Beginning, Section II
Posted on Tuesday, 15 April 2008
Elizabeth Bennet pulled up on one foot and hopped toward the fence that fronted the road. She leaned against one of the shoulder-high wooden posts and lifted her foot to examine her shoe. That last stone had punched clear through the thin sole.
Without thinking, she cried, "Blast!"
Her hand flew to her mouth and she tossed a round-eyed glance over her shoulder to see if anyone had witnessed her loss of composure. A few cows switched their tails complacently in the adjacent field, but she was otherwise alone.
"Forgive me, ladies," she called out with an apologetic head nod.
For the next several minutes, she leaned against the post and rubbed her bruised heel while mentally cursing Mr. Wickham. Occasionally a vehicle would trundle past but it was always local traffic, farmers getting ready for the planting. Some cast curious glances at the young gentlewomen beside the road, but none stopped.
Mr. Wickham knew how to pick his spots.
Elizabeth had been walking for more than an hour, heading back towards London. She and Mr. Wickham had been riding for about two hours that morning before the incident, and she estimated she was at least ten miles from Gracechurch Street. Just a nice stretch of the legs if she were properly shod--well, a very nice stretch. But the stylishly flimsy footware she had put on that morning to look her best for the charming militia officer, had little hope of lasting for long over such rough ground.
Now her shoes were falling apart, she was thirsty, she was hungry, and she was tired.
But most of all, she was humiliated.
What had she done, she wondered, to give Mr. Wickham the notion that she would engage in such behavior? Did a few smiles, an occasional come-hither glance and some flirtatious repartee constitute an invitation to impose upon her as he had?
A kiss, perhaps. She might have been persuaded to a kiss, but on the cheek or the lips, not there!
No, she was well rid of the excitable Mr. Wickham. Mary King was welcome to his roaming hands and questing mouth. Charming manners and handsome looks did not compensate for such licentiousness.
How typical of Mr. Darcy to give a clerical living to such a man!
Now what? Elizabeth could not walk much farther without sturdy shoes, and while it was quite warm for early March it would get much colder in the evening, so she needed shelter. She had not wanted to impose on any of the local farmers, but she now felt that she had no choice. She decided to stop at the next farmhouse with easy access from the main road--no need to trek across a cow pasture in such a pretty dress.
She put her shoe back on and resolutely set off. Soon she heard a carriage of some sort coming up behind her, sounding distinctly different from a farm wagon, with more horses and less weight. If it was a gentleman she might get some immediate help.
She turned around and saw a curricle racing down the road drawn by four handsome matching grays, driven by a lone man in a beaver hat and gray driving coat. The horses told her it was not Mr. Wickham, so Elizabeth stepped up to the side of the road and waved her arms above her head to get his attention, practically jumping up and down in her excitement.
The curricle slowed and pulled to a stop just in front of her. Its driver seemed frozen in place. His eyes traveled from her tattered shoes up over her dusty dress and spencer, before coming to rest on the disarray of her hair beneath her burgundy bonnet. A smirk crept onto his face.
Elizabeth immediately dropped her gaze to the ground and mumbled, "Blast!"
The driver touched his hat and said, "Miss Bennet."
Elizabeth forced herself to look him in the eyes.
"Mr. Darcy. A fine day for a walk, is it not?"
Mr. Darcy's smirk would not be tamed. It grew to a wide grin. "Indeed, Miss Bennet, a fine day. Are you walking from Longbourn to visit an ill relation in Bath, by chance?"
Oh, this was too much! Being teased by Mr. Darcy after the morning she had endured was too much!
"A gentleman, I believe, would offer assistance to a young lady who was obviously stranded beside the road. If you happen to see any gentlemen, Mr. Darcy, could you please alert them to my difficulty?"
She smiled sweetly as she said it, but she saw Mr. Darcy flinch. He actually colored from his neck to his ears. Well good for him, she thought, he recognizes a reproof when he hears it. She wondered whether he colored from embarrassment or anger. She reckoned she was about to find out.
"I beg your pardon, madam," he said in a tight voice. His grin was gone, replaced by his usual scowl. "Please allow me to assist you."
He leapt down and held out his hand to help her onto the curricle. Steadying herself with her hand in his, she climbed onto the cushioned seat.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy."
She settled in and straightened her skirt and retied her bonnet. Mr. Darcy went to his horses and busied himself checking their harnesses and their hooves, rubbing their noses and talking nonsense to them. Elizabeth assumed he was using the horses to calm himself, so she left him alone and relaxed on the comfortable leather upholstery. After about five minutes of tending to his team, Mr. Darcy climbed back aboard and took the reins.
"Miss Bennet," he said, "I apologize for my flippant comments. Please tell me where I can drive you. I assume you have been visiting your uncle‘s house in Gracechurch Street. Is that where you wish to go?"
He had taken her criticism rather better than she had expected. He looked truly dismayed at his earlier behavior, and Elizabeth felt some sympathy for him. After all, she must have been the last person he had expected to see hiking along a road in the farmlands south of London. The more she considered it from his point of view, the more absurd it seemed. The whole situation suddenly appeared immensely comical, and she laughed out loud.
Mr. Darcy watched her for a moment, then shook his head and said, "You are a wonder."
He snapped the reins and they took off toward London at a good pace. He grinned again and kept his eyes on the road. "We are for Gracechurch Street, madam. If you have any place else in mind, please speak up."
"That is fine, sir," she said as she wondered how he remembered where her uncle lived. "Thank you."
"Not at all."
They traveled for several minutes in silence, though Elizabeth noticed that Mr. Darcy kept glancing at her quizzically. She sighed and said, "I suppose you would like to know what I am doing out here."
"I will admit to a certain level of curiosity."
His grin returned, accompanied now by his rather disturbing dimple. Elizabeth had forgotten about that dimple. She resolved anew to ignore it.
"You will be delighted to know that I was stranded thanks to your new pastor, Mr. Wickham."
She continued with some heat, "Mr. Wickham left me out here. You know, Mr. Darcy, you should reconsider the standards you apply in granting clerical livings. I do not believe that Mr. Wickham will make a very good clergyman."
She looked at him expectantly, but he simply stared ahead with his mouth hanging open. What part didn't he understand, she wondered. Was the man dense?
They came to a wide section of the road, and he stopped the curricle. He turned to her and with renewed interest, again looked her over from head to foot. She blushed lightly under the scrutiny. He closed his mouth and looked at his horses. Finally he spoke.
"Miss Bennet, I have not given Mr. Wickham a clerical living. I will never give Mr. Wickham a clerical living, because my opinion on his suitability for such a position coincides with yours."
Her brows rose at this, and it was her turn to stare at the team. Had Mr. Wickham simply lied to her?
After a long silence, Mr. Darcy hesitantly said, "Miss Bennet, I know all about Mr. Wickham's character flaws. I have known the man all my life. We grew up together at Pemberley." He then asked softly, "Did he harm you?"
Elizabeth could not speak for embarrassment. What was Mr. Darcy supposing? What had Mr. Wickham done in the past?
"Miss Bennet," he said when she still had not spoken, "I understand if you believe it is not my concern. I will not press you on any particulars. But whatever he has done, I cannot help but feel responsible."
Mr. Darcy appeared genuinely anguished, and Elizabeth grew concerned enough to try to relieve his worries.
"He did me no real harm, Mr. Darcy." He still looked doubtful. She placed her hand on his arm and said, "Honestly, I am well. I am only tired and hungry and somewhat mortified by the whole situation. I have not been harmed."
"Thank God," he muttered. "Oh," he said suddenly as he reached in the back of the curricle, "of course you are hungry. And thirsty, no doubt. Forgive me for not asking sooner. My cousin's housekeeper always packs a meal for me, but I never eat it. I suppose it is for emergencies." He lifted a wicker basket into his lap and smiled at her. "Would you say this constitutes an emergency, Miss Bennet?"
That dimple again! She just smiled and nodded as he opened the basket and produced enough food and wine for a party of four. Elizabeth laughed with delight and nearly clapped her hands together in the manner of Sir William Lucas. She took off her gloves and cut bread and cheese as Mr. Darcy opened a bottle of wine.
She looked at him sideways and said, "As long as it is not champagne. Your new pastor," she smirked at his wounded look, "brought along a magnum of the stuff this morning. I had one glass. I believe he finished the rest himself."
"He hardly needed you along, then."
Elizabeth knew he was fishing for information and decided to favor him with a bit. "I believe I was meant to be the, um, post-champagne dessert. But I had different ideas."
She held her right hand out to him. He took it in his and examined it closely. Suddenly he smiled and asked happily, "Did you hit him?"
"I did." She blushed and took her hand back. She flexed it and said, "It hurts. Does it always hurt when one punches a villain on the nose?"
Mr. Darcy threw his head back and laughed as Elizabeth looked on in amazement. Then he wiped his eyes, shook his head and said, "My God, you are a wonder!"
Elizabeth was quite pleased with his response and quite annoyed with herself for being pleased. She watched him pour her wine and said, "I am surprised no one has previously taken the opportunity to punch that man in the nose."
"No call for surprise. You are not the sole member of that club--Mr. Wickham has probably been punched by someone from every strata of society. I seized just such an opportunity myself some years ago at Cambridge."
"Why so shocked, madam?"
"I am sorry, sir, but you do not seem the punching type."
Indignantly he cried, "And you do?"
She held her bruised hand out to him and made a fist. "As you see," she said impishly.
"Point taken," he relented with a chuckle. "My hands have had years to heal. I say hands, madam, because I punched him with both fists." He leaned toward her and smiled. "As a man does."
"Ah. Well I also scratched him across the cheek, as a woman does. And I kicked him." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Who kicks? Men or women?"
Mr. Darcy ignored her question and looked at her speculatively.
"What is it?" she asked.
He grinned, putting his dimple once more on display. "Should I ask where you kicked him?"
Elizabeth blushed and said, "Why, in his . . . curricle, of course."
They laughed together as Mr. Darcy poured himself a glass of wine. "Don't worry," he said smilingly, "I am just having the one glass. You will not have to escape from a second curricle today."
Not unless you like to kiss untempting women, she thought sourly.
He had been watching her closely and said, "What is wrong? Did I offend you? Truly, I meant nothing by it, it was just a poor attempt at a joke."
She was certainly not going to discuss that, but she decided it would be good to remember why she despised Mr. Darcy--he was being much too agreeable--so she said, "I was just thinking about my sister Jane. She is waiting for me at Gracechurch Street. Did you know that she has been in town since January?"
Mr. Darcy looked decidedly uncomfortable with the turn in the conversation. After a moment he said, "I have not seen her."
And you did not answer my question, thought Elizabeth. "I am surprised you did not know she was in town, since she exchanged visits with Miss Bingley. But I suppose Miss Bingley did not think it worth mentioning."
"Perhaps." His scowl was firmly in place.
Well, she thought, there is the Mr. Darcy I have come to know and hate. She was surprised to feel disappointed, as though she had been hoping that the agreeable man who laughed and flashed his dimple so liberally, who displayed such concern for her well being, who had punched Mr. Wickham with both hands, was the real Mr. Darcy. Her confusion made her uncomfortable and she decided that the sooner he delivered her to her uncle's house, the better.
She continued eating in silence while he sipped his wine and scowled at his horses.
When Mr. Darcy finished his wine, he said, "Are you ready to go?"
Elizabeth nodded, and he urged the team forward. Once again they traveled in silence, and once again Elizabeth felt compelled to break it.
She looked at her companion and said, "Come, Mr. Darcy, why such a scowl, sir? There is no secret here. I am almost certain that you knew my sister was in town. I suppose the only thing I wonder is whether Mr. Bingley knows it."
She saw him start. He closed his eyes and sighed, then opened them and looked pleadingly at her. Once again, he pulled the curricle to the side of the road.
"Miss Bennet, please understand that Mr. Bingley is in no condition to hear about your sister."
"Aha!" Elizabeth shouted, "I knew it! You've deceived Mr. Bingley. You and his sisters!" She was livid now, angrier than she had ever been.
"Miss Bennet, please. . ."
"Oh no, sir, oh no. No ‘please', none of that. I just want to know why. Why did you do it? Why did you do such an evil thing?" Tears began streaming down her cheeks. "Why do such a vile thing to such a dear, good soul as Jane?!"
"Please, madam . . ."
"I said no ‘please‘, damn you sir!"
The words were no sooner spoken than her hand flew to her mouth and her eyes went round. They stared at each other in silence once more, Mr. Darcy leaning back away from Elizabeth as though he expected her to throw a punch at any minute. She continued to cry with her hand to her mouth. Eventually Mr. Darcy recovered himself enough to pour her another glass of wine.
"Thank you," she said weakly. She took a sip and looked at her shoes. Her tears had stopped, but she was mortified by her outburst. She ventured a glance at Mr. Darcy and saw that he was absolutely shocked. His hands shook and his face was white.
"Mr. Darcy," she said softly when she had recovered her composure, "You and I have never been close, but I would not have imagined you so base as to harm my dear sister so."
She shook her head sadly and looked again at her shoes. Mr. Darcy was silent. She glanced at him again. He had recovered his color and his hands no longer shook, but his scowl had returned and was directed on his horses at full force.
Now that her fury was spent, Elizabeth was miserable. She thought she would feel better having purged her feelings in such a way, but instead she only felt sad, just like her sister, just like Mr. Bingley. Just, apparently, like Mr. Darcy.
They were silent for several minutes. It was to Elizabeth terrible. She could not even bring herself to suggest that they proceed to London.
Finally, Mr. Darcy said, "May I defend myself?"
Elizabeth only shrugged, feeling for the moment too spent to speak.
"Thank you, Miss Bennet." He cleared his throat. "I will try to explain my thinking and my actions towards your sister and Mr. Bingley. I realize you will think my reasons insufficient, but please bear in mind that while your sister is your chief concern, my friend was my chief concern."
Elizabeth was roused to say, "Do you maintain that you did it to help Mr. Bingley?"
"Yes. May I explain? Thank you." But he stopped and scowled once more at his horses. "Well, in short," he said at last, "I thought your sister did not return Mr. Bingley's affections, and I told him so. He believed me, and was quite unhappy as a result. Under the circumstances, I thought it best to keep the news from him that she was in town."
Elizabeth was angered again at his presumption. "Why not let him discover on his own whether she returned his affections? Were you not acting officiously?"
"It would hardly do for him to discover it after their wedding."
Elizabeth heard his sarcastic tone and itched to retaliate in kind, but feeling she was on the verge of another uncontrolled outburst, she forced herself to reply in a calm manner. "If she didn't return his affections, how would they have ever been married?"
He gave her an incredulous look and said, "I hardly think your mother would have allowed her to say ‘no'."
"Perhaps not, but my father would have stood by her. He stood by me in a similar circumstance."
"A similar circumstance. I received an unwanted offer of marriage from a very eligible man. I refused it and my mother was furious, but my father stood by me."
"You received an eligible offer of marriage?"
He looked very unhappy for some reason. Elizabeth supposed that he worried for the powers of discernment of the male sex, that anyone would have made her an offer. Indignantly she said, "Is that so hard for you to believe?"
"No, not at all," he said with all apparent sincerity.
"Not all men consider me . . ." Elizabeth brought her hand to her mouth again.
Mr. Darcy waited for her to finish her sentence, then asked, "Consider you what?"
"We were talking about Jane."
With an air of disappointment, he said, "I have nothing more to add. I have explained my reasons. I meant no harm, no malevolence. I was only trying to help my friend."
His explanation was absurd, Elizabeth knew it was absurd. Undoubtedly. Until she began to consider it in some detail. She understood that Jane was guarded in her emotional displays--Charlotte had even mentioned it. It was not surprising, she supposed, that Mr. Darcy could not read Jane's feelings. And how could he know that Jane would not comply with her mother's commands to marry for material advantage without affection?
Then she remembered her mother's rants and insults and screaming demands when she had refused Mr. Collins. Would Jane have withstood such an onslaught, regardless of her father‘s support? Or would she have agreed to marry a harmless, likeable, handsome, rich man like Mr. Bingley to save her sisters from financial disaster? These were uncomfortable speculations!
She looked at Mr. Darcy, who was watching her intently. She was not happy that she saw some justification to his reasoning, so she said accusingly, "What about Mr. Wickham?"
He grinned at her sudden change of direction. "I must say that I am surprised to see you take such an eager interest in that man's concerns, given the events of this morning. Your bruised fist is not yet healed."
Elizabeth couldn't help but smile a little. "It is not about Mr. Wickham. It is about the principle. Perhaps he wouldn't make a clergyman, but surely some accommodation was possible, you needn't have reduced him to poverty, you could still have kept the spirit of your father's wishes. It would have been the honorable thing to do."
"I refused Mr. Wickham's application for the Kympton living," he said, his grin now gone, "because I had already paid him three thousand pounds in lieu of it, at his request."
"After my father's death five years ago, Mr. Wickham notified me that he had resolved against taking orders. He said he intended to study the law and he wanted a cash payment in lieu of the living that could no longer benefit him. We settled on three thousand pounds."
"But you refused him the living, did you not?"
"Three years later when it came open. It was not open when my father died, which fact may have inspired Mr. Wickham to study the law."
"But he's not an attorney, he's a soldier." Elizabeth was now quite confused.
"Because he did not actually study the law, or at least not seriously. He took his four thousand pounds to town and lived a life of idleness and dissipation. He went through the money in less than three years as nearly as I can tell. That is quite a few magnums of champagne."
Elizabeth colored at his reference to champagne. "Four thousand?"
"My father left him one thousand outright."
Elizabeth nodded and thanked him quietly for his explanation. She had much to consider as Mr. Darcy got them back on the road to London.
"Miss Bennet," Mr. Darcy said after they had ridden in silence for some time, "if you need confirmation regarding my transactions with Mr. Wickham, my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, can provide it. He was one of the executors of my father's estate."
"Thank you, but I do not believe that will be necessary. I see no reason to disbelieve you, especially since Mr. Wickham has shown himself of so low a character. I am wondering, though, why you said it is your fault that Mr. Wickham left me out here. How can it be any one's fault but his or mine?"
"Because I have known for years of his vicious propensities. Had I exposed him in Hertfordshire, no decent family, no honorable young lady, would have accepted his society, and this could not have happened to you."
Elizabeth shook her head. "That is nonsense, Mr. Darcy. How would a failure to study the law, or an uncalled-for request for a living, convince anybody that Mr. Wickham was vicious?"
He shrugged, his lips compressed into a thin line. Not quite scowling but looking very obstinate. Elizabeth wondered if there was more to the story.
Now that she had him talking, she was reluctant to lapse back into silence. Searching for a topic, she asked him about his cousin the colonel.
He smiled and said, "Colonel Fitzwilliam is probably the closest thing I have to a brother. He is three years my senior, and he led me and George Wickham into many scrapes when we were boys."
"Is he a cousin on your father's side?"
"My mother's. That is why my first name is Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam Darcy am I."
Elizabeth barely managed not to snicker at his name. "Your mother was Lady Catherine DeBourgh's sister, was she not?"
"Yes, and Colonel Fitzwilliam's father is her brother, the Earl of Matlock."
Elizabeth shook her head in wonder at the gentleman's illustrious relations. What would it be like to have a family full of earls? Lord Phillips, indeed. The Earl of Meryton! She laughed, then worried she may have offended him.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Darcy, I was not laughing at your family."
"Not at all. I am aware of your ability to find humor in most situations. It is . . . endearing."
He displayed his dimple again, which was the last thing Elizabeth wanted to see right after he had called her endearing. She blushed and looked away.
"Forgive me," he said quietly, "I did not intend to embarrass you."
Still not meeting his gaze, she said, "So Colonel Fitzwilliam's housekeeper provided you with the picnic basket?"
"Oh, no. It was his brother's housekeeper. The Viscount. My sister and I were visiting his estate. Now we are returning to town for a few weeks."
Elizabeth considered asking why a Viscount would take a position as a housekeeper, but thought better of it. Instead she made a show of searching the curricle. "I am sorry, Mr. Darcy, but I believe you forgot to pack Miss Darcy." She smiled sweetly.
He slapped his forehead and cried, "Not again!" They laughed and he said, "She and Colonel Fitzwilliam travel by Barouche with our luggage. I prefer to drive myself."
"It is certainly more convenient for rescuing damsels in distress."
"Always my first priority." He beamed a wide smile. "My team, you see, is specially trained so that I have ten eyes continually on the lookout for lovely young ladies waving their arms frantically beside the road."
Elizabeth now blushed from toenail to scalp, trying desperately to look away from him. She failed, and in the process made a mortifying discovery: Mr. Darcy had two dimples, one on each side of his ridiculously handsome smile. She thought it best to take offense.
"I was hardly frantic, sir."
"Well then, let us say ‘eager'."
That smile again, those dimples. Elizabeth decided that this had to stop, she was not to be toyed with, not by Mr. Wickham, and not by a man of ten times his consequence.
"Mr. Darcy," she said, "why are you saying these things? We both know that you are well able to withstand my beauty, and I am not comfortable with such jokes. They are unkind."
His scowl returned and he said nothing. Elizabeth decided that was for the best, and remained silent as well.
But it didn't last. After a few moments Mr. Darcy, scowling more furiously than ever, said, "Miss Bennet, if I could withstand your beauty, I would be a much happier man. But I can not. So my portion seems to be one of torment." After a short pause he asked in a slightly lighter tone, "Is there any chance that your father is actually a Duke living incognito in a rural backwater?"
Up to that point she had been caught in a stunned state between laughter and tears. Now she laughed till she cried while Mr. Darcy looked on with a rueful smile, a one-dimple smile.
When Elizabeth had calmed, she looked at him incredulously and shook her head. Then she intoned in a low drawl, "'She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me.'"
Mr. Darcy looked confused for a moment, then cried, "Oh my God, you heard. I thought you did, but I was never sure. I am very, very sorry for that. Please forgive me."
She was briefly taken aback by his solemn sincerity. She replied thoughtfully, "I was about to say that it was forgotten long ago, but it was not. That was a very painful comment you made that evening, sir. Very painful indeed."
"Can you forgive me?"
"Why do you care? Why should I care? What difference does it make? My father is most certainly not a Duke." These had suddenly become very important questions as far as Elizabeth was concerned, and she was desperate that Mr. Darcy should answer them. She realized she was holding her breath.
"I wish you would breathe. I need some time to think."
Elizabeth shouted, "You are insufferable. Why should I breathe just to give you time to think?" He gave her the two-dimple smile and looked about to laugh. "You know what I mean. I want answers!"
"So do I, Miss Bennet." His scowl reappeared, and she marveled at the drastic change in his appearance. "Very well, here is the truth. By the time we danced together at Bingley's ball, I had never been so bewitched by any woman. If not for the difference in our stations and your low connections, I would not have left Netherfield without making you an offer. I have been trying to forget about you since I left Hertfordshire. I expected never to see you again. And here you are, lovelier than ever, more sparkling than ever, livelier than ever, wittier than ever. And I am as lost as ever." He rubbed his hand over his eyes. "I need time to think."
It should have been a highly gratifying speech to Elizabeth, but all she could say was, "My low connections?"
He rolled his eyes. "You have an uncle in trade and one who is an attorney in Meryton. My only uncle is an earl. My mother's grandfather was a Duke. I have greater property holdings and a better income than most peers."
"You know a great deal about my relations."
"Yes, Miss Bingley was good enough to keep me informed. She was very jealous of you in Hertfordshire, you know, and she wanted me to understand all about your connections. Of course, Miss Bingley never considered that my family would think her even farther beneath me because her father was in trade."
"My father is a gentleman," Elizabeth said defensively, as for the first time she fully realized the vast gulf between Mr. Darcy and herself.
"Thank God," he murmured.
"So now you think," Elizabeth said. "And what do I do?"
"What were you planning on doing? When are you returning to Longbourn?" asked Mr. Darcy.
"Not for about seven weeks. The day after tomorrow I travel to Kent for a visit with my friend Charlotte Collins. You know her as Miss Lucas, Sir William's daughter. She married my cousin and lives at the Hunsford Parsonage."
"How long will you be there?" His voice seemed to be quivering strangely.
"About six weeks. Then I will spend another week with Jane at Gracechurch Street before returning home."
He smiled his big smile and said, "I will be visiting Lady Catherine at Rosings Park in three weeks with Colonel Fitzwilliam. We will stay at least a week for Easter. You know, the parsonage is only about a half mile from Rosings."
"Oh. Well then, it seems I have some thinking of my own to do."
Mr. Darcy seemed surprised. "What do you have to think about?"
"I beg your pardon?"
He scowled again at his horses and said, "I tell you plainly, Miss Bennet, that I will be considering whether to make you an offer of marriage. What do you have to think about?"
"Are you serious? You truly can not think of a question that I may soon have to resolve for myself? Because if that is so, you may have just helped me to my answer." Once again she held her breath. Surely this man could not possibly be so vain.
"Do you mean you might refuse me?" Elizabeth gave him an eloquent look. With a touch of desperation, he asked, "Good God, why?"
"Well, sir, you did separate my sister from the man she loves, or had you managed to forget about that?"
"But that can be fixed now that I know my error. As soon as Bingley returns from Scarborough, I will tell him what I know. After that, though, it is up to him."
Simple as that, thought Elizabeth in a bit of a daze--he broke it, he will fix it. "That is certainly a straightforward approach," she said.
"Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence."
"Such as concealing my sister's presence in Town?" She was satisfied to see an embarrassed frown cross his face. "Very well, you will fix that. What about your general attitude, sir, your arrogance and disdain for others' feelings? I must decide whether I can live with such a man."
"I am not disdainful of others' feelings."
"So you admit to arrogance?"
"Good God, Elizabeth, you can be exasperating!"
She laughed delightedly. "At least I am not arrogant."
Now he threw an eloquent look. She laughed again and said, "Well, I am not as arrogant as you."
They rode in silence for ten minutes. Mr. Darcy scowled at his team and cast an occasional glance at Elizabeth. Elizabeth watched him with a small smile and her arms crossed at her chest. She had come to some tentative new conclusions about Mr. Darcy, and they were rather pleasant. She was almost certain what he would next say. He did not disappoint.
"Fine," he said abruptly, "we each have some thinking to do. And I need to be less disdainful of others and less arrogant." He raised one eyebrow at her.
Elizabeth batted her lashes. "Do I need to change, sir?"
"No, of course not. Aside from your incredible vanity, you are perfect."
They smiled at each other. She said, "Amazingly, you are not so bad yourself, Mr. Darcy. Other than your arrogance and disdain, that is. Oh, and you do not smile enough. You have a very attractive smile."
"You have a very attractive everything," he said huskily.
"We had better change the subject, sir, or I may have to flee from you after all."
"Unlike Mr. Wickham, I would not let you get away so easily. You, madam, are definitely worth some effort."
"Mr. Wickham might have agreed with you, were it not for the precision with which I kicked him in his curricle."
Mr. Darcy winced and snapped the reins. He seemed to be reaching a resolution when he said, "Miss Bennet, my house is practically on the way to Gracechurch Street. Would you care to stop there to refresh yourself?"
Elizabeth's mouth dropped open. "Mr. Darcy!"
"Oh, no, I did not mean that! No, I meant my sister, she will be there. Georgiana will have arrived by the time we get there, since they took the high road, and I would like to introduce her to your acquaintance. If you are willing, of course."
"It is good you clarified that, sir, for I would hate to bruise my other hand." She smiled. "I would be happy to make Miss Darcy's acquaintance."
"Wonderful! You can send a note to your family and I will ensure that you return to them at your convenience. You two will get on famously, I am certain, though Georgie is quite shy."
He seemed very pleased with himself, and Elizabeth laughed at his boyish enthusiasm. Here was yet another side of the man. His was indeed a most complex character.
But as she thought of meeting Miss Darcy, she could not be easy. "Sir, can you tell me about your sister? I have heard Miss Bingley's praise and some other things from a source I now highly suspect, and I must admit to some trepidation at meeting so accomplished a young lady."
"Of course. After all, her great grandfather was a Duke." She leaned toward him and smirked.
He closed his eyes briefly and said, "Miss Bennet, if you do not want to have to bruise your other hand or kick me in my curricle, you must give me some assistance. Please do not do that."
"Do what?" she asked, truly curious. She had spent much time in the company of men, occasionally flirting, though seldom so alone, yet this was not behavior with which she was familiar.
"You try my self control, if you must know. This is not a problem I have ever had before, but I have it now to such an extent that I worry. I do not want you to fear me, I would never hurt you, but I can not vouch for my ability to resist stealing a kiss when you smile at me like that. It is too much, madam."
Now Elizabeth recognized the situation. But it had taken Mr. Wickham a magnum of champagne to get to this point, and even then he was much more calculating, if rather clumsy. Mr. Darcy simply seemed, well--undone.
She was delighted, and feeling a bit undone herself. She decided to try to assist him in behaving well, but she was suddenly struck by the irony and laughingly teased, "Very well, Mr. Darcy, I will try not to tempt you."
Mr. Darcy had not been lying. As the last word left her mouth, his lips touched hers. Most fervently.
"Oh!" Elizabeth said when the kiss ended. "That was very nice."
With a murmured "Good God", Mr. Darcy suddenly stopped the curricle and sprang to the ground. He practically ran over to an empty field some distance away and began to pace rapidly to and fro.
Elizabeth watched with some consternation. What did he mean by running away from her? This would not do.
"Mr. Darcy, please return to the curricle," she called out to him.
"In a moment, madam," he called back, without coming any nearer. He continued his pacing.
Elizabeth had had enough. She climbed down and walked over to him. He stopped pacing to fearfully observe her approach, which only increased her exasperation.
She came to within an arm's length and confronted him with her hands on her hips. "Am I so frightening, sir? Why so terrified?" Then she noticed the front of his trousers. "Oh," she cried blushingly, " I will wait for you at the, um, roadside. Please take your time, sir."
She hurried back to the curricle, mortified at her naiveté. What must her think of her?
Mr. Darcy returned to the curricle looking decidedly sheepish. He and Elizabeth avoided each other's eyes as they continued toward London. After a mile or two, they both tried to talk at once, and he politely bade her to speak.
"Thank you, sir. I feel I must apologize. I, um, failed to heed your warnings, and I am sorry to have put you in such a situation."
"I am only concerned for your sensibilities, Miss Bennet. I would not have them injured for anything, please believe me. I am wretched that I imposed on you in that way."
He looked wretched, and she felt horrible on his behalf. This was a very delicate situation and she was not sure how to properly resolve it. Honesty seemed to recommend itself.
"Sir, I would not have you think I am injured. I was merely embarrassed. No harm was done. I am not accustomed to such activity. Kissing, I mean. But that does not mean that I object to it in this particular instance. With this particular, um, kissee."
His dimples made a gratifying reappearance, and she was suddenly moved to add, as much to herself as to him, "In moderation, of course."
"Yes indeed," Mr. Darcy said happily, "all things in moderation. Including moderation."
She blushed fiercely at that, but couldn't help laughing brightly. They smiled at each other for a time until Elizabeth remembered their previous topic.
"Sir, I begin to tremble in anticipating my meeting with Miss Darcy, since you are so anxious to distract me from it that you will kiss a woman who does not tempt you."
For a moment he looked very likely to repeat the distraction, and Elizabeth wondered if she should not modify her playful behavior around him, if she should not be more moderate. She laughed suddenly at the idea of being only moderately immoderate, and with a loud groan Mr. Darcy again claimed her lips. Elizabeth moaned and opened her mouth to receive his tongue, using her own in a passionate grapple. She had always been a quick learner.
"Elizabeth," he murmured against her cheek when their mouths broke apart, "there is a great danger this could get out of hand. We can not behave this way, not if we are each undecided."
She pushed him away with both hands to his chest, and said, "Yes, yes, you are correct. And I can be nothing but undecided, sir, since you have made no offer. Please," she said raising her hand, "I am not begging for an offer, believe me. I am not yet ready to hear one from you. I can not be. I do not really know you, do I? Are we not simply getting carried away?"
He took her hand in his and kissed it tenderly. "You are a wonder, a singular wonder. Do you have any idea how unusual you are? What other woman would need to know anything about me besides Pemberley and 10,000 a year? Miss Bingley would not give a damn about my character, so long as she was able to play hostess from the Darcy perch.
"Miss Bennet, I promise not to make you an offer until you are ready. In the meantime, will you allow me to court you properly, in Gracechurch Street, Kent and Hertfordshire? To enable you to know me better?"
That was exactly what she wanted. But she feigned a pout and said, "You have no wish to court me anywhere else? I must say, Mr. Darcy, I am disappointed by your lack of determination."
"My determination has never been on greater display than just now when I did not kiss your lovely, pouting mouth. You can not continue to tease me so madam, or you will have either sore lips or another sore hand by the time we reach your family."
Elizabeth was nearly overcome with affection for him at that moment. How, she wondered, had this come about? She had hated him that morning--hadn't she? She shook her head.
He let go of her hand and took up the reins. They rolled again toward Town.
After a moment he asked, "How did you ever get the idea I had given Mr. Wickham a living?"
She appreciated his obvious effort to keep his eyes on the road. She felt less self-conscious of her smile when she replied, "This is a subject I do not like. As I think of my entire relationship with that man, I feel more and more the fool." She had an idea. "Mr. Darcy, I will make a deal with you. If I tell you of my stupid behavior with Mr. Wickham, you must tell me the whole story of your dealings with him."
"Let me think on that," he said thoughtfully. "There are others to consider here besides myself." He scowled at the road ahead for a full ten minutes, then said, "Miss Bennet, I believe I should tell you the whole story regardless of whether you tell me anything. If we are to continue on this course, if you are to meet Georgiana, you will need to know."
"That sounds rather ominous. I suspected there was more involved than a clerical living. Why don't I tell you my story first?" He nodded. "Thank you. It is really pretty simple. After you insulted me at the Meryton Assembly, I thought the worst of you, a man so vile as to not see how delightful I obviously am. No, don't say anything. Just know that what you said about my vanity is only too true. Perhaps it comes from having Jane as my sister, I do not know, but my feelings can be easily injured where my physical appearance is concerned."
He looked very sad at that, so she said, "Today, sir, you have most assuredly made up for any slights upon my appearance which you, or anybody else, has ever or will ever make."
She was rewarded with a view of his dimples before continuing her tale. "Shortly after we met, Mr. Wickham asked my opinion of you, and I told him."
"What was it?" he asked anxiously.
"You won't like it. I told him you were proud and disagreeable. That is how you came across, as though everybody in Hertfordshire--especially me--was beneath your notice."
"I am truly sorry. I have never had the ability to recommend myself to strangers, particularly those whose condition in life is below my own."
"But you are a man of the world, with sense and education. How is it you can not recommend yourself to strangers? Do you ever try?"
He cleared his throat and said, "There never seems much point in trying."
"Because there are no strangers worth knowing?" She was getting angry with him. Did he not see how badly he had behaved?
"I see your point. Obviously had I made an effort to meet people at the assembly, I would have met several people worth knowing, and one very much worth kissing. But I was unwilling to look beyond fortune and connections." He scowled ahead.
She was greatly relieved to hear his arrival at this self-knowledge. Her incipient anger subsided, and she was able to continue.
"So I believed you were proud and disagreeable. After hearing my opinion, Mr. Wickham told me his fabricated tale of woe about his career in the church. I then saw him as a kindred spirit. A handsome, charming kindred spirit. But unfortunately a poor kindred spirit, whose affections soon shifted from me, on whom they never rested very seriously, to one Miss King who had recently inherited 10,000 pounds."
"Ah!" cried Mr. Darcy. "That sounds like George Wickham."
"Well, he left some weeks ago in pursuit of Miss King, and we later heard they had become engaged. Last time I saw him in Hertfordshire, he said goodbye to me with a wistful comment about how things between us might have been different if only you, the evil Mr. Darcy, had followed your father's wishes." She put her hand on his arm and said, "I am truly ashamed of all this, sir. Most ashamed. Please forgive me for believing that man so readily."
Quietly he said, "You had no reason for suspicion, Elizabeth. You can not be blamed."
This was too much for her. Her eyes welled with tears at his generosity and she kissed his cheek. "Thank you for being so understanding. You are quite remarkable."
He looked surprised, and she laughed happily. He was such a good man, she wondered how she could have ever missed it.
"Well, I arrived at my uncle's four days ago to spend some time with Jane before going into Kent with Sir William and Maria Lucas. The day after I arrived, Mr. Wickham visited with important news. It seems, sir, that you and he had reconciled and you had agreed to give him the living after all. Mr. Wickham was now happily at liberty to choose a wife for affection rather than financial necessity."
"Lucky you," said Mr. Darcy.
"Lucky me, indeed. He made no promises, mind you, it was all hinted at, but he visited two days in a row and was so agreeable to everyone that he could have been elected Pope. Yesterday he suggested this morning's outing. My aunt was a mite resistant, mind you, but I was able to persuade her of my faith in Mr. Wickham's good character, so off we went. Then, after a little champagne and a short wrestling match, I was afoot and all alone in these picturesque farmlands. Until Sir Darcy came to my rescue."
Impulsively, she kissed his cheek again.
"What did he do to you?"
"He tried to kiss me."
"So did I, but your other hand is still unbruised and my curricle has not been kicked."
"Yes," she said with a blush, "but you did not try to kiss my cross, my necklace."
Mr. Darcy colored deeply and cleared his throat. He glanced fiercely at the tops of the trees. On a hunch, Elizabeth looked in his lap and saw the clear evidence that he would very much like to kiss her cross. Her blush deepened.
Without looking at her, he said, "Your cross is certainly a fascinating piece of jewelry."
"Thank you." She found herself tickled by all this talk of crosses, and decided to get to the heart of the matter. "My mother is quite proud of it and makes sure my gowns display it to advantage."
Mr. Darcy was struck by a sudden, violent cough, and Elizabeth laughed delightedly while she rubbed his back till it subsided.
"Miss Bennet," he said, his face like a beet, "you have a cruel streak."
"Now, sir, what is your Mr. Wickham story?"
Mr. Darcy smiled grimly. "I have already told you all about the living. What I did not say was just how angry Mr. Wickham was when I refused him the living two years ago. He was in great financial distress, and this drove him to great anger. Last summer he sought to kill two birds with one stone: he would gain a good fortune, and he would get his revenge on me.
"Understand, Miss Bennet, I would prefer to forget what I am about to tell you. Beside the principals, only myself and Colonel Fitzwilliam know about this. I know I can rely on your secrecy."
Elizabeth solemnly nodded.
"Thank you. Last summer, in connivance with her hired companion, Mr. Wickham followed Georgiana to Ramsgate. She was only fifteen at the time and had not seen George Wickham since our father's funeral four years before. She only had fond, childhood memories of him. Over the course of many meetings, essentially unchaperoned, he convinced her that she was in love and she agreed to an elopement."
Elizabeth gasped and said, "How could he do such a thing?"
"He wanted her fortune of thirty thousand pounds. He thought he was made, that he would never have to work another day in his life. But I arrived for an unannounced visit a day or two before they were to leave for Scotland, and she confessed it all to me. I was able to prevent it, but Georgie has been very badly affected. She has a most tender heart."
"Does she still love him?"
"No, I do not believe so. He was quite cruel when he last spoke to her. I only heard part of it, when he called her a silly child on his way out the door. I've assured her I do not blame her, that it was all my fault for not protecting her well enough, but I am afraid her sense of shame is still great."
"Sir," Elizabeth said with energy, "you are no more to blame than is your sister. Mr. Wickham is the villain in all this, not you. Do not let me hear you speak so, I will not have it."
"Thank you, Miss Bennet." He smiled and shook his head wonderingly. "This is a remarkable turn. At Bingley's ball, you charged me with cruelty to Mr. Wickham. I find being defended by you to be rather more pleasant."
"I am ashamed of my behavior during our dance. I was intentionally rude."
"Ha! I deserved it, I think. If you only knew what I was thinking then." He laughed.
"You must tell me now. You can't say that much and then stop, that would be evidence of a true cruel streak."
"Very well, since you were so good as to tell me in detail of you past opinion of me. I believe I was angry with you."
"Why? What had I ever done to you?"
"You bewitched me. And your father was not a Duke, and you had no fortune, and your mother and younger sisters terrified me. I suppose they still do."
"Oh, yes, I saw your face that night. Well, I suppose they terrify me as well, sometimes. But," she said forcefully, "they are my family and I love them."
He grew quiet. Elizabeth was not pleased by this talk of her family. Who did he think he was? She had a sudden disagreeable insight, and said, "So, Mr. Darcy, when you found me beside the road, alone, with no family in sight, I was quite easy to admire, was I not? But my family have not disappeared, sir, they are still happily ensconced at Longbourn, my home, and if that is truly one of the three places where you intend to court me, you will see them. You will talk to them. You will get to know them."
His scowl blazed at the road ahead. Suddenly he said, "You can't expect me to rejoice in such connections."
"Mr. Darcy, I do not expect you to do anything. I would like to continue our ride in silence. Thank you."
"Their behavior is almost uniformly improper," he cried passionately.
"You do understand the meaning of the word ‘silence', do you not?" She was now nearing despair. She had become so hopeful, her opinion of him had risen so high in such a short time, and now this. Tears began to fall, she powerless to stop them. She looked away and tried to weep as quietly as possible.
Soon the curricle slowed to a stop and she felt his hand on her shoulder.
"Elizabeth," he said tenderly, "please do not cry. I am sorry."
"Please sir, I did not give you leave to call me by my Christian name. That is an uncalled for presumption."
His hand left her shoulder. They sat in silence for some time, Elizabeth still weeping while facing away from Mr. Darcy. The situation became unbearable. She stood to climb down out of the vehicle. She felt a hand grab her arm.
"Miss Bennet, where are you going?" he demanded, the distress evident in his voice. "Please madam, you can not leave."
"Unhand me, sir!"
"Madam, please. Let us talk about this. I am sorry."
"I said unhand me!"
It was too much, hearing him use her name that way while hanging onto her arm. Without thinking, she swung a left hook and connected solidly with his nose. Mr. Darcy yelped, his hands flew to his face, and he fell out of the vehicle and onto the road in a heap.
"Oh dear!" Elizabeth cried as she clambered down and ran to him. He was curled in the fetal position, covering his face with his hands, and his shoulders were shaking as though with great, racking sobs.
"Oh, Mr. Darcy. Fitzwilliam, darling! Please forgive me!" She knelt at his side and lifted his head to her bosom. "I am so sorry, I can't believe I hit you. Oh, dear!"
Then she realized her mistake. They weren't sobs at all. Mr. Darcy was laughing. He looked up at her with a merry, two-dimple smile and said, "Just remember, Lizzy, if you kick me in the curricle, we may never be able to have children."
She was momentarily speechless, but her spirits soon rose. Her lips formed a saucy grin and she said, "Perhaps not, my love, but I hope you will agree that is no good reason for not making the effort, and very often."
She laughed with delight as he planted a passionate kiss on her cross.