Elizabeth had never been so happy to see her home as she was on the afternoon of her return from Derbyshire. The journey had been cut short by a few days, as Elizabeth had pleaded with her aunt for an early departure. After a full explanation had been given, a relieved Mrs. Gardiner had applied to her husband, who, given to understand the seriousness of the request, agreed. Notes with carefully-worded explanations had been sent to Mrs. Gardiner’s friends, and matters with the inn were settled and a carriage and horses obtained.
The trio headed out onto the road again, and after a restless two days of travel, Elizabeth was at last rewarded with the sight of Longbourn’s gated park. As the carriage neared the house, she was surprised when the front door remained closed and no Gardiner children spilled out eagerly on the front step to greet their parents. The house looked empty; only the parlor window was illuminated against the dark grey sky of the afternoon. Thus, they unloaded the carriage and stepped up the stairs amid no happy exclamations. Hill answered the door and, taken aback by their sudden return, ushered them inside to a warm fire and called for the footman to help with the luggage. As Elizabeth stepped into the hall, she saw that the wraps and coats hung along in the hall were gone; obviously, everyone was out. When Mrs. Gardiner asked after her children, Hill explained that Mrs. Philips was hosting a card party, and, as the Gardiners and Elizabeth had not been expected for two more days, everyone except Mr. Bennet and Jane had gone. The former was off seeing to a problem with some of the tenants, and the latter was hurrying down the stairs just as the housekeeper informed them that she was in her chambers.
“Lizzy!” Jane rushed to embrace her sister, and then reached for her aunt and uncle. “You have come early; we did not think you would be here until Tuesday. How was your journey? Nothing unpleasant brought you home so suddenly? Is everyone well?”
Mr. Gardiner assured Jane that no mishap had caused their hasty return, and Mrs. Gardiner, anxious to see her children again, voiced her wish to go on to the Philips’s. Elizabeth declared her intention of staying home to talk with Jane, and the girls saw their aunt and uncle off before going into the parlor for some tea and much-needed conversation.
“Well, Lizzy?” Jane said, the instant they sat down. “What did you think of Derbyshire? Of Pemberley?”
“I am not going to marry Wickham,” Elizabeth said bluntly.
Having received such a shocking and entirely incongruous answer to the mundane question she had asked, Jane was unsure of how to react. Her countenance swayed between astonishment, chagrin, and amazement. Wondering if she had perhaps heard incorrectly, she repeated, “You are not going to marry Mr. Wickham?”
“No. As soon as Papa comes home, I am going to ask him to revoke his consent to our marriage.” Seeing the dumbfounded expression on Jane’s face, Elizabeth took a deep breath and confided everything.
Learning the truth of Wickham’s character was a blow for poor Jane. She strove in vain to find someway to vindicate him and attempted to relegate everything to a misunderstanding and absolve everyone involved from any blame. However, the fact that he was the one who had put the bruise on her dear sister’s face could never be explained away (and the fact that it had been inflicted in the first place was almost impossible for Jane to imagine; surely no one could be so very bad?), and at length she was forced to acknowledge that Mr. Wickham was not the honorable gentleman he appeared to be.
“Poor Mr. Wickham,” was all Jane could say when the discussion ended. “To have such an expression of goodness in his countenance and yet to behave so wickedly! It is almost beyond belief.”
“I knew that he was not what he appeared,” Elizabeth mused. “Something told me from the very beginning; I was uneasy, and I should have trusted my instincts. It is as much my fault for having been fooled.”
Jane did not hear a word of these speech. “Even if he has not been kind, only imagine how mortified he will be when everyone knows that you have refused to marry him.”
“You blame me, then?”
“Blame you? Of course not!” She looked almost indignant. “He has not treated you well, and he does not deserve you. Nonetheless, I know he will be disappointed. Poor Mr. Wickham.”
“Poor Mr. Wickham, indeed! If you continue to speak so, I will feel positively lighthearted about refusing him. I know you will do him such ample justice, that I am growing every moment more unconcerned and indifferent.”
Jane tried to look reproachful but ruined the effect by smiling. “Oh, Lizzy – when you first decided on this course, you could not have made light of it as you do now.”
“No, I confess I did not.” Elizabeth sighed. “I had my doubts about the wisdom of a match between Mr. Wickham and I, but I always told myself a marriage would be for the best. Do you really want to know what made me change my mind?”
“Seeing Pemberley. I have never been so disappointed as I was when I saw it; all the pin-money in the world could not make me live in a place like that.”
“Lizzy! Do be serious!”
“Actually, I am – in part. I never knew before that a house could reflect the character of its owner so much. I was looking at Pemberley, but in a way I was also looking at him.”
Elizabeth had not gotten beyond a description of the portrait gallery when the sound of wheels on the drive interrupted their conversation. Going over to the window, Elizabeth was surprised to see an exquisite carriage rolling up the lane, flanked by four footmen in a livery she did not recognize.
“Who is it, Lizzy?”
“I don’t know.” Elizabeth leaned forward to study the large crest embossed on the carriage door. An elegantly scrolled DB was superimposed over the top of a griffin and crossed swords in gold and black. Whoever the coach belonged to, it must be a person of some wealth, for the perfectly matched black bays and grand embellishments spoke of old blood and old money.
In a few moments, the carriage came to a stop and a lady, well past middle age, disembarked alone from the conveyance. She was at too far a distance for Elizabeth to scrutinize the features, but what could be seen spoke tellingly enough. The woman wore a fine pelisse trimmed with ermine and dripping with lace. At her throat, seeming incongruous with traveling clothes, was a diamond pendant that looked strangely delicate on such a large and imposing bosom.
Jane had risen from her seat to peer over Elizabeth’s shoulder. “Do you know her, Lizzy? She looks very grand.”
“I have no notion who she might be,” Elizabeth said, with considerable bewilderment. “Surely we are not acquainted? Have you never seen her, Jane?”
“Well, nor have I. I wonder what she could be about?”
“I suppose we shall just have to see.”
Taking their seats, the two waited for the visitor to be announced, but when she was, their confusion was not at all alleviated. Hill opened the door, looking very flustered, and made a hasty curtsey. “Lady Catherine de Bourgh to see you, if you please.”
Elizabeth and Jane had only time to exchange baffled glances before the lady herself swept into the room in a stately whirl of black bombazine. Mr. Collins’s patroness was a tall, heavy woman, with strongly-marked features, which might once have been handsome. Her eyes scanned the parlor with a look of disdain, and finally fell upon the other inhabitants. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet?” The words sounded more like a command than a question, so authoritative was her voice.
“I am she.” Elizabeth made a slight curtsey, to which Lady Catherine condescended to incline her patrician head. Her Ladyship’s gaze then fell on poor Jane, who quailed at the imperious stare. “And this, I suppose, is one of your sisters?”
“The eldest, Jane.”
Lady Catherine waved a be-ringed hand. “Then, Miss Jane Bennet, I ask that you might give me leave to speak privately with your sister. You must have some employment elsewhere in the house.”
Jane, sending an anxious look to her sister, left obediently, for indeed, Lady Catherine was not the sort of woman who could be refused. Elizabeth marveled at her impertinence, but waited for her to speak her piece.
Lady Catherine, however, seemed in no hurry. “You have a very small park here, Miss Bennet,” she observed.
“Indeed, but then we have no one to impress here in the country.”
Her Ladyship grunted, and, after a moment of silence, said, “This must be a most inconvenient sitting room for the evening, in summer; the windows are full west.”
Elizabeth began to find amusement in this conversation, and, pertly, returned, “Very true. The sunlight is vexing, but I fear there is no way to redirect its course – it is a most stubborn fixture. May I take the liberty of inquiring how Mr. Collins and my sister do?”
“Quite well,” Lady Catherine replied with a sniff. “I saw them last evening.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
“Miss Bennet,” Her Ladyship interrupted, “I noticed a prettyish sort of little wilderness on one side of the house. Perhaps we might take a turn in it and discuss our business.”
“As you wish.” Elizabeth, after quickly fetching her parasol, accompanied Lady Catherine down the steps and across the walk to the copse by the hermitage. They proceeded thusly in silence, as Elizabeth was determined that she should not waste her breath on conversation for such an insolent woman.
The instant they reached the trees, Lady Catherine announced, “You can be at no loss, Miss Bennet, to understand the reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I come.”
Elizabeth looked on with unaffected astonishment. “Indeed, you are mistaken, Madam. I have not been at all able to account for the honor of seeing you here. I cannot believe your purpose involves our sitting room or park, so you do find me completely unaware of your intentions.”
“I will not be trifled with, young lady! However insincere you may choose to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. A report of a most alarming nature reached me two days ago. I was told that not only your sister was on the point of being most advantageously married, but that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be soon afterwards united to my nephew, Mr. Wickham.”
Elizabeth colored in astonishment and disdain. “I wonder at your taking the trouble to travel so far to inquire as to the veracity of such claims. Could you not have asked your nephew himself?”
Lady Catherine hesitated. “The state of affairs between my nephew and I does not allow for such confidences.”
“That is pitiable indeed, Your Ladyship, but it hardly justifies your importuning me in such a manner.”
“Importuning you? Why, you selfish, headstrong girl! Do not speak of what you do not know.” She rapped her walking stick sharply on the ground. “I will ask you once more: Are you engaged to him?”
“I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with Your Ladyship. You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer.”
“This is not to be borne! Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?”
“He has,” Elizabeth said defiantly.
“And did you accept?”
Elizabeth was tempted to refuse an answer, but at length replied, “I did.”
An odd expression passed over Her Ladyship’s face, and she sank slowly onto the bench at the edge of the copse. “I see I am come too late.”
Elizabeth was astonished by this abrupt change of manner. “I beg your pardon?”
Lady Catherine appeared to recover herself, and, straightening, pierced her companion with a stern look. “I will not persist in shilly-shallying about, Miss Bennet; it is best to put the matter out in the open. I have come to dissuade you from marrying my nephew.”
Elizabeth grew angry at such presumption. “I suppose my fortune is not acceptable to your ladyship? Or perhaps it is my low birth? Or my country manners?”
“I cannot pretend that any of those things particularly please me,” she said stiffly, “but you mistake my intent in speaking with you. I am not come to warn you off my nephew, but to warn you about him.”
Nothing could have shocked Elizabeth more than this blunt proclamation. Wide-eyed, she took a step back and wavered on her feet.
“Oh, mercy’s sake, sit down!” Lady Catherine snapped. “I will tolerate no displays of feminine hysterics in my presence, Miss Bennet. I forbid you to faint!”
This ridiculous comment removed any danger of unsteadiness, and Elizabeth collected herself enough to sit as she was directed. Lady Catherine appeared deep in thought for a few moments before speaking.
“Now, you may well wonder why I would say such things of my own nephew,” she said, biting out the words as if they were distasteful to her, “and I assure you, such behavior is not my usual practice. In this case, I will be open with you, though it is certainly due to no special obligation on my part, considering what an ill-mannered, obstinate child you are.”
Elizabeth only raised a brow.
“I will lay before you,” Her Ladyship continued, “the history of my nephew. George was born to my most excellent sister and her husband and was a charming, good-humored boy, although I always felt he was spoilt most dreadfully. But when his mother and father died, he grew dissolute without their guidance and fell into bad company with gamblers and ruffians of the worst sort.” She sniffed disdainfully. “He received poor marks at Cambridge and sought to spend his time and money on the most ill-gotten pursuits and schemes.
“During this time, I had long wished an alliance between my sister’s only son and my only daughter, and he was quite open to the idea. However, it soon became apparent that George was not the sort of man for Anne, for he would surely spend every penny of her inheritance the instant they married.” Her lips tightened. “I was forced to give up my hope of a match, and when my nephew’s habits grew more wild and more flagrant, I could acknowledge the wisdom of my decision. When George understood that no match would be made, he did not visit again. It spoke clearly of his motives.”
Elizabeth was moved to put a compassionate hand on the woman’s arm, but Lady Catherine, with a burst of spirit, shrugged it off indignantly. “I need no pity from you, young lady. Stop this foolishness at once, and let me finish!”
She drew back, but almost smiled at the old lady’s bluster – for she was now certain that much of the gruffness was pure bravado. “Do forgive me, madam. Pray, go on.”
Lady Catherine shot her a suspicious look before complying. “After the dissolution of our connections, my brother informed me that he had observed similar proclivities in George and worried much for his reputation. It seems he was seen in several unsavory places whilst in Town, and the news of it had carried back to Matlock House. My brother attempted to reason with him, but George was angered and swore never to speak to any member of the family again. The ties were thus broken and have not since been repaired.”
Elizabeth was surprised by this account, but not so much surprised as she should have been. “Did the rumors continue to spread? I wonder that I never heard of it.”
Lady Catherine sighed. “I can only suppose that George learned to be more discreet. There was some bother about his involvement with the sister of his clergyman, but nothing else that reached Kent.”
“The sister of...! I beg of you, what happened?”
Her Ladyship frowned. “I understand my nephew made the girl an ungentlemanlike offer. I know very little else about the affair. It was hushed up well.”
Elizabeth’s heart pounded. “Do you know the name of the family?”
“Delby or Dabny, or something similar.”
“Darcy...Yes, something like that. The girl’s brother made a fuss over the matter, and George was in quite a spot of trouble; it was fortunate for him that the man was a member of the clergy, else he might have found himself challenged. Of all the foolish, headstrong things to do... but then he was never very cautious.”
“Poor Georgiana,” she whispered. “It all makes sense now.”
“Speak up, Miss Bennet. I cannot abide people who mumble. It is most unladylike.”
“I said that I still do not understand why Mr. Wickham should wish to marry me. Do you know any reason why he might?”
Lady Catherine looked offended. “I made certain that I had the entire matter unearthed before I confronted you; of course I know. I am excessively attentive to all these things.”
“Very well, then. Why should he choose me?”
“That is what troubled me when I first heard of this preposterous arrangement from your sister, Mrs. Collins. With such inferior connections and slight fortune, it seemed a reckless match. He could have done much better in London or Bath, where the heiresses reside – not some little village of no note on the edge of civilization.”
Elizabeth bit her lip. “Indeed.”
“I had my man of business investigate the matter and only received his answer yesterday afternoon. It seems, Miss Bennet, that my nephew is under a very great misapprehension with regards to the extent of your fortune.”
“My fortune! How so?”
“It appears that George was informed, by a friend of his and associate of your uncle – Mr. Philips, I believe – that your father had inherited more from his cousin than was publicly acknowledged. He came into some £45,000, am I correct?”
“According to George’s informant, Mr. Thurston had acquired additional cash from a venture into the spice trade, and in fact, left your father – in addition to the £45,000 – a further sum amounting to £100,000.”
“I can see by your surprise that such a report is false,” Lady Catherine said with some satisfaction. “My nephew thinks he has secured himself a fine fortune, when you have only a tenth of the amount he expects. Strange – it is most uncharacteristic for him to have leapt into such a venture without verifying the claims. When it comes to making money, he is usually most careful.”
“How despicable!” Elizabeth breathed. “Such calculation – such heartless calculation!”
“Yes, well, I presume that you will do the correct thing with this information. I must return to Kent; unless, of course, you should like me to make this information known to your father?” she said, rather ungraciously.
“No, no. I shall tell him myself.” Elizabeth accompanied Lady Catherine as far as the carriage and watched as the footman helped his mistress inside. “I do not know how I can thank you enough for sharing your findings with me.”
Her Ladyship waved away her words. “I had thought better of you than to believe you a groveler, Miss Bennet,” she said crisply. “Upon my word, I am not accustomed to so much gratitude. You may give my regards to your parents.” With that, she reached around and poked the coachman with her cane. “Carry on.”
The carriage began to roll on down the drive, and Lady Catherine nodded regally to Elizabeth before the conveyance went around the bend. Elizabeth stood watching it disappear down the lane, torn between laughter and tears. Of all the conversations she had had in her life, that had to be the most extraordinary!
The door squeaked open behind her, and Jane’s voice came clearly from the doorway, sounding anxious. “Lizzy, what happened? What did she say? Did she bring us news from the Collinses?”
Elizabeth could only laugh, helplessly. “Poor Wickham? No indeed – poor Mary!”
When he at last returned from his business with the tenants, Mr. Bennet was surprised to find his daughter waiting in the library for him. No sooner had he recovered from the unexpectedness of her arrival than she confronted him directly with the reason for it.
The gentleman’s dismay and mortification upon this occasion may be imagined – with what astonishment did he hear that Elizabeth wished to terminate her engagement, and with what fatherly outrage he heard the tale of Wickham’s brutish behavior. His anger, indeed, rendered him quite unable to speak for some minutes, and the expression upon his countenance was terrible to look at – even if Elizabeth was filled with satisfaction to see that he was made so abruptly aware of all that he had heretofore overlooked, either due to obliviousness or indolence. His wrath toward Wickham was equaled only by the shame he felt for having been of such little use to his daughter when she had required his guidance the most.
Nothing was left undisclosed but for Mr. Darcy’s involvement in the situation. Elizabeth revealed the purpose of Lady Catherine’s visit, and, though he was able to chuckle at his daughter’s vivid description of the very unorthodox woman, his own sense of disgrace was complete. He had failed to protect his favorite from a blatant mercenary, whom he had never trusted, nor made any attempt to become further acquainted with. He had not taken any precautions, instead preferring to save himself the trouble, and consequently exposed Elizabeth to all the dangers housed within an unreliable, unprincipled man. He remembered how easily he had sanctioned the match, making only the requisite objections before choosing to give in to her will rather than investigate further into the matter as an attentive father should.
For a man who was accustomed to ridiculing the foolishness in his neighbors, acknowledging that the folly was all his was a bitter stroke.
Elizabeth saw how pained he was, and, having forgiven him long ago for his neglect as a parent, sought to make him understand that she bore him no ill will. “Papa, pray do not be so upset. It is not good for you to fret so. Everything will be well again soon, you shall see.”
“Say nothing of that,” he replied. “Who would suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”
“You must not be too severe upon yourself.”
“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough – indeed, far sooner than it should.”
Elizabeth let the declaration pass by without comment, knowing that he probably spoke the truth. It was simply her father’s way; she had always known him to be as capricious as he was intelligent – however roundly he might castigate himself now, the matter would soon be forgotten and his habitual complacency would reassert itself. Whatever disappointment he felt in himself would shortly be done away with, and he would return to his books and brandy with a light heart.
That very truth once again impressed upon her the life she had nearly sentenced herself to. Elizabeth had never been blind to the impropriety of her father's behavior as a husband. She had always seen it with pain, but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavored to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend such a marriage. Her parents painted such a picture of conjugal unhappiness that she wondered why she had not drawn parallels to her own relationship with Wickham. Her mother and father were in the most unequal sort of marriage – he, being so full of misapplied wit, knowledge, and cynical observations; she, with a mind so little adapted to sensibility, taste, or judgment – and had she followed through as she had intended, her own misery would have been as secure as theirs.
It was not a happy thought, and she consulted her father directly with the most pressing matter of the entire business: how was Mr. Wickham to be informed? Elizabeth was in favor of sending a note, but Mr. Bennet determined that the situation should be dealt with properly. A message was indeed carried to Wickham’s lodgings, requesting an audience at one in the afternoon. Elizabeth was not keen on the idea of Wickham being anywhere near Longbourn again; her father, however, carried his point with uncommon resolution. Nothing but a direct refusal from Mr. Bennet himself would do.
“The matter must be done as correctly as possible,” he reminded her, “or else there will be more talk than can be managed. Gossip has never held much with you, I know, but your mother will be inconsolable should it be known around the neighborhood that her daughter spurned a man of ten thousand a year. I will be happy to take the blame for myself, Lizzy, if it will give you comfort and prevent her from reprimanding you; but then, she will not scold you too much, for you know she is such an affectionate mother.”
“Ah,” he said, “I see that you are determined to be unamused. Perhaps that subject is best not discussed; we shall all know soon enough how everyone will react. And now, my dear, let us send off this letter. The sooner we may rid Hertfordshire of Mr. Wickham, the better.”
The note was sent off, and Elizabeth spent a very uneasy morning awaiting the gentleman’s arrival. Although she tried to distract herself with some long-neglected sewing, she kept going over to peer out the windows for any sign of him until Jane patiently entreated her to return to the table. Even when she was able to apply herself to the mending, she missed half the stitches and spent more time pulling out the thread than putting it in.
Her frustrated efforts were, at last, interrupted by the sound of a knock on the front door. Elizabeth tensed, listening as Hill’s footsteps moved past the parlor to the door; she heard Wickham’s voice, an indistinct shuffling, Mr. Bennet’s low drawl, and finally the sound of the library door closing. Jane reached over and clasped her sister’s hand. “Papa will see to it, Lizzy,” she whispered. “Pray, do not be anxious.”
The two girls waited in silence, listening attentively for any word or whisper that might alert them as to the scene being played out in the library. Unfortunately, when Mr. Bennet had allowed some renovations on Longbourn House, one thing he had insisted upon was having the wall between the library and parlor thickened, the reasons for which, considering the parlor was the room most frequented by Mrs. Bennet, must be easily surmised. This addition became now the greatest of vexations, and Elizabeth was sorely tempted to put her ear against the door like an eavesdropping child. Sense prevailed and soon resigned her to a torturous half-hour of waiting.
The lack of noise, conversely, reassured Jane. “If we cannot hear them, then they are being civil and not raising their voices to each other,” she said hopefully. “I should hate to see them quarreling – you know how Papa detests it.”
Elizabeth thought it very likely that a conflict would be inevitable, but as a quarter-hour passed without any commotion, she began to wonder if Jane had gauged the situation correctly. No sooner had that notion occurred to her than a loud exclamation erupted from the library. It took only an instant for Elizabeth to recognize the voice as Wickham’s, and a moment later, an equally irate rejoinder came from Mr. Bennet. Not all the words were clear, but the meaning could not be mistaken.
Jane was exceedingly alarmed, and several times wondered aloud whether it might not be best to fetch someone to intercede. Elizabeth was unmoved. She felt confident in her father’s ability to oust his opponent in any contest of scathing retorts or acerbic reprimands. No, Wickham would be offended thrice over before Mr. Bennet was finished.
Another quarter-hour elapsed uneasily, as the volume of the argument escalated in proportion to the passing of the minutes, until Elizabeth began to fear for the outcome of the interview. Lydia, with Kitty trailing behind her, even seemed to take notice of the altercation as she entered the parlor. “Lord, listen to all that noise,” was her first observation. “What did Wickham do? He is such a scamp. Did you let yourself get into trouble, Lizzy? What a joke that would be!”
“Lydia!” Jane was horrified by the blunt question and the intimation behind it. “Lizzy is entirely blameless; do not say such things! Wickham and Papa are only suffering a difference of opinion.”
A difference of opinion? Elizabeth directed an incredulous look at her sister. Well, that is certainly one way to put it.
Lydia was not convinced, and, with the assistance of Kitty, began to conjecture what had occurred to make Mr. Bennet so uncharitable with Wickham, and what the result would be. Wild speculations on untold wickedness and a duel at dawn only made Elizabeth cross and Jane distraught. Nothing could curb the younger girls’ imaginations, however, and no appeals from their elder sister that they might desist were heeded.
As if with the objective of making the situation as arduous as possible, Fate contrived then to have Mrs. Bennet return from her morning calls early. Seeing her daughters grouped about in the hallway and hearing the disturbance in the library, she immediately demanded to know what was happening.
Elizabeth hopelessly sank into a nearby chair as her mother’s shrill insistence added to the pounding in her head. So much for the hope of a quiet and discreet dismissal; it appeared that the entire family must be present to witness her discredit. Before Mrs. Bennet could scold the story out of one of her daughters, the door flew open to reveal Mr. Wickham. His face was flushed, his mien lacking its usual cool, collected charm – he looked angry and agitated, and his color increased upon seeing the ladies gathered in the hallway.
Kitty began to giggle nervously, until Jane dealt her a rather sharp nudge in the side. Wickham’s jaw tightened as a look of offended hauteur spread over his features. Elizabeth hoped that he might leave without any further trouble, but his eyes turned suddenly toward her and bore such an expression of violent hatred as to make her breath catch. She stood, stupefied, watching as the gentleman stormed from the hall, ignoring Mrs. Bennet’s entreaties that he might stay to dine with them. Such a childish and vehement reaction held her in astonishment for a moment while her mother and sisters milled about in a state of confusion. Mr. Bennet was steadily refusing to explain anything and told his wife only that Mr. Wickham was unlikely to wish to stay at Longbourn any longer, despite the attractions of its bountiful table.
The clamor was unbearable. Elizabeth was not sure what impulse drove her to follow Wickham out the door, but she found herself hurrying after him as he strode over to collect his mount from the waiting groom. Yanking the reins from the poor servant’s hand, Wickham started to swing his foot up onto the stirrup when he noticed that Elizabeth was standing a few feet away.
“Come to crow over your triumph, Miss Bennet?” he said bitterly. “Your father has given me enough of a dressing down; you need not add to the insult.”
Looking silently at his sullen features, she felt a moment’s pity for him. Not for the rejection he had been dealt, but for the life he had set up for himself. There was no feeling for her in his eyes, no regret at having lost her – only a sulkiness for having been denied something he wanted. Yes, she pitied him for being so unhappily selfish; for never having been taught to value anything other than himself. “I intend to give no insult, sir – I only wish you well.”
His lips twisted. “I find your insolence very unpalatable, madam. Do you enjoy dallying with your suitors? There was certainly no mention of it in the marriage contract. Or perhaps you have found another lover to suit you better?”
“I was not mocking you,” she said, knowing full well that he would not believe her.
“But you have found someone else.”
She could not deny it.
He swore under his breath and glared at her, resentment painted all across his face. “Is it Darcy?”
There was little point in dissembling. “Yes.” There was a pause. “I love him.” She felt a sudden freedom after speaking the words, words withheld for so long, and even her companion’s glower could not mar the pleasure which her confession brought her.
It was not what he wished to hear. She saw his eyes narrow, his manner become considerably more cold; jealousy had its constricting hold upon him. “This will spell the end of his career, you know,” he said unpleasantly. “I hope love will be enough for him when he finds himself without a living.”
She refused to be baited. “I will support him; my fortune will be his, and we will want for nothing, even if Kympton should not belong to him.”
The thought seemed to revolt him. “Yes, money – that it the point, is it not? I see I was taken in by a scheming gold-digger. For all your self-righteous ways, you are exactly like any other grasping woman. You accepted me for my fortune.”
Her equanimity slipped a few notches. “Strange that you should accuse me of such disguise, sir, when your own motives have been far from honest. A pity that you believe everything you hear. I have only ten thousand pounds to call my own; you would not have gotten a penny more.”
A flicker of surprise showed in his expression before suspicion overtook it. “You are lying.”
“I am not,” she said harshly. “You were misinformed. Had you gone through with this marriage, you would have gotten only a country girl with a small fortune. You will do much better for some unfortunate heiress in Town.”
Wickham recovered his wits quickly, with a growing sense of indignance. “So you decided I was no longer worth your time, and you convinced your father to save you the trouble of speaking with me, choosing to humiliate me in such a manner?”
“It was reasonable and just for my father to be the one to end our engagement. He wished to do so.”
“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honor of expecting!” His voice rose. “I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavor at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”
“I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why, with so evident a design of offending and degrading me, you treated me in such an infamous manner during our engagement? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil?”
“I see,” he said, in tones full of contempt. “I suppose this incivility was wrought only by actions? These offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been so wounded by my attentions to others. Had I flattered you and catered to your every whim, I imagine your response might have been very different indeed; you would have been glad to be married to me.”
Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said, “You are mistaken, Mr. Wickham, if you suppose that your behavior had any other effect than sparing me the concern which I might have felt in breaking off our engagement, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.”
His countenance only gained in austerity – he did not seem to credit a single word she said, and his refusal to listen only infuriated her further.
“From the very beginning,” she lashed out, “from the first moment I may almost say, of my engagement to you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not been betrothed to you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.”
“You have said quite enough, madam,” he said tightly, gazing at her with a look of the most disgusted hostility. “There can be no point in offending me further; let us part ways now, lest something more unpleasant be said. I only hope you will not regret what you have given up.”
With that, he mounted the horse, cast her one last frigid glance, and cracked the reins sharply. The stallion took off with haste, and Elizabeth called out after the gentleman, “I never shall, sir. Believe me, I never shall.”
In an instant horse and rider were gone. Elizabeth, exhausted and yet somehow exhilarated by the final encounter, wandered into the garden in an attempt to settle the tumult of her mind. Her emotions ran high, and she made several rounds of the lawn before she felt herself equal to returning to the house. She had just started toward the steps when the familiar rattle of wheels on pavement caught her attention. A quick glance around revealed a cart rolling slowly up the lane, and she saw, with an uncertain flutter in the pit of her stomach, that its driver was Mr. Darcy himself.
He had not spied her yet, and she stood there in speechless admiration, observing him furtively while he neared. Having been unable to see him for nearly a week, his features suddenly seemed infinitely more dear than they ever had been before, and she drank in the sight of him with joy. He looked well, if a little pale, and appeared to be lost in thought, as indicated by the line between his brows and the serious, distant set of his expression.
A rustle of color on the seat beside him distracted her, and she could not help but smile to see that Georgiana’s impertinent little pet was standing on the cart bench, ruffling his tail-feathers in evident delight. Her amusement was cut short, however, by the realization that Darcy had taken notice of her presence and was now watching her with the same intensity with which she had earlier been observing him.
She could do nothing but wait for the cart to stop, and she held his gaze bravely until he pulled up the horse right next to her. With the full force of his piercing gaze turned upon her, she could hardly bear to face him – she was wrought with contradictory desires and a sense of the deepest shame, knowing now how very much she had wronged the man before her. Her eyes turned to the ground, and she was therefore startled at the abrupt sound of his voice, low and tense.
“Miss Bennet, this may seem all very untoward, but could I beg your indulgence? I have some matters to discuss with you, and they are of a delicacy which requires some privacy. Will you ride with me for a moment?”
Elizabeth looked up at him with mingled confusion and eagerness; hardly knowing what to say, she simply nodded. A quick glance behind her showed that no sisters or parents lingered at the doorstep or windows, and she allowed Darcy to hand her up into the rickety cart. The thrilling touch of his hand brought back memories of a more carefree time, and the uprising of several uncomfortable emotions rendered her unable to do much more than thank him softly for his assistance.
Elizabeth took her seat, which was almost unbearably close to her companion; and though there was a good length of bench which she might have used to widen the distance between them, the notion never occurred to her to move away from him. Sir Francis eyed the intruder with a look of contemplation (or so Elizabeth imagined) before puffing out his little chest and strutting impressively across the length of the cart.
Darcy observed the scene with a faint smile. “He is an incorrigible flirt, Miss Bennet.”
“So I see,” she laughed. Turning to address the avian charmer, she added, “I am afraid, sir, that my tastes run to gentlemen of the less feathered variety. You may have to look elsewhere.”
“He certainly shall,” Darcy said affectionately, nudging the horse into a trot. “I believe Lady Drake would take it very much amiss if he were to show you too much attention.”
“Ah, he is a married man!” Elizabeth smiled and patted the duck’s head. “And no ducklings?”
“Georgiana hopes for some; perhaps in the spring, when the weather is more favorable.”
She delighted in his cheerfulness and the friendly way he regarded her – as if there had never been any contention between them, no separation at all. “Well, with such a father, I am sure they will be a credit to ducks everywhere,” she teased.
Sir Francis, as if he understood every word that was said, flapped his wings proudly, and deserted his place by his master to nestle close to Elizabeth.
“How fickle are his attentions,” Darcy said wryly. “You seem to have enraptured him with remarkable ease, Miss Bennet.” Even as he pronounced the words, his demeanor changed; his expression lost the lightness it had so recently regained, and his lips compressed into a thin, terse line. “Speaking of enrapturing,” he added, “I may as well come to the point of the reason for this excursion. I talked with a...friend last night, and he helped me realize that there are things I have been concealing from you and our general acquaintance that should have been made public for the good of everyone involved. My own foolish pride kept me from disclosing the truth, and I must now tell you what I have kept to myself for so long.”
Elizabeth was torn between anxiety and a burgeoning sense of diffident hope, though his tone of forbidding did little to ease her nervous spirits; as he formulated his speech, she leaned forward, fixing her eyes raptly on his troubled features and waiting with her entire being on edge.
Without further preamble, Darcy embarked on the tale of Georgiana’s disastrous and short-lived involvement with Wickham, detailing the events that had led up to it; his contention with Wickham over matters moral and ethical, the unhappy dissolution of their childhood friendship because of it; Wickham’s resentment of his father’s kindness to Darcy; his vexation over seeing a mere son of a steward held in such esteem throughout the neighborhood and favored by his own relations – all things that had driven Wickham to exact his revenge through the vulnerable Georgiana. Darcy concealed nothing of the matter, though his own pain was considerable in recounting memories he had much preferred to forget; he knew that only complete honesty would do for Elizabeth. She deserved nothing less.
“And that is an account of all my dealings with Mr .Wickham,” he concluded grimly. When she said nothing, he added, desperately, “Miss Bennet, I know that this must come as a shock, but...”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I already knew.”
His face flushed scarlet. “Did Wickham...?”
“No, no,” she said hastily. “He never told me anything. The particulars were not known to me; I learned only that Georgiana had been cruelly deceived by him in some manner.”
“Who told you such a thing?”
She debated for a moment but decided no harm could come in telling him, though it might lead to some awkward explanations. “Lady Catherine de Bourgh.”
He could not have been more shocked if she had named the Prince Regent himself. “Mr. Wickham’s aunt?”
“She paid me a very unusual visit to warn me about her nephew’s character. Of course, I had already resolved upon breaking off the engagement, so it...”
“I have terminated my engagement to Mr. Wickham,” she said clearly. “My father spoke to him today. We are no longer betrothed. I only regret that I did not do it sooner.”
He looked at her so blankly that for a moment she was certain that he had not heard her. The next moment, however, a tentative, almost shy smile curled the edges of his mouth, assuring her that he had heard and understood every word. “Truly?”
She felt the strangest urge to laugh. “Truly.”
There seemed nothing more to say, but it was a silence unmarred by awkwardness. Elizabeth beamed at the sight of the smile he directed her way, and they rode back to Longbourn in companionable harmony. Both were, privately, disappointed when Longbourn came into view; Darcy stopped the cart and helped Elizabeth down, resigning himself to leaving and inwardly wondering how soon he might see her again without it seeming improper. Elizabeth was forming schemes of her own.
“I do thank you for being so open with me. I appreciate the effort it took for you to disclose such a painful history, and I am honored that you would trust me with the information. Will you...” She hesitated, and then boldly held out her hand. “Will you not stay and dine with us tonight, Mr. Darcy? We would all be glad for your company.”
He gazed at the delicate fingers extended toward him, and, with a smile, reached out and grasped them gently in his own. “It would be my pleasure.”
A friendship once lost can be difficult to regain – trust must be re-established, respect developed, and acceptance deserved. Instantaneous reconnection is not possible; having once been close, and then drifting away from that intimacy, familiarity is a prize that must be fought for and gained only through slow and careful re-acquaintance. For two people who suffer such an abrupt dissolution of the course, it is necessary to become friends again before they can be lovers.
Darcy and Elizabeth did not differ from any other couple torn apart by internal betrayal and misunderstanding. The passing of many days was necessary for all wounded feelings to be healed, any residual, unfavorable memories erased and replaced with newer, more gratifying ones. The initial shyness was soon conquered, but they would need time to become truly at ease with one another; each step, each hour spent in each other’s exclusive company, however, bonded them ever closer with those ties that had been so insoluble and yet so strained. They were eager to further develop the budding relationship, although aware that a greater degree of caution was required in such a case.
Another courtship, however, was at last coming to a satisfactory end. Jane and Bingley’s wedding was the talk of Meryton, and the days at Longbourn were full of discussions about wedding finery, worries about the arrangements, and attending dinners and soirees to celebrate the happy event. A fortnight passed quickly with such activities and soon it was the very morning of the wedding, and the Bennets were making the most of the last few hours in which Jane would ever be ‘Miss Bennet.’
Mrs. Bennet was oddly calm – with so many things to be done and so much good fortune to gloat over, her nerves scarcely troubled her at all. She flew from room to room, ordering the servants about and imparting upon Jane a few final bits of advice. Her daughter bore all this in her usual complaisant fashion, listening patiently to her mother while Elizabeth helped her slip on her wedding gown.
“Do remember, Jane, my love,” she said, tugging at her daughter’s perfectly-arranged curls, “never to argue with Mr. Bingley – men do not like to be told they are wrong, even if they are. Be demure and polite and give him his way, and he will dote on you. Mr. Bingley is already so in love with you that I doubt he will ever deny you anything, but it does not hurt to keep on good terms.”
“Mama,” Elizabeth said impatiently, “Mr. Bingley loves Jane very much, and he would continue to do so even if Jane were to strike up a fit over something – though considering their temperaments, I do not believe they will ever disagree on anything.”
“What do you know of it, Miss Lizzy?” her mother said indignantly. “You have thrown away your chance of being married!”
The news that Mr. Wickham had left Hertfordshire permanently had been a trial for Mrs. Bennet to accept. For many days after the announcement, she had bewailed her ill fortune in coming so close to having three daughters married, only to have her least favorite girl snatch the distinction away by being so obstinate. Vainly had she tried to convince Elizabeth to write to Mr. Wickham and attempt to repair the damage. Tears, scoldings, and fits of nerves had not worked on her stubborn child, however. Elizabeth remained vexingly indifferent to her poor mama’s woes. After repeated explanations, Mrs. Bennet grudgingly came to accept that Wickham would not perhaps have made the best husband, despite his ten thousand a year. As the situation became more widely known in Meryton, she was eventually able to take solace in reporting tales of his profligate London ways and convincing herself that she had never trusted him from the very beginning.
“I will always do my best to please my husband,” Jane said placatingly. “Have no worries on that account, Mama.”
Having been satisfied with that confirmation, Mrs. Bennet proceeded to share a few more pearls of marital wisdom. Elizabeth rolled her eyes, and Jane hastily hid her smile behind her gloved hand.
Downstairs, a more rational party had formed. Dr. Lawrence, the officiator of the morning’s ceremony, stopped over at Longbourn to sit down to breakfast with the family – or rather, Mr. Bennet and Kitty, as the other girls were upstairs attending the bride. Darcy accompanied him, though he declined a plate and sat quietly next to the rector, saying little and looking very distracted. Mr. Bennet observed the young man’s restlessness and saw his eyes drawn hopefully to the door each time footsteps were heard in the hall, only to turn away in disappointment when no one entered.
Mr. Bennet wondered at it, and entertained himself by watching the play of emotions on the youth’s face. It was apparent that Mr. Darcy wished for the presence of someone in particular. His own wife he could rule out easily; Kitty was already in the room; Lydia – no; Jane was to be married... That left only one logical choice, and he smiled over the rim of his teacup at the thought. Lizzy and the curate? Surely not...
Mr. Bennet shook such fancies out of his head and entered back into a conversation with Dr. Lawrence. After a few minutes, Elizabeth’s voice could be heard outside the door, asking Hill to bring a tray for Jane. Darcy rose from the table in such a rush that both Dr. Lawrence and his host looked at him with surprise. He colored. “Will you excuse me for a moment, please?”
The rector bid him go, but Mr. Bennet’s amusement turned into amazement as he realized that his surmise might not have been far from the mark at all. The curate was out the door in an instant, however; no further speculation could be made.
Elizabeth was just starting to climb the stairs when Darcy made a hurried appearance in the hall. Their eyes met, and they might have been startled had they known how very similar were the respective thoughts going through their minds. “Miss Bennet,” he finally croaked out.
As if by mutual accord, they both moved – independently and yet simultaneously – toward the closest room in the hall; in this case, the library. Elizabeth went in first and Darcy followed her. Neither spoke until the door was shut, and even then, what little discourse they had was composed of simple niceties, as two persons might offer each other in any other circumstance.
Elizabeth settled herself in a chair while Darcy paced back and forth around the rows of shelves, giving the appearance of observing the books but seeing and absorbing nothing. They were each of them forming desperate resolutions, considering and rejecting hundreds of ways to begin the conversation dearest to both their hearts.
Darcy finally settled for the trite. “I imagine your sister is very eager for the ceremony.”
There was a pause. “Bingley was in such a state himself yesterday. I have never seen a man so happy. I hope that he and Miss Bennet will always be so well-matched.”
“As do I.” He did not reply. It was her turn to find a subject, and she settled on continuing the safe topic of the upcoming nuptials. “It is a source of great comfort to know Jane will be settled so close to us. It would be very hard to lose her company completely.” She smiled. “Although undoubtedly there shall be some times when she will wish that there was a greater distance between Netherfield and Longbourn.”
“Yes.” He seemed to consider something for a minute before saying carefully, “Perhaps since your sister will be more occupied with the matters of her own household, you will find it more convenient to visit the parsonage?”
Her eyes widened. “The parsonage?”
“To see Georgiana. She appreciates your friendship so much.”
Elizabeth sank back into her chair, a rush of disappointment strangling off the hopes so recently raised in her breast. She summoned up a smile, however, for his benefit. “I would love to see Georgiana more often.”
“And...” He broke off, and falteringly added, “And of course I would also be very glad to see you.”
Before she could answer, Mrs. Bennet could be heard calling for her second daughter, sounding somewhat piqued. Elizabeth started to rise, but Darcy, loath to let such an opportunity pass, took her hand, looking at her with an expression of the most earnest entreaty. “Elizabeth, I...” Without knowing what she was doing, and reacting to the uproar in her thoughts, she pulled her hand from his.
Hurt overtook his countenance; too late she realized what her hasty action had led him to conclude. She tried to speak, but he interrupted her in tones of cold civility. “I understand now, Miss Bennet. I will trouble you no longer with my tedious company. Let us part as – if not friends – then at least as agreeable acquaintances.”
Darcy made her a bow before turning stiffly toward the door to take his leave. Elizabeth launched herself after him in desperation. “Wait!”
He turned, startled. Without a thought of what he might think or do, she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him squarely on the mouth.
Her own boldness and the overwhelming intimacy of the touch itself might have made Elizabeth draw back, if only from amazement; but the pair of hands which pressed timidly against her back to urge her closer, and the unexpected sweetness of the lips belonging to the owner of the hands coerced her to linger in the embrace. He was as shy and unsure as she, but as both of them became accustomed to the feel of the other, their eagerness in the occupation increased, and, although it was a chaste kiss by many standards, both were feeling the full effects of a passion newly unleashed. Elizabeth reveled – in the small portion of her brain which was still capable of rational thought – in the difference of this kiss to that of others less enjoyable. Clergymen certainly could kiss.
When at last some modicum of propriety was remembered, and they broke apart, he could only gasp, “Elizabeth?”
“Hush.” With that command, she lifted herself on tiptoe to steal another kiss, which he was most willing to forfeit to her. Neither could definitively say how long they remained in this state of delicious happiness, but it was not to last long.
Voices from outside the door cut through the pleasurable haze, and Elizabeth quickly pushed her accomplice in mischief away. A moment later, Mr. Bennet came inside with a stack of letters, undoubtedly just come from the morning post. His eyebrows shot up upon discovering his daughter and Mr. Darcy standing nearly on opposite sides of the room, flushed, wide-eyed, and looking very disorderly.
“Mr. Darcy,” he said, searching their red-cheeked faces for some hint as to what had transpired, “I believe Dr. Lawrence requires your assistance. Elizabeth, you may help Jane with her wedding gown. Your mother is having fits about the lace.”
Darcy bowed and scurried out of the room, bumping into the door frame in his haste, and Elizabeth mumbled something indistinct and took off after him. Mr. Bennet waited until the door had shut before he started chuckling.
“Elizabeth...Miss Bennet!” Darcy gently snatched her wrist as she turned the corner and pulled her into the little shaded overhang under the stairs.
She began to feel embarrassed over her forwardness. “Mr. Darcy, I am sorry...”
“Do not be. I am as much to blame.” He lowered his voice another notch. “We cannot speak properly here. Will you stay at the church after the ceremony? There is something I should very much like to ask you.”
“Does it have to do with the wedding service? Mama was quite certain she arranged everything to satisfaction. Have you any suggestions for her?” She tried to sound playful, but her voice quivered.
“Nay.” His eyes were warm, and she was very much tempted to throw caution to the wind and kiss him again, but Hill’s entrance with the breakfast tray forestalled any unwise displays of affection. With a final, lingering glance at Darcy, Elizabeth dutifully climbed up to join her sisters and mother, but not without a lightness in her step that had been absent before.
Jane was mercifully alone – at least for the present – and sitting placidly in front of the vanity, putting in a pair of eardrops. She noticed her sister’s flushed, glowing face in the mirror, and turned to look at her where she had slumped against the door. “My word, Lizzy, what is it? You look so very strange.”
“Do I?” she laughed. “I feel very strange, Jane – delightfully strange!”
Jane started to speak, but Lydia burst into the room with typical heedlessness. “Lord, are you ready yet, Jane? The carriage is pulling up.”
Elizabeth watched her sister’s countenance lose some of its serenity and answered for her, suspecting that Jane was hardly attending. “She will be down in a moment, Lydia.”
The girl left with an impatient look, and Jane rose, straightening her veiled bonnet compulsively, her feelings betrayed only by the slight tremor of her hands. “It will all be well, dearest,” Elizabeth said comfortingly. “You are beautiful this morning, and Mr. Bingley will not be able to keep his eyes from you.”
Jane colored and demurred, though her sister undoubtedly spoke the truth. The pale blue gown complimented her hair and complexion perfectly, and she had never been in such looks. Bingley would scarcely be able to spare the service any attention with such a distracting vision next to him at the altar.
“Now come, Jane, lest Mr. Bingley think you have changed your mind.” Elizabeth threaded her arm through her sister’s and led her down the stairs to where the rest of their family waited in the hall. While Jane endured her mother’s outbursts, Elizabeth noticed with some disappointment that Darcy and Dr. Lawrence had already left; she comforted herself with the knowledge that she would see the former again in a few short minutes.
She sat next to Jane in the carriage, holding her hand reassuringly as they drove on to the church. Kitty and Lydia chatted incessantly, Mrs. Bennet fretted over the creases in Jane’s gown, and Mr. Bennet sat pensively in the corner, speaking very little. It did not make for a very easy ride, and all were relieved when the carriage pulled up in front of the church.
Mr. Bennet and Jane waited behind in the foyer while the others filed into the sanctuary and took their seats. Bingley was standing up near the altar, talking to Darcy, though his eyes were frequently drawn to the back of the church in an attempt to catch a glimpse of his bride. Several of the guests stopped over to congratulate Mrs. Bennet, but Elizabeth heard nothing of the conversations, having other pursuits to interest her. She was interrupted in her observation of a certain clergyman only by a happy reunion with the man’s sister. Georgiana was delighted to see her friend again, and they spoke contentedly until the church began to fill and the time of the ceremony drew near. She withdrew to her own seat, with a promise to continue their tête-à-tête later in the day.
One arrival was less pleasant – Lady Burquist and her husband were sitting in the row before them. She was dressed a bit too extravagantly for such an event and looked positively sullen. The earl seemed bored and drowsy, and every so often he would drift off to sleep, causing his wife to rap him sharply with her fan until he straightened and made an attempt to look awake. As soon as everyone had been settled, Dr. Lawrence and Darcy emerged from the vestry. The former came forward to the altar and the latter, carrying the registry, took his place to the side, acting as witness to the marriage. Mr. Bennet came forward to escort Jane to the altar, and the ceremony began.
The wedding proceeded with no problems. The bride was stunning, and the groom had a broad grin pasted on his face for the whole of the service. Mrs. Bennet attempted valiantly to weep, and Mr. Bennet merely looked wistful. Kitty and Lydia soon tired of the solemnity of the ceremony and amused themselves by comparing the gentlemen around them and speculating on who would look best in regimentals.
Elizabeth was too elated to shed any tears for her sister; Jane had never seemed so happy, and Bingley no less so. When Dr. Lawrence pronounced them man and wife, she cheered inwardly. If anyone deserved such complete felicity, it was her sister.
The registry was signed, and the final prayers said, and Mr. and Mrs. Bingley walked back down the aisle hand-in-hand. The Bennets rushed to congratulate their daughter and son-in-law. “Now, dearest Jane,” Elizabeth declared, grasping her sister’s hand, “I will have the pleasure of calling you ‘Mrs. Bingley.’ The name suits you well.”
Jane blushed and agreed, and Elizabeth moved on to kiss her new brother’s cheek and welcome him into the family. Lady Burquist extended a similar civility to Jane, though with considerably less enthusiasm; Mrs. Hurst was warmer in her reception, and Mrs. Bingley was cordial to both, perhaps more so than either deserved. Bingley, desirous of his bride’s company, suggested the party return directly to Netherfield for the wedding breakfast, and Mrs. Bennet, with an earnest longing to gloat over the match to her friends, did not challenge the point. The girls were herded outside while the Bingleys boarded their own coach.
Elizabeth hung back, watching eagerly for Darcy. When he did not appear, she went off in search of him, maneuvering through the crowd milling in the sanctuary. She abruptly remembered the vestry, and after a moment’s indecision, started up toward the altar. Just as she was about to climb the steps, she heard her name softly being called and glanced over toward the open side door, where Darcy – divested of his cassock and stole – was waiting. He nodded to her and slipped out the door into the sunshine. Without hesitation she followed him.
They stopped in the shade of the overhanging roof, below the bell-tower. Elizabeth gazed up at him, watching the play of shadow and light across his face, and wishing more than anything to be privy to his thoughts. He seemed content to be silent, turning his gaze alternately from the sky to her face, where she felt it lingered with particular warmth. When he did speak, it was a steeled sort of calmness. “For many years, Elizabeth, I have preached on the power of love – the benefits, the sacrifices, the joys – but I have never experienced it for myself...until now. From the moment I met you, I knew that you were unlike anyone else I had ever known. I was unsure how to react to you; you confused me, made me nervous, yet brought me to such euphoric heights when you smiled at me.” He chuckled a little. “I felt like a schoolboy; so awkward, so afraid of saying something wrong.”
“You make it sound quite frightful,” she said wryly.
“Disconcerting, yes, but in the very best way. I...” He sighed. “I cannot make speeches. You know I cannot. If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more, but as it is...”
Her smile only widened, tears trailing silently down her cheeks, speaking more eloquently of her feelings than any flowery words could do.
“Elizabeth,” he said softly. “Dare I ask?”
She flew into his arms before the last word had left his lips. In the wild, joyful, teary moments that followed, Darcy knew he had his answer – an answer that was to his greatest satisfaction.
Who can be in doubt of what followed? When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or the match ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be smiled upon by the greater part of society.
Yet, there was still one barrier – one of considerable concern to both Elizabeth and her lover: the matter of Mr. Bennet’s consent.
Elizabeth was not so much afraid of his refusal as of his disappointment. She did not wish to give her father pain; and knowing that his feelings were in disarrangement since Mr. Wickham’s departure, was not entirely sure how he might react to have another suitor thrust into his notice almost the instant after he sent one away. She wondered whether it might not be wiser to wait a short while until Mr. Bennet had time to recover from the upset she had given him, but this plan Darcy steadfastly opposed. Having waited so long to gain her acceptance, he could not countenance a delay for her hand as well. He was determined to have their happiness settled as soon as he could, no matter how prudent it might seem to wait.
And then again, her father might desire a more hasty interview, when one took into account the scene he had witnessed in his own library. Darcy was much embarrassed by being detected in such a position by the man he hoped to call his father-in-law and had actually expected to be summoned about the matter, but of yet nothing had been said. Mr. Bennet had given no indication that he had ever seen anything at all; Darcy still felt uneasy around him, and Elizabeth could not repress an occasional blush at the memory of her own abandon.
Two days after the Bingleys’ wedding, Darcy paid an early call at Longbourn. He had arranged everything with Elizabeth the day before, and spent a good part of the previous evening composing a proper speech. Today was to be the day he applied for Mr. Bennet’s consent.
Elizabeth, watching from the bedroom window, saw him arrive and would have gone downstairs to meet him, had she not still been in her night-clothes. Calling for Sarah, she bathed and dressed as quickly as she could, anxious to lend whatever support might be necessary. She longed for Jane’s assistance, but as her sister was over at Netherfield Park with her husband, there was nothing to be done but wait in vexed, fidgeting impatience as Sarah pinned up her hair.
Darcy was admitted into the library, where Mr. Bennet was busily going over the morning’s accounts. The elder gentleman lifted his eyes from the papers before him, quirked a brow, and gestured for his guest to be seated. Setting the sheaf aside, he leaned forward and laced his fingers together, with a look of complaisance. “What may I do for you this morning, Mr. Darcy?”
Darcy shifted in his seat. “I have come to make a request of you, sir.”
“Yes, I believe that is the general purpose in arranging an interview. You may dispense with the logistics and state your purpose.”
Unnerved, he blurted, “I want to marry your daughter.” After a brief silence, he added, rather stupidly, “Elizabeth, I mean.”
Mr. Bennet blinked twice, took off his spectacles, put them back on, and settled himself back in his seat, all the while never taking his eyes from the gentleman in front of him. A calm “Is that so?” was the only response.
Darcy felt his cheeks redden. “Yes, sir. I would be very much obliged if you would consider my offer, despite my somewhat inept presentation of it.”
“I fear, Mr. Darcy, that you are applying to the wrong person,” he said at length, with a hint of a smile.
“I am in no position to accept a proposal, however handsomely worded – perhaps you should think of asking Lizzy herself.”
Being sported with only discomposed Darcy more. “Miss Elizabeth accepted me; I meant only to gain your consent for it. I am not expressing myself very well.”
“So I see – or rather, hear.” He appeared eager to have the business settled. “Well, Mr. Darcy, if my daughter has chosen to accept you, I think it best that we come to a better understanding of each other.” He cast a glance at his companion. “Of your character, your profession must bear some witness. Excepting that somewhat...” – this was accompanied by an arch look – “...indecorous display in my library, I have no grievances with you.”
“Regarding that, sir, I must apologize. It should not have happened.”
“I am not so old as to condemn the impetuosity of young lovers. I was taken aback, perhaps, but as you seem prepared to make an honest offer for my daughter, I daresay no harm was done.”
Darcy bowed his head in recognition, and Mr. Bennet went on. “I have a few points on which I would satisfy myself before I give my consent to anything. I might as well start with the most logical: can you provide for her? Are you prepared to take on a wife?”
“I have prospects, sir. The living at Kympton is intended for me, and it brings in a secure salary of about £500 a year. It is not a large income, sir, but I trust it will be enough for the two of us; and, if the remainders are invested wisely, there should be ample opportunity to enlarge the amount for whatever children we might have.”
“Kympton? Pardon me, but is not that living in Wickham’s patronage? I would think that he would not allow his old rival and his former betrothed to live on the support of his estate.”
“The terms of the will do not allow for any such maneuvers on his part. If he does seek to make trouble for us, Dr. Lawrence has generously offered me the Meryton living. I also have an inheritance from my godfather, of about £2000, and it has been put in an account and is earning a fair amount of interest there.”
Mr. Bennet, deprived of one objection, searched for another. “But you are both so young. Lizzy has only just turned one-and-twenty, and you cannot be older than five-and-twenty.”
“Six-and-twenty,” said Darcy with dignity, “and my birthday is in a sixth-month. Miss Elizabeth and I are not children, sir. We are well aware of the commitment and effort involved in matrimony.”
Mr. Bennet sat back, linked his fingers, and regarded Elizabeth’s suitor with curiosity and a measure of respect. “Well, sir, you have effectively staved off my every attempt to discourage you. I have only one more question, and it is the most troubling to me. My daughter has apparently chosen you over a man with ten times your income, so I can only assume that her affections lie with you. There is no other reason for such a choice.
“You, however, seem to be the one who will benefit most from this match. Elizabeth is handsome, clever, and possessed of a modest fortune in her own right. A £10,000 dowry must be a great temptation for any man.”
Darcy’s eyes narrowed. “You think me a fortune-hunter.”
Mr. Bennet raised his brows. “You are offended. By all means, Mr. Darcy, disabuse me of the notion if you can, but do not fault a father for his concern.”
“My feelings for Miss Elizabeth are sincere. I have loved her almost since the first moment of our acquaintance. I know not how it came about, but my affections were engaged with her alone before the month was out.”
“Yet you did not act on your inclinations?”
“I felt I could not, sir. I am well aware of the social gap between us.”
“And you deemed yourself unworthy of her,” Mr. Bennet said. When Darcy made no reply, he added, with a trace of amusement, “Did you then intend to pine after my daughter for the rest of your life, saying nothing but loving her nonetheless? My word – a curious method of courting.”
Darcy bristled at his tone. “As your daughter has now assured me of her regard, that particular point is immaterial.”
“Yes, very immaterial, and it would not have remained immaterial if she’d married that scoundrel Wickham like she intended to.”
The young man flinched, and Mr. Bennet took pity on him at last. “Very well, Mr. Darcy. If Elizabeth has chosen you, there is little I can do to dissuade her even if I wanted to. Undoubtedly you know well for yourself how stubborn she can be.” He rose and extended his hand. “You have my consent.”
Darcy, in a fervor of relief and gratitude, grasped the proffered hand and shook it warmly. “Thank you, sir.”
“I trust I will never have cause to regret giving my consent.”
“Never, sir; of that, you may be sure.”
Mr. Bennet nodded. “Now, go on to Lizzy. She is undoubtedly anxious for your company, and I believe she will be a more pleasing sight than I am. For both your sakes, I will not tell my wife of the match until you have a chance to absent yourselves from the house. Perhaps a walk to Meryton would be in order?”
No sooner had the gossips received and begun to spread the delicious news that Miss Elizabeth had spurned Mr. Wickham and his ten thousand pounds than they were overwhelmed with more astonishing intelligence: the very same young lady had become betrothed to the curate! It was almost too much for all the spiteful old ladies to absorb – never before had Longbourn been such a fruitful source of gossip.
Mrs. Bennet had been easier to reconcile to the match than either her husband or daughter had supposed. Though she repeatedly lamented that Mr. Darcy had not Mr. Wickham’s income – for he was far more handsome than Wickham; it seemed the greatest of injustices that he should not have a fortune that equaled his looks! – she seemed at last to accept that Elizabeth’s match would not be as fine as dear Mrs. Bingley’s. Besides, Elizabeth was her least favorite daughter, and since Mary was living prosperously as a clergyman’s wife, there was no reason to suppose that the Bennets’ influence would be lessened by another such connection. As long as Kitty or Lydia could each secure themselves a fine captain or colonel, Mrs. Bennet was satisfied.
The Bingleys’ response was considerably more pleasing. Jane’s happiness in her own situation was only increased by this news, and Bingley took advantage of the opportunities to tease his friend mercilessly about the joys of matrimony.
Reverend Fallows and Dr. Lawrence were equally supportive, though the former was considerably less surprised by the turn of events than the latter. Georgiana’s pleasure could not be greater; she had secured herself a sister and a friend. Her brother’s joy was a continuous source of satisfaction, and she commented to Richard, with some pride, that nothing was so delightful as seeing two people so well-matched. He replied affectionately that she was setting herself up to be a matchmaker of the first order, and added slyly that he hoped she had reason to be as pleased with her own match.
The intimacy between the inhabitants of the parsonage and Longbourn increased daily. Elizabeth and Darcy were not content with a day unless they had spent some part of it with each other, and the rest of the Bennets did not hinder that objective. Lydia was disinterested, Mrs. Bennet condescendingly hospitable, and Kitty merely found occasion to appreciate Mr. Darcy’s fine figure and handsome face, unaccented though they were by regimentals.
From Kent, there came other news. Mary sent a letter upon hearing of her sister’s impending wedding, in which she gave her regrets for not attending Jane’s – Lady Catherine simply had found she was not able to spare her obsequious rector for the time needed – and expressed hopes that she and Mr. Collins might be fortunate enough to attend Elizabeth’s. Mixed along in these explanations was a sufficient amount of wifely advice, in which Mary commended her for choosing a man who might curb her ‘wild spirits’ and introduce her to the joys of spiritual reflection. Added to these charming comments was a postscript from Mr. Collins, who congratulated his dear sister for having the good sense to marry a clergyman, passed along Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s compliments, and flattered himself that he might begin a correspondence with Mr. Darcy, for surely the young and inexperienced curate must need his assistance in guiding and counseling the holy flock.
Such an epistle – for that pious collection of prose could hardly be besmirched with the common, heretical epithet of ‘letter’ – could not but give its reader equal amounts of entertainment and exasperation, and Elizabeth, Darcy, and Mr. Bennet found in it ample sources of diversion -- as well as a warning, perhaps, against too much piety.
No, even with such provocations, Elizabeth had every expectation that their season of courtship would be as wonderful as she could wish. Her betrothed was well-known and respected in the area, her own family approved (even if somewhat half-heartedly) of the connection, and his manner toward her was as warm and affectionate as she could have desired – and he proved to her, with all the delicacy and steadiness of his attachment, that his own truest hopes were answered in their union. In that, she could not be more content. As he was happy, she felt herself free to be happy as well.
And in that, as it may be imagined, there was ample reassurance that neither Miss Bennet nor her curate had any cause to repine.
The days passed – as they must by nature and literary obligation – and developed into weeks. In this logical and transitional fashion, the time of the wedding approached, compacted into a whirlwind of dinners and visits, anticipation and apprehension.
Elizabeth and Darcy, blessed by a smattering of mild days, made their escape into Longbourn’s gardens as often as they could. Their season of courtship was parts equally pleasurable and painful, for whenever they were confined with Elizabeth’s less circumspect relations, she wished to shield him from such vulgarity, and the knowledge that she could not robbed the evening parties of much of their appeal.
Solace was found at Netherfield, where the Bingleys hosted their friends at least once every week. Though Jane and Bingley were too charitable to even intimate that it was so, Elizabeth suspected that they were more eager to welcome the Darcys and herself than the other occupants of Longbourn. Mrs. Bennet was constantly paying unannounced calls at Netherfield, to the point where even Bingley’s mellow temper was being tested. Subtle hints cannot deter an unsubtle person – Mrs. Bennet came and went as she chose, and Elizabeth felt some foreboding at the prospect of a similar difficulty once she was married. Perhaps since it was not nearly so satisfying to boast of visiting the parsonage as it was of Netherfield Park, Mrs. Bennet might not feel herself inclined to call on the Darcys any more than propriety dictated.
As if to atone for these annoyances, Elizabeth was able to be gratified with another aspect of her engagement. She saw, with the greatest pleasure, that her father was taking pains to become acquainted with his future son-in-law. She had no fears that Darcy would make a poor impression on him; her only expectations were that her father would now see her lover’s many qualities and judge for himself Darcy’s true worth.
She was not to be disappointed. Mr. Bennet assured her that daily the young man rose in his esteem and even went so far as to say that Mr. Darcy now usurped Mr. Collins as his new favorite. “Such an exemplary young man,” he said. “Attentive enough to allow you to triumph over the other ladies, and prudish enough to give me little concern when you are in his company alone.”
Elizabeth scolded her father for this speech, but he only smiled. “Have no fear, Lizzy. I value priggishness as much as any other man. He has not Wickham’s ability to be so very divertingly childish, but I daresay his own particular strain of shortcomings will more than measure up.”
Upon another entreaty that he might be serious, he concluded, “I am grateful to you and your sisters for providing me with such incomparable sons-in-law, Lizzy. You three have gifted me with enough sources of ridiculousness to amuse me for years to come. Now, if only Kitty or Lydia would find some officers as foolish as they are, my happiness would be complete.”
The match had not only given Mr. Bennet occasion for amusement, but also for camaraderie with Dr. Lawrence and Reverend Fallows, as all three men had a similarity in their turn of minds and education. When Darcy would – as he often did – join the trio in the library for port and conversation, Elizabeth would tell her father that he had fallen in with what she termed ‘a conference of clergy.’
“Your father might very well have missed his calling,” Darcy mentioned one morning, while he and Elizabeth sat together at breakfast. “I am not sure how much he would have liked making sermons, but he certainly knows how to argue a theological point.”
Elizabeth giggled at the thought; her mother as a clergyman’s wife? Heaven only knew what mischief she would have caused in her husband’s parish, urging every young man to do his duty by God and marry one of her daughters.
“I fear Mama may not have found that prospect quite so pleasing,” she replied. “Economy and moderation are two of her least favorite things.”
He eyed her with a twinkle of devilry. “And these are the principles of the clergy? Economy and moderation?”
“Of course. I have never heard someone speak of a clergyman’s household without frugality being mentioned.”
“Then perhaps that is why Mr. Collins is so fond of Lady Catherine. His grander ambitions are fulfilled by proxy.” He gasped, abruptly realizing what he had said.
Elizabeth laughed heartily. “I had never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. His aspirations of wealth and consequence must be lived through Her Ladyship – poor Mr. Collins. Only imagine what he will do when there is no longer a Lady Catherine to worship. I imagine his spiritual fervor will be rather reduced.”
Darcy tried to look stern at this piece of impertinence, but failed miserably in his object by giving in to the desire to plant a kiss on her nose, which was conveniently near at hand, as she had thrust up her chin as if challenging him to contradict her saucy speech. Elizabeth, quieted by this spontaneous display, was in favor of continuing the intriguing activity – Darcy, however, living up to Mr. Bennet’s expectations, put an end to it and moved on to more sedate conversation. There was a delightful bit of primness in him that she enjoyed discomposing whenever she could.
And that primness was sorely abused in the days following – and especially in one mortifying event that he much rather would have avoided.
The approach of the wedding was heralded as generally a good thing. Unfortunately for the bridegroom, as the anticipated day neared, both the good rectors felt it was their duty to instruct their young protégé about the more delicate side of marriage, as he had no father to provide the service. What followed was an extraordinarily awkward interview, as three men, all bachelors and all members of the clergy, attempted to discuss a subject which none of them really could claim expertise on. Darcy finally made his escape and was agitated for the remainder of the day, feeling rather like a bride whose mother had just filled her head with conjugal horror stories. He did not dare breathe a word of it to Elizabeth, for even if the strictures of society had permitted such a frank discussion of a very hushed-up subject, he knew she would take a great deal of amusement – at his expense – from the tale. (As it was, when she learned of the event a few months after their wedding, she did laugh most immoderately.)
He might have been reassured – or perhaps not – had he known that Elizabeth had suffered through a similar humiliation. Her mother had cornered her with a lengthy and descriptive narrative of what would happen after the wedding, and Elizabeth, given far too many details of her parents’ marital activities, could not look at her father for the next three days without blushing.
Yet, there were a few memories to recall with fondness – one such occasion, about three days after their engagement, was looked back upon with particular pleasure.
They were walking in the knot garden after an exceptionally dull visit with Lady Lucas and Mrs. Long. Elizabeth’s spirits, so recently repressed by the stultifying combination of her mother and her mother’s friends, soon rose to playfulness again, and she wished Darcy to account for his having fallen in love with her.
“How could you begin?” said she. “I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?”
Darcy smiled her. “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. I do, however, know when you first began to intrigue me.”
Her curiosity was piqued. “When?”
“When I was given a rather unexpected sighting of your petticoats and stockings on that street in Meryton.”
Elizabeth was as astonished by the duration of his attachment as by his flippant reference to her under-things. She recovered herself soon. “Then already? Or perhaps I should not be so flattered,” she added, archly, “considering your admiration had so much to do with my clothing.”
“You should know that,” he said. “You may remember my expertise in all matters involving lace – I made you aware of it from the very beginning of our acquaintance.”
Elizabeth grinned at the memory of that singular conversation. “Lace, indeed.” She flashed him a provocative look. “Perhaps you would like to inspect my lace now and see whether it meets with your standards?”
The authoress shall let the readers speculate on exactly where Elizabeth’s gown sported the aforementioned lace, and will assume they understand why Darcy – with the faintest hint of a blush – calmly answered that he would be happy to do such a thing once the person wearing that specific dress was Mrs. Darcy.
Having been thwarted in all plans of mischief, she turned back to the original subject. “That may all be well, but you must supply a satisfactory explanation for loving me. My vanity must be gratified, sir. Was it my impertinence?”
“The liveliness of your mind, yes.”
“You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. Very well, you have given me a sufficient account.” She hesitated. “I have a question of my own. Do you remember when we were out on the terrace on Christmas Eve?”
“How could I forget?” One of his hands came up involuntarily to stroke her cheek, where the bruise was now only faintly visible.
“I always wondered whether – when you started to leave – you meant to kiss me.” She looked up at him. “It seemed as though you were about to.”
“I was tempted,” he said, “but I checked myself. The last thing you needed at that time was more complication in your life. I cannot tell you how angry I was at Wickham. I would have happily run him through.”
She paused again, and after a period of thoughtful silence, added carefully, “I have yet another question, I fear. Why, if you were so in love with me, did you not propose to me before? I am sorry if it is too presumptuous, but must admit myself somewhat confused.”
Darcy sighed. “I had intended to, actually, the very night your father announced your engagement to Wickham.”
Her eyes widened. “No!”
He nodded, grimly. “I only wanted opportunity, not resolve. I had overcome my initial scruples after a talk with Bingley, and I thought the dinner at Longbourn would be an ideal time to secure a private interview with you – if not to propose marriage, at least to see if you were amenable to courtship. Unfortunately, Wickham preceded me.”
“I would have welcomed your addresses in an instant! I accepted him in part because I thought I had no hope of...” She broke off, coming too close to a painful subject. “Why did you not ask me, before supper?”
“Because you were grave and silent that evening and gave me no encouragement.”
“But I was embarrassed.”
“And so was I.”
“You might have talked to me more, forced me to listen.”
“A man who had felt less might.”
“How unlucky that you should have a reasonable answer to give, and that I should be so reasonable as to admit it!” She moved closer to him and grasped his hand. “But what made you resolve to ask me at last?”
Darcy explained about Dr. Lawrence’s letter and Reverend Fallows’s subsequent arrival in Hertfordshire to scold his protégé. “His advice had given me hope, and I was determined at once to know everything.” He glanced at her. “And now I have a question for you. What did Lady Catherine have to say to you? You said she mentioned Georgiana.”
Elizabeth laughed and embarked on the tale, recounting the conversation as faithfully as she could. “Lady Catherine has been of infinite use,” she concluded, “which ought to make her happy, for she loves to be of use.”
“I suppose she did not suspect that her breaking up one engagement would be instrumental to bringing about another.”
“Mary informed her.” She smiled. “And speaking of aunts, I have one too, who must not be longer neglected.”
From an unwillingness to disclose the disarrayed state of her love-life, Elizabeth had not returned her Aunt Gardiner’s last letter. Now, having that to communicate which she knew would be most welcome, she was almost ashamed to find that her uncle and aunt had already lost three days of happiness and immediately wrote as follows:
I would have thanked you before, my dear aunt, as I ought to have done, for inviting me to Derbyshire. The change of air did much to help along my constitution and clear my mind. I have in my power the charge of divulging such news as will bring you no pleasure – I must inform you that you will not be able to tour Pemberley in that little pony-drawn phaeton as we had discussed. As you may have gathered from my less than composed manner a few weeks ago, I had long since begun to regret my hasty connection with Mr. Wickham; the matter has been settled to my satisfaction, though I fear anyone bearing the name of ‘Bennet’ will be positively banned from Pemberley’s venerable halls.
Strangely enough, I do not find myself unengaged, in the truest sense of the word. You know nothing more of him than his name, and that only in passing, but I daresay you will be as pleased to visit your niece at the parsonage as you would have been to visit her at Pemberley – although driving a phaeton in the churchyard is not quite so practical. You and Uncle will have to bear yet another wedding. I do hope you are up to it.
I shall be cruel and end my letter here. If you wish to know the rest, you must come to Longbourn. Give my love to Uncle and the children.
What is more natural a course for a tale of love lost and found than to come to an end on the happiest of days for the hero and his heroine? This authoress shall not digress from the expected; such a story requires an accounting of the wedding, including all the reassurances and schemes for felicity in the future. The authoress shall gloss – to the readers’ appreciation, no doubt – over the nervous fits of Mrs. Bennet on the morning of the ceremony, Georgiana’s tears as she saw her brother looking tall and handsome in his wedding clothes, and the bittersweet state of Mr. Bennet’s emotions as he prepared to lose his favorite child to matrimony.
Instead, the tale will come to an end, in a fitting manner, at a church – a small, but well-beloved church set in the road by Meryton, its sanctuary crowded with people. It was a day of celebration, but there were no decorations: no great bouquets of hothouse flowers scattered about the altar, no rows of candles, no ribbons or banners or satin-draped pews. A spray of wildflowers lay next to the altar cross, and light spilled in from the stained glass windows, checkering the floor with brilliant golds and reds and blues. There were no embellishments; only the smoothness of the pale stone walls, the silver flash of the crucifix, and a sacred, whispering stillness that filled and surrounded the church.
Dr. Lawrence, wearing a gold-and-white stole for the occasion, stood at the altar, never so pleased to perform this service as he was today. He glanced up briefly at the parishioners before turning his eyes back on the woman before him, dressed in gauzy butter-yellow silk and smiling tranquilly. Next to her was a man, his features conversely serious, looking distinguished in his blue coat and formal breeches, his curls neatly brushed to the side. They presented a picture of orderly placidity, but emotion crackled between them.
There was a sense of anticipation in the air, and Dr. Lawrence savored the moment – of all his duties, performing the marriage ceremony was one of his favorites. There was something profoundly and inexplicably beautiful about joining two lives together.
Sparing an affectionate smile for the couple, he spoke. “William, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”
Firmly and proudly came the words: “I will.”
“Elizabeth, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”
“I will,” she declared, with a quickness that startled a faint chuckle from her father and a twitch of a smile from Dr. Lawrence.
“Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?”
Mr. Bennet came forward, and after pausing to kiss his daughter’s hand, gave it to Dr. Lawrence. The rector then beckoned the couple forward and placed Elizabeth’s dainty white hand into her groom’s tan, square-palmed one.
A hush fell over the room as Darcy began to speak, in tones strong and true. “I, William, take thee, Elizabeth, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.”
Dr. Lawrence then placed Darcy’s hand into Elizabeth’s. “I, Elizabeth, take thee, William, to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.” She trembled, and felt his fingers twine through hers in reassurance.
The ring was brought forward, a simple band of gold with no adornment; but to the bride’s partial eyes, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Dr. Lawrence presented it to Darcy. “With this ring I thee wed: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” The band slid unto her finger, fitting perfectly beneath her knuckle, where it gleamed as if to declare to all the world that it belonged to Mrs. Darcy.
The prayers passed by Elizabeth – she heard nothing and saw nothing but the man standing before her. She vaguely took note of Dr. Lawrence’s declaration that they were now man and wife, and, despite having been determined not to weep, tears welled up in her eyes. She looked up at her husband – her husband! – and marveled that, after all this time and all the troubles, it was done so easily. They were married, and she found herself signing her new name in the registry next to his own bold signature. As if in a daze, she felt herself being guided down the aisle, with the cheers of her family and friends following her. She gripped Darcy’s arm tightly, and he glanced down at her.
“Is this real?” she whispered. “Or am I dreaming?”
He smiled at her, a smile filled with so much meaning that she could hardly catch her breath at all. “It is very real,” he murmured, fingering her ring, “and a thousandfold finer than a dream.”
She wanted desperately for him to kiss her, but the middle of the church foyer, with their family swarming about them, was not the place for it. Stifling a sigh of impatience, she squeezed his arm and started walking again. “On to the wedding breakfast then; we must allow Mama her hour of triumph.”
He stifled a chuckle, as Mrs. Bennet was precisely at that moment barreling toward them, her husband and daughters in tow. “Lizzy! Mrs. Darcy – how well that sounds!” She patted Elizabeth’s cheeks absently and turned to her son-in-law with similar effusions. “How delighted we are to have you married to Lizzy, Mr. Darcy! I quite feared we would never get that obstinate girl to the altar, but here you are! Do call me ‘Mama’ now, since we are all family. Your own mother is dead, so there is no harm in it!”
Elizabeth cringed, but Darcy managed a half-hearted smile. “Thank you.”
Mr. Bennet came up to offer his own more sincere and less tactless congratulations, followed by an obligatory murmur of good-wishes from Lydia and Kitty. Georgiana’s addresses were considerably more pleasing, as she kissed her brother and shyly embraced the newest Darcy, murmuring to Elizabeth that she had always wanted a sister, and now she was blessed enough to have five.
Mary, whose husband was off informing Reverend Fallows of his wonderful situation under the patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, welcomed Darcy more graciously, if somewhat loquaciously, into the family. The approach of the Gardiners was a welcome respite, and Elizabeth wasted no time in making her excuses and escaping the company of the Collinses.
“How lovely you are today,” Mrs. Gardiner said warmly, holding her niece at arm’s length, “and how happy you look!”
“I am happy,” she said. “More happy than I deserve to be.”
The older woman shook her head with a smile. “Nonsense. Your uncle and I like your Mr. Darcy very much; he is sensible, intelligent, and good-natured – and he loves you very much. Nothing could recommend him to us more.”
“I am so pleased you like him; I have no doubts that he will love you as much as I do when he comes to know you. We will expect you to come and stay with us sometimes when you are in Hertfordshire. You cannot always be at Longbourn.”
“It would be our pleasure,” Mr. Gardiner said, coming up beside them with Mr. Darcy, “if you believe you can manage the company of our four little imps.”
“Elizabeth and I would be honored to host you all this Christmas,” Darcy said earnestly. “I hope you will consider it.”
“We will,” Mrs. Gardiner replied. “In turn, you must pay us some visits in London when you can be away from the parish – perhaps in the spring, when the weather is better suited to traveling.”
Elizabeth gripped her husband’s arm excitedly. London meant the theatre, parks, and countless sights to see and amusements to be had. She knew that continuing to live in Hertfordshire, as the wife of a clergyman, would at times be more confining than she would have liked. She was prepared to make that sacrifice, however, for she would much rather have him than any townhouse or diversions in Town. Nevertheless, it would be very pleasant if they could spend a few weeks in Gracechurch Street with the Gardiners every so often.
Darcy nodded and thanked them for the invitation, and the look of glowing gratitude on his wife’s face confirmed that he had done well in accepting.
The crowd began to disperse, migrating toward the row of carriages outside the church. Darcy took Elizabeth’s hand, leading her through the open doors toward a handsome chaise, which he had purchased as a wedding present for his bride. When she had first exclaimed at the expense of the gift, he had teasingly said that his pride would not allow him conduct his wife to their wedding breakfast in a horse-cart.
He handed her up and sat down next to her, and John, acting as postilion, climbed up onto one of the horses and cracked the reins. The vehicle started off toward Longbourn, and the Darcys settled back into the soft cushions in silence. Everything was too strange and unfamiliar for them to be content yet – there was such a surreal touch on the day that one could not help but be a little bewildered.
Elizabeth kept her arm twined about his elbow and leaned her head toward his shoulder; it had been a restless night and a very chaotic morning, and she closed her eyes for a few moments. Darcy welcomed the intimate weight of her head against his arm and reached around to pull her closer. They abided thusly until the chaise reached its destination and they were obliged to get out and mingle with their guests.
The hall was lavishly decorated, the tables crammed with dishes and platters, Longbourn’s bounty in full and majestic display. Mrs. Bennet had outdone herself, sparing no expense to create a wedding breakfast that did justice to the Bennets’ consequence – a course of action that would undoubtedly create a dent in Mr. Bennet’s purse.
The guests picked their way through an assortment of cold meats, sandwiches, puddings, pastries, and sweets, served with champagne and hot tea. There was a great deal of laughter and idle talk as everyone milled about the room, and the Darcys resigned themselves to being separated for a good portion of the morning.
While Darcy’s attention was commandeered by Bingley and a circle of local gentlemen, Elizabeth was joined by Jane and Charlotte. “Who would have thought that new neighbors would result in so many weddings?” the latter jested.
“I never imagined myself Mistress of Netherfield,” Jane replied, with a blush. “Yet I have been blessed with Charles.”
Charlotte shrugged. “It is coincidental that we should just happen to have an estate to let here, and that he should want for one at precisely that time. What turn of Fate made him choose Hertfordshire out of all the places to settle? It is quite astonishing.”
“And had Charles not met William at Cambridge, then he never would have been brought to Dr. Lawrence’s attention, and I never should have known him. Indeed, had old Mr. Wickham not been kind to William as a child, he might never have been in our society at all.” Elizabeth smiled. “How fortuitous everything has been – how easily it could have been altered.”
“I am grateful it was not,” Jane said gently. “It does not really do much good to dwell on what might have been. I am content with the manner in which it has developed; the past has not much bearing on it.”
“Very well, Jane. No more of this talk.” Elizabeth lifted her champagne flute. “May I propose a toast instead: to good fortune – and may Charlotte discover a rich, titled cousin of William’s or Charles’s who will fall madly in love with her and sweep her away to Gretna Green.”
The ladies all laughed and drank to the flippant salute.
Four hours later, when all the guests had been greeted and thanked, and a goodly amount of food and drink had been consumed, the breakfast at last drew to a close and Longbourn’s parlors began to empty of people. The Darcys deemed it safe then to make their departure, and Elizabeth’s trunks were loaded into the back of the chaise for transport back to the parsonage. While they waited for this transaction to be completed, the Bennets gathered around to offer their last felicitations. Georgiana, along with Dr. Lawrence and Reverend Fallows, were to spend the night at Longbourn, giving the young couple a little privacy, so they also stepped out onto the drive to see them off.
Although she was only relocating to a place barely three miles away, Elizabeth felt a little teary-eyed as she hugged her father and mother goodbye – she would never call Longbourn ‘home’ again. She was no longer a Miss Bennet, but a wife, with her own household and responsibilities and family.
“Do remember, Lizzy,” Mrs. Bennet hissed, as they walked toward the waiting chaise, “not to fuss or do anything untoward tonight. It would not do to upset your husband. Lie still and think of something else, and it will be over in no time.”
Mrs. Gardiner must have seen the look on Elizabeth’s face, for she came up to whisper, “Trust in your husband and you will be very happy together, my dear.” She gave her niece a reassuring kiss and stepped back to let Darcy help his wife into the chaise.
The journey back to the parsonage took only a half-hour, and Darcy escorted Elizabeth into her new home. They were greeted at the door by Sir Francis and Lady Drake, who were rather displeased to have been left alone at home for so long, but soothing words and sufficient attention from Elizabeth smoothed over any ruffled feathers. Martha had scrubbed the floors and walls clean, stoked the fires, put vases of sweet-smelling flowers on every end-table in the house, and set out an array of treats and a bottle of wine on the kitchen table if they became hungry later in the evening.
The house was now completely empty, for Martha, Bessie, and John had all absented themselves from the parsonage as well. Elizabeth applied to her husband for a tour, and Darcy led her obligingly through the house. He showed her the parlor, the kitchen, the study, and the refurbished master bedchamber, which Dr. Lawrence had kindly forfeited for their use, as it adjoined another room which was set up for Elizabeth.
She surveyed her room, in which her trunks were already settled. It was done in shades of pastel yellow, rose, and white, with delicate, well-used furniture, and although small, had a light, cheerful air that pleased her. Her husband then led her into his own chamber, which was more masculine, with dark, earthy colors, a large sleigh bed, and sturdy furnishings. It also had – as Elizabeth noted with pleasure – a bay window, which overlooked the herb garden on the southern side of the parsonage.
Darcy was watching her anxiously. “If you do not care for this, Elizabeth, you are perfectly welcome to change anything you wish. I have set aside a little extra money for the alterations you would like in the household, so do not concern yourself with that. I want you to be comfortable here, and...”
“Mr. Darcy,” she interrupted, coming closer and smiling faintly, with just the slightest twinkle of mischief in her eyes.
She linked her arms around his waist. “Be quiet and kiss me.”
Though it was barely an hour past dawn, Darcy lay quietly awake, his heart fuller than he ever had dared hope it could be. His wife of barely twenty hours was curled in his arms, sleeping peacefully, her dark hair fanned out around the pillow and a small, secretive smile curving her lips. He sighed, the sigh of a man at peace with himself and all the world around him, and drew her a little closer.
Elizabeth stirred at the movement and lifted her head from his chest. She looked a little disoriented for a moment, but the confusion dissipated when she caught sight of her new husband. She smiled sleepily up at him. “Good morning.”
He grinned back and carefully smoothed a recalcitrant curl from her face, reveling in its sensuous softness. “Good morning, Mrs. Darcy.”
“‘Mrs. Darcy,’” she purred, nestling back into his embrace. “I believe I like it more than ‘Miss Bennet.’”
“That is good, for I am afraid there is no going back now.”
She giggled softly and prevented his lips from uttering anymore impertinent provocations by the most effective method in her power. Needless to say, her husband did not object.
Warm, content, and immeasurably happy, husband and wife were beginning to drift back to sleep when Elizabeth murmured, “God has been very good to us, Will.”
Darcy smiled and only held her tighter. “So it would seem.”
A mere six-month after the Darcys’ marriage, shocking news from Derbyshire quickly spread throughout the neighborhood: Mr. Wickham had been murdered, shot down in his London townhouse by Lord Burquist! Whisperings of a scandalous affair between the master of Pemberley and the earl’s young wife circulated about the village, and Bingley – left with the unenviable task of repairing the damage caused by his sister’s foolishness – soon revealed to his friends the true story.
It seemed that the countess had announced herself several months gone with child, expecting her doting husband to be pleased. Lord Burquist, however, by reason of having engaged in rather indiscreet and reckless activities as a youth, knew himself incapable of siring a child; and instead of the praises and increased pin-money that Lady Burquist had expected, she received instead furious demands for the name of her lover. She refused and was banished from their townhouse while an investigation was made. An incriminating letter from his wife to George Wickham spurred the cuckolded husband to barge into his rival’s home in a drunken rage. The earl may have had nearly fifty years to his name, but his aim was as accurate as ever; the coroner who later examined the body confirmed that Wickham died before he hit the ground.
Hertfordshire was rocked with the news; all discussed it, but no one grieved. There was not a soul in the world who cared for a man who cared for nothing but himself – Mr. Wickham had been welcomed in all circles for his amiable manners and handsome face, not for any talent or greatness of mind. As long as he was agreeable, he was an asset to every hostess in London; when he was not, no one thought of him, no one wondered how he fared or whether he was happy. Such is the fate of a selfish man; he will be rewarded only with selfishness in return.
Darcy had gone to the sparsely-attended funeral for the sake of his dear godfather’s memory, and had come away from it unable to feel anything but pity for his old friend. A man, not yet thirty, who had all the world could offer at his disposal, and the potential to do so much good – yet how disgracefully it had all turned out! Elizabeth was left to try and soothe her husband out of his sorrow when he returned home after the funeral. In all ways it was lamentable; a life so wasted, time so spent in useless and meaningless pursuits... Darcy could only be grateful that John Wickham had not lived to see his son’s ignoble end.
For Lady Burquist, the future was not kind either. With her lover dead, her husband sentenced to live out the rest of his life in gaol, and her reputation in tatters, she went through the birth and gave the child over to the care of her brother and his wife almost as soon as her labor was over. She fled for the anonymous security of the Continent, and had little contact with her family, though it was rumored that she had taken up with a wealthy Parisian comte.
The relocation of her child to Mr. and Mrs. Bingley’s home was the wisest thing the former Caroline Bingley had ever done. Raised by Charles and Jane as their own, the young Lord Burquist was given much longed-for playmates in the forms of his five Bingley cousins. His mother was not mentioned often, and with such caretakers as the Bingleys, the boy had little interest in learning about a woman who was nothing more than a name to him.
But the authoress shall not linger in the moralistic issues of just desserts and recriminations for human folly; let other pens brood on the deeper issues – this one shall dwell on happier fates.
Georgiana, with all the due fuss and felicity, was married just after her eighteenth birthday. She and Richard lived in Hertfordshire at Haye-Park and dined at the parsonage twice a week so her brother was spared the pain of complete separation. Georgiana was accepted fairly easily into the Goulding family – and if the elder Mrs. Goulding still found some reason to begrudge the lowliness of her daughter-in-law’s birth, her husband was quick to convince her not to speak of it. The young Mr. and Mrs. Goulding were as well-suited as two people could be, and their comfort was enhanced by the arrival of a baby girl two years after their marriage.
In the spring, Sir Francis and his lady also found themselves proud parents. Four fuzzy little ducklings, named – with tongue securely in cheek – Cabot, Hudson, Raleigh, and Cook, were often seen waddling happily about the churchyard.
Mr. and Mrs. Darcy spent their first five years of marriage at the Meryton parsonage. Elizabeth Darcy proved a great asset to her husband’s ministry, for her warm manners and lively conversation allowed her to mingle easily among the parishioners. She was exposed to a much broader class of people than she had known before, but under her husband’s gentle tutelage, she learned to socialize with the lowest crofter or farmer’s daughter without many reservations, which, in turn, made her seem kinder and more approachable; if his relative seriousness was lightened by her cheerful spirits, then her mind was given information she had never been privy to before and which helped erase some of her long-held prejudices.
And, as she knew she would, she did have to learn how to keep her husband’s house. No longer could she anticipate having everything cleaned and tidied; though they kept on Martha and Bessie, the mistress of the house was expected to lend a hand. No longer could she only stop into the kitchens to order the day’s meal or take up a tray; she started cooking lessons with Martha and assisted with the dinners when she was needed. It was hard work sometimes, and Elizabeth did not have all the luxuries which she had been accustomed to, but it was rewarding in other ways. Not only did the effort make her feel useful and productive, but she loved seeing the pride in her husband’s eyes when she could present him with the fruits of her labor – whether it was a new quilt for their bed that she had stitched herself or a batch of rather charred sweet rolls that she had spent the entire morning baking.
She often retired to bed exhausted from the day’s work, but her completion of the tasks and Darcy’s soothing attentions left her entirely content with all that she had accomplished. It was strange, the villagers were apt to comment to each other, but Elizabeth seemed happier as a simple curate’s wife than she had been as Miss Bennet of Longbourn House!
The months passed quickly and pleasurably for the young couple. Darcy was surprised to find, though he had believed that he could not possibly love Elizabeth anymore than he had before their wedding, that a steady, cherished affection had bloomed alongside fervent passion. He appreciated the sacrifices she had made to become a part of his household and was relieved to see how well she had adjusted to this admittedly different lifestyle. Mrs. Darcy, for her part, grew ever more attached to her home and role as helpmate and friend as well as a lover.
It was not, of course, a perfect union – there were quarrels and misunderstandings, and a surfeit of those little irritation-spurred arguments that naturally occur between all newlyweds – but the conflicts were resolved quickly and wounded feelings mended. Tolerance of new situations and of each other was necessary for the well-being of both, and their success in making a marriage only strengthened the bonds that had been forged between them so many months before.
The two received yet another blessing about a year-and-a-half after their wedding, and Mr. Darcy was soon regularly spotted sitting at his desk working while the dark-eyed baby in his lap contentedly turned his papa’s desk into a mess of paper and ink.
Two years later, Darcy’s other knee was occupied by a talkative little girl with her father’s dimples and her mother’s eyes. A third baby, another boy, followed the next year. It became commonplace to see the Darcys strolling about the parsonage lane: Mrs. Darcy holding her husband’s hand, Robin running up ahead, Cassandra clutching her mother’s skirt, and Baby Alexander gurgling happily in his father’s arms.
Just before the Darcys’ fifth anniversary, a letter arrived from Derbyshire. It was from Bishop Halbroke, announcing the untimely and sudden death of Samuel Fallows, who had, unbeknownst to anyone, been suffering for some years from a weakening heart; it had finally gotten the better of him, though the bishop assured them that his passing had been peaceful to the last.
Darcy was stricken by the news. He had been posted a note from the rector only a few days before – there was no mention of ill-health or a sense of impending change. The very unexpectedness of the event only heightened the shock of it. Elizabeth watched her husband and sister grieve and did her best to comfort them. She had no deep ties to the man, but she understood how much he had meant to the Darcys; he had been their caretaker after their own parents had died and shown them compassion when no one else had.
Another change was to come out of the tragedy: with the rector gone, the living at Kympton was vacant. By law and by right, Darcy was expected to fill the open position. After a sensible amount of time had been observed, he was obliged to take the living. Elizabeth, weary of Hertfordshire – and secretly, of her mother – was eager to start a new life at Kympton, but she waited patiently for her husband to come to terms with the loss that had made the living vacant in the first place.
The Darcys settled into the Kympton parsonage that same autumn. The children were pleased with the extensive grounds and the parsonage, which was more spacious and modern than the Meryton one. Elizabeth delighted in the beauty of the country and found most of the people of Kympton friendly and accepting. Darcy was reunited with old friends and acquaintances and spent many a happy hour showing Elizabeth all the places he had frequented as a youth and reminiscing about the boyish scrapes he had gotten himself into.
Their security was further enhanced by a friendly connection with the new master of Pemberley, a young cousin of the Wickhams who had none of his predecessor’s penchant for gambling, drinking, or skirt-chasing. Remnants of Wickham’s sojourn as master were quickly done away with, as the current owner had a much more developed and subtle taste. The long-neglected estate bloomed under its master’s direction and regained its former place of glory in the community.
Jane, Charles, and their children discovered that the distance between Derbyshire and Hertfordshire suited them as well. Ignoring the outraged wailings of Mrs. Bennet, Bingley applied to his friend for help with locating a suitable home and eventually purchased an estate not three miles from Kympton. Therefore Elizabeth, in addition to every other happiness, had the pleasure of her dearest sister’s company.
The birth of Anne Darcy about ten months after the relocation to the north completed the family. The Darcys were known and well-liked throughout the countryside, and the little church in the glen became a place of sanctuary and acceptance, filled as it was by people who comprehended the true value of others and sought to spread that understanding.
And thus it was that the mere son of a steward, given support by a man who saw the goodness within him, came to gain riches beyond compare, riches that many wealthier men had never had and could never know: friendship, family, and love.