Posted on 2015-05-14 & 2015-05-17
"I imagine your cousin brought you down with him chiefly for the sake of having somebody at his disposal," said Elizabeth Bennet to her walking companion, Colonel Fitzwilliam. "I wonder he does not marry, to secure a lasting convenience of that kind. But perhaps his sister does as well for the present, and, as she is under his sole care, he may do what he likes with her."
"No," answered the Colonel, "that is an advantage which he must divide with me. I am joined with him in the guardianship of Miss Darcy."
"Are you, indeed? And pray what sort of guardians do you make? Does your charge give you much trouble? Young ladies of her age are sometimes a little difficult to manage, and if she has the true Darcy spirit, she may like to have her own way."
As she spoke she observed him looking at her earnestly; and the manner in which he immediately asked her why she supposed Miss Darcy likely to give them any uneasiness, convinced her that she had somehow or other got pretty near the truth.
She directly replied, "You need not be frightened. I never heard any harm of her; and I dare say she is one of the most tractable creatures in the world. She is a very great favorite with some ladies of my acquaintance -- Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley. I think I have heard you say that you know them."
"I know them a little. Their brother is a pleasant, gentlemanlike man. He is a great friend of Darcy's."
"Oh! yes," said Elizabeth dryly. "Mr. Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr. Bingley, and takes a prodigious deal of care of him."
"Care of him! Yes, I really believe Darcy does take care of him in those points where he most wants care. From something that he told me in our journey hither, I have reason to think Bingley very much indebted to him. But I ought to beg his pardon, for I have no right to suppose that Bingley was the person meant. It was all conjecture."
"What is it you mean?"
"It is a circumstance which Darcy, of course, would not wish to be generally known, because if it were to get round to the lady's family it would be an unpleasant thing."
"You may depend upon my not mentioning it."
"And remember that I have not much reason for supposing it to be Bingley. What he told me was merely this: that he congratulated himself on having lately saved a friend from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage, but without mentioning names or any other particulars, and I only suspected it to be Bingley from believing him the kind of young man to get into a scrape of that sort, and from knowing them to have been together the whole of last summer."
"Did Mr. Darcy give you his reasons for this interference?"
"I understood that there were some very strong objections against the lady."
"And what arts did he use to separate them? "
"He did not talk to me of his own arts," Fitzwilliam, smiling. "He only told me what I have now told you."
Elizabeth made no answer, and walked on, her heart swelling with indignation. After watching her a little, Fitzwilliam asked her why she was so thoughtful.
"I am thinking of what you have been telling me," said she. "Your cousin's conduct does not suit my feelings. Why was he to be the judge?"
"You are rather disposed to call his interference officious?"
"I do not see what right Mr. Darcy had to decide on the propriety of his friend's inclination, or why, upon his own judgment alone, he was to determine and direct in what manner that friend was to be happy. But," she continued, recollecting herself, "as we know none of the particulars, it is not fair to condemn him. It is not to be supposed that there was much affection in the case."
"That is not an unnatural surmise," said Fitzwilliam, "but it is lessening the honor of my cousin's triumph very sadly."
This was spoken jestingly; but it appeared to her so just a picture of Mr. Darcy, that she would not trust herself with an answer, and therefore, abruptly changing the conversation, talked on indifferent matters till they separated some distance from the Parsonage.
Elizabeth walked the remaining distance to the house by herself. As she approached the front door, she heard a horse galloping toward the clerical residence, and turned to see an express rider approaching.
"Your pardon, Miss," he said, "but I have a letter for a Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"I am Miss Bennet."
He dismounted, placed the missive in her hand. She was not carrying her reticule, and asked the rider to wait a few moments while she got a few coins from her room.
"Not necessary, Miss Bennet, but I thank you for the thought." And with that he was off again.
She went to her room that she might read the letter in private. Expresses were, in her experience, rarely good news, and she opened the note with some trepidation.
The letter was from Jane, and the news was as bad as it could be. Her beloved father was dead! Thrown from his mount as he was visiting tenants when the horse inadvertently placed a hoof in a rabbit hole. She was needed at home as soon as she could get there.
Already feeling terrible over the revelations about Mr. Darcy's interference with Jane and Mr. Bingley, the agitation and tears which the news of her father's death occasioned brought on a headache. She did not feel equal to bearing the sympathy of her friends and so, for the moment, kept the news of her father to herself.
Her headache grew so much worse towards the evening that it determined her not to attend her cousins to Rosings, where they were engaged to drink tea. Mrs. Collins, seeing that she was really unwell, did not press her to go, and as much as possible prevented her husband from pressing her; but Mr. Collins could not conceal his apprehension of Lady Catherine's being rather displeased by her staying at home.
When they were gone, Elizabeth, as if intending to exasperate herself as much as possible against Mr. Darcy, chose for her employment the examination of all the letters which Jane had written to her since her being in Kent. They contained no actual complaint, nor was there any revival of past occurrences, or any communication of present suffering. But in all, and in almost every line of each, there was a want of that cheerfulness which had been used to characterize her style, and which, proceeding from the serenity of a mind at ease with itself and kindly disposed towards every one, had been scarcely ever clouded. Elizabeth noticed every sentence conveying the idea of uneasiness, with an attention which it had hardly received on the first perusal. Mr. Darcy's shameful boast of what misery he had been able to inflict gave her a keener sense of her sister's sufferings. It was some consolation to think that her visit to Kent was to end as soon as she could arrange travel home, and that she should herself be with Jane again, and enabled to contribute to the recovery of her spirits from the double blow of losing both Mr. Bingley to the machinations of Mr. Darcy, and their father to death, by all that affection could do.
While settling this point, she was suddenly roused by the sound of the door-bell. To her utter amazement, she saw Mr. Darcy walk into the room. In a hurried manner he immediately began an enquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility, and invited him to take a chair. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner.
"In vain have I struggled," he said. "It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, colored, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement; and the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her, immediately followed.
"In declaring myself thus I am fully aware that I will being going against the expressed wishes of my family, my friends, and, I need hardly add, my own better judgment. The relative situations of our families are such that any alliance between us must be regarded as a highly reprehensible connection. Indeed, when I rationally consider the circumstance of my having fallen so deeply in love with you, to the degree that I am able to consider such a thing rationally, I cannot but regard it as such myself. But it cannot be helped. My feelings will not be repressed. Almost from the earliest moments of our acquaintance, I have come to feel for you a passionate regard and affection which, despite all my struggles, has overcome every rational objection, and I beg you most fervently to relieve my suffering and consent to be my wife."
If Elizabeth had not already, from almost the moment they first met, regarded Mr. Darcy as the last man on Earth she could ever be prevailed upon to marry, had his cruel treatment of Mr. Wickham, and his unconscionable interference with Jane and Mr. Bingley, not already caused her to see him as the worst of men, his avowal that he had come to love her against his will, against his reason, and even against his character would have disposed her to immediately refuse his proposal.
But she hesitated to give that immediate refusal. The warning Mr. Collins had given her months ago when she refused his proposal came back to her.
She might never receive another offer.
Now, against all odds, she had. And from a person who, by any objective standard, was as eligible as any gently born young lady could hope to find, far more eligible than Mr. Collins for all that he was her father's heir. Mr. Darcy was handsome, healthy, intelligent, well-educated, and (and in her present circumstances, this was the material point) extremely wealthy. And his offer had come at a most propitious moment.
Her father was dead. Longbourn now belonged to Mr. Collins. Her beloved family would be losing their home. She had been selfish to refuse Mr. Collins's offer, but then their circumstances, at least for the foreseeable future, had been secure. Given the tragic situation she and her family now faced, could she really afford to be so selfish again?
And yet, could she tie herself to such a man for life, even to secure the well-being of her family?
"Mr. Darcy," she said, "your offer comes as a complete surprise."
A puzzled expression appeared on Mr. Darcy's face, as though he thought her to have been expecting his offer.
"I assure I am in earnest," she continued. "I had no notion of your regard. Indeed, I thought you quite disapproved of me, and only looked at me to find fault."
"A man does not stare at a lady with whom he finds fault, Miss Bennet," he replied.
"You never smiled when you looked at me, nor gave any hint of your attachment. And your remarks when we first saw each other at the Meryton Assembly were not such as to lead me to think you admired me."
"That I was 'tolerable, but not handsome enough' to be any temptation to you. And, moreover, that you were in 'no humor to give consequence to young ladies who were slighted by other men.'"
"Dear God," said Mr. Darcy. "You heard that? I sincerely apologize, Miss Bennet. My assertion was unspeakably rude, and its rudeness exceeded only by its lack of veracity. I didn't even look at you that night. I had . . . well, without going into details, I had dealt with a very disturbing family crisis shortly before my arrival in Hertfordshire, and really should not have been attending a public event, but Bingley insisted I come. Had I not come, I would have had to spend the evening with no one else for company but Miss Bingley, which was the one thing I wished to avoid even more than a public event."
Elizabeth stifled a smile. Miss Bingley was the only one who seemed blithely unaware of Mr. Darcy's antipathy towards her.
"I am not comfortable at such gatherings at the best of times, and, once there," he continued, "I found myself so tense and out of temper, that I could not in conscience inflict my company on any lady not acquainted with me. I said what I said only so that Bingley would let me be. I assure you that, from the first moment I truly looked at you, I regarded you as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance."
Despite her dislike, Elizabeth could not help but feel a pleasing satisfaction at his compliment.
"Well, be that as it may," she said, "you can understand why your declarations tonight come as a surprise. I am sensible of the honor you do me, but I need time to consider your offer. Moreover, a family crisis of my own will necessitate my returning to Longbourn tomorrow or the next day, and the news from home that requires me to curtail my visit leaves me incapable of giving you an answer at this moment. Can you allow me to reflect on your proposal overnight? Meet me tomorrow along the open grove in the Park where we have previously encountered each other and I will give you my answer."
Mr. Darcy assented, bowed deeply, and left.
Mr. Darcy was waiting for her the next morning when she arrived at the sheltered path she favored for her morning rambles.
So much that had seemed odd to her before was now explained by Mr. Darcy's surprising declaration. His "accidentally" meeting her so frequently during her walks. His hints about staying at Rosings rather than the rectory the next time she was in Kent, or about his belief that she would not wish to be settled to close to Hertfordshire when and if she married. His visiting the rectory so often. Everything now made so much sense, that, when she considered it all, it seemed odd that any sense of his admiration had eluded her. Indeed, her dear friend Charlotte, who had married Mr. Collins after Elizabeth refused him, suggested more than once that Mr. Darcy had a tendre for her. Her inability to see it seemed now to be almost willful obliviousness.
After greeting each other, Mr. Darcy, with all the eagerness that such a reserved man was capable of displaying, asked if she had an answer for him.
"I do. But I must preface it with an explanation. My sister Jane and I have always hoped, somewhat idealistically I suppose, that we would, when the time came, be able to marry for true affection rather than merely for pecuniary advantage. Indeed, it was in the hope of such a marriage being possible that I turned down an offer from my cousin."
"Collins offered for you?" asked an astounded Mr. Darcy.
"He did. And from what I must admit was at least a somewhat kindly motive. You may know that the family estate is entailed, and Mr. Collins is my father's heir. He hoped to make some amends for being the beneficiary of an inheritance that would render my mother and sisters homeless by marrying one of us, so that our future would be secured. But I knew that we would make each other miserable, and so refused. My mother still has not forgiven me. And, given the news I received yesterday, her disinclination to be forgiving is likely to be strongly increased."
"What news is that, Miss Bennet?"
"My father died in a riding accident the day before yesterday," she said. She managed to say it without sobbing but her eyes glistened with tears. "Longbourn now belongs to Mr. Collins."
"You have my deepest sympathies, Miss Bennet. I have lost both my parents, my mother when I was still a boy, and my father about five years past, and I still feel the pain of their passing most acutely. I know that you and your father were particularly close, sharing, as you did, a similar turn of mind. Had I known of your bereavement yesterday, I would never have intruded upon your grief with my proposal."
"In fact, sir, your proposal came at a most opportune time. You are a wealthy man, and my acceptance of your offer would save my family from a life of genteel poverty. Aside from those personal possessions that are not part of the estate, my mother's dowry is all that we will be able to take with us when we quit Longbourn. It is a mere £4000. At best, invested in the Funds, it will produce an income of £160 to £200, to be stretched for six females used to living on more than ten times that amount. So I can no longer afford to be idealistic. My family's straitened circumstances compel me to accept your kind offer. But after such a heartfelt and, I now believe, sincere declaration of passionate love as you have made, I feel obliged me to warn you that, if you still want me, it would be a marriage of unequal affections."
Mr. Darcy frowned thoughtfully, looked away for a moment, then turned back to Elizabeth.
"Miss Bennet, if I understand you correctly, that is, if I am drawing the correct inferences, I collect that not only are you not in love with me, but that you do not even like me particularly. Indeed, that you actively dislike me. Is my inference correct?"
Elizabeth looked uncomfortable. She should have just accepted him. She should not have risked her family's future on some misguided point of honor.
Unable to meet his eyes, she looked down and answered, "Yes, sir. I am sorry, but it is."
"Would you be willing to tell my why?"
"Would that serve any purpose, sir?"
"Perhaps I hope to improve myself. If you are willing to connect yourself for life to a man you dislike, wouldn't it make the connection more palatable if he was attempting to improve himself for your sake? You have never struck me as the sort of lady who would be satisfied marrying only for money. It distresses me to learn that you are so desperate you would accept a man purely for financial considerations."
"You think me a fortune-hunter," she said. It was a statement, not a question, and her tone was one of dejection. Perhaps even of shame.
"I think nothing of the sort. If you were truly that, you would have accepted Mr. Collins. Or you would have made a pretence of affection when you accepted me. If you now feel forced to accept a man for motives of economic prudence rather than a sincere feelings, it is not a selfish inclination that moves you, but anxiety for those you love. And you have been completely forthright about it. Your concern for your family, and your honesty, serve only to increase the respect I already have for you."
"I am complimented, sir, but my family's immediate situation is dire, and I need that situation ameliorated quickly. We cannot live on your good opinion."
"I suspect your family's situation may not be as grim as you fear. Longbourn is a prosperous estate, and I am sure your father, caring for his family as I am certain he did, must have prepared for his possible unexpected departure. I would be very surprised indeed if, over a period of years, he wasn't holding back a portion of the estate's income and investing it so that you would all be secure. In any case, you will be officially in deep mourning for six months, and Mr. Collins, though insufferably stupid, is not vicious or cruel, and, as a Christian clergyman, would never consider turning a widow and her children out of their home in such circumstances. I am very sure he will insist on you and your family staying at Longbourn at least during that initial period. He will of course be entitled to the income, but, if, as I suspect, your father left you provided for, that should not be a problem."
"You assume a lot, Mr. Darcy."
"I draw reasonable conclusions based on the available evidence. Furthermore, inasmuch as a wedding between us would probably have to be postponed for at least six months, and possibly a year, please tell me how I have offended you so that I may begin to attend to your reproofs in the meantime."
"If you insist, then, to begin with, there was the manner of your proposal."
He looked puzzled. "I told you I ardently admired and loved you."
"You also told me that you had resisted giving into that admiration for some time, because you felt that any association with those I hold dear would have been . . . I believe your words were 'a degradation' . . . for you," she replied, more sharply than she intended to, for she knew her family would be depending on her to secure them by securing this man. She had to hold her emotions, particularly her anger, in check.
He was silent for a few moments, then said, "I hadn't really intended to propose last night. I had decided that I would propose before you left Kent, but making my proposal last night was an impulse of the moment. An impulse I felt powerless to resist when I saw you sitting there, looking so very beautiful and, for reasons I now better understand, so very vulnerable. Once I began, I just blurted things out with no prior thought or preparation. It was certainly not my intention to insult you or your family. I simply took it for granted that you were aware of the differences in our situations. My object, looking back on it, to the degree I gave any thought to my comments before making them, was to make it clear how very great my regard for you was, by illustrating how many obstacles that regard had overcome. I have never proposed marriage before. If I was less than proficient, my lack of experience, my lack of . . . practice, must be my excuse."
Elizabeth knew she was entering dangerous territory, but since the pistol had been cocked, she might as well squeeze the trigger.
"To me," she said, "your disdain for those I love was not unexpected. You had, after all, already taken steps to insure that my dearest sister did not enter your exalted sphere. What motive could excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there? Surely you were aware that your interference would be exposing your friend to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and my sister to its derision for disappointed hopes."
"My cousin, Fitzwilliam, warned me that you might be aware of that. But you are mistaken about my reasons. Bingley is the son of a tradesman, and he remains involved, at least peripherally, in his late father's business. Miss Jane Bennet, on the other hand, is the daughter of a gentleman. It would have been Bingley who was raised up by such a connection."
"Then what were your objections? How could you, when you say you were already feeling a growing affection for me, take steps to so cruelly ruin, perhaps forever, the happiness of a sister you knew I held so very dear?"
"I would have said nothing at all. Bingley is old enough to make his own choices. I will grant that his sisters, who did strongly oppose the match, asked me to accompany them to Town, in order to make myself available to advise him. But I only gave that advice when he asked me for it. And, at that time, I did not believe your sister to have been particularly attached to him. But knowing your mother was promoting the match, and knowing your sister's acquiescent and obedient nature, I thought she might yield to your mother's persuasion."
"You speak as though you have changed your mind."
"I have. And, moreover, have taken steps to ameliorate the effects of my interference. Upon returning to Rosings last evening, I informed my cousin that I had proposed, but that you had not yet given me an answer. Further, that you were surprised to have learned about my feelings. He told me about the conversation you and he had yesterday, and how upset it had made you. He then asked me if you were the lady I had persuaded Bingley to try to forget. I told him that the lady was not you, but your older sister, and explained why I advised Bingley to give up the match. Fitzwilliam reminded me that you had been unable to discern my affections, deep and overwhelming though they were, and suggested that Miss Bennet was similarly guarded in her feelings. I immediately wrote Bingley, telling him that I now had reason to believe that my judgment was in error, and suggesting that he return to Netherfield and gauge your sister's feelings for himself. I will send him a second letter by express today. I know he will wish to be informed about your family's bereavement, and that he will want to provide whatever assistance he is able to give."
"I thank you, sir. Nevertheless, all of this seems typical of a more general tendency you have to be selfishly disdainful of the feelings of others."
"If you refer to my churlish comment at the assembly, I had hoped that my explanation gained me your understanding, if not necessarily your forgiveness," he said.
"Oh, to be sure, sir," she replied. "Both my understanding and my forgiveness. It retrospect, it seems rather petty to have taken such a remark so seriously. But I have been compared to my dear sister Jane my whole life, and, in the matter of feminine beauty, have always been found wanting. I'm afraid it's made me a little vain and sensitive. Nevertheless, I speak, as I said, of a more general tendency. To be so very cold and haughty in company, for example."
"I have explained that I am uncomfortable in company with which I am not familiar. I will attempt to remedy that to the degree I can, but, as you once pointed out, awkward performance can only be overcome by practice. I'm afraid that will take some time, but I promise I will commence practicing. However, I am afraid that large groups will always make me uncomfortable, and practice, no matter how diligently applied, can improve performance only to a limited degree when, as is the case with me, there is no natural talent. Was there any other matter you wished me to address?"
There was something else, but, at that moment, in the face of all this gracious civility, she couldn't bring it immediately to mind.
She struggled to remember. What was it?
Wickham! Of course. His ruthless persecution of his childhood friend.
"Your treatment of Mr. Wickham . . . ," she began.
" . . . was entirely justified," he finished. "However that is a long story, and I would prefer not to go into it at length at this moment. Instead, since you need to get home as quickly as possible, may I offer you conveyance in my carriage? If Miss Lucas will be traveling with you, we can ride together. If she is staying for the remainder of her scheduled visit, I can ride alongside on horseback to preserve propriety."
Once more, Elizabeth was overcome by the level of civility shown by Mr. Darcy. She still wasn't in love with him. Still was not quite sure she even liked him.
But her opinion of him was certainly improving.
"And, regarding the immediate matter before us, Miss Bennet, I find I love you too much to subject you to a lifetime with a man for whom you feel no respect or affection. In other words, I cannot accept your acceptance. In any event, as has already been mentioned, we would not be able to marry until an appropriate period of mourning has passed. Allow me that period to correct my behavior, and, at a more appropriate time, permit me to renew my offer. I do not merely want your hand, Elizabeth, but your heart. I won't accept one without the other. Would that arrangement be acceptable?"
"But, Mr. Darcy, what if your suppositions about the steps my father took are wrong? I can't promise you my heart. True, you have overcome many of my misgivings, and with what I can only regard as almost miraculous rapidity. But my feelings were not the work of a moment, and my heart will be in a state of indecision for some time. Nevertheless, whatever my feelings may be, I could still find myself in dire need of your help for my family, and without giving you my hand, I couldn't accept that help."
"I am sure I am not wrong. And, even if I am, Bingley will be able to provide immediate assistance once he and your sister come to an understanding, as I am sure they will. And as I said, during the immediate crisis, Mr. Collins will, at the very least, allow you to keep your home. Do not worry, Elizabeth. And, most of all, do not think of sacrificing the rest of your life to solve a problem that might be solved by less extreme measures."
Charlotte decided that it would be easier for her sister, Maria, to travel with Elizabeth than to wait for her and her husband, since Maria's presence provided a ready-made chaperone, which meant that Mr. Darcy could ride with them in the compartment of his coach, rather than on horseback outside.
And Charlotte thought it might be a very good thing for Mr. Darcy to ride in the compartment with them. Which is to say, with Eliza.
As the trunks were being loaded, she and her husband came out to bid Eliza and Maria good-bye.
Charlotte hugged her dear friend, and told her how much she herself would miss Elizabeth's father, a man Charlotte had come to regard as something of an honorary uncle.
"His passing makes me feel so very sad," she said, "that it makes me realize how much worse it must be for you, Eliza. We shall be there in no more than two days. I am so sorry your visit had to end like this."
"I have spent the last few weeks with great enjoyment, Charlotte. And your friendship is helping me bear up."
They embraced again, then Elizabeth turned to Mr. Collins.
"I am grateful that you had me to visit, Cousin."
"As we were to have you visit. We shall be at Lucas Lodge as soon as I can arrange for someone to take over my duties for a short period. Please assure your dear mother that both Longbourn and its income will remain hers at least through the initial period of mourning."
"You are very generous, sir. I know my mother will appreciate it."
"If we cannot depend upon family to sustain us through times of bereavement, what can we depend upon? It will take that long, at least, until a replacement can be found upon whom my noble patroness, Lady Catherine, can bestow the living of Hunsford."
As was his wont, he continued in this vein for some time before his wife gently reminded him that they had to be on their way.
"Oh, of course," he said. "To be sure."
After the ladies had boarded the coach, Mr. Darcy turned to Charlotte and Mr. Collins and said, "I will send my carriage back here for your convenience. It will save you the cost and inconvenience of traveling by post."
"You are most kind, sir," said Mr. Collins.
"The very least I can do in these tragic circumstances, sir," replied Mr. Darcy. "Particularly in light of the generous part you are playing with regard to your bereaved family. It speaks well of the kind of master you shall be when Longbourn is yours. And, in any event, I would have to send the carriage back for my cousin, so it is no trouble to make it available to you as well."
As her husband bowed obsequiously, Charlotte marveled at how easily Mr. Darcy had manipulated him. A short conversation about kindness toward a widow and her poor children, a few Scriptural references to reinforce his remarks about the obligations of both Christian and familial duty, a reminder of how a gesture like this would be perceived by his future neighbors in Hertfordshire who held the Bennets in such high esteem, and a bit of blatant flattering of his self-importance, and Mr. Collins was soon convinced that allowing Mrs. Bennet and her daughters, not only to stay at Longbourn for the six months they would be in deep mourning, but to enjoy the security of the estate's income during that time, was all his own idea.
In her short time as a married woman, Charlotte had herself become quite adept at manipulating her husband, but, in Mr. Darcy, she recognized a master of the art.
Once the carriage was on its way, Mr. Darcy reached into his pocket and pulled out several sheets of notepaper.
"Miss Bennet," he said, "last night I discussed with my cousin that military matter about which you had expressed some interest. He agreed that these few notes might provide some facts that would give you a better insight into the particular situation that aroused your curiosity."
Military matter? Of what could Mr. Darcy be speaking? She unfolded the pages and began to read.
Miss Elizabeth, it began.
Please forgive me for employing some subterfuge in order to accomplish this slight violation of propriety. I know you should not be receiving letters from a man to whom you are not related, but what I have to reveal is very private, and I had no wish to burden Miss Lucas with it. In revealing that, I know I can have no doubt of your own secrecy. In fact, there was not so much subterfuge as may appear at first. Since Wickham is now a militia officer, and since I did discuss the matter with Fitzwilliam before setting this explanation down on paper, the matter about which this note concerns itself is, though very peripherally I admit, a military subject.
The rest of the missive gave his version of the history between himself and Mr. Wickham. How Wickham had been the son of a most trusted steward at the Pemberley Estate. How Mr. Darcy's own father had been Wickham's godfather. How Wickham had received both a preparatory and a university education at old Mr. Darcy's expense. How Wickham had, early on, developed unwholesome habits and proclivities, including but not limited to gambling and womanizing. How Mr. Darcy had endeavored to conceal this from his father, who remained devoted to his godson. How Mr. Darcy, as one of the executors of his father's will, had been instructed to immediately make a bequest of £1000 to Wickham, as well as to assist Wickham financially in whatever profession he chose to pursue. Further, that, if that profession was the Church, to make a valuable living that was under the Darcy family's patronage available to Wickham when it became vacant. How Wickham told him that he planned to study law rather seek ordination, and, to that end, asked for additional funds, in lieu of the living, to supplement the £1000 he had already been bequeathed. How Mr. Darcy had paid him an additional £3000 which, combined with the original thousand, would, if prudently invested, generate enough interest to provide him, a bachelor with no responsibilities, with an income that was roughly twice that of an average British family, even if he never actually sought a legal education, even if he never worked a lick for the rest of his life. And how he squandered it all in less than three years, then returned to Pemberley demanding the living that he had, at one time, scorned.
I must now mention a circumstance, the note continued, which I would wish to forget myself, and which no obligation less than the present should induce me to unfold to any human being. My sister, Georgiana, who is more than ten years my junior, was left to the guardianship of Colonel Fitzwilliam and myself. About a year ago she was taken from school, and an establishment formed for her in London; and last summer she went with the lady who presided over it to Ramsgate; and thither also went Mr. Wickham, undoubtedly by design; for there proved to have been a prior acquaintance between him and Mrs. Younge, in whose character we were most unhappily deceived; and by her connivance and aid, he so far recommended himself to Georgiana, whose affectionate heart retained a strong impression of his kindness to her as a child, that she was persuaded to believe herself in love, and to consent to an elopement. She was then but fifteen, which must be her excuse; and after stating her imprudence, I am happy to add that I owed the knowledge of it to herself. I joined them unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement, and then Georgiana, unable to support the idea of grieving and offending a brother whom she almost looked up to as a father, acknowledged the whole to me. You may imagine what I felt and how I acted. Regard for my sister's credit and feelings prevented any public exposure; but I wrote to Mr. Wickham, who left the place immediately, and Mrs. Younge was of course removed from her charge. Mr. Wickham's chief object was unquestionably my sister's fortune, which is thirty thousand pounds; but I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on me was a strong inducement. His revenge would have been complete indeed.
For the truth of everything here related, I can provide documentation, including my father's will, and the receipts Wickham signed when he received both his bequest, and the sum agreed upon to give up the living at Kympton, as well as the statement he signed foreswearing his claim to that living. I can also appeal more particularly to the testimony of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who, from our near relationship and constant intimacy, his sharing in the guardianship of my sister, and, still more as one of the executors of my father's will, has been unavoidably acquainted with every particular of these transactions.
After finishing, Elizabeth turned away and discreetly wiped her eyes so that Maria would not see. When she had composed herself, she turned back to Darcy, sitting across from her, and handed the note back to him.
"Please thank the colonel for his very complete answer when next you see him," she said. "I found the information on these pages most illuminating." After a moment's pause, she added, "And most convincing. Additional evidence was offered to support the position taken, but I do not believe that will be necessary. It is quite curious, considering how dependent we are upon our soldiers for protection, how little we really know about them, is it not?"
"Yes, but then, as you have pointed out, there is such a variety of personalities even in relatively confined society of rural neighborhoods. How could there fail to be a similar variety in as vast a society as the fighting forces of a country waging a war that spans the entire globe? The entire spectrum, from the most honorable and brave, to the most venal, corrupt, and cowardly, must surely be encompassed within their ranks."
Maria Lucas looked from Lizzy to Mr. Darcy and back again. She had no idea of what on earth they were talking, but she somehow had the notion that it had not a single thing to do with soldiers.
Mr. Darcy's equipage drove up the lawn in front of Longbourn and came to a stop. Mr. Darcy exited and handed down the two ladies, then saw them to the front door.
Jane opened the door and greeted them all, embracing Lizzy, and offering a warm welcome to Maria.
She then turned to Mr. Darcy and said, "I am very grateful to you for going to so much trouble to bring my sister home safely, sir."
"In my own times of bereavement, Miss Bennet, the help of friends sustained me through my grief. I am happy to pass that blessing along. Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss."
"Again, I thank you, sir. Would you come in and take some refreshment?"
Darcy assented, and they all entered the house while the coachmen unloaded Elizabeth's luggage. Darcy then instructed them to go to Lucas Lodge, drop off Maria's luggage, and return.
Once inside, Elizabeth was pleased to find that her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner had already arrived, and were seated in the parlor. She introduced them both to Mr. Darcy and Maria.
"Your mother is upstairs, Lizzy," said her aunt, a very pretty, fashionable-looking woman in her early 30's. "She is still overcome by the tragedy."
"I am glad you are here to keep things running smoothly, Aunt. Did the children come with you?"
"They did not. Fortunately, my parents were visiting when we were first informed. They are staying with the children."
While they spoke, Darcy was looking intently at Mrs. Gardiner as if trying to recall a distant memory.
Finally, he said, "Excuse me, Mrs. Gardiner, but have you ever lived in Derbyshire?"
"Indeed, I have, Mr. Darcy. My father is a clergyman. While he was still a curate, he held a living in Lambton for several years that was reserved for someone not yet of age to assume it. I regard Derbyshire as the most beautiful county in England, and my time there as a very happy experience. I was very sorry to leave after my father was offered a living of his own."
"Then you were Miss Madeleine. Mr. Drake's daughter."
"I am flattered you remember, sir."
"I could never forget. That would make Mr. Gardiner the rival who bested me."
"I have not the pleasure of understanding you, sir," said Mr. Gardiner, a rugged-looking, dark-haired man, perhaps 10 or 15 years older than Mr. Darcy.
"When I was 12 or 13 I developed a boyish romantic inclination for the very pretty daughter of a visiting parson in Lambton. I made it a point to attend services there, rather than at the nearer church in Kympton. I told my parents it was because I was impressed by the quality of Mr. Drake's sermons. In point of fact, I found it difficult to attend when he preached, because I was staring at his daughter in the front row. She was, perhaps, three or four years older than I. To me, she was the epitome of poise and sophistication. I was too intimidated to ever actually approach her, and had to satisfy myself with casting longing glances at her once a week."
"Dear heavens," said Mrs. Gardiner. "The tall, dark-haired boy with the piercing eyes! I knew of your family of course, but I had no idea at the time that you were one of the Darcys. Indeed, I had no idea of your regard."
Darcy nodded ruefully, and his eyes quickly darted toward Elizabeth and back again.
"You are not the first lady for whom I have developed a tendre to make that observation," he said with a sigh and a sheepish smile.
Presently, while they all sat in the parlor, Mrs. Bennet came down. She was, for her, very subdued. Lizzy had been a little afraid that she might be expressing her grief in ways that were both noisy and embarrassing. But her husband's sudden death had seemingly depleted her of the energy such extravagant expressions of emotion would require.
"Lizzy?" she said, surprised. "You are here already? We did not expect you until tomorrow. Perhaps even the next day."
"Mr. Darcy, when he heard of our situation, offered to convey Maria and me in his carriage."
"Did he?" said her mother, noticing Mr. Darcy for the first time. "That was very kind, sir. Exceedingly civil."
"Not at all, Mrs. Bennet. As I told Miss Bennet, it was the assistance of friends that gave me the strength to bear the loss of my own parents. It was a pleasure to be of use to Miss Elizabeth and Miss Lucas. I hope I have not been too presumptuous in taking yet another step."
"Another step, sir?"
"I notified my friend, Bingley, of your troubles. I know he will wish to be here to provide any assistance he can. I expect he will be opening up Netherfield in the next day or so."
"That's very good to know, sir. He has been gone so long."
"I believe it was not his intention to be away for this many months. I am certain he would have returned sooner, had he been less insecure about the reception he would receive here."
"Reception, sir," said Mrs. Bennet. "I am sure we have always been most friendly to Mr. Bingley."
"Indeed, you have, Mrs. Bennet. But it was the specific reception from a particular person he was unsure of."
At this he glanced over at Jane long enough to catch her eye, then turned back to her mother and went on, "Bingley is, occasionally, too self-effacing for his own good. Given that natural modesty it was, you see, fairly easy for certain people to persuade him that, in casting his eyes upon an angel, he was gazing too high."
"And," said Elizabeth, "what did you tell him when he expressed those doubts?"
He turned to Elizabeth and replied, "At first, that he may be correct." Then, turning back to Jane, who was looking increasingly unsettled, he added, "But I reminded him that, sometimes, angels do come to Earth."
Mrs. Bennet understood this exchange less than perfectly, but enough to realize that things might still eventually be settled in a satisfactory manner between Jane and Mr. Bingley.
She turned to Maria, and asked, "When are your sister and her husband planning to arrive?" There was a just barely discernible note of trepidation in her question.
"Perhaps tomorrow, Mrs. Bennet," Maria replied. "Mr. Darcy is sending his carriage back to Hunsford to take them to Lucas Lodge."
"Lucas Lodge? Will they not be staying in their new home?"
"Mama," said Lizzy. "Mr. Collins very much desired to avoid adding to your distress at this time, so he and Charlotte will be staying with the Lucases during the funeral, and will then be returning to Kent, where he will resume his duties as the rector of the Hunsford Parish until a replacement can be appointed. He particularly wished you to know that he and Charlotte both hope that our family will remain at Longbourn during the first six months of our mourning, and will enjoy the income of the estate during that period."
"That is most kind," said a surprised Mrs. Bennet, who had, over the years, developed a morbid fear of being immediately cast out of her home and into the hedgerows upon the death of her husband. "Such gracious consideration. He will, I think, be a good master when he succeeds to the estate."
"Indeed," said Darcy. "With his good wife's help."
Over the next week, the ladies of Longbourn settled into their the routine of being officially grief-stricken. Older dresses were died black to be worn during the first six months, the traditional period of "deep mourning." Arrangements for the service were made with the vicar. Callers were received, and condolences gratefully acknowledged.
Bingley, as Darcy had predicted, arrived on the day after Elizabeth's arrival home. Within an hour of his arrival at Hertfordshire, he was calling at Longbourn, expressing his sincere condolences, and offering any assistance that might be needed. The death of a beloved parent was not the most auspicious occasion for resuming a courtship, but Bingley, as discreetly as he could, made the most of it, and Jane seemed very comforted by his presence.
On the evening of the third day after Elizabeth's arrival, the family, and most of the community, held vigil in the church. On the morning of the fourth day, they gathered in the church again for the requiem service.
After the service concluded, the Bennet ladies, in accordance with custom, did not attend the actual internment in the churchyard, but returned home, where they prepared to receive callers who would be offered a modest repast.
Early on the morning of the seventh day, Elizabeth, in her newly died black dress, walked by herself to the churchyard, and, with tears in her eyes, knelt at her father's grave and offered up a silent prayer. When her tiny, personal memorial service was completed, she stood and turned toward the Bennet estate to begin her walk home. She was surprised to see Mr. Darcy standing there waiting.
"I did not hear you approach, sir," she said.
"It seemed a private moment, Miss Bennet," Darcy replied. "I tried to be quiet so as to avoid interrupting. If your visit is finished, may I walk you home?"
She nodded, and took his arm.
"I will be returning home to Pemberley today," he said.
"Oh," said Elizabeth. She found, with some surprise, that this news troubled her. She had come to take comfort in the strong, reassuring presence of the wealthy young squire from Derbyshire. She could take no pleasure in being deprived of that presence.
"Bingley will remain at Netherfield for at least the next six months. Possibly for a year. He has not told me explicitly, but I believe he means to offer for your sister almost as soon as the six months of deep mourning are completed. He has told me that, in the meantime, he intends to court her as discreetly and respectfully as possible."
"I thank you for your role in that decision."
"I did no more than correct an error."
"Many would not even admit the error, sir."
They walked in silence for awhile, then Darcy spoke again.
"It is my intention to return in six months and court you in earnest, Miss Bennet. If that is acceptable to you."
"Thank you, sir. It is acceptable."
"I know I have not yet earned your regard, Miss Bennet. That I still have many bad first impressions to overcome. But I ask you for one promise. I can accept losing your heart if I have been given a reasonable chance of winning it. But if your heart is already engaged when I return, I will have no reasonable chance. I know you cannot give me your heart now. Can you at least pledge that no one else will win it in the interim? That I will have my reasonable chance? In short, Miss Bennet, can you give me any hope?"
She was silent for a few moments.
Finally, after carefully choosing her words, she said, "I think I can offer you more than just the merest hope, sir. I still can not say I love you. Nor can I promise that I ever will. But I can tell you that I have come feel a very warm friendship for you. A friendship I have come to value more than I ever thought possible. And, if I am not mistaken, I believe friendship might be a very strong foundation on which to build an edifice of love. In short, sir, I will welcome your attentions when you return. If I cannot guarantee success, I can at least assure you that you will find me very willing to be persuaded."
"That is more than I hoped for, Miss Bennet. Whatever happens, I, too, will always value your friendship. I have already spoken to your uncle, Mr. Gardner. With your permission, I will speak to your mother when we arrive at Longbourn."
When they arrived at Longbourn, Darcy asked Mrs. Bennet if she could favor him with a private conference. They stepped into Mr. Bennet's library.
Elizabeth viewed this with some trepidation. On the one hand, she was complimented that Mr. Darcy was showing her mother such respect. On the other hand, though her mother had been unusually restrained, Elizabeth was very much afraid that her natural boisterousness would reassert itself at the news that such a consequential personage as Mr. Darcy sought a courtship with her, and that, within seconds of Mr. Darcy's informing her of her intentions, every person in the county would be also be made aware of it from her mother's ostentatiously thunderous response.
In fact, Mrs. Bennet's naturally vigorous personality was still substantially muted, first by the death of a husband that, in spite of appearances, she really had loved very much, and then by the unexpected boon of learning she would not be immediately turned out of her home, a horror that had, over the years, turned her sparkling disposition into a nervous one, and finally, by the calmness generated by the return of Mr. Bingley, with its promise that Jane's future, and, to some degree, that of the rest of her family, would be secured.
All of this being the case, she took Mr. Darcy's request with much more composure than anyone acquainted with her might have expected.
"Mrs. Bennet, I am leaving today for my estate in Derbyshire," he had said.
"Spring planting," she replied.
"Indeed. I wished you to know that I will be returning is six months. Your daughter, Miss Elizabeth, has granted me permission, provided you approve, to court her."
Mrs. Bennet did not, as she would have the previous week, shriek her joy to the heavens. Being, however temporarily, of a more contemplative turn of mind at the moment, she was instead puzzled.
"You wish to court my Lizzy, Mr. Darcy?"
"Very much, Mrs. Bennet. I am deeply in love with her. I have, in fact, already proposed marriage. However, your daughter was no less surprised by this than you are, and we mutually agreed that, in the interest of her getting to know me better so she could consider rationally whether or not we would suit, it would be better to enter into a courtship than a formal engagement. In any case, given your recent loss, it might be thought unseemly for a wedding to occur until a proper period of respect toward your husband has passed. If I press my case after the initial period of deep mourning is ended, that would give your daughter six months to get to know me. If I am successful in my endeavor to win her heart, we could be wed after the year of mourning has ended."
"You have thought this through very completely, sir. I appreciate that you are sensible of the necessity of paying respect to my late husband, especially since he and Lizzy had a particularly close bond. Still, if you do not mind my pointing it out, Lizzy seems an odd choice for a man of your temperament."
"In what way, madam?"
"You are a . . . ," she paused while seeking a word that would be accurately descriptive and yet complimentary. Or at least not unintentionally insulting. She continued, " . . . well, you are what I might call a solemn man. And my Lizzy is not a solemn young lady. If you wish to court her, and if she finally accepts you, I will certainly approve the match. I am sure my brother, as the male head of our family now, would also do so."
"In fact," said Darcy, "I have already spoken to Mr. Gardner, and been given his permission. However, as Miss Elizabeth's last remaining parent, I felt I should secure your approval as well."
"I thank you for your graciousness, sir. To continue with my point, however, are you sure that a man like yourself, so used to being in charge, so used to having your commands immediately obeyed, would be happy with someone as opinionated and impertinent as Lizzy? I love her dearly, but her independent streak has annoyed me since she was in leading strings. Also, a man like you is used to the very best. I know that, here in Hertfordshire, Lizzy is regarded as one of the prettiest girls in the area, though she is nothing to Jane, of course. Can a girl who you thought at one time to be merely tolerable really compare to the great ladies of the Ton?"
Darcy was more than little rankled that his thoughtless comment so many months before was still coming back to haunt him, but decided that continued graciousness was called for.
"Madam," he said, "it is perhaps just that you should call me to task for my intemperate, and untrue comments when I was first introduced to Meryton society. Nevertheless, I will assure you, as I assured Miss Elizabeth, that I have, for some time, considered her one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance. I can understand why you regard your eldest as superior since she favors you in looks, just as I can understand the special bond between you and Miss Lydia, since you are so similar in temperament. But you must realize how much of you is in Miss Elizabeth. Her intelligence, quick wit, and love of books are the bequests of her late father, but surely you see that she gets her spirit and vivacity from you. And while her looks are not the same as yours, I can see, now that I look at you more closely, that the feature that first drew me to her is also one of your bequests to your second daughter. Would you think me impertinent, Mrs. Bennet, if I speculated that it was your eyes that first caused your husband to fall in love with you?"
The eyes Mr. Darcy had just complimented started to glisten with tears.
"Indeed, sir," she said, stifling a sob, "my Thomas told me that very thing when we were first courting, and repeated it many times during the first few years we were married."
"I'm sure he continued to think it, even after he stopped saying it."
"For such a dour man, sir, you have an uncommon talent for pretty compliments. That, and your so obviously feeling for Lizzy what she would call a 'fine, stout love,' disposes me, not merely to permit you to court her, but to wish you every success in your efforts. Travel safely, Mr. Darcy. You will be most welcome at Longbourn when you return."
"Thank you, Mrs. Bennet," said Darcy. "If you need any assistance of any kind before then, please notify me."
With that, he handed her his card.
"I will do that, sir."
After Mr. Darcy took his leave, and departed, Mrs. Bennet, to at least a degree, reverted both to form, and to her normal personality.
"Good gracious!," she said taking Elizabeth's hand. "Lord bless me! Only think! Dear me! Mr. Darcy! Who would have thought it? Oh, my sweetest Lizzy! How rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! I am so pleased, so happy. Such a charming man! So handsome! So tall! Oh, my dear Lizzy! Did you know that he said you and I have the same eyes? Such a charming man! Pray apologize for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy! A house in town! Everything that is charming! Ten thousand a year! Very likely more! Oh, Lord! What will become of me? I shall go distracted. I can think of nothing else! 'Tis good as a lord!"
This was enough to prove that her approbation need not be doubted; and Elizabeth, rejoicing that such an effusion was not heard by Mr. Darcy, interrupted to remind her that they were not engaged, but had only agreed to keep company in order to get to know each other.
"But Lizzy," Mrs. Bennet said, "he told me he proposed."
"Yes, Mama, he did. But after discussing it, we agreed that I did not know him well enough to accept. We agreed to a courtship in order to become better acquainted."
Mrs. Bennet said anxiously, "Surely you do not mean to turn him down! You can't go through life refusing eligible men!"
"I don't mean to refuse him, Mama," said Lizzy, chuckling and drawing her mother into a hug to reassure her. As much as the sedate lady who had temporarily taken over the body of her mother was easier to live with, it was oddly a relief to see that Mrs. Bennet's real self had not been completely buried by the weight of sorrow and worry brought on by her father's death.
"I have come to like him very much already," she said. "But we are all going through a difficult and emotionally taxing time. It is best if I consider his offer when we are in a more settled state. When I make a final decision, I want to be sure it is the decision that will best insure my happiness."
And, she thought to herself, his.
Curiously, it never occurred to her that, if she was concerned for his happiness, she had, without consciously realizing it, already come to a decision.
On the evening of the day after Mr. Darcy's departure, the girls' Uncle Gardner and Uncle Phillips conducted a family meeting in the dining-parlor regarding the state of the Bennets' finances.
"Your father," said Gardner, "for reasons of his own, owing I imagine to his pawky sense of humor, wanted what I am about to tell you kept secret until after his death. I never agreed with this approach, but I suppose he wanted one last joke on all of you after he departed this world."
He paused for a moment to allow that to sink in, then continued.
"Shortly after the birth of Lydia, realizing that the possibility of he and Fanny producing a son who would keep Longbourn in the family was growing more remote, my brother started taking steps to insure that you all would be provided for after his death. Accordingly, he managed to raise the annual income of the estate by small amount. No more than a few hundred pounds above the two thousand that was already being produced, but still it was an increase. That amount he trusted me to invest on his behalf each year. Some of this I put in very safe investments which produced a small, but steady return. Some I invested in riskier ventures that were not as certain of success, but which promised a very good return if they did succeed. This has been going on for some fifteen years now, and I flatter myself that my investment advice has proven quite wise. The long and the short of it is that the small amounts my brother had me invest for him have grown into a rather handsome fortune of £26,000. Combined with the £4000 already set aside for my sister at the time of her marriage, that comes to a round sum of £30,000. Prudently invested in the Funds, it will provide you all with an annual income of £1250 to £1500. That's well short of the £2000 you have been used to, but, when you move from Longbourn, and set up a somewhat smaller establishment it should sustain you all quite comfortably."
Mrs. Bennet almost fainted from relief, then recovering said, "Oh, that man! Always having a joke at my expense, even from his grave. When I think of what my nerves have been all these years. And all the time he was providing for us without our knowing. Oh, what a vexing, teasing man!"
This last was said with a trace of a smile.
Mr. Phillips took the floor.
"My brother, Bennet," he said, "charged me to be on the lookout, when he passed, for any property that might serve when you all had to leave the estate. I have been able to find a well-built, medium-sized house just outside of Meryton that I believe might suit. Only one small parlor, and the dining space is also used for breakfast. No study, so Bennet's books might have to be stored. But it does have five bedrooms upstairs, plus two rooms for servants below. Assuming the Hills stay with you - . . . "
"They have already assured us that they will," said Elizabeth. "We are very fortunate in that respect. They have always been like family. It will make the transition much easier."
"It will indeed," said Mr. Philips. "In that case, the Hills can share one room, leaving the second for a maid of all work. Since it is a smaller home, you will not need as extensive a staff. The number of rooms upstairs will mean that Lydia and Kitty will have to share, but, as the older girls leave to start their own families, the ones left can spread out a bit, and spare rooms can be converted into guest rooms, sitting rooms, or even a library or study. It will be available in five months, so you would be able to move in just as you are starting to emerge from deep mourning. It can be rented for £50 a year"
"Will there be room for the pianoforte?" asked Mary.
"Sadly, no," said Mr. Phillips. "There is no music room, and the only parlor is comparatively small. But it would accommodate a small spinet in one of the corners, and I think," he said, turning to Mr. Gardner, "that the fund might accommodate such a purchase."
Mr. Gardner nodded.
"It sounds perfect," said Jane, as prone to think the best of a house she had never seen as she was to think of a person she had never met.
Mr. Gardner took the floor again.
"Finally, it was my brother's wish that, when the time came, a dowry would be provided for each of you upon your marriages. Shortly before he died, he told me that, when the time, came, each of you would receive £5000. This would leave the final £5000 for Fanny when all of you are married. Should any or all of you not marry, the dowry would be awarded to each of you upon your 30th birthday, administered by me, or whoever I designate. Until that time, the bequest stays together providing an income for you all."
So it seemed Mr. Darcy was right. Papa had provided for his family.
Which meant she no longer had to marry a man she despised to secure her family's financial well-being.
Except that she no longer despised him. So how did she feel? She knew she had come, despite all of his pride and all of her prejudice, to quite like him. But did she love him? Enough to wish to spend the rest of her life with him?
There was a knock at her bedroom door. At her invitation, Jane entered and at down next to Elizabeth on her bed.
"What a surprise, Lizzy!" said Jane.
"Indeed," said Elizabeth. "It seems Papa was more responsible than we realized." Which, given what she knew, made it an even greater surprise for her than it was for the rest of her family.
"Had you any notion of his actions?"
"I assure you, I had even fewer notions that anyone else. I loved Papa with all my heart. But I knew his indolent nature. That he was able to do this without anyone suspecting astounds me."
"I wonder what Mama will do, now that she no longer has to worry about our futures."
"She'll find something else to worry about, or complain about, I have no doubt."
In fact, Mrs. Bennet's nerves, the "old friends" of Mr. Bennet's married life, all but disappeared. As she became resigned to the death of her husband, her emphatic personality began to reappear. But it was no longer polluted by the anxiety for the future of her family that had plagued her for so long. As a consequence, though she could still occasionally be a trifle embarrassing in company, and still had a tendency to make awkward or annoying comments now and then, she became much more pleasant to be around.
Seeing this change, one had to wonder why Mr. Bennet kept secret his plans for taking care of his family after his death. Was a joke, a joke that he would not even be around to enjoy, worth living with a woman whose fear of the future had made her such irksome company for so many years?
Certainly Elizabeth wondered at it.
The next five months was quite busy, as the family spent much time gathering and packing those items that belonged to them, rather than to the estate.
The good china and silverware, though Mr. Collins had gazed covetously at it during his first visit to the estate, in fact belonged to Mrs. Bennet, as did a set of plate and cutlery for everyday use.
Elizabeth insisted that all of her father's books accompany them.
Clothes, jewelry, combs, tools, the hundreds of household items that pile up in a life spent together, were all, little by little, packed for the upcoming move.
Though unable to write to each other since they were not engaged, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth found ways to keep channels of communication open. Mr. Darcy started by writing a long letter to Mrs. Bennet full of sentences that began, "Please tell Miss Elizabeth . . . ." In the course of that letter, he asked if she had any objection to Elizabeth's corresponding with his sister, to whom he hoped to introduce them all when he returned to Hertfordshire. Of course Mrs. Bennet gave her permission, and, not having the patience to read Mr. Darcy's long letter aloud to Elizabeth, simply handed it to her and told her she was free to read it herself. Elizabeth immediately wrote a letter to Miss Darcy, full of sentences that began, "Please tell Mr. Darcy . . . ." After that initial letter to Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth simply used Miss Darcy as their conduit of correspondence.
While all this was going on, the Militia Regiment that had been quartered in Meryton prepared for its move to its summer encampment in Brighton. Kitty and Lydia were, naturally despondent about the move, but, being in deep mourning, they were prevented from taking part in most social activities anyway.
An invitation extended by Mrs. Forster, the pretty new wife of the Regimental Commander, for Lydia to spend the summer at Brighton with them had to be turned down for the same reason. This upset Lydia excessively, but she rallied more quickly than anyone might have imagined. Her father's death had sobered even her, at least to a degree.
Most surprising was the news that, just before the move to Brighton, Lt. Wickham had been arrested for debt. In Meryton alone he had been found to have run up bills that amounted to more than he could earn as a low-ranking militia officer for his entire term of service. He apparently had a history of moving from town to town and leaving unpaid debts behind. Someone, no one knew who, had been backtracking all of Wickham's moves and tallying up and buying all his debt, and the final total was said to be truly staggering. Within a week he was off to the Marshalsea in London.
Once there his troubles did not end. Or, more correctly, they ended most conclusively. He was said to have been found attempting to force himself on the pretty young daughter of one of the Marshalsea's most senior inmates. When he was pulled away from the young lady by a gentleman named Clennam, he produced a knife and attacked said gentleman. In the course of defending himself, Clennam managed to turn the knife against his attacker, and thus Wickham found himself permanently released from the Marshalsea, only to be turned over to the tender mercies of a much crueler jailer than any he could have met with in life.
There were stories that the young lady Wickham had imposed upon, one Miss Amy Dorrit, had, a few months later, come into a huge fortune (or, anyway, that her father had), and that she and the gentleman who had saved her, Mr. Arthur Clennam, were later married, but this seemed altogether too romantic and unlikely a result.
True or not, no one could deny that it had been an eventful five motnhs.
At the end of five months, the Bennets started slowly transferring their personal property from the Longbourn estate to their new home on the outskirts of Meryton. Since the new house was furnished, much of their furniture was left behind for the Collinses to use.
By the end of six months, the move was all but complete, except for the family themselves. They were there still in the Longbourn Estate to welcome its new residents when they arrived.
After refreshments were served, and some pleasantries exchanged about the final stages of the move, the ease or difficulty of the trip from Kent, what sort of gentleman had been chosen to take over the living at Hunsford, etc., Mrs. Bennet turned to her cousin by marriage and said, "Mr. Collins, your kindness to a widow and her children will never be forgotten by any of us. I believe it is now time for us to leave, and let you settle in to your new home. We have imposed on you for these last six months, and that is quite long enough. We will all be forever grateful that you allowed us to impose upon you for so long."
All of her daughters heartily seconded these comments.
Mr. Collins very sincerely, but also at very great length, told them they were all quite welcome.
Mrs. Bennet then pulled Charlotte into a warm embrace and said, "Dear, it's no secret that, if I could not have a son, I wanted one of my girls to succeed me as mistress of this estate. But you have always been almost like another daughter to me, and I know my husband felt the same way. If none of my daughters could take my place, I'm very glad it's to be you."
In spite of all her manifest faults, Mrs. Bennet was known to be a very good-hearted sort of woman. But she was rarely gracious. It was a talent or an art for which she simply lacked any aptitude. So to say that Mrs. Collins was surprised by such a gracious statement would be something of an understatement. A practical, unromantic woman, Charlotte Collins was rarely moved to tears. Mrs. Bennet had just managed to do so.
Again, each of her daughters embraced Charlotte and also assured her they were all happy for her, and happy they would all be living so close to each other again.
Then they boarded the estate carriage for what would be their very last time as official residents and departed for their new home.
A week after they moved to their new home, three riders rode up to the front door. The first was Mr. Bingley, who was already almost a daily visitor and had been, first at Longbourn and now at their new home, since his arrival months earlier. The second was Mr. Darcy. The third was a tall young woman who was clearly an accomplished horsewoman. After reining in, the trio dismounted, knocked, and were warmly invited to enter.
The young lady turned out to be Mr. Darcy's 16-year-old sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy. She was quite tall and, despite her youth, her figure was formed and her appearance womanly and graceful. Elizabeth, having learned to disregard anything she had learned about the young lady from the now-disgraced (and deservedly dead) Wickham, was not surprised to find that Miss Darcy was not, as reported, exceedingly proud, but only exceedingly shy. Indeed, it was difficult to obtain a word beyond a monosyllable.
Mrs. Bennet, as a widow, was still in black, but her daughters had transitioned to "half-mourning," grays, browns, lavenders, or similarly subdued colors, with black trim. And, as deep mourning was completed, limited social engagements were now possible, so the three were invited to dine with the Bennets.
Miss Darcy, surrounded by a group of young ladies whose personalities ranged from Jane's sweet demureness to Lydia's bombastic exuberance, but all of whom were warm, friendly, and welcoming, soon began to let down her guard and enjoy the company. She was particularly glad to make the acquaintance of the young lady with whom she had been corresponding over the last few months, the young lady her brother had told her he intended, if he could win her heart, to marry.
Miss Darcy liked her very much already. Elizabeth Bennet was not only lovely but seemed to be one of those fortunate people who are completely comfortable with themselves, and, in consequence, do not put on any airs. At first blush, she didn't seem the sort of lady who would be her brother's choice. She was more outspoken that most of the gently born ladies with whom Miss Darcyt was familiar. She actually had opinions on a variety of subjects that she was not afraid to express, and defended them forcefully, though courteously, when she met with opposition. But, on closer observation, Miss Darcy realized that it was precisely this natural sense of self, this confident demeanor, that awakened her brother's admiration. The closer she observed Miss Elizabeth, the more she began to think she'd be a fine wife for her brother.
And a fine sister for her.
The autumn weather was pleasant, and the two couples began to make a habit of taking walks together around the countryside. The wisdom of having two courting couples chaperoning each other might be questioned, but the two young ladies in question had sufficient faith in their own rectitude, and in the self-control of their two suitors, and the walks took place on public enough thoroughfares, that, on the whole, it did not occur to anyone that there was any violation of propriety.
On one such walk, Elizabeth deliberately slowed down to a degree sufficient so that Mr. Bingley and Jane were close enough to be seen, but far enough away that she and Mr. Darcy could converse in private.
When she was sure they were out of earshot, she said, "Tell me, sir. Was it you intention to keep your generosity to my family a secret forever, or were you going to confess once you felt you had secured my affections?"
"Secret, Miss Elizabeth?" said Mr. Darcy.
"Come now, sir. Did you have so little regard for my intelligence that you thought I would not find out who it was that had bestowed on us a great fortune of £26,000?"
He looked terribly troubled, and finally said, "I did not think your uncles so little to be trusted."
"My uncles revealed nothing. It was my own reckoning and my own knowledge that led me to this conclusion. I am happy to have my judgment confirmed by your admission, just now. But both of my uncles kept your confidence."
"How did you know?"
"As I said, you just admitted it."
"Then how did you come to suspect?"
"Really, sir, who do you think kept the ledgers and calculated the income for my father's estate? It has been my task since I was fourteen. Even now I am continuing to assist Charlotte with the chore, since we both know that Mr. Collins would be hopeless at it. My father was a very good man, but an indifferent master to his estate, particularly when it became clear to him that he would have no son to pass it onto. He saw to the needs of his tenants, and he managed, just barely, to keep his family from outspending the estate's income. But that was all. I knew there was nothing left for him to put aside for investments. He neither curbed the spending habits of his family, nor made efforts to increase the yield of the estate. Since he was healthy, and could have been expected to live many more years, it did not occur to me that he was acting irresponsibly. I now see what a perilous situation he was creating for us all, but even so, I cannot find it in my heart to condemn him too heartily for it. You need not fear that I will expose you, sir, but please, you must allow me to thank you on behalf of all my family. If they knew to whom they owed their fortune, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express."
"If you will thank me, let it be for yourself alone. Much as I respect your family, I believe I thought only of you. Or, perhaps more correctly, of myself. I wanted you to be free of any worries about your future so that you would not feel constrained to accept me out of financial necessity. I wanted it to be secret so that you did not feel any obligations of gratitude. If you accepted me, I wanted it to be solely because I had won your heart on my own merits."
"And so you have, sir."
Darcy looked at her questioningly.
"How can this be?" he asked.
"Mr. Darcy, I quite understand your reluctance to create any feelings of obligation, though I am a little surprised that you were able to persuade both my uncles to participate in this subterfuge. But surely you knew that my feelings were starting to warm toward you when you left. And that those feelings only got warmer as we exchanged letters through dear Georgiana. Can you not see how gratitude for your actions, joined with my realization that you went to such lengths to keep them secret precisely so that I would feel no obligation to do anything but follow my own heart would serve to make your love for me that much more evident, and to make me so very happy to follow my heart straight to you?"
"Can this be true?"
"It can be and it is."
"Then, with regard to the question I asked you in Kent all those month ago?"
"It is not only my honor, but my very great pleasure to accept the offer you made at that time, and to assure you, once again, that you already have my heart, as you will soon have my hand."
Hearing steps they looked up to see Mr. Bingley and Jane turn around and walk back toward them.
"Darcy," said a joyful Bingley, "what do you think has happened? My angel has, just this moment, accepted me."
"Then it seems, my old friend," replied Darcy, "that I am to gain you as a brother and Miss Bennet as a sister. For so has mine."
The wait of nearly six months was excruciatingly difficult for both couples, but it gave everyone time to attend to all the details of the wedding with a complete thoroughness that would have not been possible in less time.
The articles were prepared and signed. Among many other generous guarantees, both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley immediately settled £5000 of their own money on their ladies, simultaneously refusing the dowries that had been reserved for them from the fund supposedly accrued by Mr. Bennet's investments. This meant that the £25,000 meant to be divided equally among all five of the Bennet daughters upon their respective marriages only had to be divided among three.
The one thing that is always true about time is that it goes by, quickly when we want it to be slow and slowly when we want it to be fast, but it always goes. And so it was with the period of mourning still remaining. In due course, the banns were called, the year and a day since Mr. Bennet's demise had passed, Mrs. Bennet and her daughters put away their mourning clothes and began wearing brighter more attractive apparel, and the date of the wedding was finally upon them.
Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters. With what delighted pride she afterwards visited Mrs. Bingley, and talked of Mrs. Darcy, may be guessed. I wish I could say, for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of two of her children, and the certitude of financial security for the rest, produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible well-informed woman for the rest of her life. It did seem to permanently banish the nerves that had formerly been so easily irritated, which rendered her more amiable, but it did not make her any less effusive, nor any more discreet in expressing her effusions.
Surprisingly, Mrs. Bennet found she missed her second daughter exceedingly; her newfound affection for Elizabeth (to say nothing of her delight in Elizabeth's new home) drew her oftener from Meryton than anything else could do. She delighted in going to Pemberley, especially when she was least expected.
Even more surprisingly, the dour Mr. Darcy, who had come to appreciate that his own wife's high-spirited vivacity derived from Mrs. Bennet's animated personality, always warmly welcomed her. Having been motherless from a young age, he found that he quite enjoyed the affectionate attentiveness of the mother he had gained through marriage, however much her conduct might occasionally embarrass him. To his sister, Georgiana, who had barely known their mother, this affectionate quality, bestowed on her no less than on her brother, was an even greater benefit.
Mr. Bingley and Jane remained at Netherfield only a twelvemonth. So near a vicinity to her mother and Meryton relations was not desirable even to his easy temper, or her affectionate heart. The darling wish of his sisters was then gratified: he bought an estate in a neighboring county to Derbyshire; and Jane and Elizabeth, in addition to every other source of happiness, were within thirty miles of each other.
Kitty and Lydia, to their very material advantage, spent the chief of their time with their two elder sisters. In society so superior to what they had generally known, their improvement was great. And with the example of Georgiana, they both grew less ungovernable than had formerly been the case, while Georgiana, for her part, became more outgoing.
Mary was the only daughter who generally remained at home; and she was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet's being quite unable to sit alone. She was obliged to mix more with the world, but could still moralize over every morning visit. And, if she was not spending as much time with her two eldest sisters as Lydia and Kitty, she was spending at least as much time with them as her mother, and derived the benefits of those visits.
With the Gardiners and the Phillipses Mr. and Mrs. Darcy were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards Elizabeth's two uncles who, by agreeing to participate in Darcy's scheme to provide for the Bennets (who never did find out to whom they actually owed their prosperity), had been the means of bringing them together.The End