"You are rather disposed to call his interference officious?''
"I do not see what right Mr. Darcy had to decide on the propriety of his friend's inclination, or why, upon his own judgment alone, he was to determine and direct in what manner that friend was to be happy. But,'' she continued, recollecting herself, "as we know none of the particulars, it is not fair to condemn him. It is not to be supposed that there was much affection in the case.''
"That is not an unnatural surmise,'' said Fitzwilliam, "but it is lessening the honour of my cousin's triumph very sadly.''
...It appeared to her so just a picture of Mr. Darcy that she would not trust herself with an answer; and, therefore, abruptly changing the conversation, talked on indifferent matters till they reached the parsonage. There, shut into her own room as soon as their visitor left them, she could think without interruption of all that she had heard.
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 33
Colonel Fitzwilliam left the parsonage in good spirits, despite Miss Bennet's less than usually happy demeanour. He was aware that she had seemed out of sorts as their walk together progressed, but was unsuspicious that he may have been the cause. She had been good company and a pleasant companion, but he strongly suspected he had as little power to affect her moods as she had over his.
He had never allowed himself to ponder whether, if she were richly dowered, she would make a good wife; he found it dangerous to devote thought to what could never be. Today he allowed that she would always be witty, intelligent company, and that the man who secured her affections would be lucky, indeed.
He entered his aunt's home and, for lack of something specific to do, let his feet carry him to the library. His cousin stood near a window looking out onto the grounds.
"Lovely, aren't they?" the Colonel asked conversationally as he approached a bookcase in search of compelling reading.
Darcy roused himself from his meditations about a pair of fine eyes in the face of a very pretty woman, and wondered if his cousin could read his mind. "What are lovely?"
"The grounds. Yonder copse of trees. Springtime at Rosings. The cloudless blue sky. We have had a particularly good visit this year, would you not say?"
Darcy merely turned again to the window and replied, "Yes."
With a small chuckle, the Colonel continued. "Miss Bennet and I were just discussing you as we toured the park together." He did not notice that his cousin stood perfectly still at the mention of that lady's name.
"Oh? What manner of discussion was this?"
"She thinks your interference in Bingley's affairs officious! It was Bingley, was it not? You should have seen her face fall when I informed her that you had taken care to save him from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage."
"You told her what?"
"Her skin went pale, and for some moments she was not equal to conversation! Then she confessed quite candidly that your conduct did not suit her feelings, and that she did not see why you felt the right to determine and direct the manner of Bingley's happiness!" The Colonel related these details as though telling a joke, and he laughed heartily at the conclusion. "Miss Bennet is very frank, is she not?"
"Fitzwilliam, what prompted you to relate that particular tale?" Darcy asked with nervous irritation.
Still merry, still insensible to his cousin's choler, he replied, "I do not know, Darcy. We spoke of my being a younger son and without freedom of funds, of Georgiana – and I almost thought she understood the entire business there, when she asked if our ward gave us much trouble – and her acquaintance with the Bingleys in Hertfordshire. I suppose it was that subject which led us to your guidance of your friend's concerns. Was she, perhaps, witness to your protection of him? For she reacted with great fervour to the disclosure."
Struggling to control his anger, Darcy simply responded, "Bingley was attached to her sister. I encouraged his separation from another Miss Bennet."
"Old man!" the Colonel responded with another shout of laughter. "An unfortunate disclosure on my part, then? But I cannot think that I have caused any damage. It is obvious that she does not favour you."
"What?" The line of conversation Darcy had planned to pursue vanished with this simple statement from his cousin, and he rocked on his heels as surely as if he had been stricken. He leaned back onto the windowsill for support, and with his eyes willed Fitzwilliam to continue.
"I say, it is quite readily apparent her opinion of you is not high. Oh, she is too much a gentlewoman to speak ill of you when in company with your relatives, but she has never said anything truly complimentary, and there was something in her looks. I am certain you have heard the way she speaks of her elder sister and of her friend Mrs. Collins. There is nothing of that deference, that respect when she speaks of you or to you. Her eyes never rest upon you except when propriety demands. I believe she sees you only as a common and indifferent acquaintance." Colonel Fitzwilliam straightened his collar and looked down at his waistcoat as he said, "I fancy I am at least equal to you in her esteem."
In the days since he had come to Kent, Darcy had journeyed from a belief that he could (and must) forget Elizabeth to his current position – aware of his love for her, with a fervent desire to make her his wife despite her situation and family. He needed only an opportunity for privacy to make his declaration. And now his cousin was claiming, after impartial observation, that she had no feelings for him? And that she never had such feelings, even before the disastrous revelation concerning Bingley and Miss Bennet? Mr. Darcy was too stricken to reply.
"Come, Darcy, you cannot care about Miss Bennet, can you? As you informed me yourself, she has no wealth and lacks connections. Further, I believe you mentioned something about the behaviour of her family? Now that I think of it, given the picture you painted of her relations in Hertfordshire after I met her the first time, I can see why you separated Bingley from her sister. How unfortunate that the beautiful and clever Miss Bennet must suffer because of them! But it has always been so, has it not? The capricious demands of society!"
Colonel Fitzwilliam returned, halfheartedly, to his search for a book, and therefore did not notice the lack of response from his cousin. When he finally chose a title and settled down in a chair to read he did so without any knowledge that Darcy was suffering, and with a belief – as at the end of an earlier conversation – that he had not the power to affect his cousin to any serious degree.
He did not aid Darcy in his reflections by pointing out a quarter of an hour later, with neither preamble nor a glance up from the pages before him, "Pity, too, because Miss Bennet really would suit you. Her liveliness might counter your gravity, she approaches your level in terms of intelligence and expression, and she is without a doubt pleasant to look at. In that respect it would be a smart match." He turned the page. "A very smart match."
Darcy struggled all afternoon with the new idea that Elizabeth Bennet might not care for him. At first he convinced himself that she had been encouraging him, that she was aware of his feelings and expecting his proposals. But he respected his cousin's powers of observation – after all, they thought identically concerning Miss Bingley and many other ladies of the ton, not to mention Miss Bennet's virtues – so he reluctantly felt the necessity of investigating Fitzwilliam's assertions. Darcy evaluated his short acquaintance with Miss Bennet in Hertfordshire and their interactions here in Kent, and was discomfited to realize that – though she was always very civil – she was by no means encouraging. Her responses to his conversation might be construed as discouraging, even. Her impertinence which had so captivated him could have just as easily been a mask for her dislike of him, as a means of increasing their interactions, as he had always considered it. He had to credit his cousin's opinions and admit it possible that she disliked him.
He was unprepared for the desolation he felt at that thought, and likewise unprepared for the void in his heart and in his aunt's parlour when Miss Elizabeth stayed, ill, at the parsonage rather than coming to Rosings for dinner. His tender feelings wished for her good health, his heart cried out that this was the opportunity for privacy that he sought, but he remained at Rosings with his family, the Collinses, and Miss Lucas, believing now that a visit to Miss Bennet would be an imposition rather than welcomed. His thoughts were never far from her; he was a poor partner for conversation and he excused himself directly after dinner to find a window at Rosings that looked toward the parsonage, where his heart longed to be.
Elizabeth awoke the next morning to the same thoughts and meditations which had at length closed her eyes. She was now certain that Mr. Darcy had separated his friend from her sister – that Jane's hopes had come to naught because of Mr. Darcy's interference. She had spent the previous evening, as if intending to exasperate herself as much as possible against Mr. Darcy, in the examination of all the letters which Jane had written to her since her being in Kent. They contained no actual complaint, but revealed a want of that cheerfulness which had been used to characterize her style, and Elizabeth felt profoundly all that had been lost. She could not yet recover from the feelings of anger and disappointment; it was impossible to think of anything else, and, totally indisposed for employment, she resolved soon after breakfast to indulge herself in air and exercise.
She proceeded directly to her favourite walk, and met Mr. Darcy, wandering – despite her prior warning – on a path he knew she was likely to tread. She attempted retreat, but he stepped forward with eagerness and pronounced her name. She wished him away, wished to avoid his company, but as in the previous encounters he asked permission to turn back and walk with her. With her thoughts so much on Jane she could not conjure a polite refusal, so he fell in step beside her. She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring him where no one else was brought, and took no trouble to open conversation.
Mr. Darcy began with a few formal enquiries, followed by an awkward pause. Previous to this encounter he had thought, as they walked alone together in the unfolding beauties of nature, that she understood him – that their conversation was an indication of their common intelligence and interests, and that the pauses between topics were filled with all the words of esteem that neither could yet say. Colonel Fitzwilliam's words had opened his eyes, and this morning he could not deny that every aspect of Elizabeth's demeanour and countenance bespoke her grave dislike. She would not gratify him by finding a suitable topic, and she gloried in the uncomfortable silence between them. But his next words took her by surprise.
"Miss Bennet, you have always been civil and polite when in my presence, so it took me perhaps longer than it should have to realize that..." His step faltered, his heart pounded. "...that you do not like me."
She looked at him, her amazement plain on her face. If he hoped that she would contradict his assertion, he was disappointed. "Forgive me for not making it plain! Not everyone feels comfortable informing all and sundry that acquaintances are tolerable, but not enough so to be tempting!"
Darcy stopped entirely, standing still on the path for several seconds before walking back and forth between shrub and tree, flower and rock. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner. "When I spoke thus, I wished only to discourage Bingley, not to offend you. I both believed you overheard that ill-judged statement, and hoped you did not."
"You made your dislike for me amply evident in subsequent interactions; I did not base my entire opinion of you on that single remark."
Darcy swallowed before he said, "Miss Bennet, whatever your opinions of me may be, I have never disliked you."
"And I have never desired your good opinion."
"Nonetheless, you have it. I was not at my best during that assembly, and was therefore unable to be pleased by anyone. However in subsequent meetings, during dinners and parties, I was impressed with your wit, opinions, speech, and charm."
Elizabeth, uncomfortable in the knowledge that her perceptions of Mr. Darcy might be inaccurate, turned away from him on the path.
He continued, "It appears I have caught you unawares, that you were not acquainted with my estimation of you."
She spoke with a voice so quiet he strained to hear her. "You dislike everyone and everything. You are above all your company, quiet and forbidding. We have never spoken except to argue, and you spurned the neighbourhood and my relations. From this I should have discerned your estimation of me?"
Darcy struggled to keep his voice level and his emotions even; he had approached her today with the purpose of understanding the basis of her dislike, as painful as it was now to hear it. "You are a woman of intelligence and propriety, and as such, your opinion matters to me. I do not seek your approbation, Miss Bennet, but I came here to discover the cause of your disapproval."
"Had you behaved more graciously toward Meryton society, had my feelings been favourable toward you on that score, do you think they could survive intact despite your hand in ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?''
"Colonel Fitzwilliam revealed yesterday..."
"I suspected it before my walk with the Colonel," she interjected quickly. "I gave Mr. Bingley's sisters some share in the blame, but I have always believed you were the principle or, perhaps, only means of dividing them from each other."
As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued.
"And before your precipitate departure from Hertfordshire, your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. I have always wondered, if his reports had circulated more widely while you were still in the neighbourhood, whether you would have defended yourself in some imaginary act of friendship."
"Wickham's story could not circulate widely while I was in residence because it is false. He knew it could not stand against a true account, so he forbore from general recital until I was gone."
In indignation Elizabeth nearly laughed as she turned about and walked the path toward the parsonage.
"Miss Bennet!" Darcy called after her retreating figure. "You have had your information from Wickham; will you not likewise listen to me?"
She turned and faced him, her anger plainly visible. "Do you believe it is within your power to defend yourself?"
"I do not know. I can only tell you the truth. My guilt or innocence I leave to you to determine. Will you hear?"
In Elizabeth's stance there was not the slightest alteration, but the anger in her face softened.
"I will also address my actions concerning Mr. Bingley and your sister, if you will allow me."
Several minutes later Elizabeth was seated on a bench, and Mr. Darcy paced before her while he spoke of his dealings. She had, in another time and place, thought there was truth in Wickham's looks and that he could never invent such a history of himself as he recited without ceremony; she did not realize at the time how truth looked when someone spoke it, and how a voice could reverberate with anguish when relating a truly painful tale. She knew now, as she watched Mr. Darcy. As much as she wished to doubt his veracity, as much as she wished her initial impressions of both men were correct, she knew that Mr. Darcy spoke the truth, and that Wickham's sole purpose had been to deceive her and impugn a decent man's name.
But at first she could not be so easily swayed by his recital of the events at Netherfield. His belief of her sister's insensibility she instantly resolved to be false, and his account of the real – the worst – objections to the match made her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice. He expressed no regret for what he had done which satisfied her; his style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence.
As his narrative progressed, though, as her opinions concerning him were methodically proven wrong, she gave him more credit. He declared himself to have been totally unsuspicious of her sister's attachment, and she could not help remembering what Charlotte's opinion had always been. Neither could she deny the justice of his description of Jane; she felt that Jane's fervent feelings were little displayed, and that there was a constant complacency in her air and manner not often united with great emotion. And when he described her family in terms of such mortifying yet merited reproach, her sense of shame was severe.
When Darcy finished his narration his shoulders flagged and he leaned against a tree. He did not look at his audience, but peered past her into the wild growth that surrounded them. Elizabeth wished herself miles away, without the necessity of making a response to so vast and distressing a narrative; she wished she didn't immediately have to understand every word, credit the good, discard her mistaken notions, and make amends; but decency demanded that she speak to him.
"Mr. Darcy, I..."
He looked at her, the same frank gaze she had so often seen in Hertfordshire and here in Kent. From habit she assumed it revealed his dislike, until she remembered he had none; he did not find her objectionable, and in fact held her in some esteem. 'Enough esteem,' thought she, 'to lay bare his actions for my benefit.'
"Sir, I find I have more to think on than I can easily address. I thank you for the truth, and I see your actions now in a light I had never thought possible."
His gaze returned to the wilderness behind her.
"I apologize for the accusations I made regarding Mr. Wickham, sir. I acknowledge that you are not the man I thought you were, but a far better. However I still do not believe, despite your acute observations and impartial convictions about my sister's regard for your friend, that you had any right to interfere. Jane was behaving within the bounds of decorum. She is not a flirt, and her feelings are never on display. Irreproachable comportment requires a delicacy in matters of the heart, does it not? By doing all in your power to separate them you have exposed one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involved them both in misery of the acutest kind." His gaze never wavered from the greenery, and though she saw pain in his eyes she was determined to carry her point. "I cannot so easily excuse your interference there, even if you believed your actions were inspired by the noblest notions of friendship."
His silence made her uneasy; she rose from the bench and again moved toward the parsonage. "Mrs. Collins must wonder where I am – I should return to her after my very long absence. Thank you again, sir, for all that you have related."
"Goodbye, Miss Bennet," Darcy responded softly.
The Colonel and Mr. Darcy visited the parsonage a little later than their usual time that morning to take their leave before their departure the following day. Miss Bennet was as quiet as Mr. Darcy, a circumstance which perplexed her companions. Even the amiable Colonel Fitzwilliam could not draw her out much beyond a wish for his safe journey.
Before she left Kent she received word from Jane in a letter that she had encountered Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley one morning on the street while making calls with her aunt; they were riding their horses, and both dismounted to speak with her. She modestly hoped that they might visit her at her aunt's home, and Elizabeth knew the seemingly chance meeting was to Mr. Darcy's credit.
When she arrived in London at Gracechurch Street Jane happily informed her that Mr. Bingley had called twice. The following morning he called again, accompanied by his friend Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth had, in the last fortnight, pondered continuously the information that gentleman had given her, and her opinion had changed dramatically. There was between them some residual awkwardness, but before the end of the longer-than-usual visit they were able to converse with something like ease.
Mr. Bingley returned to Hertfordshire a week after the Bennet sisters, and Jane accepted his proposal of marriage not many days hence. Mr. Darcy travelled to Netherfield upon receiving the announcement from Bingley; his first visit he looked serious, as usual. Elizabeth said as little to both gentlemen as civility would allow. When occasionally, unable to resist the impulse of curiosity, she raised he eyes to his face, she as often found him looking at Jane as at herself, and frequently on no object but the ground. She was disappointed, and angry with herself for being so. But it was not many days before she sensed that he looked on her as much as ever he had, and with the same wistful expression in his eyes. She wondered if he longed to be with her, to speak as easily as they had formerly argued.
She stumbled along a path to self-discovery at the same rate Darcy built up his courage, and one month later they gave each other to understand their very strong mutual preferences. Later Darcy would be gratified to admit that his cousin was right – Miss Elizabeth really did suit him, and it was a very smart match, indeed.
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