Were candles not already lit, Elizabeth would not have dared enter the library. As it was, knowing likely someone was inside, filled Elizabeth with a sharp sense of dread. Yes, she had been offered free access to the library and other open rooms of the estate, but she still was uncertain of the limitations of her new station. Certainly, it could not be improper to supplement the volumes in the study with other books for Rose’s edification.
Though Rose’s education was far from Elizabeth’s mind as reveled in the sheer size and beauty of Pemberley’s library. The room was massive. Shelves ran along the walls from the floor to ceiling, it required a wheeled ladder to reach the highest volumes. Elizabeth’s slippers shuffled over the flooring. On a high table in the room’s center sat a large, leather bound dictionary.
In the chair farthest from the door, Mrs. Darcy sat, a book on her lap and a glass in her hand. Elizabeth froze.
Mrs. Darcy, still in her dinner gown, looked up.
Elizabeth curtsied. “Excuse me,” she said. “Mrs. Darcy. I had only hoped to look over some texts. For Rose. Tales of Roman gods, I did not mean to disturb you.”
Mrs. Darcy smiled and waved Elizabeth over. “Nonsense. Sit with me. There is another glass on this tray, and it has been so long since I have had company in the evening.”
Elizabeth curtsied again and sat in the chair Mrs. Darcy had offered. “Thank you.”
Mrs. Darcy handed Elizabeth the glass and poured what looked and smelled like brandy into it.
Elizabeth, not wishing to be impolite, took a sip. “Your library is magnificent,” she said. “So many volumes, I do not believe I have ever seen so many in one place. I admit I have a great fondness for books. Perhaps more than is proper.”
“Did your husband share your passion for literature?”
Elizabeth looked down at her hands. “He enjoyed books as much as the next man, I suppose.” She was making a hash of this. Elizabeth should know more about her deceased husband than he had a passing interest in books. “We did not have occasion to learn all I would’ve wished about each other before they sent him to the front.”
Mrs. Darcy smiled, taking a healthy swallow from her glass. “A whirlwind engagement?”
Elizabeth had assumed it would be easier to travel as a widow, assuming nobody would have enough interest to ask about her deceased husband. “Not precisely, more an issue of necessity,” Elizabeth said. Desperate to change the subject, she asked, “You and Mr. Darcy, was it a whirlwind romance?”
Mrs. Darcy sighed. “It was. They say such are for the young, and while I was young, he was not, but when our eyes met…” She reached up, worrying at a lock of hair that had escaped her lace cap. “When our eyes met, I felt as if I was his entire world. He was kind and handsome. My father would have rather I had chosen a younger man, but I liked Mr. Darcy’s certainty. He had lost his wife, and he grieved, but I did not feel as though I was a replacement. Perhaps because I look so little like her.
“What did Mr. Darcy’s first wife look like?”
“She was nearly as tall as Mr. Darcy, thin, with large, dark eyes, much like your own, though, at least from the portrait, hers were more serious. I believe she and Mr. Darcy were very much in love. He loved me, but there are parts of him I never touched.” Mrs. Darcy sighed. “No matter. I had only hoped to have him longer. Fitzwilliam takes after him. I am glad he does not come here often. It hurts me to see so much anger looking out from the shadow of my husband’s face and to know I was not enough.”
“I cannot imagine you not being enough,” Elizabeth said, and though it was a breach of propriety, she touched the other woman’s hand. “You loved him, and it is clear Rose has only known love. Do not blame yourself.”
“You are so kind, Mrs. Wilson,” Mrs. Darcy said, and upon hearing the false name, Elizabeth felt lower than a worm. She wished to be kind, but every attempt hid at its center a shard of deceit.
“I miss him. I miss the closeness we shared. Mrs. Darcy’s face colored and she finished her glass. Pulling her hand from Elizabeth, she took up the decanter and poured another glassful. “I miss the closeness we shared, of a conjugal nature, you understand.”
Elizabeth’s stomach clenched. She nodded stupidly, having no experience from which to draw any semblance of empathy.
Mrs. Darcy continued “Sometimes, while we were sleeping, he would bring his arm around me and pull me close, his manhood—”
Elizabeth coughed, blushing furiously “I—”
Mrs. Darcy looked up. “Are we well?” Elizabeth pointed at the glass and continued to make a show of coughing.
“Oh, Mrs. Wilson, you should have said you were not used to strong spirits!”
Elizabeth, grateful for the excuse, shook her head. “I apologize.”
“No matter. I am so grateful to have you here, Mrs. Wilson. I have no sisters, and my mother passed before my husband, so there has been no one. No one to talk to of the pain of losing him.”
Elizabeth was far lower than a worm. She was a beetle, digging to the center of the earth. “My pain cannot compare to yours,” Elizabeth said.
“A person cannot compare another’s pain to her own. I had years with Mr. Darcy. We were given the blessing of a child. It was hard to lose him, but you had not even the joy of what you might have become. Every cut is its own wound.”
Mrs. Darcy’s empathy was its own wound.
Elizabeth said, “Do not think of mine. Yours…” She held the glass to her lips, pretending a sip and then asked, “How long after Rose was born did Mr. Darcy pass?”
“We had nine years together. Towards the end, I wondered if my husband had taken a mistress, when his vigor seemed to fade and he was away so often. But it was only that he did not wish to worry me. He consulted with physicians in town while leaving me to care for Georgiana and Rose at the estate. In the end though, nothing could be done. His body wasted and his heart failed. I suppose ultimately it was a mercy.” She wiped her knuckles under her eyes as tears fell.
Elizabeth’s eyes burned with sympathy. Had Jane been wrung by so much obvious pain, Elizabeth would have embraced her and let her dampen the shoulder of Elizabeth’s frock with her tears. But as open as Mrs. Darcy was, their stations were not the same. Elizabeth was not a sister and perhaps not even a friend. Between them was the issue of payment and lies.
Elizabeth said, “Mr. Darcy must have been glad for your love.”
“I stayed with him the full night and day after. Fitzwilliam was there too. I should think he would’ve preferred his father and I had changed places, though he would never say such a thing.”
Elizabeth wanted to say Mr. Darcy would never hope for such a thing, but she had lied enough. She did not understand Mr. Darcy. He had, at first, been dismissive, and later strange, following her around and staring, making the hair on her neck raise as she questioned how to be rid of him.
At the first assembly, Mr. Darcy had declined to dance with Elizabeth and insulted her. Then, at Netherfield, he had asked her to dance while proceeding in the act as though he were partnered with the promise of the gallows and not a lady whose company he could enjoy. Mr. Darcy had never moved to outright cruelty, and Elizabeth did not wish to accuse him of malice, but she could in no way be certain of his motives.
Yet, she wished to offer Mrs. Darcy comfort.
Elizabeth said, “Mr. Darcy loved his father, did he not?”
“And his father loved you. I cannot see how he would wish to tarnish his father’s memory.”
Miss Darcy nodded and took another sip of her brandy. “You say you did not have an amicable acquaintanceship with Fitzwilliam, and yet, you have taken every effort to show him in the best light. That speaks well for your character, Mrs. Wilson.”
Her character? Nothing could speak well of Elizabeth’s character. She had lied to this woman and offered false confidences. Elizabeth wished she could to tell Mrs. Darcy the truth now, but she was hurting, and for Elizabeth to reveal she had based her attempts at comfort upon a foundation of lies would only make things worse for them both.
Not tonight. Perhaps another night when Mrs. Darcy was not inclined to bare her soul to a stranger.
Elizabeth could only hope that Darcy continued to stay away from Pemberley long enough for Elizabeth to find the courage to tell the truth.