Section I, Next Section
Posted on Friday, 23 November 2001, at 12:20 a.m.
When the clock struck three, Elizabeth felt that she must go, and very unwillingly said so. Miss Bingley offered her the carriage, and she only wanted a little pressing to accept it, when Jane testified such concern in parting with her, that Miss Bingley was obliged to convert the offer of the chaise into an invitation to remain at Netherfield for the present. Elizabeth most thankfully consented, and a servant was dispatched to Longbourn to acquaint the family with her stay, and bring back a supply of clothes.
"Her trunk has not yet arrived. I cannot think why! Please see that when it does, the servant places it in the first bedroom on the right, down the left hallway."
Mr. Bingley looked up distractedly from the fire. Miss Jane Bennet's illness was causing him grave worry.
"Did you hear me, Charles?"
"Yes, of course, Caroline. I will instruct the servant, do not worry. Now hurry, you have only an hour before dinner."
His sister ignored that last teasing reference to her vanity and hurried up the stairs. She wanted to look her best for Mr. Darcy and fully intended to out-do her unexpected competition.
Three quarters of an hour later, just as Mr. Bingley entered the hallway intent on making his own preparations before dinner, the awaited trunk finally arrived. He motioned his butler away and took care of the matter himself.
"Never mind, Johnson, my sister has given me strict orders about this!"
A relieved Johnson hurried back to help with the dining room preparations.
"Peter! You have at last returned with Miss Bennet's trunk!"
"I'm very sorry, sir. The Mistress of Longbourn...well, er, there was a bit of a delay on that end."
"Well, never mind. Just take it up to the room that's been freshly prepared for Miss Elizabeth Bennet. First door on the left, right hallway. And then please see that Miss Bennet is informed of the arrangements."
Peter looked at his master oddly for a moment. But Mr. Bingley was already hurrying up the stairs. With a shrug, Peter did as he was told.
Bingley passed Mr. Darcy on the stairs.
"Cutting it close again, aren't you Bingley?"
"Well, you know what a careless fellow I am...oh, by the way, Darcy, did Caroline mention it? Miss Elizabeth Bennet is to be an overnight guest as well."
His friend looked surprised. "No, I have not spoken to your sister since breakfast. Why is she - that is, why is Miss Bennet staying on? Is her sister very ill, then?"
Bingley looked upset for a moment, but recovering said lightly "She is somewhat feverish today. The apothecary has ordered her to stay in bed but thinks she will be well enough in a few days...her sister will be a welcome addition. I cannot think of a better way to ensure Miss Bennet's welfare."
Darcy merely nodded and reminded his friend of the time. Whatever else he might have felt on hearing this new information about the second eldest Miss Bennet, he kept to himself...
Mr. Darcy was not long in the drawing room before Miss Bingley and the Hursts appeared, hastily followed by his friend. At his sister's impatient inquiry on Miss Bennet's whereabouts, Bingley chimed in.
"Don't worry, she said she would be down directly. I ran into her in the hall and -"
Before Bingley could finish his thought, Miss Elizabeth Bennet herself appeared. She answered Miss Bingley's inquiries regarding the suitability of her room, apologizing also for not taking the time to change for dinner, as her trunk had only arrived and she did not wish to hold up the proceedings. The hem of her petticoat was still somewhat muddied, though barely visible through the material of her gown. Her hair had been properly tidied, while her complexion still revealed all the benefits of her early morning exercise. Altogether, her appearance now brought back to one observer at least, the memory of her remarkable arrival at breakfast that morning. She had looked very well then...as she did now! Mr. Darcy forced himself to stop staring.
Dinner was as pleasant as might be hoped under the circumstances. Bingley was quieter than usual. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst managed to carry on as though no alteration in their lives had occurred. Mr. Hurst seemed astonished to find that Miss Bennet preferred simple fare and would not deign to converse with her after that. Darcy found that the addition of Miss Bennet added a certain interest to the evening. He observed that though she was obviously worried about her sister, she did her best to converse when she could, despite the obstacles of an unpleasant Hurst and a resentful Miss Bingley. Mr. Darcy contented himself with listening to the curious dialogue between the two young Misses that occasionally erupted, the one just managing to be civil, the other sincere yet...hmmm, there was no mistaking a slight expression in Miss Bennet's eye now and again that could not help but amuse. He was forcibly struck once again by the realization that here was a different sort of feminine creature!
He had half-expected her to be like other young ladies, and attempt to make the most of her proximity to an eligible gentleman such as himself. By the end of dinner he was forced to concede that Elizabeth Bennet was sincere in her reason for being there. Her warmest replies were reserved for Bingley and she seemed genuinely grateful for his shared concern for her sister. She made absolutely no attempt to talk to Darcy! Not that he required her attentions. Indeed, he wondered if he could have tolerated the doting remarks of all three females at table. Two was bad enough. Her lack of interest further aroused his.
Immediately after the meal ended, Miss Bennet hastened back upstairs to care for her sister. She came down later in the evening and remained only long enough to challenge his definition of a highly accomplished lady before taking her impertinent self off again! Just as he was finding the evening tedious in the extreme, she returned. She did not even acknowledge his presence, for her mind was on her sister whom she reported was worse and could not be left alone; she had time only to concur with Bingley's offer to fetch Mr. Jones if her sister were not improved on the morrow. Mr. Darcy's selfish wish for more of her company was suspended by his genuine concern for her and her sister, thought he had no chance to express these sentiments before she was away again.
She was a little taken aback by the fineness of it all. This room was at least as elegantly furnished as Jane's accommodations. A cheerful fire burned in the grate, but no candles had yet been lit. Altogether, the room was neat and felt rather lived in somehow, though devoid of personal possessions. From where she stood, she observed that some books had been most thoughtfully placed on the closest bedside table, and a refreshment tray placed on the low table situated between the two chairs near the fire. She credited these touches, and the room assignment itself, to Mr. Bingley, and was suitably impressed with the meaning behind such a compliment to Jane's sister.
The bed was a quite large canopy, with thick curtains drawn back while not in use. Her trunk, she quickly discovered, was placed at the end of the nearest side of the bed. She did not expect that a servant would have unpacked her trunk for her, but she wondered at it being placed here. Fortunately, it was a smaller trunk. After retrieving a nightdress and slippers, she pushed it under the bed to get it out of the way. Tomorrow would be soon enough to settle in. She decided she could just as easily prepare for bed in Jane's room; her main concern was to get back to her sister. Gown and slippers in hand, she left the room. Once again, great thoughtfulness was in evidence, as Mr. Bingley had conveniently placed her directly across the hall from her sister.
It was very late when Elizabeth felt satisfied enough with Jane's resting state to determine on getting some sleep herself. Already prepared for bed and dozing in a chair, she forced herself to get up and make her way across the darkened hall to her room. It was obvious that the whole household had retired some time ago. Putting aside the blanket she had wrapped around her, she shivered and wondered yet again what her mother was thinking to have packed such a flimsy frivolous gown for her at such a time of year.
The fire was low in the grate. Elizabeth could barely see in front of her as she made her way around the bed, preferring to sleep nearer the window. She felt, rather than saw, the bed curtains in front of her, now drawn closed for the night, and managed to slip through them to find her way beneath the bedclothes. She snuggled in with a sigh of contentment at the pleasant scent and heat surrounding her. So exhausted was she, her eyes were closed almost immediately on her head hitting the pillow.
Mr. Darcy awoke to the scent of lavender tickling at his senses...
Mr. Darcy awoke to the scent of lavender tickling at his senses. Brushing his hand across his face, he found that something silky was actually tickling his nose. He sighed his contentment and rolled unconsciously towards a delicious source of heat. His hand moved beneath the bedclothes, and for the moment he could not recall where he was.
The unmistakable feel of soft flesh beneath his hand caused his eyes to fly open and his hand to withdraw as though burnt. He immediately rolled onto his back in disbelief and lay there puzzled for a moment. He lifted a small portion of the bedclothes to inspect, but in the dark could not discern its appearance any better than anything else. Recovering his faculties somewhat, he remembered that he was in fact, in the bed at Netherfield, and not elsewhere. That there should not be any woman in his bed seemed to contradict the facts! For one dreadful moment, he wondered if Miss Bingley had completely lost her senses and was attempting to trap him into a marriage of necessity.
Coming more fully awake by the moment, owing to this possible perilous situation, he lifted himself, and with his outstretched hand bravely drew the drapery back enough to identify the form lying so very closely to him. It was barely day, yet the early morning yielded enough light for him to see quite clearly. Despite that, he doubted his own eyes. With great shock he finally registered that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, not Miss Bingley, was beside him! For several moments he was again too stunned to move and had no idea what he should do. The sight of her was vastly appealing. Her hair lay tumbled about her pillow and had spilled over onto his. Her lashes, so long and thick, rested on her cheek. Her full bottom lip was curved in an expression of contentment. And her gown, now somewhat revealed as a consequence of his sitting up and dragging the bedclothes with him...he tore his eyes away.
He felt the familiar stirrings in full force as his eyes returned to her of their own volition. He bit his lip, warring with himself. She had obviously placed herself in his room. What could she possibly hope to gain? She must have known that he would toss her out of his bed...as soon as he thought it, he felt a violent reaction against the idea....
He realized his situation was as perilous as ever! There she lay, so tempting, and well within his reach; yet her pathetic scheme raised both disappointment and contempt. He'd thought she was at least smarter than that! Mr. Darcy ignored the stab of pain that the knowledge of her lack of morality produced in him. He warred on. Temptation finally won against self-preservation. He pushed away all regrets over her perfidiousness, and recklessly, leaned forward to capture her lips with his own.
He heard her sigh of contentment as her arms eventually came up around his neck. For several glorious moments she responded to him with a whole-hearted passion that rapidly defeated any honourable intentions he might have had left. Then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, she began to struggle and push at his shoulders. He drew his face away from hers just enough to make out her expression. Even in the dim light filtering through the gap in the bed curtains, there was no missing her look of outrage.
"Get off me!"
Darcy did not move.
"I said get off me, or I shall scream!"
"Ah, you are the outraged innocent? How suitably dramatic."
He did, however, move as she'd requested. She immediately put as much space between them in the bed as she could and caught up the bedclothes to her as though to shield herself from him as much as possible.
"How dare you!" she said. "Get out of my room at once!" She grabbed at the curtain behind her, drawing it back angrily to decrease the sense of intimacy created by the enclosure of the draperies.
Darcy stared at her incredulously for a moment. Then the light of comprehension entered his eyes.
"I see. So this is your game.... Well Miss Bennet, you may as well know that I am used to far more cunning husband-hunters than you. You can pretend all you want, but we both know that this is my bedroom. And I have not the least intention of marrying you."
It was Elizabeth's turn to stare.
"You cannot be serious!" He must be mad. There was no other explanation that presented itself to her.
"Indeed I am....However, if you drop this charade now, we might be able to come to an understanding." His calm manner belied the fact that his heart continued to pound wildly.
"Oh?" She was too shocked to know what else to say.
"Stay with me and I will see that it is an arrangement of mutual... ah, er...convenience." It sounded crass even to his own ears, but he did not know how else to phrase it. And given the inducement directly before him...
Elizabeth attempted to speak, but no words came out.
"Indeed, Miss Ben-, er, Elizabeth. You must know that you have taken my fancy! Otherwise, why would you be here?" He moved towards her and reached for her again. "I would gladly take you under my care and provide for you in London."
He thought it a very generous offer. After all, he was not in the habit of procuring such arrangements, not being a rake. He would never have considered such an arrangement with her a possibility until this morning, but Darcy was a quick thinker. It would solve an increasingly uncomfortable problem - namely what to do with his burgeoning attraction to the imminently unsuitable Elizabeth Bennet.
Pleased with himself, he was completely caught off guard by the shriek of outrage and hard slap across his cheek that followed it. The next moment, Elizabeth Bennet had disappeared from the bed. His ardor somewhat cooled, Darcy tore out his own side as soon as he realized her intentions. He grabbed for his dressing gown to cover his nightwear, even as he scrambled to pursue her.
"Miss Bennet, do not. Miss B-"
He was too late. She reached the door and hastened from the room before he could stop her.
No sooner had he caught her by the arm and attempted to haul her back into his bedroom to avoid a scandal, then he realized it was all, all too late! Bingley stood just down the hall instructing a housemaid. The hand that was pointing to Miss Jane Bennet's door instantly fell away as Bingley startled at the scene before him. The housemaid stood there gaping in shock as well. There stood Miss Elizabeth Bennet, obviously just having emerged from Mr. Darcy's room in nothing but a fine, rather dubious, though not indecent, nightdress. And there stood Bingley's best friend in his dressing gown, attempting to haul Miss Bennet back into his room. Both people froze on realizing that they were not alone.
Bingley hurried down the hall, concern and shock still on his features. He was thinking chiefly of Jane.
"What is the meaning of this?"
"I can explain, Bingley. This scheming piece of baggage placed herself in my bed this morning in the hopes that I would marry her."
"That is a lie! This is my room. Your friend is mad! Mr. Bingley, I demand that you order your carriage immediately. My sister and I will not stay under the same roof with such a, a - such a rake!" With that imperious order, Miss Elizabeth Bennet disappeared behind her sister's door.
Bingley turned to his friend. "You say that she was in your room when you awoke this morning."
"How did you come by that red mark?"
Darcy drew himself up to his full height.
"Are you questioning my integrity, Bingley?"
"No, of course not! It's just that... there's a huge red mark -"
"Obviously she slapped me!" He answered somewhat testily. "Don't you see, she's attempting to trap me into a marriage of convenience!!...we have to ensure that none of the servants hear about this!"
They both turned. The housemaid had hurried away long ago. Darcy cursed softly. He knew very well that the gossip would spread rapidly throughout the house.
"I'd better get dressed."
"Yes, a good idea. I'll try to sort this out. Perhaps you are wrong. Perhaps she genuinely made a mistake. She might have got confused about the room arrangements..." he finished lamely.
Darcy snorted. "Whatever the case, I don't intend to marry her!"
"Of course not. By the look on her face, I doubt she'd agree to marry you anyway."
Darcy gave his friend the oddest look before closing the door in his face. Bingley hurried downstairs and sent for his footman.
On the servant entering, he quickly instructed him.
"Peter, I've ordered the carriage for our guests. I'm afraid they must leave immediately. Please retrieve Miss Bennet's trunk and see that it is placed on the carriage. You need not worry about disturbing her. She is likely in her sister's room at the moment."
Peter nodded and was gone directly.
"Yes, what is it?"
Peter did not know what to say.
"Well?" Darcy stared at him impatiently.
"Forgive me sir, there must be some mistake."
"Yes. I thought this was Miss Elizabeth Bennet's room. That is to say, I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet was moved in here yesterday. I came to retrieve her trunk."
Darcy froze. "What makes you think it was Miss Bennet's room? It was my room upon arriving, and I have not moved, as you can see."
Peter braved the gentlemen's icy expression. "Then, could you tell me which room Miss Bennet was assigned to from here."
"She was assigned to no room from here. This was never her room." But even as he insisted, Darcy knew a sinking feeling. With a sigh, he asked the question he most dreaded to ask.
"Tell me why you think this is - or was - Miss Bennet's room, Peter."
"Well, I thought it was strange at the time. Mr. Bingley instructed me to take Miss Bennet's trunk up to the first room on the left, right hallway."
"I see. And it did not occur to you at the time that this was the same room I was assigned to?" He tried to keep the rising panic out of his voice.
"I thought you must have moved - to assist the sick lady and her sister."
"And where did you put her trunk?"
"Over here." Peter walked over to the bed. He crouched down. "Here it is. She must have pushed it under the bed."
Darcy stared at this evidence of Miss Elizabeth Bennet's innocence and felt a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach. What had happened was all too obvious.
He stared around the room. Mr. Darcy did not like clutter. There was no evidence of his presence save his few books by the side of the bed. The remainder of his possessions were neatly stashed away in the clothespress and chests of drawers in the dressing room. There were no clues to suggest to a stranger that he resided here.
"Good God, what have I done?"
By the time Darcy and Bingley had sorted out what had happened, and Bingley had apologized profusely to his friend, the Miss Bennets had hastened away.
"I cannot tell you how very sorry I am. I believe Peter when he says that I instructed him thus. I thought I had said left hallway, first right. I can offer no excuse for such carelessness. Truly, I am sorry."
"Bingley, stop apologizing. You've already done so enough times. I realize it was a simple misunderstanding. Believe me, I am the one who owes a whole-hearted apology to Miss Bennet."
"I intend to ride over immediately to explain the situation to her. I'm sure once I clarify how the mistake occurred, she will overlook your rather unfortunate remark to her this morning."
Darcy merely nodded and drank the remainder of his much-needed brandy. He could not bring himself to explain to Bingley all that he had said to Miss Bennet, including the shameful proposition he'd made. Even yet, he was shocked to realize that he'd said it. The feelings she inspired in him were certainly no excuse! What must she think of him? How could he even begin to make it up to her? Even as he wondered, Bingley took his leave.
A little time later, his self-torturing thoughts were rudely interrupted by the entrance of Miss Bingley, just down for breakfast at her accustomed time. She expressed her satisfaction in the hasty departure of her recent guests. The scandal behind the departure had not yet reached her ears. He wondered how long it would be before it made its way from the servants' hall.
"How pleasant it is to have the house to oneself again! I must say, though Jane Bennet is a sweet girl, it's a great relief to be free of her sister, fine eyes and all."
She noticed that Mr. Darcy seemed out of sorts and not at all amused by her teasing. She could not win him to any conversation over breakfast, and he excused himself shortly thereafter, announcing his intention of going out for a long ride. Much to his own frustration, and after his best attempt not to, he invariably found himself heading in the direction of Longbourn, wondering how Bingley was fairing. He did not dare approach too close, but thought to intercept Bingley on his return.
Mr. Bingley had arrived at Longbourn in good time. He was shown into the small sitting room where he was greeted enthusiastically by an ecstatic Mrs. Bennet. He could not help but be uneasy about Miss Bennet or prevent himself from immediately making earnest inquiries about her welfare.
"For I fear she left rather too quickly and required more time to convalesce before returning to Longbourn. I hope she is well-settled at home and is feeling better?"
"Sir, I too fear she departed your house too soon. I cannot think why she insisted! But that is the way with Jane. She did not want to give any trouble to anyone and had rather return home immediately. She's now resting comfortably, the feverish symptoms have lessened, thank goodness. You are very kind to arrive so soon to inquire."
"It was a pleasure to have Miss Bennet at Netherfield, but I am very relieved to hear she's recovering well at home."
Mrs. Bennet was highly gratified by such sentiments.
"I hope Lizzy behaved herself. She can be rather...outspoken."
"It was no trouble to have her also." Mr. Bingley forced himself to ignore the fact that she had called his friend mad and a rake just that morning. "And is Miss Lizzy Bennet around, Mrs. Bennet? I had hoped to have a further word with her about a small matter."
She imagined it had something to do with Jane, and was burning with curiosity. She could think of no other reason why Mr. Bingley would wish to speak with her second eldest except perhaps to convey a secret message or a token of his esteem to her sister. Fanciful imaginings would have to wait, however, as Mrs. Bennet was ever prompt to reply to potential sons-in-law. "She is out in the garden, sir. You can find her there if you like. You must promise to return for tea."
"It would be my pleasure."
Elizabeth was just returning from her walk when Bingley found her. She paused uncertainly, wondering what he might have to say to her, though correctly guessing the topic.
"Miss Bennet, I have come to clear up the small misunderstanding that occurred early this morning."
She raised an inquiring brow. "By all means, sir, say what you have to say."
"It seems the confusion over the room arrangements was all my fault. I directed my servant to take your trunk to the wrong room. He assumed Mr. Darcy had been moved out to accommodate your stay with your sister and so did not question what I said. Unfortunately, somehow, neither you nor Mr. Darcy discovered the error until this morning."
Elizabeth took a deep breath. "I see...then it was Mr. Darcy's room." She turned away slightly, overcome with a sense of humiliation at recalling the event.
"Yes... I can understand how you might not think anyone else was occupying the room. My friend is very..."
"Precisely. He dislikes untidiness and leaves few possessions in evidence."
Elizabeth blushed again. On recovering from her embarrassment she added her own information about the incident.
"I'm afraid that I was so concerned about my sister that I did not really occupy the room until quite late. I entered it only once directly after dinner to retrieve my night articles, and pushed my trunk under the bed. Mr. Darcy would not have seen it then..." her voice trailed away as she realized how he would not have known of her occupation of the room either. "I did not even think to enter the adjoining dressing room! If only I had!! Surely then?..." She silently wondered for the hundredth time how she had not detected Mr. Darcy when she retired. Granted, she was tired and the bed large. He may have been far on his side at that point...but still!!... It had been somewhere between three and four o'clock, a mere couple hours before light, yet more than enough time to cause a terrible scandal were it ever known.
"Do not distress yourself, Miss Bennet. It was all an unfortunate series of mishaps. I just wanted you to understand what had occurred."
"And, that my friend is neither mad nor a rake."
Elizabeth nodded her agreement. But she could not forget the shameful things Mr. Darcy had proposed, nor that he'd called her scheming baggage!
"I, ah, I assure you, my friend is mortified for the conclusions he jumped to about the situation. He fully intends to apologize himself. We thought it best if I explained things to you first."
"A wise decision."
Bingley was a little taken aback by her angry expression.
"You may tell Mr. Darcy for me that he need not seek me out to apologize. I have no desire for such a conversation."
Mr. Bingley nodded. He wondered again if something more had happened between the two, but quickly dismissed it. If something had happened, then they would be forced to marry, and neither seemed in favour of that. Wisely, he allowed it to drop. They headed back to Longbourn where they joined the family for tea, Mr. Bingley happily making up for the breakfast he'd missed. He took his leave convinced that none of the Bennets present knew of the room mix-up, although Jane, not in attendance, must have known, for it appeared that she had covered for her sister.
After his departure, Lizzy found herself thinking about Mr. Bingley and his friend. It was obvious that the latter gentleman had said nothing to Bingley about the outrageous and insulting proposition he'd made to her. Mr. Bingley appeared to be a decent gentleman. He could not know what his friend was. As to the matter of Mr. Darcy's shocking kiss, she blushed just thinking about it! Neither would she acknowledge to herself how fully she'd returned his kiss before coming to her senses. She was determined that no one would find out about any part of the room confusion. For if her parents did, she knew they would insist that he marry her. He'd made it quite clear that he would not, and she had no intention of giving him an opportunity to humiliate her further. Certainly, she had no intention of marrying him and that was the most important reason she kept his scandalous behaviour to herself.
Her strategy proved insufficient. About an hour later as Elizabeth headed home she was arrested by the sound of a rider approaching. Recognizing Mr. Darcy, she eyed the trees behind her which fringed the field, and considered hiding. To no avail. He had spotted her and was obviously riding directly for her. He slowed his horse as he came up alongside her.
"Miss Bennet, might I have a word?"
She turned to him.
"I cannot see what we have to say to each other, sir." She resumed walking. Longbourn House was yet far in the distance.
He dismounted and hastened to catch up to her. After the number of fields he'd travelled hoping to encounter her, he had no intention of meekly turning away because of a few unfriendly words. He felt certain that Bingley's warning need not be heeded, for he intended to make things right between himself and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
"Mr. Bingley told me he spoke to you yesterday and explained the misunderstanding that occurred."
"Yes, he did."
"Well then...I, that is...please accept my most heartfelt apology for misconstruing the situation and for..."
"For behaving in such an ignoble manner?" she offered.
Darcy bit his lip, piqued by her words. But he could hardly disagree with her assessment.
He hesitated. She looked at him as though waiting for more.
"I was very wrong to jump to conclusions. I should have known better."
"I see. And if your conclusions had been correct, are you presuming to suggest that your indecent behaviour would have likewise been justified?"
"No! Of course not! I can offer no justification for my impetuous actions. I...I can only offer you what is your due."
"Given your previous assessment of what is my due I had rather not hear more," she snapped. She turned as though determined to dismiss him.
"Miss Bennet, please." She was making this impossible. Here he was, determined to do the right thing, and she was making it impossible. When she would not slow her pace, Darcy stopped walking and discarded his planned manner of proceeding. He would not chase after her like a foolish milksop. Instead, he stood completely still and called loudly after her.
"I came to ask for your hand in marriage, Miss Bennet."
Elizabeth stopped in her tracks. She wondered if she'd heard correctly. She turned around and faced him.
"What did you say?"
"I said" he repeated, as he closed the distance between them, "that I have come to ask for your hand in marriage. Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"
"Your wife?" She was incredulous.
"I realize that neither one of us wishes to be married to the other. But under the circumstances, it cannot be helped. It is only a matter of days before what happened yesterday leads to a huge scandal. We must marry. Whatever you might think of me, at least recognize that I am prepared to do the right thing by you. I assure you, you shall want for nothing. And in exchange, I require a conscientious partner to help manage Pemberley, and two heirs. Naturally, I am simply stating these expectations so that we may negotiate further. I imagine you have requirements of your own." He paused in hopes of a reply, but his companion remained silent. Slightly uncomfortable, he attempted to summarize his position. "Needless to say, your family's condition in life is decidedly beneath my own, but that cannot be helped now. I am prepared to marry you - to salvage your reputation."
Elizabeth stared at him, not certain whether to be offended or to laugh at his ridiculous offer of marriage. She was struggling to regain her composure. This he considered sufficient encouragement to continue.
"At any rate, I dare say we shall deal well together. I have long found you -"
Here Darcy was interrupted by a most unladylike peal of laughter. Then Miss Elizabeth Bennet, not normally so insensitive or lacking in gentility, quickly got herself under control. She faced a very grave suitor who was looking at her with a confused expression.
"Excuse me sir" she replied in a highly formal voice. "I...I have been rather overwhelmed by yesterday, and this latest shock... "
He nodded his understanding.
She was not entirely insensible to the gesture he was making, however ungraciously done, though his manner spurred a certain impertinence in her reply which she could not quite subdue. " I appreciate your self-sacrificing efforts to set right this unfortunate situation. However, as you say, neither of us wishes to marry the other. I think it would be most unwise to pursue a lifetime of misery together, simply because of a mishap for which neither of us was responsible. I thank you for your offer, but I cannot possibly accept. You may take comfort in knowing that you have done everything in your power and now can retain your single status and family dignity with a clear conscience."
Darcy stared at her, amazed to comprehend that he had just been turned down, and not oblivious to the mockery in some of her expressions.
"You cannot mean this."
"I assure you, I do."
"I might ask why I am thus rejected, with so obvious an intent to mock me, but I should hate to further inconvenience you with such a trivial demand."
"You appear to see everything in terms of convenience or inconvenience," she retorted sharply. Mr. Darcy had the grace to blush at such a pointed reference to his less proper offer. "But since you ask," she continued, now at the end of her patience and feeling somewhat provoked by his obtuseness, "I shall tell you. I have every reason in the world to reject your so-called offer of marriage, and if I mocked you it was only fitting. You have the nerve to come here and make a mockery of a marriage proposal, demanding that, in exchange for your benevolence, I provide you with two heirs and plan your menus well! All the while suggesting that I should be grateful for your condescension since my family and I are far beneath your worthy name. So much for sentiment and delicacy of expression. Well sir, I am not the least interested in such a family merger!"
"I see! Had I arrived here begging and flattering, rather than attempting to define a reasonable marriage agreement between us, your vanity may have been moved to accept. The honest acknowledgment of my expectations offends you. The fact that I have en entire estate of people to consider when choosing Pemberley's mistress is dismissed as a trivial issue and not worthy of mention! Apparently, you would rather enter into such an arrangement blindly, under the pretense of a sentiment that we both know does not exist in this case. Yet you mock my attempt to discuss arrangements with full disclosure, in a manner that respects your right to choose your terms freely."
She listened with growing indignation. "I might be tempted to inquire how you think full disclosure required you to insult my family, if I did not already grasp the difference between honesty and self-congratulation. Apparently though, you forgot to wait for an answer first." She saw him grow angrier on receiving that verbal volley but she heedlessly continued with greater energy. "Let me assure you, I am choosing to refuse you with my eyes fully open! Though all the reasons I have stated are more than enough, and as dreadful as I considered your disposition previously, I had not thought you immoral. Do you imagine that I would ever be tempted to accept the hand of a man who had only the day before deemed me worthy of being his, his -" she could not pronounce the word, "and no better? -"
"I have apologized for the mistake I made about your intentions."
"You were in my room! You were -...What do you suppose a man would think?"
Elizabeth disdained to acknowledge the veracity of these observations. Nor would she deign to answer such a rhetorical question. It was not a decent subject and she blamed him for pursuing it. "The only reason," she continued, " I have not told far and wide of your infamy is because I cannot reveal your true character without raising the very issue of marriage to you which I seek to avoid."
"My true character!" He began to pace in front of her. " My true character, according to this evaluation, is corrupt indeed. But perhaps," he paused and turned to her. "Perhaps if I had assured you that any desire I felt yesterday was simply a bizarre aberration in an otherwise passionless character, rather than a normal-," but here Darcy caught himself again. He most certainly could not explain such things to a young lady. Indeed, their conversation had already been far too risqué, though he did not blame her for raising the subject. He reminded himself that her reaction was perfectly understandable and his own anger, therefore, completely unjustified. Spurred by self-condemnation, he forced himself to speak sincerely, and in the gentlest of tones. "Miss Bennet, I am no villain. I realize it will take some doing to convince you of that fact." As he spoke, he unconsciously stepped closer to her. "Perhaps now you are simply nervous to accept my offer, and all these recriminations are nothing more than a reflection of that."
Elizabeth stepped back, but such a concession only served to anger her all the more. She forced herself to speak with restraint and composure. "I assure you sir, I'm not the least bit nervous. I am not afraid of you. You overestimate the effects of each of your proposals. They merely spared me any concern I might have felt in refusing your decent proposal, if, at any time, you had behaved in a more gentleman-like manner."
She saw him start at this.
"Your behaviour yesterday and today, so completely lacking in chivalry, has simply confirmed what I have observed all along. From our very first meeting I may say, your manners, so proud and repulsive, fully illustrated what an arrogant, selfish and ill-tempered disposition you possessed, and subsequent encounters have only confirmed these earliest impressions. If you are the only means available to salvage my reputation, I assure you, I'd much rather suffer the public humiliation of the stocks."
Mr. Darcy regarded her with mortified incredulity. The meaning of her words had fully sunk in, the depth of her dislike fully registered, and the outcome of their interview finally shattered his self-assurance. His sense of loss threatened to overtake his sense of confusion as he watched her walk away from him with determined, impatient steps. Now, at the very moment he knew she desired nothing more to do with him, he finally comprehended that he wanted her good opinion, wanted her companionship, and wanted her as his wife! Altogether, he had just received a second jolt to his very sense of reality within the space of a mere two days - and both had stemmed from his interactions with the very same woman.
No sooner had she refused Mr. Darcy then she returned to find her home in a uproar. Her mother had taken to her bed, her sisters barraged her with noisy comments and questions, and her father summoned Miss Elizabeth into his library immediately.
There he let her know in no uncertain terms of the report now circulating throughout Meryton that Mr. Darcy was her protector and that she had been seen leaving his bedroom early yesterday morning in her nightclothes. Aunt Philips had called only a half-hour ago to apprise them all of this grievous state of affairs. She explained the whole of it to her father, conveniently leaving out Mr. Darcy's shocking behaviour. She knew full well that her father would insist on a marriage if he heard about it, however much he might wish to save her from such a fate. She further avoided the inconvenience of confessing that she had refused Mr. Darcy's marriage proposal not an hour before. Together they agreed that she should stay at home for awhile and wait for the matter to blow over. That proved extremely difficult for Elizabeth, especially given that it was not blowing over in her own home. Mrs. Bennet, though taken to her bed, nevertheless managed to scold her daughter, and declare herself ill-used by her own husband when he adamantly refused to confront Mr. Darcy and make him marry Lizzy. However, her greatest recriminations were reserved for Mr. Darcy and Netherfield.
Summoned to her mother's room at least once an hour, Elizabeth complied only for the sake of her other sisters. Bringing her mother tea, Lizzy was forced to explain, yet again, exactly how she came to be in the same room as Mr. Darcy. Her mother steadfastly refused to accept her explanation and always had a more fantastical one of her own. Sometimes she accounted for it by lecturing Lizzy on her carelessness.
"How could you have allowed your trunk to go astray! Careless girl! Oh, I am so wretched. What will become of us all? How is Jane to get Bingley to the alter if his friend is not above seducing a poor hapless girl placed in the wrong room by dreadful servants?....Something like that would never happen under my roof, I manage my servants much better and always see that only one guest is placed in a room at a time! Ohhhhh!" Here Mrs. Bennet was in need of comfort, for her nerves got the better of her and left her speechless.
On other occasions, she dwelt on Mr. Darcy's cold ruthlessness, so apparent in all his previous dealings with the neighbourhood.
"I am certain Mr. Darcy is behind this somehow! I never liked him. He has that unreadable look about him that always bodes ill in a man. He must have purposely set out to place your trunk in his room!" Elizabeth patiently explained again that the servant had placed her trunk in his room but her mother would continue. "To think he had us all fooled in imagining him indifferent to you, and all the while, he was plotting for a chance to, to...oh, I need my smelling salts. You do not know what I suffer, Lizzy! As your mother, it quite breaks my heart that you have been so ill used by those Netherfield people. He must, he shall be made to marry you! For," she wailed, "after what has happened, no one else ever will!" Here Elizabeth gave a silent prayer of thanks that her mother knew nothing of the proposal she'd turned down.
Still on other occasions, Mrs. Bennet tearfully reproached her daughter, as she considered how maddeningly close they'd come to ten thousand a year.
"If only you'd been friendlier! Do not look at me like that, Miss Lizzy. It is well known you have disliked Mr. Darcy from the beginning. And I heard all about your recent behaviour from my sister. The whole neighbourhood knows, I am certain! The servant heard you insult him in the hallway of Netherfield. What were you thinking to call him 'gloomy' and 'second rate'? That is no way to encourage a potential proposal! Oh, you thoughtless girl! What will become of you? He most certainly will not offer for you now!"
In the meantime, Mr. Bennet informed his wife that their cousin, a complete stranger, would be arriving soon. Escaping from her room as quickly as possible, he nevertheless insisted that Mary read Mr. Collins' letter out loud to her mother. He calculated correctly, for the sentiments expressed therein did much to cheer Mrs. Bennet. In contrast to her previous assertion that his cousin was the final curse to descend on them all, she now regarded his visit with hope and goodwill. Mr. Collins arrived from Hunsford three days after she'd been felled by the cruelty of the world. Her family was astonished at her immediate rise from the ashes. No further mention of Mr. Darcy or Lizzy's scandal was made at Longbourn. Indeed, she had an ulterior motive for the secrecy she adhered to and demanded of her daughters. A recovered Mrs. Bennet was back in the business of marrying off daughters, and Mr. Collins, by all he said and did on arrival, was quickly established as the important ally to her cause alluded to in his letter. With it made clear to Mr. Collins that Jane may soon be engaged, it was easy enough to shift his focus onto Lizzy. Here was a perfect solution to the problem.
The day after his arrival encouraged Mrs. Bennet's hopes. All the Bennet daughters but Mary walked to Meryton, and Mr. Collins trotted along. There, Elizabeth was unnerved to come face to face with Mr. Darcy, who seemed somewhat rattled on coming face to face with her. She was then shocked to see his reaction to their new acquaintance, Mr. Wickham, and could not help but wonder at the meaning of it as he quickly departed. None of the party seemed to notice the many curtains pulled back from shop windows and houses while the Bennet sisters remained in the street.
At their Aunt Philips' the next evening, Lizzy's attempts to find out more about Mr. Wickham's connection to Mr. Darcy proved fruitless. Though he eyed her a great deal, Wickham never did approach her. Elizabeth was at a loss to understand his behaviour until she realized that the entire room was whispering about her. Overcome with humiliation, she nevertheless held her head high. But it was obvious by the end of the evening that practically no lady or gentleman of her acquaintance would speak to her, and only her own family and a few neighbours would acknowledge her at all! Her father escorted her home early, where she dissolved into tears.
"Never mind, Lizzy. It will pass. The old spiteful cats have short memories, I promise."
"I hope you are right! What am I going to do?"
"You may at least draw comfort from the knowledge that Mr. Collins' intentions towards you are over."
Elizabeth could not help but smile. "Mama will be devastated."
By the end of the fortnight following Mr. Darcy's marriage proposal, Elizabeth was mortified to discover that her neighbours did not have short memories after all. Invitations steadily fell away and only Mr. Bingley called to invite them to his ball - an event he had tactfully postponed until mid December in the hope that the gossip about his friend and Miss Elizabeth Bennet had abated by then. That Mr. Bingley visited alone caused Elizabeth an additional moment of upset, for she knew full well from her aunt that his sisters had attended at other houses. At each house on his round, he did his best to answer questions or tactfully drop hints about how the misunderstanding had occurred, not hesitating to blame himself. But Meryton was relishing the scandal. People were gratified to believe the absolute worst about Mr. Darcy, though they still welcomed him into their home. Indeed, his new infamy added to his appeal in some people's eyes. He was found to not be so far above his company after all! Added to that, was the delicious idea that one of their own had brought him down - though her new-found notoriety meant she was not suitable company for decent young ladies and gentlemen.
Mr. Darcy had spent the same fortnight vacillating between painful regret over Elizabeth's rejection, shock at learning just how much she disliked him, and anger. He was too human to be without moments of anger at Elizabeth for her castigating assessment of his character, but the chief of it he reserved for himself. He knew he was blameless for the mishap that occurred, but continued to lament his conduct towards her that fateful morning at Netherfield. At times he fervently wished she had levelled accusations based on false information, rather than his own moment of supreme failing. Then he would have been able to defend himself! Other reflections would come later and from the least likely source.
Sometimes he sensed how much worse his suffering would have been if he'd actually been in love with her. It was bad enough - in light of the attachment he did feel - to know she thought so badly of him after one month's acquaintance. He toyed with the idea that knowing her feelings early was a blessing in disguise, yet that tangent led him back to his disappointment over her refusal; his cycle of shock, regret and anger would begin all over again. Throughout it all, his friend stood loyally by him and for that he was grateful. Mr. Bingley had always relied on Darcy; now he proved himself reliable.
To Miss Bingley's credit, she avoided the gossip as much as either party involved might wish, although her reasons were likely selfish. Seeing Darcy struggling with his conscience, she feared very much that he might do the noble thing and propose marriage to Elizabeth Bennet. Therefore, while he remained single she remained quiet - at least in public. Miss Bingley's desire to think meanly of all the world was yet another painful lesson for Darcy about himself. At every opportunity, she represented to him the most unfavourable picture of the Bennet family possible, dwelling on their lack of connections, wealth, and propriety. She spoke well, but her eloquence had the opposite effect from the one intended. Mr. Darcy felt his own arrogance mercilessly tossed back into his face, and the more powerfully Caroline argued against the evils of such an alliance, the more strongly he learned to condemn such sentiments. For the first time in his life, he knew what it was to acutely suffer from his own lapse in judgement not only towards Miss Bennet, but towards the world in general. When he considered both of his recent proposals in light of these realizations, he was ashamed to admit what the two had in common. In both cases, first by what he did not offer and then by what he did, he had exhibited the conceited belief that Miss Bennet was his inferior and unworthy of his name. Given these and similar insights, he could not blame her for disparaging his character, for he had certainly given her every reason to think ill of him. Yet, he remained torn about what to do regarding the present scandal and her predicament.
Only Charlotte, it seemed, braved the presence of her scandalous friend, though she also spent a great deal of time relieving them all of the burden of Mr. Collins. Now that it was clear to Mrs. Bennet that he would not attach himself to any Bennet, thanks to Lizzy, she violently wished that he take himself away. Mrs. Bennet's pleas for some action on her husband's part grew much louder once Mr. Collins had ended his visit early and returned to Hunsford on the first of December. She sought out Mr. Bennet as soon as Mr. Collins took his leave after the morning service.
"You must make Mr. Darcy marry her," she repeated her lament for the thousandth time.
"I will do no such thing. It was all an innocent misunderstanding and I will not sacrifice Lizzy's happiness because of it."
She fairly seethed. "If he were any gentleman at all he would have called by now to right this situation."
Mr. Bennet found himself in complete agreement with his wife for once.
"If you will not act there, you must do something! She cannot remain here as such. Her reputation will destroy us all. We are being shunned by practically all our neighbours! The Bingley sisters have not called once since the old gossips set about maligning our good name. Can you not see that we are all being ruined! And what of Jane? Why should she suffer because of Lizzy's carelessness! She was so close to getting Bingley!"
"What would you have me do?"
"Write Mr. Collins. See if he will not have her. He was looking favourably upon her before. Perhaps if you explain it to him?"
"I will do no such thing."
"Well if you will not find her a husband, then send her away before she spoils all our other daughters' chances in the world!"
As much as Mr. Bennet was loathe to follow his wife's advice, he thought her last suggestion actually had some merit. He wrote to his brother Gardiner requesting that Lizzy stay there for the winter. He thought it the best course of action, not only for the family, but for Lizzy herself. She had barely left her home since the shunning had begun.
Having sent his letter, he called his second eldest to him to explain his plan. She readily agreed, feeling as worried and responsible as she did over the matter. She did not want her family to suffer ruination any more than Mrs. Bennet did. With a lighter heart, knowing she would escape Hertfordshire very soon, she took herself off for the first long walk she'd dared in days. Later, she would look back and remember how one simple walk had irrevocably changed her fate.
She was about half way back to Longbourn when a man on horseback almost overtook her. He slowed his horse on seeing who it was.
"Miss Bennet! How very surprising to find you out walking - and quite alone."
"Mr. Wickham." She bowed slightly to acknowledge him before picking up her pace.
"Do you mind if I walk with you?"
"I'm rather in a hurry sir. My family expects me."
Mr. Wickham smiled and dismounted anyway. Walking alongside her he studied her profile.
"I must say, Miss Bennet. I think everyone has treated you rather shabbily."
Elizabeth paused and regarded her companion with a questioning expression.
"Forgive me for being blunt, but it is just like Darcy to create a scandal and then leave a young lady to suffer the consequences."
"So you do know Mr. Darcy."
"Yes, I too have suffered from my acquaintance with him. But forgive me, perhaps I have misjudged your feelings on the matter?"
"No sir, you have not." She was about to say more, but it suddenly struck her that this was an inappropriate conversation to have with a complete stranger. She picked up her pace again. Mr. Wickham increased his own stride to match her speed. With some relief, she could just make out an approaching rider clearly visible across the expanse of open countryside. She felt certain she would know whoever it was, as he came from the direction of Longbourn. Then as she watched, man and horse disappeared around the turning in the road and she hoped he would take the shortcut. It occurred to her that for the first time in her life, she felt vulnerable walking along this familiar road. Other travelers would be somewhat reassuring.
She hurried, intent on reaching where the path came out to the road. Very soon the trees obscured her view of the countryside. After several more minutes of walking in silence, Mr. Wickham spoke again.
"Miss Bennet," he caught at her arm to stop her. She turned to him, a feeling of alarm creeping up her spine, though he had released his hold. He glanced down the road as though trying to think of what he would say, and then seemed distracted by the scenery until he smiled broadly. Just as she would look to see what had so amused him, he turned slightly, his hands on her forearms forcing her to turn as well. She struggled to break free, very alarmed now.
"Mr. Darcy is a great fool!" And with that, the man attempted to draw her into his arms. Elizabeth fought and struggled, just managing to prevent him from his ambition to kiss her. So caught up was she in this frightening altercation, her heart thundering in her ears, that she did not at first hear the rider who came racing towards them until he emerged onto the road and was upon them.
"Take your hands off her, Wickham!"
"Ah, Darcy! Here to collect your goods, are you?" Wickham continued to hold onto her, though she managed to twist to face Darcy.
Darcy dismounted. "I said take your hands off the young lady."
"I believe," said Wickham, "You have made a sorry bed for your ladylove to lie in....Shall we ask her whose company she now prefers?"
Her answer came as a surprise to both gentleman. Instinctively, Elizabeth elbowed Wickham with all her might. He buckled over in pained surprise, and she hurried away from him to a position behind Darcy. He handed her the reins of his horse and stepped forward.
He waited until Wickham had recovered sufficiently, intending to give him a final warning. Wickham, bent over and apparently still recovering, suddenly lunged at Mr. Darcy, intent on the element of surprise. The next moment Wickham went reeling backwards, causing his horse to skitter away, and causing Elizabeth to wince involuntarily at the sound of fist hitting flesh. Her initial reaction was quickly replaced with the greatest sense of satisfaction to see Wickham laid flat.
Darcy rubbed his hand, then turning, calmly addressed her. "Miss Bennet." He offered her his other hand and helped her onto the front of his horse, swinging up into the saddle behind her. She offered no resistance as, for once, they were in complete agreement. She wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Later, she would wonder why she had instinctively trusted Mr. Darcy more than Mr. Wickham. After all, had not Mr. Darcy succeeded in stealing a kiss? And was he not the cause of her entire predicament, including Wickham's motive for accosting her? Yet these thoughts would not occur to her until much later. She was far too shaken to act on anything but instinct.
She managed to hold back the tears of shock and mortification.
"I'm sorry you had to endure that Miss Bennet....We have allowed things to go on for too long!"
She nodded mutely. "He obviously spotted you through the trees, just before you emerged from the path. What could he have hoped to gain?"
"Knowing him as I do, he hoped to exploit the situation however he might. Undoubtedly, he hoped you would choose him, but failing that, he likely enjoyed taunting me."
"Even though it cost him a bruised chin?"
"He always did overestimate his pugilist skills." She recognized the sense of satisfaction in his voice. Their eyes met. "You have a great elbow."
"And you a great left hook."
He chuckled. "Remind me to steer clear of you in a temper...you have a lot of pluck!"
She blushed, yet felt strangely pleased by his reaction. "How did you happen this way, sir?"
"I was just at Longbourn. I'm glad I cut across this field on the way to you. From that distance, I was not certain it was you, and I had no idea that the man was none other than Wickham." He hesitated before addressing another subject. "I, ah, have spoken to your father regarding the problem we face."
"I see," she said, feeling dull once again. "I am going to London in two days time."
"Your father informed me of your plans." He decided to wait before saying more.
She shifted uncomfortably as she became acutely conscious of Mr. Darcy's arm around her waist and her body leaning against his for support. She attempted to sit forward to avoid such contact, but almost lost her balance in the process. His hold on her tightened as he drew her back against him closer than before, while admonishing her to be sensible. Oh, how do I keep ending up in these predicaments!? I am a rational, respectable creature, not a heroine in sappy, fantastical romance!! Why did I not insist we walk back to Longbourn? She suddenly remembered she was attempting to escape a villain. Yet here she was, in the arms of a r---...in a novel he would to turn out to be the hero, but how likely was that! She glanced covertly at him and Darcy returned her gaze, somewhat puzzled by her expression.
Most embarrassing of all, since she sat to one side on Mr. Darcy's horse, was the placement of her legs overtop of his thigh. She tugged at her skirts attempting to cover just above her ankles - to no avail. Darcy was torn between amusement at her modesty and shame at the reproach to his own previous conduct contained in her actions. She now kept her face turned from him. He could not help, however, enjoying her proximity as he observed the tendrils of hair that had escaped her bonnet, the curve of her perfect ear, and the delicate line of her neck.
They were silent until they reached Longbourn. Mr. Darcy helped her down from his horse. "Your father will be relieved to know that you are all right. He had not known that you left by yourself for Meryton until he sent for you a short while ago." He tried to keep the censure out of his voice. For just an instant their eyes met before he lowered her all the way to the ground. She was a little surprised to find that he intended to come inside with her, given his awareness of her plans.
Her father greeted them both and showed them into his library without interference from his wife. She had taken to her room once again. Mr. Darcy did not hesitate to explain to her father how he had encountered Miss Bennet on the road.
"Are you alright, my child? That blackguard! I have half a mind to hunt him down myself and -"
"I'm alright, father. Fortunately Mr. Darcy came along when he did."
"Now sir, are you finally convinced that we must marry?"
Mr. Bennet nodded his agreement with the younger man. Elizabeth looked from one to the other.
"No!!! I am going away to London in two days time! I will wait for this to blow over."
"Lizzy, my child. Please! It is not going to blow over."
Darcy looked at her, not without sympathy. "Miss Bennet, I have done my best to honour your wishes in the matter, but I cannot neglect my duty any longer! As I told your father, if you go to London, I promise you, the scandal will only follow you there. I am well known among the ton. It is only a matter of time before these rumours reach their ears and they seek you out for their own amusement."
Elizabeth listened, horrified.
Turning to Mr. Bennet, he added, "Wickham is just spiteful enough to lie and say that he witnessed us in a compromising position along the road. With two such rumours, no one will ever believe your daughter's innocence now."
Mr. Bennet again concurred. "Lizzy, you neglected to tell me that Mr. Darcy made you an offer the very next day."
"I did not see why I should. We had agreed not to marry." Saying thus, she looked at Mr. Darcy reproachfully. He was unmoved, however.
"We have no choice, Miss Bennet. Neither of us can ignore the situation any longer. Marriage is the only solution."
"Why are you so insistent? If my reputation is destroyed over this, it can mean nothing to you."
She regretted her words. Mr. Darcy actually winced.
"I realize that we have made a disastrous beginning, and your opinion of me is rightly not very high. However, I hope I am not as selfish as that remark implies. I do care if your reputation is destroyed. And please remember, my own reputation has also been compromised."
"Yes, but is it worth throwing away your noble family connections on people decidedly beneath you?" she flung at him.
Mr. Darcy held his ground. "Given your opinion of me, I might ask you the same."
"Yet I have already made my wishes known to you, so there is no need to ask again."
"Yes, you did. Yet that was before society had seen fit to shun you for the last fortnight."
Although fascinated by this rapid exchange, Mr. Bennet felt compelled to settle the matter.
"Lizzy, I must tell you I am in agreement with Mr. Darcy. You must marry! Today's events have irrevocably convinced me of that. And I think you might at least show him some courtesy, considering he is offering you marriage again, though he needn't, and considering that he did rescue you from Wickham's clutches just now - something that I shall always be indebted to him for, even if you are not."
After a long, uncomfortable pause, Elizabeth answered. "Very well, father. I will do as you wish. I will marry Mr. Darcy. Now if you will excuse me..." Without a glance at the man in question, she hurried from the room and promptly burst into tears on her way to her room.
Mr. Darcy watched her go with a great deal of anxiety. Her father watched Mr. Darcy. There was no denying from the way that gentleman followed her with his eyes that he was attracted to her. Mr. Bennet wondered how it had escaped his notice before. Mr. Darcy's determination to do the right thing by Elizabeth, despite her earlier rejection, suggested to Mr. Bennet that the man's feelings ran more deeply than he was prepared to admit, or perhaps knew himself. That, together with the very serious worry over his daughter's physical safety which today's events had brought forward, were the final factors that swayed Mr. Bennet's decision.
They were to marry quietly in the church at Longbourn within the fortnight.
After yet another pinnacle reached in miserable, sleepless nights - during which Elizabeth stubbornly remained in her room and would not speak to her jubilant mother or anyone else - she finally dressed and went downstairs to join her family for breakfast. Standing uncertainly in the doorway, she could not help notice how happy everyone looked - even Jane wore an expression of relief, though tempered by sadness. It struck Lizzy for the first time that she had been entirely selfish. Though it was not her fault, her family had suffered terribly over this, and until yesterday, she had refused to provide the remedy within her power! With a sudden determination to make the best of her new situation, and put a brave face on it, she stepped forward to greet her family with false cheerfulness.
Her mother's absurdities aside, her family was surprisingly sensitive about the matter. Even Lydia did not blurt out any tactless thoughts. Kitty, afraid of Mr. Darcy, felt deeply for her sister's plight. And Mary, believing her sister innocent of wrongdoing, could only moralize a little over the nobility of sacrifice. Jane continued to look affected, though she did her best to cheer her sister with other subjects. Mr. Bennet, as the decision-maker in the business, was properly subdued in the presence of his daughter.
Fortunately, Mr. Darcy was tactful enough to not present himself until after breakfast. As he brought his friend, a great deal of the tension was alleviated by the light conversation of Jane and Mr. Bingley. Mrs. Bennet, in an attempt to help along yet another engagement, felt it timely to mention the poetry of Jane's first admirer. Lizzy saved her sister from further embarrassment with some off-hand observations on poetry itself that caused Mr. Darcy to smile, though her mother chastised her for running on in a wild manner. To the relief of all concerned, Mrs. Bennet took herself away soon after to see to the planning of the most impressive dinner possible under such short notice.
In the course of their first day as an engaged couple, Darcy was not surprised to learn that his future bride was a studier of character, though he was a little discomfited by her view that intricate characters were "the most amusing". The day wore on, until Lizzy thought she was a mere actor, carrying out her lines within a nightmarish comedy of manners. By dinnertime, her good intentions were completely undone. The presence of her Aunt and Uncle Philips added to the strain, as Mrs. Bennet's gloating enumeration of the merits of such a match was trotted out yet again, and in a much blunter fashion, regardless of the presence of the parties involved. Such proof of even greater Bennet improprieties did not escape Mr. Darcy's notice. With stinging eyes, Elizabeth saw the shock on his face before he could hide it. That her mother would expose herself so before him was almost unendurable! Thus Lizzy was relieved to hear that Mr. Darcy would depart for London the following day to make the necessary marriage arrangements.
Her embarrassment made her more defiant in Mr. Darcy's presence. Somehow they ended up debating at length over his friend's claim that whatever Bingley did "was done in a hurry" a subject sparked by Darcy's own sudden plans on the morrow. The couple's argument covered a varied ground, and eventually excluded the rest of the room, until finally Bingley requested they cease. Darcy acquiesced with great reluctance. There was nothing he found so invigorating as crossing verbal swords with his intended. Altogether, she could not quite curb her sauciness and was surprised to find that he took his leave of her with a tenderness she felt she hardly deserved. His thoughtfulness was in evidence the next morning when Lizzy received a handwritten adieu which included directions should she need to write to him for any reason, as well as his insistence that she contact his servant at Netherfield should she need any immediate assistance. Mr. Wyse was not to accompany his master on such a brief trip to London.
Lizzy spent all of Tuesday enduring visits from well-wishers, the very same people who had shunned her for the last fortnight. Later, she would look back and wonder what had possessed her to act as she did next. Before retiring that night she found herself staring once again at Mr. Darcy's thoughtful note. Why it provoked her, she hardly knew. Perhaps it was a latent sense of resentment that Mr. Darcy had conveniently escaped her family's absurdities and left her alone to face the neighbours' hypocrisy. Perhaps she had not yet reconciled herself to the marriage. Or, perhaps she was simply worn out from appearing happy for the sake of her family. Whatever it was, she certainly could not foresee the consequences of her seemingly harmless method of venting rebellious feelings.
It began by her absentmindedly doodling on a piece of paper, as she thought to write her aunt. Before long, she found herself practicing Mr. Darcy's signature, his note still before her on her desk. Elizabeth had a hidden talent for imitating another's handwriting, though she had never seriously employed it before. But on seeing that she had managed to at last capture his D rather perfectly, not to mention the strong and decisive final stroke of his F, she took up a new avenue of amusement. On a blank piece of paper, she wrote instructions addressed to Mr. Darcy's valet. As they grew more outrageous, Lizzy could not contain her laughter. Once she was finished, she surveyed her work:
Mr. Wyse, Tuesday, December 3rd
I wish you to carry out these last minute instructions immediately while I am away, as my beloved's comfort and happiness is of utmost importance to me.
First, I desire that a fresh bouquet of flowers be sent to her every day to cheer my intended in my absence. Compensate Miss Bingley as best you can for the pilfering of her small conservatory.
My sisters-in-law, as befits all accomplished young ladies, wish to improve their minds through extensive reading. Have two dozen of the latest novels (of the Fanny Burney ilk) selected from the local shop and send them to Longbourn directly.
I have heard that Mr. Lawrence intends to sell the exquisite pianoforte just arrived from London, now that his daughter is engaged and moving to Cornwall. Purchase it in my name and have it delivered in haste. My beloved's family must have an instrument worthy of their accomplishments.
Finally, on my return to the neighbourhood in about five days time, I intend to take up residence at Longbourn, to be nearer my new relations. Transfer my belongings the day before my arrival. As many guests will likely be arriving for my wedding, I would not wish to inconvenience my dear future mother-in-law. See to it that my belongings are placed in whatever space is available under the eaves next to your own accommodations.
Feeling that she should somehow hide this evidence of her desire to punish Mr. Darcy, yet reluctant to throw her clever handiwork away, she decided to seal it over. Then, on impulse, she amused herself further by addressing it:
Urgent: Mr. Wyse, Netherfield
She had just finished the business when a knock at the door caused Lizzy to startle guiltily, almost upsetting the ink bottle she was putting away. Distracted as she was, she tucked the letter beneath a book on her desk before she hastened out of the room to speak with her mother on some new wedding plan. Returning in half an hour, she headed to bed, too exhausted to contemplate writing to her aunt until the morning. She arose early and finished her correspondence before breakfast without thinking further of her infamous forgery of the night before.
Swept up in her mother's grand schemes, Elizabeth spent the next two days battling for an appropriately subdued celebration; when all other arguments failed, she resorted to claiming that anything ostentatious would seriously displease Mr. Darcy. With secret guilty amusement, she wondered if it were becoming easier to speak for him on all occasions!
A bouquet of flowers had arrived on Wednesday; but as they were accompanied by a card from Mr. Darcy himself, she knew only a moment of uneasiness at the idea that she'd been rather mean-spirited to write her letter, even if it were a harmless, private joke. When more flowers arrived on Thursday, she thought it simply coincidence. By Friday, she began to feel anxious, as yet another bouquet was delivered before the family was finished breakfast! Before she had a chance to reassure herself (and destroy that letter, now preying on her conscience) her mother and Mrs. Philips harangued her about her choice of gown for her wedding day. The resultant trip to Meryton led to the revelation from shopkeepers that apparently Mr. Darcy's servant was pilfering all the countryside to accommodate the daily need for flowers. At that time of year, such small shipments from London as were available in each village were insufficient to meet the demand! She felt a moment of queasiness on hearing that, but told herself her letter was safely tucked away in her desk and admonished herself to remain rational. Once again the present distracted her from further thoughts on the subject, as the remainder of the day was taken up with triumphant visits to her mother's bitterest enemies. It was not until just before dinner that Elizabeth knew a true sense of panic. With a certain amount of fanfare, Hill announced another delivery just as the war party arrived home. This time, two dozen novels had appeared, addressed to "The Bennet Sisters". The handwriting was unrecognizable, but the adieu read: J.W. on behalf of F. Darcy! While her sisters were excitedly exclaiming, Elizabeth tore from the sitting room and hurried up the stairs, taking two steps at a time in a rather unladylike fashion. Gaining her room, she fell to tearing apart her desk, but the wretched letter was nowhere to be found. At last a voice behind her caused her to freeze. Jane had seen her hasty departure, and concerned when she did not return, followed her to find out what the trouble was.
Jane stared at the literary carnage before her. Papers and books were strewn all over the floor, and her sister wore a wild expression, as even yet, she was dumping the contents of one drawer on the floor and searching through it like a madwoman. A startled Jane implored her sister.
"Lizzy, whatever is the matter?"
"Oh Jane! I have misplaced some important papers! I cannot think how!
She decided the best course of action to calm her sister lay in focusing her on the facts.
"When did you last see them?"
"And they were here on the desk?"
"What did they look like?"
"Like a letter. I...had sealed them up and addressed them. The last I remember, I placed it beneath a book."
"Addressed them? What papers were they?"
"They were...Jane, how many letters did you collect off my desk on Wednesday?"
Jane considered the question for a moment, then answered decisively. "Three. One to Aunt Gardiner, one to your friend in Bath,
and one to-"
With a sinking heart she saw confirmation register on Jane's expression.
"Yes, I sent that by way of a servant. I...handed it to Mr. Bingley's driver. I was a little worried when I read the directions that it was urgent, but I assumed you were too distracted by Mama to send it on. And since she has been rather distracting to us all, I forgot to reassure you that it is indeed sent. I am sorry, Lizzy." Jane was reluctant to admit that she'd had more pleasant distractions in the last few days.
It would be much later before Elizabeth connected how Sarah had unknowingly sent the mock letter to the floor while dusting Wednesday morning, then on retrieving it, placed it with the ones Lizzy had left on the right-hand corner of her desk for mailing. Jane had kindly collected the letters when the post was about to be sent, as, at the time, Lizzy was under fire from her mother concerning the merits of lace and silk for her trousseau.
For now, all Lizzy knew was a sense of impending doom.
"Oh no! Oh no! I cannot believe this! What will he think of me?!"
"Lizzy! You are frightening me. Tell me what has happened."
"I..I wrote a note I should not have and now it has been sent on when I never intended anyone to read it! And Mr. Darcy is bound to find out about it when he returns!"
"Can you not explain to him that it was sent by mistake?"
"Yes, I can. But there is no way for me to come off looking other than very badly in his eyes." She then told Jane the whole story. Fortunately, Jane did not judge her too harshly, though she was somewhat shocked to realize the full implications of the situation. Once she helped her sister calm down, they calculated that the greater harm lay in Mr. Darcy paying out a large sum of money for the Lawrence's famous pianoforte. Lizzy expressed a heartfelt desire to prevent that, so finally gave in to Jane's insistence that they solicit Mr. Bingley's help in the matter. He could forestall Mr. Darcy's servant. As Bingley was coming for dinner that evening, Jane promised to work the matter out with him then. Though she knew it was a mercy, Lizzy dreaded having to explain herself to him, yet, knowing him to be gentle and kind, it was nothing to her anxiety at the thought of explaining herself to his formidable friend.
Jane exchanged delighted smiles with her sister, confident that the worst disaster had been averted and relieved to know that Mr. Bingley need not be approached after all. The rest of the evening felt much like a reprieve from debtors' prison to Elizabeth. She retired with her happy disposition fully restored, though resolving to end her career in forgery forever.
Saturday brought forth a new level of horror, as Mr. Darcy's servant was revealed to be highly resourceful. For, on the Lawrence's removal from the pianoforte market, Mr. Wyse had seen fit to arrange for another instrument sent directly from London. Elizabeth was at a loss to know how such a feat was possible in a mere four days at the most. But there it was - brand new, very elegant and sitting in her drawing room when she returned from her morning walk - all the proof required that such feats could be managed after all. Given such evidence of her irredeemable treachery, she was not even mildly shocked to learn that Mr. Darcy's valet had arrived in person, and with him all of his Master's possessions from Netherfield. Though, she almost choked on her tea when Mrs. Bennet reassured her that "dear Mr. Darcy" was placed in the finest guestroom, despite his valet's bizarre insistence on the attics!
The Master of Pemberley was expected to arrive at Longbourn mid-afternoon the next day.
Elizabeth went for her daily walk after the noon meal, knowing that sooner or later, Mr. Darcy would arrive and she would have a great deal of explaining to do. She was convinced that he would be furious with her. How could such a proud disagreeable man not be? That he was not of a temperament to be accommodating towards the world, or understanding of the frailties of others, was her firmest opinion of him. Added to that was the mortifying thought that he might regard her as a dishonest opportunist. It crossed her mind that he did not know her well enough to perceive her integrity, and given her mother's rather loud extolling of his financial virtues the day before he left, might he not be tempted to see her likewise driven by terrible mercenary schemes? Granted, she had refused his first offer of marriage, not to mention been proven innocent in the Netherfield fiasco, but that only proved her dislike was stronger than other motives. It did not exempt her from the charge of such motives now that, unavoidably, they were to marry. Although, when she considered the situation rationally, surely he could not believe her so stupid as to imagine she could get away with forging his signature to procure desired objects for herself and her family?.... At the very least, he would be insulted by the sentiments expressed in her mock letter, and cross that it had cost him so much expense whether she intended the letter sent or not. She thought it entirely possible that he might call off their engagement and consider it a narrow escape from such obvious lunacy.
That she felt certain their confrontation would be very unpleasant, did not prevent her from turning over ever aspect of her past interactions with him as though attempting to uncover some hidden insights about the man before she had to face him.
To begin with, Elizabeth was still somewhat shocked to discover that Mr. Darcy could be agreeable at all. He had acquitted himself well before departing for London. Then there was the matter of his rescuing her from Wickham, when, if he had wanted an out, leaving her to that man's mercy would have provided it. She shivered as that new horrifying possibility crossed her mind, and wondered if she was developing her mother's preoccupation with the fantastical. Added to his moment of playing knight, Darcy had remained steady to his purpose all day Monday, despite her challenging behaviour. Replaying that day in her mind, she was forced to acknowledge that 'challenging' was somewhat of an understatement; 'saucy' was more like it. Yet remarkably, Mr. Darcy had not been offended. She tried to recall one single incident when Mr. Darcy had been offended by her impertinent manner of debating with him and was surprised to realize that she could not. He had always smiled at her in just such a way; he seemed to enjoy those interactions! Could Mr. Darcy have assumed all along that she was flirting with him? It was painful to realize tht her spirits might have misled her even there, though that was no excuse for his inappropriate behaviour at Netherfield. However, she could now put an entirely different construction on all their previous interactions. On further reflection about the man she was to marry, she could not discount the thoughtfulness of his letter to her before he left. If only she'd responded appropriately to his kindness... instead of using it to commit forgery!
Still, even under the best conditions, with no looming explanation of forgery, she wondered how long Mr. Darcy's better behaviour would last. Two days of courtship (if his intercession on her behalf and shared horseback ride home could be called courtship) weighed against more than a month of previous knowledge was unconvincing. He had slighted her at the beginning of their acquaintance....Yet, his feelings had apparently undergone a transition since then, completely unknown to her until their revealing encounter at Netherfield. She blushed as she thought of that moment. She would not admit to herself that his later susceptibility somehow eased her past sense of rejection, and she most certainly would not admit that his kiss had elicited any feelings other than dismay. She pushed these disturbing thoughts away and returned to the subject of his public behaviour. Although Jane had cautioned her all along, she only now could see that his manners were not so very unpleasant, his disposition not so very flawed as she had previously insisted. She could even admit that she was a little sorry for her exaggerated pronouncements during their quarrel of three weeks ago. Despite all these admissions, there was no doubt in her mind that he had behaved somewhat arrogantly and disagreeably in the past and was therefore capable of the most cutting behaviour if he felt so disposed.
He may have improved in manners, but what of his underlying character? His sense of duty did him credit, but had to be measured against his indecent proposal that fateful morning at Netherfield. She had never heard of anything previously to lead her to think him immoral or unethical. Granted, Wickham had alluded to something, but given his own behaviour, anything he had to say was not to be trusted. But, Mr. Darcy's still shocking offer to be her protector suggested a side to him she would never have imagined before. He simply did not give the impression of a reprobate! Elizabeth impatiently hurried across the field towards home. She was tired of trying to decipher this aspect of Mr. Darcy's character. At any rate, it was too late. She was to be his wife. Only time would tell if she would be miserable or happy because of him.
With such thoughts weighing on her she had little attention for her surroundings. The day was overcast and dull, not likely to improve her mood. Feeling a heaviness previously unknown to her, Elizabeth made her way across the grounds to Longbourn House. The question teased at the edges of her mind again. Who was the real Mr. Darcy? Was he that cold, unfeeling, arrogant man she'd first met at the Assemblies? Or, the shockingly warm-blooded opportunist with a revealing knowledge of how to kiss a woman until...best not to dwell on that...Might he be the responsible, considerate suitor she had seen just before he left? Could he be caring? Could he be trusted? She simply could not reconcile these various versions of his character. In fact, all her speculations left her as confused as before, perhaps more so.
No matter how much she dwelled on his character, she realized with an ironic smile, she could not be spared his reaction to this latest business. Would he yell? Or simply freeze her out with his contempt? She returned for the hundredth time to the conviction that he would be at his most disagreeable under such circumstances. The heaviness pressed down more on her chest until it identified itself as an emotion Elizabeth Bennet had previously hardly ever experienced. It was dread. Did she indeed prefer the stocks? She really didn't know. It occurred to her that by the end of day, she just might!
She paused as she stood before her home. All speculations about Mr. Darcy were moot, as the real issue was now before her. His carriage stood at the door; he must have just arrived.
She had expected to have time alone in her room before that formidable encounter took place but her attempt to sneak by her family proved futile. On entering, she heard her mother's voice carry across the entrance hall from the drawing room. She attempted to pass by the open doorway unnoticed but was halted in her tracks at the sound of Mr. Darcy's voice. Her anxious pause was untimely, as her father signaled to her from his place by the mantel. She had no choice but to make her appearance.
Her entire family was assembled rather gratuitously around the new pianoforte, with the exception of her father, who was silently observing the absurd proceedings, and Jane, who sat somewhat apprehensively in a chair by the fire. Kitty and Lydia were on one side of the instrument, giggling and casting flirtatious glances at Mr. Darcy, while Mary sat before it, too much in awe to do other than stare back and forth between him and the ivory keys. All eyes watched as Mr. Darcy obediently attended to every detail Mrs. Bennet pointed out - the fine grain of wood richly finished, the elegant legs, and exquisite inlaid work - in short, everything but the technical purpose of such a furnishing. If she had not felt so wretched, Elizabeth doubtless would have seen the humour of such a tableau. Her mother called to her excitedly, demanding that she hurry to join in the general praise.
"Lizzy, come here! Quickly! I was just telling Mr. Darcy how much we love this new instrument! It is absolutely divine." Mr. Darcy turned to watch her as she approached. His expression was unreadable.
"It is a lovely instrument." She could not quite manage to sound enthusiastic.
"Pay her no mind, Mr. Darcy! It is the nicest I have ever seen. Play something Mary, so that Mr. Darcy might hear its outstanding sound."
Mary did as her mother bid. Elizabeth took the opportunity to greet her betrothed civilly, though she could not manage to meet his eye for very long.
Mercifully, Jane came forward to speak.
"Mr. Darcy only just arrived a few minutes before you Lizzy, and he came directly from London."
"He did not stop at Netherfield?" She looked at him.
"No," said he smilingly, apparently puzzled as to why both sisters were speaking of him as though he were absent. "He did not."
Though she smiled self-consciously at his teasing, she realized from such information that her worst suspicions were confirmed. Mr. Darcy had no idea that he had just spent a great deal of money supposedly courting her, that his efficient servant was even now installed in Longbourn, and that if not for her mother's intervention, the Master would have been destined for the attics.
She was about to speak when her mother interrupted with a flutter of her lace handkerchief. Mrs. Bennet turned to Mr. Darcy and began to extol the joys of reading a good book, trotting out the titles of various novels apparently at random, with excited exclamations about their anticipation in reading them. Her youngest daughters eagerly seconded her enthusiasm while supplying a few of the titles she missed. Fortunately, they only got as far as seven before a calm Jane once again intervened to tell Mr. Darcy that his friend would be joining them at dinner. That news distracted Mrs. Bennet and she embarked on a whole new litany of anticipated joys, much to her eldest daughter's embarrassment.
Elizabeth seized her opportunity.
"Mr. Darcy, the frost this morning has left the garden a magical winter fairyland. It is likely to have melted by tomorrow. Will you join me on a brief tour?"
The gentleman unconsciously glanced down at his rumpled travel clothes, and she imagined him no doubt calculating the time to ride to Netherfield, change, and join Bingley to return before dinner. Little did he know! But her heart was in her face, and he consented to her scheme only after the barest hesitation. They managed to take their leave without interference from Mrs. Bennet. She felt she had already thanked Mr. Darcy profusely for his gifts.
Once outside, Elizabeth wasted little time before leading him to a secluded bench in the garden. She requested that he sit as she stood before him, bracing herself for what was to follow. She saw that he was watching her, but his face was inscrutable. Staring down at the ground, she began.
"Mr. Darcy, I have a confession to make. All I ask is that you hear me out completely without interrupting. Doubtless you are going to be very cross, but I hope you will listen to what I have to say and believe me that I never meant for things to go so far."
"This sounds serious," said he, with such kindly concern that Elizabeth glanced up at him guiltily. "But you have my assurance that I will hear you out without interrupting."
'Thank you." She paused then, not really certain how to begin now that she had his undivided attention. He waited. She cleared her throat.
"I was feeling, ah, rather cross on Tuesday evening, due to the constant stream of well-wishers and...well, I know you have noticed how...demanding...my mother can be. And, I'm afraid I was rather cross at you, sir, for disappearing to London whilst I stayed here to deal with the social whirlwind caused by news of our engagement. It has only been slightly more pleasant than the scandal that led to it."
She studied her companion anxiously for his reaction. He was regarding her patiently but revealed little other emotion. She took a deep breath that ended as a ragged sigh.
"No," she spoke on another deep breath, and attempted to continue in a measured voice. "I really can offer no good reason for what I did. No excuse given justifies it, and I'm actually at a loss to understand myself on this occasion." She gripped her hands together in front of her to steady their slight shaking as she prepared to come to the point at last. Mr. Darcy watched her with increasing apprehension and was about to speak when she forestalled him with a rush of words.
"I did a terrible thing! And I am heartily sorry. I wrote a note to vent my feelings - addressed to your valet. I never meant for the letter to be sent. You must believe me! I am not an opportunist despite your imaginings, given Netherfield and my mother. The note was sent to your valet accidentally and then things started showing up! At first I was nonchalant, for I never imagined that your servant could get a hold of my letter. But mishaps seem to follow me around these days! I have no idea why that is, but there it is!"
She picked up momentum and lost even more coherency, as she spoke of the worst of the business. "And my mother distracted me until Friday when the third flower arrangement arrived, and then the books! Jane and I thought to head him off with Mr. Bingley, then we were fooled by Mr. Lawrence, who kept his pianoforte after all! - so Mr. Wyse got another one!! It arrived on Saturday, along with him and your clothes. Mama put you in the guestroom - not the attics - so you see, she's been proven to have more sense than her daughter - which is an alarming thought!! - and I have no idea what you will think of me now! I only hope you will believe me when I say how heartily sorry I am for all the mischief I have caused you!!! And you needn't fear because I will apply to Papa to refund you for the instrument. And -"
Conveniently, or inconveniently, she was not sure which, her voice broke at last as she uttered this haphazard apology. Mr. Darcy however, was highly alarmed by her level of distress. He rushed to his feet and gently guided her to the bench while she searched for her handkerchief. Not finding hers, she gratefully accepted the one he offered. He sighed and she glanced at him cautiously, wondering if he had made hide or hair out of her incoherent speech and if he would now become angry if she had made any sense! He looked quite stricken however.
"Let me see if I understand you correctly, Miss Bennet. You were angry, obviously not with my valet but with me. We will not examine the cause of your anger too closely. I fear we both well know that you had good reason to be angry with me long before I went to London. You wrote these feelings down, for some reason deciding to address them to my valet. Someone inadvertently sent them on to my valet and this somehow led to the purchasing of a few items by him, including the new pianoforte now standing in your drawing room. Is that the gist of what you were saying?"
Elizabeth nodded but could only hiccough as an answer, leaving Darcy free to continue without interruption.
"I should not have allowed you to go on like this attempting to explain all when it has clearly upset you so. I hope you will forgive me."
She found her voice again. "Really sir! You are too good! I am the one who has just behaved wretchedly. You have nothing to apologize for."
"I'm afraid I do, Miss Bennet. There is no way I could have connected the points of your sketchy explanation just now if I had not already known what had happened." She watched in dawning comprehension as he withdrew a letter from his breast pocket.
"Yes. Though until now, I could only guess why you would write such a thing." He handed it back to her and she stuffed it into her pocket, resisting the urge to tear it up into bits and pieces. It would not do for Mr. Darcy to think her unbalanced as well as reckless!
"Oh! Ohhh! What you must think of me!" She was remembering how her 'instructions' revealed the depth of her ire and...dislike. He did not speak to that particular point, however.
"I must admit, I was taken aback to see my own signature so finely crafted by another person. You have a rare talent, though my valet instantly knew from the rest of the missive that it was not mine."
Elizabeth, already blushing furiously, could only sit still in her increased mortification.
"Oh, tell me that Mr. Wyse does not think me a forger!"
"No, he does not. He came to London on Wednesday. The first order of flowers was mine; that is how you got them as early as Wednesday. Mr. Wyse made the remaining flower and book arrangements immediately on his own, but he was deeply troubled by the other orders, particularly the pianoforte. He began to doubt the veracity of the letter. The signature was mine, he thought, but the rest of the handwriting was not. And the orders were bizarre, not in terms of what was listed, but in the wording. He knows, as I do, that gentlemen do not explain their reasons to their servants, but he could not know, as I did, the true significance of the author's choice of words. He was quite upset, because on investigation, he found out that the letter had come from Longbourn the day after I left the neighbourhood, and that decided him. He arrived in London to lay out his concerns about this strange set of instructions. Naturally, I had a good idea of who at Longbourn might write such a thing."
He paused to see that she was clutching her handkerchief tightly.
"But I told him the instructions were indeed mine. I could not very well let him think you were a forger, could I?"
Elizabeth was torn between relief and surprise. Her conscience told her she did not deserve her victim's protection. After several moments of silence to compose herself, her curiosity got the better of her. "What did you say? How did you explain such an odd note?"
"I fear my explanation was not the most brilliant, but it was the best I could do on short notice. I assured him that the signature was mine but that the other handwriting was yours and we had not intended to send the letter. I explained that the letter was a joke between us prompted by my insistence as a suitor to buy the Lawrence pianoforte; while the list reflected my intentions, the sentimental wording and the attic reference reflected your teasing hope that I would not go to any such trouble and expense."
"I cannot believe you shielded me thus and claimed such foolishness as your own! Do you think he believed you?"
"Yes. I emphasized to him that it most certainly was not an attempt from anyone at Longbourn to procure anything from me, but that I appreciated his diligence as a member of my household. In fact, I told him that I snatched the letter from you, but must have left it on the hall table when taking my leave Monday night and it obviously was found and accidentally sent by Wednesday morning. Though he was surprised, I believe my embarrassment while relating these particulars confirmed me as uncharacteristically nonsensical due to a sudden romantic impulse." He glanced at her as he spoke this and smiled. Lizzy felt downright sheepish.
"I don't know how to thank you. I'm amazed that you took so much upon yourself! I don't think I deserved your intervention, but I am grateful...I wonder though, you needn't have ordered him to purchase a new pianoforte if you explained it all as a joke. How did that come about?"
"When he informed me that the Lawrence pianoforte was in fact not for sale, I told him to go ahead and buy a brand new one and have it sent immediately from London. I thought ordering him to do so would add credibility to the whole thing, not to mention add legitimacy to our courtship. I thought it would help to quash rumours, in my own household and elsewhere, that we were forced to marry."
She could only stare at him, completely amazed to comprehend that he'd gone to so much trouble and expense to save her in the eyes of his household and the world! For she could well imagine that if he'd denied knowledge of the letter, the tale would have carried to his London and Derbyshire residences. Overcome by all that he'd done on behalf of her welfare, she stared down at her feet again, trying to absorb the magnitude of what she'd just learned. If she thought she'd been completely spared however, she was mistaken. Now that she was calm again, Mr. Darcy had other plans. She glanced up to find her companion had crossed his arms and seemed to be waiting, a more severe look on his face, his eyes now boring into hers.
"While I might have convinced my valet of your innocence, you have yet to convince me, Miss Bennet. Forging another's signature is a very serious crime. I should like to know what evidence you can offer to prove your harmless intent in this matter."
Here was the formidable opponent she knew so well! She gulped. But now that it was all out in the open she felt much more herself; her courage rose as she reminded herself that she'd not had any nefarious purpose. She forced herself to look him squarely in the eye and spoke with quiet dignity.
"I can offer no evidence, Mr. Darcy, save my word. I did not intend for that letter to be seen by anyone."
"Yet you did forge my signature. Quite well, I might add."
"Yes, I seem to have a talent for mimicking others' writing, but I assure you, it is not a practiced art. I have never done such a thing in my life before. I don't know what possessed me!"
"Really? Then you are not above entertaining the possibility that people might act out of character from time to time?"
She looked at him self-consciously, well aware of the point he was making. She had acted out of character, and so had he. She was asking for the benefit of the doubt, and was not he? But it was not quite the same thing! Was it?
"I swear to you sir, I am no forger."
"And I," said he smilingly, "am no rake."
His words struck with full force. Once again she was caught off guard, for his triumphant expression suggested that he had not really doubted her motives after all! He was, as usual, far too clever! Was he not neatly using the entire situation to make his point? The very point that he'd insisted on all along - that he was no villain... That he was quick to see and seize an opportunity was undeniably a part of his character. She was a little distressed by that realization, yet too relieved by her own light sentence to hold it against him. At the same time, against her will she felt a slight excitement of admiration for his intelligence and judgment. It was thoroughly demonstrated in his handling of the entire matter, from the care he had shown for her reputation, to his attempt to make a peace between them, and all the many steps in-between. True, he wished to capitalize on the situation; but his good will towards her undid all such offense. Could she really fault him for being clever?
It crossed her mind that she had just been bested somehow. To refuse to acknowledge his silent entreaty would make her feel shoddy in the extreme, after he had behaved so nobly to protect her, and when he had paid her the compliment of believing her.... He could have toyed with her feelings too. Instead, shortly into their interview he had revealed that he knew all. He'd been too kind to exact revenge, instead offering her comfort when she became distressed. That he could have acknowledged the letter immediately and spared her all distress crossed her mind. Yet she could hardly blame him for wanting to hear her self-avowed confession...Her companion remained silent while she assembled all these puzzling pieces of his actions into a reasonable whole. Finally, she was forced to smile in grudging admiration.
"I believe sir," her smile grew wider as she spoke, "I have been snookered!"
He laughed. "It is not my intention to win anything at your expense, Miss Bennet. I simply hoped to use the opportunity presented to persuade you to give me the benefit of the doubt by offering you the same."
She expressed her gratitude for his forebearance, yet remained silent on his request for a truce.
"You cannot always have been this understanding about the matter, or I shall be forced to change your status even more drastically - to that of saint."
"I should be content with you believing that I am an ordinary, decent gentleman. I hope that is no longer a drastic change of status in your eyes." He thought she looked a little ashamed as he said that, but she turned away, and his mind quickly wandered as he regarded her profile.
They were to be husband and wife! As many times as he reminded himself it had still not fully sunk in.... He had pushed for it, and he had got his way. Now he must live with the consequences. When he had asked himself what had possessed him, he told himself duty demanded it. As he regarded her now, still uneasy in his company, still having entered this engagement unwillingly, he could not deny that he'd had other motives. She was adorable, she was desirable, and she was to be his! He shifted uncomfortably. He did not think he was in love with her. But he had finally admitted to himself that he had never been so bewitched by another woman as he was by her....He was determined to win her favour. In the weeks since her initial refusal, he'd had time enough to realize that he'd behaved like a perfect ass when proposing marriage....As for his other proposal, he was still at a loss to comprehend why he'd made it. Considering how many times he'd turned down amorous advances in the past, he'd thought himself above such rash behaviour. Yet, Elizabeth affected him differently. The irony that she had considered him a rake because of his susceptibility to her was not lost on him....
He abruptly brought himself to the present. She had just repeated her inquiry into his initial reaction to her letter and was waiting for an answer. He forced himself to order his thoughts.
"As a matter of record, I was not a saint about it. Since this is a day of confessions, I hope you will forgive me for instructing Mr. Wyse to play along with the suggestion of the attics. I could not resist some retribution, though it was petty, and I am ashamed of the distress I obviously caused you."
"I believe the distress my own actions caused me was fully justified. I can hardly blame you for being human, or for waiting to see how I would explain myself on your return. Though, I'm surprised you were so patient."
She was amazed to see Mr. Darcy look a little sheepish.
"I confess I felt angry after Mr. Wyse left my library. Angry enough, in fact, to want to ride back to Longbourn and demand an explanation of you. I did not believe you intended the letter to be sent, as it was clearly more parody than scheme. Yet it had been sent and there was my signature."
"But you did not come rushing back to Longbourn."
"No. I could not, as I had my appointment with the magistrate on the morrow to purchase a special license."
As he spoke that last, his expression betrayed his appreciation of the irony, and they briefly flashed an understanding between them. How was it that two sensible, rational people kept getting tangled in such ridiculous situations?
"Then it is fortunate I accepted your proposal and spared myself your wrath."
"I do not inflict wrath on women, Miss Bennet."
"Even when they deserve it?"
"Especially when they deserve it."
"I'll keep that in mind for the future. I see that the more trouble I cause you the more I may depend on your graciousness!" she teased.
"Then your future is secure." The sudden warmth of his expression caused her a moment's unease, but she laughed lightheartedly at this picture of herself. They continued to smile at each other for a time until one matter eventually pressed on her mind again.
"Mr. Darcy, if I may be serious for a moment, please allow me to assure you that my father will reimburse you for all the expense I have caused, once I have explained the matter to him."
"Out of the question. I must insist on remaining in your family's good graces as patron of young ladies' accomplishments."
"At least let him pay for the pianoforte."
Mr. Darcy continued to refuse, insisting with an embarrassed look, that it was a small expense to him and she need not worry about it.
"I only ask for one thing in return, Miss Bennet."
Her raised eyebrow indicated her willingness to hear him.
"Do not ever forge my signature again." His voice held just enough seriousness to cause her a moment of confusion. Yes, he could be formidable, she needed to remember that he was letting her off easy.
Encouraged by the expression in her fine eyes, Mr. Darcy hazarded to continue, his countenance remaining earnest.
"Miss Bennet, would it possible for us to start over? I will not deny that I was an arrogant wretch towards you in the past, but you must believe me, I am not as irredeemable as you seemed to think then...and your earlier reproofs are being attended to."
"After today, sir, you have revealed yourself as highly redeemable...I'm grateful that you have been so willing to trust in my character...I would like to start over too. Though we are about to enter a marriage of convenience, I should hope we can become friends."
His lips twitched at that. "I believe friendship is often missing from marriage, Miss Bennet, regardless of the reasons for marrying. I think we can do better than that. We can even deal civilly with one another, as today has proved."
"Then it is settled, we shall be friends despite being spouses!" She offered her hand to him and he willingly shook it. He was tempted to draw her delicate fingers to his lips, but resisted his feelings. Tomorrow would be soon enough to begin his determined courting of her.
After sitting a few moments longer, each contemplating the matter, they agreed that they better return to the house. Mr. Darcy offered her his arm which she willingly took.
"I have to say, I thought the attics a supreme final touch."
"Oh," she covered her eyes with her free hand, "please do not remind me!"
"If I promise to be on my best behaviour today, might I graduate to the smallest bedroom available after that? I do not mean to be demanding. I simply wish sufficient room to iron the wrinkles out of my wedding clothes. You understand."
Caught off guard by his good-humoured ribbing, she could not help but laugh at this request. Mr. Darcy a connoisseur of the absurd! Who would have imagined it? Yet it was so!
"You have already graduated in my mother's eyes, all the way to the finest guestroom Longbourn has to offer."
"Then I am deeply honoured." He bowed sincerely.
"You do not mind remaining here until the wedding?"
"I look forward to it."
Delighted by her pleased expression, and secretly relieved that all had turned out so well, Mr. Darcy condescended to smile wider than she had ever yet witnessed. She was completely taken aback by the appearance of dimples and a smile so devastating that it transformed her future husband's normally serious countenance into one of the handsomest faces she could ever recall enjoying.
His courting had begun well enough...
The eve of his return was a happy affair. In high spirits, Elizabeth captivated everyone with a few songs, especially Mr. Darcy who observed her intently from his place at the mantel. To see her enjoy his gift at long last was the fulfillment of a secret desire. Yet it was not until later in the evening, while the others played at cards and her father withdrew to his library, that he found a conveniently private moment to present her with an engagement ring.
It was a delicately carved gold band crowned with a small pearl and diamond arrangement. Elizabeth thought it understated, elegant, and unique. She felt a strong admiration for his taste, as she disliked ostentatious jewelry in the extreme.
"I hope you like it? I'm indebted to your sister for the correct sizing."
She eyed him with amusement. "Like it? Sir, it is truly one of the loveliest rings I have ever beheld. Thank you!" She suddenly felt shy as he took her hand gently in his. He spoke more tenderly then she had yet ever heard him as he slipped the ring onto her finger.
"It took me some time to find just the right ring for this occasion. I was not pleased by any from my family's collection; they do not do your own uniqueness justice."
"If it is not from your family, where ever did you find it? It appears to be very old."
"The gold and stones are very old. They came from a private collector who had a talented artisan by the name of Menière* rework them from a fragment, likely the outer band of a temple pendant or other adornment used on a headdress."
"A temple pendant? Then it is from a classical piece?"
"Yes, Roman I think. But where and when is not exactly clear. Perhaps as far as the Black Sea. The person I purchased it from is a collector of antiquities, but even he did not know for certain if it was Greek, Roman or from another Kingdom in that region from around the same time. It may be quite early or as late as the end of the Roman era. ** As a ring, it has never actually been worn, but that's another story."
"However did it come to be in England?"
"The collector is French and fled to England during the Terror."
"Oh. That explains the French artisan. It has certainly had a tempestuous history."
He smiled at her. "Yes, though that was not my reason for selecting it, a little tempestuousness in life is desirable. Like true Romans however, I have given you the correct gems for the correct day."
"Ah, Sunday for the Sun god?"
"Absolutely. Gold, diamonds and pearls. Though, it is a bit ostentatious for a Roman betrothal ring, I thought a plain iron band would be uninspiring."
"You may consider me inspired. Once again, I thank you."
She was unable to know what else to say. He'd certainly gone to a great deal of trouble for her. An unfortunate thought that she'd been wreaking minor havoc on his resources while he was searching for such a treasure momentarily intruded on her pleasure. She hardly knew to what cause she owed such a romantic gesture from such an austere man. It was high puzzling! But at last she concluded that Mr. Darcy was attempting to undo his past mistakes, and perhaps he was actually a secret romantic. Whatever the cause, she could not help but be flattered.
By all appearances, they were acting more like a young couple in love, than former enemies about to embark on a marriage of convenience.
After returning to her family to show them her ring, Elizabeth retired at the same time as Mr. Darcy. She could only bear so many effusions from her mother, and her two sisters' behaviour towards him was even more annoying than earlier in the day. For his part, he felt a great pleasure in escorting her up the stairs. Once gaining the second floor, he was a little taken aback to realize that her room was located directly across the hall from his, and if her blush was any indication, she too was remembering the last time they had stood in an upstairs hallway together.
True to his purpose, Mr. Darcy saw his betrothed to her door with the intention of bowing, wishing her goodnight, and making a hasty departure. His careful plans were somewhat challenged by the lively expression in her fine eyes. She held out her hand to shake his in a gesture of mock formality as she had done earlier that day, the merriment evident in her face.
"Goodnight Mr. Darcy."
"I believe," he smiled, as he took her proffered hand, "friends are a little less formal, Miss Bennet." His palm curved possessively around hers as he ignored any pretence of a handshake.
"Really? And how might friends bid goodnight to each other?"
He smiled. "If you were Bingley, I would just say 'good night, old man' but that seems a little too informal, and not at all an accurate homage to a young and charming lady such as yourself. " As he spoke, she felt his thumb gently trace along the delicate contours of the hand he still held, his action completely undoing the effects of his levity. His free hand moved to participate and her skin suddenly felt under siege by heat and sensation. Who would have thought a mere hand could feel so much?
A little shaken, she struggled to maintain a certain bravado. "Ah, well then, I demand my due! How do you bid goodnight to one of your friends of the female persuasion?" Her mischievous expression did not escape him.
His one hand dropped away, yet still her palm was cradled in his. "I say farewell to them at the base of the stairs."
It was his turn to smile in great amusement at her reaction. He shifted his body slightly to lean against the wall, all the better to regard her.
"Well, I suppose it might be a little different when one's friend is soon to be one's bride. And as we left the stairs behind us, you will have to improvise." As soon as she said it, she wondered with some regret at the nervousness that prompted it, though Mr. Darcy did not look at all displeased by her audacious remark.
"I believe I can come up with something." The sudden change in the tone of his voice disconcerted her. But she stood her ground as he slowly raised her fingers to his lips. The contact caused her heart to pound wildly and for a moment, she could not take her eyes off his mouth as he teased her skin with the lightest of caresses. Then, as though he willed it, she felt compelled to glance up until their eyes met and held. She forgot to breathe. He leaned towards her.
Sounds rising up from the stairwell warned them that another family member was heading to bed. Lizzy snapped out of her stupor, wondering what she was about! She snatched her hand away, bid a hasty goodnight, and left a disappointed suitor staring at her closed door.
Breakfast the next morning was a happy, though noisy affair. The chief source of distractions emanated from Lydia and Kitty, who constantly whispered to each other. An occasional glance at Mr. Darcy indicated that he was the subject of their confidences (if their self-conscious giggles when they met his eye did not already confirm that fact). His sanctioning of the type of stories she adored had completely removed all Kitty's former anxieties about him, and Lydia was never the least bit intimidated by anyone to begin with; however, the recent scandal involving her sister made her re-evaluate his appeal as a romantic figure. Mary, who loved the new pianoforte, regarded him with some sympathy, though she could not approve his apparent fixation on romantic novels. Likewise, she hoped her sister might reform him, for she estimated that his generosity suggested possible redemption. Her prancing joyful mood of the previous day now over, Mrs. Bennet was somewhat in awe of her future son-in-law, and therefore a little subdued when speaking to him. However, she was an excellent hostess in all those matters that a guest might most appreciate. On her polite inquiry into the suitability of his room, he could honestly report his comfort. If he did glance at his betrothed as he spoke, no one except Jane understood why Elizabeth suddenly clattered her fork against her plate.
Mrs. Bennet discreetly signaled her servant forward to refill Mr. Darcy's coffee cup. He was not surprised at her competency, having dined at Longbourn before, but realized with some regret that he had never condescended to acknowledge her capabilities to himself. It now occurred to him that his future bride would have similar thorough skills at running a household. Such a thought naturally led to other musings about his future felicity, until he was called back to the present by Jane's polite question.
"Mr. Darcy, will many of your family be able to attend the wedding on such short notice?"
He briefly hesitated. "No, I'm afraid not. My sister is currently away, visiting people who were dear friends of our parents. She will not be returning until nearer to Christmas."
As he spoke, Elizabeth thought she detected a certain discomfort, and she wondered at it. To hear him prevaricate on a subject that had previously caused conflict between them sent off old alarms. Their friendship, so called, was too new for her to have settled into its accompanying behaviours; challenging him as an opponent still came more easily.
"That is too bad, sir. I had hoped to at least make her acquaintance before we exchanged our wedding vows...Tell me, will any of your family be in attendance on our wedding day?"
He could detect a slight displeasure in her eyes.
"Yes," he met her gaze squarely, "my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, will be in attendance. He'll be arriving today."
At that, he was a little taken aback by the sounds from Elizabeth's youngest siblings. He thought he'd been dealing very well with their nonsensical flirting, which had not relented since yesterday. Though he had witnessed their preoccupation with the officers stationed in Meryton, he was unprepared for their sudden interest in his cousin. They began to pepper him with questions, which he answered as briefly as he could. Elizabeth was about to intercede when her father spoke up.
"Ah, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Bennet regarded him with obvious amusement, though his voice remained as dry as humanly possible. "I trust your cousin, as a military man, is well trained in strategic retreat."
Elizabeth shot her father a look of reproach, as mortified by his remark as she was by the behaviour that had elicited it. She was well aware that he was mocking his youngest daughters, when he should have been using his lively talents to correct them.
"My cousin looks forward to meeting my new family." It was the best he could do, and he hoped Fitzwilliam wouldn't live to rue it. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet was torn between busily calculating on the likelihood of such a worthy prospect sheltering under her roof, and her disappointment that no other illustrious Darcy relation would grace the neighbourhood. Having resolved to await the Colonel's arrival before extending an invitation, she decided to push her other concern while the opportunity remained.
"I understand from Mr. Collins that your aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh resides in Kent and is in fact, his patroness. Will she be making the journey, sir?"
The sudden dark cloud that descended on Darcy's countenance caused Mrs. Bennet a moment's unease. Distracted for a moment by her sisters, Elizabeth did not observe his change in expression.
"No," recovering himself quickly, his face once more impassive, he spoke in as detached a voice as he could manage, "unfortunately for her, my aunt will not attend my wedding."
Elizabeth studied his face and wondered why he seemed angry to be questioned about his aunt. She was not deceived by the coolness of his reply, having learned to detect his undertone of displeasure; but she mistook its meaning. Her former distrust asserted itself again, and before she considered the matter, prompted her to conclude that he had not attended to her reproofs as thoroughly as he claimed. That he was ashamed of her family (perhaps, even of her) and wished to avoid his family meeting them, seemed painfully clear.
Darcy observed her withdrawal for the remainder of the breakfast and hoped to find an opportunity to speak with her alone. His plans were thwarted as a result of Mrs. Bennet's kind schemes for the day. As the wedding was to take place on Wednesday, a mere two days away, she had calculated that Monday would be the best time to hold a formal gathering in honour of her daughter and future son-in-law. Since Elizabeth had won her way about her gown and the wedding celebration itself, she had ceded to her mother's wishes in this one matter. The result was that, for the rest of the time before luncheon, mother and daughters were taken up in preparations for the evening. In truth, only Jane and Elizabeth were on hand; Mary wished to practice the music planned for the event, while Kitty and Lydia felt compelled to walk to Meryton to have the latest news for their guests. Since his future bride was as determined as her mother to make a success of the day, she had no such leisure time. Consequently, Darcy found himself, as future groom, to be somewhat in the way. He was relieved when Bingley called and Mr. Bennet proposed that the three go hunting, as he was unused to the unpredictability of a household dominated by so many ladies and their mysterious agendas.
The gentlemen had only returned for their midday meal when Colonel Fitzwilliam was announced. As Darcy wished to introduce his future wife to his cousin, Mr. Bennet offered to send for the rest of his family immediately. Hill informed her master that Miss Elizabeth and Miss Jane had gone into Meryton with their mother on a last minute errand. Darcy was not pleased with this turn of events. He had anticipated spending the day with Elizabeth, and he had not spent even one hour alone with her. Frustrated, he could not imagine why a simple gathering must absorb so much energy. Aside from ordering food and drink from the kitchens and dressing oneself, what was there to do that so preoccupied a woman? He would have understood completely if they had been called away to London on sudden business, but that could never apply to young ladies. Bingley took his leave as his hope of seeing Jane before the celebration was likewise dashed. He would return for dinner.
Feeling a certain annoyance at not having his usual power to do what he wished to do, Mr. Darcy gave over to Mr. Bennet's proposal to withdraw to the sanctuary of his library after luncheon. Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr. Bennet struck up an easy camaraderie, as the younger gentleman was intelligent and sensible enough to encourage his eccentric host to speak. Moreover, he had a sharp liveliness about him that reminded Mr. Bennet of himself in his carefree youth - before he had been disappointed in his marriage. Holed up as he was with the other gentlemen, Darcy now despaired of any immediate chance to set matters right with Elizabeth before the gathering. The remainder of the day passed slowly, and his cousin could not resist jibes about his constant watching of the clock. Shortly after it struck four, the frantic noise in the hallway bespoke of all the young ladies returning just in time to retire and dress for the evening, confirming Darcy's dissatisfying predictions.
The Bennets congregated for dinner early to make way for the big event of the day. Finally seated next to him, Elizabeth appeared to be even more emotionally distant from him than at breakfast. She greeted him formally, and he wondered where the bewitching companion of the previous evening had gone. Even his cousin's humorous predicament could not alleviate his growing worry; Colonel Fitzwilliam had been placed between Lydia and Kitty by their strategically brilliant mother. Intent on sparing him, and her family's dignity, Elizabeth made every effort to converse with Mr. Darcy's relation, while forwarding as much conversation between him and Jane as she could. Bingley was not the only displeased suitor by this turn of events. To Darcy, it appeared that all the Miss Bennets save Mary were overly concerned with his cousin's welfare. Colonel Fitzwilliam's manners, though not as easy as Bingley's, nor as captivatingly soft as Wickham's, were highly pleasing to all and quickly established him as a family favourite. Mrs. Bennet was secretly reminded of her own youthful ideal of gentlemanly conduct and imagined what a fine thing it would be if he should take an interest in one of her available daughters.
Guests began to arrive shortly after dinner. Out of the goodness of her heart (and it must be admitted, a certain desire to wave the victory flag at her neighbours one final time) Mrs. Bennet had seen fit to arrange the engagement soiree with all the fanfare, though not the numbers, of a London crush. Still, enough people attended that Elizabeth thought her mother must have imported a few of them. In reality, those families that had remained in the neighbourhood for winter, along with a significant number of their visiting guests for the holidays, managed to swell the Event to the respectable size of a local assembly. Notably absent were Bingley's sisters. Miss Bingley had taken Darcy's engagement hard, and it was thought advisable by both gentlemen that she remain quietly at Netherfield with the Hursts.
The drawing room was already filled to overflowing by the time Mr. Darcy and the other gentlemen made their way there. Once again, private conversation with his intended proved out of the question for an increasingly exasperated suitor. When the music began to play, he was desperate enough to consider asking her to dance. Alas, a clear look around told him such activity was out of the question; the public rooms were simply too full. He endured the announcements, speeches, and the hearty congratulations until Mrs. Bennet became fatigued from parading the happy couple from guest to guest, though he was the most discouraged to see Miss Elizabeth Bennet quickly depart to speak with Miss Lucas as soon as she was able. His wishes for the day entirely thwarted, his bride-to-be distant, and his cousin seemingly more appealing to all than himself, Mr. Darcy's worry and concern were rapidly submerged by a return of impatience, frustration, and annoyance. He'd had enough. Once again his resourcefulness proved advantageous as he determined that the library would do just as well to sort out Miss Bennet's disagreeable mood, if not his own. The real challenge was locating the object of his ire among all these people.
The object of his ire was at that moment engaged in a conversation that was not likely to improve her mood.
"You cannot be serious, Charlotte! Mr. Collins! I assure you, there is no comparison between the two."
"Excuse me, Eliza. But Mr. Darcy has his own failings. I seem to recall you thought so. Or has that all changed, now that you must marry him?"
"My estimation of him has changed... that is, we are... friends...but that is neither here nor there."
"You are right, it is neither here nor there. Unless you are prepared to tell me that you love him, then I will continue to insist that we are in the same predicament, though for different reasons." As her companion remained silent, Miss Lucas continued. "Really, Eliza, I had thought that of all people, you would support me in this."
"I have not forgot your staunch defense of my reputation, Charlotte. But you must see that you are far too good for Mr. Collins, and if it is within my power at all to return the kindness you have done me, then I will gladly introduce you to any, nay, several respectable men who are your equal in intelligence. But I'm sorry, Mr. Collins will not be attending my wedding. And I consider it to be an act of friendship that I do not intentionally put you in the path of such a simpleton. I have no doubt that you would succeed in your purpose!"
She was spared her friend's unhappy retort by the sudden appearance of Mr. Darcy. He bowed to them both while a startled Miss Bennet recovered her wits, conscious of the fact that a moment sooner and he might have heard them discussing him.
"Miss Lucas, I hope you will forgive the intrusion. I must discuss a matter of some importance with Miss Bennet."
"Certainly sir." Charlotte curtsied, and with barely a nod at her friend, took her leave.
"She seems displeased about something."
"She is ... what is it you wished to see me about sir?"
Before Darcy could tell her, his cousin appeared behind them from the same direction he'd just traversed.
"Ah, Darcy, Miss Bennet! How glad I am to find you both. I hope you were not planning to conceal your betrothed away? It would be very cruel indeed, to deprive the rest of us of her company."
Elizabeth flashed Colonel Fitzwilliam an amused smile and Mr. Darcy felt his earlier displeasure ignite into something more volatile. With a look designed to quell, he addressed his cousin in a manner that would not be challenged.
"I'm afraid you will have to wait for the delightful company of my future bride. We have a pressing matter to discuss that cannot be delayed any longer." And with that, he nodded to his cousin before taking a stunned Elizabeth by the arm and escorting her through the hallway to the library, where he shut and locked the door behind them.
He leaned against the door, arms folded across his chest as he regarded her intently.
"What is so important that you had to be rude to your own cousin and drag me away in the middle of our engagement celebration?"
"You have been distant all day."
"That's true, I have not seen you either."
"That's not what I meant."
"Ah, but you have the advantage over me, sir. When I am distant, you have other Bennets to converse with."
"So this is about my sister not attending the wedding. Just as I thought."
"If you thought it, then I wonder why you had to ask."
"I had to ask, Miss Bennet, in the interest of friendship."
"Perhaps we should define what you mean by friendship. We seem to be operating from vastly different notions of the concept."
He seemingly ignored her remark. "Should you like to know the real reason my sister will not be attending this wedding? Or do you prefer to remain in a snit about what you imagine to be true?"
"I am not in a snit."
"Forgive me. Perhaps we are operating from vastly different notions of what constitutes a snit."
"Undoubtedly. For I might be inclined to argue that you are in a snit yourself."
"I am disposed to agree with you that I am in a snit, yet then our meanings agree, and I might justifiably return to my point, which is that you have been in a snit since breakfast."
Elizabeth could not help but laugh to realize that they were debating over their feelings rather than talking through them. Her sudden change in mood broke the tension between them, and he smiled despite himself.
"Why don't you tell me why your sister cannot attend our wedding?"
Mr. Darcy proceeded to do just that. Elizabeth was shocked to realize that Mr. Wickham had, only the previous summer, attempted to elope with a girl not yet sixteen! It explained a great deal of the enmity between the two men, though Wickham's earlier attempts to impose on Mr. Darcy financially completed the overall picture. Moreover, she could understand why Darcy wished his sister safely away, under the protection of her family friends where she was still overcoming the distress created by Wickham's manipulation of her feelings. Although Mr. Bennet would not receive Wickham at Longbourn, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that her brother would not wish Miss Darcy anywhere near such a man. He was still living in Meryton and might be encountered in public. Neither did Darcy wish to give his nemesis any reason, even her presence, to begin spreading rumours about his sister.
On hearing all this, Elizabeth found herself apologizing to Mr. Darcy for the second time in as many days. He seemed to be uncomfortably conscious of that fact as well.
"Please, Miss Bennet, you need not apologize. Given my previous conduct, and your lack of knowledge on this matter, your supposition was not surprising."
"But I did not give you the benefit of the doubt, and for that I'm sorry...do you mind my asking then, what is the real reason your Aunt Catherine cannot attend?"
He looked instantly displeased at the mention of his aunt. She hesitated. "You did say your aunt could not attend, but you seemed cross when you said it, as you seem cross now." Her companion remained silent. "Let us drop it then." She turned away from him, feeling disappointed.
At last she heard his voice. "You may remember that I said: 'unfortunately for her, my aunt will not attend' and I meant that ... I really did not wish to explain this, but since you ask, I wrote to my aunt as soon as I arrived in London. She was less than pleased about my announcement." Distressed by this explanation, she turned to face him again.
"Please do not let this situation come between you and your family, Mr. Darcy. I should hate to think that our marriage will -"
"You misunderstand. It was only a matter of time before we had a falling out about something, as I grow weary of her attempts to meddle in my affairs. She was bound to overstep eventually, and I was bound to have to put her in her place. Let me clarify the situation as it now stands. Her reply arrived near the end of last week. It's contents I have no intention of repeating, but the gist of it is that she will neither attend, nor recognize my marriage. Needless to say, I will not tolerate such behaviour."
Elizabeth was at a loss to know what else to say. The silence stretched uncomfortably between them.
"Well," she finally dared "I see the formidable gentleman has returned. I am only glad you spare me more than you do your aunt."
"I did not know you find me formidable, Miss Bennet! Would you prefer a suitor that did not stand up for his suit?"
She smiled. "No indeed. I only wonder why you have been so kind to me when I did not deserve it."
He smiled in return. "That is easy enough to answer." As he spoke he gently brushed away an errant strand of hair from her cheek. "You are nothing like my aunt."
She knew she should draw away from him, but instead she somehow drew closer, as his arms came up around her. Surprised by the pleasantness of his embrace, she resting her head against his waistcoat and did not protest when she felt his lips brush tenderly against her temple, her cheek, her ear, before he traced a path along her chin. Recollecting himself at last, he held her away, though he stared at her lips when he spoke.
"I think we'd better return to our guests."
Startled by her own lack of control, she pulled free and turned hastily away for the second time. A few moments brought the sound of his voice again.
"You are not angry, I hope?"
"Then ... you do not regret what just happened between us?"
"No." She could not help but wonder at herself as she realized the truth of that statement. Having regained her composure, she faced him.
"Though I believe, sir, strictly speaking, this was highly improper."
"I thought it highly proper under the circumstances."
"Mr. Darcy, friends do not interact like this."
"No, but spouses do."
"We are not spouses."
"True. I suppose we are really halfway between being friends and being spouses, as we are to be wed in two days' time." As he spoke, he smiled at her with the full force of his dimples. The composure she'd fought to regain was completely demolished in their presence. It is probably lucky she thought that this man does not smile like that most of the time. He most certainly would not still be single by now. Added to that was the sudden shocking realization that this man's dimples would be all hers. Though she quickly suppressed that idea, she could not manage without first making some other silent observations. Following behind him, her hand firmly in his, she was forced to acknowledge that his rich dark hair, broad shoulders, and strong, shapely hands would be accompanying those dimples! Still feeling flushed, she managed somehow to place one foot in front of the other as they made their way back to the drawing room, as swooning was not something Miss Elizabeth Bennet was prone to do.
* I have no idea if Paul-Nicolas Menière would have created such a ring from such a source, but he was a real French artisan who lived from 1745 - 1826.
** I've taken liberties with the dates of discoveries. The items I used as a reference were discovered later in the century, the closest date being 1831, so the question of the extent of Georgian knowledge on the subject is moot.
She did not know what had possessed her...
Elizabeth leaned heavily against her door, dismayed by her conduct. Even yet, her heart was pounding fiercely. The sound of his footsteps taking him down the hall brought a mixture of regret and relief. He certainly had not scrupled with regard to his highhandedness! Really, she did not know whose behaviour angered her more, his or her own.
The previous evening had ended very pleasantly, though at the time, she had felt a certain regret when Mr. Darcy bid her goodnight from across the hall, since the family had all retired about the same time. He had looked as though he might say more before closing his door, but Jane had followed Lizzy to her room, wishing to have a few private words with her. They'd had a wonderful conversation then, confirming that soon, very soon, she expected Jane to become engaged. Her sister's happiness was unmistakable and added to her own contentment. For she was feeling content, though when she asked herself why that was so, she had nothing to say in reply.
He had found her alone in her room shortly before luncheon, engaged in packing her own trunks. Sensing a presence, she'd looked up from her occupation to find him at her door, staring intently at her in that unnerving way of his.
"Here you are." He spoke casually, as though a survey of her room had not revealed its completely disordered state.
"How was your ride after breakfast?"
"Very pleasant, thank you. My cousin was impressed with the countryside too. And Bingley has returned with us for the day again."
She smiled brightly, pleased for Jane. "He must know our park by heart."
"Undoubtedly. I do not however, and I depend on you to educate me. I came to see if I could persuade you to take a walk with me today."
"I would love to take a walk, but I'm afraid that I have too much to do here."
"As I can see," he smiled but felt a little petulant "can you not have a servant do that?"
She was amused. "No sir, I cannot. Sarah is busy elsewhere, and the rest are enjoying some leisure while they can. They have worked hard all this week and still have the wedding breakfast tomorrow."
He smiled again, secretly pleased with such proof of her consideration for the staff. "Well then," he said, "I guess I shall content myself with persuading you to come down to the midday meal with me. As your friend, it is my responsibility to see that you eat properly."
She smiled widely at his reference to their past flirtations. "I should be disappointed if you were remiss in any of the acts of friendship, Mr. Darcy. But you had better - oh! look out!"
Mr. Darcy had stepped into the room at her encouragement, and moving swiftly around a chair, almost failed to see the small trunk jutting out from beneath it. Fortunately, he happened to look down at the crucial moment and avert a nasty spill, but he could not avoid half-stepping half-leaping over the trunk to prevent falling over it. Elizabeth, standing on the other side, had rushed towards him and instinctively reached out to assist, with the unlucky result that she was knocked off balance herself by his forward motion. They both stumbled several feet before encountering the wall, he just managing to prevent crushing her against it by turning them both and taking the brunt of the impact with his arm. The entire maneuver was a feat of some comedic proportions, but the two affected were not amused. Stunned, they stared at each other for a moment. He immediately released her from his embrace.
"Are you all right Miss Bennet?"
"Yes I think so. And you, sir?"
He nodded. He could not help but regard the offensive trunk with a jaundiced eye.
"Is that the same trunk, by any chance?"
"I'm afraid it is."
"Is it cursed?" He meant to tease her.
"Not to my knowledge" She regarded him was a slightly offended expression. "Do you consider yourself the victim of its behaviour?" He turned his eyes back to fix on her face, while still leaning very close to her.
"Well, I cannot say that I am fond of such acrobatic dancing, or nearly breaking my neck. But your trunk's misdeeds seem to bring their own compensations." His warm expression reminded her of the unsuitability of their predicament. She attempted to move away from him.
"I think we had better go down to join my family now."
"Not just yet, Elizabeth."
She froze. He had never before used her first name and the way that he said it now caused her to feel oddly affected. Before she could reply he raised his hand to caress her cheek.
"You are a very beautiful woman, Elizabeth Bennet."
"Ha! I am tolerable I suppose," she mimicked.
Darcy drew a sharp breath, the shock evident on his features. He had always regretted taking out his foul temper on a unknown lady that first public evening in Hertfordshire. It had been unlike him to be as rude as that, despite his lack of social graces. Little had he suspected that soon after he'd be ardently pursuing the very same one! His hand dropped away.
"So you heard that!"
She had never seen him look so embarrassed. "I cannot tell you how ashamed I have been for saying such a thing!"
"At least you were honest."
"Nay! I was not honest at all. I was simply in a foul mood and struck out in the easiest manner possible - by insulting a total stranger behind her back."
"You were not much better on our second meeting, as I recall. I believe you looked at me only to criticize."
He shifted his weight to lean against the wall beside her, as though he needed its support. "No wonder you think I'm heartless and arrogant!" Genuinely upset, he ran his hand through his hair in a distracted manner.
"I think you improve on acquaintance...yet it is very arrogant and smug to be always assessing women and dismissing them for their imperfections."
Darcy flushed. "I assure you I have learned my lesson. I am much humbler now, thanks to you."
Elizabeth smiled. She did not know if she believed him, but could not deny how very handsome he looked when he gazed at her with such a troubled expression. He spoke earnestly as he took her hands in his.
" I have done you great injustices, but I promise to make it up to you." He uttered these words fervently as he drew her fingers to his lips. Then just as quickly he released her hands completely, aware that he must.
"For the record, my attempts to critique away your charms were a complete and utter failure. I had hoped to dismiss you as easily as other women, but the more I looked at you, the more wrong I realized I was. You must know that you are visually striking. You are also the most alive, the most bewitching woman I have ever encountered, and the most intelligent."
It was Elizabeth's turn to gasp. "I am gratified that you think so. I had no idea you felt that way."
He traced a finger gently over her cheek and then leaned towards her again. "You do not know the half of it."
She turned her face away from him, even more concerned by the impropriety of their situation. "Again, I must insist that we go downstairs. Will you kindly lead the way, sir?"
Mr. Darcy felt a surge of frustration, but he did as she asked. As he headed towards the door, grimly determined to honour her wishes, Elizabeth felt suddenly sorry for his disappointment, but she knew herself to be right.
The family meal was less than pleasant however, for Colonel Fitzwilliam had braved the Bennet camp after all and his presence at the table meant more scheming maneuvers by some Bennets and more efforts on the part of Elizabeth and Jane to run a rescue mission. Mr. Darcy could not help but observe how easily his cousin and Elizabeth conversed, as the interactions between no two other people at the table interested him quite as much.
As his betrothed was busy for the remainder of the day, he decided it was the perfect opportunity to deal with some estate issues after the noon meal. The post had brought correspondence from his steward that morning, and while it could have waited, dealing with it immediately would mean one less duty to distract his attention away from his bride once they removed to London. He retired to his room to prepare his letter for Pemberley, and with a certain uncharacteristic satisfaction, left his cousin to fend for himself.
Sometime later that day when she was almost finished sorting through her twenty years of accumulated life at Longbourn, for which she was grateful for Jane's assistance, Elizabeth ran downstairs to retrieve a supply of dried lavender to pack among her possessions. Regaining the main floor, from a window she spied Colonel Fitzwilliam walking across the garden, Lydia hanging on his one arm, Kitty on the other. Taking pity on him, she caught up her coat and hurried to tell her sisters they were wanted in the house immediately. She could not know that her youngest sister was in fact supposed to have found her half an hour before; Lydia had been distracted from her purpose when she spied Kitty on the Colonel's arm and had rushed out to join them on their walk instead.
Once her sisters were gone, Elizabeth turned to him with an apologetic expression, though she remained silent on the subject. She was surprised to realize however, that he was bearing her sisters' attentions with remarkable grace. I hope that does not mean he is flattered. I should hate to think Mr. Darcy's cousin lacks sense.
"Well, Miss Bennet. I am relieved to know that at least one of the engaged couple is sociable enough to make an appearance today."
"I beg your pardon, sir? Is your cousin nowhere to be found?"
"Oh yes, madam. He might be found in his room writing to his steward. As I am not of much use in such weighty matters as running estates, I have left him to it."
"I am sorry! I did not realize that you had been left to your own devices. You must think we are inhospitable in the extreme."
"Not at all. Your sisters have been most attentive."
As he said it with a straight face, the jury was still out on his sense, but she could not fault his manners. Her companion continued.
"As a matter of fact, they were escorting me about the park before dinner. But as you are here, you will do just as well." While he spoke, he tucked her arm in his and she found herself falling into step beside him.
"Better in fact, for then I can ask you all about how you met my cousin, and when exactly you stole his heart."
She hesitated for a moment; she had a vague feeling that she should not go walking with him, though she felt negligent as a hostess. "Again, I am terribly sorry to have been unavailable all day. I've spent the chief of it in preparation for leaving tomorrow, and I'm afraid I do not even yet have much spare time before dinner." She did not know how little time, since Lydia had failed to communicate her mother's message.
"Ah, but surely you can spare a few moments for your future cousin? It's much better to go directly to the source for the best information, and you will save me a great deal of covert effort." She laughed, delighted once again by his ease and humour.
"Well sir, there is not all that much to tell. We met here in Hertfordshire almost two months ago at the local assembly rooms..." They walked towards the walled garden as Lizzy judged it the most convenient to keep conversation short. Somehow she managed to satisfy the Colonel's curiosity in good time, but unfortunately they still returned to the house just as the entire family was assembling for another early dinner; Mrs. Bennet had thoughtfully planned it so for her daughter's sake.
As Lydia came down the stairs she called noisily to her sister.
"Lizzy! There you are! You had better hurry! Why you are not even dressed for dinner! Mama has been asking for you for the last half hour at least...You certainly took your time out walking in the garden. Mr. Darcy has been staring out the window, waiting for you to return." The Colonel removed his greatcoat to reveal himself already suitably attired for dinner, and Elizabeth suddenly felt very foolish. Then Lydia, having gained the ground floor, boldly placed her arm in the Colonel's with a triumphant giggle. "Never mind, Colonel. Lizzy thinks that everyone finds a boring dead garden in the middle of winter a beautiful sight. Tomorrow I will show you more of the attractive aspects of the park."
Elizabeth stood very still, as her sister escorted the gentleman into the dining room. But the Colonel was not uppermost in her mind. She was realizing that she'd just made a terrible mistake. She had told Mr. Darcy a walk was out of the question. Yet, to all appearances she'd found the time to walk with his cousin! There was no time for her to dissect the meaning of Lydia's claim that Mr. Darcy had been staring out the window. Had he seen them together in the garden? Was he offended?
She got her answer sooner than she expected when a deep voice suddenly interrupted her unhappy reverie.
"Miss Bennet, we are all waiting for you in the dining room."
She spun around. "Mr. Darcy, I -"
"Come," he said, "I shall escort you to your room." He gave her no choice in the matter, but took hold of her arm possessively and ushered her up the stairs.
"Did you enjoy your walk?"
"I did not go on a walk."
"Oh? Strange, from the drawing room window it looked very much like a walk to me, or should I say, a guided tour." She realized that he was angry indeed. He spoke coolly, yet his every word somehow had a heated quality that scorched the hearer. She wondered how he managed it.
"I simply showed your cousin the garden briefly while I answered his questions about us. Naturally I was surprised and concerned to learn that he had been ignored all day."
Darcy ignored her jibe. "Ahh, I should like to have heard your explanation about our hasty engagement."
She thought it a shabby thing to say. As they were now at her door, she unlinked her arm from his and turned to face him. Elizabeth was not one to back down, especially when she felt uneasy and somewhat angered herself.
"I told him we met at the local assembly rooms. I did not tell him the real reason for our 'hasty engagement' as you so tactfully call it." Irked by his conduct in general, she could not resist a parting shot. "I did not wish to disillusion him about you."
If she had hoped to destroy the last vestige of his composure she succeeded beyond her wildest imaginings.
"It is just as well madam, that I need not protect you from any similar occurrence." And with that, he propelled her forward into her room and closed the door behind her. She blinked and stared at the door in shock. Had Mr. Darcy just presumed to put her in her room as though she were a petulant child?!
Darcy leaned heavily against the wall outside her door as he fought to master his temper. Incongruously, it crossed his mind that the walls of Longbourn were becoming his greatest allies, but the thought was rapidly eaten up with another wave of proprietary resentment. Luckily, she would never know just how close she'd come to receiving a punishing kiss. He'd found the strength to stop himself at the last moment, and though he was still furious, he was also glad that his customary control had reasserted itself. After all, he considered himself a gentleman and had never taken from a woman before. (In his current state of upset, he temporarily forgot that previous stolen kiss at Netherfield.) Satisfied with his own conduct, hers took over his mind again. When enumerating her qualities this morning, I forgot to add that she is by far the most maddening woman I've ever known. By far, his current displeasure stemmed from the knowledge that, for two days, he had watched in agony as Elizabeth made a more significant and friendly effort to get to know his cousin then she had ever made to know him. His feelings had culminated with the evidence that she had not wanted to go for a walk with him but found time to accompany his cousin.
The threat to his future happiness seemed all too real; she was marrying him out of a sense of duty, not for love. There was no guarantee that she would ever love him and quite possibly she might come to love another instead. His entire being revolted against the very idea, and not for the first time he wondered how perilously close he was to loving her. It would not do at all. To desire her was bad enough, but to love her? When she barely liked and trusted him? When, their agreement to be friends aside, she was still quick to condemn the motives behind his actions and highly ambivalent about his presence in her life? When she seldom challenged other men to the extent she did him? When, despite his every attempt to reassure her, to show her that he had changed, to tell her how highly he thought of her, she resisted all attempts to seal their engagement with the simplest kiss? Her resistance spoke volumes and he perceived that his entire future spelled disaster for him if he were not careful. Unfortunately for Darcy, his feelings were too involved to see with his usual clarity. For if he had thought about it, he would have remembered that their official courting had so far involved spending four days in each other's company. Despite the absence of such sensible thoughts, his anger suddenly dissipated and with gloomy determination, he pushed himself away from the wall to return downstairs.
Elizabeth leaned heavily against her door, her self-recriminations flowing rapidly and eventually overtaking her sense of outrage. Angry tears stung at her eyes as the sound of his footsteps began to fade. She knew she needed time to think, to reflect. She was at a loss to explain why she swung back and forth so dramatically where Mr. Darcy was concerned. It seemed to her that since she had gone to care for Jane at Netherfield her life had involved one great change after another, all of them occurring too rapidly for her to process practically any of them. Now she was on the verge of marriage to a man she had barely tolerated almost two months ago, though she'd always dreamed of marrying for love. Yet, neither she could deny that he affected her somehow, though the acknowledgment cost her and though she hardly knew how to credit it. Never in her life before had she been as uncivil as she was to Mr. Darcy. Never had she so boldly flirted as she had yesterday. Never had she dared to tweak a man's temper as she found herself doing on this night. She knew full well why he was angry too. Her instincts had warned her but she had not heeded them. Had he not just that morning revealed something of the depth of his feelings for her? She blamed herself for her weakness, but despite herself, it pleased her to know she had some power over him at least.
In direct contradiction to any victorious feelings, she was genuinely shocked by the depth of his anger and did not know what she felt about it at present. She told herself that he had no right to such possessive displays. With a sinking feeling she realized that by tomorrow, he would have every right. Having never been in love before, Elizabeth nevertheless had a sophisticated grasp of independence. She had wanted to marry for love, but she was loathe to be nothing more than some man's prize - especially Mr. Darcy's. Most significant of all, he had not professed his love when confessing his admiration - because he did not love her. He'd made that clear enough in the past. He was attracted to her and that was all. She'd best remember that. It would not do to confuse the two and loose her heart in the bargain.
A stalemate on the eve of their wedding seemed highly likely after these events, and given the emotional turmoil of both people involved. Perhaps it was inevitable that it would all boil to the surface, given the powerful way in which fate seemed to be playing with their lives. However, this is predominately a comic work, and fortunately, the hero and heroine are too sensible to allow either poor communication or diabolical creative spurts on the part of the author to interfere with good humour. So, plot devices and dramatic tension aside, our predestined couple resolved by the end of a miserable dinner to talk to one another, as they had consistently done since the first mishap in which they were involved, owing to the honesty of their natures.