It was a relief to everyone to arrive back at Pemberley, and none was more delighted than Stewart, who had been apart from Thomas for what felt like an eternity. Elizabeth made certain to limit Stewart’s duties to give the young maid and her sweetheart time to spend together. She would often see them out the window, sitting on the edge of the large fountain in the garden and smiling at one another. It delighted her to see that their relationship was still on such solid footing.
Beyond this, Elizabeth had plenty to keep her occupied in planning the upcoming ball. It was the largest gathering she had hosted as the lady of Pemberley, and there was much to learn and to do. New staff was brought on temporarily to prepare. She enlisted Georgiana’s help as often as she could, and found her sister-in-law continued to be a capable and enjoyable ally. They worked together on the guest list, with Georgiana providing valuable context for Elizabeth on who ought to be invited, who could not be in the same room as a certain someone else, and who would make an enjoyable addition to the party. Elizabeth felt quite overwhelmed, but at the same time she looked forward to seeing her family.
The date of the ball was set for late summer, after the close of the London season. Invitations were sent and responses were quick and almost all favorable. A ball at Pemberley was a unique diversion, and most of the guests invited were keen to attend. Mrs. Bennet responded rapturously that the entire Bennet family would attend, and the Bingleys responded that they would be there, including Miss Bingley and the Hursts. Elizabeth did not look forward to seeing Mr. Bingley’s sisters, but of course they could not be excluded from the guest list.
Elizabeth’s wardrobe was so extensive at that point that she did not need to have a gown made, which was a relief to her. With all the other preparations required, she did not think that she would be able to bear the fittings required for a new dress. The planning was simplified in another way, as well: Mr. Porter was very deferential to Elizabeth’s menu planning. Elizabeth would even go so far as to call him helpful. After the row that had preceded the Bingleys’ previous visit, she was extremely glad for this change in behavior.
In all, the planning, although time-consuming, was not nearly as overwhelming as Elizabeth had feared. There were actually moments when she looked forward to the ball. It had been so long since she had seen her family and she was excited to show them Pemberley. She began to think that perhaps she had a successful future as the lady of an estate after all.
Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s marriage continued to flourish, all distance between them gradually dissipating. Darcy was especially deferential since their argument at Rosings, careful to communicate rather than keep his own counsel. Elizabeth appreciated his continual efforts to show his love for her, although she wondered about his ability to maintain it in the face of anyone’s disapproval. She was not naive enough to believe that Lady Catherine was the only society matron who would be shocked by the fact that she and Darcy loved one another and were not willing to hide the fact. She suspected that there would be more than one sour look directed at her during the upcoming ball; Elizabeth was unafraid of these looks, but she wondered how Darcy, who always attempted to be proper in whatever he did, would react to them. It would certainly be informative.
As the ball drew closer, Elizabeth began to feel tired more and more often. She could not imagine the reason; the preparations were going well, she had ample help, and the planning was nearly done. However, after lunch each day for a week she had to take a nap, or risk falling asleep in her dinner. It was frustrating to her, mostly because it had begun to happen so suddenly and she had no idea the cause.
Within a week, she was also experiencing nausea. It tended to strike right before she had eaten breakfast, but it sometimes happened at other times as well. Elizabeth had managed to keep her symptoms from everyone but Stewart, but this sudden illness had her quite unnerved.
“Ought I to send for the doctor, Stewart?” she asked as her lady’s maid applied cool compresses after the most recent attack. “If I am ill, will we have to cancel the ball? It would be difficult to do so, but of what use am I to our guests if I am ill? What if it is contagious?”
Stewart laughed, and Elizabeth looked up at her, startled.
“I did not realize that illness was so entertaining,” Elizabeth said.
“I am so very sorry, my lady,” said Stewart, composing herself. “But surely you do not think that your condition is contagious.”
“Well, I certainly do not know. I have not yet spoken with a doc—oh!”
The meaning of Stewart’s implication suddenly became clear, and Elizabeth was embarrassed that it had taken so long for her to realize that particular possible cause of her fatigue and nausea.
“Do you think I am with child?” she whispered.
“I think it is in the realm of possibility,” said Stewart, with a smile. “I know better than most, my lady, how often you are not in your own bed in the morning, and how long it has been since you have had your monthly courses.”
Elizabeth realized that Stewart was correct, and her eyes widened. “I am going to have a child?” she said. “We are to be parents?” She promptly burst into tears and began to laugh all at once, tears mixing with laughter until she did not know where one began and the other ended.
“But I must tell Darcy right away!” Elizabeth said.
Then she paused. She knew that the moment Darcy knew her to be with child, he would become extremely overprotective of her. He would demand that she not strain herself, that she rest often, and that she not do anything to worry herself. How could she live under these stipulations with a ball to host?
“I will tell him after the ball,” she said. “That way this will not overshadow what we have put so much planning into. It shall be our secret for now, just the three of us,” said Elizabeth, placing her hands on her still-flat stomach and smiling. Stewart returned the smile and nodded happily.
Although she could hardly wait to share her joy with Darcy, Elizabeth knew that discretion was required. But what a glorious secret to have to keep to oneself!