Section I, Next Section
Posted on Saturday, 24 July 2004
The rain streamed from the brim of his hat onto his breeches as he bent on one knee to examine the fractured axel of his coach. They were mired in the mud, one wheel having been twisted off by a branch wedged between its spokes and another splintering under the now unbalanced weight. He had hoped it to be a hairline fracture that could be lashed together long enough to get them to the nearest carriage station, but it was a deep, ugly crack that ran almost the length of the axel and threatened the destruction of the chaise itself.
“We must unload quickly,” shouted Darcy in order to be heard above the driving rain. He straightened and drew his great coat tighter about his shoulders. “I don’t know how long she’ll bear the strain.” They struggled to remove the trunks without upsetting the balance and carried them to the side of the road, hiding them beneath some bushes. There, Darcy removed the items he deemed most valuable and hid them on his person as best he could. He then stooped to gather enough branches and leaves to conceal his belongings and hurried back to assist James with the horses.
It was an unusually cold day for the middle of October or he would have left James to guard the coach and his possessions while he took one of the horses and sought help. But it was far too cold for a man to stand in the elements for long, and adding his weight to the carriage was obviously out of the question. Besides, he had no idea how long it would take for him to find his way back. Perhaps they would return to find the coach stolen or destroyed by looters, but there was nothing to be done; they had to find shelter and a workman to replace the axel. The worst of it was that without a saddle, he would have nowhere to store the important papers he was carrying. For now, he tucked them between his chest and his linen shirt to protect them from the rest of his clothing that had already been soaked through.
“Are you telling me that there is not one coach available for hire?” said Darcy incredulously.
“I am sorry Sir, but the last of them went out earlier this morning. I do expect some to return later this afternoon or evening, although I cannot give you a specific time, of course. By tomorrow morning you will have your choice of carriages, Sir, but at the moment I’m afraid I have none to offer you.”
“You don’t understand,” said Darcy, raking his fingers through his damp hair, “It is imperative that I arrive in London tonight, no matter the hour. Is there no local person that might rent me – or even sell me his carriage? I am prepared to pay handsomely!”
“None of our simple townsfolk own their own Barouche or Landau, Sir. There are plenty of open carriages to be had, but those won’t do in this weather. May I make a suggestion? The Post is due to pass here in less than an hour’s time and if there is a seat to spare, you will be in London in less than six hours. I know it is not what you are accustomed to….but it may be the best solution to your dilemma, Sir.”
“impressing me with the fullest belief of you arrogance, your conceit” Yet again, her words echoed in his consciousness. She was right yet again! He had never even considered traveling by Post, having always thought it beneath him to share a carriage with five strangers. G-d only knew what kind of people one would encounter! The very idea of spending six hours locked in a stuffy coach with boorish, foul smelling peasants had always revolted. Well, he could not afford to be so high and mighty now; he was desperate to get to town.
“Yes, I think that is an excellent suggestion, Sir. Do you think it possible to hire one of those open carriages to fetch my trunks from the road? I believe it is less than a fifteen minute drive from here and then perhaps I’d have time to change into some dry clothes before the Post’s arrival.”
“Yes, certainly. If you will have your driver accompany my son, he shall have your things here in no time.”
Having given James specific instructions and the money with which to see them through, he saw to his trunks and prepared to enter the coach. There had been one last seat available and he was sure that these good people, whoever they were, would be less than happy to have him add to their discomfort. He steeled himself for their reaction.
Lowering his head to enter, his eyes first fell upon a pair of well-worn, polished shoes, belonging to a neatly dressed elderly gentleman who greeted him with a smile and a nod. The lady beside him, her graying hair primly tucked into her bonnet, had her hand affectionately tucked into the crook of his arm. She too, greeted him with a smile, her plump, dimpled cheeks and sparkling eyes suggesting a friendly disposition.
“Good morning, good morning,” mumbled Darcy. “Thank you for allowing me to share your coach to town; I am sorry to be crowding you further,” he said, lowering himself into the seat, keeping his arms tightly at his side in an attempt to make himself as small as possible. He leaned back and raised his eyes to acknowledge the passengers facing him. A flash of amber caught his eye as he first nodded to the young woman directly opposite him, then the older lady beside her and …. She had turned her face to the window, the amber bonnet with the pleated brim as familiar to him as any article of his own clothing.
“Elizabeth!” His heart stopped beating. He was elated and crushed in the same instant. She would not face him – could obviously not bear to look at him. Well, how could he blame her? The very thought of Hunsford made him physically ill. He turned his eyes to the rain sheeting the window, hiding the panic he was sure now showed on his face.
“Mr. Darcy,” she whispered. His eyes flew back to see her nervously purse her lips as she acknowledged him. Was it possible that she was pale and flushed all at once?
He nodded, smiling weakly and returned her greeting. “Miss Bennet, how good to see you again,” he said without thinking. He did not mean to stare, but he could not turn his gaze from her precious face.
Her eyes darted here and there, uncertain of where to focus. Her mouth opened to draw in a short, shallow breath, then closed again, her lips trembling slightly. Such pitiful agitation! And he was the cause! Yet, as always, her good manners had prevailed over her distress and she had greeted him with civility. “had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner” Her words washed over him, painfully followed by his own. “I see so little beauty in their breeding ...” His heart lodged in his throat.
“Do you remember Mrs. Long?” she asked hastily, her eyes urging him to acknowledge the lady seated beside her.”
“Oh yes of course! Forgive me Mrs. Long. How do you do?” he said quickly, obviously embarrassed at not having recognized her. He shot Elizabeth a grateful glance and then looked down uneasily. Dear G-d, this was going to be a long journey!
With all that was at stake at the moment, Elizabeth’s presence was a distraction he could ill afford, … and the one thing he wanted most in the world. He had often despaired at the possibility of never seeing her again, never having the chance to redeem himself in her eyes, or at least, of offering her a most sincere apology. And here she was suddenly before him, and obviously distressed at the prospect of having to spend many hours in his company. He was no less uncomfortable. How in the world would he be able to think clearly enough to plan out his strategy? He would be going into that meeting tomorrow alone, completely unprepared and vulnerable – completely defenseless. He had to find the time to concentrate on those papers! So much depended on it.
“Well, how nice that old acquaintances should meet while traveling by Post,” said the gentleman seated beside him. I always say that you meet the nicest people on such journeys. You see, Sir, you are not crowding us! You are adding to the merriment of our little party here. Dear Miss Bennet was just entertaining us with tales of her adventures in Derbyshire this summer. Were you not, my dear?”
Elizabeth turned crimson. She gave a little gasp, turned towards the window, then back again, and tried to smile.
“Now you were telling us of Blenheim and the topiaries in the gardens there.”
Elizabeth hoped to steer the conversation away from her holiday in the north, but she could see the stunned look on his face and knew it was too late!
“I was not aware that you had spent time in Derbyshire this summer, Miss Bennet. Were you on your way to the lakes?”
“I…I…that is, we did not get as far as the lakes, Mr. Darcy.”
“Where did you stay – that is, if I am not being too inquisitive?” His heart ached to think she had been so close.
“We stayed in Lampton, Sir. It is my aunt’s childhood home and she had many friends to visit there. It is truly beautiful country,” she added, hoping the fullness of her answer would prevent him from inquiring further.
“And did you not visit Pemberley?” he asked immediately, his dark eyes flashing with surprise. “It is but five miles away!”
“She took a deep breath to settle herself before answering. How humiliating to admit that she had come to his home to gawk at his fine furnishings and wonder at the magnificence of his grounds. What would he think of her? She had thought herself spared of this humiliation, having visited just one day before his arrival, and now he was to learn of it in this awful way. She had known from the first that it was a mistake to go!
“Yes we did,” she said simply and looked down at the gloves on her lap.
All were silent, as if it were understood that something significant had just been said. Darcy pressed his fist to his lips and stared out the window. The sound of his breathing filled the coach.
“It is a pity that I was not aware of your visit,” he said suddenly, trying desperately not to sound wounded.
“I believe your housekeeper said that you were returning the next day,” she said softly. His jaw dropped involuntarily and he stared at her open mouthed for a moment before collecting himself and turning his face towards the rain.
“That’s right,” piped in Mrs. Long, “Pemberley is the name of your estate, is it not, Mr. Darcy?”
He truly had not heard her, for as far as he was concerned, he and Elizabeth were now the only two people in the coach. “I hope Pemberley made a favorable impression,” he said, now looking directly at her.
“A favorable impression?” How she wished that she could tell him the truth! Pemberley had destroyed whatever had been left of her cocky regard for her own good judgment, nay, even her character! His letter had forced her to examine her own prejudiced and vengeful behavior, as well as the negative impact her family’s conduct had on society, for until then she had been blissfully oblivious to both, thinking herself superior in manners and understanding. But then being at Pemberley only confirmed how badly she had misjudged him.
It was not the grandeur or the opulence of the house, but the warm, pleasing atmosphere created there, that had impressed her. It was the elegant simplicity of comfortable furnishings that were obviously lived in, the cheerful gardener who spoke so appreciatively of a master who trusted him and allowed him the freedom to experiment, the housekeeper who clearly respected and admired him, holding him in the highest regard!
But it had been his portrait, the shadows about the eyes, that had once again reminded her that his brooding glances had been filled with admiration and desire, not disdain. How blind she had been! How stupid and unfeeling! She had been drawn to him from the first, and had allowed a slight to turn that attraction into deliberate loathing. What had her wounded pride achieved but to rob her of all that might have made her truly happy? She loved him! She knew that now so painfully. That basic attraction, that had made his insult all the more hurtful, had not diminished and had been fed and nurtured by their verbal warfare and battling wills. They had been courting through defiance, sarcasm and innuendo. If only she had been truly cognizant of it! Now she was sure that she had won the prize for arrogance and lost everything else!
“It is a warm and wonderful home,” she said, looking at him intently. “You have every reason to take great pride in it, Mr. Darcy.”
It was the last thing in the world he expected her say! “Thank you, Miss Bennet,” was all he could manage.
Warm and wonderful home? Had he heard her correctly? Very fine, beautifully situated, grand or elegant were the phrases he had come to expect. But a warm and wonderful home? Is that how she saw Pemberley, as a home – a warm and wonderful home? He shot her a questioning glance. What are you trying to tell me, Elizabeth? But she had looked away again and he was left to wonder that the others had not been startled by the sound of his pounding heart.
Posted on Friday, 30 July 2004
Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment. She had never expected this, and would not have been able to prepare for it if she had. Though she thought of him constantly, she had not believed that their paths would cross again, least of all on a coach heading for London. She had spent these last six months reliving their conversations, turning each and every word and phrase over and over again in her mind. Had her reactions to him been reasonable or pathetically defensive? How would the conversation have gone had she responded differently? And would one, slightly more amiable conversation have led into another? She was so weary of her own recriminations, and yet she continued on in the same way.
The only issues in which she felt reasonably justified concerned Jane… and of course, the manner of his proposal. But even there, she could see that he was not entirely wrong. Jane was certainly reserved in her manner, and being devoted to the happiness of his friend, he could easily have misinterpreted her shy demeanor. And had he simply informed his friend of his concerns and allowed him to come to his own conclusions, she could have forgiven him. But to state his fears as fact, and to actively work to convince his friend of their validity, was inexcusable! He had no right to interfere in so delicate and personal a matter!
The proposal too, had been tragic! Had she but known!!! Had she had some inkling of his affection for her, perhaps it would not have gone so badly. She would certainly not have accepted him, but perhaps, if prepared, she would not have been so cruel. It had been thoughtless of him to say so at the time, but his worries concerning the differences in their wealth and station were wholly justified. She knew in her heart that the social gap between them was enormous and that she had nothing to bring to the marriage but an obnoxious mother and three immature and silly sisters, all of whom might one day be dependant on him. That he had come to the decision to make her an offer was in itself, incredible! Surely he would run the risk of losing the affection of some in his family and the esteem of many friends and business acquaintances. Could she have made the same painful decision? Was that not proof of the depth of his love? And in return, she had spurned him so viciously! How could she ever expect him to forgive her?
On his side of the coach, Darcy fidgeted in his seat. He was stunned and confused by everything that had so suddenly been thrust upon him – Elizabeth’s presence, her visit to Derbyshire and her implication that she saw Pemberley as something more than a luxurious estate. He needed time to make sense of it all; for he had no doubt that her words had been carefully chosen. Was it possible that her feelings for him had changed? Ever since he had placed the letter in her hand, he had been anxious to know what affect it had had on her. He was quite certain that she was now convinced of Wickham’s deceitful nature, but he regretted so much of what he had written and the bitter tone he had used. Had he made things worse between them? Had his cruel attack on her family only strengthened her hatred of him?
With Elizabeth’s eyes closed, all conversation in the coach ceased and they rode in silence for almost two hours. When they stopped to change horses and refresh themselves, Darcy was surprised to discover that Mrs. Long and her niece were ending their journey and leaving Elizabeth to continue on her own. The elderly couple too, had said their good byes, and they now awaited a family of four who had purchased their tickets earlier in the day. But when they did not arrive by the posted departure time, the driver mounted the coach and they were on their way.
Elizabeth found herself edgy and defensive with embarrassment, although Darcy had not said a word. Surely he was thinking how inappropriate it was for her to be traveling alone and how negligent her parents must be to allow her to do so! Sitting diagonally across from him, she eyed him nervously, working herself up into a most agitated state.
“I know the impropriety of the situation makes you uncomfortable, Mr. Darcy, but I assure you that it is not my habit to travel to London on my own. A family problem makes it imperative that I arrive today and there was no other alternative.”
Darcy chuckled, then seeing her eyes widen, quickly explained his behavior. “Forgive me Miss Bennet, I was only amused by the similarity of our situations. My carriage was damaged on the road and as it is imperative that I get to London tonight as well, I had no alternative but to take the Post. I am sorry that a family problem is prompting this visit to London; I hope it is nothing too serious.”
“No, not too serious,” she said, now rather embarrassed at having started this rather personal conversation. But she did not wish him to think ill of her, and so continued to explain. “My aunt and uncle, their three children and their maid, all came down with a serious case of Influenza and there was no one to care for them…”
“But does that not put you at risk?” he asked, interrupting her mid-sentence.
“Oh, the infectious period is long past and Jane has been nursing them this week with no ill effects, except exhaustion. I received a letter from her this morning begging me to come and help her. And as it is not like Jane to admit that a task is too much for her to handle, I left Longbourn immediately in order to catch this early coach. My father is not even aware of my departure and will surely be upset with me. But there was nothing else to be done. Jane is worn out and it seems that there is no help to be gotten.”
“Why on earth not?” asked Darcy forcefully.
“Understandably, people are wary of taking employment in a house where there is illness – especially when the employment offered is only temporary. Besides, with my aunt too ill to train anyone, it may be more of a burden than a help. But I hope that my coming will be all that is needed until everyone is well. Jane writes that my uncle left his bed yesterday and went to his office for half a day. That is a good sign.”
“Indeed it is, Miss Bennet. And I hope that by the time you arrive this evening there will be more good news to greet you,” he said with genuine feeling.
“Thank you,” she murmured, grateful that he seemed to accept her explanation without question or reproach. She lowered her eyes to the gloves on her lap, put them on and tucked her hands within the folds of her pelisse.
“I hope that my staff was gracious to you and your family while you were visiting Pemberley,” he said, hoping to draw her out again.
“Oh, yes! Most gracious and kind.”
“I am very glad to hear it, Miss Bennet. Was it in August that you visited?”
“Why yes, we had actually planned to start earlier, but my uncle’s business delayed our holiday by a fortnight.”
“So you did not travel with your parents and sisters?”
“No, Mr. Darcy, I accompanied my aunt and uncle Gardiner. They are my relations who live in Cheapside and whom I now visit,” she said pointedly.
“You are obviously very close to them,” he said with a hint of envy in his voice, “to holiday with them, and rush to their care when they are ill.”
“Yes, we are very fond of one another. They are exceptional people.”
“Cheapside is a very pleasant part of town. I have several business acquaintances that reside there. Knowing your propensity for walking out, I’m sure that you are well acquainted with Monument Park. They have recently extended the walking path to completely encircle the three small ponds there.”
She was surprised to hear him describe the park in such detail. Could she believe that he would be seen strolling in Monument Park? How could this be true after the feelings he had expressed at Hunsford? The conversation, though calm and amiable, was most distressing, for she knew that nothing would ever come of it. He could not possibly still love her and even if some spark remained, he would never make her a second offer. How could he risk humiliating himself again after the way she had abused him! “…you are the last man in the world that I could ever marry!” She dared not even entertain such a hope and surely these congenial conversations would only be another source to pain to her in the future.
She shivered, and then drawing her pelisse closer about her neck, said, “I doubt that I shall have much time for walking out this trip, Mr. Darcy.”
“Miss Bennet, you are cold! Please, allow me to help you on with my coat. The temperature in this carriage has dropped considerably,” said Darcy removing it and leaning forward to hold it up for her.
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly take your coat, Sir!” she said most emphatically, and then seeing him stung, added, “I am not at all cold, Mr. Darcy. It was just a reaction to this dreary weather and my weariness from having rushed about so this morning. In fact, I think I shall take the opportunity to rest a bit now, if you don’t mind.” And saying that, she angled her body sideways towards the window and closed her eyes.
Why aren’t you willing to accept anything from me, Elizabeth? He reluctantly drew his arms back through the sleeves of his coat and stared at the movement of her eyes beneath her lowered lids. He knew she was feigning sleep and it angered him. He wanted her to shout at him, to quarrel with him, to do anything but ignore him.
He pulled out the business papers he had brought along, and noisily sifted through them. Two could play this game and he would certainly put the time to good use!
His eyes darted from Elizabeth’s face to the printed page again and again. He timed his breathing to coincide with hers and watched for the slightest flutter of her lashes, the smallest movement at the corners of her mouth. So when she actually fell asleep, some twenty minutes later, he was aware of it immediately. It was only then, that he stopped trying to read and stared at her openly. How beautiful and vulnerable she looked in her sleep, and how painfully out of reach.
As frustrated as he was, he forced himself to remember that this encounter was a blessing he could not even have imagined earlier that morning. Their conversations had been civil, at times even amiable, and she was going to be in London for a week or more. If nothing else, perhaps he could get her to accept his apology – or at least listen to it. Elizabeth’s description of Pemberley had encouraged him to hope that somehow, something had changed, but he had misread her feelings before, and he was determined not to do so again; he would proceed with great caution!
What a joy it was to be able to gaze at her, unashamed and unobserved. How he loved the shape of her hands, the curve of her jaw against the pearly skin of her neck. He could now blatantly stare at the swell of her bosom as she took in breath and released it. But would he ever have this privilege again? Or would this be the closest he would ever get to loving her? The thought twisted his insides and he forced himself back to the contract.
He read the papers through in their entirety for the third time, leaned back and closed his eyes. It was no use! He knew the contract by heart; that was not the problem. Without his solicitor at the negotiations, he would be unable to counter any new offer with full understanding of its consequences or the laws that applied to it. Durand was known for being a shrewd and manipulative negotiator, not above taking every advantage and twisting the law to fit his needs. Perhaps the wisest thing for him to do was to withdraw the offer and lose thirty percent of his investment, as agreed upon. It was a substantial sum, but he would recover it eventually. His father had warned him about risking such amounts and he had always been so scrupulously conservative before,… but he had gone a bit mad this summer, and this had been the result. He had no one to blame but himself.
As the condition of the roadway deteriorated from the continued pounding of the rain, the swaying and lurching of the carriage became more and more pronounced and Elizabeth’s slumbering form responded to its every movement. Her upper body would suddenly be pitched forward slightly, only to fall back against the cushioned seat with a snap of her neck or the bump of her head against of windowpane. She would momentarily startle, then miraculously sink back into deep repose, huddling against the chill and drawing herself together for warmth.
Each time her temple made that unsettling little thud against the pane, Darcy would cringe, his irritation at her stubbornness mounting and his concern for her welfare increasing. When he could stand it no longer, he took off his waistcoat, folded it several times and slid across the seat in order to place himself directly in front of her. With the next jolt, he slipped the makeshift pillow between her head and the pane, so that when she fell back onto it, it cradled her head. He saw the corners of her mouth turn up ever so slightly as she snuggled deeper into its folds. Having succeeded in this without waking her, he took his coat and draped it gently over her shoulders. Still she slept, and so he brazenly tucked the sides of the coat in about her. Finally content, he returned to his seat by the opposite window.
But his satisfaction was short lived. With the next big jolt, Elizabeth was jostled about, and thrown to her left, falling towards the empty space beside her. Darcy lunged across to catch her before her head hit the seat, but now that he had her in his arms, he didn’t quite know what to do. If he held on to her, the way he wished, she might awaken and accuse him of taking untoward liberties. For a moment, that idea pleased him – perhaps she might feel herself obliged to marry him! Be serious, Darcy! She’ll never forgive you. Yet if he returned her to the window seat and left her there, she would, in all likelihood, eventually injure herself. He sat holding her for quite some time, staring incredulously at her still sleeping form. His face was so close to hers that he could feel her breath tickle his cheek. Her lips parted slightly and she seemed to purr as she settled herself into his embrace.
Ever so slowly, he inched her back towards the window seat, but turning her towards him, he gently urged her head onto his shoulder. He slipped his arm around hers to secure her, drew the coat up about her shoulders, and leaned back and sighed. If she resented him for this, so be it! There was nothing else to be done – except wake her of course, but somehow that had not even occurred to him.
Posted on Wednesday, 4 August 2004
Darcy barely allowed himself to breath at first – or move, or cough or shift his weight. But as time went by his shoulders relaxed, the knots in his neck loosened and he began to appreciate his very singular position. She was resting so comfortably against him, her expression serene. Her breathing pattern would change from time to time, or she would adjust her position now and again, but she did not stir from her slumber. He grinned at the thought that she was not only a good walker, but an exceptionally good sleeper! He let his lips come to rest, ever so lightly, on top of her curls, inhaling the sweet fragrance of her hair. Instinctively, he kissed the top of her head, but happily, she did not feel it. He knew he would have to control himself, for it felt so natural, so comfortable to have her close, and he could easily forget himself.
Only yesterday, he would have given anything just to have a glimpse of her. Being in her company, watching her laugh or sing was all he could have wished for. Yet now, they sat with their arms entwined, and his head leaning ever so gently against hers. She did not seem to mind, for she often lifted her chin to snuggle against his neck, at times burying her nose in it and sighing contentedly. Of course, she might awaken at any moment and slap him; but for now, it all felt as if it were meant to be. He wanted for nothing but to remain this way forever. His business problems had faded from his mind, his heart was full and his senses had suddenly come alive again. This quiet intimacy was so precious, so rare – he would not have believed it possible!
Fitzwilliam Darcy had been functioning on only four or five hours sleep for nearly a year now and was in a chronic state of fatigue. No amount of punishing exercise or soothing nighttime ritual could bring him rest. Now, warmed by their closeness and exhausted by the strain of their encounter, his body ached to sleep – the last thing in the world he wanted to do! He would not wish to miss a moment of this precious time with Elizabeth, even if only one of them was conscious of it. But his lids grew heavy as he slid further into their mutual embrace, and although he fought it as long as he could, he finally succumbed to sleep.
Through her fluttering lashes, Elizabeth tried to focus on the lovely design on her pillow. Its elegant paisley embroidery was unfamiliar, but it was rather dark under the blanket – or perhaps it was a part of the wonderful dream she had been having. She couldn’t remember it now, but she knew its images had made her very happy. Then the sudden bounce of the carriage and the tightening grip on her arm brought everything back to her consciousness. She gasped, her first impulse being to fly off the seat and scream. But some inner wisdom held her there and she gingerly drew her nose out from under the cover. Her blanket was his coat, and her pillow, his vest, where her head had been resting so contentedly.
She stared up at his stubbly chin, listened to the gentle rhythm of his breathing and felt the throbbing of his heart. No wonder she had slept so well and dreamt so happily! But how could she actually feel the beating his heart, she wondered. Her left arm was under his control, but her right was free, so she tried drawing it out from under the coat. To her bewilderment, it was restrained as well – by a heavy piece of fabric. She peered down and was horrified to discover that while her thumb rested on his vest, the rest of her fingers had somehow tucked themselves into the opening between the two buttons and were lying on the thin linen fabric of his shirt, directly over his heart! She was mortified! How could she have done anything so intimate? And how had she come to be curled up against him in the first place? It was clear he had come to sit beside her and had threaded his arm about hers, but he couldn’t possibly have orchestrated this! Nor would he, she knew.
Don’t wake up, Fitzwilliam, please don’t wake up! Trembling, she raised just one finger at a time, fearing that the sudden change of pressure might rouse him, and even so, he began to shift in the seat and murmur, “Elizabeth. No…no.” She let her hand hover over his heart for a moment longer before withdrawing it and bringing it down to rest on that very spot on top of his vest. Darcy sighed contentedly and kissed the top of her head, mumbling endearments into her hair. Her mouth gaped opened in astonishment!
She was too moved by his affection to be angry with him. Each time the coach bumped or lurched he held her fast, and it soon became clear that he had seated himself beside her to protect her. She was grateful that he had overruled her on the coat as well, for it was terribly cold, even with it draped about her. And now, feeling his kisses on her head, and the spontaneous caresses of his fingers on her arm, she knew that he still wanted her. He still loved her! Despite all she had said and done, despite all the hateful, angry looks – he wanted her! How was it possible?
Tears of joy welled up, but she quickly blinked them back. She mustn’t let him see her like this. She mustn’t let on that she knew! How ludicrous it would be for her to suddenly declare her love for him after all this time! He would never believe her. Or worse, he might think that the luxuries of Pemberley had been the inspiration for her affection. No, she would have to proceed slowly and cautiously. She would admit that his letter had shocked and humbled her and then allow her newfound admiration for him to grow. Then perhaps he would be able to accept her love as truly genuine. But that would require time. A great deal of time! And when would she have the opportunity?
But for now, the problem at hand was how to get out of this embarrassing situation! How would they be able to face one another after waking up in each other’s arms? Her mind raced, but no solution presented itself. If she moved away, he would know that she was aware of their intimacy… and if she did not? It occurred to her that it was he who had moved, after all. Perhaps it was best to leave the problem to him. Besides, she could not tear herself away from him just yet. She would pretend to sleep and allow him to get them out of this dilemma. She had not doubt that he would.
Some twenty minutes later, the carriage wheels slowed and the ruckus of a market day penetrated the quiet of their sanctuary. Darcy awakened with a jerk, then froze, as the realization of his predicament dawned on him. “Oh dear Lord,” he muttered, as he gently eased his arm out from under hers. She felt him slip his hand under her cheek and tenderly caress it before lifting her head and turning her from his chest to the window. He placed her hand in her lap, removed his coat and returned to his seat by the other window. It was all she could do not to smile.
When the carriage came to a stop, he placed his hand on hers and whispered, “Miss Bennet, we must disembark now.” She delayed her response. He rubbed the back of her hand, then gave her fingers a squeeze. “Won’t you come have some tea, Miss Bennet. The rain has stopped.”
Elizabeth blinked her eyes open, pretended to be momentarily startled, then gave him a shy smile. “Mr. Darcy, forgive me,” she said, straightening herself. “I fear I have been a terrible traveling companion. Have I really been sleeping all this time?”
“You have,” he said smiling at her, “but not to worry, I have only just awakened myself. I suppose the rain was a perfect inducement for an afternoon nap. We have but a half hour to get something to eat while the horses are changed. Won’t you join me?”
“Yes, thank you,” she said, now coloring at the thought of what they had just shared. She waited as he came round to offer her his hand.
They were shown to a small table by the window where Darcy pulled out the chair for her.
“I think I should like to freshen up, Mr. Darcy. If you will excuse me,” she said, trying to appear calm. But in truth, she had never been so flustered in her life. How would she be able to keep a seemingly unaffected countenance? It was essential that she behave normally in his company, and yet at this moment it seemed impossible! She had to escape his intense scrutiny as quickly and gracefully as she could.
She wrung out the cloth and buried her face in its warmth, letting out a deep sigh. She could not imagine having the discipline to remain composed in his presence now? How could she look him in the eye without his knowing? She knew she had to pull herself together quickly! He was waiting for her, and she was not yet prepared to face him.
With the time so short, Darcy ordered the tea with a platter of cold meats, cheeses and fruit. He thought they might start with a warm broth, but asked that it be served only once the lady had returned. He waited and waited, his agitation growing. Was she ill or upset? Did she know what he had done?
After some twenty minutes of anxiety, he finally poured himself a cup of tea and was about to put some food on his plate when she arrived at the table. He rose immediately, searching her face for a clue as to her frame of mind.
She looked at his plate. “You haven’t eaten, Sir!” she said, genuinely dismayed.
“I waited for you,” he mumbled.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have! I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting; I had no idea!” she said, allowing him to push in her chair.
He looked at her incredulously! Did she really think that he would start without her?”
Searching her face, he noted the red blotches on her cheeks and the reddened rims of her eyes. She was distressed – seriously distressed, but attempting to hide it. Obviously, she was aware of his indiscretion, but was at a loss at what to do about it! He was prepared to have it all out in the open, here and now, for the last thing he wanted was for her to distrust him. “Miss Bennet,” he began.
“I am so looking forward this cup of tea!” she said quickly, cutting him short. “I hope it is still hot.”
“I …I’ll order a fresh pot,” he answered, relieved that she had postponed the inevitable for now. She was right. This was neither the time nor place for such a discussion and she would have two full hours to abuse him before they reached London.
They prepared their plates and ate in a silence only punctuated by the most essential civilities. He urged her to take the last piece of melon, while she offered to pour him more tea. They eyed each other, looked away self-consciously, then stole sideways glances at one another once more. From past experience, Elizabeth knew it was up to her to make them both more comfortable.
“How is your sister, Mr. Darcy. Will she be meeting you in London?”
“Yes, actually. She has been there with her companion for about a week now and Colonel Fitzwilliam has been looking in on them. She is very well, from what I can gather from her letters. I am very anxious to see her; I’m afraid I am guilty of spending far too little time with her.”
“Oh, but I know you to be a very devoted and attentive brother! It must be a great comfort to her to know that you are always there when she needs you.”
“Not always, Miss Bennet, as you well know,” he said, looking directly into her eyes.
“I believe it was your love and concern, as much as fate that brought you to her rescue last summer. Your keen instincts regarding her well being must have prompted you to visit at that time.”
“You are giving me far too much credit, Miss Bennet. I was simply lucky – blessedly lucky.
“Perhaps. But the fact that she could not keep the elopement from you reveals to the essential quality of your relationship with her. She obviously trusts you implicitly, and that is why you were able to save her.”
It was the kindest thing anyone had ever said to him! Deeply moved, he swallowed hard and stared at her. “Thank you, Miss Bennet.” If only I could win your trust, Elizabeth!
“I also wish to thank you for entrusting me with the knowledge of that very personal matter, Mr. Darcy. I believe my sister Lydia may have been spared some considerable pain due to my awareness of Wickham’s true character.”
He raised his brows questioningly, but remained silent.
“Lydia had been invited to go to Brighten as a guest of Colonel and Mrs. Forster. At the time, she was already enamored with Mr. Wickham, so you can imagine what could have come to pass had my father allowed her go. I gave him no particulars, of course, but told him only that I had heard rumors of past indiscretions. Happily, that was enough for him to keep her home. She put up such a fuss! But you can imagine how grateful we all were when we heard of poor Colonel Forster.”
“Yes, the poor man’s humiliation must have been indescribable! To be cockled by a man under your command, and to have the entire regiment know of it must be … I have no words for it!” he said with emotion. “And naturally, he can no longer have Mrs. Forster travel with the regiment as she had in the past, so he must now be without her company for long periods of time. I understand he has set her up in small house in London. He, the only innocent, is being doubly punished!”
“Yes, my heart goes out to him. Will Mr. Wickham be court-martialed, do you think?”
“I don’t know that bedding your commanding officer’s wife is considered an act of treason, but I think the army will find a way to punish him quite severely. I am only glad to know that he will be off the streets for a while.”
It was a very difficult conversation and he was not insensitive to her heightened color and emotional discomfort. “Perhaps we can still stretch our legs for five minutes before we board again, Miss Bennet,” he said, thinking that a change of scene, as well as conversation might be beneficial just now.
She nodded and smiled, placing her napkin on the table and gathering her belongings. He helped her on with her pelisse, put on his coat, and grabbed two biscuits from the plate. His boyish grin broke their somber mood, and she laughed as she accepted both his offerings – the biscuit and his arm.
Posted on Sunday, 8 August 2004, at 10
Having returned to the carriage, whose walls had been witness to their secret indiscretions, Darcy and Elizabeth became more reserved with one another again and rode in bashful silence for some time. Darcy was waiting nervously for the explosion he was sure would come once they were on the open road and braced himself for her anger. He was prepared to listen respectfully as she vented her emotions, to apologize most sincerely and then beg for her understanding. What more could he do? He shot a glance in her direction and saw her fidgeting nervously with her gloves. The kettle is about to boil over! he thought.
“Mr. Darcy,” she began, wringing the life out of her gloves, “I did appreciate your to desire lighten our conversation earlier, but I’m afraid that I must bring us back to a more serious topic once again.”
He tried to look concerned without revealing the panic building in his chest.
“I have been rehearsing this little speech for so long, …but I never believed I’d have the opportunity to deliver it. I have wanted to tell you…” She hesitated and looked at him apprehensively. “ to admit to you, that your letter had a very sobering and humbling effect on me.”
He leaned forward, about to assure her that it had not been his intension to upset her further, only to defend himself in respect to his relationship with Wickham, when she held out her hand and bade him wait. “Please, Mr. Darcy. Allow me to say what has been on my mind and in my heart for so long. I need to say these things to you… and to beg your understanding.”
He sat back stunned and equally distressed at the thought of her admonishing herself on his account. He waited, his mouth slightly open, his breath shallow.
“I have always prided myself in being a good judge of character and have even been arrogant enough to find amusement in other peoples’ weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. Your letter forced me to hold a mirror up to my own behavior and I was truly ashamed of what I saw. – Not that I believe you to be blameless, Sir! It was, after all, your thoughtless words at the Meryton Assembly that wounded my pride and ignited my initial resentment.”
Darcy flinched and then tried to respond, but she cut him off once more.
“You were wrong to have said what you did in my hearing, but that was nothing compared to what I then did to you! I was not only eager to hear and believe every negative statement about you, but was willing to spread rumors or amusing anecdotes concerning you to my family and friends. No wonder Mr. Wickham was able to deceive me so easily. I wanted to believe you capable of everything dishonorable! I called you arrogant and conceited, accused you of being devoid of feeling and behaving in an…” She saw the pained expression in his eyes and paused…. “I accused you of everything that I, myself, was guilty of," she said slowly. "I know that I misjudged you, Mr. Darcy and I am truly sorry,” she said softly, lowering her gaze to her lap.
He ached to rush to her side and embrace her, to assure her that it was he who had started this cycle of misunderstanding and bitterness between them, and that he alone was to blame for everything that had followed. But he knew it was yet the time; she would not accept it. But he certainly could not allow her to punish herself in this manner!
‘Well, at least you had the good manners to limit your insults to the person deserving them, and left his family at peace,” he said with an apologetic grin. How he wished she would allow him to lessen her embarrassment and prove to her that he was now so different from the man she’d been describing! He gazed at her tenderly, shifted over to sit beside her and took her hand in his.
“Miss Bennet, your reaction to my abhorrent behavior was perfectly natural and completely justified. Why should you give your trust to a man who has never done anything to deserve it or treated you as a gentleman should! Since the moment I uttered those abominable words I have wanted to apologize and beg your forgiveness. It was my chief purpose at the Netherfield ball, but somehow…”
“Yes, somehow I was too busy abusing you to listen,” said Elizabeth, her eyes filling with tears.
“Would you allow me to do so now?” he asked, his eyes pleading with her.
She pulled a handkerchief from her reticule, dabbed her eyes and nodded.
“First I wish to say that my behavior was inexcusable! I was selfish and cruel… and there are few things in my life that I regret more. I hurt and embarrassed you with words I truly didn’t mean. Miss Bennet, I must make you believe what is absolutely true – that had the Queen herself been sitting in that chair instead of you, I would have said the same thing. I was in a foul mood and simply wanted Bingley off my back. I was thoughtless and arrogant, but my words were not meant for you, Miss Bennet. They were meant for any woman who would be so unfortunate as to be sitting in that chair. Nevertheless, I beg you to forgive me!”
She gave him a hint of a smile and nodded, but lowered her eyes to avoid his.
“There are so many other, far more important things for which I must beg your forgiveness,” he said, his voice now thick with emotion. “Where do I even begin?”
Elizabeth began to panic! Although she had initiated the discussion in order to pave the way for their possible future together, it was now escalating out of control and she was fearful as to where it might lead! Of course she wanted him to renew his offer, but how could she justify accepting him so quickly? If he was to cherish her forever, there could be no doubt in his mind as to the sincerity of her love, and how could he be sure of that when they had not seen each other these past six months! What was she to do?
“Mr. Darcy, there is no need to…”
“Oh, but truly there is, Miss Bennet! …But I can see that our discussions have been an emotional strain and I do not wish to exhaust you further. Just assure me that you will allow me to unburden myself to you one day soon – perhaps when your family is recovered and no longer needs your constant attention. Promise me that.”
Had he read her mind or was her discomfort so apparent that he knew exactly what she needed? “I promise, Mr. Darcy. But I do not know where or when we shall ever find such privacy again,” she said with a smile.
He could see the tension leaving her face and the color returning to it. He was glad and laughed. “Well, perhaps we shall have to take another journey by Post together.”
“And how, pray tell, would you arrange for the disappearance of the other passengers?” she asked playfully.
“Oh, that is very simple. I would buy all six tickets and throw four of them to the wind,” he replied.
“Just as I thought,” said Elizabeth frowning. “The very rich are shamefully extravagant!”
Darcy laughed heartily at that remark, so grateful to have his cheeky Elizabeth back. “Now if I only had another biscuit to offer you, perhaps I could keep you smiling for a while. Why didn’t I pinch a few more while I had the chance?”
“That is true, I would dearly love a biscuit just now! Ah….but wait! I believe I have something in my reticule from the other day’s outing.” She fished through it and triumphantly pulled out a half bar of chocolate wrapped in silver paper. She held it out for his approval.
“Even better!” chuckled Darcy. “There are few things better than bittersweet chocolate! What decidedly good luck I had in getting you as my traveling companion, Miss Bennet.” He winked at her and flashed his most charming smile.
“Yes,” she said, breaking the chocolate in half and offering him his share. “I believe this had been your lucky day, Mr. Darcy.” She blushed instantly, mortified at the implication of what she had just said and tried to distract him by biting off a piece of the chocolate and making a show of savoring its richness. She closed her eyes for a moment and moaned softly, but when she opened them and saw Darcy’s expression, she couldn’t help but laugh. Watching her, Darcy thought that he had died and gone to heaven, but then he remembered he was not that deserving, and so decided that this had to be real.
They both seemed determined to make the chocolate last as long as possible, savoring it bit by bit, while alternately grinning at each other and staring out the window. It was a comfortable silence, tranquil and comforting. There was no need for chatter.
Darcy licked the last bit of chocolate off his thumb, colored, then chuckling, shook his head. He had not done something so ill mannered in public since he was a little boy. “Forgive me, Miss Bennet, but it was your fine chocolate and therefore your fault that I am making such a spectacle of myself.”
“I am sure your Nanny would have preferred you to wipe your thumb on your handkerchief, Mr. Darcy, but I appreciate that my chocolate is far too good to waste, and therefore cannot denounce your little lapse of etiquette,” she replied.
“Are you always in the habit of carrying sweets, Miss Bennet?” Darcy teased.
“No, …well at least not at Longbourn. When I am in town with my nieces and nephew, I do tend to carry some hard bonbons to help soothe those little bumps and scrapes that sometimes have the habit of spoiling an outing. This chocolate, however, was an indulgence on a very long and tiring day at market.
“Are the Gardiner children still quite small then?” asked Darcy.
“No, they are five, eight and eleven, Mr. Darcy, and wonderfully clever and affectionate. I can’t wait to see them.”
“And what does Mr. Gardiner do, if you don’t mind my asking? I believe you said he returned to his office for a half day of work yesterday.”
“No, not at all. He is a solicitor, and has a very successful practice.”
“Does he specialize in any particular branch of law, Miss Bennet?”
“His specialty is international business law, Sir. He also speaks a perfect French, which helps in many of his business dealings.”
“Just the man I need!” muttered Darcy to himself.
“I beg your pardon, Sir?”
“Oh, forgive me, Miss Bennet, I was just thinking aloud.”
“Oh,” she said, quietly, and turned her face to the window.
“I did not mean to imply that it is a private matter, Miss Bennet. I was thinking of a business problem that I’m entangled in at the moment, and I didn’t wish to bore you with it.
She nodded her understanding, but then added. “My father often talks through his tenant problems with me, and although I may not always understand some of the finer points that he is making, he claims that after explaining the issues to me, he always comes away with a clearer understanding of the problem himself. If it is not too private a matter, I would be happy to listen.”
“Would you, Miss Bennet?” said Darcy incredulously. “Just sharing my frustration with someone would be of great help to me. You see, earlier this summer I entered into a business venture with a French firm, making an initial investment of….” He was embarrassed to admit how much he had risked and so said, “Well, let us just say that it was a substantial sum. We agreed that our respective solicitors would hammer out the details of the final contract, but that if I reneged at any time, I would forfeit one third of my original investment.”
“The negotiations had been proceeding well and the final meeting was scheduled for tomorrow morning. Sadly, my solicitor became incapacitated with a kidney ailment just two days ago. He is delirious with fever and pain and cannot assist me in any way. Then to aggravate the matter, the French firm has sent in a young, new negotiator, who has a reputation for being… shall we say, difficult at best! When I enter that chamber tomorrow, unrepresented, he will, no doubt, try to take advantage of me. I have memorized the document and understand the issues involved, but as soon as he suggests a revision, I shall be powerless. I am not familiar with the nuances of the laws of England, no less France, and I am certain that he is going to play with me, the way a cat plays with a mouse before he eats him. Part of me feels that I should get out before I lose my entire investment and another part of me, that prideful one, hates to give up without a fight! Ah there, you see, Miss Bennet, my pride is getting me into trouble yet again,” he quipped.
“Is the investment otherwise sound, Mr. Darcy? That is, are you confident that the venture will be successful?” asked Elizabeth.
“Yes, I have great confidence in the venture itself. Only my share of the profits hinge on many things and that is precisely what must still be hammered out. If forced to accept certain terms, I could very well reap a lower percentage of the reward, while bearing a far greater percentage of the risk. Over the long run, the business could do very well and yet I, could still lose money.”
“It is very complex indeed!” said Elizabeth. “But one thing is perfectly clear to me. You cannot go into those negotiations without proper legal representation. It would be suicide! Can you not demand a postponement due to your solicitor’s illness?”
“I’m afraid that Monsieur Durand is leaving for Paris tomorrow evening and if I have not signed that contract, the undertaking will begin without my participation. Have you read about steam engine locomotives in the papers, Miss Bennet?”
“Why yes, Mr. Darcy. Is that the business involved?” she asked, her eyes widening.
“Yes it is. Would you not agree that it is an ingenious and practical invention that could change not only the way we travel, but business and our entire economy?”
“Oh yes, I do agree with that, although I understand that they are to be quite noisy contraptions.”
“Yes, I suppose they will be at first, but early inventions are always crude and beg for improvement. I believe that we must make a start, however, if we are to go forward. In any case, when I said that your uncle was just the man that I needed, I meant just that! Even if he knew very little of the business arrangement itself, just his presence and his ability to question points of law would be extremely helpful. I know several big firms who would have been eager to send a man to represent me, but Durand has a history of buying the cooperation of his competition’s council and I would need a man that I could truly trust. Your uncle would be the perfect man for me, but I know that he will be beleaguered by his own clients after a week’s illness and I have no right to impose on him.”
“I…I do not know how strong he is, Mr. Darcy, or how he could possibly prepare for your meeting in just an evening. But I know that he would help you, if he could. I will try to make a judgment as to his health and stamina before even presenting the problem to him. And if he then feels up to meeting with you, I suppose we could send a messenger to your home.”
“That is extremely kind of you, Miss Bennet, but please be assured that there are no expectations. I know this is an impossible situation and I would not wish you to put pressure on your uncle in any way.”
They spent the last hour of their journey chatting about this and that, while inwardly wondering how they could ever get along without each other’s company now. Elizabeth rejoiced in the knowledge that the man that she had come to love in her mind and heart over the past six months was truly the man she imagined him to be – and more, so much more. How could she have been so blind before? In truth, she did not deserve him, but if he ever honored her with a proposal again, she would live to make him happy.
Darcy was astonished at how comfortable he had been talking to Elizabeth on almost any subject. To come home to such a woman would be a man’s greatest blessing! He had to become that man! His life would have no meaning without her. They had come very far today, but there was so much left to say, so many painful issues yet to resolve. Elizabeth had been right; they would never again have the privacy or the time they had enjoyed today. This courtship, he knew, would be the challenge of his life!
When they arrived in London, Darcy insisted on taking Elizabeth to her uncle’s door and hired a cab to take them there. As the driver hoisted her larger trunk up onto his shoulders and headed up the stairs, Darcy followed him with her smaller one and her satchel. He had no intension of staying and imposing himself on the family for even a moment, and so said a rather hasty and awkward goodbye before turning back towards the stairs. But the noises just outside their door had alerted the family and suddenly the door swung open and Jane and Mr. Gardiner were before them.
“Lizzy!” shouted Jane, throwing her arms around her sister’s neck, “How on earth did you get here so quickly?” She drew her back at arms length to look at her and then pulled her in even tighter. “Oh, I’m so happy to see you – and grateful too!” Her eyes suddenly fell on Mr. Darcy and she stared in astonishment. “Mr. Darcy!” she said, over her sister’s shoulder.
“Miss Bennet,” said Darcy, “how do you do. ...I was just helping your sister up with her things…..um…It is very good to see you again, but I do not wish to intrude on your reunion, so please excuse me. I hope to see again when your family is well.”
“Mr. Darcy, please wait.” said Elizabeth turning from her sister’s embrace. “I wish to introduce you to my uncle, Edward Gardiner. Uncle Gardiner, Mr. Darcy. We were traveling companions on the Post today, uncle. Mr. Darcy was very kind and protective of me.” She colored slightly, and lowered her eyes to the floor.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Darcy and many thanks for bringing our Elizabeth safely to our door.”
“It was a pleasure to do so, Sir. Miss Bennet has told me that your family has been suffering with Influenza. I hope that everyone is on the mend.”
“My wife and two younger children are still quite ill I’m afraid, the youngest still spiking a high fever every evening. But my eldest is almost fully recovered and I am feeling very fit, as you can see,” said Mr. Gardiner.
“Are you truly well, uncle?” asked Elizabeth, trying to determine whether her uncle’s positive statements were male bravado, or actually the truth. Her eyes darted to Jane’s face for confirmation, even before he could answer.
“Yes, yes, my dearest, I truly am, and my activities this evening will support me. I stopped at the butcher’s on the way home from the office, played with the children and even did a bit of the washing up! You know very well that your sister would not allow me to help her if I did not have the strength.
“Then perhaps I could ask you to give Mr. Darcy a bit of your time, Uncle. He has an urgent business problem that requires immediate attention, and even if you cannot help him yourself, perhaps you could advise him on how to proceed.”
“I truly appreciate your concern, Miss Bennet, but perhaps Mr. Gardiner is fatigued after such a long day,” said Darcy first directing his gaze at Elizabeth. Then turning to her uncle, he said, “Your niece offered me a sympathetic ear on our journey here, and as you can see, she is all compassion for my troubles. But I do not wish to burden you with them, Sir, as you must surely have enough of your own work to attend to. I shall leave you all to enjoy each other’s company. Good evening.” He bowed respectfully and was about to leave when Mr. Gardiner stepped forward and touched his sleeve.
“Come, come, Mr. Darcy, do not feel obliged to leave. I was just enjoying an excellent glass of port in my study and would welcome another gentleman’s company. Why don’t you come in and tell me your story. I promise you that I shall not take on more than I can handle.”
Darcy looked to Elizabeth, who nodded and smiled encouragingly and then to Mr. Gardiner’s warm and friendly countenance. “Then I suppose that I had better let the driver know that I shall be a while yet. Thank you, Mr. Gardiner, you are most generous and kind.” He dashed down the stairs and returned with his package of papers and a very cheerful countenance.
Elizabeth quietly opened her aunt’s bedroom door a crack and peeked in. She then burst into smiles, rushing to her aunt’s side with her hands outstretched. “Dear Aunt, I’m so happy to find you awake. How are your feeling?” she said, seating herself on the edge of the bed.
“Very weak and very guilty, I’m afraid. But exceedingly happy to see you, Lizzy.”
“Guilty?…What on earth for?”
“Oh, my family needs me and I am of no use to anyone! Poor Jane has been working night and day caring for us, washing clothes, fixing meals, and dealing with everyone’s ill humor. But every time I lift my head off this pillow the room spins and by stomach turns. It is taking far too long to recover, Lizzy. I have no patience for it!’
“Well, now that I am here, Jane will get some rest, I promise you, and since uncle Gardiner and Julia have made good progress, I am sure it is only a matter of a few days before you are yourself again as well.”
“Where is Edward, my dear? Has he already eaten? I saw him only briefly when he returned from the office.”
Elizabeth lowered her lids in embarrassment. “I’m afraid that I have burdened him with a favor, aunt. I have asked him to consult with an acquaintance who has an urgent business problem. I chanced to meet him again on my journey here and in the course of our conversation he relayed his troubles to me. Uncle Gardiner said that he would hear him out and advise him.” She pursed her lips as she nervously fingered the creases of her gown.
“Who is this acquaintance, Lizzy? You are making him sound very mysterious! And from the look on your face, I believe he is far more than a mere acquaintance. Am I right?”
“Oh, aunt Gardiner, you are! And I promise to tell you everything when there is time, but I must ask your indulgence and your trust for now. You will be shocked to learn that the gentleman is Mr. Darcy, whom I berated so shamelessly last Christmas and whose home we visited on our holiday.”
Madeleine Gardiner’s mouth dropped open.
“I know, I know! I said horrid things about him and made you believe that I hated him, but… So much has changed! And for me, it began changing long before we went to Pemberley. Please just support me in this for now, I beg you. I will explain it all later.”
“Very well, Lizzy. You know I have complete confidence in your good judgment. Just be protective of your heart Elizabeth; Mr. Darcy is a man of rank and privilege, and consequently has burdens and obligations of his own.”
“I know that only too well, aunt! But for now, let me look in on the children and then help Jane get dinner on the table. Shall I bring you a tray, or would you like to try and join us?”
“I would love to join you and I will do my best to do so. Come and fetch me when it is time.”
Elizabeth knocked lightly on the study door. “Can you stop for a bite of dinner, uncle? Mr. Darcy, you are welcome to join us if you like,” she said, feeling suddenly very shy in his presence.
“Thank you, Miss Bennet, but Mr. Gardiner and I were just about to say good night. Your uncle has generously agreed to represent me tomorrow, Miss Bennet, and I know that I have you to thank for that.” He kissed her hand, looked deeply into her eyes and smiled. “It certainly has been my lucky day, Miss Bennet” he whispered. “Good night.”
Posted on Wednesday, 11 August 2004
With the aid of both her nieces, Madeline Gardiner, still a bit woozy, made it to her dressing table and lowered herself onto the stool. “My, what an adventure for such a short distance!” she said. Elizabeth fetched her dressing gown while Jane brushed out her hair and braided it. “It does feel good to be out of bed, however,” she said looking at herself more closely in the mirror. “Oh dear!” she sighed. “I look dreadful!”
“You look pale and tired, but beautiful nevertheless, aunt,” said Jane bending down to kiss her. “It is to be expected after feeling so wretched for so many days.”
They assisted her, ever so slowly, to the dining room table where the rest of the family was waiting to applaud her efforts. She was seated, and after five minutes of resting with her eyes closed, declared that the spinning had stopped and that she was ready to return to the human race. Five-year-old Constance sat as close to her mother as possible, placing her head on her lap and stretching her little legs out on her own chair.
“Oh my poor darling, this fever is making you so listless,” she said, brushing the hair from her flushed little face. “Mummy knows just how you feel, my love.”
Having put the last dish on the table, Elizabeth insisted that Jane eat undisturbed and allow her to serve and help the children. She smiled and held her arms out to Connie, who crawled from her mother’s lap into her arms and lay there contentedly as Elizabeth spooned broth into her mouth. From time to time, her little fingers dangled her aunt’s garnet pendant, and half way through the meal, she fell asleep.
“I must say, Lizzy,” began her uncle Gardiner, giving his wife a knowing wink, “the last thing that I would have expected when touring Pemberley, was to have its master pay me a return visit? How did you come to speak to him on such a personal subject as business? I was under the impression that you disliked the man exceedingly.”
Elizabeth looked down at her plate, gathered up her courage and looked up at all their expectant faces. “There have been things that I have kept to myself for many months now, mostly because of my embarrassment, but also because there would have been no point to the telling. Jane knows that Mr. Darcy and I were thrown together when I visited Charlotte in Kent. Mr. Darcy is the nephew of Lady Catherine DeBourgh, Mr. Collins’s patroness, and we spent many afternoons and evenings together – in larger company, of course,” she added quickly, feeling her own face flush.
Jane’s eyes widened at the thought of what her sister might now reveal.
“You are absolutely right to believe that I disliked Mr. Darcy, uncle, because I made no secret of it and took every opportunity to malign his character and find amusement at his expense….But that was only because I was behaving like a hurt and angry child. You see, he had insulted me on our first meeting, and I was determined to pay him back in kind. It was stupid of me. Mr. Darcy is good man. He did not deserve my ire.”
Edward Gardiner had expected his quick-witted and playfully impertinent niece to respond to his inquiry with a cheeky remark. Her unusual response told the whole story.
“I kept up the charade when we visited Pemberley because I was too ashamed to admit my own prejudiced behavior to you. And as our paths never crossed, I felt that I was safe in my secret. I had learned a great deal about myself from my brief acquaintance with Mr. Darcy, but I never expected to see him again.” She now looked at her aunt, her eyes pleading for understanding and approval.
“Out visit to Pemberley only confirmed the opinion that I had begun to form in Kent – that Mr. Darcy was an excellent master, brother and friend, and that his serious countenance only reflected the seriousness with which he took all his responsibilities. After having spent so many hours with him on the coach today, my esteem for him has only increased. I would not have asked you to help him, uncle, had I not thought him worthy of your efforts.” She lowered her gaze to her lap. She was done. They now all knew she was in love with him.
“Well, Lizzy,” said her aunt, with the most tender look, “I must admit to you that Mr. Darcy’s reputation among my friends in Meryton did not match your estimation of him, and I had wondered if you were not being overly critical of him.”
“And I,” offered her uncle, “found him to be a most intelligent and genuinely amiable fellow this evening. I know he was in need of my assistance, but I found no trace of haughtiness or arrogance.”
“Thank you,” whispered Elizabeth, her eyes brimming. She didn’t want to cry, but her family’s efforts to support and understand her, touched her heart. She knew she never would have gotten the same response at home; then again, she never would have confided in anyone at home – save Jane.
She smiled at her sister through her tears. “You needn’t remind me, Jane. You believed that Mr. Darcy would improve on closer acquaintance from the first!” She wiped her eyes and laughed. “I should have listened to my wiser, elder sister.” Jane simply squeezed her hand.
“My only concern is for the safety of your heart, Elizabeth,” continued Mrs. Gardiner. “Do you have any reason to believe that Mr. Darcy returns your high regard?”
“I believe he likes and admires me, aunt. His actions seem to imply that he does. He was very solicitous of me on our journey and always came to my defense in Kent.”
“Your defense?” cried Mr. Gardiner. “Why on earth would you need defending, Lizzy?”
“His aunt, Lady Catherine, is quite a critical and outspoken woman, uncle. She often said things that were quite rude. Poor Mr. Darcy would cringe in embarrassment and then say something to negate her tactless remark or compliment me on the very thing she had just found worthy of criticism. It was very amusing to watch, actually.” Of course, I only see that now with hindsight, she thought.
“But there is one thing that I still do not understand, Lizzy. Surely Mr. Darcy would not have spoken of his business dealings in front of a coach full of strangers?” said her uncle. “When did you have the opportunity for such an intimate conversation?”
Elizabeth’s eyes flashed and she blushed to her temples. She took a deep breath and looked directly at her uncle. “ When I began my journey I was in the company of Mrs. Long and her niece, but they were only traveling to Cheshunt. Another family was to join us there, but when they did not arrive on time, the driver took off. I didn’t know what to do! But I trusted Mr. Darcy implicitly, so I tried to remain calm. He was the perfect gentleman, uncle – I assure you. He did everything he could for my comfort and protection. He gave me his coat when he saw that I was cold and did his best to amuse me for the length of the journey. I know it was inappropriate for me to travel alone with him, but at that point, what was I to do?”
Madeline and Edward Gardiner eyed each other with concern, then looked at their niece and realized that what was done was done. Perhaps it was best for everyone concerned to say nothing more about it. They trusted Elizabeth and hoped they would soon have reason to trust Mr. Darcy as well.
Having struggled to give Connie and John their foul tasting medicine, and having finally gotten them to bed, Elizabeth went to knock on the door of her uncle’s study. “Shall I make you another pot of coffee, uncle Gardiner?” she asked.
“Don’t bother, my dear. I won’t be much longer. This all seems rather straight forward, and the only law book I need to consult is presently in my office. So I shall leave early tomorrow morning to do some research there. Darcy and I are meeting for breakfast at eight and we shall then have two hours to discuss our strategy. Not to worry, my sweet. Go to bed.”
She kissed her uncle good night and headed for the maid’s room, where Jane had made up her bed. Normally, when the two of them visited together, they would share the large bed in the guest room, but as Agnes had gone home to be cared for by her mother, Lizzy could have the luxury of a little privacy. When she opened the door, however, she found her bed already occupied by her sister.
“I waited for you to come, but it was too cold outside the covers,” said Jane, drawing the counterpane up to her neck. “Come into my room when you are ready for bed. I want to hear all about your adventures with Mr. Darcy. And I want the truth!” she said, as she jumped out of bed and came to undo her sister’s hair. “I shall warm the bed for us while you wash up.”
Elizabeth slipped into bed beside her sister and took her hand. “Oh, Jane, this has been the most wonderful and unnerving day of my life. It is hard to believe that I breakfasted at Longbourn this morning! So much has happened since then!”
“Lizzy, you must start at the beginning, because I am totally and utterly confused! I had always thought that your melancholy after Mr. Darcy’s proposal had to do with his letter and the revelation that you were wrong about Wickham. But obviously, there was more to it than that! So now tell me everything I don’t already know.”
“What I hid from you was the agonizing transformation I was going through – from despising him to loving him – and consequently to mourning for all I had lost. Do you remember when we first saw the Netherfield party enter the Meryton Assembly and Charlotte pointed them out to us? Well, I will now admit to you that from that first moment I felt an immediate attraction to Mr. Darcy. I remember thinking, “ What a handsome man but for that condescending air. Perhaps if I kissed the cleft of his chin I could get him to smile.”
“Lizzy! You didn’t!”
“I did, and far more impertinent thoughts as well,” giggled Elizabeth. “Well, you said you wanted to hear the truth.”
“Oh, Lizzy!” Jane laughed. “You’re shameless! But do go on.”
“Well, when he walked away from all of us so rudely and then slighted me, I was far more upset than I would admit – even to myself. He was the first man that I was truly interested in and he wanted nothing to do with me. I suppose I became a woman scorned.”
“Until today,” Elizabeth continued, “I thought my chances of winning him back were nonexistent, but…. he loves me Jane! He truly loves me!”
“Did he tell you that he loves you? Did he propose again?” asked Jane, her eyes full of wonder.
“Well no, not exactly. He didn’t say it to my face, but he let me know in other ways.”
“Lizzy, are you sure this isn’t just wishful thinking on your part? If he didn’t say the words, then perhaps you are just imagining it. I don’t say this to hurt you Lizzy, I just don’t want you heartbroken should he disappoint you.”
“Jane, you know first hand the pain of disappointment, and yet I doubt that you would have preferred never to have met Mr. Bingley?”
Jane shook her head sadly. “The hours I spent with him were the happiest of my life and I credit him with teaching me what it feels like to be loved. Now, at least, I know what I’m looking for.”
“I feel exactly the same way, Jane! If Mr. Darcy disappoints me in the end, I will be devastated, I know. But at least I will have known the pleasure of his attentions for a while and will have done my best win his love.”
“Jane, I know this will sound strange, but Mr. Darcy whispered that he loved me when he thought I was asleep! I believe he thinks I will reject him again and is afraid to even approach the subject. That is why I must start fresh and build up our relationship bit by bit so that he can be confident of my love for him. I don’t know how I shall do it, but I intend try. Now that I know he still cares for me, I am determined to do everything I can to win him back.”
“Oh, Lizzy! I am so happy for you! And I shall do everything in my power to help you. But tell me, why would you pretend to sleep in front of Mr. Darcy?”
“ That is a very long story, Jane, and I have no strength to tell it. I’ll see you in the morning, dearest. Sleep well.” Elizabeth kissed her sister and tiptoed back to Agnes’s room.
It was still terribly early and Elizabeth was sipping her coffee in front of the kitchen window when she saw a chaise and four pull up at the front door. The Darcy crest caught her eye and she panicked at the thought of her appearance. Rushing into her bedroom she grabbed some pins to put up the braid that still lay over her shoulder and looked down at the gown she had chosen in dismay. She had dressed with cleaning and cooking in mind, never thinking that Mr. Darcy would visit at such an hour. Wait a moment! Wasn’t Mr. Darcy breakfasting with uncle Gardiner this morning? Her curiosity piqued, she returned to the kitchen window, but the chaise was now empty save for the driver. A gentle knocking at the door startled her once again.
She opened it to find a pretty young maid, dressed in uniform, curtsying before her. She was holding a large basket full of freshly baked goods, while the footman behind her was burdened with boxes and tins of every shape and size.
“Good morning, Miss. Are you Miss Elizabeth Bennet?”
“Yes I am,” said Elizabeth, truly bewildered.
“Good, for the master wished me to speak directly to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. My name is Clara, Miss, and I am in service in the home of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. My master has directed me to come and help your family, and I shall be your maid for as long as you need me. If you would be so kind as to show me to the kitchen, I shall put these things away and get started.”
“I’m sorry, Clara,” said Elizabeth. “I know that Mr. Darcy means well, but I simply cannot accept! Please tell him that I thought his gesture most thoughtful, but that I declined his gift and sent you home.”
The maid began to whimper and rub her eyes. “Please Madam,” she begged, “Mr. Darcy was very firm. He said that if I could not get you to accept my help, I should not bother returning to Governor Square. He said I would lose my position if I failed to be of service to you.” She took out her handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.
Elizabeth said nothing and waited for some time until Clara looked up again. When she finally did, Elizabeth smiled and said, “Now Clara, we both know he would never say a thing like that!”
“No, Miss,” said Clara, turning a bright shade of pink. “What he did say was that he would double my wages for the time I was here if I convinced you to let me stay.” She lowered her eyes again. “Please Miss. I’ll be very quiet and do everything I am told to do and more. And if I may say so, Miss, I am very good with children. The master told me there are three. Won’t you give me a try and see if you are satisfied with my work?”
“Clara, I have no doubt that I would be! But you must understand that Mr. Gardiner, my uncle and the master of this house, is not in the habit of taking charity. I fear Mr. Darcy’s generosity might offend him.”
This time, Clara began to cry real tears.
Elizabeth too, was very distressed. “Let me speak to my aunt, Clara. It will be her decision.”
By one o’clock, Elizabeth was pacing the floor in anticipation of her uncle’s return. Surely the meeting was over by now and perhaps, if things had gone well, Mr. Darcy would want to come and inform her of it himself. With Clara having brought along two prepared meals and being very energetic and efficient, Elizabeth had been able to bath, dress and spend some extra time arranging her hair. She had only brought the simplest of gowns, thinking that she would be doing nothing but housework, so it was all the more important to make the most of her of natural assets.
But it was after two when the Darcy chaise finally stopped at their door. On seeing it, Elizabeth fled from the window, smoothed the creases of her gown and waited breathlessly for the knock on the door. When it came, she bit her lips, pinched her cheeks and ran towards it in happy anticipation. When she opened it her countenance fell, her brows arched in surprise, but she managed to give the gentleman before her a pleasant smile.
“Mr. Bingley!” she said, “How nice to see you!”
Posted on Saturday, 14 August 2004
“Is Mr. Darcy not coming up, Mr. Bingley?” asked Elizabeth even before she invited him in. “I thought I saw his coach.” She went on tiptoe to peer over his shoulder and down the stairs, but suddenly realizing how rude she was being, returned her focus to him.
“No, Miss Bennet. And he is very irritated with me for imposing myself on you without warning, given your family’s ill health. But…as soon as I learned of your being in town, which was just an hour ago, I… I could not wait to pay my respects.” He smiled, a bit bashfully, alternating his weight from one foot to another, waiting for her to ask him in. It was now his turn to peer over her shoulder in the hope of getting a glimpse of Jane.
Elizabeth noticed the bouquet of yellow roses and small gold box that he held behind his back and grinned. Obviously he was waiting to present them to the “other” Miss Bennet.
“Won’t you come into the parlor, Sir,” said Elizabeth, determined to get more information from him before she fetched her sister. She led him into the comfortably furnished, quiet room and was about to invite him to sit, when a crashing sound and loud shouts of “No, No! I won’t take any more! It makes me ill! I hate it!” could be heard in the hallway. And suddenly, the blur of a little body in nightclothes dashed between them, ran towards the sofa and squeezed itself underneath it. A disheveled and exasperated Jane, spoon in hand, appeared in the doorway. The spoon fell to the floor.
“Mr. Bingley!” she gasped.
Charles Bingley smiled sheepishly. How beautiful she was – her hair coming undone, medicine stains on her apron, her face flushed with effort and embarrassment. Darcy had been right, he really had no right to put her in this awkward position – but he was so happy that he had! She was even more beautiful than he remembered and his heart leapt in his chest! He had come to determine whether there was a still a trace affection in her gaze, and there was! There definitely was! He had seen it immediately.
“Miss Bennet, I am so happy to see you, although I can well imagine that I have picked the absolute worst time to come. Please forgive me! We were at luncheon when Darcy mentioned that you were in town, and I….well, you know, I am not known for my patience. But perhaps I can be of some assistance with…..” He cocked his head towards the sofa and grinned.
Jane simply looked at him, her eyes wide.
“What is the young man’s name?” he whispered to Elizabeth, who was standing beside him.
“John,” she mouthed and suppressed a laugh.
“Uh, John! Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Charles Bingley and I am a friend of both your aunts. I have an estate in Hertfordshire very close to Longbourn,” he said, bending slightly and speaking directly to the space under the sofa. “I’ve brought your aunt Jane some very fine chocolates, and I think she might be persuaded to share them with you if you cooperate with her. Let me see, there are truffle centers, cherry filling, marzipan and caramel. Do any of those strike your fancy?”
A small voice could be heard from the dark, narrow space, “I love the cherry filled ones… But I hate that medicine and I won’t take any!”
Bingley lowered himself to sit cross-legged on the carpet before the sofa, opened the box and placed it on the floor beside him.
“I know it tastes absolutely terrible …like smelly old shoes and fish intestines all cooked together,” said Bingley. There was a giggle from the shallow depths of the couch.
“But I always follow that nasty taste with a few sips of water and something especially good. And as I swallow the medicine rather quickly and take my time enjoying my treat, it always seems well worth it. What do you say? Shall we try? I’ll help you.”
When John immerged, Bingley gave him the box to hold and asked him to lead the way into the kitchen. There he asked for the medicine bottle, a fresh spoon and a glass of water.
“Actually, if you have some leftover tea, that would be even better. “It cleanses the palate,” he said, winking at Jane who continued to stare at him, incredulously.
“Now, we shall put these things in their proper order, take a deep breath and begin,” said Bingley.
The ordeal took but a moment, and after a bit of sputtering and coughing, the medicine was down and John was savoring his chocolate covered cherry.
“Well done, Mr. Bingley!” said Elizabeth, beaming at him. “What would we have done without you?”
“You would have managed, I am sure,” said Bingley, shyly eyeing Jane.
“Shall we all go into the parlor then,” said Elizabeth, closing the box of chocolates and handing it back to him.
“John, if you bring a quiet toy to play with, you can join us if you like, or you may be excused to play in your room,” she added.
Jane suddenly found her voice. “Excuse me please, Mr. Bingley. I must wipe up the spilled medicine from the hallway.” She turned quickly and disappeared.
When they were seated, Elizabeth returned to her original purpose. “Have you spent the morning with Mr. Darcy,” she asked, knowing full well that he had not.
“No, no! We met at the club where he brought your uncle for a celebratory luncheon. I understand Mr. Gardiner totally outwitted the competition and saved Darcy a small fortune!” He reddened. “Oh, forgive me! That was not for me to tell. I only had instructions to say that all had gone well and that Mr. Darcy would like to visit after dinner this evening to celebrate with all of you. He intends to bring his sister and a magnum of champagne! He arranged all that with your uncle, of course, but as I insisted on imposing on you now, he requested that I deliver the message.”
Having finished this animated little speech, he looked down nervously at his shoes, drummed his fingers in his trousers and looked anxiously towards the door.
Jane Bennet was not the young woman she had been ten months ago when she had first met Charles Bingley. His attentions and subsequent abandonment had done much to bring to the fore the quiet strength and resolve that had always been part of her character, but that had been hidden behind her modest reserve and natural goodness. She shared her true self only with her sister, living a private life that she longed to share with someone she could love and trust. She had thought she had found that someone in Charles Bingley.
His sudden and unexplained departure had left her to question her instincts, her perception of the world and her deep-rooted belief in the trustworthiness of men. She had spent December in shock and embarrassment as her neighbors and friends cast down their eyes in pity when they passed her in the street. By January she was asking herself what she had done wrong, scrutinizing every look, word and action. By February, she had convinced herself that although Mr. Bingley thought her beautiful, she was, after all, only a country girl, and did not possess the elegance and sophistication he might require in a wife. In March, she dwelled on the fact that her almost nonexistent dowry was the cause of his rejection and by April it was her loud, ill-mannered family and poor relations. Week after week, month after month she tormented herself, until her wisdom finally cleared the fog and she saw things as they really were. For once, she was not at all to blame! It was Mr. Bingley who had lavished her with his attentions, making everyone believe that she was the answer to his every hope for the future, that she was the “angel” he could not live without.
He had enjoyed her company, and then he had fled. Perhaps he collected pretty young women wherever he went. She didn’t know. But she knew that she wouldn’t allow herself to be so used again. Why had he come – towards what end and for what purpose? She was determined to be civil, but she would not allow his soft blond curls and sparkling blue eyes to fool her again. So what if he had proven himself capable of being an excellent father! What mattered more, was whether he could first be a devoted husband!
She waited impatiently for Clara to finish her hair and prepared herself to enter the parlor.
“Please forgive me for taking so long to join you,” she said, looking to both her sister and Mr. Bingley. “I needed a few moments to freshen up.”
“That is quite all right, Miss Bennet. Your sister and I have been discussing my possible return to Netherfield,” said Bingley. He hoped this bit of news might pique her interest, but it did not seem to, for she simply sat and stared at him.
“Miss Elizabeth tells me that everyone at Longbourn is well….uh, … and I’ve been inquiring about the latest neighborhood gossip,” he said, with his usual good humor. Another lengthy pause made him even more uncomfortable, but he noticed that Jane, although quiet, looked directly at him, her l gaze serene.
“And how is your family, Mr. Bingley,” asked Elizabeth, when her sister remained silent, “I hope they are all well.”
“Oh yes, very well thank you, Miss Bennet. My sisters are all a flutter preparing for the winter Season… But they will be ever so happy to hear that you are both in town and I am sure they will come to call on you as soon as may be,” replied Bingley with enthusiasm.
“I don’t think so, Sir,” said Jane, with self assured calm.
“I beg your pardon?” said Bingley, obviously surprised.
“I do not think that they will be happy to hear that we are in town at all. And please do not urge them to visit, Mr. Bingley. The last time they were here they made it very clear that they felt uncomfortable in this part of town and with our company. I was mortified for my aunt and would not want her to suffer the indignity again.”
Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open and her eyes widened. Was this her sister Jane speaking?
Bingley’s reaction was slower in coming. He opened his mouth to speak, shook his head as if confused, then looked intently at Jane for some minutes.
“Miss Bennet, did you say the last time they were here? When would my sisters have come to visit you? I am not aware that…,” He stopped mid-sentence to shake his head again and look at her questioningly.
“They returned the visit I made to your home some three weeks earlier, Sir. But surely you remember, Mr. Bingley. We were unable to meet because you were otherwise engaged with Mr. Darcy and his sister. I do wonder, Sir, that since you had no inclination to see me then, that you would bother to come and see me now. Forgive me if my question sounds impertinent; I do not mean it to be – I only wish to understand.”
Bingley paled and found himself gasping for air. “I…I am at a loss at what to say Miss Bennet, for I find myself utterly bewildered.” He ignored her painful question and focused instead on the shocking revelation! “Are you telling me that you have been in town since I last saw you at the Netherfield ball?”
Jane looked at him incredulously. Not for a moment would she believe that he was unaware of her visit!
“I came to town with my aunt and uncle after Christmas and stayed three months, Mr. Bingley. I wrote to Miss Bingley to tell her of my visit before I came, but she claimed never to have received either of my letters. I thought perhaps you had discarded them after reading them.”
Elizabeth would not have believed Jane capable of such daring! She was shocked, … but exceedingly proud!
Bingley was now pacing the floor and rubbing his temples. It was obvious that he was working himself up into a rage. His temper seemed so volatile, that when he came to sit beside Jane on the sofa, she instinctively moved away from him. He made an attempt to take her hand, then thought the better of it, and clasped his hands on his lap.
“Miss Bennet, … Jane! You must believe that I knew nothing of your letters or your visit!” He paused to look at her and saw that she believed nothing of the kind! He then lowered his head and said softly, “It is painful and humiliating for me to sit before you and admit that I have been duped and manipulated by my own family, Miss Bennet. I am angered and ashamed beyond reason!”
It was then that Jane’s breath caught in her throat. She looked at Charles Bingley and knew he was telling her the truth. She felt nothing but remorse for the harsh way she had addressed him!
“Had I received but one letter from you, Miss Bennet,” he continued, gazing at her tenderly, “I would have been back at Netherfield immediately! It was only because I didn’t hear from you that I stayed away. I couldn’t bear returning if I could not have the pleasure of your company. I feel like a fool and you must certainly think me one!” He rose from his seat and resumed his pacing, his lips quivering and white with anger. “And how hurt you must have been at my leaving in that way!”
“But I don’t understand,” said Jane, her tone now gentle. “Caroline’s first letter – the one she wrote before leaving Netherfield – it implied that you probably would not return that winter. Why would any decision to do so hinge on a letter from me?”
“Did she say that?” he shouted. “So she had this all planned out even before she arrived in London!” Charles Bingley looked as if he could breathe fire!
Feeling the need to defuse the situation, Elizabeth rose from her chair and murmured, “I believe we could all use some tea.”
“Thank you, Miss Elizabeth, but do not bother on my account. I doubt that I could hold the cup still! Although there is much I would wish to know, I find I am in no condition to be in your company at the moment. I am barely coherent. Forgive me.”
Here he turned to Jane with a pleading countenance, “But please allow me to return tomorrow, Miss Bennet. I may, by then, have a better understanding of what happened, and hopefully will have the presence of mind to share that understanding with you. I can only imagine what you must have been feeling and thinking all these months and I am deeply pained by it! … I am so very sorry, Miss Bennet. You must know that I would never knowingly do anything to hurt you!”
He bowed respectfully to each of them and quickly left the room.
“I must admit,” said Darcy, taking another sip of champagne, “that I was a bit nervous at first. Your husband, Mrs. Gardiner, simply smiled and nodded throughout Monsieur Durand’s entire presentation! Durand went over the contract item by item, pointing out the particular French laws that applied to overseas investments and the restrictions on this and the taxes on that, and all the while Mr. Gardiner did not ask one question, make one objection or add anything to the negotiation. But when Durand pulled out a fine new quill and pushed the document in my direction for my signature, he held back my arm and said calmly, “As you know, Monsieur Durand, I am new to these negotiations and would therefore like some time to discuss certain issues with my client. A half hour will suffice.”
Darcy’s imitation of her uncle’s voice made Elizabeth laugh and she looked to Miss Darcy who was also having a difficult time containing her amusement.
“Durand had been so certain that the meeting was over and that everything had gone his way, that he blanched and sputtered angrily, “I have no time for delays, Monsieur!” So, in the calmest of voices, your husband turned to me and said, “Then I’m afraid that I cannot recommend your signing this document, Mr. Darcy.”
Everyone at the table gasped.
“Needless to say,” Darcy continued, a grin playing about his lips, “Durand relented and we deliberately took forty five minutes to return – just to make him sweat! I assure you, Mrs. Gardiner, I was not prepared for your husband’s performance. He brought in a stack of French law books and recent legal journals – pages book marked and ready. He then proceeded to contest each and every point of law Durand had claimed legitimate, not only proving him wrong, but subtly implying that many of his actions was fraudulent!”
Madeline Gardiner hid her laugher behind her napkin.
“I believed Durand would lose his breakfast!” said Darcy. “Mr. Gardiner continued to smile as he altered one section after another to my advantage! By the time I signed the contract the percentage of my risk was far lower than it had been, and the percentage of my share of the profits was higher than I could have dreamed possible. You should have seen Durand’s face. It was all I could do to keep a professional demeanor! Your husband was brilliant, Madam.”
Everyone applauded as Edward Gardiner smiled and nodded his acceptance of his ovation. “I must say, I enjoyed myself exceedingly!” he replied.
“Well, I am very glad you enjoyed it, Sir, but I was a bundle of nerves until you finally opened your mouth!”
Georgiana clasped her hand over her own at the sound of her brother’s impertinence. Never before had she seen him so at ease with a business acquaintance or so happy in the company of relative strangers.
“Well, I extort some of my payment in anxiety, Mr. Darcy.” joked Mr. Gardiner and clinked glasses with him.
Darcy suddenly rose from his seat, his face taking on a more serious expression, and said, “I would like to propose a toast, if I may, to Mr. Gardiner, whose intelligence, skill and generosity has saved me from my own stupidity, and to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, whose generous heart and understanding nature brought us together.” He bowed deeply towards Elizabeth before raising his glass to her.
“Hear, Hear! Hear, Hear!” shouted everyone at the table.
The children giggled to hear their elders shouting and laughing. They had been allowed to partake of the fun, stipulating their good behavior of course, and were enjoying the sweets and cakes that had accompanied the champagne. Julia had seated herself beside Miss Darcy, obviously in awe of her elegance and beauty and Constance occupied her aunt Elizabeth’s lap on the other side of her.
“Auntie Lizzy,” she now said in all seriousness, “you should get a dress like Miss Darcy’s. It is much prettier than yours. Then you could look like a beautiful lady too.”
Everyone laughed, while Elizabeth pressed her lips together and blushed, but Darcy could not resist the opening so innocently presented to him. “I think your auntie Lizzy,” his tongue glided deliciously over her name, “is a very handsome lady, Constance. She does not need a fancy gown to make her beautiful.”
Elizabeth smiled, lowered her lashes in quiet appreciation of the compliment, and then announced that she would put up the coffee.
“May I help you, Miss Bennet,” asked Georgiana Darcy, who had, of course, never made coffee in her life, but who wanted so much to get to know the lady who had obviously taken possession of her brother’s heart. The table was suddenly silent, with the family wondering whether it was proper to have a guest of Miss Darcy’s gentility help in the kitchen?
“I would appreciate it, Miss Darcy,” said Elizabeth, holding out her hand to lead the way. Darcy sighed contentedly. Elizabeth never disappointed him.
She demonstrated the workings of the coffee grinder and then instructed Miss Darcy in measuring the required amount into the pot. They chatted about their families and their love of music as the coffee boiled and Elizabeth poured the cream into the pitcher and the sugar cubes into the bowl.
“Do you think you can manage that tray, Miss Darcy?” asked Elizabeth pointing to the one already laden with cups and saucers.
“I think so, Miss Bennet,” laughed Georgiana, “although, as you may have guessed, I have never done this before. I think my brother will be shocked to see me coming out with it.”
“Oh, I assure you, he will not; for I have a task for him as well. I need his height to reach something down. Would you ask him to come and help me?”
Elizabeth waited nervously for Darcy to enter the kitchen and hoped she would have enough time to say what needed to be said.
“How can I be of service, Miss Bennet,” said Darcy beaming and hoping for a few quiet moments together.
“Mr. Darcy, I have called you in on a pretext because there is something I think you should know.”
His brow furrowed.
“I assume you have not spoken to Mr. Bingley since you dropped him off here this afternoon?”
“No, Miss Bennet, I have not. Is something wrong?”
“I’m afraid he is quite upset. He discovered during his visit with us that my sister was in town this winter and that his own family had hidden the news from him.” She lowered her gaze and fingered the rim of the sugar bowl. “I remembered your writing that you were not proud of your part in that deception and I wanted to warn you that it may all come out into the open now.”
Darcy winced. He was about to respond, when Elizabeth put her finger to her lips to silence him and drew him into the farthest corner of the kitchen.
“I must also beg you not to reveal my knowledge of it to anyone,” she said in a whisper. “I have never told Jane of your interference, Mr. Darcy; I could see no reason to hurt her further. And if she finds out that I have known all these months and have not confided in her, I… I am truly afraid for her, Mr. Darcy. She is rather fragile at the moment. She doesn’t know whom to trust and she needs me. If she loses her faith in me as well…” She looked up at him beseechingly. “Please, Mr. Darcy. Promise me that no matter what happens, you will not tell Mr. Bingley that I knew of it.”
“Think no more of it, Miss Bennet; you have my word.” He had always known that his role in this despicable affair would one day come crashing down him, but why, dear G-d, did it have to be now?
© 2004 Copyright held by the author.