Swiftly Falling Snow
The snowflakes grew ever larger, softly tumbling against the dark of the sky. The movement of white against black, patterns interchanging continuously, intrigued Elizabeth so much that she forgot to be afraid. Her wipers crossed over and back, again and again, keeping her windshield clear, depositing ridges of white on either end narrowing her field of vision. Her side windows had become encrusted and the snow settled, unhindered. She was in a world of her own, encapsulated in warmth and music, completely apart from that outer cold of blowing snow and stretching white. The tracks she followed on the road were barely visible anymore and the landscape she drove through every day was unrecognisable. Her thoughts drifted with the flowing rhythm of acoustic guitar and intricate percussion. The shifting whiteness that poured around her gave her the feeling of travelling through space, through a maze of moving stars. She was unprepared for the hill and only became aware of it when her car started sliding sideways with a mind of its own.
Her hands clenched on the steering wheel. ĎSteer into the skid!í screamed through her mind in vivid neon. She tried, but pulling on the wheel made no impression on the movement of her car. As the road steepened sharply the speed increased. Her foot, in reflex action, tapped the brakes and the car went into a spin. She felt broken off from reality, helplessly out of control, a small capsule that held all she knew of life twirling in white-cold space. Then there was a jarring stop and her world came to rest with a shudder. It was once again a car, solid and immovable, engine roaring uselessly, headlights shooting their beams at an erratic angle.
Elizabeth undid her seatbelt, moved cautiously, tried the door. It opened upward and a volley of snow fell in on her. She pulled herself up and out onto an uneven bank. As far as she could tell her car was half in, half out of a ditch. Her left rear wheel was wedged into the ground, her right lost in a mire of slushy water. The front of her car was aimed directly in the eye of the falling snow. It looked ready to leap out of the ground and fly but she knew it was going nowhere. She leaned into the car and turned off the engine, pulling her keys from the ignition and killing the lights. The strap of her purse was just within reach. She shoved the door closed and attempted to struggle through the deepening snow to the road. Her foot slipped and she lost her balance, one leg coming down deep into the frigid ditch, her chin slamming down on her other knee. She managed to drag herself up, almost losing her shoe, and followed her tire tracks to where she thought the road must be. The snow was falling harder than ever.
She rummaged in her purse for her cell phone, all the time wondering who had wished this white Christmas upon them. It never snowed for Christmas. Heck, it usually never snowed until February, if at all. And when it did it was wet snow that turned to rain, leaving one or two inches of heavy, solid slush upon sidewalks and yards. Elizabeth couldnít get a signal and realised that her battery was dead. She had two choices Ė sit and freeze in the dangerously tilted car or start walking and hope that some crazed motorist would be out in a full-blown snowstorm at eleven pm. on Christmas Eve.
She mentally cursed her foolishness again and again. How could she have forgotten the hill? She had been caught up in the visually intoxicating magic the snow had created. Now it was all too real and immediate. It was coating her hair and her shoulders and the cold was wearing away at the adrenaline rush she had experienced in the accident. She was not dressed for a winter hike. Her short corduroy skirt and thin cotton jacket had been fine for the office. Her tights were no barrier to the snow that was drifting well up her shins. The loafers she wore were almost pulled off her feet with every step and her one foot was soaking with muddy ditch water. She threw her purse strap over her shoulder and tugged her jacket close around herself, and then faced into the snow to continue her journey. There was a gas station about five miles down the road. If it were open it would afford shelter, warmth, and food. If not at least there was a pay phone. Halfway into her turn she noticed lights coming over the rise of the hill and her heart leapt as a truck cruised down, throwing snow left and right in its wake. It stopped alongside her.
"Do you need help?" The driver jumped out and came around the idling vehicle, but she had already recognised his voice. A moment ago she had not thought she could get any colder but the realisation of who it was chilled her to the bone.
With the snow warning in effect, Darcy had cancelled the plans for he and Georgie to join Charlie for dinner. Instead they had stayed home and watched as the snow steadily fell, then they ate reheated left over lasagne, built a roaring fire in the family room, and sat and roasted marshmallows. Georgie had tried her best to joke and laugh to raise his spirits but in the end she had given up and put in a video while he sat and stared at the Christmas tree.
Who would ever have imagined this was how Darcy Fitzwilliam the 3rd would spend his Christmas Eve? Most people in town envied him because they imagined he had everything. He was young and handsome, had a thriving business and a healthy bank account. But he didnít have the one thing he wanted the most, and he never would. He looked at the tree decked with candles that signified hope. He didnít even have that. She had killed every hope and dream that he had with her words. And really he couldnít complain because he had brought it all upon himself with his arrogance and his condescending attitude. His pride. In his failed attempt at gaining her he hadnít thought of her feelings. He had expected her to jump at the chance to be with him because he was Darcy Fitzwilliam. What blind conceit! And all the while sheíd despised him. The hurt was still raw. Unhealed. Could it ever heal?
Elizabeth. He could not get her out of his mind. Or all the things she had said. She had been very explicit when she had detailed his faults in a voice that cut him through and through. But some of what she said Ė what she based her distaste of him on Ė was founded on misconceptions. He hadnít been able to explain. They had both been too reactive that evening and had each said terrible, hurtful things. Now, more than anything, he wanted to set the record straight, if only because he could not stand having her think so badly of him.
Darcy got up and strode over to the tree, pinching all the candles out with his bare fingers.
"What are you doing?" cried Georgie, distracted from her show by his sudden movement.
"Iím going out for a drive. I canít leave you home alone with such a fire hazard."
"But . . . but itís snowing like crazy. The roads will be dangerous."
"Only a fool would be out driving on a night like this," he answered. "Perfect for me! Anyway, Iíve got four-wheel drive. Donít worry, Georgie Ė nobody will be on the roads but me."
"Donít be long, and remember your cell."
Georgie stuck her tongue out at him as he left the room, then turned back to Ever After. "Just breathe," she whispered along with the movie, and then she sighed.
Darcy backed out of the garage and slowly negotiated his winding driveway. Once on the road he was able to drive faster, but he kept an unhurried and steady pace that suited his mood. He could not run away from his troubles, but the trees laden with snow, blanketed fields, and swirling flakes that showed no sign of stopping, took him out of himself. For the first time in two days he was able to look about, see things, and just be, without that all-pervading feeling of loss. He only experienced the here and now Ė it was as if yesterday and tomorrow no longer existed. He headed out towards town and then changed his mind and turned up Old Mill Road. He didnít want to encounter traffic. There were no other cars about, but it looked as if someone had driven the same route as him not too long before. He changed gear as he came to the crest of the hill where the road, which had climbed slowly and unobtrusively, fell away sharply into a deep valley. The visibility was not good Ė everything outside held an ethereal quality, shrouded and ghostly. What he took for a shrub by the side of the road moved, turned from bush to apparition to human. He slowed to a stop. What was someone doing out walking on a night like this?
"Elizabeth? What are you . . ."
She couldnít say she was out for a walk, twenty miles from home. She hated to have to admit to him, of all people, that she had wiped out in the snow. She wished she didnít have to say anything at all.
"Iím fine," she said.
"But . . ." He was having trouble saying anything. He couldnít quite believe that she was really there standing in front of him. How had he conjured her up? But it really was her. Snow spangled her dark hair, glistened on her lashes. Her eyes looked huge and dark, her face pinched and white, her nose red with cold. Just seeing her set his blood thrumming through his veins. His chest tightened at her hard, closed expression.
Was he just going to stand there all night staring at her like an idiot? "My car slid into the ditch Ė Iím walking to the gas station," she said and she turned from him.
He reached out and grabbed her arm. She shook his hand off and faced him.
"I told you not to ever touch me again, remember?" Anger flashed in her eyes.
"Elizabeth Ė you canít possibly walk there dressed like that. Get in the truck."
"Iím not going anywhere with you."
"I promise you I wonít touch you again. Címon, get in before you freeze to death. Iíll call a tow truck."
"Donít bother. I can manage." Her voice shook and they both realised she was close to tears.
Darcy opened the passenger door. "There is no way Iím leaving here without you," he said in a voice that clearly showed he meant every word. "Iím just going down to look at your car, Iíll be back in a minute."
The car was barely visible with its covering of fresh snow. Darcy couldnít wonder that heíd not seen it earlier. It was pretty obvious that there was no way to get it out without a tow truck. He dialled BCAA and talked to an operator. They would not tow a car unless someone was there at the scene with it. There was at least a two-hour wait for a tow truck. He organised for the truck to come to his house and pick him up, then come back for the car.
Elizabeth reluctantly climbed up into the cab of the truck and closed the door. Better than standing out in the cold and arguing with Darcy, especially if she would have to get in the truck in the end anyway. She swiped at the futile tears that were suddenly rolling down her cheeks. Why did he always reduce her to this? She looked at the keys dangling from the ignition and considered sliding over into the driversí seat and taking off, but she decided that it would be a dirty thing to do, even to him. As she sat there waiting her teeth began chattering. She looked out the window and saw that he was returning up the bank. She wiped her cheeks again. He couldnít see her like this Ė she had to get it together.
He got in quickly, slammed his door, put the truck in gear, and pulled a U-turn.
"What are you doing?" It came out as a squeak.
"Weíre going back to my house to wait for the tow truck."
"No! Just take me to the gas station."
"Itís closed by now."
"If you think Iím going alone with you to your house . . ."
"Relax. Georgieís there. Anyway, look at you. Youíre shivering and your clothes are wet. You need to get warm and dry or youíll get hypothermia. Iíve got a fire burning already, and Iíll make you some hot chocolate."
Elizabeth gave in. She could no longer stop her knees from shaking uncontrollably even though he had the heat blasting. A fire and hot chocolate. Right now nothing sounded better than that. Certainly not stubbornly trudging down a long road in the snow. "Okay."
"Good," he said and smiled for the first time since heíd met up with her. "What were you doing driving out so late in all this snow anyway?"
"I stayed at work to finish a project. Thereíre no windows in my damn office. I didnít know it was even snowing till I drove out of the underground parking."
"Donít you listen to the radio? Thereís been a snow warning all day."
"I didnít believe it Ė we never have a white Christmas. I expected it to be raining by the time I left. And now Iíve probably totalled my car."
"Donít worry Ė I donít think itís damaged much. The tow truck will have it out in a couple of hours."
"And then Iíll get a ride home from the driver when my car is towed."
"Itíll be better if we bring it to my place."
"But . . . Iím not driving it home in all this snow! I could just as easily get stuck again."
"Iíll take you home and you can come back and pick it up when the roads are clear."
"Thatís just great. Youíve got it all worked out. Donít I have any say in what happens with my own car?"
"Youíve got to admit it makes more sense this way," Darcy said quietly.
Elizabeth didnít answer. She turned her head and looked moodily out the side window, seeing nothing. Her arms were tightly crossed against her chest.
Darcy put all his attention to his driving. The snow was falling more heavily than ever. An uneasy silence hung over them the entire way back to his house. He parked in the garage and hurried around to open Elizabethís door for her, but she got out as quickly as she could on her own. Her legs almost buckled as she put her weight on them. Darcy reached out to steady her and then pulled his arms back as he remembered his promise not to touch her.
"The bathroom is through here. Have a shower and Iíll get you something to wear."
"If you think Iím going to use your shower and wear your clothes you can think again."
"Itís the guest shower, and theyíll be Georgieís clothes," Darcy said. "I know youíre not happy with the situation youíre in, but can you try to make the best of it?"
Elizabeth could hear the concern plainly in his voice and shrugged her shoulders. "Sorry. Thanks for helping me."
"Youíre welcome," he said, smiling slightly. "Iíll just leave the clothes outside the door."
Twenty minutes later Elizabeth walked hesitantly into the family room. She was wearing plaid pyjama pants and a thick sweater. Her hair was curling damply around her shoulders and the colour had come back to her face. "What shall I do with my wet stuff?"
"Iíll just throw them in the laundry Ė theyíll be ready for you to wear when you go."
"You canít do my wash!"
"Why not? I do Georgieís all the time. You sit down and have your hot chocolate," he said, indicating an overstuffed armchair close to the fire and a steaming cup of cocoa on the coffee table.
"Where is your sister?"
"Sheís already gone to bed."
"You said . . ."
Darcy quickly walked out with her wet clothes and Elizabeth was left with nothing to do but curl up in front of the fire. She looked about her and noticed that the room was not what she had expected. It was unpretentious and comfortable, with a lived in look, not the kind of Martha Stewart perfectly decorated everything in its place and totally colour co-ordinated sitting room like Caro had. She had always thought of Darcy and Caro as having the same tastes, somehow. But this was more the type of room she would have liked Ė if she had the money to spend. The thing that struck her the most, though, was the beautiful balsam fir in the corner. It was decorated with painted wooden ornaments, candles, and a star on top. She had never seen a tree with candles before, and wished that they were lit.
"Your tree is beautiful," she said as Darcy came to the door.
He stopped on the threshold, unable to look away. She was there as heíd so often pictured her. The fire cast a warm glow upon her face. Her eyes were raised to his and she was almost smiling. She just seemed to belong. Her eyes faltered under his gaze and she looked down. Pain shafted through him. She didnít even want to be there Ė she had made that perfectly clear. To hide the hurt that was overwhelming him he turned and picked up a box of matches and began lighting the candles with care.
Elizabeth let out a gasp of appreciation.
"It looks even better without the lights on. Would you mind?" He held his hand over the switch and despite herself Elizabeth nodded. The room receded into velvety darkness relieved only by the candlelight and the flickering flames in the hearth.
"It is so lovely," she whispered.
Darcy sat where he had a clear view of both Elizabeth and the tree. He was silent for a few moments and then tentatively spoke. "Elizabeth Ė there is something I need to tell you. Wait, please . . . donít think Iím going to try and push myself on you again. I just need to respond to a couple of your accusations. Most of what you said to me was true, and Iím sorry for it, but . . ."
"What can you possibly have to say that I want to hear?" Her voice was strained and breaking.
"I never tried to separate Charlie and Jane."
"Your cousin told me all about it."
"He got the story from Caro, not from me. I only told her that I didnít think Jane was in love with Charlie and I didnít want to see him hurt, but it was his life and I wasnít going to meddle with it. She twisted my words. I never knew your sister was in town till you told me."
"But she does love Charlie Ė how could you decide if she loved him or not?"
"Iíve already proven that Iím not good at reading anyoneís feelings."
That silenced both of them for a few minutes, then Darcy turned to Elizabeth and quietly said, "I told him I was wrong. I told him Jane does love him."
"You took my word?"
"Who would know better than her sister?"
Elizabeth looked at him steadily for a few minutes, appraising him. "Thank you."
She was suddenly overcome with embarrassment and took a sip of her hot chocolate. It was hard to reconcile the Darcy she knew with the Darcy she was seeing tonight. Could it be she had never known him at all? He had been patient with her outside in the snow when she had been nothing short of obnoxious. He had offered her warmth, shelter and dry clothes, and she had been rude. He owed her nothing, yet he treated her with kindness. But Ė she could not let her judgement become clouded. There was still all that George had told her. And George had also said Darcy could be nice when he wanted to. If he could get something out of it. Maybe Georgie wasnít here. Maybe he hadnít even called emergency road service. Maybe this was all one big elaborate set up. Words were so easy. But, then again, Jane had called her last night, ecstatic. She was back together with Charlie.
"Thereís another thing that I feel is even more important," said Darcy. "I donít really like to talk about this, but you have to know the truth about George Wickham. I canít have you believe what he said about me."
"You went against your fatherís last wishes. You denied him his inheritance."
"You only have his word on that, Elizabeth. Now Iíll give you mine. You can choose which of us to believe."
Elizabeth gave him all her attention. She wanted to watch his every expression carefully. She remembered the sincerity with which George spoke, and wondered how Darcy was going to make his story plausible.
"You know that George was the son of my dadís most trusted foreman, and that my dad was his godfather, right? Well, George was always a con artist, even as a kid. He had such an appealing smile and could look so innocent, he always got away with the worst pranks. In high school he barely attended classes, but he always managed to pass by sweet-talking his teachers. It didnít work in college, but he had ceased to care. Once my dad died there was no reason to keep up the pretence. The job he was promised with the firm was contingent upon his business degree, but he dropped out of college in first year. He told me heíd take money instead of the job, so we worked out a settlement with the companyís lawyers. One yearís full wages at the managerial level. Three years later he was back with a bogus business degree that wasnít worth the paper it was written on, demanding a job. Against my better judgement I hired him, but I told him heíd have to pull his weight. He went to a couple of seminars and then spent most of his office hours on porn sites. When I walked in on him and the copy girl going at it on his desk, I told him to clear out, no severance package, nothing."
She didnít know what to think. Everything he said was told in a voice devoid of emotion. It was so detailed. So clear. He didnít try to sway her in any way. He was just reading out facts as if from a police statement. It was chillingly believable.
"Thereís more. I know this part wonít go any further than you - it concerns my sister." He paused, and then hesitantly continued. This wasnít something he could say with any semblance of ease. "Last year Georgie went to Puerto Vallarta for Spring Break with a friend and her family. George was there and he conned her into believing she was in love with him. I came for the weekend to surprise her, and found him in her room forcing himself on her. She was in a state of shock. When he saw me he took off through the French doors, jumped from the balcony, and ran. I let him go Ė she needed me. Itís taken her a long time to get over the incident and learn to trust again. She was only fifteen."
"Oh my God!" Elizabeth put her hands to her face. It had to be true. Even Darcy wouldnít tell a story like that about his own sister. And George was at least ten years older than Georgie. She was just a kid. He was sick. Sick and disgusting Ė and Elizabeth had believed every word that he said. How gullible could she be? Just because heíd flattered her, and smiled like that and looked at her so endearingly with those limpid blue eyes. Heíd told her all that stuff about Darcy when sheíd barely even met either of them and she bought it all because Darcy had snubbed her and George had . . . flirted. Every single thing she had against Darcy she had built upon that faulty foundation, piling it brick by brick. She thought she was so observant, so clever, but sheíd misjudged him completely. All the aching and sorrow that she had felt since their big scene two days ago suddenly broke forth and she shook as she let the tears come, not caring that he was watching her. It was humbling, but she needed to humble herself after being so stupidly blind.
Darcy watched as Elizabeth covered her face and broke down. He knew heíd promised not to touch her, but heíd have to have a heart of stone just to sit and let her cry like that. He was at her side with his arm comfortingly around her in no time. She didnít seem to mind his presence, or even notice it. It was awkward crouching by her chair so he led her to the couch and then sat beside her, taking her into his arms as she cried upon his shoulder. Her hair smelled clean and fresh with a hint of shampoo. He stroked her head and whispered soothingly. After a few minutes she pushed herself back from him and wiped at her face with her sleeve.
"How can you be so nice to me after I was so . . . awful?"
"Youíre not the first person to be taken in by him."
"Yeah but I threw all that stuff in your face. I judged you by his lies. I have no idea who you are or what to think of you anymore."
"My behaviour didnít help either. I acted like a jerk. I said things that hurt you. I was selfish and conceited and I took you for granted. Iím sorry for everything I said about your family and how I came on to you the other night. Can we start over? Iíll . . . Iíll try to show you the real me."
"If heís anything like the guy I met tonight, thereís hope." Elizabeth smiled. Darcy responded with a slow, crooked smile that did something to her insides.
The jangling of his cell phone startled them. Darcy answered and then looked over to Elizabeth. "Itís the tow truck Ė Iíll be right back."
"Should I come?" She started to rise.
"No. You rest. I wonít be long, and then Iíll drive you home."
As he left the room she sat and gazed at the tree with its dancing flames. Her mind was a web of confusion, so rather than think she only took in the stimuli of sight and sound within the room. She rested her head upon a cushion and stretched out, giving herself up to the room as it soothed and restored her soul.
Darcy shut the door on the swiftly falling snow. Elizabethís car was up beside his house now; as far as he could see it had sustained only minor damage. He pulled off his boots, hung up his jacket, and dusted what little snow remained from his hair. As he passed the laundry room he remembered Elizabethís clothes and threw them in the dryer. That should give them another half-hour together before he had to drive her home. He walked towards the family room quickly, his chest tingling in anticipation of seeing her.
She was sleeping, stretched out along the couch on her side, her head upon a cushion. Her hair had dried into unruly curls that fell away from her face. One hand was tucked underneath her cheek. She glowed golden in the light of flame and candle. He stole in softly to stand beside her and then crouched, his face only inches from hers. In repose she looked young and fragile, her fiery strength concealed behind closed lids. He could see the vulnerability she hid from the world with her teasing and her forthright talk. Tonight he had seen another facet of her character and he was fascinated all the more. He allowed his love of her to flow from the place he had attempted to lock it. One of his Christmas wishes had been answered Ė he had been given another chance and he was going to make the best of it.
Waking her did not appear to be an option. Again, the feeling that she belonged overwhelmed him. In the morning he could drive her home. He went over to an oak chest in the corner and took out a hand-woven blanket of the softest wool. Draping it over her gently, he brought it right up to her chin. He leaned over and passed his lips across her forehead, a fleeting feathery touch.
He turned to the tree, remembering how a few short hours earlier he had thought there was no room for hope. This time when he extinguished the flames he did it in reverence, not despair. He knew now that he could hope; Elizabeth had said so herself. And with that hope blossomed all the dreams and desires he had harboured earlier, only now he understood there was more to love than the need to possess. Rather than selfish it was selfless, and in the light of that bright star that graced the very apex of the tree, it knew no bounds.
Outside the snowflakes thinned. The sky spread velvety dark over the whitened earth. The quarter moon shed silver down, gilding the silence of the night.2003 Copyright held by author.