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Posted on 2008-11-08
Inwardly, Elizabeth was astonished. Not by her own levity, certainly, for she knew her flaws of character well -- having been reminded of her impertinence, her over-abundant spirits, and general disrespect for her betters often enough by her mother. That she should so flippantly berate the honourable Fitzwilliam Darcy while in the very bosom of his illustrious family was unsurprising. No, the cause of bewilderment was his reaction to her cheek. He smiled at her!
She teased and mocked and taunted, and he did not retreat to stony hauteur, as she thought he must, but instead laid down the gauntlet. His words echoed in her mind. "You are perfectly right," he had returned. "You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think any thing wanting." His words -- and the almost flirtatious manner that accompanied them - echoed again and again in her thoughts.
As Lady Catherine had interrupted the repartee at this point, Elizabeth was spared the necessity of answering, and for once she felt relieved by the great lady's insistence on being the centre of attention. What could Darcy have meant by his compliments? He seemed to be trying to explain himself to her. That he should condescend to her, that he should respond to her impertinence at all -- even with the spurs of his cousin to goad him, was astonishing.
Once again, she wondered why she could not sketch his character to her satisfaction, and still more, why she kept up the attempt. She could, perhaps, blame the lack of other agreeable occupations available at Hunsford, but her inherent honesty spurned attempts at justification. The fact of the matter was, she found him fascinating.
Disagreeable, haughty, supercilious, and reserved, he was all of these things and more. Yet he also possessed those more external features that a young lady might find pleasing - of manner, worldly knowledge, and obvious wealth, not to mention being almost ridiculously handsome. Even his arrogant pride, which she could only condemn, lent him an air of confidence that held appeal. "Enough, Elizabeth!" she chided herself. "I will soon be no better than Miss Bingley for worshipful attention to the man." The example set by that lady was enough to force greater discipline in her thoughts, as she was determined to hold herself to a higher standard of behaviour. Still, she could not keep her eyes from wandering occasionally to his form, only to feel wonder when she saw how often his own eyes were upon hers.
In the next days Elizabeth had often to wonder, for Mr. Darcy called upon the parsonage regularly. He did not converse much, and it was left to Elizabeth's imagination to speculate on why he came at all. She could not credit Charlotte's provoking suggestion that he might have some admiration for her. She knew herself to be too little possessed of either the beauty or wealth such a man would require; yet, she could not suppress the lift in her mood upon his arrivals, nor the flatness of the atmosphere when he left. Neither could she resist teasing him, merely to instigate some sort of reaction in him. If he could not be in love with her, neither should he be allowed to remain unaffected by her presence.
On occasion, she met with success, but only when some flagrantly impertinent remark escaped her lips. Then, he would look at her with such intensity - leaning towards her as though some force pushed him in a direction he could not resist - that she might have supposed him to be offended, had not some instinct warned her that it might be another emotion entirely. In those moments, she would immediately feel flushed and upset, and once again call herself to greater regulation of both thought and conduct. She found it infuriating that she should be so affected by him! She had always looked down upon her younger sisters' behaviour with the red-coated officers, yet now found herself to be no better when confronted with Darcy's blue superfine. Worse, while many of the officers possessed pleasing manners and amiability, the object of her attentions could not even pretend to appear interested in those around him! He could not trouble himself! He made no effort to be pleasing or amiable or anything except coldly reserved. Still...she could not help but wonder what it would be like to have the full force of that concentrated, deliberate attention, without the society of others, without their own obvious incompatibility.
In those moments, she wished to believe that there was neither a Longbourn nor a Pemberley...she wished for him to...yet she must not permit herself to wish. She knew it wise to remember that he was a man capable of disregarding a childhood friend, of ruining another life out of jealousy. This was not the behaviour of a gentleman, and she was no lady if she could so easily forget another's distress. When he began joining her on her walks -- even though she had warned him which paths were her favourites- she resolved to pass the time in a silence equal to his own. If the silence became companionable, she would not credit it. With her departure date approaching, she could only hope that time and distance would fit her world back into the safe, orderly existence that she understood how to cope with, no matter how dull.
Today she walked alone for once, thus giving her opportunity to re-peruse Jane's last letter. Dwelling on some passages which proved that Jane had not written in high spirits, she looked up to see that Colonel Fitzwilliam was meeting her. As they strolled, they spoke light-heartedly about the colonel's prospects, or lack thereof, as the younger son of an earl, and Elizabeth debated with him as to how great his wants could be. The subject of his family only brought that one topic to mind that so preoccupied her attention, and when he spoke of his cousin's sister, her interest was piqued. This attention to Miss Darcy, however, seemed to provoke an uncomfortable response in him. She directly replied, "You need not be frightened. I never heard any harm of her; and I dare say she is one of the most tractable creatures in the world. She is a very great favourite with some ladies of my acquaintance, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley. I think I have heard you say that you know them."
"I know them a little. Their brother is a pleasant gentleman-like man---he is a great friend of Darcy's."
"Oh! yes," said Elizabeth dryly---"Mr. Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr. Bingley, and no doubt takes a prodigious deal of care of his friends."
"Care of him!---Yes, I really believe Darcy does take care of him in those points where he most wants care." This last was said in such a tone of vehemence that Elizabeth was startled, and in her discomposure, she let slip the rebuttal that came first to her mind.
"And yet, when the friend is a boyhood companion of no great consequence, say perhaps the son of a lowly steward, then his sense of care is a good deal less discernible!"
At this remark, the colonel came to a dead halt, and stared at Elizabeth with something like amazement. His face darkened, his stance altered and straightened, and for a moment, Elizabeth feared that her ungoverned tongue had finally led her to real trouble. She immediately withdrew into civility. "Forgive me, Colonel. I misspoke. Allow me to bid you good day." She gave a slight bow and was turning in the direction of the parsonage, when he interrupted her retreat.
"Miss Bennet! A moment please!" Elizabeth turned back, but he did not immediately resume conversation. A play of emotions flitted across his normally amiable features, ranging from red-faced anger to what she could only interpret as real grief. Only with this evidence of struggle did Elizabeth feel real regret for her words, and offered a more sincere apology. "Colonel, please, my opinion is not worth your attention. The insult was a most improper one. You must think my manners abhorrent. I do apologize, most sincerely."
Colonel Fitzwilliam marshalled his emotions into some sense of order, and interrupted her remorse. "No, please, Miss Bennet. I hold you blameless for any of my distress. It is only that...would Mr. Wickham be... one of those in your...would he be an acquaintance of yours?"
This unusual lack of fluency on the part of the colonel alarmed her still further. Her mention of the steward's son seemed to have touched a nerve she could not have anticipated. She respected Colonel Fitzwilliam, and wishing a distance between one who caused his obvious revulsion and herself, was hasty to reply, "Only a recent one, sir. The officers have been quartered, of late, in a village near my father's estate. I was...astonished when he related what his history with Mr. Darcy had been."
At this remark, his lips twisted into something like a sneer. "Ah, his misfortunes were a topic of discussion, were they? Would that he had the misfortune to meet me on a field of honour! Not that the cad knows the meaning of the word." The friendly persona of "the earl's younger son" had ceased to exist; in its place was a military man of such fierce countenance that Elizabeth unconsciously took a step back. Becoming aware of his companion once more, he took a deep breath and offered her his arm. "Perhaps, madam, you might walk a little further with me. I feel I should explain my reaction, at least in part. The tale is not all mine to tell, but I would not have you thinking that I am an ill-tempered brute! Or that my cousin has participated in any dishonour!"
Arriving back at the parsonage, Elizabeth was sorry to find that Charlotte had tea waiting, and plainly expected her company. Fortunately, her cousin was otherwise occupied, and they were left to themselves for the duration. It was all she could do to not plead illness and beg to be excused. So violent were her thoughts, she could hardly attend to polite conversation. That Mr. Wickham should have been so impudent! Mrs. Collins could not fail to notice her inattention, and inquired as to the cause. While Elizabeth wanted nothing more than to forget how gullible she had been to believe his false charm, neither did she wish to leave others with the false impression of his goodness. She could, at least, begin the process of undoing the damage.
"Charlotte, I have learned from Colonel Fitzwilliam this morning that someone in our circle of acquaintance is not the gentleman we had believed him to be."
"What? Surely you do not refer to Mr. Darcy," Charlotte replied.
Elizabeth blushed to think of her former misjudgement. "I do not. No, the one I refer to is Lieutenant Wickham."
"Wickham? That pleasant man? Whatever could the colonel know about him?" Charlotte responded with confusion.
"We were made aware, by the man himself, that he was a great favourite of the senior Mr. Darcy, who paid for his education and offered him every advantage. This much is true. It is also true that he was mentioned in the will, and that it was left to Mr. Darcy's son and heir to determine if a living in the Church could be made available for him. At this juncture, however, the truth makes a violent departure from the story spread by Mr. Wickham. Apparently he was regarded by those who knew him well as a man of violent propensities, self-indulgent in drink and gambling and...worse. While he could charm the elder generation, he could not deceive those of his own age who were witness to his darker side and ugly exploits. The colonel and Mr. Darcy were both aware that he was particularly unsuited to the life of a clergyman. Therefore, it was with some relief to them both when he approached Mr. Darcy with a request to take up the law, instead. He was given three thousand pounds..."
"Three thousand! So much!" interrupted Charlotte.
"Indeed. In return for signing away any right to the living, he was very well compensated. It is only due to his wastefulness that he no longer has any left. Unbelievably, when the living did become open, he demanded that he be given it as well! After squandering that entire inheritance! What audacity! What presumption! It is in every way dreadful!
"And Charlotte...that is not all. The colonel said that he could not reveal the extent of his offences because they involved innocent parties who could be further hurt by the lieutenant's indiscretions. Wherever he goes, he leaves a trail of debt and ruin."
Charlotte was as shocked as Elizabeth by these revelations. They both decided to write home at once to share this information with their families, that their young sisters might not be further exposed to his pretence of friendship. Charlotte hoped that her father's influence might be useful in helping any of the Meryton merchants who might have run the risk of credit, although Elizabeth hoped that Wickham's responsibilities to the honour of his regiment might offer some protection. However, neither of them had much confidence in the value such a man would place on that particular virtue, and the letters were sent post haste. Thereafter, they were obliged to ready themselves for dinner that evening at Rosings, as Mr. Collins was particularly concerned that they be prompt to pay their respects to the departing gentlemen.
Further reflection was postponed until much later, when Elizabeth was finally able to retire to the privacy of her chamber. She lay awake in the darkness, pondering the eventful day. How was it that Mr. Darcy had said nothing while his character was flayed by his enemy? That he should stand by and allow such allegations to stand unchallenged seemed preposterous! Was it that he cared so little for the opinions of country society that he paid no attention to what was said? And yet...it seemed inconsistent to her that a man of such honour -- and yes, from everything that his cousin disclosed, she believed him to be honourable -- would disregard others to such an extent.
Obviously, the man was used to such attacks as perpetrated by Wickham, and most likely thought he was being noble to ignore the man's existence. It was doubtful that anyone in Meryton was likely to be harmed by the villain except for those, perhaps, who made a living supplying his vices. The colonel had indeed mentioned innocent victims, but had asked for her discretion in what little he did reveal, saying that the wounds of the innocent were borne solely by those related to the Darcy family. Even saying so little as that was obviously distressing to the officer, and Elizabeth could only feel that Wickham's offences had been extreme and his punishment, slight. Out of respect for the gentlemen involved, she resolved to think no longer on the subject of actual misdeeds, and to do whatever she could to restore respect to the Darcy name amongst her own family.
At this, she reviewed every careless remark she had made, and could only regret that she had been so injudicious. Her letter home was the first step, yet she could not but believe she owed further reparations. Mr. Darcy's civility to her this evening was beyond anything she might have expected, when she considered he deemed her "barely tolerable"...or perhaps it was time she forgave him for that remark.
As little as she cared to admit it, she could see that her wounded vanity had contributed to her predisposition to accept Wickham's lies. Mr. Darcy certainly did not behave as though he despised her company; in fact, his attentions to her tonight were enough to draw those of his aunt. Lady Catherine was most displeased with his interest in another young lady beyond his family circle, reprimanding him harshly, while insulting Elizabeth in the process.
As soon as his cousin Fitzwilliam managed to occupy the great lady's attention, he had turned to her and quietly said, "Miss Elizabeth, I do hope you will forgive the imprecations of my aunt; I am forced to choose to retire early so as not to earn further censure for us both. Surely she does not believe that I can remain in such close proximity to one I respect so well, and maintain any sort of indifference?" At that, he had risen, crossed the room to Lady Catherine, made his excuses to her and then the rest of the company, stopping only to bow over her hand, and finally departed.
She had felt restive and impatient the balance of the evening, telling herself she only needed quiet and privacy to consider the revelations of the day. Yet here she lay, tossing and turning, the restless feelings set in motion by Mr. Darcy's compliments in the de Bourgh drawing room threatening to overwhelm her. She could not deny it, at least to herself -- she wished for more. She felt only sorrow that he was to leave, that she would never see him again, and that the first man whose attentions she might wish to welcome was so hopelessly beyond her reach.
So agitated was she, that she knew sleep would evade her, and despite the lateness of the hour wondered if she could escape to the garden, to breathe fresh air and allow the moonscape to calm her. She had occasionally done so at Longbourn, and felt it now to be the only way to soothe her current distress. Thus she quickly dressed, pulled on her coat and half boots, then quietly crept downstairs and out the kitchen door.
The night was chilly, but the full moon reflected enough light for her to be confident of her steps within the near confines of Mr. Collins' garden. She breathed in deeply the crisp air and tried to put all disquieting thoughts aside, willing herself to calm as she found a bench where she might sit and enjoy the moonlight.
After his late night discussion with the colonel, Darcy felt nearly as discomposed as Elizabeth, had he only known it. To think that Wickham's deceit had touched her heart! He had known that his enemy was unlikely to practice any sort of circumspection, and in the one dance he had shared with her, she had revealed that whatever was being said by the villain was unlikely to be to his credit. At the time, he convinced himself it was of no import. He had been too lost in his own struggles to pay heed to the whispers of local townsfolk whose views of him could not matter. But now...he felt all the discomfort which Wickham had surely intended.
It was one thing to be the butt of society's disdain when he could convince himself of the worthlessness of their opinions. However, something had changed, had begun changing when he had first witnessed Elizabeth's courage during his aunt's rude displays.
He was so habituated to his Aunt Catherine's imperious manner that he seldom paid any real attention to her words. He came on his annual visit to fulfil his obligation to family, and to do what he could to restore order to her estate management -- for while she had an excellent steward, she seldom listened to any opinion which digressed from her own, leaving no end of troubles to be alleviated and appeased.
This visit had deviated from custom the moment he learned of the presence of one he had sworn to forget. The instant he saw her, he realized that the vow had been a futile one. His aunt was her usual overbearing self, but this time he was unable to ignore her offensive questions and boorish behaviour. He saw it all through new eyes, and a particularly fine pair at that.
While Lady Catherine's manners were uniformly unpleasant, those of Elizabeth were refreshingly the reverse. Her sparkling wit, her complete lack of toadying flattery, even her ability to disregard insult and see the humour in his aunt's nonsense lent her an ever-present equanimity that was as attractive to him as her talent for repartee. She could not be discomfited or easily displeased; she was, in essentials, a joyful person, and happy would be the man who could earn her regard.
His very awareness of her worth had crushed all of his arguments against her family, her lack of connections and dowry, the duty owed to his consequence. Indeed, it had been all he could do to stop himself from proposing to her right there, in the midst of his aunt's drawing room! He could no longer bear witnessing any censure to his beloved by one who was no better than she, for all her noble genealogy.
After his abrupt departure from the company, he had amused himself by imagining how he would put a stop to Lady Catherine's rudeness when Elizabeth was his own. She would never dare abuse his wife! He was almost giddy with desire and determination. And then...Richard had entered his rooms, feeling that he should be aware of what was being said in Hertfordshire, intent upon revealing his entire conversation with Miss Elizabeth. Upon closer questioning, the colonel revealed that Elizabeth had freely admitted believing those untruths espoused by the deceitful Wickham. She said that she, and indeed all of her acquaintance, had not supposed him to be a gentleman!
Unable to bear the heavy atmosphere of Rosings, he had walked the park after leaving his cousin. He tried mightily to recall anything she might have said, any conversation, any comment that would lead him to believe that she might hold some sort of admiration or respect for him...and could think of nothing.
He had deemed her teasing, pert banter, so unusual in his sphere, as a hint of some sort of deeper feeling. She had advised him of her favourite paths, and he had assumed an allusion to potential meeting places. He had been so careful not to give her any false impression of his intentions, however, that he had had little to say on those walks, and now that he tried to recall, she had not pressed for conversation either. Her normal liveliness, apparent in the company of others, had been noticeably absent.
He thought over the evening just past...the look on her face when he had all but declared his feelings for her...it may well have been confusion, but it certainly was not desire. His cousin was far more adept at the social niceties, and he was certain that Elizabeth, until their conversation this morning, had been far more convinced of his contemptibility than of his suitability. He had been amazed that Darcy had such feelings -- apparently he had been successful in not raising any suspicions about his regard- and had warned him that the information he provided for her regarding Wickham's deceit was incomplete, as of necessity he had not implicated Georgiana. She might even now be wondering why Darcy had not said or done anything to protect her friends and neighbours.
While in Hertfordshire, he had avoided any mention of the scoundrel...as though if he ignored the problem, it would disappear. What conceit! Such an approach only gave the cad an unfair advantage, leaving him free to dispense his versions of truth to anyone gullible enough to believe. So far from London, in such limited society, his grasping character coated in the red of an officer, he would have found easy prey. He might still be finding it thus. And what conclusions must she draw from his silence? That although not guilty of one offence, he was indeed accountable for allowing a reprobate access to the most intimate circle of a woman for whom he had nearly declared his love. How fortunate that circumstance had stilled his tongue before he could flaunt the shoddy proof of his regard!
While allowing his thoughts to wander, he had walked quite far from the house, heedless of his way. When he realized where legs had carried him, though, he almost smiled to note that his heart's direction remained true, however befuddled his brain. Looking up at the darkened windows of the parsonage, he wondered which one was hers. Feeling the danger of allowing his thoughts to stray anywhere near the direction of her sleeping arrangements, he turned to enter the garden area directly behind the house.
He nearly swallowed his heart, seeing the object of his thoughts sitting on a stone bench directly ahead, staring at the moon.
Posted on 2008-11-14
She had not noticed him; he could quietly leave now and she would be none the wiser. But the temptation to speak to her once more overcame prudence and propriety, and although greatly afraid of alarming her, he softly cleared his throat to alert her to his presence. She swiftly turned her head, and her involuntary start was stifled by a quick laugh. "Mr. Darcy! I am amazed!"
"I apologize for startling you...and for my presence in your garden at this unorthodox hour."
"Do not apologize," she answered. "Peculiar happenings seem part and parcel of this night. I hope you do not believe that I normally wander outside during the hours when all decent folk are safely abed."
"I would never think you capable of any act that made you less than a lady," he replied.
"You are the gallant, then! I cannot think of another soul who would defend me now, and I would be forced to agree. It is foolhardy, perhaps, to appreciate your chivalry."
He smiled at her. "My own conduct may not withstand overmuch scrutiny."
"Indeed! You appear as an apparition, haunting the Collins' flowerbeds...surely not a typical occupation for a gentleman," Elizabeth countered, returning his smile.
It seemed almost surreal to them both, that they should be having the most amiable conversation they had ever experienced, in such a setting. The strictures of propriety having been set aside eased the stiff formality that normally ruled their existence.
For Darcy's part, he could not fail to notice that her hair fell loosely about her shoulders, something he had dared not let himself even imagine. It was tempting to look his fill and not speak, but he knew too much had been left unsaid between them. If fate had provided this opportunity, he must not waste any chance given to repair the damage his foolish pride had wrought. He cleared his throat, yet his voice still came out huskier than his usual tone.
"Miss Elizabeth, you must allow me to tender one more apology. This very evening I learned exactly what sort of deceit you have been exposed to from our mutual acquaintance, Mr. Wickham. I have not done as I ought concerning his...our situation. I have maintained silence when I ought to have spoken. I can only say that at the time I thought that my reasons for silence were important ones. I felt I could not risk..."
"Mr. Darcy, you need not explain yourself to me," she interrupted. "You handled a delicate situation as you thought best, you need not risk your reputation."
"My reputation! Of what consideration is that, when compared to the potential for harm? I did think it was wiser pay him no heed. I suppose in some ways, I still do." Darcy began to pace. "I have responsibilities, I certainly cannot ignore those."
"I am sure I never asked you to," she retorted.
He sighed deeply. His back to her, she watched him lower his head, his shoulders slumping as though weights were pressing upon him. Unexpectedly, she felt the stirrings of pity. He looked so lonely and vulnerable. She almost smiled to think how deeply he would dislike being the object of such sympathy. As if in confirmation, he turned to her, an almost fierce expression on his handsome features. "May I share this bench with you?" he asked.
She shifted over a tad, as he sat down heavily. For long moments, he said nothing. Then, quietly, he began to speak.
"I realize you would not ask. But I feel it essential that you know. I must lay before you the whole of Wickham's connection with my family. I would not wish another human being to hear this tale, but I have no doubt of your secrecy. My cousin Fitzwilliam has informed you of the relationship we had in our youth, and of my father's high opinion of him...which led to the monetary payment fulfilling my obligation to the terms of the will. You know also that he tried to claim the Kympton living?" She nodded.
He then went on to explain the nefarious scheme concerning the dearest of all his responsibilities. His own sister was the target of a plot involving the woman he had hired to protect her, a Mrs. Younge. Wickham, with the collusion of this woman, had nearly convinced Georgiana to elope. If not for his unscheduled visit to Ramsgate, and Miss Darcy's fear of disappointing her brother, they may well have been successful.
"Mr. Wickham's chief object was unquestionably my sister's fortune, which is thirty thousand pounds; but I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on me was a strong inducement."
Darcy's voice, low throughout this narrative, became almost a whisper. "His revenge would have been complete indeed. She was then but fifteen."
Elizabeth heard these revelations in astonishment. She had never dreamed of such an awful possibility, and that an innocent young lady had been the victim was in every way horrible. She could not stop tears from falling, and could barely speak the words of sorrow and remorse caught in her throat. "Oh, Mr. Darcy. Words cannot do justice to my feelings. That your dear young sister should have suffered so at his hands...that you should bear having to even hear his name spoken again. I regret ever mentioning..."
"You must regret nothing. You and your neighbours are also affected. I wished so much to protect my sister that I neglected my duty to others. I have simply made it easier for him to find more victims. I pray that that no one else will be punished for my caution. I suppose it is far easier to read about heroics than to act the part, even in a small way," he sighed, handing her his handkerchief.
For quite some time they sat in a silence that was strangely comfortable for them both. The moon shone brightly still, and eventually a measure of peace calmed them. "Mr. Darcy," she asked quietly, "why did you share this with me?"
He turned to look into her eyes. "I suppose I could not bear for you to think ill of me. If I cannot have your regard, I would at least not have your contempt."
She looked at him dazedly. "I had begun to think, after your farewell to me earlier in your aunt's company, that you no longer found paying attention to me an affront to your dignity." She attempted a smile. "But I really had no idea that my regard was desired."
With some dismay, he replied, "My cousin indicated that I have hidden my feelings for you quite well. I suppose I am far better versed in avoiding a woman's sentiment than in earning it. But if I could...if it were possible for you to consider...oh, Miss Elizabeth, I know I could become a better man, if only you did care!" He did not look at her, but off into the distance, and she was reminded of the many times he had stared out the parsonage windows.
Then, she had wondered what his thoughts could possibly be. Now that she knew, she was surprised at her own. She looked at his hands, which were clenched tightly, and could not resist reaching over to soothe them. Her only thought was to alleviate his distress, but at her motion towards him, he took her hands within his own much larger ones and caught them up to his lips.
He had surprisingly rough hands for a gentleman, and her gloveless fingers rejoiced in the feeling of being held within his. She replied, "I do not believe it possible. You are quite likely the best man I know."
Darcy could hardly believe his good fortune. That her feelings should have undergone such a material change from what he had understood after his discussion with his cousin, seemed impossible. He murmured, "I can hardly credit this, that you might contemplate my suit after my many mistakes, my poor judgment..."
"Do you mean, after calling me only ‘tolerable'? Are you at last in the mood to lend your consequence to a young lady so unworthy?" She dimpled up at him.
He had the grace to blush, and was thankful for the darkness that hid it. "Dearest! My faults are heavy indeed! It has been a long time since I thought you were the most exquisite young lady of my acquaintance. I only hope one night is enough that I might know all the ways I must apologize for hurting you. The list of my offences grows far too great!"
"Not so great, perhaps," she answered. "I admit that I gave that man's lies more than due weight because of my wounded vanity. What a shallow creature you see before you!"
"What I behold," he said, gathering her hands to his heart, "is the woman of my dreams." He pressed kisses to her fingertips, and turned her palms and wrists to receive his attentions as well. The feelings Elizabeth experienced were beyond anything she could have imagined. His caresses caused an inexplicable exhilaration, along with the urge to draw closer to his person. As she leaned towards him, he gathered her close, reaching around her to press his hands along her spine. She allowed the pressure to move her tightly into his arms; such a feeling of rightness overwhelmed her, she could not resist returning the embrace. For long moments he held her, their two shadows combined into one silhouette in the moonlight.
From the haven of his arms, Elizabeth sighed. Darcy quickly pulled back a few inches, that he might determine if she was uncomfortable with the liberties he had taken. "Are you well, my love?" he asked.
At this endearment, further proof of the depth of his emotions, she could not help but be pleased. Such feelings were so new, however, that she struggled to find proper words to express them.
"I have never been so content. I feel...like I have come home. I cannot help but wonder, however, what tomorrow will bring. Tomorrow...you depart for London. Perhaps you will come to your senses once you are far away from my dubious charms." She tried to smile.
"I have been away from you these many months, and the power of your charm has held firm," he replied. "You have bewitched me, heart, body and soul. A small separation will change nothing, except that my longing to be near you now has trebled. I must return the colonel to London tomorrow, but I shall ride the next day to Longbourn to ask your father's permission for your hand. I hope you do not believe in long engagements?"
"No sir, I am sure I do not, though I have never considered my opinion on the matter it until this minute. Mr. Darcy...I cannot address you otherwise! This is puzzling, that I should have given my heart to a near stranger," she teased.
"My name is Fitzwilliam James Edward Darcy, which is far too large a mouthful for such a personage as myself."
"Fitzwilliam..." she wanted to say his name aloud, that this enchanted interlude might seem less the dream and more real.
He smiled broadly, as a new, joyous sensation overflowed his customary restraint. "How I have longed to hear my name upon your lips...Elizabeth. I am the happiest of men."
"Fitzwilliam," she repeated with a smile. "I think I had better write a letter to carry with you to my father, lest he believe that I have quite lost my head. I fear I was not singing your praises when last I saw him, and he may find it difficult to understand the change. Or...I shall be travelling home a few weeks' time. Perhaps we should postpone this communication until I can acquaint him with our understanding in person?"
"I cannot wait, my love. I must secure his permission quickly, for I shall be able to think of nothing else until it is done."
"Oh, but..." she strove to elucidate the different emotions fighting for expression within her. "'Tis so new, the thought of us..." She moved back closer into the warmth of his embrace, and he tightened his arms around her. "Part of me wishes to announce it from the rooftops...I should be as loud as Lydia, shouting ‘He loves me!' to any who pass by. Another part wants to hold you quietly to myself, in complete and fierce privacy, that no one else might share or censure or even chaperone. I want you to be all mine, my sweet secret. And then there is my dear Jane..."
"Your sister Jane? Would she not wish you every happiness?"
At last Elizabeth pulled away from him, her anxiety on her sister's behalf creating an urgent need to stand. With her back to him, she tried to explain. "She has not been...well these last weeks."
"She is ill? Perhaps my London physician..."
"No, no," she hastened to add. "The ailment is not of the body, but of the spirit...of the heart."
"The heart?" he questioned, with a feeling of foreboding.
She turned back to him. "How can I possibly say to my sweetest, most beloved sister, ‘By the by, I shall shortly be wed to the dearest friend of the man who has trampled your finest feelings and exposed you to the world's derision for disappointed hopes.' I cannot bear watching her put on her bravest smile as she congratulates me on my fulfilled dreams, knowing her own to be in shambles. Oh, Fitzwilliam, what shall I do?"
He stood and drew her close once again. "I do not know. But I believe I shall be able to think better with you in my arms than so far away."
She laughed. "Ah yes, I was such a great distance." She snuggled into him, delighting in the feel of his hands stroking her hair. "I wish this night could last forever."
As for Darcy, he could not have agreed more; yet he knew if he was to keep his thoughts and actions under good regulation, that it must end soon. Still, he was loath to let her go, and to let her go without her promise to be his...'twas unthinkable. Temptation flared, as the day when he would finally call her his own seemed so unbearably far in the future. The young woman in his arms was far too innocent to understand the chaos her nearness caused his self-control. No matter; he was a gentleman, and his honour demanded that he protect her from harm, especially from himself. He forced his thoughts to focus on the problem of her sister, and it was his turn to sigh.
"Your sister...and Bingley...her heart was engaged? Are you sure?" he asked.
Elizabeth stepped back and stared at him in amazement. "How can you doubt it? I have never seen her so touched."
"I observed my friend's behaviour towards her attentively; and I could perceive that his partiality for Miss Bennet was beyond what I had ever witnessed in him. However, your sister I also watched. Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I was convinced that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment. If you have not been mistaken here, I must have been in an error. Your superior knowledge of your sister must make the latter probable."
Elizabeth considered his words thoughtfully. It was difficult to be open-minded when it came to one she loved so well, but she made an attempt. "You once said that neither of us perform to strangers; that would be equally true of my sister, if not more so. She is shy...and I daresay the improprieties of others in my family have taught her to take extra care in her own comportment. Mrs. Collins once told me much the same thing as you, so I suppose your opinion is understandable, though I cannot but disagree. Tell me...I would not wish you to betray the confidence of a friend, but if you can say anything at all...do you believe Mr. Bingley to be unaware of her regard?"
Darcy once again blessed the moonlight that hid his flushed countenance; in hindsight, his actions did not seem the act of friendship he had imagined, particularly in light of the pain they caused his beloved. It had seemed noble at the time; he had thought him kinder to Bingley than himself. Now, however, after having had to view his own relative's less-than-admirable behaviour through another's eye, he could recognize a home truth: while Mrs. Bennet was undoubtedly silly, his own aunt was rude and at times, vicious. To raise any objections on the basis of family was preposterous, especially considering Bingley's own sisters.
His prejudice had coloured his outlook, and his mistake had hurt, perhaps even lastingly, an innocent young woman and his dearest friend. He had much to atone for, however good his intentions, and could see that necessary communication with Bingley in London would postpone seeking out Elizabeth's father by yet another day. He had not the courage to admit still another blunder to her though, and limited his reply to the question asked: "I think I can safely say that he remains ignorant of it."
Suddenly, an old suspicion struck her. "Or, does he have an attachment closer to you? Miss Bingley said that he was to spend a good deal of time with...your sister."
He laughed mirthlessly. "Miss Bingley has no end of imagination. When you meet Georgiana, you will see how ridiculous that supposition to be. She is still very young, and has not yet recovered the confidence she lost...last summer.
"Elizabeth, we cannot let our happiness devolve to the choices of others. I deeply regret that I misunderstood your sister's sentiments, and I will certainly confess my mistaken opinion. However, I do not know if the depth of Bingley's feelings is sufficient to have survived the separation. If they have not, he was not worthy of her in the first place. If they have, will not our nuptials be opportunity for a renewal of their acquaintance? I promise to do everything I can to restore his confidence in her affections, if it is within my power to do so."
"I very much wish you had not offered your opinion on the matter at all," she replied seriously.
"I am in complete agreement with you. Once I have spoken with Bingley, I swear to limit all future advice to matters of business," he retorted with vehemence.
"Perhaps, if he is so weak-willed, I should be grateful instead," she sighed. "Jane is so very good -- I wish her to find someone deserving."
"Bingley is a fine man, just lacking in self-assurance. A fault that is correctible."
"Should he rely upon you, then, to amend his lack of self-reliance?" she teased. At this, his face assumed the look often seen when she had offered impertinent remarks in previous, less private visits -- his expression fiercened, his nostrils flared, his posture stiffened. He stepped the easy distance between them, and gently his hands cupped her face. In a husky voice, he almost whispered, "Do you know how many times I have wanted to still that wicked tongue of yours with my own?"
Elizabeth could not move. She could hardly breathe. Paralyzed by the intensity of his stare and the provocation of his words, she could not look away from his lips so near her own; she felt her heart pounding so loudly, she was sure he could hear it as well.
Darcy struggled for self-control, his breathing harsh to his own ears. So many times, she had taunted him with her quick wit, her repartee swift and often deadly. While his own intelligence was sharp, he was the first to admit that her general liveliness of character outflanked his natural reserve in any battle of words. When she displayed that clever intellect, it was all he could do not to physically demonstrate that his strength was not in spoken communication, but in the force of his own affection. Here alone with her in the moonlight, he nearly groaned at the intensity of his desire.
"Elizabeth," he breathed. "Only...only let me..." and bent his head to hers.
Posted on 2008-11-21
Though she had gone to bed very late, Elizabeth had no problem awakening at her usual early hour. Indeed, she felt an energy that had recently been lacking. She was surprised, however, to find that her friend Mrs. Collins did not join her at breakfast -- although she did not rise as early as Elizabeth, who frequently had time for a turn about the garden before the meal, she was not usually abed this late.
Mr. Collins, who was never verbose at the breakfast table, muttered something about his wife being indisposed, and proceeded to stuff his mouth full. Unwilling to provoke any more conversation with the rector, Elizabeth anxiously awaited her friend's appearance. Maria did not seem overly concerned, being more anxious to gain her brother's permission to accompany him to the village on his next excursion out. Lady Catherine claimed that the ribbons available there were superior in both quantity and quality to anything to be had in Hertfordshire, and she was most anxious to prove the truth of her words.
Indeed, Mr. Collins had already departed to attend to parishioner affairs in the village, taking an eager Maria along, before Mrs. Collins emerged. She looked somewhat haggard, although still her usual neat self.
"Charlotte," Elizabeth cried. "Are you well?"
"I am so sorry to have alarmed you, Lizzy. I feel somewhat better now, but admit that I am not at my best."
"You must return to your chambers. I cannot allow you to be up when you should be resting."
"'Tis nothing to concern yourself about, my dear. Indeed, this particular malady has been a continual companion of mine for some time. I usually can pay it less heed than I was able to this morn."
"Charlotte, we must call the apothecary. There has to be a remedy!"
"Oh, but there is a cure, it just wants time," Charlotte replied merrily.
The puzzled expression on Elizabeth's face cleared as a suspicion regarding this "illness" took shape. "Oh Charlotte, would congratulations be in order?" she whispered.
"I believe so," Charlotte replied softly. "We will not know for certain for some time yet, but we have every hope. I...we do not wish to say anything as yet to...the neighbourhood in general."
By this, Elizabeth could infer that even her intrepid friend quailed at the sheer volume of advice, guidance, and opinion guaranteed to be forthcoming from Rosings at the announcement. Indeed, such counsel would probably be ringing in Charlotte's ears until the child grew to maturity. And beyond!
"Charlotte, truly, you must go back to bed. There is nothing to be gained by overdoing. Think of your health, and take extra care."
"I admit I am not up to my usual standard today. Yet, there is much to do, and Mary is incapable of running the household if I lay abed. She is a good girl, but young, and Clayton is..."
"Charlotte, cease! What kind of a friend would I be if I could not help in your hour of need. I will see to things. You must rest!"
Charlotte attempted a few weak protests, but eventually gave in to the good sense of her friend, and returned upstairs. Elizabeth was thankful for some extra tasks to keep her hands busy, and also that her normally observant friend's indisposition prevented her from noticing the rosy blushes that would not seem to stay long away. Every time her thoughts strayed to Fitzwilliam, which admittedly was far more often than was probably proper, her body betrayed her. It was all she could do not to run to the mirror and look at her face, to see if his kisses were imprinted there for all to see.
And he was leaving today! She knew that he would not fail to call before departing, but the odds that there might be a private moment were too slim to hope for. She had written the letter for her father as soon as she had left his presence -- albeit reluctantly, last night. They had arranged that he should borrow her copy of Byron, the letter secreted within, for the journey. He had quoted "She walks in beauty, like the night" to her, until she worried aloud on whether the strength of their love could survive his attempts at romantic recital...at which point, he was forced to stop her teasing with the only truly effective weapon in his arsenal. She blushed again, and sighed at the memory.
The gentlemen arrived to take their leave late in the morning. Elizabeth apologized for Mr. and Mrs. Collins' absence, but otherwise could say but little. She could not keep her eyes off her intended, wishing to memorize his appearance in the daylight. The colonel seemed exceptionally merry, poking mild fun at his cousin, who was as reserved as usual. "Miss Elizabeth," Darcy intoned formally. "We have come to take our leave of you."
"Yes, yes," the colonel rejoined. "And you would think we were departing for a funeral procession for all the high spirits of my companion. What is the matter, Darcy? Did you wish to extend our visit? Did you not get enough of our dear aunt's special insights?" He laughed at his own joke.
Darcy was not of a disposition in which happiness overflows in mirth. "I find the company much improved this year," Darcy replied solemnly. He too, looked often upon his beloved, but as that was usual behaviour for him, his cousin noticed nothing untoward. However, after visiting for some minutes, the colonel began to feel his presence was somewhat superfluous. The two others in the room seemed intent upon looking at each other - at least one of them blushing furiously - neither of them having much to say. He very shortly made some excuse about seeing that their carriage was readied for departure, bowed over Elizabeth's hand, and took his leave. Darcy did not even make an attempt at honouring the propriety that demanded he be off with his cousin. The moment the other was out the door, he had Elizabeth in his arms.
"Oh, Fitzwilliam," she cried, "how can I bear it? I know I am ridiculous, but it seems unfair that we have so little time together before this separation. I cannot tell when I will see you again!" She struggled to control her emotions.
Darcy looked into the fine eyes filled with unshed tears. "Dearest, once I have your father's permission, I can write to you. I will see you as often as may be, and I will not agree to any wedding date that is overly distant. I, too, loathe the parting."
Elizabeth smiled weakly at the thought of receiving a letter from Darcy while still anywhere in Lady Catherine's realm. "Perhaps we should wait to correspond until I reach Gracechurch Street. Call me melodramatic, but I shudder to think of what your aunt might have to say about that!"
At length, though, the time came when they had to part, and the reader may only imagine just how painful it was for them both. Darcy gave over his handkerchief, as she tried to restore order to her appearance. When she had finished, she attempted to hand it back, but he urged her to keep it. She smiled. "I have not returned the one you gave me last evening. At this rate, I shall have quite a collection, and you, sir, shall have to invest in a linen manufactory! I suppose that Lord Byron is an unnecessary accomplice, unless you are lacking reading materials for the drive?" She withdrew the letter to her father from the tome in question.
"As much as I admire Byron, I believe I am well set with books. I am unlikely to be able to concentrate as it is." He pocketed the missive. "I do have one request for the time that remains."
"Anything," she replied.
"It may seem a bit unusual. It concerns my cousin Anne."
"Your cousin? What of her?" She was a bit surprised. In the time she had been a resident of the parsonage, Anne had not had more than a very few words for her. She seemed sullen and uninterested in company. Elizabeth had discarded the idea of Miss de Bourgh as a bride for Fitzwilliam even before she had learned the truth of their relationship. Such a handsome, forceful man as her beloved could never be paired with the sickly heiress, no matter the incentive. One could never picture such a match, and she wondered at the mother for attempting to force the matter. He was vibrant, alive; she was a shadow.
"Anne has never been strong. As the years go by, she worsens. While we have neither of us ever been interested in the relationship which Aunt Catherine has assigned, of course, we have always been friends. For some time, however, she has retreated into herself to such an extent that I have been powerless to reach her. I am unable to be of use to her. To importune my aunt to make any material change to either Anne's medical care or surroundings is useless without making...other commitments," he finished.
Elizabeth arched her eyebrows at this admission. "Surely she would not hold the health of her only child hostage to your proposals of marriage?" she cried.
He grimaced. "I see you have heard my aunt's wishes. No, she is not so awful as that. She simply does not agree that the way she conducts her affairs, and those of her daughter, must change. She does not see how Anne's health is impacted by her domineering character, nor that her physician is incompetent. The only way to wrest control of my cousin's care would be to marry her. At one time, I thought perhaps duty would demand I do so. Yet I could not help hoping for improvement from other quarters, that there might be some other, any other solution. And then...I fell in love with another." He regarded her with a look so full of adoration that she could not help her blush. "Once my heart was engaged elsewhere, I realized that duty could not compromise honour, and marriage to her was forever out of the question. I fervently wish that there were better answers. I simply do not have them. I shall always have some regrets, I suppose." He sighed.
"This morning I managed to take my leave of her privately. I wished to tell her of our engagement, as I am sure that we cannot depend upon Lady Catherine's blessing and thus did not know when or even if I would be able to speak to her again. I absolutely rely upon her discretion. For the first time in years, she showed an interest in a topic unrelated to her various maladies. She expressed a desire to know you better."
Elizabeth could not have been more astonished. "Are you sure she was...pleased?"
"I believe so. She smiled and...I should perhaps not reveal what she said."
"You must! Or I shall not be able to have any faith in her good will."
"I think her exact words were, ‘Mother will have your head for a hatrack, Darcy. Well done! I must know this courageous female who is prepared to brave the old harridan's wrath.'"
"You mock me, sir! She surely did not say such a thing."
"She did. She suggested that if you were to make use of the pianoforte in Mrs. Jenkinson's room, she would find a way to join you."
Elizabeth could not suppress her amusement. "Well, ‘tis true that I would at least be in no one's way in that part of the great house. We would not wish to wound the trained ear of any musical proficients in residence."
Elizabeth's impertinence had predictable results; thus, Darcy's leavetaking was delayed at least momentarily, and only good fortune and a kind fate prevented quite a scandal at the Hunsford parsonage.
The very next day, music in hand, Elizabeth presented herself to Mrs. Jenkinson with her request. An older woman with a perpetual worried grimace, Miss de Bourgh's companion accepted her application with a dignified nod of her head, and led the way to her rooms. While probably not in the family apartments, Elizabeth thought they must not be far from them either, so that Anne would not be absent her aid if needed. She had no way to tell Miss de Bourgh of her presence, and could only hope that if she came at the same time each day, arrangements could somehow be made. At any rate, she was making what efforts she could, and some exertion must be up to the other lady.
The instrument was a good one, though not nearly so ornate as the one in the music room, and Elizabeth soon resolved to cease worrying about clandestine meetings and make use of the practice. It had been some time since she had done anything but the most perfunctory of playing, and she soon was absorbed in the piece before her. Thus she was surprised when, upon completing some of the more difficult stanzas, she heard soft applause coming from behind. She swiftly turned and stood to greet Miss de Bourgh.
Their previous meetings had all been in company, and in the oppressive formality of Rosings' lavish atmosphere. There, Miss de Bourgh had seemed to fade into insignificance, as though she had ceased to compete for attention with the gaudy ornamentation; if Mrs. Jenkinson had not prodded and fussed at her, she might have been able to disappear completely. Elizabeth felt all the awkwardness of their previous silences, and was unsure how to proceed.
"Mrs. Jenkinson was kind enough to allow me the use of her instrument," she began.
The other lady waved away the preliminaries. "I thank you for coming, Miss Elizabeth. I was deeply interested to hear the intelligence my cousin gave before his departure yesterday. Nothing has given me such amusement in a long while. I thought to better acquaint myself with someone willing to defy convention so boldly, with only the dubious reward of Darcy's constant companionship as incentive. Perhaps...your courage will bolster my own," she finished mildly.
"Please, call me Lizzy. We shall soon be cousins, I hope."
"And you must call me Anne."
"I promise to do so as long as we are alone. I cannot believe your mother would approve of such informality. I am not quite sure how you managed to convince your companion that we should be left alone together!"
"Her daughter is visiting, and she is wild to spend time fussing at her. I told her that your music would soothe me, and we were not to be disturbed. She accepted the excuse happily."
"Should not I continue playing then, that our ruse might not be discovered?"
"Her daughter has been given rooms in another part of the house; we will not be disturbed until tea, I should think."
The ladies managed to talk easily for nearly the remainder of the hour; there seemed no end to Anne's curiosity about Elizabeth's family, and her opinions on many subjects. Not until it was nearly time to depart did Elizabeth have opportunity to learn more of Anne, who had all of her cousin's reserve when it came to personal matters. And, though she did not say overmuch, it was enough for Elizabeth to understand that she felt life to be a great burden. She was constantly ill with a variety of physical complaints. She had no appetite. And along with all this, she had no amusements whatsoever.
Lady Catherine had an opinion on Anne's exposure to any matter, person, or even topic. Nothing escaped her notice; Anne might have no thoughts not regulated, no interests not approved, no attitude not conforming. "If I had been a healthier, stronger person, I might have found a way to subvert her, at least in some small ways, but I am too fatigued to do it. It seems the effort required would prove too great. My only rebellion is one of naught. If I cannot think what I choose, I shall think of nothing at all."
Elizabeth felt a rush of compassion for this fellow creature, so richly blessed materially and so suffocated in consequence. An idea occurred to her, and, ever impulsive, she did not hesitate to speak it aloud.
"Anne, you have triggered a memory. I was always a lover of nature, and as a child I could hardly be compelled to stay indoors when the weather was fine. I learned to read only because the weather forced my hand, and I shudder to think what a savage I should have become if we lived in fairer climes. Fortunately, I possessed an inquisitive mind, and so my education progressed by and by. Yet I came to a point when my desire to learn languished; probably it was an unusually warm springtime, I remember not. My father obviously was concerned that I should become an empty-headed hoyden, and wished to introduce some intellectual balance. One morning, as I was leaving for my usual morning rambles, he asked me a riddle."
"A riddle? Whatever for?"
"At the time, I could not have said. I suppose I thought he was teasing. My curiosity for the answer justified his methods. All morning I puzzled on it, and finally could not bear my ignorance. I requested the answer, and father directed me to a book. I read it, learning enough eventually to figure the solution. When I proudly announced the answer to him, he congratulated me on my wisdom. The next day, he gave yet another riddle. Off I went on another quest for knowledge. My interest in learning was reignited, and it has not failed since."
"Your father's methods were quite devious; I hope you appreciate your good fortune to have such a teacher. Yet I fail to see any correlation between your youthful indolence and my current situation."
"Only this," Elizabeth replied. "My mind worked at that puzzle despite my slothful disposition. I do not mean to imply that your temperament is anything like my own; only that my mind worked regardless of it. Your mother cannot help the freedom of your thoughts, though she may regulate their expression. Let me give you a riddle for each day I have left. You shall practice thinking your very own thoughts again. You will not be able to keep from it."
"I do not expect similar results. After all, if I cannot determine the answer, I can hardly delve into mythology or mathematics with my mother's approval."
"Had I been older, with any exposure to the world or even much common sense, I could have been successful regardless. Your education may have been ordered to suit others, but you have had it. If, after all, you cannot find the resolution, I will tell you, and we will share the amusement. If you are victorious, it will be a small triumph over your mother; if not, it would be a pleasant enough distraction, correct?" Elizabeth might have felt apprehensive about being so candid; yet, she knew that Fitzwilliam trusted this woman. She would as well.
Anne smiled, perhaps the first genuine one of their acquaintance. "I shall attempt it. Perhaps I shall even be able to stump you, eventually."
"I shall look forward to it, Anne."
She left her with this:
What common English verb becomes its own past tense by rearranging its letters?
Alone in her room that night, Elizabeth felt all the longing one might expect, wishing for some news of Fitzwilliam. Yet, she looked upon the day with a small sense of satisfaction as well. There were, perhaps, no great solutions to Anne's circumstances; a small one might have to do.
Posted on Chapter 7
Posted on 2008-11-29
The Darcy Carriage, enroute to London from Kent
Richard Fitzwilliam was waiting. He had not been surprised when his cousin had remained behind alone in the parsonage with Miss Elizabeth, though Darcy was normally a stickler for propriety. Such an opportunity to make his apologies might not come his way again, and Richard was aware of just how stricken the younger man had been when he discovered Miss Bennet's poor opinion.
That was an hour ago though, and now Richard was nearly bursting with curiosity regarding the outcome of such a conversation.
Unfortunately, Darcy had not said a word other than what was specifically related to their journey since climbing into the carriage. This was quite usual for him, as he was never overly talkative. Still, there were signs -- to the trained observer - that indicated perhaps the discussion had been a success. For one thing, his cousin's countenance was not quite so stern -- something softer, perhaps about the eyes and mouth. His posture was relaxed. And he'd been on the same page of that book for a good long while. Finally, the colonel's patience waned.
"Darcy, you are the master of keeping your own counsel. You kept me waiting in this carriage a good twenty minutes while you said your farewells to Miss Bennet. Were you able to raise her estimation of your character at all?"
Darcy was somewhat surprised it had taken his inquisitive cousin this long to ask. "Richard, what would you say if I told you I am soon to be a married man?"
The colonel let out a bark of laughter. "I would say, Darcy, that you share a similar delusional capability with our dearest aunt...unless, of course, you have decided on cousin Anne for your bride?"
"Fitzwilliam, I shall be marrying Miss Elizabeth Bennet and no other."
"How is this possible? I could swear that only yesterday her heart was untouched! I had not thought her so fickle, to be swayed by a brief apology."
It was Darcy's turn to laugh. "I assure you, my friend, there was nothing brief about it, and Miss Elizabeth is hardly capricious. I was able to arrange an interview with her last night."
"Last night? So late?" He stared in amazement.
"Do not ask for details. It was a miracle and I am grateful to a kind fate for the chance I was given to explain. I tell this to no one but you. I believe that she was not...unaffected by me, but my ill behaviour and Wickham's lies gave her ample reason for dismay. I was able to convince her of the strength of my feelings, and I go to her father for permission to wed shortly after I return you to your regiment."
Richard shook his head, for once too astounded to speak.
"I suppose the wedding will not happen as quickly as I wish, but I have no patience for the banns. Elizabeth is travelling to London after Kent, so I will have to wait until she returns to her home. However, I will brook no delays beyond what is absolutely necessary."
At last the colonel found his voice. "Surely the settlement details alone will take months, Darcy! A man of your wealth and property cannot simply rush to the altar. Not to mention the talk this will give rise to. Be reasonable, man!"
"I have decided to settle the Wilshire estate on her; as I am prepared to be generous with her cash settlement and allowance, I do not believe that her father will be inclined to argue. I am convinced this can be finalized expeditiously. As to the sensibilities of the ton's gossipmongers, I care not. Miss Elizabeth is a gentleman's daughter, and is certainly superior to the station she was born to. Many others have married with far more haste, to brides far less worthy. This is much too dull a scandal to be anything beyond a nine days' wonder."
Stunned by his cousin's apparent unconcern for matters that just a month ago would have been of the gravest import, the colonel could not help a last protest. "Darcy, this is madness! Have you stopped to think?"
Darcy just looked at him with his own unique, penetrating stare, a half smile on his lips. Richard sighed. The one thing his cousin could never be accused of was impulsiveness.
Much later, the colonel had nearly dozed off when he caught Darcy's low-voiced reply: "I assure you, Richard, I can think of nothing else."
Rosings Park and the Hunsford Parsonage
The next days proceeded slowly; if she had not had her visits with Anne to plan for and look forward to, Elizabeth would have found the pace excruciating. Charlotte continued to feel quite ill, and was forced to remain quiet, while Elizabeth and Maria took over as many of her duties as she would allow. Maria did her best to amuse Charlotte, while Elizabeth trekked daily to "practice" at Rosings.
On her first return visit, she had been somewhat embarrassed about pursuing her impetuous suggestion to exchange riddles. Still, she had written another on a sheet of paper folded in her reticule, on the chance that Anne might be open to continuing their wordplay. For the entirety of that visit, the subject remained unmentioned between them. Indeed, they spent much time talking about Elizabeth's new favourite subject, Anne's handsome cousin.
Anne was privy to all sorts of the intimate knowledge of his family, including tales of his childhood exploits that he might wish forgotten. All told, it was a delightful hour, made especially so by this further evidence that Anne held no romantic design for Fitzwilliam, and possessed no jealousy whatsoever. They laughed together about Elizabeth's mistaken impressions of him in Hertfordshire, Anne finding his comment regarding Lizzy being "tolerable" uproariously funny. Upon Elizabeth's imminent departure, however, Anne passed her a folded slip of paper. Lizzy immediately knew what it must be, and reciprocated with her own prepared note. Back at Hunsford, she smiled to read the three neatly printed words, the solution to the first riddle: eat becomes ate.
Thereafter, each visit ended with these exchanges. Elizabeth's next offered another simple one, as she hoped to build Anne's confidence:
When can you add two to eleven and get one as the correct answer? She decided she was making it too easy for her when she read Anne's response the next day: When two hours are added to eleven o'clock, one of the clock is correct. And that is but one hour and 59 minutes more than it took to furnish this response!
As the days passed, Elizabeth became impressed with Anne's mental acuity. In each response, Anne crowed her triumph in what might have been termed a less-than ladylike humility. She even began to compose her own challenging word puzzles to include with her written answers, and this evidence of new confidence satisfied Lizzy tremendously.
In addition to her sessions with Anne, their engagements at Rosings were as frequent during the last week of her stay as they had been at first. Elizabeth could not see Lady Catherine without recollecting that she might very soon be presented to her as her future niece; nor could she think, without a smile, of what her ladyship's indignation would be. "What will she say?---how will she behave?" were questions with which she amused herself. So, though the time passed slowly and she could not help but wonder how Fitzwilliam fared with his quest, she was occupied enough that it was bearable.
The day before her departure, she at last had a letter from her father. As he was a dilatory correspondent, she knew only earth-shattering news would rouse him to his pen, and she was certain she knew what inspired this one. With mixed feelings of anxiety and anticipation, she retired to her room to read it, that the ever-observant Charlotte might have no evidence of her agitation. With trembling hands, she opened a singled folded sheet that read:
My Dearest Lizzy,
I have but recently been blessed with the presence of a certain gentleman whom, I was once certain, would never have cause to enter my humble abode. You may imagine my amazement to find that you, my most sensible of daughters, wish him to be my son! You have been sly -- I was convinced you wished him as far from our lives as may be, when the opposite was your intent. You have managed to rob him of his independence and me of my complacency in one fell stroke, for I have given him my consent. He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse any thing, which he condescended to ask. I now give it to you, if you are resolved on having him. But let me advise you to think better of it. I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. In order that you might have some time to consider this step, I have not yet informed your mother and sisters of your nuptials. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.
Lizzy closed her eyes at this evidence of his disapprobation. That she, his favourite child, should be distressing him by her choice, should be filling him with fears and regrets in disposing of her---was a wretched reflection, and she sat in misery. She could read his hurt that she would have surprised him so, as he had always prided himself that he knew her so well. But how could he have known, when she had not? She had never dreamed that the feelings which Mr. Darcy had always been able to rouse in her were not related to disgust. She had heard, of course, that the opposite of love was not hate, but indifference...and indifference was certainly an emotion that he had never inspired. How earnestly did she then wish that her former opinions had been more reasonable, her expressions more moderate!
She sat for some time, brooding, before taking herself to task. Yes, her father was distressed, but only because he could not know her betrothed as she did. Eventually, he would appreciate Fitzwilliam's true worth, and would learn to respect him for those qualities which she had herself only recently acknowledged. It would take some time, but he would see that all was well. With her emotions in check and her chin lifted, she determined that it was time to begin her toilet in preparation for their farewell invitation to Rosings.
Lizzy entered the grandiose drawing room at Rosings with mixed emotions. She was eager to return home, that she might begin to reassure her father concerning her choice of bridegrooms. She was equally anxious that she might have some word from Fitzwilliam. She knew he would not write to her until she had left Hunsford, to spare her his aunt's sure-to-be vulgar display at the news of their engagement. While she loved Charlotte, she could not help but be often impatient with her husband. There was also her concern that she had not heard from Jane in several days, and she very much wished for the reunion with her sister and relatives. It was time for the visit to end.
Still, in a very short period of time, she had become quite fond of Anne, who seemed to be blossoming - at least within the confines of their limited acquaintance. The improvements were subtle, to be sure -- Anne shared her cousin's inherent reserve, and had little to say in company. But she was less aloof, paying more attention to the conversations around her. Occasionally Elizabeth would notice a sparkle in her eyes at some inane speech by Mr. Collins, or they would share an amused glance when Lady Catherine launched into her detailed vision of how the grounds of Pemberley might be vastly improved, if only Darcy were to follow her expert horticultural guidance. Tonight, she determined to pay as much attention to Anne as she was able, for who knew when they might have opportunity to renew their friendship. She could hardly imagine that her ladyship would permit any correspondence, or - heaven forbid - attend the wedding.
For the honour of Rosings, Lady Catherine served dinner in the great dining room, though their party was not large. Her ladyship looked on in approval as the main entree was served - a whole roasted pig, complete with a large apple in his gaping roasted mouth, carried in with much pomp by two liveried servants. Charlotte immediately turned a rather unbecoming shade of green. Anne and Elizabeth stared at the pig, at Charlotte, and then at each other, and both girls had to look away before giving in to the temptation to laugh aloud. Indeed, Lizzy was certain she heard a rather unladylike snort from Anne's direction, quickly disguised by polite coughs; this in turn triggered Mrs. Jenkinson's solicitous attentions, which provided a much needed distraction.
Mrs. Collins' sudden lack of appetite did not escape Lady Catherine's notice, but she was convinced that all that was required was assurances of the rigorous attention to the menu paid by the great lady herself, of the exacting standards she set for everyone in the kitchen from the cook to the lowliest maid, and of the great honour accorded to her company by her menu selections.
In such conversation did the meal finally draw to a close, after which they adjourned to the music room, where Elizabeth was entreated to display the results of all her recent practice on their instrument. As very little practicing had actually taken place, Lizzy was reluctant, but neither did she wish to be impolite or appear ungrateful, so she consented to play. After her two pieces, her ladyship soliloquized for some ten minutes on all the improvements she could hear in Miss Elizabeth's art and form, and how well her advice had been proven correct. Anne and Lizzy could not refrain from smiling at each other in shared amusement.
On this harmonious note, the Hunsford party made their farewells. Anne discreetly pressed a much folded note into Elizabeth's hand and she wished her well on her journey. Lizzy could only smile fondly, and squeeze her hand tightly for a moment, wordlessly attempting to express her delight in their companionship during what might otherwise have been a difficult time.
Alone in her room at the parsonage, Lizzy unfolded and read the note from Anne, laughing delightedly at her words.
My soon-to-be Cousin:
Methinks you are too proud of your celebrated wit and sharp tongue, and need a dose of humility. Here is a puzzle to accompany you on the long journey home. I am sure its words will buzz inside your empty head until you are quite mad with despair. You shall just have to make an effort to write to me (perhaps Georgiana would do for co-conspirator?) so that I may help you find the explanation! Do not worry overmuch about your spelling mistakes and atrocious grammar -- I shall be quite generous in my opinions of you, and make allowances for your country breeding and lack of governesses to oversee your education.
I pity you a lifetime with my stuffy cousin, but since it gains you such family as myself and my gracious mother, I suppose you shall have no real cause to repine.
A riddle followed below this bit of nonsense, and it took Lizzy some contemplation to study out the solution:
Four men sat down to play.
They played all night till break of day.
They played for gold and not for fun,
With separate scores for everyone.
When they had come to square accounts,
They all had made quite fair amounts.
Can you the paradox explain -
If no one lost, how all could gain?
When she finally figured the answer, she could do nothing else but pen a reply -- such wit as Anne displayed should surely not go unrewarded!
To the High and Mighty Anne:
I realize that you crassly have no appreciation for all that I will be gaining with marriage to your cousin. Such fine dresses! Such carriages! Such pin money! Surely I can bear his stuffiness with the promise of these rewards awaiting me. That you aspired to him at all was lunacy, as only my renowned allure was bound to stir his heart.
‘Tis too bad that you will be unable to dance at my wedding -- I will have the MUSICIANS play a piece sure to become a favorite of yours -- Haydn's Lamentations!
"The beginning of eternity,
The end of time and space,
The beginning of every end,
And the end of every place."
Who am I?
Her task completed, Elizabeth fell into a dreamless slumber, not awakening until much later than usual the next morning. Completing her packing and helping Maria, who was trying desperately to remember Lady Catherine's sage advice on the proper way to pack a trunk - and making a complete mess of it in the process - took quite some time, so that they were not away as early as planned. Before leaving, Lizzy made time to give her note for Anne to Charlotte to discreetly deliver when she was able to do so privately. Though Charlotte was curious, she accepted Lizzy's somewhat weak explanations with no more than a raise of the eyebrow.
At length the chaise arrived, the trunks fastened on, the parcels placed within, and it was pronounced to be ready. After an affectionate parting between the friends, Elizabeth was attended to the carriage by Mr. Collins. As they walked down the garden, he commissioned her with his best respects to all her family, not forgetting his thanks for the kindness he had received at Longbourn in the winter, and his compliments to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, though unknown. He then handed her in, Maria followed, and the door was on the point of being closed, when he suddenly reminded them, with some consternation, that they had hitherto forgotten to leave any message for the ladies at Rosings.
"But," he added, "you will of course wish to have your humble respects delivered to them, with your grateful thanks for their kindness to you while you have been here."
Elizabeth made no objection;---the door was then allowed to be shut, and the carriage drove off.
"Good gracious!" cried Maria, after a few minutes silence, "it seems but a day or two since we first came!---and yet how many things have happened!"
"A great many indeed," said her companion with a sigh.
Posted on 2008-12-06
Elizabeth and Jane's reunion at the Gardiner household was certainly a joyful one. Amidst the various engagements which the kindness of her aunt had reserved for them, Elizabeth took time to study Jane's general disposition. It seemed to her that Jane had cast off the aura of sadness that accompanied her when she had left Longbourn. She was unable to find a private moment to question her sister, but it seemed that Jane was as cheerful as she had ever been. And later that evening, when callers were announced, Elizabeth noticed no surprise whatsoever in Jane's countenance at the appearance of both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley.
As for Elizabeth, she had not dared to hope that she might see her lover so soon upon her arrival in London. She surreptitiously studied him, wishing to run to him, fighting the urge to abandon propriety entirely and throw herself into his arms. He quickly crossed the room to her, taking her hand and bestowing a kiss that caused shivers down her spine and only increased her longing. "Miss Elizabeth," he spoke softly. "May I say that you have only increased in beauty since last we met?"
She blushed, and asked after Georgiana's health, to which he could only make favourable reply.
As for Darcy, he could hardly breathe. He quickly decided that he must gather his self control or disgrace them both, and lapsed into his customary silence. Elizabeth too well understood his emotions to misunderstand his response. They both of them turned their attentions to the other two in the room -- Mrs. Gardiner having excused herself to see to some refreshments. It was plain to see, however, that neither Bingley or Jane had much notice to spare for any other. They were wholly absorbed in quiet conversation, which appeared to mostly consist of Bingley's compliments to her sister's person, and Jane's smiles and blushes.
Elizabeth ventured quietly, "How did this come to pass? Jane has been a remarkably poor correspondent of late, and I begin to understand why!"
Darcy smiled. "Upon my return from Kent, I called upon Bingley. I happened to mention meeting you there... and what my hopes were. He was most earnest in his congratulations, but was far more interested in gaining any possible intelligence regarding your elder sister. It was an easy matter to mention that she was visiting your aunt in London."
"Surely he knew that. Caroline returned Jane's call," Elizabeth retorted. A sudden suspicion occurred to her, and she shook her head in disgust. "She wouldn't have hid this from him, surely?"
Darcy maintained his countenance with an effort. While he had confessed his part in the duplicity to Charles, he was not quite ready to do so -- yet - to Jane's sister. He answered her confusion. "He had no idea she was so near. And he wasted no time in seeking her out, as you can see. He has been a regular visitor here during these past several days."
"I can see that Jane is much restored. And you, sir... how do you fare? I received a letter from my father."
"He was somewhat astonished at my request, as he was quite sure that you could never care for me. I am afraid that he thinks you..."
"Quite mercenary," Elizabeth finished for him.
He looked at her with some asperity. "That was not what I intended to say. What he believes is that you are quite the martyr, sacrificing your ideals of love for the future good of your family."
Elizabeth was rather amused by this description of herself. "If I would not save the family fortunes by marrying Mr. Collins, whatever made him think I would do so now?"
He gave her a crooked smile. "I imagine he could see I possess a few more charms than your illustrious cousin."
"Yes, yes," Elizabeth waved away his explanation. "Ten thousand charms a year more. But does that not make me the mercenary, as I said?"
Darcy feigned hurt. "Truly madam, do you see no difference in the physical attributes of your cousin and myself? You injure me."
Elizabeth laughed to hear him tease her. "I would not add to your already monumental pride by telling you that you are quite the most handsome man of my acquaintance, and that I shall be the envy of every woman in London. No, I see plainly that I gain all the advantage in this alliance, and you must beware."
This little mockery brought to the surface all the feelings he struggled so manfully to repress. He turned away, hoping to regain control of his desire.
His innocent betrothed, however, thought perhaps she had offended. "Fear not," she said quietly, "I shall not hold you to this scheme if you are having second thoughts?" This last, she phrased as a question, for it had indeed occurred to her that he might realize how little she had to contribute to his consequence, and she was not as full of confidence as she pretended.
He turned back to her, and the look in his eyes was so full of longing, that she could not doubt his sincerity. "My sweet, lovely Elizabeth -- perhaps we might inform your family and Mr. Bingley tonight of our engagement? Your aunt has kindly invited us to dine. I desire nothing more than to let the world know that you are to be mine."
Mrs. Gardiner re-entered the room with a tray of light refreshments, and the various parties in the room forced themselves to greater attention to the niceties. By the time Mr. Gardiner entered, dressed for dinner, they had been laughing and talking for quite some time.
Elizabeth was amazed at how comfortable Fitzwilliam was with her aunt and uncle, watching him discussing various shipping strategies with Mr. Gardiner as though they were longtime friends. Jane noticed her puzzled look. "Whatever concerns you, dear sister?" she asked.
With a start, Elizabeth pulled her attention away from the two men. "Oh, ‘tis nothing," she blushed. "I was just marvelling at how Mr. Darcy and our uncle seem to speak together. It is as though... as though..."
"As though they were associates?" Jane asked. "I too have noticed this. Every time they are together, they debate some new topic, ranging from business to Napoleon. Char... er... Mr. Bingley says that Mr. Darcy genuinely takes delight in their association."
"Mr. Darcy has been here before?" Lizzy asked, too astonished by this intelligence to note Jane's slip of the tongue.
"Oh yes. He came with Mr. Bingley ten days ago. It seems that Miss Bingley never informed him of my presence in London. After Mr. Darcy left his aunt, he visited Char... Mr. Bingley and in the course of their conversation, happened to mention meeting you in Kent, and that you said I was here visiting our aunt and uncle. He called the next day. Mr. Darcy had some business or other out of town, but has been a frequent visitor since his return."
"Accompanying Charles, you mean?" asked Lizzy slyly.
It was Jane's turn to blush. She looked round to see that all in the company were otherwise agreeably engaged. "Oh Lizzy, I have missed you so. Charles... Mr. Bingley has asked me to marry him! When we return to Longbourn, he will reopen Netherfield, and ask permission of our father!"
Elizabeth's congratulations were given with a sincerity, a warmth, a delight, which words could but poorly express. Every sentence of kindness was a fresh source of happiness to Jane. Still, there was more to be said. She did not wish her sister to be completely surprised if Fitzwilliam followed through with his announcement. "Jane... perhaps it will astonish you to find that Mr. Darcy has already gone to father?"
Though suspicion was very far from Miss Bennet's general habits, she was absolutely incredulous.
"You are joking, Lizzy. This cannot be!---engaged to Mr. Darcy! No, no, you shall not deceive me. I know it to be impossible."
"This is a wretched beginning indeed! My sole dependence was on you; and I am sure nobody else will believe me, if you do not. Yet, I am in earnest. I speak nothing but the truth. He loves me, and we are engaged."
Jane looked at her doubtingly. "Oh, Lizzy! It cannot be. I know how much you dislike him."
"You know nothing of the matter. That is all to be forgot. Perhaps I did not always love him so well as I do now. But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable. This is the last time I shall ever remember it myself."
Jane hastened to assure her sister of every happiness, adding, "Truly, the air in Kent must be quite invigorating. It seems you have returned with an entirely new and different mind than the one with which you left!"
The two sisters shared a delighted laugh, as Mrs. Gardiner announced that dinner was served. The gentlemen escorted the ladies in, and Lizzy, feeling Darcy's strong arm beneath her fingers, decided that she had every reason to rejoice.
Mr. Gardiner had his own suspicions about Mr. Darcy's interests, and when he suggested they forego the usual separation of the sexes, he was amused to note the pleased expression all four of his young guests wore. When they entered the parlour, Mr. Bingley led Jane to the settee, but Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth on his arm, halted near the fireplace and turned to face the company. He cleared his throat somewhat nervously; Elizabeth looked up at him. Mr. Gardiner caught a look he had never seen in his niece's expression... adoration, that was it.
"I would like to share some very good news," Mr. Darcy began. "I have applied to Mr. Bennet for permission to wed Miss Elizabeth, and he has granted it."
Elizabeth's shining eyes confirmed the glad tidings, and the assembled party was quick to offer enthusiastic congratulations.
Mrs. Gardiner was the first to ask, "Do we know yet when the event shall take place?"
Mr. Darcy answered, "We hope that it shall be within two weeks of the return to Longbourn." As Elizabeth turned a startled glance on him, he added, "I must return to Pemberley, as we have intensive improvements to complete before harvest. We must either wed before, or wait until after. I confess an impatience that makes me loathe a delay of months."
Mr. Bingley chortled, "Good thinking, Darce. By all means, it must be accomplished before the crops are got in. You see, Miss Elizabeth, he is just an old farmer after all." Hearty laughter followed this remark, and an energetic discussion of details followed, with the menfolk learning far more than they ever thought necessary regarding the planning of such a momentous event.
Bingley announced to the group that he was reopening Netherfield, and immediately extended his friend an open invitation to join him there to stay until the nuptials took place, and to bring his sister and any others of his family who might wish to attend.
It was quite late when the gentlemen took their leave. The ladies walked them out for a few moments of privacy as they said their good-byes.
"Today has been a perfect day," Elizabeth pronounced, looking up at him as he gathered her hands between his own.
"Today has been an almost perfect day," he countered.
"Why sir, you surprise me," she twinkled up at him. "We have been reunited after an unconscionably long separation, consumed a delicious repast, and announced our engagement to those who love us best. What could possibly improve it?"
He moved one hand to caress the side of her lovely face, and looked deeply into her eyes. "I know this," he whispered. "The day we become man and wife will be my first, best, most absolutely perfect day."
Elizabeth and Jane's stay in London concluded with a night made especially memorable by their attendance at the opera. Mr. Darcy's invitation included her aunt and uncle, and of course, Mr. Bingley. Darcy was especially anxious to give Elizabeth every advantage that his wealth and status offered. He wished to see her enjoying her first opera from the vantage of his box, and to give that pleasure to those she loved as well. Unavoidably, the invitation required the inclusion of Charles' sisters and Mr. Hurst -- whose company Darcy accepted on sufferance. The production, Puccini's La bohème, was sold out; the Royal Opera House would be overflowing with those wishing to see, and to be seen.
Indeed, Elizabeth realized she had never in her life been in such a crush. She had scarcely ever dared to imagine attending a performance at the Opera House, and she was almost over-awed at the comfort of the Darcy box when viewing the overcrowded stalls below. She looked around with wonder at the elaborate décor, but was still more amazed by the fashion exhibition of society's finest, not the least of which was displayed by Miss Bingley. That lady was swathed from neck to toe in golden layers of ruffles and rouches, long sleeves tightly moulded to her skinny arms, with huge bell shoulder puffs nearly touching her ears. Lizzy could not help but speculate on how uncomfortably warm she must be -- and noticed that her matching fan was being put to good use.
Miss Bingley looked on in contempt at the simplicity of the Bennet girls' costumes, and felt that they must suffer in any comparisons with herself. When donning her gown, she had been so sure that she would outshine the competition this evening. It had been a bitter blow to recognize that all of Mr. Darcy's attention had been for that country chit whom he was threatening to marry, and she could not fathom it. Perhaps he just had not realized her interest; these great men were often shy. A bumpkin like Miss Eliza had probably thrown herself at him. However, he was to join them at Netherfield, and though she detested this removal to the country, it would surely give her opportunity to show Darcy that he had been far too hasty in his choice of a bride.
Giving her imagination free reign, Caroline amused herself by thinking just how she would make him aware of his options. Then, with a few well-placed rumours, Miss Elizabeth would be confined to her country shame, and he could hardly be held to an engagement with such a worthless excuse for a female.
Her good mood restored, she used her opera glasses to determine who might be covetously peering her way. The curtain's ascent annoyed her prodigiously, as it curtailed much of her view when the lights lowered. As she prepared for imminent boredom, she amused herself by making plans for her future life as Mrs. Darcy, as well as whom she might accost at intermission, based upon where the best gossip might be heard.
Rumours were rampant, to be sure. While Darcy's engagement had yet to be announced officially, it was certainly the talk of the town, as Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst, and their ilk hastened to be the first to share the news, as well as their opinion of Miss Eliza. Talk abounded regarding the country upstart who had managed to snag the hitherto elusive master of Pemberley, so necks craned and heads swiveled, all hoping to catch sight of her.
As for Darcy, he could barely take his eyes off his intended. He was without doubt aware of the interest of society in his choice of bride. Part of the reason he had chosen the opera was to provide a setting wherein Elizabeth might be introduced, with as little chance as possible for her to be hurt by criticism for minor infractions of an etiquette of which she could hardly be completely knowledgeable.
He was used to being gossiped about, flirted with, fussed over -- in short, being the center of an attention he despised. He knew he could not protect her entirely, and had meant this evening to begin familiarizing her with his world, in a situation where he had most control, with little opportunity for conversation -- but much for subtle hints regarding whom to speak to, whom to avoid, who could be trusted and how to escape those who could not be.
Still, from the moment he had seen her, the simple white gown clinging becomingly to her slender form, her eyes sparkling with excitement and pleasure, he forgot society, forgot his tutorial intentions, forgot everything except Elizabeth. In the low light, he watched her absolute enchantment with the performance; each act, she attended with perfect attention, leaning forward slightly, as though wishing a greater closeness to those suffering tragedians on the stage. At Mimi's death, she wept with Rodolfo, clutching Darcy's hand in her emotion -- to his greater pleasure.
They left the Opera House in two carriages, bound for a late supper at Darcy's townhouse. Miss Bingley managed to install the Gardiners and Jane in her own carriage, in order to insinuate herself into the Darcy's. Her manipulations miscarried, however, when Darcy took advantage of the lack of chaperones in his vehicle to arrange the seating to his liking, placing himself next to his betrothed. In a high dudgeon, Caroline retaliated with the only weapon at her disposal: exposing this country nobody and her rustic sentimentality.
"Miss Eliza, I noticed you were quite overcome by the performance; perhaps as you become more accustomed to the high arts, you will be able to better regulate your emotions."
Darcy tensed, but Elizabeth smiled serenely. "I cannot imagine ever witnessing such vivid grief and remaining unaffected."
"They are singers; they are players," Caroline scoffed. "'Tis not real, Miss Eliza."
"I know that every day, somewhere, someone loses a loved one; someone else is rejected by those they care for; one more will sacrifice everything for another's happiness. Joy is a fragile thing, Miss Bingley; such sorrow presented in such lovely music, such angelic voice...‘twas more than real, to me."
A snort of disapproval was Miss Bingley's only response to this bit of nonsensical philosophy. In the close confines of their vehicle, Elizabeth could feel the tense rigidity in Fitzwilliam, his body stiff with anger at the not-so-subtle attack. Carefully so as not to draw notice, she sought his hand, wishing desperately that the barrier of her gloves did not exist. As soon as her hand touched his, he carefully shifted to facilitate the gesture, using the darkness and their close proximity as cover, folding his hand over her own.
He did not suppose the ton would show unmitigated approval in his choice of bride, but he expected better of his friends. That such a cultural vacuum as Caroline Bingley should dare to criticize Elizabeth! He was charmed completely by the sympathy and appreciation his fiancée had displayed. He knew she did not speak the opera's language; she seemed to understand and empathize regardless. She had a sensitivity and fineness to her that far surpassed what could ever be expected of a country gentleman's daughter. He would be proud to introduce her to his family, to society; she would never shame him.
His expectations of his family were mixed and realistic. Georgiana was shyly supportive, though timid about meeting her new sister-to-be. She was currently travelling with their uncle, the earl, who had been pestering him for years to marry, and his aunt, Lady Matlock, more subtly inclined but certainly no less interested.
Naturally, the Matlocks would expect someone different, one higher born, than his Elizabeth. They were bound to have concerns. Still, they were reasonable people, and could be brought round in time. He was quite sure the colonel had already hinted at the matter in his letters to them, although he trusted both his sister and cousin to leave the telling of it to him. The viscount would follow the lead of his parents; his wife would follow her husband.
Of his Aunt Catherine, he harboured no illusions. It would be a battle royale, and he did not expect her to soften anytime soon. For some time, he would have no access to Anne - he deeply regretted that. He was pragmatic enough, though, to realize that would probably have been the case no matter who he wed, if the bride were not his cousin.
Slowly he roused from his musings to realize that Elizabeth's fingers were lightly caressing his wrist, and he, too, mourned the presence of her gloves. The tension left his body as he forgot Miss Bingley, his family, and everything else except the exquisite feel of those tiny, sensuous strokes, and the joyful thought that the woman whose touch so delighted him was soon to be his.
Dr. Taylor exited the patient's bedroom, his expression grave. He did not relish being the bearer of bad news, especially to the one he must shortly report to. His patroness was not known for her patience at the best of times, and where it concerned her daughter, he had always been very careful to positively word his remarks. However, this was the worst occurence in his ten years of treating her. He acknowledged at some level that if she had been anyone besides the heir to Rosings, he would have diagnosed her as consumptive -- and doomed -- long ago.
Still, she was the heiress, and worthy of his best efforts. He had done everything within his power to give her the life her mother craved for her. He had actually thought she was improving recently, although he had soon put a stop to the nonsensical practice of walking about outside in the elements -- who knew where she had picked up that foolish inclination. But she had deteriorated rapidly, so frail now she could barely draw in a decent lungful of air. Why, he had even bled her to reduce the toxins her blood might carry! He was trying everything he knew! And yet, she weakened.Continued In Next Section