Posted on 2012-04-06
Bingley arrived at my home unexpectedly, his bearing unusually cheerful, even for him. While I delighted in his arrival, I was anxious to learn the cause of it. He informed me that his purpose in coming to London was to draw up a settlement and procure a ring for his dear Jane, and I was overjoyed for him. The thought of Miss Bennet naturally turned my mind to her sister, and of the great joy she would feel upon learning the news.
"Have you already obtained her consent, then?"
His smiled faltered only just slightly as he responded, "No, but I should like to be well prepared when - I mean - if, I do!"
"There can be no doubt of your reception, Charles; are you certain she loves you though?" He looked back at me with no small amount of confusion in his face.
I had learned not to interfere in Bingley's life, but years of advising him would prove a difficult habit to shed. "Forgive me my friend, I only wish for your happiness. If you have found it with Miss Bennet, I congratulate you both." I offered my hand to him; He took it and pulled me into a brotherly embrace as his face broke into a broad smile. I could not help but to return the gesture.
Recovering myself, I asked nonchalantly, "So, when will all this occur?"
"I will return to Hertfordshire on Sunday after services, and the next morning I will ask Jane to make me the happiest of men." Charles beamed proudly as he said this.
It occurred to me then that with my impending trip to Kent, I could time our leave taking in such a manner, that I may have the opportunity to bear the excellent news to Elizabeth. This thought was hampered by the realization that my desire to please her was purely selfish; I knew very well of Elizabeth's affection for her eldest sister, and I expected she would wish to hear such an important communication directly from Miss Bennet. Fortunately, I came upon a solution.
"Charles, you know I am to leave Friday for Kent. If you send word as soon as you are able, I would be able to deliver any note Miss Bennet may enclose to her sister."
He smiled anew as he replied, "Thank you Darce, I shall inform you straightaway!"
My friend was far too absorbed in his own joy to recognize my machinations for what they were, and I was content to let it be, as I found my gesture to be a bit too similar to those of scheming mamas for my comfort. Though it was a slightly mortifying realization, I was certain the delight on Elizabeth's face would be well worth it.
Not two days later, an express arrived. As Bingley wasted no amount of time, I was still two days away from my planned departure. I considered waiting to leave on the predetermined date, but the thought of depriving Elizabeth, and myself, of two days' happiness prompted my decision to be as frivolous and impetuous as I pleased, however contrary to my nature, and, as I have plenty of servants at my disposal, it was simply a matter of hours to prepare to leave on the morrow. As to the greater complication of informing Richard, and Georgiana, who had decided to join me this year for the benefit of enjoying Elizabeth's company, I merely informed them of the change in my most authoritative tone, and dispatched extra servants to assist them. Richard, especially, was accustomed to being at my disposal when we travelled together, so my behavior would not seem so very out of the ordinary. It was with great relief that I noted that neither of them questioned my motive for the alteration in plans; I was not prepared to contend with their insinuations and conjectures, however true they may be.
As we journeyed forth, I informed Richard and Georgiana of the precious missive I carried. They stole glances at one another before Richard ventured, "Could this possibly be the reason for our early departure?" I felt no response was necessary other than a slight roll of the eyes. The smirks on the faces of my dear relations confirmed that I was correct.
When we arrived, I gave the perfunctory greetings to my Aunt Catherine, and was only slightly warmer in my greeting to Anne. Though I am fond of my cousin, my mind was filled with another lady, and I was anxious to dispatch the happy message.
To my surprise, both Georgiana and Richard denied the invitation to join me at the parsonage. I must say I found the tendered excuses to be a bit suspicious; Georgiana, who minutes before was eager to see her friend, suddenly pled fatigue, whilst Richard claimed he needed to stay about to "stave off the dragon." I can only assume his intent was to keep Lady Catherine occupied, and if that were the case, it would behoove me to be grateful. Therefore, I made the walk to Hunsford alone, which would have been a pleasant prospect if not for the fact that the sycophantic parson and his unfortunate wife would be awaiting me. Anticipation outweighed trepidation, however, and I knocked soundly at the door.
Elizabeth was not within. With a knowing smile, Mrs. Collins indicated that she had gone for a walk but would be expected back very soon. I thanked her and indicated I would call later. The lure of possibly finding Elizabeth alone was too strong, so I chose not to fight it, and set out in search of her.
Before long I was drawn by the melodic hum of a lullaby, and I followed the sound to find Elizabeth seated beneath a tree. Though she was partially obscured by the trunk, I could see that she was pulling her mahogany curls, which had fallen down her back, into pins. I was completely enchanted, and it was a few long moments before I was able to tear my eyes away. Conscious that I was intruding on her privacy, however, and feeling all the shame of it, I finally looked elsewhere, but it was not long before I stole another glance. This time, she was lacing a boot, and my mind immediately fixed on the contemplation of her bare feet, and I was thoroughly undone.
I knew I should have gone, but I could not, and as I had not wished to embarrass her, I remained very still, hoping she would not be alerted to my presence until the right moment. Finally, I heard her arise, and I approached as she shook the grass and leaves from her skirts.
It seemed I had not waited long enough; when I called out her name, she startled visibly, scattering a number of papers about. The image she presented as she turned to face me was too delicious; the self-assured, impertinent Miss Elizabeth Bennet was beet red and stunned into a mortified silence. I could not stop a silly grin from overtaking my face. After some moments, she was still unable to meet my eye, so I tried to school my features into a more contrite expression, but apparently failed, as she was clearly vexed.
"Mr. Darcy!" she cried, "Are you so very pleased that you have succeeded in frightening me?" Her eyes sparked with ire; how beautiful they were as they did so!
I could not disguise my true feelings as I lost the battle I was waging against a smile. "As a matter of fact, I am, but, I have very good reason to trust that you will soon forgive me." I held out the letter for her inspection; she looked at me suspiciously, but accepted the note from my hand, brushing my fingers ever so slightly. As I savored the burning sensation she left behind, Elizabeth took note of the script on the outside of the page, then tore into it and read it hungrily. The letter dropped to her side as she looked up at me, eyes glistening with joyful tears. She smiled with her whole being as she choked out something between a sob and laugh.
Her next action took me completely by surprise. Disregarding propriety, she impulsively hugged me, but I could not relish in the contact long, for she pulled away just as quickly, mumbling an apology. I immediately felt bereft of her touch, even as its warmth continued to suffuse my body.
In an effort to quiet her unease, I offered, "Miss Bennet, there is no reason to apologize, I perfectly comprehend your excitement." I did not know the contents of Elizabeth's letter, but the note I received from Charles absolutely dripped with bliss; blots and all. So I could well imagine the happiness Miss Bennet conveyed therein.
"Oh, Mr. Darcy, I am overcome with joy! Dear Jane! Jane is so good; she, she deserves happiness more than anyone! For her, to be able to, to marry for love, it is such a wonderful thing! " As I looked into her deep, emerald eyes, the sincerity of delight, which rendered her nearly inarticulate, warmed my soul. To be master of such a woman's heart must be something indeed!
"It is much to her credit that you feel so. I am very pleased for them both."
She smiled gleefully as a thought came to her, and she remarked playfully, "Well, Mr. Darcy, I believe you owe me a guinea."
"I beg your pardon?"
Her expression was now positively mischievous. "Our wager, Mr. Darcy. It has been over four weeks." She held out her hand in expectation of reward.
I realized she was absolutely right as I fished a coin from my pocket and replied, "So it has," while placing it into her open palm.
She laughed as I offered her my arm, and we made our way back to the parsonage.
I was thoroughly mortified when Mr. Darcy happened upon me in the grove, but he was undeniably correct: the letter from Jane contained such glad tidings that I immediately dropped any resentment. The happiness I felt upon learning of her engagement to Mr. Bingley was complete. In my excitement, I completely forgot myself and embraced Mr. Darcy. I am yet unsure of what caused me to do so, except that it is precisely what I wished to do to Jane at that joyous moment. He was very gentlemanly about my breach in propriety, however, and thankfully did not appear to think worse of me for it. As we walked, I learned that Georgiana had elected to join her brother and cousin on this Easter visit, thus giving me yet another reason for happiness.
Before walking back, Mr. Darcy assisted me in collecting the papers which had escaped me on his arrival. I noticed his eye rested on Anne's story, so I was quick to seize it. Nonchalantly, he asked if I had been writing letters. Still in raptures over Jane's engagement, I answered him honestly without thought. It was not until Mr. Darcy asked if I might share my stories with him some time, that I realized what I had related. I colored and laughed it off, telling him, "these narratives are not worth the breath it would take to read them aloud; this is simply a diversion for lonely hours."
"I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own." He smiled as he added, "You are, I believe, too apt to profess modesty in regards to the accomplishments in which you know yourself to be proficient. Therefore, I remain in eager anticipation for the day you will share your writing."
"In that case, Mr. Darcy, I shall. But not today." Though I did not think that my little works of fiction would satisfy Mr. Darcy's measure of proficiency, the glint in his eye assured me that the subject would be revisited, and what's more, I found that I did not mind so very much.
Once we reached the parsonage, I remembered Lily's request, and passed on her regards, to which Mr. Darcy smiled fondly. We parted ways with his promise to bring Georgiana the next day, and I was at leisure to relate the blessed news to Charlotte. Though she is not generally a demonstrative person, she joined in my effusions of pleasure on Jane's behalf. It was not long, however, before she turned the subject from the happy couple.
"It was very kind of Mr. Darcy to deliver Jane's letter." Though her tone was innocuous, I knew her intent was anything but. Therefore, I answered cautiously.
"Yes, it was very fortunate that the communication arrived just before his annual trip to Rosings." I focused intently on some needlework I had abandoned earlier in the day. My ploy to avoid my friend's knowing eye failed me; she was undaunted.
Exasperated, she cried, "Lizzy, do not be such a simpleton! You know full well he was not to arrive for two more days. Lady Catherine was certain of it! Mr. Darcy came early for the purpose of delivering Jane's news to you. I am sure of it!"
"Oh Charlotte, do be serious. I can more easily believe the great Lady Catherine to have been mistaken than to think that Mr. Darcy would charge himself with such an errand, and to deliberately alter his plans on my account. It is quite absurd!"
But as Charlotte was not convinced by my interpretation, she carried on, "You think that, if it gives you pleasure, but I am certain that Mr. Darcy is in love with you! If I did not have my suspicions already, the disappointment on his face when I had to inform him you were not here would have awakened them."
I heaved an exaggerated sigh, provoking a chuckle from Charlotte, as I replied, "Mr. Darcy and I agreed to stop disliking one another hardly a week before I left London, and clearly, I have not seen him since. I can guarantee you that no love has materialized on either end during that time."
She smiled wickedly and smoothly responded, "I am quite certain that Mr. Darcy never disliked you, whatever you may think."
I merely shook my head in response, and we returned our attention to our sewing.
No invitations from Rosings were forthcoming for the next few days, as Lady Catherine now had company far more pleasing. However, the Darcy's and Colonel Fitzwilliam visited the parsonage whenever they could, and I sometimes met one or more of the party on my walks, so their arrival proved to be a most welcome diversion after all. Seeing Georgiana was a most pleasant surprise. When Mr. Collins was elsewhere, she absolutely flourished under Charlotte's steady, calming presence. I realized what a trial it must have been for her to grow up without a mother's constant loving guidance, and I resolved to do my best to further my acquaintance with her, which, despite all her natural shyness, was an easier task than I had anticipated, as she seemed quite eager to know me better as well.
We met one morning to take a walk together, and as I was eager to acquaint Georgiana with the grove I had come to consider as my own, we started off directly. We arrived to find it already inhabited by a man seated underneath the tree - my tree. Curiosity compelled us, and as we drew forward we were astonished to find it was Mr. Darcy seated in the same undignified fashion in which he nearly caught me days before. His arms were crossed at his chest as were his ankles at his feet. His hat was pulled down to cover his eyes, and a book lay open on his lap. Clasping a hand over my mouth to quell the forthcoming laughter, I took a step closer and saw that the book Mr. Darcy had been reading was a volume of Wordsworth. Naturally. The urge to burst into laughter was now becoming irrepressible as the image in front of me so closely mirrored my imagination of him in such a state, excepting the fact that the informality suited him better than I had anticipated. I turned to Georgiana, and her horrified expression undid me. I began laughing in a most indecorous manner, and poor Mr. Darcy was startled awake.
"William!" Georgiana cried, "What are you doing here?"
Smiling somewhat sheepishly he answered, "Miss Bennet seemed so very relaxed beneath this tree when I was here last, I thought I might evaluate its comfort for myself."
Though I was mortified by the realization that he had in fact seen me in such an unseemly manner, I had to admire his clever thinking, given the circumstance, as I am rarely so coherent upon waking. He successfully diverted attention from himself as Georgiana turned her surprised face towards me. At her questioning glance, I merely shrugged and replied, "Tis a very comfortable tree." The awkwardness which had descended was eliminated by our combined laughter. Once he recovered himself, Mr. Darcy escorted us back, while Georgiana and I made plans for an outdoor picnic the next day.
Back at the parsonage and away from Charlotte's knowing eye, I giggled to myself as I remembered what I had witnessed. Even in a state of repose, Mr. Darcy's bearing was quite imposing. Within him exists a great paradox: a lifetime of societal demands and family obligations has shaped him into a man whose authoritative air brooks no opposition, and yet, he is a man, flesh and blood, who feels the effects of fatigue, and rests beneath a tree if he wishes.
Perhaps he and I are more similar than I realized.
However trite it may sound, heaven certainly smiled on Georgiana's plans for a picnic, as the day dawned bright and clear. After no small amount of Richard's skillful persuasion, Aunt Catherine even permitted Anne to join us for a little while, provided she returned directly after the meal. After gathering the Hunsford party, excepting Mr. Collins, who had previous engagements with parishioners, we walked towards our favorite glade, which overlooked a small stream. Elizabeth clasped her hands in delight as some water fowl came into view with their freshly hatched offspring. As the servants laid out a lovely feast, the five ladies exclaimed over the small wonders of nature.
As Richard and I sat back on the grass and enjoyed the scenery, he smugly looked over to me and commented, "Lovely, is it not?" I mumbled my agreement.
He snorted ever so slightly. "I was talking about the landscape; you besotted fool."
"What makes you think I was suggesting otherwise?"
"Yes, she is? Hmm? Or perhaps this is your poetic way of addressing Mother Nature? I rather think not." I was totally unaware that the words had escaped me, but I had nothing to say in my defense. The ladies were still looking ahead, and, it was Richard, after all, so, in a childish move, I retaliated by swiftly pulling his elbow from under him; he fell back in an inelegant heap. Had anyone looked back, the only evidence of my guilt would have been the slight upturn of my lips.
After our sumptuous feast, we relaxed and talked a good deal of nonsense, when I remembered Elizabeth's promise to read one of her stories. I only meant to tease her a bit, as I did not imagine she would want to read in front of so many, but to my surprise, she had brought one along.
It was Anne who convinced her as she softly pled, "Oh, Miss Bennet! I did not know you were a writer. I should very much enjoy hearing a story of yours. You have such a lively mind!
I could not have agreed more, but I was surprised to see Elizabeth bite her lip in a nervous manner as she replied, "Please, do call me Elizabeth. If you insist, I will read, but, I must warn you, I am not a writer, and the characters will seem a bit familiar." At Anne's responding smile, Elizabeth proceeded to read, and I immediately recognized the characters as my own relations. It was well written, and quite witty; I cautiously looked around to gauge the reactions of the party. Richard wore a broad smile, Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas donned placid ones, while Georgiana looked quite unsure of how to react as she fought between humor and horror. A sound alerted me to Anne, and I was amazed to find that she held her hand in front of her mouth stifling giggles. Anne was laughing! In my eight and twenty years, I had never witnessed such an occurrence, so my own laughter spilled forth, and soon the rest followed.
"Oh Elizabeth!" Anne cried, "Thank you ever so much for sharing. I enjoyed that so very much!"
Elizabeth beamed proudly, and I was once again amazed at her ability to wield her wit and personality to put others at ease. The magic soon ended, however, when Mrs. Jenkinson appeared to collect Anne. Richard and Anne were able to extract from her a nervous agreement to stay so that we might be able to all walk back together. It was a small distance, after all.
Anne and Elizabeth fell behind, engaged in a private discussion as we walked back to Rosings. I cannot deny the disappointment I felt to not escort Elizabeth myself, but it was reward enough to see Anne open up as she did. As we approached the house, Elizabeth indicated that she and the ladies of from the parsonage would part ways, when seemingly out of nowhere, Aunt Catherine appeared.
"Anne!" she cried, "What in Heaven's name are you doing walking back? You have been out far too long!"
"I am sorry Mama," Anne whispered softly.
"Fitzwilliam! You must not allow your sister and my Anne to follow Miss Bennet's example. She spends far too much time out of doors. It is not proper for a gentleman's daughter."
I stiffened immediately at the insult to Elizabeth, who in the last hour had shown Anne more joy than she had experienced in the past ten years under her mother's control. As I saw the wretched look on Anne's face, an angry retort readied itself, when I felt a calming hand lightly squeeze the fingers clasped at my back. To draw attention to the gesture would have simply made things worse, so I did not look back to confirm what I already knew, and instinctively squeezed Elizabeth's fingers in return.
She then came forward, "Lady Catherine, you are good and wise to be concerned for your daughter's welfare. I can assure you, had the weather been anything less than ideal, we should have turned back much earlier, and had the walk been long, we would have certainly sent for a carriage."
"Miss Bennet, my brother may find comfort in consorting with tradespeople and their relations, but my daughter and niece will not!"
I stepped forward, but Elizabeth stilled me with a small gesture of her hand. I have never allowed myself to be silenced thus, but this woman unwittingly holds such power over me. So I remained silent as she graciously defended herself against my aunt's attack.
"You must certainly be the best to judge who to allow in your daughter's company, other than Miss de Bourgh herself, but as for Miss Darcy, her guardians and uncle have all sanctioned our friendship, and I assure you," she said, as she smiled fondly at Georgiana, "I receive it with great honor. I do wish you a good day, Madam."
She curtsied politely, and then turned to leave with Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas. I, of course, instantly set out to escort them back, regardless of what consequence I might face when I returned. Mrs. Collins, perceptive as she is, slowed her pace so that she and Miss Lucas fell behind, allowing me the opportunity I had hoped for to speak with Elizabeth.
"Why did you stop me from addressing my aunt? You should not have had to bear her insults alone."
"There can be no benefit from angering your Aunt further, Mr. Darcy; had you defended me, would her attitude towards me soften?" I knew she was absolutely right, and could not say otherwise. "No, she would perceive your incivility as my negative influence, and resent me more for it, while likely making life difficult for both you and Charlotte. I could not allow that to happen, not when her insults to me are yet harmless. I, too, take care of my friends, sir."
"And I feel fortunate to be counted among them, but you did not trust me to remain civil?"
She shook her head as she pointed to her ear, "Yours turn red when you are angry; I first noticed it in Hertfordshire, when I asked you about - well, anyway, even from behind, I could see that you were not well suited for civility."
I smiled at her. I knew exactly to what instance she alluded; our dance at Netherfield, when she slyly introduced the subject of Mr. Wickham. Most women during a dance with me would be calculating my wealth or planning her wedding, but not Elizabeth. She was purposefully baiting me and gauging my reaction, and, in doing so, noticed something that very people know about me. I wondered what else she might learn if she applied herself to a study of discovery, but I needed to disabuse her of any falsehoods Mr. Wickham laid at her door before exploring that thought further.
"You were speaking of Mr. Wickham, were you not?"
She nodded mutely, evading my eyes.
"I well remember your pique that evening; I am sure that he has spread some falsehood."
Her answer both surprised and relieved me, "Oh Mr. Darcy, he said nothing that I believe any longer, and I am ashamed that I ever did. You need not worry on that account."
But all the same, I trusted her, and I did not want her or her family to suffer at the hands of that scoundrel, so I related an abbreviated version of my family's association with him. How my father paid his way through school, how he gambled away his legacy and asked for more, and finally, how he attempted to seduce my sister. When I concluded, we had reached the parsonage, and she had tears in her eyes.
"Mr. Darcy, I am ashamed of how despicably I have acted! I believed his account without considering the impropriety of his having related it to me on so short an acquaintance. Had I not overheard vicious words from his own mouth which eliminated any trust I had in him, I might have believed him still!"
I took her hand in mine and placed upon it a gentle kiss, as I reassured her, "Do not concern yourself; he is a gifted storyteller - as are you, I might add, Though you use yours to heal hearts rather than to hurt them."
She smiled back as she wiped her tears with her other hand and said, "I must follow my own philosophy here, and think on the past only as its remembrance gives me pleasure." I wanted to tell her that every memory I have of her gives me great pleasure, but it was too soon. Instead, I released her hand, and bowed to the other ladies who were now approaching, and walked back to Rosings to face the dragon.
And a dragon certainly did await me. Richard was already seated when I arrived, and Aunt Catherine wasted no time in demanding I sit as well. She then began her tirade, advising me that I should not allow Elizabeth such familiarity with Georgiana, and insulting her in such abusive terms that I was tempted to sever all connection with my Aunt. My wrath cooled somewhat with the remembrance of Elizabeth's advice, and I realized that Aunt Catherine would be more easily worked on with patience than anger, though I did wonder at the color of my ears at that moment.
"Aunt, I understand your concerns, but I can assure you that Miss Bennet is in every way suitable to be a friend to Georgiana."
"She is a hoyden, and she will be a poor influence on the dear girl! I am almost Georgiana's nearest relation, and as such, I am entitled to advise on those matters which concern her."
"But I am her nearest relation, so I would ask that you please trust in my judgment of the suitability of her companions. I do not make any decisions in regards to Georgiana lightly, as you are well aware."
"Very well, but I am most seriously displeased! Do not imagine we are done with this!"
I stole a glance at Richard, which proved to be most unwise; his shoulders were shaking in repressed mirth as Lady Catherine echoed a line from Elizabeth's story. So the two of us sat, like errant schoolboys, waiting for out aunt to leave the room before we were able to burst into a most undignified laughter.
Posted on 2012-04-10
Easter tea was a rather quiet affair at Rosings. To be quite honest, I was surprised to be included in the invitation, given my last parting from the place, but perhaps the great lady values her reputation as a hostess more than she detests me; it was the most likely conclusion I was able to come to. She kept her snide comments to a minimum, mercifully, and I was able to partake in the afternoon with relative cordiality. I was disappointed to find Mr. Darcy's behavior more in keeping with the staid and serious manner we had been used to in Hertfordshire, however. As his exalted Aunt droned on about everything and nothing; her loyal assistant Mr. Collins agreeing with all, Mr. Darcy seemed to find safety in the study of the nearby drapery. I considered that perhaps he could not, in front of his Aunt, be what he was with his other relations. This supposition brought me no pain, but to see Miss de Bourgh more withdrawn did. Though she ventured a few timid smiles in my direction, she would not enter any conversation with me. My heart ached for her, as it was now privy to some of the thoughts she shared on our walk after the picnic, and I well knew how little she fancied her situation.
But I pushed melancholy thoughts aside as I was beckoned to join Georgiana at the instrument to turn pages. I was, by now, well acquainted with her talent for music, and knew that she did not need my assistance, but as it afforded us the opportunity for private conversation away from the critical ear of Lady Catherine, I complied readily.
"Elizabeth," she whispered, "I understand your relations will be in London when you return."
It was true; I had just received a letter from Jane that morning informing me of their plans. Jane was to come with Mama later in the week. It seems Mr. Darcy had offered to host an engagement ball for Mr. Bingley and dear Jane, so the whole family would follow a week later; which both delighted and terrified me. To expose poor Georgiana to all my family! Much as I love them, I do realize their exuberance can be a bit trying on anyone's nerves.
"Yes, I am very glad of it. I miss Jane dreadfully."
She coyly suggested, "William has offered to convey you and Miss Lucas to London as we are due to leave soon as well. I imagine you will want to hurry to be with your sister."
Mr. Darcy looked up upon the mention of his name, though how he heard, I am not certain, as Georgiana's voice was barely above a whisper. Our eyes locked momentarily, and, smiling, I turned back to Georgiana.
"It is a very gracious offer, and you are correct, I am quite anxious to see Jane and share in her joy. As long as Maria has no objections to curtailing our stay by a few days, I will happily accept."
She continued playing for a few minutes more, then slid down the bench to give the instrument over to me. Though I did not particularly wish to follow her expert performance, I could deny her nothing, so I took my place and began. It was a matter of moments before Lady Catherine began talking over the piece, abusing my performance, and asking why I had not taken her advice to play on the instrument in Mrs. Jenkinson's room, since I "would be in no one's way in that part of the house." I quietly inclined my head as I caught Mr. Darcy roll his eyes skyward. He then approached the pianoforte, where Colonel Fitzwilliam soon followed.
Georgiana was the first to address her brother, "William, Elizabeth has agreed to join us in the carriage to London."
"I am glad to hear it." His smile revealed two well-placed dimples.
I had to interject with, "That is, of course, provided that Maria does not mind the alteration to our plans." Turning my attention to Mr. Darcy, I said, "I understand, Mr. Darcy, you are to host a ball in honor of Mr. Bingley's engagement to my sister. That is very kind of you."
"It is no more than I would do for any of my friends; I am happy to be of service."
Colonel Fitzwilliam lost himself in a cough for a moment, then turned to Mr. Darcy, saying, "Oh yes, let me count the number of balls you have hosted in recent years. Or perhaps you have very few friends."
Mr. Darcy shot him a fierce look. I could not resist the opportunity to tease, "If it bears any similarity to the number of dances he partakes in during said balls, I can assure you it is very low."
The Colonel was intrigued, "Indeed? What have you to accuse my cousin of? I should dearly like to know!"
"Merely that the first time we met, at an assembly, no less, he danced only four dances, though men were scarce, and more than one lady, to my particular knowledge," here I paused to meet Mr. Darcy's smiling eyes, "was in want of a partner."
The Colonel was by now laughing, and turned on his cousin, "What excuse can you plead in your defense for such a despicable performance? Four dances?"
I preempted Mr. Darcy's reply with, "Perhaps there was a want of tempting partners?" Though we had already traversed this road, I never promised to allow that particular snub to die.
He was saved the necessity of a response by his aunt's vociferous interruption, but answered my teasing smile with a raised brow. I am almost certain he was fighting the urge to stick his tongue out at me. I certainly would have been, had the tables been turned.
Georgiana laughed lightly beside me, and I wondered how much she knew of her brother's behavior in Hertfordshire. She certainly did not seem to be taken by surprise. She and the Colonel exchanged knowing glances, and our visit soon came to an end.
Despite her mother's keen eye, when I took leave of Miss de Bourgh, she surprised me by drawing me into a swift embrace, and furtively passing a note into my hand. After hugging Georgiana as well, and politely talking leave of Lady Catherine and Mrs. Jenkinson, Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam escorted us to the waiting carriage.
Ensconced in the carriage, Charlotte leaned toward me with a smirk and quietly cautioned, "Dear Lizzy, you must stop teasing poor Mr. Darcy!"
I looked at her in utter disbelief. I had not considered my teasing to be anything out of the ordinary for me, but Mr. Collins had unfortunately heard the remark, and he had other notions.
"Teasing- Mr. Darcy? Oh no, Cousin Elizabeth, that will not do! No; not at all - to tease a man of his importance and stature, Lady Catherine will not like this at all!" He was positively flustered, and Charlotte shot me an apologetic glance.
"Mr. Collins, I assure you, there is no need for your gracious concern. Mr. Darcy is no object of my derision, and any teasing that may have occurred is perfectly harmless, though in the future, I suppose I might limit myself to teasing men of smaller stature," I quipped.
"Cousin Elizabeth, please, I beg you to consider-" Charlotte interrupted gently but forcefully to allay his fears, which she did with much more success than I was able.
Later that evening, in the safety of my room, I opened the note from Miss de Bourgh, and reveled in its contents.
Firstly, I want to apologize for my mother's poor treatment of you. I am exceedingly sorry that she has conducted herself with such incivility, and I can say nothing in her defense, other than she is not accustomed to having anyone stand up to her. Most are afraid of her, or like me, simply find it easier to keep the peace and comply with her wishes, though I must confess, the past weeks have made that more difficult for me. You have shown me how very limited my life is; I have come to greatly value your opinions and insights, and I hope to be able to prevail upon you to write to me once in a while. I have so little contact with others; my mother is so very selective with whom I am allowed to associate, which brings me to another point - as she would surely take exception to my receiving your letters, I had hoped you would not mind enclosing any note for me within your letters to Mrs. Collins. I realize this is a somewhat peculiar request, but please be assured, I would be most appreciative.
Anne de Bourgh
My heart broke all over again for this poor girl who reached out to me, of all people for a connection to the outside world. I would be glad to maintain the friendship, and resolved to leave her a note in the affirmative before leaving Kent at the week's end.
We did not see very much of the Hunsford party before our departure to London. After I witnessed my aunt's treatment of Elizabeth, while nothing subsists other than friendship between us, I did not want to awaken her suspicions that any stronger sentiment existed, so I did not encourage interaction between the two houses. On the few occasions that the party from Hunsford did visit Rosings, I concentrated on maintaining my distance - no simple task when a pair of sparkling eyes teased me from across the room. I found that my admiration and respect for Elizabeth deepened once again, as I understood she was only able to maintain courteousness to my ill-bred aunt out of loyalty for her friends. She bore the affronts as would a saint, though I well knew she would prefer to set Aunt Catherine down thoroughly than to sit in silence.
So it was that we set out for London a fortnight after Easter, with the two ladies included in the party. After a tearful farewell from Mrs. Collins, I helped Elizabeth and Miss Lucas into the carriage, and the coach set off at a brisk pace, in the expectation that we would arrive in town before nightfall. The return trip was far more animated than our arrival into Kent, with the addition of Elizabeth and Miss Lucas. We entertained one another with a high-spirited game of proverbs, in which I finally found an opportunity to avenge Elizabeth's second reminder of my thoughtless comment at the Meryton assembly.
I was to follow Maria Lucas' offering of, "Do not kill the goose that lays the golden egg," so I trained my eye directly on Elizabeth as I delivered, "Eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves."
She laughed as she responded with, "The worth of a thing is best known by the want of it." I have learned much about what I want in the past months, and her worth seemed to increase daily. Elizabeth's arrow, so well-aimed at my heart, caused me to wonder whether the reply was chosen merely for the benefit of the game, or if she had perhaps come to understand the true nature of my feelings. I looked at her askance, half expecting to find an answer in her expressive eyes, but on this occasion, they were inscrutable.
"It takes two fools to argue!" Richard must have noted the change in my demeanor, as he successfully lightened my sudden shift toward solemnity.
Not long after the game concluded, the carriage hit a deep rut, damaging a wheel. As the coachmen attended to the carriage, it was Elizabeth who suggested that we make the best use of the time by laying out the contents of the prepared basket for a cold luncheon. She waved off the footman who came to attend her, telling him his time would be better served in assisting with the carriage. Richard and I watched as she struggled against the considerable weight of the basket. Elizabeth looked the part of a veritable wood nymph as her bonnet flew off her head, sending curls flying everywhere. Before I was overtaken with laughter, I reached out to assist as a gentleman ought; the belated effort acknowledged with an arch smile. I chuckled to myself as I imagined the shrieks and lamentations of a Miss Bingley in a similar situation, and was extremely grateful for my good fortune in traveling companions.
As Richard and I followed the ladies to a nearby clearing, we considered how we might complete the rest of our journey; we were yet fifteen miles from London, but had already passed the last town directly on our way.
"Either we must turn back to the nearest town, or travel into the night. It is a clear night; there is little risk of running into any danger; I think it would be best to continue towards London."
I agreed with Richard, but was concerned for the ladies' comfort. Fortunately, Elizabeth voiced a similar opinion, "I am eager to return to my family as well. If you think we can pass safely, I am happy to do so." With the assent of Georgiana and Miss Lucas, our course was determined, leaving me at leisure to enjoy the company.
It was some time later before the carriage was repaired, so we would arrive in London well into the night; Georgiana prevailed upon the other ladies to stay in Darcy House for the night, and a rider would be dispatched to deliver a note to the Gardiners. My chest tightened with the knowledge that Elizabeth would sleep under my roof. Her face was so lovely bathed in the soft moonlight; I studied her features for some time as she rested her eyes until Richard interrupted my pleasant contemplation with a noisy clearing of his throat and a look of amusement upon his face.
Upon our late arrival, the ladies repaired quickly to bed after greeting Mrs. Annesley, while Richard and I took a glass of port in the study. I casually glanced through the correspondence that awaited me. My attention was caught by a note from a Mr. Weldon, the investigator I charged with discovering any damaging information concerning Lord Murdock.
The news was encouraging. Lord Murdock had apparently amassed a great deal of debt. Enough, Weldon insisted, that would warrant the threat of debtor's prison. Within a fortnight, we should be ready to move forward. I related the contents to Richard, and received his congratulations, followed by the question, "So what are you going to do about it?"
"Naturally, I am going to put pressure on him to desist in any slander about the Gardiners or Miss Bennet."
"Darce, I'm not talking about this Lord Murdock business. I mean Elizabeth. You are in love with her; you don't even attempt to deny it, yet you do little more than stare at her when in her company. I ask again, what are you going to do about it?"
Mountains may have moved with the force of the sigh I expelled then, but as it was only Richard and I in the study, I was met solely with his exasperated look of impatience. I shrugged, having no energy to dissemble, "We are friends, and I do not wish to disrupt the understanding we have now. I am content to wait, and with Bingley marrying her sister, I will see her often enough."
"I hate to awaken you to what is obvious, cousin, but Elizabeth is a very charming woman. You may be content to wait for her feelings to change, but others may not."
"She is in no hurry to marry the first man who shows interest, Richard."
"Suit yourself, but I fear you are making a terrible mistake."
Most likely, I was, but I was too stubborn to realize it.
Ascending the stairs a short while later, I heard a hushed giggle coming from Georgiana's room, then the sound of a door softly closing. I was quite tired, so I blinked my eyes repeatedly to make sure I had not conjured up the image before me. Though truly, I am certain my imagination would not have done it justice. There stood Elizabeth, illuminated only by the soft glow of a candle; clutching a shawl tightly about her. In the dim light, she looked almost ethereal; an otherworldly beauty draped in gossamer. I stood mute, unable to think of a single intelligent thing to say. Fortunately, she spoke first.
"Mr. Darcy, it seems you have a talent for discovering me in somewhat less than dignified circumstances."
"Forgive me, Miss Bennet, I should not have -"
"Sir," she laughed, "You are walking in your house, to your room. You have nothing to apologize for."
I was relieved to find her humor intact, but having recovered myself, I could now see that her face was a bit pale and drawn, and so I asked, "Are you well, Miss Bennet?"
"I am; I thank you, sir. I fear I am only in need of rest; as are you. Good night, Mr. Darcy." She curtsied impudently, and seemingly glided across the floor to her room.
Some moments later, my feet were still rooted firmly to the ground, and it seemed an eternity before I was able to breathe again.
We set off directly after breakfast the next morning to return Elizabeth to the bosom of her relations. Coming back to the house on Gracechurch Street, it almost felt as though we were being welcomed home. The Gardiners were very warm in their reception of Georgiana and me, little Lily jumped directly into my arms, and even Mrs. Bennet, who had once taken a pointed dislike to me, was gushing in her gratitude for the safe delivery of Elizabeth and Miss Lucas. Ah, but the woman's loquaciousness on the subject of her eldest's engagement tried my nerves to extremity. If brevity be the soul of wit*, then Mrs. Bennet must be …
But one look at Elizabeth locked in a fierce embrace with her sister curtailed the uncharitable conclusion of my thoughts, as I remembered her grace in the presence of my aunt's ill-bred attacks. Thus motivated towards patience, I turned to Mrs. Bennet and said, "Georgiana and I are very pleased with Mr. Bingley's fortunate choice of wife." Mrs. Bennet nodded smugly, and Elizabeth cast me an appreciative smile; a generous recompense for so small an effort at civility.
After a short visit, Georgiana and I left the ladies to their reunion. As I helped her into the carriage, she stopped, turned to me, and in a tone that skirted somewhere just between innocence and mischief, stated, "Elizabeth seems to be a wonderful sister; I should like to have a sister."
As she stepped inside, I pushed her ever so slightly, causing her to fall clumsily onto the seat.
*borrowed, and slightly modified, from Shakespeare's Hamlet
I was overjoyed to be reunited with Jane. It was wonderful to receive news of her while in Kent, but nothing could replace the tête-à-tête discussions we share. That night was no exception. I had much to relate which I had not yet revealed in letters, and I had a great deal to learn from Jane as well.
Eager to hear about her engagement, I demanded that she tell me all.
"Oh, Lizzy; 'tis too much! Even now, I am overcome. To bring such happiness to all my dear family! He is so wonderful - Oh Lizzy, if I could but see you as happy as I am!"
"Dear Jane, that can never be, for I do not have your goodness. But, you need not worry; I will be content to be the matron aunt to your ten children, and I will teach them to play their instruments very ill! Besides, you have saved me from the fate of being forced to marry a Mr. Collins; for that, I am most grateful!"
"He is not so very bad, is he?" Jane asked anxiously, "I sincerely hope Charlotte is not unhappy."
I shook my head absently as I replied, "No; no, she is not. She seems quite satisfied, in fact; but I am certain I could not be!"
I then learned that Mr. Bingley's proposal was offered on bended knee, under the watchful eye of Mary, who had been charged by Papa to chaperone the lovers as they walked. I was surprised to find that they had chosen a short engagement - only two months - claiming that the short distance between Netherfield and Longbourn eliminated the necessity of waiting any longer.
I felt it incumbent upon me to ask, "And how does Miss Bingley do with her brother's engagement? I dare not hope she has welcomed you with open arms."
"Oh, Lizzy, do be kind!" At my responding smile, she added, "Do not smile so; we are to be sisters!"
"Perhaps Caroline and I can never be what we once were, but she has promised to be respectful, and I am certain we will be able to nurture an amicable relationship as sisters."
"You are very cruel, Jane; you will not let me smile, and are provoking me to it every moment."
Even dear, sweet Jane saw the absurdity of her statement, and we shared a hearty laugh.
I then told her about the friendship that was growing between the Darcys and myself, and in doing so, unfolded the tale of Lord Murdock, which I had previously kept to myself, as I feared for Jane's gentle heart. I also shared Mr. Wickham's intended elopement with Georgiana, which she had confirmed as we talked the night before. Jane stared, colored, doubted, but bore it all reasonably well. I finished with, "So you see, Jane, there is no need for me to marry, as all men who are interested in me are either ridiculous or immoral."
While applying herself to a casual inspection of her fingernails, Jane offered, "Mr. Darcy is neither of those things."
"Not you as well, Jane! Yes, you are right; Mr. Darcy is neither ridiculous nor immoral, but we are simply friends; he is not interested in me." Certainly, he had been very kind, and even at times a bit flirtatious, but he had not expressed any particular wish beyond friendship.
She said nothing more, but sent me an eloquent look which spoke volumes. That night, sleep did not come as easily as it should have.
The next morning began the hunt for Jane's trousseau. Before she and Mr. Darcy left Gracechurch Street, I was able to convince Georgiana to join us for a morning of shopping. Jane as well as I looked forward to sharing the experience with the dear girl, who easily surpassed our younger sisters in dignity, much to the credit of Mr. Darcy. Mama was in such high spirits on the occasion, she offered to purchase a new gown for me to wear at the engagement ball. The younger girls were to have new dresses as well, but they would have to be satisfied with the Meryton dressmakers.
I was ready, Georgiana was eager, and Jane, determined to find the perfect gowns. Having Georgiana along proved to be a blessing as well as a great pleasure, as her name afforded us entry into some of the more fashionable modistes' shops. At the third shop we visited, Georgiana pointed out an elegant silk which alternated between indigo and emerald, depending on the direction of light.
"Elizabeth, this would look so pretty against your skin!" It did compliment my complexion quite nicely, though I was unaccustomed to wearing such a vibrant color. Aunt Gardiner was also convinced the fabric would suit me, and as Mama presented no argument, we set about selecting a pattern. Jane, too, found a lovely fabric for her wedding gown; a delicate silk in a rich cream color, adorned with exquisite gold embroidery.
"Oh my dear Jane!" Mama cried, as she ran her hand over the fabric, "You will look so beautiful!"
"Yes, Mama, but she always does, does she not?"
Jane colored slightly as I reached out to grasp her hand. To imagine Jane as a bride wrought havoc on my emotions, and I fought back tears. I was happy beyond measure for my dearest sister, but I would be a deceiving myself if I did not admit to a bit of sadness as it occurred to me how very soon our lives would change.
Posted on 2012-04-17
"William, have you given any thought to what you might wear to the engagement ball?"
Without lifting my eyes from the paper I was reading, I responded, "I am certain whatever my valet selects will suit well enough, Georgiana."
"I had thought that perhaps you and I might visit some shops together today."
My attention was now captured by my young sister's sudden, and uncharacteristic, interest in my wardrobe; I finally set the paper down. "You have never once concerned yourself with my attire; why now, dearest?"
Somewhat abashed, she continued haltingly, "It's just that, well, you always look so severe, and I thought, maybe, since it is a special occasion, you, ah, might want to look your best." She offered a timid smile as she concluded this little speech.
"You would have me dress as a dandy in the hope of impressing others? I will not, and I can assure you, it would accomplish nothing in any case." I reached for my paper again, but Georgiana was steady to her purpose.
"No! That's not what I meant at all! You always look well, but, that does not mean that you cannot benefit from a new waistcoat - or two." She brightened as she added, "Besides, it was such good fun to tour the shops with Elizabeth and her sister; will you not indulge me?"
The little minx. Convinced as I was that her request was inspired by some manner of intrigue, I could not recall the last time she asked anything of me, so I relented.
"Very well, I will clear part of the afternoon so that we may visit one or two shops before dining at Matlock House, but that is all!" Though said with a severity which I did not, in fact, feel, my agreement prompted Georgiana to display a rare show of her inner vivacity; she jumped out of her seat and rushed forward to hug me.
"I shall go dress directly. We will have so much fun!"
I was not so certain.
In truth, I had a wonderful time with Georgiana after all. Perhaps it is the vast disparity in our ages, or maybe the difference in gender, but it is not often that she and I spend time together in such a manner. As we walked through the shopping district, Georgiana seemed happier - easier - somehow; in fact, I had been noticing a lightening of her spirits quite often in the past month, and I could not help but to attribute this, in some measure, to her introduction to Elizabeth. They had been several times in company during the past week, bringing Georgiana great joy, though regrettably, I could not claim the same pleasure, as the errands they shared were strictly meant for the ladies.
Relishing in Georgiana's improvement, I continued our excursion in good spirits. Though I am generally faithful to black for my formal attire, Georgiana insisted I embrace some color, so we settled on one waistcoat in a pewter hue, and another in a dark blue. It was as far into the realm of color as I was willing to go, but she was satisfied well enough; and happy that the new items would be ready in good time for the ball the following week.
As I prepared for dinner with my Fitzwilliam relations, I found that I felt somewhat ill at ease. I was nearly frightened by how keenly I had felt Elizabeth's absence. In Kent, I had managed to be in her company every second day for two weeks. Now, after a week apart, I would have to compete for a small morsel of time with the woman who holds me so completely in her thrall. Elizabeth would be arriving with her entire family, who had just come into town, and there would be other guests as well, and amongst them, more than one unattached gentleman. Richard's caution to me the night we returned from Rosings returned with a brute force. I would not be able to hide Elizabeth's charisma from the world, and if I, the fastidious Darcy, was willing to cast aside years of societal expectations in pursuit of a worthy woman, what man would not be? I left the house determined to make my sentiments known to her before she left London.
But then, Georgiana and I arrived to find that Elizabeth and Miss Bennet preceded us with the Gardiners, and my Elizabeth was already engaged in a lively conversation with Richard's older brother, the heir to the Matlock fortune, who had recently returned from a tour of the continent. Julian is generally considered a most eligible bachelor, though his reputation for spending more than he ought sometimes precedes him. Handsome and engaging, his manners are open and cheerful, not unlike his younger brother, but perhaps a bit more boisterous. I entered the room as they were speaking, and I was unable to avoid hearing, as Julian's voice carried across the room.
"Miss Elizabeth, I am very pleased to make your acquaintance; I've heard much of you, and none of the praise has been exaggerated, I assure you."
"Your brother is an accomplished flatterer, my lord; you would be wise not to believe everything he says."
"To be sure, had Richard alone voiced such commendations, I would have paid him no heed, but when my reserved and fastidious cousin joined in the praise, I fully expected to be met with a paragon of a virtuous woman; and, I am not disappointed."
From where I stood, I could see Julian's merry smile, and the self-conscious blush which swept over Elizabeth's cheeks. I was ruminating upon the vain wish that Richard had never mentioned Elizabeth's name in front of my older cousin, when I was alerted by a gentle nudge at my side; I looked down to see Georgiana's pointed look, so I stepped forward to greet the party.
"Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, Julian; I hope you all are well." Elizabeth's warm smile was a balm on my shaken resolve, and I returned it gratefully.
As the night wore on and the house filled with guests, I felt myself withdraw, retreating for the safety of the windows. One benefit of my propensity toward introversion is the opportunity to observe others, and this evening was no exception. Looking about the room, I first noticed Charles and Miss Bennet, heads together in private discourse. The affection between them was palpable; I felt ashamed I had ever looked to deny it. I felt my scowl soften a bit as I observed them. My gaze then traveled to Miss Bingley, all supercilious style, with no real substance, as she attempted to ingratiate herself with my aunt. While I was smiling to myself at her futile attempt, Aunt Sophia deflected most of her attentions as the Hursts sat languidly beside them. I then turned to see Richard, with good humor, bearing the flirtations of Elizabeth's youngest sisters, who were hanging on his every word. I thought it a fitting retribution for the relentless teasing I had borne at his hands lately, so when he looked to me for an escape, I shook my head firmly in response. A loud shriek startled me out of my reverie; I was unsurprised to find it belonged to Mrs. Bennet, and nearly laughed aloud at my uncle's raised brows, which reflected the exact reaction I first exhibited upon meeting the brash woman. The Gardiners, who had momentarily paused in their discussion with Julian, looked slightly mortified, and Mr. Bennet appeared bemused, as he made a half-hearted attempt to rein in his wife's enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Georgiana exerted herself in an endeavor to engage Miss Mary; it seemed the topic they had settled upon was music. Though Georgiana was by far the more accomplished of the two, they shared an appreciation for the art.
The only observation which gave me pause was the easy flow of conversation between Elizabeth and Mr. Greene, a recently ordained clergyman, and good friend to the Fitzwilliam's. He was currently biding his time in London as he awaited the vacancy of a living in Surrey, which was to open in the next few months. I could not hear what they spoke of, but Elizabeth's eyes were filled with genuine interest, and Mr. Greene was rapt. He is an honorable man, and I could not blame him, but neither could I bury the envy that arose, however valiantly I tried.
Fortunately, my good aunt had taken pity on me, and seated Elizabeth next to me at dinner, and Mr. Greene at the other end of the table, near Richard and the youngest of the Bennet sisters. Unfortunately, Caroline Bingley was seated across from us, and paid particular attention to my conversation with Elizabeth, which had turned to our mutual acquaintances in Kent.
"I understand my cousin Anne has expressed a wish to write to you, Miss Bennet; have you heard from her?"
Smiling, she replied, "I received a note just yesterday; she sends word that Mr. and Mrs. Collins are quite well, and she has persuaded her mother to allow her short walks, as she suffered no ill effects from her last."
"I am glad to hear it. I must write to her soon myself."
Miss Bingley's face was contorted with incredulity, and green with envy.
"Miss Eliza, you had not mentioned that you have met Miss de Bourgh."
Elizabeth responded with more politeness than Miss Bingley's cold tone deserved, "Yes, I had the good fortune to dine at Rosings several times when I was lately in Kent. My cousin, you see, is her parson. I do not believe I have been in your company since you left Hertfordshire until this evening, Miss Bingley."
Miss Bingley shifted her gaze from Elizabeth to me; and back again, most likely realizing that we must have necessarily spent some time together in Kent, and was clearly unhappy about that fact.
"I would not have expected Lady Catherine's condescension to extend to the relatives of her parson," she sneered.
Elizabeth bit back a smile, so it was left to me to respond, and I did so, saying, "Miss Bingley, I assure you, the company of Miss Elizabeth and Miss Maria was a welcome addition to all, and made for a most pleasant return journey, did it not Georgiana?" My sister nodded enthusiastically.
Miss Bingley was silenced, but by no means satisfied.
The men repaired to the study for some port, and I put myself forth to converse with Mr. Bennet. I found that, removed from his younger daughters and wife, he was an intelligent and generally well-bred man. As we shared thoughts on land management and literature, I detected a proclivity for droll witticism which he had clearly passed on to his second daughter, and I found that my esteem for him increased.
After the separation of the sexes, I found my charity with Mr. Greene lessen, as he approached Elizabeth for a song straightaway, offering to turn the pages. I perceived Richard's fleeting look of alarm, but revealed no emotion myself. As she began to play, my enjoyment of the dulcet music was somewhat shadowed by the knowledge of the man sitting by her side. As I watched her, I became aware that I, too, was an object of interest - to Mr. Bennet, who looked on me with a peculiar expression. I reluctantly forced myself to turn away from the fair performer to escape his inspection. Georgiana was then prevailed upon to play, but politely declined, as the party was a little large for her comfort. Miss Mary happily obliged though, and played several heavy pieces before Elizabeth was able to gently divert her attention to the tea being served.
As I escorted Elizabeth and her family to their carriage later that evening, I claimed one small victory by securing her hand for the first dance at Bingley's engagement ball. I could not help feeling a bit pleased with myself as I passed Mr. Greene upon returning to the house.
Our final days in London passed in a flurry of shopping, teas, and time spent with the little ones. Georgiana became even dearer to me as she joined us when she was able to escape her studies, impressing me with her gentle compassion and understanding. My own younger sisters seemed to show a slight improvement in their comportment, whether the absence of officers - or to the slight increase of paternal attention brought this change about, I cannot say, but I was certainly grateful for small blessings. My little cousins demanded more of my time that I was able to give them, but, as Jane would say, they are such dear children. Aunt Gardiner's calming presence, as usual, steadied my nervous mother as nothing else was able to. But truly, what I enjoyed the most of those days, were the few moments I was able to be alone with Jane. With our days as primary confidantes numbered, I sought to make the most of my time with her.
So it was that the day of her engagement ball arrived, and Jane and I readied one another with the help of the Gardiner's maid. To say she looked well would have been a gross understatement. I have always thought Jane to be beautiful, but tonight, she truly looked an angel. Her gown was a striking periwinkle color, with a delicate overlay of silver. The drape and cut were flattering without being daring, since Jane favored modesty. As I affixed the pearl necklace Mr. Bingley had given her as an engagement gift, I had to brush back a tear. Naturally, I blamed her for it.
"Dear Jane, you mustn't make me cry; I will look dreadful!"
"Oh Lizzy," she said, her own tears forming, "Not yet; we have six weeks together still. Besides, I shall not be so far, and you have never feared a three mile walk, even in dirt."
"No Jane; and I shall not start now!" We both laughed at the memory as we hugged and looked on our shared reflection.
"I daresay Mr. Darcy will not be disappointed with his first partner," she teased, "You look very pretty, Lizzy."
"Stop it, Jane!" I pinched her arm where it would not show and happily skipped away.
Reaching the parlor, I found Papa, alone in a silent reflection. Upon hearing me, he looked up, and smiled wanly. "My, my, Lizzy; don't you look lovely this evening?"
"Thank you Papa."
"Come here, child." As I came forth, he took my hand, and held it to his cheek. "As wonderful as it is to see your sister so deliriously happy, I do not relish the loss of my daughter, not even to a man as amiable as Mr. Bingley."
I sighed and sat down next to him, "I know exactly what you mean." With an affected brightness, I added, "But cheer up, Papa, I shall not be leaving you."
"Oh, you will, my dear, and likely, sooner than you think. You are a delight, Elizabeth, and while I am sure you have claimed many a heart without knowing it, it is only a matter of time before you surrender your own."
Though I did not agree, I did not argue, but instead leaned over to kiss his forehead. Soon after, the rest of the family began to filter into the room. Before long, we were climbing into the carriages, on the way to Darcy House. After being shown in by the footman, we were met by Georgiana, who had convinced her brother to allow her to greet us, though she would not be able to attend the ball, as she was not yet out.
"Oh, Elizabeth, you look absolutely gorgeous! I knew this fabric would be perfect for you! And Miss Bennet, you are beautiful, as always. What a lovely gown!"
"Thank you, Miss Darcy, but I do wish you would call me Jane."
Pleasantries done away with, Georgiana left me with one comment before she was to depart. "Elizabeth, my brother was very much pleased to have secured you as his first partner."
"Yes Georgiana, we all know he does not enjoy dancing unless he is acquainted with his partner."
In an unusually dry manner which was rather like her brother, she replied, "Elizabeth, this is our home; he knows everyone here. There is no one he would prefer to open the ball with."
I found myself incapable of summoning a witty rejoinder.
Georgiana disappeared, and we were soon met with Jane's fiancé.
"Ah, the most beautiful woman has arrived!" Mr. Bingley called as he warmly greeted Jane.
She, of course, blushed becomingly, and I could not resist teasing her for it, "Surely you are not surprised that your fiancé wishes to lavish you with praise. But that is one great difference between us. Compliments always take you by surprise, and me, never!"
I thought myself fairly clever until a familiar deep voice came from behind me, saying, "In that case, Miss Elizabeth, I shall not sport with your intelligence by saying you, too, are quite lovely, as you are already aware of the fact." The smile accompanying Mr. Darcy's bit of flirtation nearly stopped my heart.
It was now my turn to blush; and I believe I did the job admirably.
While Mr. Darcy resumed his duty of receiving his guests, I continued towards the ballroom with Mr. Bingley and my family. We were received very kindly by the Fitzwilliams, as the earl welcomed us with a low bow, and Lady Sophia came forward to embrace Aunt Gardiner and me.
"Elizabeth," said she, "You are simply a vision this evening. I have never seen you look so well. And you, Miss Bennet, are absolutely stunning! My congratulations to you and your fortunate fiancé." In the truest Jane fashion, her cheeks colored and she modestly thanked Lady Sophia for her kindness.
My youngest sisters wasted no time in losing themselves amongst the crowd, though they would soon be disappointed by the lack of officers. Mary retreated to a seat along the wall, where, to my surprise, Papa joined her. The Gardiners adroitly kept Mama's flutterings to a minimum as they continued to talk with the Fitzwilliam family. In opposition to the behavior displayed at the ball at Netherfield, it seemed my family had conspired, this time, to minimize embarrassment, so I was at leisure to stay with Jane until the dancing was to begin. We met some friends of Mr. Bingley from Cambridge, who all seemed quite taken with Jane, to no one's surprise but hers. Mr. Greene had arrived with his sister, who recently had removed to London. There were also a few people who I recognized from our theater engagement the past month, though I had to be reintroduced to most. And of course, there were those that I already knew: Mr. Bingley's pompous relations. Of Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, I truly knew very little, but of Caroline Bingley, I had seen more than enough, and it was not very long before she launched yet another petty assault against me.
As we walked, we stumbled near a conversation of which my sister and I seemed to be the main subject.
"Your brother's intended is a lovely woman." As Mr. Bingley looked proudly on Jane, I smiled at the thought that perhaps Mr. Darcy had been mistaken in his contention that "eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves."
"Jane Bennet is a dear, sweet girl; but her mother!"
"I heard her sister, Miss Elizabeth described as a beauty; my brother has spoken well of her."
The fateful proverb proved true once more; in Miss Bingley's haste to disparage me in front of her companion, she apparently did not realize I stood closely behind her as I conversed with her brother, so we heard every word of her malicious reply.
"She is, I daresay, the kind of woman whom everybody speaks well of and nobody cares about."*
As she blathered on, I rolled my eyes for the benefit of Mr. Bingley, who, along with Jane, looked absolutely mortified.
I leaned in towards them and whispered, "Fear not; I will speak daggers, but use none."** Then, I turned to Miss Bingley and, with a disarming smile, asserted, "I harbor no illusions, Miss Bingley, that all who know me speak well of me; but I can assure you, those who do, mean every word of it."
She gaped most unbecomingly as the other woman, whom I now recognized as Miss Greene, smiled, and as if I had orchestrated the entire scene myself, Mr. Darcy strode over to claim our dance, saying, "Though it comes as no surprise to you, you do look quite beautiful this evening; Miss Elizabeth, shall we?"
Is it very horrible of me that I enjoyed every aspect of that moment?
*Borrowed from Austen's Sense & Sensibility
** Borrowed, again, from Shakespeare's Hamlet
As soon as I saw Elizabeth from across the room, I understood Georgiana's motivation for the shopping trip, and her insistence that I wear the blue waistcoat, but I could not find that I was bothered by it. Elizabeth was magnificent; draped in jewel tones, she easily outshone any woman in the room - even her elegant sister, in whose name the ball was being held. I found it difficult to concentrate on my occupation of welcoming guests, so when the time came, I eagerly claimed her for our first dance, extracting her from a conversation with Miss Bingley, a favor for which I was certain she would thank me later.
Our dance that night presented a stark contrast to the one we had shared at Netherfield. This time, her captivating smiles, her mesmeric eyes, her lyrical laughter - it was all for me. When the movements brought us close together, my heart raced, my breath quickened - and not from the exertion of the exercise - and I could swear, she was not unaffected either.
At length, she reminded me of the necessity of conversation during a dance, though she assured me she was prepared for a much more amiable one this time. I laughed and exaggerated my relief, and then commented that my cousin Richard had opened the ball with her sister Mary.
"Your poor cousin," she said piteously. At my questioning look, she explained, "He's engaged himself to dance with all of my sisters! Lydia and Kitty were so suggestive, they made it impossible for him not to ask; he, of course planned to dance with Jane, and I suppose he felt obligated to dance with me as well, so it was only right that he ask Mary also! I offered to release him from our engagement, but he was stalwart."
"I think you'll find he dislikes the attention less than you might expect. Besides, he would be a fool to give up his dance with the best of the Bennets."
Her face crinkled in mischief as she said, "Oh! He asked my mother as well, did he? Perhaps you should extend the same courtesy?"
At the look of panic which I had no ability to disguise, she laughed aloud, and assured me she would not hold me to such a proposition.
"Good," I replied, "For I had hoped to be able to claim another with you. Your last?" I asked hopefully. She happily assented, and I escorted her to her the Gardiners once the dance ended.
Unfortunately, my duties as a host required that I dance with more than one lady; I danced next with Miss Bennet as Elizabeth was approached by Julian. For Bingley's sake, I would not retreat into the shadows on this night, so I danced with several of the ladies, limiting myself as much as possible to the wives of married friends, or Elizabeth's numerous siblings. But my attention never strayed too far from Elizabeth - or her partners.
Sometime after supper, I saw her slip out of the ballroom as I was deep in the clutches of Caroline Bingley. I nodded absently to whatever inane comment she was uttering while I followed Elizabeth with my eyes as she left the room. As soon as was polite, I excused myself from Miss Bingley with the intention of finding her, hoping to seize the opportunity for a private conversation.
It did not take long.
She presented an enchanting image as she stood, palms pressed to the railing of the terrace, her face tilted toward the nearly full moon, awash in its luminous glow. Once again, I found myself incapable of movement or coherent thought in the presence of this woman. Leaning against the doorway, I silently observed her, attempting to memorize every line, cursing my maker that I was given an artist's appreciation for beauty, but no ability to recreate it. Eventually, she was alerted to my presence, and turned to me, a wistful smile on her face. My heart ached to touch hers, and, involuntarily, I drew closer, until we were standing shoulder to shoulder, looking out onto the illuminated gardens.
We stayed some minutes in silence, and I simply felt, content. I allowed my senses to absorb her sweet presence, without wishing for anything more. For a moment, I thought I might be satisfied with friendship, but I am no fool; the thought of mere friendship with her was replaced with a deep, painful longing.
It was she who eventually broke the silence. Sighing, she commented inconsequentially on the beauty of the night.
"It is a lovely night, as you said, so why is it that you appear so forlorn?"
"Forlorn? No, that cannot be; I was simply reflecting on my sister's joy. She deserves this happiness more than anyone; nothing could please me more!" With all her heart, I knew she meant it, but her smile was forced, and there was a note of sadness in her voice.
"You will miss her." It was a statement, not a question, and her silence was confirmation of it. Suddenly emboldened, I spoke.
"Miss Bennet," I began, raking my hand through my hair, "Elizabeth, we have been friends these many weeks, can we not dispense with the formalities?" She nodded her assent with a slight smile.
"Good." I leaned on the railing, turning to her slightly.
"Elizabeth," I reached over to gently pull on a loose curl, something I had felt the urge to do for some time, "Do you not believe that such happiness awaits you as well?" She bit her lip and eyed me thoughtfully, which proved too strong a temptation for me. I leaned closer, hesitantly, and, ever so slightly, brushed my lips against her smooth cheek.
A rustling behind the curtain alerted me to the impropriety of the situation I had placed her in, and the guilt caused me to draw back hastily. "Forgive me," I whispered. Her eyes were cast down, unwilling, or unable, to meet mine.
I turned to walk away when she suddenly reached her hand out to mine, and clasping it, she simply said, "You are a good friend, William." I smiled weakly in return.
I returned to the ballroom, berating myself. Had there ever been an ideal time to open my heart, I had just walked away from it, and allowed the mere mention of friendship to hold me back - yet again. In my agitation, I hastily swallowed a glass of wine. Thus fortified, I was determined to risk it all, and turned back towards the door. But before I reached it, I was stopped by the voice of Miss Bingley, as she spoke to Mr. Greene in a hushed tone, "Your lady awaits you out on the terrace."
Had I been thinking clearly, I would have noted the smug look she sent in my direction, but instead, I watched as Mr. Greene headed outside, and upon his finding Elizabeth still standing there, I watched as he took her hand and kissed it. I watched her smile as he escorted her onto the ballroom floor. And as I felt my soul shatter, I reached for another glass of wine.
He kissed me, and he walked away. Taking a few deep breaths, I steadied myself, for my heart was beating wildly. I heard a sound behind me, and hoped that Mr. Darcy had returned, yet, when I turned back, I was greeted instead with the friendly face of Mr. Greene. As he took my hand and kissed it, I smiled brighter than I felt, hoping to conceal my disappointment.
"Miss Bennet! It is a curious thing - I thought I might encounter my sister here when I was told that a lady awaited me, but I am very pleased to find you instead, as I have been most desirous of claiming a dance with you. May I?"
"Certainly, sir." I could see no polite way to refuse, however little my heart agreed with my mind.
As I mechanically executed the movements of the dance, only saying as much as civility required, I felt Mr. Darcy's eyes boring into me. I questioned him with mine, but he simply turned away. Now thoroughly perplexed, I focused my attention on my dance partner, and put as much effort as I was able into our conversation until the set ended.
I put on an air enjoyment of the evening's entertainment for the next half hour, not wishing to alarm my family, but inside, my emotions were roiling. I had no way of accounting for Mr. Darcy's peculiar behavior, and my unbridled imagination plagued me, leaving me to consider the worst possible outcomes. Perhaps he had regretted his actions towards me, or worse, regretted our friendship. I looked about to see if my sisters were engaged in any particularly humiliating behavior. Lost in these thoughts, I did not realize the time had come for the final dance, which the man in question had previously claimed, yet, I wondered if he would come.
He did come, but his face did not hold the tender expression of the friend I had come to esteem. Instead, he bore the haughty mask of old. Unsure how I should react, I chose silence over inquiry. We took our places amongst the dancers, and I was unsettled to find, upon hearing the first chords, that this dance, was a waltz. My partner's eyes were stormy as he pulled me closer than was necessary, and we danced wordlessly. The bittersweet sensation of being held thus proved too much to bear, and I pulled away slightly.
I had determined not to speak, but he eventually did; though he said nothing that I would wish to hear.
"I had not realized Mr. Greene was a favorite, Elizabeth," he lazily drawled out my name, "When am I to wish you joy?"
"Your imagination is quite rapid, sir, what could have caused you to reach such a conclusion?"
"I saw you," he said simply. At my raised brow, he added, "When Miss Bingley told him you were waiting, I saw you receive him happily."
"Miss Bingley," I mumbled, looking down. "And this is the reason for your current manner; why?"
Ignoring my question, he said, in a patronizing tone which would rival his Aunt Catherine, "As your friend, I must warn you; it is not wise to meet in secret; you must never risk your reputation." The scent of wine was yet evident on his breath.
"Oh, but you might?"
He had the good sense to look a little ashamed for his hypocrisy, at least, but I was now very angry, and so charged forward, my voice lowered, but venemous. "Have you taken complete leave of your senses, sir?" I hissed, "I cannot decide which is more absurd; the fact that you would honestly think me capable of agreeing to an assignation, with a clergyman, no less, or that you would believe I would confide said arrangement to Miss Bingley, of all people!"
"You certainly did not seem to rebuff his attentions; even after I -"
Blinking back tears, I choked out, "Do you really think so very ill of me; that I am just some common flirt?"
"No!" he said, "No, I -" I did not give him a chance to finish.
"You have said quite enough, sir. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and now have only to be ashamed of what my own, have been. Would you please be so kind as to return me to my family?"
He did so, with as much poise as he was able in his state. As Papa took my arm, he leveled an icy glare at Mr. Darcy. I looked back at the retreating figure, utterly bewildered.
It was the worst moment possible to realize I had fallen in love with Fitzwilliam Darcy.
"Elizabeth, my dear, are you well?" I looked up into the worried face of my father, and noticed my Aunt Gardiner and Lady Sophia watching me from where they sat together.
"Papa, I -" but I could not continue without releasing the tears that threatened.
"I will order the carriage and collect your younger sisters," he said quietly as he squeezed my hand. "Jane can leave with your mother and the Gardiners," he reassured, while leading me to my Aunt as she parted from Lady Sophia. She simply held my hand, and did not ask me to say a word, but I was too shaken to appreciate the gesture at the time.
After a deep, shuddering breath, I felt sufficiently recovered, and with some parting words to Jane, I joined Papa and my younger sisters as we went to the carriage. Kitty and Lydia complained about our premature departure, while Mary said very little. As Lydia prattled noisily about her endless partners, I was unequal to conversation, so I sat quietly as Papa, who, in a rare show of fatherly concern, covered my hand with his. How much he understood of what had passed, I did not know, but I yearned to purge the pain before I had to tell all.
As I lay awake in my bed that night, I tried to sort out the baffling turn of events. I could not conceive what might have caused Mr. Darcy's demeanor to alter so suddenly; and on so strange a motive! After reflecting for some time, understanding finally dawned - and I could not believe how wretchedly blind I had been! All the curious looks from his relations, Miss Bingley's barbs, Jane and Charlotte's observations, Papa's melancholy, the incongruous actions of Mr. Darcy himself, they all pointed to one thing: he loved me. What a fool I was! Convinced that nothing would ever exist between us beyond friendship, I did not even admit the possibility of anything further, stupidly disregarding every hint, ignoring even the growing affection I was feeling for him. The brief sense of elation I felt upon understanding his affection was quickly diminished to despair as the silent tears flowed freely down my face. He may love me, but he clearly does not respect me, and if that is so, then love is just not enough.
That night, I did something I had not done since I was a very small girl: I buried my face in my pillow and cried myself to sleep.
Posted on 2012-04-25
The next morning, I awoke to the same thoughts and meditations which had at length closed my eyes - well, that, and a splitting headache.
By keeping my eyes closed, I hoped-just maybe, I could convince myself that what had passed the night before was simply a dream, a sad scene conjured out of anxiety; but then the curtains were opened, and my eyes reflexively followed suit. The groan which escaped me startled my ever composed valet, though a slightly raised brow was the only visible hint of his surprise. Eventually, I roused myself as I realized that my hunger presently took precedence over my anguish. Instead of meeting Georgiana as I had expected, I found Richard in the breakfast room, casually perusing the paper as he sipped some coffee.
"Drink that." Without looking up, he gestured over to a glass filled with a tonic of some sort. I grumbled my thanks and slumped into the nearest chair. My head hurt, my heart ached, and my stomach churned. In an ungentlemanly show, I rested my elbows on the table, and my head in my hands; I had no care for decorum at that moment. We sat in silence for many minutes. Despite the hunger that compelled me out of bed, food held little temptation for me. After taking a few reluctant bites, I pushed my plate away.
"I made a complete mess of things. Elizabeth hates me, Richard." Even to myself, my sulking sounded rather infantile.
"That explains your ramblings last night."
I lifted my head just enough to look to him for clarification.
In a dispassionate tone that bespoke boredom rather than concern, he rattled monotonously, "Oh, what have I done, I'm a fool, I've hurt her, she will never speak to me, how stupid can I be - and such."
I directed a fiery look towards my insouciant cousin, further fueled by the pounding of my head. He set the paper down and returned my glare with a shrug.
"If it helps matters any, you carried yourself off remarkably well. Even I did not recognize your impaired state until the dissolution of the party."
"It does not help." After a pause, I continued, "I made an utter fool of myself in front of the only woman whose opinion matters to me."
Abandoning the sarcasm, Richard leaned in with real compassion and said, "Well, I guess you had better tell me all about it then."
I did. And the conclusion of my sad tale was met with a low whistle.
"Well, well, you really did botch things up, didn't you?"
"Yes; thank you, Richard. Very perceptive."
"So, what will you do to fix it?"
"I doubt she will forgive me. How can she? I claimed to be her friend in one breath, and thoroughly insulted her in the next. What could I have been thinking?"
"As to that, I fear you will not like my conjectures, so in light of your present state, I will keep them to myself. As for Elizabeth-she is a reasonable woman; you have told me before of her kindness to others, I have seen it myself many times. Why would she not apply the same principles in her dealings with you?"
"What I said-the way I behaved towards her-it is beyond absolution."
"I do believe her capacity for forgiveness to be more generous that you credit her for; but there is no doubt that you must earn it."
I felt a vulnerability which had previously been entirely unknown to me as I asked, "How am I to do so? She will not wish to see me."
"She cannot avoid you; Bingley is to be married to her sister. She will have to meet you with some measure of civility, even if she had rather not. But really Darcy, there's only one thing you need to do-prove yourself worthy of her-how you do that, though, is up to you."
How right he was. I had gone from foolishly thinking Elizabeth was beneath me, to stupidly expecting to win her over easily, to earnestly hoping that I might gain her affections, but never before had I questioned whether I, in fact, deserved her love. I thought I had moved beyond my blind arrogance, but here I sat, drinking in the bitter effects of it. Crushed by what I perceived as Elizabeth's defection for another, I didn't even stop to consider other possibilities, and immediately transferred weak assumptions into irrational accusations. I insulted a most virtuous woman, simply because my own heart and pride had been injured -and how dearly I would pay for it! The pain I saw in her eyes was unmistakable; I had hurt her too. But now was not the time for self-pity; I would need to set about making amends right away. As soon as I was able to stand without wavering, I called for a carriage.
Richard must have hinted to Georgiana that things went awry at the ball, for she made no mention of it at all, despite all the excitement she felt the night before, and did not even ask to come along when I informed her I would be going to pay my respects to the Bennets before they were to leave London. I was relieved that she chose to stay, however; my primary concern in going there was not to engage in idle talk.
I came to the Gardiner's home in a state of nerves which would rival those of Mrs. Bennet; but I was as ready as I might ever be, and again thankful to have arrived alone-I had prepared to grovel if I must, and I did not need the added pressure of the additional witness. I took a deep breath as the footman opened the door.
Mrs. Gardiner appeared, a kindly smile on her face, "Mr. Darcy," she said, "It is quite pleasant to see you." She looked on me with some trepidation as she added, "I am afraid that my brother Bennet and his younger daughters have taken leave this morning, and as my own husband is at his office; only Jane and her mother remain."
Elizabeth was not to leave for two days; I was sure of it. The only reason I could fathom for her plans to have altered thus was that my deplorable behavior chased her away, which initiated a new round of self-recrimination and doubt.
Mrs. Gardiner sensed my disquiet, and that good woman, in her compassion, reached out and pressed my hand, saying, "You are very welcome to join us for tea. Come, sir."
Truly, I had rather not, but I could not in good conscience refuse, so I chose to consider this to be one small challenge in proving myself worthy, and followed Mrs. Gardiner towards the drawing room.
The littlest of the Gardiner children unexpectedly materialized in the hall, arms across her chest, in a defiant stance so reminiscent of her older cousin, I could not hold back a slight smile. She looked at me, and without preamble, plainly asked, "Did you make Lizzy mad, or is she being mean to you again?" I felt all the weight of the accusation within the question, and pondered a suitable reply for one so young.
"Lily!" Mrs. Gardiner reproached.
"It is quite alright, Mrs. Gardiner, the young lady asks a valid question, and it deserves an answer." Turning to Lily, I answered, "Miss Elizabeth was not mean to me." Then, as an afterthought, I added, "At least, not so much as I deserved."
"Well then," she said thoughtfully, "If you did make her mad, you should apologize. I always apologize after I do something naughty, and then Mama gives me kisses." She smiled proudly at her own advice.
Poor Mrs. Gardiner, in her embarrassment, became quite red, but the child's simplistic view of my problem actually lightened my heart a great deal; I was unable to resist a chuckle in response.
"Miss Lily, I think you are absolutely right." I offered her my arm, and with little Miss Lily walking at my side, the prospect of entering the drawing room was no longer quite so daunting.
I entered to find Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bennet, and the remaining Gardiner children sitting within. Mrs. Bennet sat with her head bent towards the eldest Gardiner, Sarah, as they were engaged in a lesson on the finer points of needlework. With my arrogance worn down, I watched, not to condemn, but to appreciate the obvious affection between the two. Occupied thus, Mrs. Bennet seemed slightly less energetic than her norm, and I was able to tolerate her with equanimity, if only for the knowledge that my family boasted at least one more foolish than she; or two, with my recent actions taken into consideration.
The needlework was forgotten as Mrs. Bennet recognized her sister's guest. "Mr. Darcy!" She cried, "What a pleasure to see you again!"
"Thank you Mrs. Bennet; the pleasure is mine."
I bowed. She cooed.
"What a pity you missed the other girls! I was just telling Jane, Lydia and Kitty were much taken with your cousin, the Colonel."
Patience came more easily than I had thought it might as I replied, "I will pass on your compliments. My cousin enjoyed making the acquaintance of all your daughters; my sister as well. In fact, she asked me to relay her particular regards to Miss Elizabeth." She didn't; but I know she would have, had she not been afraid for my reaction. Besides, it occurred to me then, Mrs. Bennet may prove to be my biggest ally. It could do no harm to plant a subtle hint of my wishes in her mind, so I added, "I had hoped to be able to share them in person."
Mrs. Bennet nodded appreciatively, and I am much mistaken if she did not take my bait, as she sat a little straighter, preened, and spoke of her eldest unattached daughter in more complimentary terms that I have ever heard from her.
"Oh yes! My Lizzy is such a dear friend to everyone. She is the darling of Meryton! Such pleasing, lively manners! And very pretty, though perhaps not so much as Jane. And so clever! She gets her wit from her father, you know."
Of course I knew. The only claim I took exception to is the notion that Elizabeth is not as pretty as her sister. The eldest Miss Bennet is, I grant, very pretty, but Elizabeth's effervescence lends her a beauty of a different sort; one which I find much more pleasing.
Mrs. Bennet's high-pitched voice sliced into my pleasant reflections. "Just a few months ago, in fact, before Mr. Collins married Charlotte Lucas, he had asked Lizzy to-"
"Oh, Mama!" Miss Bennet stemmed her mother's chatter blushingly, and though I may have been well pleased to hear Elizabeth's praises sung for the entire day, I could not be sorry for the interruption - the course of her mother's thoughts had taken a most nauseating direction. "Remember, Lizzy left a note to send to Miss Darcy. I shall go find it directly!"
"Thank you, Miss Bennet." I could at least derive pleasure from the knowledge that Elizabeth did not hate me so much as to wish to distance herself from Georgiana. Though my sister has a tender heart, I am not certain I would easily obtain her pardon for chasing away the dearest friend she now has. I had enough forgiveness to seek as it were, in any case.
Mrs. Gardiner kept the conversation polite until the previously mentioned letter was furnished, and after a few more niceties were exchanged, I took my leave, having accepted both an invitation to dine with the Gardiners three days thereafter, and, of course, Lily's reiterated admonishment.
The warmth of Mrs. Bennet's farewell assured me at least one would welcome me at Longbourn with impunity; whether Elizabeth would allow me access to her heart was far less certain. I had to stay in London for the time being to see the Murdock affair through, but as soon as that was finished, there was nothing else to hold me back. I was done waiting, wishing, hoping for some hint that my affections were returned. I had nothing more to lose that I wouldn't give freely. I would return to Hertfordshire, regardless of what reception I would find there. Hope is a fine thing, but as it relies on fate, it can carry one only so far; I would need patience and determination to make things right.
With all the cargo we were carrying, we would not all fit in one carriage, so Papa planned to leave two days early with the younger girls, and to send the carriage back with a footman the following day to retrieve me, and Jane, who had one more fitting, Mama, who of course needed to oversee said fitting, and the hordes of packages. Perhaps I was behaving childishly in insisting that I return early with Papa and my younger sisters, but I was emotionally overwrought, and by now, quite missing home, so I sacrificed those last two nights with Jane in favor of solitude. She would surely understand, and would undoubtedly prefer the company of her Mr. Bingley in any case.
The ride home was relatively quiet, as I was able to ignore the streaming conversation between Kitty and Lydia. No response was required of me, and I was in no humor to offer my thoughts in any case. Papa buried himself in some reading, as did Mary. I had no ability to focus, so settled on watching the passing landscape; my thoughts utterly blank. As the hours passed, I looked forward to our homecoming with anticipation. We arrived too late in the evening to undertake an exploration of the woods, but at the rooster's crow, I hurried down to reunite with the familiar land. I tried to occupy my mind with anything that might keep my thoughts from returning to Mr. Darcy. I thought about Jane, and her coming wedding, and involuntarily imagined how handsome Mr. Darcy would be as he stood up with his friend. I considered possible plots and characters for stories to write, but they all included Mr. Darcy in some way. I thought of the kindness of the Gardiners, but then wondered what my aunt knew of Pemberley, as I had never brought myself to ask.
Just as I had given up the futile effort to push Mr. Darcy from my mind, I came back into view of Longbourn, and returned in time to join the others for breakfast. Mary was nose deep into a book, while Lydia and Kitty were deep in mourning for the imminent loss of the officers, who would be removing within a fortnight for Brighton. As they commiserated, a note arrived for Lydia.
"It is from Mrs. Forster!" She cried gleefully. She scanned the contents, and a bright smile appeared on her face. "She has invited me to join her in Brighton as her particular friend!" Eyes shining with joy, she beseeched our father, "Oh, do let me go Papa! Oh! The balls-The officers! I must go into Meryton for some ribbons. Oh lord, Kitty, can you imagine how many officers I will have at their knees? What fun! How I shall flirt with them all!"
Kitty's only response was a muffled cry, for she had not been included in the invitation, but Papa's response surprised me.
"Indeed, my dear, that is exactly what I should fear, and for that reason, and for the small matter of your sister's wedding, you shall not be going to Brighton, or anywhere near it. Consider yourself fortunate that you just had a visit into town."
Lydia sputtered for a few moments before forming a coherent reply. "But Papa!" she whined, "The Colonel's wife has invited me-we are such good friends! I shan't be able to disappoint her so! If you do not let me go, I am sure I shall die of a broken heart."
"My dear, I am certain you will weather the disappointment without any lasting effects."
Lydia was by now near hysterics, "Oh, but Captain Denny! And Mr. Wickham! Brighton shall be so dreadfully dull for them! And Hertfordshire will be horrid without them!"
"If I had been of a mind to be persuaded, you have just given me every reason not to. You are a lively child; you shall find enough to amuse you hereabouts. Kitty, console your sister as best you can. Mary, perhaps Fordyce has an appropriate platitude for the occasion. Lizzy," he said, winking at me, "I need to speak to you in my study."
Lydia's wails could be heard throughout the house as I followed my father.
With the door safely closed behind us, I turned to my father in amazement. In the past few minutes he had grown considerably in my esteem, though I had always held him in high regard. Without losing his essential character, he took a stand against my most wild sister, though it would cost him a good deal of peace of mind. I felt it necessary to tease, "And are you prepared to weather the storm which is to befall you, Papa?"
He chortled, then responded quite seriously, "I should have taken her in hand years ago Lizzy, but it wasn't until you opened my eyes to the despicable character of Mr. Wickham that I appreciated how necessary my involvement must be. Silly as she is, she is innocent, and does not understand that there are those who may wish to take advantage of, let's say, her interest. I may even go so far as to warn Colonel Forster-what say you Lizzy? Shall the ladies of Meryton be quite safe for a fortnight, do you think?"
"The ladies might, but perhaps not the shopkeepers. I have good reason to fear he is not very prudent with money." Obviously, as he had squandered away four thousand pounds in less time than my family of seven could. But I did not feel I was at liberty to give any more information. Luckily, Papa did not ask for further elucidation on the subject .
"I take your point, Lizzy. As little as I like the office, I suppose I must see the Colonel as soon as may be." Sighing, he sat down next to me, "It is not quite as easy as one might think, you know, this business of being a father. A man does not wish to consider all the dangers that may befall his children, and yet, to disregard them is complete foolishness."
I attempted a smile, but could think of nothing to say in response that wasn't at least mildly impertinent. It did, after all, take my dear father three and twenty years to arrive at this conclusion, but it was apparent that it was difficult for him, so I withdrew from any teasing reply
"Which, my beloved daughter," he continued, "brings me to my purpose in calling you here-well, other than to avoid the mayhem currently unfolding in the breakfast room," he joked, then sobered as he said, "You are not happy Lizzy; it pains me to see you thus."
"I am well, Papa. It is simply the forthcoming loss of Jane's company which affects me," I lied.
"As Jane will be a mere three miles away, and, as you chose to forego two nights in her company in order to return home, I sincerely doubt that her approaching marriage dampens your spirits so."
Challenging my determined silence, he continued, "We have avoided talking about it my dear, and I would be content to continue to do so, but I cannot see you so low and be idle; I know you too well to believe that you are not pained by what occurred at the ball. I know you, like me, would prefer to laugh away troubles, but I sense in this case, laughter will provide you with little reprieve. Will you not unburden yourself, dearest?"
The unlikely request from my father unleashed an onslaught of tears, which, had been kept between myself and my pillow for the past two days. Papa held me as I cried until I had expelled enough emotion to be able to relate the evening's events with some composure. I further shared those events which had led up to the misunderstanding-including a modified version of those concerning Lord Murdock-which caused him no small amount of agitation. For my own serenity, however, I continued to conceal my newly discovered feelings for Mr. Darcy.
"There, there, child; do you not feel better?"
I did not know the answer.
"I believe what pains me most is the knowledge that Mr. Darcy does not respect me," I complained, wiping away the last of my tears.
"His words were undoubtedly poorly chosen, but I do not believe that they were bred from a lack of respect, Lizzy."
"He accused me of the worst kind of conduct!"
"Yes; and he was wrong. As he is an intelligent man, I am sure he is quite aware of the fact."
"But he misjudged me most cruelly, Papa!"
"Indeed, he did." After a pregnant pause, he arrived at his point, "Did you not once do the same to him, dearest?"
Of course I had, and I knew it. I had misjudged Mr. Darcy badly; sharing my poor opinion with others, and he, in good grace, allowed us to start over as friends. Since then, he has shown me extraordinary kindness, and after one poor show, albeit, a very poor show, I condemn him fully, denying him any opportunity to explain himself. I cut him to the quick when I am almost certain he meant to apologize, simply because it was easier to be angry than to deal with the more complicated emotions that I was feeling. Till that moment, I never knew myself; but I was not yet ready to surrender my resentment.
"But he was such a fool! Why do you defend his actions against me, Papa?"
"We are all fools in love, are we not?" he asked.
At the disbelief apparent on my face, he added, "Lizzy, you know better than anyone how little I look forward to the day you must leave me, but I have seen enough of the ways of men, and if I know anything, I know that man is lost in love. Nay, there is no need to look surprised; you have already come to this conclusion yourself, I think." Taking my hand, he continued, "Lizzy, I would never wish to counsel you against your heart, but, if you return the sentiment, then it is essential to meet him with a rational mind and open heart. If your happiness is intertwined with his, as I believe it may be, then you must look to forgive."
Though my father still preferred his bookroom above all else, it seemed he had become a bit more observant and perceptive in regards to his family; I had to acknowledge the wisdom of his advice. Did Mr. Darcy not deserve the same courtesy that he once offered to me? But more importantly, I needed to know whether I was able, and willing, to extend it.
Despite my poor conduct toward their niece, the Gardiners received me with all the warmth and generosity that I had come to admire in them. They may have tiptoed around the subject of Elizabeth, but otherwise conversed as genially as they had in the past. I wanted to show that I did not continue in my misapprehensions, so I brought the subject up myself.
"Have you had word from your Hertfordshire relations?"
"My brother writes that he and the younger girls arrived safely, but it is early yet to hear from the rest," Mrs. Gardiner replied.
"That is very good to hear," I commented, then added, "My sister was glad to receive the note from Miss Elizabeth, though she was as disappointed as I to hear of her early departure."
"You are to come for the wedding, of course," she stated.
"Yes, of course. Unfortunately I have some business which keeps me detained here a while longer, but as soon as it is completed, I will return to Netherfield for the remainder of their betrothal."
"It has been some time since you have been home, I think," mentioned Mr. Gardiner.
"Indeed it has, but Pemberley is a great distance away. As much as I miss my home, it is a journey which I prefer not to undertake unless I can spend some months there. As the wedding is a little more than a month away, and I am needed in London for some days still, it would be more prudent for me to remain, I think, and I will still be home in time for the harvest."
"Yes, to be sure," agreed Mrs. Gardiner.
After the agreeable dinner, Mr. Gardiner and I removed to the study to enjoy fine cigars and port. After a brief discussion on the current state of affairs in France, it became apparent the man was not inclined to discuss inconsequential matters, and quickly moved past them.
"I have heard that Lord Murdock is under investigation again," he ventured.
"Yes, that is true."
"I cannot say I am sorry to hear it."
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, and wondered how much information had reached him. I did not remember telling my uncle, but Richard...I never thought to ask him to keep quiet on the matter, and for all his military discretion, he is still much given to gossip amongst friends - a poor tactical move on my part, I realized.
"Would you happen to have any knowledge of the progress?"
How I wished I had a talent for deception at that moment! "Yes," I exhaled, "he has incurred many debts, and the case will be brought against him this coming week. His presence is the only thing that is wanting. As I understand it, he has been difficult to track down, but is expected in London any day."
"Mr. Darcy, let us be frank - I know you commissioned this; there is no reason for you to fund it, especially as it concerns my family; you must allow me to assist."
"Absolutely not, sir. I would do the same for any amongst my acquaintance who had been taken in by him. Though I am not particularly close with him myself, my family has known of his habits for years; he has imposed on many people-some of whom I know quite well. It is within my power to apprehend this man, and I am glad to be able to do so. The cost is inconsequential."
"Come now, Mr. Darcy, you cannot hold yourself responsible for this - unless you have some further interest in the matter."
"Had it not been for your intervention, my uncle would have likely become a victim to his schemes; so you see, we are in your debt."
Mr. Gardiner's questioning brow prompted further response, "I shall not deny that Miss Elizabeth's protection is one of my concerns -she has become a dear friend to my family -but I cannot allow you to bear the cost; I will not be moved." I matched the intensity of his piercing gaze, knowing a lesser man would have cringed, but hoping this worthy man would simply relent.
"Lizzy is very fortunate to have such a staunch supporter; I hope she realizes it," he said with a rueful smile.
"No." I said firmly, "Miss Elizabeth must never know of my part in this, I would not have her feel indebted to me in any way."
"If you insist; there is no reason she needs to know about any of it. I will not share it with her, but you must allow me to tell my brother Bennet; he is most worried about the situation. I must confess; I have never seen his spirits so agitated."
"If you must, though I wish my name would be left out of the communication if at all possible."
"I will do my best to keep it so," Mr. Gardiner offered.
Not a se'ennight later, on the morning which the long awaited meeting with Lord Murdock was finally to take place, I received this odd note:
My brother Gardiner has indicated that you have been in his company on occasion. From this, I have deduced that you have also been instrumental in alleviating a problem, of which I have only just become aware. Have no fear; your secret will remain secure from the ladies of the house, but I must take the opportunity to express a father's gratitude.
Once you have been released from the aforementioned business, I would like to join Mr. Bingley in his invitation for you to return to Hertfordshire for a bit of sport. Whatever manner of creature is your quarry, if you are able to procure it, you may be assured of my consent.
I thought him very sly; he didn't mention her name, yet I could not mistake his meaning any more than I could prevent a smile from overtaking my face. I cannot deny that the man's eccentric method of expression had taken me aback; yet, the hope which lay within his cryptic message quickly secured pardon from any offended sensibilities. I left the house with renewed energy, actually looking forward, with anticipation, to my encounter with the reprehensible Lord Murdock.
It would not be long before I had my satisfaction. The investigator I had hired had kept a close watch, and alerted me on the night of Lord Murdock's arrival. I took the most burly and gruff of my footmen along; I had no reason to trust the man to act honorably. I left my card with the butler at his townhome, and waited to be ushered in.
"Well, well, Mr. Darcy," Murdock's voice boomed, "I must say I am a bit surprised to see you seek me out; you were not, shall I say, the most amiable I have seen you when we last met."
"I am not here for a social call," I said thinly.
"But, of course," he agreed, "Do sit down. Shall I get you some port? Brandy?"
"Neither, I thank you. Murdock, I am not here to mince words; let us not waste time; I have none to spare on your behalf. My purpose is this: I want you out of the country, where you can do no harm to the Gardiners, the Bennets, or my own relations."
He rose immediately, "Absolutely not! What power do you think you can hold over me which would cause you to even suggest such a thing?" His pallor revealed less confidence than his words did; I felt assured of my success.
"I hold your debts, sir. Enough, you must know, that debtor's prison is a stark reality for you." I laid out the numerous receipts Mr. Weldon had procured.
He stared at me in open astonishment. "Why would you do this? Of what consequence am I to you?"
"That is simple," I calmly replied, "You have cheated several people, attempted the same with my uncle, and spread malicious lies about my friends. I have every reason to wish you away."
"Is this really about that Bennet girl? You would malign an earl over a country nothing? She's a pretty thing to be sure, but it is not as if you can marry her, low as she is; what do you care?"
"I care for the mistreatment of any honest human being; which you, sir, are not. My proposition is simple; you sell whatever assets remain here- your estate, townhome, whatever you have that is not already mortgaged, and I will supplement what is needed. By my investigator's calculations, it is something to the tune of 6,000 pounds, which you do not have. You will be allowed to keep your estate in Scotland-where I expect you to remain. If you come back to England, our agreement is off, and your future remains secure within prison walls."
"You don't fool me, Darcy," he smiled caustically; "this is not about your friends, or your uncle, or anyone other than Miss Bennet. I must admit, I would have never expected to hear of Mr. Darcy, the man no woman could please, lowering himself for the sake of an unheard of chit without a penny to her name. She would have been lucky to have been my mistress, and I certainly would have enjoyed teaching her the finer points of intimacy. Pity."
As he uttered the last, my worn patience had vanished completely, and I punched him solidly in the jaw. He stumbled backwards, reaching up to nurse his bloodied mouth, and then looked up at me, a bit dazed.
"Now, that, was for Miss Bennet. Do we have a deal?"
He wasted no more of my time before signing the contract I had supplied, making my morning a very satisfying oneContinued In Next Section