4 Months to Wed

Chapter 2 of 4 Months to Wed

After a couple of days the post was no longer included with his basket of meals. Then there was no note from Georgiana. The next basket had a hurriedly penned note, the ink splotches were unlike Mrs. Reynolds, that his sister had fallen ill. He was sure that he did not even need to stay away anymore as he had not fallen ill, Mr. Darcy walked back to Pemberley finding the stable yard nearly deserted.

The feeling of dread grew worse, but he did not stop to find out why the stable yard had one stable hand instead of the usual ten and five. He jogged up the main staircase and turned down the hallway to the bedrooms, terrified of what he would find. Was Georgiana even alive right now? He passed two servants in the hall, neither carrying cleaning materials, but quite a lot of torn rags. The silence in the house was unnerving.

He reached his sister’s door and stopped, ran his hands through his hair and then finally tapped on the door. Was he too late?

“Who is it?”

He sagged against his sister’s bedroom door nearly crying in joy. “Georgiana, it is Fitzwilliam. Can I come in?”

“I do not want you to see me.”

He frowned, still leaning on the door that separated him from his only living family member. “Why not? I have not seen you since I took myself away to not get anyone ill. Please, I must see that you are well!”

Mr. Darcy opened the bedroom door and walked to the canopy bed. Georgiana hid her face behind the blankets.  “Georgiana, it is me, Fitzwilliam.”

He sat on her bed and enveloped her in a hug. Georgiana let out a noise, then hugged her brother and cried. After a time her tears slowed, and she ceased hiccuping. Mr. Darcy pulled back but Georgiana hid her face in her hands.

“Why are you hiding your face? You cannot get ill again. The rash should be gone by now.”

Georgiana blew her nose. “The illness, the smallpox left me scarred.”

He stared at her while she put herself to rights and realized what he had thought were shadows on her face, were instead pitted scars. Her alabaster skin was no longer smooth but scarred with deep pits. His sister had survived, but at a dreadful cost.

Mr. Darcy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He still thought Georgiana was beautiful, but he knew how much her beauty, especially since she would have a season next year, would matter to her. “I am sorry, but I am not sorry you are alive. You are still my beautiful sister.”

Georgiana cried. “I am not beautiful! I am a monster.”

He pulled her into another hug. “That is preposterous. You have your blonde hair, your musical talent, your singing voice, your painting talent and all the other talents you had before. You have a few blemishes on your countenance but there must be many others with the same blemishes. I imagine that soon there will be a cream that will hide them.”

Georgianna stopped her sniffling and sat back. “Thank you brother. I think you are right.” She wiped her eyes.

“I must find Mrs. Reynolds and the stable master now. Do not worry, Georgiana, everything will be well.”

He did not find Mrs. Reynolds during the walk down to the main floor. He pulled the bell for her in his study and turned to his desk reaching for the pile of mail but there was no post on the corner of his desk. Why was there no post?

Mrs. Reynolds entered his study and was such a sight that he stared. “Are you ill, Mrs. Reynolds? Sit down, I will call for a glass of wine.”

She wearily shook her head. “May I sit down?” She collapsed in one of his leather wingback chairs before his desk. “No one will answer your call in the kitchens. There is no one there but Cook.”

Mr. Darcy studied her as she sat in the chair. He had never seen her so exhausted and swore she had aged overnight. “What is it? What have you not told me?”

She moved her eyes in his direction. “I did not want you to worry. I knew if I told you the truth you would be back here right away getting ill with the rest.”

Mr. Darcy slowly sat down in his chair, the dread from earlier heavy in his body.

“All the servants younger than three and ten are dead.” Mr. Darcy gasped. “From what I have heard, it is the same everywhere. We have also lost our eldest such as Mr. Timms the stable master and Mr. Agnew the gamekeeper. There were a few of us that did not get ill but the rest are recovering. Some fared better than others.”

Mr. Darcy was still, unable to fathom an illness that could take down so many. Finally he responded. “I saw my sister. She is scarred on her face. Are the others like that as well?”

Mrs. Reynolds looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “Her beauty… she was so beautiful and now–“

Mr. Darcy let the housekeeper cry as he filled a glass with port and handed it to her. She tried to refuse it stating she was on duty, but he told her she needed it. After Mrs. Reynolds recovered, Mr. Darcy learned that the post quit delivery rather quickly and that other deliveries of cheese and milk also stopped. No one had gone into Lambton for the latest news as they were all busy trying to help keep everyone alive.

He stood and walked to the large window, staring out at the beautiful land of Pemberley. How many servants had died? He would have to write condolences and send their pay. He could not imagine the entire country having so many deaths as well. It had to have hit Derbyshire the hardest. Perhaps it was only isolated to Derbyshire? If it was not, he needed to get to his bankers in London and adjust his investments if there truly was an epidemic. And retrieve his post. He told Mrs. Reynolds to take the rest of the day and the next off and then went to visit his sister.

It would do his sister good to get away from Pemberley, from all the death and illness. In London she could shop for new dresses as she had grown and her dresses were probably too short.  Georgiana, however refused to leave Pemberley. No amount of logic or assertion that no one could tell she had scars persuaded her from her belief that she was hideous. She resolutely refused to leave but told Mr. Darcy she would be fine at Pemberley and he could leave without her.

When Mr. Darcy arrived in London, he wished he had not. The smallpox had obviously been here as well, and he judged the loss of life to be enormous by seeing the number of bodies piled in the streets. He concluded his business with his banker and managed his investments with haste. His valet was able to secure the post for Pemberley and brought it to the Darcy townhouse in Mayfair. He also brought news as to why there had been no mail delivered for so long, all the post-boys had died from smallpox.  With the amount of children dead from the smallpox, where there any left in England at all?

Mr. Darcy quickly went through his mail, as he was keen to leave London as soon as possible. It was not a clean city at the best of times. He slowed to read a letter from his friend Mr. Bingley who invited him to visit the estate he had leased in Hertfordshire.  Mr. Darcy set it aside and continued going through the mail until he found another letter by his friend. This one hoped he and his sister were in good health and asked him to come to Netherfield, the estate he leased, as he had found the most beautiful woman he wanted to marry. Mr. Darcy looked heavenward as he knew his friend fell in love often and fell out of love just as quickly. 

But when he read Mr. Bingley’s third letter, Mr. Darcy sat upright and slowly reread it. What was his friend going on about? His friend implored him to come to Netherfield and help him pick out a wife so he did not make the wrong decision since they only had four months to marry. Mr. Bingley also asked what plans Mr. Darcy had for finding a wife.

He had obviously missed something important somewhere. Mr. Darcy went through the rest of the mail with greater haste but did not find anything that would make his friend believe he was forced to marry within four months. The butler entered Mr. Darcy’s study with a stack of newspapers freshly ironed. On top was the latest issue of The Morning Post and right on the front page was the Marriage Law. 

The Marriage Law would take place immediately to combat the horrible loss of life, especially children, due to smallpox.  It went on to state the ages of both men and women affected by the law and that they had until the end of the year to marry or rest in gaol and a spouse would be found for them.

The newspaper fell from Mr. Darcy’s hands to his desk.  He had always planned on finding a wife that would love Pemberley and provide him children, but not this soon. And definitely not in only four months. Was the House of Lords mad? He snorted as he considered that the King was truly mad. Perhaps he had come up with this ridiculous notion?

Mr. Darcy stood and jabbed the fire poker at the burning logs in the fireplace.  His only consolation was that Georgiana was one year too young to affected by the Marriage Law.  He had not found a woman he loved and that would be a good mistress of Pemberley yet, and knew he would not be able to do so by the end of the year. He would have to sacrifice and marry someone he tolerated that would be a good sister to Georgiana and mistress of Pemberley.  Those were his high hopes now, dash it all.

He penned a quick letter to his sister letting her know his change of plans and the reason why. He would take his friend up on his invitation. He could not stay in London and liked the country much better. He would keep his friend from making a horrible choice in bride and hopefully find a nice country girl he could tolerate.

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Mr. Bennet stayed in his study on a pallet Elizabeth and Jane made of blankets. There were no servants well enough to help Mr. Bennet up to his bedroom on the next floor. Mrs. Bennet was inconsolable, unable to do anything but lament that they would all be turned out by Mr. Collins thanks to Hill falling ill and infecting Mr. Bennet. Elizabeth tried to reason with her mother that Hill was not the cause, but Mrs. Bennet would not listen. A servant had been sent to Hill’s home but neither the servant nor anyone from Hill’s family came to Longbourn.

They only had one servant still well and able to help so the girls did what they could to make meals of soup and keep Mr. Bennet comfortable. When Mrs. Bennet would leave her room, she was horrified at the work her girls were doing and yelled at them to stop as no gentleman wants a girl that cooks or does a servant’s job. Jane and Elizabeth ignored her. If they did not take care of them, who would? Mary recited bible verses supporting the care of the ill but Mrs. Bennet never stayed in the same room long enough to actually hear them.

The post was no longer delivered and neither the Lucas’ nor Mrs. Phillips came to visit. The Bennet’s were completely occupied caring for Mr. Bennet, Hill and now Lydia who had fallen ill suddenly while play acting that she was a princess.

Elizabeth had never felt so worn and tired. She fell into bed each night asleep before her head touched the pillow. When she did have a moment to think, she worried for Mr. Bennet, Lydia and Mr. John Lucas, the eldest Lucas and her secret beau. Sir William Lucas was not as wealthy as Mr. Bennet, and Lady Lucas was not clever according to Mrs. Bennet, therefore Elizabeth knew her relationship with Mr. Lucas would need to be kept secret until they were ready to marry. Mr. Bennet would not begrudge her dowry to Mr. Lucas, as he thought the man to be the most intelligent of the Lucas family, but Mrs. Bennet would not be easy to deal with. Elizabeth hoped for Jane to marry first so that Mrs. Bennet would be happier that one daughter was married, and would not be so belligerent about Elizabeth marrying into the Lucas family.

Mr. Lucas had gone to London on business for the Lucas family before the illness struck down so many in Meryton that day. Elizabeth hoped he was well and not ill himself. She prayed for both their families as she fell asleep exhausted.

Mrs. Bennet did her best to care for Lydia, as she was her favorite child. Having first hand knowledge of the current physician practices, thanks to her unending ills, Mrs. Bennet was a diligent nurse. Once Lydia fell ill, Mrs. Bennet had thankfully stopped declaring that Mr. Collins would throw them out of Longbourn. Mr. Bennet was not through the illness yet, he still had a high fever and pox, but even though their mother stopped declaring her husband’s imminent death, Jane and Elizabeth were worried it would come to pass soon. They stayed up throughout the nights to place cool cloths on his forehead and feed him broth. His fever finally broke and his coming back to consciousness was the greatest celebration.

Not long after Lydia’s fever broke, and she quit rambling nonsensical things though Kitty teased her about it for days. The Bennet family was thankful and smiles were out on display once again, but the death of Hill made their joy short-lived. Their only servant was sent to the undertaker through who they found out how dangerous that illness, they know knew was smallpox, had been to the county of Hertfordshire. The undertaker had been called to every home in the county, no one had been left untouched except the Bennet family, as no one from their family had died. Elizabeth wanted to run over to Lucas Lodge and beg for news of Mr. Lucas but she also did not want to hear that perhaps her friend was dead and her beau. So she stayed at Longbourn, worried.

There were so many deaths that the funerals occupied the local church every morning except Sunday, for several weeks. On Sunday the church was almost empty. Elizabeth did not know if it was due to people still at home recovering or if that many had actually died. She remembered what the undertaker had told them, that it seemed as if every child in the county had died from the smallpox.

Lydia had recovered but had scarring on her face from the pox. It was only very noticeable when she was quiet or not moving. Since Lydia was rarely either one of those, no one would probably notice the small scars.

The older girls walked to Meryton to purchase any vegetables they could find, as they had eaten some and used the rest for the broth they fed those that had fallen ill.  Meryton was not nearly as busy as it should have been on a weekday morning. There was also no market. The girls would have stopped in on their aunt Mrs. Philips but a cloth over the door presumably meant not to enter. They hoped their aunt and uncle were recovering and not worse.

Cook finally recovered and other servants were hired.  Everything seemed to be back to normal except for the lack of news from their aunt, her friend Charlotte and Mr. Lucas. Elizabeth walked to Lucas Lodge and stopped when she saw the black on the door and windows meaning a death in the family. She continued her approach to the front door and knocked. She would not have approached and bothered a family in mourning, but she needed to know about Mr. Lucas. Was he still alive? She had not received a letter from him since the smallpox had started.

The servant that answered was not one Elizabeth was familiar with and would give no other information than Charlotte was not available but would pass on the word that Elizabeth had called.  Her heart was still in her stomach that Mr. Lucas had died, but she was also relieved that her good friend had not.

The next day Charlotte sent a note to Elizabeth, that she was well but in mourning for her father Sir William Lucas, her younger sister Maria and youngest brother had all died from the smallpox. Charlotte apologized for not receiving her, but she was busy sitting with her mother as they still did not know the fate of her elder brother, John.

Jane picked up the note from where it had fallen out of Elizabeth’s hands onto the table in the sitting room. “Oh no, this is horrible. So many of their family dead.”

“Is that from the Lucas’ then?” Mrs. Bennet stood and walked towards their table.

Elizabeth excused herself and rushed to her room. She could not bear the thought of Mrs. Bennet denigrating the Lucas’ when they had lost three members of their family and might have already lost a fourth, John. Tears ran down her face at the thought of John lying dead in London, having fallen ill in the streets with no one to help care for him. If only he had not left, but she knew that was stupid. No one could have predicted something so awful.

She sent a note back to Charlotte with condolences from all of them and an offer to provide whatever help they could. A note was brought back the same day. Charlotte said the only help they needed was to get her mother out of bed every day. She was waiting to meet with the solicitor for the terms of the will and with the bank until her mother was in better spirits.

There was a pall over the countryside, even Mrs. Philips, who recovered and visited them at Longbourn, stated that it was unnatural how quiet the town was without children. She also brought news that the young gentleman’s party that recently leased Netherfield had experienced deaths as well. The man’s brother-in-law had died, and a sister was so badly scarred that she would not leave her bedroom.

That night Jane and Elizabeth talked while in bed before they fell asleep. They had not done so for such a long time it seemed, since the smallpox had first affected their family. “An entire generation gone, Jane. How will anyone recover from this? How will the country carry on with so many children gone?”

“It is horrible and cruel for a parent to bury a child, and for so many of the children to have died, is just terrible. I do not know if we can recover. Something would have to be done, a law or proclamation that every woman had to bear children. But they would have to be married first, which would not make that easy to enforce.”

Elizabeth stared at her reflection in the mirror, the dark circles under her eyes still visible. “I think you are right. And there is the threat of Napoleon invading. I have not heard if the smallpox affected the continent as well. To think if we were the only country to lose our children, and so many elderly.”

“I would not be surprised if a ruling came down that we had to marry quickly and have children. I do not know who I would wed. There are not many to choose from, and John Lucas was the best.” Jane gasped. “Lizzy, I am so sorry! Please forgive me.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes as images of John appeared in her head. Walking hand in hand down the lane. Stealing kisses among the fruit trees. The braided bracelet he made for her. She wiped her face. “I know you forgot, Jane. It is easy to forget as it is a secret and we have had so much to deal with lately.”

“But I hurt you with my carelessness. I am so sorry, Lizzy.”

Elizabeth dried her cheeks again and settled in to sleep. She prayed that Mr. Lucas was alive and had just not been able to travel back to Meryton yet.