Posted on Saturday, 22 December 2007
It seemed to Darcy that his whole life had led to this. To be able to be with the woman he loved, to share with her all his hopes and dreams, was a felicity superior to any he had ever known. And yet he was confident it would pale to the one that would soon be known to him (oh, those interminable weeks until November!) when he would finally be able to declare before God and Men that she was his wife.
Though burdened by the well wishes and attentions of what seemed all of Hertfordshire, these last few days since their engagement had been joyous. That Elizabeth -- his dearest, most beloved Elizabeth -- had accepted (if not with effusion, at least with obvious happiness) his renewed addresses was more than he had once hoped for.
They were walking aimlessly, enjoying the crisp autumn air and each other's company. Bingley and Jane had long since been left behind, lost in their own cares. That they had been left without proper chaperonage was certainly a breach of propriety, but Darcy was not very inclined to complain about it. His mind was preoccupied with other matters; Elizabeth had been unusually quiet for some minutes now, lost deep in thought. He was busy trying to formulate a way to inquire after her thoughts without seeming overbearing when she turned towards him, apparently ready to share whatever preoccupied her so.
"Fitzwilliam," she said, and a jolt of pleasure passed through his spine. It was the first time she had addressed him by his Christian name. "I must tell you something."
He stopped and turned towards her. Her voice was unsure, weak. This time the jolt that passed through him was of pure dread. A thousand things came to his mind. Did he do something to upset her? Had she changed her mind? Did she want to end their engagement?
"It seems to me that it has served us well to talk to each other, to not let things go unsaid and rely on mere assumptions."
To this he could certainly agree. He had taken her lively (nay, impertinent!) remarks as a sign of regard. The day of his botched proposal at Hunsford he had been so sure she was expecting his declaration, ready to acquiesce. How foolish he had been! Since then, he believed, they both had improved in their mutual understanding. She was not the sort of woman that would trifle with a man's feelings. Had she been unsure, she would have told him so, and asked for more time. She had accepted him. She would not go back on her word.
Feeling somewhat relieved, he took her gloved hands between his own (how tiny did they seem!). "You can tell me anything, always. I would like us to have no secrets from each other."
She smiled, faintly, but seemed encouraged. Taking a deep breath, she lowered her gaze and continued to speak.
"This is by no means easy for me, therefore I would be much obliged if you'd let me say everything I need before responding." He squeezed her hands in silent acceptance.
"Ever since we met I have misunderstood you. Perhaps my character sketches are not as accurate as I would like to believe them to be, but I must own that a great part of it was my own willful blindness. I wanted to dislike you, to find faults that proved right my first impression of you. You had wounded my vanity and I was determined to wound your image in my own eyes and even in the eyes of others."
He had never asked her directly, but here was proof enough of what he had always dreaded. She had overheard that churlish remark he had made at the assembly so long ago. It was no wonder that she had not considered him a gentleman! To refer to a woman in such terms, and in a public assembly where it was more than likely he would be overheard, was highly impolitic.
"I had, perhaps, seen glimpses of the true you, but was determined not to let anything ruin the image I had so painstakingly constructed. It wasn't until after I read your letter that I started to realize, much to my own chagrin, how wrong I had been. It was like my eyes were opened for the first time and I was finally able to see the real you. You certainly are not a man without faults, but despite this -- and perhaps even because of it - you are the best man I have ever known."
His heart felt close to bursting. To have Elizabeth, that had once emphatically declared he was the last man in the world she could be prevailed upon to marry, tell him he was the best man she had ever known was a moment of indescribable happiness. He longed to tell her so, but he could see she was not yet done. He squeezed her hands once more, trying to convey in such a simple gesture all the love pent up inside him. She looked up at him, and suddenly he was staring straight into those fine eyes of hers that had captivated him so.
"But there is something you must understand. You have proved yourself to be honorable, kind... A good brother, master and gentleman. Yet despite all this I would not... I could not have accepted your proposal if I did not love you as much as I do."
He had hoped, of course (oh, had he hoped!). But to hear her say the words and feel, from the depths of his soul, that she truly meant them was more than he was prepared for. He could not say how long he stood, simply staring at her, unsure of how he should respond, but it seemed to have been long enough to make her uncomfortable.
"There, I have said it," she proclaimed with a forced smile, trying to make light of her confession, but for the first time Darcy felt he could read her like an open book. He could see the nervousness betrayed by her slightly shaking hands, the uncertainty in her downcast eyes. He could see a woman that from her earlier years had learned not to depend upon anyone but herself and to lock away her true feelings and desires even from those closest to her and finally understood what it meant to Elizabeth to give all of herself to him.
She tried to walk on, to return to the house as if nothing had happened, but he stopped her by pulling her gently by their still linking hands till she was held tightly in his arms, her head tucked beneath his chin. She stiffened in his embrace, but little by little the tension left her body, leaving him with a sense of warmth and contentment he had never known.
"I do not deserve you," he finally said, his voice tick and trembling with emotion, "but I swear I'll do all that is within my power to make sure you will never regret trusting me with you heart."
They stood like that for some time, simply reveling in each other's presence -- their steady breaths and heartbeats a calming melody to their overwrought senses -- till the niggling warnings his head was giving him about the impropriety of their situation grew too loud for Darcy to ignore. He disentangled from her gently, but kept their finger firmly laced. Elizabeth's eyes shone with joy and unshed tears of happiness; Darcy's face was alight with tenderness.
Hand in hand, they walked down the lane towards Longbourn and the bright future that lay ahead.