When Mrs. Bennet roused herself from bed the morning following the Lucases’ ball, at rather a later hour than was her usual habit, she discovered what great treachery had befallen Longbourn while she slept. Her best punch recipe had gone missing from its place of safekeeping – a small crack in the larder wall behind the onion bin. On top of this, the grocer had perpetrated a most despicable fraud on Mrs. Hill, passing off middling-grade sugar at top price. Such coarse stuff would never produce a passably white icing for the wedding cake.
By the time she joined her family at the breakfast table, Mrs. Bennet was in a state of such agitation over the apparent conspiracy to ruin Jane’s wedding breakfast, she could scarcely be bothered to notice that two of her other daughters were missing. The news that Lydia had been packed off to Brighton without so much as a fare-thee-well hardly signified, except for the satisfaction that at least one Bennet girl should dine on decent fish – for there was naught but common oysters and a few sunken-eyed cod to be had in Meryton!
A note arrived from Netherfield, and, in another singular example of Mrs. Bennet’s distraction, Jane was allowed to read it unmolested.
“How shocking!” Jane said, upon reaching the letter’s end. “Mr. Bingley reports that Miss Darcy took gravely ill during the night. Mr. Darcy arranged for her immediate removal to town, that she might be seen by their physician at once. It is not known whether he will return for the wedding.”
“Well, there is a comfort!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed. “Such a proud sort of gentleman, carting the poor girl all the way to London rather than engage the services of a country apothecary. Let him miss the wedding, then. At least I shall not be forced to suffer his contempt when he is offered nothing finer to drink than second-rate Madeira! That Mr. Hurst can stand up for your Mr. Bingley just as well -- so long as his cup is never empty, he does not quibble about the contents.”
All this Jane imparted to Elizabeth upon her return that evening. Elizabeth was relieved that such a plausible explanation of the Darcys’ hasty departure had been managed. It was fortunate indeed that Mr. Darcy’s reputation for haughtiness amongst the Meryton populace lent credibility to an otherwise rather incredible tale.
If Mr. Bingley knew more about the true situation than his letter intimated, he appeared not to have told Jane. And Jane, being a trusting soul, did not question her sister further. When presented with her lovely new parasol, she admired the elegant lace trim, the fineness of the silk, and the delicate tooling of the handle. Her mind was attuned to every detail of the wedding preparations, but in her delight and preoccupation she completely failed to note Elizabeth’s exhaustion and distress.
Indeed, over the course of the next few days Elizabeth became quite accustomed to the sensation of invisibility. She moved through Longbourn in a strange and lonely capsule of silence. At any moment, she expected a terse summons to Mr. Bennet’s library to meet her reckoning, but her transgressions thus far garnered Elizabeth only demotion to the sort of treatment her father typically reserved for her younger sisters – distance and derision. With the imminent arrival of houseguests and a fast-approaching wedding day, Mrs. Bennet had more use for Elizabeth’s hands than her opinions, and if her second daughter seems less inclined to conversation of late, so much the better. Neither Kitty’s sulking nor Mary’s sermonizing required any response from her.
Therefore, Elizabeth kept company with her own thoughts more often than not. She created countless scenarios in her mind, mentally tracing the routes Mr. Darcy might have traveled in his pursuit of his sister and Mr. Wickham. She tried to imagine at what locations he might possibly receive her uncle’s express and guessed how rapidly thereafter he could return to London. Whenever she was able to picture a sequence of events that placed him at the Darcy townhouse an hour earlier than her previous best estimate, she took heart. By the second morning after her trip to London, she felt it more probable than not that he was at least en route to town, and at best already there. She hoped in vain for confirmation of his arrival, even as she knew any such communication to be impossible. Even if propriety allowed him to write, she could not expect him to trust such delicate information to a letter.
It was the third day after Georgiana’s disappearance, and two days before Jane was to become Mrs. Bingley, when the Gardiners arrived at Longbourn for the wedding. As much as Elizabeth longed to claim her aunt’s exclusive company, she knew Jane deserved the greatest measure of the visitors’ attention. When the ladies adjourned to the drawing room after dinner, she listened politely, if impatiently, as Jane and Mrs. Bennet acquainted her aunt with every exacting detail of the wedding preparations. When Jane mentioned Miss Darcy’s sudden illness and the unlikely return of Mr. Darcy for the ceremony, Aunt Gardiner exchanged a subtle glance with Elizabeth, but otherwise received the knowledge with no hint of recognition.
Mr. Bennet appeared in the doorway. “Elizabeth, I will see you in my library.”
Elizabeth slowly put aside her needlework and complied with his request, trying to behave as though it were a request and not a demand phrased to brook no contradiction. She entered the library to find both her father and uncle seated and silent. They cocked their heads to regard her with detached curiosity, as they might examine a new specimen of African moth.
“Be seated, Lizzy,” her father said. “I fear this will not be a brief interview.”
Elizabeth seated herself primly on the edge of the indicated chair, unable to relax into its comfort. “Papa…” she began in an impassioned attitude of defense, as Mr. Bennet quickly shushed her with a curt wave of his hand.
“I believe I shall do the talking for a spell, Elizabeth.” He opened the top drawer of his desk and withdrew a folded paper. He opened it forcefully, snapping the creases flat, and held the offending missive at arm’s length, squinting to make out Elizabeth’s compact penmanship.
“Dear Papa,” he read aloud in a dispassionate tone. “Lydia and I are gone with Mrs. Forster. Lydia will travel on to Brighton as invited, but I will go only so far as my aunt and uncle’s in Cheapside. Such dreadful events as necessitate this hasty trip I cannot begin to explain in a note, but please trust that only the most dire circumstances would prompt me to take such an action without your permission. Please be assured that your daughters are safe, and I promise to explain the entire matter upon my return. I have given Kitty and Lydia to understand that this journey is undertaken with your permission. For the sake of your daughters’ reputations and the security of all concerned, I beg you not to contradict this assumption until I speak with you again. Your daughter, Elizabeth.”
He folded the letter crisply and carefully replaced it in the drawer. He then sat back in his chair and confronted his daughter directly.
“Well, Lizzy? What can you possibly have to say for yourself?”
Elizabeth had felt her throat steadily constrict as her father read the note aloud. She gripped the arm of her chair and managed to coax a hoarse whisper from her dry lips.
“I am most heartily sorry, Papa, for the distress my actions have caused you. I know in writing such a letter I took great liberties with your trust and forbearance.”
She cleared her throat. “It was necessary to go to London without a moment’s delay, for …” Here Elizabeth’s voice failed her. How much ought she tell her father? The details of Miss Darcy’s elopement were not hers to divulge, but she knew a vague explanation would not appease her father’s curiosity.
“Yes, yes,” her father interrupted impatiently. “You may spare me the tale of this dastardly Mr. Wickham and his elopement with Miss Darcy. Your uncle has explained as much to me already, as well as your role in their discovery. To think that man’s smile had all of Meryton so charmed! But the revelation of his true character is no less shocking to me, Elizabeth, than the outrageous behavior of my own daughter. However did you learn of this elopement? Furthermore, why should it be any of your concern?”
Elizabeth was grateful that her father was already acquainted with the facts of the matter and she need not actively betray Mr. Darcy’s confidence once more.
“I happened to meet Mr. Darcy while out walking that morning. I came upon him shortly after he had learned of his sister’s disappearance. Her note to him suggested they would be bound for Gretna Green, and he was anxious to be off in pursuit of them. It was only after he had left that I recollected something Mr. Wickham had once said – something Mr. Darcy himself could not have known – and it convinced me that the couple had fled to London instead. Had there been any way of alerting Mr. Darcy to this information, I should have done so. As it were, I felt the only hope of discovering Miss Darcy in time to preserve her reputation rested in my hands.”
Mr. Bennet shook his head. “Lizzy, we all know Mr. Darcy to be a proud, disagreeable sort of man. What were you thinking, to meddle thus in his personal affairs? Did you honestly expect he would welcome your interference?”
Until that moment, the thought that Mr. Darcy might take offense at her actions had never crossed Elizabeth’s mind. So long as Miss Darcy was safe, she reasoned, he could only rejoice and be grateful for her intervention. Her father’s disapprobation, however, suggested she may not have considered all the implications of her involvement.
“I would have done the same for Maria Lucas, or Mary King, or any other unfortunate young lady taken in by Mr. Wickham’s schemes,” she said. “Had Lydia or Kitty any fortune to speak of, Wickham might have just as easily absconded with one of them. But you are perfectly correct, Papa. It was a presumption on my part to involve myself, and Mr. Darcy would have every right to resent me for it.”
“Well, Edward, you have spoken with the gentleman himself. Does he hold Lizzy’s vain interference against her?”
Elizabeth looked to her uncle sharply. “You have seen Mr. Darcy?”
“We all know you to be a clever girl, Lizzy, but it appears Mr. Darcy is no simpleton himself. When he found no trace of Miss Darcy or Wickham in the next few coaching stages toward Scotland, he quickly returned to town. From what he told me the following morning, he arrived rather late in the day and only returned to his home after making an exhaustive search of the coaching inns and some unsavory districts he knew Wickham to frequent. When he did return to his townhouse late that night, he was exceedingly relieved to discover his sister already there.”
Relief surged through Elizabeth as she received the knowledge that Mr. Darcy was safe in London. She inhaled deeply, feeling as though she drew her first real breath in three days.
“And Mr. Darcy called on you the next morning?” Such happy news she would gladly hear repeated.
“Yes. I take it Miss Darcy was rather disinclined to divulge any details of her adventure, so he sought the information from me. And, of course, there was the matter of what to do about this Wickham character.”
“What to do about him?” Elizabeth was confused. “Is he not in debtor’s prison?”
Her uncle chuckled and took a slow sip of sherry, vexing his niece greatly with each moment he delayed his response.
“Lizzy, on such short notice, I was by no means able to assemble a strong case against the man. I had to call in several favors just to convince a magistrate to apprehend him on the basis of a 2-pound 7-shilling debt to a tailor. Such a flimsy charge was enough to have him held a few days, but nothing more. Once I acquainted Mr. Darcy with the details of Wickham’s arrest, the resolution was his to decide. He could attempt to build a stronger case that would merit imprisonment, or allow him to be released and deal with the scoundrel on his own terms.”
Mr. Bennet refilled the sherry glasses. “Were I in his situation, I would rather run the man through and be done with him myself.”
A duel! Elizabeth’s stomach lurched violently. “Surely Mr. Darcy would never resort to bloodshed!”
“He thought long and hard about it, Lizzy,” her uncle replied. “I cannot say I blame him. In the end, however, he chose the more difficult alternative and began to assemble a list of Wickham’s likely creditors. Had time been less scarce, he might have delegated the task of canvassing them to his solicitors. I offered my own assistance in approaching the creditors in trade, but it fell to him to locate the gentlemen, make inquiries into gaming debts they had likely forgotten or would prefer to forget, and persuade them to press charges. It was an endeavor that consumed the entirety of the past two days, and one that occasioned Mr. Darcy no small amount of degradation.”
“But the case against Mr. Wickham – is it now sufficient?”
“Oh, yes. Wickham will be on his way to The Fleet soon enough. That is, unless Mr. Darcy exerts some influence to obtain a sentence of transportation.”
Elizabeth considered the mortification Mr. Darcy must have undergone in approaching his peers and old friends on such a mission. She imagined him proceeding from gentlemen’s clubs to elegant homes, inquiring into his acquaintances’ personal affairs and politely deflecting any similar inquiries into his. If the motive for his sudden interest in bringing Wickham to justice were ever known, Miss Darcy’s reputation would be irreparably tarnished.
Surely her father and uncle spoke truly when they said a duel would have been the easier and more satisfying course of action. But even if Mr. Darcy emerged from such a confrontation unscathed, his sister’s reputation would not, if the cause of the duel ever become known.
Something akin to regret took root in Elizabeth’s mind for the first time since her impetuous decision to go to London. When she had sought her uncle’s assistance, having Wickham arrested for nonpayment had seemed the ideal solution to the Darcys’ problems. Now she realized for the first time the predicament in which she had placed Mr. Darcy. Her actions had left him two alternatives, one of which placed him in physical danger and both of which skirted uncomfortably close to public disclosure. Left to his own resources, Mr. Darcy might very well have located his sister himself and devised an entirely different way to handle Wickham, one that was both safe and discreet. He might have remanded him to Colonel Forster to be charged with desertion, or quietly arranged his transportation to the Americas with none the wiser.
Mr. Gardiner seemed to note Elizabeth’s growing discomfiture.
“To be sure, Mr. Darcy had other methods at his disposal for dealing with Wickham, had he wished it, but he seemed bent on seeing the scoundrel brought to justice. He appeared to blame himself for not taking action long ago, when he first knew the true nature of Wickham’s character. Had he sacrificed a small amount of pride then, he said, he might have saved his sister and others a great deal of pain. Whatever injury recent events have inflicted on his dignity, Mr. Darcy seemed to view it as his own just punishment.”
Mr. Bennet was all astonishment. “This is a very different picture of the man! Here in Hertfordshire, he has been all officious arrogance from the very beginning.”
It pained Elizabeth to hear Mr. Darcy spoken of in such a manner, especially when her father phrased his vitriol in terms so close to her own unjust accusations in April.
“Indeed, Papa, Mr. Darcy has no improper pride,” she objected spiritedly. “He is most amiable.”
“So I was inclined to believe myself, until last evening,” her uncle said.
“Until last evening?” Elizabeth asked.
Mr. Bennet sighed, removing his spectacles to massage the bridge of his nose wearily.
“Elizabeth, we have not yet settled the question of your involvement in this debacle. Do you honestly expect us to believe that Mr. Darcy encountered you by chance that morning? If he believed his sister to be bound for Gretna Green, I cannot credit why he would be lingering in the lane to Longbourn. Nor can I understand why he should pause to acquaint his friend’s neighbor with all the sordid details of his sister’s disappearance. Can you explain it?”
“I am afraid I cannot.” At least, I would rather not, she thought to herself.
“Neither could Mr. Darcy – not to my satisfaction, at any rate,” her uncle said. He countered Elizabeth’s shocked expression with a look of paternal authority. “I am not your father, Lizzy, but I am one of your closest relations. I felt it my duty, once a satisfactory resolution to this Wickham affair seemed secure, to ask some questions of Mr. Darcy. I had the opportunity to do so last evening, when he called to offer his thanks for my assistance. After expressing that I was happy to be of service to him, I took the same line of questioning your father has just posed to you. I do not think it extraordinary that an uncle should ask a gentleman to explain the intentions behind a furtive daybreak rendezvous with my niece.”
“Furtive rendezvous!” Elizabeth spluttered. “I often walk out in the mornings! There is nothing so unusual…”
“You may save your explanations,” her uncle interjected. “Mr. Darcy admitted that chance had little to do with your meeting. You will understand then, Lizzy, I felt it my duty to inquire whether there exists an understanding between the two of you. I asked him to tell me, once and for all, whether he was engaged to you.”
“And what was his response?” Mr. Bennet asked, all the while regarding his daughter with puzzlement.
“He said he was not.”
“Is this true, Elizabeth?” her father asked.
Elizabeth nodded. “There is no understanding between us.”
Mr. Gardiner addressed her father. “Given the near escape of his own sister, I told Mr. Darcy that surely he could not fail to comprehend the danger Elizabeth assumed in this sequence of events. In the first place, simply agreeing to this clandestine meeting – then traveling to London completely unbeknownst to her parents.” He turned to Elizabeth. “Lizzy, you must realize you put your own reputation at great risk for the sake of protecting Miss Darcy’s.”
Her uncle rose from his chair and studied a framed map hanging on the wall as he continued. “I told Mr. Darcy, ‘If you have any regard for the honor and credibility of my niece, then promise me that you will enter into an engagement with her directly, as a matter of principle.’”
“Oh, Uncle!” Elizabeth gasped. She buried her face in her hands. “I cannot imagine how Mr. Darcy must have received such an insulting demand,” she thought aloud.
“I will save you the trouble of imagining, Lizzy, for I will tell you his response. He was gravely silent for some time. Then he said firmly, ‘I can make no promise of the kind.’”
Mr. Bennet set down his sherry glass with a forceful clatter that made Elizabeth cringe. “The nerve of such a man! Is this to be endured? Surely, Lizzy does not possess his connections or fortune, but she is a gentleman’s daughter and therefore his equal. It as not as though he would be quitting his own sphere to marry her.”
“I, too, was shocked and astonished,” Mr. Gardiner said. “I thought him to be a more reasonable young man. But when I attempted to argue the point further, he merely rose and said, ‘I must beg you to importune me no further on the subject.’ He then quit the house immediately without taking his leave.”
Elizabeth absorbed this account in stunned silence.
Mr. Bennet spoke through clenched teeth. “Of all the arrogant, obstinate, headstrong ..”
“Father! I beg you, please do not pain me by speaking of Mr. Darcy in such terms.” Elizabeth was near tears. “You do not know what he really is, nor the full truth of the situation.”
Her father regarded her quizzically. “You cannot claim to like this man, Lizzy! Are you out of your senses?”
Perhaps she had taken leave of her senses, Elizabeth thought, for before she knew what she did, she replied, “I do like him. I love him.” Indeed, she had not known how deeply she loved him until this moment, when all love must be in vain. “But how could he think of marriage at such a time, when all his concern must be for his sister? And Papa, as you say, he may very well resent my influence in the matter, which goes deeper than you realize and without which the entire affair might never have transpired.”
Elizabeth slowly explained her thoughtless endorsement of Miss Darcy’s improper behavior when the young lady first slipped from Netherfield unnoticed; how she persuaded Mr. Darcy to permit his sister to attend the Lucases’ ball; the woeful neglect that evening that allowed Wickham and Miss Darcy the opportunity to plan the elopement; and how in acknowledging her attachment to Mr. Darcy she had inadvertently encouraged Miss Darcy’s own infatuation. To complete the humiliating extent of her interference, her reckless journey to London now appeared to have been wholly unnecessary. She had forced Mr. Darcy into the mortification of gathering evidence against Wickham, when he might have located his sister on his own and resolved the situation in his own way.
“Who could blame him if he faults me for this pattern of impertinent interference?” she cried. In truth, had she not felt completely justified in hating Mr. Darcy for a far lesser offense? His efforts to separate Mr. Bingley from Jane now seemed utterly insignificant in comparison to her own presumptive behavior.
Mr. Bennet offered his daughter his handkerchief. Her hand felt unnaturally heavy as she reached to accept it, and her heart felt likewise leaden. All hope must sink under such a circumstance. For even if she had not acted in the matter, Elizabeth realized, even if Mr. Darcy’s affections and wishes remained unchanged -- this affair made any future connection between them an impossibility.
Thus far, Miss Darcy’s unfortunate escapade had eluded public notice, but it was by no means certain that this would remain the case. Elizabeth knew rumor to waft like candle smoke – most acrid after the flame is snuffed, and once dissipated, impossible to retrieve. If Miss Darcy’s reputation was to remain unsullied, any hint of further scandal or impropriety must be avoided at all cost. Should Mr. Darcy himself wish to marry, his choice of wife must be beyond any suspicion or reproach. Mrs. Hurst had expressed a similar opinion, but recent events seemed to confirm it as a matter of fact – only a lady of the highest station and refinement could fill the role of Mrs. Darcy.
Mr. Gardiner went to Elizabeth and placed his hand lightly on her shoulder. “Elizabeth, if Mr. Darcy has compromised you in any way, or made promises he now would attempt to deny, there are ways of applying pressure in this situation. He can be made to marry you.”
“Oh, Uncle! I beg you to do nothing of the sort. Mr. Darcy has never acted dishonorably toward me. He has not compromised my virtue in the slightest way. As to my feelings and behavior, they are mine alone to own and regret. He cannot be held responsible for my actions this week, any more that he can be accused of encouraging my affections. Neither duty, nor honor, nor gratitude has any claim on him in the present instance. Please do not attempt to influence him through any such appeal.”
“Well, I cannot say I am eager to attempt it, for my part,” her father said. “Mr. Darcy is not the sort of man one forces to do anything, and I could not bear to part with you to one so unworthy. If you assure us that he has not compromised or misled you, Lizzy, we will take your word and consider the matter settled.”
“Thank you, Papa.” Elizabeth rose on unsteady legs. It was a queer sensation indeed, to walk away from this scene so whole of body, free of any visible injury or scar. She was in every physical way unaltered, and yet utterly torn apart within. It felt as if her soul claimed no acquaintance with her mind, and her conscience was a stranger to her heart. This feeling of disconnection increased as a wholly unrelated concern entered her thoughts. Her voice sounded strangely distant as she addressed her father.
“Papa, you would be wise to call Lydia home from Brighton immediately. Indeed, I beg you to do it. I deeply regret involving her at all in this business. It was most imprudent of me to send her with Mrs. Forster.”
“Do not be so hard on yourself, Lizzy. In that respect, you may have done us all a favor. Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances.”
“But her behavior, Papa! Not only is Lydia the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous, but after this incident with Miss Darcy you must see the danger of allowing such impropriety to go unchecked.”
Mr. Bennet remained unmoved by his daughter’s heartfelt plea. “Oh, Colonel Forster is a sensible man and will keep her out of any real mischief. We shall have no peace at Longbourn if she is made to return. Besides, Lydia is luckily far too poor to be an object of prey to anyone.”
Elizabeth tried to believe him, for Lydia’s sake as well as her own. After hearing Mr. Darcy’s words to her uncle, she knew she would be denied the joy of gaining one sister. She could not bear the pain of losing two.
The day of Jane’s wedding dawned fine and mild, as though by special arrangement contrived to complement the bride’s own serene beauty. One might suppose that, in the absence of Lydia, the task of readying five ladies might be accomplished more quickly than the work of preparing six. To the contrary, without Kitty and Lydia’s noisy jostling to prod them along, the elder Bennet sisters dallied in the atmosphere of comparative harmony.
Elizabeth fussed so particularly over each ringlet that framed Jane’s lovely face, the bride began to suffer a crisis of confidence. “Am I so very dreadful, Lizzy?”
Elizabeth stood back to appraise her handiwork and sighed dramatically. “Jane, I fear it is hopeless. For all my best efforts, I cannot improve on perfection.” She placed a light kiss on her sister’s blushing cheek.
“Oh, Lizzy, the time! I must not keep Mr. Bingley waiting at the altar!”
Elizabeth clucked dismissively. “Mr. Bingley will wait for you until Michaelmas if you make him, and well he should. Besides, he will have you for the rest of his life, Jane! I shall not surrender my dearest sister one minute earlier than I must.” She took pity on the eager bride, however, and ceased her attentions with a smile. “Let us go, then.”
Mr. Bingley was indeed waiting at the altar of the Meryton church when they arrived. He stood flanked by the parish’s fresh-faced young vicar, who appeared more anxious than either bride or groom, and by his groomsman, who eclipsed both groom and clergyman in height, composure, and handsomeness. Mr. Darcy had returned for the wedding.
Elizabeth was shocked and thoroughly disconcerted. On the previous evening, Mr. Bingley had professed little hope that his friend would attend the ceremony. Not that prior knowledge of his presence could have prepared her to see him again, or to suffer his piercing gaze as she approached the altar. Elizabeth looked away quickly, but whether her attention was fixed upon Jane, the vicar, or a spot on the stone floor, she could not dislodge the image of his countenance from her mind’s eye. Throughout the ceremony, which dragged on a good bit longer than it ought, owing to the vicar’s stammering pauses and silent heavenward appeals for strength, Elizabeth could sense Mr. Darcy’s unrelenting stare.
She had suffered two sleepless nights attempting to comprehend Mr. Darcy’s categorical refusal of her uncle’s demand. She could not decide whether his bluntly worded rejection signified some true resentment of her, or merely the subjugation of his feelings to the greater purpose of preserving his sister’s reputation. In the end, Elizabeth gave up her attempts to understand it, realizing that no elucidation of his motives could alter the unhappy conclusion. She had resigned herself to the task of dismantling all her disappointed hopes, and constructing from the rubble some image of a future that did not include Mr. Darcy. Her attempts thus far to envision such a prospect resulted in bleak pictures, indeed.
And now the man himself stood but a few feet away, a persistent, imposing figure in her peripheral vision. The temptation to turn her head a few degrees and meet his gaze directly was powerful; for some foolish sentiment told her that one glance at his expression should reveal the truth of his emotions. Her reason, however, argued that his proud mien would remain inscrutable as ever, and the only feelings laid bare would be her own. Therefore, she stubbornly trained her gaze elsewhere.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth found it far simpler to shut her eyes to his presence than to banish his memory from her thoughts. It was only too easy to observe the perspiration beading on the vicar’s brow and be reminded of Mr. Collins, and the mental leap from Mr. Collins to Hunsford was all too readily achieved. It occurred to Elizabeth that, had the events of that visit – and in particular, that evening – unfolded somewhat differently, this might have been her wedding day as well as Jane’s. Sustaining an outward appearance of joy under the weight of this cruel realization seemed impossible, but Elizabeth somehow managed to endure the remainder of the ceremony and congratulate the happy couple warmly upon its completion.
Upon his arrival at Longbourn for the wedding breakfast, Mr. Darcy was received coolly by Mr. Bennet and Mr. Gardiner. To Mrs. Bennet, however, he was a returning hero of the highest order. For not only had he left his ailing sister’s bedside to lend his distinguished presence to the wedding of her eldest daughter, his servant had preceded him at Longbourn that morning bearing a case of the finest champagne from the Darcy family cellar.
Elizabeth’s method of avoiding Mr. Darcy throughout the awkward affair was to assert her own best social graces and place herself at the center of every lively grouping. If Mr. Darcy would persist in studying her as she laughed defiantly with Charlotte or joined Aunt Phillips and Mrs. Long to solicit their appraisal of the various puddings, at least he would not deign to join any such conversation. So long as she selected her company with an eye toward effusion and merriment, she reasoned, Mr. Darcy might be kept at bay indefinitely.
The effort required to maintain this unflagging cheer became increasingly great, however, and once Mr. and Mrs. Bingley had departed in their grand barouche, Elizabeth’s façade quickly began to crumble. She escaped the house and the scores of guests therein and briskly walked the short distance to Longbourn’s small pond. This tranquil setting had frequently afforded her a welcome respite from frustrations.
Elizabeth yanked off her gloves impatiently and gathered a handful of small pebbles from near the water’s edge. She lobbed them toward the pond’s center one by one, watching the surface of the water shiver with each tiny impact.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, a frisson of dread disquieted Elizabeth’s heart, and her hand tightened instinctively around the few remaining stones. She knew who it must be, but she could not bring herself to confirm her suspicion by turning around. In the end there was no need, for he reached her side quickly enough.
“A lovely prospect,” Mr. Darcy said, fixing her with a steady look before turning his gaze toward the gently rippling surface of the water as it smoothed to a mirror finish. “And a fine location for catching frogs, I would imagine.”
“Quite,” she answered tersely, picking up a larger stone and heaving it into the water, where it landed with a resounding splash. She was at a loss to understand his purpose in pursuing her company and engaging her in trivial conversation. Surely nothing remained to be said between them that would not cause one or both of them pain. “Of course, one sees the occasional snake as well.”
If Mr. Darcy caught the bitterness in her tone, he remained undeterred. “Miss Bennet, you know me to be a selfish being. I realize this day ought to be reserved for the celebration of Mr. and Mrs. Bingley’s joy. However, I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled courage and kindness in aiding my sister.” This rehearsed, impersonal speech grated on what remained of Elizabeth’s patience.
So this was his motive, she thought. He wished to express his gratitude, to clear all accounts between them that he might sever the acquaintance with a clean conscience. Very well, she conceded. She would readily relieve him of any such burden, if in so doing she might expunge her own regrets. The formidable task of forgetting Mr. Darcy might be made slightly easier without the complication of remorse.
“Please do not thank me,” she said. “I know how my rather misguided compassion induced you to take so much trouble and bear so many mortifications on Mr. Wickham’s account. If not for my interference, you might have been spared that degradation.”
“If not for your interference?” he asked, in a tone of surprise and emotion. “Miss Bennet, were it not for your invaluable assistance, my sister might not have been discovered at all, or at least not before her innocence and reputation were irreparably harmed. Ever since I learned of your involvement in her rescue, I have been most anxious to thank you. One day, I am certain Georgiana will add her expressions of gratitude to my own. At the moment, her shock and grief will not allow her to appreciate to whom she is truly indebted.”
“I am sorry to hear how deeply she suffers,” Elizabeth replied sincerely, recalling Miss Darcy’s stricken expression when they parted at Darcy House. “But I cannot claim to be surprised. I am amazed that you would leave her again so soon.”
“Indeed, I did so with extreme reluctance. I must return to her in London this afternoon. Only the deepest sense of obligation could have persuaded me to leave her company for even one day.”
Elizabeth retrieved her gloves from the fallen log where she had placed them earlier, brushing off the dust with thinly-veiled agitation. “Mr. Bingley is fortunate to have such a dutiful friend.”
“Bingley?” Mr. Darcy asked, puzzled. “I cannot deny that my prior commitment to stand up at his wedding provided some additional inducement. But as much as I value his friendship, I believe I thought only of you.”
“Sir, I beg you not to trifle with me. I know of your conversation with my uncle. Please understand, you are under no obligation to provide any further justification of your decisions. I understand your feelings completely, and we may be silent on the subject forever.” She turned her back on him and began to retrace the path to Longbourn, but Mr. Darcy kept stride with her easily.
“I am sorry, exceedingly sorry, that you were informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not realize Mr. Gardiner was so little to be trusted.”
“You must not blame my uncle. His only concern was for my reputation. I have assured him and my father that my actions were mine alone. You cannot be held responsible for my heedless interference any more than you could be blamed for the brash presumption that occasioned it.” Her tone became increasingly clipped with each determined stride.
“This is no striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure,” Mr. Darcy objected. “Although it seems a rather faithful portrait of mine.” Elizabeth refused to look at him, but merely redoubled her pace until Mr. Darcy grasped her arm suddenly.
“So long as we are speaking of brash presumptions,” he murmured, drawing her from the path into the shade of an ancient walnut tree. Elizabeth looked down to where his hand encircled her arm, and he released her slowly, his tight grip becoming a tender caress. She glanced up at his dark expression with puzzlement, and he abruptly withdrew his hand, flexing it into a fist as he turned from her to pace beneath the tree’s low canopy. He removed his hat abruptly and flung it aside, raking his fingers through his hair with frustration. When at length he turned to face her, he seemed to have regained some measure of self-possession.
“I have learned a hard lesson over the course of our acquaintance, Miss Bennet, but I fear this occasion is sorely testing my mastery of it.”
Elizabeth could not imagine what he meant, but she remained silent and waited for him to continue.
“As a child, I was given good principles, but I was left to follow them in pride and conceit. Being an only son, and for many years an only child, I was spoilt by my parents. Though good themselves, they allowed, even encouraged me to be selfish and overbearing, to think meanly of the rest of the world. A proper humbling has long been my due, but since the death of my father, the same arrogance that was my defect in youth became an advantage of sorts. I had been raised to trust my judgment implicitly, to value my own opinion above all others’. When, at a young age, I suddenly became master of an estate and guardian of my sister, self-doubt became an indulgence I could ill afford.
“My obstinacy and arrogance outlasted any reasonable excuse, however, and became deeply rooted in my demeanor. Such I was from eight to eight-and-twenty, and such I would be still, if not for you. You made me realize how greatly I had erred in my conceit. I denied those close to me the power to make decisions that were rightfully theirs alone. I thought my judgment superior to any other, never imagining myself to be blinded by prejudice or made partial by pride. I was wrong to separate Bingley from your sister. I should not have concealed the truth of Wickham’s character from anyone, least of all my own family. This history of vain presumption has occasioned no small amount of pain, and I will be damned if I make the same mistake again with you!”
Elizabeth was alarmed by the violence of this exclamation, and she cast a desperate glance homeward. “Mr. Darcy,” she began in a trembling voice, “I told you earlier, you are preserved from making any further mistakes on my account. I will make no claim on your honor or affections.”
She retreated a step, but he quickly moved to close the distance again. He sighed roughly and shook his head, reaching down to where her hands hung as clenched fists at her sides and taking hold of her wrists. Her pulse throbbed against his fingertips as she met his piercing gaze.
“Forgive me,” he said softly. “I had not thought it possible to make a more wretched scene of this than I did at Hunsford, but clearly I underestimated my considerable talent for mangling declarations of love.”
“You would speak to me of love?” She could not comprehend him. A small, gasping sob escaped her throat. “But you told my uncle --”
“Elizabeth – do you not understand? When your uncle demanded I promise to marry you as a matter of honor, he placed the object of my most fervent desire squarely in my hands. I had only to close my fingers over it, to indicate my assent, and my months of torment would be at an end. You cannot know what it cost me to refuse him. I might have made you mine then, as surely as if you had accepted me yourself.
“But you had not accepted me, and I could not forget it. I hoped your opinion of me had improved since April. I fancied that your intervention on Georgiana’s behalf implied that you might regard her as a sister. Still, you had refused me once, and I could not feel so secure in the alteration of your sentiments as to relieve you of any choice in the matter.”
His voice softened to a whisper. “I promised your uncle nothing, Elizabeth, because I so desperately desired another opportunity to promise you everything.”
Elizabeth was far too overwhelmed to say a word, but what her lips could not express, her other features seemed determined to divulge. She closed her eyes too late to stem the hot, traitorous tears that spilled down her cheeks. Her chin began to quiver inexcusably, and she bit the inside of her cheek in rebuke. Mr. Darcy released her wrists, and her eyes flickered open at the sensation of his hands gently cupping her face.
“Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth,” he murmured, erasing a tear with a gentle sweep of his thumb. He slowly inclined his head to hers until his lips rested lightly against her forehead. She gasped slightly and shut her eyes once again.
For some moments they remained thus, silent and immobile, as though he expected her to recover her senses and retreat at any instant. Elizabeth’s good sense, however, had abdicated altogether to sensation – or more accurately, a multitude of exquisite sensations that only increased as Mr. Darcy’s lips trailed a series of soft, barely perceptible kisses along her brow, grazed gently over her eyelid, and traversed the ridge of her cheekbone until his breath whispered warm against her ear.
“Will you have me, Elizabeth?” he asked quietly.
Elizabeth could not gather the composure or even sufficient breath for an immediate reply. Her companion drew back slightly, squaring his shoulders with practiced dignity, his anxious gaze searching her expression for encouragement. Slowly, deliberately, she curved the corners of her mouth into a reassuring smile, and Mr. Darcy’s eyes widened with pleasure. He cleared his throat gently and released her face to take her hand in his.
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” he pronounced with affected solemnity and a poorly concealed smile of his own, “will you do me the inestimable honor of becoming my wife?”
Elizabeth, feeling all the awkwardness and anxiety of the situation instantly dissipate, now forced herself to speak. Her struggle for fluency was not prolonged, for there was but one word that truly needed to be spoken, and Mr. Darcy’s happiness upon hearing that long-desired reply was immediately and warmly expressed. The look of heartfelt delight that diffused over his face became him greatly. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it tenderly before gathering her into a gentle embrace and pressing his cheek to hers. Long-repressed thoughts, emotions, and promises now tumbled forth from each of them, liberally interspersed with novel endearments that quickly became familiar.
When the walnut tree’s generous shade began to dwindle in the midday sun, Elizabeth reluctantly withdrew from his embrace with a contented sigh. “We had best return to the house soon, before my father and uncle have occasion to note our absence.” Mr. Darcy nodded in agreement, and they set a slow pace in the direction of Longbourn. “I do not envy you the task of approaching my father,” she told him. “After my uncle’s report of your last conversation, I am afraid he holds you in very low regard.”
“I can easily believe it. And how those words must have pained you! You must have thought me devoid of every proper feeling.”
“I thought you must have hated me,” she admitted. “You trusted your sister to my keeping, and I failed that trust so miserably. And then reading her letter – I felt my guilt increase with each distressing line! I might as well have pushed her into Wickham’s arms. Certainly, I expected such to be your own conclusion. I should not have blamed you for severing all acquaintance with me.”
Mr. Darcy’s astonishment was sincere. “Blame you? Hate you? Never.” He kissed her hand and tucked it securely into the crook of his arm. “I was exceedingly angry, to be sure, but never with you. How are you to be blamed for the romantic notions of a young lady known to you less than a week, much less for the subtle scheming of a scoundrel such as Wickham?”
Elizabeth could not be satisfied with this reassurance. “Oh, but then I went rushing off to London!” she cried. “I involved myself and my relations in what ought to have been your private family matter, with no thought to the consequences! I am afraid to ask what your reaction was, when you called on my uncle that morning and he told you of my interference. Did you not think me terribly impertinent?
“No, indeed. I thought you remarkable.” He looked down at her with a smile, but his expression turned serious as he continued. “I cannot express to you my relief at finding Georgiana safe at Darcy House that evening. You could not comprehend what vile images tormented me as I attempted to imagine her likely whereabouts at that hour. Indeed, I returned to the house only with the intention of obtaining fresh clothes and a fresh horse, and to dispatch an express to Colonel Fitzwilliam. To learn that she was already at home – to go to her chamber and see with my own eyes how she slept there, so peacefully…” His voice choked with emotion, and some moments passed before he continued.
“My housekeeper gave me your uncle’s card, and I knew immediately to whom I owed this miracle. When your uncle acquainted me with the details of Wickham’s apprehension, my object then was to ensure that your efforts should not be wasted. You assumed great risks to see Wickham put under lock and key, and my resolution was to make certain, by every ability in my power, that there he would remain. Of course, it was no less than I ought to have done long ago.”
“How fortunate for me,” said Elizabeth, “that the affair should have reached a satisfactory conclusion! I am not at all certain you would praise my good intentions so readily had their result been less favorable.” She silenced her companion’s immediate protestations with a playful squeeze of his arm. “Oh, but make a virtue of it by all means,” she teased. “For I must confess, even knowing all that I do now, it is likely I would do exactly the same should the situation repeat itself.”
The prospect of Longbourn loomed suddenly near, and they entered the small garden in which Elizabeth had come upon him so unexpectedly in April. Here Mr. Darcy paused, pulling her behind a tall hedge that concealed them from view of the house. Elizabeth regarded him quizzically, noting his uncharacteristically tentative expression.
“Elizabeth, once we have returned to the house, I shall speak with your father at once. Then I must return to London directly. I fear it may be some days before I am able to return.”
“But of course!” she replied. “You must be with Georgiana at this time. I shall miss you, certainly, but she needs you.”
Mr. Darcy looked relieved. “Thank you for understanding. I shall write you, if I may.” He glanced about the garden, and when his gaze returned to her, it was fixed determinedly on her lips. “It strikes me, however, that these may be our last moments alone for some time, and …”
“Yes,” she whispered, taking a step toward him.
If Mr. Darcy sought her permission or invitation, this small gesture seemed to satisfy the requirement. He swiftly gathered her into his arms and pressed her tightly to him, lowering his lips to hers in a gentle kiss. They broke apart briefly, a pause just long enough for Elizabeth to catch her breath. She found it stolen away just as quickly, however, as he murmured her name and renewed the kiss, this time with an ardent urgency that was anything but gentle.
Long minutes were spent thus in private celebration before they recovered themselves sufficiently to entertain thoughts of rejoining the wedding festivities. At length, they reluctantly agreed it seemed inadvisable, and increasingly improper, to delay any longer.
Mr. Darcy observed her appreciatively as Elizabeth attempted to put her hair to rights. His gaze of open admiration rekindled all the powerful sensations of his kiss, but in a queerly displaced fashion. For she was reasonably certain that at no time during the course of their tender interlude had his lips grazed the uppermost edge of her ear, for all it burned so feverishly now, and certainly not even his boldest caress had approached the tingling hollows of her knees! She blushed furiously as she struggled with her gloves.
“But there is one last question on which my curiosity has not been satisfied,” he remarked suddenly. “However did you know where to find them?”
“It was Ramsgate,” she began, explaining to him the series of recollections and deductions which eventually led her to London, and to Bond Street.
“Darling, clever Elizabeth! What do I not owe you!” He took her hands in his and pressed each to his lips, then placed a tender kiss on her cheek.
Elizabeth laughed. “I assure you sir, I did nothing so extraordinary. I simply spent a lovely afternoon shopping with my aunt!”
Her demeanor soon took a pensive turn. “But there is one thing I still owe you, and I cannot forget it. It is a long overdue apology for my uncivil behavior to you at Hunsford, and for the resentment to which I so stubbornly clung even after your letter had removed all justification for it. It was not until my father pointed out the presumption in my actions regarding Georgiana that I understood the extent of my offense. Until that moment, I never knew myself! At once, I saw the folly of all my previous prejudice against you. In persisting in my censure of your interference between Mr. Bingley and Jane, I held you to a higher standard than I held myself. I refused you the right to possess a single fault, all the while persisting in my own flawed behavior.” She rested her forehead against the lapel of his coat. “Can you ever forgive me?”
Mr. Darcy wrapped his arms about her shoulders and held her to his chest as it shook with gentle laughter. “Elizabeth, can you not recall what you told me at Netherfield? What service are our faults, if not to draw us into one another’s confidence and encourage affection?” He kissed the crown of her head firmly before tilting her face to meet his.
“How astute you are, to recollect my every impertinent remark!” she teased, straightening his cravat with a smart tug. “You will puff my pride excessively, you know, if you continue to quote me with all the authority of Plato. I shall become quite insufferable with my opinions, and then you will regret such encouragement.” She playfully traced his jaw with the tips of her fingers, finding his cheek delightfully rough to the touch and gasping softly as he turned his head to plant an ardent kiss upon her palm. Placing both arms about his neck, she drew him closer until his head inclined to hers.
“I can think of no one to whom I would rather entrust all my darkest failings,” he said, a satisfied smile spreading across his face. “I must warn you, for instance, that my capacity for restraint is shamefully imperfect.” His lips met hers again, and they shared a lingering, unhurried kiss that nonetheless ended far too soon for Elizabeth’s preference.
“Most shameful, indeed!” she teased in an arch tone that soon dissolved into sweetness. “We are both of us undeniably flawed,” she whispered, “but in our imperfections, I believe us to be perfectly matched.” This notion met with Mr. Darcy’s immediate agreement, and the passionate embrace that sealed their accord was as all that might be supposed of two people so violently in love.
It fell to Elizabeth to work on her father over the course of the following week, shamelessly abusing every privilege that her status of favorite daughter conferred. With each delivery of the morning post to his hand or his afternoon tea to the library, Mr. Bennet was made to endure an enumeration of Mr. Darcy’s admirable qualities or some energetic assurance of his excellent character.
In this campaign, Elizabeth found an unwelcome ally in her mother. Mrs. Bennet would not hear a cross word spoken against Mr. Darcy now that he had declared his intentions toward her daughter. If he would supply such carriages and champagne for the wedding of a friend, imagine the luxuries Lizzy would enjoy as Mrs. Darcy herself! And Lizzy’s wedding must be ten times as grand as Jane’s, she declared, as befitting a groom of ten times Mr. Bingley’s consequence.
Elizabeth grew concerned that her father would find the prospect of further wedding preparations more distasteful than the proposed son-in-law himself. In the end, her assurances regarding the sincerity of their attachment, coupled with the promises of a lengthy engagement and some measure of elusive domestic harmony, were sufficient to sway Mr. Bennet to grudgingly give his consent when Mr. Darcy called a week later.
The wedding date was set for November. In truth, deference to Mr. Bennet’s frayed forbearance with society was the secondary motive for this prolonged engagement, the paramount consideration being Miss Darcy’s fragile emotional state. Neither Elizabeth nor Mr. Darcy wished to cause his sister additional distress by planning their wedding so close on the heels of her own disappointment.
At the outset, their courtship was limited to Mr. Darcy’s weekly calls at Longbourn – a most unsatisfactory arrangement for both parties, for just as the obligatory pleasantries with her family were complete and the awkwardness of a week’s separation overcome, the time for leavetaking was already upon them. On one particular occasion, Mr. Darcy arrived at Longbourn in such low spirits that Elizabeth was forced to squander the precious hours in his company applying gentle persuasion until the source of his ill-humor could be drawn out.
It seemed Lady Catherine had paid a call of her own to Darcy House, with the express purpose of airing her opinions on the unsuitability of his engagement. No amount of persuasion could convince Mr. Darcy to repeat those opinions, but Elizabeth was sufficiently acquainted with Lady Catherine’s character to imagine them. Her own instinct was to laugh away any insult from such an outrageous source, but she wisely observed that Mr. Darcy regarded it as no laughing matter. Indeed, his indignation on Elizabeth’s behalf was such that he resolved to sever all connection with Rosings.
Elizabeth hoped this breach might one day be repaired, but she had an aunt and uncle of her own whose misgivings she meant to conquer first. While keeping close watch over his sister prevented Mr. Darcy from calling frequently, he did write regularly, and Elizabeth treasured each four-syllable word with which her intended expressed his devotion. For every letter she wrote him in return, Elizabeth penned a shorter note to her Aunt Gardiner, extolling the virtues of her betrothed and expressing her fondest wish of inviting them to Pemberley for Christmas, if only Mr. Darcy might have the opportunity to reestablish himself in her uncle’s esteem.
Mrs. Gardiner happily surrendered to her niece’s persistent hinting, particularly the great temptation of touring Pemberley’s park in a lovely little phaeton with ponies. Within a matter of weeks, Elizabeth found herself invited for an indefinite stay in Gracechurch Street.
Elizabeth was uncertain what sort of reception she would find when she first called on Miss Darcy in town. She was glad to discover that the resiliency of youth and passage of time appeared to have worked their charms on the young lady’s disposition. Georgiana greeted her future sister with a warm embrace, and the two ladies quickly devised plans for pleasant mornings spent practicing duets at the pianoforte or driving round the park. The idea of shopping, however, was curiously never entertained.
Elizabeth did not want for shopping companions, for her mother soon arrived in town as a guest of the Bingleys. Mrs. Bennet was beside herself with glee at the prospect of having not only more time to plan this wedding, but access to the infinite selection of wares afforded by London shops. So pleased was Mr. Bennet at his wife’s removal to town, he magnanimously increased her allotted funds as well.
Little could either of her parents have supposed that Elizabeth would not be their next daughter married. Mr. Bennet arrived unexpectedly in Gracechurch Street one afternoon bearing a letter from Colonel Forster. It seemed that Lydia had become betrothed to Lieutenant Denny, and from the Colonel’s insinuations, a brief engagement would be most advisable.
On discussing this development with her own betrothed, Elizabeth was gratified to learn that he shared her sense of responsibility in the matter – not for Lydia’s imprudent behavior, certainly, but at least for the circumstances which led to her installment in Brighton. They agreed that Elizabeth’s dowry of one thousand pounds, the impact of which would scarcely be felt on Mr. Darcy’s own accounts, should be added to Lydia’s thousand. Furthermore, Mr. Darcy would consult with Colonel Fitzwilliam about purchasing a more profitable commission for Denny as a wedding gift. These arrangements were settled quietly among Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet, and Mr. Gardiner, with the result of elevating the first gentleman greatly in the eyes of the other two. They reasoned that Mr. Denny’s improved pay, when combined with Lydia’s dowry and the one hundred pounds per annum Mr. Bennet proposed to settle on her, ought to provide the couple with a sufficiently comfortable income. This line of reasoning assumed, of course, that Lydia could be reconciled to living within their modest means.
Come Michaelmas, the newly-wed Mr. and Mrs. Denny had departed to join his new regiment in the North, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had repaired to Hertfordshire, leaving the Bingleys, Gardiners, Elizabeth, and Mr. Darcy to form a very agreeable society of six. The group spent many a delightful evening dining at the Bingley residence or attending the theater as guests of Mr. Darcy.
Before the excitement of Lydia’s brief engagement, Mr. Gardiner took to his role as Elizabeth’s chaperone with stern vigilance, but his severity gradually softened as his opinion of Mr. Darcy improved. The couple found increasing opportunities for private conversation in corner of the drawing room, leisurely drives about town in his carriage, or pleasant walks in the park. It was during one such afternoon stroll in the early days of autumn that Elizabeth’s spirits rose to playfulness, and she wanted Mr. Darcy to account for having ever fallen in love with her.
“How did you begin?" she asked. "I can comprehend your going on charmingly, once you had made a beginning; but what could have set you off in the first place?”
“An excellent question,” he replied. There were some benefits to an extended courtship, Elizabeth was forced to concede, the greatest of these being the perfect and effortless amiability with which they now conversed. She, of course, persisted in her habit of teasing at every opportunity, and Mr. Darcy had not only mastered the ability to be laughed at with good grace but was developing a considerable talent for parrying her wit with his own.
“To be sure,” he continued, “your impertinence at Rosings I found most enchanting, and before that I admired your kind attention to your sister at Netherfield – but I must admit to being utterly bewitched by your beauty from the moment of our introduction at Meryton.”
Glancing about to ensure they were not observed, Elizabeth repaid this pretty speech with a quick kiss on the cheek. Having received his reward, Mr. Darcy continued slyly, “Of course, I knew no actual good of you then, but what man thinks of that when he falls in love?”
Elizabeth gasped in surprise and threw him a look of mock reproach. She would have withdrawn her arm from his to punish him, had his grip not tightened in anticipation of just such a retreat. He covered her hand with his own and began to stroke her wrist, exploring the slim band of exposed skin between the edge of her spencer sleeve and the top of her glove.
“To be truthful, Elizabeth, I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun. Could you tell me how long you have loved me?”
Elizabeth considered the matter as she reveled in the profound sensations incited by his caress. Their conversation may have become comfortable; their habits, familiar – but as flint may spark a thousand fires and each blaze as brightly as the last, the slightest brush of his skin on hers never failed to rekindle all the burning intensity of their first touch.
With such a pleasant distraction consuming her notice, it seemed no more possible to recall the beginning of her love than to imagine a time before fire. Certainly, she had not always loved him so well as she did now, and indeed her love continued to deepen and grow with each passing day. But if she must attempt, as he said, to fix on the hour, or the look, or the words which laid the foundations of her affection, she must choose that moment more than a year past when she stood before his handsome portrait, listened to the unstinting praise of his housekeeper, and first learned all that was true and essential to his character.
“Perhaps I should be coy like you, Fitzwilliam, and tell you it came on so gradually I hardly know when it began,” she teased. “But if I am perfectly honest, I must date it from my first seeing your beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”