You'll also find this vignette at Austen Variations: A (Fairly) Comfortable Coze
It was only Frederick who took his time in folding his napkin, which could not fail to put a faint quirk of amusement in Darcy’s lips, despite his enduring ill-humour. It was plain to see that his son was hoping to be asked to stay and be deemed a man at last, now that he had returned from Harrow a year older, and the best part of three inches taller.
The quirk of amusement grew into a genuine smile. It was good to have him back, and Edmund likewise. This was as it should be: all of them at home. For Christmas was coming.
Edmund had been perfectly content to quit the dining room along with his sisters, and rightly so. He was only twelve and had no expectations of being regarded as an adult for a fair while. At the advanced age of sixteen, Frederick seemed to harbour different notions. He finally looked up from his employment when Mr Bennet chuckled, “That will do nicely, do you not think? Eh, Frederick? You will wear that napkin thin if you smooth it for much longer.”
With a perfunctory smile for his grandfather, Frederick squared his shoulders and came to the point:
“May I join you, P— Father?” he asked, and Darcy was hard-pressed to suppress a grimace.
The swift amendment was yet another claim to maturity, and he could not but find it as dispiriting as it was conspicuous. There was naught amiss with ‘Papa.’ The customary appellation had served them well enough these many years. Frankly, it would have pleased him a great deal better. Why ever must they be in such a deuced haste to grow up?
“For brandy? No, I should imagine not,” Darcy muttered, then straightened in his seat and endeavoured to be fair. After all, it was not Frederick who had soured his enjoyment of the day. So he forced a smile and added, “But you need not go into the drawing room as yet if you have no taste for tea and parlour games. Have some time to yourself if you prefer. I am quite certain that your mamma will understand. She would much rather have a quiet chat with you later in the evening. And so will I. In fact, what say you of a game of chess before we retire?” he suggested, and was glad to see his son’s mien brighten.
“I would like that. Just like the old days,” Frederick said, and Darcy smiled.
Mr Bennet’s wizened countenance creased even further into a highly diverted grin. Yet, to his credit, he pursed his lips and held his peace until Frederick excused himself and left them. It was only then that Mr Bennet gave free rein to his amusement.
“Ah, the ungenerous candour of youth,” he chortled once the door was closed. “If those were the ‘old days,’ the dear boy must think that Methuselah and I were children together.” He shook his head, drained his glass and left his seat. “Come along, Son, and let us give praise that these ancient feet can still carry me to the library.”
That mode of address was not new at all. The old gentleman had casually introduced it a long time ago – and it had brought mixed feelings to begin with. There had been an odd ring to it – very odd indeed, and far from comfortable – for the word did not belong on Mr Bennet’s lips, to Darcy’s way of thinking. It was his departed father’s word. It seemed profoundly wrong that someone else should claim it, and be allowed to use it. And yet it was heart-warming all the same. A sign of trust, affection and acceptance. The greatest compliment that Elizabeth’s doting father could have paid him.
The years had flown, and the sense of discomfort had ebbed away. The gratitude remained. To this day, none of the other sons-in-law had been vouchsafed that honour. Not even Bingley.
He poured generous measures for both and carried the glasses to the small table at Mr Bennet’s elbow, then took a seat as well and stretched his long legs before him. For a fair while, they sipped their drinks in companionable silence. One of Mr Bennet’s most admirable traits was that he rarely spoke unless he had something to say.
He did have something to say, as it happened, but he might have timed his question better. Darcy very nearly choked on his mouthful of port when Mr Bennet drawled, “Might I ask what – or rather who – has put your nose quite so severely out of joint? Young Montrose, perchance?”
Rather glad that he had not disgraced himself by spluttering ruby liquid everywhere, Darcy sat up, placed his glass back on the table and answered his father-in-law’s question with another.
“What makes you think so?”
Mr Bennet shrugged.
“’Tis fairly obvious. He is here at all hours and never leaves Anne’s side.”
Darcy frowned and forced himself to give a dismissive gesture.
“That is nothing out of the common way. The pair of them have been playfellows ever since they were children,” he argued, only to cringe at the false ring of confidence in his voice and at the full extent of his wilful self-deception.
True to form, Mr Bennet missed nothing. Brow arched in amused indulgence, he tutted.
“Not like you to blind yourself to the world around you. They are not children any longer, are they?”
Darcy turned his head to glower at the fire as he muttered, “I shan’t speak for Robert Montrose, but Anne is barely out of the schoolroom—”
“Elizabeth was less than two years older when you first set foot in Meryton.”
This time, the dismissive gesture was as prompt as it was instinctive.
“That is neither here nor there. Two years make all the difference. Besides, Elizabeth was wise beyond her years.”
Mr Bennet chuckled.
“And Anne is not? She will not thank you for that estimation. But you may look at it this way and see if it brings you comfort: at least she has no plans to wed some tight-lipped stranger and live halfway across the country.”
“There is that,” Darcy nodded, a half-smile tugging at the corner of his lips. But the change of perspective was humbling, and the deep breath he drew came out in a long sigh.
How did a man bring himself to step back and entrust his beloved child’s happiness to another? It was hard enough to imagine Anne leaving his home and his protection to live at Hadley, a mere twenty miles away. Even though he had known Robert Montrose ever since the lad was born. Heaven forfend that Anne should have become attached to goodness knows who from goodness knows where!
He flinched and leaned forward to stare into the fire, his elbows on his knees and his chin on his folded hands. How had Mr Bennet borne it?
The logs in the fireplace settled with a thud, sending sparks flying and making him start. Darcy shifted in his seat and fixed his eyes on his companion.
“Thank you for trusting me with Elizabeth’s hand all those years ago,” he said with quiet energy. “I thought I understood at the time just how much I was asking. Now I see that I did not know the half of it.”
A misty smile fluttered on Mr Bennet’s lips.
“Life has a way of making us stand in other men’s shoes,” he said, and then his eyes regained their mischievous twinkle. “I hope you will take comfort from this too: you are in your prime and not given to excesses, so there is every chance that you will be around to see Anne’s husband huff and puff as he comes to terms with the thorny issue of suitors for his daughters.”
Despite himself, Darcy gave a bark of laughter. He leaned back and retrieved his glass, giving silent thanks for his father-in-law’s sense of humour and for the fact that he only had to fret over Anne for now. Thankfully, Madeleine and Flora were far too young for suitors.
“May I ask, what has brought this on?” Mr Bennet resumed after a short silence. “Merely Montrose’s eagerness to scurry away with the ladies after dinner and dance attendance on the girl? Or did he give you any indication that he aims to declare himself?”
“Lord, no,” Darcy shot back, heartily wishing that the boy would not harbour any notions of the kind for two more years at least. “Nay, it was Mrs Webb—”
Mr Bennet tutted yet again.
“Was it? Hm. I rather thought that Kitty had long conquered her penchant for speaking without thinking—”
“I beg your pardon, I meant old Mrs Webb, the vicar’s mother,” Darcy hastened to correct the misapprehension and clear his sister-in-law’s name.
“Ah. I see,” muttered Mr Bennet, and Darcy could not doubt that the older gentleman had indeed noted the similarities between Kitty’s mother-in-law and her own mother, not least the propensity to speak out of turn.
Mr Bennet drained his glass and gave a rueful chuckle.
“Well, you must own that there is joy in meddling when one lacks better employment. What did Mrs Webb do, then? Nudge you to pay heed to matters you would much rather not investigate too closely – not yet, anyway?”
“Something of that nature,” Darcy acknowledged with a grimace. “She spoke to me at church earlier today – spoke of Anne’s marriage to Montrose as a certain event, as though only the date was yet to be decided. She pointed out that there has not been a wedding at Pemberley since Georgiana’s and Vernon’s, and said it was high time that the present Miss Darcy followed her aunt’s example.”
“Ha! Now there is a fine way to set the cat among the pigeons,” Mr Bennet quipped. “And what did Anne say to that? Or Lizzy?”
“They were several yards ahead. I doubt they heard. And I have not had the chance to mention any of this to Elizabeth as yet.”
Without warning, the familiar warmth spread through him, soothing as ever, and healing, and uplifting.
“I do not doubt she will surprise me. She always does,” Darcy said softly, as though to himself, and his tense countenance brightened into a smile.
(© 2021 by Joana Starnes)
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