Hunsford, April 1812
Elizabeth knew Charlotte was being silly. Mr. Darcy did not have a tendre for her. Yes, he looked at her a great deal, but his expression when he did so was severe, very nearly scowling. A man did not look at a woman he loved like that. Charlotte was mistaken. Now that she was married, she wanted everyone else to be married as well. Elizabeth could not appease her. Only true affection could rouse in her the desire to marry—affection and respect for the man himself, not his position in society.
Of course she must pay some attention to his situation, as he would pay to hers, she knew, but that was merely prudence. She wouldn’t base her decision solely on that.
When she was first coming out, she would dream she was a maiden in a fairy story, and all the men of the land would fight for her hand and she would choose the most worthy. He would not be the wealthiest, nor even the most handsome, but he would be the purest in heart. His love would be true and she would go to him gladly, and they would live together happily away from the strictures of society and the machinations of their elders.
Alas, the older she got, the less the dream comforted her. It was not reality and never could be, as she had learned all too well.
Longbourn, June 1798
“Jack Turner! You give that back to me this instant!”
“What are you gonna do, Lizzy? Chase me down?” He laughed wildly and continued running.
Elizabeth picked up her skirts and ran after him as fast as her short legs could carry her. As she rounded a tree, Jack’s arm extended toward her and pulled her behind the trunk.
“A’right, a’right, here’s your precious toy back.” He thrust a small carved animal into her hands. “With all your caterwaulin’ you’ll get me in trouble with the missus.”
“And it would serve you right!” she harrumphed and shoved her nose into the air.
“Aw, it was just a bit o’ fun and you know it! Quit puttin’ on airs!”
“I do not put on airs!” she cried.
He gave her a look of disbelief. She crossed her arms and looked away, a haughty expression on her round face.
He reached out and ruffled the top of her head where her curls were coming out of their ribbons. “I’ve got to get back to me chores,” he said as he turned away.
“Will I see you tomorrow, Jack?” she asked, all discord forgotten.
“Aye, I s’pect you will.”
“Good. You promised to teach me how to shoot the slingshot, remember?”
“I ‘member, milady,” he said with a wink and a jaunty smile.
She giggled and he ran off.
Elizabeth put it out of her mind and continued with her sewing. She had promised to help Charlotte with her charity basket and she was falling hopelessly behind. But, oh, it was so nice to remember sometimes.
Longbourn, July 1800
“You’ll catch naught like that!” Jack cried.
“But I’m doing it exactly the way you showed me,” Elizabeth protested.
“No, you’re doin’ it like a dainty little lady! If you want to catch the fish, you’ll have to hold the rod like this,” he demonstrated while she watched carefully, “then keep it steady and relaxed-like. See?”
She tried it the way he had done it and it took more than an hour, but eventually she felt something pulling on the end of her line.
“Jack!” she whispered as loudly as she dared.
He immediately turned in her direction and she gestured wildly to the end of her pole.
“‘Ave you got somethin’?” he asked in excitement. He gave her line a tug and it tugged back strongly. “Oy, Lizzy! You got one! Pull back nice and steady, don’t jerk it now.”
Carefully, he guided her to pull the fish in until it was dangling just in front of her, its scales shimmering in the sunshine.
“I did it! I fished! Did you see, Jack? I got one!”
She was so excited she dropped the line and the fish fell back into the water. Only Jack’s quick thinking stopped it from wriggling away completely. He placed it in the bucket nearby and looked at her sternly. She gave him a sheepish smile and they both ended up laughing and sitting on the bank.
“Mayhap you need a bit more practice,” he suggested.
“Of course. No one is good at anything straight away. That’s what father says.”
“Aye, Mr. Bennet is a wise man.”
“He is bringing in a tutor for me and Jane. He says we must learn to fill our heads with more than fluff. He comes next week.”
“That sounds like a right good plan. You could use some good learnin’.”
She smacked his arm playfully and he laughed.
“Will you go to school again?” she asked carefully.
“Nah, me pa says I’ve got enough learnin’ for a farmer and it’s time I put to workin’ the land.”
She reached out and put her hand on his. “I’m sorry, Jack. I know how much you liked school.”
He shook his head and tried to look stoic. “I’ll be a’right.”
Lizzy laid her head on his shoulder and for a few minutes they just sat on the bank of the stream and looked at the water.
“I know!” cried Lizzy. She sat up suddenly. “You can study with me!”
“Yes! It’s perfect! I will have lessons with papa and Mr. Barnes, and after I can tell you all about them. You can still work on the farm and go to school, too!” She fairly crackled with excitement.
He looked at her for a minute, clearly conflicted, until she finally sighed and said, “Oh come on, Jack! You know you want to say yes! It’s a brilliant idea and you know it. Just agree!”
He smiled and shook his head, then nodded. “Aye, milady, I canna deny you.”
She squealed and hugged him, then gamely attempted to fish again.
Elizabeth shook her head. It had been a long time since she had thought about that day on the water. How could she have known, at nine years old, that what she had suggested would affect her life so drastically?
Longbourn, January 1801
“Where have you been? I’ve been waitin’ half an hour!” cried Jack as Lizzy entered the small cabin.
“Mother needed me. And it’s waiting.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’ve been waiting half an hour!”
“You’ll never improve with that kind of attitude, Jack Turner.” She set down her basket and placed a parcel next to it, then stepped to the fire to warm her hands. “I’ve brought you something.”
He stepped toward the parcel eagerly and unwrapped it. It was a new copy of ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ He looked at her with awe and gingerly opened the front page. Inside was a book plate that read, ‘For Jack Turner, with love, Lizzy.’
“Aw, Lizzy, I don’ know what to say,” he said softly, his accent thickening.
“You could start with thank you. Your birthday is this week, isn’t it? Father says a gentleman is never too young to begin building his library. I think eleven is a fine age to start. Do you like it?”
She babbled on cheerily, ignorant of his amazement. Suddenly, he grabbed her and pulled her to him for a tight embrace, then let her go just as swiftly.
“Thank you, Lizzy. I shall treasure it always,” he said.
“You’re welcome, Jack. Happy birthday,” she said gently.
He nodded and Elizabeth unpacked another book from the bottom of her basket.
“Mr. Barnes made us read from chapter eight this week.” She went on to tell him the lesson her tutor had given her and Jane. They discussed and read together, took a break and ate the scones Mrs. Hill had packed for her, then continued on with the Latin translations her father was teaching her.
They continued on in this pattern, twice each week, studying and laughing together. When the weather was fine, they would meet outside, under the oak tree next to the stream half way between the main house and his family’s cottage. In the colder months, they would meet in a little abandoned hunting cabin. Jack was sure to always get there first and build up a fire to keep them warm.
Lizzy couldn’t wish for a better or truer friend.
For the next several days, Elizabeth was bombarded with memories. She couldn’t think why. Hunsford village held no personal feelings or memories for her. The scenery of Kent was quite unlike Hertfordshire. Why did it stir her heart so keenly?
Longbourn, September 1805
“Promise you’ll write to me!”
“I’ll send word,” he replied calmly.
“It’s not the same! Promise!”
“Lizzy, we’re not children anymore! Don’t you see that? You’re going to be a fine lady and I’m the son of a tenant farmer.”
She sniffled. “I don’t care. You’re my best friend, Jack.”
“And you’re mine. But this is the way of the world. We’ll always be friends, Lizzy. If you ever need me, I’ll come running. No one could stop me. But this is the best chance I have of making something of myself. Please don’t cry, Lizzy,” he said desperately.
She dabbed her handkerchief at her nose and squared her shoulders. “Very well. But you had better be the best carriage maker in England when you’re through!”
He laughed. “Aye, milady, that I will!”
Elizabeth hated thinking about when Jack left for his apprenticeship. Her young heart had been so lost without him—she’d thought she would never recover. She and Jane had grown impossibly close after that. Her sweet sister was the only one who understood how much she missed her friend.
She saw Jack only once over the next three years, when she was delivering gifts on Boxing Day. He had bowed and she had curtsied, then he’d winked at her when no one was looking. They’d said nothing but banal pleasantries that left her with a cold, hollow feeling. She’d been terribly afraid their easy friendship was at an end, until that fateful day.
That day she would never, could never forget.
Longbourn, December 1808
There was a terrible storm. It had begun as a drizzle and Lizzy had been sure she could make it home from Lucas Lodge without any trouble. She had bid her friend goodbye and rushed out the door, hoping to make it home before the worst of it came down. She cut through the fields to save time, her bonnet pulled low to keep her face dry, and quickened her pace when she saw the sky growing darker and darker, night in the middle of the afternoon. She came to the place where she would normally cross the stream and was dismayed to see the stones she usually stepped on covered slightly with water. The stream was swelling quickly and she knew she had to cross it now or it would be impossible to traverse within a quarter hour. She considered going back towards the road and taking the bridge, but it was over half a mile upstream and she wasn’t sure the water wouldn’t be above it as well by the time she got there. Making up her mind, she lifted her skirts slightly and began to pick her way across the familiar stones.
She was three stones away from safety when she heard it. A loud crack of lightning and the brightest flash she’d ever seen in her life. The next thing she knew, a large tree on the bank was rustling and the air was filled with splintering sounds. Frozen, she watched as the tree begin to fall in her direction.
Oddly, she thought she heard her name on the wind and it shook her out of her stupor. She realized she must move and tried to jump out of the way, and landed in the swiftly moving water. The familiar stepping stones were quickly covered with the fallen tree and before she knew what was happening, she was being rushed down the swollen stream. She could occasionally touch her feet to the bottom, and she tried to get her footing or grab a branch or plant of some sort, but it was all moving so fast and before she knew it, her feet were floating in front of her, unable to make purchase anywhere, and she was being rushed helplessly forward.
Her father had insisted that all his children know the basics of swimming, for their own safety, but no amount of practice in a calm pond had prepared her for this. Finally, when she was growing terribly desperate, she was able to grab the branch of a fallen tree that was dangling out over the water. When she pulled on it to drag herself out, it loosened and she immediately stopped, afraid it would give way. She clung to the branch, glad she was no longer careening downstream, and tried desperately not to panic.
No one knew where she was. Her parents would think she had stayed at Charlotte’s. If Charlotte did worry, she would think Lizzy had gone home by the road and that’s where they would look for her, if they looked at all.
Before she could completely lose her composure, she heard something. It sounded like her name on the wind, but she couldn’t be sure. She looked around wildly but the bank was too high to see above it. There it was again! Yes, she was sure she heard her name. Someone was looking for her!
“Here! I am here!” she cried at the top of her lungs.
“Lizzy!” a familiar voice called back.
No, it couldn’t be. He wasn’t here. He had been apprenticed in another town. He hadn’t been to Longbourn in years. Surely it wasn’t…
“Jack?” she called. “Is that you?”
“Lizzy! I’m here! Just hold on. I’ll get you out!” his voice called back.
Lizzy could have wept with relief. Jack was here. He would save her. All would be well.
She could hear him running about and calling back to her, assuring her he was still there and to keep hanging on. Finally, finally, there was a branch hanging just above her head.
“Grab the branch, Lizzy, and I’ll pull you in.”
She reached with one hand and slipped, nearly plunging back into the current, then stretching even further, she got a good hold on the branch and took a deep breath, releasing her other hand to wrap both around the sturdy limb.
“I’ve got it,” she cried tremulously.
“Hold tight,” Jack commanded.
He began to pull and slowly but surely, she was dragged toward the bank. Her dress caught more than once and she finally pulled it as close to her body as she could before clenching the skirts tightly between her legs to keep them from flowing about her.
Eventually, she was close enough to put her boots on the muddy ground and tried to help him pull her up. Once at the top of the bank and far away from the rushing water, she collapsed on the ground and took great heaving breaths, trying not to sob in fear and distress.
Jack knelt down next to her. “Are you injured? Were you cut anywhere?” He was examining her closely, looking for signs of a wound while she gasped and shook her head.
“I am uninjured, I think. Just a few scratches,” she said weakly.
“Thank God for that!” he exclaimed. “Can you walk?”
“We’ve got to get you out of this rain. Come.” He put one arm under her shoulder and helped her to stand, then hobbled under the shelter of a nearby tree. “The old cabin isn’t too far from here. Do you think you can make it? It’s over a mile to Longbourn.”
She nodded, her teeth chattering too hard to make talking feasible.
He braced her more firmly and headed toward the cabin with great long strides that she struggled to keep up with. Finally, when it was within sight, Jack reached down and lifted her up, carrying her shaking body the rest of the way.
He quickly built a fire while Lizzy sat nearby, her teeth chattering loudly.
Elizabeth shuddered as she remembered. It had taken hours to warm her and longer still for the rain to stop. Jack had finally helped her home, weak and trembling, and her father had pressed some coins into his hand in thanks. Lizzy had hung her head in shame while Jack looked at the coins in confusion.
Before she could be taken upstairs, Lizzy had looked at him, a message in her eyes. He had nodded, understanding her.
Longbourn, December 1808, The day after the storm
Lizzy snuck out of her room the following afternoon and made her way to the cabin. She had managed to pilfer a few muffins from the larder that she wrapped and stuck in the pocket of her sturdy walking dress.
She smiled when the cabin came into view and she saw the thin tendril of smoke curling from the chimney.
“Hello, Jack,” she said softly as she entered. They hadn’t been alone together or met like this in three years, aside from yesterday, and she felt awkward.
“Hello, Lizzy,” he said just as softly.
He looked at her warmly and she felt her face grow hot from his gaze.
“How are you feeling today?” he asked.
“I am well. And you? I hope you suffered no ill effects from the drenching you received yesterday.”
“No, I’m made of sterner stuff than that.” He smiled that easy smile that had never failed to charm her, and she couldn’t help but laugh lightly.
“It is very good to see you,” she said, her eyes bright.
“Aye, it does me well to see your face,” he replied with a nod.
She found herself blushing again.
“How is it going in Shelton? Do you like your situation?” she asked.
“All is well. The owner is a good man, fair, but a hard taskmaster. I’ve learned a fair bit. In another year, I’ll be able to make you a carriage with my own hands, as fine as you can imagine.”
She laughed and he smiled back at her.
“I’m proud for you, Jack. I know how much you wanted to get away from farming.” He nodded in acknowledgement and she continued. “Do you think you will eventually open your own shop, or will you stay on with Mr. Harvey?”
“Keepin’ tabs on me, are you?” he cried playfully and she pulled a face at him. “I can’t say now. It will be a few years yet before I know enough to be on my own, and even then, I’d need money to start my own place. It’s too soon to say.”
She nodded. “I hope it works out for you, Jack. You deserve the very best in life.” She looked down and fiddled with her skirt. When she looked back up a few moments later, he was standing right in front of her.
“As do you, Lizzy. The very best,” he said with feeling.
Her breath caught and they stood staring at each other for several minutes, neither saying a word.
It was Lizzy who finally broke the silence. “I haven’t thanked you for saving my life yesterday.”
“No thanks are necessary, you know that.”
“Nevertheless.” She looked down again for a moment, then looked back up, a strange light in her eye. “Thank you, Jack. You have proved yourself to be a worthy hero.”
He flashed his jaunty grin. “What knight would refuse to rescue fair maiden?”
She shook her head with a smile. “Thank you, brave knight.” She leaned forward and gave him a light kiss on the corner of his mouth, barely touching his lips. Then she pressed a lace-edged handkerchief embroidered with her initials into his hand.
He closed his eyes as she kissed him and pressed the cloth she’d given him to his heart. “Thank you. I will treasure it always.”
She nodded and smiled sadly, then turned away toward the door, knowing this would be the last time she would ever see him like this.
“I love you, Jack,” she whispered from the doorway.
“Aye, and I you, milady.”
She took a deep breath, her eyes stinging, and flung herself out the door, running all the way to their tree where she collapsed on the muddy ground and wept more than she ever had in her seventeen years.
Elizabeth dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief and told herself to stop thinking about things that couldn’t be changed and to put her energy toward something useful. She went to the kitchen and asked the housekeeper to help her fill a basket for Mrs. Gibbs who had been recently widowed. That was a situation she could do something about.
The next day, as Charlotte ribbed her again about Mr. Darcy and his staring, Elizabeth couldn’t help comparing the way the stern Derbyshire man looked at her with Jack’s soft gaze.
Oh, Charlotte, she thought, you think Mr. Darcy loves me because he looks at me, but you have not known the look of love. I have. And when a man loves a woman, truly loves her, he cannot look at her so coldly, no matter her station. He cannot.