Elizabeth looked up from the pile of invitations stacked next to her plate and sighed quietly. After making a rambling wedding tour from the Côte d’Azur to Paris after their marriage, Darcy and Elizabeth now found themselves back in France not long after their first anniversary for another short escape from the penetrating cold of England.
They had been relaxing in an elegant hotel in central Paris for the past two weeks, and Elizabeth could see the bright, crisp sunlight (so different from Hertfordshire and Derbyshire!) and the flying buttresses of Notre Dame de Paris from the window to her right. Darcy, freshly shaved and swathed in a silk dressing gown entered the breakfast room and saw his bride’s shoulders rise in that small sigh. He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed the top of her head before taking his chair, his brows contracted slightly in spite of his smile.
“Breakfast not to your liking? Not enough engagements to fill the days?” He paused, studying her determined smile, then added softly, “Too many engagements with the haute ton?”
She gave him a tremulous smile. “You know me too well, Mr. Darcy.”
“It took me too many months to gain that knowledge, my love, but I think I know you tolerably well, Mrs. Darcy, especially after a year of marriage.” He lifted her left hand and planted a kiss on her palm.
Elizabeth sighed. “I have enjoyed every moment of that year, my dear husband…oh my, it still seems to be a dream that I am your wife. How long do you suppose it will take before I am accustomed to being addressed as Mrs. Darcy?” She smiled more genuinely this time and squeezed his hand and fell silent. Darcy smiled back and started, “But…”
Her face, always expressive, showed the conflict of her thoughts. He knew that she did not want him to feel that she was dissatisfied during their traveling, but something was clearly bothering her. She bit her lower lip, then said, “I guess that Paris, beautiful as it is, reminds me too much of London…”
He picked up her thought, “…and the matrons of Paris remind you too much of the haughty matrons of London, wrapped up in their own importance and looking down upon a country girl who prefers interesting conversation to being a mannequin posing in her fine gowns.”
She nodded, her cheeks flushing. “I do not want you to think I’m not enjoying myself or that I’m not happy to see Paris again…perhaps the French food just does not agree with me,” she said with a laugh.
He pulled her over onto his lap and looked into her eyes. “I have been thinking that perhaps we should go to Vienna for Christmas. It is a beautiful city and I understand that during the Christmas season it is particularly enjoyable. I was there when I made the Grand Tour, but it was during the summer. It has beautiful churches and palaces, and grand Christmas markets in all the large squares that bring out all the inhabitants to stroll past the booths, tempted by food and drink and beautiful gifts. It seems like the perfect place to spend Christmas together…and we won’t have to feel obligated to attend soirées or dinner parties as I don’t know anyone in Vienna!” He brushed back the tendrils of hair on her temple and kissed her. “Or, we can go wherever you want, my wife. Your wish is my command.”
She laughed at him. “I think you are a very foolish, husband to give in every time your wife is moody and discontented. You are rewarding her bad behavior!” She turned her head and returned his kiss. “However, Vienna sounds lovely! Can we get there before Christmas, though? It is less than two weeks until Christmas day!” Darcy jumped up, lifting Elizabeth in his arms as easily as if she were his cloak or gloves.
The door to the breakfast room opened suddenly and the footman entered with fresh coffee and more rolls. Fortunately, the footman had held the door open with his shoulder as he swiveled to maneuver the coffeepot and the tray through the door. By the time he turned and could see them Elizabeth was seated demurely in her chair, conveying a slice of cheese and a roll to her plate with the serving fork. She avoided Darcy’s eyes until the footman bowed and left the room, her cheeks pink with embarrassment. Darcy, in spite of his natural reserve, did not seem to embarrass easily when the servants came upon them kissing in the garden, or in the famous library at Pemberley. She supposed it was natural in someone who was accustomed to having a house full of servants.
As soon as breakfast was over, Darcy gave orders to the servants to prepare to leave Paris the next morning for Vienna. Darcy spent the day supervising the preparations while Elizabeth declined all the invitations awaiting her attention.
A week and a half later they were rattling along the southern bank of the Danube and making fairly good time, when, suddenly, the carriage jolted, nearly throwing Darcy and Elizabeth off the seat before coming to an awkward, jostling stop. Darcy picked up his wife’s reticule, which had flown off her lap during the mishap, and looked her over.
“Are you hurt, Elizabeth?”
She shook her head and smiled at her new husband. “Such a mild mishap is nothing to one who grew up in a household of 6 women, sir!” She gave him a crooked, sardonic smile and he squeezed her hand.
“I forget that I have married a woman of strength as well as beauty.” She grinned at him and was leaning over to kiss him when the door of the carriage was flung open. They both turned to the intruder. One of the liveried liveried footmen stammered, “Mr. Darcy, sir, we have a problem with the carriage!” Darcy raised an eyebrow and said calmly, “So I gathered, John. What has happened?”
“The left front wheel has broken on these cobblestones, sir. The postboy does not think that we will be able to find a replacement or repair it until Monday as the closest town is a mere village.”
“I had best see exactly what has happened.” He turned to Elizabeth. “Excuse me for a moment, my dear.” She gave him a queenly nod for the servant’s benefit and he left the carriage.
The wheel was indeed broken. Several of the spokes had shattered, apparently, when the rim cracked on the rocky highway. He could see a few lights ahead, but most of the area was hidden by the night and a lowering fog from the river.
He asked the postboy in German, “What village is this…and how far are we from Vienna?”
The postboy, with a glance at the footman replied, “This is Melk, sir. Vienna is about 50 miles away, your lordship.”
“Well, we obviously must find an inn for a night, and possibly two, as tomorrow is Sunday.”
“The postboy says there is an inn just over the rise, sir. Melk is well set up for visitors in spite of its small size, as there is a large abbey overlooking the village. I—I am afraid we will not be able to reach Vienna for Christmas, sir.”
Darcy gave his footman a crooked smile, then said solemnly, “We will just have to do our best, John. If we cannot reach Vienna, we cannot. Have the postboy run ahead and secure us rooms and porters to remove our trunks to the inn.”
“Right away, sir.” Darcy returned to the tilted carriage and explained the dilemma to his bride. “I fear we won’t make it to Vienna for Christmas, my love, but the weather is not too chilly…would you care to walk to the inn while the coachman and footmen arrange for the luggage, my dear?”
“Indeed yes, I would like to walk! Although, I may need one of those footmen to carry me after such a long day of travel!” She smiled up at Darcy with an attempt at a twinkle in her eye. He soberly assured her that he would carry her himself if needed. She laughed at the thought, and climbed stiffly out of the carriage and he wrapped her heavy cloak around her.
She took his arm and they strolled up the cobblestone street. The postboy had been right. There was an inn, but the public room appeared to be full of people when they entered. The innkeeper, flustered by the appearance of what seemed to be the nobility as well as a half dozen servants, was stuttering through the conversation with the postboy. “I am completely full and will be for the next week. It’s Christmas you know, and there are many people who have come to Melk for the celebration at the Abbey. I’m sorry to not be able to accommodate you, my lord and lady.” He bowed to Darcy and to Elizabeth.
Darcy quirked a brow. “Your abbey has many visitors, does it?”
The innkeeper seemed shocked to find that Darcy and Elizabeth were not familiar with Melk Abbey. “It is the largest and finest Abbey in Austria, my lord! And the Abbey church is very grand…very beautiful!”
Darcy nodded to him, taking over the conversation from the postboy. “Perhaps we can worship there tomorrow, but first we will need a room. Is there another inn?”
The innkeeper looked doubtfully at him. “Yes, of course, your lordship. There are several inns but I would be very surprised if they had any rooms either.”
Darcy mulled this piece of information over for a moment, then said, “Give the names and directions to my postboy and he can go to them and find out if there are any rooms available at any of them. Do you have a private room where we might sup?”
“I’m sorry, my lord, but that is taken already, as well, but there is no one in the coffee room now, if you and her ladyship would like to rest there while you wait. I have a roasted chicken and a game pie that I can serve you for dinner, and, of course, I have wine and ale to drink. It’s not fancy food, but I get no complaints, your lordship.”
Darcy nodded and took Elizabeth’s arm as the innkeeper guided them to the coffee room. When he left them to order their supper, Darcy told Elizabeth, “I’m sorry, my dear, I’m not sure if we will be able to find a room in Melk. Apparently, the entire population of Austria is here for Christmas.”
Elizabeth forced a smile, trying to ignore the aching from her stiff legs after the long journey. Her insides were beginning to feel out of sorts, as well, but she didn’t want to worry Darcy. “Ah well, I’m sure we can find something. Did the publican go to bring food? A hot dinner and a glass of negus would set me up very well.”
By the time they finished their dinner Elizabeth was a bit better, but felt that a bed would be a very good thing, very soon. It was not long after they had finished their supper when the postboy returned, his slumped shoulders told the story before he spoke. “I’m so sorry, my lord, but the inns are all full to the attics and most of the servants are bedding down in the haylofts.”
The publican came in with a couple of maids to clear away the dishes and covers and Darcy queried him about where else they might find a room. He hesitated and dithered over the maids’ work, then tentatively suggested that they try the abbey. “They do not take in guests in the ordinary course of things, except for the royal family, who have their own quarters there, but they do have a guesthouse for churchmen. Perhaps they could help you.”
Darcy arranged for a dogcart, the only vehicle the innkeeper had available, to carry them up to the abbey. When the cart turned the last corner at the top of the steep hill that loomed over Melk, Elizabeth gasped. The abbey was enormous, with hundreds of windows glowing with candles. When they reached the stone gateway, looking more like the battlements of a castle than a place for quiet contemplation, a monk hailed their driver. Darcy translated for Elizabeth. “Brother Porter doesn’t think there are rooms available, but he is sending for someone in charge to find out.”
The porter came out at that moment, another brother with a long and lugubrious look on his face beside him. He peered nervously at Darcy as if fearful that he would develop a towering rage at being thwarted. “I’m Brother Gregory, the custodian of the guest house. I-I’m sorry, my lord. Our guest hall is full. The emperor and empress are here and their retainers and servants have taken up every room.” Darcy frowned slightly. “Surely there is a corner someplace where we can stay. My wife cannot stand out here in the cold all night.” The monk looked nervously at Elizabeth. “Well, there are a couple of small rooms over the stables, my lord, but they aren’t really suitable for the likes of you, sir.”
Darcy looked at Elizabeth for a moment, and then turned back to the monk. “Surely any shelter is better than none, Brother Gregory. Even if it is just for the night…I am hoping that we can find more suitable shelter in the village tomorrow, but it is late tonight.” Brother Gregory looked at him, then nodded reluctantly. “Let me show you the rooms, my lord, and then you can decide.” Darcy told the coachman and the servants to wait with the coach and he and Elizabeth strode off with Brother Gregory.
The stairs to the upper floor of the stables were on the outside of the building but Elizabeth could smell the horses in the stable and hear rustling as they reacted to hearing them climb the steps. The rooms upstairs were small and had the damp chill of rooms that had not been used for some time. They were furnished modestly and were scrupulously clean, however, and there was a small fireplace in each of the two rooms. Darcy examined the rooms, then turned to Brother Gregory. “I believe that these will be satisfactory if you have wood for the fireplaces and plenty of blankets, Brother. We will also need some food for our servants; my wife and I have already eaten at a local inn while my servants searched for someplace to stay.”
Brother Gregory bowed and bustled off to summon some of the novices to help gather up logs, bedding and food, and it wasn’t long before the rooms began to look more inviting. Because there were only two rooms, Darcy and the male servants took one and Elizabeth and her maid took the other, and they soon went to their beds to try and warm up. Elizabeth was sleeping well, until she suddenly awoke feeling very ill. She called for her maid, Alice, who brewed her a mint posset to settle her stomach, but very soon she was curled up in the bed, her arms wrapped tightly around her midsection. She felt very ill, but would not allow Alice to call Darcy. It would not help her for him to lose a nights sleep, and she was sure that she would feel better soon. She was just over tired from the long drive.
In the morning, Alice informed Darcy of Elizabeth’s indisposition, and he came instantly to her bedside. “Are you feeling better, Elizabeth? Can I get you something to eat or drink? How about some tea?” Elizabeth agreed to try some tea and managed a slice of toast. “I’m feeling better now. Thank you, my dear. I will get up and dressed as soon as I’m done with breakfast.” She managed to smile at her husband, but he saw that she looked pale. “Perhaps you should spend the day in bed, Elizabeth. I blame myself for pushing so hard to reach Vienna.” His mouth was compressed in a thin line, and Elizabeth tried to reassure him.
“It’s nothing, Darcy. I am better already!” After she convinced him to go have his own breakfast, she tried to get dressed. She managed to let Alice button up her gown, but before she could do her hair she felt very sick. Alice finally convince her to go back to bed. “I think I will stay in bed, Alice. I feel much better when I’m lying down.” Darcy came in several times during the day to check on her and she was sleeping most of the time, her face still very pale. He tried to tempt her with the abbey’s library, but even the 80,000 books did not spark enough interest for her to rise from her bed.
When she was still sleeping in the mid afternoon, Darcy went to Brother Gregory and asked if there was a physician or apothecary in the abbey. Brother Gregory looked dubious. “We have an apothecary, but he treats only the brothers, my lord. Shall I call the physician in the village?” After a moment’s thought, Darcy agreed. He knew Elizabeth would be annoyed that he was babying her, but he did not feel that they should take any chances; it was so unusual for her to be ill.
An hour later a small man in a dark suit appeared with Brother Gregory and was introduced as Doctor Hermann. Mr. Darcy shook his hand, then said, “Let me see if my wife is awake, doctor.” He tapped on the door of her room lightly, then went in. “Elizabeth? Are you awake?” She opened her eyes and blinked. “What time is it?” “It is 4 o’clock, my dear. I brought a physician to see you.” He added, “I thought we should not wait to see if he can help you feel better.”
She weakly nodded and he felt a tug of alarm. He had not expected her to give in so easily. He ushered the doctor in and left him with Elizabeth and her maid while the doctor examined her.
It seemed like the doctor took an eternity to make his examination, but eventually he came out to where Darcy was pacing in the hall. “I have given your wife’s maid an extract of ginger to mix with tea for her nausea. She should have mild food often during the day.” Darcy nodded to each of these recommendations. “How long will it be before she is well, doctor?”
The doctor gave a patronizing smile (which Darcy did not at all like). “I would say…about eight months, although the nausea may resolve in about two months.” Darcy looked at him, a quizzical expression on his face. “Could you be more clear, doctor?” The doctor said, slowly and clearly, “Your wife is going to have a child, my lord. This internal upset is quite common and she just needs to get plenty of rest and mild food and drink until it resolves.”
Darcy nodded numbly, paid the doctor, then crept into Elizabeth’s room. Her eyes were open and she smiled at him reaching out with her hand. He took it gently and kissed her on the brow.
“How are you feeling, my darling?”
“I’m fine…just fine. Did the doctor tell you?”
He nodded, unable to speak for the lump in his throat. Elizabeth chuckled, a weak imitation of her usual laugh. “We should have known when there was no room at the inn and we had to stay in a stable.” Darcy laughed, a genuine laugh, and the first one that day.