Posted on 2008-10-22
Their friendship had always been a battle of wits. It was something Fitzwilliam Darcy relished, and he had been mighty pleased when he discovered one of the few people he counted as a "true friend" was visiting the Parsonage. Accordingly, he brought his cousin, the colonel, in tow with him, to pay his respects, little as he might like Mr. Collins.
It was with shock, he realized Mrs. Collins had been, when he was last in Hertfordshire, Miss Lucas, but -- distasteful as the idea may be -- he could not fault her practicality. Some of the veiled comments from Mr. Collins, however, indicated that Darcy's reason for the visit -- his dear friend Miss Bennet -- had slighted him, and not chosen to take that station. A shared glance between Elizabeth and Darcy plainly showed the distaste at that idea, as well as the topic, and after another side remark that was even more overt, Darcy duly introduced his cousin to Elizabeth, Mrs. Collins, and the new Miss Lucas.
The colonel was a pleasant, engaging man, and Darcy was pleased to watch him chat with Elizabeth. She seemed slightly out of spirits, however, and this worried him. Her laughter did not ring with quite the same amusement he recalled from Hertfordshire, and, unless she smiled at something he said, he thought it seemed forced. He resolved to catch her on their way out the door, and discern the cause of it. Accordingly, he asked if Elizabeth had yet had the pleasure of her daily walk.
"Indeed," she smiled at him, "I own, the weather has been so fair, there has been naught to keep me from it."
"Rosings has some beautiful lanes, hereabouts," he replied. "My particular favourite leads along past the folly, and down into a small glen."
She laughed. "It has already become a particular favourite of mine, as well." She held out her hand, and he bowed over it.
"Until we meet again, Miss Bennet."
"Until we meet again," she replied, as had long since become their custom. She made her farewells to the colonel the moment after Mr. Collins took a quick, gasping breath, and in doing so, released the pair to leave.
"Your friend is quite a beautiful woman," Fitzwilliam remarked when they were halfway back to Rosings. "And I am not sure if I refer to her looks or to her wit."
"And here I thought you preferred Grecian blondes -- ideally the ones with large dowries," Darcy replied, for, truth be told, while he did think Elizabeth beautiful, it was mostly because of how she laughed.
"Come now, Darcy, old man, variety is the spice of life, you know," the colonel replied.
Darcy sighed at him. "Just recall, Miss Bennet is not some lass of the Ton with which to flirt to your heart's content. She is a very dear friend of mine, and I will not let you toy with her."
Fitzwilliam stopped dead in his tracks. "I have not heard that tone of voice from you since Georgiana summoned us to Ramsgate to assist her with The Scoundrel."
Darcy felt nonplussed -- he did not intentionally mean to scold his cousin. "I am sorry; I certainly do not believe you would act as he would. Although I would have liked you to see how Miss Elizabeth handled him."
Darcy laughed while Fitzwilliam watched in amazement. "He had avoided Bingley's first ball, apparently secure in the belief that Miss Elizabeth's sense had been led astray with his fallacies, like so many others. Afterward, I had returned to London with Bingley -- as you recall -- but I was not expected back. Naturally, when Bingley held his engagement ball, I returned, announced to none but Mr. Bennet and Bingley -- who had, at my request, informed only Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth.
"He was dressed impeccably in his regimentals, and doing his smarmy best to flirt with Miss Elizabeth and two of her younger sisters at the same time. I arrived to claim the supper dance from Miss Elizabeth -- we had mutually agreed that any dance we are at together, the supper dance would be our preference, so at least we would have pleasant conversation during dinner -- who gave me a brilliant smile and said to him, 'It is always a pleasant thing, when Providence grants her favour in accordance with the recipient's character. My only wish in life is to be as discerning as she is.' And then she held out her hand to me -- he had not noticed me until then -- and I whisked her off to the dance floor. The look of stupefaction on his countenance, I shall remember with pleasure for the rest of my life."
Fitzwilliam -- despite being exceedingly manly in most respects, and a military man, to boot -- had one trait he had valiantly suppressed over the years. At this moment, however, he could not help himself. He giggled. "Your Miss Bennet is, I must say, one of the wittier women either of us has ever met."
Darcy inexplicably frowned. "She is not 'my' Miss Bennet. I care for her -- aye, she is as good as a sister to me, and I value her as much as I do you or Georgiana. I heartily hope to see her well settled in society; she deserves that much. But I have no claims on her beyond that of friendship."
Fitzwilliam was surprised. She would match Darcy in a multitude of ways... and had lit up at the sight of Darcy being introduced into the parlour. He wondered how long she had been in love with his cousin. "What of her family situation, then, is she an eligible match?"
"Only for her wits and her person," Darcy sighed. "She is a gentleman's daughter, but her cousin is the heir of the entail, and between the five daughters, there is a mere five thousand pounds." He shook his head. "Still, I intend to introduce her to Georgiana and your mother -- your mother has wanted intelligent companionship for a very long time, and perhaps with Lady Matlock's support, she will be capable of making a good, respectable match."
"You sound worse than a match-making mama, Darcy," Fitzwilliam replied, concealing his unease.
A shrug was his reply. "I wish her to be happy in life; I did say she was a friend, did I not?"
And with this, the conversation was closed, for they were at the gates of Rosings, and they dared not speak of anything intelligently while within the estate's boundaries.
The next morning, Darcy rose a bit earlier than his norm, and with the stealth of habit acquired during his yearly childhood visits to this estate, he made his way down to the kitchen. The head cook -- who had been one of Darcy's early confidantes -- reproved him as he sneaked in. "Master William, are ye not a bit old to be sneaking in here for a cookie?"
Darcy laughed. "And good morning to you, Mrs. Blakes." The woman shook her head in reply. "I was not in here for a cookie -- although I will not say no if one is being offered." She laughed, and he continued. "I was, however, hoping to acquire a breakfast basket, if you would be so kind."
"On another one of your long walks this morning?" she asked, even as she set about making one for him.
"Indeed," he replied.
"I will put something in extra for ya, in case you see Miss Bennet," she replied. He gave her a startled look. "I have a bit of a soft spot for the girl now. My niece, she's one of the maids at the Parsonage, and the parson, clumsy oaf that he is -- pardon me for speaking of the gentility so --" Darcy waved a hand to show he understood. "Well, anyhow, he weren't paying attention to where he was going and knocked a pot of hot water in the kitchen down, and instead of helping my niece, who was caught by the splash, he was scoldin' her. And that Miss Bennet, well, she heard the commotion the parson was causing, and she pushed him right out of the way and was tendin' my niece quick as quick."
Darcy smiled. "That is, indeed, Miss Bennet. She tends to the tenants at her father's estate -- I spent part of the autumn in the neighbourhood -- she is as good a nurse as the apothecary is. Is your niece all right?"
"Aye, she'll be fine. Her legs were a bit burnt, but nothing bad, and Miss Bennet whipped up a good lotion for her skin to keep it from scaring any," the cook replied. She paused. "I know that you and Master Richard come to help my mistress with the estate, these years -- do you think Miss Bennet would be averse to checking on the Smith-Wilkes? Their little boy just won't get better, and Lady Catherine, well..." she trailed off.
"I cannot promise," Darcy replied, "but it would not be in her nature to refuse her assistance if she can be of any at all. I will ask her."
"She's spoken of you," the cook commented, finishing one last thing. "When she heard you were comin' to visit -- I was chattering at my niece, who was in pain for the first few days, so I was visitin' to help distract her -- she, Miss Bennet that is, was mighty pleased. She said she had a few ideas on how to improve Rosings, and thought if they came from you, the mistress might listen." She handed him the basket as she finished.
"I will see," he replied, feeling startled by this information. He expected Elizabeth to be just as pleased as he was to be in close company again. Something about how Mrs. Blakes said it though, made him wonder. It almost sounded as if she had been anxiously awaiting him to show up -- if that was the case, why the melancholy of yesterday?
He left by the kitchen door; no sense in traipsing through the front door and risk crossing his aunt's path, even if this was a mite too early for her. Normally, he would meander to the glen, but today it was his destination, and he walked quickly... barely quick enough, for Elizabeth arrived not two moments later, despite having taken a different path.
"A basket?" she asked, forgoing the normal greetings, as was their wont.
"The head cook was so kind as to pack me breakfast; she says there is a bit in here for you, as well, 'in case' I met you during my walk," he replied.
She laughed. "Mrs. Blakes is a sweet woman. Her niece, Harriet, is a sweet girl, as well."
"How is her niece? Mrs. Blakes told me of her injuries."
Elizabeth sighed. "My fool of a cousin did not do as much damage as I originally feared -- she is all but recovered now. This only happened three days into my visit; and I have been here a fortnight."
"I did not expect to see you here," he replied. "I had thought you would have joined Mr. and Mrs. Bingley in London -- as we all expected."
She hesitated. "I confess, I considered it, but I did not wish to leave my father alone for so long, not so immediately after losing the constant companionship of Jane."
"One day he will have to accustom himself to the idea," Darcy replied.
Elizabeth sighed, and the melancholy he had seen yesterday reappeared. Her smile was soft and sad. "I once told Jane I would only marry for the deepest love. I intend that to remain true -- it is not that I do not want children, but the joy of children could not recompense living in a marriage like my parents'."
He found he had no words to say, although her quiet pain did tear at his heart. He busied himself opening the basket, and abruptly laughed. Elizabeth gave him a puzzled look, and he held up two cookies. She laughed herself, and he eyed them for a moment. "This one is obviously not one of my favourites," he said as he handed it to her, "ergo, it must be yours."
She took a bite out of it, and faked a swoon with a giggle. "Indeed it is."
The conversation remained light and airy while they consumed their breakfast. Towards the end, Darcy abruptly recalled the cook's request. "Mrs. Blakes mentioned that one of the tenants has an ill boy; he has not recovered, although she did not say from what. She had hopes you might look in after him?"
The concern on Elizabeth's face comforted him; she would agree. "Should not Lady Catherine or Miss de Bourgh look in after the child?" Darcy merely tilted his head at her, with an arched eyebrow of his own, and she half-smiled. "Very well -- if you can ensure I will not incur the wrath of the great lady, I shall see if I can tend the child. Which tenants?"
"The Smith-Wilkes," he replied.
She shook her head. "I have not yet made their acquaintance -- I shall speak to Charlotte when I return to the Parsonage; I wonder why she has not said anything to me yet."
"You mean your cousin has allowed your friend to say above five words to you?" Darcy replied drily.
She giggled. "Six, actually." He laughed. "He has been mildly desperate to make me repine for my choices, although I know not why."
"I noticed a decided slant to some of his comments," Darcy admitted. "But you were not tempted in the slightest, by the thought of having your own household?"
She shook her head. "Not at all," she replied. "Even knowing that Bingley had not yet asked my sister for her hand, and facing a distinct possibility that his sisters would dissuade him from the match, I could not force myself to duty so far. I would become a governess or find employment to assist my family if I had to, but even duty must have its limits."
"I certainly cannot blame you in this instance," he agreed. After a pause, he asked, "Just how terrible of a proposal was it?"
She threw her head back and laughed, describing it. Darcy had expected pompous nothings, but he was amazed by the arrogance a lowly parson could contrive to have. "I am glad you refused him, for your sake, Elizabeth," he said, as he wiped the tears of laughter from his face. "When do you return to London?"
"At the end of April -- I shall stay with Jane and Bingley for a month before returning home."
"Perfect," he replied. "And have you any other plans?"
"My aunt and uncle have offered to take me on a pleasure tour of some of the north districts in August."
"Truly? Bingley and your sister are invited to Pemberley in August -- did they not tell you? It would be a wonderful thing for your sister, to have both you and the Gardiners visit then -- say you will?"
A wistful look passed over Elizabeth's face. "I shall have to apply to Jane, Bingley, and the Gardiners for their approval of such a change, of course," she answered. "But my aunt has told me much of Derbyshire; it sounds lovely."
"It is," he agreed. "And I know your uncle is fond of fishing; we have spent more than one night at the Bingley townhouse discussing the sport. And I should like to introduce you to my aunt, Lady Matlock -- she is quite influential with the Ton, and she would be a great benefit to you, in terms of entering that society."
He did not understand the startled expression on her face. "It is Jane who needs to be concerned with such things, not I. What purpose would it serve?" she asked.
"Well -- you are Bingley's sister now. And I should like to see one of my dear friends happily settled -- my aunt is naturally the best assistance in that regard." He did not understand the sudden despondency that once again descended on Elizabeth's features for the briefest of moments, even less than he had the startlement.
"I will write and ask," she said, rising to her feet. "Now I think I had best return to the Parsonage -- and see if Charlotte can conduct me over to the Smith-Wilkes family."
He rose and bowed over her hand as she offered it to him in farewell. "I shall hope to see you at Rosings in the near future," he replied.
Richard Fitzwilliam watched, over the next few weeks, in growing disquiet. It was obvious to him that his cousin did not realize Miss Bennet was in love with him, and it was equally obvious that Miss Bennet was aware Darcy only acknowledged a filial affection for her. It may have been what Darcy insisted on, but Fitzwilliam realized slowly that, whether he knew it or not, Darcy was in love with Miss Bennet. He had never seen a friendship between two of the opposing sexes be so open and so strong without it resulting in a marriage -- granted, usually, they were forced marriages, as the lady's father protested his daughter compromised for the most spurious things -- but they usually turned out being happy marriages. But as of yet, Darcy did not suffer from self-enlightenment, and it was Miss Bennet who paid the price.
Towards the end of their visit, he met with Elizabeth as she was walking and reading a letter. "Good day, Miss Bennet," he said, and she startled slightly, brought out of her reverie.
"Oh! Colonel Fitzwilliam, my apologies. How are you this morning?" she replied.
"Well enough, now that I have met you," he returned, unable to help the note of flattery in his voice. If only she were not so obviously in love with his cousin... it was a thought that could not, should not, be finished.
She blushed prettily. "You are too kind." She paused. "Have you seen Mr. Darcy yet this morning?"
"Lady Catherine has him detained for most of the morning; we leave but three days hence. She always becomes desperate to keep him in her sight, or in Anne's, the last few days of our visits," he replied.
"Not that I can blame her for wishing to keep him in her company, but I suppose she assumes, of course, that in his 'despair' at leaving Rosings, he would be pushed to finally propose to his cousin?" she asked.
"Naturally; my aunt's machinations are quite transparent," he replied with a slight smile, even as he felt trepidation at what he was about to do. "Not that she is the only one, around Darcy," he added softly. Miss Bennet immediately blushed and looked away, her posture stiff and embarrassed. He reached out a hand to touch her but remembered himself in time. "Please, Miss Bennet, I would not see you distressed. I just -- thought, perhaps, you ought to know your suffering has not gone unnoticed -- by Anne and me, that is," he added with a sigh. She blushed more, and he pushed on, desperate to be done with his bout of foot-in-mouth disease, now that he had put it there. "Darcy -- he knows you are distressed -- but he cannot fathom why."
Finally she replied, "How can he not?"
Fitzwilliam took her arm gently, and began to lead her along the path towards the Parsonage -- the longer path, that was. "I do not know. Never have I seen him act with an eligible woman as he has with you -- I do not know if that gives you hope, or if it brings you pain, but you should at least know."
She was silent for a few moments before she asked, "How is he normally?"
"Quiet and taciturn, as the Miss Bingleys of the world throw themselves at him," he replied.
"I suppose I cannot blame him for that," she said. She was silent a moment longer before she added, "What is your mother like?"
Had Darcy even told her of his plan to have Lady Matlock marry her off?! Could his cousin be truly that incapable of seeing Miss Bennet's emotions? "She is a forthright woman, much like yourself, and does not tolerate stupidity nor insipidity with any sort of calmness. Why do you ask?"
"He has said he would like to introduce me to her, to convince her to sponsor me during the next Season -- for the sake of seeing me 'happily settled,' he says."
"Oh, Darcy," Fitzwilliam sighed. They neared the Parsonage gates, and he paused. "If you wish -- my mother will see it the moment he walks into the room with you after an absence, even if I say nothing -- but if you wish, I shall warn her the only one who can win your heart is my cousin."
She hesitated. "Would she not think me a fortune hunter then?"
Fitzwilliam could not help it; he threw his head back with a laugh. "My friend, if fortune hunters had even a tenth the depth of emotion that you do, eligible men would not scatter away like so many pheasants when the hounds are released."
She laughed lightly and shook her head at him. "Am I your friend?" she replied, giving him an odd look.
He smiled sadly, "You can be nothing more to me, unless I call you my cousin. But -- if he weds someone other than you -- I may beg for a chance to win your heart." She blushed, and he smiled again. "I shall hope it does not come to that."
She sighed and admitted, "So do I."
He glanced at the gates. "Shall we then?"
Darcy had indeed been startled to discover Elizabeth did not attend the party at Rosings that night; Fitzwilliam had passed on the information she had looked well enough when he spoke to her in passing in the morning. Mrs. Collins, however, stated emphatically that Elizabeth had become ill with a headache, and although she sent her sincere apologies, she was simply too ill to be in company. Darcy, accordingly, was deeply concerned, and with a whisper to Fitzwilliam, that he was going to check on her, left the moment that Fitzwilliam and Anne contrived a moment to distract Lady Catherine.
He walked to the Parsonage quickly, and the maid allowed him entrance, before announcing him to the small parlour. Elizabeth startled as he entered, but no more so than he. She had been crying!
The second the door was shut, he was kneeling by her side, holding one of her hands. "Are you all right, Elizabeth? Is there something I can fetch for your present relief? A glass of wine, something? Truly, you do look very ill."
She shook her head. "I am just... out of spirits, Darcy," she replied. "These headaches are often painful in and of their own right, but I confess my mood of late has not been conducive to assisting me in fending them off."
He had not yet managed to bring up the topic of her spirits this entire visit, but she had given him an opening to do so now. "I have noticed you have been affected -- if I may be so bold as to ask why?"
She half-smiled through a pain not entirely physical, although she did not immediately answer. She turned his hand in hers so that his palm was facing down, and with her other, she traced a slight design on the back of it. It was not the first time she had done so, although it was perhaps only the third or fourth in the months they had known each other. He was caught, like never before, by the sheer intimacy of such an act, although he had never noticed it until just now. She looked up to meet his eyes. "Can you not guess, sir?"
Oh, Lord. He was at fault for her pain; never, not once, had it occurred to him she would fall in love with him. And yet, another part of his mind asked -- how could she not? He was likely the first man to have challenged her wits, the first beyond her father to treat her as an equal, the first to see past her beauty and hold her intelligence and spirit to be of more importance -- he could not have planned a courtship of her better if it had been his intent. His throat worked, but he could not say anything. He drew away from her slowly, so deeply, horribly ashamed of himself. He had retreated to the fireplace before he could make words come out. "I am sorry."
She stood, herself, with a sigh. "It is not your fault, any more than it is mine. I fought this every inch of the way, you know. Perhaps, if we had met under different circumstances, the situation would not be as it is now." He marvelled at how, even in the deepest agony she was in, she found a way to laugh. "After all, being around Jane and Bingley -- a couple so much in love -- cannot but have a romantic affect on any female soul in the vicinity."
"And I thoughtlessly, carelessly planned to have my Aunt Matlock marry you off to some friend or another of our family's! How you must have hated me then," he replied.
"Hate you?" The laugh was bittersweet. "I took it as it was meant; nothing more. You have long shown yourself to be a caring friend -- to Bingley, to the colonel, to myself." She sighed. "I am sorry, Darcy, but -- I should prefer to be alone now." He admired how steady she kept her voice, although, now that he knew what he was looking at, he could see how the tears threatened to spill over -- her own words had reminded her of his thoughtless behaviour.
"Of course -- I should go. Undoubtedly you have wished me away from the moment I entered," he replied, and hesitated. "I should still like to introduce you to my aunt and my sister -- if you can forgive me long enough to permit my presence in yours, to perform the introductions. If not -- the colonel will remain in London for the next two months, and he would be pleased to perform them."
"Of course," she replied softly. "This is not something I wish to lose a friendship over -- I just need time."
Unaccountably, the thought she would eventually convince herself to no longer love him as more than a friend pained him beyond anything he had ever known, excepting the days his parents died. "Until we meet again, Elizabeth," he said, instead.
She smiled, the tears glittering there on the verge of falling. "Until we meet again -- Fitzwilliam."
Even shocked as he was at her audacity, he could not help but enjoy the sound of his name on her lips. He bowed over her hand, then made his escape into the night. But he could not escape completely. That she had loved him, for so many months! How could he have not seen it? She bantered with everyone -- it was her way. She paid more attention to him than she did most everyone else -- but he had assumed it was the attention of simply one intelligent person towards another, for heaven knew he was drawn to her. Elizabeth's wit and impertinence kept a room from being stifling, and she was excellent assistance in deflecting the Miss Bingleys of the world. He returned to Rosings in a thunderous mood, hating himself every step of the way. He ignored his aunt's imperious demands that he attend the party as he passed -- he could not deal with Mr. Collins, nor his aunt, at the moment.
Fitzwilliam followed him. "You should not leave our guests bereft of your presence, cousin," Darcy told him as Fitzwilliam entered his room without permission.
"It goes without saying that only one person will be bereft for me; I can speak to her in the morning. For that matter, there are only ever two in that parlour who would be bereft of your presence, although it currently only holds one of them." He paused. "How was Miss Bennet?"
Darcy, who had buried his heads in his hands, looked up at his cousin sharply. "You knew she was in love with me, did you not?"
"If by 'she,' you mean our aunt, then no. Although she is in love with Pemberley, to own the truth."
"I meant Miss Bennet," Darcy growled.
Fitzwilliam hesitated. "I suspected it from the first moment I met her; I knew in only a few meetings. I assure you -- she does not light up in a room containing only myself, the way she does around you."
Darcy groaned, and buried his head in his hands again. "Until this moment, I never knew myself!" He shuddered. "She was crying when I arrived; I fear my idiocy has only made her present affliction worse. What am I do to, Richard?"
"What is this?" Fitzwilliam replied, half in jest, half in real shock. "Mr. Darcy of Pemberley asking for advice? Shall I inform Lady Catherine the Four Horsemen shall be in need of guest rooms?"
Darcy abruptly stood up and glared at the colonel. "This is not something I find amusing, Fitzwilliam."
He was amazed at the change in his cousin, at that. "Nor do I, Darcy. In fact, there is little I would find less amusing -- finding Georgiana in a similar state, had she listened to Wickham's sweet lies, would have been more painful, I admit. But there is nothing that I can do in this situation."
Darcy closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "I repeat -- what am I to do?"
"The answer seems clear enough to me, Darcy," Fitzwilliam replied. "Fall in love with her."
"She is desperately in love with you -- and even still, has displayed every grace and poise that could be possibly expected under the circumstances -- and more. She has borne with our aunt proclaiming your near engagement to a cousin you obviously do not care for in the slightest. She has borne all the attentiveness of your own behaviour, without once intentionally betraying her affliction. I know that you regularly meet with her on walks -- and have as much agreed to a time and place before -- one mention of that to her father, and he would have demanded you marry her. She has obviously done all she can to protect you from her own folly. Little as you deserve it," he added. Darcy did not immediately reply, and after a moment, Fitzwilliam spoke again, his voice soft. "I envy you; she is an admirable woman in many respects. If you offered her marriage tonight, to ease her pain, I have little doubt she would refuse you -- she cares too much about you to subject you to a marriage where you did not love your wife." He looked up at his cousin, who was finally watching him. "And she is too fine a woman to let a Society man take her away, Darcy."
"How does one make themselves fall in love?" Darcy sighed.
"Forget you ever only gave her the appellation of 'friend,'" Fitzwilliam replied. "For just once, look at her as if you had only just met but a few times, and were being impressed anew. You are not so stupid a man, Darcy, that you could ignore her charms then."
"I managed it once," Darcy replied.
"Because you felt you had to, perhaps?" Fitzwilliam asked. "Her connections and station in life are not particularly outstanding, even with her sister being wed to Bingley. But she is worth more than those merely material concerns."
"If she is that outstanding, why have you not been courting her?" Darcy could not help but ask.
Fitzwilliam hesitated. "She is too much in love with you, Darcy. Although... this morning, when I finally spoke to her of the situation, I told her that if you wed another, and she is yet unmarried, I may beg to court her, to turn her heart towards mine. But until then, I have little doubt she would ignore any attempts of mine."
"You spoke to her of this, but not me?" Darcy was shocked.
"Anne believed she needed to know her suffering had not gone unobserved; that while others may be untouched by her plight, there were at least two who were not." Fitzwilliam's expression held a touch of guilt. "It may have been wrong of me to speak of it; perhaps she had convinced herself to not be unhappy, but my words reminded her of it, and the distress brought on her headache."
Darcy closed his eyes and drew in a painful breath. "In that case -- I cannot be but grateful you did, Richard, as much as it tears at me to see my friend in so much pain. Obviously, she had to be pushed to the depths of despair before my eyes could be opened."
"What are you going to do?"
Darcy sat down at the writing desk in his room and toyed with the pen. "I think you are right -- she is too fine a specimen to waste on some of the scoundrels that litter the Ton. I will introduce her to your mother, and my sister, and... "
"I will speak to my mother on your behalf," Fitzwilliam offered. "Perhaps, if you do not see her for a few weeks, and meet her again when she is looking her best, that will help. But she will not have you, unless you can convince her you are in love with her."
Darcy's expression finally held determination. "Very well -- I shall do what I can to play the courting suitor -- in earnest -- once she is in London with Bingley and Jane. Even if I do not fall in love with her, perhaps I can convince her I have -- she should not bear the pain of my mistakes on her own."
Fitzwilliam did not entirely agree with the plan, but concurred with the last statement. He made one last comment to Darcy before he left the room. "And if you cannot fall in love with her, Darcy, I shall think you a simpleton beyond measure." With that, he was in and through the door before Darcy could say a word.
Darcy found himself leaning against his window, forehead pressed against it. "So will I, Fitzwilliam, so will I."
Posted on 2008-10-26
When Darcy arrived in London, one of the first things he did was travel to the Bingley townhouse. He needed Mrs. Bingley's assistance. "Darcy!" Bingley cried when he arrived in Bingley's study. "We did not expect to see you for another day or two. Have you not only just arrived in London?"
"A few hours ago, yes," Darcy replied. "I came to speak to you and Mrs. Bingley about her sister, Miss Elizabeth."
Bingley's expression became concerned. "Is Elizabeth all right?"
Darcy hesitated. "She is physically fine; little has changed since you saw her last. But I have been made aware of a -- difficulty of hers, and I should like to get your wife's assistance in correcting it."
Bingley gave him a serious look. "I will summon her -- although perhaps I can guess what this is to be about." Without saying anything else, he summoned a servant to fetch his wife. She arrived shortly.
"Mr. Darcy, it is a pleasure to see you," she said.
"Mrs. Bingley, the pleasure is mine," he replied.
"How fares my sister, Elizabeth? I know from her letters you were much in her company," she said.
"I -- she is doing fine, except for her spirits," he replied honestly. "And that is what I wished to speak to you about."
Bingley asked, "Should I leave to let you two discuss this?"
"No, Charles," Mrs. Bingley replied, still steadily looking at her sister's friend. "You and I have discussed the topic before." Mrs. Bingley settled herself into the chair opposite of Darcy; Bingley sat behind his desk. "What did you wish to ask?"
"How long --" he swallowed. "How long has she been in love with me?"
A flicker of relief crossed Mrs. Bingley's face. "So you have finally seen it?"
"Only after I found her in tears a few nights ago," he replied.
Mrs. Bingley closed her eyes in sympathy. "My poor sister!" She sighed. "She could not tell me -- but I believe it was quickly. I thought she was in love at least a fortnight before she admitted to it -- but she refused to risk showing you her regard. 'He only considers me his friend,' she said. 'He has as much told me I am only as good as a sister to him -- I shall be content with that.'" Mrs. Bingley shrugged. "What aught could I say?"
If anything, Darcy's self-loathing increased. How could he have been blind for so long? He swallowed before answering Mrs. Bingley. "Nothing, until my eyes were opened. I -- I never meant to cause her pain," he said. "But I have no desire to leave her in pain -- she is my friend, and I ... I mean to do what I can alleviate the consequences of my behaviour."
"What do you propose?" Mrs. Bingley asked.
"To propose," he replied.
The identical expressions of surprise would have been comical, had Darcy not had an image of a crying Elizabeth in his head. Mrs. Bingley brought herself under control first, and replied. "She will not accept you, if she does not believe you are in love with her as well," Mrs. Bingley paused, with a glance at Charles. "She and I promised each other, years ago, when we realized... the extent of the unhappiness in our parents' marriage, that we would marry for love and rational reasons."
Darcy -- never comfortable in situations of high emotion -- could no longer sit still. Rising, he began to pace. "I -- wish to convince her, at the very least, I have fallen in love with her."
Bingley glared at him for a moment. "You would deceive Elizabeth, to cure your guilt?"
Darcy's voice was soft as he replied. "I did say at the very least, Bingley. She is -- in so many respects -- my equal or more. In that aspect, I have no doubt we would make a very good match indeed. That has never been an issue."
Mrs. Bingley replied, "You came to ask how to court Elizabeth, to convince her you have fallen in love with her." It was not a question.
"Why should I assist you?" she asked.
Here Darcy sat down in the chair again, while Bingley and Mrs. Bingley both watched him carefully. "I... my cousin believes I convinced myself she could only be a friend. I intend to do what I can to fall in love with her. She... does deserve the world at her feet -- that I have always believed." He grimaced. "I had intended to introduce her to my aunt, Lady Matlock, and convince my aunt to sponsor her during the coming Season -- between my aunt's sponsorship and her own connections to Bingley," he nodded at his friend, "and myself as a friend, she should have little difficulty securing a good match." He sighed. "Richard will still introduce her to my aunt -- with the express purpose of... assisting me to secure her."
Mrs. Bingley was quite incapable of outright hostility, but she had carried an edge of it until Darcy's last little speech. He suddenly realized she was eyeing him speculatively. "Very well," Mrs. Bingley answered after a moment. "Has your cousin yet spoken to his mother?"
"He intended to do so tonight or tomorrow," Darcy replied.
"We were invited to the Fitzwilliam townhouse for dinner tomorrow, to welcome you and your cousin home from Rosings," Bingley commented. "Your aunt has taken quite a liking to my wife." As usual, Bingley seemed to caress the words 'my wife' -- he had not yet lost the sheer delight in being able to claim Mrs. Bingley so. Darcy fervently hoped one day he would be able to be so obviously delighted in claiming Elizabeth. Still -- if his aunt liked the eldest Bennet sister, she should love Elizabeth -- that was a promising thought.
"With any luck," Darcy replied, "she will be willing to assist the situation."
A momentary silence descended on the room, and Darcy became aware that both Mrs. Bingley and Bingley were eyeing him. After a further pause, Bingley asked, "Do you wish to join us for dinner, or were you returning home? I was given to understand Miss Darcy was still with Lady Matlock, and to remain so until you arrived there for dinner tomorrow."
Darcy hesitated, and Mrs. Bingley entreated him. "I do realize you are not dressed for dinner, but it is of no matter," she said. "I should infinitely prefer that you dine with us instead of alone. Say you will?"
"Since you insist," he replied with a smile and a shake of his head. "I should like to freshen up, however."
"Of course," Mrs. Bingley replied. "Will your normal room suffice? I will have Jeffries attend you."
"That would be fine," he agreed, and she gave the order to the footman who escorted Darcy to the room that was usually reserved for his use. She, however, did not leave the study yet, and returned to her chosen seat. Bingley moved around the desk to sit beside her.
"Well, my love," she asked. "What do you think of this development?"
"I think he has been in love with her as long as she has been with him, my dear," Bingley replied. "Mere friends do not believe the other deserves the world at her feet."
She smiled in true amusement, leaning her head on his shoulder. "You caught that as well, I see. He already knows, I believe, most, if not all, of her preferences -- given how many they share, I am sure that was not difficult." She shrugged. "I honestly do not know how we are to help him fall in love with her." She paused. "I am also not... entirely sure we should help."
Bingley sighed and pulled Jane closer. "We long ago agreed they would make an excellent couple in terms of compatibility -- and all he needs to do is realize he is in love with her, already."
Jane huffed slightly. "And just how are we to assist him in accomplishing that?"
"I do believe, if we can keep them from meeting until Lady Matlock's Season opening ball, we can have our fair sister in the finest looks she has ever been," Bingley replied. "And, if it opens his eyes, I have no compunction about 'supplementing' our father's allowance for a gown."
Jane nearly glowered. "I should hope he values her for more than her looks!"
Bingley laughed. "Trust me, my dear. There is nothing that tells a man he is in love like the overwhelming jealousy he feels at seeing his darling being the centre of other men's attention." Bingley smiled at her. "I had already realized I admired your sense, but that was when I realized I had crossed the threshold into 'being in love.'"
He leaned forward to steal a kiss, but Jane stopped him, a finger to his lips, and a mock-scowl. "No, you are not yet allowed to distract me! Dinner is too soon, and we do have a guest."
Bingley pouted a little. "We should find him, then," he replied. He waited until they were halfway at the door before he spun her around and gave her a kiss.
She did try to scowl at him, but failed miserably. He simply laughed.
Colonel Fitzwilliam sought out his mother early the next morning to discuss the situation of Miss Bennet and Darcy. Thankfully, it should have been her day in to receive calls, and therefore he felt assured there would be time for him to speak to her on the topic. He found her in the mistress' study, reviewing her correspondence. He knocked. "May I come in?"
"Yes, come in," Lady Matlock beckoned. "Ah, Richard," she greeted cheerfully as she came around the desk. "After all these years, I have never learned to tell your voice apart from your father's."
Fitzwilliam laughed. "So you tell me on a regular basis, mother," he replied.
"So, have you come to tell me the bits about the trip to Rosings you could not share with the brother of the mistress of Rosings?" she asked.
He smiled inwardly at her astuteness. "Indeed -- but not solely comments regarding my aunt."
"What do you know of Darcy's sojourn into Hertfordshire, during the autumn?" he asked.
Lady Matlock frowned momentarily at her second son. "He visited Mr. Bingley for the autumn at the latter's leased estate, Netherfield, to give the boy some pointers about estate management -- you know he has a particular fascination with the workings of any and all estates. That is where Mr. Bingley met the new Mrs. Bingley -- and she is just one of the loveliest creatures I have ever been introduced to -- she and Georgiana are quite good friends."
"What do you know of Mrs. Bingley's next younger sister?" he asked further.
"From what Darcy has told me himself, he is great friends with 'Miss Elizabeth' -- she would be Miss Bennet now -- and Mrs. Bingley holds her sister in the highest possible esteem." Lady Matlock paused, thinking a moment. "I believe that Mrs. Bingley stated that Miss Bennet is to join the Bingley family party in London for a fortnight or two before returning to their father's estate. I dare say I will have the Bingleys bring her to dinner; Mrs. Bingley tells me that Miss Bennet exceeds her capabilities at the pianoforte, and Georgiana should have a kindred spirit at times."
Fitzwilliam nodded. "I do believe that is all correct, mother, based on what she, herself, told me. She was at Hunsford, visiting her friend, the wife of my aunt's new parson, and Darcy and I were much in company with her," he replied, "But I should like to ensure your assistance in a scheme of Darcy's."
"Oh?" Lady Matlock arched an eyebrow. "Has Miss Bennet caught my stalwart bachelor of a nephew's affection? I should have thought so, from the way he spoke of her a few times."
Fitzwilliam smiled wryly. "Apparently, Darcy is unaware she has -- but she is quite in love with him, and he has determined that he needs... assistance in falling in love with her, for he cannot bear to be the cause of her broken heart."
Lady Matlock blinked at her son. "That sounds... vaguely Shakespearian, Richard." He shrugged in almost-agreement. "Darcy wants assistance in giving this lady his affections?"
"I almost could not believe it, myself," Fitzwilliam agreed. "But -- when you meet her -- you will understand. He had been speaking of having you sponsor her for a Season, to assist her in garnering a better match than she could aspire to, even with her sister's new connections to Bingley." Fitzwilliam shrugged. "Apart from the fact she is obviously in love with him -- she is too fine to waste on someone such as one of The Old Drunkard's flunkies."
"How many times need I tell you to not call your father's staunchest political ally that?" Lady Matlock scolded, even if she could barely hide the smile.
"Lord ---- is as apt to call himself that as anyone else is, mother, and you know it."
Lady Matlock could not but agree to that, and so she returned the conversation to this Miss Bennet. "What is Miss Bennet like?"
"When Darcy was praising her to me, in a few of his letters from the autumn, and again on the trip to Rosings, I thought he was exaggerating," Fitzwilliam replied. "He was not, by any means. I do not necessarily agree with everything he thinks about her -- but he is still more or less accurate." He shrugged with a sigh. "Were her heart not Darcy's..." he trailed off with a slightly rueful smile at his mother.
"Ah," Lady Matlock replied in understanding. "When will I make her acquaintance, then?"
"She returns to London in a fortnight -- Darcy was to go to Mrs. Bingley and solicit her assistance in -- at the least -- convincing Miss Bennet to accept him when he offers."
Lady Matlock's eyebrows rose in surprise. "She would need convincing?"
"She is not the sort to accept a man without believing he is emotionally attached to her," Fitzwilliam replied.
"The Bingleys are invited to dine here tonight," Lady Matlock commented. "I shall speak to Mrs. Bingley more about her sister, and see what can be done about the matter." She paused. "A fortnight would permit enough time to assist her in choosing a proper gown, and the jewels to go with it, unless she has a preferred piece or two, and I shall certainly have her in attendance at my ball. If she will not accept him without him being in love with her -- I have every hope to assist the match."
Fitzwilliam smiled at his mother. "I hoped you would say that," he replied. "One more thing -- Darcy wishes to... not avoid her, but to not be in her presence until the time is deemed appropriate."
"He needs to learn to quit thinking of her as merely a friend, you mean," Lady Matlock replied.
Lady Matlock smiled, a particularly devious smile - the sort that made most men wonder just what they agreed to - even as they found they could not regret it. "Oh, if she is half as lovely as her sister -- and half as witty as I have been led to believe -- he will have no difficulties in the least."
"Surely my father did not forward enough funds to cover fabric such as this!" Elizabeth protested in an undertone to Jane, while they, Lady Matlock, and Miss Darcy fingered through one of the more fashionable stores in Bond Street.
Jane merely smiled. "He said you are to enjoy yourself, Lizzy. Apparently our mother will be inconsolable unless you return to Hertfordshire with a beau or a fiancé."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at her sister. "She always has been, when either of us have been in London. What makes this occasion so special?"
"Apart from having one of the most influential women of the Ton sponsoring you and advising me? Nothing at all, sister dearest," Jane replied. "And I see how you keep looking at the rose-embroidered red silk when you think I am not watching. Let us have that one pulled to the side -- I think it shall look lovely with your complexion."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at her sister, even while she agreed. What purpose was there, in dressing so beautifully? Darcy had avoided her since her arrival in London -- although her brother swore up one side and down the other that Darcy was not avoiding her, for else why he be willing to leave his sister so much in her company? To such a statement, Elizabeth had little to say -- she did harbour a suspicion that Lady Matlock's approval of her, combined with the colonel's, would have been enough.
Lady Matlock had found a beautiful cream fabric, and it was laid side-by-side with the rose silk. She looked appraisingly at Elizabeth and the fabrics before disappearing into the selection once more, to return with a rich, dark green. The seamstress appeared at their sides. "Are you ready to look at patterns, milady?" she asked of Lady Matlock.
"Indeed," she replied. "We are going to want a two or three-tone dress, the red shall be the major colour -- something for Miss Bennet," she added, gesturing at said lady.
The seamstress hmm'd and looked Miss Bennet over appraisingly. "Well, let us look over patterns and take measurements -- is there a deadline on the gown?"
"It needs to be completed at the same time as the gown I have ordered for myself," Lady Matlock replied.
"Very well, madam." With this, the seamstress beckoned Elizabeth over to begin the measurements, and Lady Matlock and Jane began to sort through patterns. Georgiana appeared with a selection of her own, for Lady Matlock had decreed -- apparently over Darcy's protests -- that Georgiana would not come "out" at this ball, but she would attend as a prelude to her coming out ball within the next year or two. Georgiana knew not what to think of the idea, but Elizabeth had assured her she would not be abandoned the entire night.
The measurements were done, and Lady Matlock presented Elizabeth with three "best options" to choose from. Elizabeth would remark to Jane, later, that she thought the requirement of a Bennet daughter's dress being chosen by no less than three people only held true in Meryton, but apparently it also extended into London. At length, a compromise between Elizabeth's two preferred options was drafted by the seamstress -- it would incorporate the style of the neckline and waist from one, while pilfering the style of the sleeves from the other. Lady Matlock had envisioned it being in mostly the red, but between the four other ladies involved, it was decided the cream would be the majority fabric, with the green and red being accenting colours, layered in the skirt, and as small panels in the bodice, with a wrap of the green. Lady Matlock approved of the design, making a comment that the deep green she had chosen was one of Darcy's favourite colours. Elizabeth blushed, suddenly fearful that Darcy would think she had dressed specifically for him. Although, in all honesty, she had to admit to herself the only reason she was going along with this was because she had been informed Darcy would be at this all-important ball, and even knowing he would never see her as anything but a 'good friend,' she desperately wished to impress him. The looks exchanged by the three other ladies at her blush only made matters worse.
She also thought -- but would not swear to it -- that Georgiana made a sotto voice comment to Lady Matlock about buying the remainder of the bolt, so her brother could have a waistcoat made out of it.
"Truly, Jane," Elizabeth said, as Jane stood in the former's room, in an attempt to cajole her into agreeing to the night's planned outing. "I have spent as much time with Lady Matlock and Georgiana as I have with you. I am not in London to ingrate myself with Darcy's relatives; I am here to see how marriage suits my dearest sister!"
"It is not as if we have been bereft of your presence, Elizabeth," Jane replied, with an affectionate smile. "Charles and I have been with you nearly every outing, and you like 'Midsummer Night's Dream', I know you do."
With a sigh, Elizabeth admitted the problem. "I do not like the idea of being in his box, if he will not be there, Jane. He is avoiding me -- he has to be, and I should not be intruding on his domain if that is the case."
"He is not avoiding you, Lizzy," Jane scolded. She pushed away the errant thought that her sister was acting more like fifteen year-old Lydia than she was twenty year-old Elizabeth. She did have a valid concern; for Darcy to be out of her presence for so long -- there being but two days to the ball -- and in the same district as her, was a first since their introduction.
"Then where has he been?" came the plaintive, fretful question. "I have dined in the same household as his sister four times! She was supposed to be staying at the Darcy townhouse this entire time -- she let it slip Lady Matlock had kept her at the Fitzwilliam house instead, so that I could visit without crossing paths with him! What else am I to think?"
Jane sighed and weighed the options of telling her sister of Darcy's intent. "What happened, the last night you saw him in Kent?" Jane only knew of it from Darcy's side -- Elizabeth had yet to breathe a word of it, and she was startled when tears brimmed in Elizabeth's eyes. Elizabeth would not look at her, and her voice was soft as she answered.
"The colonel had -- mentioned that he and Miss de Bourgh had noticed that my... affections were given to their cousin, and I -- I had convinced myself, until then, that as long as no one noticed, things would all be fine, and when he spoke of it, I realized I was not as careful in my expressions as I had thought. I spent several hours of the day distressed, and found I felt quite too ill to attend Lady Catherine at Rosings that night. Darcy... came to check on me, much as he had when I claimed illness to avoid Mr. Collins' company on a walk into Meryton." She sighed. "I was in the parlour, and had been crying, and so he found me. He asked what was wrong, and I asked him if he did not know, and he apparently realized just how foolish I was, and I said I would get over this... affliction, but I did not wish to lose his friendship while I battled with it." She paused momentarily. "He left shortly thereafter, and I have not spoken nor seen him since -- all the news I have had of him has been from you and Charles or Georgiana, Lady Matlock or the colonel."
"Perhaps he felt that the two of you needed time apart," Jane offered after a moment. "That is why he has not kept his sister out of your company, and -- Elizabeth -- he arranged for the outing to the theatre tonight, knowing specifically it is one of your favourites. His words to Charles were 'I do not wish her to miss it while she is in London; it would be a shame.'" Jane could tell from Elizabeth's expression this comforted her, although only a little, and so she continued. "I do know, from Charles, that Mr. Darcy has been extremely busy -- Charles has only seen him a few times since he returned from Rosings -- and every one of those times, Mr. Darcy has been here, expressly arranging an outing or invitation or dinner that he thought would bring you pleasure -- not his sister, not his cousin nor his aunt, not even his oldest particular friend -- you."
"Truly?" Jane felt herself relax at the flicker of hope in Elizabeth's face. Jane nodded. "And he will be at the ball on Friday?"
Jane felt like laughing. "He has sworn to every possible person that he will be there, no matter what else happens."
Elizabeth sighed and was pensive for a moment, toying with something on her dresser. "Very well -- I shall go to the theatre with you tonight -- but only because Darcy wished me to."
Jane hid a smile, and merely replied, "Thank you, Elizabeth." She began to leave the room, but paused at the door. "By the by -- did you know Mr. Darcy has been peppering his relatives with questions for the same sort of information you have been trying to extract from them? Georgiana told me that only just last night." And with that, savouring the startled expression on Elizabeth's face, she closed the door.
Never before had Darcy experienced a May so dreadfully dreary and boring as this one had been. The weather had been beautiful, he had caught up on every possible bit of business he might have possibly conjured up for himself to work on, and he had frequented his clubs more in the past month than he had since he came of age. But, oh, how he longed to see Elizabeth -- he did not know how much he considered her merely a friend, and how much he was beginning to realize that perhaps he was in love with her after all. Every time he turned around, he found some other thing he wished to share with her.
He had not precisely been avoiding Elizabeth -- he had asked his relatives every possible question, repeatedly, about how she looked, what she wore, what she said, if she looked to be in health -- but he had held himself fast to Lady Matlock's suggestion he not see her until she entered the ball, a month after he left her bravely fighting tears in Hunsford. He did, however, obsess about her, much to the amusement of his relatives. When Georgiana described the dress Elizabeth had chosen, and -- with Lady Matlock's amused smile directed at him like a sabre -- presented him with the remainder of the bolt of some of the fabric, he could not have his tailor make a waistcoat to match fast enough. He was not quite sure why he wished for them to be well-matched, even in attire, but it was of no matter.
A stray thought -- not unlike one that had crossed his mind at the Netherfield Ball -- was that he dearly hoped she would remember their agreement, and save him the supper dance -- although he wished to open the ball with her, he realized the self-inflicted and enforced banishment from her company may prevent that. After a month of being away from her, and knowing the whole while he could see her at almost any time he wished, he wanted nothing more than to be able to talk to her, to see her laugh, to be teased and tease in return.
All in all, Darcy discovered he had never been so anxious for a ball to arrive in his life.
So anxious, in fact, that, despite having retired a bit earlier than his wont to prepare for it, his sister had finished her preparations before he had finished his. If he was a wagering man, he would have bet a hefty little sum that his valet was laughing at him the moment he left his room.
So anxious, in fact, that he and Georgiana arrived nearly an hour before the ball was to be opened; a fact not lost on a single one of his smirking relatives. He was slightly disconcerted by the fact that even the earl was snickering at his expense.
"And here I thought you were physically incapable of arriving at a social function any sooner than half an hour after 'fashionably late,'" the colonel teased him. "This would not happen to have anything to do with the fact you have not secured any dances from the beautiful Miss Bennet, would it?"
Darcy glowered at his cousin, and muttered something unfit for public discourse under his breath. "I told you once, I believe, that we have a mutual agreement about the supper dance," Darcy replied. "I doubt she would forget that -- and she is aware, is she not, that I am to be here?"
Fitzwilliam hesitated, as if to give Darcy bad news, and Darcy began to panic. It must have shown, for Fitzwilliam began to laugh and shake his head. "Yes, she knows, cousin."
"You could quit teasing me, already, cousin," Darcy grumbled in reply. "I am not a cat for you to drag feathers in front of me as a game."
Fitzwilliam smirked in reply. "What if you were? Would that make Miss Bennet a feather to be chased after?"
Darcy did not deign to reply. After a moment, Lady Matlock joined them, and to Darcy, commented, "I do hope the Bingley party arrives beforehand as they promised. Georgiana wished to speak with Miss Bennet about the duet they planned to do just after dinner."
Darcy suddenly was extremely grateful he had been... worried about arriving in time -- yes, that was it -- and ensured that he and Georgiana arrived early; he could not, of course, permit Georgiana to be disappointed with anything.
As it turned out, Georgiana did not speak about the duet with Elizabeth prior to the first guests arriving and the ball opening. When Elizabeth entered on her brother's arm, it was all Darcy could do to keep from whisking her away to some quiet corner before anyone else could talk to her. He glowered as Fitzwilliam earned a giggle from her; and grumbled in annoyance as his aunt and sister chatted with her a moment -- ostensibly to glory in how well they assisted in choosing her dress. He next caught himself almost growling when the -- horribly, viciously why-could-he-have-not-already-gotten-married-at-some-point-these-past-four-weeks -- viscount gave her a charming smile. He gave his family a chance to greet her -- he thought himself entirely gracious in such an action -- and she had not yet seen him.
Once it was obvious everyone but himself had greeted her, he pulled himself out of hiding and made his way to her side. She caught a glimpse of him and lit up, and for the first time, he realized just how breathtakingly beautiful she was. Perhaps his cousin had been correct in his estimation -- perhaps he had let the ideas of what were right and proper cloud him from considering Elizabeth as anything more than a friend -- but a month of self-imposed absence from her side had convinced him -- even if he could not fall in love with her, he wanted her at his side on a far more permanent basis.
"Miss Bennet, it is a pleasure to see you," he greeted her.
She smiled at him. "Mr. Darcy, I was beginning to worry you would be too busy to recall you had obligations tonight."
Darcy pretended mock horror. "And risk you never speaking to me again, because you were obliged to spend dinner with someone more interested in the ragout than a discussion? Perish the thought!"
She laughed, although Bingley's cough at her side reminded the two of them they were not alone in the room. Blushing slightly, Darcy greeted Bingley and Mrs. Bingley, the latter of whom he had not even realized had entered on her husband's other arm. Mrs. Bingley looked lovely, as always, but Darcy had invariably thought Elizabeth was the more beautiful of the two -- and tonight was not calculated to persuade him differently. After a moment of agonizing socialization -- he would kill Bingley after this, he swore to himself, for he soon realized that Bingley was dragging out the social niceties purely for the purpose of making him suffer -- the Bingleys moved to speak with others of the pre-ball arrivals, and Darcy and Elizabeth, after a quick glance, moved in precisely the opposite direction from her sister and brother-in-law.
Once they had gained the relative privacy of a section of wall that looked as if it needed assistance in remaining upright, Elizabeth tentatively broached the subject of his self-imposed exile. "Thank you for arranging my visit to the theatre -- I would have enjoyed it more had you been there, for neither Jane nor Charles are much inclined to the theatre, as I am sure you know; at least about my brother. But I enjoyed it all the same. Have you seen that troupe in performance?"
Darcy winced a little. "I have seen the troupe before -- that is how I knew you would enjoy their performance. I... had matters to attend to, and despite wishing to join you -- and your party, that is -- I found the business matters could not be pushed aside."
"They must have been serious indeed, for them to take two full weeks to resolve sufficiently for you to attend the ball then," she replied. Her expression told him, however, she did not believe it was business that had kept him away.
He glanced around, and did not notice anyone in the nearby vicinity as of yet. "My aunt gave me strict orders I was to permit the women in my life --" he blushed as he had not intended it to come out quite like that, and he hastened to add, "that is, Georgiana and herself -- a full two weeks to ready themselves for the ball -- and as I knew she had included you in almost every outing, I presumed you were also included in that order."
Elizabeth hesitated. "Your aunt has been very kind to my sister and me. I have never seen fabric quite so fine as this outside of the most expensive selections in my uncle's warehouse."
"She is, I believe, hoping she will have a niece by the end of the year," he replied. He had not wished to tell her of his intentions so soon -- he wondered why his tongue was trying so hard to skip ten steps ahead of his carefully thought out plan.
Elizabeth blushed and looked away from him. "Does she have any other nephews I have not been introduced to, then?"
Darcy smiled, with an amused tilt to his head. "No -- and before any attempt to show up out of the woodwork -- may I claim an additional dance besides the supper dance?"
Elizabeth glanced back at him in startlement. "I -- you would not wish to show me so much preferment, in London?"
"Only if you should wish I do not," he replied. She blushed again, and he pressed the point. "May I have the honour of the first dance, Miss Bennet?"
If her blushes were any indication of how pleased she was at such attention, he felt reasonably assured he was doing the right thing to convince her. "Of course, Mr. Darcy." She finally asked him, an eyebrow arched. "Are there any other dances you wish to reserve at one of the most prestigious balls of the Season?" She did not wait for him to reply before adding, "I do believe my brother spoke of his other sister being in attendance..."
"Miss Bennet, have compassion on my nerves!" he replied, in his best Mrs. Bennet voice.
Elizabeth could not help but laugh. "I do believe, sir, you do that better than I do, and I have practiced it these last five years at least."
"But, indeed, since you mention it..." Darcy paused just barely. "Should you make it to the supper dance without your last dance being taken, may I be so bold as to request it at that time?"
Elizabeth, at this point, was nearly speechless. "I... Yes, you may. But only then."
Darcy smiled, and glanced towards the rest of the room. "Then I do believe it is nearly time for my aunt's ball to commence. May I escort you, Miss Bennet?"
Elizabeth did not respond, but linked her arm with his.
Darcy assured himself the ball could not be too much torture -- he would simply remain at Elizabeth's side and attempt to glower away any prospective partners.
Of course, the next morning, when the ball was being dissected in the parlours of London, no one could be entirely sure that the poor waiter who tripped with an entire tray of full wine glasses did so entirely of his own violation or bad luck. Surely it was merely coincidence that one of 'that Bennet girl's' admirers was drenched head to toe in wine from the incident, and that Mr. Darcy of Pemberley had been seen smirking at the victim before whisking Miss Bennet off to another part of the room. Still, the hopeful daughters and mamas of the Ton desperately hoped the little country chit returned home with nothing more than a fond memory of dancing three dances with Mr. Darcy.
Posted on 2008-11-01
Jane and Bingley escorted Elizabeth home to Longbourn, two weeks after Lady Matlock's ball. They were to stay at Netherfield for less than a week, while Bingley also looked over the estate's workings to verify all was well.
Elizabeth was forced to seek refuge by feigning sleep, for, while quick to tease others, the relentless teasing on the subject of Darcy was wearing on her temper. She was almost -- not quite, but almost -- regretting that her sister would be a mere three miles away from her, instead of off in London for that week. What if her mother should find out about Darcy's marked attentions these past two weeks?
While she welcomed them almost against her will, and she could not have pulled herself away from Darcy to save her life -- she worried he was acting on a guilt reflex. She no more wished to be trapped in a loveless marriage, than she wished to be her husband's lasting regret. Just the night before, she had been sure he was about to kiss her, there in the Gardiners' small patio garden in the back, when her little cousin came barrelling outside to have 'Cousin Lizzy' come play soldiers with him. It truly had been a most inopportune interruption, but she also was relieved; she did not wish him to be forced into marrying her.
Although, perhaps, she thought, he would need less forcing in the matter than she had once thought. The night of the ball, he had been every bit the jealous suitor -- and she had seen a few in her time. He quite blatantly ignored the 'normal' visiting hours, once his aunt's restriction was lifted; he was in and out of the Bingleys' house frequently -- and the Fitzwilliam house, if she was to be there. He had invited everyone to dine at his townhouse repeatedly, and he had been very marked in his attentions there, as well. He seated her at his side, and gave her a separate tour of the house, peppered with little antecedents she was quite sure were never mentioned to someone outside the family. Her largest regret was that he was not going to be at Netherfield while the Bingleys were.
He had sworn faithfully, however, when the Bingleys, Gardiners, and Elizabeth were visiting Pemberley and the surrounding environs, he would ensure only the direst business would keep him from company. Georgiana and Lady Matlock had spoken of the rose gardens as being incomparable -- Georgiana had even gone so far as to sketch the layout, and her particular favourite spot, a cul-de-sac by the water fountain, just a little stone bench under an archway of roses. Lady Matlock had smiled fondly at her memories of that spot -- she told the two girls how the earl had proposed to her there, for he thought it the most romantic spot in the world. She also recounted -- as best as her memory of Lady Anne's description of the situation would permit -- to an eager Georgiana, how Georgiana's father had also proposed in that very spot. Georgiana had declared it even more romantic than she had thought -- and Elizabeth had felt disconcerted at being appraised by three sets of eyes -- for Darcy had drifted over to the conversation at the sound of his mother's name.
"I always did consider it one of the most picturesque spots of the rose garden," Darcy concurred, even as his eyes never left Elizabeth. She could not but blush, and attempted to turn the subject.
The trip from London to Longbourn, while not terribly long, still resulted in their arrival in time to change from their travelling clothes, and sit down to dinner with the Bennet family. Mrs. Bennet most unashamedly monopolized her only son-in-law to date, and Mr. Bennet was not above monopolizing his two eldest daughters with a great glee, either. It was here, during this dinner, that Elizabeth realized all but Mrs. Bennet -- usually so quick to pick up on a possible suitor's preference for one of her daughters -- expected her to become a permanent fixture at Pemberley at some point in the not-so-distant future. It seemed that the letters from her aunt Gardiner in London had been simply full of family gossip... most of it centred around Elizabeth and Darcy.
Elizabeth attempted to ignore and downplay such expectations -- and for the next two days, she tried valiantly. She ignored every shred of unsolicited advice on how to decorate rooms and how to choose bonnets. She ignored every hint and suggestion that her younger sisters might enjoy a vacation 'in the north' in a year or two. She could not ignore the looks of triumph exchanged betwixt her sisters, three days after she had returned to Longbourn, and the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy were announced into the parlour. Her mother's startled silence at Mr. Darcy's addition to the party was also noteworthy.
As quickly as possible, she had managed to escape with Charles and Jane, as well as Mr. Darcy, for a 'turn in the garden.' Jane, apparently, after having lived three-and-twenty years at Longbourn, had already forgotten which way to turn to get to the garden, and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy found themselves alone.
"I apologize if my presence unsettled you," Darcy began, and Elizabeth shushed him.
"Nay, I was merely surprised -- I had no idea you were to come to Netherfield for any purpose," she replied.
He blushed and stammered slightly. "Bingley -- he asked for an opinion on an estate matter, and I, I thought it best to see the situation first hand before giving my advice."
"I see," she said. After a moment, she asked, "And what matter was it, if I may be so bold?"
Darcy blinked, and he looked as if he was trying to remember. After a second, he shook his head. "I cannot recall just at the moment; I am sure he will remind me when we return to Netherfield."
"Then you do not know how long you are to remain in the neighbourhood?" she asked.
He looked wistfully at her, and her heart cheered, even as she told herself to be rational and reasonable. "I wish I could stay as long as I would like -- but if I am to have most of a month free in August for your visit, there are matters that must be attended to now."
"I am sorry that our visit will place so much bother upon you," she replied.
"It is of little matter, Elizabeth," he shrugged. "It is mostly work I would do regardless, although," he glanced at her through eyelashes she had always admired, "perhaps some of it, I had not expected to be looking into just yet."
Never had he said her name so -- had she been more inclined to be like Kitty or Lydia, she might have swooned from it. Perhaps the most telling part of it was the casual shrug -- the flirtation had not come into the conversation until his last few words. She marshalled her composure as best as she could. "I do hope it is not a strenuous a task."
"Indeed, it is not," he replied with a smile, and Jane appeared, leading Charles up the path. To keep from the topic of her-and-Darcy's conversation from being discussed, she launched into teasing Jane about how quickly she had forgotten her childhood home's intricacies.
Darcy stayed but three days in Netherfield -- the Bingleys extended their visit for three more beyond that, and Jane managed to get Elizabeth alone before they left. "Charles did not ask his advice on estate matters, Lizzy," she began the conversation.
Elizabeth was startled. "But --"
"Charles agreed to say that, when Mr. Darcy appeared on our doorstep that morning." Jane paused. "Mr. Darcy said he did not wish to appear overeager in our mother's company; that is why he did not say he had come to see you." Jane watched in satisfaction as Elizabeth blushed and smiled to herself. "Truly, Lizzy, what do you think of Mr. Darcy?"
Elizabeth sighed. "He was never just a friend to me, Jane -- you know that. I never dared hope to be anything more than that to him." A pensive expression flitted across her sister's face, and Jane watched curiously. "The Scoundrel -- as Darcy and the Fitzwilliams call him -- had spoken something derogatory about Darcy, at the farewell dinner a few nights ago, not realizing I could hear him clearly. I have never been so hurt or angry in my life."
Jane smiled ruefully. "In that regard, I am glad that Charles has few enemies -- I should hate to hear anyone speak poorly of him." She shook her head. "And what of your opinion of Mr. Darcy's intentions?"
"He means to ask me, does he not?" Elizabeth asked, after a pause. She looked up to meet Jane's eyes. "And he has meant to since he found me at Rosings -- I do not wish him to be asking me out of guilt for my pain."
Jane chose her words carefully -- this was entirely too important. "I do not think he would have been so afflicted by being the cause of your pain, had he not already loved you, Elizabeth. Perhaps he did not love you so well as he does now -- but -- we spoke to you and him several times yesterday while you were having lunch with us, and I do not believe either of you heard."
Elizabeth blushed. "I confess, I did not -- if he had, I would have noticed," she agreed. She gave her sister's words a moment's more consideration. "How did you know he was afflicted?"
Jane blushed, having at last been caught out. "He came to our townhouse, on his return from Rosings, to ask for our help in aiding him to see past calling you merely a friend." She smiled reassuringly at Elizabeth, patting her hand. "Charles and I honestly did little, except talk to him about you, the month you were apart. Charles told me that Mr. Darcy hated every moment of his 'self-imposed exile' from your company -- that, if nothing else, convinced him he did not wish to be parted from you ever again."
"And that is why he came to Netherfield," Elizabeth responded, and Jane nodded. Elizabeth sighed. "And I shall not see him for another two months complete! Not until the visit to Pemberley."
"True," Jane agreed, but then gave her sister a mischievous smile. "But you do have work here to do, to prepare to leave Longbourn."
Elizabeth replied with the utmost dignity and most maturity possible... she stuck her tongue out at her sister, and they both broke out into giggles.
"Why can you not send her to the Indian colonies?" Darcy groused at Bingley after they escaped to the billiards room.
"She is my younger sister, Darcy," Bingley replied, tolerantly. "You would not wish me to ask you to send Miss Darcy to the Indian colonies?"
"My sister does not throw herself at men of my close acquaintance," Darcy muttered, as he lined up a shot.
"True," Bingley conceded before adding with a slight smile. "But you normally tolerate my sister much better than this."
"The only sister of yours, Bingley, whom I care to be in the company of, is Elizabeth. I have no patience for anyone else at the moment."
Bingley laughed. "Unless my wife or I have a letter from her! You have plenty of patience for us then."
Darcy smiled unwillingly. "True." He missed another shot terribly. "Two more weeks before I see her again."
Bingley smiled in sympathy. "When I was in London for those few days, while Caroline and Louisa attempted to convince me against Jane, I felt the days had quadrupled in length, or more." He shrugged. "I cannot imagine what it must be like, to be apart for so long."
"Torture," Darcy replied with a sigh. "Unmitigated torture -- and Miss Bingley does not make matters any easier to bear."
"I would understand it, if you did not visit us until we remove to Pemberley," Bingley replied.
Darcy sighed again. "Where I will have to fend her off, while courting Elizabeth; and trying to ensure she -- Elizabeth, that is -- does not think I am doing this out of guilt."
The room was quiet for a few minutes. "Darcy?"
"As her brother, I have to ask this question..." Bingley trailed off, and would not look at his friend. "Do you love her?"
"I -- the world does not matter when she is near. Miss Bingley becomes a source of amusement, not an irritant. I do not feel as constrained or restricted -- and I certainly do not like the idea of anyone else paying her attention. I cannot get her out of my head, even if I wished to try -- and I do not..." Darcy sighed. "Love? That is the word I have been using, in my thoughts, yes. Is it? I do not know for sure."
Bingley laughed. "It is near enough for me, old friend." He paused as the two men heard laughter -- Georgiana's trill and Lydia's cackle -- down the hallway. "On another topic, I must say that introducing your sister to my youngest sister was a stroke of pure genius."
Darcy shrugged. "Something had to distract Miss Lydia from her wishes to go to Brighton -- you provided the venue; I provided the distraction." He smiled half-heartedly. "I suppose we are fortunate that Georgiana has convinced Miss Lydia that learning the pianoforte is a fashionable thing to do."
Bingley smirked. "Indeed -- it is not as if Bond Street could withstand such a determined assault on its wares as Lydia would wage."
Darcy tried to keep from smiling in agreement. "Let us hope that -- once she is older -- she catches a rich husband; else you and I shall end up supporting her bonnet habit."
"There are worse fates," Bingley replied. "Mr. Bennet might not have put his foot down about her going to Brighton, and we would have the risk of The Scoundrel in the family -- knowing how close we all are, he would have thought eloping with Lydia a wonderful way to increase his station in life."
"On our pence," Darcy sighed. "I know. Believe me -- I am more than grateful Mr. Bennet listened to Elizabeth."
"So am I, Darce. So am I."
Lydia came to actually like her sister's suitor during her stay in London. She had always thought Mr. Darcy was rather fearsome and boring -- regardless of however much he laughed with Lizzy. In London, however, he seemed to talk to her more often -- not that she thought it for any other reason than she resembled Lizzy, although on a larger scale. Their conversations almost solely revolved around their sisters, Georgiana and Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy, she had come to realize, had probably been hopelessly in love with Elizabeth for months -- likely since the day he stood at her brother's side as his best man, when Bingley married Jane. He was kind, and well read, and Georgiana -- who was actually quite mature in her own right -- looked up to him in awe.
Lydia could not quite bring herself to feel awe in regards to Mr. Darcy, however. He laughed a few times, when her attempts at the pianoforte were very terrible indeed -- but it was not meanly meant. He told her, offhandedly, how horrible he had been, when he was first learning. She asked him then, if she would ever hear him play -- that she knew from Elizabeth he did play quite well -- and watched in amazement as he blushed. "Your sister must have grossly exaggerated my talents, then, Miss Lydia -- my sister is the proficient. No doubt for the mischievous reason of convincing you to ask me to inflict my meagre abilities on an audience."
Lydia laughed at that. "Elizabeth may be prone to exaggeration at times, Mr. Darcy, but I cannot imagine she would do such a thing to an unwitting audience -- she has spent far too much time growing up with Mary in the family, to permit such a thing."
He could not restrain a laugh at that, and replied, "Having been taught by my sister, Miss Lydia, do you think Miss Mary might be so inclined as to listen to Georgiana's instructions?"
"Perhaps," Lydia conceded. "Although a piano master may have more effect -- Mary is not very inclined to listen to anyone younger than she, or even somewhat older. Lizzy has tried to teach her for years."
Darcy tilted his head at her. "Would you like a piano master, as well, to learn from?"
Lydia was startled by such a question. "Perhaps," she replied hesitantly. "I have never learnt much in the way of what most girls have, I believe, and perhaps -- what with Jane being married now, perhaps I ought to make myself... more presentable?"
Darcy laughed. "You have a few years yet, Miss Lydia, just as my sister does. There is always time to improve one's talents, if you are indeed in earnest."
She did not know what made her say the next words. "Father did not seem much inclined, after Mary, to teach Kitty and me much. I do not know if a governess would be the right thing for one as old as I, but I have realized lately, around your sister, how little I actually know." She paused to play a few pensive notes on the piano. "I am not particularly fond of feeling... inadequate."
Darcy laughed -- but it was not at her. "I know the feeling well, Miss Lydia. Such is how I feel, every time I enter a ballroom, and am unable to talk to anyone I do not know. There, at least, you are my superior as much as Miss Bennet is." She smiled at that -- she had been wondering when Elizabeth's name would come into the conversation. She was not prepared for the next question. "Still -- we would not want you to feel academically inadequate. Perhaps Georgiana's companion may be willing to assist you with lessons? Would you like that? I can ask her if you are so inclined."
"Oh! I would not wish to put her out any," Lydia replied. "But -- if she did not mind; I am not nearly as well versed as Georgiana -- I should like that."
Darcy smiled at her. "I shall ask, then. Mrs. Bingley and Miss Bennet would never forgive me if I neglected to do anything else."
And so it came to pass that Lydia and Kitty found themselves being tutored by Georgiana and her companion upon Lydia's return from London, while Georgiana and Darcy stayed at Netherfield for two weeks. Bingley settled some business there, and they waited for the Gardiners -- her uncle being unavoidably detained from leaving for Pemberley when he had wished.
No, Lydia did not feel much in the way of 'awe' in regards to the man she considered to be her future brother. She did, however, feel much in the way of gratitude. So much so, that she convinced Lizzy and Jane to bring her and Kitty to Pemberley -- for the purpose of continuing their lessons, naturally. But mostly, she admitted to Jane later, she wanted to help Mr. Darcy become her brother, for Lydia was nothing, if not proficient at running interference when it involved Miss Bingley attempting to get between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
The Gardiner children remained at Longbourn under the care of their nurse, their cousin Mary and Mr. Bennet, who was rather fond of the eldest girl -- she reminded him much of his own Elizabeth. Mrs. Bennet -- despite the fact they were her own brother's children -- proclaimed she had very little patience for young children any more. After ensuring the children had been out of hearing range of their aunt, Mr. Bennet proceeded to ask his wife, then just why was she so anxious to see her daughters settled and married, for grandchildren could only be even more annoying than children who could already talk. A few stock phrases about her nerves and being vexed were uttered, before she retired to her rooms.
The nurse and Mary seemed to have the youngsters well in hand -- and the children looked quite ready for their mid-day nap, as it was. Mr. Bennet repaired to his library to grieve that four of his girls were gone. He had not thought he would see the day when he would miss Lydia and Kitty; but somehow, Lydia seemed more mature since her short stay in London, more aware of her place in society, such as it was. He had little doubt that Mr. Darcy's solicitude to his daughters had been part of the effect, and the calming friendship of the genteel Miss Darcy had been the other.
The cause of Mr. Darcy's kindness towards his unmarried daughters was not difficult to guess -- Mr. Bennet could still fondly recall the days he nearly tripped over his own feet when Miss Frances Gardiner happened to walk into the room. Regardless of how his marriage had since become a failure, he did love his wife, and he still wished to see his favourite enjoy the same sort of love -- although, he hoped, she did find a much more rational match than he had. So far, he had not found a reason to disapprove of the man who appeared to be her choice. Mr. Bennet found he rather doted on Mr. Darcy -- the boy was so shyly awkward and eager around Elizabeth these days, it could be naught but endearing.
To own the truth, however, Mr. Bennet admitted to himself, had Mr. Darcy not had the... revelation he appeared to have come to finally, he may have gone the more socially accepted route of claiming Darcy had strayed too far in his familiarity with Elizabeth, and thus demanded he marry her. He had watched as Elizabeth fell head over heels for her friend -- Mr. Bennet knew the word was an entirely appropriate descriptor for Darcy -- and watched as she fought with all the confusion such a happenstance occasions. It had made his heart ache, as he watched his favourite slowly replace him as the most important man in her life, but even when his replacement seemed to be oblivious to the occurrence, he could not fault her for her choice. Mr. Darcy was, in no uncertain terms, a better man than he. His kindness to Lydia and Kitty, and his professed intentions of finding a good piano master for Mary were clearly all for the sake of making Elizabeth pleased with him.
He only hoped that Lydia and Kitty would be a help to their sister's courtship, and not a hindrance!
"Miss Bingley!" Elizabeth heard Lydia cry in mock-surprise, as she herself hid out of sight. "We had not thought you were up to walking, else we should have asked you to come with us!" She heard Kitty's vague agreement, even as Miss Bingley's reply overrode it.
"I had not intended to walk out at first," Miss Bingley replied. "But Mr. Darcy had said the rose garden was particularly beautiful on a day such as today, and I found I could not resist."
"Did Mr. Darcy come out, as well?" Kitty interjected. "I thought I saw him walking with Georgiana towards the lake."
"She is Miss Darcy, to you," Miss Bingley responded with a sulky snap, and Elizabeth fought valiantly to keep from giggling. "And I believe I will retire to the house now." The steps of Miss Bingley sounded more like she was going towards the lake, and Elizabeth could hear Lydia and Kitty giggling.
"Poor Miss Bingley," Mr. Darcy murmured in Elizabeth's ear, startling the daylights out of her. She spun around and found herself looking at -- well -- Mr. Darcy's chest, and she blushed, looking up to meet his eyes. "Although perhaps I should thank your sisters for diverting her?"
Elizabeth blushed. "They have been quite helpful in that regard, have they not?"
He smiled. "Indeed; I could not ask for better assistants in the matter -- excepting you, that is."
"Indeed? And how have I been of assistance, of late, in the matter?" Elizabeth replied archly.
Darcy smirked. "True -- Miss Bingley has become even more attentive to me, the longer you are here at Pemberley. Perhaps she sees what I do -- you would make a far better mistress than she would."
Elizabeth blushed and attempted to stammer out a reply -- Darcy shushed her with a finger to her lips, then, almost as if he could not help himself, tilted her head back and kissed her. Elizabeth felt as if a rug had been pulled out from under her feet, and she was airborne, but there was not the slightest bit of fear, only unadulterated joy, broken only when he pulled away from her.
"Did you notice where you took refuge from your brother's sister?" Darcy asked, somewhat breathlessly.
Elizabeth began to shake her head, and then abruptly realized she stood in the cul-de-sac Georgiana and Lady Matlock had once discussed. "I -- not until this moment," she replied, blushing.
"I had not thought, at first, to ask this here. Two previous proposals, if there have not been more, might make mine a shade trite," he said with a smile. "But," he added, even as he slid down to one knee, "perhaps I may be a tad wrong in that regard." Elizabeth began to interrupt him, but he prevented her again -- although not with a kiss, this time. "No, Elizabeth, before you can even say it -- I am not wrong in this regard. We may be in the most picturesque part of my family's estate, but you are more beautiful than these roses, and certainly far dearer. I do not, I could not, wish to be parted from you again, as we have been these past months. I love you entirely too much to withstand such a separation again. Please, my friend, my darling -- help me prevent such a horrible happening -- marry me."
"I -- you --" Elizabeth stumbled and stammered -- desperately wishing to agree, but utterly terrified, as any woman who has resigned herself to unrequited love is, when confronted with a possibility of something more.
"Yes, you and I, Elizabeth," he replied, smiling slightly at her confusion. He kissed her hands, which he held. She shivered in response, and he laughed lightly. "I have wanted nothing more for some time now -- and I do not think your feelings have changed from what they were in April?"
"No!" Elizabeth cried. "That is not -- please, Darcy, if you are not serious -- " she could not say any more, because he had stood quickly and kissed her soundly.
"Utterly serious, Elizabeth," he said between kisses. "I love you." He smiled slightly, once they were both out of breath. "Even if you do not agree right this moment, I can always go to your father and tell him I have compromised you, and then he will take care of it all, will he not?"
The laughter in his voice finally convinced her. "There is no need for that," she paused, "Fitzwilliam." He beamed at her. "Of course I will marry you."
"Good -- for I know your sisters are wild to be bridesmaids -- and mine is as well," he responded.
"Then, the sooner you ask my father for permission, the sooner we can grant their wish," she replied, too hopelessly happy to want to deny anyone else a thing in the world, just at the moment.
Mrs. Bennet had wailed and flailed about not hosting her daughter's wedding at Longbourn, but Mr. Bennet had convinced his wife that Mr. Darcy was entirely too fine a personage to be kept waiting for such nonsense. Thus, a month after Georgiana declared the Rose Nook -- the cul-de-sac's new name -- to be the place she wished her future husband would be asking to marry her (her new sister-to-be having to tease the scowl off of her brother's face at such a thought) -- Pemberley gained a new mistress.
The Bingleys were to leave for Hertfordshire with the Bennets and Gardiners in two days' time, when Elizabeth Darcy stood in the Rose Nook with Mr. Darcy, laughing at some comments they had overheard Lydia and Georgiana making. Elizabeth suddenly asked Darcy a very important question: "When did you fall in love with me?"
Darcy considered the question for a few minutes, while he toyed with her hair -- assisting it with coming out from the lace cap and bonnet bit by bit. "I do not know -- it came on so gradually, I can fix neither a look, nor a time, nor a place. I was in the middle before I knew I had begun." He paused, considering further. "I dare say it was long before I left Hertfordshire the first time, although I did not know it then."
Elizabeth pulled back to look at him in surprise. "Truly? But --"
"I was a fool, my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, to not realize it sooner, but I am grateful to be your fool."
And to such a sentiment, there was naught else for Elizabeth to reply, but a very agreeing kiss.The End