Thank you.” Georgiana curtseyed again then left the room with Mrs. Reynolds.
Mr. Gardiner had been in consultation with Mr. Mason then came back to join the group gathered beside his niece.
“Mr. Mason has said Lizzy’s recovery will encompass weeks. I must write to her father as soon as may be and inform him of the situation and ask for his guidance.”
“Of course,” Darcy nodded. “I will include a note, introducing myself and assuring him that all her needs will be met. Please come with me to the office.”
“Once this is done I believe I should return to the Inn and arrange for the packing of our belongings, my dear,” said Mrs. Gardiner.
“I am sorry to be putting everyone to so much bother,” said Miss Bennet. “I have quite spoiled your holiday.”
She turned to face her uncle and Darcy was struck by the expressiveness of her eyes. They spoke of pain and worry. Of spirit and determination. Of loss and, of disappointment. Of strength and pride. Truly she was amazing.
“Please, Miss Bennet, be at ease,” he said. “Pemberley has hosted Kings and Emperors. You could not be as much trouble as they.”
She nodded and blushed. “Please excuse my fussing. I dislike, exceedingly, being ill.”
“We must think of a way to get up upstairs without further injury and then, I think, Mrs. Reynolds must give you a dose and you must sleep.”
Miss Bennet looked down and gave a small nod. Her lashes, long and sooty dark, rested on her cheek and Darcy was impressed by the picture she made.
There was no artfulness in her manners. She was entirely natural.
When he and Mr. Gardiner returned to the room a tea service was being carried in. Darcy gestured toward Mrs. Gardiner, granting her permission to preside over the pouring out when the door opened behind him and Georgiana reentered. She must have taken the time to run to her room and was now properly attired in fashions suited to her age and rank – if a year out of date. Darcy was impressed. Georgiana glanced first to Mrs. Gardiner then to Miss Bennet to assess their reaction. Both visitors nodded and smiled encouragingly and without uttering a word they communicated their approval of the younger girl.
Darcy was astonished. With just a word, a slight gesture, a smile Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Bennet had put his sister at her ease, assured her of understanding and comforted her.
There was no sneer, no superiority or snobbery in their manner. Neither was there the encroaching excessive sensibility that so offended him.
In that instant he wished that either woman were available for employment so that they could provide good guidance for his sister and improve Georgiana’s public manner.
Darcy nodded to himself. Many other women of the Ton would have sneered at Georgiana, which was why he had kept her from society and declined to invite his friends to visit as he had in previous summers. One particular friend, Mr. Bingley, tended to travel in company with his unmarried sister. Although Miss Bingley was born into a family in trade she behaved as if she were the highest stickler of the Ton – endlessly critical of all she met except when she behaved as an encorching sycophant. Darcy compared Mrs. Gardiner to Miss Bingley and found much in Mrs. Gardiner’s favor.
Playing hostess to these guests – who would not complain of lack of consideration or fashion – would be healing to Georgiana’s wounded sensibilities.
If he had plotted and planned he could not have thought of this arrangement and yet he could see the many benefits. Mrs Gardiner returned to her seat, yielding her place beside the teapot and smiled at the younger girl.
Mrs. Reynolds entered and hastened over to Darcy’s side.
“Sir, I know how Miss Bennet may be carried upstairs. We should use the sling.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Darcy
“Sir. Miss Anne’s sling. Do you not remember?”
“I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” said Darcy.
“Oh, sir. Well, I am not surprised you do not remember. Your cousin, Miss Anne DeBourg has not visited for so long. When she last came she was quite unwell and her mother, Lady Catherine, brought a sling with her in which we were to have Miss Anne carried up and down stairs. When they left Lady Catherine left the sling behind as she expected that they would be visiting frequently but Miss Anne’s health would not allow.”
“I do not recall it,” said Darcy, frowning.
“You were in the study with your father and Lady Catherine,” the housekeeper reminded him, gently, “when she entered the house and out of the house when she left.”
“If you think it will serve, Mrs. Reynolds, I rely upon your judgment.” Darcy turned back to his unexpected guests while Mrs. Reynolds hurried from the room. “My housekeeper refers to my aunt, Lady Catherine DeBourg and my cousin, Miss Anne DeBourg, who has always been in fragile health.”
“Oh, but I know a Lady Catherine,” said Miss Bennet, “and a Miss Anne. How remarkable. I wonder if they are the same. If it is the Lady who lives in Hunsford I was in company with them in Kent this Autumn just past.”
“You have? You were?” Darcy was all astonishment. “My aunt does reside in Hunsford. How remarkable, indeed. Were you doing a tour of Kent?”
Miss Bennet laughed. “Indeed, not Mr. Darcy. Not a tour. I was visiting a dear friend of mine who was just lately married. I had a dual bond to the family since my friend had married my cousin, Mr. Collins, who is Lady Catherine’s vicar. She was condescending enough to invite me to tea when I visited.”
“Good heavens,” said Mrs. Gardiner. “What a coincidence.”
“Even so,” said Miss Bennet. “I can testify that Miss Anne DeBourg can climb staircases under her own power now, although she does get short of breath with the exercise.”
“There has been some improvement in her health, or so my aunt informs me,” said Darcy. “However, not so much that she can undertake long trips, therefore she has not visited Pemberley in many years.”
Mrs. Reynolds reentered with two footmen. Between them they carried a long wooden yoke suspending a leather swing chair.
“No. Oh, no,” cried Miss Bennet after staring at it. “I cannot be carried about in that. There is no dignity in that device.”
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner began to laugh. Even Mr. Darcy had difficulty keeping his face straight,
“If you can walk unaided,” began Mrs. Gardiner, “you should do so.”
“You know I cannot,” said Miss Bennet.
“Then, my dear, I cannot see you have any choice.”
Miss Bennet rolled her eyes and turned her face away.
“Oh, very well. If you must.” She looked again at the silly chair and began to laugh. “Aunt, if you ever tell my sisters about this. . .”
Unable to think of an appropriate threat she dissolved into giggles. Not, Darcy observed, the irritating high pitched titter so popular at Ton balls and assemblies, but a deep, sincere, happy sound.
Georgiana covered her face with both hands but joined in the laughter.
After tea Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner assisted their niece up from the chaise and into the sling. Mrs. Gardiner excused herself from the room and accompanied her niece upstairs.
By the time Elizabeth Bennet was settled into a bedchamber larger by half she informed them than the one at home that she shared with her elder sister Georgiana reappeared holding a bundle of fabric in her arms. She paused at the doorway looking in at Mrs. Reynolds, Mrs. Gardiner and three maids settling Elizabeth on the bed and wrapping her injured leg in bandages soaked in ice water.
“I have brought some of my spare nightgowns and bed jackets,” said Georgiana.
“Oh, that is thoughtful of you, dear,” said Mrs. Gardiner. “I shall fetch Elizabeth’s clothing shortly but I am certain she will be more comfortable out of her traveling dress.”
Lizzy sighed and endured the fussing with good grace. Although she expressed dislike of the taste and effect of laudanum by the time they’d aided her to change her clothing and bound up her leg she was more than ready for some relief of the pain.