophia noticed, before being plunged into Mrs Bennet’s best parlour and the tea laid out - even in a state of nervous hysteria Mrs Bennet kept a good table - was that her niece Jane looked pinched and weary, and that boded worse than all the rest. Jane had not lost flesh or looks, and certainly Lizzy had mentioned a passing autumn illness in her letters, but there was a tiredness to Jane that spoke ominously of Mrs Bennet’s fretfulness. Sophia knew a certain degree of alarm, and looked to Lizzy, who chased the younger girls off with words a little sharper than the usual and said in an undertone: “I’ll tell you later, aunt.”
Sophia nodded her thanks, and was surprised by Lizzy’s hasty embrace.
“I am so glad you are here!” Lizzy breathed, and Sophia was so much confused and alarmed by her niece’s tone that she could hardly keep her attention on the questions Mrs Bennet was asking her about London fashions and the latest styles.
“Something is not right, Edward,” she said, that night. Mrs Bennet had arranged a dinner party, to welcome them, and Sophia could still feel Longbourn settling around her ears. It was a merry house, with the girls to make it so.
Edward grunted. “Whatever it is, Henry doesn’t think it’s very serious.”
Sophia stared at the ceiling. “Lizzy does. Much as she would prefer not to.”
That struck Edward silent.
“I’ll have to talk to her about it,” Sophia said.
“If you can find anywhere quiet in Longbourn to do it.” Edward loved the peace of the countryside he had been raised in, and often joked that he might someday find it, possibly in a hermitage in Longbourn’s wilderness with all his children still in London and the Bennet girls confined to the house.
“Lizzy is always so keen to take me on one of her confounded walks,” Sophia said, closing her eyes.
Edward laughed. “Just don’t let her take you all the way to Oakham Mount this time.”
Lizzy did not take her to Oakham Mount. Lizzy took her to Meryton, in company with all the Bennet girls but Mary (staying behind to teach piano to her cousins, who thought Mary was quite the cleverest girl alive). Kitty and Lydia were full of high spirits, and it was only natural that Jane should walk ahead to try to keep them from acting like hoydens. Which gave Lizzy, normally the fastest and most intrepid walker of them all, leisure to walk a little way behind with her aunt, and tell her all about Charles Bingley.
Sophia already knew a great deal about him, in some senses. Her sister-in-law had repined at length over his disappearance, his wealth, and his abandoned understanding with Jane, who ‘would have got him if she could’. Jane, always mannerly, had shown no sign that she heard this embarrassing assurance except a slight colour in her cheeks.
But what she didn’t know - for even Jane’s letters had shown only the slightest of signs - was what had actually happened, or how Jane herself felt. Lizzy, kicking stones on the path as if she wished they were Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst’s heads instead, told her the whole. Mrs Bennet’s constant complaints; Jane’s oppression of spirits. The general pity aroused in the neighbourhood, mortifying to private, reserved Jane.
Sophia looked up, and watched her oldest niece walking between the two youngest; they made a very fair picture, bundled up in colourful pelisses and scarves against the frozen Hertfordshire countryside, even if you knew that Jane had probably stepped between Kitty and Lydia to prevent a quarrel breaking out.
“You would not want Jane to have an inconstant husband,” Sophia said.
“No,” said Lizzy. “But I do not think him inconstant. Only… persuadable.”
“You also would not want her to marry an easily-led fool,” Sophia pointed out.
“I - no.” Lizzy winced, and glanced ahead at Jane, Kitty and Lydia, gauging the distance. “Have I told you my friend Charlotte Lucas is married?”
Sophia had heard three versions of Charlotte Lucas’ marriage, and the Fall of the House of Bennet which her sister-in-law clearly felt it presaged: the light, entertaining one Lizzy committed to her letters, the complaint that lasted three sentences and one entire page from Mrs Bennet, and the thoughtful paragraph Jane had devoted to it. Now she heard a fourth - a more honest, but less amusing, version of Lizzy's perspective.
“Edward,” she said that night, “I think we had better take both Jane and Lizzy back to London with us.”
“Whatever you think best, my dear.”
Sophia had seen Lizzy talking to pleasant, personable, penniless George Wickham at dinner; turning to his easy manners and quick wit with relief, after Mr Collins’ ponderous compliments and ill-mannered response to her refusal. Such a shame that one young man should be in every way placed to support Lizzy’s material comfort, and another in every way designed to support her spirits and liveliness of mind, and the two men entirely different persons. Such a shame, too, that her sister-in-law had not thought rather of Mary, the only one of the Bennet girls who could like Mr Collins, and (from all report) the best suited to him by temperament.
What a household. Jane trying to recover from a broken heart, Lizzy bearing her mother’s reproaches with gritted teeth and turning to an officer without prospects to supply her smiles, Kitty and Lydia run quite wild, Mary lamenting that she was eternally passed over -
“Yes,” Sophia said. “I certainly think it best.”
The first time Lizzy and Jane had come to London, Jane had been not quite thirteen and Lizzy had been not quite eleven, and Jane had worn a very similar tired look to the one she bore now. Except in that case it had been because Mrs Bennet had Jane running around with possets and cushions and novels and old wives’ cures, and saying what a good dear girl she was to take care of her mother in a delicate situation, not because Mrs Bennet had been telling all her neighbours that Jane was a good dutiful girl who would have married Mr Bingley for the sake of her sisters if she could have done. The effect of placing the family’s future wellbeing on Jane’s shoulders alone was much the same.
Sophia, then newly married, had known very little about her sister-in-law, except that she was going to take the waters at Tunbridge Wells in the hopes of conceiving a son, and that (while the three younger girls had been left with the Phillipses in Meryton) Edward had offered to show his older nieces London. Museums, the Royal Academy, Astley’s Amphitheatre, the Park; Sophia had retained the fondest impressions of her new nieces, and was eager to show them the city to its best advantage.
Her solicitude had been repaid with both girls’ sincere affection, and since then they had often been visitors in Cheapside. Sophia had taken them shopping, and to the theatre, and taught them dances that hadn’t reached Hertfordshire yet. She did not move in very fashionable circles herself, but she gave excellent dinners, and since Edward supplied the army and she herself had government connections through her father, her parties never lacked company. She had never made the same connection with Mary, Kitty or Lydia as she had with Jane and Lizzy, but she had continued to host her oldest nieces as they grew. They were delightful girls, so good to their cousins, and Sophia always enjoyed their company.
Since Jane, at fifteen, had been courted by a cousin of one of Sophia’s friends - escorting Isabella to one of Sophia’s at-homes, and then, his attention caught by Sophia's lovely niece, becoming a persistent presence - and Mrs Bennet had taken it as something to rejoice in rather than to discourage, Sophia had preferred to host them without their mother. She had a very sincere regard for her sister-in-law, but not for her sense.
“I hope you feel quite at home,” Sophia said, leading the girls to their usual bedroom.
“We are always so happy to be here, aunt,” said Lizzy, “it is so kind of you to host us,” and Jane smiled her agreement.
Already, Sophia thought, she looked a little less tired.
“London will be very thin of company,” Sophia said at breakfast, buttering a muffin. “So soon after Christmas. But I’m sure we can keep you very well amused.”
Lizzy darted a glance at Jane, who had already smiled and murmured her thanks. “I’ve heard it said,” Lizzy quipped, pouring coffee, “a change is as good as a rest.”
“I will give a dinner at the end of this week,” Sophia said, “in connection with your uncle’s work with the ——shire Regiment -”
“I am not sure our constitutions are strong enough to support the appearance of more officers.” Lizzy poured tea for Jane instead, and rearranged the preserves on the table so that the strawberry jam Jane preferred was directly under her nose. So Sophia had been correct. Jane ate an adequate and healthy diet for a girl of her age and disposition, but took no joy in it.
Sophia levelled a severe look at Lizzy, and her mouth twitched at the mischievous twinkle in her niece’s eye. “You will find old friends among them. Including Major Fitzwilliam, who recently came into an inheritance and is now colonel of the regiment. I depend on you to keep him amused, Lizzy. And I count on you both for your assistance with the arrangements.”
“We will be delighted to help, aunt,” Jane said, with sedate charm. “I should like to call on Caroline, if you have business in that quarter of town.”
“Did she answer your letter, in the end?” Lizzy asked.
“No,” Jane said. “I think it must have gone astray.”
Sitting opposite, Sophia saw the expression that flickered across Lizzy’s face.
She took the girls to call on Caroline Bingley and the Hursts the next day, since she had a new gown to collect in any case, and left them at the Bingley townhouse with a promise to call in half an hour. When she returned she found Jane troubled and Lizzy grim, beneath their polite facades. You would have to know them well to know it; but Sophia did.
“Good heavens,” Sophia said. “You don’t look as if you had a very pleasant time.”
Lizzy visibly bit her tongue.
“My letter did go astray,” Jane said, with an air almost of defiance rather than relief, “Caroline had no notion at all I would be in town.”
Sophia’s dinner was a great success. Jane, though still not in her best looks - she was much more cheerful now her mother could only remind her of her sad disappointment by letter - looked lovely, and Lizzy sparkled in the witty, cultured milieu she loved best. Colonel Fitzwilliam clearly found her conversation as charming as ever, and had sufficient sensibility to talk calmly and amiably with Jane, and the good manners to compliment Sophia herself on the occasion. Sophia presided over her table, and watched Edward cut deals and win confidence, and knew a great deal of satisfaction.
Jane sat by her while Lizzy played the piano, one hand tucked confidingly into Sophia’s. Colonel Fitzwilliam was turning pages for Lizzy, and by the flash of their respective smiles when each movement finished Sophia thought they were exchanging witticisms.
“She has such a lively turn of mind,” Jane said softly, under cover of the music. “I know my mother was very angry, but - with regard to Mr Collins -”
Jane stopped, and Sophia turned her head to look at her. Jane’s soft blue eyes were worried, but her jaw was firmly set.
“Yes?” Sophia prompted.
“I believe - when I think of my father -”
Another halt, but Jane picked up the thread more quickly this time.
“Lizzy made the only rational choice.”
Sophia thought of her ill-matched brother and sister-in-law, and squeezed Jane’s hand tight.
A full week had passed since Sophia had retrieved her new dress before Caroline Bingley deigned to return the Bennet girls’ call. It was so monumentally unsuccessful that Lizzy took the children out to play in the park alone, where she could laugh herself out of her anger and chase the boys around trees, and Sophia bore Jane upstairs for a rest.
“I am quite well,” Jane said weakly. “I am quite well. Aunt, I assure you -”
“My dear,” Sophia said, sitting Jane down on the bed she shared with Lizzy. “I am rather more than seven, you know, and you need not trouble to conceal your pain from me.”
Jane burst into tears.
The storm lasted for some little time. Jane had suppressed her feelings for more than a month, in the face of her mother’s best attempts to exhibit them to the entire neighbourhood, and had hidden even from Lizzy the depths of her misery. Once she allowed herself to cry, leaning on Sophia’s shoulder, she could not stop for quite half an hour. Her sobs dwindled into dry gasps, and she pressed her hands over her face and then released them.
“I thought Caroline was my friend,” Jane said. “But then I was sure Mr Bingley - there were proofs of affection -”
She shut her mouth hard, and swallowed. “He was most truly kind and generous, when I was unwell at Netherfield, and so pleasant and - and thoughtful. We agreed so well on so many points -”
Her face crumpled. Sophia took up a cloth soaked in lavender-water, and soothed her temples and forehead.
“I - still think him all that is gentlemanly and amiable,” Jane said, with a slight hiccough. “But in Caroline I think I have been quite deceived.”
Sophia thought of the hard-faced girl, overdressed for a morning call and wearing her expensive pelisse like a shield against her mere presence in Cheapside, who had spent a painful fifteen minutes in Sophia’s drawing-room. “I expect her disposition will give her more pain than it gives you, in the end.”
“I suppose it is only natural she would rather her brother married her friend,” Jane said miserably. “Miss Darcy is rich, accomplished, sweet-natured -”
“For all you or I know,” Sophia said, in the confiding, soothing tone which had so often eased the girls’ alarms, and which worked as well on her older daughter, “Miss Darcy has never once thought of Mr Bingley, and Miss Caroline is scheming to no purpose.”
“She was so terribly jealous of the attention Mr Darcy gave Lizzy,” Jane said - and most unexpectedly, she laughed. A poor thin thing, but Sophia would take it for what it was.
“To no avail, I daresay,” Sophia smiled. She loosened Jane’s gown and hair. “I think you would do much better with a little sleep, Jane.”
“My head does ache.”
“The tears.” Sophia helped Jane to lie down, and mopped her brow again with the cloth. “There, now. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”
“I am only thankful,” Jane murmured, “I did not expose myself. I would not like everyone to think –”
Sophia wondered if Jane had ever had a feeling she had not immediately concealed from the world, in order to maintain the illusion of a smoothly-running Bennet household.
“Hush now,” she said gently. “It’s over. We will give you every reason to forget him.”
Jane, Lizzy and Sophia took the children to Astley’s Amphitheatre. It was their first show of the year, and not as busy as it might have been; Sophia watched with satisfaction as Jane and Lizzy took quite as much pleasure in the show as the children did, her nieces teasing each other over Lizzy’s absence of horsewomanship. Jane laughed as brightly as anyone else, even if her eyes were still shadowed and contemplative that evening.
“I hope your sister is not unwell,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said, playing chess with Lizzy after another of Sophia’s dinners. Sophia, sitting close enough to overhear - although it was Edward who was really acting the chaperon, watching his niece play and occasionally commenting on the similarities to her father’s game - glanced over in time to see a flicker of expression cross Lizzy’s face.
“She has been somewhat upset,” Lizzy said, “but she is improving in spirits now.”
Both players glanced over at Jane, who had agreed to take part in a few informal sets and certainly seemed very happy dancing. Unlike Lizzy, she showed no particular interest in any individual, but then Lizzy had always had a partiality for Fitzwilliam.
It would be a fine thing to see Lizzy so well-settled, if their mutual liking persisted. One of Edward’s connections in the War Office, loose-tongued when he had had too much to drink but usually too much prone to rambling at cross-purposes for Edward to learn anything useful, had given exact news of Colonel Fitzwilliam’s inheritance. Edward, of course, had reported back to Sophia. And then there was his promotion. Mrs Bennet would be pleased, and if Colonel Fitzwilliam was as clever and amiable as he seemed, so would Mr Bennet.
“I’m glad,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said, winning for himself one of Lizzy’s warmer smiles. “Check.”
Lizzy pulled a horrified face, and set to work to extract herself from the check. She played mostly with Mr Bennet, who had little interest in cards and less interest in losing money on a form of amusement that held no pleasure for him. Indeed, Mr Bennet had taught her so that he might have an opponent conveniently to hand, and said she played better than any man in Meryton. Out of habit, Sophia squashed her opinions of her in-laws’ childrearing.
“Check and mate,” Lizzy said triumphantly, five minutes later.
Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed, and shook hands.
Sophia took Lizzy and Jane to Hatchard’s a few days later. Lizzy read so quickly that no book in the house was safe, and Sophia wanted something new to read to the children; Jane, too, felt a want of novels to entertain her, though she was usually too social to be a great reader. While she seemed lively enough at the rounds of calls and at-homes they attended, Sophia felt that she was still more deeply affected by Mr Bingley’s defection than she cared to admit, and was not surprised to see Jane prefer a book on the sofa beside Lizzy to extensive conversation. Under the circumstances she might have all the novels she pleased.
Furthermore, Colonel Fitzwilliam had apparently recommended Lizzy a French novel that could now be found in a good English translation. Sophia had had no notion that he read in French, or that he and Lizzy had conversed sufficiently widely to offer each other book recommendations with a tolerable degree of confidence. She knew, of course, that both Lizzy and Jane were well-read. Their education had been slapdash, but Mr Bennet had insisted on the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic at an early age, and had supplemented these by teaching both girls to follow the household and farm accounts, and encouraging the widest possible reading. Lizzy, always particularly quick to respond to her father’s praise and with fewer maternal demands on her time, had taken her reading to a greater extreme than Jane, and had picked up some Latin and Greek. But Sophia had yet to discover that she had previously discussed literature with any gentleman who had taken her fancy.
Sophia had looked into the novel recommended by Colonel Fitzwilliam herself, very briefly, and thought it quite respectable. In any case, it was unlikely that Colonel Fitzwilliam - who she had been acquainted with for several years now, and who was so courteous that he was almost punctilious - would suggest any improper reading material to a gently-born young lady. Still, the mere fact of his recommendation was notable.
Jane certainly thought so.
“I wonder if Lizzy will like it,” Jane said.
“The novel or the gentleman?” Sophia enquired.
Jane smiled. “I have more doubts about the novel. Still, I have had little opportunity to speak to him.”
“I shall see to it that you do.” Sophia returned to her inspection of the book in her hands, and was surprised when Jane - eyes still on Lizzy - volunteered:
“I like him better than Mr Wickham.”
“In circumstances or in disposition?” Sophia asked, caught off guard; knowing Jane, and her concern for affection and compatibility in marriage, it would be the latter.
“Either,” Jane said succinctly. There was a slight frown between her pretty brows. “No doubt my own disposition biases me - but now I have some distance from the matter, I cannot help but feel his tale was… too soon told, when he could have no acquaintance in the region.”
Sophia looked at her in surprise, but said nothing.
The regiment gave a dance in advance of their return to Spain: some time in advance, if truth be told, and Sophia made a note to learn why, in case it had some practical consequence. Naturally Mrs Gardiner and her lovely nieces were sent invitation cards, and Mrs Gardiner attended with her lovely nieces, and with a little careful manoeuvring ensured that Jane danced two sets with Colonel Fitzwilliam and had some opportunity for conversation.
This was not lost on Mrs Gardiner’s younger lovely niece. “Well?” Lizzy demanded, when they had hardly taken their seats in the carriage.
Jane smiled. “Very silly you would look if I said I had no idea what you mean,” she teased, and Lizzy laughed. She had coral about her throat and at her ears; it flattered her warm colouring, and the soft primrose of her dress, as well as Jane’s pearls and pale blue caught up her luminous complexion and pretty eyes.
“I like him very well, Lizzy,” Jane said. “But I shall be interested to hear my aunt’s opinion.”
Lizzy turned to Sophia with an eagerness that made her laugh.
“Most gentlemanly,” she said, “and seems to think just as he ought. You shall have to ask your uncle how he comports himself in business matters. But perhaps not at this hour!”
Colonel Fitzwilliam followed up his civilities by giving a theatre-party. Sophia was inclined to think it intended for Lizzy’s enjoyment, since the play was Lizzy’s favourite Much Ado About Nothing, but allowed there was a certain degree of ambiguity; she had been talking to Colonel Fitzwilliam about how much she enjoyed Shakespeare, too. Nothing could have been more unexceptionable or carefully put together than the arrangements Colonel Fitzwilliam had made, right down to the refreshments provided at the interval. Sophia supposed it was an advantage to be able to use the family box, but there was nonetheless real taste and feeling from the choice of play to the choice of refreshments that marked Colonel Fitzwilliam out as a thoughtful and intelligent man who had paid a great deal of attention to her niece’s interests and preferences.
Also, Sophia had to admit she had never before watched a play from a theatre box rented by a member of the peerage. Mentally composing a letter to her mother, who was visiting Lambton where Sophia had passed her early childhood, Sophia listened to Jane give her opinion on the acting, sparing half an ear for Lizzy’s conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam. Thus far it was as completely unexceptionable and thoughtful as the theatre-party itself. Lizzy had said it would be her last week in London - they had discovered a common destination in Kent - laughed to learn that Lizzy would be at Hunsford when Colonel Fitzwilliam was at Rosings - learned that they had some acquaintance in common - the unfortunate and absent Mr Darcy was abused for his poor company manners -
Lizzy made a passing reference to Mr Wickham’s judgement, and Colonel Fitzwilliam dropped a champagne flute. Jane and Sophia turned, and even Edward blinked and looked around.
Colonel Fitzwilliam, somewhat flushed, begged pardon, and referred self-deprecatingly to a trifling persistent injury in his arm. But it did not escape Sophia’s notice that, when he turned back to Lizzy, he said:
“Mr Wickham? George Wickham?”
“I - yes,” Lizzy said, her eyes darting to Sophia’s in considerable confusion. “He - he is in the militia, quartered near my parents’ home. He is quite well known in the neighbourhood. Although I fear his acquaintance is not to Mr Darcy’s very exacting taste.”
“Well known -” Colonel Fitzwilliam echoed, and then (as the stage started to awaken for the rest of the performance) forced the reestablishment of his air of composure. “I beg your pardon. It must be a different gentleman, I am sure.”
Sophia waited until his attention was elsewhere, and gave him a searching glance. He was not, she was confident, at all convinced that the George Wickham who alarmed him so much was not the same one currently residing in Hertfordshire.
The following day Lizzy, Sophia and Jane returned from a round of morning calls to find a small bouquet had been sent round to the Miss Bennets, accompanied by a note that might have been a thank-you note, though neither Lizzy nor Jane had any correspondents in London besides Sophia. All three women looked at each other, and then Lizzy took up the note while Jane inspected the bouquet minutely. It was a pretty, modest arrangement of hothouse flowers in shades of yellow and cream.
Who on earth would send the girls such flowers at this time of year? Sophia wondered, and then, as Lizzy (eyes wide and staring) passed her the note, automatically remembered that Colonel Fitzwilliam was the second son of the Earl of Matlock, and if the Earl of Matlock did not have his own greenhouses, he knew where they were to be found.
Sophia blinked at the note. “How charming,” she said sedately, and slipped it into her reticule. “Oh, Blake, Miss Jane and Miss Lizzy and I will take tea in the drawing room.”
Once ensconced in the drawing room with a teapot, Sophia ate a sustaining biscuit and retrieved the note. She passed it to Lizzy, who handed it directly to Jane, who read it without much noticeable change of expression and then handed it back to Lizzy.
“The arrangement was intended for you, I thought,” she said calmly, though she was frowning very slightly as she did so. “Yellow is your favourite colour, not mine.”
“I cannot make it out,” Lizzy said, almost pleadingly, giving it to Sophia. “What can be so important that he would write to me in this - well. Startling manner? It is not of a piece with his conduct.”
“Unless he were very much alarmed,” Sophia said thoughtfully, retreading the note. Lizzy bit her lip.
The note requested an appointment. Colonel Fitzwilliam feared that there had been misinformation spread regarding Mr George Wickham, and was anxious to communicate the facts of the matter to Miss Bennet, at any moment or place of her choosing.
“If it is so dreadful,” Lizzy said, folding the skirt of her dress between her fingers, “I do think it ought to be - to be known.”
“Kitty mentions Mr Wickham in her letters,” Jane volunteered. Kitty’s letters were largely inventories of places she had been and things she had seen, and although they were not often very interesting, they were accurate.
“If he is a scoundrel,” Sophia said, “though I should not like to believe it of anyone from Derbyshire - well, it would be best if he were to spend less time in your sisters’ company.”
“I can’t just write back to him,” Lizzy said. “Good God, Aunt Sophia, I am not in the habit of making assignations!”
“I didn’t think you were.” Sophia folded up the note and gave it back to Lizzy. “I will write back, and let him know when we will all be walking in the park. He certainly will not expect you to be there alone.”
Lizzy looked taken aback. “I hope not!”
They met, as if by accident, in the Park the following day; Sophia strolled with her girls (Jane assuming a fair impression of calm, Lizzy vibrating with nerves) until they encountered Colonel Fitzwilliam strolling in the opposite direction to them, accompanied by another man. This man bore a pronounced resemblance to Colonel Fitzwilliam - less in expression or features than in carriage and colouring, but still sufficient to indicate their family relationship - and, when Sophia looked at him carefully, a still stronger resemblance to old Mr Darcy, who she remembered from her childhood at Lambton. She was not, therefore, surprised to hear her nieces greet him as Mr Darcy, or to receive the introduction which confirmed his identity, but she did note her nieces’ shock on encountering him, and his particularly forbidding expression. A few minutes’ small talk did not lighten this; on the contrary, he looked more and more grim, and eventually excused himself on the grounds of business matters to attend to.
“You must excuse Darcy,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said, with that ready cheer and social ease that made him so exactly fitted for Sophia’s Lizzy. “He is much distressed to learn of Wickham’s recent conduct. We had hoped never to hear from him again. And Darcy does not express himself with great ease.”
Lizzy glanced at Jane, who offered: “It is sometimes difficult to express all one feels in a manner that is proper.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam bowed. “As ever, Miss Bennet, you are all kindness. Mrs Gardiner, may I beg the privilege of walking with you and your nieces?”
She granted this, and was pleased by his delicacy in dedicating himself first and foremost to her, and in speaking of indifferent subjects, as if they really had met by chance. The girls linked arms and began talking in low voices, apparently regarding Mr Darcy. Sophia and Colonel Fitzwilliam had already gone some little way and exhausted most common subjects including their shared experience of Derbyshire, when Colonel Fitzwilliam said:
“I must beg your pardon for my unorthodox behaviour - as I will beg Miss Elizabeth’s pardon. I was so much shocked to hear even a small part of Wickham’s calumnies - I know of him from previous years, and he is vicious, unprincipled, and has, I fear, practised on the entire neighbourhood. He cannot be trusted.”
He spoke with such fervour that Jane and Lizzy, overhearing, abruptly fell silent. Sophia stopped, as if she wished to admire some blooming snowdrops, and said: “Indeed?”
Colonel Fitzwilliam nodded. “I spoke to my cousin Darcy, for much of what has passed directly concerned him more than myself. He agreed that Miss Lizzy and Miss Bennet should be made aware of Wickham’s disposition.” A brief pause. “I think nobody could fail to have confidence in their discretion. And knowing the neighbourhood so well, they will know how to check Wickham’s influence - or at least how to ensure that none of their family are materially harmed by it.”
This seemed serious, and Sophia’s first instinct was to be taken aback; but then she had known it must be very serious for so correct and courteous a man actually to write to her niece, when (to the best of Sophia’s knowledge) there was no understanding between them, only liking. “I think you should speak to Lizzy, then - and perhaps to Jane.”
“It is what I have been longing to do,” he said, with a faint conscious colour in his cheeks and one of his swift smiles. “To explain myself and apologise for my ridiculous behaviour, at least as far as I may.”
“I do not think Lizzy is in any great danger of finding you ridiculous,” Sophia said, entertaining herself by ignoring the faint gasp that emanated from her niece, and Lizzy’s blush.
Jane took Colonel Fitzwilliam’s place at Sophia’s side, and after a few minutes of agreeing that it was very seasonable weather for snowdrops, they walked on a little - just far enough away that Lizzy and Colonel Fitzwilliam walking ahead could speak in reasonable privacy, close enough to hear the faint current of their discussion.
“Good God,” Lizzy said at one point, and Sophia glanced up to see her face was pale and shocked. Jane tucked her hand into her aunt’s arm uneasily, but Lizzy continued to walk beside Colonel Fitzwilliam, listening intently.
“No,” she said, a few minutes later, and, looking wretchedly up into Colonel Fitzwilliam’s face, “is this true?”
He nodded, and Lizzy, with the quick unease that always came on her when shocked or upset, hurried back to Sophia.
“Lizzy?” she said, taking one of Lizzy’s small cold hands.
“Aunt - I am not sure - but I think I have been the most complete fool.” She offered up a shaky smile. “I hardly know what my father will think of me.”
“Nothing very evil, I am sure,” Sophia said, tucking Lizzy’s hand into her free arm. Jane squeezed her elbow, and then detached to go and talk sensibly and calmly to Colonel Fitzwilliam, who looked distinctly off-kilter.
“I don’t know.” Lizzy laughed unevenly. “I must think.”
They walked on for a while. Jane and Colonel Fitzwilliam talked mostly of Hertfordshire.
Eventually Lizzy stirred and said painfully, her hand tight on Sophia’s arm: “I have been going over it all in my mind. I think - I am sure that Mr Wickham lied to me, to increase his credit at the expense of Mr Darcy’s, and from what Colonel Fitzwilliam has hinted - he should be kept from my sisters’ company. Especially Kitty and Lydia’s.”
“Lydia is not sixteen,” Sophia said, startled.
“Neither was -” Lizzy said, and broke off; and then said instead: “She is so bold for her age, and my mother does not like to check her.”
“I must write to my father,” Lizzy said, “and to my mother, if it can be managed so that - well.” She glanced ahead.
Sophia squeezed Lizzy’s arm close against her side. “Well, nothing very dreadful has happened yet, Lizzy.”
Lizzy leaned against her in mute relief.
“Suppose we invite Colonel Fitzwilliam to tea while we write our letters,” Sophia said thoughtfully. “I should like to be sure our account of this affair of Wickham’s is accurate.”
“Do you truly like him, Lizzy?” Jane said, her watchful eyes on Lizzy’s face, and her loose brown curls - their richer chestnut gleaming in the candlelight - tumbling down over the shoulders of her shift.
“I don’t know. I don’t know!” Lizzy laughed, and it seemed to Sophia that the sound was more hysterical than amused. “I hardly know. He is - I find him so amiable, so intelligent - our feelings, our tastes are so much alike - I find myself inclined towards him very much. And I cannot but be sensible that in telling me this much he has placed great trust in my judgement and discretion - and yet.” She dropped down onto the bed next to Jane. “We have but just discovered to what extent I may judge ill. Jane, I hardly know if I am on my head or my heels.”
“Well, you will have the benefit of Charlotte’s advice at Hunsford,” Jane said practically.
Lizzy tugged on a curl-paper in her thick dark hair. “Charlotte married Mr Collins.”
“From all you have told me,” Sophia said, “Charlotte secured a respectable position in life well beyond her hopes.” She sighed, and tweaked one of her own curl-papers; only Jane’s hair curled naturally. “You must judge of Mrs Collins’ marital felicity when you see her, of course, but I have always thought of her as a sensible, practical young woman. You could have worse advice.” She smiled at Lizzy. “And of course, you can always write to us.”
Lizzy took one of Jane’s hands without even looking to see where it was, and reached out for Sophia’s. “I should be at a loss without you,” she said lovingly. “If one day I have your goodness I may achieve your happiness. And in the meantime I shall write to you by every post.” She took a deep breath. “At least - seeing Colonel Fitzwilliam at Rosings will give me the opportunity to judge his behaviour among his own family, even if that does include Mr Darcy.”
“I think you may find him more agreeable without the distaste of an entire neighbourhood,” Jane said. “The poor man must have felt quite hunted. Among his own friends he can be pleasant.”
Lizzy wrinkled her nose. “I shall look at him with fresh eyes. Someone his cousin feels so much affection for cannot be entirely irredeemable - and besides.” Her face fell again. “I fear his character came to me half-sketched already from George Wickham’s pen.” She pleated her nightgown between her fingers. “Aunt -”
“I have told your uncle the necessary particulars,” Sophia assured her. “His letter will be sent with yours tomorrow morning. Your father might not attend to Edward, or he might fail to follow your logic, but he will have to listen to both of you. And besides, I have also written to your mother to tell her that Wickham has no money at all, no credit with the regiment, and has practised most dreadfully on every family that has been brought to give him countenance. If I can persuade her that he is a threat to Mary, Kitty and Lydia’s chances, she might be more vehement even than your father in forbidding him the household.”
Lizzy sighed, and rubbed her fingers over her eyes. “If only I had kept him at arm’s length. Every word and action of his has such - such a suspicious appearance, now I know his past, as if he singled me out to create a welcome in the neighbourhood.”
“It could as easily have been any well-liked woman, well-known in local society,” Sophia said pragmatically. “From my own experience of him, I think he would not find it difficult to suit his audience. You ought not to blame yourself.” She got to her feet. “Girls, I am quite worn out. Let’s talk more in the morning.”
“Goodnight, aunt,” Lizzy and Jane chorused, and Sophia accepted and granted kisses on the cheek. As she closed the door behind her, she heard none of Lizzy’s accustomed mischief and Jane’s usual giggling, only soft conversation.
Ten years, she thought, wrapping her shawl around herself a little more tightly, only ten years, and yet…
“My dear,” Edward said, startled, when he looked up from his book. “This Wickham affair is very shocking, but -”
“No, no, it isn’t that.” Sophia wiped her eyes. “I was only thinking how grown up our little nieces have become.”
On the doorstep of the Cheapside house, the carriage waiting to take her to Hunsford, Lizzy flung her arms around Sophia’s neck and said: “Thank you for all you have done.”
“Lizzy, it was my pleasure.” Sophia kissed her cheek. “Write to me often. I want to hear all your news.”
“You will curse the daily post by the end of the week,” Lizzy said, her dark eyes a little too bright, and embraced Jane tightly. “Jane! What is to be said that has not already been said?”
“Don’t keep the carriage waiting,” Jane said, with exceptional practicality.
Lizzy laughed, and pressed her sister’s hands. “Until we meet again,” she said, and turned away.
They watched the carriage rattle down to the end of the road, waving to those inside.
“I think she will be married by the end of the year,” said Jane, with an irrepressible laugh that Sophia could hardly help contrasting with her miserable January spirits.
“Indeed?” Sophia said, smiling.
Jane nodded. “I am very happy for her,” she said, with no shadows in those fine blue-grey eyes, only their old peculiar sweetness of expression. “And I am determined to like Colonel Fitzwilliam very much.”