Beginning, Section II
Chapter 10: Being Wrong Is Hard When You Know You Are Absolutely in the Right
Posted on 2013-03-21
Getting Netherfield into order took longer than Darcy anticipated. Each day some new problem arose and he had to put off seeing Mr. Bennet. Also, try as he might to move about quietly without attracting notice, he could see the heads turn when he went past in the town. Residents who had known him before asked if the Bingleys and the Hursts were with him or would be joining him soon. No one dared ask why he was here instead of London during the height of the Season or why he had come back alone, but he suspected they were whispering.
Had this been Lambton, the small town like Meryton near his estate, he could have ordered silence from everyone concerned with completing the legal arrangements and opening the house. His word would have been enough to stifle gossip because the Darcys -- he -- owned a huge chunk of the county. But here he swam in foreign waters and lacked the power he wielded at home, or even in London, to control information. It was a confounding paradox that he would feel thwarted in this small, insignificant place.
Having hired a few local servants to help his trusted valet, cook and footmen, he suspected they were already sharing details of his temporary sojourn. As long as being disclosed was only such stuff as how many shanks of lamb he ordered, he could shrug it off. There was nothing his temporary servants knew of his real business.
On the third day when he could finally set out for his meeting, he considered using his coach, recently brought by his servants from London. He decided that would make too much of a grand entrance at the doorstep of Longbourn. Mrs. Bennet would no doubt retail such an appearance all over the neighborhood, and he did not want to be more of an object of talk than he was already.
Also, he knew that in future visits to call upon Elizabeth, he would most likely ride. He should not appear more well turned out and pristine for Mr. Bennet in this meeting than he would for her in future ones. He suspected that neither Elizabeth nor her father would have much fondness for someone they saw as a fastidious dandy. As he stood before his mirror allowing his valet to finish, he tried to remember when he had ever put such consideration into making a good impression. If anything he was more worried about approaching Mr. Bennet than he would have been to propose to Elizabeth.
He had seen how the eccentric who was so odd a mix of quick parts could be. Mr. Bennet delighted in remarks that left everyone feeling he was having sport at their expense. He would even turn his wit upon his own family. Darcy had been appalled at the Netherfield Ball when Mr. Bennet stopped his third daughter Mary from playing another song with a slyly-worded admonition that no one wanted to hear her further. It was not overtly cruel but she obviously felt the point as did everyone else who heard. Her father did not seem to care she looked embarrassed and others uncomfortable.
While Darcy did not doubt his own ability to defend himself against anyone, he also knew Mr. Bennet would be both an unpleasant and capable adversary. Though he would no doubt fall in a war of words to Darcy's superior rank and intelligence, it would be unfortunate for it come to that. Darcy wished very much that Mr. Bennet was a different sort of man, who behaved more as one would expect of a country gentleman of insignificant estate.
But however prickly Mr. Bennet was, he had also shaped Elizabeth's rare and lively character. She was the daughter who was probably most like her father in intelligence, and she seemed to be his favorite, for whatever that was worth in a family of daughters the man seemed to care little about.
For Elizabeth's sake, Darcy was prepared, if not to love and revere, to tolerate and respect the man. At least, he was no fool like the silly Mrs. Bennet. How on earth had such a woman come to be the mother of such an extraordinary creature as Elizabeth?
With these reflections, he made his way to Longbourn. When he arrived, although he had sent no word in advance, it seemed he was expected. A manservant came quickly and took the horse to be quartered.
After being ushered by the butler swiftly and quietly through the house, Darcy thought he saw his own anxiety mirrored in Mr. Bennet's face. It seemed from the man's subdued manner that he appreciated this interest in his daughter, just as he ought. Any sensible man would recognize the value a Fitzwilliam Darcy could bring his family. Darcy started to relax, thinking this would not be so hard after all.
After a civil greeting, Mr. Bennet observed, "I understand that your amiable friend Mr. Bingley is not with you. He's a fine fellow. I always liked him."
Seeing a response was awaited, Darcy said with something more than simple civility, "It's impossible not to like Bingley. He is a sociable fellow and a good man, none better. He may settle somewhere other than Hertfordshire."
"Sorry to hear it. However, perhaps with you here, he will come back, at least for a visit," Mr. Bennet said in an offhanded way. This time Darcy only nodded tersely, noncommittally.
Mr. Bennet asked, "And, you sir? I have heard gossip that you are looking at Netherfield with a mind to buy?"
Darcy smiled because he did not mind this gossip so much and could understand why people might think it was the reason for his return. It was certainly better than having them chatter about his being lovesick, however close to the truth that was. Actually, purchasing Netherfield might not be a bad idea, preparing for the eventuality that he and Elizabeth might have several sons.
He responded, "My main estate is in Derbyshire, but I do own several other smaller properties, and perhaps I might sell off one or two of them in order to purchase here. The proximity to London is one thing in Netherfield's favor, and I will consider it and other factors while I am here." He went on to mention he might bring his sister to the county later in the summer. With Georgiana in residence to serve as hostess, he would be able to entertain the entire Bennet family. "Until then, however, I hope you will feel that Netherfield is always open to you, sir. I know how fond you are of books and I have brought several new publications with me."
Mr. Bennet smiled even more broadly. "Ah, I see you have found just the bribery for me." Then Mr. Bennet's smile shifted subtly into a twist of the lips more akin to a sneer. "Might you tell me how many fortnights I should expect to enjoy these favors before you leave Elizabeth as your friend left my other daughter?"
Darcy startled, swallowed and did not know what to say. But it was no matter, since Mr. Bennet had more.
"You will probably remind me that you do not control your friend's behaviour. What man can control another? But I think even you must admit you are an arrogant man, to stride into my home with a request to call upon my second daughter after the way your friend treated my first. What perfect conceit you must have, to believe for even a moment I would let you dally with Elizabeth, whatever she might say or ask."
Darcy thought of countering that there had been no promises between Miss Bennet and Bingley. No, that would not be good. He could say that nothing inappropriate had occurred to make it dishonorable for Bingley to leave. But that hinted of anticipating marriage vows, and he would not raise that idea even to declare no such event happened. He doubted Bingley had ever even held Miss Bennet's hand off the dance floor. He thought of saying he witnessed she was indifferent to Bingley.
He finally chose what he thought the material point in this discussion. "Miss Elizabeth has specifically requested that you welcome me into your home. Surely, you are not going to deny your daughter her wish."
"I was surprised to receive her letter, and I found its tone unconvincing."
"I cannot believe, despite her letter, that this is what she wants." Mr. Bennet peered at him with genuine curiosity. "What have you promised her that made her forget what she knows of you?"
"I have promised her nothing." Darcy shook his head and hastened to correct himself. "That is, I promised to do all I can to make all turn out for the best." He paused. It was still not what he wished to say. "I mean, in calling on her, I have the best of intentions. I assured her of that, and now I assure you of the same."
"To match your perfect conceit, you offer promises perfectly vague and meaningless." Mr. Bennet snorted. "Did you declaim with the ardour of a young man violently in love? I would be surprised if she was affected by such dramatics. My Elizabeth is usually quicker than most girls."
It was Darcy's turn to be curious. "What can you mean that I have made her forget what she knows of me? What is it that she thinks she knows?" Incredulously, he asked, "She cannot believe me to be false -- a rake?"
After the sort of unpleasant laugh which tells others they are the target of amusement rather than inspiring them to join in, Mr. Bennet said, "Before, when you were in Hertfordshire with your friend, no one would have believed you had enough imagination to be a rake."
"Sir, I will ask you to remember to whom you are speaking. You can have no reason to doubt my honor -- or to insult me."
Mr. Bennet lowered his eyes in what Darcy hoped was contrition for such ungentlemanly behaviour. But it was cold anger in the older man's voice as he went on, "Everyone in this neighborhood knows how well you think of yourself. Everyone felt themselves the objects of your disdain -- including Elizabeth. What was it you told her about not being tempting?"
"I have apologized to her for that -- that unfortunate statement."
Mr. Bennet shrugged dismissively. "Elizabeth made a joke of it. She shares my own fondness for follies. We often found you amusing as you dutifully and sullenly accompanied the smiling Bingley to parties and dinners. She never spoke well of you, and even while I sometimes thought her intemperate, her denunciations of you were always entertaining."
Hearing that father and daughter had discussed him, apparently laughed about him, Darcy felt his face burn. He had known he needed to change Elizabeth's mind but never suspected he was an object of ridicule for her. Angry, his composure slipped slightly as he rubbed his forehead. Taking a breath, he reminded himself of his purpose.
Her dislike occurred before he had given her reason to feel otherwise. He had been ignoring her, attempting not to raise her expectations, so perhaps this was exactly what he should have expected -- still, a small voice whispered, she laughed at me.
Resolutely, he told himself the past did not matter to the future they would have together. It took much of the mental effort he could make at the moment to think forgivingly and left little capability to do more than note in passing that Miss Jane Bennet seemed to have persuaded her father, just as she had Elizabeth, she was interested in Bingley. Darcy would have thought Miss Bennet's father, whatever his other failings, would have been more perceptive in recognizing the truth of his daughter's feelings.
Mr. Bennet said, "Perhaps now that I have disclosed this to you, you will want to withdraw your request to call upon Elizabeth? Surely, even your arrogance cannot withstand this onslaught of truth. I hope it so. I do not wish to have a man such as you sniffing around my daughter." He added, with the merest hint of remorsefulness, "You may think my manner lacks civility. But my daughter's future and her very respectability make such concerns petty in comparison. I do not hesitate to speak harshly to protect her from what she might mistakenly thinks she wants."
"Why would her respectability be in danger from me? Do you think I would go to the trouble of returning to your neighborhood if I did not have honorable interests and intentions?"
"It does seem a great effort to make. However, since I already have the example of the amiable Bingley, I cannot afford to be other than cautious. I will not expose another of my daughters to the derision of the neighborhood for disappointed hopes."
Mr. Bennet paused and, when he spoke again, he lacked his earlier relentless zeal. It seemed these words were distasteful for him. "What you might do with poor, stupid girls who cannot fend for themselves and have no one to protect them is your concern. You are young and unmarried, and I understand certain behaviour is more accepted, even expected, in certain places."
Darcy closed his eyes, almost groaning, almost afraid to ask. "Do you have something particular in mind?"
"You consorted, in a most disgustingly public way, with a woman the very night you arrived in town. I would hesitate to have a man who shows such little discretion call upon any of my daughters -- and especially Elizabeth. I believe she would fare most ill with a husband who would lay with his mistress and who-knows-what other Cyprians."
"It is not my practice, and I deny this -- "
"Deny if you wish, but several witnesses saw you hand a gleaming guinea to the girl who brought your food. You held an extensive conversation that had to be about more than the victuals. Obviously, you did not realize that you would be recognized from the last time you were in town, or you would not have negotiated so publicly. It was noted that you left quickly, and she left shortly after.
"Later that night, you were heard in a certain infamous alley among the warehouses on Water Street. Old Jack, who sleeps in one of the warehouses, saw you with not just one girl, but two! Since he is half blind and almost deaf and has been known to mistake a cat for a small child, people usually ignore him. But his story was believed because it matched what was seen earlier by others.
"Jack says you made quite a racket in the alley. He did not see your congress with these women -- he says it was beneath him to look at such things but he knew what was going on. It may have been he could not see well enough even if he tried -- but no matter, he is certain of the only name he heard cried out. It was yours, Mr. Darcy, and he is sure he heard you say yes."
Not bothering to veil his contempt, the older man said, "Perhaps your vanity will be pleased to know that even without details, some are applauding your, shall we say, manly vigor? But, if your purpose was concealment of your activities, and that is why you did not take these women to your room at the inn, you miscalculated.
"Since the militia arrived in town, that alley has become a place for soldiers to meet with all sorts of low women. People usually pay little attention to what happens down there, and no one listens to Jack rattling on. But you, sir, drew interest. People remembered you as a very rich man. It was considered quite shocking that you would do such business in an alleyway."
"Was anything more said about the identity of these two women I supposedly met in the alley?"
"Pshaw, I doubt anyone cares. Obviously, these are girls whose families have not held them in good regulation. Unfortunately, it is often so with the poor. Nothing new there. It was you, Mr. Darcy, who made this into a most excellent piece of gossip. Unless you wish to continue to feed the public appetite for your exploits, you may want to avoid using that alley in the future."
Although never considering for an instant breaking his word to Miss Lydia and Miss Kitty, Darcy felt that Mr. Bennet was the last person in the world who ought to be self-righteous. "Since you are Elizabeth's father, I will pay you the respect of speaking the truth. I did not lie with that serving maid or anyone else, and if you wish, I will find her and have her tell you."
Mr. Bennet's eyes glinted with scornful amusement. "And I am to believe it because you would never pay to have her say whatever you desire? I suspect she would appreciate such an easy way of earning money from you. What of the other two women -- or was the second woman a friend of the serving maid?"
"There was one, the serving maid. I admit I gave her money, but -- it was alms to the poor. I bought nothing from her. I went for a walk alone, meeting no one." Darcy sighed and mustered a conciliatory tone in which to observe, "You said old Jack is almost blind and half deaf -- hardly a good witness."
Lip curling contemptuously, Mr. Bennet asked, "So, were you talking to yourself in an alley? Using a woman's voice to call yourself Mr. Darcy? That is disturbing."
Exceedingly annoyed and having no other reply, Darcy retorted, "I am being judged by a man who would send his daughter off to frolic with a campful of soldiers?"
"Ah, so it seems you have been listening to gossip as well as making it. I will tell you, although it is none of your affair, that my daughter would be under the care of Colonel Forster, a respectable and sensible man. That gossip in no way compares to meeting women in alleys."
Darcy knew he should let the matter drop, but he was incensed. "You would send a fifteen-year old girl off to Brighton with Colonel Forster's wife as her chaperone. A woman barely older than Miss Lydia -- twenty, I believe -- "
"Which is Elizabeth's age."
Thinking, how this man misses the point, Darcy fired back, "I had the opportunity to witness Mrs. Forster's behaviour when I was in town before and would hardly call her a sensible woman, despite her marriage. She is certainly not someone with whom I would entrust my sister, who is about Miss Lydia's age. I would never put my sister in the care of --" And here he stopped abruptly, shutting his eyes for a moment and pressing his lips together tightly.
He had been most grievously deceived in Mrs. Younge, into whose hands he had once entrusted his sister. That companion had proven to be a far worse woman than the silly Mrs. Forster could probably ever be.
Mr. Bennet, apparently misunderstanding the abrupt silence as disdain, prompted, "The care of whom -- or what? Finish your statement, since you have already insulted the colonel's wife and I can hardly see how you could do worse."
Darcy cleared his throat and said in a far calmer voice. "I meant no insult to the colonel's lady but was merely stating the caution a parent should have. Entrusting a girl on the cusp of womanhood to the wrong guardian can result in incalculable pain, perhaps even ruin. Having had the care of my sister for some five years, I have had to think of these things. Sometimes great harm can be done carelessly, although no malice was intended."
"And, since you take it upon yourself to remind me of my responsibilities as a parent, let me return the favor by observing what a missish guardian you must be. My sympathies to your poor sister. I am certain you worry when she takes a step outside under a sky that might have a speck of cloud, and generally keep her in constant fear of all that might go amiss. Although there would be nothing wrong in my Lydia's going to Brighton with the colonel's family, she has decided not to go. She declares she wants to spend the summer with her sister Kitty."
"I am glad to hear it. I do not mean to be officious, but my interest in Miss Elizabeth makes me concerned for the reputation of her family."
"You again surprise me with your audacity." Mr. Bennet barked a laugh and added as an aside, "If I could pack both Lydia and Kitty off to give myself a quiet summer . . . Actually, perhaps I should speak to Colonel Forster about taking both."
"You cannot be serious!"
"Young man, find some other local girl to call upon if you can, but you cannot have my daughters -- unless, perhaps, your interest also extends to Lydia or Kitty? Is that why you are so eager that they not leave the county?"
Darcy winced involuntarily. He could not begin to tally the number of things wrong with that question. He knew it was offered in jest. Otherwise, he would have been even more outraged, affronted -- and very afraid.
Mr. Bennet raised an eyebrow and scoffed, "But, no, you would not connect yourself with either of them, would you? For all that you consort with Cyprians, you are still too squeamish fellow to connect yourself with their innocent absurdity. It is no matter. I would not let you call upon any of my daughters."
His voice became quieter and he said, "And, about that I am absolutely serious."
In his agitation, Darcy protested, "Sir, you must see reason. You must understand what I can offer -- what I do offer." His voice rose and carried throughout much of the house. "I want to marry your daughter! I will marry your daughter!"
Mrs. Bennet, in a room just overhead, heard the exclamation. She came bounding down the stairs and nearly tripped over the butler, whom she asked, with more feeling than decorum, "Who is my husband's visitor? Who has come this morning?"
He, who had been with Mr. Bennet for years and could often anticipate his master's orders, said, "I am sure I do not know, madam."
She looked at him almost savagely but experience had taught her she would not be able to puncture his rock-like reserve. She rushed past him. Although she remembered herself just in time to refrain from bursting into the door of her husband's bookroom, she could not keep from knocking, loudly and repeatedly.
As the incessant noise continued with no end in sight, Darcy eyed the other man with increasing wonder. Darcy opened his mouth to speak, but Mr. Bennet shook his head. He steepled his fingers into a triangle and slowly patted them.
When finally the banging on the door stopped, Darcy started to speak, but Mr. Bennet again shook his head. He rose, gesturing for his guest to do the same, and indicated silently that Darcy move where he would not be seen. Only then did Mr. Bennet go to the door and open it slightly.
"Mr. Bennet, who is in there?" Mrs. Bennet demanded, attempting to poke her head into the room.
"Madam, I beg your pardon. It is most disconcerting to find you lurking here."
"But I'm sure I heard someone . . ."
"Mrs. Bennet, we have an understanding of long standing that you are not to interrupt me. Must I explain this to you again?"
"But I heard a man's voice declaring he wanted to marry one of our daughters. Which daughter?"
Mr. Bennet harrumphed. "I suppose any would do, if a man was interested in having a silly wife. But be that as it may, there is no man here besides myself."
"Mr. Bennet, how can you call our girls silly? They are the finest girls in all of England. And I am sure I just heard a man's voice -- a strong, handsome voice -- it thrilled me to the very heart to hear him passionately demand my daughter. Who is he? Where is he? Why are you hiding him?"
"My dear, please just go away. There is no suitor."
She lowered her voice, apparently in order that only her husband would hear her. But she underestimated the power of her dulcet tones. Darcy heard her with penetrating clarity as she complained, "You are probably trying to keep him for Lizzy -- she is your favorite. But I am not sure Lizzy can do what is needed to win a man's interest. Look at how she lost Mr. Collins to Charlotte. Who ever would have thought that could happen? Perhaps this suitor would want to look at the others, too…"
"You talk as if we are auctioning off a prize calf or pig."
"Don't say such things--he will hear you," she whispered, scandalized. Then, in what was for her a normal tone, she said, "If a man has heard that our daughters are the loveliest girls in all of Hertfordshire, we must pay him the compliment of letting him have his pick. Certainly, a man cannot do wrong in choosing any of our daughters. Jane is beautiful and so is Lydia. Kitty, it is true, is smaller but her delicacy makes her all the more rare. And what more accomplished wife could a man choose than Mary--our dear and sensible Mary. And, of course, there is Elizabeth."
"Perhaps the imaginary suitor is interested in your imaginary daughter, but I assure you no real daughter is in question. My dear, I must reluctantly ask you to leave me to my work -- go now, please." This time he watched her walk away before he shut the door.
Turning to Darcy, he said, "I will have my man take you through the kitchen as soon I am sure the way is clear. We must get you out of the house quietly."
Darcy was silent, pondering whether that was what he wanted.
Chapter 11: The Sleeper Awakens to a Nightmare
Posted on 2013-04-14
"My real purpose was to see you, and to judge, if I could, whether I might ever hope to make you love me. My avowed one, or what I avowed to myself, was to see whether your sister was still partial to Bingley, and if she were, to make the confession to him which I have since made." … Darcy to Elizabeth, Pride and Prejudice, explaining why he returned to Hertfordshire with Bingley
A virtual prisoner by his own acquiescence with Mr. Bennet's order to stay out of sight, Darcy bore the indignity of hiding in the library. Since Mr. Bennet had warned against pacing should Mrs. Bennet peek in, he alternated between standing and sitting in his ignominious position behind the door.
He had not expected the argument with Mr. Bennet to explode with such rancor, and he was angry that he could be so very misunderstood. It would serve Mr. Bennet right if he left straightaway instead of bestowing upon the Bennet family all the benefits that came through connection with him. Not that he expected to spend a great deal of time with any of them, but certainly all of their lives would be materially improved when he married Elizabeth.
Despite the rigors he had experienced in pursuing her, he told himself he must not doubt he would eventually succeed. He would never say that, of course, to her. At some point in the future when they might speak of what he had done to win her, he would say, "I hoped I might make you love me and as long as there was a chance, I knew I must try."
Perhaps, depending upon the moment, he would even say cheekily, "My hopes rested on what I knew to be your sense and good judgment. How could you not choose to love me?" He imagined she would laugh and blush to hear him tease her so. He loved to see her tease others --his cousin the colonel, her friend Mrs. Collins, and even Mrs. Collins's perpetually frightened unmarried sister Maria. Elizabeth was always kind and she would make her friends smile even as they blushed at the truth of her wit. He had learned something from watching her and thought that he would be ready to use her own delightful tactics on her. What a glorious marriage they would have.
But first he needed to win her father. As long as Mr. Bennet was against him, he would have no chance with Elizabeth. It was tempting to play with the idea of allying with Mrs. Bennet, for the pleasure of irritating Mr. Bennet. But, in the game of chess which was Elizabeth's good opinion, Mr. Bennet was both the king and queen, and Mrs. Bennet little more than a pawn.
Elizabeth's father could not go on believing him a thoroughly untrustworthy rake. His future with Elizabeth at stake, he had to tell her father the truth of what happened in that alley. His future sisters-in-law would rail at him for breaking his promise and might threaten to never forgive him. He remembered a few times when his sister Georgiana had said something similar.
He was certain their father would never let them go to Brighton once he knew if he knew about their escapade in the alley. If he could, he would warn the Bennet sisters before telling their father. They might balk, but he would confront them with the truth in their father's presence. He could point as evidence to Miss Lydia's injured hand, badly bruised with skin broken after punching the soldier. Even with it now healing, it would have been seen, particularly as she held silverware during meals. However she had explained it, any previous story would wither under the truth. Also, Miss Kitty would likely break quickly under the pressure of questioning, and the two girls would be divided.
After witnessing Mr. Bennet ignoring his wife today, Darcy lost all concern that Mr. Bennet would tell his wife what the girls had done and she would mistakenly expose them to neighborhood gossip. It was clear the husband shared little with the wife and would never trust her with such sensitive information. Darcy felt a twinge of pity for the matriarch who lived in a cold marriage and he planned to have a very different marriage with Elizabeth. But he felt that in this instance, it was good that Mr. Bennet could be relied upon to trust his wife with nothing.
With this settled in his mind, it remained only for Darcy to see whether it would be better to wait for another day to bring the matter calmly before Mr. Bennet or to broach it when the patriarch came to usher him from the house. He could risk no missteps in his plan to make Elizabeth love him. As he waited, the comfort of the chair and the warmth of the room seduced him to lean back and close his eyes. Idly, he tried to remember how it had happened, now that he was in the middle of it, that he had fallen in love with Elizabeth.
Faint strains from a pianoforte floated to him, lulling him. It felt good to drift off. He absently tried to figure out who was playing. It was proficient although there seemed to be something lacking in expression. Knowing that his beloved was still in London, he thought of Miss Mary. Technically, she played relatively well though he enjoyed her sister's performances far more. He could not remember whether any of the other sisters played.
When he felt a warm breath upon his cheek, a hand stroking his hair, a line from Shakespeare flitted through his mind . . .in that sleep what dreams may come . . . Strange it would occur to him now since the passage was ominous in context, and all he felt was pleasant sensations. He happily lost himself in them.
"I will marry you. I will be exactly the wife you need."
He smiled in his sleep and sighed contentedly. They would have a very happy future.
"I was afraid I would not be able to persuade you," she said, and he wanted to tell her there was never any doubt. He was always hers. She should never despair of him or his devotion, but since this was a dream, he was sure she knew.
He moaned softly as she tangled her hand in his hair, and it seemed she amused herself there endlessly. It felt wonderful. In the dream, there was even a pleasant weight in his lap leaning against his chest. He wrapped his arms around it and felt her startle but then draw closer. It was just as he imagined it would be. She would be shy at first, but her passion for him would kindle.
In a voice soft and full of awe, the fantasy apparition told him what he wanted to hear, showering him generously with compliments. "What beautiful hair. It is quite lovely, so soft and silken. I never imagined a man's hair, his skin could feel thus. I could run my fingers through your hair and stroke your skin forever. You are a very handsome man. So gentleman-like, so noble. I am certain you are a very deserving member of your sex."
The last statement felt somehow off and caused him to slowly open his eyes. He stopped himself in time from screaming. Mary Bennet was sitting upon his lap, one arm wrapped around his neck while the other hand busied itself in his hair.
"Mr. Darcy, you look absolutely frightened. Did I awaken you from a bad dream?" she asked solicitously. "But you were smiling in your sleep."
He attempted to avoid any sudden moves. All he could think was, outside that library door would be amassed the entire town of Meryton -- he knew that was an exaggeration, but he seriously dreaded witnesses who would make this a scandal the London sheets would love. Despite what he had told Lydia Bennet about her inability to force him into a marriage, it would be different to be found in a gentleman's home with the man's daughter on his lap. In front of witnesses. Given the gossip circulating about him, this could be very bad.
He took a breath and said as calmly as he could, "Miss Mary, I do not think you should be here alone with me. Would you please remove yourself from my lap?"
"No," she said firmly, circling her arms about his torso, her fingers clutching him.
"I beg your pardon?" he said, now gently pushing her, but she clung that much more tightly, refusing to be pried loose. He cast a nervous glance at the door and expected it to be flung open any minute. Shifting from gentle persuasion to haughty coldness, he said, "I cannot believe a gentlewoman would behave so! Have you no shame?"
"Sir, I do understand the impropriety of my actions, and I do not mean to shock you. But I have learned that a woman must not be too guarded in her behaviour towards the deserving of the other sex."
"The last time a worthy suitor came with the intention of marrying one of us, I failed to properly exhibit my virtues and strengths. I will not make that mistake with you. Your shout declaring you wished to marry one of my father's daughters sounded throughout the house but thank goodness, my other sisters were outside. I knew this was my chance to speak with you before you could, ah, be distracted by their more overt attributes." She paused to run her tongue over her lips, and Darcy saw it was not as it might be in other women, a flirtatious gesture but, rather a sign of her nervousness.
She continued, "Instead of beauty that will fade, choose a wife who will manage your home well and bear your children. I have prepared for such a role by studying Fordyce and other excellent guides. You could meet no more serious candidate than I to be the partner in life of a man in your elevated position."
"Miss Mary, I am begging you to detach yourself from me. I do not wish to throw you onto the floor, but please, let go. Are you not rather young to be thinking of marriage?"
"Young, strong and willing, Mr. Darcy. What more or better could you want?"
She regarded him with the somewhat frightening determination he had seen in her eyes in drawing rooms whenever she had an opportunity to play for company. Looking for something to cool her ardour, he suggested, "Your father may walk into this room at any moment. What do you think he would say to you when he sees you sitting on my lap with your arms wrapped around me? He would be displeased with you, I'm sure."
Undeterred, she replied with a touch of pique, "I would have questions for him. Why has he has been denying there was anyone in his library? Do you know he is hiding you?" Darcy started to answer and found himself in the uncustomary position of stammering. Mary interrupted, "It does not matter. This time I shall have the chance I deserve. You should know, sir, that when I opened the door and saw you asleep, I was very happy. I always admired you, despite what Lizzy said."
He blinked and asked, "What did your sister Miss Elizabeth say?"
"Do not worry. It was nothing of importance to me. She always has rather decided opinions about everything, but we will not have to see Lizzy very often once we are married and . . ."
More urgently, he insisted, "Please tell me everything she said."
Mary squinted in apparent confusion at why he would be so curious. He stared at her, demanding a reply, and she responded reluctantly. "Lizzy said your essential character could be seen in the cruel way you treated Mr. Wickham -- that his misfortunes could all be laid at your door and you reduced him to poverty with the greatest unkindness. She said you are a wealthy man who expects to be accepted for that alone and who takes no care in how you treat those beneath you. She said you are not a true gentleman because a gentleman always treats others as he would wish to be treated. However, I think Fordyce would disagree with such a simplistic view."
He was stunned and speechless. Mary quickly assured him, "I did not believe any of it. Mr. Wickham told all sorts of tales. The man would hardly shut up! I think he made most of it up just to impress Lizzy. We could all see how much he liked her."
"What sorts of tales? Did he call on your sister?" Darcy asked tightly.
Mary shrugged, her grip on Darcy loosening but, distracted, he did not take the opportunity to push her off his lap. She replied, "He came to dine along with other officers at the invitation of my parents. Always he talked a great deal about you and how different his life would have been if you had not denied him a living. But I hardly think he would have been a good clergyman. He speaks well but lacks the proper humility. I think you did the right thing. I believe Papa agreed, too. Although he laughed at his stories and at how Lizzy made sport of you, I don't think Papa really liked Mr. Wickham. And I assure you, I never laughed."
Still unable to speak, he turned his stare from Mary and sat looking into the distance. She chattered on happily but he barely heard. He was recalling the times he and Elizabeth had been alone in Kent during the walks through the grove and that one time when he visited her alone in Hunsford Parsonage. She smiled, she was polite, she was everything a well-bred gentlewoman should be. And, never once had she had told him honestly of her concerns about his character in his dealings with Wickham.
And, apparently, what concerns she had! She thought very badly of him. Perhaps he had no right now to feel she had betrayed him by her omissions. But she had left so much unsaid. Her silence spoke volumes of distrust and contempt. It was more painful than hearing she had laughed him.
He hated to think an attachment to Wickham of all men had nurtured Elizabeth's dislike of him. She could not know that Wickham was the man who had nearly ruined fifteen-year old Georgiana Darcy by persuading her she was in love. Of course, what he really wanted was to get his hands on Georgiana's substantial dowry. It was a great insult to the memory of Darcy and Georgiana's father, who had been as kind and supportive to Wickham and even paid for his education at Cambridge University.
Darcy again became aware of Mary. Not bothered that he was saying little, she said much. He suspected disinterestedly that she did not often find such a compliant audience for her conversation. The plain and often silent sister was full of ideas about how everything could be better done if everyone would simply listen to her. It was her opinion that the relations between the lost suitor, Elizabeth and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had been badly mismanaged on all sides. Every effort should have been made to secure Mr. Collins to their family rather than his taking the family wealth elsewhere. Mary thought Collins would have done better for himself, too, to stay within the breast of his family and marry a Bennet woman. Above all, she blamed Elizabeth.
"My mother still complains how he was stolen away before any other sister could talk with him," Mary said. "I suppose Elizabeth thought she could do better. But I don't think George Wickham is better. He is handsome, certainly, but what else does he have?"
"You believe your sister rejected Collins because she was partial to Wickham?" Darcy asked, his voice sounding wooden to his own ears.
But Mary seemed not to notice. She responded in a chatty tone as if gossiping. "I cannot be sure, but with Mr. Collins the heir to Longbourn and a respectable clergyman, what better to recommend him? I cannot imagine Lizzy or any of us ever having a better opportunity than him -- except you, of course. But, of course, she dislikes you so much she would never consider you, which I think is very foolish. She always thinks she knows everything but I think she is often rash and unwise. She is very much like my father sometimes."
"Yes, he makes sport of everyone, including my mother. I think Lizzy would be the kind of wife, too. I think she would laugh at her husband as my father laughs at my mother." Mary paused. "I am sorry to talk about Lizzy so much. I know you do not like her, but if it happens that she never marries, I hope we could perhaps find a cottage for her on your estate. It could be one that would be as far away from our residence as possible. I don't think she can depend on Wickham -- I heard father telling her that if she wishes like Jane to be crossed in love, Wickham would the man for it."
Mary sighed and suddenly opined, "The early bird catches the worm." Seeing his startled frown, she clarified, "I mean I'm glad now I did not catch Mr. Collins. You really are quite superior to him. Sometimes it's better not to be first."
He almost groaned as she looked at him full of hope. He remembered he had not protested for awhile that she was sitting on his lap, and she may have received the wrong impression from that. "Miss Mary, I am not generally interested in marrying a woman simply because she is a Bennet. There was a particular Bennet I had in mind when I shouted my intention to your father."
"Oh," she said in a high voice. She repeated, lower, "Oh." She pressed her fingers to her mouth, as if belatedly trying to call back everything she had said. "You must think me a brazen hussy. I thought it was a competition and we had to show you our interest."
She looked crestfallen. He felt sorry for her but could not risk someone opening the library door. "May I ask you again to remove yourself from my lap?"
This time, she jumped up quickly. The strong voice she had used to make her argument that he should choose her was replaced by a whisper. "I should have known. You are not like Mr. Collins who would have a reason to choose among my father's daughters. That will never happen again. How could I ever think you would want me? May we forget this happened, please?" She bent her head bent so that he could not see her eyes.
He said, "I agree, Miss Mary, let us never speak of it. But I will say this one last thing before we close the subject forever. I agree that one should speak, whether man or woman, to make your feelings known. Please do not feel you should be ashamed."
He started to add some encouragement about her finding the right gentleman but hesitated because many gentlewomen, especially the poor ones, went unmarried. And, he suspected, Mary Bennet would be an acquired taste. But, then again, the same could be said, for different reasons, about Elizabeth Bennet.
"Which one of us do did you seek my father's permission to see -- to marry? Jane, probably? She is so beautiful."
"Actually, it's -- it's no one," he said. "I have changed my mind."
Luckily, Kitty and Lydia were not at home when Darcy made his declaration, so we will never have to know how they would have reacted. Maybe they would not have been as tempted as Mary, since they and Darcy already know a great deal about each other. In fact, Darcy now knows all the Bennets better than perhaps he ever thought possible, in his worst dreams. But, must worse, he knows Elizabeth better, or thinks he does. What do you think?
Chapter 12: He Never Had a Chance
Posted on 2013-05-06
Despite Mary's fondness for philosophical reflection, she was not the most perceptive reader of people. It did not immediately occur to her that Darcy's interest in Elizabeth's remarks might have anything to do with his sudden change of mind about marrying the Bennet of his choice.
When he asked Mary's help to leave Longbourn unseen, she was only too eager to comply. Absorbed in her own feelings of shame at throwing herself at him, she felt the more quickly he was gone, the better. No questions occurred to her about why he wished to steal away without saying farewell to her father. She assured him he could depend upon her.
But she did not anticipate the arrival of the visitors. If the drawing room door was closed where they were being entertained, perhaps she and Darcy could go through the front of house. On the other hand, the servants' entrance leading out through the side on the ground floor might be better because there would probably be no one there at this time of day. Definitely, they should avoid the kitchen because the butler or his spies might see them and tell her father.
It was all so much to think about. Paralyzed with indecision and her face screwed up tightly in contemplation, she almost missed seeing her father leading the visitors to the library. If only she had realized a minute earlier her father was taking them there, she could have gotten to Darcy to hide him in the alcove where she was now standing. It would have been a perfect way for them to escape. But by the time she saw where her father was going, he was already walking past her with his guests.
It seemed to Darcy that the third Bennet sister was taking forever to return. He longed to be on his horse, riding hard and mindlessly away from Longbourn. In the confined space of the library, he could not outrun his thoughts.
If falling in love with Elizabeth Bennet had thrown him somewhat off of his hinges, finding out that she might be nursing a tendre for George Wickham -- of all men! -- threw him into a maelstrom. He feared this was the unhappy answer to the mystery of why she had never liked him. Wickham had gotten there first and was poisoning her against him all along. Darcy had to admit his silence and, yes, haughtiness, probably made her more willing to believe the worst of him.
He shook his head defiantly. "Why should I blame myself if she has succumbed to Wickham's flatteries and slanders?" he muttered aloud. "She should have been able to see what he was. This is not like choosing my cousin instead. Wickham is -- is …" And, there he hesitated.
He knew Wickham to be a lying and cheating scoundrel. Interested only in his own pleasure, the man ruined several daughters of servants and tenants. Would he dare interfere with a gentleman's daughter? Despite his pretensions, truly acting as a gentleman meant nothing to him. Darcy cursed himself that he had thoughtlessly left Elizabeth -- and every other woman in the neighborhood -- to the decidedly untender mercies of such a man. He should have spoken to make Wickham's character known. As Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, he would have been heard and respected.
But the shameful truth was, he had not wished to take the trouble. The people in this insignificant country neighborhood meant nothing to him. Knowing Elizabeth might be in danger made him consider how other families would feel if their daughters were misled. Wickham had gained entry into the homes of gentry as an officer of the militia and was generally respected by the populace. He could make Meryton and its environs his playfields, and Darcy felt responsible for that horror.
A woman ought to show good judgment but that did not absolve Wickham and his ilk for preying upon foolish and ignorant hearts. No doubt shopkeepers' daughters found him as dashing as did gentlewomen. Only women like the cook's daughter who so easily offered herself for sale to Darcy would be safe from Wickham because such women would demand something from him. If his past was any indication, there would likely be too many others willing to give themselves thinking they were in love.
A feeling of being betrayed by Elizabeth rose in Darcy. He knew it was not fair, but he latched onto the idea and fanned his resentment. If he could hold on to disgust at her lack of discernment -- how could she choose Wickham? -- he could walk away.
Except that he could not. His resentment, despite his best efforts, withered. Darcy's father and sister had been charmed. His vague warning to Elizabeth at the Netherfield ball was too little. Rather than blame her if she fell to Wickham, he should blame himself for having been too proud to try to win her then -- and too proud to say what he should have to protect her.
Trying to see a bright side to never having Elizabeth in his life, he noted he would never be burdened by those encumbrances she called a family. Surprisingly, that sentiment brought a wave of shame to him.
It forced him to look inward more closely. Surprise grew into shock as he realized that, like falling in love with Elizabeth before he knew it was happening, he had started feeling more charitable toward the Bennets. Bearing her family would have been easier than he once thought, now that he knew them better.
Certainly, they had their faults but still …. However angry Mr. Bennet made him with the unfounded and wrong-headed accusations that Darcy was a rake, he admired the father for wanting to protect his daughters. He smiled at the spirit the two youngest girls showed fighting off their attacker. As gentlewomen, they should never have placed themselves in such a situation, but they were naïve rather than immoral.
Mrs. Bennet was a foolish woman who could probably be exceedingly annoying in close quarters. But he acquitted her, too, on the basis of desperation that perhaps only a mother with five dowry-poor daughters could fully understand. He could even forgive the third sister for an act that might have forced him into marriage. She had been moved by nothing more evil than misplaced and alarmingly single-minded enthusiasm, and luckily, no harm had been done.
With chagrin, he reflected that had he been more accepting of Elizabeth's family earlier, he might have let himself see how powerfully he wanted Elizabeth. Everything might have been different.
All he could do now was warn her about Wickham. He could hear the voice of his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam inside his head, protesting, "Why do you believe it your responsibility to protect her? She does not want you. Even if her family is tolerable, they are still far below you. You are fortunate to be free. Walk away! Leave it to Mr. Bennet to take care of his family."
But Darcy feared Mr. Bennet might prove as ineffective in this as he had been in anticipating and protecting his younger daughters from their folly. It would be better to speak directly to Elizabeth. He would go to London before she arrived home. In case Mr. Bennet was planning to write to her, he would leave quickly as possible.
Later he would try to change Mr. Bennet's mind about him with the truth about what had really happened in the alley. But, with London so close to the militia's outpost, the soldiers could easily travel to town and, even now, Wickham might be clandestinely seeing Elizabeth. Darcy did not think she would behave improperly, but he did not want to risk her being ignorant one instant longer than he could prevent it.
He hoped to startle her into listening with the truth. He would say, "I cannot wait until you might like me. You need understand this now because you are in danger. Mr. Wickham is not a man who can be trusted. Send me away after you listen if you wish but I implore you, do not allow yourself to fall under his sway."
Once she understood Darcy had come to Hertfordshire to make her fall in love with him, she might call his warning just a new ruse. "You make yourself the hero by making poor Wickham the victim," he dreaded to hear her say. "You set yourself up as my savior and I am to be grateful? Is that how it works?"
But she would have to believe him when he offered truth without omission, and nothing less than that would do. As evidence that he had not impoverished his former childhood friend, Darcy planned to arm himself with the agreement Wickham signed giving up his claim to a living in return for a substantial sum of money. He would give her the paper so that she could see Wickham's signature for herself. But, more, he would tell Elizabeth about Georgiana. His sister's other guardian Colonel Fitzwilliam might raise objections about trusting someone outside their family, but Elizabeth needed to know the know Wickham's potential for betrayal.
It would be distasteful to draw Bingley back into the morass, but Darcy would do this, too, because he must. Clever woman that she was, Elizabeth would see that his story about observing Jane was an excuse to be near her, and she would demand that he speak immediately with his friend. Darcy would surrender on that point as long as Elizabeth would agree to listen to him about Wickham.
He would tell his friend that her sister seemed certain Miss Bennet cared for him, and he would again warn Bingley to be careful. Bingley might already have lost interest since he fell in and out love with great regularity. In any event, he would have to protect himself. If he persisted in pursuing Miss Bennet, then so be it.
Certainly, it would not be first time that two parties entered a marriage with one having greater feelings than the other. Feeling more sympathetic to the Bennets now he knew them more closely, Darcy thought they might not be such a trial to Bingley after all. He declared to himself this was not a rationalization. Nor was he sacrificing Bingley in order to save Elizabeth--no, that was not at all what he was doing.
Having come to the point of being willing to take desperate means, Darcy learned almost immediately that he would not be able to. His hope to be able to save Elizabeth blew away in the breeze created when Mr. Bennet opened the door of his library, and led in Bingley and the other Fitzwilliam cousin, Viscount Weldon.
Darcy saw them before they saw him as he stood behind the door, and he was amazed that they were both guests of Mr. Bennet. He thought it must have been a coincidence that they would arrive at the same time. Certainly, they could not be traveling together.
Early on when Darcy took Bingley under his wing, the viscount was harsh and absolute in his disapproval of the close association. "Cousin, considering your remarkable fastidiousness in most matters, I cannot understand you. His family's money still reeks of the factory and warehouse, and he has no particular wit or talent. Yes, modern times being what they are, we associate with such people in society. But you treat him like a friend. He is a nobody from nowhere, cousin, who is attempting to use you to gain acceptance. Surely, with your resources, you could find someone -- many! -- better to follow you about like a lapdog?"
Darcy responded with a cold stare. The viscount, unlike the colonel, was not in the least intimidated by his wealthy gentry kin, since after all, he would be wealthier than Darcy someday when he came into his full inheritance and title. Lord Weldon persisted, "You must consider your duty to your family, old man. And the memory of your parents. Yours is a fine heritage and, although you have no title, you are nephew of an earl and will be cousin to one. You are of the first consequence and should never forget your place."
"And you should never forget yours. Never again dare speak to me in such a manner." The two men locked eyes. They were like mirror images across from each other as they sat in the breakfast room of Loftgate, the main and ancestral home of the Fitzwilliams.
It was one of those vagaries familiar to all families that the lord, who was tall, dark and very handsome, resembled Darcy far more closely than he did his fraternal twin. While the colonel looked like their mother, the viscount and Darcy had the Fitzwilliam look. They went on glaring at each other until a servant entered with a platter of steaming sausages and startled both men into looking away at the same time.
Relations had been strained after that and two men avoided each other by mutual consent. The last Darcy had seen his cousin had been five months ago, at Christmas. Seeing him enter Mr. Bennet's library, he noticed the viscount was putting on weight.
Weldon had always enjoyed the indulgences pursued by Prinny's crowd a little too much, in Darcy's opinion. The viscount's father, like Darcy's, emphasized the value of holding oneself in good regulation, but the son gave only lip service to such ideas. Darcy was surprised his cousin would even temporarily desert his spot among the prince's courtiers to step his well-shod foot into this unfashionable country neighborhood. There could be nothing here to amuse or attract his jaded tastes.
As curiously as Darcy was appraising Mr. Bennet's guests, they were looking back puzzled at him. While Mr. Bennet and Bingley did not say anything and even attempted after a moment not to stare, Lord Weldon pointed at Darcy's head and quizzically raised an eyebrow, silently demanding an explanation. Stricken, Darcy thought, It must be my hair. He inwardly cursed the library's lack of a mirror.
"I fell asleep while I was waiting. Please excuse my appearance."
"If you look that way after dozing off in a chair, I shudder to think what you must look like when you arise from a bed," Weldon replied. He paused before continuing, his eyes still upon Darcy although he addressed Mr. Bennet. "Sir, how many daughters did you say have?"
Although Darcy was fairly sure his face revealed nothing to the others in the room, he was outraged. He also knew his cousin saw and exalted in victory.
Fortunately, Mr. Bennet did not seem to understand the indecent insinuation. Or, perhaps he would not have imagined it possible even had he understood the hint, knowing the only daughter at home had been Mary. He replied with cold civility to Darcy, "My apologies for keeping you waiting so long. I was not expecting your cousin and Mr. Bingley. The distraction made me momentarily forget you were here."
As distressed as Darcy had been by his argument with Mr. Bennet, the gentleman upset him far more as he looked with genuine approval upon the viscount. "Lord Weldon was most kind in bringing my daughters from London in his carriage. He was delighted to learn that you were here rather than at Netherfield, Mr. Darcy."
If Mr. Bennet thought the two cousins were now going to embrace or, to involve themselves in some physical display, he saw instead they eschewed even a smile and glared at each other coldly.
Breaking the silence, he addressed the earlier question about the number of his daughters. "I have three younger girls as well as the two you already met, Lord Weldon."
"I can only hope they grow up to be a fraction as lovely as Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth Bennet. And, Miss Elizabeth has a fabulously enjoyable wit. I probably do not need to tell you that, sir."
Darcy blurted, "How did you meet the Miss Bennets?" As he watched his cousin's eyebrow again go up, he knew had given away too much.
"Interesting story, cousin! I went looking for my brother who I understood had gone out with some of the officers under his command. You know how I usually frequent White's, and sometimes Brooks', but there I was that evening at Boodle's -- of all places. Something that would happen once in every blue moon if that, and how fortunate a coincidence it was. There my brother was, telling me all about your time with him in Kent and then how you had traveled alone to Hertfordshire to rent Netherfield. Imagine my surprise that the master of Pemberley would need to rent a manor in another county."
"And mine," Bingley said tightly.
The viscount chuckled and continued, "By the by, my brother seemed rather miffed, Darcy, that you did not want his company in this lovely neighborhood. I think you may have hurt his feelings, although I tried to tell him you likely needed some time alone, after being so much in his company in Kent. My brother does not understand how he can wear on someone's nerves, even yours, though you would never say it. But the dear chap needs to know."
Darcy was freshly enraged. Weldon trying to start a fight between him and the colonel was their childhood all over again. But it would not do to have an argument in front of outsiders.
The viscount continued, "As it happened, your good friend Bangley was also in Boodles's and overheard our conversation. Do you see what I mean by a fortunate coincidence? He insisted upon all the details about your coming to Hertfordshire, the minute he heard about Netherfield, did you not, Mr. Bangley?"
"It's Bingley, milord." Bingley looked angrily at Darcy, who, in turn, could only roll his eyes and think he was not his cousin's keeper.
The viscount said affably, "Pardon, old man! I keep making that mistake, don't I? Well, as it turned out, my brother could also report that a certain Miss Jane Bennet was in London. Mr. Bingley was rather --" the viscount paused again, and this time smiled affably at Mr. Bennet -- "I think the best word is eager, if you do not mind my revealing such privileged information to the father of the woman about whose whereabouts you were most curious."
"I do not mind Mr. Bennet knowing my interest in his daughter," Bingley said.
"Well, a father should know such things," the viscount said.
"I was wondering earlier when you said you called upon my daughters at the Gardiners', how you knew the exact address?"
Bingley looked downwards in sudden embarrassment while the viscount smirked and answered eagerly, "From his very own family. Would you believe his sisters had been in contact Miss Bennet and had even visited? Sometimes we do not know what is going on with those closest to us, do we? Personally, I like to keep my family very close. For example, when I understood that my cousin knew both your daughters, Mr. Bennet, I wanted to meet them, too. Once I did, I was charmed. And, seeing Mr. Bungley's interest, I felt it would be a necessary kindness to have him accompany me to bring your daughters safely home to you -- and Mr. Bungley could also see his friend Darcy again. I must tell you, I could not resist a chance to be present for that."
Mr. Bennet looked puzzled as his eyes went from Bingley to Darcy and back again. Darcy suspected that despite his best efforts, concern was showing upon his face, and he had not known his friend Bingley was capable of looking so hostile.
He was now also worried about his cousin's intentions. As one of Prinny's Carlton House insiders, Lord Weldon sometimes showed disgusting propensities. While he did not usually sully maidens, his interest in the Bennet sisters was disturbing.
Darcy wished to enlighten Mr. Bennet, who seemed to Darcy far too impressed with the aristocrat. Surely as a protective father, he would be upset by a glimpse into the viscount's true nature.
Hoping to prod his cousin into saying something that would reveal his callousness, Darcy chided, "You rode inside the carriage with the Bennet ladies? Really, Weldon, I understand in your haste, you wished to do a good deed. But I insist that you be more careful here and consider the reputations of these ladies. Meryton is not London and things are sometimes seen differently, scrutinized more. Given your standing, Mr. Bennet may be too polite to protest -- "
"I can speak for myself, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Bennet snapped. "As I mentioned earlier, I am fully capable of taking care of my family."
The room became so quiet that one might have sworn it was possible to hear the flap of flies' wings.
Seeming to enjoy the moment, the viscount smiled slowly and waited longer than necessary before speaking. "Your scruples are honorable ones as always, cousin. Mr. Bennet, my cousin Darcy is the moralist in our family to whom everyone looks for counsel to know the right thing to do."
He slightly bowed his head to Darcy as he continued, "Cousin, you will be happy to know that your friend and I did not ride inside the carriage with the ladies. That is why they have not yet arrived. The coach is a few miles behind us, and we gentlemen rode on ahead to let Mr. Bennet know. Also, I asked my dear old nurse Mrs. Mellon to chaperone the gentlewomen, and I put two footmen on the coach. For even such a short trip as London to Meryton, one cannot be too careful, Mr. Bennet. Both the reputations and the safety of the ladies were paramount to me, as of course, shall always be." The gracious speech sounded everything that a nobleman at his best should be.
"And, I thank you, Lord Weldon," Mr. Bennet said. "Your thoughtfulness does you credit."
"Mr. Bennet, I must insist again that you call me Wel. I insist upon it from my friends, and certainly, I must consider the father of Misses Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, my friend."
Darcy, noticing that Bingley grimaced, suspected that his cousin had not extended a similar privilege to the tradesman's son.
Weldon continued, and Darcy was sure his cousin was looking at him from the corner of his eye. "I must say, sir, your Miss Elizabeth is a special treasure."
Mr. Bennet pursed his lips and hesitated. "You honor me," he said finally. "It perhaps goes without saying, please call me Bennet."
Darcy gripped his hands together tightly behind his back as he struggled with an urge to strangle his cousin. But it would hardly do commit murder in front of witnesses.
Mr. Bennet's butler appeared at that moment and took Darcy to a dressing room with a mirror where he could put his appearance in order. As he combed his hair, he also recognized that the possibility of using Bingley as a bargaining chip with Elizabeth was now null and void; he could only wonder whether he had lost Bingley's friendship forever.
Returning to the library, Darcy found they had been invited to dinner at Longbourn the following evening. Mr. Bennet also welcomed Bingley the very next morning to call upon Jane Bennet.
Darcy did not even dare ask whether he might call upon Elizabeth. When his cousin said, "Sir, I hope I may call upon your second daughter," and Mr. Bennet nodded, Darcy looked at him in alarm.
In the most unfair blow of all, both Bingley and Mr. Bennet regarded Darcy with hostility neither attempted to mask. He inwardly cursed his other cousin the colonel for unleashing his brother upon him. Why did he expose all of his affairs -- but even as he formed the question, Darcy thought the colonel had probably meant no harm in sharing secrets with his brother, to whose faults he was blinded by love. Darcy thought no one in the world liked being in control more than Viscount Weldon, and he had no intention of surrendering the right to control his own life to this pompously interfering and blindly arrogant man.
He would certainly not give up Elizabeth.
Chapter 13: Bonds, Binds, Chains and Other Ties
Posted on 2013-05-12
The gentlemen left Longbourn before the viscount's coach with the Misses Bennet arrived. The sisters would be able to enjoy a private reunion with their family, and the gentlemen would see them the following day at dinner.
Riding to Netherfield at a gallop gave the gentlemen an excuse to avoid conversation. On arrival and dismount, they observed all due civilities before going off to their private quarters, where each ate a solitary evening meal.
While Darcy and Bingley sincerely dreaded the moment they must face each other, they were united in their greater distaste for speaking with Lord Weldon. The morning after Longbourn, Darcy repaired to the Netherfield library which he thought would be safe, since his cousin tended not to rise early and Bingley seldom went there.
As Darcy entered with an armful of books, he immediately saw his friend standing with his arms crossed over his chest. Without preamble, Bingley asked, "When will your cousin leave?"
"Why are you asking me? I did not bring him here."
"Do you think I did?"
"It seems I saw the two of you arrive together," Darcy said drily.
"What choice did I have? The viscount insisted upon accompanying me to see Miss Bennet at her Uncle Gardiner's home. I tried to get rid of him but he went with me each time I visited, although he made no effort to hide how little fondness he has for me--or, for the Gardiners, for that matter."
Darcy rolled his eyes but otherwise ignored his friend. He put the books he was carrying on a table and seemed absorbed in them. Bingley waited a few minutes before complaining, "As his kinsman, you ought to know how ungentleman-like he was in the way he talked about Miss Bennet's relatives behind their backs. He repeatedly said all manner of unpleasant things about such people as he called them. I told him he did not have to go -- indeed, I would prefer that he not. But he said he had to go, because of you. I will tell you honestly, Darcy, I was disgusted at how your cousin charmed them with his manner while laughing at them later. Your cousin is --" He stopped himself and took a breath.
Darcy said, "Vile? Is that the word you seek?"
"I am sorry. I realize he is your kinsman, but. . ."
"No one is sorrier about that than I am. And, by the by, I have never met the Gardiners. I don't know why he felt he should to meet them on my behalf."
Neither man needed to note aloud the word they both knew to be at the core of the nobleman's contempt. Mr. Gardiner was a successful tradesman, though not as prosperous as Mr. Bingley Senior had become before his death. As if the weight of the world sagged upon him, Bingley sat heavily in a nearby spindly armchair. It wobbled slightly and he looked even more woebegone.
"The Gardiners are fine people, sensible and kind. It was galling to listen to your cousin slur them and not let them know what he was really like. I could say nothing without looking the ill-bred knave, jealous of the handsome lord who deigned to honor their home with his presence. Even Miss Bennet looked pleased with his manners and could find nothing amiss in him when I hinted of it."
Shaking his head in commiseration, Darcy asked, "Knowing Lord Weldon, he was flirting madly with both the Miss Bennets--I have seen him more than once set sisters against each other. He particularly enjoys that. Though I suspect Miss Elizabeth would have seen through him, I hope Miss Jane Bennet was not seriously affected or thought he meant anything by it. My cousin never means it."
With a sudden change in attitude, Bingley gave Darcy a long cold look. "Don't take me for a fool. You cannot throw me off the scent that easily. Bad as your cousin is, I cannot accuse him of going to the amazing lengths you took, renting my country house to steal my--that is, to attract Miss Bennet."
Staggered by the accusation, Darcy could only stand with his mouth slightly open and his hands suspended above the book he had just dropped.
Bingley continued, "In fact, I must thank your cousin for explaining it to me -- I will give him that. As he says, men must compete for women, and I put you on notice here and now. I am willing to compete with you, Darcy. While I understand your admiration for Miss Bennet--I understand it deeply!--I am astonished you would--do what you did. Your cousin says that all is fair in love and war -- perhaps I am a soft-headed fool as he called me, but I would never do such a thing to you. I don't care what Shakespeare says."
"That line is not from Shakespeare," Darcy replied. "But never mind --you cannot be accusing me of what I think. You said you don't like my cousin -- you should know he is not to be believed or trusted."
"I don't like him--frankly, I think I hate him and I have hated very few--actually, I don't think I have ever hated anyone. But, yes, I might hate your cousin. Even so, I am mightily in his debt for pointing out what you did to take Miss Bennet from me." He paused. "Who did say it if not Shakespeare? It sounds like Shakespeare."
"It was a contemporary of his--John Lylie," Darcy said impatiently.
"I don't think I know of him," Bingley said, pressing his fingers to his mouth.
"Good God, man, would you focus, please? My point is, you should put no faith in my cousin. He is not a man to be believed."
"I have always thought I could believe you, Darcy, but let me plainly speak what has been burning in my throat every inch we rode from London. I would not say it to your cousin or let him know how disappointed I was in you. It was a dirty trick for you to try to warn me off Miss Bennet. You of all men, Darcy! I suppose Lord Weldon has the right of it in saying love can make us do things we would not otherwise. I am sorry to hurt you, but I believe Miss Jane Bennet does want me."
"Bingley, surely you do not think…you cannot believe… why would I want Miss Bennet?"
Incredulously, Bingley replied, "What man would not? She is a most beautiful creature. Yet, she seems to like me better, and that surprises me as much as it probably surprised you. You are wealthier and have greater consequence -- and you have Pemberley --"
Bingley was starting to run out of steam, his momentary bravado swallowed in his more natural modesty. His chin sank against his chest and his voice became lower. "I know how much you could offer her, but it will be her decision. I will not give her up with a fight, Darcy. As a friend, I must let you know that."
Darcy, happy to hear he was still considered a friend, said with thoughtless haste, "I do not want her."
"How dare you!'
"No, I mean… It was never my object to have her for myself. I was trying to save you."
"From what? From an angel? I would be lucky if she would have me. So would you! Admit what you did, man!"
Darcy waited, this time measuring his words before speaking. His hesitation apparently irritated Bingley, who bitterly filled the silence: "Under all your condescension that seems so gracious, you have the same disdain for me as your cousin. At least, he honestly professes it. You are ashamed to admit you want her, because you see me as an unworthy opponent for her affections. You cannot stand to think that I might beat you at anything."
"You are being an idiot," Darcy snapped. He shut his eyes tightly and tried to control the wave of anger that swept over him. Weldon, he thought, clenching his teeth. He opened his eyes to his friend's hurt and angry face. "Bingley, you are my friend. Without reservation, I offer my friendship as I always have. Please, never doubt me."
The two men locked eyes, one pleading and the other resisting--but it could not last long. Darcy had come to Bingley's aid any number of times and even in anger, Bingley could not force himself to admire Darcy less. Although very different in personality, they shared similar values. Bingley had always trusted Darcy, and habits were hard to break.
The coup de grâce to any plan by Lord Weldon to poison the men's friendship came when Darcy said contritely, "I am heartily sorry for interfering with you and Miss Bennet. I was wrong to do it. If you have reason to believe Miss Bennet cares for you, I cannot be happier for you. Your happiness was all I ever wanted."
"Do you mean that?"
"Of course. I would not lose your friendship for anything."
"Then you will not be disappointed if I ask Miss Bennet to marry me?"
"I suspect based upon my conversation with her father yesterday that she will say yes. Her sister Miss Elizabeth told me the same thing a couple of fortnights ago. I wish I had--well, the only thing I wish to say now is -- Godspeed."
Congenitally unable to hold a stern frown for long, Bingley relaxed happily into a grin. "Darcy, thank you! Who would ever have thought she would choose me over you? Certainly, you are superior in so many ways."
Darcy nearly snapped at the other again but managed to calmly say, "My friend, you are as fine a man as I have ever known. Miss Bennet and her family would be fortunate to have an association with you. Please believe me, I was not thinking of Miss Bennet when I decided to return to Netherfield."
"Then what other possible reason could you have?"
Darcy grunted in exasperation. First Mary Bennet, and now his friend who had even more occasion to watch him with Elizabeth, seemed completely unaware of his feelings. He would have congratulated himself on how well he had hidden his intentions from others as well as from her, except that he had won nothing.
"Bingley, may I ask your honest opinion about something -- do you believe my cousin is truly interested in Miss Elizabeth Bennet?"
"I believe so, and I hope that as his kinsman, you do not object to his interest in someone below his station. It would an amazing match for her but not the first time nobility has plucked a wife for her beauty and intelligence rather than strictly her background. Really, considering your cousin, it is Miss Elizabeth who would be too good for him."
"So, it seemed that serious to you then? Do you think Miss Elizabeth was the reason he kept returning to the Gardiners with you?"
"They did get on like a house afire."
Darcy grimaced. At that moment, he probably could not have hidden his feelings if he tried but he saw no reason to disguise them from his friend. Awareness dawned slowly upon Bingley, who asked, "Are you interested in Elizabeth Bennet? But the two of you argued constantly."
"I enjoyed our repartee and thought she did, too. Obviously, I was wrong."
Bingley started to reply but studied his friend's face further, before observing with an uneasy smile, "Who understands women? I may have misread her admiration for him. Maybe she does not like him as much as I thought."
Shrugging, he added, "Now that I really think on it, I am sure her smiles at him mean nothing. You are a much better man than he. What woman would not choose you if she had the chance?" He realized what he had just said and looked sheepish.
Sometime later, as he was bidding farewell in order to go call upon Miss Bennet, he impulsively asked Darcy to join him -- "I am sure Mr. Bennet would not turn you away, and you are invited to dinner." Darcy demurred, saying, "You and Miss Bennet will not want me in your way as you spend the day together."
Bingley smiled slyly and replied, "Yes, but you might want to be in the way of your cousin and Miss Elizabeth."
Although it did not change his mind about joining Bingley at Longbourn, the counsel reminded Darcy why he liked this affable fellow as greatly as he did. If he had been one to make maudlin admissions, Darcy would have blurted he did not deserve Bingley's friendship. It was embarrassing enough just to think it.
As Darcy's man was dressing him for dinner at Longbourn, his cousin entered abruptly without knocking. It startled the valet into pulling too tightly upon the cravat and Darcy momentarily choked. After the now ruined design was unraveled, it took a moment longer for Darcy to regain his breath. Considering his own earlier desire to choke his cousin, he wondered if Lord Weldon had somehow done this on purpose. The valet also looked personally put out since it took time to tie a cravat with distinction, and this had looked to be one of his best.
"What is it?" Darcy asked brusquely as soon as he was alone with his cousin.
"You really must work on your address, old man. You sound positively ill-bred." Darcy merely stared and his cousin continued. "I just had to tell you about my day with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She rather fancies me, you know. Stop me if this is of no interest to you."
Darcy eyed his cousin with unrestrained distaste. Lord Weldon smiled and continued, "We went on a picnic. Of course, the little minx wished to traipse along on foot but I insisted we take the coach. She pointed out the sights. Really, nothing to see here, at least nothing that impressed me -- but, nonetheless, she made a pretty little tour guide. You should consider hiring her at Pemberley just to give tours -- and I am sure you could find something else to do with her, too."
"Were you chaperoned?" Darcy hissed.
Lord Weldon extended his tongue just above his upper lip in a gesture that brought the words salacious and lecherous to Darcy's mind. The lord held the pose long enough to force his cousin to growl, "Weldon!"
"Yes, two chaperones, in fact. Miss Mary Bennet and Mrs. Mellon. They kept each other company while Miss Elizabeth and I talked and wondered about a bit. She is an energetic one, quite the walker. I wonder what else she would be energetic at?"
"You are disgusting."
"And you are so predictable. So is she. But, then what woman is not? We found a small clearing and sat down apart from the others. You should have seen her face when I pulled out a book of poems. Love sonnets. Come live with me and be my love--"
"You did not read that to her! Did her father know you were alone with her?"
"Strictly speaking, we were not alone. But I think even had we been, Mr. Bennet would have been thrilled. Fathers always are to have me distinguish their sweet girls with my admiration -- it's a thrilling prospect for mothers, too. You should have seen, no, you should have heard Mrs. Bennet."
Despite his best efforts, Darcy felt his face grow warm and he knew he was flushing. He saw his cousin watching him closely.
"Do you want to know what Mrs. Bennet said?"
Darcy shook his head, and his cousin, shaking his finger, said with sudden seriousness, "You should be embarrassed. To think, you would pursue a woman from such a family. Have you no shame?"
"Are you not pursuing Miss Elizabeth Bennet, too?"
Weldon regarded his cousin silently, in much the way one awaits a child who has made an error in arithmetic, to correct himself. "Of course, I am not! I am only trying to make a point with you. That is the only reason I am here in the armpit of a place. I could take the lady in a trice if I wanted her."
"I think not, cousin. She is a respectable and principled gentlewoman."
"Oh, you should have seen her today. There is something about the prospect of becoming a countess that makes a woman very obliging -- of course, I would never marry a woman from such a family, but she does not know that. Can you imagine the humiliation the Bennets could bring among our set in London? I am not sure which of them would be the greatest disaster."
Darcy objected, "That is an overstatement. The Bennets are--some of them tend to be exuberant or and others are eccentric--but nothing so marked as to create scandal." He forced himself not to think about recent scenes by each. "Some in the family might need guidance as to deportment, I admit. However, I am not marrying each of them and taking them to London or Pemberley or anyplace else. I would not have to see each of them every day."
"Miss Elizabeth does not want you. She would not have you. Give up, Darcy."
"Why are you here in my way? You cannot believe it would be such a blow to our family if I wed her."
"But it would be, and I will not have it."
"You cannot tell me who to marry."
"Perhaps you will be disgusted with her when she throws herself at me tonight during dinner. She will, I am certain, unless she does it even before we sit down. Here's something else you ought to love -- she thinks you mistreated Wickham." The viscount dissolved into guffaws as hearty as might come from a blacksmith or some other uncultured commoner. Darcy waited until he exhausted himself to ask, "Did you tell her the truth?"
"No, why should I?"
The thought of strangling his cousin again crossed Darcy's mind. It was a tempting fantasy that the act might somehow be defended as an accident. He put it aside and patiently, "Telling her the truth about Wickham would be the decent thing to do, Wel. And it would cost you nothing. Miss Elizabeth should not go on thinking that Wickham is harmless. If you wish to have her continue to dislike me, then do, but please -- do not let her be vulnerable to him. You know what he is like."
"Ah, Will. I always know you really want something from me when you call me Wel."
"Then you'll do it? All it will take is a word from you. You can even tell her that I was cruel to him, but make sure she understands the man's propensity for deceit and destruction."
"Yes, destruction of innocence." Lord Weldon grinned. "Will, you are gritting your teeth so hard you may shatter them."
Darcy suspected his cousin would not be cavalier about Wickham if he had any idea of how the scoundrel had attempted to dally with Georgiana. But he would not tell his cousin this because although Weldon loved Georgiana, the man had a loose tongue. If he had heard nothing of it from his twin the colonel, Darcy would certainly not trust him either.
The lord was sneering, "I am going to let Miss Bennet keep her romantic illusions regarding Wickham. She sees him as some kind of tragic figure trampled under your heel. When she realizes all I will offer are some pretty poems, she will need somewhere to turn. Let Wickham be her man. When he's finished, she will think I was kindness itself."
"Cousin, if you continue on this way, I will call you out."
"Don't be ridiculous. You would not humiliate our family that way. Not you. Never you."
"I would for her. I am serious, cousin. Do not play your usual games with her. Just stop and walk away now."
The viscount harrumphed. "Perhaps it is I who should call you out but instead of swords, bare knuckles to knock some sense to you. How hard must I hit you to remind you of your duty?"
"In your present condition, milord, I would have nothing to fear from you, unless you challenge me to see who could eat through more courses quickest. And what do you mean, my duty?"
The viscount frowned. "I'm not--that is, I believe I could best you in any competition."
"Only if it was one in which the winner had to drink, eat or gamble best. Look in the mirror."
"Oh, do not be vulgar, cousin. This is what comes of cultivating the wrong sort of people. Your duty is to marry Anne. The whole family has been expecting it. You cannot let yourself be diverted by some silly fascination with a penniless chit."
"That is why you are here and why you oppose my marrying Elizabeth Bennet--because of our cousin Anne? Also, never refer to Miss Elizabeth with disrespect again. Never!" Without thinking about his action, Darcy found himself standing over his seated cousin, across whose face panic briefly flashed.
Weldon nodded warily. "Perhaps it was unmannerly of me to refer to her so. I will do as you ask, but, the fact remains that you must drop this unhealthy fascination with Elizabeth Bennet. The sooner the better. You are being selfish, old man. You can have no idea of how you have broken Anne's heart."
"Really? Have you talked to her recently?"
"I don't need to. It's obvious that with her money she could easily attract the wrong man. She needs someone the family can trust, someone to take care of her."
Darcy had thought the same thing about Anne, but it was a different matter when he was being asked to personally take up the task. "What about your brother?"
"Raffie told me he asked and she turned him down."
"I think he gave up too easily. He became offended because he had been overly confident that she would say yes -- once, ah, she realized I was not an option. A marriage between them could benefit both. It's the obvious, the best solution."
The viscount shook his head. "I understand why she said no to him. If I were a woman, I would not want to marry my brother either." He paused. "I mean, I understand why Anne would not want to marry Raffie. You would be better for her than he."
Darcy shook his head. "I do not understand you, Weldon. Is this about keeping Rosings? In that case, have your brother marry her but do not importune me."
"This is not about property. It is about taking care of our cousin. Anne admires you. How can you disappoint her?" When Darcy looked still unmoved, Weldon persisted, scolding him, "Marriage is a serious undertaking, not some personal whim. You must think of your family."
Darcy considered whether to share what he understood of Anne's marriage preferences. But, poor Anne would likely be made to suffer if her mother knew she did not wish to marry him, and he was unwilling to trust her secrets with the viscount. "You are pursuing your idea of what is best without considering what I want," was the only complaint Darcy would allow himself to make.
As he said these words, he felt painful insight into how he made same mistake with Bingley. He saw it all so clearly now. If he had realized earlier he could live with Elizabeth's family, he might have left Bingley alone. If he had declared himself to Elizabeth when he knew he wanted her, he might now be courting her rather than afraid she had wanted Wickham or was about to want Weldon. He was not sure which would be the worse choice for her. And, he had only himself to blame. He had to fix this.
In his frustration, he bellowed at his cousin, "Out! Get out now!" Quickly regaining control, he coolly added, "Weldon, you are being your usual arrogant and presumptuous self. It is utterly unreasonable to ask such a thing of me, yes, even in the name of duty to family."
Weldon muttered something about this not being over but got up to leave. Darcy put a less than friendly hand upon his shoulder, "Not even you can believe you could keep me from marrying who I want."
With a smile that conveyed more menace than most men could do with the worst of grimaces, Weldon replied, "I believe it will be Elizabeth Bennet who does that, and I intend to help her -- my dear cousin."To Be Continued . . .