The evening turned cold quickly, and they all retreated upstairs somewhat earlier than usual. Elizabeth and Jane withdrew to Jane’s room. They sat together on the bed heaped high with pillows. Elizabeth brushed Jane’s hair in the crackling firelight. Her hair was so beautiful, shining like molten gold under the brush and always so well-behaved, submitting the plait and pins as serenely as Jane herself walked through life, not like her own unruly locks.
She ran her fingers through Jane’s hair. They did this so often; she would comb Jane’s hair and Jane hers. How many more such moments would they share? Precious few. Life as Mrs. Darcy promised so much, but this she would miss.
“Have you become contemplative again, Lizzy?” Jane turned over her shoulder and caught her eyes. “You have. I can see it in the melancholy turn of your lips.” Jane clasped Lizzy’s hands. “How can you be sad when so much joy awaits us? We have already made Mama so very happy.”
“So she has said, countless times and to countless souls.” Elizabeth laughed and slowly plaited Jane’s hair, savoring the moment.
The door behind them squeaked and they both turned. Mary and Kitty, in their dressing gowns, peeked through the doorway. They and Lydia had done than when they were small, sneaking out of their beds to join their big sisters in clandestine sisterly gatherings.
“Come in. Come in.” Jane beckoned them in and slid toward the head of the bed.
Elizabeth patted the counterpane beside her. Mary and Kitty rushed in and piled on the feather bed, tucking their feet up underneath them.
“Do you remember how we used to do this after Mama would say good night?” Kitty giggled. “She would get so cross when she heard us laughing. She used to call us her ‘little titter mice’”
Jane wrapped her arms around her knees. “But she did not send us back to bed. I think maybe she and Aunt Philips did the same thing.” She pulled her shoulders up around her ears and laughed softly.
Mary pulled her shoulders into a funny hunch and looked up like an old woman craning her neck. Her voice turned thin and brittle. “Remember how Lizzy would read us stories and do all the voices for the characters.”
Elizabeth guffawed. “I had not thought of that in years.” That would be another thing she missed. What would Mr. Darcy think of her?
“You must promise to do that for your children—” Mary said.
“And mine,” Jane added, eyes sparkling.
Kitty clapped her hands softly. “You shall have the most delightful children.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, not if any of Mama’s predictions were correct. “Hardly, they will be all mischief and nonsense to be sure. Jane’s, though, shall be angels, like her.”
Jane’s cheeks glowed. “Not if they resemble their father.” She looked away.
What? Jane had never mentioned—
“Indeed?” Kitty scooted closer to Jane and pressed her chin on Jane’s shoulder. “You must tell us, genteel Mr. Bingley is not as he seems? What secrets have you discovered about your betrothed?”
“Oh, Kitty, no!” Mary’s hand flew to her mouth.
Jane laughed and turned back to her sisters. “No, no, nothing so outrageous as that. But he was a most high-spirited lad, or se he tells me.”
“Nothing like your staid Mr. Darcy, I am sure.” Kitty blinked with the same feigned innocence she used on Mama so often.
Elizabeth smiled, brows lifted, and cocked her head. There were those stories Colonel Fitzwilliam had told her in Kent.
“Oh, Lizzy.” Kitty gasped.
“What have you not told us?” Mary pressed her shoulder against Elizabeth’s.
“How are his kisses Lizzy? You seemed to like them very much.” Kitty sing-songed.
Elizabeth gasped and traded looks with Jane. If her face burned any hotter, it would have burst into flame.
“That is not appropriate, Kitty.” Mary said softly.
“But I saw—” Kitty leaned back on her heels and pouted.
Elizabeth swallowed hard. “What do you think Charlotte’s children will be like?”
Jane choked back laughter and hid her face in her knees. Mary and Kitty’s jaws dropped.
“I am sure Lady Catherine will have to approve the child before he is born.” Elizabeth peered down her nose. “Really, Mr. Collins, you must be certain to tell Mrs. Collins that the most proper time to be born is between three and four in the afternoon so as to allow the household to settle and have a proper dinner that evening.” She pressed her fist to her mouth to contain her giggles.
Jane picked her head up and looked at Elizabeth, tears streaming down her cheeks. She fell onto her knees in helpless peals of laughter. Mary and Kitty dropped on each other’s shoulders in breathless giggles. Elizabeth rocked back and forth, smiling broadly.
Mary wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Kitty pulled up the sheet and dragged it over her cheeks.
Only Jane had a handkerchief tucked up her sleeve. She blotted her eyes. “I shall dearly miss these times.”
“I will too.” Elizabeth’s mirth faded away. How odd. Until now she had never contemplated her coming marriage and considered loneliness might accompany her move to Derbyshire. But perhaps it would.
Kitty sniffled. “I cannot imagine what it will be like without both of you here.”
“I have never imagined Longbourn without you.” Mary blinked rapidly, her eyes bright.
Elizabeth patted Mary’s arm and blinked back the burning in her eyes. “Well, never fear, unlike Lydia, I am quite certain I shall write so often you will quite tire of paying the post.”
“You must, Lizzy—truly you must.” Mary bit her lip. “Might we come to visit you?”
Jane clutched her breast exactly as Mama did. “After all, she might put you in the path of other rich men.”
A fresh wave of laughter nearly choked them all. Few knew what a talented mimic Jane was, the most proficient of all of them. Did Mr. Bingley know yet? Doubtless, he would soon.
Elizabeth sighed. “I will need some time to settle into my role as mistress of Pemberley, but perhaps we might apply to Papa for you to visit during the summer.”
“Really? You think Papa might agree?” Kitty clasped her hands below her chin.
“I do.” The corners of Elizabeth’s lips turned up. Pemberley would certainly not be like a trip to Brighton.
The glitter in Jane’s eye confirmed their shared thought.
“You and Mr. Bingley too, if you would be free to come then.”
“I am sure Mr. Bingley would appreciate the invitation. He speaks most fondly of Pemberley.”
“Might we do this whilst at Pemberley?” Kitty asked in a very small voice.
“I am sure it can be arranged. It would not be a proper visit without an assembly of Mama’s titter-mice.”