Beginning, Section II
Posted on Wednesday, 15 March 2006
After handing Elizabeth the letter I’d written I walked across Rosings Park for a seemingly endless interval. The weather was painfully beautiful, though I did see clouds in the distant north, where I would later travel. I could not help but think on her expression as she’d reluctantly accepted the missive. Such a communication was highly irregular and perhaps further proof to her of my bad character, yet I’d felt driven to defend of myself, at least as concerns George Wickham. Again the perversity of fate in putting him in my way, and in a position to poison the woman I loved against me, struck me. Another uneasy thought occurred that perhaps I was to blame that society yet took pleasure in his company. But the only possible remedy to that situation involved exposing the other person in the world dearest to me and I set it from my mind. I was so distracted that I walked too close to a low tree limb and bumped my head rather hard. The dull pain did nothing to improve my mood.
I slowed my pace as I neared the parsonage. I would take my leave of the Collins and Mrs. Collins’ sister quickly, in an attempt to leave the abode before Elizabeth returned from her walk. The last thing I wished was to see her looking at me with awkwardness and dislike again. Though I yet desired her good opinion I knew it was not to be mine. I knocked upon the door. A serving maid answered and told me that Mr. Collins was in his gardens but that the ladies had not yet returned from an early call to Rosings, though they’d long been expected. I was puzzled that they were not in, but made my way to the gardens that I might quickly discharge my duty to my aunt’s clergyman.
Mr. Collins wore a work apron and hummed, in a wandering and unappealing fashion, to himself as he trimmed hedges. As ever, his brow was beaded with sweat. I wondered if he was in good health. I had never seen him not perspiring and I did not think the perspiration was caused primarily by exertion. I rather thought him a nervous and silly creature, not unlike his cousin’s wife, Mrs. Bennet. I puzzled for a moment as I considered which one of the two I thought more intelligent and capable. I finally dismissed this notion as inconsequential and beneath me; and besides which it was a bit annoying.
I bore the little man’s obsequious nonsense as best I could for a full ten minutes. Finally, growing concerned that Elizabeth might return, I took my leave and began again toward the great house. Raised voices could be heard in the distance. The noise grew as I came closer to Rosings. Leaving the cover of the trees I saw my cousin’s physician, Dr. Grey, standing on the steps to the front door. He looked somber as he took instruction from my aunt, who to my astonishment was leaning out a window to speak with him. She caught sight of me then and called, “Darcy! There you are! Where have you been? We are all in a desperate way, Nephew!”
Accustomed to odd behavior from my aunt as I was, the fact that she was yelling from the window of her house held me speechless for a moment. Finally the doctor approached me and said firmly, “Sir. There is typhoid. I have placed a quarantine on the house. No one may leave or enter, if you please.”
I stared at him, shocked. Finally I asked, “Is it my cousin, Anne?”
He nodded and said, “It is. She has exerted herself more than her mother knew, trying to do what she could for some of the tenants, as she told me she’d mentioned to you. We’ve lost two families to it already. Have you ever been exposed?”
I shook my head and asked, “Will she recover?”
Dr. Grey frowned and said, “I will do everything in my power, Mr. Darcy. I cannot offer any promises.” His doubtful expression spoke volumes to me.
I nodded my comprehension and asked, “What may I do?”
He replied, “You must go, Sir.”
I nodded again and said, “I was preparing to depart today.”
He suggested, “Please leave now, Mr. Darcy.”
Lady Catherine yelled, “Are you coming inside or not, Nephew?!”
Dr. Grey replied, “Lady Catherine, I am sorry to say that your nephew may not enter the house, for his safety. I urge him to leave immediately.” He turned to me again and said, “Your driver and two footmen are able to go with you. Your other servants were in the house when I declared the quarantine.” He added as an afterthought, “And I fear that your cousin who has traveled here with you may not leave either.”
I felt dismay as I guessed how he would answer to my next question, “May I retrieve my belongings?”
He shook his head and said, “I fear not. You may not safely enter the house. I advise you to leave at once.”
Lady Catherine yelled, “Nephew! You must inform Mr. Collins that his wife and her sister were here when the quarantine was imposed. They must remain.” I nodded. She continued, “But Miss Elizabeth Bennet is not with them. She must be found and returned to Hertfordshire at once.”
I turned to look at the doctor. He shrugged to indicate that he did not understand her meaning. She glared at the doctor as I turned a puzzled gaze her way. She hissed, “It is not seemly for her to remain at the parsonage with only Mr. Collins. His interest in her once was of a romantic nature. Most odd that she refused him, but it is the truth and I will not have a scandal. If she cannot come here, she must go home at once!” The doctor gave a short laugh and shook his head.
I stared at my aunt, uncertain that I’d heard her correctly, yet coloring with embarrassment from head to toe as I understood her meaning. I was not the first man Elizabeth had refused. I was in company with none other than Mr. Collins! A fresh dose of humiliation kept me silent as my aunt continued her diatribe on the subject. Finally the reality of the situation came over me. The doctor was not the only person to hear my aunt’s words. Others, both inside and out of the house could hear her. The damage was done. Elizabeth must be removed and I must be the one to remove her. I nodded to the doctor, spoke to the servants that would accompany me and prepared to return to the parsonage.
Moments later my carriage arrived at the Hunsford Parsonage. I looked at the dwelling, thinking how little I liked to return. Grimly, I exited the carriage. Mr. Collins had run from his gardens again. He looked back to the house with evident surprise that no one else came to greet me. I informed him, “Mr. Collins, I am sorry to be the bearer of ill tidings, but Rosings has been closed in quarantine. My cousin, Miss de Bourgh, has contracted the typhoid and all who were in the premises when the doctor made the diagnosis must remain therein. Mrs. Collins and Miss Lucas were among those in the house when the quarantine was set in place.” I looked at him with pity as he looked sincerely horror stricken.
His next words dulled the sensation of pity. “Miss de Bourgh with typhoid! There must be some error! It cannot be. Oh, please tell me that Lady Catherine was not there to hear of it and be so inconvenienced as to suffer a quarantine!”
I endeavored not to roll my eyes as I pointedly said, “Your wife and sister were there.”
He nodded and said, “Oh, I hope that they can be of comfort and help!” He expressed no concern for them! I struggled not to roll my eyes as I considered the imbalance of the man’s priorities.
I added dryly, “And, yes, Lady Catherine was present when her daughter’s physician was called in to visit. So, she is to remain in the house until further notice.”
He trembled all over as he bewailed the inconvenience all this must be to my aunt. I allowed him to go on for as long as I could stand it before offering in a withering tone, “More than any inconvenience to her ladyship one ought to be concerned with the threat to my cousin’s well being, sir.” I meant to admonish him and express anger, but suddenly I felt a great sadness well up within me at the thought that my poor cousin was likely to perish. I remembered times when we’d evaded her mother’s tyranny enough to play together. I remembered her laugh, so rarely heard.
At that moment I saw Elizabeth. She was standing in the front hallway of the parsonage and had opened the door. I bowed to her. Mr. Collins noted this and turned, “Oh! Cousin Elizabeth! Have you heard the dreadful news? Typhoid has quarantined those in the great house of Rosings!”
Elizabeth nodded and asked quietly, “How did the doctor say Miss de Bourgh fares, Mr. Darcy?” I saw an oddly unfamiliar expression on her face.
Recalling the doctor’s air when I’d asked, I hesitated, and then said, “We can only pray for her, I fear.” I then recognized the pity she felt. I looked away from her.
Mr. Collins said, “Perhaps you might be of some help to them, Cousin. You should go to the great house and offer your services to her Ladyship at once!”
I interjected angrily, “Mr. Collins! Do you even consider the health of your cousin?”
Elizabeth smiled slightly and said to her cousin, “Mr. Collins, I wish that I could offer assistance, but I have never had the typhoid nor been exposed to it. Please forgive me for not being able therefore to aide her ladyship.”
Mr. Collins began to pace back and forth, muttering to himself. Unable to resist the provocation I asked, “Have you been exposed to the typhoid, Mr. Collins? Perhaps you could offer assistance.”
He shook his head vehemently, looking pale and perspiring even more than before. Again he turned to his cousin, “Could you not go to the house? You are so capable. I am sure that you could be of help.”
Elizabeth allowed a bit of her annoyance to show in her face and voice as she responded, “Do not suppose I would not like to be of assistance, Mr. Collins, but also do not suppose that I should like to be exposed to the typhoid. We can only hope that Lady Catherine will find it in her generous heart to forgive me.”
Mr. Collins looked saddened at this but allowed, “Then I suppose you may remain here.”
Heart thumping, I took the opening. “Actually Lady Catherine has specified that Miss Bennet ought to remove to the safety of her home in Hertfordshire at once.” Elizabeth turned quickly towards me as she stared and then shook her head.
Mr. Collins began to fairly rant and rave over the generosity of my aunt in giving thought to his cousin during such a time of suffering.
I saw that Elizabeth looked now at the carriage behind me, waiting. A fleeting look of anxiety crossed her face. She said with assumed calm, “While I very much appreciate her Ladyship’s concern there can be no cause for such haste. I am planning to travel north to Hertfordshire, hopefully with Miss Lucas, in two weeks’ time. My uncle is to send a man servant to assist us and we are to break our journey in London.”
I swallowed hard and carefully offered, “Lady Catherine has expressed concern that it might appear unseemly for you to remain here alone with Mr. Collins. She cares for your reputation and as I am traveling to London today she has asked that I offer you passage to Hertfordshire. But if you have family in London that you planned to visit, I could take you to them instead.” I looked down at the ground, not eager to see the expression of disgust that must surely be on Miss Elizabeth’s face as she considered the notion of being close to me for any amount of time.
In a slight voice, she asked, “How could it be unseemly for me to remain here with my cousin? There are servants. We are not alone.”
I said, “You would of course need to see that one of your maids attend Miss Bennet on her journey to London, Mr. Collins. If we are traveling to protect reputation, we must certainly see to such details, as I am sure my aunt would insist.” Mr. Collins bowed and agreed, continuing to extol my aunt’s virtues. I could Elizabeth growing angry that I’d ignored her plea. I very quietly said, “Miss Elizabeth I am sorry, but my aunt has rather loudly and publicly expressed her concerns. The doctor and servants overheard. If you remained here now there would undoubtedly be talk. Please allow me the honor of returning you to your family, either in London or in Hertfordshire.” I caught her eye then and saw vexation, but also continued confusion and resistance. Finally I surrendered to the inevitable. I choked out, “My aunt has unfortunately shared private details of your cousin’s previous inclination for you. With that spoken of publicly you must see that it would be in your best interest to leave the parsonage.”
Elizabeth turned her astonished gaze to Mr. Collins. She finally asked, “Why in the world would you share such private information with Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins?”
Mr. Collins puffed up as he replied, “I had told my patroness of my planned generosity to my cousins. While the best wife a man could want, my dear Charlotte is not one of my fair cousins. Her ladyship asked what had become of my original plans. I shared with her that the eldest Miss Bennet had expected to enter into an engagement already and that the next Miss Bennet was so ungrateful… well chose not to accept my generous offer.”
At this moment I wished nothing more than to be invisible. Elizabeth’s eyes flashed with anger and embarrassment. I was mortified. Finally, I choked out, “May I await you in the carriage while you pack your belongings and find a maid to accompany you?”
Mr. Collins whirled to me, saying, “No, sir! You must wait inside where I can offer you refreshment and hospitality befitting a man of your station.”
I bowed more deeply than the man merited and said, “I thank you for your kind offer, but on second thought I would prefer to walk the grounds while I wait. Though it grows chill as the sun goes behind the clouds I would find such activity refreshing. We will be closed up in the carriage for far too long.” I glanced at Elizabeth again and saw her looking at me resignedly. She curtsied and said, “I thank you, Mr. Darcy. I will prepare quickly.”
Posted on Friday, 17 March 2006
I walked the next half hour in the park. I was already weary from a sleepless night and my morning walk, but further exertion was preferable to being shut in a small space with Mr. Collins, newly known to me as my compatriot in the ridiculous. And my feelings were unsettled and not entirely in my control. I shuddered to think of Elizabeth shackled in matrimony to such a man, paying obeisance on my aunt for all her days. Then I bitterly wondered which of her failed proposals (and which of her suitors!) Elizabeth looked on with more contempt. The prospect was mortifying. I mastered a flash of anger and carefully calming my feelings so that this enforced togetherness could be born. Finally I spied Elizabeth leaving the parsonage. I walked quickly back to the carriage and watched as my men secured her trunk to the top of the carriage. I offered her my hand, noted her hesitant acceptance without allowing any visible reaction of my own, and helped her inside. A middle aged maid sat by her. I took my place across from them.
I asked, “Are we for London or Hertfordshire, Miss Bennet?”
Elizabeth said, “Unfortunately my aunt and uncle are not in London yet this week, Mr. Darcy. As I said, they were expecting me in two weeks’ time, not so soon.” She did not look at me as she spoke. Her discomfort was fairly palpable. I saw the maid look at each of us with interest.
I affected nonchalance as I replied, “We will gladly escort you to Hertfordshire then. It is no trouble. I am glad to be able to serve you.” For some reason I colored as I said this last.
She looked at me oddly as she replied, “I thank you, sir.”
From then we traveled in silence. We broke our journey at an inn and took some refreshment. While inside I heard the innkeeper cautioning my men about gypsies encamped along the road we were about to pass in the next fifteen miles or so. Elizabeth and the maid were resting inside. I returned to the carriage and primed the pistol I keep under the seat and placed it in the pocket of my great coat. My driver asked if we might prefer to secure rooms at the inn rather than continuing our journey, but in my impatience to be done with this enforced togetherness I demurred. I saw Elizabeth nod her agreement and look thankful. I looked away then, not wanting to dwell on her desire to be away from me or my own conflicted feelings in the matter.
After we’d been underway again for some time I broke the silence and apologized to Elizabeth that I’d not heeded the driver’s advice. Heavy drops of rain had started to fall. Elizabeth smiled slightly and said, “Perhaps you would do better to apologize to your footmen and driver who must travel outside the carriage.” I nodded agreement as I gazed steadily at her and then I looked away. It struck me once again that she was a kind person, ever thinking of others and their well being- and she thought me the opposite, unfeeling and selfish.
Outside the window I caught sight of a man looking at us in such a way that I reached to my pocket and sought the comfort of the pistol therein. As the rain fell more heavily our progress slowed. One of the footmen leaned in and spoke, letting us know that the next town was but ten miles ahead and that we were more than ten miles past the previous inn, so we would continue going forward. I saw another raggedly-dressed man alongside the road.
We came to a fallen log. The footmen left their posts to remove it from our path. I heard the maid gasp as a small group of gypsies moved towards us from the wood. Elizabeth only pulled her cloak about herself more tightly. I urged the ladies to remain calm. My own breathing came a bit faster, though, I confess. There were at least a dozen gypsies outside the carriage now. One man stared at Elizabeth in an overly familiar way, fairly leering. I pulled the pistol from my pocket. I saw her eyes drop to it, but from then my attention was fully on the people who menaced us from without. A woman yelled for pity, for money. The leering man laughed and said, “Or something better!” He continued to look at Elizabeth as he licked his lips and began to move a hand towards the window of the carriage. I leveled the pistol so that the gypsies could see it. I took aim at the man who eyed Elizabeth so lasciviously. Fortunately, my footmen had the tree out of the path and returned, pushing past the threatening crowd. We were able to go on.
As we did so, the maid began to cry. I returned the pistol to my pocket and breathed a sigh of relief that worse had not occurred. Elizabeth spoke in a tremulous tone, “Thank you for your protection, sir.”
I looked at her intently and said, “No thanks are necessary, Miss Elizabeth. I am at your service. You will be kept safe.” A new sensation was building within me as I considered the depth of the meaning of my words and my resolve to keep them true.
I saw her nod slowly as a blush crept into her cheeks. She looked out as the rain began to fall even more heavily and said, “Perhaps I am the one who ought to apologize to your men. Had I urged it we might have remained at the last inn.”
I shrugged. I saw her glance at me and then blush as she looked away. We both knew in that instant that I would of course do anything she asked. It was a strange feeling to me. I had always had others in service to me. Only with Georgiana was I the protector, but that was more of a paternal feeling than that which I bore for Elizabeth. The way the gypsy man leered at her not only made my blood run cold but also reminded me of the way she tempted me. I saw then that when I’d made my addresses to her the previous evening I’d spoken to her with as much disrespect as that man had shown her today, perhaps more. I’d spoken from selfish passion, not from a desire to serve her. Now that she was lost to me I finally knew what it was to truly love her. I closed my eyes against the miserable realization and pretended to rest. In my mind's eye I saw all I'd dreamt of with her, passion and lively companionship, warmth and peace.
Because I no longer watched Elizabeth I gradually became more aware of our surroundings. I heard the rain falling ever harder and felt the struggle of the carriage wheels. I could hear the roaring of the river we rode by. I felt us slip several times. I began to wonder at the wisdom of continuing forward. Yet I had no desire to go back past the gypsy encampment where such tangible danger existed for Elizabeth. When the footman peered in again to ask my preference I reluctantly advised that we continue on. He nodded his understanding and grimly returned to his post. I watched our progress more carefully, growing more concerned with each passing moment. I saw that the maid cried silently and that Elizabeth was pale with fright. I wished it were my right to offer her comfort, to hold her in my embrace. Her fingers tightly gripped her cloak.
There was no question of rights or propriety in the next instant however. I felt the loss of control almost as it happened. The carriage began to careen down an embankment towards the river. The maid screamed piteously. I threw myself across the carriage and pulled Elizabeth tightly against me, wrapping my arms about her. I was thrown painfully against the window, bruising my back and thighs, and realized with horror that the maid was gone, had fallen out the window. Had I been any smaller I also would have been thrown out by the jostling we endured. I clung more tightly to Elizabeth, cradling her against me. The sensation of falling was sickening. The entire carriage was on its side now and sliding downwards quickly.
I yelled as we hit the water. With my back against the window I felt it immediately, cold and grasping. I struggled to stand and pulled Elizabeth to her feet next to me. I was forced to stoop as I struggled with the door mechanism above me. Finally I managed it and threw the door open. I pulled myself out on to the side of the overturned carriage. We were near the edge of the river, but being quickly pulled out further. I reached down and called to Elizabeth, “Take my hand! Help me to pull you up!” She complied without question. Once were both outside the carriage I looked around. The wind cut through us and the rain drove down harder than ever. I saw my driver laying dead on the riverbank, his neck obviously broken. I could see one of the footmen, unconscious, being washed away from us in the rapids of the river, far from my reach. Of the other footman and the maid there was no sign. The carriage shifted, being pulled into the current. I said, “We must get to shore.” She nodded in mute terror. Carefully, I crouched down. The carriage rocked beneath us. I leapt down next to it, between the carriage and the river bank and carefully planted my legs in the rushing, freezing water. I reached up and took Elizabeth’s hand in mine. I said, “I’ll catch you. Come to me.” She held my hand tightly and shifted to move to me. Suddenly the carriage jerked away, into the current. I heard her scream and I pulled hard on her hand so that she fell onto me. I grasped her tightly and lifted her into my arms and struggled out of the water. Once we were on the riverbank I set her down carefully. She had lost her cloak during the struggle.
I started to remove my great coat to offer her, but she shook her head in dissent. “There is no sense in us both being soaked through, Mr. Darcy!” I was deeply distressed to think that circumstances had left me more comfortable than she was. I was only soaked from just above the knees down. She was uncomfortably wet from head to toe now.
I urged, “Let us make for the relative shelter of the wood. Hopefully this downpour will not last much longer.” We saw lightning and heard thunder crash. I again took her hand and led her to the woods. I saw a pained expression on her face as I led her and supposed that my touch was distasteful to her. I released her hand as we reached the wood. Under the cover of the trees we only suffered light misting. I saw her impatiently push at her hair. It had come loose. She quickly worked the wet strands into a braid. In the dappled and dim light I could see that her wet clothes were all but transparent over her as they melded to her form. I closed my eyes and turned from the beautiful sight.
At that moment I saw a sight that made my blood run cold. An old mare arrived with two of the gypsy men on her back. They dismounted and looked out at the wreck of the carriage as it washed away. I could not hear what they said, but I moved further back into the shelter of the woods. I made certain that Elizabeth was behind me, safely sheltered from sight and I checked my pocket for the pistol. It was still there. I felt the fabric around it to see if it was wet and determine whether the pistol might still do us some good. To my relief, the fabric inside was dry. My breathing became more controlled as I concentrated on the matter at hand. As I took another step back I felt her trembling behind me. She held to my left arm as though she sought comfort. I tried not to become distracted. The rain began to slow. The two gypsy men remounted the horse and rode away. I doubted not that they would return, eager to salvage what they might from the wreckage. I turned to Elizabeth and asked, “Are you well? We should leave this area.”
She nodded and said, “I am well, only a bit cold. I agree that we would be wise to leave before they return to scavenge from our loss.” Her voice shook and I did not think this was due entirely to the cold.
Furtively we reached the edge of the road where we could walk more easily. We set a quick pace and continued towards the next town. I estimated we had about eight miles to walk before we would reach safety. I saw Elizabeth trip over a tree root and reached out a steadying hand. I apologized, “Please forgive my familiarity, Miss Elizabeth. I only wish to keep you from harm.”
She said, “Oh! You are forgiven, Mr. Darcy. And I thank you for helping me escape the carriage. If it had not been for your assistance during the wreck itself I would likely have been killed. I do not think this an exaggeration. I thank you for preserving my life.”
She looked so sincerely friendly that it brought a lump to my throat. I blinked quickly as I said, “I am only glad to be of service.” I saw her smile slightly at this and nod. She looked very pensive. We walked on in silence for the next hour. The storm passed. Our silence was broken by the sound of an approaching horse. Fearing that it might be the gypsies, we took to the woods. We each hid behind a tree and I made certain to have a good view of the road in case the rider might turn out to be someone friendly.
Our fears were proved reasonable when the old mare and her two riders again appeared. The younger man said, “How much further should we look? You can’t be certain she wasn’t washed away down the river, you know.” I realized that I’d left the door from which we’d escaped open. It would be apparent that at least one occupant had exited. I cursed my lack of prescience.
The man who’d earlier looked so lasciviously at Elizabeth replied, “Oh, that pretty pretty had some spark to her. She’s not the kind to go easily. And she had a rosy look, like a gal who knows something of taking the air, not one who keeps to the hoity-toity drawin’ room. With a chit like that in your bed you’d be a happy man!”
I avoided Elizabeth’s gaze. The ruffian had, in his own harsh way, expressed a sentiment I’d considered far more than I ought. I prayed we would stay hidden from view, for I did not relish the idea of taking a human life. Yet I knew I would do so before I would let Elizabeth come to harm.
The younger man speculated, “I wonder if she’s wife to that rich fellow?”
The elder laughed, “Oh! She’s his all right. Did you see the look o’ death he had at any that even dared look at her?” I felt myself go crimson and continued to avoid Elizabeth’s gaze.
And they rode on in the direction we needed to go. I looked around for a comfortable place for Elizabeth to sit. Finally spying a tree that had fallen sideways I motioned to it and we both sat. I suggested, “Perhaps now is a good time to rest for a bit.”
After several moments of silence, Elizabeth asked, “How long do you think it will be before they go past us again?”
I shrugged as if it were immaterial rather than the quandary that kept us from continuing on the road to safety. I only said, “Do not fear, Miss Elizabeth.” I watched the road and listened carefully for their return. I only turned back to her several moments later, puzzled, when I heard the rustle of paper. I saw that she held the letter I had given her earlier. She shyly regarded me as she saw that I recognized it.
She said, “I’m glad that it was not ruined.” I did not reply, only watched as she returned it to her pocket and said, “Thank you for trusting me enough to help me better understand Mr. Wickham’s evil tendencies... and your good character.” She swallowed hard, “My perceptions have proven sorely lacking. I am sorry that I was so blind to the truth. I thought myself so intelligent and such a good judge of character! Yet I never knew myself until I read your explanations.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, fatigued. Finally I opened them again and said, “I am glad that you see the truth of Wickham. I felt called upon to defend my actions there, especially as I knew he’d imposed on you. You are so kind and good that it is not to be wondered that you should trust him, yet I am glad to have been of service in opening your eyes to his true nature.” I felt very vulnerable about this topic of conversation. My earlier anger with her was gone. It now turned toward Wickham and most of all to me.
She chuckled and shook her head. I looked at her, puzzled again. She said, “The good folk of Meryton would hardly recognize you today, Mr. Darcy.” I looked down at my clothing, wondering if she referred to my appearance. She chuckled again and said, “No, sir. While you are reasonably disheveled from our current situation I do not refer to your appearance.” She blushed and I sought to understand what seemed to be a compliment of sorts. I noticed then that she still shivered. Her clothing was beginning to dry now that the rain had stopped. She brushed leaves and dirt from her skin. I stood and took off my great coat and then my jacket and handed it to her. She hesitated, wide eyed and staring at me with an expression I’d not seen on her face before.
I explained, “Your earlier objection was that it would not do for us to both get soaked. The rain has stopped now. I will not become any wetter. But you need to warm yourself. Please take it.” Finally she did. I eased my great coat on over my shirt. The ends were still wet, but the upper section was warm. She stood and put her arms through the sleeves of my jacket. They dangled and she wrapped them around her self. I noticed as she did this that she favored one arm, the one by which I’d pulled her down from the carriage as it was carried away by the current. I could see that she was already gaining warmth from the garment and I nodded, happy for her increased comfort. She impatiently pulled at her wet braid of hair so that it fell outside the jacket.
At that moment I heard a horse approaching again, rather slowly. I reached into the pocket of my coat to remove the gun. She stared up at me as I stood there. I eased away from her. She sat and then I did as well, hoping we would both be hidden from sight of those on the road.
Instead of the two men we’d seen earlier, we saw another group of gypsies. Their horse pulled a small wagon and several rode while three of them walked alongside. They had retrieved Elizabeth’s trunk and one of the men wore the coat that had belonged to my driver. I heard Elizabeth gasp slightly at the sight. It sickened me that they would take the clothing from a man who’d tragically perished only moments before. My thoughts turned to his family. I tried to remember how many children he had.
I also worried at the dangers all of these people presented. Before I’d thought simply to wait until the two men on the horse gave up and rode back past us. Now, we would have to worry about being discovered by these people. I still determined that we would wait in the relative safety of the woods until after the two men passed us by. The one man’s interest in Elizabeth particularly worried me. So we waited. I saw that Elizabeth was tired, at least as fatigued as I felt. After she jerked awake as she nearly fell from her seat for a second time I urged her to lean against me and rest. She was too tired to protest, I could see. I moved to a spot on the log where I could also lean against a small tree. Then I held out my hand and whispered, “Please allow me to give you enough comfort that you may rest while we wait. We will be better able to travel if you are not so tired.” Hesitantly she took my hand and sat next to me. She turned so that her back was against my arm and shoulder and leaned against me. In a few moments her chin again fell to her chest. I eased her gently down so that she lay across my chest and against my other arm, cradling her to me and giving her my warmth. In sleep, she turned toward me rather than away. Were it not for fear of discovery it would have been an idyllic time. Even so, I savored the sensation of her nearness. My eyes caressed her cheeks, her lips, her body. She embodied sweetness, purity and desire to me.
Posted on Tuesday, 21 March 2006
Judging from the light I guessed nearly two hours passed before I again heard a horse approaching. I prepared to cover Elizabeth’s mouth lest she awaken and make any noise that might give us away. Happily the noise I heard was that of the two gypsies who most worried me and they passed on their way, I presumed, back to their encampment. I craned my neck to see that they were gone. When I looked back to Elizabeth her eyes were open. She looked up at me, warily I supposed, as otherwise I might delude myself into thinking she looked at me as if she were happy in my arms. Without saying anything, I helped her sit up and then to her feet. She studied me for a long moment and then finally asked, “Was that those gypsy men? Are they gone?” I nodded and stretched my cramped muscles. She looked concerned, “Were you very uncomfortable? I did not think. I was so tired! I thank you.”
I shook my head and said, “Not at all. I am glad I could help you rest; glad I could be of service. As I said earlier, it will help our progress.” I did not feel so assured of my own fitness as I pretended in that moment, but I did not wish to worry her. There was tender concern in her look to me.
She confessed quietly, “I did not sleep very well last night.”
I nodded my understanding, not trusting myself to voice a response.
She queried, “Did you sleep well?” Not wishing to lie, but not wanting to give her concern, I looked down and avoided her gaze.
Finally I smiled slightly to her and owned, “I shall sleep very well once we have reached safety.” She looked at me with a rueful smile and nodded understandingly.
We carefully made our way back to the road and began to walk again. I noticed that she kept my jacket firmly closed about her. I hoped it kept her warm. I wondered if the transparency of her clothing had caused her to feel self conscious or embarrassed. I hoped that she’d not noticed my attention to it and that she did not censure me for my fascination with her. I kept the pistol tucked in my hand inside the pocket of my great coat. I noticed that my trousers were almost dry again. They had been soaked when I’d jumped into the river. I idly brushed dirt off of my clothing with my free hand.
I heard Elizabeth chuckle. I glanced at her and she offered, “I fear that is a lost cause, Mr. Darcy. We neither of us are at all presentable at this point.”
I smiled grimly and said, “Yes. For a journey that began with the intention of bowing to my aunt’s whims and protecting appearances, I fear things have only gone from bad to worse.”
Her smile faded and she looked straight ahead as she nodded and said slowly, “Yes. I believe that you are correct. The sun is low in the sky. I do not think we will reach the next village soon enough. I fear we will be forced to remain together alone this night.”
My heart pounded forcefully as I considered the implications of her words. Far from protecting her reputation, I would be her ruin. Regardless of good intentions we were alone. In fact the barriers of polite society had already begun to break down between us. She had allowed me to hold her in my arms as she slept. I had held her close to my body in the carriage and afterwards. I had held her hand and touched her arm in a familiar way. Even before these transgressions my looks had confused onlookers to believe we were man and wife. Would I want for a woman I intended to take to wife to experience such familiarity from another man? Were my actions selfish? Was I trying to force her to accept me?
Reviewing the past hours I could not deny I had enjoyed being close to Elizabeth, touching Elizabeth. Indeed I had been tempted to kiss her as I’d held her sleeping form. But I had not set out to force her hand. I felt anger rise in me as I wondered if she accused me of such. My voice full of feeling, I said, “I hope you can believe that I would not wish for you to feel obliged to accept me.”
She stopped and looked at me intently, “Mr. Darcy, you have been a perfect gentleman today. You have put my needs first and taken me into your protection. You have been endlessly generous.”
Anger yet flared within me. I nodded and asked brusquely, “Is this why the good people of Meryton would hardly recognize me? Because I have behaved well?”
She nodded slowly and said, “I admit that such was my meaning earlier. But while you sound disparaging of yourself I was thinking of your goodness and how happy I am that if I must be in such a situation I am with you.”
I could not help myself. I asked sardonically, “Then while I am the last man in the world you would marry, I am not the last man in the world you would wish to see in a carriage accident?”
She looked a bit embarrassed, but more exasperated. “I would not wish such ill upon you. Can you not accept a compliment? You are capable and generous. I appreciate all you have done for me today. I do not know any other man I could count on so much.”
These words calmed the irrational flare of feeling I’d experienced. A small smile crossed my face as I said, “I am at your service, Miss Elizabeth.” I saw her blush as though she understood my true meaning.
Suddenly I heard the sounds of a horse approaching again, faster than before. I realized that I’d become so caught up in our conversation that I’d not paid as much attention as before. Also, I realized we would not have time to escape discovery this time. I turned to Elizabeth and hissed, “Behind me!” and I held the pistol out before me, cocked and ready to fire. I prayed that it would not fail me. I noted that my arm trembled with fatigue. But I would not let such weakness or any force at all prevent me from protecting Elizabeth.
The same old mare was in sight now, but she bore only one rider. It was the gypsy whose interest in Elizabeth had so unsettled me. My finger tightened on the trigger. As he came close enough to see the pistol in my hand he pulled back on the reins and halted. He asked, “Yer gonna kill me now?”
I shook my head and replied, “Not if you dismount and walk away.” He looked puzzled. I said, “Consider it a fair trade. Your friends took clothing and personal belongings from the wreckage of our carriage. You have profited from our bad fortune today. Now you will give us that horse in return.”
He stared at me appraisingly for a moment, and then laughed mirthlessly as he dismounted. As he started to back away he asked, “Would ya’ really do it, rich man?”
I felt Elizabeth grasping the arm I held her behind me with. Evenly I asked him, “Wouldn’t you if you were me?”
He stepped back from us carefully and nodded. He said, “I imagine you have lots o’ carriages and such. Only one woman, though.”
Without thought, I nodded. When he was far enough away I walked forward and grabbed the rope halter, pulling the poor old mare to us. I waited until he was nearly out of sight and then finally climbed up on the horse and pulled Elizabeth up behind me. She held tightly to me and I could feel her trembling. I looked at her questioningly. She murmured in my ear, “I do not like to be on horseback.” I coaxed the horse to a fast trot, but could not manage to get a gallop from her.
I replied, “This is not much of a horse. I wish you could see the horses I have at Pemberley. I have some that are highly spirited, but also some very docile creatures who are so sweet I would defy you to fear them.”
She chuckled, “Perhaps you underestimate my fears.”
I answered, “You have nothing to fear.” I thought I heard her whisper that she had nothing to fear when she was with me, but was unsure. I asked hopefully, “Did you say something?”
She asked, “Do you worry about overtaking the other party of thieves?”
I shook my head and said, “They are in a cart and cannot move as quickly as we can and I did not see any evidence that they bore arms. Even if we come upon them we should be able to get past safely. It is now my goal to get you to the safety of a respectable inn where we can see to it that you are properly attended and we can eat and rest. I wonder if you could check the inside pocket of my jacket and see if there is money yet there?”
I saw the other gypsies camped alongside the road ahead of us and again took aim with the pistol. We rode past them silently. They simply stood and stared.
Once past that threat I breathed more easily. Soon I saw the sight we’d so longed for, the next town. I stopped to leap down from the horse and shifted the rope halter so I might lead the animal. I saw to it that Elizabeth was safely seated and instructed her on how to remain secure without me to hold to. She was very quiet as I instructed her. Finally she observed, “Now that I am safe your first priority is once again my reputation.”
I nodded and said, “I believe that we may yet survive this ordeal with reputation intact.” I fought down feelings of disappointment with the satisfaction that I was proving to her that I’d never force her hand. The sun was near to setting, so we had not much time. I waited for her reply and watched her expression carefully. It seemed to me that I saw something like disappointment in her face, but I could not allow my imagination to so deceive me. I asked hoarsely, “Is there money in my jacket?” She nodded and handed me my money clip. I pocketed the clip gratefully and thanked her. Then I led the horse and we entered the village. I looked for the sign of an inn and stopped a man to ask where the best accommodations might be found. People stopped and stared. I glanced up and saw that Elizabeth sat proudly, head held high but eyes lowered demurely. Even after all we had faced, she was beautiful. I was very proud of her ability to withstand unseemly curiosity in addition to everything else.
When we arrived at the inn specified I led the mare to the door and gave the lead to a stable boy. I assisted Elizabeth in her dismount. Despite my better resolve I did savor the moment when she fell against me. Her look to me then was not one I understood, though I noted the pretty blush in her cheeks. I stepped back to a proper distance and asked, “Shall we go in, Miss Bennet?” She nodded and preceded me. Inside I explained our predicament to the innkeeper and his wife, a Mr. and Mrs. Newlin. They apologized that they only had one suite of rooms available but I assured them that would be adequate so long as a maid could be found to attend Miss Bennet, a proper necessity as her chaperone had not survived the accident. I was pleased and relieved at the compassion exhibited by the owners on hearing of our experiences. It was a relief to be again among honest people.
Soon we were led above stairs to a suite of three connected bedrooms. I insisted that I take the smaller back room and Miss Bennet take the larger accommodation, with the maid in the other small room that adjoined it. There was a moment’s awkwardness between us as I entered my room and we stood in sight of each other and our respective beds. It was broken as the innkeeper’s daughter, a girl of three and twenty who was married but willing to stay with Elizabeth for the night to ensure the propriety of our arrangement, arrived. A doctor was sent for to verify our good health. I suspected this had more to do with the revelation that my aunt’s house had typhoid than concern for the effects the hard day might have had. And, much to our delight, the innkeeper’s wife announced that she would arrange for us to bathe. When the doctor arrived I went with him to my room while Mrs. Chandler, the innkeeper’s daughter prepared Elizabeth’s bath.
Dr. Lane was kind and thorough. He was soon satisfied that I showed no signs of typhoid. He insisted I remove my shirt after hearing my description of the accident and the way I’d fallen against the carriage window. He had me stand before the fire, facing the door, while he tended the abrasions on my back.
Suddenly the door from my chamber to Elizabeth’s room fell open. The lock was faulty. Before me I beheld a vision my dreams had not done justice. Elizabeth sat in the bath, her eyes closed with pleasure as she soaked in the heat of the soapy water. She was exposed from the waist up. I gasped and her eyes opened. She stared at me fixedly. I started to stammer an apology, but sense finally claimed me. I realized that no one else yet noticed the open doorway, so I forced myself to step forward and gently close it. I then secured the bolt myself.
The doctor asked if there was a problem. He noted that I appeared flushed. I was infinitely glad that his view had been blocked by my body. I dissembled, “It seemed as though the door lock might give.” He apologized and assured me he’d not intended to disregard my privacy. I only nodded and then closed my eyes again as he resumed his efforts. I was lost in the vision now kindled in my mind’s eye.
As he moved to go he said, “I imagine you will sleep easily after such a day, Mr. Darcy, but I will leave a sleeping draught in case your aches and pains cause you difficulty.” I thanked him, knowing that I had more reason to desire such a draught than he could imagine. I put my shirt back on carefully. He asked that I remain within for a few minutes while he checked on Miss Bennet. I suggested that he knock before exiting my room to ascertain that her bath was finished. He looked at me oddly but complied. Mrs. Chandler asked him to remain within for another few minutes.
So he sat in the chair and I sat on the edge of the bed. He asked, “Is there anything else you need, sir? I could pass on any requests to Mr. Newlin.”
I said, “I thank you. I need some writing materials and an express rider. I want to send for a carriage and servants from my house in London and I must inform Miss Bennet’s family of all that has happened and assure them of her safety.”
He commented, “I assumed that the lady was your wife or a member of your family.”
I only shook my head in response at first. Finally, desiring that any gossip contain truth rather than speculation, I explained, “She was visiting the wife of my aunt’s parson, but not inside either house when the quarantine was imposed. It was deemed best that she be returned to her family in Hertfordshire. We are merely friendly acquaintances.” My tone was serious, brooking neither opposition nor foolishness I hoped. I kept my expression neutral and endeavored to keep color from my face.
He nodded and seemed satisfied by my words. Then he said, “She is fortunate to have your protection.” I did not reply.
There was a light knock on the door and Mrs. Chandler peered within to assure us that it was a good time for the doctor to attend to Miss Bennet. She then asked if I would like a bath drawn for me. I happily asked that it be done. Mrs. Chandler said that her father would come to draw my bath and that after the doctor was done she and Miss Bennet would go to the parlor and await me before dining, per Miss Bennet’s instructions. She also said, “And would you believe that one of the merchants on hearing of your arrival realized that he had purchased some of the young lady’s dresses from a gypsy today. He sent them to her as his gift!” I asked the name of the merchant and asked that she see that he received a payment of thanks from me. She claimed the gesture unnecessary but smiled broadly. I imagined the man had been set back some money in trying to give assistance to the poor, though I hoped he would carefully consider whether dealing with such people was prudent in the future.
Dr. Lane went to see Elizabeth and I was left alone with my thoughts. I reflected on my conduct of the previous twenty four hours with varying levels of dissatisfaction. I was amazed by Elizabeth’s bravery and good spirits in the face of such hardship as that we had faced today. I was thankful that we were both unharmed. I was glad that I’d been able to contribute to Elizabeth’s continued well being and that I had found a way to protect her reputation. I could not remember my behavior to her at the parsonage without a good deal of self loathing now. And I even began to wonder if I’d not written to her while still too angry to pay her the respect and honor that I ought. I hoped that my efforts of the day had gone some way toward improving her opinion of me.
A short time later I relaxed in the warm embrace of the water. As he’d preferred to set up the tub in Elizabeth’s room, Mr. Newlin stayed to attend me. He added more hot water and asked, “Is the suite adequate, Mr. Darcy?”
I nodded and said, “Yes. It will do fine.” As I finally relaxed I felt my exhaustion with force.
He said, “I hope your lady has no objections.”
I replied, “I am certain that Miss Bennet will be fine. She is a very amiable person.”
He said, “She tells my girl much good of you! Says you saved her life and helped her get safely past those ruffian gypsies.”
I asked, “Have they plagued the area long?”
He nodded and said, “Long enough, for sure. They have been encamped along that road for weeks now.”
I said, “I will see what I can do to ensure that they leave the area, Mr. Newlin.”
He replied, “If you could do something about them I’d be beholden to you all my days. Not safe for decent folk with people like that about.”
I nodded my agreement and then thanked him for his attendance and for bringing writing supplies and finding an express rider. After I bathed I was loath to put my soiled clothes back on. Mr. Newlin provided me a plain but clean shirt of his, but did not have any pants that would fit me, owing to my height. So I reluctantly put my trousers on. Though dry they somehow still felt almost wet. I quickly wrote detailed instructions to my steward at my London home, including a request for clean clothing, and also a note of explanation to Mr. Bennet at Longbourn estate. I asked Mr. Newlin if he could summon the rider so that the messages would go to their respective addresses via express delivery.
I then found the parlor. I did not need guidance as I could hear Elizabeth’s laughter and the genial noise of the good people therein. I smiled as I noted on entering the room that Elizabeth had charmed the innkeepers and their guests thoroughly. I felt a pang of regret as I thought how happy my tenants and servants, not to mention Georgiana, would have been made by my alliance with her. I’d not dwelled on that aspect of the relationship before, only the censure I’d expected from those whose opinion truly matters less to me. Something of my regret must have shown in my expression, for Elizabeth bestowed a beautifully sweet smile on me as she saw me standing there. I bowed. She curtsied prettily and asked if I was well. I replied, “Not so well as you, I think. You look very refreshed and much at home with the company.” Mrs. Newlin looked at me sharply, evaluating the relationship between me and Elizabeth, I thought. I explained awkwardly, “I admire Miss Bennet’s ability to put people at ease and earn their friendship. Like most, I highly value that which I do not possess.”
A strange expression crossed Elizabeth’s face, but she only said, “I thank you for the pretty compliment, Mr. Darcy.” I met her gaze, awkwardly recalling the last time I’d looked at her. I saw the blush rise in her cheeks and then saw her note the plain shirt I wore and thought something about my appearance amused her, but I did not wish to question her on the matter.
I shook my head and dissented, “’Tis no idle compliment, Miss Bennet. You have an uncommon ability to please.” Now I blushed as I realized the words I’d uttered. Again my thoughts turned to the beauty of her which I had accidentally seen. I saw that Mrs. Newlin’s suspicions were awakened by my obviously partial conduct.
I turned to Mrs. Newlin and said, “Forgive me Madam, I fear the fatigue of the day has caught up to me. I did not mean to be remiss in thanking you for your kind service.”
Mrs. Newlin thanked me and took my hint, suggesting that we adjourn to the dining room. She apologized that she had no better fare to offer, but promised plenty. I found that I was ravenous and very thirsty. While we ate, Mr. Newlin thanked me for my generosity to Mr. Frost, the merchant who had returned Elizabeth’s clothing. I assured him it was nothing. I felt Elizabeth’s eyes on me, but did not turn to her then, not wanting her to think I begged thanks. I was amazed at the ease of the company. It was not that I was easy, but more that they were not offput by me. I wondered what made the difference. Was it something about me? Was it that Elizabeth only caused people to feel at ease? Again I had a glimpse of what my arrogance and presumption had cost me in terms of bliss.
The rider arrived. While I gave him instructions, I offered Elizabeth the chance to add a postscript to my note to her father. When she was done, I walked outside with the man, gave him the messages and paid him well to see that they reached their destinations as quickly as possible. As I returned I overheard Mrs. Chandler ask Elizabeth, “Have you known Mr. Darcy long?”
I stopped just before the doorway as I heard Elizabeth’s reply, “Though we have been acquainted for some months I cannot say that I knew him at all until today. He is a modest man, one who does not idly boast of his goodness. I confess that until he proved his worth to me I underestimated him, much to my regret. I believe now that he is one of the best men I’ve ever known.” I could only stare at her as I moved slowly into her line of sight, not daring to hope as to the depth of her regret.
Mrs. Newlin said, “And so handsome! Have you ever met one handsomer, dearie?”
Elizabeth stared at me. Blushing, she only shook her head in reply. Then as I entered the room she stood and curtsied to her companions, saying, “I thank you for the satisfying repast. You have nothing to apologize for. I found your stew delicious. I hope you will understand that I desire to rest now.”
Awkwardly I thanked Mrs. Newlin and took my leave as well. I did not wish for anyone to misunderstand why I left at the same time as Elizabeth, but as my room could only be entered through hers I felt I ought to reach it before my passage would be an imposition on her privacy. As I went to secure the door between us she wished me a good night’s sleep. I wished her the same. She thanked me for all I had done for her throughout our ordeal. I replied, “I am only glad that I could be at your service.” The becoming blush that I’d seen so much from her in recent hours returned to her cheeks and made me smile.
Posted on Friday, 24 March 2006
I removed the innkeeper’s shirt and my clothing and lay down on the bed. I ached, both from the exertions of the day and with desire for the beautiful woman in the next room, but sleep soon claimed me. Dreams, as I had expected, also came to me vividly. I awoke from a particularly pleasurable fancy to the sound of Elizabeth’s voice, moaning with fear in the next room. My eyes were open at once and I listened for a long moment, hoping that either she would awaken on her own or Mrs. Chandler would go to her. It seemed to be the deepest part of the night. As the fearful noises continued, I struggled against the desire to go to her. I lost this struggle as I heard her begin to quietly sob and beg, “Please don’t leave me to them. Oh, stop! No! No!” I jumped up from my bed and pulled my blankets around me. I quietly eased the door open. Her room was dark, but for the low embers of the fire. Mrs. Chandler’s room remained firmly shut. Elizabeth continued to cry, moving as though to escape someone’s grasp. I could not bear it.
I stepped into her room and stood by the edge of the bed. Very gently I touched her shoulder and whispered, “You are safe, Miss Bennet. It is only a nightmare. You are safe.”
She was still for a moment. Then she asked, “Mr. Darcy?”
I answered in a whisper, “I apologize for coming into your room, but you sounded distressed.”
She sat up and used the sheet to wipe the tears from her cheeks. I heard her breath shudder as it does when one is recovering from great terror. She said, “Thank you.”
I started to bow, but nearly lost hold of the blankets, so I only nodded. I began to back away from her, saying, “I will let you return to sleep now. Please think on happy thoughts, like returning to your dear family or sleeping in your own bed. You are safe.”
I saw her look me up and down and I was embarrassed at my state of dishabille. I stuttered, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before, “I… I… I am…s..sorry.”
In a very small voice she asked, “Won’t you please stay with me a moment longer?”
My heart pounded more quickly. Though I could no more refuse her than I could sprout wings and fly, I looked towards Mrs. Chandler’s door and said reluctantly, “I should not be here.”
She said, “Please stay with me, just a moment longer.”
Unthinkingly, I moved to her. She shifted over so that I could sit at the edge of her bed. My heart began to beat even more quickly. Hesitantly, I sat there, hardly believing that I did so. She said, “I dreamed you left me in the carriage and then those men found me.”
I replied quietly, “I thought as much from your words.”
She nodded slowly, obviously self conscious that I’d overheard her speak as she slept, and said, “Of course that is ridiculous and could only happen in a nightmare.” She looked at me in an intense way.
I nodded and said, “That is true. I could never do such to anyone, least of all you.”
She looked down and I wondered why it was suddenly difficult for her to meet my gaze. Was she becoming uncomfortable with my continued presence as wakefulness claimed her? I went hot and cold as I heard her next words.
“Mr. Darcy, you are not the last man in the world I could ever marry.” She finally looked up at me, a very slight smile on her face.
I did not know how to reply. To my horror, a flippant response tumbled forth, “Oh. So, perhaps I have managed to squeak by some roguish gypsies and maybe even Mr. Collins?” Again she looked down. I began to feel the bed shake with what I finally realized was repressed laughter from her. I stared at her in amazement.
Finally she said, “Indeed. I would much rather marry you than any of the men you mentioned.”
This subject was still too tender for me to be easy discussing it. I frowned and said dryly, “I thank you. That is a great comfort.”
Her eyes sparkled brightly as she said, “I am only glad to be of service.” And then she was silent. I looked away from the light of her into the heat of the fire’s embers. The coals glowed dimly with blue and red heat.
Finally I broke the silence, hopelessly saying, “I did not know what it was to love you until today.” Sadness threatened to overwhelm me as I avoided her gaze.
She was silent for a long moment before she replied, “Nor did I.”
My chin jerked up and I stared at her. Her words seemed to spill forth, “I found today that you could be generous and reliable and comforting and very strong. You put my needs before your own, looked at me with admiration instead of censure, and I fancied that every time you said you were at my service… you were really telling me that you loved me.”
I admitted plainly, “I was. I believe that I will always love you, regardless of what that means for me.” My emotions swirled, a mixture of hope and despair.
She sounded a bit breathless as she said, “Much happened to us today. Beyond the obvious events, I found that I see you as a very handsome and attractive man. I long to be close to you. I long to know ever more of your thoughts and feelings. But only yesterday I disliked you heartily. And there is still the matter of your role in giving dear Jane pain and heartache. I am confused.” She sighed. “I immediately saw the truth of your explanation of Mr. Wickham and the fool he made of me.” She reached up and began to twirl a finger in a strand of her hair. “I have no doubt that your words about him were completely true.”
I interrupted, “But please accept my apologies for my presumptuous and mean-spirited observations of your family! I fear that anger…”
She interrupted, “I thank you, but many of your observations were accurate, though it pains me to admit it. I can even see that Jane’s feelings might be difficult to guess for one who does not know her well.”
I said in a rush, “I do not say this to beg your approval, but after hearing your assertions that your sister does care for Bingley I resolved to speak to him when we are next together. Unfortunately that will not be for several months. He visits family in Scarborough. I do not see him again until late summer when he and his family are to come to Pemberley as my guests.” I breathed in and out heavily. “Regardless of anything else, I will be honest with him about my error in judgment and my officious interference. I cannot say how he will act then, but I will tell him the truth.” I thought of how quickly Bingley had always fallen in and out of love in the past, how impetuous he could be about the most significant decisions of his life and I wondered what he would do when I told him the truth about Miss Bennet.
Elizabeth was silent again for some time. She started to speak more than once and did not, obviously hesitant to voice her thoughts. I waited with all the patience I could muster. Finally she looked up at me and said slowly, “I felt a stab of disappointment when I realized that I would not be forced to marry you, Mr. Darcy.”
I smiled broadly and admitted after a moment, “I felt the same.”
She asked, “Would it be unfair for me to ask that we begin anew? That we get to know each other better and build on what was discovered in trying circumstances?”
I shook my head emphatically and said, “No, quite the contrary.” I was nearly breathless with excitement. “I understand that one day’s friendship is not enough of a foundation for a lifetime of happiness, regardless of what I already feel. If you would allow me to call at Longbourn- and get to know you and your family better, I would be honored.” I looked at her eagerly, wondering what she was thinking.
She nodded and then smiled slightly. Finally, she noted tentatively, “Circumstance has encouraged us to disregard all propriety today.” The look in her eye left me breathless, though I knew not why.
I nodded agreement and reluctantly said, “I should leave you.”
She nodded, but took my hand in hers and kissed it gently. I gasped. Then she said, “After this conversation it will be a long time before we are able to so disregard it again. And it may be that on knowing me better you change your mind, or certainly on knowing my family better that you decide your fears of associating with them were not without merit.” She chuckled as I shook my head, but she continued, “So, I beg your forgiveness…”
I looked at her, puzzled at first and then with delight as she moved closer and kissed my lips. I could not but respond. Her kiss was light and sweet, but I soon turned it into something more passionate, hungry. When I hesitated and began to pull back she kissed me again, with more passion. Her responsiveness only fueled the fire that had burned in me for so long. I stroked her hair and the delicate skin of her neck. She trembled under my touch. I felt her hands caressing my bare shoulders beneath the blankets I wore. I kissed her with more and more apparent longing. I pulled her close into my arms and felt her shake with desire as I did. I rained kisses down her neck and heard her moan with delight. Heaven had opened up for me. I was inflamed with desire. It was her innocent exclamation that stopped me, “Oh! This is what it is to be kissed, to be desired!”
With a ragged breath I pulled from the exquisite temptation and kissed her hand as she had kissed mine. I repeated my earlier sentiment, but with something more of finality to my tone, “I should leave you.” I looked into her eyes, fearing what I might see but then relieved to find that we were in complete accord, full of desire yet knowing that some lines of propriety must not be disregarded… as of yet. I pulled the blankets tightly around me and stood and slowly backed away from the bed.
She whispered, “I shall await your calls at Longbourn with anticipation.”
I smiled and whispered as I left her, “I am at your service, Elizabeth.”
It was some time before sleep could claim me again.
Late the next morning I was awakened by knocking at the door to my bedroom. Mrs. Newlin informed me that my carriage and servants had arrived. She said that Miss Bennet was already awake and dressed and that my man brought clothing and personal supplies. I thanked her and bid her send in my man. In no time I was clean, shaven and dressed in clothing of the cut to which I was accustomed. I felt more myself, but hoped I retained enough of the differences seen the day previous to still be acceptable to my lady.
When I entered the inn’s small parlor I immediately felt a difference from the easy way I’d been treated the previous evening. I realized at that moment what had amused Elizabeth about my being attired in Mr. Newlin’s shirt. She’d seen that it was as a masque, hiding the imposing figure that I usually present to the world. While not intentional, it had given me a taste of the way I would prefer to interact with people. But I saw now that the combined effect of two drivers, four footmen, my largest carriage and finest team, a maid for Elizabeth, a valet for me and my usual fine clothing awed those who’d not found me so awe inspiring before. While my cash had impressed them enough, the display they saw now took away their ease with me entirely.
I wished the Newlins good day in as open a tone as I could manage given the way they now gawked at me. I forced down the resentment I felt. I then turned to greet Elizabeth. I was awash in memories of the previous night’s kisses and thought from her expression that she was as well. We took breakfast in the dining room. Mrs. Newlin said in a hushed tone, “Mr. Darcy, I apologize for the simple fare.” She looked quite distressed.
I assured her, “It is delicious and happily welcomed, Madam. I thank you for all of your kind attention to us.”
She wrung her hands in her apron. “Please pardon me. I had no idea just how far beneath your usual company we are.”
I paused and then smiled and said, “Thank you. I appreciate your meaning, except as I disagree that the company was beneath that to which I am accustomed. Honest, kind people are the best company, I think.” I saw Elizabeth bestow an approving smile on me. Mrs. Newlin seemed a very little bit more at ease.
I noted that my servants kept to themselves and seemed eager to be away. I would have to see that those in my retinue behaved with more general politeness. I asked my valet to bring my wallet and gave Mr. Newlin a very generous sum. He protested that it was too much. I said, “Your inn was one of the most wonderful sights I had ever beheld when we came here yesterday. You went out of your way to see to our every need and treated us with kindness and respect. I thank you.”
As we drove away I sighed deeply. From her seat across from me and next to one of the maids from my house in town, Elizabeth asked, “Are you well, sir?”
I nodded and said, “Thank you for asking. I am. And you? Did you rest well? I hope that the events of yesterday did not prevent you from doing so.” I smiled slightly to her and anticipated her reply to my provocative statement.
She raised an eyebrow and said sweetly, “I confess that events both unpleasant and pleasant interrupted my rest more than I’d anticipated. But after the distance we journeyed together and the longing I’d felt, I was very happy for the warmth and comfort I found in my bed there.”
What a sly minx! I struggled to keep my expression from awakening the suspicions of those who rode with us. I looked at Elizabeth for a long and silent moment and enjoyed the blush that crept into her cheeks. Finally I replied, “I hope you will find even more of such warmth and comfort soon.” Her look to me then rendered me speechless for several minutes. She seemed likewise affected. I hoped, rather than believed, that our true feelings were not obvious.
I could not dwell on the possibility that I’d never taste her kisses or feel her response to me again. That way lay madness. Despite her previous sentiments, I knew I could only go forward if I won her love. I was utterly determined to do so.
When we arrived at my home in London, Wenshurst House, I was informed that Mr. Bennet awaited our arrival in the salon and the families of my driver and footmen waited in the study. I stiffened as I heard this last, as dread of the pain I would give washed over me. I bowed to Elizabeth and said quietly, “Perhaps you might greet your father and reassure him in private for a few moments. I must speak with those who await my arrival.” I saw that there was sympathy in her lovely eyes.
She nodded and said, “Thank you, sir. Please convey my sympathies and thanks to them as well. I am so sorry for their loss.” She looked as though she wished to touch my arm, to offer me comfort. This gave me additional strength. I nodded thanks to her and asked for her to please explain my absence to her father and assure him I would join them as soon as I was able.
I heard her father’s happy cry of “Elizabeth!” and walked on to the study. It was not the first time I’d faced this kind of burden, but I could never be accustomed to such a duty.
I took a deep breath before opening the door. The three ladies who awaited me there looked at my face carefully, searching for the truth in my expression. One immediately covered her eyes and began to cry softly. A second only stared at me, her face white with shock and her eyes glazed in pain. The third grasped my arm and said, “What has happened, Mr. Darcy? What has happened?” I talked with them about the trip to Rosings and the events there, as related to their families.
When I gave my account of the accident the third woman shrieked. She held her hands beside her head and continued to scream. “No! No! Not my Tom!” Her screaming turned again wordless, almost animal. I felt helpless against her agony.
My housekeeper, Mrs. Windham, held the girl and uttered soothing phrases. My physician entered the room and began to tend to the women, first the one whose grief manifested itself with such hysteria. He suggested I leave. I agreed and said that I would like to go and find my steward that I might sign the papers giving each family a living that would see their needs met from now on, at least those needs that could be met through my financial assistance. The first lady fainted. The second began to cry. The third stopped her frenzied screams and sighed in relief. I heard much of thanks from them. I offered my condolences as I could and left.
In the hallway I stood still for a moment, though my body shook from sorrow. I found my steward and sign the papers I’d mentioned. Then I made my way to the salon. As I entered the room, Mr. Bennet bowed to me and offered, “Mr. Darcy, I thank you. My daughter tells me that you saved her life, protected her from men of ill intent and saw to her reputation, too. Quite impressive, sir! I’m glad for your sake it was Lizzy with you and not one of my other girls. They are so silly that you’d be hard pressed to keep them from compromising you after such heroics!” He laughed. Some of my surprise at this must have shown in my expression.
Elizabeth looked at me with apprehension as she cried, “Oh, Papa! You do like to tease!” I could not tell whether she blushed more from his odd declaration or from the fact that she’d found herself drawn to me over the past hours. For once it seemed that she was the one at a disadvantage. I could not help but enjoy that just a little. I stared at her, smiling slightly as I enjoyed her beautiful confusion.
Finally, I looked to her father and choked out, “No thanks are necessary, Mr. Bennet.” I felt guilt that I had been so inappropriately familiar with her, unbeknownst to him. He looked at me oddly. I was fearful that he read the guilt in my face. I hurriedly continued, “I would be honored, though, if you would agree to allow me to call at Longbourn soon to see that Miss Elizabeth continues well and does not suffer any after effect of the ordeal. Indeed I wish very much to call on her.” I held his gaze unwaveringly and stood still, somewhat fearful of his reply.
He raised his eyebrows and asked in a tone of disbelief, “You wish to call at Longbourn?” I nodded emphatically, unable to find words to express the urgency I attached to my petition. He shrugged, glanced at Elizabeth in an amused fashion, and said, “Very well.” I saw that from that moment he observed his daughter carefully.
Elizabeth urged that we all sit. She said, “We could not help but overhear some of your meeting with your men’s wives.” Her look was one of pity, both for them and for me.
I sighed and said, “Grief does express itself in a variety of ways. I am very sorry for their loss.” I looked at her and said, “I apologize that I forgot to convey your good wishes, Miss Elizabeth.”
She shook her head and said, “They do not know me. It is of no matter. Do they have families to care for them?”
I nodded. Mrs. Windham appeared in the doorway. She said, “Mr. Brookings asked me to tell you that he is filing the papers today. He thought you were too distracted before, but wanted you to be able to assure the women that your kind offer is in process. I have already told them, sir. I hope that is to your satisfaction.” I thanked her. I looked at Elizabeth and admired the smile she bestowed on me. I realized that she would leave very shortly and I desperately wished I could kiss her goodbye. I was very tired then. I realized that over the past day I’d lived for her. I could hardly bear the thought of being separated from her now. I would feel as a man without purpose. She looked at me with kindness and longing and grief. We were both silent.
Mr. Bennet cleared his throat and looked at each of us for a moment. He stepped towards the hallway and looked into the library across the hall. He spoke quietly, “Is that your library, Mr. Darcy? It is exquisite. I shall be a few moments examining it if you do not mind.” And he stepped between us out the door of the room and pulled it shut behind him.
I was stunned and delighted. I stepped forward and Elizabeth did the same. We met in the middle of the room and I took her hand and placed a soft kiss there. Then I pulled her to me and kissed her as I’d longed to since I had left her room the previous evening, really as I’d longed to since the beginning of our acquaintance. She held me tightly and murmured, “I hate to leave you.”
She pulled back and looked at me. She smiled a very little smile and said, “Will you not say that you are at my service?”
I stroked her cheek tenderly and kissed her lips again and said, “No. But I will say that I love you.” She started to reply. I put my finger against her lips and said, “Do not say it until I court you properly. You deserve every bit of respect I can show you. You deserve to be admired and sought after, to hear praises of your beauty and your wit. Let me come to you with new-found humility and beg your love.” She kissed the finger I held against her lips and I gasped. I ran my finger along her cheek and jawline.
She kissed me again and there were tears in her eyes as she said, “Then I will not say it… until I see you again.”
I held her tightly. I kissed her again and tenderly stroked her back. I whispered, “Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.”
We stepped back from each other as the door handle rattled, as though the person without could not work it. Then Mr. Bennet entered the room. He said, “What a magnificent library! I could be lost in there for ages.” He glanced from Elizabeth’s face to mine and continued kindly, “But now is not the time for that. We must take our leave of you, Mr. Darcy. Come to Longbourn. We will anticipate your call.”
I nodded, and said, “Thank you, sir. I will call and I thank you for your permission. You are most generous.”
He looked at me wryly and said, “Yes. Yes. Well, enough of that. I am afraid that we must get you back to Longbourn, Elizabeth. Your mother’s nerves cannot do without the consolation of your presence a moment longer.”
Elizabeth curtsied and said, “Thank you, again, Mr. Darcy.” Her eyes were properly lowered.
I bowed to her and felt a lump in my throat as I said, “I am at your service.”
Elizabeth looked up. There were tears in her eyes. Again I bowed. And then she left me.
Posted on Tuesday, 28 March 2006
I felt as though I had been torn in half. I was at a loss for what to do with myself for several moments after Elizabeth left my home. I thought of her sweet kisses and wished I still held her close. I tortured myself with longing that I’d somehow been able to keep her here with me, as my wife, forever. Finally I pulled myself together and began to think of how I might proceed in order to secure that dream as a reality.
I returned to my study. The women who had been there before had been taken from the room, I knew not where. I sat behind my desk and glanced over the piles of correspondence my steward had put out for me. I stared at the clock as it struck the hour. I felt how long the moment seemed as I was apart from my love. Guilt smote me. I realized how many such moments I’d given in the guise of friendship. Bingley had listened to my advice, to my insistence that he not enter into an unequal alliance, and he had suffered months of the torment I now tasted. I had prided myself because I’d gone above the call of a loyal and caring friend, telling my friend what I had deemed right for his protection despite his obvious inclination. In truth I had acted the machinations of an enemy. And now I awaited informing him of the truth of the matter until I had the convenience of telling him face to face? How much greater would his anger be were he to find that I could have relieved his suffering months sooner and failed to?
And how could Elizabeth’s tender regard for me weather the disappointment she was bound to see in her sister’s heart on her return home? She would be forcibly reminded of the just cause of her dislike of me. I might find a cool reception indeed at Longbourn when I called!
I had good reason then, selfish and unselfish, for my next action. I found paper, sharpened my pen and began a letter to Charles Bingley. In it I related the essence of the recent journey and my intent to call at Longbourn to assure myself of Miss Elizabeth’s continued well being. Then I plainly laid out my part in separating him from Jane Bennet and told him that I had it on the best authority that she did care for him, in the autumn and at present. I wrote that, while I understand if he could not forgive me, I hoped that he would. Then, unfairly, I’m sure, I pressed my advantage and suggested that he might enjoy calling again at Longbourn with me as I was there expected soon. I rang for a servant to post that letter by express. It was the least I could do after so long and so egregious an error! The weight of guilt in my chest lifted a bit.
As I read over my correspondence a message arrived for me. My cousin, Anne de Bourgh, had lost her life to typhoid. The quarantine on Rosings was now lifted. I let the servants know that in three days’ time I would return to Kent for a funeral.
Anne’s funeral was a sad affair. The sky opened up as though to cry over her. Mr. Collins was more inept than ever as he was fairly overcome with grief, and a poorer choice to officiate could not be imagined. His overflowing expressions of grief did have one good effect, however, in that they somewhat compensated for the paltry number of people in attendance. My aunt, for the first time I could recall, looked small. She was so bereft that she did not look angry or imperious, only alone. I had never before realized how anger with the world energized her. She was a gray shadow of herself without it. She assumed that my burden equaled her own and spoke longingly of the union that would have been so advantageous to our family and the loss of joy I must therefore feel. She even presumed that I would mourn as a widower though I had never been bride-groom to my cousin. I felt cowardly, but truly could see no benefit to relieving her of illusions that could harm no one. I only dissembled as I told her I could not claim the honors of widower, but did mourn my cousin’s passing and would ever be available as a loving nephew.
While I was in Kent I called on the family of the maid who had traveled in my carriage and perished during my previous journey home. I found that she had been a widow and was survived by a daughter who was married to one of my aunt’s house men. They had several children. I apologized that I was unable to prevent her death and bestowed liberal funds for the education of the children in honor of their grandmother. I was unsurprised to find that they had also received a letter and several small but thoughtful gifts from Elizabeth, whose kindness they greatly appreciated. The daughter wore a warm shawl I had once seen Elizabeth wearing, a gift from an aunt and uncle, if I remember correctly.
When I returned to London I found Bingley’s card among those indicating who had called in my absence. I smiled with grim satisfaction.
The next morning Bingley called. I had cleared my calendar in anticipation of his visit, hoping that he might give me adequate time to explain myself, rather than knocking me flat as I deserved and walking away forever. When he entered my salon I bowed more deeply to him than I ever had before. I saw him note this with a slight start of surprise. His coloring was florid and it was obvious to me that he struggled to hold his temper. For several moments after my man had closed the doors to the room, per my earlier instruction, Bingley paced back and forth before me. I could feel his anger building. I almost welcomed it. Yet I felt anxious as I wondered if our friendship would weather this storm.
Finally he spoke, “How could you be so low as to keep her presence in London from me, Darcy? The rest does not come as so much a shock, but that does. You participated in a scheme that caused me to hurt her! Miss Bennet is a lovely and sweet creature and by your deception she felt rejected by me.” He faced me with a stance suggestive of preparation to physically attack.
I invited him to be seated. He bit out, “I think not! I shall do as I please.” And he resumed his pacing as he glared at me.
I nodded and said, “I am very sorry.”
He shook his head as though denying me forgiveness and said, “Did you truly believe her indifferent?”
I nodded vehemently. I said, “It was not until Miss Elizabeth informed me that I was wrong that I even thought to question that opinion. I could see no partiality on her part. I thought her heart untouched.”
He spoke in a low voice. “That is the principal reason I came here instead of chancing meeting you at Longbourn and cutting you there.” I nodded acknowledgment and thanked him. He impatiently brushed off my thanks and said, “I believed that you spoke to disappoint me because you felt that she did not love me and you wished to protect me.”
I sighed and said, “I believed the same.”
He looked at me sharply and said, “Do you believe differently now? And how did Miss Elizabeth come to tell you such a personal detail of her beloved sister? And how can you justify causing me to hurt her?”
I bowed my head and admitted with shame, “I thought that she was in London at the behest of her mother and that she could be persuaded to pursue you for the advantage of her family.”
Bingley went pale with rage and suddenly came at me, punching me hard in the jaw. I staggered back from the blow. We both cried out in pain. I held my jaw and he cradled his hand. My house man threw open the door and asked in a tone of agitation, “Is there anything I can get for you, Mr. Darcy?”
I tasted blood where the inside of my mouth was cut against my teeth. I replied tightly, “Some rags, wet with cool water please.” I gestured for him to go. He looked at me questioningly and I said, “Please close the door.”
When he was gone I sat. Bingley stood, facing the fireplace and cradling his hurt hand. His shoulders heaved as he breathed heavily, like a man who’d run a race. I quietly asked, “Can you forgive me?”
He spoke bitterly, “I do not know. I suppose that if she can forgive me for being so little of a man, I might. But if your actions were part of costing me the best of happiness I do not expect to ever forgive you.”
I nodded and said, “That is fair enough.” I did not comment on his part in the affair though I privately thought that he had not behaved as I would have in his place. It would certainly have taken more than the opinions of an arrogant friend and selfish family to sway me from Elizabeth, especially if I had reason to hope she cared for me. Bingley, for all his quick decisions, did need to mature in self confidence.
He asked abruptly, “Are you in love with Miss Elizabeth Bennet?”
I replied, “I am.”
He asked, “Are you going to court her?”
Again, I replied, “I am.”
My man returned with two bowls of water and several rags. I indicated for him to serve Bingley first. Bingley sat and we both dipped the rags in the water and applied them to our wounds. My man, lips pursed disapprovingly, again quietly left us.
Bingley asked in a tone of agitation, “What of your objections to the Bennets?”
I replied, “My objections are nothing to the affection I feel for Elizabeth. She is precious to me. I think you would agree that the eldest two Bennet sisters are unlike the rest of the family, in manner and behavior and essentials.”
He nodded and noted, “The low connections of the family are not so great an evil to me as to you. Despite my sisters’ efforts to pretend differently, our family was in trade.”
I winced as I remembered my embarrassing behavior when I’d proposed to Elizabeth, and said, “I have considered those points far more than I ought.”
Bingley looked at me, anger still apparent in his face. “You are a lamentable snob sometimes, Darcy. I think that your feelings of superiority to the Bennets contributed to your inability to see Jane’s feelings for me.” I only raised an eyebrow as I listened to him. He continued, “I still do not understand how Miss Elizabeth came to entrust you with the knowledge that Jane cares for me.”
I sighed and offered, “It was when she was replying to my proposal of marriage. She offered her views on my actions as part of her justification for refusing me.” I felt a stab of pain at the recollection, but attempted to keep my expression even.
Bingley looked stunned. He stared at the fire for some time and applied a new rag to his bruised hand. “That devastated you.” I nodded. Finally he admitted, “At this moment I do not mind thinking of you suffering such pain, Darcy. I confess it.”
I looked at him darkly and said, “I can understand, and will allow you some measure of tolerance as I know of my guilt in causing you pain, but do not think my tolerance will continue indefinitely.”
He nodded with grudging respect and said, “Understood.” He remained silent for a few moments. Then he said, “It is not my pain that so enrages me. It is Jane’s pain. Could you easily forgive someone who hurt Elizabeth?”
I shook my head vehemently and said, “Not at all. In that light I’m surprised you did not bring pistols or call me out with swords.”
Bingley laughed, “The thought of a pistol occurred, but I’m not so foolish as to call you out with the sword. Unless dying on your blade was the only way to elicit a declaration of Jane’s love I would never do that.”
After a few more moments’ silence he asked, “If Miss Elizabeth has refused you then how do you claim the right to court her?”
I replied, “She has accepted my apologies and explanations for behavior which offended her. And our recent shared difficulties created a new understanding between us, an appreciation for one another’s better qualities.” It was with difficulty that I refrained from smiling as I said this last.
He raised an eyebrow and nodded. “If only Jane and I could survive a carriage accident together and evade bands of marauding gypsies from whom I could defend her!”
I corrected him tersely, “There were only a handful of gypsies, not bands of them.”
He shrugged and said, “Gossip has it differently. You come off very well and Miss Elizabeth, though unknown among the ton, is celebrated for her bravery throughout the ordeal. I heard about it from my servants nearly the moment I arrived. And at the club yesterday I heard you killed six gypsies single handedly.”
I laughed grimly. “There were moments when murder was thought of, but fortunately it did not come to that.”
He looked rueful. “I fear I was not of a mind to listen to you being celebrated.” I nodded my understanding. After a few moments he asked, “How did she hear of your part in my actions with Jane?”
Answering only required that I utter one thing, “Colonel Fitzwilliam.”
Bingley laughed, “Ah! What a gossip he is!” He looked at me with obvious curiosity, “So have you called him out for causing her to refuse you?”
I shook my head. “I long ago gave up the hope of curbing Fitzwilliam’s wagging tongue.” I frowned, “And it was not her only reason for refusing me.”
He looked at me expectantly. I sighed and said, “I am beginning to expect your forgiveness soon. My pound of flesh is very nearly given.”
He laughed and this time the sound was more friendly. I began to relax. “She also had believed rumors a former acquaintance, Mr. Wickham, circulated that I had treated him cruelly and deprived him of a rightful inheritance from my father’s estate.”
Bingley asked, “So what did happen there?” He obviously had wondered about this for some time but not dared previously to question me.
I grimaced and said, “He is a dissolute gambler and seducer. Rather than see him as curate in the parish at Kymptom I paid him three thousand pounds. He squandered that and asked for more. I refused to support his dissolute ways further and he grew angry with me. He plotted various forms of revenge, the latest of which was to defame me in Meryton society.”
Bingley nodded slowly and then asked, “Seducer?” I only nodded and looked at him forbiddingly. Seeing that I would not offer further explanation he said, “Then I think he has no business being on such friendly terms with the Bennet sisters. The younger girls are enamored of the officers, Lieutenant Wickham in particular. He has a manner that I have never fully trusted, but they do.” I again grimaced. Bingley said, “I can see you do not like to speak of him and that you yet hide some particular bad deed of his from me, but I think you are remiss if you do not warn Mr. Bennet to guard his daughters.”
I sighed in resignation and said, “You are right, Bingley. In that matter I have not acted as I ought.” I nodded and he understood that I meant to warn Mr. Bennet when we reached Hertfordshire.
Bingley again wrapped his hand with a fresh cloth. He said in a laughing way, “It comes as no surprise that your jaw is as hard as a rock.” He stood and walked back and forth in front of the fire. “You admit you were in the wrong?”
I replied, “Completely and utterly. I was wrong and my interference was officious. I wish rather than expect your forgiveness.” I looked away from him as I quietly said, “I would miss your friendship.”
He looked at me oddly and said, “Your manner seems less arrogant, Darcy. You have never spoken to me like that.” He looked away and then faced me again, “Please accord me the respect I deserve and treat me as a friend rather than as a charge or lesser being you would improve in an act of charity. And I will do my best to earn that respect and act as the man I ought to be.” I nodded. He cleared his throat and said, “I forgive you.”
I stood and offered to shake his hand. He laughed and offered his uninjured hand instead. Awkwardly we shook hands and I said, “Thank you. I value your friendship and am sorry for the pain I caused you. It was unknowingly given. If I can be of assistance to you, as an equal, I will do so.”
Together, Bingley and I entered Longbourn three days later. His reception by Mrs. Bennet was all that one could hope for, polite and eager and welcoming. My own was far less warm, though the good lady did thank me for seeing that Elizabeth reached home safely. I could not comprehend how I had so offended her that my more recent actions mattered so little to her. I searched my mind about the interactions I’d had with her, realizing that they were few, and endeavored to understand how I might have secured her bad opinion. I supposed that she must have been prejudiced against me by Wickham’s account. I doubted she knew of my interference between Miss Bennet and my friend. I finally decided that the lack of attention I’d paid her previously must be at fault. So, instead of walking over to stand by the window as I was tempted, I took a seat near Mrs. Bennet and attended her words with the utmost show of politeness and respect. I saw that she was surprised by this, but did seem pleased by my effort.
I also saw that Elizabeth could not completely hide her mirthful reaction. I was unable to look at her without wishing to be somewhere more private, able to greet her with kisses and caresses and ascertain that all was well between us yet. But that was not to be. We were ‘en famille’ and it was in this setting that I would now need to prove my worth.
Conversation touched on the usual variety of topics, including changes in the neighborhood since we had last been there. At one point in discussing Mr. Collins, I noted that Mrs. Bennet looked at Elizabeth with reproof. I therefore limited my compliments about Mrs. Collins. Bingley did not, saying that Mrs. Collins was a pleasant lady and Mr. Collins must be very happy in his choice of wife. For the first time I saw Mrs. Bennet’s manner to Bingley cool slightly. I realized that as Longbourn was entailed on Mr. Collins, he and his wife had a power over Mrs. Bennet that she could not like. Had Elizabeth married the man she would have secured her family’s future in that they would have been allowed to remain in their home even if something were to happen to Mr. Bennet. As I watched the family’s interactions I saw that Mr. Bennet absented himself from much of the discussion, only occasionally provoking Mrs. Bennet to greater outbursts with acerbic comments. Mrs. Bennet was not well educated. She worried about her future and that of her essentially dowerless girls. Without discouragement from her husband, her fears took flight and formed the majority of her speech and action.
I felt more sympathy for her than I had before. She sniffed and said, “Well, I am sure that Charlotte Collins realizes her good fortune in being well settled.” Again she looked at Elizabeth pointedly. Elizabeth kept her eyes demurely turned on her needlework.
I haltingly offered, “She does seem content with her life in Kent. I think she should like to remain there all of her days. I have the impression that she values the independence of being situated at a convenient distance from her family.”
Mrs. Bennet looked pleased and said, “Let us hope she gets her wish!” She smiled at me then. She observed, “However, as you well know, the distance from Kent to Hertfordshire is not always conveniently traveled.”
Elizabeth spoke up. “Mr. Darcy once assured me it is an easy distance to traverse in a day.” She smiled at me archly and I returned the look.
I dryly responded, “Some days it is more easily traveled than others.” Mrs. Bennet laughed and I was pleased with her friendly response to me. She asked me to tell what had happened to us, as Elizabeth did not share much of our ordeal. I assured Mrs. Bennet, “You may be very proud of your daughter, ma’am. She bore great discomfort and inconvenience, and even some moments of alarm, with great composure. Her conduct was all that is to be admired. She is remarkable.” It was with great effort that I resisted looking at Elizabeth in that moment.
Mrs. Bennet looked taken aback by my words. She stared at me and then moved her eyes to see Elizabeth’s reaction. Then I saw her look at Mr. Bennet to see that he smiled, but showed no surprise, as he read his book. She looked vexed with him. Apparently he’d not let her know that I intended to court Elizabeth. Mrs. Bennet said carefully, “We are delighted to hear that she behaved so well, sir, though not surprised. Elizabeth is a spirited and intelligent young woman. She carries herself well, even in difficult circumstances.”
I nodded and said, “I could not agree with you more, Mrs. Bennet.” She giggled. I saw Elizabeth sigh, looking embarrassed.
Miss Bennet was blushing prettily and I looked at Bingley and saw that his attention was fixed on her. Mrs. Bennet saw this as well. She called for refreshments and urged Miss Bennet to serve. She asked, “Mr. Bingley, do you intend to stay at Netherfield long? We had heard you intended to give the place up altogether.”
Bingley responded eagerly, “I intend to stay for some time. Netherfield needs my attention and I have missed the society of the neighborhood. I cannot recall a time I enjoyed more than when I was last here.” His words were ostensibly for Mrs. Bennet’s benefit, but he continued to stare at Jane Bennet.
I overheard Elizabeth quietly telling her younger sister, Miss Catherine, about first seeing me and Bingley one day when she was at Oakham Mount, her favorite place to walk. I struggled to keep my attention on Mrs. Bennet, as was proper.
Mrs. Bennet looked well pleased, saying, “We are glad to hear it. You have been missed, too. You are quite a debt in my honor. Before you left you’d promised to dine with us!” She paused and then added in a friendly tone, “We hope you will dine with us, too, Mr. Darcy. Would the day after tomorrow suit the two of you?” We accepted her invitation and the rest of this first visit passed uneventfully. As we rode away Bingley congratulated me on my efforts to win Mrs. Bennet’s approval. He owned that when he could spare me attention he enjoyed it heartily, especially when he recalled the opinions I’d expressed of her previously.
The next day we returned to call again. All the family was within. Mrs. Bennet’s greeting was equally pleasant to both Bingley and me. My friend was happy yet nervous, thinking that his Jane had smiled encouragingly at him, though of course their relationship was not as easy as he hoped for it to be.
We were both determined to make good use of the time we had as it had come to our attention that the two eldest Miss Bennets were expected at their Uncle’s house in London in two weeks’ time for a short visit. Truthfully I intended to also hie to London at that time and attempt to continue seeing Elizabeth there. I imagined Bingley would be like minded.
Conversation was again generally pleasant until I followed through with a resolve I’d made previously. I asked, “Mrs. Bennet, may I beg your help?” Her eyes went wide and she nodded. I continued, “I have reason to think that you, along with others in the neighborhood, have been told falsehoods of me and I would beg your kindness in allowing me to refute them.”
Mrs. Bennet asked, “Whatever could you mean, Mr. Darcy?” I saw that I had the unwavering attention of all in the room. Even Mr. Bennet set his book aside and looked at me expectantly. Elizabeth looked at me with encouragement.
I swallowed hard. This attention was so against my usual inclination that I could hardly keep my voice from trembling. I looked into Mrs. Bennet’s eyes and saw avid curiosity. I said, “You may have heard that Mr. Wickham and I were friends when we were boys.” She nodded, her expression solemn. I continued, “And when my father passed away that he specified a living be made available to Mr. Wickham should his inclination turn towards the church?” Again she nodded, leaning forward eagerly to hear my words. I said, “However, I do not believe that you have heard that Mr. Wickham professed not to have an inclination for the church.” She gasped and one of the younger girls cried out and was silence by Mr. Bennet. I pulled papers from my pocket and gave them to Mrs. Bennet to review. “Herein I agreed that as Mr. Wickham was not to take orders and thus could not benefit from the living my father had provided, I would instead provide him the sum of three thousand pounds. You see our signatures on it?” She looked over the paper, uncomprehending at first, but then with growing alarm.
She had tears in her eyes suddenly as she said, “You poor man! You have been unjustly vilified.”
I nodded and swallowed, unable to meet the eyes of my audience. I said, “I previously thought it beneath me to lay out my actions before the world, and hoped that people would question any fabrications about me and find the truth for themselves. But the result was that people believed what they had been told and took my silence as an admission of guilt.” I finally looked into Mrs. Bennet’s eyes again. “I am not easy among those who I do not know well. It has been pointed out to me that I ought to make more effort to overcome my inclination, and that I ought to try harder to engage people’s good opinion.” As I glanced to Elizabeth, I heard Mr. Bennet chuckle. “But I do not like to speak ill. I once loved my childhood friend and continually hope that he will grow to goodness. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt. But he has blackened my name unfairly and I must defend myself.”
Miss Lydia interrupted, “If you gave Wickham so much money then why has he not got any now? If you tell the truth then why is he poor?”
Miss Bennet gasped, “Lydia!”
I looked at Miss Lydia and explained, “Mr. Wickham spent it all, Miss Lydia. I know not how.”
Mr. Bennet asked mildly, “Please excuse me, Mr. Darcy, but I am curious. Were you at all surprised that Mr. Wickham chose not to take orders?”
I shook my head and replied shortly. “I was not.”
He asked, “May we speak privately about this matter, then?”
Miss Lydia interrupted again, “Why, Papa? If Mr. Darcy has something of which to accuse Mr. Wickham, why can’t we hear about it?”
Mr. Bennet dryly replied, “He has already proven his accusation that Mr. Wickham is a liar, my child. Were you not listening? Is your mother not holding legal documents that prove which man tells the truth?”
I said, “I would be honored to talk with you privately, sir.”
I followed Mr. Bennet into his library. He offered me a drink. Wishing to keep my wits about me I refused it. He poured himself a small glass and sat behind his desk, motioning for me to sit across from him. He looked at me appraisingly and said, “Your campaign to win Elizabeth’s hand is progressing well, I think.”
I asked only, “Sir?”
He said, “That’s fine. From what I saw between the two of you in London you will do well. She did not like you so much at first and apparently let you know it. And now you are giving me much entertainment as you woo her family.” He chuckled. Then he sipped his drink and said, “But tell me, please, is this Wickham fellow one to keep out of the society of my girls? To have nothing to show from a fairly recent bequest… It was in the last five years, was it not?” I nodded. He continued, “Then to have nothing to show from it now infers a life of dissolute ways.” He looked me in the eye and said, “Insults to the memory of boyhood friendship aside, is the man a libertine?” I again nodded.
Mr. Bennet asked, “And would you want for him to be in company with your sister, for whom I believe you have responsibility?”
I repressed a shudder and answered firmly, “Not at all. The man is blessed with happy manners that enable him to make friends easily, but whether he deserves to keep them is another matter indeed.”
Mr. Bennet said, “I have recently been petitioned to allow my youngest to go to Brighton as companion to Colonel Forster’s wife.” I looked at him, horrorstruck. He said, “I was inclined to allow it, but I take it from your expression that you think it a poor idea.” I looked at Mr. Bennet carefully, not eager to give offense. He laughed at my expression and said, “Oh, for goodness’ sake. Out with it, man! What do you think?”
I said, “I think that would be disastrous. Miss Lydia is, please forgive me, a rather exuberant young girl who has had her head turned by the officers of the regiment much already. The dangers of a camp of such men are too numerous to detail.” I noted that he looked at me and smiled oddly, almost as though he’d already heard these arguments. “I will speak to a more specific danger, however, sir. Mr. Wickham is a favorite of his Colonel’s wife and would therefore be much in company with your daughter. The man is a gambler, a wastrel and a seducer. He left more than broken hearts among daughters of staff and tenants when he left Pemberley. And I even know him to have no scruple with daughters of gentlemen. Keep your girls from him. Especially now that the eldest are being courted by gentlemen of means…”
Mr. Bennet looked mildly surprised by my vehemence, but finally said, “Very well. I thank you for your advice.” He stood and opened the door, not at all surprised to find Mrs. Bennet immediately outside. “Mrs. Bennet! Would you please instruct the servants not to receive Mr. Wickham and aide me in keeping the girls out of his way? He is not worthy of our friendship. Would you not agree?”
Mrs. Bennet looked alarmed, “But he is a favorite of our girls! He has been for these past several months!” She began to wring her hands and act as though her emotions were near to a boiling point. She looked to us both for further instruction, I saw.
I said, “Mrs. Bennet, I apologize for not sharing the truth about him with you earlier. I know that the well being of your daughters is your foremost concern and I am ashamed of myself for not speaking to help you protect them sooner. Can you forgive me?” I shook my head and said, “I ought to have warned you against him at the beginning of our acquaintance. I am sorry.”
Mr. Bennet chuckled. I looked to Mrs. Bennet. She said, “Of course I forgive you, dear Mr. Darcy! You have been wronged by him. I thank you for coming to me to help clear your name and for helping us see that we ought not to keep his friendship.” Her mouth trembled a bit with the effort all of this cost her. I kissed her hand in salute.
Mr. Bennet called out, “Lydia, please come to my library, child!” He looked pensive, as though trying to come to a decision.
I looked at Mr. Bennet hopefully and said, “All my best, sir. Thank you for listening to me.” He nodded, apparently decided, and urged Miss Lydia into the library before closing the door.
I offered Mrs. Bennet my arm and we returned to the sitting room together. Once there I said, “I think it best that we take our leave now, Bingley.” He nodded reluctantly and stood from where he had been in close conference with Miss Bennet, taking advantage of the absence of her parents from the room. We took our leave of each lady, leaving our compliments for Miss Lydia and for Mr. Bennet. I looked longingly again at Elizabeth. All eyes were on us, so our farewell was all that was proper.
She said, “We look forward to seeing you at dinner tomorrow evening.”
Mrs. Bennet repeated this sentiment and sent us off with effusive adieus. As we mounted our horses we heard yelling within. Bingley asked, “What is that about?”
I replied, “I imagine that Mr. Bennet has refused Miss Lydia permission to act as companion to Colonel Forster’s wife in Brighton.”
Bingley answered, “Why in the world would he have considered such a thing? Does he not know what she is?” He looked embarrassed as he asked this last.
I puzzled over how best to reply. Finally, as it was Bingley, I honestly answered, “I do not think he takes any trouble with his daughters that he deems unnecessary.”
Bingley shook his head and said, “I do wonder that Jane and Miss Elizabeth are of that family.”
I thought of all we had seen of them over the past two days and said, “I do not wonder at it so much as I did previously.”
Bingley snorted, “Well, you are halfway to being Mrs. Bennet’s favorite man in the world at the moment. I had no idea you had it in you, Darcy. It is almost frightening.”
I laughed and took off at a gallop.