Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy's knees ached. The feeling rendered her most irritable. She pressed at her offending knees, careful not to let her husband notice. Darcy sat next to her on the settee as they had tea in the Pemberley sitting room.
Perhaps that walk around Pemberley park was not as good an idea as she had thought earlier that day. Her husband had certainly warned her not to exert too much effort, and this he did so again.
"We have long past our prime, my love." Darcy shuffled the newspaper he read, glancing down at the discreet movement of Elizabeth's hands on her knees. "I shall repeat what Caroline Bingley said those many years ago, 'why must you be scampering about the country?'"
Elizabeth scoffed at him, replying that she had never in her life scampered about anywhere. When he remained silent, Elizabeth sighed and gave up all pretense. She lifted her legs and positioned them so they rested across Darcy's lap. Her husband set his newspaper aside and proceeded to gently massage his wife's knees, knowing just the right amount of pressure to apply that Elizabeth sighed in relief.
"Elizabeth, there is no need to entertain Jane every hour of her visit here. She was certainly the first to dissuade you from accompanying her." Darcy said.
Jane, their 13-year old granddaughter, had arrived in Pemberley together with her 10-year old twin brothers more than a fortnight ago. Their parents had gone on a European tour, and Darcy and Elizabeth, upon hearing of their plans, had insisted that their grandchildren be sent to them at Pemberley for the summer holidays.
"Nonsense, a short walk is certainly good for my health." Elizabeth insisted. "Our physician even says as much!"
"Your short walks have always been everyone else's long walks, my Lizzy." Darcy smiled. "Now, might I suggest that you retire to our chambers for a rest. I shall join you in quarter of an hour."
"And pray tell, why can you not accompany me now?" Elizabeth sniffed.
Darcy knew that tone very well, she had employed it on so many occasions, knowingly and unknowingly, in their long years of marriage; Elizabeth was wanting attention. He hid a smile.
"I shall just leave instructions to Bentley not to start the boys' riding lessons without me, I want to make certain they listen properly." Darcy chuckled. "You know how those boys are when they become excited, Bentley becomes flustered when they start with their impertinence." Here Darcy looked meaningfully at Elizabeth.
His wife looked down to hide the slight blush that spread over her cheeks and waved him away.
Darcy left the room smiling, very pleased at the thought that after so many years together, he could still make Elizabeth blush.
Elizabeth's maid had just closed the door behind her. Clad in her dressing gown, she leaned back against her pillows. The ache in her knees had lessened significantly, she knew that continued rest would completely eliminate it, but Elizabeth was also feeling restless. There were times, such as now, when she resented growing old.
Elizabeth sighed. She should have had Molly bring her the book her daughter-in-law purchased for her in town. She recalled having left it in the morning room yesterday. It was there yes, on the side table next to her husband's new volume on water irrigation systems. Hah! My memory does not fail me yet! She thought triumphantly.
As it was, Elizabeth sighed again and slid carefully from the bed. She walked slowly, for even if her mind felt as youthful as ever, her body reminded her that indeed, she was not.
Elizabeth headed to the bookcase that stood near the window. These rooms were, technically speaking, her chambers, but it had been two years now since the Master and Mistress decided that climbing the dais to get on the bed of the Master's bedroom was too bothersome for their age. Hence, Darcy and Elizabeth had opted to use her rooms for slumber.
They had always shared a bed, it was never a question if one would prefer to sleep on his or her own. In this most intimate time, they had always been together.
Elizabeth opened the bookcase and scanned the contents, it contained hers and Darcy's favorite tomes, read and exchanged so many times that Elizabeth almost knew them all by heart. Indeed, it was a miracle that their eyesight had not been affected by their constant reading. Nor by their age.
"Not yet." Elizabeth muttered.
After going through the contents, Elizabeth still could not settle on a title, she shrugged her shoulders and turned around.
"What is keeping him?" Elizabeth felt herself becoming unreasonably irritated at Darcy. Ashamed of her feelings, she breathed deeply. Deciding to occupy her mind through different means, she wandered to her writing desk to continue the letter to her son that she had started the previous day.
Elizabeth frowned when she saw three boxes piled on top of the desk. She opened one and smiled at the unexpected contents, she sat down on the chair.
Before the arrival of her grandchildren, Elizabeth had ordered the airing out of the three bedrooms nearest their chambers.
"They are too old for the Nursery." Elizabeth had told Darcy.
And so a thorough cleaning of the rooms had followed. In one of them, in the bottom drawer of a dresser, they had found old memorabilia. Among these were letters, a lock of hair, which Elizabeth knew belonged to their eldest daughter as she was the only fair-haired one among their five children, ribbons and lace from old favorite gowns, and more.
Elizabeth's heart had delighted at seeing them again, she had remembered using that dresser when the mistress's rooms were undergoing improvements. That was almost ten years ago if she was not mistaken. Apparently, the bottom drawer had been missed when she and her things were transferred back.
Their housekeeper had assured her that she would personally gather them all and bring them to the Mistress's chambers as soon as she had removed all the dust which had settled on the precious keepsakes.
Elizabeth took out a silver rattle from the box, newly polished, she shook it, loving the tinkling sound.
"Henry's." Elizabeth pictured their youngest son as a little one and smiled.
Minutes passed as she skimmed through the contents of the first, then the second box, joy rendering her bad mood forgotten. When she opened the third box, Elizabeth's eyes moistened. Inside were drawings done by their children. One she remembered very well. In it were two stick figures, one in a green gown, the other wearing a hat, standing under a tree. It was of her and of Darcy.
"Georgiana's". Elizabeth almost laughed remembering their third child's first attempt at drawing her parents. Indeed, Darcy and Elizabeth had posed for her on that occasion.
She rummaged eagerly until she reached the bottom of the box, Elizabeth was surprised at the last item she found there. It was an old leather bound book, unmarked but for a few scratches. She opened it and scanned at what was inside. Elizabeth quickly realized that it was a small ledger, meant to be carried around while attending to estate affairs, she imagined.
Going back to the first page, she read the writing: Netherfield Park. The handwriting was unmistakably Darcy's. This must have been the time her husband had assisted Charles Bingley in the appraisal and lease of Netherfield Park.
Elizabeth grinned, the year that she had met Darcy. Feeling as if she were twenty again, Elizabeth traced her husband's elegant scrawl. She leafed through the ledger laughing at little notes of "unacceptable, grain smelling of wax" and "gossiping stablehands".
As she turned the page, two pieces of folded paper slipped out and fell on the desk. Elizabeth glanced down. They were both sealed, and like the ledger, old and yellowed. Elizabeth hesitated, the seal on the wax was the Darcy crest. Her curiosity winning over her uncertainty, she broke the seal of the first one and unfolded it. She leaned closer to the window for better lighting.
My Dear Elizabeth,
I take liberties with this endearment for since the time I learned your given name, in my mind you have always been Elizabeth. Not Miss Elizabeth, nor Miss Bennet. Just Elizabeth, the name of a queen, it lingers on my lips when I silently call out to you.
What have you done to me? How can it be that I find you irresistible? Your beauty, I find, blooms stronger the more time I spend in your company. Your mind, God save me, engages me so that I have to constantly grit my teeth and frown to prevent myself from monopolizing your company.
Today you have gone back to Longbourn, you and your sister both, as she has recovered from her illness. I had awaited this day, for surely it would bring me the peace I had sought. And yet I do not find enjoyable the privacy that I had so longed for, your absence from your customary place opposite mine in the library left me feeling bereft.
Miss Bingley observes something is amiss, I think, she teases me in the hopes of drawing unfavorable remarks directed at you. She can not know the thoughts in my head, for I myself am surprised by them, by their intensity and persistence. I imagine her shock if I tell her that your face has scarcely left my contemplations.
Where the silent humming of your presence made my skin tingle, now remains only a tone of emptiness. It whispers to me, and such dissatisfaction I have never felt before, it is a very tangible feeling of something lost.
I can not perceive how I am thus reduced to such foolishness, this can not be. You can not have such power over me.
Elizabeth's hand went to her neck, her heart felt such tenderness towards her husband, towards what he had written. She could picture him writing this letter, what battles must have raged within him, what emotions. Elizabeth could more fully appreciate his dilemma now that she had been a Darcy for so long.
Eagerly, she picked up the second letter.
My Dearest Elizabeth,
Today I leave you. I must. My mind knows what must be done, but my heart, nay, my soul knows where it should be. Dare I defy expectations? Dare I defy the duty I owe my name?
I can not. I am not weak, I shall conquer this, I shall. For what is the heart? But merely feelings, merely hopes, merely dreams, merely you.
I must stop.
When I danced with you at Bingley's ball, when my hands held yours, I knew, for a moment what it was that poets spoke of. Why they wrote of the stars and the moon and the heavens. I have never fancied myself a sentimental man, yet at that moment, everything ceased to exist, until only your face remained. I now know what it is to love.
How shall I move on from that which calls to me? How shall I return to the man I was before I knew you?
But I must, for duty's sake. Let this be the last letter I write to you. Good bye, Elizabeth.
"I had quite forgot about those letters." Darcy stood behind Elizabeth.
She turned her head at her husband's words, a line of tears streaking down from her eyes.
"So early on, William?"
"I asked you when it began, your feelings for me."
Darcy brushed his fingers over Elizabeth's cheek, looking at her with the same eyes that had pierced her being more than forty years ago. The same eyes, the same emotions.
"And I replied that I could not recall, it was too long ago, that I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun." Here, Darcy took Elizabeth's hands, they were wrinkled like his, but for a moment he saw both their hands as the ones that held each other's in that long ago ball at Netherfield Park. "In truth I knew perfectly the hour, the spot, the look."
Elizabeth gazed at Darcy questioningly, lovingly, one eyebrow lifted slightly. He shook his head, chuckling. "I had not wanted to overwhelm you with my feelings, you were just beginning, you see." Darcy gently chucked his wife's chin.
Elizabeth stood up, hands still held in his. "Tell me, William." Her eyes shone.
Darcy took in a breath, then let it out slowly. "Well if you must know. It was when you laughed at my notion of an accomplished female. Do you remember that conversation, my love?"
Elizabeth let out a laugh. Darcy's heart warmed, her laughter, now deeper, richer that it had been in their youth, always had the power to take his breath away. He kissed her hands.
"You ridiculous man, I was very much meaning to be impertinent! I was laughing at you and the way Caroline Bingley agreed with anything you said."
"And that is which drew me to you. Your plan failed miserably, Lizzy, if all you wished for was to vex me. For the result was the complete opposite as you well know"
Elizabeth's eye's twinkled with laughter. She laid her cheek on her husband's chest, remembering those first encounters and all those that followed, they had all led to where she and Darcy were now. She laughed silently, wiser now, she recounted how foolishly they had both acted. But of course, everything that happened, all the pride and prejudice, was necessary for them to see each other with clearer eyes.
Elizabeth looked up at her husband's profile, still handsome, perhaps even more so with age. How she loved him! She would always love him, more as each day of their lives passed. She kissed his chin earning a soft laugh from him.
They were both silent for a while, blithely contemplating the past.
After a moment, Elizabeth spoke softly in Darcy's chest.
"Was it worth it, William? Was I worth all the trouble? The censure from your aunt and those others?"
Darcy nuzzled her temple. His answer was spoken just as softly, his breath stirred her hair. He looked at her eyes, those same eyes that had changed him, that had moved him to be a better man. They were beautiful, she was beautiful. His Elizabeth.
"You know you are. I would certainly do it all again in a heartbeat." Darcy kissed her lightly on the lips. "See what we have created, the life we have built, the children we have brought into this world—pray tell, exactly how many grandchildren can we claim to have?" He asked mischievously.
Elizabeth slapped at her husband's chest playfully.
"Five children producing sixteen grandchildren, and another arriving in the winter, as I am sure you well know!"
"Or two, Isabella could very well be carrying twins!" Darcy chuckled.
They beamed at each other. Elizabeth reached up and touched Darcy's face.
"I can not imagine having lived this life, this one life, without you, Fitzwilliam." Elizabeth spoke clearly. "Happy was the day you arrived in Hertfordshire to help your friend in his affairs."
"And happy was the day you accepted my proposal." With laughter in his eyes, Darcy added, "My second proposal."
"I love you, William."
"Not—" Darcy touched the tip of her nose with his finger. "As long as I have loved you."
Jane heard laughter from inside her grandparents' chambers. She withdrew the hand that was poised to knock on the door. She smiled to herself, clearly she need not check if her grandmother was well. She walked down the hall, a spring in her step.