Posted on: 2010-12-29
Elizabeth sat at the base of the tree with her head resting on her knees as her arms hugged her legs close to her body. Tears which had begun silently soon turned into sobs, and she was unable to stop them. At her feet lay the scattered pages of a letter.
She had been wandering the park between Rosings and the Hunsford parsonage ever since Mr. Darcy had handed her the thick envelope with her name written on it in a neat masculine hand. The contents, which evoked in her an amazing variety of conflicting emotions, had been read so many times over that she could hardly comprehend her current state. Anger, disbelief, shock and shame battled for prominence. This turmoil, coupled with a sleepless night, found its release in these terrible, bitter tears. As tears often do, they brought her a measure of relief, washing away anger and leaving only remorse in its wake. Her only coherent thought was, "What have I done?"
Not twenty feet away stood Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Darcy was just returning from the parsonage where Mrs. Collins had informed them that Elizabeth had not yet returned from her walk. Colonel Fitzwilliam had decided to wait, but Darcy made his escape as soon as it was polite to do so.
He was a man in torment. She had refused him. The enchanting Elizabeth Bennet, whose wit and intelligence had drawn him in, had refused him. He cursed himself for wrapping a marriage proposal in insults. He wondered how he could have been so stupid as to tell the woman he loved, a woman perfect for him in every way, that her family was not good enough for him. He did not blame her for rejecting him - what choice had he left her? The fact was, by the time he had decided to propose, he had already overcome all of his doubts about her family's lack of connections and dearth of propriety, so why had he even mentioned it? He was a fool. At times he felt he could scarcely breathe, so great was his distress.
He had written her a letter to answer the charges she had hurled against him. He had done so while he was angry, and with a great bitterness of spirit, and now he regretted having given it to her. It was with these thoughts on his mind that he encountered Elizabeth crying.
One glance at the papers strewn around her convinced him that she had read his letter and its contents had reduced her to tears. His heart wept with her. He wanted to rush over and envelop her in his arms and offer comfort, but he knew she would not welcome him. "Oh, Elizabeth, please do not cry," he whispered to himself.
The Fitzwilliam Darcy observing the scene before him was not the same proud man that had left the parsonage the evening before full of anger and bitterness towards the little country miss who had fiercely spurned his offer of marriage. He had removed himself from her presence, determined, as one might imagine of a person so grievously offended, to erase her from his heart and mind - but he had had an epiphany. In his place stood a man who was purged of anger and resentment, fully aware that he alone was responsible for driving away the woman who had captured his heart.
Perhaps to say that he had had an epiphany might not be quite accurate. It would imply that a sudden and intuitive flash of insight had led him to a better understanding of himself and recent events. The truth was, after Elizabeth's heated rejection, he was in no mental state to even think rationally, let alone be intuitive. By the time he had returned to Rosings, he was well on his way to self-pity, not self-discovery. The credit for Darcy's enlightened state of mind belonged to Anne de Bourgh.
Although somewhat sickly, Anne was intelligent and observant. It did not take her long to notice Darcy's intense interest in anything having to do with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. With that observation, the hope had begun to bloom in her that perhaps Darcy would take a serious enough interest in Miss Bennet to offer for her and put to rest Lady Catherine's schemes for a match in a different quarter.
Anne began to watch for any sign of a growing attachment between Darcy and Miss Bennet. By the time Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam were set to depart from Rosings she had seen enough to know that her cousin was besotted. She began to fear that he would not pursue his interest due to pressure from her mother and other family members that he marry her. It was time to intervene.
She intercepted Darcy just as he had returned from his mission to deliver his letter to Elizabeth. "William, I would like to have a word with you. Will you join me in the library? Mother will never disturb us there, and Mrs. Jenkinson has gone out for the morning. We will be quite alone."
Darcy was in no mood to be in company with anyone, but the idea of being alone in a room with Anne, probably as part of one of Lady Catherine's nefarious schemes to get them engaged, was not to be borne. "Anne, can we do this later? I have some urgent correspondence I need to attend to."
Anne smiled at the look of near panic on her cousin's face. "Relax, William, I have no intention of compromising you."
Darcy had the grace to be embarrassed that his thoughts were so easily read, but he was also not going in the library alone with her. "As I said before, I have business matters that need my attention."
"William, I have heard you use that excuse to get out of conversations with my mother too many times to let it work with me. Besides you will be leaving tomorrow, and I may not have another chance to help you secure your future happiness." She raised her eyebrows in challenge and gave him an arch smile, in perfect imitation of Elizabeth.
Darcy's suspicions that Anne had somehow found out about his failed proposal were immediately raised, so he did what he thought he would not do, and followed her into the library.
With all the bluntness one would expect from the offspring of Lady Catherine, Anne began as soon as the door to the library was closed. "I want you to know, William, that regardless of Mother's wishes, I have no intention of ever being married to you. Since I had also believed that you would never offer for me, I have been quite content. My contentment has recently been disturbed, however. I fear that the only reason that you have not yet proposed to Miss Bennet is that you are considering the wishes of our family to unite our two great estates. I feel it incumbent upon me to discourage you from thinking along those lines, for I will never agree to it."
Darcy's head jerked as if someone had slapped him. Was he to be rejected by every woman in England? Although he had never considered marrying Anne, having her scorn his non-existing offer was too much for his battered ego to endure with equanimity. So shocked was he by her unexpected pronouncement that he almost missed the major point in her speech. He decided to address only that salient point. "Why ever would you think that I wish to propose to Miss Bennet?"
"Really, William, do you think I am blind? I have watched you. I have seen the look of longing on your face as your eyes follow Miss Bennet. I have seen your displeasure when Colonel Fitzwilliam engages her in flirtatious banter. And what of these frequent early morning walks? Can you tell me that you have not been meeting her in the park?"
His face suffused with a guilty blush, and that was all the confirmation she needed.
"I am not going to have this conversation with you, Anne."
Anne dismissed his comment with a wave of her hand. "It is obvious that you are in love with her. I urge you not to let the notorious Fitzwilliam pride prevent you from securing her. Her lack of connections and fortune should not be considered, for you have a surplus of both. One thing I have learned from my sickness and isolation is that all that really matters is being surrounded by people you love and who love you in return. Do not let her slip through your fingers."
Anne's earnest words were like a knife to his heart. She had no way of knowing that all hope was lost. He recalled Elizabeth's words, "You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any way possible that would have tempted me to accept it." As the pain washed over him, he wondered if Anne might actually be able to offer some practical advice. With as much an appearance of indifference as he could muster, he asked, "What would you suggest I do should she refuse me?"
"A match with you would be too advantageous to be refused, but if such a thing did occur, I would suggest that you figure out what you might have done wrong, and correct it!"
With those words Anne removed herself from the library leaving Darcy to contemplate all the many things he had done wrong in his attempt to make Elizabeth his wife. There was no doubt in his mind as to what those errors were, for Elizabeth had enumerated them most emphatically. By the time Colonel Fitzwilliam had come to collect him that they might bid farewell to the Collinses and those in their party, Darcy had concluded that he had no reason to be angry with Elizabeth. The failure was his.
The pain of her rejection was still too new and raw, and he did not know if he could face her further disapprobation if she were to discover him watching her, yet he could not leave. He was drawn to her in a way that was beyond his comprehension. The only thing he was sure of was that he loved her. He loved her with his whole heart and without reservation. "Am I a fool to love a woman who despises me?"
Darcy did not consciously decide to go to her. He was not even sure how long he had been there. It was only Elizabeth's startled gasp as she lifted her head that made him realize that he was kneeling on the ground in front of her.
The shock of discovering Darcy sitting less than three feet away had the surprising effect of silencing her sobs and ending her tears. She could not face him. The coward inside of her urged, "Get up and run!" Before she could act, Darcy uttered the only words that had the power to halt her.
"I am so sorry."
Her eyes, still glistening with tears, widened in surprise and locked with his, but the intensity she saw there made her break the connection. She gathered the pages of the letter and prepared to stand. Darcy saw what she was about and came to his feet first, extending his hand to help her up. Warily she accepted his aid, and gracefully rose.
As mortified as she was to have been discovered by Mr. Darcy in her wretched state, she had a morbid curiosity to hear what he had to say.
"What exactly are you sorry for, sir?"
"Miss Bennet, in the past several hours, I have said many things to you for which I am most grievously sorry, but at this moment, I am especially sorry for having written a letter that reduced you to tears. When I wrote to you, it was not my intention to cause you pain."
After having wept for so long, she had not the energy, nor the desire to dissemble. Her reply was open and honest, even if her voice was shaky and her hands mutilated the edges of her letter. "Mr. Darcy, you may ease your mind on that account. I am thankful for your letter, for it helped me see myself as I had hardly ever done before. What I saw, I did not like, and I am ashamed of my behavior both last evening and throughout the whole of our acquaintance. This shame is what led me to tears."
"I beg you, do not feel shame over your words to me last evening. I am sure that I said enough to you to provoke a harsh response. As to the whole of our acquaintance," he frowned slightly as he tilted his head to one side, " I do not believe that there is anything in your behavior for which to feel ashamed."
Elizabeth searched his face and found his countenance sincere and earnest. This only made her more aware of her slights against him in the past. "I do indeed have reason to be distressed over my past treatment of you, Mr. Darcy. In fact, I find that I am presently quite overcome with guilt and would ask a favor of you."
"Anything, Miss Bennet"
"Though I know that you can have no desire to continue in my presence, I do not wish to end our acquaintance without first clearing up a few misunderstandings, and that would require a bit more conversation. Would you agree to this?"
She was embarrassed at having made such a bold request, but recent events had discomposed her more than she had ever experienced, and she just could not imagine leaving without doing everything in her power to apologize for her immature behavior and errors in misjudging Mr. Darcy. Only then could her mind be at ease.
"She is beautiful". Even with red, swollen eyes and a tear stained face, Darcy found her enchanting. As she stood there biting her lower lip and waiting for his reply, he marveled that she could think that he would not wish to continue in her presence. Had she forgotten that he wanted her as his wife? It was his fervent desire to spend this day, and every one to follow, basking in her company. As for ending their acquaintance, that was the furthest thing from his mind. She could not know that her request gave birth to a hope that he might be able to change her opinion of him.
"Yes, Miss Elizabeth, I am agreeable to your suggestion. Please allow me to begin by first disabusing you of the notion that I have no desire to be in your presence. I admit that circumstances leave me feeling a certain awkwardness, but I am always pleased to be in your company." He offered her a gentle smile and watched as her face became tinged with a rosy blush.
"He can not mean that he wants to be in my company! After all that has happened, he can not possibly still like me. Indeed, I can hardly believe he ever did!" Elizabeth cleared her throat, "Well then, should we walk as we converse?"
Darcy bowed his head in approval and they started in the direction of the parsonage. For the first few minutes, they walked in silence Darcy, with his mind full of Elizabeth, and Elizabeth, worried that her behavior and comments may have led him to believe that she regretted refusing his proposal.
"Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth began somewhat hesitantly. "When I mentioned being distressed over my behavior towards you during the whole of our acquaintance, you said that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Do you not recall how often I sought to provoke you with impertinent comments and to disagree with you at every turn? I can not be at ease until I apologize for that."
His brow wrinkled and a slight frown appeared. Was it possible that all those conversations he had enjoyed so much she viewed as arguments? Had he misunderstood her that profoundly? As he recalled their past interactions he stopped walking and faced Elizabeth, but his gaze was fixed in the distance. Suddenly everything was clear to him. He saw that many times her beautiful eyes had been shining in anger, not admiration. He saw that her impertinence was sometimes mocking him. There was not one time that she had looked at him with favor. She had truly never liked him. He thought for a moment that he was actually going to be ill.
"Mr. Darcy?" She tentatively reached out to touch his arm to regain his attention.
His eyes moved to the hand resting gently on his forearm and Elizabeth immediately removed it. She felt the heat rise in her face.
"You seem to have gone away for a moment."
"I apologize, Miss Bennet. I was chasing memories." His voice had lost all of its former tenderness and he seemed to her to be somewhat angry. "Can you tell me, please, what did I do to merit your steady dislike?
"I overheard you at the Meryton assembly telling Mr. Bingley that I was not handsome enough to tempt you. I loathe to admit that it was nothing more than my injured vanity and pride that made me determined to dislike you." She kept her eyes fixed on the path ahead as she continued speaking, not sure why she found it so important for him to understand.
"I grew up in the shadow of Jane's beauty and my mother's constant reminders that I am nothing to Jane in appearance, so I have never felt my self especially pretty. However, hearing a handsome young man echo my mother's opinions embarrassed me and injured my pride to the extent that I fixed it in my mind that you were arrogant, disagreeable and rude. I should not have let it affect me so. After all, you are entitled to your opinions and your comment was not intended for my ears. I hope that I have learned not to allow myself to form such immovable opinions in the future." "Oh my God! Did I just say that he is handsome?"
He looked at her sadly. Reaching out to stroke her cheek, he replied, "My ill-timed remark at the Assembly no doubt inflamed your doubts even further. Oh, Elizabeth, please forgive me. I was in a bad humor--for reasons that had nothing to do with you. I barely looked where Bingley pointed. Surely, I must tell you if you do not already know I think you are the most handsome woman of my acquaintance, and that opinion started to grow very shortly after I truly looked at you. I could not stop looking at you." She blushed at his smile as he added, "I cannot stop looking at you."
But she knew there was more to the matter between them. Trying to calm her fluttering pulse as she looked into his endlessly fathomless blue eyes, she spoke coolly while they resumed their walk.
"One major issue I would like to settle between us concerns your decision to separate Mr. Bingley from my sister. In your letter, you explained that you truly thought Jane to be indifferent to your friend, and I can understand that you would want to protect him from entering into an unequal marriage. It occurred to me that I tried to use my influence to discourage Charlotte from going through with a marriage to Mr. Collins because I thought she could not be happy with him. Just as I was wrong, so were you, Mr. Darcy."
"Jane learned to project a calm and somewhat placid demeanor in response to my mother's rather excited nature. Over the years, she has become quite the expert at masking even her strongest emotions. As her closest sister and friend, I know when she feels deeply, and I can assure you that Jane was not indifferent to Mr. Bingley."
"While rejecting my proposal, you spoke so feelingly on that subject, as to convince me of your sister's attachment. I had already decided to call on Bingley as soon as I return to London to tell him of my interference and confess to him that I knew Miss Bennet to have been in town these many weeks."
Her eyes brightened and her mouth opened in surprise. She could hardly believe that the proud Mr. Darcy would humble himself to correct his error. "Why would you do this?"
"Because, despite my being the last man you would ever consider marrying, I love you, and if I reunite them, perhaps you will have one less reason for despising me." That was the answer he wanted to give to her question, but knew he could not. Instead, he said, "They are separated, in part, because of my faulty advice. Since leaving Hertfordshire, Bingley has been despondent, and I think it is due to his belief that his affections have not been reciprocated. Since you have assured me that is not the case, I would hate to see them apart a day longer than necessary. Two people that love each other should be together. I would be devoid of all proper feeling if I did not try to correct my mistake.
His sincerity could not be doubted. Everything in his look and tone revealed that he wanted to reunite them. "Thank you," she replied.
"Please do not thank me. It is what must be done. I will let Bingley know the truth, although I am not sure what will become of it."
"You say that as if you do not believe he will want to return to Jane?"
"I have often seen Bingley in and out of love. His attachment to your sister seemed to be much stronger than any I had seen before. His ongoing sadness supports that, but the fact that he was so easily persuaded against the match might suggest a weaker attachment than either you or I suppose. Whether he will renew his attentions to Miss Bennet or not remains to be seen."
With a great disturbance of mind Elizabeth replied, "Mr. Bingley's every action shows that he really did love Jane. He singled her out on every occasion."
"Miss Elizabeth, do you think that a man who really loves a woman would allow his sisters, or even his closest friend, to convince him, in the course of just one evening's conversation, to abandon his beloved? Could he leave her without extending the common courtesy of saying goodbye? Could a man in love, who never exchanged even one cross word with his lady, leave her behind for months with no attempts at contact?"
"I do not understand."
Pain briefly flashed across Darcy's face before he replied. "Consider my situation, and make a comparison, then you tell me if Bingley acted as a man in love?" He waited for her to agree before continuing. "From your own mouth, not from your sister, not from Mrs. Collins, but from you, I have been told in the most convincing and bitterest manner imaginable, that I am 'the last man,'" his voice faltered before he was able to finish. "'The last man you could ever be prevailed upon to marry.' There is no doubt in my mind as to your disapprobation, yet I have just left the parsonage where I had hoped to say goodbye and see you one last time before departing for London tomorrow. Even at this moment, when I am convinced that you do not return my regard, I am here with you because I saw your tears and would do whatever possible to see you happy. A man in love would not give up easily." Here he paused before he whispered, "I know what love is, Elizabeth."
The silence stretched between them as she digested his words. She had seen all manner of emotions cross his face while he spoke - pain, yearning, regret, and yes, she could see it clearly now. There was also love. The truth of it was shocking and undeniable. She could see it in his eyes and his expression. She realized that she had seen that look on his face before. He had often looked at her with that same expression when she thought he was looking at her only to find fault. How could she have been so blind? In that instant, she knew that he loved her.
Then she remembered the pain she had seen on his face when she had so callously rejected his offer. The memory was vivid, and she became acutely aware of how poorly she had treated an honorable man who had come to her with a declaration of love and an offer of marriage. For a moment, nothing seemed real to her. She looked down and saw her left hand enclosed in Mr. Darcy's right hand. When did that happen? She did not realize that she had once again begun crying until she felt him press a handkerchief into her free hand. "Tell me what has caused the renewal of your tears?"
Long minutes passed before Elizabeth could respond. "You speak to me of love. You look at me with love when you should hate me. How can this be, after the way I have maligned your character and abused you in every possible way? I have exalted the vile Mr. Wickham as being your superior, and willfully misunderstood all of your actions involving me. I am humbled that you can manage to treat me with civility, but you go so far as to speak of love."
Darcy absently stroked the palm of her hand with his thumb as he spoke, "I do not I could not hate you! What did you say to me that I did not deserve? My manner of addressing you while proclaiming an ardent love was unpardonable. Please, do not bother yourself with any pain on account of what you said to me. I will attend to your reproofs and become a better man because of you. As for Wickham, his easy manners and charm are enough to deceive anyone. My own excellent father was mistaken in Wickham's character. You had no way of knowing what he was, and his deception is not worthy of your tears, no matter what you believed of me.
So, while I painfully accept the rejection of my suit, I can speak of love because I am not so inconstant in my feelings that a few hurtful words could cause me not to love you, though I will concede to having been angry at first." He smiled wistfully and asked, "Has Shakespeare himself not said:
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
It is an ever fixed mark
Which looks on tempests and is never shaken.1
With his words, new and unsettling emotions assailed her. She had to stop him, for she felt herself in danger of falling under the spell of his honeyed sayings. She began to panic. In her agitation, she started pacing back and forth along the path. "Sir, this can not be! You are in love with some glorious figment of your imagination!2 Have you forgotten that I am but a simple country miss with nothing to offer?"
As her pacing brought her near him, he reached out and caught her hand to halt her. She did not resist, though she felt unnerved by the tingling that traveled up her arm and settled in the pit of her stomach.
"I beg to differ, Elizabeth. I have not the power of imagination you credit me with to be able to conjure up one as delightful to me as you are. I have always admired you. Initially I was drawn to your eyes. Even now, you almost take my breath away as you gaze at me with disbelieving wonder. But it was when you came to Netherfield to care for your sister that I first saw your true character and began to fall in love with you. I was impressed by your selfless care and the sacrifices you were willing to make on her behalf. It was there that I recognized and was captivated by your wit and intelligence. I witnessed how you dealt with Miss Bingley's cruel comments without being cruel in return. Here in Kent, my admiration for you continued to grow when I saw how gracefully you have been able to endure my aunt's thoughtless insults."
As he spoke, he was surprised at the growing strength of his emotions. Though he had earlier declared his love an ever fixed mark, he was coming to the realization that it was better described as a brand to his very heart and soul. As any man violently in love might be expected to do, he expounded on these feelings.
"I love you not because I imagine it, but because you are in every way lovable. It pains me to hear you say that you have nothing to offer. You, Elizabeth, are everything."
She gasped in shock at the look of complete adoration on his face as he spoke. "Sir, you praise me too much!" she whispered.
"No." Darcy slowly lifted her hand and placed a gentle, lingering kiss on her palm, "I do not."
The sensations this kiss produced in her exceeded any expectation she could have formed had she imagined such a kiss occurring. She was beginning to feel that she might enjoy being the recipient of Mr. Darcy's ardent love.
Elizabeth knew only one way to respond to such a heartfelt declaration, and that was to supply a heartfelt declaration of her own. "Mr. Darcy, I do not know what I imagined would be the outcome when I requested that you favor me with a conversation to settle our misunderstandings, but I am sure it never occurred to me that my feelings for you would undergo a change in such a short time. What that change is, I can hardly articulate, but I know that you are not the proud and arrogant man I thought you to be. You are much more interesting and complicated than that."
As she struggled to find the words that could adequately express her sentiments, Darcy reached for her hands, and of their own volition, her fingers entwined with his, the mutilated letter clasped between them. She was surprised that his touch calmed her. Elizabeth gazed into his eyes as she gripped his hands tighter, and suddenly she knew her own heart. A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth before she continued.
"Today, I believe you have given me a glimpse of your true character. You are kind, forgiving and steadfast in your affections all qualities that I admire. To hear your declarations of love is not as unwelcome to me now as it was yesterday. I feel drawn to you, and while I do not claim to love you at present, I feel that I could love you. It seems strange and confusing for me to even have this thought, but I want to love you."
In his surprise at hearing Elizabeth speak of her changed opinion of him, Darcy's heart leaped with the first stirrings of hope. But there had been so many misunderstandings between them in the past that he was afraid to jump to conclusions. "Tell me I am not imagining that you said that you want to love me."
Elizabeth's impertinence and wit, which had abandoned her earlier in the day, returned with full force. She gave Darcy an arch look and smile before she replied, "You are certainly not imagining it, for you yourself said that you have not the imagination to conjure up such delights."
Darcy's face lit up with a dazzling smile that nearly took Elizabeth's breath away. He drew her closer to him so that they were only separated by inches. For a while, he did nothing but gaze tenderly at the woman who had so completely staked a claim on his heart. When he did speak, his voice was low, husky, and filled with barely repressed emotions.
"I once told you that I would by no means wish to suspend any pleasure of yours. That is true in this case more than in any other. In the interest of allowing you to fulfill your wish of loving me, I ask that you grant me the privilege of a formal courtship."
Elizabeth felt awash with inexplicable happiness, and for the first time that day, she smiled a full, beautiful smile that made her eyes sparkle. "Yes, I would like that!"
1 Shakespeare, sonnet 116
2 A line shamelessly pilfered from Mansfield Park.