Beginning, Section II
Posted on 2013-05-02
Thomas Bennet studied the elegantly attired gentleman standing awkwardly in the middle of his library, already crammed with more books than there was shelf space to hold them. Mr. Darcy's tall frame dominated the modest size room, as he twisted his gloves between his hands. He gestured to an overstuffed leather armchair; the worn patches on its arms hinting at countless years' service in the Bennet family. "Are you sure you would not prefer to sit down? The chair is far more comfortable than it looks, and it would save me the inconvenience of a stiff neck later."
Mr. Darcy begged his pardon and perched on the edge of the offered chair, appearing more uncomfortable than he had been while standing.
"May I offer you something to drink? I have a passable madeira that should not offend your palate."
"No, thank you."
Mr. Bennet sat back, lacing his fingers across his stomach. "Then may I ask to what I owe this unexpected pleasure?"
The younger man tugged at his cuff and cleared his throat. "I would like to speak to you about your daughter."
"As I have been blessed with five of them I am afraid you will have to be more specific."
His visitor returned an impatient glare. "I refer, of course, to your second daughter, Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Mr. Bennet smiled inwardly. He had forgotten how the pangs of newly-minted affection could inhibit a young man's sense of humour. "Yes, of course you do. I hope you are not here to demand I hire a spare maid to follow Lizzy around. I can tell you now she will not stand for being molly-coddled."
"That was not the reason for my visit." He sat back in the chair, frowned as he sunk into its comfortable depths and leaned forward to compensate.
Although Mr. Bennet did not know Mr. Darcy well, he sensed an agitation in the young man's demeanour that had not been present during their last meeting. He wondered if it was in any way connected to his daughter's uncharacteristic behaviour the previous evening, when she had displayed an apathy and want of cheerfulness at odds with her usual self. It seemed that this matchmaking business was more fatiguing than he had anticipated.
Mr. Darcy decided suddenly to come to the point. "You will, I hope, excuse my blunt speaking. I am desirous to know what objections you have to my marrying your daughter."
Mr. Bennet blinked, the question taking him somewhat unawares. "Are you requesting my permission to address Elizabeth? I understood the prevailing fashion leans towards the father being the last to know."
"No, only whether you will give your consent."
He gave the matter a few moments thought. "Given what you have previously told me about your situation and from everything I have learned for myself, I could have no objection at all. Indeed, I should be delighted for you to marry Elizabeth. While your position and wealth marks you above anything I could have expected in a son-in-law, the most important thing to my mind is that my daughter holds a great respect for you, and I believe you would make her happy. That is the best any father can hope for."
"And what of your wife?"
"Regrettably, my wife is already spoken for." Mr. Bennet waited for Mr. Darcy to laugh, but the young man was not of a mood to humour his host. "I can vouch for my wife's response without the trouble of applying to her. I doubt we would encounter any reluctance on her part."
Rather than exhibiting the expected pleasure or gratitude, the young man continued to frown. "If that is the case, perhaps you could communicate your position to your daughter, for she believes otherwise."
It seemed they had now reached the crux of the problem. "Then you have already spoken to Elizabeth?"
Mr. Darcy admitted that he had. "I would, of course, have accepted her refusal without question had it not been offered with the greatest of reluctance. She has convinced herself that you would not accept the match. Naturally, I wished to confirm this for myself."
This, at least, explained Elizabeth's lack of spirits at dinner the night before, and why she had excused herself, complaining of a headache, without touching her dessert. "I cannot understand why she would assume so when I have never refused her anything." Having witnessed his daughter's partiality for Mr. Darcy first-hand, and seeing her blushes when his name had been mentioned, he was at a loss to understand her behaviour. Unless she still thought Mr. Darcy was a steward? No, that could not be the reason. She said she had discovered the truth, and had been disappointed at the news of his leaving. He could not think what other reason she might have, but then the workings of the female mind--even one as sensible as Lizzy's--had long eluded him.
The young man before him sat in silence, seemingly with no more idea than he why Elizabeth would have such a scatter-brained notion. At this point Mr. Bennet's opinion of Mr. Darcy rose considerably as he imagined how uncomfortable it must have been for the young Master of Pemberley to appear at Longbourn this morning with doubts hanging over his reception. "Perhaps you should leave the matter with me, Mr. Darcy. I will speak to Elizabeth and see if I cannot clear up this confusion."
"I would be very grateful if you could, Sir."
As he considered how he might best achieve a resolution, an idea came to him. "I believe you have not yet met Mrs Bennet."
"No, Sir, I have not yet been granted that pleasure."
Mr. Bennet stared at the man, looking for signs of sarcasm, but he found none. "Would you be able to join us for dinner tonight? Perhaps you could also bring Mr. Bingley with you, if he is willing."
"I am sure he will be more than happy to accompany me."
"Good. I often find it useful to provide my wife with a distraction at the dinner table, and your friend should serve our purpose admirably."
Once he had seen his visitor out, Mr. Bennet summoned Elizabeth to the library. The large hand on the mantle clock had travelled a quarter of its customary path before the maid returned, wringing her hands.
Miss Elizabeth was indisposed and begged leave to be excused.
Dismissing the girl with an impatient wave of his hand, Thomas Bennet cursed under his breath. Even his favourite child had a little of her mother in her, and could be a silly, flighty creature when she chose. He eased himself down the hall upon his crutches, halting outside the door to the parlour. Mrs Bennet's voice cut through the wood like a rusty saw as she castigated one of their younger offspring. He slipped into the room just as his wife lost the remaining shreds of her temper. "Don't keep coughing so, Kitty, for heaven's sake! Have a little compassion on my nerves."
Kitty, sorting through some trimmings with Lydia, rolled her eyes. Mary did no more than glance up at him before she buried her head back in her book. Mr. Bennet smiled. "I hope, my dear, that you have ordered a good dinner to-day, because I have invited Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy to join us."
Mrs Bennet dropped her embroidery hoop into her lap, Kitty's cough forgotten. "Well, I am sure I shall be extremely glad to see Mr. Bingley, but you never told me that you called upon him."
"That is easily explained; I did not make any such call. Indeed, how could I when our neighbour has been in town until yesterday? As it happens you will be indebted to Mr. Darcy for providing the necessary introductions when he brings Mr. Bingley here as his guest."
"I wish you had told me sooner. There is not a bit of fish to be got to-day. Lydia, my love, ring the bell. I must speak to Hill this moment."
Not wishing to be embroiled in his wife's effusions, he made a quick exit, closing the door behind him. He sighed as Mrs Bennet's expressions of delight penetrated the oak, warring with her concern that the joint she had ordered would not stretch to satisfy the appetites of two young gentlemen.
Standing in the hallway, Mr. Bennet was contemplating the top of the staircase with some trepidation when John came looking for him. "I hope you were not thinking of attempting the stairs by yourself, Sir?"
He lifted his brows and looked over the rim of his spectacles. "And if I was?"
"Well, I'm sure you'd want me to be honest with Mr. Jones when he comes a'calling, asking me whether you've kept to his orders."
"You are meant to be on my side," Mr. Bennet reminded him as he accepted the support of his man's arm up the stairs.
John apologised, but they had been together --master and servant--too long for him to be fooled. This was borne out a few seconds later when he added, "I just thought you'd be keen to see that leg healed. It wouldn't be half as easy walking Miss Elizabeth down that long aisle at St. Lawrence's with them crutches."
"And what makes you think I will need to perform such a task any time soon?"
The retainer shrugged, sniffed and looked down at his scuffed boots. "Maybe it were the way that young gentleman from Netherfield turned to gaze at the house as he left. He reminded me of that old pointer bitch you used to have. You know…the one that would look up at you, all mournful like, when she wanted a bone; as if she hadn't been fed in a fortnight and was well-nigh starved. Did he strike you as a gentleman who would take no for an answer?"
Thomas Bennet sighed. "No, John. He most certainly did not."
When Elizabeth heard another knock at her chamber door, she was in half a mind to feign sleep and ignore it. While she hadn't expected her father to be satisfied with her reply, she had hoped his general apathy for household matters might allow her a longer respite before the girl returned to try again.
However, it was not the maid who entered at her call, but Mr. Bennet, leaning upon his crutches. "You see before you the hill, presenting itself before Mahomet, Lizzy. I hope you are not insensible of the compliment."
Elizabeth sprang from the window seat and helped her father to sit. "Dear Sir! Had I known your reason was so pressing, I would have come to you earlier."
She felt her father's grey eyes upon her as he disposed himself in the walnut chair, and she knew what he saw. After her meeting with Mr. Darcy the previous day she had lost interest in everything: dinner had turned to ash in her mouth, the wine was like pump water, and the concerns of her family failed to divert her thoughts. This morning she had dressed with no care to her appearance, having no one to impress and feeling too spiritless to care. Having glanced only briefly in the mirror, she knew the dullness of her eyes and skin spoke of the long night following Mr. Darcy's proposal, when sleep had all but evaded her.
"Lizzy," said her father, his voice tinged with exasperation. "Are you out of your senses, to refuse Mr. Darcy? I thought you liked the man?''
Shocked by his question, it took a moment for her to form a reply. If her father already knew that much, she could do no more harm by revealing the rest. "I did. I do like him."
"Then why can you not marry him? It is a popular pastime amongst the young, I believe."
In no mood to be the source of her father's entertainment, Elizabeth said, "You jest, but this is not a light-hearted matter. You know I cannot wed Mr. Darcy."
"I am afraid I know nothing of the sort. Pray, enlighten me with your reasoning."
"His position…his income; Mama would never allow me to be the wife of a steward."
Her father frowned, and then shook his head. "How is it possible you still imagine him to be Mr. Bingley's steward? You told me you had realised your error."
Elizabeth heard the censure in his tone and raised her chin. "I knew I was mistaken in thinking he would remain at Netherfield, but he said he was returning to his own position in the north."
The smile that now grew on her father's face was familiar to her, as was the twinkle in his eyes. "Have you any further objections, other than your belief of our disapproval? Do you think him unworthy?"
"No, not to me, but I hope I know better than to welcome an unequal connection, when Mama strives so hard to see us married into an advantageous situation. You know she would never allow one of us to throw ourselves away, particularly now, when she has such high hopes of Jane attracting the attentions of a wealthy man like Mr. Bingley."
"A most self-effacing sacrifice on your part, my dear, but there was never any need to deny yourself. Mr. Darcy is not a steward. He has never been a steward--not in this county nor any other."
Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and then said, "I do not understand. Why, then, was he helping Mr. Bingley and what are the responsibilities he spoke of in Derbyshire?"
They were interrupted by Kitty, bursting into Lizzy's room. She stopped dead when she saw its occupants. "Lord, Papa! What are you doing here?"
"More to the point," said Mr. Bennet in his sternest tone, "what are you doing barging in here without so much as a knock?"
"I was only going to borrow…" Kitty paled as her eyes darted to her sister. "I would have brought it straight back!" She stared at them both and then sighed. "It doesn't matter."
"Well, while you are here you can at least make yourself useful. Go down to my library and bring me the small brown book that sits on the corner of my desk."
Thankful to avoid a greater scold, Kitty did as she was bid, and Mr. Bennet soon had the volume in his hand. Elizabeth tried to read the title on the spine, but the letters were too small. When they were once again alone, her father leaned forward in the chair. "Do you wish to learn something of your Mr. Darcy? I promise you will find it most enlightening."
Curiosity fought with caution within Elizabeth's breast, and curiosity won out. She leaned forward as her father opened the book and removed the short scrap of black ribbon he had used as a marker.
"Have you ever heard your Aunt Gardiner mention a town in Derbyshire where she spent some time in her earlier years? No? The place is called Lambton, and I discovered in this publication a fascinating addendum to the description of the town. I should like to read it to you, if you will permit me."
Without waiting for her answer, he cleared his throat and adjusted his reading glasses.
"Five miles from the town is Pemberley, the residence of Fitzwilliam Darcy Esq. who is possessed of the manor of Lambton. The mansion, which is pleasantly situated on the northern bank of the Derwent, was built about seventy years ago by the late Hugh Darcy, grandfather of the current owner, on the site of a very ancient one belonging to the family. The present house is a handsome stone building, with a portico projecting from the North front. It contains several good apartments fitted up in a neat and elegant manner. The rooms contain some good family portraits but none of particular celebrity."
Only then did Mr. Bennet pause, observing the effect this news would have on his daughter. In that, at least, she had to disappoint him. "How do you know this family is connected to the Mr. Darcy staying at Netherfield?"
Her father snorted and shook his head. "I am beginning to wonder what you young people find to talk about when you meet quite by chance in the neighbourhood." As Elizabeth opened her mouth to protest, he held up a finger to silence her. "It seems my conversation with that gentleman was more to the point than yours. Mr. Darcy told me something about his estate called Pemberley--his estate, mind you, not his family's-- and I heard enough to know that it casts Netherfield quite into the shade. Your Mr. Darcy is most certainly a gentleman, my dear, and as such I would have no qualms in giving my consent to your marrying him. He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse anything he condescended to ask."
Elizabeth felt an uncomfortable weight settle in her stomach. This could not be the same man. Surely he would have mentioned something of his wealth if he had anything to offer. Her father must have misunderstood.
"And if you are thinking me already in my dotage, Lizzy, maybe this will help to convince you. Mr. Darcy sent it in this morning when he called." He slipped his hand into his pocket, picking out a familiar shape and holding it out for her.
She took the visiting card, running her fingers over the square black letters printed across the middle that read: FITZWILLIAM DARCY. She glanced at her father. "You knew Mr. Darcy was a gentleman?"
"I knew nothing more of him than you had told me…at least until he came to call."
"Three days ago?" Recalling everything that had happened since she had introduced Mr. Darcy to her father, it was as though someone had put a spark to a tinder box. She jumped up, stabbing an accusing finger at him. "You knew this and did not think to tell me?"
"Had I known your understanding remained flawed I would have enlightened you, but when you said you had learned he was not Mr. Bingley's steward how was I to know you remained ignorant of his status and fortune?"
Elizabeth shook her head, too annoyed with herself and her father to speak.
Mr. Bennet looked down at the book in his hand with an air of feigned disinterest. "You know, a long journey for the sake of viewing a house hardly seems worthwhile when the property has no portraits of particular celebrity. Family likenesses are never so interesting when you do not know the subject. Ah…but wait! I see the appeal of the house improves." He moved the page closer, to bring the small print back into focus.
"The Library, thirty six feet by twenty four and twenty two feet high, is finished with mahogany book cases, Doric entablature and Mosaic ceiling, while the contents form an impressive collection of classic and polite literature. In addition, there is a very fine painting of The Meeting of Hector and Andromache at the Scaean Gates by Cignaroti."
Her father's shoulders sagged. "Well, that makes my own poor book room seem rather dull, does it not? Perhaps I should expend a few guineas from your dowry to purchase a similar piece of art to fill my empty wall. A collection of volumes such as the one described must be the work of many generations. I confess a curiosity as to its contents. Maybe, if we are very good, we can prevail upon the owner to allow us to peruse some of his polite literature, eh Lizzy?"
Elizabeth crossed the room to look out of her bedroom window, torn between hope and an uncomfortable sense that she had made a grievous mistake from which it would be impossible to recover. That she should have refused such a man of standing and fortune must have been incomprehensible to him. Indeed, as the memories of his proposal returned with full force, she recalled the shock on his face, and little wonder he should feel so. He must have thought she was mad.
Her father's voice cut through her thoughts. "If Mr. Darcy's house does not appeal to your tastes, my dear, then perhaps I can entice you with an account of his gardens?" Returning his attention to the book, Mr. Bennet completed the description with an almost unseemly relish.
"The park is very extensive, measuring ten miles in circumference, and is beautifully diversified with hill and dale, as well as various plantations, which range in fine sweeping masses over the inequalities of the ground. The prospects from the adjacent parts are exceedingly fine and one view looking back from the south possesses extraordinary grandeur. The river winds gracefully through the park; in front of the house it has been swollen into a greater width, but without any artificial appearance. The approach to the mansion is made over an elegant stone bridge of three arches erected by Paine."
He sat back in the chair, closing the book as he did so. "If I may be allowed to say, it appears you will be mistress of a very fine estate, my dear."
Never had her father's wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her. She failed to hold back a sigh. "Perhaps I might have, had I not turned him away. Such a man, once refused, is unlikely to apply again."
"You underestimate his tenacity, my dear. Mr. Darcy was knocking on my door at an indecent hour this morning, demanding to be told the reasons for withholding my permission. I think I can safely say that his interest in you has not been materially lessened by your rejection."
"When he discovers the reason for my decision I doubt he would be so eager. How can I tell him that I thought him a mere steward?"
"That, my dear, you will have to decide for yourself, and soon."
Mr. Bennet smiled. "Because I have invited him to dinner."
Posted on 2013-05-09
Elizabeth studied her pale reflection in the dressing mirror as the girl placed a final comb in her hair. She had always prided herself on her discernment and judgement of character, and it had been humbling indeed to discover that her powers of penetration were no less prone to fault than anyone else. With any other subject, the mistake--held up to the light by her father--would have been embarrassing, but she might have laughed it off soon enough. As her error involved Mr. Darcy, and had strongly influenced her decision to reject his marriage proposal, she found very little to laugh about.
Her father had known of Mr. Darcy's true situation and had said nothing, but she could not accuse him as the sole architect of her misfortunes. She had broadcast the news that Mr. Darcy was a steward, and as the day passed she had resigned herself to accept whatever consequences might arise. But the decision had brought her no peace. She could not rest until she saw for herself that Mr. Darcy bore her no ill feeling.
She walked down the hallway and paused at the top of the stairs. When Mrs Hill reported a carriage at the end of the driveway, her mother's voice below summoned her daughters into the drawing room
Alone upstairs, Elizabeth glanced into her parent's darkened bedroom. Reassured it was empty she crept along the threadbare rug to look through the window, as a smart black chaise pulled up in front of the house and the postilion ran to the horses' heads. John came forward to put down the steps, allowing two gentlemen to emerge from the dark interior.
Mr. Darcy stood before the front door, the light from the house illuminating him like an actor on a stage. While he appeared little different from their previous meetings, her new-found knowledge had the effect of holding up a lens, focussing her attention upon the small details of fashion, and stately air that marked him as a gentleman of quality. Clues she had ignored or overlooked because she had thought she knew him.
She reached out, running the tip of her finger down the cold glass, as though she could somehow reach across the distance to touch him. Then Mr. Darcy indicated with a imperious flick of his cane that Mr. Bingley should precede him into the house. This was a man used to giving orders, even to his friends.
How could she have been so blind to think him nothing more than a steward?
Elizabeth relinquished her position by the window to return to the top of the stairs. In the hallway below the visitors said little as Mrs Hill relieved them of their hats and coats, but the familiar timbre of his voice floated up to her before the door closed.
Aware that she was expected in the drawing room, Elizabeth ran down the stairs and tiptoed past her father's library. When she joined her sisters the room fell silent, but conversation resumed when they saw it was only Lizzy. As she withdrew to the corner of the room, Mrs Bennet spared her a withering glance before returning to her battle plans. She intended to keep Mr. Bingley at her side through dinner and was determined that their handsome new neighbour should ask Jane for a dance at the assembly before she would allow him to leave.
"What about Mr. Darcy?" Kitty asked. "Must we dance with him as well?"
Mrs Bennet dismissed her daughter's question with a wave. "Of course not, for Mr. Bingley will be bringing other guests to the assembly. I can't imagine he would wish to socialise with his steward every evening, whether they are friends or not."
Elizabeth's heart sank. She had been so caught up in her own misery it had never occurred to her to enlighten her mother to the truth of Mr. Darcy's circumstances, and it was clear that her father had told his wife nothing. Elizabeth tried to attract her attention. "Mama, there is something you must know about Mr. Darcy. He is not…"
Mrs Bennet, speculating with Lydia and Kitty about the colour of Mr. Bingley's hair, did not hear, and the creak of a floorboard in the hall beyond was their only warning before Mr. Bennet opened the door to admit their guests.
The wheels of the chaise rattled over the uneven road as Bingley slapped a gloved hand on his knee and glowered at his companion. "You still have not given me an adequate explanation for your behaviour this morning."
Turning to look through the window at the darkening autumn sky, Darcy pursed his lips, refusing to voice the response that came to mind.
"Could you not have waited? I was only a little late."
The whine in his friend's voice pushed Darcy beyond the limit of his patience. "You sound astonishingly like your sister, Bingley. If you insist on repeating your complaint, at least strive to do so in a manner more worthy of your sex. I needed to speak to Mr. Bennet, and had no intention of delaying the discussion to suit any convenience of yours. You can either accept my apology or not, but you will hardly make yourself a pleasing guest at Longbourn if you insist on sulking all evening."
They continued their journey in silence. Although he understood his friend's anger at being left behind, any lingering resentment would be of short duration, and Darcy was otherwise satisfied with his morning's work. Despite the discomfort involved in holding such a mortifying interview with a gentleman he was scarcely acquainted with, the result had been the best he could have wished for. All that remained now was to seek another private moment with Elizabeth and hope she would this time return a favourable response.
Given his own feelings, and those he believed Elizabeth to possess, he could accept no other outcome.
His friend shifted in his seat, looking past the postilion to check on their progress. Although Bingley had been into Meryton once or twice since he first arrived at Netherfield, he was unfamiliar with the area and had not yet travelled beyond the town, so everything they now passed was new to him.
Arriving at Longbourn, they were first shown into Mr. Bennet's study, much to the impatience of his friend. Once he had made the introductions, Darcy stood back, waiting in silence as their host solicited Bingley's initial impressions of the neighbourhood in which he had chosen to settle. His friend did not disappoint, enthusing over the beauty of the vistas, the easy distance to town and the many years of pleasure he anticipated enjoying the comfort of Netherfield Hall.
Mr. Bennet, who had risen from his chair with the aid of a stout ash cane, smiled and nodded in all the appropriate places. Indeed, he seemed in no hurry to join the rest of the family and Darcy, who desired nothing more than to see Elizabeth, began to wonder whether the older man intended to remain here all evening.
"Well," Mr. Bennet said at last, "I suppose I should make you known to the rest of the family." As he limped down the hall Darcy offered an arm in support, but he waved it away. "The leg needs exercise, if it is to become useful again." He paused in front of a door that looked much like all the others. The only difference was the chatter of feminine voices in the room beyond. Glancing at his guests, their host gave what Darcy hoped was an encouraging smile and turned the handle.
Like a blanket dropped over a birdcage, a sudden silence marked their entrance as the heads of those ladies present all turned, as one, to face them. As Mr. Bennet began to introduce his family, the spell broke and a corresponding rise in volume assailed his ears.
Darcy studied and discounted each set of feminine features. He identified Mrs Bennet, not only from her age but also with the benefit of Elizabeth's description. The wide smile, unleashed upon Bingley, was vaguely lupine as she welcomed him to the locality. He had considered the possibility that Elizabeth might have exaggerated her mother's propensities as a matchmaker, but the minutes following her introduction to Bingley had proven her description entirely accurate. Darcy recognised Mrs Bennet's type, and her calculating glance that seemed to sum up his friend's worth to the nearest half a crown.
Not wishing to witness the moment when that same appraisal turned towards him, Darcy allowed his attention to wander around the room. Miss Bennet, known to him from their meeting in Meryton, offered a pleasant welcome, her countenance serene and untroubled. Two younger girls then pushed forward, determined not to be denied their share of the introductions. Fortunately their attention skipped over him in favour of his friend, leaving him free to continue his search.
Elizabeth stood next to a solemn, studious female furthest back from the door, her attention focussed upon the carpet. Even unsmiling, her beauty cast that of her plain sister into the shade. He waited until she looked up, and as their gaze locked he felt a hitch in his chest as something stirred deep within him. Even after her rejection, her power over him had not diminished one whit.
Despite her maid's efforts, Elizabeth's pale complexion and the dark smudges under her eyes hinted that she had slept no better than he. Her fingers toyed nervously with the fringe of her shawl and he hoped that Mr. Bennet had not been unduly harsh with his daughter when he had spoken to her this morning. Darcy lifted his eyebrows in unspoken question, but Elizabeth only coloured as she averted her gaze. An enquiry from Mr. Bennet forced him to turn away to answer.
While Elizabeth had offered little outward reaction to their presence, the same could not be said for the other young females of the household. As they chattered away, he wondered if it was a symptom of them moving in such a confined and unvarying society that guests should be received with such unrestrained enthusiasm. However, if the younger members bestowed their inane conversation with liberal impartiality, the same could not be said for Mrs Bennet. After less than quarter of an hour in her presence, Darcy could see that her attention towards her visitors was uneven at best.
To Darcy, she had been welcoming and polite but there was none of the gushing flattery he would expect from a confirmed matchmaker. Apart from asking how he liked the neighbourhood she had shown no interest in his thoughts or opinions. The opposite, however, was true of his friend, who received every excess of civility in her power.
This inequality continued as they were seated in the dining room. Mrs Bennet, after apologising for their uneven number at the table, sat Bingley on her left as she directed Miss Bennet to the chair on his other side. Once that task was complete she seemed to lose interest in everyone else, advising Darcy and her remaining daughters to dispose themselves wherever they wished.
Her dismissal confused and irked him--particularly when Bingley seemed to be so much in charity with her--and he could not explain it. Darcy's fortune alone was enough to see him feted and flattered in the homes to which he was invited. He did not necessarily enjoy such sycophancy, but accepted it as his burden to bear. He might have once or twice desired a little less attention, but never with any expectation that his wish might be granted.
It also left him wondering whether Elizabeth had, in fact, been correct when she said her mother would never accept him as a suitor. Was the woman's blatant preference for his friend intended to convey her disapproval?
Mr. Bennet had a curious light in his eye as he took his place at the head of the table. "As my wife has given us the choice, I think you should sit here, Mr. Darcy, next to me. Lizzy, I would like you here." He indicated to his right. Darcy took the chair on Mr. Bennet's left, where he had an excellent view of Elizabeth and also his friend at the other end of the table. During the meal he confirmed his initial observations of Mr. Bennet as a gentleman of quick mind and sarcastic humour, but to that he could now add an understanding of the other members of the Bennet family.
The two youngest he dismissed as being reflections of their mother, and just as empty-headed. The plain young woman sitting next to Elizabeth listened and said little, although whether out of ignorance or lack of confidence he could not say. Mrs Bennet--a shallow woman of mean intelligence--kept no thought in her head beyond the task of marrying off her daughters, and Darcy had no intention of courting her favour.
He would certainly have been offended by her overt manoeuvrings towards Bingley, had Elizabeth not previously warned him of her nature. Darcy watched her squirm under the embarrassment of some of Mrs Bennet's more outrageous comments, but they had only increased his determination to protect Elizabeth from any future distress and embarrassment at the hands of her mother.
That brash matriarch was presently looking with maternal fondness upon Miss Bennet, who remained oblivious while in quiet conversation with Bingley. From speaking with Elizabeth, Darcy had guessed her close bond with her eldest sister and was inclined to think well of the young woman. During their brief meeting in Meryton she had seemed a sensible, practical female and--watching her with Bingley--he recognised a familiar spark of interest in his friend's eye. Considering how Charles fell into and out of love with tedious regularity, he would have to keep an eye on the situation. Given his own desire for a closer connection with the Bennet family--or one of them, at least--it would not do for Bingley to toy with the affections of Elizabeth's favourite sister.
It was, he thought, a mark of Mrs Bennet's ignorance that she was content to encourage the interest of his notoriously fickle friend, while rejecting him as an acceptable husband for Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bennet continued to offer his support. Throughout his conversations with Darcy, he attempted to coax Elizabeth towards whatever subject fell under discussion, using an odd mixture of questioning and gentle teasing. As the evening progressed, Darcy found himself drawn to Elizabeth, unable to ignore the nervousness in her voice or the absent way she clutched her napkin. He had expected a certain amount of discomfort on Elizabeth's part, considering their previous meeting, but this continued anxiety worried him and he was determined to uncover the root of her distress.
He had managed to ignore most of his hostess's inane chatter, but during a lull in their conversation Mrs Bennet's voice rang out across the table like a cracked bell. "I do not know a place in the country that is equal to Netherfield, Mr. Bingley. You will not think of quitting it in a hurry, I hope."
"Whatever I do is done in a hurry, and therefore if I should resolve to quit Netherfield, I should probably be off in five minutes. At present, however, I consider myself as quite fixed here."
One of the younger daughters exclaimed at the thought of Bingley retreating to town, an idea Mrs Bennet hastened to discourage. "I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country for my part, except the shops and public places. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr. Bingley?"
"It all depends upon where I find myself. When I am in the country I never wish to leave it. When I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either."
"I am pleased to hear it. Particularly as we have our little assembly in Meryton tomorrow evening. Do you dance, Sir?"
"Indeed I do. There is nothing I like more." Bingley smiled as he added, "I am very much looking forward to it, as is my friend there."
At this, Mrs Bennet looked down the table towards Darcy. "That will be very pleasant for you, Sir, I am sure. I'll wager you do not get the opportunity to attend many such affairs."
He was about to observe that he attended far more than he would like, when Bingley said, "Oh, Darcy is very fond of dancing. In fact, he enjoys it above all things."
Bingley's wide grin marked his speech as retribution for Darcy's earlier desertion. Knowing his friend's penchant for mischief, Darcy fixed him with a warning glare. "Mr. Bingley has over stated my feelings on the subject."
Mr. Bennet cleared his throat, keeping his voice low. "I am sure you are not entirely averse to dancing, Mr. Darcy, with the right partner."
Darcy's gaze swung to Elizabeth in time to catch her stare, and they shared a moment's connection before she dipped her head, shielding her eyes with her fine lashes. "Indeed, you are quite correct. I hope Miss Elizabeth has not forgotten that she has promised me a dance at the assembly."
She coloured under the weight of their observation, but raised her eyes to meet his once more. "I could not forget such a promise. If you still wish it, I would be happy to dance with you."
Mr. Bennet chuckled. "With a temptation such as that I might consider attending the assembly myself. Despite being unable to dance I could still find some entertainment as an observer."
At the other end of the table, an effusive Bingley offered his gratitude for an excellent meal, before asking a question Darcy did not quite catch. The response from their hostess was impossible to avoid. "Oh no, I always keep servants that can do their own work, Mr. Bingley. My daughters have nothing to do in the kitchen, unlike some other people I could mention. But everybody is to judge for themselves, and not all families are as fortunate in their circumstances."
While Darcy could not be interested in the domestic arrangements of the Bennet family, he saw Elizabeth stiffen upon hearing her mother's words. He thought it only natural that she would feel a certain amount of embarrassment. After a few further minutes, Mrs Bennet's voice rose again at the other end of the table, this time her strident enquiry to Bingley was tinged with surprise. "A new steward? But what will become of Mr. Darcy?"
"I hope my friend will find something more fitting to occupy his time. Perhaps he will join me in a spot of fishing, but..."--Bingley raised his shoulders in a helpless shrug--"Darcy will, in the end, do whatever he chooses, because he can."
Mrs Bennet's eyebrows rose. "Are you saying Mr. Darcy is not your steward?"
Bingley met Darcy's stare with a mixture of triumph and unholy delight. "Steward? Oh no, ma'am. My friend has merely been offering the benefit of his vast experience."
Their hostess blinked then looked down the table as though seeing Darcy for the first time. She leaned closer to Bingley, her whisper loud enough to be heard in the kitchen. "So you do not employ him in any capacity?"
"Employ Darcy? Lord, no! I would be more likely to work for Darcy than the other way around."
Temporarily speechless, Mrs Bennet fanned herself with a handkerchief but if she felt any embarrassment it was of short duration. "I cannot recall when I have been so mislead! Of course, had I met Mr. Darcy before this evening, I would have recognised at once that he could not be a steward."
Darcy heard a noise to his right--something between a choke and a snort--and glanced at Mr. Bennet, who returned an expression of such innocence that it would not have looked out of place on one of the heavenly host.
As the meaning of Mrs Bennet's words sunk in, Darcy stiffened. The stupid woman had thought he was the steward! Fitzwilliam Darcy, a man who could afford to employ ten stewards if he so chose. Schooling his features to outward calm, Darcy bristled at the idea that even a woman of Mrs Bennet's ilk could believe him something less than the gentleman he was. He studied the congealing food on his plate, gripping the stem of his wine glass with such force that the fingernails pressed into his palm, but he allowed no sign of his anger to show.
There was a moment of discomfort, as he suffered the undisguised curiosity of the Bennet family. Then, Mrs Bennet leaned forward in her chair, a martial light in her eye as she began to redress her lack of attention with a series of probing questions. Had he known Mr. Bingley long? How did he find Hertfordshire? What did he think of his friend's choice of estate? Had he considered looking for something similar for himself?
Darcy's terse responses were almost automatic, leaving a part of his mind free to consider the situation he found himself in. He was familiar enough with the way their world worked to know that if Mrs Bennet had thought him a steward, then that same opinion would have likely been shared among the neighbourhood.
But how could Elizabeth, or even Mr. Bennet, allow such falsehood to flourish? Darcy took a breath, and then another as he imagined all the people he had spoken to during his stay at Netherfield. How many more believed him to be the Netherfield steward? Who could have caused this malicious rumour to be put about the neighbourhood? As much as he wanted to know, he pressed his lips together, not yet trusting himself to speak with any complacency.
Mr. Bennet sat back in his chair, his voice pitched for only those closest to hear as he answered Darcy's unspoken question with one of his own. "I wonder what Lizzy was thinking of, spreading such tales."
Her father's comment--offered with only mild curiosity--produced the strongest reaction in Elizabeth, and her face turned the most alarming shade of grey, as though all the blood had drained from her. It could not have been Elizabeth. She knew him better than anyone. And yet, across the table she remained pale and silent, offering neither argument nor defence.
Posted on 2013-05-16
There had been occasions during Elizabeth's life when she had wished to become invisible, to melt into the ground like the last snows of winter. But she had never wanted it more than in the complete stillness that followed her father's words. She had hoped for his support, but instead he had chosen the cruelest moment in which to censure her.
Her eyes instinctively darted across the table, only to see Mr. Darcy's noble features turn to stone. Unwilling to watch his regard for her crumble before her eyes, her gaze sank to the table as she stared at the napkin wrung between her hands. Fortunately, Mr Bingley chose that moment to divert attention by revealing his future plans for Netherfield, which left only those closest listening to her reply.
She reached for her wine and swallowed a mouthful, hoping to wash away the lump that had formed in her throat. Replacing the glass with a shaky hand, she said, "I…I think it was Mr. Sutton who first told me there was a new steward at Netherfield." Although she directed the reply to her father, she knew Mr. Darcy would be listening with no less interest. "When I went to the house to see about the blocked stream I asked particularly to speak to the steward, and the young footman took me to what looked like the steward's rooms. That was where I first met Mr. Darcy."
As she recalled the circumstances of their first meeting, her nerves calmed and she continued with tolerable composure. "As no one took the trouble to inform me that there was, as yet, no steward at Netherfield, I believed the gentleman I had met in that room was the steward. What else should I have thought?" She threw her question across the table as a challenge, but Elizabeth made the error of glancing at Mr. Darcy's face as she spoke, and her fledgling defiance withered under his steady gaze.
His response, when it came, had a cold edge to it. "I was not informed that you had asked particularly for the steward. Had I realised you were labouring under such a misapprehension, you can be certain I would have enlightened you."
"How should I have known you were not who I expected when you never said anything to contradict it?"
"To a clear-sighted, intelligent young woman such as yourself, I would think it was obvious."
Her father offered his own peculiar form of conciliation. "While neither of you has been entirely candid during your conversations, it seems we can lay some of the blame at the feet of an inexperienced footman."
At this point, Mrs Bennet's attention once more swung to their end of the table as she caught the tail-end of her husband's sentence. "Oh, I agree. Hiring new servants is always such a trial, particularly when you are setting up a new household. I do not know what I would do without Mrs Hill."
Mr. Bennet made no effort to correct his wife's misunderstanding, and for that small mercy Elizabeth was grateful. The end of the meal soon followed, and Mrs Bennet reluctantly ushered her daughters out of the dining room, allowing the gentlemen to enjoy their after-dinner drinks free of feminine conversation.
Elizabeth's relief at being released from Mr. Darcy's accusing glare was short lived once her mother had settled herself on the settee. "Lizzy, what on earth caused you to tell everyone Mr. Darcy was a steward? Why would you do such a thing?"
Repeating the story of their first meeting for her mother's benefit, she dwelt upon the state of the dingy office while laying particular stress on her first impressions of his appearance.
"Well, perhaps the boy should have introduced you both in a proper manner, and what your father was doing sending you to Netherfield alone is more than I will attempt to guess. But Lizzy, you ought to know better. A speck of dust on his coat does not turn a gentleman into a steward, and you cannot go around telling people things that are untrue. I've never been so embarrassed!"
Freed from the weight of Mr. Darcy's presence, Elizabeth's courage rose. "Then my memory must be at fault because I do not recall sharing those first impressions with anyone outside my own family. I can and do blame myself for many things, but I met no one beyond these walls who had not already heard about Mr. Darcy from someone else." She left the accusation hanging in the air, but Mrs Bennet's silence was as much an admission of guilt as she would ever get.
Jane laid a comforting hand on her arm. "Although it was wrong to describe him thus without being absolutely certain, I do not think Lizzy can be entirely to blame. I met Mr. Darcy myself in Meryton and I had no apprehension of his status. It is easy now, with the benefit of hindsight, for us to say he is obviously a gentleman, but even some tradesmen have the means to dress in a gentleman-like fashion, just as men of fortune can choose to be less than precise with their appearance. It is not so easy to determine one from the other upon first glance, without a little knowledge of his position or social standing."
Elizabeth, who had met Mr. Darcy considerably more often than anyone else, could not understand how she had missed the obvious clues. The only excuse she could offer was that she had seen in him no more or less than she expected to see. Indeed, her strong partiality for him had allowed her to look beyond his outward appearance and his hastily tied neck cloth, to the man himself--the man she had fallen in love with.
Mrs Bennet straightened her shawl. "Mr. Bingley did not, of course, reveal his friend's income, but there is no doubt Mr. Darcy's fortune must equal that of his friend. This is what grieves me so. Here are two young men of wealth in our neighbourhood, and Lizzy does nothing but insult them."
"Mr. Bingley seemed more entertained than insulted by the confusion," Jane said. "He told me he had never seen such an expression on his friend's face before."
Mrs Bennet rolled her eyes. "Young men these days find entertainment in the strangest of places. But I cannot deny that, in every other respect, I am quite delighted with our new neighbour. He is so excessively handsome. Do you not think so, Jane?" Although her eldest daughter made no comment, the heightened colour of her cheeks showed that Mr. Bingley's charms had not been lost on her.
"Mr. Darcy did not see the humour in it," Mary observed. "I cannot imagine that he will want to dance with Lizzy at the assembly now"
Her mother's head shot up. "Mr. Darcy asked you to dance?"
Elizabeth sighed, wishing that Mary's memory of their conversation had been less precise. "He did, but that was before he learned of my foolishness. I cannot imagine he desires to be the focus of the neighbourhood now." His avowed love for her could never survive such a blow as he had sustained this evening. Yet, the thought of never seeing Mr. Darcy again--of having no opportunity to apologise or chance to gain his forgiveness--left her bitterly grieving the loss of his regard.
"Well at least Mr. Bingley and his other guests will be there. I knew he would only have to meet Jane to admire her. You did promise to stand up with him when he asked, did you not, Jane?"
"I have no expectation of Mr. Darcy forgiving Lizzy," their mother continued after a brief lull in the conversation, "but that doesn't mean to say he is a lost cause. He might prefer Lydia once he gets to know her." The youngest Bennet daughter made an indelicate sound in the back of her throat. "It does not matter what you think of him. If Jane becomes mistress of Netherfield then Mr. Darcy is just the sort of man you could marry, once he has time to forget this unfortunate incident."
Lydia's eyes grew wide. "Lord, no! He was so serious and angry looking. I would rather have Mr. Bingley."
"That you shall not, for I am quite decided he shall marry Jane," her mother said. "After watching them tonight I am certain he is half in love with her already."
"Then let Kitty make herself agreeable to Mr. Darcy, for she is two years older and she was sat next to him through dinner."
"He hardly spoke a word to me all evening. He spent more time talking to Papa than anyone else. Why cannot Lizzy marry him?"
Despite her stated intentions, Mrs Bennet had not the pliability of mind to drive two horses at once. While focussing her energies on encouraging Mr. Bingley's interest in her eldest daughter, she had no reserves to divert towards the less amiable and talkative enigma that was Mr. Darcy. "You would have just as much chance with Mr. Darcy as anyone. Indeed, more chance than some," she added, casting a glance in Elizabeth's direction. "But I cannot think about Mr. Darcy now. He is a fish we will be at greater liberty to catch once we have Mr. Bingley safely in the net."
They were distracted by the arrival of the tea tray. The maid laid everything out and withdrew at Mrs Bennet's urging. "Jane, you should sit here and offer Mr. Bingley a cup when he comes in. Sit straight, chin up, and don't forget to smile. The gentlemen cannot be much longer, and I want you ready.
Jane began arranging the cups. "Where are all the spoons? I only have one."
Mrs Bennet offered a long-suffering sigh. "Why does it always take so long to train new servants? Ring the bell, Kitty."
Elizabeth, dreading the sight of Mr. Darcy's forbidding countenance when he returned to the drawing room, grasped the opportunity to escape. "No, let me fetch them. It will not take a moment."
Before her mother could object, she slipped from the room into the dimly lit hallway.
When the ladies left, Bingley picked up his glass as he moved closer to their host. "You have given my neighbours a very strange impression of yourself, Darcy. It seems Mrs Nichols was not the only one who believed you were the steward."
"I never thought him so," Mr. Bennet said. When Darcy raised a sceptical brow, the older man added, "Well, not once I had made your acquaintance at least." He pushed his chair back from the table and stretched his legs before him. "Can I interest either of you gentlemen in some very fine port?"
Darcy nudged his glass forward, watching in silence as the servant filled it. Then he drained the contents in one go, determined to erase the worst memories of the evening in as short a time as possible.
Mr. Bennet shook his head. "Come now, Mr. Darcy, Oporto's finest needs to dwell a moment on your palate to fully appreciate its charms."
"After this evening's revelations, I would rather appreciate the oblivion it can provide," Darcy replied, with a great deal more truth than diplomacy.
Bingley reacted with half-laughing alarm. "Things are not so bad. It was an understandable mistake to make."
"Understandable? It is one thing to be mistaken for a…a servant. That is bad enough. It is something entirely different for it to be heard and believed by everyone in the parish." And worse still when the source was the woman he loved.
"That was an unfortunate side effect," Mr. Bennet said as he refilled Darcy's glass. "Elizabeth only needed to tell her mother. That alone would be sufficient to ensure its dissemination across the entire county."
Bingley slapped his hand down on the table. "If you are determined to fault Miss Elizabeth Bennet, then you must also blame me. I should have told Mrs Nicholls who you were before I left for London, but it did not occur to me to do so."
"Consider it a lesson learned. The upper servants cannot read minds and will appreciate you taking a moment to apprise them of your plans." He sighed, wondering how different things could have been if Bingley had been more communicative. "In this particular case your housekeeper's foreknowledge would have countered Miss Bennet's imperfect perception of me."
"I still wonder how such confusion could have arisen in the first place," Bingley said to Mr. Bennet. "There's no mistaking the Master of Pemberley when his will is crossed. Indeed, I do not know a more awful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, and in particular places--his own house especially--and of a Sunday evening when he has nothing to do. Had your daughter met my friend at those times she would have recognised him at once for what he is."
But Elizabeth had never seen that side of him. He had never considered her presence dull or boring, nor felt as though she was flattering or fawning over him. At no time had he needed to depress her pretensions with a look or a curt word. It had not been the Master of Pemberley riding across fields hoping for a glimpse of her, but Fitzwilliam Darcy; a man who, for the first time in his life, had found someone who offered no undue deference, only pleasant, unaffected company and intelligent conversation.
He had discovered a woman who had aroused all manner of emotions within him, not least his sincere appreciation and love. Despite everything that had been revealed, he could not douse the fire that burned for her, and he still wanted her for his own.
Mr. Bennet smiled at Bingley. "I have met the Mr. Darcy you describe. He visited me this morning, in fact. However, I believe he has not made himself known to my daughter." Their host cast a considering glance towards Darcy. "I must proffer my sincere apologies for the embarrassment she has caused you. I had thought her too clever to make such a basic error in judgement."
It seemed to Darcy that Mr. Bennet was content to lay the blame on his daughter's shoulders. "You are too harsh, Sir. Miss Elizabeth remains one of the most intelligent and capable young ladies of my acquaintance." As his resentment subsided, Darcy recognised how unjust a part Mr. Bennet had taken in the scene that had played out over dinner. "You could have avoided most of this evening's unpleasantness, if you had been of a mind."
He did not seem surprised by the accusation. "Do you think so? What would you have done if I had revealed all upon your arrival in the privacy of my room? I doubt you would be sitting here with me now."
Darcy considered the question. While he had been angry upon discovering what everyone thought of him, his greatest disappointment had, at first, been reserved for Elizabeth. Would he have remained at Longbourn? Or might the thought of seeing her again at that moment have been more than he could stomach? In that respect, Mr. Bennet's observation held some truth. He could not have faced dinner with the Bennet family if he had known their assumptions in advance.
Elizabeth's pale, nervous face floated before him like an insubstantial ghost as he recalled her description of their first meeting. Could all this have grown from one simple misunderstanding? It was true that he had never specifically discussed his house or his fortune. He had been far too interested to learn more about her. He had spoken in general terms of Derbyshire, but a description of the house and estate had never passed his lips. How was she to know what manner of property he owned if he had never bothered to tell her?
She had refused his offer because she thought him a poor man, and not because she had no feelings for him. Seen from that perspective he could not argue with her decision. Miss Elizabeth Bennet had not been raised to wed a steward, and regardless of her own inclinations, she had honoured her parents by refusing a match she believed they would condemn.
As Elizabeth now knew the truth, would that change her answer?
"Darcy?" Bingley's voice startled him from his thoughts as his friend waved a hand to attract his attention. "Mr. Bennet wishes to know if you will be attending the assembly tomorrow evening or whether you will cry off."
His first reaction was a strong desire to avoid the curious glances of the neighbourhood, but he knew he could never miss such a valuable opportunity to spend time with Elizabeth.
"Of course," Mr. Bennet added, "if you do decide to go to the assembly, Elizabeth cannot expect you to stand up with her under the circumstances."
The thought of her partnering anyone else had a sobering effect, and Darcy pushed his glass away. "She has promised me a dance, and I hope she will honour that agreement."
"You will find many eager ladies at the assembly tomorrow evening, Mr. Darcy. I do not wish you to feel in any way obligated to Elizabeth."
He heard the words Mr. Bennet had not spoken, and knew the conversation had now moved beyond dancing. "I am not as capricious as you imagine, Sir, nor so easily deflected from my decisions once made."
Mr. Bennet nodded, but seemed relieved. "I am sure Elizabeth will be happy to hear it."
At this point their host rose from his chair to escort them back to the drawing room. As they opened the door, Elizabeth left the parlour. Seeing the gentlemen approaching, she froze. Her father--with a speed that belied his infirmity--ushered Bingley into his book room, where he promised sight of a fascinating Treatise on Human Nature.
The door snapped closed, leaving Darcy and Elizabeth alone.
As their eyes met across the empty hallway, Elizabeth broke the silence, speaking in a low voice so as not to arouse attention. "Mr. Darcy, I must take this opportunity to apologise. I could not let you leave tonight without acknowledging how mortified I feel."
The tremor in her voice almost broke his heart, and he forced his lips into a reassuring smile. "Which mistake would that be? Assuming I was a steward? Rejecting my proposal? Forcing me to seek your father's approval?" Darcy could not decide which had eviscerated his pride the most, but it had taken a severe battering over the last couple of days.
She dropped her gaze to the floor. "All of those things, But you must know I never intended to embarrass you."
He could not be angry with her, not when he loved her so much. Darcy crossed the space in two strides, and raised her chin with the tip of his finger until she met his eyes. "You and I have a great deal to say to one another, but we cannot speak here. Will you meet me tomorrow?"
Elizabeth's eyes widened. "I would not blame you if you refused to speak to me again."
"On the contrary, I would like to put matters straight so there are no more misunderstandings between us. To begin, you must allow me to introduce myself properly. Fitzwilliam Darcy, your humble servant." He offered her a low bow that would not have been out of place at court.
Elizabeth's eyes had already regained some of their usual light. "I might argue with humble, but that was a definite improvement on your first attempt at Netherfield, when I thought I would have to drag your name out of you."
He caught up her fingers, holding them tight. "You did not catch me in the best of moods that day we met."
"Are you always so taciturn when in a bad mood?"
"It has been known," he said with a shrug. Just then they heard the tenor of Mrs Bennet's voice in the room beyond, querulously wondering where Lizzy had got to, and Darcy knew this stolen moment would not last much longer. "Meet me in the morning by the old barn," he whispered.
She shook her head. "I cannot. You know the assembly is tomorrow."
"Then it will have to be early."
Mrs Bennet's voice rose in volume as she repeated her query. "Where is that girl? How long can it take to fetch spoons? And why she offered to go I don't know. What does she think we have servants for?"
Darcy heard Mr. Bennet's voice grow louder, and it seemed as though he and Bingley would return soon. He had no time to lose. "I will wait by the barn an hour after dawn. If you do not come I will know your sentiments remain unchanged and will trouble you no further." He turned away, expecting the library door to open any moment, but he paused as Elizabeth's fingers wrapped around his arm in a firm hold.
Her eyes locked with his. "I promise I will be there, Mr. Darcy."
He peeled her hand away, bringing it to his lips. "And I will hold you to that promise, Miss Bennet."
Posted on 2013-05-23
The swooping trills and chirps of the morning chorus accompanied the dawn as Darcy dressed with speed and efficiency. Chin held high, he allowed his valet to finish arranging his neck cloth, fidgeting hands belying his otherwise calm demeanour. He did not doubt that Elizabeth would make every effort to keep her promise, but until he saw her there could be no certainties.
He eased open his chamber door and glanced up and down the hallway. The footfalls of servants going about their appointed tasks sounded below, but Hypnos' mantle still shrouded the bedrooms. Carrying his boots in one hand, Darcy padded down the hall runner towards the top of the main staircase. He was so focussed on his target that he failed to notice he was not alone.
"Rather early for breakfast, Darcy, even for you." Bingley, dressed in a Moroccan silk robe and slippers, lounged against his door frame.
"I could not sleep. I decided to go out for a stroll."
His friend nodded thoughtfully and ran long fingers through his disordered curls. "That would explain why you ordered your horse saddled, I suppose."
"You do have to walk to reach the stables."
Bingley grabbed his sleeve and pulled Darcy into the semi-darkened chamber, closing the door behind them. "Where are you going?"
He crossed his arms. "That is none of your concern."
"The devil it isn't. My life is none of your concern either, but that doesn't stop you from poking your nose in whenever you feel like it."
"The circumstances are entirely different."
"Because…" Because Darcy had only ever separated his friend from the most unsuitable of attachments, where his emotions were not engaged. He had never interfered where there had been genuine affection on either side.
Bingley dropped onto the end of his bed and squinted at his pocket watch with bleary eyes. "Is it not a touch early in the day to be meeting Miss Elizabeth Bennet?"
Darcy pursed his lips. The less he spoke, the quicker Bingley would tire of his game and let him leave.
"Come now, Darcy, do you think me blind? I am crushed that you rate my powers of observation so low. How could I miss the way you looked at her? Particularly after that fascinating conversation between you and our host after dinner. When Mr. Bennet all but dragged me into his study my suspicions were confirmed. Did you know he stuffed a book in my hand then spent the next few minutes hovering by the door? The man is completely mad. Do you really want to get involved with a mad man's daughter?"
"I fail to see how any of this is your business."
"Your friends are the only ones you can rely on to provide impartial advice. Was that not what you said to me?"
"And I meant every word, but your angel then was, I believe, a milliner's daughter. Not an appropriate connection for a man of your fortune."
"Yet you believe that a young woman who mistook you for my steward will make you a suitable wife?"
Darcy threw his friend a dark look and stamped his feet into his riding boots. "I appreciate, as my friend, that you may have the right to advise me. However, the final decision is mine to make, and in this particular circumstance I am resolved to act in a way that will best constitute my own happiness."
Bingley shrugged. "Well, you cannot say I didn't try." A barely suppressed laugh echoed around the room as Darcy made for the door.
The sun hung inches above the horizon when Elizabeth slipped out of the house, before her mother had risen from her bed, and while her still sleeping sisters were dreaming about that evening's assembly. She made her way over field and stile until she reached the remains of the old barn, and the familiar clearing beyond. It was empty. As she paced across the grass, the anticipation twisted her stomach into knots.
The previous evening had been every bit as difficult as she had feared, but during their short conversation in the hallway Mr. Darcy made his feelings clear enough. Or had he? During the night she had churned the memory around in her head, disturbing the silt at the bottom until his meanings were opaque and confused.
When she had returned to the drawing room, a sheaf of shiny teaspoons clutched in her hand, she had ventured a glance at Mr. Darcy. He looked serious, and listened in silence to her father's conversation with Mr. Bingley.
Eager to make amends for her neglect, Mrs Bennet was mindful to offer every civility to this previously undiscovered gentleman of means. "When you have killed all Mr. Bingley's birds, I beg you will come here, and shoot as many as you please on Mr. Bennet's manor. I am sure he will be vastly happy to oblige you, and will save all the best covies for you."
Elizabeth's misery increased at such unnecessary and officious attention. While she may earn Mr. Darcy's forgiveness it was impossible to imagine that his regard would survive such excess of deference from her mother. Now he had seen her family at its worst, how could she ever be foolish enough to hope for a renewal of his love?
Even if he did repeat his offer, to accept him now would surely smack of the most grasping avarice. She could not wonder if he questioned her motives, for she might easily have suspected herself, had she not experienced the odd twinges in her heart, the loss of breath and the strange bursts of pleasure whenever she was in his presence. She did not covet his status or fine house. All she desired from this life was his respect and love.
The rhythmic beats of hooves on turf caught her ear before Mr. Darcy rode into the clearing. He sat tall on the back of the animal, and Elizabeth took a moment to admire his seat before he swung himself out of the saddle and slid to the ground.
Although Elizabeth had dreamed of him taking her into his arms, as he once had in this very spot, the Mr. Darcy of reality was neither so obliging nor so impulsive. He stopped four feet from her, as though wary of his welcome. "You came," he said, his voice edged with surprise.
"Did you think I might not?"
"I cannot say the possibility did not cross my mind."
"And what would you have done if I had not been here when you arrived?"
He paused to consider his response, and then said, "I would have come to Longbourn to find you. I was not in a humour this morning to put off our conversation."
"I am almost afraid to ask what you thought of me last night, after learning that I was responsible for everyone believing you to be…well, something less than you are."
He took in a breath, releasing it slowly, as though his feelings on the subject were still raw. "I was angry at first, but my anger soon began to take a proper direction. I am not used to being regarded in such a light. Even as a child I was treated with the respect and deference owed to my father's heir. It never occurred to me that anyone would look upon me any other way."
The guilt stung Elizabeth anew, but she masked it with a deprecating laugh as she sat down. "Only I could have mistaken you for a poor steward." She placed her hand on the log to her side. He sat down beside her, accepting her unspoken invitation. His knee brushed against her leg, sending butterflies dancing in her stomach.
"Not all stewards can be described as poor. The position may attract a reasonable salary and even a good sized house if the responsibilities warrant it. My own steward is an excellent man, whom I trust to manage my interests, and I pay him accordingly. However, on a smaller estate such as Netherfield, it is true that the remuneration on offer would be insufficient to keep one of Mr. Bennet's daughters in the style to which they are accustomed. That is why you believed your parents would not accept me, is it not?" Elizabeth nodded. "And you did not think to ask your poor steward whether he had any future expectations that might improve his prospects?"
His softly spoken question gave her hope that she had not entirely lost his regard. "How could I raise a subject that had the power to cause embarrassment, and you never said a word about your income."
"I have never before needed to. It has long ceased to surprise me how my family circumstances are known wherever I go. I imagine many of your neighbours knew Bingley's financial situation before we arrived. Do you not wonder how everyone is aware of his worth without him saying a word on the subject?"
Elizabeth laughed. "That is not difficult to guess. My uncle drew up the lease for Netherfield on behalf of the owners. He had only to mention the circumstances to his wife in passing and you can guarantee the whole of the parish knew every particular by the following Sunday."
"Exactly my point. News like that spreads, particularly in a small community, and that is why I never imagined anyone could mistake me for a steward."
"When you spoke of your home in Derbyshire I had no idea it would be so grand. I owe all I know of it to my father. The description of the library alone had a strong affect upon him."
She felt him stiffen. "One day Mr. Bennet may get chance to view it personally, when I have forgotten his uncharitable performance of last night." He frowned then, staring at the grass beneath his feet. She could only wait, listening to the allegretto beat of her heart against her ribs.
After a few moments, he reached out his hand towards hers, taking it gently. His shoulders relaxed and he seemed to release the firm grip he had on himself as his gaze rose to meet hers. "Despite the revelations of yesterday, my affection and my desires remain unchanged. We both know your parents will offer no objection. Elizabeth, please say you will marry me."
The thought of being Mr. Darcy's wife filled her with a longing so strong she felt it in her bones, but how could she accept his offer without appearing capricious or grasping? "Are you not at all concerned that I might accept you for the wrong reasons, now I have discovered your wealth and consequence?"
"If I was not confident of your feelings I would never have spoken to your father. You loved me even when you thought me a steward. You need not fear that I might think you a fortune-hunter."
The first drop of rain fell on the sleeve of Elizabeth's spencer, followed soon after by another. She jumped up, cursing the darkening sky. "It seems this time the weather is making its objections known. I should return home, before it begins in earnest."
He held her hand in a tighter grip, unwilling to release her. "Then I will take you up on my horse. I am not prepared to let you go so soon."
She glanced up at the sky, and the grey clouds scudding in from the west. "It is too late, the storm is already upon us and we will be soaked through before we have travelled five hundred yards. There's nothing else for it, we have to take shelter." She led him around the end of the barn until they reached an open section where a door had once stood. As they passed through the gap in the stone she picked her way through a narrow weed-choked track between the fallen rubble until they found the inside of the back wall, beneath what remained of the roof.
Moments later, the heavens opened.
He assessed the old timbers above, probably wondering whether they would survive the downpour. "You have been in here before."
"Yes, with Joe. We were caught unawares by a summer shower."
He raised his eyebrows as he looked around. "Hiding with young Joe is one thing, but being here now with a man you have not yet agreed to marry is something quite different."
The disapproval in his tone reminded her of their first meeting, in the steward's office. She laid a reassuring hand upon his arm. "I may have been mistaken about your consequence, but I have no concerns about your character. You will not hurt me."
Mr. Darcy moved with such speed that she found herself pressed against the wall in the time it took her to blink. As she raised her head, his dark eyes looked down into hers. "Being in such close and private proximity to the woman I love, hurting you is the last thing on my mind."
Elizabeth found it impossible to move, or drag her gaze from his. His fingers spread across her back pulled her inexorably closer, until she could barely breathe. For a moment neither spoke, and the only sound was the rain pattering against the stone or dripping from the crinkled burdock leaves.
Then, without warning, Mr. Darcy caught the trailing ribbon beneath her chin. He pulled it, untying the bow that secured her bonnet, and lifted it from her head. "Much better." He smiled, laying it to one side on a block of fallen masonry.
Elizabeth studied his face, partially in shadow. Despite loving him so very much, she was not blind to his faults. "I suppose you are used to getting your way in everything. My first impressions of you were correct."
"And what were they, my love?"
"That you were high-handed and presumptuous."
His soft chuckle echoed through the partially enclosed space. "It is very true, I cannot deny it. Maybe when we marry you will be able to change my ways."
"You forget, I have not yet agreed to take on the task."
He smiled. "But you will."
Rather than being offended by his confidence, she rejoiced in it. "How certain you are in the power of your attractions!"
"I know you enjoy a challenge, and what could be more challenging than the opportunity to mould a husband to your liking?"
Elizabeth ran her finger beneath the edge of his fine blue coat, thumbing the raised pattern on the buttons. "I doubt that a man in your position would so willingly allow himself to be altered, when he is used to having everything arranged to suit his whim."
He sighed, shaking his head. "You sorely underestimate your power over me." His hands rose to hold her face, intensifying his meaning with the gentle strength of his caress. "I love you. There is nothing in this world I would not do for you."
His words, spoken in a way that left no doubt in her mind, washed over her like warm honey. What might she achieve with such a heady advantage? The idea of holding dominion over a man like Mr. Darcy was too tempting to ignore, but one demand took precedent above all, clamouring to be heard. Elizabeth looked into his dark eyes, seeing desire and determination within. "Then I ask only one thing," she whispered, reaching up to cover his large hand with her own. "Make me your wife, so we can be together always."
One moment he was staring down at her, the next their lips were joined as he expressed himself with all the warmth of a man violently in love. As she closed her eyes, Elizabeth was transported to a safe place where any lingering doubts vanished, and where her feelings for the man holding her in his arms with such tender care had room to blossom and grow.
Their first kiss had left her too stunned to appreciate it, but this time she relished his soft lips against hers as he held her close. His mouth claimed her, part demand and part humble entreaty, and now she kissed him back, echoing his movements, imbuing each naïve touch with her love. The familiar fragrance she associated with him wrapped around her, marking her as his. She slid her hands up, clasping her fingers behind his neck, and they stood intertwined as the wind whistled through the gaps in the stone and the rain stabbed at the rubble beyond their crude shelter.
They lost themselves in this manner for some time until Elizabeth, feeling light-headed and giddy with happiness, leant her head against his shoulder. Mr. Darcy seemed no less affected, his chest rising and falling as he pressed gentle kisses across her forehead. A large flat stone offered a place for them to sit, and she turned to face him, determined to fix every feature and expression firmly in her memory so she could enjoy them again later. In truth, she could not draw her gaze from him and scarcely believed that the handsome gentleman patiently enduring her scrutiny might soon become her husband.
As the rain continued, he spoke mostly of his family, particularly his younger sister, and promised that he would write to inform Georgiana of their betrothal upon his return to Netherfield.
"And I must tell my aunt and uncle the good news."
His thumb stroked the back of her hand. "I assume you are referring to your relations in Cheapside? The ones you described with such love and enthusiasm?"
Elizabeth cringed as she recalled their conversation. "What must you have thought of me? I wanted my poor steward to know that there was more to me than being a gentleman's daughter. Had I known you were not a steward I would never have spoken so."
"Then I am glad you did not know, for I would not have missed the description of your cousin Henry for the world. He sounds like a thorough scamp."
"He is, but a delightful one. I hope you will not ask me to disdain the connection, for I value my aunt and uncle's opinion most highly. They are sensible people and my uncle is nothing like his sister."
"If it means that much to you, then of course you may continue to see them. I am not such an ogre as to deny you contact with your family."
Elizabeth racked her brain, wondering what else he might agree to if asked. "Would you allow me to help on your estate, as I did for my father?"
A knowing smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "You would put my steward out of work? He has a wife to support and their second child on the way."
"Then I would not dream of hurting him. The poor man's job is safe from me, but I would like to think I could be useful."
"And so you shall. Do not assume that the mistress of Pemberley has nothing to do except sit every day on a silk cushion. There will be no shortage of things and people that will require your attention--least of all a devoted husband--and if you ever miss your father's turnips I will be more than happy to oblige you with a discussion on the topic."
The rain cleared as quickly as it had arrived, leaving everything outside their shelter dripping and glistening in the weak autumn sunlight. While neither wished to part so soon, Elizabeth knew that she would risk the wrath of her mother's nerves if she remained absent from home any longer.
Mr. Darcy pulled her closer, stealing a final lingering kiss before he helped replace her bonnet. The thought of being separated, now they had come to an understanding, was only made tolerable by the fact that they would see each other again later that evening.
She had agreed to inform her parents of their betrothal before the assembly. Elizabeth guessed that Mr. Darcy wished it known so he could monopolise her company, as he had sworn she would dance with no other. As she arrived home and crossed the threshold into the hall, she heard her father's voice. "Lizzy? Is that you?"
"Yes, Papa." She pushed open the door and stepped inside his library.
Mr. Bennet studied her over the rim of his spectacles. "Where have you been?"
"Out for a walk."
"I trust Mr. Darcy is well this morning."
She felt herself colour. "I…how did you--?"
"I was not born with grey hair. You must give me some credit for being young once. I hope you have now settled your differences?"
"Yes, we have."
"And this time you gave him a more positive response?"
She nodded. "I hope you have no objection?"
He waved a lazy hand. "As I told you yesterday, I am sure he will make you very happy. All you have left to do now is reveal the news to your mother." He tipped his head, listening. "And unless I miss my mark, your chance will come sooner than you think."
Elizabeth stepped back as the door flew open and her mother stormed into the room, flapping her shawl and calling for her hartshorn. "Oh, Mr. Bennet! Elizabeth is missing and none of the maids have seen her this morning. What should I do?"
Mr. Bennet sat quite still as he studied his wife. "There is only one thing to do. I must offer you my congratulations, for you will soon have your most fervent wish granted: a daughter married." He nodded to the corner of the room where Elizabeth stood.
His wife turned around as her brows shot beneath the lace of her cap. "Lizzy? But how? Who?"
"The gentleman in question is Mr. Darcy, the how I will leave to your imagination."
"But she called him a steward, insulting him in every possible way!" Mrs Bennet cried as she dropped into the old leather chair, sinking into its capacious depths like a pig in a puddle.
"If Mr. Darcy thinks no less of her for it, who am I to argue?"
"Engaged? To Mr. Darcy!" She fanned her face with her handkerchief. "Who would have thought it? Is it really true?"
"I certainly hope it is true. He seems determined to have her, and I am not of a mind to argue with a gentleman of his standing. Are you not pleased, my dear?"
"Pleased? Of course I am pleased! A daughter married, and to such a rich, handsome man. But what will the neighbours say? They still think him a steward. I cannot have them thinking Lizzy is marrying a steward. That will never do."
"Then I assume you will take steps to correct the deficiency. What was done by evil report can be undone in the same fashion, and what better place to do it than at an assembly, where the great and good gather to partake in harmless entertainment and gossip about their neighbours… and not necessarily in that order."
The mention of the imminent assembly ball recalled Mrs Bennet to her senses, and she subjected her daughter to a horrified appraisal. "Lizzy! Where have you been? What did you do to your hair? How I can contrive to make you look the least bit respectable for tonight I will never know." On her third attempt she released herself from the chair's grasp. "You're soaked through…and look at that mud on your boots!"
Elizabeth glanced down, noticing for the first time the unfortunate results of her journey back from the barn after the storm had blown over.
"We must make you look perfect for Mr. Darcy. Get upstairs to your room and I will call for Sarah to prepare your bath. Sarah? Sarah!"
Elizabeth waited until her mother had scuttled from the library before rolling her eyes. She was about to follow Mrs Bennet, when her father stopped her.
"After some consideration, I find Mr. Darcy's opinion on you walking out alone has some merit. Should you feel the need to take any further early morning rambles I trust you will take one of the maids with you?"
"My dear, Mr. Darcy is a man of consequence. If he values you so highly that he wishes to marry you, the least I can do is keep you safe for the short time you remain under my protection. Whenever Mr. Darcy wishes to visit you, he may do so in the parlour with my blessing."
Elizabeth wished her father had not chosen such an inconvenient moment to rekindle an interest in his family's affairs. She could only imagine how her betrothed might react to such a restriction. It seemed that Mr. Darcy would now have to accustom himself to an overprotective parent instead of a lax one, and he would only have himself to blame.
Posted on 2013-05-30
Elizabeth reached the top of the stairs and cast her eyes around the assembly hall just as the musicians tuned their instruments and the first group of dancers milled about in the middle of the room. She had hoped to find Mr. Darcy waiting for her, but although she craned her neck and stood on tip-toe, there was no sight of him.
Mr. Bennet, standing between Elizabeth and Jane, studied his surroundings with a marked lack of enthusiasm. "Well, is this not delightful?"
Jane smiled at her father's sardonic tone. "It is not too late to ask John to take you home, if you are too tired."
"I have been stuck in the house long enough. I may not be able to dance but I can pass a few pleasant hours with my neighbours. They will be more tolerable for having played least-in-sight these past weeks. I will rest in that chair over there, near Mrs Phillips and Mrs Long."
As they watched him heading towards the chaperones, Jane grasped her hand. "Why would papa choose to sit with Aunt Phillips? He can barely tolerate her."
"He could not have been so starved of company while his leg mended. Did we neglect him during his convalescence, do you think?"
"I thought not, but see him now conversing so comfortably with Mrs Long!" Jane gave her a sideways glance. "Maybe he is revealing the good news about you and Mr. Darcy?"
She could not doubt it. Everyone in Longbourn House with a pair of working ears had heard about Elizabeth's betrothal before she had returned to her chamber that morning. Jane had been the least surprised of them all--except for their father--for she'd had some inkling about the direction of her sister's thoughts of late. Preparing for the ball had taken Elizabeth twice as long as usual. While she was keen to look her best, her mother had constantly interrupted with her own particular form of advice on how her daughter could improve her looks for the man who would soon be her husband.
They moved across to the other side of the assembly room, where her mother stood with Mary. Lydia and Kitty had already found partners and only waited for the music to begin, but where was Mr. Darcy?
A stir of excitement swept around the room as another party appeared at the door. Elizabeth recognised Mr. Bingley, who was accompanied by two well-dressed ladies and another man she had never met. As far as Elizabeth was concerned, the others might not have existed because then she caught a glimpse of Mr. Darcy, standing tall behind them, looking every inch the gentleman of fashion. Her heart leapt, as though she had not seen him for a month rather than a matter of hours. He raised his chin as his eyes skimmed over the heads of the dancers searching for her, just before the crowds moved and obscured him from view.
Many of those present had yet to meet the new tenant of Netherfield, and Elizabeth heard a proportionate increase in the excitement as news of his arrival spread through the room. Even those who were dancing attempted to gain their first sight of the young man from the north with a reputed income of four or five thousand a year. One of the two women in Mr. Bingley's party turned to Mr. Darcy and whispered close to his ear, causing Elizabeth a brief stab of jealousy.
"Those ladies will be Mr. Bingley's sisters," Jane said. "He told me one of them is married, so that other gentleman might be her husband. How elegant they look! Their beautiful dresses could only have come from a modiste in town. It must be so dreadfully uncomfortable, walking into a ballroom where you have no acquaintance. We should ask Mr. Bingley to provide us with an introduction."
But to this charitable speech, Elizabeth listened with only half an ear. Tamping down her impatience, she waited for Mr. Darcy.
As Bingley's chaise and the Hursts' carriage rolled towards the assembly that evening, Darcy took the opportunity to reveal the news of his engagement, while he and Bingley were alone. His friend stuck a finger in his ear and waggled it. "I must be going deaf. For a moment there it sounded as though you said you were getting married."
Darcy sighed, regretting that he had not revealed his betrothal earlier that afternoon, while they were still at Netherfield. Bingley was too excited over the prospect of dancing to be entirely serious on the subject. "You heard me well enough."
"I am more relieved than anything else. After I caught you creeping out of Netherfield this morning, I hoped you would do the decent thing. It only remains for me to offer you my hearty felicitations." He clapped his hand on Darcy's shoulder. "I am sure Caroline and Louisa will be equally entranced by the news of your upcoming nuptials."
He had no thought to spare for Bingley's sisters, as they were driving down the High street and would arrive at their destination at any moment. Conflicting feelings stirred in his breast. On one hand, he was eager to see Elizabeth, but even that could not outweigh his natural abhorrence of assemblies such as the one they would attend tonight.
Darcy had always been uncomfortable socialising with strangers, particularly when he had no way of knowing their relative position in society. Worse still, tonight he would be entering a room where some of the occupants might yet believe him to be a steward, rather than a gentleman of rank and fortune. Until the revelation of the previous night's dinner, he had not appreciated just how vital it was for Fitzwilliam Darcy to secure and hold the respect of those he met.
The only bright spot on an otherwise stormy horizon was the fact that Elizabeth would be there with him. Thinking about his beloved rekindled the memory of their meeting earlier that morning, and how it had felt to finally have her in his arms, knowing she would soon be his wife. For him it could not come soon enough.
As the chaise pulled up outside Meryton's assembly rooms, Darcy fidgeted as he waited for the groom to open the door. He looked up to the first floor, where large windows cast a warm, welcoming beacon into the night sky and imagined Elizabeth up there waiting for him. Darcy took a step towards the door before he felt a firm grip on his arm. "I know you are eager to see your betrothed, but should we not wait for Hurst and the ladies?"
The occupants of the other carriage then joined them, and Miss Bingley surveyed the building with a sneer. "How quaint." Her laughter, echoed moments later by her sister, cut through the night air with the charm of a blunt razor. "Do you think we will be quite safe here, Mr Darcy?"
"I do not see why not," he replied as they began to climb the stairs. "Your brother's neighbours are quite unexceptional." A sudden image of Mrs Bennet assailed his memory, and a shiver ran though him. He did not doubt that he would learn to tolerate her--for Elizabeth's sake--as long as he was not thrust into her company too often.
The ballroom was smaller than he expected and already crowded with people. The first group of dancers had taken their places, and the musicians struck up a country dance. Waiting for their turns with giddy enthusiasm were the two youngest of Elizabeth's sisters, and he knew that the other members of the Bennet family would not be far away. He searched the room, spotting Mr. Bennet at one end, chatting to a clutch of older ladies with all the animation of a flock of starlings. The image of Elizabeth's father swapping gossip with the oldest tabbies in town did not match with anything Darcy knew of him, but he had given up trying to decipher Mr. Bennet's reasoning behind his behaviour.
Sir William Lucas waylaid Bingley as he stepped through the door. The older man, puffed up with a sense of his own importance, offered Darcy a welcome tinged with only the slightest discomfort. "I understand we have been labouring under a misapprehension, giving you the feathers of a dunnock instead of those of a noble hawk. Although I cannot imagine anyone meeting you tonight could mistake your quality, Sir."
Darcy had indeed instructed his man to attend to the smallest detail, ensuring that no one with eyes could question his status. Even Miss Bingley had commented on his ensemble before they had left Netherfield, wondering why he should go to so much trouble for a group of country provincials. Of course, his efforts were not for their benefit. Tonight he would be dancing with Elizabeth, and claiming her as his. He wanted to look his best for her.
As Sir William led Bingley into the room, offering introductions for anyone he had not yet met, Caroline laid a finger on Darcy's arm. "What was that man speaking of with his birds and feathers? How very odd he is."
"Not odd, but perhaps he was slightly embarrassed. There was a mistaken belief in the area that I was your brother's steward." It was strange how those words did not bother him as much as they had.
Her eyes grew wide as she clutched his arm with a firmer grip. "Outrageous! How was that possible? I hope you gave them one of your set-downs. I would have given much to see it."
Darcy dwelt on the memory of Elizabeth standing alone and apologetic in the darkened hallway at Longbourn. By the time the opportunity had presented itself, he'd had no desire to chastise her for the misunderstanding. Her happiness was the only thing that now mattered to him.
"How can you take such an insult so calmly? I would have been mortified if such a thing were to happen to me."
"Then it was fortunate that it fell to my lot and not yours." Once Miss Bingley had turned away to speak to Mrs Hurst, he caught sight of Elizabeth, standing next to Miss Bennet on the other side of the room. The two of them were whispering together but there were too many people for him to see as much of her as he would like. It took him a few precious minutes to negotiate between the couples on the floor and those around the side who were not dancing.
Elizabeth had not noticed his approach, as she had been peering over the crowd looking at the door. He moved silently behind her, touching his fingers to her back as he bent close to her ear. "Good evening, Miss Bennet."
Surprised, she turned, her radiant smile relighting the embers that burned for her. "Good Evening, Mr. Darcy. I hope you have no second thoughts over your morning's work, for my mother knows all. And what my mother knows will be common knowledge soon enough."
"I may live to regret many things, but marrying you will never be one of them." His neck prickled, as though he was under some close scrutiny, but he refused to turn around or even acknowledge the feeling. Instead, he offered his arm. "Will you walk with me?"
As they circled the room, accepting the greetings and congratulations of the Bennet's friends and neighbours, Darcy began to relax. Not only had they been generous of Elizabeth's good fortune, but they had also been unusually amicable to him. It was more than the respect and deference owed to someone of a superior rank. He could detect no obsequious flattery in their words or an eagerness to please, only a genuine warmth and pleasure in his presence. It was not until after their fourth such meeting that he questioned Elizabeth on the reason for it.
She leaned closer, as though about to impart a great secret. "I wish I could say that your consequence engenders their respect, but I cannot. It is not who you are but what you have done that earned their admiration."
Darcy searched his memory. "Done? Apart from stealing away the loveliest woman in the parish, I did nothing."
"To you, no doubt, it was nothing. You probably gave it no more weight than you would to any of the other estate matters you dealt with on your arrival. But believe me, it was no small thing to arrange for Mrs Jamison's roof to be repaired."
"She is a Netherfield tenant of good standing. Her cottage belongs to the estate and it is the estate's responsibility to make repairs. I did nothing more than the steward should have done a long time ago."
"Yes, but he did not mend the roof, and you did. Mrs Jamison might only be a tenant farmer but she is well known in the area. She is generous with her opinions, and thinks you are no less than an angel sent from on high. You may not have seen or spoken to many people during your stay at Netherfield, but through her everyone knows of you and your thoughtfulness."
Startled, Darcy was not sure what to say to this revelation. He had done nothing more than he would have expected of his steward at Pemberley. The difference, he supposed, was that his own tenants enjoyed a certain level of consideration from their landlord. The tenants of Netherfield had lived with an inefficient and dishonest man and knew no different. "I did nothing more than was necessary, but you may make a virtue of it by all means."
Mr. Bennet then came towards them, leaning heavily against his cane. "Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy. I thought to see you dancing."
"I have been introducing Mr. Darcy to some of our neighbours."
"That is good. So have I." He dropped into one of the chairs that stood around the edge of the room and sighed. "That's better. Now, Elizabeth, unless my ears are deceiving me, that cacophony means they are getting ready to begin the next set. Mr. Darcy, take my daughter onto the floor and try to enjoy yourselves."
"Mr. Bennet is correct. You did promise me a dance, and this seems like the perfect opportunity." As they waited for the set to form, he allowed himself a moment to savour the sight of his intended. Although Elizabeth's evening dress was less ornamented than those he might see in town, the simple, unadorned lines showed her figure to good advantage and the pearls in her hair swayed and shivered as she looked around. Then the music began and Elizabeth met his eyes, smiling, as the first couples took up the sequence of movements.
He held her gaze, his mind whispering wordless promises as he allowed his focus to travel down her neck and along the delicate bones towards her shoulder, like a soft caress. Elizabeth shivered and smiled, and a blush of pink blossomed on her cheek. At an assembly such as this, and with the eyes of almost everyone upon them, he could not feel her softness within his embrace, or taste the sweetness of her lips. But he could listen to her enticing laughter, and watch how gracefully she danced, convinced that his betrothed was beyond doubt the most handsome woman of his acquaintance.
The second piece of music was a quadrille, and no matter where he moved, weaving around and across the other dancers, Elizabeth's presence was a steady flame. The closer they came, the greater the warmth, until he touched her hand. Then, the heat sparked between their fingers, fusing them together for a brief moment in time before they returned to their places ready to repeat the exercise.
A shrill discordance at the side of the room marred the atmosphere, like a thistle growing amid a field of daffodils. Heads turned and the dancers lost their concentration, stepping outside the pattern and losing their place.
As Elizabeth heard the raised voices behind her, he saw her shoulders stiffen and the hint of a frown cross her brow. Separated by a generous yard of oak parquetry, he wondered which member of the Bennet family was responsible for the disruption to her equanimity this time.
They clapped as the music and the set came to an end. He would have preferred to pull Elizabeth off the dance floor and into his arms, to smooth away the worry and wrap her in his love and protection. Instead, he accepted the fingers she entrusted to his grasp and steered her back to her mother's side.
He assumed the bird-like squawk of indignation had originated with Mrs Bennet, but he had been wrong. The Bennet matriarch betrayed barely a ripple of concern as she faced down the young woman who stood before her.
Bingley's sister cast a disdainful glare at her adversary. "I realise it is easy to become confused and disoriented, particularly in a small room such as this where the air is so oppressive. Ah, here is Mr. Darcy now. I am sure he will clear up this trifling matter for us." There was a note of triumph in Miss Bingley's tone as she turned her wide smile towards him. "Mrs Bennet was just telling me your good news. It appears I should offer my felicitations."
Miss Bingley's statement--wrapped in a challenge and tied with a generous length of scepticism--invited him to put the older woman firmly in her place. He had not intentionally neglected to tell Bingley's family of his betrothal that afternoon. The thought had simply never crossed his mind. In hindsight, he ought to have known better, but his desire to reveal his happiness to his sister had overridden every other consideration. His selfishness had prompted this scene, and had caused his beloved unnecessary distress.
He moved Elizabeth closer, pulling her hand through his arm and covering her fingers with his, a possessive gesture he hoped no one could miss. "Thank you, Miss Bingley. May I introduce Miss Elizabeth Bennet? I am pleased to say she has kindly consented to be my wife."
Miss Bingley had thought to hear a denial, or maybe even a denunciation from him, but he had disappointed her. For a few seconds she stood in shock. Then her eyes narrowed before she plastered a false smile onto her face and offered Elizabeth a brief curtsey. "You are certainly full of surprises tonight, Mr. Darcy. I would never have guessed that you had such momentous news to share." Her voice sounded sharp and brittle as broken glass. She glanced towards Elizabeth, but her eyes faltered, unable to maintain her glare. "You must excuse me while I find my sister and acquaint her with your joyous tidings."
Mrs Bennet watched her leave. "I cannot fault that dress of Miss Bingley's. How many ells of Brussels lace it took I cannot begin to imagine. It must have cost a fortune! But now I have spoken to her I find she is not at all pleasing. 'Tis a pity she isn't more like her brother, for I have never met a more agreeable gentleman, but his sister…so proud, so disagreeable! She believes herself above her company and fancies herself so very great!"
Although Elizabeth attempted to distract her mother, Mrs Bennet would not be silenced. "How dare she suggest I had misunderstood the situation? How can a mother misunderstand when a man asks to marry her own daughter? Any sister of our dear Mr. Bingley will always be welcome in my house, to be sure, but it will sorely try my patience to be pleasant to her.''
Sir William Lucas and his wife then joined them, along with a daughter clearly familiar to Elizabeth. Their arrival gave Mrs Bennet the opportunity to vent her spleen to a new and willing audience and Darcy stepped back from the group to allow himself a moment to breathe. The news of their engagement was now known around the assembly. Elizabeth--in whispered conversation with Miss Lucas--would occasionally glance over to him and smile. When Sir William complimented him on carrying away the brightest jewel of the country, Darcy accepted his comments with resigned composure. The lifetime he would spend with Elizabeth seemed more than adequate recompense for tolerating one evening of banal conversation in Meryton.
Mr. Bennet sat a few yards away, his stick tapping the ground in time with the music. Not willing to loom over the older man, Darcy was forced by common courtesy to take the seat next to his and they remained there a moment in silent contemplation. Then Mr. Bennet cleared his throat. "You know, this evening I have spoken to people I have not seen for six months or more."
"That must have been very pleasant for you."
"Not really, no. It only reminded me why I never attend these damn fool assemblies. Ah, here is Mr. Bingley. At least he has enjoyed himself."
A grinning Bingley collapsed in the chair next to Darcy with the exhaustion of a man who had danced almost every dance. "This has been such a delightful assembly! It is a shame that it will not go on longer. I could dance all night. What do you think, Darcy? Is this not preferable to standing in the corner, complaining that you know no one and refusing to dance?"
Darcy agreed, but then he would dance with Elizabeth every night if she wished it. The evening had certainly not been the embarrassment he had feared, as news of his status had spread throughout the room with almost frightening efficiency. He would not have been surprised if Elizabeth's father had been partly responsible.
Mr. Bennet dipped his head, studying Darcy over the rim of his spectacles. "You must be tired, considering you were awake so early this morning."
"Ridiculously early," Bingley agreed as he shook an accusing finger towards Elizabeth's father. "You must have heard them speaking. There was no way you could have guessed otherwise."
"How could I when neither spoke above a whisper?" Mr. Bennet said with no trace of embarrassment. "But I know my daughter, and I know enough of Mr. Darcy here to form an educated guess what would happen if we left them to their own devices. You should learn to trust my judgement."
Bingley grumbled as he thrust a hand in his pocket. A flash of silver followed as he tossed a coin into Mr. Bennet's waiting hand.
Darcy, listening to their conversation with growing disquiet, glared at Elizabeth's father. "The two of you wagered half a crown on whether we would marry?"
The older man chuckled. "No, no. I merely suggested that I would not be surprised if you and Elizabeth found some way to meet again before this evening. Mr. Bingley did not believe you would do such a shocking thing. He was wrong, of course."
That would explain Bingley's strange behaviour that morning, and his half-hearted attempt to dissuade him from leaving the house. "I hope Elizabeth never gets to hear about this," he warned them both.
Her father smiled with a placid innocence Darcy found unnerving. "Of course not. There is no reason at all why she should."
When she had finished talking with Charlotte, Elizabeth glanced around the room, searching for Mr. Darcy. It took a few moments before she noticed him sitting with her father and Mr. Bingley.
The latter's notice had been drawn across the room, and the focus of his attention was on Jane. The two had already danced together once and she would not be surprised if Mr. Bingley asked Jane a second time. When Elizabeth looked again, her father was now alone, and she had barely had a moment to wonder where Mr. Darcy had gone before she felt his presence at her side.
"I wonder if you would do me the great honour of standing up with me for the next, Miss Bennet."
"If you are willing to suffer through another crush for the sake of dancing with me, your admiration must be stronger than even I realised."
His dark eyes looked down into hers, as though searching her very soul. "You are exquisite, and well you know it. I have never much enjoyed dancing before, but it seems that I only needed the right partner."
"In that case it would be cruel of me to refuse you." Smiling, she joined him for the cotillion, which Elizabeth preferred. For one thing, within their small circle of four couples she was never more than a few steps away from Mr. Darcy, and when his hand took hers it felt more intimate than with any of the other gentlemen in their group. By this time the floor was quite crowded and, to avoid the other dancers, Mr. Darcy pulled her closer to his side than was proper, his fingers lingering possessively on her waist, or brushing against her arm. Elizabeth gasped, her eyes darting around, but everyone else was too concerned with their own affairs to notice.
In a moment of quiet, Elizabeth grew sensible of the conversations swirling around them. As always while dancing, the exchange of local gossip was almost as important as the figures, and snippets of news swapped hands with a greater frequency than one changed partners.
As she passed down the outside of the line she caught brief scraps of conversation.
"…he has family in the north, you know…"
Elizabeth thought it very natural that Mr. Bingley would be the object of such interest and speculation in a neighbourhood where he had recently become resident.
"…a very grand estate in Derbyshire ... almost a palace!"
And it seemed that her betrothed's circumstances were now also a matter of public discussion, as he himself had predicted only that morning.
Everyone clapped as a couple chasséd between the two rows of dancers. Behind Elizabeth, Mrs Long and Mrs Robinson were busy gossiping at the side of the room. She had not intended to eavesdrop but the mention of a familiar name drew her notice.
"I was never so shocked!" Mrs Long cried. "Mr. Darcy a gentleman, and worth no less than ten thousand a year! Who would have believed it? And yet it must be true, for Mr. Bennet told me himself."
Mrs Robinson agreed, pronouncing the Bennet family the luckiest in the neighbourhood.
Hearing how the gossip and speculation had grown with every re-telling, Elizabeth laughed as she imagined what Mr. Darcy would say when she told him. When the set was over, he returned her to the side of the room. "I am curious to learn what has made you smile so."
Elizabeth described the conversation she had overheard. "You will be relieved to hear that you are no longer thought a steward. Instead you are now a prince among men, living in a grand palace in Derbyshire with no less than ten thousand pounds a year." She imagined the picture they had created and rolled her eyes. "Where they get these ideas from I have no notion."
"Pemberley is not a palace, and I am not a prince, but I cannot deny that when my father died I inherited the estate in an excellent financial position. I am fortunate in my circumstances, so as you see, I am well able to afford a wife."
"You should not jest about such things."
"It may be a failing of mine, but I cannot bring myself to joke about money."
"But …but ten thousand pounds a year? It is wholly impossible!"
"There is nothing impossible about it, but I did not imagine it would make you so unhappy."
Elizabeth, shocked by the revelation, managed a weak smile. "Mr. Darcy, please believe I had no idea about your income."
"And well I know it! You thought me a penniless steward." He leaned closer, to whisper in her ear. "As you will be helping me to spend that money, the least you can do is call me by my Christian name. I have a sudden desire to hear it upon your lips."
Elizabeth glanced around to see if anyone else was in earshot, then she blushed as she murmured, "Fitzwilliam." Just speaking his name aloud made her feel wonderfully strange. "I could not possibly spend all that money, no matter how hard I try."
"That is why I love you. At least I do not have to fear you bankrupting me with your extravagant tastes. Besides, I have it on excellent authority that no young lady can excel at anything if she does not practise. We shall start on small items…jewellery, gloves, and maybe a book or two. Then once you have accustomed yourself to presenting me with those trifling bills we can perhaps move on to the Bond Street modistes. I can trust my aunt to recommend the most outrageously expensive."
"I could not possibly--"
He pressed the tip of his finger to her lips. "You do not know what you are capable of until you try. Once you have proven an adept student I am sure you will want to redecorate your sitting room and perhaps order one or two items from Gillow's. You know I would buy the world if it would make you happy."
Those words, spoken in the gentle tone he reserved just for her, made her heart swell with pleasure. "Then it is fortunate for you that my needs are so modest, for I am sure the world would be beyond even your means, and besides I have nowhere to put it."
He lifted her hand, pressing his lips to her fingers. "I could buy you a box to put it in?"
Elizabeth smiled. "No…give me just the small part wherever you are, and let me keep it close by for the rest of my life. Then I will be quite content."
St. Lawrence's church, Hertfordshire. Early November, 1811.
Thomas Bennet paused by the frost-crusted wall of the churchyard, the crisp, clean chill sending his breath billowing like pipe smoke into the autumn mist. Turning to look back at the church, he shuffled his feet, moving his weight squarely upon the handle of his cane. The ache in his leg only reappeared following unaccustomed exercise, and the throb half way down his shin told him that a rest was past due.
"I knew the length of that aisle would be too much," a rough voice complained behind him. "Come bide a while in the carriage until they're ready."
He glanced over the wall at John, stiff and uncomfortable in his new blue coat. "There will be time enough to rest when Lizzy leaves. I must enjoy her happiness while I can."
After checking that his assistant had a firm hold of the horses, the old retainer moved to his master's side. "Then lean on me, Sir, and we'll enjoy it together."
Elizabeth, now Mrs Darcy, stood with her husband on the path before the church as they received the congratulations of those friends and neighbours who had witnessed the proceedings. She wore a simple yellow gown, without the frills and fripperies sometimes seen on other women, and she had never looked lovelier.
Jane had been a conscientious bridesmaid, playing her role with a calm placidity, even if she spent most of the service sharing blushing glances with the groom's friend. However, Elizabeth's happiness reflected in the glow of her skin, and the wide smile she cast upon her new husband. He had never seen her so radiant.
And well she might be, for Mr. Bennet had to agree that she had caught herself a fine husband. Mr. Darcy towered over many of the well-wishers, his commanding aspect exuding complacency and pride. He was not a patient man. Even with the benefit of a special licence, it must have been hard indeed for him to come to terms with the fact that he would have to wait until all was prepared to Mrs Bennet's satisfaction. The wedding breakfast alone exercised her imagination and she had not settled until she had devised a menu that would satisfy the appetite and consequence of one worth ten thousand a year.
Thomas Bennet knew he would miss his daughter exceedingly. "It will be strange not having Lizzy around."
John shrugged. "Derbyshire is not so far away. You can still visit."
His affection for Elizabeth was strong enough to forgo his usual indolence, and he had even begun to think about travelling to her new home. "I would not object to the sight of Pemberley's library, and it would please me to ensure that my Lizzy is happy rattling around in that big house. Sadly, Mr. Darcy has not entirely forgiven me for meddling in his affairs. You know, I think his biggest character defect is his implacable resentment."
"Don't worry about that, Sir. Your daughter'll soon bring him 'round. She's a great one for managing folks, is Miss Lizzy."
The two men stood in silence, watching them from a comfortable distance. John fished a flask from his pocket, unscrewed the top and offered it to his master. "I see not everyone is happy with the events of today."
Mr. Bennet glanced across the churchyard, its grey, lichen-splotched headstones protruding from the grass like rotten teeth. "Ah, yes. Mr. Bingley's sisters. It appears they had very different expectations for Mr. Darcy."
"Life is full of little disappointments. If the unmarried one has a mite of sense under that fancy bonnet she'll bring her nose down out of the clouds and make the best of things."
"They should take a leaf from Mrs Bennet's book and see it as an opportunity." A movement in the long grass caught his attention. He waited a moment, his eyes focussed on the spot, and soon saw a twitching nose sniffing the air, and quick, mobile ears listening intently for danger. Blast those rabbits. He'd give them danger. "John, did you happen to put a gun in the coach this morning?"
The old servant frowned. "Why would you want to bring a gun to a wedding? Mr. Darcy looks pretty besotted to me. No coercion necessary. You can see him now, chomping at the bit to be away with his bride."
"Not for Mr. Darcy, for that damned rabbit! I have a score to settle."
John laughed out loud, startling the animal, and they both watched the streak of grey-brown fur lope off into the brambles and out of sight. "Things didn't turn out too bad, under the circumstances."
Mr. Bennet sighed. "I would not have objected to a bit of rabbit pie for supper tonight."
"What? When Cook has gone to all that trouble with the fancy wedding breakfast?"
The food had cost a small fortune--only the best for Mrs Bennet's rich and handsome son-in-law--so he supposed he would have to resign himself. "I will deny ever saying this if asked, but I think my wife was right about one thing. One wedding does beget another."
"Ah," John said, nodding sagely. "It'll be Miss Jane next then, Sir?"
He chuckled. "Not much gets past you, does it?"
"We've seen a lot of Mr. Bingley's horse in the stables recently--a big dapple with a nasty temper. It damn near took my finger off yesterday. I'd have to be blind to miss it."
Mr. Bennet rubbed his chin as he recalled the somewhat diffident visitor he had received in his book room the previous afternoon. "Mr. Bingley has decided that his ball at Netherfield next week will be the perfect opportunity to announce their engagement. You know I have the highest admiration for Mr. Darcy, but I think I shall like Jane's husband almost as well as Lizzy's."
"May I offer my congratulations, Sir? If you carry on at this rate you won't have a daughter left unwed by next Easter."
He wondered if there wasn't some truth in that. There was a letter, currently sitting in the draw of his desk, which had arrived some time earlier from Kent. With all the fuss of Elizabeth's wedding preparations, he had been remiss in crafting a suitable response, but the situation was not as urgent as it might once have been. If the author--a distant cousin from a lesser branch of the family--had been honest about making amends, then his three remaining unattached daughters could become two soon enough. Although this time he would leave the match-making to his wife. He had found the whole project rather exhausting, and he had better things to do.
The wedding party made its way down the path towards the lych gate. Mr. Darcy, holding Elizabeth close to his side, whispered something in his wife's ear, making her blush. The newlyweds paused a moment under the eaves as the guests and spectators cheered and clapped. But the bride and groom, who were the focus of the applause, seemed to ignore the noise and attention. Indeed they were oblivious to everything except each other. Mr. Darcy, gazing at Elizabeth with his heart in his eyes, pulled her into his embrace and kissed her, with the certainty and assurance of a man who held all he could ever desire.
Mr. Bennet, finding himself unusually affected by the touching scene, blinked and consoled himself with the knowledge that Elizabeth had gained the conjugal felicity and domestic comfort he had lacked.
John came forward, offering a supporting arm to assist him back to the carriage. "They make a very handsome couple, Sir."
"Lizzy and her husband deserve every happiness. You know I could not have parted with her to anyone less worthy."The End