SHYNESS AND SINCERITY
Part the First
The assembly in Meryton was abuzz with festivity as Elizabeth, finally able to rest from the dancing, looked about the room. She noticed Mr Bingley and his friend, Mr Darcy, quite close in front of her. Mr Bingley was all a gentleman could be hoped to be. He had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His friend, however, was quite a different matter. He was tall and handsome, and very fine, but his overall reserve and haughty manner had given the good people of Meryton a distaste for him, despite his 10,000 a year. Lizzie had heard the rumblings of complaint which made her more interested in observing him than heretofore. It was unusual that a man of such wealth could so quickly inspire the universal disgust of her neighbours who she had been sure would admire rank and wealth above all things.
There was a lull in the music, and though not at all attempting to overhear the conversation between the two men, Lizzie could not but help hear Mr Bingley suggest to Mr Darcy that he dance with her.
"Which do you mean?" said Darcy, looking back to see her.
Lizzie could not resist looking up, knowing his eyes were on her, and their glance met for a moment. What she saw there surprised her. It was not the confident, arrogant stare she had expected; there was an instant of near terror exposed in his vivid green eyes.
He swiftly regained his haughty demeanour and turned back to Mr Bingley, saying coldly, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men."
The rest of his words were indistinct as the music started up again and Bingley went back to Jane, his partner. Darcy walked off, leaving Lizzie with much to think on.
Lizzie was at first very nettled by his words, after all she was second only to Jane in beauty in her family and in the neighbourhood. It was a fact that anybody with the least bit of discernment should have been aware of. And as for being slighted by other men! Well! Men were scarce, but Lizzie had actually refused one officer because she had wanted a rest from the dancing. She laughed at the irony of it, and then at herself for taking it so to heart. What were Mr Darcy and his opinion to her after all? Well, it was actually hard to tell. She was not indifferent to him. Whether she liked or disliked him she did not yet know, at the moment she leaned toward dislike, but she didn’t want to make any hasty judgements.
Lizzie enjoyed studying character and new people were always of interest to her. Mr Bingley was an open book; she was sure she had made him out within three minutes of meeting him, but Mr Darcy was something else. There was a complexity to him that she could not yet understand and she was intrigued. If he were a friend of Mr Bingley’s, he must have some good qualities. And there was that look she had caught in his eye, the look of a startled deer, that she could not equate with the man he presented himself to be.
She watched him furtively for the rest of the evening as she danced with the officers. He stood looking off at the ceiling most of the time, not talking to anyone outside of his own party, and even then very little, and dancing only once each with his friend’s two sisters. He did not look to be enjoying himself at all. Why had he come then if he did not mean to dance? To please his friend? Lizzie discovered that she had found another point in his favour. To attend the Assembly when it was obviously insufferable for him to be present, just to please his friend, was surely a sign of goodness of character. Lizzie tried to determine whether his hauteur bespoke disdain or unease. That all of Meryton saw it as disdain was clear, but she thought that, in an unguarded moment, unease was detectable. In one moment there would appear a discomfort of his surroundings, but at the next the look of hauteur would return and he would appear only sullen and aloof. While the music played around her, and she followed the steps of the dance with a grace that belied her inattention, Lizzie could think of nothing else.
They returned home from the assembly, all bustle and high spirits, Mrs Bennet regaling Mr Bennet with a colourful account of the affair, glorying in Jane’s success, and delineating Mr Bingley’s every move. Mr Bennet was moved to exclaim, "Oh, that he had sprained his ankle in the first dance!" This didn’t stop Mrs Bennet, who went on to relate Mr. Darcy’s shocking rudeness and his insult to Lizzie in a way that left Mr Bennet in no confusion as to his dear wife’s feelings towards the man.
As Mrs Bennet and the younger girls continued to exclaim about the joys of the evening, Mr Bennet turned to Lizzie, and quietly asked, "So Lizzie, how did you perceive the gentlemen? I know I will get a more accurate account from you than from your mother. Mr Bingley I have met, but what of this Mr Darcy? Is your mother to be believed? Did he indeed snub you?"
"Oh father," answered Lizzie. "He did not really snub me, for it was a private conversation that I overheard, and although he must have been aware that I was close enough to hear him quite clearly, we must give Mr Darcy the benefit of the doubt. A man is, after all, entitled to his own opinion. I own I was a bit put out at first, but now I can laugh at my own folly for overhearing something that should put my vanity firmly in its place. Mr Darcy makes no effort to please, as his friend does, but though he may be disagreeable I don’t know that he is truly horrid, as mother says. I’m sure he has some redeeming qualities."
"Come, come, my dear, you sound just like Jane," teased Mr Bennet. "I had hoped for a more decided opinion from you."
"That would be difficult at this point, dear father," laughed Lizzie, "as I have not yet decided what exactly my opinion of him is!"
The next day Charlotte came to visit, and the three girls went into the garden to discuss the festivities of the night before
"Jane, you were certainly singled out by Mr Bingley! Two dances!" said Charlotte. "That speaks of a decided preference."
"And such a pleasant gentleman too," continued Charlotte. "So handsome and lively."
"He is just what a young man ought to be," said Jane happily.
"Well, I can see that you are quite as taken with him as he with you! Mind that you show it when you are in his company. You are always so demure," said Charlotte. "Ah, Lizzie. It is unfortunate that you were not so lucky as Jane."
"Indeed, she was singled out, and I, well . . . quite the opposite," laughed Lizzie. "But I do not hold it against the man, to be sure."
"He could not really have meant what he said," said Jane. "You must have misheard him."
"I think the rich may behave as proudly as they chose without censure. I do not think Mr Darcy so disagreeable because of his pride," said Charlotte. "But his slighting of you, Lizzie, shows a sad want of taste. Of course the society he usually keeps must be so elevated that we all appear quite countrified to him.
"Quite, I am afraid!" laughed Lizzie.
"And what did you really think of him Lizzie?" Charlotte persisted. "I thought him terribly handsome. It is no wonder that he is so proud, he appears to have much to be proud of."
"To tell the truth," said Lizzie to Charlotte, "I thought him the most handsome man of my acquaintance, although I must admit, my society has been quite restricted."
"That is praise indeed," said Charlotte. "But do not forget the Militia. There are a lot of handsome officers stationed at Meryton."
"I can see past a red coat, Charlotte my dear," said Lizzie. "And I can truthfully say that none can compare."
"I think Mr Bingley quite as handsome, only more so," said Jane, blushing.
"Mr Bingley’s looks are so much the better," said Lizzie, "because he is not only handsome of feature, but of countenance. Mr Darcy has the better features, but lacks the open, friendly countenance of his friend."
"I think his hauteur gives him a great deal of dignity that is quite attractive," said Charlotte.
"And do you know what I think, Charlotte," asked Lizzie playfully. "This will surely shock you both, but I think his haughty attitude is a mask for shyness."
"Mr Darcy shy!" cried Charlotte. "I’d sooner call Mr Bingley a twit!"
"Oh!" said Jane, coming quickly to his defence. "Mr Bingley is a very sensible man, I can assure you."
"My point exactly," said Charlotte.
"You may find it hard to believe," said Lizzie. "But I have come to the conclusion that Mr Darcy is a very shy man, and because of this there is much in his behaviour that I can forgive."
Part the Second
In the fortnight that passed since the assembly, Lizzie had the joy of watching Jane and Mr Bingley become better acquainted. They appeared to be developing a fond regard for each other. Of Bingley’s friend, Mr Darcy, she knew little more than before. Although he regularly attended all the same dinners as his friend, he had not yet sought out anyone’s company but that of his own party. Lizzie noticed him looking at her occasionally but knew not what to attribute these looks to. What could he mean by them?
Darcy himself was not sure what he meant by the looks. Ever since the assembly, he had been chastising himself for the impolite comment that he knew must have been overheard. Why had he let his ill humour get the best of him? How arrogant he must have sounded. Miss Elizabeth Bennet must think him ate up with pride and self-consequence. He had glanced back and seen a young lady like any other, and he had suddenly felt that shiver down his spine; the feeling he got whenever those avaricious young ladies who were looking for a husband singled him out. Sometimes his fortune was more of a burden than a blessing. He had reacted immediately, irritated by Bingley for haranguing him, annoyed with the female population for pursuing him, and he had said the first thing that came into his head. She had heard him. He knew that. He had seen the look of chagrin spread across her face. Well, it was saidand there was nothing he could do to change that. He deliberated, the next time they were in company together, going up to her and apologising, but how could he, with propriety, go up to a young lady he didn’t really know, and say, ‘You overheard an uncivil remark that I made the other day and I am truly sorry. I was in a foul mood and didn’t mean a word of it. You are actually quite pleasing to look at. I just did not care to dance.’ It was impossible. It was unthinkable. For one thing, he wouldn’t even be able to get one half of a sentence out with her eyes upon him.
That first day he had noticed nothing special about her, but it seemed that he was doomed to see her at every social event that he attended, and be subsequently rendered speechless by mortification at the remembrance of his thoughtless outburst. His gazewas drawn automatically to her and it wasn’t long before he noticed that she had a pair of very fine, dark eyes. One realisation followed another; she had a light and pleasing figure, playful manners, a lively disposition, and a fresh, glowing complexion. He often came up close to her, but hesitated to talk to her. How could he without first making the apology, and how was it to be made?
They were in company at Sir William’s one evening, when he stood near both Miss Bennet and Miss Lucas as they talked to Colonel Foster. On his approaching the two young ladies again a little later, trying to get up the nerve to say something, Miss Bennet turned to him and said, "Did you not think, Mr Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Foster to give us a ball at Meryton?"
"With great energy; - but it is a subject which always makes a lady energetic," Darcy blurted out, realising too late how patronising he must sound.
How was it she could archly bring up the topic of overheard conversations so easily when he could not manage to do it at all? Of course, he had been in the wrong both times, whereas she had not. Darcy did not know what would have resulted if the conversation had continued, but Miss Lucas was urging her to play, and the young ladies went over to the instrument.
‘How am I ever to get to know the man?’ thought Lizzie as she walked to the pianoforte. It was as if he had built a wall around himself that could not be scaled. Yet why does he look at me, and why does he come and stand close to me and initiate nothing? As she played she noticed him leaning against the far wall, gazing in abstraction at her direction. She longed to get past his shyness and discover the real person within. She gave up the piano to her sister Mary who was entreated to play some Scottish and Irish airs so that the young people could dance.
Darcy stood watching the dancers with a look of disdain on his face. The younger Bennet girls were so loud and boisterous, vulgar in their forwardness. It was surprising that their two elder sisters were so ladylike, Miss Jane Bennet so sweet and refined, Miss Elizabeth with her engaging pertness. The youngest Miss Bennet let out a squeal of laughter as she went around the set, and Darcy shuddered at the thought of his sister ever being in the company of such a girl, let alone acting like her. It was unthinkable. Suddenly, he found himself being addressed by his host:
"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr Darcy! – There is nothing like dancing after all. – I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."
What was that officious knight going on about now, Darcy wondered. Polished society? This? How could he respond to such mindless social banter? This was not his forte. It was one of the many things that caused him anxiety when not in his own set. Now, how to shut the man up and have him go on his way without being uncivil?
"Certainly sir," he started agreeably. "And it has the advantage of being in vogue among the least polished societies of the world.– Every savage can dance."
But, unfortunately, the comment was lost on Sir William, who droned on about dancing. Bingley’s dancing, Darcy’s dancing, dancing in St James. How insufferable to have to put up with such inane prattle! Darcy replied as shortly as possible, bowed in acknowledgement of owning a house in London, and found himself unable to respond at all to Sir William’s last remark, as he had not heard a word of it. His attention had been diverted by the approach of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and his mind had gone straight back to his predicament. If he did not soon apologise to the lady it would be too late. Even now what would she think? ‘A fortnight ago I made a remark that you must have found very hurtful.’ She would think him a fool, no doubt. He awoke from his reverie to the realisation that Sir William was offering Miss Elizabeth to him as a dance partner. Much as he disliked dancing, he was not loath to take the opportunity to try to make amends for the other occasion.
Mr Darcy looked at her, trying hard to keep his composure, and asked, "Would you do me the great honour of standing up with me?" He wished he could take the words back as soon as they were said. He had sounded so stiff and pompous, so uninviting. He wished he had said something else, like, ‘It would be a pleasure to dance with you,’ or, better yet, ‘Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?’ If he had another opportunity, he might use that phrase, but for now he could not utter another word.
Lizzie felt sorry that he had been forced into making a request that it was patently obvious he had not wanted to make. She was sure there was not a soul in the room who felt less like dancing than he, and on no account would she inflict such misery on him, no matter that she would have liked to dance with him if he had truly wanted to. She also wanted in some way to show this man that she harboured no ill feelings for him on account of his ill-judged comment, so she smiled and said, "Mr Darcy is all politeness."
His face still distant; he acknowledged her refusal with a nod that gave nothing away. She hoped that he had understood her. His silence left her no option and so she gave him another smile, and continued on her way towards Charlotte, who was sitting on the other side of the room.
Darcy looked after her, unsure what to make of the scene that had just played out. She had not wished to dance with him, but she did not appear to be angry with him, if her smiles were anything to go by. She must truly be very good-natured.
Sir William was forgotten, in fact neither Darcy nor Lizzie had paid the least bit of attention to his rambling remarks after the invitation had been made. He wandered off, not at all troubled by this treatment, and started up a conversation with Mrs Long who was very pleased to talk to him.
Caroline Bingley sidled up behind Darcy and, over his shoulder, spoke with great familiarity into his ear.
"I can guess the subject of your reverie."
Darcy almost jumped out of his skin. Oh, could she please stop doing that! She was his friend’s sister, and at times an amusing companion, but she was, like most of the women he knew, making a cast for him and he was tired at only being seen as husband material. He recovered his equanimity and replied abruptly, "I should imagine not." He was used to crossing wits with Caroline and she would not best him.
"You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner – in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. The insipidity and yet the noise; the nothingness and yet the self-importance of all these people!"
"Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow." There, that should give her pause.
Caroline felt a warm glow suffuse her body. It had only been a matter of time after all. Compared to this company her attributes must have finally hit him with the force of a hammer. She looked into his cool green eyes, and laughed up at him, teasing coyly, "Whose eyes? What lady has inspired such reflections in you? I desire that you tell me now for I cannot suffer such suspense."
Even better, thought Darcy. She thinks I am referring to her - what amazing conceit! Now he would set her straight. "Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Caroline almost reeled with the shock. What game was he playing? This could not be! "Miss Elizabeth Bennet! I am all astonishment. How long has she been such a favourite? – and pray when am I to wish you joy?" she asked with malice. Two could play at this game.
"That is exactly the question I expected you to ask," retorted Darcy, smugly, pleased to see that his shot had hit home. "A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment. I knew you would be wishing me joy."
Caroline seethed, but she had plenty of ammunition left, and she was not one to back down from a challenge. "Nay if you are so serious about it, I shall consider the matter as absolutely settled. The two younger Miss Bennets may be your bridesmaids. I can just see them now, winking at all the officers from the bridal procession. You will have a charming mother-in-law, indeed, and of course she will be always at Pemberley with you. And next summer you must have her chaperone Georgianna for her coming out. She will attend the presentation at St. James in a hat with more ostrich feathers than the whole company combined, and dripping with jewels too, all at your expense of course. Oh, and be sure to have Miss Mary Bennet sing and play for you as much as possible . . ."
Darcy let her wit flow long, he wasn’t paying the least bit of attention. He had much better things to think about that included a certain pair of fine eyes and the person who owned them, and did not involve her family at all.
Part the Third.
Lizzie was distressed to find that Jane had taken ill on her visit to Netherfield, and the lack of use of the carriage would not stop her in her determination to be with her sister. She walked along lanes bordered by hedgerows, over stiles, and through meadows, disregarding the mud that soaked her half boots and stockings and liberally spattered the hem of her petticoats.
She was shown into the breakfast room, much to the surprise of all the company. Caroline and Louisa rolled their eyes at each other, and Bingley jumped up and shook her hand, giving her all the latest information on Jane’s illness and commending her for her caring devotion to her sister. Darcy greeted her and said little else - the shock of unexpectedly seeing her, when he had just been thinking about her, had bereft him of speech. Mr Hurst looked up to see what all the commotion was, and then applied himself to his breakfast when he had ascertained that it was nothing of importance.
Lizzie was shown to her sister’s room where she found Jane happy to see her but not at all well. Lizzie held her hand, and encouraged her to go back to sleep, and then sat quietly contemplating Jane’s flushed face until the two girls joined her.
"How is our dear Jane?" asked Louisa, in condoling accents. "Poor sweet girl!"
"She is not well at all," said Lizzie. "I hope that I will be able to take her home. The horses are being used in the fields now, but in the evening they will be free."
"What!" said Caroline. "Take our dear Jane? No, she must stay so we can nurse her. I will not leave her side till she is well. I have been beside myself with worry for her all morning."
Lizzie thought that both sisters displayed laudatory sentiments, but indeed wondered at their sincerity. They had not seemed so full of concern when she had first seen them in the breakfast parlour nonchalantly eating fingers of toast and strawberry preserve. The apothecary came and said that Jane was quite unwell and must not be moved, and as Jane begged her sister not to leave her, Lizzie was invited to stay until Jane recovered.
Lizzie felt uncomfortable in her present situation. She had no liking for the two sisters and suspected they felt the same about her. She felt a thrill at spending so much time in the same establishment as Mr Darcy, but believed that it was somehow wrong of her to feel that way. What was it about him that interested her? Was she merely still trying to make out his character, or was she interested in him for more superficial reasons, like his startlingly good looks? As yet, she knew nothing of his true nature. She told herself not to be so foolish, and spent the rest of the morning seeing to Jane’s comfort while Louisa and Caroline gossiped for Jane’s entertainment. They stayed with Jane until It was time to dress for dinner, whether from a caring and lively interest in Jane and an earnest desire for her company, or because the gentlemen were away from the house, Lizzie was not sure, but she supposed the latter.
At dinner Lizzie had the misfortune to be seated next to Mr Hurst, while Mr Darcy was seated between the two sisters who spent the whole meal regaling him with anecdotes. Bingley was at the head of the table and asked with great concern about Jane a number of times, but was really too far from Lizzie to carry on a conversation. Mr Hurst showed a great appreciation for his wine and his food and little interest in talking. After he discovered that she preferred a plain dish to ragout he really had no more to say to her. Lizzie could not wait to get back to Jane, and when she did she carried all the good wishes for her recovery that Bingley could utter, and offers of any assistance that she would wish for her comfort. When Lizzie saw Jane safely asleep, she made her way back to the drawing room in search of a book. The door was slightly open, and as she was about to go through she hesitated upon hearing Jane’s name mentioned from within. She became perfectly still.
" . . . I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance for it."
Lizzie bristled at the contempt she heard in Caroline’s voice. She knew she should leave at once, but she couldn’t make her feet respond. The voices were a bit muffled and then Caroline’s voice carried to her again.
" . . . they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside."
"That is capital!" laughed Louisa, and Caroline’s sarcastic laughter joined hers.
"If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside it would not make them one jot less agreeable," cried Bingley.
"But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world," she heard Mr Darcy say.
That did it. Lizzie turned and ran back to her room thinking only that she and Jane had to get out of the house as soon as possible. Her every feeling was mortified. Upon entering the room she found that Jane was sleeping fitfully and she had to compose her agitation of mind so as not to disturb her sister. She sat in an armchair and took some deep breaths. Hateful, hateful girls! How dared they laugh about the Gardiners, her truly best and most beloved aunt and uncle! They were judging them just upon where they lived! She then remembered Mr Bingley’s outburst and her heart warmed to him. Oh that such a sincere and sensible man should have such sisters! Jane was so lucky to have found a man who judged people on their own worth, who valued goodness and character above status and money. But what stung the most was what had sent her flying back to the room. "It must very materially lessen their chance of marrying". And why should the fact that Mr Darcy said it make it even worse? Lizzie tried to reason out her reaction. Was it that he could influence his friend? Was it fear for Jane’s future happiness? No, she felt that Mr Bingley would follow his heart. What then? Suddenly a thought materialised. A ghost of a thought that she hurriedly tried to stop in its tracks. ‘If those are his feelings then that would materially lessen your chances of marrying . . . him.’I do not think that! was her initial response. I am too sensible to let any silly thought like that influence me. I have no interest in him at all in that direction. To be sure, I want to make him out, to understand his character, and he does have very expressive green eyes, and I like the way his dark hair curls on his forehead, and . . . I do not think of him in any other way at all. One can’t help but notice a gentleman’s looks, after all they are right there for all to see, but there is a difference between that and having more tender feelings. Lizzie was quite sure that she had no tender feelings. As she relaxed she had to acknowledge that the reason the remark had bothered her so much was because it was true. It was that simple.
She went over to Jane’s side and checked on her again. Her sleep was more settled now. Lizzie felt a pang that she had put her feelings above Jane. They could not leave the house until Jane was better. Lizzie was going to have to meet and converse with all these people until then and try not to let what she overheard affect her behaviour. Lizzie sighed. She had learned from this experience and her other recent one that when one overhears private conversations, one might not like what is heard. She would try to be more circumspect from now on.
Lizzie stayed with Jane until quite late. Jane had woken several times, feverish, and had taken a little broth and later a few sips of tea, and now she was sleeping more comfortably. Lizzie had bathed her forehead until it felt much cooler. The trip downstairs to join the company had to be made; Lizzie knew she could not put it off any longer. She found all the party at loo in the drawing room, and declined to play, picking up a book instead.
Mr Bingley, of course, had asked after Jane as soon as Lizzie had entered the room, and when she was settled in her corner with her book, Mr Darcy turned to her with a searching look. She feared meeting his eyes, as if he would be able to see in them that silly thought that had come unbidden to her mind, but then she chided herself for foolishness and looked up. When their eyes met she felt a sudden jolt and it was Mr Darcy’s turn to look down.
"You were a long time with your sister," he said with some diffidence. "How is . . . is she any better?"
"She is sleeping easily for the moment," replied Lizzie, "but I do not know how long it will last. I am only able to stay below stairs for a short time; I do not like to leave her alone."
"Do not wear yourself down," he said, and appeared about to say more, when Caroline claimed his attention and he returned to the game.
Lizzie sat holding the book without opening it. Mr Darcy had spoken with some compassion of feeling which caused her senses to react with jumbled confusion. She cautioned herself to be steady, and opened her book, reading the whole first page without taking in a word of it.
Mr Hurst took that moment to notice that Lizzie was in the room and called out to her:
"Do you prefer reading to cards?"
Lizzie was just about to answer that she would not be down for long and had no wish to disrupt the game by joining it, when Caroline answered for her.
"Miss Eliza Bennet despises cards. She is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else."
Mr Hurst looked aghast, and his dear wife, Louisa, tittered.
"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," cried Lizzie, feeling her anger towards Caroline rise again. She took a breath to calm herself. "I am not a great reader and I have pleasure in many things."
Lizzie returned to her book but was unable to attend to it. She felt all the awkwardness of the situation she was in, being in a house where the majority of the inhabitants did not want her. She desired only to go back to Jane, but did not see how she could politely leave the room so quickly after her outburst. She laid her book aside and approached the card table, being drawn by a conversation about Mr Darcy’s sister. She placed herself between Mr Bingley and Caroline, where there was an opening at the table.
"I never cease to be delighted byGeorgiana!" said Caroline in high rapture. "There is no young lady of my acquaintance to equal her! Perfect manners, lovely countenance, and so very accomplished. Why, her playing is simply exquisite!"
"Young ladies are amazingly accomplished these days," cried Bingley. "They all paint tables, cover screens, net purses, and any number of things."
"Many people feel that is all that is needed to call a young lady accomplished," said Darcy. "She just has to trim a bonnet or paint a stool and her abilities are extolled. But truly Bingley, can you honestly say that you know very many really accomplished ladies? I am sure I have encountered no more than five."
"I quite agree," said Caroline. "It takes much more to be accomplished than that. I’m sure I barely know any truly accomplished young ladies."
"You must have quite a high standard that you judge them by," said Lizzie. She kept to herself the thought that followed next: ‘and do you believe yourself in this select group?’
"Oh certainly," cried Caroline, eager to show off her fine, discerning mind, "to be truly accomplished a lady must have a complete knowledge of music, singing, dancing, modern languages, and drawing. She must have a certain ‘je ne se quoi’ in her bearing, manner and voice."
"Indeed," said Lizzie, stifling a laugh at Caroline’s superior attitude. She glanced across the table and caught Mr Darcy looking at her with a twinkle in his eyes and a little smile playing on his lips. His expression immediately became austere.
"She must possess all this," he said gravely, "and to it add the most important element, the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
"Well, if that is the case," remarked Lizzie, "I am surprised at your knowing any accomplished ladies. To know five is beyond expectation. I am sure I have never seen so much taste, ability, and elegance of mind united."
"How can you say so, Miss Eliza?" cried Caroline. "You are too severe on your own sex. Why, Louisa and I count many such ladies amongst our acquaintance!"
"You do?" countered Lizzie. "But hadn’t you just said that you knew barely any?"
Caroline sputtered and knew not what to say in return. Bingley laughed indulgently at his sister, and Darcy gave Lizzie an appraising look.
"By God! – is nobody attending to their cards?" exclaimed Mr Hurst.
There was a round of apologies as everyone resumed playing. Lizzie took the opportunity to excuse herself and return to her room to spend the remainder of the evening with her sister.
As Jane slept fitfully, Lizzie pondered the intricacies of Mr Darcy’s character. If indeed her interest in him stemmed merely from her habit of studying character, then she had come much closer to fulfilling this end. He was surely proud; his statement on her and Jane’s chances for a good marriage proved that. But he had also shown himself to have compassion, to disdain superficiality, and to value education in a woman.
During the remainder of her stay, Lizzie spent as much time as she could nursing her sister, and avoiding the superior Miss Bingleys. They spent less and less time with their ‘dear Jane’, much to Lizzie’s relief. She could not avoid having dinner with the rest of the company and spending a few hours every evening in the drawing room. She was finding it increasingly difficult to be civil to Caroline, and to keep her mind off Mr Darcy. She found that she had to steel herself against him because developing an interest would be fruitless and only result in pain and disappointment. Despite one or two looks when she had caught him unawares, she could see nothing to indicate that he thought about her one way or another. Though polite, he continued to be reticent and aloof, and she tried her best at countering her interest in him by playful little jabs of wit at his expense to prove to herself that she was not in danger. In fact she was not quite proud of her own behaviour. At times he confused her by appearing to show some sort of interest, but the circumstances always involved encroaching behaviour towards him on Caroline’s part, and she suspected he was doing it only to put Caroline off. It certainly did increase Caroline’s enmity towards herself.
One evening, while Caroline was playing some lively Scottish airs and casting alluring glances at Mr Darcy, he approached Lizzie and asked her to dance in such a way that she was not quite sure if it was an invitation to dance, or just a remark about the music making one feel like dancing. Lizzie knew not what to make of it, as she was well aware that Mr Darcy did not like dancing, and so decided that he was only approaching her to needle Caroline. Lizzie’s spirit rose in offence at being used in such a manner, and it caused her to answer quite challengingly:
"You wanted me, I know, to say‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you that I do not want to dance a reel at all – now despise me if you dare." There, she thought, that serves you right for using me as a dupe to thwart Caroline’s advances towards you. I do not like the position you are putting me in. She hoped that her cutting remark would offend and cause him a twinge of guilt, but his reaction was totally unexpected.
"Indeed I do not dare," he said in a gentle voice, with that same smile playing on his lips that she had seen once before.
Teasing, teasing man! What was he about? She knew that his smile should not affect her the way that it did, but her anger towards him dissipated, and she could almost believe for a moment that he had really meant to be gallant towards her. Then Caroline, who could not bear to see Mr Darcy and Lizzie in a tête-à-tête, finished her playing and insisted that ‘Miss Eliza’ take her turn at the instrument. She took Darcy’s arm, and in a proprietary manner began to stroll around the room with him.
On another occasion, Mr Darcy was reading, and Caroline, having no luck at distracting him from his book, invited Lizzie to walk about the room with her. Lizzie could not but suspect such a show of friendship, especially on account of the smirk that accompanied the invitation, but she accepted because to do otherwise would have appeared rude. Not long after they started to walk, Mr Darcy’s attention was caught by the novelty of the invitation; he was as much aware of Caroline’s animosity towards Lizzie as Lizzie herself was, and he laid down his book. Caroline began immediately to tease him: "Oh do you not wish to walk with us? Why ever not? What can you mean by thinking we have other motives for walking? I am dying to know your meaning."
"He means to be severe on us, and our surest way of disappointing him, will be to ask nothing," said Lizzie, wishing she had not allowed herself to be placed in such a position by Caroline.
But Caroline could not rest until she knew his meaning, and Darcy was quite willing to impart it.
"Either you wish to show your figures to advantage, or you are wanting to share confidences, if the latter I should indeed be in the way, and if the former, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire."
"Oh! Abominable! We must punish such a speech!" cried Caroline.
"Nothing so easy," said Lizzie. "We could tease him- laugh at him - you must know how it is to be done."
"Oh no! We cannot tease calmness of temper and presence of mind! Mr Darcy is a man without fault and cannot be laughed at - he would hug himself!"
"That is unfortunate, for I dearly love a laugh."
"Miss Bingley gives me more credit than I deserve," said Darcy. "No man can be without fault. Though it has been the study of my life to avoid such weaknesses, I must admit that I have an unyielding temper, perhaps I am even resentful, and my good opinion once lost is lost forever."
"That is a failing indeed," said Lizzie, "but you have chosen your fault well, I cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me."
"There is, I believe, a tendency in every disposition to some particular evil which not even the best education can overcome," said Darcy with that same little smile.
"And your defect," said Lizzie, in an effort to dispel the warm glow within her that his smile created, "is a propensity to hate everybody."
"And yours is wilfully to misunderstand them," Darcy returned, his face once again austere.
Caroline, finding herself left out of the conversation, begged her sister for a little music, and Lizzie excused herself from the room, her feelings quite overset by the interchange.
The next day, Jane was able to come to dinner, much to Bingley’s pleasure, and in the afternoon went for a stroll with him and his sisters in the garden, her first outing since her arrival. Lizzie found herself alone in the drawing room with Mr Darcy. She made a good show of reading her book. She did not dare to even cast her gaze up at him. She knew that her effort not to grow attached to him had failed abysmally. She felt that she was in great danger of losing her heart, and she could not let that happen. In the last few days she discovered that he enjoyed reading, was well versed in many subjects, was intelligent, a kind and caring brother, a good friend, and he had a subtle sense of humour. She had always supposed that she preferred gentlemen with open, engaging manners, but she was intrigued by his quietness and his well-masked vulnerability. And then there were his green eyes that she was afraid of getting lost in, and his sweet smile that only appeared on rare occasions, and which caused utter confusion within her. But not to be forgotten was his pride and his position, his comment about her and Jane’s poor connections, and the all important fact that he neither admired her looks nor was in any way attracted to her, and had only found her useful as a foil against Caroline. She understood that. A man of his income, bearing, and person must be the target for every matchmaking mamma, every husband-hunting socialite. He must have so many beautiful and well to do ladies casting out lures for him that it was no wonder that a simple country girl like her would have made no impression on him whatsoever.
If Lizzie could have been privy to Darcy’s thoughts, she would have been very surprised. He sat in his chair, the picture of studious calm, but could neither read nor think clearly knowing that he was alone in the room with her. He had never had a woman make such an impression on him as she had done. When she had arrived at Netherfield, he had been thinking about her, superficially musing on her dark eyes and regretting that he had never been able to explain himself to her regarding his comment. Now he was struggling within himself to understand why he was almost willing to overthrow all his convictions regarding status and connection, and allow himself to more than admire Miss Elizabeth Bennet, to allow himself to be overpowered by the feelings that were threatening to engulf his reason. It took all his strength of mind, and a liberal dose of reminding himself of Mrs Bennet and all the younger, wild Miss Bennets, to bring himself back to rational thought. He made the mistake of looking up at her lovely countenance as she concentrated on her book and he felt a pang at the fact that this girl who had him in such a turmoil was so oblivious to him. She paid him no excess of attention like all the other ladies of his acquaintance, which paradoxically pleased him and pained him. How was it that she was not attracted to him? He cursed himself under his breath for being a dolt, put away his book, and strode out of the room before he lost what little sense remained and made a complete fool of himself.
Lizzie sighed as he left the room without even acknowledging her presence, then she became aware of a very unusual rumbling noise coming from the settle in the far corner. She got up to investigate, and found Mr Hurst sleeping most indecorously upon the satin cushions, smelling strongly of spirits. For that half-hour that had caused the both of them so much pain, Mr Darcy and Lizzie had not been alone after all!
Part the Fourth
"I have reason to expect an addition to our family party today," announced Mr Bennet. "A gentleman and a stranger."
"Oh it is Mr Bingley!" cried Mrs Bennet, going off into transports. "Jane, you sly thing!"
"I said it is a stranger," said Mr Bennet. "I’m sure you don’t count Mr Bingley as a stranger, my dear."
"Oh, no indeed. Then who could it possibly be?"
"It is my cousin, Mr Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases."
"Oh that horrid, horrid man!"
"Then you are acquainted with him?" asked Mr Bennet with a wink at the girls.
"You know very well that I am not!" cried Mrs Bennet. "I quite detest the man. What gives him the right to take our house from us when you are . . . gone?"
"Mama, you know all about the entail," said Jane.
"Entail! It is outrageous to take someone’s house just because of an entail! Oh why you did not do something about this I do not know, Mr Bennet. Think of the girls! Think of my poor nerves! How could you allow there to be an entail?"
"I am afraid I did all I could about the entail, and unfortunately the girls were the result, not that I blame them in the least," said Mr Bennet.
"And now we have to entertain this odious man? It is beyond reason. How do you expect me to bear it?"
"I think you are quite right that it is beyond reason, that was the exact impression I received upon reading his letter, however, I believe he plans to make amends for his thoughtless behaviour in being my heir."
"And so he should! That is very good of him. What amends does he speak of?"
"His allusions lead me to believe it involves one of our daughters."
Mrs Bennet was wise to anything that spelled marriage and was soon raving about what a wonderful gentleman Mr Collins was, and making plans as to which daughter may be got rid of so expeditiously. She must tell him of Jane at the outset. In her mind Jane was as good as married already. Next in line was Lizzie, although . . .
Mr Collins proved to be a large young man with a formal, ponderous, ingratiating air, who could not open his mouth but to show what an obsequious fool he was. Mr Bennet looked on indulgently, and when he had got his fill, retired safely to his library. The girls were not so pleased with him, nor so lucky in having a bolthole. The most frightening thing was the possibility of him intending to have one of them. They were all vying for the spot furthest from him. Mrs Bennet was in raptures and couldn’t hear enough about Lady Catherine, his patroness, and the chimneypieces, staircases, and numerous windows of her stately home.
The next morning he walked with the girls to Meryton, and attached himself to Lizzie, much to her extreme annoyance.
"Cousin Elizabeth, did I tell you of Lady Catherine’s goodness in attending to every detail of my trip?" he asked, bending close to her and smiling ingratiatingly.
Lizzie was almost asphyxiated by the smell that emanated from his person; a bodily sourness mixed with the floral sweetness of his hair oil, which he had applied liberally to his stringy locks. She backed away and said, "Yes, I believe you have told me of it more than once already."
"She is so attentive to all my needs, to the needs of all the parish, in fact," he continued, not heeding her answer. "She advised me of the best inn to hire my carriage, how much to tip the post boys, and where I should find the most well-prepared meals, and I must say that the meal at the inn she recommended was just as she had promised, the cuts of meat tender and succulent, the puddings rich and sweet. There is nothing that is beyond the good Lady’s notice. And did I tell you that only a lane separates my humble abode from her glorious estate of Rosings . . . "
And so he continued the whole way to Meryton, as Lizzie let her mind wander, trying not to dwell on what his singling her out must mean, but instead thinking of someone she would much rather be spending her time with.
In Meryton they met with Mr Denny, an officer of the militia, who was accompanied by a handsome young gentleman they had never seen before. He was introduced to them as a Mr Wickham, just newly joined up, and not yet in his regimentals. His golden curls, clear blue eyes, and warm, open countenance recommended him to everyone, and he was very gallant by all the ladies. Kitty was giggling and Lydia practically swooning imagining the picture he would make in his red coat. Upon being introduced to Lizzie, he took her hand and smiled directly into her face, telling her that meeting her was indeed a pleasure and he looked forward to nothing more than getting to know her better. Mr Collins hovered proprietarily beside her trying to show that he had already staked out the territory, but his pretensions were ignored as Wickham made to fall in with the company at Lizzie’s sideAt that moment Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy rode up and stopped to greet the ladies. Darcy was about to speak to Elizabeth, when he noticed the man at her side. He stopped his approach, and his whole demeanour changed; his face paled and set in frigid lines. For his part, Mr Wickham turned red, and then after a few moments touched his hat towards Darcy with a smirk and a little bow. Darcy barely deigned to return the salutation with an almost imperceptible nod in Wickham’s direction and a look of the coldest hauteur that Lizzie had ever seen. He said nothing and was soon hurrying Bingley off about their business.
That evening the Bennet girls dined at their Aunt Phillips’, and Mr Wickham had been included with the other officers in the invitation to join them for the evening. He was universally pleasing, and charming to all the ladies. As the evening wore on, he managed to extricate himself from Lydia and Kitty’s clutches, and sat beside Lizzie in a quieter corner of the room.
"I have been wanting all evening to find just such a situation for myself," he said in soft tones accompanied by a most devastating smile.
Lizzie was not sure how to respond to such familiarity on so short an acquaintance. She merely smiled at him and said, "You are welcome to join me."
"How is it that in the country the young ladies are so remarkably pretty?" asked Wickham with a meaningful glance.
Lizzie saw fit not to answer.
"And the prettiest of them is right here by my side," he continued.
Lizzie blushed and wished that he would stop.
With so little encouragement, Wickham decided on another tactic. "This afternoon, when I met you, I also chanced to meet two of your neighbours, a Mr Bingley and a Mr Darcy. I have been discovering that the general opinion of Mr Darcy is that he is a very proud and disagreeable man, although Mr Bingley is highly regarded."
"That is the general case, though not everyone feels the same way about Mr Darcy," said Lizzie shortly.
"Is that so? Mr Bingley I am unacquainted with, but I am looking forward to meeting such a well-liked fellow. I have yet to hear a good report on Mr Darcy. Did you know I am extremely well acquainted with him? You may well show your surprise, for I am sure you noted his reception of me."
Lizzie nodded her head, but said nothing to encourage the conversation, though despite herself she was intrigued, and despite the impropriety of gossiping she wanted to hear more. She had wondered at that greeting all day, and had regretted Mr Darcy’s attitude after the meeting. He had not so much as glanced at her again. She had felt chagrined by his treatment of her, but it was all for the best, she needed to be discouraged where he was concerned. She had to be realistic.
"Miss Bennet, are you attending at all to what I am saying? You look full twenty miles away. That is a little crushing to my ego, you know," said Wickham with a smile that belied his words.
"I am so sorry," said Lizzie colouring, "please continue."
"Have you heard of Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s estate? Well, I grew up there. My father was the late Mr Darcy’s steward, and I was his godson. Darcy and I were brought up as brothers. The late Mr Darcy was a very good man and he loved me dearly, which caused Darcy to be very jealous of me. He is disgusted at my low beginnings and does not recognise me in society. It is his damnable pride. He feels that anyone with less than him is below him and of no consequence."
"How very bad for you," said Lizzie. "But I have seen him to be a very kind friend and know him to be a caring brother."
"When he wants to he can behave in a most becoming manner, I believe. But he has a disgust for me that I have done nothing to deserve, so it is hard for me to look on him favourably. His sister is another such, proud and disdainful. She held me in affection when she was a small child, but he turned her against me as well. You cannot wonder at my not liking him."
Lizzie looked at Wickham wondering why he was talking so freely to her. What could he hope to gain by speaking ill of Mr Darcy and his sister? Surely he was hurt by the rejection of friendship, and it was bad that Mr Darcy had treated him unfairly, but she had seen something of Mr Darcy and could not believe him to be so very bad. "As Mr Darcy is not here to defend his behaviour to you, I do not think we should talk of him any longer," she managed.
"No, I can think of so many more subjects I would rather talk about with you than Darcy’s cruelty to me, not honouring his father’s last wishes and blighting all the hopes that I had for a promising future in the church. We will not go into that at all." Wickham smiled at her again and held her eyes with his own blue ones. "On occasions such as this the talk should be bright and sparkling, with much wit and laughter, as I fall irrevocably and most willingly under your power."
Lizzie was so shocked she could not speak. The nerve of the man saying that he will talk no more of Mr Darcy, and at the same time making an accusation that Mr Darcy had gone against his father’s last wishes, which if true would mean that he lacked all common decency and had a base and cruel character. It must be the grossest falsehood! From what she had seen of Mr Darcy she believed him to be decent, honest, and just. He was proud, but he was not unkind. And then, to make matters worse, Mr Wickham had become very forward in his attentions to her. What unbelievable conceit the man had! She knew not what she said to him, or if she had responded at all, but he seemed to think it encouragement enough and leant even closer, speaking in very gentle and affected tones:
"My dear Miss Bennet, I am lost to your charms . . ."
"Cousin Elizabeth, Cousin Elizabeth, at last I have found you. What are you doing hiding in this corner. Oh, Mr Wickham I believe, I did not see you at first. What is all this? I do not think it is at all appropriate for you to be ensconced like this in such a private manner."
Lizzie had never thought she would be glad to see Mr Collins in her life, but she felt so relieved to be accosted by him that she turned to him with a welcoming smile. "Mr Collins, do sit down."
"I must excuse myself, " said Mr Wickham. "I had promised your sister that I would join the game of commerce." He gave Lizzie a long and smouldering glance and made his way over to the game already in progress to be greeted by squeals of delight by her two youngest sisters.
Lizzie was happy to see him go and would have been happier still to know that she would never be in his company again. Her cousin was complaining about her sisters’ total want of propriety, and launched into a lecture about decorum and morality, which Lizzie let flow over her as she contemplated the spiteful comments of their new acquaintance. She could not believe that Mr Darcy could possible be so unprincipled and unjust. There must be some reason for his treatment of Wickham that had not been revealed, for the fact that there was animosity between the two was more than evident. The fault must be Wickham’s. He had already proved himself to be of very poor character by his forward behaviour and unwarranted disclosures.
"Cousin Elizabeth," said Mr Collins, "it has just come to my attention that there is to be a ball held at the home of a friend of yours, Mr Bingley, the gentleman that stopped so graciously in the street this morning so that he could be introduced to me. Would you do the great honour to dance the first two with your humble cousin?"
"Pardon me?" asked Lizzie as she came out of her reverie.
"I was requesting the honour of leading you out for the first two dances at Mr Bingley’s ball."
"Oh, I . . . well."
"You are not already engaged are you? Say that you are free."
"I have not as yet been asked by anyone," said Lizzie, seeing her hopes of escaping the invitation quickly diminishing.
"It is all settled then. My dear Elizabeth you have made me the happiest of men. Dancing at a ball of this nature, among such elegant company, is beyond reproach and quite the sort of condescension to society as Lady Catherine expects of me."
"Then I am sure that she will be pleased to hear that you have complied with her wishes."
"I will not hesitate to tell her. And that I had the most gracious partner in my lovely cousin," he smiled at her in what he supposed was a winsome manner, but would have caused her to explode with laughter if she was not as near tears as she had become upon finding herself in the same predicament as she had just escaped a moment ago, without even the benefit of a handsome face gazing at her.
Part the Fifth
Mr Collins did not leave Elizabeth’s side from the moment they arrived at the ball. It wasn’t possible for any other gentleman to approach her to claim her for any of the subsequent dances, and she was led out to the floor with none of the other dances spoken for, and no defence if he wished to reserve another two. Lizzie’s displeasure at having to stand up with her cousin was matched only by her embarrassment at his dancing. He was continually out of step and moving in the wrong direction, begging people’s pardon, and pausing to bow at his host, Sir William, and any other personage he thought worthy of his notice. Lizzie blushed and blushed again. She looked across the room and caught Mr Darcy’s eyes on her, a smirk on his lips. Caroline came up to him and said something laughingly in his ear. He stiffened and turned his gaze away. Why did she even care what he thought, she asked herself, mortified by the idea of what he must be thinking of the spectacle she and Mr Collins were making.
Between the sets, Mr Collins, who had been silent throughout the dancing so that he could concentrate on getting his moves all wrong, leaned close to Lizzie and asked:
"Who is that most distinguished gentleman standing against the wall? I believe we met him in the street the other day but I was not introduced. He appears to me to be a personage of great importance. I do not wish to be deficient in showing him deference."
"Mr Collins, that is Mr Darcy and I would beg you not to disturb him."
"Did you say Mr Darcy? Why this is wonderful indeed! I should have guessed; he has the family look, that proud bearing and fine figure. He is Lady Catherine’s nephew. I must go and pay him my respects without delay!"
"No! Please don’t," cried Lizzie. "The music is about to start. There is no time."
"But Cousin Elizabeth, I have been here this half hour and have neglected to do him the honour of debasing myself before him. I can’t neglect Lady Catherine’s closest relatives. It is my duty . . ."
"The dance is resuming," said Lizzie in consternation. "Please come. We must join our set."
Mr Collins was left with no choice but to bow very low in Mr Darcy’s direction two or three times as he made his way back onto the floor. Lizzie did not look at Mr Darcy, not wanting to see the expression of total disdain that she was sure must overspread his countenance at such a display. She spent the remainder of the dance studiously looking in every direction but the one she knew Mr Darcy to be in, and as he did not move the whole time she did not accidentally see him. If she had she may have noticed the sympathetic look in his eyes as they lingered upon her.
After the dance was over, Lizzie made a quick excuse of needing refreshment to forestall Mr Collins who was about to ask for another two dances. Lizzie was on her way to the punch table when she noticed Mr Darcy walking purposefully in her direction. Was he coming towards her? Was he going to ask her to dance? In the two weeks since the stay at Netherfield she had not seen him at all and her need to hear his voice and meet his eyes was stronger than her desire to avoid him. Had she remembered correctly the intense green of his eyes, or had her imagination heightened their quality? A group of people obstructed Darcy’s way and as he attempted to politely make his way around them, Lizzie was thus accosted from behind:
"My dear Miss Elizabeth Bennet, here you are. I am come to claim my dance."
Lizzie turned around and beheld Mr Wickham smiling smoothly at her. "Whatever can you mean?" she asked in surprise, as her mind could only think, ‘please, please go away.’
"Do not be coy with me," teased Wickham, laughing down at her. "You are too cruel, you know you promised to dance with me."
"I did no such thing!"
"I am offended! I am totally cast down. To be so soon forgotten when I thought I had made such an impression," sighed Wickham. "But a promise is a promise and I will hold you to it." He took Lizzie’s hand and started to lead her to the floor.
Lizzie could not but comply. To create a scene would be improper. She looked over to where Mr Darcy stood hoping to show him that she was not acting in accordance to her own wishes. He was frozen in place, his face suffused with anger, his lips compressed, his eyes like ice. He turned swiftly on his heel and walked away. Lizzie wanted only to run to him, to tell him that she had no wish to dance with Wickham, that she only wanted to dance with him. She stared after him with a stricken look in her eyes.
Wickham observed the little scene and did not miss its meaning. It was easy enough to read the disappointment on Miss Elizabeth’s face, and he was very much acquainted with Darcy’s reaction. It was one that he had seen before. The fact that he had caused it again cheered him considerably. It made his little flirtation more enjoyable to know that not only would he enjoy the fire of Elizabeth’s eyes, he would also be causing Darcy pain.
"My dear Miss Elizabeth," he said smoothly. "It grieves me to see how reluctant you are to dance with me. Have I offended you in any way? If I have I am most truly sorry."
"Sir, you have brought me to this floor against my will!"
"I like your spirit. Do protest some more!"
Lizzie refused to look at him. "If we are to dance then let it be. I will not stand here and become a spectacle." She attempted to pull herself together and act complaisant. She gave him a small perfunctory smile as the set started. If he wants sparks from me he shall not get them.
"Ah a smile, or almost a smile. It warms my heart."
Wickham danced well, smiling and flirting, while Lizzie strove for composure as her eyes searched the room for Mr Darcy. She answered his sallies absently and sometimes not at all. The only thing she could think about was Mr Darcy. Did he think she had chosen Wickham over him? She had seen his face. How he must despise the man and her for dancing with him. There must be much more to the story than what Wickham had told her for a reaction such as that.
"Miss Elizabeth, does your mind always go off like that, or is it just my conversation that puts you in a trance?"
"I’m sorry, I was listening to the music."
"Of course," Wickham whispered. "The music is superlative. But I think there is something else. On the chances of raising your ire once again, I must bring up a subject I know you are unwilling to discuss with me."
"I do not understand you sir."
"Come now. We both know I am referring to Mr Darcy. No, do not take umbrage yet, I am not about to lay his indiscretions towards me at your feet again. For some reason you delight in defending him. Take care where you put your feelings. Mr Darcy is deceiving you and all of your neighbours."
"From what I have seen of Mr Darcy I would venture to say he abhors deceit!" said Lizzie hotly despite her intent of keeping her composure.
"Miss Elizabeth, your ready defence of him does you honour, but I ask you, does he deserve it? He is acting under false pretences. By all appearances he is available, a free man, a target for every mother in the neighbourhood who has daughters to marry. But what he has told nobody is that he is betrothed, and has been for years, to his cousin Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s daughter and heir to all her vast fortune and estate."
"He has not told anyone that he is not betrothed," retorted Elizabeth as her heart plummeted. All she could think was that Darcy was engaged and he was more lost to her than he ever had been.
"But everyone assumes him to be unattached, and he has corrected no one," said Wickham smoothly. "If you do not believe me, ask your cousin. He is Lady Catherine’s most obedient servant and must know all the particulars of the engagement because it is one of her favourite subjects. I am only telling you this to save you some hurt, but you must realise that even if he were not engaged, he would not consider someone so far below him. Now you and I, we are perfectly suited. Can you not think of me instead?"
"Sir! You forget yourself! How can you speak to me thus! I do not think of Mr Darcy other than as an acquaintance whom I respect, and you, why you are nothing to me at all!"
"Ah, she protests so delightfully!"
While this conversation was taking place, Darcy returned to the ballroom, a trifle more composed, and standing by a pillar, watched the dance contemplating the one couple that interested him. Wickham was all smiles and easy charm, but Miss Elizabeth did not appear to be in the best of spirits. Was she impervious to him? Had she not preferred to dance with him after all? His anger was not abated, but his heart quickened. Elizabeth knew nothing of Wickham, and yet she did not seem to be responding to his blandishments, and Darcy knew very well how capable Wickham was at wooing any lady he wanted.
"What a terribly insipid affair, and to think I am the unfortunate hostess," said Caroline in his ear.
"Must you always sneak up on me like that?"
"Mr Darcy, my dear, I have been in plain view these five minutes. What has got your attention so?" Caroline looked out on the floor and stiffened, and then looked back to Darcy and said, silkily, "Ah, Miss Eliza is dancing with your late steward’s son. It is insufferable the low company we find ourselves in. I agree with you completely."
"I have said nothing," said Darcy.
"But your look tells all. So little of taste and distinction in this room. You used to almost admire Miss Eliza Bennet, but I imagine your opinion has been quite changed by her obvious lack of good breeding."
"I see nothing to indicate a lack of good breeding, on the contrary I think she is showing an excess of civility."
"But her choice of dance partner shows an indelicate liking for low company."
"I was under the impression that ladies did not do the asking."
"Yes, that is unfortunately true," said Caroline. Ladies indeed were not permitted to ask, and as she was not able to ask him, why oh why would he not ask her? "But ladies do enjoy dancing so very much. Don’t you ever feel the urge to dance?"
"As you know I am not at all partial to dancing."
"At a country ball such as this, I am of the same mind as you. Almost nobody worthy to stand up with. But at a London soirée I dearly love to dance. Here I would only deign to dance with one of our own party."
"Mr Hurst is occupied at the moment," said Darcy slyly.
"You are quite abominable!" said Caroline, and she swept away in grand style. She would dance with one of the higher-ranking officers. That would show him.
Finally Lizzie’s dance with Wickham was over. She had just got through the two worst dance partners of her life. Lizzie was not made for ill humour; she had suffered through the worst, the evening could only get better now. She looked about and saw Mr Darcy talking with Sir William. Well it was too much to hope that he would still be willing to dance with her, if indeed he really was coming over to ask her before. She tried not to think about Mr Darcy or his engagement, and, accepting the next gentleman who asked her, lost herself in the delight of the dance and the music. She went down to dinner on Denny’s arm, and her next dance after that she promised to Chamberlain. When Denny came to claim Charlotte, she looked for Chamberlain but instead found herself being led to the floor by Wickham. She backed away from him hurriedly.
"I am promised to Chamberlain."
"The poor fellow sends his regrets, Miss Elizabeth. He is unable to indulge you at this time and has asked that I take his place."
"You must know that I have no wish to stand up with you again!"
"Even my vain heart cannot deny that fact," said Wickham with mock sadness, "but we must honour my dear friend’s last wishes."
With that he whisked her to the floor as the music started. There was nothing that Lizzie could do if she did not want to look the fool. She gave Wickham a livid gaze, but he only laughed and teased her. She determined not to talk to him throughout the dance, and he let it be, contenting himself with uttering sweet little reproaches at her silence whenever the dance brought them together. He had gained his object and that was enough for him. When Darcy saw that he was dancing with Elizabeth for a second time, he was sure to be angered yet again. And his sense of propriety would keep him from responding in public. His shyness would keep him from Elizabeth’s side, and his sense of justice would prevent him from exposing Wickham to Elizabeth and the rest of the world. Wickham was glad that he had decided to come to the ball after all. There was only room for one of them in this neighbourhood, and if anyone were to back down, it would have to be Darcy. He would be gone soon enough.
After the dance, Wickham gave Lizzie a deep bow over her hand and a wicked parting grin. It hadn’t been quite so bad this time, she thought. At least he had not talked of Mr Darcy again. Just as Charlotte was about to join Lizzie, Caroline came up to her and said:
"I have a word of warning for you, as a friend. It is about your favourite, Mr Wickham."
"My favourite? He is nothing to me."
"Oh really? You have danced with him twice and you two have become quite an item. Everyone is talking of it! But I will have you know that Mr Wickham is not a gentleman. He is only the son of the late Mr Darcy’s steward."
"He told me of this himself."
"I see we do not all share the same discriminating tastes!" said Caroline, and she walked off feeling quite pleased with herself.
"Oh that she would trip and fall!" exclaimed Lizzie to Charlotte. "That girl needs to be put in her place."
"Don’t let her spite bother you," said Charlotte. "I imagine it is pure jealousy that drives her."
"What is she to be jealous of?"
"Well, if you look who is coming towards you, I think you will understand it as I do," said Charlotte, leaving Lizzie to the approaching Mr Darcy.
Lizzie turned and found herself being intensely regarded by Mr Darcy. It is difficult to say which emotion reigned on his face. Was it anger, pride, or fear? He held himself very stiffly and said with utmost formality, "Will you do me the honour, Miss Elizabeth, of dancing with me?" It seemed he was capable of no other form of invitation than that.
Lizzie did not know if dancing with him was wise, or even if it would be pleasant given his current mood, but she desired it beyond anything so she could not help but to say yes and to take his hand. His features softened a little at her acceptance, and she realised that he had been completely unsure of his reception. They danced for some time in silence, until finally Lizzie ventured:
"We should have some sort of conversation as we dance, sir, be it music or books, we must find something to discus."
"So do you talk then as a rule while you dance?"
"It does make it easier to pass the time."
"Well I cannot think of talking of books on the dance floor."
"So it will have to be music," said Lizzie with a smile.
Darcy looked at her, was about to speak, and then thought better of it.
"Does music not appeal to you either?" asked Lizzie. "If you had rather, we need not talk at all." Why has he asked me to dance if he is only going to be silent? She stole a look at him and found that his eyes were on her with a speculative look in them. He hesitated and then blurted out:
"The gentleman you just danced with and danced with before might have been importuning you with falsehoods concerning myself. I do not want to go into details of his character; I just want to inform you that he is not to be trusted. He is very able to make a good impression when he wishes."
"He did attempt to discredit you but rest assured that I gave no credence to his assertions," said Lizzie, glad of this opportunity to let Mr Darcy know that she had not been taken in by Mr Wickham. "I had been most unwilling to dance with him."
"And that is why you danced with him twice?" Darcy could not help himself. When he had seen Wickham lead Elizabeth out for a second time he had suffered a pang. He had thought she had more good sense than that; in fact it was the strong feelings that the event had created that had given him the courage to approach her and ask for this dance.
Lizzie heard all the reproach in his voice. "He tricked me into dancing with him both times. If I had the choice I would not have danced with him at all, but I did not want to create a scene and he was very insistent."
"He is very handsome," said Darcy.
"Oh, do you think so?" said Lizzie in as offhand manner as she could manage.
Darcy felt a certain elation flow through him at those words. She did not think Wickham handsome, she had not wanted to dance with him, and she mistrusted him; she had much more sense than he had credited her with. They danced in silence for a little longer, but it was a much more comfortable and companionable silence than the earlier one. Lizzie was not quite as content. There was still one matter that was pressing on her mind, and if he was able to bring up painful subjects, she might as well too. It was better for it to be out in the open.
"There is one thing that Mr Wickham said to me that I was wondering about," she said. Was it too forward to ask such a question? Possibly, but she needed to know the answer, and the best person to ask was the person involved.
Darcy stiffened perceptibly. "I don’t know that I want to discuss it. I do not like to bandy my private affairs around as he does."
"It would go no further than me," said Lizzie. Now I have really done it. I should have just let the matter lie.
"You have misunderstood . . . that is not what I meant at all," said Darcy in some consternation. "Ask your question, after all, he is the one who began this and not I. You have a right to some explanation."
"It is not about the trouble that exists between the two of you," said Lizzie quickly. "It is something that he told me, and perhaps I am being impertinent, but I should like to know. He has said that you are engaged to be married to your cousin, Miss Anne de Bourgh." As soon as the words were out, Lizzie regretted them. What would he think of her? That she was interested in marriage? She bit her lip and coloured.
For his part, Darcy was relieved by the question. Why did he jump to the conclusion that it would have concerned Georgiana?Elizabeth was too good to pry into his private affairs. "Well, yes but it is not really an engagement, and it means nothing to me."
Lizzie was shocked. "It means nothing to you? So you go around acting like you are not engaged, and ladies and their mamas are having hopes in you, and it all means nothing to you?"
"What are you speaking of? I have never shown a young lady overmuch attention. I have not led anyone on!"
"I am sorry, that is not precisely what I meant. Please disregard what I said. I was not thinking clearly," said Lizzie, afraid even to look at him.
"Let me tell you this," said Darcy in icy tones. "The betrothal is an arrangement made years ago between my mother and my aunt. I was never a part of it and I have never agreed to it."
"And how does your cousin regard it?" asked Lizzie, almost in tears.
Darcy did not reply. He did not know how it had happened but everything had suddenly become incredibly muddled. He was upset and Elizabeth was upset and he saw no way to return to the comfortable feeling before she had broached her question. What did it matter about the betrothal? Why did she think he should honour it? He had no interest in marrying his cousin, but he had never considered what Anne thought of the whole business. When next in Kent he would talk to her about it, if Lady Catherine would give him the opportunity.
He looked at Elizabeth and saw that she was struggling for composure. He had no idea what he should say to her, or why she had become so upset. The set was ending. As he led her off the floor he thanked her for the dance and tried to catch her eye, to smile at her, but she kept her eyes downcast. He stood beside her, unsure of what to do, trying to think of some way to console her, and uncertain if she really wanted him to stay. In the end he turned and walked away. On his way across the floor he passed Caroline.
"Why Mr Darcy! I saw you on the dance floor. How was it that you were dancing when you despise it so?"
He looked at her and did not answer, and continued on to the card room.
She looked after him. He had danced with that Eliza Bennet, but obviously all had not gone well. The girl was such a fool to prefer a steward’s son to Darcy, but so much the better. He would soon come to his senses, and when he did, she would be there for him. She smiled to herself and turned to the young officer who was addressing her. Would she like to dance? Why yes, delighted to be sure!
Lizzie finally raised her head and watched Mr Darcy go. What he thought of her she had no idea, but she wouldn’t be surprised if that was the last time he would ask her to dance. There was no joy left in the evening for Lizzie. She got to watch her family expose itself in the worst possible way. Lydia and Kitty were loud and boisterous. Mary insisted on playing and singing much longer than was expected, and when her father finally asked her to play no more, it only increased the embarrassment. And her mother could not stop talking loudly about Jane and Bingley as if they were engaged already. Lizzie noticed Mr Darcy sitting quite close to her mother at one time, and was sure he had heard her every word. The ball couldn’t end too soon for her, but their mother had managed that their carriage was the last one to draw up to the door. Caroline and Louisa were hiding yawns, and Mr Darcy was looking more distant and bored than she had ever remembered seeing him.
Darcy watched Elizabeth go with mixed feelings. He regretted that he had not spoken to her again, to come to some kind of understanding about the earlier conversation, but he also thought he could not look at her any longer and stand the tumult of feelings that seeing her raised within him. He also had to talk to Bingley privately about something very important. As soon as the guests were gone, he asked Bingley to join him in the library.
"Bingley," he said as the door closed behind him, "just what are your intentions toward Miss Jane Bennet?"
"Darcy, what is this? Why so serious? I have just had a glorious evening dancing with an angel. Is she not the most beautiful woman you have beheld?"
"Yes, but if you paid attention to anything else but her smiles, you would have heard the rest of the company planning your wedding."
"Apparently everything is certain but the date."
"What? I am not contemplating matrimony," said Bingley, somewhat shocked.
"Then you had better start contemplating it."
"Do not get me wrong, Darcy. I am out of my mind over her. I love her madly. There is no one else in the world for me. But marriage? I am not ready for that."
"Then I suggest you take some time to think about it," said Darcy. "If you continue the way you are going, you will have no other choice but to marry her. Your attentions are too pronounced."
"Darcy, what shall I do?"
"Go away for a few weeks. See how you feel about it. I do not suggest that you marry unless you are certain. If you truly are in love with Miss Bennet, then marry her. She is a sweet girl and will make you a good wife, and her connections cannot worry you."
"Her connections? Whatever have they to do with it?"
"In your case, nothing at all."
"I think I will do just as you say. Do you mind leaving quite so soon? I know I promised you a few months of sport and there are still birds to be had."
"I think I am in as much need to leave as you," said Darcy. He turned and looked into the fire, wondering what it would take to remove the vision of Elizabeth’s face that was imprinted on his mind’s eye. If only she had not such connections. Never mind that, if only she had offered him just a little encouragement
Part the Sixth
"Oh my!" said Jane as the letter shook in her quavering hand.
"What is it? What does Caroline say?" asked Mrs Bennet. "Oh do give me the letter that I may read it."
Jane passed the letter to her mother and silently left the breakfast parlour.
"Well that is most unfortunate. The whole party is leaving for London today. But never mind, Bingley shall return soon enough to declare himself to our Jane."
"Let me see," said Lizzie, taking the letter from her mother and perusing it rapidly. "She says it is uncertain when they will return. She looks forward to seeing a lot of Miss Darcy who she hopes one day to be able to call sister! Spiteful girl. Is she referring to her hopes for Mr Darcy or is she giving some hint of Mr Bingley’s future plans? And she goes on to say that they will remain in London for the season. This does not look encouraging at all."
"My dear, she must mean Mr Darcy and herself, because anyone can plainly see Mr Bingley is in love with dear Jane. And what does it matter that she plans to remain in London? It is only Mr Bingley that need return after all. His sisters and that odious Mr Darcy may stay in London forever, for all I care."
"I think she wants Jane to believe that Mr Bingley plans to marry Miss Darcy. She does not think Jane good enough for her brother, and is trying to separate them!"
"Lizzie! How can you speak such nonsense? Caroline is a lovely young lady and your sister’s friend."
"I think not, Mama. I must go to Jane," said Lizzie, leaving the letter on the table. Oh, Jane, Jane, how you must be feeling! She ran upstairs to her bedchamber and found her lying on the counterpane, her tears soaking the pillow. She sat beside Jane on the bed.
"He will not be able to stay away from you," said Lizzie.
"But I had no idea he was going. He said nothing of it to me," she sobbed. "And Caroline has always tried to warn me how close he is to Miss Darcy. While he was here it did not seem possible . . . but now I know there is no hope for me."
Lizzie held her sister close and stroked her hair. "You can depend on it; it is all Caroline’s doing. He is not in love with Miss Darcy. He loves you. She does not think our family good enough for her brother to connect himself to, but she will not be able to influence him against you. He will come back to you."
"Caroline would never do that! She is my friend," said Jane through her tears. "You should not think so ill of her."
"I can’t help but think ill of her," said Lizzie. "She is a mean-spirited girl who thinks of nothing but her own prestige."
"Oh Jane, I am sorry, but I can see no good in her."
They sat on the bed and talked for some time, until Lizzie had Jane calm and somewhat reassured. It was only then that Lizzie allowed herself to indulge in her own feelings of loss. She had acted so foolishly when she was dancing with Mr Darcy, and now he was gone. She had misunderstood him at first when he said that his engagement did not mean anything to him, and she had become angry for no reason. She had thought him disrespecting an alliance of convenience that he was committed to. How could she have believed that he would act dishonourably? Oh that she had never listened to Wickham! He had poisoned her mind. And when Mr Darcy had clearly explained the betrothal she had been too mortified to even look at him. What had he thought of her, knowing that she could think him capable of such deceit? He must think her a petty and foolish person. If only she had been able to look at him and explain herself, but then, how could she have done so without exposing her feelings to him? That would have been worse than anything. ‘Oh! How could I have let myself fall in love with the man? What a hopeless, hopeless situation, but how could I help myself? I have never seen a man to compare with him.’
Lizzie sighed, and returned with Jane to the parlour, and the mending basket. A morning of torture was evidently in store for them; their cousin had undertaken to read to them from Fordyce’s sermons as they stitched. His reading was ponderous and dull. Lizzie felt sorry for all his parishioners who had to listen to his flat nasal tones every Sunday.
Jane left the room on an errand for her mother, and Kitty and Lydia went out in the garden to escape the sermons in a fit of giggles. Mary was listening in rapt attention until Mr Collins finally put the book down and looked about the room.
"Where have all my young cousins gone? That was a passage I thought was of particular importance for all you girls to hear, especially the youngest two."
"It was most edifying," said Mary. "I did so enjoy the solemnity with which you read."
"I feel the tone to be of utmost importance. Lady Catherine is quite of the same opinion," said Mr Collins. "Cousin Elizabeth, I trust you were well pleased with my choice of sermon?"
"It was very . . . nice," was all she could manage, not having heard anything beyond the drone of his voice as she had concentrated all her attention on her needlework.
"Oh Mary," said Mrs Bennet, "I have just this moment recollected that I need to discuss an important matter with you."
"What matter Mama?"
"Come with me and I shall tell you. I am sure your cousin will excuse us."
Mr Collins bowed in acquiescence, and Lizzie looked up startled at her mother as she realised they were being purposefully left alone in the room.
"But Mama . . ."
"We will be back shortly, Elizabeth," said her mother with a wink and a smile.
Lizzie knew not what to do, so she applied herself to her needlework.
Mr Collins came up to her and bent upon his knee in front of her. "Cousin Elizabeth, you cannot doubt what I am about to say. From almost the first moment I was smitten by your beauty and your goodness. Lady Catherine has instructed me to find a good wife, not too highborn but of a gentility and elegance appropriate to my situation in life. I think you are just the sort of woman that she would wish for me to marry. My love for you is, of course, unparalleled, and I am looking forward to a comfortable future with you in connubial bliss if you would do me the supreme honour of accepting my most humble but eminently worthy hand, and join with me in the blessings of the holy state of matrimony."
"Mr Collins, I thank you for your kind offer, but I must refuse."
"Cousin Elizabeth, you are the sweetest thing," he said, reaching for her hand. "You must see how desperately I desire you. Your very feminine demurral is understandable, but think on all the advantages this match would bring to your family. You would secure the future of your mother and your sisters, and keep Longbourn as your home when your father is no longer in this life. You would be very pleased with the snug parsonage at Hunsford which Lady Catherine has helped me to organise into an exceptionally comfortable home for a wife and family, and, what I should perhaps have mentioned first, the benefit of being so close to Rosings, and enjoying the elevated society of that establishment as often as Lady Catherine most obligingly condescends to invite us."
"Mr Collins, indeed, I do not wish to marry you."
"But Cousin Elizabeth, your mother has promised that you would accept me!"
"As she did not consult me before making that promise, I feel no responsibility to stand by it," said Lizzie. "I have no intention of ever accepting you. Can you not understand that when I say no, I mean no?"
"Cousin Elizabeth, do not deny me!" cried Mr Collins, pulling her into his arms.
"Unhand me at once!" cried Elizabeth. "Such behaviour is unbefitting to your situation."
"In matters of love, parsons have the same feelings as other men," he whispered in her ear. "Oh, dearest Elizabeth, say that you are mine."
Elizabeth found the strength to push him away, and stood in the centre of the room, struggling with her breathing, her expression livid. "Do not ever touch me or talk to me in this manner again!" she cried and rushed from the room, almost knocking down her mother who had been listening at the door.
"Mrs Bennet, it has not gone at all well," cried Mr Collins.
"Elizabeth is a most disobliging and contrary girl, but I shall get her to marry you sir, you mark my words!"
"I do not know that I want to marry her if she is disobliging. Lady Catherine was very specific in requesting that I find a wife who is biddable and good natured."
"Lizzie is a very biddable girl as a rule, Mr Collins. I do not know a more biddable girl once she has been brought to see reason."
"I really think I must reconsider, ma’am."
"Then what think you of Mary? She is entirely biddable, and has such a pious, moralising nature. She would do for you perfectly. I do not know why we did not think of her first. She is most ideal!"
"I do not think we would suit. Lady Catherine expressly said to find a pretty girl, and I do think Mary is a little more plain than what she had in mind."
"There are also Kitty and Lydia. Either one would make you a very pretty wife. We need not despair."
"I am afraid their unprincipled and immature behaviour is not what Lady Catherine would like for my wife. I cannot have my wife giggling through my sermons in front of all my parishioners."
"Mr Collins, your good example would teach whichever one of them you chose, and I would put a word in myself."
"I am sorry, ma’am, but my mind is made up. I have done what is possible to make up for my indiscretion in being the heir to Longbourn, and as I can’t have Elizabeth, and am beginning to think that she would not have made me the suitable wife I desire, then I must look elsewhere for a bride."
Mrs Bennet’s anger against Elizabeth was fervent, but there was no changing the mind of either, and no support forthcoming from Mr Bennet. Mr Collins spent most of the remainder of his visit away from the house, and before he was to leave, he was able to announce that he had been successful in claiming the hand of Charlotte Lucas. Mrs Bennet was beside herself and referred to Charlotte as a viper she had cherished to her bosom, and the rest of the Lucases as traitorous upstarts whose only thought was to deprive her of her home. Lizzie was disappointed in her friend that she should make such a poor choice for a husband, and marry where she did not love, but Charlotte had a practical nature and felt that it was the best offer she could expect to receive.
At a library window in his London townhouse, Darcy stood and gazed down on the moonlit street; three weeks in London and he could not get her out of his mind. There was no one to compare with Elizabeth Bennet in the whole city. Her dark eyes, her soft smile, the turn of her countenance when she was about to utter a witty rejoinder, the expression he sometimes caught on her face when he turned to find her appraising him, and the way he felt when he was close to her. These things would not leave him, whether alone or at some social function, they were constantly tugging at his mind, causing him to be more distant than before. That dance with her that had led to so much confusion, played over and over in his head. What had he said or done to cause her such distress? They seemed to have reached a state of comfortable equilibrium, and then it had all fallen apart. For a brief moment it had appeared that she was happy to be with him. His green eyes warmed at the idea, a smile played on his lips, and in the puddles of moonlight on the street below, he imagined her standing, looking up to his window, and smiling her soft smile.
Part the Seventh
The swaying of the carriage finally put Sir William to sleep. He had regaled Lizzie and Maria for miles with his stories of St James and how visiting Rosings would be similar to that grand establishment, so they should follow is lead to know how to behave. Now he sagged in the corner, snoring.
"I am going to miss Meryton," ventured Maria.
"Is this your first trip from home then?" asked Lizzie.
"Yes, and we will be gone for such a long time. It will be an age until we see the officers again."
"I don’t very much mind not seeing the officers," said Lizzie.
"But don’t you think Mr Wickham handsome?"
"Oh he thinks himself handsome and charming enough that I really need not think of him at all," said Lizzie.
"Do you not like him?" asked Maria in surprise. "I had thought . . . that is to say, did you not dance with him twice at the ball?"
"That was not by my wish. He was very forward in his attentions that evening, but luckily his thoughts have now turned elsewhere."
"Miss King is not very pretty – I can’t see why he should like her," said Maria. "You are much prettier than she is."
"Thank you, Maria, but I am not disappointed that he shifted his interest, rather I am sorry for Miss King to have to suffer his attentions because she has inherited 10,000 pounds."
"Can that be the reason for his interest?"
"It is for certain. Miss King would do well to brush him off, for he is not a man to be trusted."
"But he smiled at me once, and looked deep into my eyes. His eyes were so blue," said Maria, colouring deeply at the memory. "My heart skipped a beat. He cannot be so very bad."
"Then it is a good thing you have no fortune," said Lizzie, "for you would have no defences against his charm. Do not be guided by a gentleman’s appearance alone. You must discover if he has a character you can truly respect."
"I shall indeed try!" said Maria fervently, wondering how she would manage unless Lizzie were there to guide her every step.
Lizzie thought of the green eyes that she had succumbed to. She knew they had keenly moved her before she had the least inkling of Mr Darcy’s character. And his little smile - the first time she had seen it, it had confused her thoughts. ‘I am just such a hopeless case as Maria,’ she thought wryly, ‘the perfect person to give advice of this nature!’
It was reassuring to see Charlotte waiting by the gate as they arrived to Hunsford. Mr Collins was running every which way, advising them upon the best means to descend from the coach, giving orders to the sturdy lad who was dealing with the luggage, and pointing out which trees in the front garden Lady Catherine had graciously advised him to trim. When he had presented the parsonage to Lizzie with an out-flung arm, he gave her such a smile that seemed to indicate, ‘If you had been wiser, all this would have been yours.’ Charlotte hugged her friend and smiled placidly.
"I feel it is best to let him ramble on," she said softly into Lizzie’s ear. "He does come to a stop eventually, usually when he is fed. I do believe in laying a good table."
Mr Collins announced that the next day a great treat was in store for them. They had been invited to Rosings. In this honour he felt all that was due his position as parson. Maria and Sir William were duly amazed, and gave him their undivided attention, making it possible for Charlotte and Lizzie to walk on ahead. Charlotte was able to show her home to Lizzie by herself, without reference to Lady Catherine’s improvements, only the changes that she had undertaken herself, with all the care and attention to her own comfort and convenience.
When they sat down to their meal, Mr Collins produced a letter he had received that morning, and, between mouthfuls, informed them in the strongest accents of disappointment that it was from his younger brother who regretted being unable to make a projected visit at that time, due to the untimely illness of his mother.
Charlotte felt no small disappointment. She had been looking forward to meeting her husband’s brother for some time. He was the son of the late Mr Collins’ second wife, and from what she had heard, he bore a striking resemblance to his mother in both appearance and temperament. From his letters he appeared cheerful, intelligent, and agreeable. She had thought that his visit at the same time as Lizzie’s would prove providential. To have Lizzie as a sister would be a dream come true, and in her imaginings (she indulged in imaginings constantly to avoid hearing any of her husband’s conversation) she had married the two of them at least a dozen times over. This unwelcome news had destroyed all her plans in that direction, and as she could not conceive of a quick death for the old lady or a logical reason for the younger Mr Collins to rush and visit his brother immediately upon his mother’s demise, she had to give up her hopes for the time being, and instead devote her attention to the entertainment of her guests.
Lady Catherine was all that Lizzie had supposed her to be, proud, domineering, and uncivil to her visitors. She asked them many questions, and then, without giving them time to respond, answered them all herself. Within half an hour of Lizzie’s acquaintance, she had advised her upon all the minutest details of her dress, grooming, and deportment, and assured her that if she followed all the instructions to the letter, she would be ensured of receiving a proposal before the year was out
Lizzie had been concerned about meeting Miss Anne, knowing that she was nominally promised to Mr Darcy, and wondering what kind of a woman possibly stood in her way, but when she saw her, rather than jealousy or dislike, she felt immediate sympathy for the girl who sat so small and silent at her mother’s side. If her mother’s wishes carried the day, and Darcy was coerced into marrying Anne, Lizzie could see no hope for the happiness of either. Darcy, with his shy reserve, needed someone who could bring him out of himself. Aside from that, how was this shadow of a girl to satisfy a man of such quick intelligence and subtle wit? Lizzie could think of only one girl who could really offer Darcy all that he needed, if only he would overcome his pride and consider her. But then, there were those truly accomplished ladies he knew, all five of them. Maybe one of them was right now managing what she herself had been unable to. He had been long in London, and Bingley too. Somehow Caroline had managed to keep Bingley away from Jane’s side. Lizzie started to attention as Lady Catherine suddenly addressed her.
"And are any of your other sisters out?"
"They are all out, Ma’am, even though the youngest is only just 16."
"That is most irregular! Whatever was your mother thinking?"
"She was thinking that they would not like to wait as their older sisters had not the good fortune to marry yet."
"You are a rather impertinent girl!" said Lady Catherine, her beady gaze on Elizabeth’s face. "I am not accustomed to being answered in such a manner."
"Cousin Elizabeth spoke without thinking and is indeed regretting her words, are you not Cousin? She is well aware of the great . . ."
"Silence! What do you have to say for yourself, Miss Elizabeth Bennet?"
"Only that I was answering you truthfully and meant no disrespect," said Lizzie.
Maria Lucas stared at Lizzie, her mouth an ‘o’, her eyes huge; Sir William got out his handkerchief and mopped his forehead; Mr Collins held two fingers to his lips, his body bent forward in a half bowing position; Miss Anne darted a look of interest in Lizzie’s direction; and Mrs Collins smiled placidly, gazing in Lady Catherine’s direction with limpid brown eyes that betrayed none of the laughter within.
Lady Catherine stared intently at Lizzie. "Well, in that case," she said dismissively. She turned to Mrs Jenkinson: "Anne’s shawl is slipping. You must be sure to keep it always about her shoulders."
Lizzie spent her days with Charlotte and Maria in the little back parlour, or strolling in the many walks of Rosings Park. Mr Collins was very busy composing sermons, tending his garden, and keeping his eye on the comings and goings on the road out front through his library window. Visits to Rosings were an ordeal that Lizzie had to suffer through at least twice a week. They hadn’t been at Hunsford long before they had the news that Mr Darcy and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, were expected at Rosings shortly. On first hearing Mr Darcy mentioned, Lizzie looked over to Anne, but saw no maidenly blush overspread her sallow features or any other indication that the visit of her cousin affected her emotions. Inside, Lizzie had felt a tingling rush of excitement at the very mention of his name. The idea of him coming to stay at Rosings while they were in Hunsford filled her with dread and anticipation.
A few days brought the very gentleman and his cousin to the parsonage door to pay their respects to the ladies. As Mr Collins had run ahead to forewarn them of the coming treat, the ladies within had a few moments to prepare themselves to meet the visiting gentlemen. Charlotte cast a speculative look in Lizzie’s direction and thought, ‘he would not be coming quite so soon if not for you.’ Lizzie was busy attempting to set her mind at ease, trying to determine whether seeing him would cause her pleasure or distress, and she had just decided that pleasure was uppermost when he was announced and entered the room. The stiffness with which he held himself erect, and his austere gaze that barely rested on her before it continued around the room, caused her feelings to plummet. Why had he come only to be so very distant? Could they not meet as friends? She held back the smile of friendship that had readily come to her lips and turned it instead upon his cousin.
Colonel Fitzwilliam was a well-looking, gentlemanlike man, with an open and friendly countenance. He had neither Mr Darcy’s height nor his demeanour. He was most willing to meet and get to know all the inhabitants of the parsonage. He was skilled in conversation, and managed to forestall both Mr Collins and Sir William from making their interminable speeches. Mr Darcy, on the other hand, went over to Charlotte’s side, and after the first polite greetings, stood in silence, looking as much at the walls or out the window as at Elizabeth.
Elizabeth wondered at his behaviour towards her, feeling hurt and confused until she took herself in stock, remembering that Mr Darcy could indeed merely be reacting out of shyness. She had thought that he need not be shy with her, but paying a social visit to a lowly parsonage must be a new and unusual situation for him to be in. Here shyness and pride must be putting up a strong fight against politeness and civility. Lizzie looked over until his gaze met hers and she gave him the smile of welcome that she had held back before. Mr Darcy seemed to unbend a little and in a few moments approached her.
"I must ask after your family, Miss Elizabeth. Are they well?"
"Indeed, they are all well. And our friends, Mr Bingley and his sisters, are they still in town?"
"Yes, I have only just left them to come here, although the Hursts have gone to stay with friends in the north." After saying this, Mr Darcy seemed unsure how to proceed. The fact that Bingley had not returned to Netherfield yet was a touchy subject, and he did not want to give the wrong impression.
"Ah," said Elizabeth, "so Miss Bingley needs her brother to chaperone her about London."
Darcy’s relief showed plainly. She had understood him perfectly, and the subject had been got through smoothly. But he had not counted upon Elizabeth’s next question.
"My sister Jane has been in town these three months. Have you not chanced to see her?"
Darcy was completely taken aback. "Your sister in town?" was all that he could manage.
"Yes, she has been staying with our Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, in Gracechurch Street."
"And she has not visited her friend Caroline Bingley?"
"She has called on her, and the visit was eventually returned."
"I was completely unaware, and Bingley also . . . and where did you say she was staying?"
"In Gracechurch Street."
"Had we but known we would have called to pay our respects along with Caroline."
"But Gracechurch Street is in Cheapside," said Lizzie, unable to resist, knowing as she did Mr Darcy’s attitude towards connections in Cheapside
"I am well aware of that," said Darcy, his colour a trifle heightened by the conversation that was not proceeding as he had anticipated.
Colonel Fitzwilliam had come along and been listening with interest and amusement to this exchange. He decided that it was an appropriate time for him to enter into the fray. "My cousin, Miss Bennet, knows London like the back of his hand. You could name an address anywhere in the city and he could tell you its exact situation."
Elizabeth smiled thankfully up at the Colonel and answered in kind. She was appalled at what she had just said; it had been so uncivil. After all, Mr Darcy had just set her mind at ease about Mr Bingley and she should have shown her gratitude, rather than taking a stab at his pride. She shot a look or two at Mr Darcy while she conversed lightly with Colonel Fitzwilliam, but he had retreated back behind his mask, and appeared to be a million miles away. What she did not see was how often his gaze fell upon her when she was not looking, and the expression in his green eyes. None of this was lost on Charlotte, who saw much food for thought, and for the next few days Mr Darcy and the Colonel alternated as the protagonist in her fanciful imaginings for Lizzie’s future.
On their walk back to Rosings, Darcy pondered the problem of his inability to behave normally around Elizabeth. He was sure he had made a terrible impression on her, and it was equally evident that his cousin had been extremely well received. There were two very important things that he had to take care of before he saw her again, and then he felt he would be able to meet her with more equanimity.
"Darcy! Come out of that pensive rut and talk to me," cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. "Why is it you never told me of the beauties of Hertfordshire before? All this talk of shooting moorhens was obvious nonsense. If I had known such attractions were to be had there, I would have gladly accompanied you and Bingley!"
"Mrs Collins is an agreeable woman, and her sister Miss Maria has a naïve prettiness that I suppose you find attractive," said Darcy, purposely avoiding the real object of his cousin’s praise.
"Don’t toy with me man, you know very well I am referring to Miss Bennet. I was expecting another insipid visit with Aunt Catherine and poor Anne, but visits to the parsonage will make the time much more rewarding. You must encourage Auntie to invite the whole party to dine with us."
"Yes, I do so want to spend more time conversing with Mr Collins."
"The man is an utter mindless fool, but we need not spare a thought for him. Come, you have not mentioned the lovely lady yet. Have you no interest there? Am I free to claim her for myself?"
"You should be careful of giving too much attention when nothing is to come of it. You do not want to raise her expectations."
"You are behaving like a real stick! What twaddle! I should think I can enjoy a flirtation with the lady without compromising myself. And if I were to form an attachment, what is it to you?"
"Only that her portion is small. Her father is a gentleman with a small estate, but he has five daughters to provide for, and her mother’s relations are in trade."
"Oho! The Cheapside aunt and uncle. Is there nothing worse than that?"
"Her other uncle is a lawyer, and not at all genteel. Her mother is a harridan, and her younger sisters are the most ignorant, undisciplined, indecorous, unruly girls I have ever seen. Their only interest is to flirt with the officers of the local militia. It is a wonder that Miss Elizabeth and Miss Jane turned out at all well."
"I see, and in telling me this you are attempting to discourage me in all good conscience?" asked Colonel Fitzwilliam with a sly smile.
Darcy coloured. "I feel that it is for your own good that you are aware of all the young lady’s connections. You are the younger son of an Earl. You must marry where there is fortune and name."
"Thank you for all your kind intentions, cousin! I have just met the girl and your thoughts are turning to matrimony. I suppose you have no such interest concerning the young lady?" he gave Darcy a swift look, but could detect nothing that would confirm such suspicions. "Her connections must put her well below your standard as well."
"You are correct." Darcy was not about to give himself away to his cousin. He realised that Elizabeth’s connections had ceased to be a concern for him for quite a while. As long as they were not in his sight it was easy enough to dismiss them. He was aware that his tirade about the mother and sisters had come from his heart They were a degradation and there was no denying it, but that was something he felt he would willingly put up with if he could manage to make Elizabeth his own. Elizabeth. It wassome time since he thought of her with any other name. He had to be careful when talking to her not to forget to call her Miss Elizabeth, or he would be sure to spoil his suit.
Darcy left Colonel Fitzwilliam to his own devices when they arrived back to the house, and went in search of his cousin Anne. He was lucky to find her in her own quarters with only Mrs Jenkinson in attendance.
"Cousin Anne, there is something very particular that I need to talk to you about," he said.
Mrs Jenkinson looked up from her needlework. "I suggest that you take your cousin for a turn in the garden, Mr Darcy. I have not been able to attend her there yet today, and it would be a great help to me if you would do so."
Anne put on a shawl and silently went out into her usual walk with her cousin.
"You may wonder what I am about to ask you," said Darcy, "but it is something I should have spoken to you of very much sooner than this."
"Please Fitzwilliam," said Anne, forestalling him. "Do not speak. I do not wish it."
"You do not wish to speak with me? Have I offended you in some way Anne?"
"I do not wish to marry you. Please do not ask me," cried Anne almost in tears.
"You have quite misunderstood me Anne, I was not about to ask for your hand, but only to find out your feelings regarding our betrothal. For years I had not taken it seriously at all until it was brought to my attention that you might. I am greatly relieved that you have as much inclination toward the match as I have. To tell the truth I am not sure what I would have done if you had said that you wished it."
"Are you in love with another?"
Darcy looked at his cousin, not knowing how to answer the unexpected question.
"I have a confession to make," said Anne bravely. "But you must promise not to tell."
"You are safe with me Anne dear," said Darcy softly.
Anne sat on a bench, and Darcy sat companionably beside her.
"I am in love. He is the most wonderful man. He is so agreeable and he makes me feel like I am special," Anne took Darcy’s hand and looked up into his face. "He loves me. Me! And he has made me so happy."
"Who is this person? Where did you ever meet him?" said Darcy, amazed at the glow in his cousin’s eyes and the brightness of her countenance.
"Last summer he came to visit his brother, and I first met him when they called on my mother. After that I met him when I was out for drives with Mrs Jenkinson. She is so good to me. She wants nothing but my happiness."
"His brother is a local gentleman?" asked Darcy, unable to think of any of their neighbours that would have a brother to interest Anne.
"Oh yes. His brother is Mr Collins, the parson," said Anne. Noting Darcy’s shocked reaction she quickly added, "Marcus is nothing at all like his brother. He is tall and slender, intelligent and funny. He has the most wonderful golden curls, and a truly cherubic countenance." She stopped herself, blushing fiercely.
"But . . . your mother will never countenance the match! The younger brother of the parson, and you the heir to Rosings. Are you sure he is not importuning you?"
"No, no, Fitzwilliam," said Anne in tears. "He truly loves me. He hates my fortune and wants nothing of it. He is to inherit a small estate of some three thousand pounds from his mother. If he could have his wish, I would be penniless, but he does not want to deprive me of what is my due. Oh cousin, do not think me such a simpleton that I could be taken in by a fortune hunter!"
"So what are you to do?"
"We are secretly engaged until he can think of a solution. He was to have visited his brother now, but did not because of his other guests. He cried off because his mother had taken ill. In truth, her illness was very minor but he wrote me that he could not give consequence to his brother’s guests while being obliged to ignore me. He will come again when he is able, but until then my dear Mrs Jenkinson assists us in our correspondence. Please do not let my mother know of this."
"I gave you my word. But do I have permission to tell one person, without including any of the particulars, of course?"
"Whom do you wish to tell?"
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She would tell no one, I am assured of that." It was Darcy’s turn to blush.
"I recall you had met her last fall in Hertfordshire. You may tell her. I like her very much."
From an upper window, Lady Catherine looked down upon her daughter and her favourite nephew sitting close together on the park bench, holding hands and talking in what appeared to be a most intimate manner. She felt a surge of satisfaction, and a smile spread across her embittered features.
Part the Eighth
Darcy sat at his desk and took up his pen. A letter to Bingley was indeed in order, after what he had learned the day before. That he himself might benefit from it, he knew was possible, but his main motivation was that his friend needed to hear the news. Bingley had not been himself these last few months. He was strangely distracted at social functions, and did not dance and chatter with all the young debutantes with the same carefree animation as he was used to. His sister had tied him to her side, refusing the offers of chaperonage from two very respectable matrons who were old family friends. Bingley did not mention Jane Bennet, and Darcy did not like to bring the subject up, but indeed he could see no other reasonable explanation then that Charles was truly in love and missing her badly. Darcy had expected him to run back to Hertfordshire within a month of leaving it, but now it was quite apparent that Caroline had been practising deceit. She had kept Miss Jane’s presence in London a secret from both of them, and who could tell what other falsehoods she had been using to influence him?
My Dear Bingley:
I am sure you had not expected to hear from me quite so soon. I have some news to impart that should interest you. Upon arriving at Rosings I discovered that an acquaintance of ours was visiting her friend, Mrs Collins, at the parsonage of Hunsford. I am referring to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. I went to pay her my respects yesterday and she informed me that her sister, Miss Jane Bennet, has been staying with her aunt and uncle in London these few months. You must imagine my surprise. I do not wish to speak ill of your sister, but she was aware of this and visits were exchanged. Why your sister resorted to this secrecy, I will not speculate, but I think you should lose no time in calling on Miss Bennet. I understand than when Miss Elizabeth’s visit here is over in a month’s time, she will join her sister and they will return to Hertfordshire. Miss Bennet is staying at the home of Mr Gardiner in Gracechurch Street. You should be able to discover the address quite easily without applying to your sister. I wouldn’t inform her of your proposed visit until after the event. I am tired of seeing you sit like a lost soul in your library, staring out the windows. Visit the girl!
With all my best hopes for your future happiness,
He sealed the letter and rang for the servant. It was only after he had sent the letter off that he recollected it had been he himself who had been staring out library windows like a lost soul.
Lizzie and Charlotte sat in the small parlour; the morning was dreary with drizzling rain and they had to forego their usual walk. Maria had retired to her own room to go through her wardrobe and decide what was best to wear to Rosings that night. It had been almost a week since the gentlemen had come and called. Lizzie had met Colonel Fitzwilliam on her walks in Rosings Park on three occasions, and once Mr Darcy had accompanied him. She enjoyed the company of the Colonel. He was open and natural and conversed easily on any topic. He had a light, teasing manner that she found very appealing, and their laughter mingled with an affability that gave rise to a quick friendship. Mr Darcy was still solemn and quiet for the most part, but he surprised her occasionally with a subtle rejoinder, that showed his quick wit and attention to the conversation. He appeared much more at ease than on the first occasion, and when his eyes rested on her they were filled with warmth that she found disturbing. On taking leave of her at the park paling, he had enquired if she walked that way often, she informed him that it was her favourite walk.
"It has become mine too," teased the Colonel.
"So that is why I can never find you," said Darcy dryly.
"Yes, Miss Bennet’s company is most entrancing."
Elizabeth coloured thinking of this exchange, as she had coloured then. Mr Darcy had looked at her most fixedly, a look of concern on his face. Again she chided herself for colouring like a schoolgirl. She had been embarrassed by the Colonel’s words in case Mr Darcy should take them wrongly, and her blush seemed to confirm the exact interpretation she did not want him to make. Now he would think her attracted to the Colonel, possibly even setting her cap at him. She enjoyed the Colonel’s company, most assuredly, but it was Mr Darcy she wanted to be talking to in that open and easy manner, Mr Darcy who she thought about when she laid her head down upon her pillow every night.
Charlotte placed her book on the table.
"This rain is indeed unfortunate. You have missed your walk and the Colonel will be disappointed. But he will of course see you this evening. I suggest you wear your ivory silk with the ecru lace, and we can put some of those sweet yellow primulas that we gathered this morning in your hair."
"Charlotte! I like Colonel Fitzwilliam very well, but I am not . . . trying to encourage his attentions," cried Elizabeth, taken aback.
"Oh Lizzie! He is a very eligible gentleman, so why not encourage him? He appears to be very attracted to you. And if you do not catch his attention you may just interest Mr Darcy."
"Charlotte! I have no intention to interest anybody!"
"Lizzie, you have an advantage here that you would do well to pursue. The gentlemen are bored at Rosings with only Lady Catherine and Miss Anne, who is kept under her mother's thumb. You are the only attractive young lady around and they are in need of entertainment. You will be able to monopolise their attention, and should easily manage to make one of them in love with you before the month is out."
"You cannot be serious," said Lizzie, smiling at her friend. "If my intent in visiting you was to find myself a husband, that would be a good plan. As it is, I do not want to entrap anyone into marriage."
"Lizzie, consider the opportunity you so lightly dismiss.With Jane’s prospects with Mr Bingley so uncertain, you must needs consider your duty to your mother to establish yourself with some credit. I don’t like to speak of the entail for obvious reasons, but it is not something you should forget. With either one of these gentlemen you would establish yourself very creditably indeed."
"Do not forget, Charlotte, that though I am a gentleman’s daughter, my connections are very much below the gentlemen to whom you refer. Colonel Fitzwilliam may enjoy flirting with me, but when it comes to marriage he will act sensibly and marry within his sphere. And as for me, I will only marry for love. Let one of my other sisters marry to improve the family fortunes."
Charlotte gave up the matter and the two friends talked instead of parish concerns, but she noted with interest that Lizzie had not mentioned Mr Darcy’s name at all in her protestations. Perhaps it was better not to raise Lizzie’s hopes in that direction because her want of connections was a very strong consideration. If only Marcus Collins had come. With the size of his estate he would make Lizzie an ideal husband, and who is to say she wouldn’t fall in love with him?
That evening, Lizzie stood fast against putting the flowers in her hair, and threaded a simple ribbon through instead. She wore sage green muslin with pale yellow trimmings, and a plain gold locket about her neck. The idea that she should dress to please the gentlemen distressed her. After the look Mr Darcy had given her at the end of their walk, she would not have him thinking that she was making a play for his cousin. She was a little subdued on their first arriving at Rosings, but her earlier concerns soon evaporated as the evening wore on; it was hard to restrain her playful nature. All Lizzie’s deliberations over her dress were, however, to no avail, because when both gentlemen beheld her they thought her very lovely, and admired her all the more for her lack of adornment. They both sat close to her and entered into a conversation of which the Colonel had the largest share.
"Miss Bennet," said Lady Catherine, interrupting Colonel Fitzwilliam. "I feel the need for some music. Though you don’t play so very well, I would wish you to play us a few short pieces."
"If my playing is so very ill, are you sure that you or the gentlemen will want to listen, being used to so much better?"
"Mr Jenkinson is busy with Anne at the moment, so you will have to do," said Lady Catherine condescendingly.
"I have had the pleasure of hearing Miss Elizabeth play," said Mr Darcy, "and have never found her performance to be lacking."
"She does not play so very ill, I will grant you," said Lady Catherine as Elizabeth took up the seat at the instrument, "but she does need to practice much more if she ever hopes to be proficient. I have offered her the use of the pianoforte in Mrs Jenkinson’s room at any time she likes but she has not seen fit to accept my kind offer."
Mr Darcy looked at his aunt with heightened colour, but held back the retort that had formed at his lips. As Lizzie started to play he drew near the piano.
"Oho Darcy! Coming in such state to hear Miss Bennet play," teased his cousin who was attending Elizabeth to turn her pages.
"He shall not make me nervous," said Lizzie, smiling at Mr Darcy, "though he is used to all the finest playing in London society."
His countenance softened. "Your playing could do nothing but give me pleasure," he said.
Lizzie coloured and turned her attention to the keys lest she should trip up in her playing. Colonel Fitzwilliam looked from Darcy to Lizzie and felt a pang of jealousy. Hadn’t his cousin denied an interest? Well he was not going to be done out by Darcy, especially with the way Darcy usually acted, so serious and reserved.
"Your playing is much improved tonight, Miss Bennet," called out Lady Catherine, disappointed that the gentlemen had both gone over by the piano and not wanting to be anything other than the focal point of the whole party. "If only Anne had been well enough to learn, Darcy, she would have been a lovely pianist, and I, with my deep love and understanding of music, I would have been a true proficient."
"It is a pity then, Aunt, that you did not learn," said Darcy dryly, "but at the moment Miss Elizabeth is playing and I think we should all pay her the respect of listening." He took a spot over by the wall and leant against it, looking absorbedly at Elizabeth at the piano.
Lady Catherine closed her mouth in astonishment, and at the end of the piece called out, "Thank you so much for entertaining us Miss Bennet, now let us all sit down to some cards."
They played at cards the rest of the evening. Lady Catherine had engineered to have Darcy, the Colonel, and Charlotte at her table. Lizzie, seated with Mr Collins, Mrs Jenkinson, and Anne, had an evening of very inferior card playing. She would have liked to converse a little with Miss Anne, but they only managed a few smiles and friendly looks as Mr Collins launched into a monologue that endured as long as the card game itself.
The next morning, Lizzie went out for her walk at the customary time. Instead of entering the park as she usually did she walked toward the home wood. Here there were some pleasant trails among the old oaks, and she walked in solitude, deep in thought. The Colonel would be sure to be looking for her on her usual walk, and though she enjoyed walking with him tremendously, she was afraid that it would appear that she walked out only in the hopes of meeting him. She walked, remembering Mr Darcy’s defence of her against his aunt. She had been very gratified at what he had said. In fact his whole behaviour towards her last evening had been relaxed and open. When he had stood watching her play, his expression had been warm and admiring. She felt a glow thinking of how his eyes had looked, darkly green in the candlelight, and his softened expression with just the hint of a smile.
"Miss Elizabeth, I am so glad to have encountered you."
Lizzie looked up to see Mr Darcy astride a large grey horse.
"Have I startled you?"
"I’m sorry, I was so deep in thought that I did not hear your approach."
"May I join you?" asked Darcy, sliding down from his horse.
"I had been hoping to see you. You were not in the park this morning; I went there in search of you."
"No, I . . . felt the impulse to explore the woods."
"Then I am in luck that this is one of my favourite places. I have something particular to tell you. I hope you will not think me impertinent, bringing up a subject that on another occasion caused you some consternation," said Darcy with some diffidence.
Lizzie looked up at him, confused. "I do not recall . . . "
Darcy hesitated, and then continued, "Do you recall when we danced at Bingley’s ball, and you asked me about my betrothal?"
Lizzie blushed, and Darcy, with heightened colour as well, took this as encouragement enough to continue.
"You very rightly showed me that in dismissing the betrothal as nothing, I was not acting honourably. I had never thought how my cousin regarded it until you asked me."
"I did not think my words had made such an impression on you," said Lizzie.
"Not only your words but your obvious disapproval of my behaviour."
Lizzie turned her head away, not able to meet his eyes. Is that what he had thought at the time?
"When I arrived here, I sought my cousin out to discover how she did indeed feel about the engagement. I realised from what you said that if she did feel she was promised to me, it changed the perspective of the whole case."
Lizzie felt a strong apprehension. Did this mean that if his cousin wanted it he would honour the betrothal? She had been a fool to ever think of him. "And what did she say?" How could Anne have said anything but that she wanted to marry him? It was her mother’s dearest wish, and if she were not in love with her cousin, she would still marry to please her mother and to follow convention. Lizzie wanted to run deep into the woods, but she could not make such a fool of herself, so she steeled herself for his answer.
"She quite startled me by saying she did not want to marry me. At first I thought she might have said that so that I did not need to feel obliged to honour the betrothal, but it turns out that she, that quiet little creature, is secretly engaged herself."
"What?" cried Lizzie in surprise.
"I was as surprised as you are," said Darcy, "but she assured me that she is in love and engaged. As it is secret I asked her if I could tell you, without any particulars, and I know I can depend on your discretion."
"Thank you. I will, of course, tell no one."
"I hope you no longer think me dishonourable."
"No . . . I . . ." said Lizzie in some embarrassment.
"Is there anything more you would like to ask, or are you perfectly satisfied now that I am unbetrothed?" asked Darcy, colouring yet again.
Lizzie got up her courage and looked at him, "Only this. What would you have done if Miss Anne had said she wanted to marry you?"
Darcy looked away. "I really do not know. I would like to live up to your expectations of my honour and say that I would have felt duty bound. But I do not honestly think I would have."
They walked along together in silence for a few moments, both embarrassed by the intimate nature of their discussion, and unable to broach another topic of discussion. Darcy felt all the impertinence of bringing up such a subject, and though he was unequal to continue talking of anything at all, or even meeting Elizabeth’s eyes again, he was glad that he had forced himself to make the disclosure. He hoped that Elizabeth would begin to think better of him now.
"I beg your pardon for the interruption of your walk," said Darcy. "I will leave you to continue it in solitude."
"It does not follow that the interruption was unwelcome," said Lizzie quietly as Darcy mounted his horse and rode off. She turned at once and walked on so as not to see if he looked back or not. She was in total confusion. What had he meant by telling her all this? Was he letting her know that he was free, that he was interested in her, or was it only for his avowed reason? Could he really not care about her connections? Did he feel something for her? She could not let herself even consider the question that followed, she could not bear to face the hurt she would suffer if she was wrong.
Part the Ninth
Lizzie was afraid to read too much into this meeting, but in truth she cherished every word and every look that Mr Darcy had bestowed upon her. He had not seemed comfortable, but he had honoured her with disclosures of such a nature that showed her that her words and opinions mattered to him, and that he also respected her to keep his confidence. This surely spoke of much more than indifference. On the next few occasions that they met he was relaxed and he conversed more easily with her and even the rest of the company. Colonel Fitzwilliam continued to be attentive and talkative, and Lizzie found herself enjoying her visit more than she had ever anticipated.
One morning she received a letter from Jane that warmed her heart and brought her so much happiness she was overflowing. Mr Bingley had visited Jane, and only because Mr Darcy had written to tell him that Jane was in town! Lizzie had not even imagined that he would write to him. Now Jane was so happy because Mr Bingley was visiting her every day and appeared just as in love as ever. That Mr Darcy should have been the means to bring so much happiness to her sister! Lizzie was overcome with joy and could think of nothing else, but kept her news to herself at the parsonage because Jane had expressly requested it, not wanting to be at the centre of marital speculation again until there was no longer any need for speculation.
Lizzie tucked the letter in her pocket and ran out of the parsonage and into the park before Charlotte had time to question her about her bright eyes and glowing complexion. The day was clear and sunny; March was turning into April and the walks of the park were bordered with spring flowers. Lizzie sank into a bank of lily of the valley and breathed in the sweet aroma. She was occupied in picking a small bouquet when Mr Darcy and the Colonel came upon her. They both stopped, awed by the picture that she made in her pale gown, her dark head bent over the flowers, a shiny tendril curling down across her neck. She looked up, and the sweetness of her expression made Darcy feel that he had never thought of her before with the depth of feeling as he did at that moment. Nothing registered in his senses but the smile that came to her face and the words that unconsciously burst from her lips.
"I had been so hoping to see you."
Both gentlemen wished that the words were meant for him.
"No, Don’t get up Miss Bennet," said Colonel Fitzwilliam. "You look so charming with the flowers. We’ll sit on the ground and join you." And he sat next to Lizzie, picking a flower and twirling it between two fingers.
Darcy sat on the other side of the patch of lily of the valley, where he could gaze at Elizabeth.
"Mr Darcy, I must thank you for your kindness in informing Mr Bingley that my sister is in town. His visits have made her very happy." Lizzie blushed at her forwardness.
"I did have my friend’s happiness to think of," said Darcy, knowing that it was not only his friend’s happiness that had benefited from this kind deed, but his own. The look Elizabeth had given him was most rewarding . . . but it rendered him speechless for a few moments by the surge of emotions that it raised.
The Colonel saw his opportunity. The conversation was going too much Darcy’s way for his liking. He had the best situation, sitting close to Miss Bennet, and he needed to use it to his advantage. He immediately turned the subject, expertly conversing in a light and entertaining manner. He suggested they continue the walk and helped Elizabeth to her feet as Darcy looked on, wishing he had been the one to take her hand and pull her up. Elizabeth’s spirits were so high that she smiled upon the Colonel as sweetly as she had done upon Darcy and entered into the conversation with much spirit. Darcy could not quite match their tone, and would have started to feel irritated with his cousin who was obviously setting them up in competition for Elizabeth’s attention, had she not sent him so many friendly glances and smiles that always seemed to include him in all that she was saying. After they had strolled together in the park for about an hour, the gentlemen regretfully said they had to head back to Rosings and Lady Catherine, and Elizabeth said that she was sure everyone at the parsonage would be wondering where she had got to.
The gentlemen stood and watched Elizabeth go, then turned and retraced their steps to Rosings.
"Oh cousin, have you seen any girl like?" asked Colonel Fitzwilliam effusively. "Such spirit, such sweetness, such beauty all combined. I am completely bewitched."
Darcy muttered something, he knew not what. He did not want to discuss Elizabeth’s charms with his cousin. He let the Colonel ramble on expressively, but did not attend. He was busy remembering Elizabeth’s smiles and words, the warm glow in her dark eyes, and the gentle blush on her cheeks. Could it really be that she cared for him? She had been most pleased to see him and more than ready to thank him for his favour to Bingley. He blushed a little, knowing that it had not been a completely selfless act. The only thing he could not determine was the strength of her regard for his cousin, and which of the two she preferred. He walked on, lost in thought and did not even notice that his cousin’s outpourings had come to an end until the Colonel took him by the shoulders and gave him a little shake.
"I am pouring out my heart to you, man, and you are not attending to a word I am saying," said Colonel Fitzwilliam.
"I beg your pardon, I was thinking of something."
"Yes, your own concerns must always come first," teased the Colonel, who decided that if Darcy would think of his business at a time like this, he could not possibly be in love. That he was attracted there could be no doubt, but who could help but be captivated by Miss Bennet’s charms. "Darcy, I know I have been in love many times before, but this time I fear my heart is truly lost."
Darcy looked at him and did not know what to say. They could not both be in love with the same lady! He finally responded. "I warned you that your flirting would lead you into trouble someday," he said lightly. "It is good that we will be gone in four days and you will soon be able to get over this infatuation."
"Four days! Only four more days!" cried the Colonel. "Say it isn’t so!"
"We have already extended our visit by over a week," said Darcy. "I cannot leave my affairs any longer, besides she will be leaving the day after us."
They both walked on, lost in reflection on the short time they had left to bask in Elizabeth’s smiles. And they both determined that what they needed was to find a moment alone with the lady before the time was done.
Lizzie ran through the pathways in exhilaration. She could not return to the parsonage yet, not until she had gained some equilibrium. She continued on into the home wood and the welcome shade of the great oaks. She found the spot where she had encountered Mr Darcy the other day, and she sat on a gnarled root in contemplation of all that had taken place in that meeting, and on this morning. Today his green eyes had shone with such brightness that she could barely keep from looking at his face. There she had seen so much warm regard that she began to entertain dreams of what she had hitherto never let herself hope.
The next day brought an unexpected visitor to the parsonage. After hearing a carriage and rushing to his library window to investigate, Mr Collins set up a cry for everyone to make haste and come out to the garden gate. Miss Anne had come!
Lizzie ran out to find Miss Anne in a curricle with Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Mr Darcy alongside on his fine grey horse.
"We have brought our cousin Anne to see you," cried the Colonel. "She has escaped her mother and her nursery maid."
Anne smiled at this sally, and greeted the gathered company.
"You are most welcome," said Mrs Collins. "Won’t you please come in?"
Mr Collins repeated the invitation with much elaborate bowing and scraping, and the overuse of the words humble and gratitude. The Colonel helped her down from the carriage, and Anne was soon ushered into the parlour, her first visit inside the parsonage.
"What a charming room," she said politely.
"It is indeed charming, but it is nothing to Rosings," fawned Mr Collins. "Your gracious mother, Lady Catherine, suggested the green damask for the curtains and also the placement of these small tables."
It was feared that Mr Collins was going to take over the entire visit but Mrs Collins soon reminded him of the sermon he was needing to write and he paid his compliments and regretfully left the room. They were then able to have a comfortable visit. Maria was in awe to have Miss Anne seated beside her on the settle and was so content with the treat as to not open her mouth for the remainder of the visit. Lizzie was happy to finally meet Anne away from her mother and found her to be shy but wanting to put herself out and become friends with Elizabeth and Charlotte. She had a gentle manner and by the end of half an hour had quite opened up and shared her delight in her cousins’ suggesting the visit, as it was something she had long desired to do. They saw her off to the curricle then, and Colonel Fitzwilliam settled her back in, tucking the rug over her lap, and saying meantime to Elizabeth:
"We are sorry we could not steal her for longer, but we must depart. Will I see you tomorrow on your usual walk?"
"I do hope to walk tomorrow," answered Lizzie, "but I am not sure where my feet will take me."
The Colonel drove off, and Darcy unhitched his horse, got ready to mount, and then hesitated.
"You must excuse my sister and I," said Charlotte to him, quickly seeing all the advantage of leaving him alone with Lizzie.
Darcy bid them good day, and they returned into the house.
"Thank you again for bringing Miss Anne to visit," said Lizzie. "It was a pleasure to get to know her better. She does not manage to take much part in the conversations at Rosings."
"No, she is not given the chance," said Darcy. "I only wish we had struck upon this idea earlier, for her sake. Your company is very good for her, and I believe she has taken a strong liking to you. It is hard for anyone not to."
Elizabeth coloured and turned away. Her heart began to race in her breast. Was this the moment she had been hoping for?
Darcy started to speak, and then stopped, and then started again.
"Miss Elizabeth . . ." He took a few steps closer.
She turned to look up at him. Their eyes met and held.
"Miss Elizabeth . . . you must allow . . ."
"Mr Darcy! Mr Darcy!" came Mr Collins’ cry. "Before you go I must give you a most important message for Lady Catherine."
As he rushed up, Darcy and Elizabeth jumped apart. Darcy mounted his horse and turned to Mr Collins with an expression of extreme annoyance.
"I am just leaving, sir, and will be pleased to relay a short message," he said curtly.
"You must tell Her Ladyship that the placement of the tables in the parlour has been a great boon," said Mr Collins, "a great boon indeed. She must be informed of that. How it slipped my mind before I do not . . ."
"I shall tell her. I bid you good day sir," said Darcy, turning his horse. "Goodbye, Miss Elizabeth."
This last was said in a much gentler tone, and with such a wistful look that Elizabeth could only smile and nod in acknowledgement. She stood and watched until he rounded a turn in the road, and then she slowly walked into the house, leaving Mr Collins still bobbing obsequiously by the roadside. Charlotte looked up as Lizzie came in and could tell at a glance that what she had wished for her friend had not taken place.
The morning before they were to leave for Pemberley, Darcy was waylaid by his aunt just after breakfast to discuss some pressing business matters with her. From the window of the office he could see his cousin heading out for his walk. He swore softly to himself.
Colonel Fitzwilliam paced back and forth by the park paling, wondering if he should go to the parsonage or wait in the hopes that Miss Bennet would arrive. Just as he was about to enter the lane he heard a footfall and turned to see Elizabeth approaching from another walk.
"Miss Bennet, I have been hoping to find you here," he said with some feeling as he rushed to her side. "Tomorrow we go and there is something of great importance that I must ask you."
Lizzie stood still and raised her startled gaze to his face. "Oh no.’ she thought. ‘Can this be what I think it is?’
"My feelings will not be repressed," sighed the Colonel. "In fact they are irrepressible! I have no wish to repress them. You are the most enchanting girl I have ever met. I most ardently adore you and throw all other considerations aside for my love of you. Will you do me the honour of accepting my hand?" The Colonel looked at her happily, confidently, sure of her answer.
"I am most obliged and gratified by your sentiments," stuttered Elizabeth. "I am sorry to have to cause you pain, and I hope it will be of short duration. The other considerations which you have set aside should convince you that I am right in this decision."
"The other considerations are of no consequence. I care not for your lack of dowry, your inferior connections, or the indecorous behaviour of your mother and your younger sisters."
"You are the younger son of an Earl," said Elizabeth gently. "You need to marry where there is fortune."
"Is this all the reply I am to expect, when I am willing to give up so much for you?" the Colonel cried. "Can you not have mercy on me and say you will be mine? Is there no way I can beseech you to accept me?"
"I have every reason to think well of you," said Elizabeth in some distress. "And your mode of declaration has been above reproach."
"I should not have mentioned your connections, or your family," said the Colonel. "I am sorry for that. Can you forgive me?"
"Considerations such as that are right and just," said Elizabeth. "Your station in life is considerably above mine. I am a gentleman’s daughter, but you are the son of a peer. I only wonder where you got such information of my family – from Lady Catherine, I presume."
"No it was from my cousin Darcy. I was so taken with you when I first met you he saw fit to warn me of the unsuitability of thinking of you." He saw the change in her countenance and added, "Do not blame him. He was only trying to look out for me in his own way. But I am not like him. Such things don’t weigh with me. I only care about you, my dearest Elizabeth." He reached for her hand and she let him take it. She looked into his eyes and said:
"From the very beginning, almost the first moment of our acquaintance, your manners impressed me. I enjoyed your company and your conversation and upon this groundwork succeeding events have built such an endearing feeling of friendship for you that makes it hard for me to tell you this. I am sorry. You could not make me an offer that in any way could tempt me because I will only marry where I love, and as much as I admire and respect you, I do not love you and I know that I never will."
"You have said quite enough, Miss Bennet," said the Colonel bravely looking into her concerned dark eyes. "I perfectly comprehend your feelings and have no wish to constrain you. Forgive me for any embarrassment I may have caused you and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness."
With theses words he kissed her hand he still held and made a hasty departure.
Lizzie stared after him. The tumult in her mind was painfully great. That he should have been in love with her and so in love as to propose! She had known that he enjoyed her company, but she had believed him of being an accomplished flirt, just biding his time with her to make his stay at his aunt’s house more interesting. But what upset her the most was what he had disclosed about Mr Darcy. It was obvious from his words that Mr Darcy’s feelings regarding marriage hadn’t changed. He still felt as he did when she had overheard his remark in Netherfield. He would never accept her connections as his own. But how to understand his recent behaviour towards her? She had been almost sure that he had been about to propose to her before Mr Collins had interrupted them. Apparently she had been mistaken. He must have become more warm and open with her only because he believed that she was soon to become his cousin. She who prided herself with her discernment and understanding of character couldn’t have been more wrong.
She ran, not caring the direction, brushing angry tears from her eyes until she found herself again in the oak woods and sank in disappointment and exhaustion at the base of a great tree and gave herself over to crying in earnest.
Part the Tenth
Darcy’s interview with his aunt was not going at all well. The business she had wanted to discuss with him turned out to be none other than his betrothal to her daughter. She was eager to discuss settlements and set the wedding date.
"Now that you and Anne have come to an understanding, I would like to establish all the details. A girl does not like to be kept waiting long, and Anne is almost three and twenty. I feel she is now ready to take her place as mistress of Pemberley; in maturity and health she is much improved. I have discussed it with her doctor and he feels that she is strong enough at this time to provide you with an heir. It would not be advisable to leave it many more years."
"Aunt! You know I have never agreed to this engagement," said Darcy, extremely taken aback at his aunt’s outspokenness.
"In the past you have informed me of this foolish fancy of yours to decide for yourself who you marry, but I am not blind nephew. I have seen the attentions you have paid your cousin this visit, and I am aware that you and Anne have arrived at an understanding. I always knew you would come to your senses and realise Anne was the perfect wife for you. When I saw you and Anne in the garden on the bench in such an intimate tête-à-tête, my heart was filled with joy. I never knew I could be such a silly romantic old woman, but the idea that you and Anne were finally to make a match of it, and a love match at that, I had tears in my eyes!"
"Aunt Catherine, you are labouring under a misapprehension. The only understanding that Anne and I have come to is that we neither of us feel bound by your and my own dear mother’s wishes for our alliance."
"But I saw you two together in the garden in a very compromising situation!" sputtered Lady Catherine. "Have you been leading my daughter on, taking advantage of her innocence, and then having gained her confidence imposed your notions upon her? She would not go against my wishes! She knows she is bound to marry you!"
"She does not feel bound to marry me! I have done nothing to influence her decision. She is as a sister to me and I have committed no impropriety by sitting with her on a garden bench! Her feelings for me are quite the same. She sees me as an older brother. This is not what either of us want out of marriage."
"Anne will do as I say!"
"You may be able to coerce your daughter, but you will not coerce me! Aunt Catherine, do you not see that what you propose is not right? Anne deserves to marry where she likes. She deserves to experience love and not have an empty marriage."
"Love! What do you know of love? What does she? Have you been bemused like your cousin by the wiles of that Bennet girl? I had thought better of you than that. Girls of her birth are beneath the Darcys and Fitzwilliams. She has one thing in view and that is to trap a man of fortune with her flirting and her forwardness and her come-hither ways. Anne is fine and upstanding and has centuries of breeding and heritage behind her. Her lines are unimpeccable!"
"This conversation does not regard Miss Bennet. I ask that you refrain from abusing her. She deserves neither your contempt nor your censure."
"Your cousin Anne would not get taken in by someone below her station. She knows where her duty lies!"
"I do not think we have anything more to say to each other," said Darcy in icy tones. "My feelings on this matter are final. I only ask that you give your daughter the freedom to choose for herself who she marries."
"Choose! Where is she likely to choose from? Who does she know but you and Fitzwilliam?" Shouted Lady Catherine at Darcy’s departing form. "Where are you going? Do not leave when I am talking to you!"
Darcy was well into the park before he had brought his anger under control. It was only then that he was able to bring his thoughts from his Elizabeth and turn them to Anne’s problem. He did not see much hope for Anne standing up to her mother and getting her to accept the parson’s brother as a son in law. It was no wonder she had entered into the secret engagement, but where was she to go from there? He could only see one solution to her problem, but it was unthinkable.
He heard himself being hailed from a side path, and turned to see the Colonel coming towards him at a fast pace. He looked flustered and excited. Darcy stiffened. As soon as Colonel Fitzwilliam was close enough, he blurted out:
"I just proposed to Miss Bennet."
Darcy felt his heart tighten. He was having great trouble breathing. His cousin’s face was blurry and indistinct. He wanted to yell, to cry, to plant his cousin a leveller to the jaw, but he managed to keep all his wildly erupting emotions in check, and say in a completely level and bland voice, "I wish you happy," and then he turned abruptly on his heel and strode off, oblivious to all his cousin’s calls for him to stop. She was lost to him! And not only lost to him, she was to marry his cousin. How could he bear it? Tears were streaming down his face. He ripped a branch from a tree as he passed and proceeded to break it into smaller and smaller pieces. He had never known pain like this. Colonel Fitzwilliam caught up with him and grabbed him by the shoulder.
"Wait, Darcy. I need to talk to you!"
Darcy shook him off. The Colonel grabbed him again, and found himself thrown into a bush.
"Darcy! Listen to me, man. She did not accept me! Do you hear me? Do I have to yell it out for the whole world to hear? She . . . did . . . NOT . . . accept me."
Darcy turned and saw his cousin lying in a bush. What was he doing there?
"What did you say?" he asked
"I was rejected."
"Eliz . . . Miss Bennet is not going to marry you?" He reached down to help his cousin to his feet. "What were you doing down there?"
"You threw me in the bush. What has got into you? I need to talk to you and I get thrown in a bush!"
"I’m sorry. I thought . . . it does not matter what I thought," he threw his arm around his cousin’s shoulder. "Tell me how it is with you. You must be feeling it terribly."
Colonel Fitzwilliam looked at his cousin, startled again by his unusual behaviour. Darcy was normally the most calm and steady person that he knew. But first he had been treated to uncontrolled anger, and now endearing tenderness. He had never known his cousin to hug him in his life. He had been thrown in a bush before, but not since they were children, milling for the fun of it.
"I really believed that she cared for me, and even if she didn’t, who would imagine that a girl of her situation would reject me? I may not have a large fortune by my standards, but by her standards I must be considered a good catch."
"I was sure she would have accepted you," said Darcy. ‘My reaction is proof of that!’
"Do you know what she said to me? That I was an Earl’s son, and her connections were beneath me."
"She did not accept you because she thought herself beneath you?"
"No, It was not really that. But when I told her that her connections, objections to her family, and her lack of dowry did not weigh with me, she seemed to think that they should."
"You referred to the inferiority of her connections in your proposal?" Darcy asked in some incredulity.
"Only to say that they meant nothing to me."
"Maybe that offended her and caused her to reject you?"
"No, she said considerations of that nature were right and just. She said that she liked me very well, that she enjoyed my company, but that she could never marry me because she would only marry for love." Colonel Fitzwilliam walked up and down the clearing they were in, trying to come to terms with his loss. "She was very good and kind, and concerned about paining me, but she could not feel more than friendship for me. How am I to go on? What am I to do? I have never been so much at a loss in my life."
"No," said Darcy, gently, "you are used to be the one who has caused the pain, are you not?"
His cousin gave him a rueful smile. "Never this much pain surely. I never played with affections that were sincere."
"Well now you have been severely put in your place."
"Do you mean to say that she was insincere with me? That she was flirting and leading me on? I cannot believe that."
"No. I believe she was very sincere. I think we misinterpreted her friendliness for more than what it was. She is not like the ladies we are used to who always use their arts and allurements. She was always natural and real with us, and we mistook her openness for something else that we wanted it to be."
"For love. I believe you are right. I can think no wrong of her. She is all goodness."
"And she said she would only marry for love? Did she . . . did she say she was in love with another?" Darcy held his breath. Could it be she had rejected his cousin because she was in love with him? His heart started to pound very quickly.
"This is what she said. I shall never forget it. ‘I will only marry where I love, and as much as I admire and respect you, I do not love you and I know that I never will.’’’ It hurt to say the words aloud to Darcy. It hurt so badly, but he felt he had to say them, to get them outside, somehow drive them from his head.
Darcy could feel all the pain that his cousin must have felt at those words. ‘I know that I never will’. It was so certain. So final. Did it mean that she loved someone else, or only that she knew her own mind? It did not give him the hope that he wanted. There was one more question that he had to ask his cousin, and then he would be done. It was all that he still needed to know. "When you told her of the considerations, the inferiority of her family, the behaviour of some of its members, did you tell her where you obtained the information?"
"She asked me, and I told her you had warned me against the relationship . . . ought I not to have said that?"
"It is of no consequence," said Darcy. No consequence at all. It only put her that much further away from him than she previously had been. Not only had she just gone through the pain and embarrassment of rejecting an unwanted proposal, she now believed him to be against her connections. She obviously now believed that he regarded her connections as inferior and a degradation, and also that he had tried to influence his cousin against her. She may not have felt any anger towards his cousin for this, but he was sure that she would not feel quite as conciliatory towards him.
They walked on together in silence until Colonel Fitzwilliam turned to Darcy and said, "How am I to go on? How can I drive her out of my mind?"
"I do not think I am the right person to ask, Fitzwilliam," said Darcy.
"Thank God that we are leaving in the morning," said Colonel Fitzwilliam. "It shan’t be too soon for me."
Lizzie sat, leaning against the trunk of an old oak tree, her tear stained face looking down at the twisted roots that had forced their way through the hard-packed soil; looking down at the roots but not seeing them as her thoughts overwhelmed her to the exclusion of the outside world. Why, why, why had the wrong gentleman proposed to her? Had her good spirits given him the impression that she was expecting his advances? Had her behaviour somehow been at fault? She had been so happy, and now everything was ruined. She heard a step and looked up. There was Mr Darcy, not six feet away, his face all over with concern.
"Please say not that I am intruding," he said in a voice soft and gentle.
She could do no more than stare at him. He quickly walked over and knelt by her side. She turned her head to hide her tear stained face, but he cupped her cheek in his hand and tilted her face back to look at him. He gently wiped her tears away with his handkerchief, saying, "Miss Elizabeth, is there anything I can do to alleviate your distress? You are so dear to me it hurts me deeply to see you suffer."
All she could see was the green of his eyes, filled with such tenderness, such warmth. He tucked an escaped tendril of her dark hair behind her ear and smiled, "You are more important to me than anything else in this world . . ."
Lizzie jumped to her feet. This would not do! Letting her mind build up such imaginary visions would not help her face the reality of her situation. She must behave more sensibly than this! He was not in love with her, and even if he was, he would not let himself debase his family name and pride by connecting himself to her. That he should warn his cousin against her hurt more than anything else. She wiped her face with her skirts, and strode purposely back to the parsonage determined to forget him completely. She would not think of that moment by the parsonage gate where he had said, ‘She has taken a strong liking to you. It is hard for anyone not to,’ and the look of admiration that had accompanied it. She would not think of his wistful look as he forced himself to leave, after Mr Collins had interrupted them. It was their last shared look; there would be no others. She had best remember his look of disdain at the Meryton ball; it would do no good to remember any other.
Charlotte met her on the stairs as she attempted to slip up to her bedchamber unseen. She took one look at Lizzie and said, "I will fetch you some water."
Not five minutes later she tapped on the door and let herself in. Lizzie had straightened her gown and tidied her hair in the meantime. Charlotte wet a cloth and handed it to Lizzie.
"You don’t need to tell me anything."
"I thank you, but you deserve to know. You had such high hopes for me. It is really quite simple, the Colonel has proposed and I have refused him, and I need not fear a proposal from Mr Darcy."
"You refused the colonel? Oh Lizzie!"
"I do not love him."
"And there is no hope of Mr Darcy proposing? I had been sure he was about to propose the other day, if not for my husband."
"He cannot overcome his aversion to my lowly connections."
"He has told you this?" asked Charlotte in some confusion.
"He warned the Colonel against me on account of them."
"So it has all been for naught," sighed Charlotte.
"Oh do not talk so, Charlotte, for you know I did not come here in search of a husband but to visit you, and I have had the best of times with you."
Charlotte could not help but think that her friend had had the best of times while in company of the gentlemen, Mr Darcy in particular, but she wisely kept these thoughts to herself and left Lizzie to compose herself before she had to face the rest of the company at dinner.
After Darcy left his cousin, he wandered in the pleasure gardens and ended up seated on a bench staring abstractedly at the buds of roses that were beginning to form. His cousin Anne spied him from a distance, and sent Mrs Jenkinson back into the house so that she could have a private word with him.
"Fitzwilliam, what is troubling you?" she asked as she sat beside him.
"More things than I can say," he answered ruefully. "Your mother gave me an audience today and wanted to discuss our wedding plans. She was quite put out when I said there would be no wedding."
"She has told me. Thank you for keeping my secret."
"What will you do? I don’t think she will ever accept your intended."
"I will accept no other. I can oppose her Fitzwilliam. I am stronger than you may think."
"I will help you by any means in my power. You just have to send for me."
"Thank you. It is good to know I have your support and approval."
"I leave in the morning. I can stay no longer."
"And so it is unresolved?"
"What is unresolved?"
"I beg your pardon, but you know all my secrets, so I hoped that you would share yours."
"There is nothing to share. It is all but a vain dream."
"I do not understand. Fitzwilliam, I am very quiet, but I do see things, and I have seen two people who are very much in love."
"You have seen one who thinks he is in love, one who is so good and lovely and sweet and lively that she showers friendship that is mistaken for love, and one who feels so deeply he can hardly talk to you of it."
"What has happened? What has the Colonel done? Do not tell me he has offered for her himself?"
"And he was rejected."
"Of course he was rejected. She loves you, Fitzwilliam!"
"Does she? I think love is the last thing she feels for me at present. He told her that I had warned him against her on account of her low connections."
"And did you?"
"Yes. I did not want him to form an interest in her. I was afraid that he would win her with all his charm. Deceit is my abhorrence, but I stooped to it, and now I must suffer the consequence."
"Her connections don’t matter to you?"
"Not in the slightest."
"Then tell her so."
"I do not want to force another unwanted proposal upon her. She has suffered enough to have to say no to one cousin; to be imposed on by the other would be too much. I could not be so cruel."
"What will you do?"
"I must win back her trust. I am going tomorrow and I do not know when I will see her again, but I will not give up."
The next morning Lizzie kept to her room, giving Charlotte instructions to say she was unwell if she was asked for. The Colonel came and took his leave of the parsonage on his own, quite early. Darcy came by later. He had determined that he would see how Elizabeth behaved towards him, and then he would know more what to think of his future chances. When Charlotte gave Lizzie’s excuse of being unwell he showed much concern, and she went up to Lizzie’s chamber to see if she could not convince her to come down. The room was empty. She looked out the window to see Lizzie running through the back garden and down the lane. When she returned below stairs she had to tell Mr Darcy that Elizabeth, though not in any danger, was still not well enough for company, and had sent her adieus. Mr Darcy’s anxious face became closed and severe. He understood perfectly. She did not want to see him. He went away shortly thereafter, leaving only his wishes for a prompt recovery, which he was sure would be accomplished by his removal.
Part the Eleventh
Maria was content to sit quietly on the trip to London, and not chatter on about the wonders of Rosings and the rest of the joys of their stay at Hunsford. Charlotte had warned her that Lizzie was suffering from a bad head and needed quiet to endure the trip. Maria could understand her being out of sorts. After all they had done, dining twice at Rosings, and actually being visited by Miss Anne herself, not to mention the two gentlemen, life at home was going to be very flat. Maria stared out the window of the chaise at the passing countryside, sorting and storing all her memories to share with her young brothers, her mother, and Kitty and Lydia, when she returned to Lucas Lodge.
Lizzie’s memories were not the kind to be shared on her return home, except with her dear sister Jane. How she needed her now. She longed for her sympathetic understanding, her warmth and her caring. Despite her resolve not to think of the last moments she had spent with Mr Darcy at the parsonage gate, his wistful look as he rode away haunted her every thought. Why had he looked like that? Why had he appeared to care for her in some way if he regarded her connections with such abhorrence and considered her too inferior for an alliance with his family? She did not doubt his cousin’s words. The colonel had no reason to lie to her. But she could not shake the feeling that he had been about to say something of sentiment to her before Mr Collins interrupted him. His green eyes had held hers so intently, and yet with tenderness that she had never before seen. Had she been wrong? Had she only imagined what she wanted to see in his eyes? How could she have let herself fall in love with him, when her very reason had cried against it? Could it be that she had given herself away to him, and his look had been of sympathy alone? Could it be that he had been searching for a way to let her know that he had no intentions, without embarrassing her or hurting her feelings? It was true that he had an abominable pride, but he was very kind and considerate person. She had discovered that about him. The idea that he had been about to let her down gently hurt as much as anything she had yet felt. She blushed to think that she had been so careless of her feelings that in her happiness she had shown too much of what was in her heart. It was as well that she would probably never see him again because she did not know how she would ever be able to face him if she did.
After what seemed an inordinately long and miserable journey, the chaise pulled up in Gracechurch Street, and Lizzie was released into Jane’s arms. She held her tightly and kissed her, sobbing in happiness to be with her dear sister again. Jane’s face was serene, but Elizabeth could sense a barely suppressed joy that had nothing to do with her arrival.
"I can’t wait till we are alone and I can speak to you," whispered Jane.
Lizzie struggled to put aside all her own turmoil and anxiety, and squeezed Jane’s hand in acknowledgement. She could not infringe on Jane’s happiness with her sorrows just yet.
Her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner greeted and hugged Lizzie and welcomed Maria to their home. The children gathered around, clamouring for Lizzie’s attention, for she was a favourite cousin with all of them. Lizzie did her best to be open and natural with everybody, answering all their questions about her visit to Kent and the trip to London. If she did not have her usual vivacity and spark, her aunt and uncle put it down to the long and exhausting trip. She was allowed to go early to bed, with Jane following soon after, bursting with excitement. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks were overspread with a rosy blush.
"Oh Lizzie, Lizzie, I am the happiest girl alive," she said hugging her. "He loves me and wants to marry me. Me! Isn’t that amazing. Oh! I am talking about Mr Bingley. Charles Bingley!"
"Well I did not think you were talking about the third footman!" laughed Lizzie. "Of course he loves you my dear Jane. How could he help but? I am so happy for you."
"He is just this morning gone to Longbourn to talk to my father. I have told nobody but you, although I think my aunt and uncle suspect something."
"Unless he somehow managed to be alone with you without their knowledge, they must indeed. Unless of course he proposed to you very discreetly while you were all drinking tea, and made it appear you were only discussing the fine weather."
"I think they would have been a bit shocked when he took me in his arms and kissed me," giggled Jane, blushing at her admission.
"They would have thought he was very pleased with your predictions for the fineness of the day."
"Oh Lizzie! He is the most handsome, sweetest and kindest of men. I am so lucky that he chose me. And Mr Darcy! How can I ever thank him for telling Charles that I was in London? He has done me the greatest service imaginable!"
At the mention of Mr Darcy’s name, Lizzie paused. She was struck with a sudden realisation. With Jane and Mr Bingley’s marriage, she could not help but be thrown again into Mr Darcy’s company. She longed to see him again, to hear his voice, but to be in the same room as him and know that he was indifferent to her could only bring pain.
"Lizzie," Jane said with some concern. "Is anything the matter? You have become quite pale."
"I am well," said Lizzie, struggling for composure. "I am only a little tired from my journey."
"And I am selfishly keeping you from your sleep!" cried Jane. "How unfeeling I have become, only thinking of my own concerns. You must get to bed immediately and rest."
"Jane, I do not mind one bit staying up and talking to you about your Mr Bingley, but perhaps we had best get ready for bed as we talk."
They changed into their night things and brushed out each other’s hair as Jane recounted to Lizzie all the events that had led up to the proposal, and the proposal itself. She kept sighing over her luck, and all the wonders of Charles Bingley’s character and appearance, and Lizzie kept telling her that luck had nothing to do with it, aside from the fact that she thought Mr Bingley the luckiest man alive.
As they lay down in their bed together, Jane sighed. "Oh Lizzie, if only there was just another such a man for you, then my happiness would be complete."
"If there were a hundred such I could never be as happy as you," said Lizzie snuggling into her pillow, trying not to think of the only man who could make her happy.
"How did you get on with Mr Darcy and his cousin during your visit? From your last letter you appeared to be much in their company. Was either of them smitten with you?"
Lizzie knew that she had to take this opportunity to tell Jane of what had happened. She answered lightly.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam is a charming man, but I am afraid that I had to disappoint him."
"Lizzie! Did he propose?"
"Yes, but I refused him."
"The poor man! Was he very disappointed?"
"He was at the time, but I think the pain will not last. I truly believe that he was merely strongly infatuated with me and not deeply in love."
"And what about Mr Darcy?" asked Jane expectantly.
"Dear Jane! I appreciate your interest, but you cannot expect me to have two gentlemen falling in love with me in the course of a month!" Elizabeth was not about to tell Jane of her disappointment now. She wanted nothing to cloud Jane’s happiness.
"But it would be so wonderful if it was Mr Darcy who had proposed, and you had accepted, and then we could have all become married together in a double wedding," said Jane, dreamily.
"Jane, I will not marry merely to fulfil your wish for a double wedding. I doubt if Mr Darcy would oblige his friend thus either. When I marry it will only be because I am very deeply in love, and the man I marry is just as deeply in love with me. I think my destiny is to be a dear aunt to your sweet children, and that should give me all the happiness I could ever hope for." She pushed her face deep into the pillow and willed away the tears that this all too honest declaration had brought forth. When she regained her composure and could trust herself to speak again, she turned her head towards Jane and said, "Could you snuff the candle now? I am so very tired I am going to fall asleep in mid sentence. Your news has been the best thing for me and I will be sure to have sweet dreams tonight."
"Of course. Goodnight dear Lizzie. I am so glad to be able to have you to talk to again."
As the room darkened, Lizzie snuggled down into her blankets but no matter how tired her body was, her mind would not stay still, and sleep did not come for many hours. When it did come, her dreams were not filled by Jane’s wedding bells but rather an oak wood, a grey horse, and a man with shy green eyes who was always illusively beyond her touch.
Part the Twelfth
Mrs Bennet could not control her ecstasy. Jane had barely placed her foot on the ground upon alighting from the carriage when her mother swept her into her arms. Jane was engulfed in scent and lace and elaborate endearments. Lizzie was able to alight unnoticed and quietly make her way to greet her father who was standing on the doorstep.
"I missed you Lizzie," he said quietly, kissing her forehead. "You will bring some sense and sanity back to my world."
"Mother is sure to settle down soon," said Lizzie, smiling up at her father.
"That young man came to see me yesterday morning and she has been in transports ever since then. If I knew marrying my daughters off would be this trying I should have retired to the wilds of Yorkshire and left a note on my study door saying that anyone who wanted to have them had my favour," answered Mr Bennet. "However the young gentleman was very direct, and did not waste my time beating around the bush. He is most agreeable and complaisant; they will make a sorry pair!"
"Oh father, they are perfect for each other!"
"They will never resolve anything, and be taken advantage of by tradesmen and friends alike."
"Do not disparage them, they neither want for sense."
"You are right, behind his silly smile I did detect a fair amount of sense in the gentleman. And he did pick Jane for a wife, which shows a deal of good judgement. She will make him a good natured and compliant wife, and he shall be very happy."
"They shall both be very happy," said Lizzie a little wistfully.
Her father cocked his head. "Do I detect a little envy on your part?"
Lizzie laughed. "No, father. I am content to be happy with Jane's match
"I am pleased to hear that. I would not want you jumping at the next offer you get just to have a husband like your sister. When it comes to marriage you must be very careful who you chose, and I must warn you that I will not give my consent unless I feel the gentleman to be worthy of you."
Lizzie was saved from answering by her mother and Jane approaching. Jane greeted her father and he kissed her in congratulation before making a hasty retreat to his study. Lydia and Kitty came tumbling from the house and the exclamations became almost too much for Lizzie to bear. She wished that she had her own sanctuary to retreat to but knew that escape was not possible for her.
"I had hoped to marry first!" pouted Lydia. "Jane you are a sly thing, sneaking off to London to meet with him."
"I did not go to . . ."
"Think of your pin money and your clothes!" interrupted Kitty.
"I would go distracted to have so much money as you will!" cried Lydia. "You must give ever so many balls!"
"And invite all the officers," said Kitty.
"And jewels girls," cried their mother. "He is sure to shower you with jewels, Jane dear. Oh my precious, precious daughter!"
"Do not forget us if he gives you too many!" cried Lydia. "I would dearly love a ruby necklet."
"You should wear it with a white silk gown with lace on the bodice. Fine French lace!" Mrs Bennet hugged Lydia. "Then you would be sure to find a husband!"
"Mother, should we not go in," asked Lizzie. "We ought not stand about on the doorstep talking like this."
"Oh the tea! Mary has set it in the parlour," said Mrs Bennet. "Come girls, in we go. Lizzie please do not dawdle or our tea will be cold. Jane do you mind the tea service Mr Bingley has at Netherfield? The finest bone china with gold leaf, and it will be yours. Oh darling, you will be so happy!"
Mary was waiting in the parlour, reading a book of lectures. She looked up and quietly greeted both her sisters, then went on to congratulate Jane. "Marriage is a state that all woman must aspire to, and though some of your wifely duties might give you distaste remember that in all things you must bow to your husband’s wishes."
"Mary!" cried Mrs Bennet.
"A good wife must make many sacrifices," continued Mary, undaunted by the look of shock on her mother’s face. "When she takes her vows she gives up not only her heart but her body and soul."
Lydia and Kitty exploded with giggles.
"I would gladly give up my body and soul to someone as rich and handsome as Mr Bingley!" cried Lydia.
Jane turned away, blushing. Lizzie looked at Lydia sternly. "You should think what you are saying before it bursts from your mouth, Lydia."
"What??? Oh, I don’t mean I want Mr Bingley for myself! But just think of the officers. Denny!!"
"Sanderson!" squealed Kitty between fits of giggles.
"Wickham!" sighed Lydia.
Elizabeth turned away from her sisters in disgust. "Mother, can you not do something about those two? They are disgraceful."
"Oh, it is just normal girlish silliness!" said Mrs Bennet. "Come let us have our tea. Mary I should be happy if you would refrain from such subjects as you have upset both Jane and Lizzie. Now Jane, I can’t wait to hear. Please tell us his proposal."
"Yes we want every detail," clamoured Kitty.
"Did he kiss you? Hmmm," teased Lydia as she burst into more giggles.
Jane blushed and blushed again, and told her mother and younger sisters as little as possible. In this they proved very helpful, as all three had much more to say on the matter than Jane herself.
The next morning a very eager Bingley came calling as early as it could possibly be considered socially acceptable. As Jane was not yet ready, Lizzie went down before her to greet her soon to be brother and offer her congratulations. Bingley was very pleased to see Lizzie, and they spent a cosy ten minutes talking, mostly of Jane and her many wonderful qualities, until Jane made her appearance. In the days that followed, Bingley spent most of his time at Longbourn, unless he had to honour engagements with other neighbours who unfeelingly called him away from his fiancée's side. Lizzie was their assigned chaperone whenever they went out for walks. As Lizzie very discreetly gave them as much time alone together as possible, walking was a favourite pastime. During these walks Lizzie tried to enjoy her solitude, but regrets couldn’t help but intrude when she accompanied the two young lovers on their countryside rambles. The sight of them arm in arm further up the path would cause her to yearn for the same intimacy. To have Mr Darcy’s tender gaze directed at her again, his green eyes softening as they alighted upon her, was an image she constantly attempted to banish from her mind.
One morning as they were heading out to explore the lanes, Mr Bingley turned to the two sisters and said, "I have finally heard from Darcy today! My letter did not find him at Pemberley, but eventually tracked him down at his uncle’s estate. He answered me immediately with hearty congratulations and a message to each of you."
Elizabeth felt a thrill go through her body at the mention of Mr Darcy’s name. She suddenly felt extremely conscious, as if her every feeling showed on her face. She turned her head away and listened to Bingley’s words with a quickening of pleasure upon hearing that Mr Darcy had sent her a message.
"Oh, how very nice," said Jane. "What did he have to say."
"To you, my love, he sent his heartfelt congratulations, and said that you are much more than I deserve. Elizabeth, he sent his best regards to you and hoped that were recovered from the indisposition that you suffered at the end of your stay at Hunsford."
Jane turned to Lizzie. "You were indisposed? Why did you did not tell me of this?"
Lizzie blushed. "It was only a headache, Jane, and your good news drove it completely from my head."
"From the level of Darcy’s concern, I would have thought that you were quite unwell," said Bingley, giving Lizzie a searching look. A thought had just struck him and he wanted to see if there was any basis for conjecture.
"No," said Lizzie. "And as you can see I am quite recovered from my bad head. Please thank Mr Darcy for his concern when you next write." Lizzie could say no more as she was feeling quite overcome. That Mr Darcy had sent her his regards pleased her more than she could say, and that he had been concerned for her health touched her deeply, and made her feel a little regretful that she had avoided him on that last morning at Hunsford.
"He will not be able to come to stay with me here soon as I had hoped," continued Bingley. "He and Georgiana are promised to his uncle for another month or two, but theywill be coming for the wedding."
"I am so happy," said Jane, smiling up at him. "I know how much it means to you to have him by your side on that day."
As they walked along, Lizzie dropped behind as was her habit. He was not coming yet. Was she pleased or displeased with the news? She did not think she could meet him with equanimity, so perhaps it was better he would not come until the wedding, but the wedding was so far away. She was still to go on her visit to the Lake District with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner in June, and the wedding was set for the first Sunday in September. It was now only the end of April. The time seemed to stretch ahead of her even more so now that she knew that she would not see Mr Darcy until the wedding.
Upon returning home, they found that they had not managed to avoid a visit from a group of officers who were still at Longbourn, enjoying the warm spring weather in the pleasure gardens of Longbourn with the younger Bennet girls. One of the reasons that Lizzie took every opportunity to walk out with Jane and Bingley was to avoid the officers who were visiting quite regularly now that their division was soon to relocate to Brighton. Well it was really only one of the officers that she didn’t want to see. She also did not like to witness the behaviour of Kitty and Lydia, which was becoming more openly flirtatious. Since her return from Hunsford she had been informed that Miss King had been removed from Wickham’s society by her uncle. Lydia thought it a great good fortune for all the Bennet girls, but Lizzie only saw it as a lucky escape for the young heiress. Although she had heard nothing really ill of Mr Wickham, what she had seen of him she could not like. And now with Miss King safely out of his way, Mr Wickham had started to resume his attentions towards Lizzie, much to her dismay.
Lizzie entered the house with Jane and Bingley, hoping to sit in the parlour with them and escape Mr Wickham, but her mother would have none of it.
"Lizzie!" she cried, though she was seated quite close to her. "What are you thinking of shutting yourself up in here with us? Jane and Mr Bingley do not need you hanging around them all day. Go out and entertain the officers. They will soon be gone, and you have little time to bring one of them to the point. How do you think you are ever to get married? Mr Wickham was asking after you specifically. Go, girl, go!"
"Mama!" said Lizzie. "I have no intention of chasing after the officers, Mr Wickham especially." She blushed at her mother’s vulgar behaviour in front of Mr Bingley, but Jane and Bingley were not even attending, so wrapped up in each other as they were."
"You do as you are told, young lady. You have already spurned one proposal -and see what is to become of it. I shall lose my home to that scheming Charlotte Lucas. Mrs Collins. Hmph!"
Lizzie complied with her mother’s wishes immediately. She had no wish to hear her recriminations over again for her refusal of Mr Collins. She ran out into the warm sunshine and decided to go down by the stream that bordered the garden, keeping out of sight of her sisters and the officers who were clustered about the old swing in the side garden. She was soon in her favourite retreat under the pendulous boughs of a large weeping willow and she only wished she had thought to bring a book to read as she sat in its welcoming shade.
She looked at the gently flowing stream at her feet, watching the dappled sunlight wink upon the water. She felt very serene and at peace, as if a load had been lifted from her heart. She did not know if it was just because Mr Darcy had asked after her in his letter to Bingley, or if knowing that she would not see him until September had eased the unsettled feeling she had, thinking that any day he could visit his friend and she could meet him totally unprepared, and give away her feelings. She stretched out her arms towards the water and let out a sigh, marvelling at the simple beauty of her surroundings.
She suddenly stiffened as she heard the rustling sound of someone approaching.
"Miss Bennet, what a charming spot you have chosen here. I couldn’t have planned this better myself."
She turned and looked up straight into the sparkling blue eyes of Mr Wickham.
Part the Thirteenth
Lizzie let out a gasp and stood up, backing away from her unwanted companion.
"I had been hoping to find you. I had begun to think you were avoiding me, but now I see your mind has been running along the same lines as mine has," said Wickham in a silky voice.
"Whatever can you mean?" asked Lizzie, her voice like ice.
"That you have also been desiring a chance for us to be alone together." He took a step forward, his smile curved slyly, his eyes glittered. Lizzie backed away and found herself up against the trunk of the tree. Wickham leaned closer, his breath smelling of spirits.
"Mr Wickham! I beg you to leave me at once."
"Oh Lizzie, you do not know how long I have dreamt of this moment."
"Mr Wickham you are forgetting yourself. Can you please go away!"
"Oh, I see. You are upset with me for my attentions to Miss King. A fellow of my finances has to make attempts of that nature, but my heart has always been yours. You tantalise me so much that I threw her over. You fill my every thought, my every dream. I am overcome by this nearness to you. Please say you will be mine." Mr Wickham reached out and grabbed Lizzie’s hand. "Lizzie, my alluring treasure!"
"You are not . . . you cannot be proposing to me!" cried Lizzie, her alarm deepening.
"No my sweet. Alas I cannot propose marriage, not with your insignificant dowry. But I do have something else in mind."
Mr Wickham tightened his hold on her hand and leaned in. Lizzie struggled to get away, but he pushed her hard against the tree. She raised her other hand to slap his face, but he grabbed it too. "You are a little wild cat! You do not know what you are doing to me. The angry glint in your eye only raises my passion."
"You fill me with disgust and revulsion. Let me go!"
"Your sweet endearments only strengthen my desire!" Wickham transferred one of her hands so he was holding them both tightly by the wrist in one firm grasp. His other hand he reached out to take hold of her chin as she twisted her head away from him. He turned her head back to face him. "Just relax my Lizzie, you know you have wanted this as much as I have, almost since the first moment we met."
"Mr Wickham, I beg you. If you have a shred of decency left please unhand me and let me go." Lizzie looked at him imploringly. Wickham leant his head in closer. The smell of the liquor on his breath made her stomach churn. She stiffened against the touch of his body to hers. She compressed her lips as tightly as she could, but he pressed his hard against hers, forcing them open. This is not happening to me, she thought as she was overcome by a wave of shame and revulsion. As Wickham raised his head to gaze once more into her eyes she spat into his face and stared back at him, seething with fear and loathing.
He jumped back in shock and nearly loosed his hold on her wrists. "So that is how it is, is it? I offer you my love and you spit in my face. I understand. It is Darcy, isn’t it? I have seen the way he looks at you."
"Mr Darcy has nothing to do with this. I find you despicable!"
"Your sisters tell me he was in Kent when you were. Just a coincidence, or did you plan it that way? I imagine you had many secret meetings in the park at Rosings of an amorous nature, something like our own."
"Mr Darcy is a gentleman and would never behave in such a base manner as you have done!"
"He is a gentleman and I am not; is that what you are inferring? Well you are correct. I am decidedly not a gentleman, and when I want something and it is denied me, I take it. Darcy’s thousands are very tempting but do not think he will ever marry you, especially after I have had my fill!"
Lizzie struggled all the harder to break free. She turned and twisted, trying to wrench her arms from his grip. Wickham just laughed at her, and bent in for another kiss. He held her by the chin and said, "Your struggles only make this more exciting."
"Lizzie, Lizzie, are you down there?" Mary’s voice carried from the upper lawns. "Lizzie, father wants you."
"It seems you have been rescued," laughed Wickham. "I shall be left with only the memory of our kiss." He released her hands and she turned and ran towards her sister’s voice. Wickham sat down under the tree. He had enjoyed this little interlude, and the fact that she had not co-operated had increased the pleasure, but he had not liked the way she spat in his face, or the look of pure hatred in her eyes. It was just another score he would have to settle with Darcy. That Darcy was involved he had no doubt. He realised he would not get a chance alone with Lizzie Bennet again, but there were other ways to play the game. If Miss Bennet was what Darcy wanted, as he suspected, he still had the power to make her unacceptable in his eyes, she did have sisters after all, and the youngest would be a much easier target. Too easy to bother with but for the circumstances.
As Lizzie ran up the hill towards Mary, her mind was in turmoil. All she knew was that nobody should ever find out what had just happened to her. She smoothed her gown, and wiped her face, and tried her best to compose herself before she came out of the woods and met Mary.
"I thought I should find you out here," said Mary as they met. "Mother said you were with the officers, but you were not. Mr Wickham was not there either."
"Mr Wickham’s whereabouts are no concern of mine!"
Mary gave Lizzie a searching look. "One can’t be too careful about one’s reputation. You must remember that we women can easily fall prey to the unsavoury propensities of the opposite sex. We must always be on our guard."
"So father has need of me?" asked Lizzie, trying her best to change the subject. A moralising sermon on the dangers that could befall a young lady on her own was not what she needed at the moment, no matter how near to the truth Mary’s insights were.
"Yes, he is in his study, but I don’t think it is of any great import."
"Father’s wishes are always of importance," said Lizzie. ‘And to be wanted now is highly providential and the best thing that could have happened to me,’ she thought to herself.
Mary and Lizzie parted at the door of Mr Bennet’s study. Mary continued on to the parlour to practice the pianoforte, while Lizzie knocked at the study door and then let herself in.
"Lizzie, my dear," said Mr Bennet. "It took Mary some time to find you. I wanted to show you this passage I was reading." He looked a little more closely at her. "Is there something the matter?"
"It is just that I have a headache," said Lizzie wanly.
"You do look out of sorts. If you were not feeling well, why were you not resting in your room?"
"Mama wanted me to go outside and entertain the officers so that I might receive a proposal from one of them before they go."
"And you were actively partaking of this pursuit? Lizzie, I have told you what I would like you to do when it comes to marriage, and throwing yourself at the officers is not part of the plan."
"No, I know father. I have no intention of throwing myself at any man, it is just that mother was so persistent, and started talking of Mr Collins, so I went outside. I did not go to see the officers but went down by the stream; that is why Mary was so long in finding me. The walk back has made my head pound even more."
"You go up to your room my love, and lie down. I will share this book with you another day when you are feeling better," said Mr Bennet, coming to Lizzie’s side and kissing her forehead. "I will talk to your mother. She will not send you out chasing after the officers again. Two silly daughters chasing after officers is enough for any father to bear."
Lizzie thanked her father and went up to her bedchamber. Mr Bennet stood and looked thoughtfully after her. There was something bothering her, that much was obvious. He could not pry. She had seemed a little subdued ever since she had returned from Kent, but this was something more. He only hoped that she would tell Jane. Jane had sense enough to advise her, and a shoulder to cry on, which might be exactly what Lizzie was in need of. Unfortunately, Mr Bennet did not realise that Lizzie was not about to unburden her soul to Jane at this time and spoil any of the happiness of Jane’s time of courtship.
Lizzie thankfully closed her door and threw herself on her bed. She was so filled with anger, shame, and revulsion that she didn’t know which feeling was uppermost. Silent tears spilled from her eyes as she rolled in her blankets. She beat her pillows with her fists, imagining them to be Wickham’s face. Oh that she would never have to set eyes on him again. Remembering his touch made her shudder in disgust. She got up and went over to her water pitcher and filled her wash basin. She then proceeded to wash her face and hands and wash out her mouth. She looked down at her wrists and noticed big ugly bruises forming. She dried herself off and pulled on some gloves and then threw herself onto the bed again. She didn’t know how to find comfort. There was only one thing that she wanted, and that was to look up into a pair of tender green eyes and be told that everything was all right, and she would never be alone again. And the thought that was supposed to bring her consolation only made her cry all the harder as she realised the truth of Wickham’s words. Mr Darcy would never hold her in his arms and comfort her; he would never marry her, even if he did want to. She was foolish even to think of him
Part the Fourteenth
The next morning Lizzie woke with swollen eyes and a pounding head. She felt more ill than she had the night before. Jane took one look at her and insisted that she stay in bed. Lizzie had said nothing to Jane in the evening, but had admitted to being unwell, and had not come down to supper. Now Jane was afraid that she had become very ill indeed.
"Lizzie," said Jane solicitously, "You must take care of yourself. I don’t believe you slept at all. I have been giving Charles all my attention, and have neglected you."
"Dear Jane, you never neglect me. All I need is some rest and I will be well again. Please tell mother that I will stay in my room today."
"I will come and nurse you, as you did me in Netherfield."
"You will do no such thing. You will spend your time with Mr Bingley, or I vow I shall not get better." Lizzie gave Jane a little smile and laid her head back on the pillow.
"Would you like Mary to come and nurse you?"
"And plague me with sermons? I will be best left on my own. Just have Lucy bring up some lavender water to bathe my head."
"You will need to eat something," said Jane with concern. "You had no supper last night."
"Bespeak some plain broth of cook," said Lizzie, closing her eyes.
It was not their maid Lucy who brought the lavender water, but Jane herself. When Lizzie demurred Jane just replied, "Oh hush," and bathed her head. An hour later Jane brought up the broth and fed it to her, telling Lizzie that Bingley was asking after her.
"Of course he wants me better so he can have you back," said Lizzie. "Go to him. I will sleep now. I feel much better."
Jane kissed her on the forehead and left the room, gently closing the door. Lizzie turned her face to the wall and sighed. She felt no better. Nothing could reconcile her to what had happened, but she had to pull herself together for Jane’s sake if not her own. She would not have Jane worrying about her. She slept fitfully throughout the morning, and then gave it up entirely and moved to a chair by the window and tried to read. She ended gazing out the window in abstraction, and that was where Jane found her when she brought her up a tray of dinner. Jane quickly had her back in bed. Lizzie ate some poached chicken and tender new peas. She had no appetite, and would have eaten nothing if left to herself, but she ate for Jane. She had to remove the worried look from her sister’s eyes.
"There," she said as she finished her meal, "now you can go back down to Mr Bingley."
"Charles wants me to stay here and nurse you. He says that I am so distracted that I pay him no attention so I may as well be with you and make you better as quickly as possible."
"Poor Mr Bingley. I am sorry to be such a burden on you both. I promise you that I do feel so very much better. I will come below stairs with a book and sit in the parlour and read so that the two of you can be together."
Jane and Lizzie went down together, and Jane fussed around Lizzie until she was comfortably settled on a settee placed in the window embrasure in order that she have ample light for reading. Bingley was very pleased to see Lizzie, and sat with her asking after her health. Lizzie professed to be completely on the mend, but it was easy to see that this was not the case. She was languid, pale, and spiritless. Jane hovered over her, arranging her shawl and adjusting her cushions.
"Please, Mr Bingley," said Lizzie. "Can you not take Jane out into the garden? She is driving me to distraction with all her fussing."
As soon as Jane and Bingley went outdoors, Lizzie gave up her pretence and laid her throbbing head on a cushion, letting her tears run freely. When they returned she had cried herself to sleep. Mr Bennet looked in on her in the course of the afternoon and sat with her as she slept until her mother and younger sisters returned from Meryton. They woke her with their boisterous noise and lack of consideration for her indisposition. Mrs Bennet wouldn’t hear of sitting in the back parlour. If Lizzie was unwell, why was she downstairs, pray, and in everybody’s way? Mr Bennet insisted that Lizzie return to the peaceful quiet of her bedchamber; having to endure her younger sister’s company would only worsen her condition.
"Now you rest, my Lizzie, and I hope to see you well on the morrow," he said after he had attended her upstairs. He then returned to his study to avoid the incessant pleading of Lydia and Kitty that the family go to Brighton. It didn’t help that his wife was just as adamant as the girls in support of the idea. The very thought of the Bennet girls following the soldiers to Brighton appalled him, and he wondered yet again how he had managed to fail his youngest daughters so miserably that they had no sense of propriety or decorum.
Meanwhile Lizzie crawled back into her bed, and let her weary body succumb to the cosy comfort of her covers. For the first time since she had been accosted she was able to sleep fully and deeply. With sleep came dreams which were tinged with a nebulous haunted feeling from which she could find no solace, until she found herself in an oak wood. She felt at peace walking among the trees. A sense of anticipation grew stronger as she ranged deeper into the woods, and in the very depth of the forest she came upon a sunny glade, and a bank of lily of the valley. She lay among the flowers and let their delicate fragrance seep into her soul. She heard a sound and turned to see a horse and rider enter the sun-filled clearing. The rider slipped from the horse and came to her side, drawing her into his arms. His clear green eyes held the most tender of expressions. His embrace was warm and strong and comforting. She felt she would be safe from all the dangers of the world if she could just stay as she was, cradled in his arms.
She awoke to birdsong and sunlight streaming in through the parted blinds. The window was open. She got up and leant on the sill, looking out upon the garden, feeling revitalised. ‘I had been ready to give up my happiness and fall into a decline,’ she mused. ‘And for what? A man who is vile and despicable and derives enjoyment from hurting others. I cannot let thoughts of Mr Wickham oppress me or he will have succeeded. He shall have no power over me.’ She thought back to her dream. Although the images were no longer clear, she knew the man in her dream was Mr Darcy. She had a recollection of his green eyes and the complete comfort of his presence. Though he was not with her now, and she could not be sure what his feelings were for her, or if she would ever see him again, she accepted that the love she held for him was a good thing, not something to regret. Even if it should go unrequited she knew that it would always be a source of strength for her, and something that she would need to hold on to in order to help herself survive living without him.
In the next few weeks, though Lizzie’s health improved, she still was subdued, without her usual spark and vivacity. She went for many solitary rambles and avoided the company whenever the officers visited. Her house was in constant turmoil, first from her sisters lamenting not going to Brighton, and then Lydia’s tumult of joy at being invited by Colonel Forster’s wife to accompany them. Lizzie implored her father not to let Lydia go, but was unable to tell him why she was so concerned. She tried to reason with herself that Lydia would be safe from Wickham as she had no fortune, and he had never paid her any notice in the past, but she could not ignore her experience at his hands. To tell her father of it was unthinkable, but she did try to stress how Lydia was such a flirt and truly naïve about the dangers she could be in from too close association with the officers.
"Have you heard some direct charge against any of the men?" asked her father.
"No, but I do not like the forward manner they have with her," said Lizzie.
"Colonel Forster is an intelligent and trustworthy man," said Mr Bennet, "even if he did marry a silly woman. He is not the first man of sense to have made that mistake, heaven knows. His officers look up to him and respect him, and I don’t think any of them are foolhardy enough to impose on a girl who is under the protection of their commanding officer. Lydia is bound and determined to expose herself in some public place, so she may as well do it now and be done with it. We shall have no peace at home if she does not go, of that we can be certain."
Lizzie regretted her father’s decision, but knew she could do no more than she had done unless she subject herself to needless shame and exposure. She did not think Lydia should go. It was mortifying to have her sister chase after the officers so, but she truly believed her father was right in that none of the officers would dare to offend their commanding officer, even Wickham.
Lydia’s being allowed to go to Brighton was not the only disappointment that Lizzie had to face. Her own trip to the lakes had to be put off. Mr Gardiner was detained by business, and they would not be able to start their holiday until July. The shortened time made a trip to the lakes impossible. They now intended going only as far as Derbyshire. The very thought of Derbyshire made Lizzie both excited and apprehensive. They were to visit the village of Lambton which was only five miles from Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s ancestral estate. The idea of being that close to his home filled Lizzie with longing. She wanted to see him and his home, but she did not want to insinuate herself upon his presence.
Almost as far from Pemberley as Lizzie, but in the opposite direction, Darcy wandered in the gardens of his uncle’s estate. Despite the distance, his mind was not far from the environs of Longbourn. A few weeks before, he had felt a strange feeling of apprehension whenever he thought of Elizabeth. He had worried that all was not well with her, and had even contemplated writing to Bingley and asking after her, but did not know how to account for this apprehension to his friend. One night she came to him in his dreams. It was not the first time that he dreamt of her; he did so regularly, but this time it was different. He was walking in the oak wood at Rosings, filled with a strong sense of foreboding that permeated his very soul. The trees cast huge shadows and grew thickly around him, seeming to close in. Suddenly, from between the trees, she came running up to him with her arms stretched out, her hair streaming behind her, and her eyes rimmed with tears. He held out his hand and she grasped it. The sun burst through the now thinning trees, and haloed her. She smiled upon him, a smile of pure delight, and he could not resist the impulse to pull her into his arms and hold her very close. The feeling of foreboding dissipated to be replaced with sheer contentment. When he awoke he felt bereft, and longed to hold her again. As he lay there trying to recapture the dream, he became aware that the feeling of apprehension was gone, and it did not return.
As Darcy pondered the dream yet again, he saw his cousin coming towards him. Colonel Fitzwilliam was on his first leave home since their visit to Rosings. Darcy waited for the Colonel to catch up to him.
"I had something of a specific nature that I wanted to discuss with you," said Colonel Fitzwilliam. "I have been waiting for a chance to speak to you in private."
Darcy cringed. He knew what was coming, and he didn’t want to talk about the Colonel’s disappointment over his Elizabeth, but he couldn’t deny his cousin. He looked over at him expectantly.
"You must remember what state I was in when we both left Rosings," began his cousin.
‘What state you were in? What about my own?’ Darcy only nodded.
"I thought my life was over and I would never find happiness again. I was so completely under Miss Bennet’s spell. I vowed that I must conquer my love for her if I was ever to find peace of mind again. These last few months have been torture. Why do women do these things to us?"
‘Was it Elizabeth’s doing? I think not. You and I were to blame, not her. We fell for her of our own free will; she did not command it of us.’ "I hope you are not suffering still."
"That is what I needed to tell you Darcy. I am not blind you know. We were both competing for her favour, you must admit that."
Darcy looked away.
"Oh come on and admit it man! You were furious when you found out I had proposed and thought she had accepted. You threw me in a bush!"
"Yes I did, didn’t I? Do you want it to happen again?" Darcy smiled.
"No, I’ll forego that pleasure. I just wanted to let you know that I am over her. I truly am. Oh, I suffered sure enough, but there is one infallible way of ending the suffering."
"Short of killing one’s self, I can’t think of an option," said Darcy.
"Killing one’s self is pointless," laughed the Colonel. "No, I am talking of love! I have fallen in love with another lady, the most charming creature imaginable."
‘Elizabeth is the most charming creature imaginable.’ "Am I to wish you joy?"
"No sir! I’m taking it slower this time. I prefer the falling in love part to the rejection part!"
"Well, I am happy for you nonetheless."
"So you don’t have to feel any silly honourable guilt about it now. You can go ahead and propose to Miss Bennet yourself!"
"What makes you think she would have me? She rejected you and she seemed to prefer you to me."
The Colonel became thoughtful. "Yes she did, didn’t she? But remember, Darcy, you have so much more to offer than me. How could any girl reject you?"
"How can you say that, when you know she would only marry for love?"
"Calm down! I don’t want to end up in a bush again. Have a bit more self-confidence Darcy old man. If you’d just get out of your shell, you could charm her. You’re not so bad looking you know."
"I would prefer not to discuss this," said Darcy.
"You have got it bad, haven’t you? Sorry, cousin. I’ll behave," said the Colonel ducking away as Darcy lunged at him. "I’m perfectly willing for a complete change of topic."
"Then you had better be prepared to start discussing the weather," said Darcy, and then he smiled at his cousin, all his anger gone. It was good to know that he didn’t have to worry about his cousin’s feelings any more, not that it would have stopped him from proposing to Elizabeth if he could be sure of her regard. But what a fickle young man he was to throw her over so soon! And he thanked god again for the umpteenth time that Elizabeth had not accepted him
Part the Fifteenth
After having toured other parts of Derbyshire, and visited some of the famous grand homes of the county, the travellers arrived at the village of Lambton. Mrs Gardiner had grown up in Lambton and was looking forward to visiting old friends and cherished places. They found rooms at the Inn and managed a walk down the main street just before suppertime. It was a joy for Lizzie to stretch her legs after having been two hours on the road in the rather cramped carriage. As they ate their meal they began to make plans for the following day.
"Lizzie, I would very much like to tour Pemberley," said her aunt.
Lizzie wanted very dearly to see Pemberley too, but the idea of coming upon the master on their tour was too embarrassing for her to entertain. What would he think of her? "I have had enough of fine houses," said Lizzie.
"But this is much more than a fine house," said Mrs Gardiner. "The grounds are extremely beautiful and should not be missed."
"Are you not acquainted somewhat with the family?" asked her uncle.
"Mr Darcy is Mr Bingley’s great friend, and of course I met him when he was in Hertfordshire, and also in Kent, when he visited his aunt at Rosings, but I feel that I would be throwing myself in his path if I were to tour his home. It is different from visiting the grand homes where I am unacquainted with anyone."
"I understand your reticence, my dear, but what if the family is not in the country at present?" asked Mr Gardiner.
"When last Mr Bingley heard from him, he did say that Mr Darcy was visiting with his uncle," admitted Lizzie.
"Then let us ask at the inn if it is known whether or not the family is at home. If they are not, you can surely have no objections to visiting the place."
It was discovered that Mr Darcy and his sister were indeed not in residence at the present time, and Lizzie allowed herself to be convinced to accompany her relatives on a tour of Pemberley the following day.
The day was bright and fresh. They let the roof down on the carriage to afford a better view of the beautiful grounds they were driving through. The main drive ran through an expanse of lightly wooded hills. They came upon the crest of one hill and found themselves looking down on the view of a valley that took Lizzie’s breath away. Pemberley was a stately home built on a grand scale from the local warm pink granite that was used in these parts. Rich green lawns stretched before it, and pleasure gardens spread behind. A pond could be seen beyond. A meandering stream wound its way through groves of beech to the left and led the eye down the valley to the rolling hills of meadow and orchard, and the great belt of dense oak wood.
This is Pemberley, thought Elizabeth. It is more than I had ever expected. How could I have even imagined that the owner of all this would want to marry someone as insignificant as me? At that moment she felt that he was justified in all the pride that he had. And yet, she had to remind herself, he wasn’t a really prideful man. He had that awkward shyness which she found even more surprising, knowing now how truly deserving he was of his position in the world.
Lizzie was very quiet during the tour which was given by the very genteel and respectful housekeeper. She had nothing but praise and admiration for her master and his sister, and clearly enjoyed taking pride in extolling his benevolence and fairness as a landlord and master. Lizzie found herself in the gallery gazing up at a portrait of Mr Darcy with her heart in her throat, and tears of longing aching to escape her eyes. He had such a smile playing on his lips that she had seen on occasion when he had looked at her. The painter had not managed to catch the expression of his green eyes, but maybe that expression was only for her. No! She must not give way to thoughts like that, especially here, where it was more than obvious that such daydreaming flights of fancy were futile.
Lizzie was brought back to the real world by hearing the housekeeper comment that she was expecting her master and his sister on the morrow. Lizzie gasped, knowing how close they had come to visiting while he was at home, and was filled with relief that they had not postponed their tour for a day.
Darcy was actually riding through the woods of Pemberley at that very moment. He had some business with his steward and had decided to come a day earlier, although it wasn’t really necessary. Georgiana and Mrs Annesley were to arrive the following day as planned. He had felt an unaccountable urge to get there early and had followed it. Now he was come, hot, road weary, and dirty. He guided his horse through the trees and when they were free of them, urged him at a gallop to the shore of the pond.
If Lizzie had looked out the window at that moment instead of gazing at the portrait, she would have seen a rider slip off his horse on the far side of the pond and stand gazing into the water. If Darcy had looked towards the house instead of at the pond there would have been nothing to show him that the object of his thoughts was at that moment in his home, staring at his picture and trying not to think of him; however, that would have entailed that she not think at all.
Darcy looked at the water, remembering all the times he had swum there as a child, even as a young adult on occasion. He loosened his neck-cloth, and wiped the grit from his neck that had settled there during the ride. The idea of diving into crisp clear water was very inviting; the shock of his body hitting the cold wet and then channelling through it to come up refreshed tempted him. Darcy considered taking off his boots and then looked at the water again. Had it been that dirty when he had swum in it in the past? There was green scum floating on the surface, and pond weed thickly weaving in its depths. If he dove in, he would come up covered in green slime, with tendrils of stinky weed hanging from his ears. He shuddered. He was a little too fastidious to even attempt a swim in that murk, no matter how hot and dirty he was. As a compromise, he pulled off his riding jacket, and slung it over his shoulder, then he led his horse around the pond and to the stable.
The housekeeper took the Gardiners and Lizzie outside to meet the gardener who was going to take them on the outdoor tour. As Lizzie waited for her uncle and the gardener to decide on the length and direction of the tour, she walked alongside a yew hedge to get to a better vantagepoint for a view of the valley. Mr Darcy came striding purposefully around the hedge and almost right into her. They both stopped short in surprise.
"Elizabeth!" Darcy’s face was overspread with amazement. ‘Here she is at my own home! Have I somehow conjured her up, or is she real?’
Lizzie coloured deeply and did not know where to look. ‘Oh, that I had not come! I wish the earth would swallow me up. But, he used my name! What can he mean by that? He is only in his shirtsleeves; oh I cannot look!’ Lizzie couldn’t help herself; she raised her head and had another look. His shirt was a delicate lawn, his neck cloth was loosened, and the top three buttons of his waistcoat were undone. He was looking at her with such intensity that she coloured all the more and looked back at her shoes. But my, did he look wonderful! She was embarrassed, she was confused, but she was happy. He was here.
She was real! There she was standing in front of him, blushing rosily and all he could do was stare. Just the sight of her filled him with happiness but he could think of nothing to say. All he wanted to do was take her in his arms and bury his face in her hair. He had to pull himself together. This was his home, and it was his duty to welcome her and her friends and to show them what hospitality he could.
"Miss Elizabeth, it is an honour." Darcy suddenly remembered that he was dirty and dishevelled, and only partially dressed. He struggled into his riding jacket and attempted to tidy his neck cloth.
"Mr Darcy . . . I had no idea . . ."
"I have only just arrived," said Darcy somewhat disjointedly. "Have you been here long?" He quickly did up all his buttons on his waistcoat and his jacket. He had to do them over a few times as he kept getting them in the wrong holes.
"We have just toured the house," said Lizzie, finally attempting to look at him again. He appeared very agitated.
"You are not leaving?" he asked, concern filling his countenance.
"We are about to tour the garden."
Darcy stood in thought for a moment as Lizzie watched him, all the while trying to settle her feelings.
"Will you please excuse me?" he asked, and he strode off quickly, running up the stairs into his home.
Lizzie looked after him in consternation. What did he mean by running off like that? They had just begun to talk. He hadn’t even asked to be made known to her relatives. She started to feel very distressed and wished again that she hadn’t come. She noticed that her aunt and uncle were waiting for her with the gardener. She attempted to calm her feelings and settle her expression.
"That was Mr Darcy," She said as she rejoined them. "He has just arrived."
"Yes, the gardener informed us it was his master," said Mr Gardiner.
"He is a very handsome gentleman," said Mrs Gardiner, giving Lizzie a searching look. There was very obviously something more between them than casual acquaintance, if the attitude of either on their unexpected meeting was anything to go by.
"He apparently did not expect to encounter tourists," said her uncle jovially. "The poor man was in such a state to get his riding jacket back on!"
Lizzie only smiled at this sally.
"We have decided on the river walk," said Mrs Gardiner, giving her husband a quelling look. "There are a number of bridges, and the gardener informs us that it is not toostrenuous a walk. I know you are an avid walker but I fear I am sadly wanting in that respect."
"Nonsense, my dear," said Mr Gardiner, taking her arm. "If I am by your side, I am sure you can walk anywhere the rest of us can."
"I should love to walk by the water," said Lizzie.
They walked off together. The Gardiners kept up a lively conversation with their guide and Lizzie lapsed again into silence. It was a good thing that they followed a pathway, for she was almost completely oblivious to her surroundings. Her joy in the landscape had gone. All she could think was, ‘why did he leave so suddenly? Where did he go? What does he think of me?’ Occasionally she looked back at the house, but it gave her no answers. Her aunt glanced at her, but decided to leave her be.
They crossed one bridge, and as their path curved to follow the winding stream, Lizzie noticed Mr Darcy approaching them along another path. He was walking quickly and had changed into morning dress. It suddenly struck her. He had run off to change out of his travel stained clothing! She was flooded with relief. She looked about herself and noticed the crisp ridged leaves of the beech trees, the tranquil flow of the stream, the brisk chirp of a squirrel as it ran across the path. She was stunned by the natural beauty of her surroundings that had not even registered a moment before. She and the Gardiners arrived at the next bridge just as Mr Darcy crossed it.
"Miss Elizabeth, I am happy that I encountered you," he said. "I apologise for rushing off so suddenly. I forgot in my haste to ask which way you would be walking, so I thought of your tastes and decided that this is where I would find you."
Elizabeth thought that they were very lucky indeed, for she had nothing at all to do with the choice, though upon reflection he was very right that she would have chosen just this walk. "There is no need to apologise," said Lizzie simply.
"And how do you find Pemberley? I hope it is to your liking."
"It is above anything I had expected," said Lizzie, colouring madly.
"Would you do me the honour of introducing your friends to me? I should very much like to meet them."
"Of course. This is my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. Mr Gardiner is my mother’s brother." Lizzie looked at Mr Darcy to see how this information was received. That he was surprised was evident, but he very graciously shook their hands and greeted them.
"They are my relatives who live in Cheapside," she said with emphasis.
"I recall their address very well. They reside in Gracechurch Street. If you remember I sent that information to Bingley," replied Darcy, nonplussed. Here was the opportunity that he had long wished for. He would be able to prove to Elizabeth that he did not hold her connections in contempt. He had to suppress his uncomfortable urge of shyness and be outgoing with her relatives. He dismissed the gardener and turned to join Lizzie’s uncle. He spent the next fifteen minutes walking with Mr Gardiner and showing him all the best spots for fishing, and extended an invitation to him to come and fish with him the day after next.
Mrs Gardiner walked with Lizzie who was not a good companion for her because she paid more attention to the gentlemen’s conversation than their own. Mrs Gardiner affected a change of partners, saying that she needed her husband’s stronger arm to lean on, and Lizzie found herself walking side by side with Mr Darcy. Soon they had outstripped the older couple who were much slower.
After walking together in some silence Lizzie started with, "You must understand that we were informed that you were not in the country, or we should not have come. I did not wish to invade your privacy."
"I am very happy that you came today. You were a most welcome surprise."
"How are your family?"
"They are all well."
"Tomorrow my sister arrives. She would very much like to meet you. May I present her to you?"
"I would be very pleased to finally meet her after all I have heard of her. I am sure I shall like her excessively."
"I am sure she shall like you excessively."
"Mr Darcy, If you keep saying such things, I will not be able to keep my composure."
"Than you will have to lose your composure for I have no intention of stopping," he said smiling with utmost sweetness into her eyes. His eyes looked very green and Lizzie was afraid of losing herself in them. This would not do. She could not let herself become overset by everything he said or did.
"How long are you staying at Lambton?"
"About five days. My aunt has friends that she has not seen for many years."
"I hope you will still have time to give to the inhabitants of Pemberley."
"If the inhabitants of Pemberley would like some of our time, I’m quite certain it can be arranged," said Lizzie with a little smile.
"You are very generous."
"You are very hospitable."
They walked on in silence for a while and then Darcy asked her about her trip, and she was able to share with him her impressions of Derbyshire. They arrived at the third bridge and walked out to the middle of it, where they stopped to look at the water and wait for the others. Darcy leaned on the balustrade and looked deep into the water, pointing out trout to Lizzie. She was very close to him; occasionally her shoulder would brush his arm. Her fresh lavender scent drifted over to him. He felt that he would soon be overcome by his desire to hold her. He reached up and picked a leaf from an overhanging branch of copper beech, placed a kiss on it and tucked it into her palm, whispering her name, "Elizabeth." The temptation to take hold of her hand was great, but they were in plain view and would be alone for only a few moments longer.
She looked up at him and smiled. She held the leaf close within her hand and held her hand up to her cheek, all the while looking into his eyes, an expression of wonder on her face. It was well that her aunt and uncle arrived at that moment for she did not trust herself for what would happen next. She quickly said, "This is such a beautiful tree."
"Yes, there are only a few copper beech among the green. They hold a special place in my heart for the copper beech was my mother’s favourite tree." He turned to greet Mr and Mrs Gardiner. "I apologise for walking so far ahead with your niece. I promise that on the return trip we will stay close by. If we take this path to the right it is a more direct route that is much shorter, though not as picturesque. I fear that we have gone a little too far for you today, Mrs Gardiner."
"I am not done up yet, sir, but I do believe we should return by the shorter route. I also doubt very much that there is any path on your fine estate that I would not find pleasing."
The group of four walked back together and Darcy answered all the Gardiner’s many questions about his grounds and the surrounding countryside. Elizabeth was pleased to see the ease with which he conversed with her relatives. When they got back to the carriage, Darcy handed her up and then reminded her of her promise to let him bring his sister to visit her when she arrived. He also reminded Mr Gardiner of the upcoming fishing excursion. Then he stood and watched as they drove away and did not return to his house until they were out of sight. The remainder of the day he spent in a semi-daze and it was not until the evening and he had finished his lonely supper that he realised he had not even approached his steward upon that matter of business.
Mr and Mrs Gardiner voiced their hearty approval of Mr Darcy on the ride back to Lambton.
"It appears you are much better acquainted with him than we had thought," said her uncle.
Lizzie admitted that she had spent more time with him and his cousin in Kent, but said little else. Neither Mr nor Mrs Gardiner saw fit to press the issue because it was evident that some very tender feelings were shared by the two young people and also that they were both quite unsure of what was happening between them.
When they arrived at the Inn, Lizzie excused herself to go to her room and change for the dinner they had been invited to at the home of one of Mrs Gardiner’s old friends. She closed the door and leaned against it. She opened her hand, took out the leaf and raised it to her lips. She brushed them gently against it, held it to her cheek for a moment, and then wrapped it in her handkerchief and placed it carefully into her reticule. Mr Darcy’s words kept running through her head, ‘there are only a few copper beech among the green. They hold a special place in my heart.’ A special place in my heart.
Part the Sixteenth
The next morning was spent visiting and sightseeing. After a luncheon at the inn, Lizzie settled down in the sitting room with a book to await her visitors. As her aunt and uncle did not expect them to arrive for a couple more hours yet, they took the opportunity of browsing the shops on the main street.
Lizzie found she could not concentrate at all on her book. She could only think of Mr Darcy; how he had looked, what he had said, what he had done. Had she read too much into his actions? And yet, how could she misconstrue them? He had said her name, twice, and hearing it had filled her with such warmth and excitement. She recollected that he always called her Miss Elizabeth rather than Miss Bennet, but somehow hearing her name on his lips without the Miss attached to it was so very intimate and endearing. And the leaf with his kiss upon it and what he had said about the trees and his heart could only mean one thing. He was not a man to flirt or play with a lady’s affections. Not only his shyness would prevent that but also his sense of honour. Lizzie could see no other way of understanding his actions; he must hold deep feelings for her. She loosed the reins that had held her heart and allowed the bliss of loving and being loved to fill her.
Darcy sat with his sister in the carriage, holding her hand as she nervously looked up at him. Soon they would be in Lambton, and he would see Elizabeth. He thought back to their encounter the previous day. He had been so happy and excited and confused by seeing her unexpectedly, that he had barely been able to control his emotions. After her initial embarrassment, she appeared to have been happy to see him too. He knew that he had taken that extra step that showed her that he had intentions toward her. He hadn’t meant to, but he had been unable to prevent himself. Her presence alone was overwhelming, her smiles were intoxicating. He had meant to go slower, to be sure of her first. Now he felt vulnerable, having exposed his heart. She had accepted the leaf, and had held it up to her cheek with such a look on her face, but there was so much confusion in the moment with her aunt and uncle so quickly returning. How would she have felt upon reflection? If she did not return his feelings, he knew she would find a way to let him know. Her reception of him at the inn would tell him at once. If she was distant to him, he would know what to think, and he would have to comply with her wishes. But would she still want to be friends, knowing how he felt? Would he have to distance himself from her again?
The carriage stopped and yet he sat there, holding his sister’s hand, overcome with apprehension. Georgiana looked up at him and smiled timidly.
"I don’t know who is more nervous about this meeting, you or I, but what could possibly make you nervous?"
"I want you two to like each other so very much," answered Darcy, shaking himself out of his stupor. ‘What a silly thing to say. They can’t help but like one another. I want her to like me. Oh, Elizabeth, please love me, just a little.’
Georgiana looked at her brother again. He was acting very strangely. He had been more quiet than usual since he had returned from Kent, at times appearing melancholy. Today he had greeted her in such an unsettled state, a mixture of happiness and unease, and suppressed excitement, and had insisted on introducing her at once to an acquaintance of his who he had accidentally discovered was staying in Lambton. And now this admission. Why was their liking each other of such paramount importance to him? Georgiana could not wait to meet this girl.
"Well, let us go in," she said.
Elizabeth stood up as Mr and Miss Darcy were announced. Her eyes went unbidden to Mr Darcy’s face and for a moment neither could do anything but look in a glance that spoke volumes and did much to still Darcy’s fears. Georgiana looked at them both, and a little smile crept to her face. She had never seen her brother in love before, but there was no mistaking it. She looked at the girl who suddenly blushingly lowered her eyes and then came forward with her hand outstretched.
Darcy recollected himself and made the introduction.
"Georgiana, this is Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Miss Elizabeth, my sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy."
Elizabeth took Georgiana’s hand and smiled into her eyes. They were green, but lighter than her brother’s, and they held that timid flash that she had so often noticed in Mr Darcy's. "I am pleased to finally meet you. I have heard so much about you."
Georgiana smiled softly. "Does my brother talk so much of me, then?"
"It is not only your brother. You have a great admirer in Miss Bingley."
"You are acquainted with the Bingleys?"
"Yes, that is how I met your brother, when he was staying with Mr Bingley in Hertfordshire."
Georgiana smiled again, but could not think what to say. Her brother had been very secretive about Miss Bennet. She knew nothing of her background, and had only just learned of where they had met. Miss Bennet, on the other hand appeared to be much better informed. I wonder that Miss Bingley mentioned nothing of her to me when I saw her in town?
Elizabeth looked over to Mr Darcy and said, "Won’t you both sit down? My aunt and uncle have gone for a walk in the village but should return shortly." She had to look away again quickly as she returned to her seat. She felt helpless whenever she looked at him. All she wanted to do was rush into his arms, but instead she had to behave with utmost decorum and propriety, and she had to exert herself to entertain his timid sister when her mind was almost incapable of formulating even the simplest of sentences.
Somehow the three of them managed to keep up some semblance of conversation until Mr and Mrs Gardiner arrived. The introductions were made, and Mrs Gardiner took over the task of being hostess. Mr Gardiner sat by Darcy and they conversed about fishing together. If the latter gentleman was somewhat distracted, the former appeared not to notice it. Lizzie took herself to task and made an extra effort to enter the conversation with her aunt and Miss Darcy. She found that if she did not look towards the gentleman in question, her faculties of thought returned to her.
After half an hour, Darcy and Georgiana stood to leave. Darcy whispered something in his sister’s ear and she came forward to extend an invitation for the ladies to visit her while the gentlemen were out fishing the next day, and for all of them to stay to dinner afterward. Lizzie looked at her aunt who accepted the invitation very readily. As they said their goodbyes, Lizzie offered to see Miss Darcy to her carriage. This gave her the opportunity to stand beside Mr Darcy as he handed his sister up. He then turned to her and their eyes met once again. They stood like that for some time until the impatient movement of the horses brought them back to awareness of their surroundings.
Darcy took Lizzie’s hand and held it gently. "Until tomorrow." He raised it to his lips and kissed it lightly. Lizzie could not trust herself to speak, but stood with her hand pressed to her cheek and watched the carriage disappear down the village street.
The next morning Lizzie awoke filled with contentment. It was a blissful feeling to love and know that the love is returned, and Lizzie was very confident that her love was returned despite the disparity in fortune and connections. Mr Darcy was more pleasant and outgoing with the Gardiners than she had ever seen him. She wondered, not for the first time, how it was that he had cautioned the colonel against her relations and situation, and suddenly came to the realisation that he had only done it to discourage his cousin because he had feelings for her that he was unwilling to acknowledge to him. This idea made her smile and shake her head over all the heartache this had caused her. She could not feel angry with him; he had brought heartache upon himself by this action as well. Lizzie thought ahead to the visit and dinner at Pemberley, and hoped that she was now accustomed enough with the new depth of her feelings for Mr Darcy, and her understanding of his for her, that she would be able to meet him with equanimity.
Darcy went out to greet his guests with a cheerful stride and a smile that he could not suppress. He had felt so happy all morning that he had even startled his sister when she came upon him singing on his way down to breakfast. After her initial surprise, she had given him a very smug look as he had stopped abruptly and blushed deeply.
Elizabeth looked radiant as he helped her down from her carriage and he was loath to leave her after only being able to share a few words of greeting in the company of her aunt and uncle. He had held her hand a little longer than was necessary before he turned to assist Mrs Gardiner to alight, and he hoped that nobody had noticed. After escorting the ladies to the door where Georgiana was awaiting them, he joined Mr Gardiner and they strolled down to the stream and met up with Darcy’s man who was carrying the fishing gear. He enjoyed Mr Gardiner’s company very much, finding him intelligent and well informed, with a good-humoured nature. He did not need to talk away, but was content to enjoy his fishing in silence, which suited Darcy’s temperament and state of mind.
Georgiana lead Lizzie and Mrs Gardiner to the drawing room where she introduced them to Mrs Annesley, her companion. Lizzie made a great effort to talk with Georgiana and bring her out of her shyness while Mrs Gardiner and Mrs Annesley chatted together. Lizzie was glad to have this time with Georgiana on her own, without the distraction of her brother. They found that they shared many common interests, a love of music, books, and nature. Georgiana was not as great a walker as Lizzie, but she confessed to enjoying spending much of her time outdoors, strolling in the beautiful gardens of Pemberley.
"I understand you walked by the river when you were here last," Georgina said softly, "but were you able to also see the garden?"
"I did not have that pleasure but I would dearly love to walk in it. What I have seen from the windows is enchanting."
"Shall we go now?" Georgiana timidly suggested.
"I should like that above anything," said Lizzie.
The older ladies were invited to come, but they elected to stay indoors. Lizzie and Georgiana wandered leisurely through the gardens. Georgiana soon shed all her shyness in her enjoyment of sharing her favourite flowers and shrubs to her new friend. They walked into a sheltered grove with a bench placed under an overspreading copper beech.
"This was my mother’s favourite spot," said Georgiana. "I remember coming here with her when I was a very little girl."
Lizzie sat on the bench and looked about her. "I can understand why. It is so very peaceful here."
"I come here when I feel I need her," confided Georgiana.
"You must miss her so. I can’t imagine not having a mother, although with my mother! Well, I shall just say that my favourite place is a spot that I usually go to get away from her."
They both laughed, and then Lizzie sobered, remembering that her favourite spot would never be a haven for her again. It was as if a cloud had obscured the sun. She hadn’t thought about it for days and now the memory of Wickham came back to her. ‘Why here? Why now? Please, I can’t let him spoil my day.’
Georgiana had also fallen quiet, thinking of what had brought her to the spot the last time. She had needed solace from her mother for the pain she had suffered at the hands of Wickham. She knew now that he had never loved her, that he had tried to take advantage of her in the worst possible way only to hurt her brother. It was hard for her to think about it without feeling shame for her misguided infatuation, but at least she was able to see it for what it was. Infatuation and nothing more. Sitting under the tree she felt soothed and comforted.
"It is as if my mother was still her watching over me," she said tentatively.
Lizzie leant her head back and tried to still her mind, to reach the peace that she had felt upon entering the grove. She looked up through the tracery of leaves and branches, and remembered her leaf, tucked carefully into her reticule. She let the thought of Wickham ebb from her mind as she watched the leaves shift and play in the light breeze. She raised her head and saw Georgiana looking at her with concern in her gentle green eyes.
"Are you all right?"
"I had a bad memory, but I am better now. Your mother’s place has worked its magic on me."
"I am so glad," said Georgiana, impulsively taking her hand. She looked into Lizzie’s eyes and continued, "You have made my brother very happy."
Both girls blushed and Georgiana cast her eyes down.
"I ought not to have said that."
"It was fine for you to say it. Never be afraid to say anything to me. I do so want us to be good friends. I am very happy myself, but I do not wish you to misconstrue . . . there is really nothing between us . . . I mean he hasn’t . . . we are only friends." Lizzie was blushing fiercely now.
Georgina smiled. "I will say no more," she said as they both stood and resumed their walk. ‘Yes,’ thought Georgiana. ‘There is nothing between them and they are just friends. That always makes my brother sing in the morning and forget in mid-sentence what he is saying to me. I am sure Miss Elizabeth blushes for no reason constantly and looks at all her friends with her heart in her eyes.’
Part the Seventeenth
After dinner the small party sat in the drawing room and continued to converse on an easy, friendly level as they had done throughout dinner. Both Lizzie and Darcy found that they could make reasonably rational conversation with everybody if they avoided looking into each other’s eyes. They were unable to have any private conversation, but both enjoyed the warm relaxed mood of the group. Mrs Gardiner suggested that they have a little music, and Lizzie and Georgiana were prevailed upon to play.
Lizzie sat at the piano first, to help Georgiana feel more comfortable about playing in front of relative strangers. Georgiana turned the pages for her. Lizzie’s playing, while by no means excellent, was light and pleasing and very well received, especially by Darcy who took advantage of the opportunity to gaze at her. If her playing faltered a few times after she inadvertently looked up and caught his gaze, nobody faulted her for it. After Lizzie played a few pieces, she traded places with Georgiana and smiled at her encouragingly. Georgiana was tentative at first but then immersed herself in her playing which was delicate and intuitive. As the melody rippled around her, Lizzie allowed herself to meet Darcy’s gaze. There was more warmth in his green eyes than she had yet seen. He got up and moved towards the instrument, stopping a mere few feet from her. She was so mesmerised by the moment that she almost forgot to turn the pages.
When Georgiana was finished, Lizzie turned to her and said, "That was lovely."
Georgiana just smiled, collected up her music and then went over to where Mrs Annesley was talking with the Gardiners, leaving Lizzie and Darcy alone together by the pianoforte. Lizzie looked up at Darcy and smiled somewhat shyly.
He leaned towards her and said, "Thank you for your kindness to my sister."
"If I have been kind to her it is out of pure selfishness, sir," said Lizzie playfully. "Making her acquaintance has given me so much pleasure. She is a very sweet-natured girl."
"My thanking you must then be construed as selfishness as well," returned Mr Darcy with a smile, "for the delight that your response affords me."
Lizzie coloured and looked down at her hands.
"Did I tell you how much I enjoyed your playing?"
"Thank you sir, but you must own that your sister’s playing is much superior. I have rarely heard music played with such taste and feeling."
"That is another thing I must thank you for. You set Georgiana so much at ease. I have never heard her play so naturally in company before. She is usually quite stiff and uncomfortable."
"She does not go in company often?" asked Lizzie.
"She enjoys being here at Pemberley with people she knows. In London she only attends family parties; as she is but sixteen she is not out yet. She is the happiest in the country but I fear it can be lonely for her with only Mrs Annesley for company. I cannot be with her as often as I would wish."
"She spent some time with you while you were visiting with your uncle."
"Yes. She is very close to our aunt and uncle. We were not the only house guests as my cousin and his wife were there, and also Colonel Fitzwilliam."
Lizzie coloured at the mention of his name, remembering her last interview with the colonel. "How is Colonel Fitzwilliam?"
"His feelings were very low when we left Rosings," said Darcy, looking at her intently, "but I think it is safe to say that he is completely recovered now."
From his answer it was obvious to Lizzie that Mr Darcy knew of the proposal and refusal, and that he was giving her a direct message. She appreciated his effort to set her mind at ease regarding the colonel. "I am very happy to hear that," she said.
"There is something I want to ask you," said Darcy, for the first time appearing nervous. "Will you be at the inn tomorrow morning?"
"My aunt and uncle have friends to visit, but I can manage to stay behind if . . ." Lizzie’s voice faltered and she blushed deeply.
"Will you do that for me?" Darcy asked fervently.
Lizzie nodded her head.
Darcy reached out and touched one of her hands with his fingertip and then withdrew it quickly when Mr Gardiner addressed him.
"We have imposed on your hospitality too long for one day, Mr Darcy. I feel it is time we took our leave. Come Lizzie."
"Yes uncle," said Lizzie. She gave Mr Darcy a soft smile. "Thank you so much."
"It was my pleasure."
They said their goodbyes to Georgiana and Mrs Annesley, and Darcy walked out with them to their carriage. He handed the women up, giving Lizzie’s hand a gentle squeeze and smiling tenderly up at her. Her face flushed with pleasure, she whispered goodnight to him a little breathlessly. He turned and shook Mr Gardiner’s hand and wished both him and Mrs Gardiner a good evening, then he stood and watched the carriage drive away. Lizzie turned back and watched him as he stood there in the dusk. She braved the looks of her aunt and uncle and gave a little wave. He raised his hand in answer. She did not turn her head until they had rounded the bend and both Pemberley and its master were no longer in sight.
"Miss Darcy is a very pleasant young girl," said Lizzie, trying to divert any comments or speculations about the person that was surely uppermost in everybody’s minds.
"She did display a certain quiet elegance that is not often seen in someone so young," answered Mrs Gardiner, bringing images of Lydia and Kitty to Lizzie’s mind. The contrast was striking.
"She has a very caring disposition," said Lizzie, "and a love of her garden that she so willingly shared with me."
"And she plays the piano most beautifully," said Mr Gardiner. "I have rarely enjoyed a performance more."
The discussion of the music brought Mr Darcy too much to mind. While Georgiana had been playing, Lizzie had felt a powerful surge of emotion as the liquid sound had drawn him close to her until it was as if there were only the two of them and the music that embraced them. "Mrs Annesley seems a very genteel sort of woman," she said, trying to get the conversation back on course.
"Yes," said Mrs Gardiner, "and she displays a great deal of good sense and intelligence along with an open disposition which must make her a valuable companion for a girl of such a retiring nature."
Lizzie smiled in agreement and thought hard of some new subject to introduce, but Mrs Gardiner forestalled her. "You must allow me to tell you how much I like your Mr Darcy," she said.
"He is not my Mr Darcy," said Lizzie as she felt the heat rise in her cheeks.
"Oh I think he is," said Mrs Gardiner.
"He is a very fine young man," said Mr Gardiner, "and does not feel himself above his company, which is admirable for a gentleman of his position."
"He is perhaps a little quiet, like his sister, but the liveliness they both lack I’m sure you can provide," said Mrs Gardiner with a smile.
Lizzie’s discomfiture was great. She did not want to make her feelings about Mr Darcy known until he had declared himself to her, and surely that must be his reason for asking to see her in the morning. Lizzie thought again about the look in his eyes and the sound of his voice as he had said, ‘will you do that for me?’ so quietly and yet with such intensity of feeling, and the fleeting touch of his finger on the back of her bare hand. Her aunt and uncle allowed her to slip into a comfortable silence as they chatted quietly together about their plans for the next day.
Darcy returned to his sister and she came up to him and said, "I like Miss Elizabeth very well. You shall suit admirably."
He kissed his sister lightly on the forehead and did not even attempt to deny her supposition. Their conversation for the rest of the evening was desultory. Georgiana was not brave enough to say more about her brother and Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s relationship, but there was no other subject that she would have rather discussed with him, if he had been amenable to it. They soon retired, and Georgiana gave her brother an extra long hug as she said her goodnights.
Darcy entered his bedchamber, went straight to his bureau and pulled open a slim drawer. He took out a small box and held it in the palm of his hand. Sitting on his bed, he opened the box, taking out a ring and holding it in the light of the candle. A deep toned emerald set in warm gold and flanked by two vivid sapphires reflected the flame’s fire. It had been his mother’s and his father’s mother’s before her. He was not surehow long it had been in the family, but tomorrow he would bestow it upon his Elizabeth.
Morning did not come quickly enough for Darcy. He finally gave up on sleep completely as the first light burnished the sky with a pale glow that foreshadowed the coming of dawn. He sat in his window and watched the changing sky as the sun crept towards the horizon and beyond, rising from the spreading meadows and suffusing the world with its light. He dressed with care and slipped the ring box into his breast pocket, over his heart. It made an odd lump in the smooth fit of his jacket, but that was where he wanted it. The house was waking around him but it was still too early for breakfast so he strolled aimlessly through the garden, plucking a pale yellow rosebud and threading it through his buttonhole. He went to the stable and ordered his horse to be made ready. He breakfasted alone, and then, as it was still much too nearly to pay a morning call, he took his horse out for a gallop across the meadows.
Lizzie rose the next morning refreshed from a night of deep sleep and comforting dreams. She could not remember any in detail, but she woke with a feeling of contentment and anticipation of seeing Mr Darcy in only a few hours. After they had breakfasted and the Gardiners were preparing to go out on their morning visits, the post came bringing with it a long awaited letter from Jane. Lizzie was able to make her excuses to the Gardiners on the grounds that she would stay home and read the letter. She hadn’t managed to bring herself to tell them about Mr Darcy’s proposed visit.
After they had left she made herself comfortable in the sitting room, and opened Jane’s letter to read while she waited for Mr Darcy. She at first could not place her full attention to the letter as her thoughts kept travelling to a certain pair of green eyes and the gentleman who owned them. Suddenly she was caught by the disturbing turn Jane’s news had taken. Talk of walks into Meryton and trimming new bonnets had been replaced with information of the most distressing kind. She had to read the first sentence three times before she could even accept that what she read was what was written on the page. Lydia had run off from Brighton with Wickham! Lizzie felt a deep stab of fear slice through her. Jane reported that they had eloped, but it could not be! Wickham had showed her his true self and not for one minute could Lizzie believe that he had any intentions of marrying Lydia. Lizzie read on, her dread building. Lydia had left a note for Colonel Forster’s wife, stating their intentions, but reports that the Colonel received from his officers made him doubt Wickham had marriage plans. The Colonel had traced them to London, but not beyond. Mr Bennet had already left for the capital and wanted Mr Gardiner to join him there as soon as possible.
Lizzie dropped the letter and ran for the door, thinking nothing but she had to find her uncle. At that moment, the door opened and Darcy was announced. He stopped short when he beheld Lizzie visibly distressed with tears upon her cheeks.
"Elizabeth! Whatever is the matter?"
"My uncle! I need to find my uncle!"
"You are too distraught to go. I will have him sent for." Darcy turned in the doorway and called the servant back, asking her to run out to find Mr Gardiner.
"They were to visit the parsonage," cried Lizzie, and Darcy relayed the information. He then closed the door and took Lizzie’s hand and led her to the couch.
"Is there anything I can do for you? Are you unwell?" he asked with much concern.
"No, I am well! I have just had some distressing news from home, and it is entirely my fault. I could have prevented it!" Lizzie broke down sobbing.
Darcy, still holding both her hands in his, said softly, "Elizabeth, please tell me what is wrong. How could you be to blame?"
"There is no hiding this news from the world. Soon everyone will know! My foolish sister Lydia has run off with Wickham! He will not marry her, and I, I who knew what he was, I could have prevented this all if I had been brave enough to tell my father;but I only thought of myself!"
"Elizabeth, how could you have known how despicable that man really is? He told you only lies, and I told you nothing in detail of my dealings with him."
"It is too terrible! Oh what will you think of me?"
"I will only think that you are the dearest most wonderful woman I have ever known. Nothing could change how I feel for you."
Lizzie looked up into his face and reflected that this would probably be the last time his eyes would look so tenderly upon her. What he had just said had touched her most deeply, but she had to be honest with him and tell him, even though it meant that she would surely lose him.
"Shortly before the militia left for Brighton, Mr Wickham encountered me when I was alone in a secluded spot."
Darcy stiffened and drew in his breath. It is starting already, thought Lizzie as shame flooded her.
"He made me a proposal that did not include marriage. That is why I am certain he has no intention of marrying Lydia. She does not have the fortune that he seeks." Lizzie faltered and looked at her hands that were still held in Darcy’s firm grip.
"Tell me, Elizabeth. What else did that scoundrel do?" His voice was like ice.
Lizzie turned her head away. She could not face him. "He forced his attentions on me. He is so much stronger; there was nothing I could do to stop him, though I tried. He pressed his body against mine and kissed me. I don’t know what would have happened if Mary had not come in search of me for my father. It was so shameful and disgusting. I hate the very thought of it and now you shall surely hate me!"
Darcy could not help himself. He drew her into his arms and held her close, whispering in her ear. "You are not to blame. How could you think I would hate you? Elizabeth, you are more dear to me than anything. You should not feel shame for something you had no power to prevent." She held tightly to him and let her tears flow freely. He pulled back and looked her in the eyes. "I am the one who is to blame for all this." He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, and in doing so felt the box that was also kept there. He acknowledged with regret that the box would have to stay in his pocket. His hopes would have to be put aside.
He dried Elizabeth’s eyes and said with some feeling, "My abominable family pride is the cause of all this. I blame myself not only for what happened to your sister, but also for what happened to you. I know Wickham’s true nature very well, but did not make it publicly known out of respect for my father’s memory and my sister’s reputation. My father had no idea of Wickham’s true character. He loved him to his death. Wickham could not hide his profligate ways from me. I had many dealings with him that I won’t bother you with, but the worst was when he tried to elope with my sister to gain her inheritance and to revenge himself upon me."
Darcy got up and strode around the room. Elizabeth felt bereft to no longer be within the warm comfort of his arms. She remembered what Wickham had said to her about Mr Darcy, and how he would ruin her for him, and she understood more deeply why he had made the attack upon her. She could not repeatto Mr Darcy what Wickham had said; it would only increase the guilt that he was already feeling.
"You cannot accept the blame for Wickham’s behaviour," she cried.
"I do not blame myself for his behaviour, only for not warning others. I am greatly at fault!"
"Then I too am as much to blame for not telling my father."
He rushed back to her side. "How could you bring yourself to tell your father such things? Who would imagine that Wickham would run off with your own sister? Did he show her any preference?"
"You cannot blame yourself, Elizabeth, and it will serve no purpose. What remains to be done is to . . ."
Quick steps were heard in the hall and Mr Gardiner came rushing into the room, followed shortly by his wife.
Darcy stood up immediately to face Mr Gardiner who looked at the two of them in some confusion and said, "What is going on here? I was told you were unwell, Lizzie. What is Mr Darcy . . ."
"My dear," cut in Mrs Gardiner. "Calm yourself while we are told what is wrong." She went and sat beside Lizzie. "What is it my love?" she asked, stroking her hair.
Darcy wished he was the one who could be calling her ‘my love’ and stroking her hair, but he knew that now was not the time for that, nor for regrets nor recriminations. Now was the time for action, and he needed to take charge.
"Mr Gardiner, your niece has had some very distressing news from home. I think it would be best if you and I were to go into another room to discuss what is to be done about it while your wife comforts Miss Elizabeth." He had remembered to say Miss, thank the Lord. Now if he could convince Mr Gardiner that they needed his help. He took the arm of a stunned Mr Gardiner andled him from the room, not failing to notice the look of thanks that Elizabeth cast him. He hated to leave her and hoped that it had shown in his face. He knew that he left her in good hands with Mrs Gardiner, but he would have preferred that the hands were his.
Mrs Gardiner and Lizzie sat in stunned silence as he propelled Mr Gardiner out of the room. No one had ever seen this side of Mr Darcy before.
Part the Eighteenth
Mrs Gardiner turned to Lizzie with an expectant look on her face.
"Oh auntie! It is the worst possible news for our family! Lydia is lost forever!" cried Lizzie falling into Mrs Gardiner’s arms. She told her everything: all the news from home, all that Mr Darcy had told her about Wickham, and all her personal experiences with Wickham.
Mrs Gardiner was shocked and distressed, but she appreciated her niece’s openness and offered all the comfort in her power. Lizzie begged her to keep her confidences, and she gave her niece her promise. She did not question her on how Mr Darcy had come to be alone with her, or what type of understanding there was between them. It was obvious that the relationship between them was of a closer and more decided nature than what she had hitherto believed for Lizzie to shareher news from home with him, and for him to be in consultation now with her husband discussing that very news. That they were secretly engaged she did not doubt.
Meanwhile, Darcy was pacing the floor in front of Mr Gardiner.
"This is very disturbing news you have related, Mr Darcy," said Mr Gardiner, his senses back in his command, "but you must acknowledge that it is a private family matter that we will handle among ourselves. It is unfortunate that you have been made aware of our troubles, but I trust in your sense of honour that this news will go no further."
"With all respect, sir, this is very much my business," said Darcy with heightened colour. He could not tell Mr Gardiner of his feelings and desires where Elizabeth was concerned, not before he had made them known first to her and then her father, but he had other claims to the affair that he felt were equally valid. He only had to convince Mr Gardiner of this. "I have known Mr Wickham all my life. We grew up together and he was Godson to my father. My father’s will left me responsible to discharge certain bequests for his future. I have had many dealings with him and have knowledge of his numerous exploits. I am at fault for not making this information as to his want of character public."
"I do not see how his behaviour is your responsibility. It appears to me that he has plagued you long enough and that you have done your duty by your father’s will."
"You must allow me to help you in this. I am a very stubborn man and will not accept refusal. I am honour bound to do all that is in my power to mend this situation."
Mr Gardiner reflected that there must be more to the case than just his responsibility to his father’s will. "Have you made some kind of promise to my niece Elizabeth?"
"Mr Gardiner, I am not at liberty to discuss any promises I have made or will make to your niece. Please understand me in this. We had best return to the task at hand which, in my opinion, needs to be addressed immediately. Much time has been lost already. I have knowledge of Mr Wickham and his associates in London. I do not believe you will find your niece in time without my help. I propose to leave for London as soon as humanly possible, and to track them down. When I find them I will contact you, and we can discuss all the settlements that I will need to make."
"They must be brought to marry. My niece will be lost to the world otherwise, and the rest of our family disgraced," said Mr Gardiner, giving in to Darcy’s insistence.
"I shall see to it that Wickham marries her."
This was said with such vehemence that Mr Gardiner could not doubt the outcome.
They rejoined the ladies and Darcy was relieved to see that Elizabeth had regained her composure. What she had told him of Wickham had shocked him deeply. That she had kept it to herself and had told no one until now must have increased her suffering. He held back the anger towards Wickham that was welling up inside of him. He longed to take her in his arms and comfort her once again, to hold her and never let her go, but he was able to do no more than bow over her hand with the Gardiners’ watchful eyes upon him. She looked up at him searchingly with a troubled gaze, and he smiled at her, a softly tender, comforting smile that was all that was in his power to give at that moment. She returned it with a smile and a look of such warmth that lifted his spirits and gave him something to take with him and reflect upon as he set out on what was sure to be an unpleasant endeavour.
No sooner had he left the inn, than the Gardiners and Lizzie started packing their belongings. Their carriage was ordered, and notes of excuse were sent to their friends. They were down in the courtyard within half an hour, Mr Gardiner supervising the loading of the luggage, and Lizzie and her aunt boarding the carriage in haste. The trip to Longbourn was quiet and uneventful. After discussing the situation at some length there was no more to be said. Lizzie stared out the carriage window, not taking in the lovely scenery as it flew by, but wondering where in his journey Mr Darcy was at that moment, what thoughts were running through his head, and if he had any regrets about her. The memory of his words at the inn, and his last look before he left, filled her with comfort and warded off the prying doubts.
Jane was relieved to see them. She quickly imparted all the new information that she had, but it was really not much more than they already knew. Her father and Colonel Forster were in London, but had discovered nothing of Lydia and Wickham yet. Rumours were starting to spread throughout Meryton, and Wickham’s many creditors were demanding restitution. With Bingley by her side, she was holding up quite well, and aside from her concerns for Lydia, her worries of the possible postponement of her own wedding, and the strain of dealing with her mother’s hysterics, she was happy. Her Lizzie was back to aid her and comfort her.
Mrs Bennet was heard calling in distressed accents, and Lizzie sent Jane and Bingley to the garden for some respite while she and the Gardiners went up to her mother’s bedchamber to be greeted by an onslaught of tears and recriminations. How could they have left her alone at a time like this, having a merry holiday when she was in such distress? What was her brother doing in Longbourn when he should be in London convincing Mr Bennet to challenge Mr Wickham to a duel, or convincing him to think of his family and not fight Wickham for he would surely be killed and leave them all destitute? They spent the rest of the day administering to her nerves and talking her out of her worries that were causing her such spasms and quiverings.
The next morning, the Gardiners took their leave. Mrs Gardiner was loath to leave Lizzie and Jane in such a trying situation, but all agreed that it would be much better for her young children if they returned to the more settled atmosphere of their home in Gracechurch Street. Amid promises that they would send news of the disgraced couple as soon as they were discovered, the carriage went on its way. Jane and Lizzie went back to the parlour where Kitty was pouting in one corner, and Mary was studiously reading by the window.
"This example of our poor sister should be a lesson to all of us," said Mary in reproving accents. "A woman’s reputation is brittle as glass. The smallest slip can destroy it forever. What our sister has done reflects on all of us. Her sin is our sin; her shame is our shame. We must cut her off from our thoughts and hold fast to our virtue. Who of you will sit and read these tracts with me so that we can spread the balm of sisterly kindness and banish the evil that has been brought upon us."
"Would you please stop!" cried Kitty. "I can’t bear it any longer. I am not able to go into Meryton, mother is forever having fits, you go on and on about sin and eternal damnation, and meanwhile Lydia is enjoying herself in London!"
"Kitty!" cried Jane.
"Do not for one minute think that Lydia’s position is a good one, Kitty," said Lizzie. "Mary’s assessment has more credence than you give it credit. We must hope that this affair is hurriedly resolved, and that Wickham is convinced to marry Lydia, or our very reputations will suffer. Who would want to connect themselves with a family so disgraced?"
"She is to be married before any of us and it is not fair!"
"Yes, it is to be hoped so. But to such a man! You can surely not be envious of her position. Instead of this bickering, I think it would be more useful to spend our time attending to our mother and easing her worries. If we can return our house to more normal activities, we shall not be such a spectacle to our neighbours. We are bound to have visitors, and we must show as normal a face as possible to reduce speculation. Jane deserves to have a more settled and relaxing time in her courtship. Mr Bingley cannot like to witness this strife every time he comes. Kitty and Mary, I expect to see you both spending more time with mother and attending to her wishes."
Jane gave Lizzie a smile of thanks, and Kitty flounced off to thier mother’s room.When Bingley arrived the house was restored to a closer semblance of decorum; even Mrs Phillips’ visit passed without too much distress.
Darcy arrived in London determined to unearth Wickham as quickly as possible. He had to frequent the most dissolute areas of London and enter into negotiations with the lowest of characters. On the second day, Mrs Younge was discovered and Darcy easily brought her to realise that giving him the information he desired was the most sensible course of action. The address she gave him was a very run-down boarding house. Mr Darcy climbed the dark, greasy stairway to the second floor and knocked on the scuffed door.
"Come in!" was called out in a woman’s voice.
He entered and found himself alone in a bedchamber with Lydia who was wearing a flimsy muslin housedress, her hair inexpertly tied up upon her head. She was lounging on the bed but jumped up with a giggle when she saw Mr Darcy.
"Oooh! I thought you were my darling Wickham! Whatever are you doing here Mr Darcy? This is such an honour!"
Mr Darcy gave her a look that expressed all his disgust at being there. "Collect your things at once, Miss Bennet. I will escort you to your uncle’s house."
"I will do no such thing! Why should I go there with you? I am staying here; my darling Wickham will return shortly, I am sure, and then we shall be married."
"Exactly where is Wickham?"
"Oh! I do not know. With some friends playing at cards most like. He is such a good card player. He said he needed to go out and find some ready blunt. I do wish he would return, though, it is ever so boring not being able to leave this shabby little room, and the food is terrible."
"At what time did he leave?"
"La, he has been gone these two days, the silly man. Sometimes winning at cards can take so very long. But he should know that I don’t care a straw if we have any money or not!"
"What is two days, pray, when we shall spend a lifetime together? It is very boring though," she smiled up at Darcy through her lashes. "Would you take me to the theatre? I have begged Wickham. He says it would not do, but I would dearly love to go."
"If you do not put your things together right now and come away to your uncle’s with me, I shall have to do it for you," said Darcy in a hard voice.
"You are no fun at all!"
"Now, Miss Bennet!"
"Why should you be here? Why are you taking me to my uncle’s? What concern is it of yours what I do?" shot back Lydia, crossing her arms over her chest and staring challengingly back at him.
"Mr Wickham’s exploits are my business. I am here to see to it that the two of you are married decently! Now get ready."
"Well, I don’t see what concern it is of yours, but if you will make him marry me, I have no objection, only I don’t want to go to my uncle’s. They will only preach at me. It will be even more dull than this."
"You cannot stay here. The rooms have not been paid for and they are preparing to throw you out. Besides, it is no place for a lady."
"Well, thank you so very much for noticing that I am a lady. The same can’t be said for the wretches than have been serving me. I think I will leave."
Lydia gathered up a few articles of clothing from the bed and the floor and threw them into a portmanteau, then she put on a little spencer and tied on her bonnet and announced that she was ready.
"Don’t you have a cloak or something?"
"You are a fuss pot! Are you worried to be seen with me like this?"
‘I do not wish to be seen with you at all,’ thought Darcy, ‘or be another moment in your company.’ He picked up the portmanteau and, without a word, steered her from the room, down the stairs, and into the waiting carriage. He left her with her aunt, and hurriedly returned to the same disreputable area to search out Wickham. Hopefully he had not fled the country.
Three hours later he found him in a sleazy gaming hell. Wickham was half foxed and dipping deeply, if the pile of vouchers on the table in front of the dealer were any indication of his luck at play. Before Wickham had even noticed his presence, Darcy dragged him up by his lapels and pulled him from the table.
"What the devil!" yelled Wickham.
Darcy ignored him. "How deep is he in to you?" he asked the dealer. A staggering amount was mentioned. Darcy did not even question it; he reached in his pocket and threw the bills down on the table, and then dragged Wickham out to the carriage.
"What the hell do you think you are doing?" asked Wickham, sobering up.
"You weren’t going back, were you?" said Darcy, menacingly.
"Whatever do you mean?"
"You weren’t going back to Miss Lydia Bennet. You were going to leave her in that dismal room, the rent unpaid, and with no money."
"I . . . well . . . you didn’t really expect me to marry the chit, did you? I need a woman of fortune. You, of all people, should know that." Wickham smiled silkily. "I suppose you will not be inclined to associate with that family anymore."
Darcy’s green eyes took on a steely glint. "You underestimate me, Wickham."
The carriage had been travelling through the grimy London roads all the while. The neighbourhood improved and soon they were trundling through neatly cobbled streets bordered by gracious buildings. They stopped outside one of them and Darcy turned to Wickham. This had to be said now, before they went into his house.
"I only want to say this once," he said. "You have gone much too far this time, and I am not closing my eyes to it. For what you did to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, you should be horsewhipped, but I will not stoop to your level. Solving problems with violence does not answer. Your behaviour is unforgivable. I cannot stand the very sight of you. To be in the same carriage with you fills me with revulsion, but you will not leave my side until this matter is set straight."
"I will not stand for this, you . . ."
"I did not give you leave to talk.You are not permitted to do anything but listen, and listen you must, for it is your future I am telling you. You have no choice but to do as I say. Debtors’ Prison is not a very accommodating place and I do not think you will like it there. The option I am giving you is not much better, but it is my only offer. You will marry Miss Lydia Bennet. The two of you will go directly from the church to a ship bound for India. I have bought you a commission in the Indian forces. You will be stationed in Calcutta where you and your wife will live until your dying day. You will not be granted permission to return to England. If I should hear of any indiscretions on your part or of any maltreatment of your wife, you shall be incarcerated. Do not doubt that I have the power to do this. Your debts will all be settled. Your wife will bring nothing to your marriage. You will have to support the two of you on your commission alone."
"You cannot do this!"
"Would you prefer Debtors’Prison or would you chose deportation to the colonies as a convict? I am offering you a future where you will be able to live a respectable life with the wife you have already chosen. It is more than you deserve."
"Mr Bennet will not let his daughter be taken off to India."
"On the contrary. I am certain that Mr Bennet will gladly accept my terms."
"I would have preferred being run over by a beer cart and thrown down a well!"
"You may have, but I am not about to grant that wish."
Part the Nineteenth.
When Mr Darcy approached Mr Gardiner and Mr Bennet with the arrangements he had made they were taken aback at first by their scope and completeness. Mr Gardiner wondered if the young man had taken too much upon himself; there was really nothing left for the rest of them to do but attend the wedding. Mr Bennet was unsure initially that the total banishment of his daughter from the country was necessary, but when he was made aware of his future son-in-law’s impeachable background, and her insistence upon marrying the scoundrel, he agreed that there was no better solution than was offered to him, and at so little effort on his part. All that was required of him was to purchase the bridal clothes and a wardrobe suitable for the tropics for Lydia. His wife, he knew, would be heartbroken at not being able to attend the wedding, and never seeing her darling Lydia again, but their family honour was held intact and his other daughters would not have to suffer for their sister’s disgraceful conduct.
Mr Bennet also wondered at Mr Darcy’s sense of honour that had caused him to go to so much trouble to right the wrongs of his father’s Godson. He was completely unaware of the recent developments between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, and the young man in question had ensured that nothing had been given away on that score. His actions were over and above anything that Mr Bennet would have ever expected in such a situation. He had never had a poor opinion of the gentleman, but now he was enormously impressed by his strength of character and his determination.
He knew that going against what Mr Darcy had planned would have been fruitless, had he wanted to, and he was pleased that their feelings in the matter had coincided. Here was a man he would truly relish to have as a son-in-law, but of course there was no hope for that. Instead he was stuck with that wastrel Wickham. He had no complaints about Bingley, he had to remind himself, and he still had three daughters left to dispose of. Kitty and Mary were not even to be considered, but his Lizzie, now there was a girl in a million. It was a pity that Mr Darcy was unaware of what a remarkable girl Lizzie truly was, because he might just be . . . Mr Bennet shook himself. ‘Here I am thinking just like my wife! Whatever is the matter with me; the thought of his 10,000 pounds has made me lose my head. The next thing I know I shall be going distracted.’ But Mr Bennet had to acknowledge that the 10,000 pounds really had nothing to do with it.
The most difficult part of the whole affair for the Gardiners and Mr Bennet was dealing with Lydia’s impatience to be married, her constant demands to be allowed to go out about the town, and her refusal to listen to any remonstrance or take any responsibility for her misbehaviour. Happy was the hour when the ceremony was at last completed and Lydia and Wickham entered the carriage that was to take them to their ship.
"Oh La! I am a married woman now!" cried Lydia. "Tell my mother that I will write by and by, and tell my sisters that they can come and stay with me in India any time and I shall find them all husbands among the officers! It is so droll that I am married before Jane! Well I shan’t be seeing any of you for quite some time, I am off on my honeymoon with my own true love!" She waved and smiled as the carriage drove away.
Mr Bennet was fully embarrassed by his youngest daughter’s behaviour, and was unusually sombre when he renewed his thanks to Mr Darcy and bade him farewell. He was surprised to hear Mr Darcy say that he should be seeing him soon as he was planning to visit Bingley in the next day or two. That same day Mr Bennet made the journey home. He had been away for longer than he ever had done. He missed his home and his library. He was needed on his estate; it was August now and there was much to be done to begin the harvest. He especially missed Lizzie. He also realised that he had to make an extra effort as concerned his two younger daughters. Lydia’s indiscretion had given him a great scare and he was determined that Kitty and Mary would receive more of his attention and guidance, but not without a generous serving of teasing; he was not a completely changed man!
Mrs Bennet was not quite as complacent about the marriage arrangements as her husband. She greeted him with loud complaints about how ill it had all been handled.
"Mr Bennet! How could you let that disagreeable Mr Darcy have his way! Just because he has taken a dislike to poor dear Wickham, you allow him to send my sweet Lydia and her new husband to India and now I shall never see her again. It is not to be borne!"
"I am sorry, my dear, but it was for the best," said Mr Bennet resignedly, knowing that he was going to hear much more on the topic.
"What business was it of his anyway?" asked Mrs Bennet. She turned and glared at Lizzie. "I blame you for this! How came you to tell that man of our troubles?"
Mr Bennet looked at Lizzie too. He had been wondering the very same thing.
"I knew of his relationship to Mr Wickham," began Lizzie. "Besides I was in distress and he was suddenly ushered into the room. I needed my uncle and Mr Darcy sought to help me. At the very least he deserved an explanation."
"You were alone at the time?" asked her father. "What was he doing visiting you if you were alone?"
Lizzie blushed, and looked at her father beseechingly. "The servant must have been unaware that my aunt and uncle had gone out."
Her father seemed to accept the explanation, but looked thoughtful.
Mrs Bennet continued on with her tirade. "You ought to have held your tongue! Now with his interference my Lydia is lost to me!" She started to moan.
"May I remind you my dear wife," said Mr Bennet with the utmost patience, "that without Mr Darcy’s interference, we would never have found Lydia quite so promptly. She would then not only have been lost to us, she would have been lost to the world. Mr Darcy found Wickham in a gaming den attempting to earn his passage to the continent. He was about to flee the country and leave our daughter destitute in the worst slum of the city. What Mr Darcy needs from you is your gratitude, and Lizzie deserves your thanks, not your accusations, for appealing to him for help."
"Oh how am I to be happy without my Lydia?" wailed Mrs Bennet, ignoring her husband’s words. "I was not even able to be at her wedding or chose her bridal clothes. To be sure it was a shabby affair. I will not forgive my brother for his officiousness, you for your weakness, and Mr Darcy for his interference!"
Mr Bennet looked to Jane and Lizzie. "Could you girls please take your mother to her room? It will take her some time to accept this situation. After you have made her comfortable, will you come and see me, Lizzie? I will be in my study." He sighed and left the room.
Lizzie thought that her father looked weary, both physically and emotionally. He was as much affected by the whole affair as her mother, but bore it in a very different manner. She asked Mary to see about some tea for the dear man, then she helped Jane calm their mother and take her to her bedchamber. They drew the curtains to darken the room and lay her on her bed. Jane began bathing her forehead with lavender water while Lizzie removed her slippers and covered her with a light spread. There was a quiet knock on the door and Kitty tiptoed in.
"Jane, Mr Bingley has come. What are we to do?"
"Tell him I need to nurse my mother," said Jane anxiously as Mrs Bennet began to moan and grasp her hands.
"No," said Lizzie. "Jane must go down, and as my father needs me it is up to you, Kitty, to look after mother."
Kitty was taken aback and made as if to leave theroom, but Lizzie caught up to her and said in a low voice, "Do you think Jane and I administer to our mother’s needs because we would rather do nothing else? It is time you thought of others and not just yourself. Do not cry, it is as much Jane’s and my fault as it is your own. We have always let you do as you wished because you were younger. Now we need your help."
"Cannot Mary? I am not good at calming mama," said Kitty.
"You will do well. She only needs someone by her to bathe her head or give her her salts."
Kitty assented, and Jane and Lizzie were able to leave the room. Mr Bingley greeted them with a look of concern as they entered the parlour. He went swiftly to Jane’s side and spoke to her in a soft voice. Lizzie was happy to see Jane’s spirits lift just at the sight of him. She took a cup of tea for her father from Mary and excused herself. She tapped at the study door and entered, placing her father’s tea on the desk before him and dropping a kiss on his forehead.
"You look done in, papa. You must get some rest."
"This has been a very trying few weeks," said her father. "I have been taught a good lesson by all of this and now realise what a shameful father I have been. I should have listened to you Lizzie, when you said not to let Lydia go to Brighton, but all I wanted was peace in my home for myself. How is it that you were so wise?"
"I did not trust Wickham," said Lizzie, "but I never foresaw anything of this nature, I can assure you."
"And I do not blame you, my dear, for telling Mr Darcy about our troubles, but I do wonder at it. I had not thought you were on such terms with the gentleman as to be visiting him, and he visiting you."
Lizzie blushed and quickly explained to her father how she had seen more of him in Kent, and of the accidental meeting in Pemberley.
"He wanted to introduce his sister to us and invited us to dine. He was excessively civil and hospitable to us," she said simply.
Mr Bennet nodded. "That is what the Gardiners told me. I was quite taken with him you know," he said, eyeing Lizzie carefully. "When he was in the neighbourhood visiting with his friend, I know that he was thought of as being a very proud and disagreeable man. I had always thought him reserved, and I remember you had concluded that he was merely shy. I must say that on seeing him in London he struck me as nothing short of commanding. I find him most intriguing. Quite an interesting character for study, don’t you think?" He looked at Lizzie speculatively.
Sensing some sort of suspicion on her father’s part, Lizzie tried to control her emotions and not blush at the very mention of Mr Darcy, but it was difficult for her not to look conscious. It pleased her that her father’s opinion of him was so positive, but she did not wish to give her feelings for him away. "I know I have some sort of reputation as a studier of character," she said carefully, "but I have many other interests."
"But when such a fine specimen for study is before you, how can you resist?" Mr Bennet teased. This time Lizzie did colour, and her father decided to have mercy on her. "You may go now, my dear, and chaperone your older sister. I do not think Mary is quite up to the job." He motioned to the window. Jane and Bingley were strolling in the garden arm in arm, and very close indeed, while Mary sat on a bench, her head deep in her book. "It is a good thing there is less than a month to the wedding," he laughed.
The next morning, Mr Bennet announced to Mary and Kitty that he had made a resolution regarding them. "I feel that I have not been a strict enough parent with you girls. Kitty, there will be no more running after the officers, and Mary, you will be expected to go out into society more. You girls will neither of you be allowed to go to another ball unless you stand up with one of your sisters!"
"Oh papa, you are too cruel!" cried Kitty bursting into tears.
"There, there," said Mr Bennet, "if you are a good girl Kitty, I will review the matter in ten years."
Kitty started to cry all the more and Mr Bennet went over and patted her on the head. "After all these years, Kitty, I would think you should know me by now," he said in a gentle voice. "You must recognise when I am teasing or we shall never get along."
"You were only teasing?" Kitty looked up at her father and dried her eyes.
"Of course. Do you think I still expect you to be living at home in ten years? Your mother will have married you off by then, and how is she to accomplish that if you will not dance?"
Kitty smiled at her father and gave him a hug.
"However, you must believe me to have been speaking the truth when I said that I do not want you chasing after officers."
"They are all gone from Meryton now anyway," said Kitty reasonably.
"From now on I mean to spend more time with the two of you," Mr Bennet continued. "We will meet in my study every day and read together."
"Oh papa," said Mary, "that is quite providential for there are so many passages in Fordyce’s Sermons which I think would be very beneficial to Kitty, indeed to us all!"
"Mary," said her father sternly. "There will be no Fordyce’s Sermons read. I rue the day that the volume ever found its way into your hands. No, we shall read no reproving works. We are going to read a novel."
"Papa!" said Mary in astonishment. Kitty smiled with pleasure.
Jane and Lizzie were sitting over in one corner of the room, stitching some of smaller items for Jane’s trousseau. Lizzie smiled to see their father take a greater interest in her younger sisters. Mrs Bennet was still up in her room, but quite recovered from her hysterics of the previous day. Now her nerves were overset with the vast amount of preparations necessary for Jane and Bingley’s wedding. With her lying abed, Jane and Lizzie were able to get ever so much more accomplished.
Jane looked over to Lizzie and exclaimed, "I have forgotten to tell you the news that Charles has given me!"
"Well do not keep me in suspense by announcing news and then going no further," Lizzie teased.
"Mr Darcy and his sister are arriving at Netherfield today, and will be visiting us this evening."
Lizzie blushed full red. Mr Darcy was coming! He would be here, in the sitting room this very evening! She thought back to the last time they had been together, when he had held her in his arms and comforted her. She remembered his words, ‘you are the dearest, most wonderful woman I have ever known . . . Elizabeth, you are more dear to me than anything.’ He had said them to give comfort, she knew, but could he still mean them after all he had to go through on her family’s behalf, meeting with both Wickham and Lydia and who knows how many sordid characters in the most dreadful environs? She hoped against hope that he still cared for her. She remembered his tender looks, the leaf he had kissed which she still cherished, and his happiness in her company, and she could not doubt him. She allowed herself to think of him as she had not thought of him in the last two weeks except in the darkness of her bedchamber as she drifted off to sleep.
"Lizzie, Lizzie," called Jane. "You are not attending. I was speaking of Miss Darcy who I long to meet. I know that you met her at Pemberley, but we have barely spoken of it with all that has been happening."
Lizzie collected herself with some effort. "She is a very sweet, shy girl. You cannot help but love her, but we must take care not to overpower her with our noisy, boisterous family. We are not quite what she is used to."
"Well, Lydia is no longer with us to be an influence on Kitty’s behaviour, and hopefully mama will be too much in awe of Mr Darcy to berate him."
Lizzie applied herself to her sewing. Mrs Bennet came down from her room and went into paroxysms when she discovered that they were to have visitors that evening, and just who those visitors were to be. Mr Bennet warned her that the only display she would make before Mr Darcy was one of gratitude and thanks, so she took the liberty of immediately venting the feelings that she would not be allowed to show later on. He fled to his study, asking Kitty and Mary to join him in an hour’s time.
As he sat down to dinner that evening, Mr Bennet remarked on how well his time had been spent with his two younger daughters.
"I had used to think them the two silliest girls in England," he announced, "but now I am obliged to admit that there exists the possibility of there being sillier girls even than them." Kitty and Mary smiled at him.
"Oh Mr Bennet," cried Mrs Bennet," how you do go on! I think our girls are the smartest in the neighbourhood, and the most beautiful. Why, even Mary is starting to look quite pretty, and if she would pay more attention to her hair I believe I will not have to despair of finding a husband for her!"
When they repaired to the drawing room. Lizzie began to feel nervous. Mr Darcy would soon arrive and she would have to face him in front of her family, her first time seeing him since he had held her in his arms at the inn. She was afraid that she would show too much emotion and give herself away before them, or that she would hide her feelings too well and leave Mr Darcy uncertain about her love for him. She sat and listened for the first sounds of the visitors’ arrival, and as they were announced she still did not know how she would react. When Mr Darcy entered the room and their eyes met all thought of what she would do or say fled. There was only that moment and the gentle green glow of his eyes as they rested upon her face. He smiled at her softly and then went on to greet her parents and present his sister to them. Her eyes never left him. Finally he brought Georgiana to sit by her side, while her father claimed his company.
Luckily Mrs Bennet was too awe-struck to say much at first. Lizzie was able to make Georgiana known to her sisters and to encourage them all to talk together. Lizzie found herself floating in the same euphoria as she had done at Pemberley where just a look from Mr Darcy would leave her bereft of speech, her mind blank. And though he was talking with her father, he could not prevent his eyes from drifting in her direction.
As refreshments were offered around, Mrs Bennet turned to Mr Darcy and addressed him somewhat stiffly, "I understand I have to thank you, Mr Darcy, for your assistance in bringing about my dear Lydia’s marriage to dear Mr Wickham."
Mr Darcy nodded and looked quite embarrassed. "Do not mention it Mrs Bennet."
"It is a pity she is to be settled so far away. I find it hard to feel grateful for that," said Mrs Bennet with a sniff, and she dabbed at her eyes.
"There now my dear," said Mr Bennet. "Enough has been said about our deep gratitude to our guest. We will forever be in his debt, but we are embarrassing the poor man by continually bringing it up. Let us talk instead about the coming wedding between our sweet Jane and Mr Bingley."
Mr Darcy gave Mr Bennet a look of thanks and then politely asked Mrs Bennet about the arrangements for the upcoming wedding. Mrs Bennet discovered with surprise that she was able to talk quite cordially and at great length to Mr Darcy on such an uncompromising subject, and by the end of the evening found that she bore him very little ill will, if indeed any at all.
The evening was too soon over and Lizzie had not even had the opportunity for one short conversation with Mr Darcy, though her mind at been on nothing else but him since he had entered the room. Arrangements were made for the three to visit again in the morning and partake of a walk to Oakham Mount with the four sisters. This was to be Lizzie’s consolation for the evening, the sure chance of being able to walk by his side and speak with him the next day. She smiled at him as he bowed over her hand in farewell and the look that he gave her caused her pulse to quicken. The touch of his hand on hers stayed with her long after he had left. She soon went silently up to her room, her mind already on the morrow, weaving scene over scene as she readied for bed and drifted off to sleep.
Mr Bennet sat in his study late into the night. He was about to lose his Lizzie; that much was obvious. He had seen the tender looks that passed between her and Mr Darcy throughout the visit, and had sensed the tension in the air. All that remained was to be solicited for her hand. He sighed. At least there was the consolation that he couldn’t have chosen better for her himself.
Part the Twentieth
The next morning Darcy awoke filled with nervous apprehension. Today was the day he would finally propose; he would contrive to be alone with Elizabeth somehow as the party walked to Oakham Mount. And though he could not doubt by proof of her looks and her smiles that she would have him, there existed an unreasonable fear that he was completely mistaken. His hands shook as he arranged his neck-cloth. He had to discard three before he was happy with the result. He took up the small ring box and placed it again in his breast pocket, and then went downstairs. Before he joined the others in the breakfast parlour, he slipped outside for a brisk walk in the park. There was a certain tree he was searching for.
Breakfast was a quiet affair with Darcy visibly distracted and Bingley’s head up in the clouds. Georgiana sighed. Gentlemen in love did not make the best companions, unless one was the object of their love. Before long she would be with the Bennets and she looked forward to the experience immensely. All the sisters were so warm and welcoming; they had none of the airs of the other young ladies of her acquaintance. She delighted in the teasing and laughter that accompanied their conversation. Today she would try to join in more herself. The shyness she usually felt with other friends, like the Bingley sisters, seemed to disappear with the Bennet girls’ open friendliness.
Bingley called for his carriage and the party went out onto the cobbled sweep to wait for it. The day was fine and fresh. The blue of the sky, the warmth of the morning sun, and the light breeze did much to dispel the tension that Darcy had felt since waking. He felt like throwing his arms out and revelling in the joy that this feeling of ease brought him. He stood and gazed up into the cloudless sky, lost in appreciation of the wonders of the world, when the sound of hoof-beats on the drive caused him to turn and look. It was a lone rider. As he came closer it was apparent from his dress that he was delivering the post. He pulled up, out of breath.
"Express for Mr Darcy," he announced, holding out a slim letter.
Darcy’s face froze. What could this mean? He turned it over and immediately recognised the seal. He reached in his pocket and drew out some coins, which he handed to the young man.
"Thank you. There will be no reply."
He excused himself from Bingley and Georgiana and went a few paces away to read the missive. It was just as he had feared, and there was nothing for him to do but act immediately. He felt a deep disappointment at having to go now, when he was so close to fulfilling his dream, but his dream would have to wait again.
The carriage had been brought up and Georgiana and Bingley walked hesitantly towards it. Darcy returned to them.
"I am being called away," he said heavily. "Bingley, could you please order my carriage? Georgiana, I have a favour to ask you. Could you wait about five minutes?"
"What is it?" asked Georgiana in consternation.
"There is no need for alarm, but there is a pressing matter I must attend to at once. I will tell you about it on my return."
"But I will have to go with you!" cried Georgiana, crestfallen. She had been so looking forward to visiting her new friends.
"You have no need to accompany me. Stay here and enjoy yourself. It is better that I go alone."
"But Fitzwilliam," whispered Georgiana, "you must recollect that Mrs Annesley did not come with us. I cannot stay alone here with only Mr Bingley." She blushed at the thought of committing such an impropriety.
"Blast!" Darcy uttered vehemently, then he noticed Georgiana’s shocked expression. "You must excuse me. But what is to be done? I want you here, not back in London."
"And I want to be here."
Bingley finally managed to get their attention. They both looked at him; it was obvious he had something important to impart. "I’m sorry to interrupt, but I don’t see that there is a problem at all. Georgiana can surely go with me as far as Longbourn without compunction. She can spend the day with the Bennets, and in the evening my sisters are due to arrive!"
"Thank goodness!" said Georgiana joyfully.
"I will be right back," said Darcy as he rushed into the house. He went directly to the library and sat at the desk, drawing forth a page of crisp vellum. His note was composed swiftly. He blotted it and then reached into his breast pocket and drew forth a leaf. Darcy pressed it to his lips and gazed at it softly for a moment then he placed it in the middle of the note and folded the paper around it. A few moments later he slipped it into Georgiana’s hand as he helped her into the carriage. He spoke quietly into her ear.
"Please see that Miss Elizabeth gets this." Turning to Bingley, he said in a level voice, "Please make my apologies to Mr and Mrs Bennet and the rest of the family. Tell them I was unavoidably called away." He hesitated and looked about to say more, but instead stepped back from the carriage with a wave to his sister and a look on his face that spoke of all his disappointment at not being able to accompany them.
In ten minutes he had packed his portmanteau and was driving his curricle at top speed over the road to London. He did not want to push his horses, but he had fifty miles of good road to cover, not to mention an important stop in London, which might take some time.
"Make haste girls, make haste! They are here! They are here!" cried Mrs Bennet, working herself into a tizzy.
"If you fly about like this every time Bingley comes," observed Mr Bennet, "you will not survive the courtship."
"It is not just Mr Bingley!" his wife cried. "You must know that Mr Darcy has ten thousand a year."
"I thought you hated the very sight of him."
"Hate Mr Darcy after he saved our dear Lydia? Mr Bennet, what do you take me for?" Mrs Bennet paused for a breath and then continued. "I am thinking he might well fall in love with one of our girls if he is to visit with his friend until the wedding. I hope Kitty has put something nice on. I will tell her to be very attentive to him on the walk."
Mr Bennet just smiled.
"Girls! Come and sit in the parlour. You must be ready to greet our guests!"
They all ran down the stairs at their mother’s summons. Lizzie felt her heart fluttering in anticipation. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks were aglow.
As they seated themselves, Jane thought she had never seen Lizzie in better looks. She knew that Lizzie had been keeping something from her, and now Jane had a suspicion what it could be. She had acted strangely the night before and today she appeared to be filled with joy. Jane was sure the joy was not solely due to her pleasure in continuing her acquaintance with Miss Darcy.
Mary peered out the window. "Mother, there are only two of them. That other gentleman is not with them!"
Mrs Bennet ran to look out the window, lamenting all the while. Lizzie felt like her world was falling in. Her face turned white and she grasped the arm of the settee for support. Not one coherent thought entered her brain, which seemed to whirl in a downward spiral that left her feeling ill with despair.
Jane was quickly at her side, stroking her hand. "There will be a good reason for his not coming. Lizzie, please, look at me."
Lizzie stared at Jane blankly and fought to compose herself, though now her mind was screaming at her, ‘He does not love me.’
"I feel suddenly ill. I must excuse myself," she whispered, and she struggled to get to her feet, but her legs would not respond. The next moment, the visitors were announced.
Barely had they entered the room when Mrs Bennet cried, "Wherever is Mr Darcy? I made sure he was coming too!"
Miss Darcy blushed at being so brusquely greeted, and Bingley answered with his usual cheerfulness.
"Mr Darcy sends his apologies, Ma’am. He was unavoidably called away on very important business just as we were about to set out. He was disappointed not to be able to join you today."
"So business is more important to him than his social obligations?"
"Mother!" said Jane, still holding Lizzie’s hand and squeezing it with reassurance. "The business must have been of a very important nature for Mr Darcy to have broken today’s engagement. It is no slight to us."
Georgiana smiled her thanks to Jane, and looked fixedly at Elizabeth who appeared to be in distress of feeling. "He was not happy to go. He would very much have preferred to come here, I assure you."
"That might well be," said Mrs Bennet, "but these rich young men seem to feel they can just come and go as they please, with no thought to others!"
"Mama," said Lizzie in a quiet, deliberate voice. "That is unkind. Mr Darcy is always most considerate."
Mrs Bennet glared at Lizzie and was about to say something cutting, but then quickly thought better of it. Miss Darcy was here after all, and being friendly to her was surely a route to her brother’s heart. It would be important to keep in her good graces.
"I must apologise, Miss Darcy. I allowed my disappointment to overset my reason. Your brother is a fine young man and he may go away on business whenever he chooses."
After such an inauspicious start, the visit could only improve. Georgiana decided that it would be best to wait until they were out of doors to give her brother’s note to Elizabeth. She wanted to give it to her immediately because her spirits were so subdued, but she knew what the result would be if Mrs Bennet’s eagle eye should chance to see her present the note. As soon as they entered the lane, Georgiana asked Lizzie to name a flower that she noticed growing in the hedgerow. While Lizzie leaned in to get a closer look, she whispered in her ear.
"Please take this note from my brother." She slipped it into Lizzie’s hand, blushing slightly, and then rejoined the others.
Lizzie opened the note with some trepidation. ‘What if he is telling me that all he said to me was out of friendship, and for comfort, and meant nothing more?’ Her hands shook as she unfolded the creamy sheet and something fluttered to the ground. She knelt down and searched through the long grass, and pulled forth a leaf. Her heart was high in her chest; a tingling feeling ran across her breastbone. It was not just any leaf, it was from a copper beach, and Lizzie knew that he had held it to his lips. Her expression softened as she cradled it in her hand. She was suffused with a warm and mellow feeling. The note flipped from her other hand as a light breeze caught it. She scrambled after it and looked at the carefully written words. As her first love note, it was neither romantic nor tender, but it told her all she needed to know for now, and it touched her heart as deeply as any passionate display of affection could.
I do not want to leave, but I must.
I am honour bound to fulfil a promise.
It is a mission that cannot wait.
I will return in three days.
As she read it, she could read all the words that were not there, but that were hidden behind the words on the paper, that were kissed upon the leaf. All her fears were banished, her hopes renewed. She lovingly folded the note around the leaf, pressed it to her cheek, and then hid it in her pocket. With a carefree heart and a light step, she ran to catch up with the rest of the group.
Darcy had changed his horses in London, but the new pair was starting to flag. His business had taken longer than he had expected. He had been misdirected twice, as the person he was looking for was in the middle of his normal workday and doing rounds, but he had finally tracked him down, and that business had been settled expediently, to the satisfaction of both. He was nearing his destination, so he saw little need to push the horses. If he arrived in one half an hour or an hour now made little difference. The scene would have been ongoing for the whole day and he just hoped it had not been too distressing. He ruminated over the best way to tackle the problem for a positive outcome, without having to resort to deceit. Perhaps arriving this late would work to their advantage.
And as these thoughts turned in the surface of his mind, deep down he was thinking of his Elizabeth. How had she felt when he hadn’t arrived? Did his note serve to ease her mind? It had been so terse, so dry. But it had to have been, lest it had fallen into the hands of one of her parents or sisters. He would not have her put through discomfort because he could not resist temptation, not for anything. He hoped fervently that she had been able to pick his thoughts out from between those words, and that the leaf had meant to her what it meant to him.
Part the Twenty-first
The butler looked at Darcy in astonishment upon opening the door, before his mask of professional indifference slipped back into place. He held it wide for him to enter, saying, "It is a pleasure to see you Mr Darcy, sir. Unfortunately there has been some miscommunication, and I was unaware of your impending arrival. I regret to say that your room has not been readied. I will see that it is done immediately, sir."
"My apologies, Hawkins. I did not send word that I was arriving. I hope it is no inconvenience."
"None at all, sir," Hawkins replied with a stiff bow. "You will find Lady Catherine in the drawing room."
"She is still up?" asked Darcy, with an edge of disappointment to his voice. "Is Miss Anne with her?"
"She has already retired for the evening. Would you like me to announce you, sir"
Just then a door was heard to slam, and quick footsteps sounded in the hall.
"Thank you, Hawkins. I think that will be unnecessary."
A raised voice met their ears. "Who has arrived? Hawkins! Why am I not informed? I must know what is going on." Lady Catherine swept into the entrance hall, a look of displeasure on her face. She stopped abruptly at the sight of Darcy, and her demeanour changed. "Darcy, whatever are you doing here?"
"Lady Catherine," he said, stepping forward and giving her a little bow. "I apologise for not forewarning you of my visit, and for my late arrival."
"Never mind all that now! Come here and greet me properly." She proffered her parched cheek.
Darcy gave her a perfunctory kiss and led her back to the drawing room.
"I am glad you have come, Fitzwilliam. I have been very badly treated indeed. My daughter has behaved in a shameless manner. She offers no excuses for her conduct! She has entered into an illicit liaison with a creature not fit to wipe your boots. And she your intended! You must marry her at once! I will not have it any other way! You must save her from her own rash and wanton behaviour."
Darcy leaned against the mantle. He regarded his aunt through narrowed lids; the green was barely noticeable. "My cousin and I have no wish to marry, a point I had felt was made abundantly clear on my last visit. As for illicit liaisons and wanton behaviour, I find it quite unlikely that Anne is guilty of any such actions."
Lady Catherine could not sit still. She got up and paced around in agitation. "She has disgraced the family name! My own daughter has entered into correspondence with none other than the younger brother of that mealy mouthed, obsequious parson who has imposed himself upon my good nature and hospitality. After all I have done to further that wretch’s career, he has twisted a knife into my very heart!"
"That your daughter has taken up correspondence with a young man, could indeed be looked upon as improper, but hardly wanton," said Darcy, thinking of his own note to Elizabeth. Had he compromised her in some way by sending it? "However the illicit nature of her conduct was only due to a fear of reprisals. She was afraid you would not look kindly on her engagement to Mr Collins. Your reaction proves her point."
"You . . . you knew of this?" cried Lady Catherine, her anger roused. "How many serpents have I harboured at my bosom? Is everyone conspiring against me to pollute the shades of Rosings? Mrs Jenkinson shall be let go without a reference, Mr Collins shall be ousted from the living of Hunsford, and you shall indeed marry Anne! How can you talk of her engagement? She cannot be engaged without my permission. That worthless fortune hunter had the great audacity to seek private counsel with me yesterday, and ask for her hand! The outrage! The upstart pretensions of a man without family, connections, or fortune to recommend him, wanting to drag my daughter down to his lowly sphere, without regard for her honour and credit. A connection to him would disgrace Anne in the eyes of everybody!"
"A connection to him is what Anne desires above everything. Why should her own wishes not be consulted in this matter?"
"He has bewitched her in some manner! Anne would never go against my wishes of her own accord.Darcy, you must talk to her and convince her to change her mind. Impress upon her the great hurt she has levelled upon me. How am I to survive the degradation of a faithless daughter? She has cut me to the quick. She must be brought to see reason. I will take her to the continent upon a repairing lease, and when we return the two of you must wed. It is my fondest wish. How can you deny it me?"
"My dear Aunt, as much as I want to cause you no distress, I fear I cannot do as you ask. I support Anne in her decision, and if I talk with her it will not be to convince her to act against the dictates of her heart."
"How can you be so obstinate and cruel, you who I have favoured above all my other nephews to turn your back on me in this way? I will brook no opposition!"
"Madam, I can only act in the manner that will constitute the happiness of my cousin."
"And this is your final resolve? I hoped to find you reasonable; but depend upon it, I will carry my point. If you refuse to marry Anne, I will see to it that Colonel Fitzwilliam does. He knows his duty. I will retire for the night now. I take no leave of you, and do not wish you a good night. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased!"
Darcy bowed stiffly as his aunt left the room. The interview had gone no better or worse than he had expected. He waited until he was positive that she was safely ensconced in her personal suite and then he quit the drawing room and quietly made his way to Anne’s own apartments.
Anne rushed to Darcy with her arms out and threw herself upon him sobbing. "You are finally come! I had about given you up. Oh, cousin, what am I to do? He wanted to face mama, and obtain her consent. I told him how it would be, but Marcus is such a man of honour he deplored going behind her back. He was confident he could win her over. He has such an air about him, you see, and she had been quite taken with him. She had invited him to dine at Rosings twice in one week. Once he had declared himself, she hurled abuses at him and refused to listen to his suit. She had him removed from the premises, and ordered him out of the county! His brother would not let him back into his home. Now I shall be dragged off to the continent and never see him again."
She broke down at that point, and Darcy helped her over to her settee. He took her hands and looked directly in her eyes. "Do not despair, dear Anne. I am here to help you. All will be well."
"But mother has forbidden our marriage! I cannot contemplate life without him, and he is lost to me!"
"Has he gone, then?" asked Darcy, hoping that her lover was not quite so weak-spirited as to let Lady Catherine dictate his future.
"No. He sent word that he is at the inn. He says that he will never leave me and will follow me wherever I go until my mother relents."
"There will be no need of that," said Darcy.
"Did you talk to my mother?" asked Anne, suddenly feeling a ray of hope. "Did she . . ."
"No, I have not been able to reason with her as of yet, but you must remember, Anne, that despite anything she tells you, you do not need her consent to marry."
"But I want her blessing. I want her to accept Marcus; to understand that marrying him would not lower me, but raise me to a life of fulfilment."
"All that can come with time. Even she can be worked on. But for now it must suffice that you have my blessing. How soon can you be ready to leave?"
Anne looked at her cousin in shock. "What are you suggesting?"
"It is the only measure you have left. I have had a long time to think about it, and believe me, sacrificing your own happiness for that of a loved one is not at all satisfying, no matter how noble it may sound."
"But we cannot elope! Marcus would never consent to it!"
"It will not be an elopement. Everything will be done within the bounds of propriety. You will travel with Mrs Jenkinson. Mr Collins will provide you escort to his mother’s house. You will be married from there, under her aegis."
"I will be leaving under the cover of dark, without my mother’s knowledge."
"I will inform her at the earliest opportunity."
"Then, what is to stop her from coming to prevent the wedding?"
Darcy drew a paper out of his pocket and handed it to Anne. "This. It is a special license. The marriage will have been performed before she has time to forestall it."
"But, I have no desire to enter into marriage through deceitful means. It would cast a pall over our life together," cried Anne, pulling her hands from Darcy’s and searching for her handkerchief.
"Anne, you know how much I abhor deceit. I would not suggest this measure to you if I thought it truly designing. That is why I am staying behind. Your mother will not be lied to; I will tell her all that is within my power to tell. She will not be deceived, but I will not let her stand in the way of your happiness."
"But should my mother not be informed of our plans at once then?" Anne asked with trepidation.
"By rights she should, but she has already gone to bed. Lady Catherine has had a very trying day and I would not disturb her rest for the world," said Darcy with a smile.
"I am sorry to be such a trial to you, Fitzwilliam," said Anne, smiling for the first time. "I cannot express my gratitude for what you have done, and are about to undertake for me. I will call Mrs Jenkinson at once and we will ready ourselves, and word must be got to my beloved."
"I will go to the stable and order the carriage, then I will ride to the inn and inform Mr Collins. I will return with him in one hour, and meet you at the gate."
Anne stood on her tiptoes and kissed Darcy’s cheek. "I wish you the same happiness that I have found."
The green of Darcy’s eyes warmed as they looked down on his cousin. "I can safely say that your wish will very shortly be answered."
Convincing Mr Collins was as difficult a job as convincing Anne, but the incentive that Darcy offered him, of being happily married to Anne in so short a space of time, did much to outweigh the scruples of a man deeply in love. Darcy was impressed by Marcus Collins’ strength of character and cheerful optimism, which bolstered his own belief that assisting these two people in their union was just and right. That Mr Collins loved Anne for her own self, and cherished her happiness was evident in all his words and looks.
He saw the carriage off from the gate, and then slowly walked his horse back to the stables and brushed him down himself. He reflected deeply on all that had passed since receiving the express in the morning. Was it only this morning? It seemed an age since he had reluctantly left Netherfield. The knowledge that he would never regret this day’s work, gave Darcy the peace of mind to be able to lay his head upon his pillow and sleep, and let the trials of the day to come not oppress him. His last thoughts were of Elizabeth, her look as he had last seen her smiling shyly at him; the faintly fragrant smell of her that lingered within him; the feel of her skin as he gently held her hand; the warmth of it, its softness. He fell asleep with a tender smile upon his face.
Lady Catherine was already partaking of a hearty meal when he entered the breakfast-room in the morning.
"Well, have you reconsidered any of what you said last night?" she asked without preamble.
"I have something of great importance to tell you. I suggest that you hold any comments that you may wish to make until I have fully explained the situation to you."
"You explain the situation to me? I am perfectly cognisant of the situation. Nothing happens in this house that I do not know about!"
"Aunt Catherine, please can you hear me out. I do believe that you are as yet unaware of what I am about to inform you. Your daughter, Anne, left this house early this morning."
"She has gone out walking so early in the morning? She will catch a chill!"
"She did not go out walking. She has taken the carriage, Mrs Jenkinson accompanies her." An explosive sound erupted from Lady Catherine. She held her lips tightly together; her face was turning puce. Darcy gave her a formidable glare. "They are being escorted by Mr Marcus Collins to his mother’s home in Sussex. Anne and Mr Collins will be married at the soonest possible occasion."
"I must protest! Elopement! It is not to be borne!" Lady Catherine rose up from her chair and made to pull the bell rope. "My carriage must be readied at once."
Darcy was at her side in a minute, and prevented her summoning a servant. "There is nothing you can do to prevent this match. They will already be married by the time you get there. They are in all probability in the church at this moment."
"And you did nothing to stop them? Could you not save your cousin from this disgrace?"
"Madam, I organised the whole of it. I purchased the special licence. I overrode their doubts about marrying without your blessing. I urged them on their way. I have watched you all my life as you kept Anne beside you, making everyone including herself believe that she was sickly and ill, depriving her of her freedom and happiness at every step. I could stand by no longer. I am proud of what I have done, and I hope that one day you will be able to see that it was for the best, to all concerned."
"For the best? My daughter married in this unseemly way to NOBODY, and you have the brazenness to tell me I am at fault in raising my daughter? My own flesh and blood?"
"Mr Collins is not a nobody. He is a gentleman. He is to inherit an estate of three thousand pounds. He has the will and means to support Anne if you should choose to cut her off from her inheritance. And, more importantly, he loves her and has the capability of making her very happy."
"Three thousand pounds! That is nothing! It is an insult! She has Rosings and many thousands more than he could ever have! And his connections! His brother is a grovelling fool. His father had no estate; he was only in line for an entail. His mother may be something more, but I have never heard of her. Anne was to marry you, and combine the two estates! That would have been truly something grand."
"Aunt, I have all the fortune I could ever possibly want, and so does Anne. Why can we not be free to find our happiness where we wish? Why must society attempt to put such constraints upon us?"
"You would not be so foolish! You know your duty."
"My duty is to no one but myself. I will follow my heart, and my heart is made up. Anne is marrying for love, and so will I, and there is nothing you, or anyone else can say to stop us."
"You are marrying? Just who is it that you are about to marry?"
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet, if she will have me."
Lady Catherine choked. Her colour was rapidly changing from puce to purple. "If she will have you? If? The scheming minx! She has had her sights set on you since you walked into the assembly in that shoddy little town where she lives. I knew from the moment I laid eyes on her that she was not to be trusted. So forward and outspoken! Brazen, brazen girl!"
"May I remind you that you are speaking of the woman that I love above anyone. The woman that I intend to marry," said Darcy, his voice cool and hard.
"She has ensnared you with her wiles. Her connections are even lower than those of Mr Marcus Collins. Her youngest sister ran off with a member of the militia. Her marriage was a patch up job. Did you know that? The whole family is ruined, disgraced! Of course they have hushed it up; they did not want to lose their hold on you."
"My dear Aunt Catherine," said Darcy in a voice devoid of feeling, "I know all about the marriage of Mr and Mrs Wickham. I was very instrumental in bringing it about. I seem to have a penchant for arranging marriages."
Lady Catherine regarded him in disbelief. This day was just getting worse and worse. First to learn that Anne was lost to her and the world, and now to hear that Darcy was about to sink himself below touch. It was beyond anything!
"Darcy, I do not know what kind of tactics have been used on you to cause you to act in such a reprehensible way! Have you no respect for your family honour? Have you lost all decency in your lust? This is an outrage to the very name of Darcy!"
"Aunt, you have insulted my future wife and myself in every way possible. I had intended to stay the day with you, conversing and offering comfort and understanding to help you come to the point where you could bestow your blessings upon Anne. I cannot remain and listen to your narrow minded, slanderous accusations. If you continue in this manner, you will find yourself ending your days a bitter and lonely old lady."
Darcy left the room and ordered his carriage. He walked through the shrubbery in an attempt to bring his temper under control. At least he had succeeded in his objective and stopped Lady Catherine from chasing after Anne, for the present at least. He did not see her again before he departed. She had ensconced herself in her parlour with her humble parson. In order to salvage a modicum of pleasure from the day she had decided to tear a strip out of Mr Collins.
The wind swept through Darcy’s unkempt curls as he let his horses have their head. The road stretched straight before him; dusk was turning, and every furlong his horses covered soothed his temper as he was brought ever closer to Elizabeth. Soon he would see her, hear her voice, and feel her warm brown eyes upon him.
Part the Twenty-second
Caroline was quite pleased with her new gown. She had worn it in the evening, even though Mr Darcy was not yet returned from his mysterious trip. Maybe he would arrive tonight; the sight of her in this creation couldn’t help but catch his notice. It was very elegantly styled in the latest of fashions. The sleeves were long and the waist just that much lower than last year’s style. The fabric was a crisp taffeta, with wide vertical stripes of bisque and bronze. She smoothed her skirt as she paced around the drawing room.
"Georgiana, won’t you join me in a turn about the room?" she asked.
Georgiana had been engrossed in her book, but she laid it aside and politely joined her hostess. She had been pleased when Caroline, Louisa, and Mr Hurst had arrived the night before, because it had enabled her to stay and make friends with the Bennet sisters. Today she had found Caroline’s company extremely grating. Caroline all but refused to visit the Bennets with Georgiana that afternoon, but Charles had insisted that she and Louisa show his betrothed the courtesy she deserved. The visit had not been as long as either Georgiana or Charles would have liked, and Caroline’s superior behaviour at the Bennets’ had made them both uncomfortable. Since they had returned home, her attempts to disparage all the Bennets, barring Jane, who was a dear, sweet girl, met with no encouragement. Even Louisa refrained from joining in on the subject. By the time Darcy arrived, she sorely needed someone to commiserate with.
Caroline and Georgiana were still strolling up and down the room when Darcy entered, tired and dishevelled. He knew he should really have made himself presentable first, but he was impatient to see Georgiana and ask her how Elizabeth had received the note, and he had forgotten the presence of Caroline and the Hursts. He apologised, and was about to leave the room when Bingley called out.
"You don’t have to stand on ceremony with us," he cried genially. "You look perfectly presentable. Come in and join us in some tea."
Mr Hurst held up his glass of port and said, "No need to maudle your insides with tea," and then he downed a large portion of it.
Darcy passed his hand through his hair and went over to greet his sister, wishful to take her aside and ask her about what was uppermost in his mind. As Caroline was standing beside her, he could not approach the subject in a straightforward manner.
"I trust you had a good visit with the Bennets yesterday?"
Georgiana smiled and began to answer, but she was cut off by Caroline’s quick reply.
"Oh the Bennets! Your sister can’t seem to get enough of the Bennets, Mr Darcy, though I have no idea why," she gave him a flashing smile, and continued on before anyone else could speak. "For my part, I find them quite commonplace. I know you share my opinions in this regard." She looked over at Bingley as he began to sputter. "I will grant you, Charles, that Jane is lovely, but you must admit that your future mother-in-law is a harridan. I am sure you, Mr Darcy, would not want one such."
"One does not choose a wife for the mother-in-law," said Darcy shortly, with an edge to his voice that Caroline missed.
"Yes, poor Charles. But think, it is not only Mrs Bennet he is getting, but also the brash sisters! I was never more bored than this afternoon in their company! The mindless chatter – you have no idea. And Miss Elizabeth Bennet! She has become so coarse and brown this summer. I remember once you thought her eyes to be rather fine."
"I have never ceased to think them the finest eyes I have ever beheld."
Caroline was momentarily taken aback, and then continued on undaunted. "Am I to wish you joy as well?" She laughed a brittle laugh and looked directly in his eyes. "I remember a time when you were quite impervious to her charms. I distinctly recall you saying that her connections must materially lessen her chance of marrying a man of any consideration in the world. The very idea of a connection between Pemberley and Gracechurch Street is completely ridiculous!"
"And yet it is fact. I have been in love with Miss Elizabeth for quite some time now, and I fully intend to make her my wife. Her want of connections does not affect me in the slightest. I would rather spend time with her family than the best society in London." Darcy turned on his heel and left Caroline standing in the centre of the room, her face darkening with outrage. Georgiana slipped through the door after him.
The room had become deathly silent. Caroline turned and glared at Louisa. "Just what are you staring at?"
"Your face. It has become quite as orange as your dress," said Louisa, barely able to contain herself.
"My dress is not ORANGE! It is bisque and bronze. I never wear orange! I do not like orange! I wear mandarin, evening sunset, blushing rose, autumn oak, burnished fire, but never, never orange!"
Mr Hurst refilled his glass and sat back. He hadn’t enjoyed an evening’s entertainment at Bingley’s quite so much before. But it was over all too soon. Louisa was no match for Caroline.
A cough sounded from where Bingley was standing by the fireplace. Caroline turned her seething face towards him.
"I think you should take yourself off to bed now, Caroline," he said firmly.
She stalked out of the room and slammed the door behind her. When Louisa went up to her own room a few minutes later, she heard the sound of rending fabric as she passed Caroline’s bedchamber.
The next morning dawned clear and light, with just a hint of mist clinging to the open fields. Darcy stood at his window, staring out at the broad expanse of lawn that sloped gently down to the shrubbery beyond. Today had to be the day. He had already told his aunt, and he had blurted out his love for Elizabeth in front of everyone in the drawing room last night. That they should know before Elizabeth did not sit well with him, though at least he knew he could count on them keeping quiet on the subject. His first object for today was to find a moment alone with Elizabeth and share his feelings with her.
Darcy called his man to draw a bath for him, and then he contemplated his wardrobe. He had never been more concerned about his appearance than this morning, as if how he was dressed would make any difference. If she didn’t love him enough to want to marry him, would the choice of a cream waistcoat over a grey really cause her to change her mind? Would brown breeches be superior to black for handling rejection? Binks disturbed his reverie with the information that his bath was ready.
He dropped his robe and climbed into the water, enjoying the feel of its cool silkiness on his skin. He soaped himself with a bar of sandalwood, and then motioned for Binks to pour a jug of water over his head. He lay back in the tub, just relishing the pleasure of being immersed in water, and then he finished lathering his curls with the fragrant soap. Another rinse from the jug and he was out of the tub, rubbing himself vigorously with a thick, rough towel.
Darcy went down to breakfast impeccably dressed in the cream waistcoat, brown breeches, a fawn topcoat, a crisp lawn shirt and an immaculately arranged neck-cloth. He was greeted by Bingley and Georgiana; the others were not yet up. Nothing was said about the evening before, or his trip. Bingley cheerfully discussed the day and his eager plans for an early visit to the Bennets. Georgiana happily agreed to all his plans, especially the one of leaving his sisters and Hurst to their own devices. Darcy listened and ate in silence, thinking only that soon he would again be with Elizabeth.
As Binks was clearing up his master’s dressing room, he found a small box under one of the many rumpled neck-cloths that littered the bureau. He peeked inside to see what it contained, and then secreted it in the top drawer with a soft chuckle. It certainly did a lot to explain Mr Darcy’s unusually fussy preparations.
Morning in the Bennet household was the usual mad rush of getting dressed and arranging hair, with Mrs Bennet fluttering from bedchamber to bedchamber to urge on the progress, changing her mind constantly about the hair ribbons and the lace trimmings. She barely had her daughters dressed and fed and sitting in the parlour when the visitors arrived.
Lizzie took up her stitching and eyed the door nervously. He was back! He had been announced and would enter immediately. As the door opened she looked up and was conscious of nothing but his presence. He looked so wonderful that he took her breath away.Somehow she greeted everyone and sat back down. He sat in the chair closest to her and smilingly asked how she had been.
Georgiana saw it all, and settled herself with Kitty and Mary, leaving Elizabeth to her brother. Mrs Bennet was all for organising the young people into couples, and when Mr Bennet entered the room she pressed him for his support.
"Mr Bennet, do you not think that it would be a good idea for Jane to show her Mr Bingley our delightful river walk?"
"Are you sure he has not seen it before, my dear? I could point it out to him from this window here, if you should like."
"Do be serious, sir. If Mr Bingley has already seen it, then I am positive Mr Darcy has not. Jane and Kitty could take Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy out to explore the beauties of the river. I shall need Lizzie here with me to get on with this mending, and Mary and Miss Darcy could play together on the pianoforte."
Darcy looked quite taken aback at the suggestion, and Lizzie blushed at her mother’s obvious attempts at matchmaking.
"I have a much better plan," said Mr Bennet with a little smile. "The mending can wait. I’m quite sure Kitty has no desire to see the river. She does need, however, to improve her scant musical knowledge, so I suggest she join Mary and Miss Darcy at the pianoforte. I am sure Miss Darcy would not want to be parted from her just yet. Am I right Miss Darcy?"
Georgiana smiled at Mr Bennet and answered shyly. "I would indeed like to have the company of both girls."
"Then it is settled. Lizzie will have to undertake the chore of showing the river to Mr Darcy, and chaperoning our young lovers." Mr Bennet winked at Lizzie.
Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley both quickly agreed that the plan was a good one before Mrs Bennet could offer any alternatives. Lizzie quietly acquiesced.
The group of four made their way down to the river and entered the path that followed its meandering course. Lizzie and Darcy walked along in silence for a few minutes, just looking at the glittering surface of the water.
As a chaperone, Lizzie was doing a very poor job. She neither knew nor cared where Jane and Bingley had got to. As a guide, she did not do much better, as she did not extol the river’s virtues, nor tell its history. She merely walked by Mr Darcy’s side, glancing every now and then from the river to him, happy just to be close to him, and nervously apprehensive of what was to come.
Finally Darcy stopped and turned to her. She looked up at him expectantly and all his anxiety slipped away. He took her hand, and held her eyes with his.
"Elizabeth," he said very softly. "I have waited for this moment for so long. You are too generous to allow me to go on if you do not return my feelings. I love you more deeply than I can say, and want only to spend the rest of my life with you."
Lizzie looked up into his eyes. They were so close she could see tiny amber flecks in the clear green. She felt so overwhelmed with happiness that she did not know if she could trust herself to speak. "Fitzwilliam." It came out as a whisper.
Darcy heard his name on her lips and looked in wonder at her sweet face. He reached out and touched the soft curls that wisped about her forehead. That she was really his was more than he could believe. His fingers traced the contours of her face, and rested on her lips. He then gently took hold of her chin and said, "Will you have me?"
"Yes, my love. Now and forever."
Darcy pulled her to him tenderly and held her close in his arms. She felt like she was back where she belonged. He kissed her hair and laid his cheek against her head. She could smell the soft scent of sandalwood as she nestled closer in.
"Elizabeth, my heart."
Time had lost all meaning. They stood in each other’s arms as the water rushed swiftly past them, unheeded. A light breeze tossed the leaves of the elms; birds sang high in the boughs.
Finally Lizzie raised her head and looked up at him. "We must go back," she said with some reluctance.
Darcy nodded. "I need to speak to your father."
"I need to speak to my mother." She laughed. "I think I will leave that till you are gone."
They lingered in each other’s arms, not wanting to move, and then Darcy took Lizzie’s hand and they started slowly back along the path. Just before they left the trees, Darcy turned to Lizzie. He ducked his head down and pressed his lips fleetingly to hers.
"Wish me luck," he whispered, and he strode off up the lawn alone.
Lizzie stood still in the shade, bathed in the feeling of his lips touching hers.
Part the Twenty-third
Darcy knocked on Mr Bennet’s study door, opening it upon hearing a call of "Come in". He peeked his head inside, and Mr Bennet motioned for him to enter.
"I would like to have a word with you, sir, if I may," he said diffidently.
Mr Bennet leaned back in his chair and glanced at his pocket watch. "I have been expecting you," he said with a smile.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Darcy in confusion.
"I believe you wanted a word," said Mr Bennet, indicating a chair at the side of his desk.
"Yes, sir. Actually more than one word . . ." Darcy trailed off awkwardly, unsure how to proceed.
"The last time I had an interview with you, you were astoundingly forthright. Is the subject so very difficult to broach?"
"No sir. That is, I am about to ask for something you may be reluctant to grant me."
"Try me, my good man. You may be agreeably surprised."
"You know that I was just at the river for a walk with your daughter."
"And the river wasn’t to your satisfaction?" Mr Bennet asked with a twinkle in his eye.
"Everything was to my satisfaction," said Darcy with no little feeling.
"I am glad to hear it. Now come to the point, young man. Even your friend Mr Bingley didn’t go about it in such a round about fashion."
Darcy took a deep breath. "I would like to ask for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage."
"Elizabeth, is it?"
"Miss Elizabeth," amended Darcy, blushing. "I beg your pardon, sir."
"You do realise that Lizzie is my pride and joy. I will not part with her to someone who cannot prove his worth."
"I am well able to provide for her, sir. My estate of Pemberley brings me ten thousand a year."
"Yes, yes. I am well aware of that, but it is immaterial if you cannot promise me that you will make her happy."
"I believe I can, sir. I love her very deeply. My love is not of short duration; it has stood the test of time. Your daughter means so very much to me, and has made me indescribably happy by consenting to be my wife. I will always do everything in my power to ensure her happiness," said Darcy earnestly.
"You can rest easy, son. I will stop toying with you now. You have already shown me what lengths you are prepared to go to ensure Lizzie’s happiness. I could not give my daughter to someone more worthy." Mr Bennet got up and clasped Darcy’s hand, smiling at the look of joy that overspread the young man’s face. "And now, I suppose we must get on with the troublesome talk of settlements and all."
It didn’t take long to get through all the business part of the arrangement, and then Mr Bennet shook Darcy’s hand once again and asked him to find Lizzie and send her to him. Darcy wasn’t sure where to look for her, so when he popped his head around the parlour door and saw her ostensibly applying herself to her needlework, he was relieved.
She was not the only person in the room, however, so he could not just go up to her and deliver her father’s message. Georgiana, Kitty, and Mary were still at the pianoforte. Kitty was being taught a new piece by the other two.
Lizzie looked up to see Mr Darcy hovering by the door. He looked so hesitant and vulnerable that her breath caught in her throat and she wondered if all had not gone well with her father. Then he gave her a soft smile that sent a warm glow spreading throughout her body and caused her to smile just as warmly in return. She suddenly realised that he would be feeling uneasy making his way about her house on his own, especially as their engagement was not going to be announced yet.
"Won’t you come in and sit down, Mr Darcy?" she said graciously, with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes.
He crossed the room and made a great show of choosing a book from a number that were strewn upon a table, and then sat in a chair not too far from her. Georgiana looked up and smiled at him, but the other two kept their attention to the music lesson.
Darcy leaned forward and said to Lizzie in low tones, "Your father wishes to speak to you."
Lizzie put down her work and slipped out of the room as Darcy opened his book and pretended to read, though his eyes never left her until the door closed behind her.
Mr Bennet smiled quite smugly as he asked his daughter to sit down, causing her to blush nervously.
"I have taken a leaf from your mother’s book today, and it seems to have served its purpose to everyone’s satisfaction," he said with a grin.
"I’m afraid I don’t follow you," said Lizzie, who had been expecting to have to explain the development of her relationship to Mr Darcy with her father, rather than talking obscurely about something her mother had managed to get her father to do for her.
"It appears love sends the intellect packing!" laughed Mr Bennet. "It affected your young man in the same way. He was quite a different adversary than the one I faced in London, when he rode roughshod over me and imposed all his plans for Wickham and Lydia’s future upon me. I could have taken complete advantage of him this morning, and he wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. I have eyes to see with, my dear, and the moment he walked into the parlour the other evening it was obvious to me which way the wind blew for the two of you, so I gave a little nudge. Your mother, bless her soul, unable to see what was staring her right in the face, was making plans to pair him off with our Kitty." Mr Bennet succumbed to laughter.
"Oh, father," said Lizzie, laughing despite herself, "I was so mortified, but then you . . . oh, I see." And she blushed again.
"It was evident that all you two needed were a few moments alone together, and so I contrived it for you. Aren’t you going to thank me, Lizzie?"
Lizzie went over to her father and gave him a hug. He kissed her cheek and looked her in the eye. "So tell me how this all came about. You were a very secretive young thing keeping us all in the dark like that."
"There was nothing to tell, father. Would I tell anyone that I was falling in love with a man who was so far above me that I had no hopes?"
"Station in life aside, he is not above you, my love. You are his equal in every other way. Now I understand the melancholy I had noticed in you since your return from Kent."
"Father, I returned so despondent. I was positive that his pride would never allow him to accept my connections. But that is all over. I am so happy now to know that he loves me despite everything. How do you like him father? He is truly the most considerate, caring man I have ever met."
"I have a very high opinion of him, firstly because he appreciates all your estimable qualities, and secondly because I have come to have a great respect for his intellect and abilities. I believe that he may come to be my favourite son-in-law, ranked even above Wickham in my appraisal."
"Do be serious, papa. His name and Wickham’s do not even belong in the same sentence."
"So I understand you are waiting till the evening to tell your mother. Good thinking. We must initiate the young man slowly into the various pleasures of our household. This leaves but one thing for me to remind you of."
"Whatever can that be?"
"Aren’t you and Mr Darcy supposed to be chaperoning Mr Bingley and Jane on their walk by the river? You are being very remiss in your duties."
"Oh my goodness! I had completely forgotten them."
"From the moment you and Mr Darcy stepped out the door together, I would surmise," chuckled Mr Bennet. "Off with you then girl, and take that gentleman back out into the garden to resume your task. But don’t forget what you are about this time. You must find the two young lovers with all haste, although what type of chaperonage I can expect from the two of you, I don’t know. I will have to have your mother accompany you all from now on!"
"You would not dare," said Lizzie as she left the room. She collected Mr Darcy from the parlour, unheeded by the others, except for Georgiana who cast a fond glance after them. "We are supposed to be chaperoning Mr Bingley and Jane," she whispered in his ear. As they entered the trees by the river, Darcy took Lizzie’s hand and they strolled along in contented silence, wondering vaguely where the others could have gone.
"Would it be presumptuous of me to ask what your business was that took you away so suddenly?" asked Lizzie somewhat timidly.
"Not in the least. It is no secret; it just slipped my mind in the light of recent events." He stopped and looked deep into her eyes, while lightly stroking her cheek with his finger. "I have trouble thinking of anything but you, Elizabeth."
She reached up and tentatively touched his curls. "What were we speaking of, Fitzwilliam?"
"I have no idea." Darcy kissed his fingertip and then ran it down the bridge of her nose. "You have the most perfect little nose."
"If we were speaking of noses, I will have to say that yours is as near perfection as a nose can get," Lizzie replied saucily. "I can see it is I who will have to get the conversation back on track. We were talking about . . ."
"Your nose," he said, with a roguish twinkle in his eyes.
"Surely not. I would not have initiated such a conversation, and I am quite positive I initiated this one."
"I relent! We were talking of my sudden trip. I was merely trying to divert the conversation back to ourselves, but I see that I am no match for you. I went to Rosings. Do you remember when I told you of my talk with my cousin Anne, and that she was quite as unwilling as I to be engaged?"
Lizzie thought back to the conversation they had shared in the oak wood. That was the day she had truly given up fighting her feelings for him. "As much as I am deeply indebted to your cousin for giving you up, I do think that it shows shocking bad taste on her part. To me, you have always been irresistible."
"Always?" asked Darcy, quite taken with the idea, and not loath to be side-tracked again.
"Almost from the first moment," whispered Lizzie.
"Not the first moment?" asked Darcy in mock regret.
"You may remember what you said of me," teased Lizzie.
Darcy blushed. "Do not remind me. I was mortified when I realised you had overheard. I wanted nothing more than to apologise to you, but I couldn’t for the life of me discover a way to broach the subject that would not make me look a fool."
"Now is your opportunity," said Lizzie, her eyes shining in mirth. "You have me so confused by love at the moment that I find it impossible to think you a fool, no matter how foolish you may be."
"Minx! You must know that I did not mean a word of it. I was in a foul mood, and Bingley would not leave me be. It was a very rude and thoughtless thing for me to say, and I have been sorry for it since the moment the words were out of my mouth."
"I did not let it affect me, at any rate. Upon reflection, it was obvious that you could not have meant what you said, or you were not in your right mind. I am well aware that I am more than tolerable!"
"So very much more. I find I can tolerate you quite painlessly."
"That is very gentlemanly of you sir."
"I am always a gentleman," he said, raising her hand to his lips. They became lost in each other’s eyes for a moment, and then Lizzie shook her head.
"You are doing it again!"
"Yes, I know. Isn’t it enjoyable? Do you know what it is like to finally be able to be alone with you? Do not upbraid me so with your eyes! I will continue. I swore that I would help Anne in any way she needed. I had this overwhelming desire that love should be allowed to conquer all obstacles. When I was about to come here for our excursion to Oakham Mount, I received an express from my cousin, requesting my help, and there was nothing for it but to go. I stopped in London and purchased a special licence, which took an inordinate amount of time as the bishop was on his rounds of the diocese, and I had to follow him about until I finally caught up with him. When I arrived in the evening to Rosings, I had to deal with my aunt, and then organise the bride and groom with a coach, and send them on their way."
"You masterminded an elopement?" Lizzie asked in astonishment.
"It wasn’t precisely an elopement. Anne had reached her majority and didn’t need her mother’s consent. They had my blessing, and Mrs Jenkinson accompanied Anne to Mr Collins’ mother’s house, from which she was to be married the next day."
"Mr Collins? What had he to do with it?"
"I neglected to tell you that part. Anne was engaged to Mr Collins’ younger brother Marcus. Don’t look so disgusted, he is in no way like his brother. He has a different mother than your cousin, and he takes after her. He is most agreeable and amiable, and attractive, you have my word."
"How did your aunt take this development?"
"You can imagine her anger and disapproval. I stayed behind the next day to help explain the situation, and try to get her to see that it was the best course for Anne to take, but I’m afraid that I only made matters worse for Aunt Catherine."
"I informed her that I was planning to marry you."
Lizzie laughed at the image this gave her of Lady Catherine’s extreme fury. "She must have been most seriously displeased."
"Yes, that is quite an understatement. It is suffice to say that after a few choice comments on her part, she was not the only one who was displeased, and I left without accomplishing my objective of reconciling her to either match."
"Do not let it worry you, Elizabeth. She will come around in the end. She has no other choice. I refuse to let her whims compromise my or Anne’s happiness."
Elizabeth looked up at him and placed her hand gently on his cheek. "I am very proud of you."
Darcy clasped her hand and brought it to his lips. Their eyes caught and held again as Darcy pulled her closer to him and lowered his head toward her face. The sound of someone approaching reached their dazzled awareness and they jumped apart with a suddenness that set them on the verge of laughter. When Bingley and Jane came upon them they were both struggling to regain composure.
"Whatever became of you two?" cried Bingley jovially. "Not that I am complaining, mind you." Jane blushed rosily. They both looked from Darcy to Lizzie and noticed their glowing countenances and relaxed demeanour. These were not the same two people that they had left by the river earlier in the morning. It was evident to both Jane and Bingley that something momentous had occurred since they had parted company. As if by mutual consent the groupings changed, and Darcy and Bingley led the way back along the river towards the house.
Lizzie and Jane were soon outstripped, giving Jane the opportunity to question Lizzie, who was more than willing to tell her beloved sister all her most welcome news. The conversation was sprinkled with many exclamations from Jane on how secretive Lizzie had been with her feelings, and how happy she was for her. Of course in the last few days Jane had had her suspicions, and now she was overjoyed to find out they were correct.
Darcy and Bingley were at the same time sharing the news in much the same manner. Bingley had a good laugh at his friend’s expense over the way he had been acting the last few days. He had witnessed Darcy’s admission to Caroline the night before that he intended to marry Elizabeth, so the engagement did not come as a surprise to him. He had to admit that the earlier statement of intent had surprised him exceedingly, but he had known better than to comment on it until the proposal had been performed. He had for some time harboured suspicions that Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet might have a growing interest in each other, but when Darcy had flatly come out and told Caroline that he had been in love with Elizabeth for quite some time and planned to marry her, Bingley had been quite as astounded as anyone in the room. He had been so wrapped up in his own courtship that he hadn’t given too much thought to anything else.
Both Jane and Bingley promised not to mention the engagement to anyone until the following day. They congratulated the couple while they were still in the garden, and then made their way back up into the house, to be greeted by a scene of pandemonium.
Mrs Bennet had just returned from a visit with her sister Phillips, and she was full of news. The Lucases had received a surprise visit from Mr and Mrs Collins and the rumours were running rife.
"They have been sent home in disgrace!" announced Mrs Bennet excitedly, enjoying this downfall of the ones who were eventually to deprive her of her home. "Mr Collins’ brother has eloped with Lady Catherine’s daughter! It is so shocking!"
"Mr Collins’ brother?’ asked Kitty. "I didn’t know he had a brother! That is shocking in itself, another Mr Collins!"
"Mr Collins is a very upstanding man," said Mary severely. "I do not think he would have anything to do with something so immoral as an elopement. It cannot be true, Mama!"
"Oh, it is true! You mark my words, that man has lost his cosy parsonage at Hunsford to be sure!" There was a look approaching glee on her face.
Georgiana was standing in the middle of all this turmoil with a forlorn look upon her face. It seemed everybody had forgotten just whose niece and cousin she was. When she saw her brother enter the room she ran straight into his arms.
"Is it true, Fitzwilliam?" she asked in a woeful voice.
Darcy led her to the settee and sat her down. Lizzie sat beside her and took one of her hands.
"Don’t worry, Georgiana," said her brother, "it is not as bad as it appears. She has not eloped, she has merely become married without her mother’s consent. She has my blessing, and I hope yours too, when you know the particulars."
Georgiana let that sink in and then she asked, "Is that where you went?"
"Yes. I arranged everything for her and helped it come about. Aunt Catherine is not happy, to say the least, but she will come around in the end."
While this quiet conversation was taking place, the babble was going on all around them.
"Lady Catherine has cut her daughter off without a penny! What she will live on who can tell for she has married a penniless man who is a gazetted fortune hunter and will most likely throw her off in a week. And Mr Collins is the one who made it all possible, trying to worm his family’s way into Rosings. There is no end to the man’s deceit! I am happy that you didn’t accept him after all, Lizzie."
"Do not forget, my dear," cut in Mr Bennet, "that Mr Collins’ brother must also be our cousin, so we are disgraced just as much as he!"
Mrs Bennet suddenly stopped in mid sentence and looked on her husband in horror. Before she could say another word, Mr Darcy addressed her.
"I do not know from where you obtained your information, Madam, but I must remind you that Lady Catherine and her daughter are my and my sister’s closest relatives."
A hush descended on the room immediately. Mrs Bennet looked positively stunned, and Mr Bennet had a slight smirk upon his face.
"It is important for the facts to be accurate when relaying information. I must inform you that Mr Collins was not a party to any of the proceedings involving Marcus Collins and my cousin Anne. There was no elopement, just a sudden wedding, as my cousin chose to marry without her mother’s consent rather than take a trip to the continent that Lady Catherine was insisting upon to separate her from the man she loves. I am intimately aware of all the details of the case, because I was very instrumental in bringing the marriage about. It is also important to note that while residing at Hunsford at the present may be uncomfortable for Mr Collins, Lady Catherine does not have the power to remove him from the living. If you would ensure that when you are next discussing this interesting news with your neighbours, you refute the maligning gossip with these facts, I would deeply appreciate it."
Mr Bennet leaned back in his chair with a satisfied look upon his face. Here was the gentleman he had confronted in London! Mrs Bennet’s look of shock slowly turned to one of abject apology.
"I beg your pardon, Mr Darcy," she said in a very timorous voice. "I meant no disrespect. I wish your cousin happy in her new marriage."
For the rest of the day, Mrs Bennet was very subdued, and treated Mr Darcy to such exaggerated deference that he hoped she would get over it very quickly. The evening passed quietly, with music and reading, and all too soon for Lizzie it was time to make her engagement known to her mother. She dreaded her mother’s reaction, even though only family would hear, but she would be glad when the engagement could be openly acknowledged and she would not have to go through another such evening as tonight, having to be openly formal and distant with the man she loved.
"Well Lizzie, what is it that you want of me?" asked her mother plaintively as she entered her bedchamber. "I have the headache tonight and want nothing more than to lay my head on my pillows."
"I have some news for you."
"News! I want nothing of news! Look at the mess it landed me in this afternoon. After all that I said Mr Darcy will want nothing more to do with this family, and I was so counting on him falling in love with Kitty. I will never forgive sister Phillips for telling me such malicious falsehoods!"
"Mother, I trust my news will make you happy," said Lizzie with a smile. "I am engaged to be married to Mr Darcy."
"You are what? To who?" cried Mrs Bennet. "It can’t be! Oh my dearest Lizzie, you are a fast worker. Who would have thought that sending you out with him to the river would have such prompt results! And you had him committed to you before I said such harsh things of his family, so he can’t try to back out of it. Oh Lizzie, only think, ten THOUSAND a year! What clothes you will have; what jewels; what pin money! Jane’s match is nothing to yours! Oh my darling, darling daughter." She threw herself on Lizzie’s neck and hugged her fiercely. "Are you certain he meant marriage? You surely did not misunderstand . . ."
"He has spoken to father, Mama. All is agreed upon."
"You and your father are such sly things to say nothing of this to me! Oh, I shall go distracted! To think he wants to marry you! I knew you could not be so smart for nothing! Lizzie, you shall be so very, very RICH!"
Lizzie listened for some time to her mother’s loud effusions, and then she managed to extricate herself and return to her own bedchamber, but she was not there for long before her mother came in talking of silks and satins, and refurbishing Pemberley. Jane smiled at Lizzie and whispered, "Poor Lizzie. This is worse then when I told her about Charles!"
Lizzie smiled back at her and turned to her mother, who was recounting how many footmen she would need to hire for her London house, and said calmly, "Mother, I must get my sleep How would it look if I were to greet Mr Darcy tomorrow all wan and pale, with black rings about my eyes?" Her mother saw the justice in this immediately, and wished her a swift goodnight, admonishing both her and Jane to get all the beauty sleep possible because she didn’t want either one of them to look peaked.
The next day Darcy, Bingley, and Georgiana arrived as early in the morning as they had the previous day. Georgiana went straight to Lizzie and hugged her, wishing her all the best of happiness, and welcoming her as a sister. Darcy stood back and looked at them with a soft, pleased smile on his lips.
Mrs Bennet greeted him as a future son, and continued in her deferential treatment of him. Anything he desired, she was most willing to provide. What was his favourite meal, so that she could have cook prepare it? His favourite piece of music, so that the girls would learn it? He must sit in the most comfortable chair, read the most interesting books from the library, taste the finest sherry that the cellars could provide. A walk was suggested, and as he had missed the outing to Oakham Mount, she insisted that they go again today.
As soon as they found their way into the lanes, Darcy and Lizzie lagged behind the rest of the group. He took her hand in his and gently stroked her fingers as they walked along. They stopped under the shade of a great old oak, and turned to face each other.
"I have something for you, my love."
Lizzie looked up at him. "What more could you give me? I have everything I could possibly want already, having your love."
Darcy took his finger and trailed it lightly up her arm, across her shoulder and along her neck to her jaw-line. He traced the contours of her face, and said softly. "Three times before I was to propose to you, and I was forestalled for one reason, or another. On two of those occasions I had something in my pocket that I was hoping to give to you. Yesterday, it inadvertently was left behind on my dressing table, a good omen I believe, because nothing prevented my proposal at all. Now I would like to give it to you, to wear as a token of my love and esteem."
He reached into his breast pocket and took out the small box that had made those earlier trips with him. Opening it he showed her the ring. The emerald sparkled in the sun-streams that filtered through the leaves, the rich, blue sapphires glowed darkly. Lizzie had never seen such a beautiful ring. It took her breath away.
"Will you wear this for me, Elizabeth?" he whispered huskily.
She nodded, unable to speak, tears pricking in the corners of her eyes, and watched spellbound as he took her finger and placed the ring upon it. "It was my mother’s, and my father’s mother’s before that."
Lizzie looked into his eyes, the clear green depths that challenged even the emerald for brilliance, the eyes that she wanted to lose herself in forever more. "I will always cherish it, Fitzwilliam." Her voice was as gentle and light as the whisper of the leaves in the breeze. She took his hand in hers and raised it to her lips, kissing it softly, all the while with her eyes on his. She reached up with her other hand and stroked his hair, ran her fingers through his dark curls. "I do love you so very much."
Darcy caught his breath. He gazed into her eyes and saw all the unfolding tomorrows that she would be with him by his side, sharing and fulfilling his life. And withtightness in his chest, he felt joy well up and infuse his very soul.
They stood close under the tree, in the streams of filtered sunlight, aware only of each other. Darcy said one word. "Elizabeth." And she lifted her lips up to meet his. The wind rustled the leaves, drew wavy patterns in the grass, and continued on through the hedgerows. The sky stretched blue and endless.
When I first started writing this little story, I had imagined it was going to be quite a bit more frivolous and humorous than it has turned out. After I had written about six or seven chapters, I realised that the plan I had for the proposal scene at the ending was going to have to be scrapped. Instead of the humorous version I had envisioned, it was going to have to be sweet and romantic. Oh well, I can live with that. ;) I thought, though, that my readers might like a glimpse of what that other proposal would have been like, so, if you will bear with me, here it is for your reading enjoyment:
Lizzie and Darcy walked slowly up the path, letting Jane and Bingley outstrip them. They both knew full well their reasons for lagging back, and that knowledge only increased their nervousness.
Darcy glanced over at Elizabeth. If he did not speak now, she would soon begin to talk about the weather, and the moment would be lost.
"Miss Elizabeth, I . . . my affections and wishes are unchanged from what they were last April. If you feel the same . . . um, I mean . . . one word from you will make me the happiest . . ."
Elizabeth stopped and looked him straight in the eye, and then found herself overcome with confusion in his intense gaze. She stared down at her feet and tried to order her thoughts. "Mr Darcy, I am quite at a loss to understand you. Just what were your feelings and wishes last April?"
"Well, well . . . did I not . . ?"
"No, you did not, Mr Darcy. It was your cousin who proposed to me."
"Well I had been meaning to. If it was not for your cousin, I should have proposed the day before my cousin. But after you rejected him, how could I?"
"Is there a law forbidding it?" asked Lizzie, still looking at her toes.
This was not going quite as Darcy had planned. ‘Elizabeth, have mercy on me!’ "I did not want to be rejected as well."
Lizzie took his hand and peeked up at his face. "What makes you think you would have been rejected?"
Darcy found it difficult to breathe. The feel of her hand in his was overwhelming. "But – but . . . you always seemed to like him better than me. And the next morning you would not see me. What was I to think?"
Lizzie had the grace to blush. "I thought you did not want to propose to me . . . my connections, you know. You did warn your cousin against me."
"Of course I did. With his charm, I didn’t stand a chance. I needed some way to keep him from stealing you."
"May I remind you that I rejected him?"
"Yes, and that made it all the more hopeless!"
"There would have been more hope had I accepted him?"
"Yes – no – had he not proposed at all, then I would have had hope."
"You are making very little sense, sir," said Lizzie, giving him a saucy smile.
"It is hard to make sense with you so close to me, and your hand in mine. If you only knew how I have longed for this moment!"
"I have been trying to tell you that it was unnecessary."
"What? Proposing to you?" Darcy turned very white.
"No, longing for this moment. You could have had it ages ago. I would have said yes back then in April, before, after, or even during your cousin’s proposal, had you but asked me."
The colour returned to Darcy’s cheeks. His eyes took on a glow. "Then you will have me?"
"You have yet to propose. Just what were your affections and wishes last April?"
Darcy swept her into his arms, all his nervousness and apprehension gone. He kissed her deeply; the kiss left her reeling and clinging to his shirt collar. "You know quite well what they are. Much stronger, deeper, and infinitely more lasting than anything my fool cousin said to you. Now where is that blasted ring?" He felt all his pockets, but there was no lump. He looked down at the ground in concern. Just then a liveried servant ran up and handed him a small box. He took it and pulled forth a beautiful emerald ring, with a sapphire on either side of the deep green stone, and under the servant’s interested scrutiny he slipped it on Lizzie’s finger as they gazed adoringly into each other’s eyes. "My dearest, loveliest Elizabeth," he sighed, and leaned down to kiss her again.
After a few minutes the servant coughed. Darcy looked up.
"Are you still here?"
The servant proffered a hand, and Darcy slipped a few coins into it. With a bow, the servant sidled away.
"Who on earth was that?" asked Lizzie, somewhat amused.
"My footman, Rita."
"I am an equal opportunity employer. She is lobbying to change the name to Footperson, but these days political correctness is not in fashion."
Lizzie made a mental note to check into this footperson business. It did not sit too well with her for Darcy to have Rita always at his beck and call. She looked back into his mysteriously coloured eyes and immediately forgot what she was thinking about. "Tell me that dearest, loveliest part again," she sighed.
Darcy decided that there were better things to do than talking.
Now it’s really the end.
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