Posted on 2012-05-01
Papa's words plagued my thoughts for days. I could no longer deny that I had been reluctant to acknowledge Mr. Darcy to be a decent man, and slower still to see him as a good one. I was quick to judge him, and gleefully encouraged Meryton to join in my scorn; a matter which the townspeople had not yet forgotten. Though I was not quite ready to forgive his latest transgression entirely, I decided it was well past time to begin to make amends for mine. Mama's estimation of Mr. Darcy had markedly, and volubly, improved since her return from London, which I found to be curious, but that was another matter, as I had yet to let the populace know that I had been mistaken in my own assessment of him. There was no easier way to achieve this than to share my revised opinion with my dear aunt, Mrs. Phillips. She, like my mother, generally means well, but is not known to hold her tongue.
My aunt and uncle hosted a dinner for the officers before they were to leave for Brighton, about five days after my mother and Jane came home, so it was then that I set my plan in motion. Drawing Maria Lucas nearby to lend credence to my claims, I introduced the subject, ensuring that my garrulous aunt was within hearing.
"So, Maria, how did you find Kent? Are you happy to see your sister settled there? We have not had the opportunity to converse since our return, I think."
"Oh! I thought it was so beautiful! The gardens are just lovely. And to think-we dined nine times at Rosings! Such elegance I have never seen!"
I checked my own thoughts on the elegance of Rosings and probed further, "And what did you think of the company? Did you find Charlotte's neighbors to be pleasing?"
"Colonel Fitzwilliam was so very friendly, but I must admit, I still find Mr. Darcy to be quite intimidating; and his Aunt! So grand! Oh! I could not say anything beyond a monosyllable in her presence."
"Truly? I prodded hopefully, "You did not find Mr. Darcy's manner a bit more open than when we met here in the fall?"
"That pompous man?" my aunt chimed in, as I had expected, "Why, he thought himself above us all whenever we met. Such abominable pride! I'll wager he had never met with more charming manners than he did here, yet he was in a hurry to dismiss us all for our lack of fortune!"
I was ashamed to hear my former thoughts reflected in my aunt's words, but I would not be dissuaded from my purpose.
Uneasily, I ventured, "Aunt, I am afraid that Mr. Darcy did not show himself to the best advantage when he was here in the fall. Indeed, I found him quite amiable in Kent and in London, did you not, Maria?"
"Oh, yes! I did not mean to say he was unkind, only, he is such a stately man; it is difficult for one to know what to say around him. He was very solicitous of our welfare while in Kent, as was all his family, really. He certainly smiled more!"
"That tall, proud, man?" Kitty asked, disbelievingly, "He is certainly not as friendly as his cousin, the Colonel," she said dreamily, "I am sure I never heard him say two words together. He always seemed so severe, did he not?"
"Perhaps he did," I answered carefully, "But maybe he was not comfortable here; he did not know any of the people hereabouts; and rumors of his wealth preceded him, so it is not unreasonable that he would be aloof. You did not see much of him when you were in London, I think, but I can assure you, and Jane can attest to it as well, he is very agreeable."
"I am sorry, Lizzy," Jane said, tearing her gaze from Mr. Bingley. "I was not attending; to what did you need me to attest?"
Kitty supplied the response, "Lizzy says that Mr. Darcy is an amiable man; is it true?"
"Mr. Darcy has been my friend these many years," offered Mr. Bingley, "And I declare; he is indeed very amiable; much more so, perhaps, than he sometimes appears to be. It is true that he is at times, reserved in company." Jane smiled in obvious agreement with her affable fiancé.
"Lord, I never saw him laugh, to be sure; such a dreadfully dull man!" To this, Lydia added an irreverent snort.
Mary lifted her nose from her volume of Fordyce's Sermons to offer, "But we cannot be easy, where we are not safe. We are never safe in the company of a critic; and almost every wit is a critic by profession."*
Kitty and Lydia giggled, and Lydia burst out with, "And Mr. Darcy is the severest critic of all! Poor Lizzy, to be only just tolerable! I should have died had he said the same about me, though I should not care one jot for his opinion."
I quelled my embarrassment as my Aunt Phillips asked, "You say he is an agreeable man, Lizzy?"
"I do, Aunt."
As my aunt is a woman of mean understanding, and Mr. Darcy, a man of means, she required no further persuasion, and accepted the information as fact.
Looking over at Aunt Phillips, I noticed two things: one of which pleased me, and one, which assuredly did not. I first observed my aunt as she turned to her companions and immediately began relating what she heard, rendering my undertaking a success. Behind her, I saw Mr. Wickham, who must have entered a few minutes earlier, watching me with a hard glint in his eye which I had not seen before. I sighed to myself, relieved that he would be leaving with his regiment in a few short days, ensuring we would finally be rid of him. I focused my energy for the rest of the evening on the genial conversation, a game of loo, and, on staying as far away from Mr. Wickham as possible.
I could deny it to myself as much as I might have liked, but as the days passed by, I began to hope for some word of Mr. Darcy, though none was forthcoming. I was obliged to be satisfied with news from his relations; Georgiana and Anne, both of whom proved to be regular correspondents. An added benefit of exchanging letters with Anne was that the necessarily covert method of delivery was bringing her and Charlotte closer together-a relationship advantageous to both. Her letters frequently conveyed thoughtful reflections and wistful desires. Georgiana's missives were filled with poetic observations about life in London, and were sprinkled with references to her brother. Her most recent note indicated that she was to join him for the wedding, though a date of travel had not yet been decided. Still, I could look on the eventual arrival with something like anticipation.
It was during these days of uncertainty that Mr. Bingley happened upon me in front of Longbourn as he arrived to call on Jane. I was in the midst of writing a narrative for Georgiana. In it, she prepares for her coming out ball, and unintentionally rebuffs the attentions of countless eligible bachelors, leaving them all baffled, until one catches her eye. Thusly occupied, I did not hear Mr. Bingley's approach until he was upon me.
"Miss Elizabeth!" he called gaily.
"Mr. Bingley!" I welcomed him, "As we are soon to be brother and sister, perhaps we need not be so formal with one another?"
"Indeed, Elizabeth; I believe you are right."
"Much better, Charles," I teased him with a smile and explained, "I would not, for the world, have people say I do not cherish my only brother."
"Nor I!" he laughed, "Especially not I!"
"And how does your friend, Mr.-Charles?" I asked, laughing at my own misstep.
"He is well, and is due to join us at any time. He has been detained by business in London, which, I believe, has recently concluded."
"Oh?" I exclaimed, my heart pounding in my chest. Attempting to hide my discomposure, I continued jestingly, "And what is the nature of this all-consuming business, or do I presume to ask too much?"
I thought Mr. Bingley looked slightly uncomfortable as he shifted his stance and answered, "I-I am afraid I do not quite know."
"Never mind, Charles," I waved him off lightheartedly, to ease his discomfort, as well as mine, "An important man such as Mr. Darcy will always have pressing matters to tend to. Shall we go inside?"
It seemed he could not move quickly enough to oblige.
After meeting with Lord Murdock, I stayed in London a few days more to see that actions were taking the proper direction towards his removal from town. I enlisted Mr. Weldon to keep a close watch, and to keep me apprised of the progress. It was far past time for me to return to Hertfordshire. It had been over two weeks since I was last blessed with the company of Elizabeth, and the void I felt was enormous, even if she was not mine to pine after.
Two days before I was to leave, Georgiana besieged me for an explanation of why I would not bring her with me. I tried to deflect her queries, hoping to avoid revealing to her that Wickham remained in the area. According to Bingley's information, the militia would likely be gone a day or two after I arrived, so I could easily wait, but I was hoping to arrive in good time to make certain Wickham was able to settle his accounts. I did not want the honest people of Meryton to suffer from my unwillingness to lay out my private affairs. But Georgiana, with a determination which could only have been inspired by an ardent wish to see her friend, was absolutely relentless, so I had to tell the truth.
"My dear, I wished to avoid telling you this, as have no desire to cause you pain, but, since you allow me no other recourse," I stopped to look at her in mock disapproval, "I must inform you that George Wickham is quartered in Hertfordshire with the militia, and may still be there when I arrive. I would prefer to be certain he has gone from the area before bringing you."
"Oh," she frowned.
"Are you very much troubled by the news?" I asked anxiously, "I had rather hoped that you were able to put the incident behind you when we last spoke of it."
"No! I am not distressed in the way you think; it's only, well; I must admit, I am upset that he once again disrupts our lives. How I wish he would simply disappear! I mean, I do not wish him harm, but-"
I hugged her to me as I reassured her, "No one understands that sentiment as well as I do, my dear, and as soon as I can ensure he has done just that, I will send for you and Mrs. Annesley, but there are reasons for which I must go on ahead. It cannot be more than a few days; will that do?"
"Yes, I suppose it must. I do miss Elizabeth so!"
"As do I," I said quietly. I felt her grin against my chest, and resisted the urge to squeeze her a bit too tightly.
Later that afternoon, while working in my study, I had an unexpected, yet most welcome, visit from Mr. Gardiner. As he was announced, I bade the footman to show him in directly.
"Mr. Darcy!" he called cheerfully, "Thank you for receiving me without notice."
"Sir, I am always glad to see you," I said as I rose and reached to shake his hand, "How may I be of service to you?"
"My good sir, you already have. I have just had word that Lord Murdock is preparing to sell off his estate to live in Scotland. I could not be more pleased!"
"It is nothing, as you know."
"Ah, but I know more than you might think," he smiled, "Never mind that, however; I have come to inform you that despite my best efforts at keeping your involvement in the affair silent, a remark from my brother's latest letter leads me to fear that he has made the connection on his own. I know that you plan to journey to Hertfordshire soon, so I wished to warn you, on the chance that he may make mention of it. I would not wish you to be caught unawares."
"Ah, yes, he made his sentiments known to me already." Grinning, I gestured to the letter on my desk, where it had never been far from my thoughts.
Mr. Gardiner looked a bit uncertain as he appealed to me, "Ah, you must forgive my brother; I hope he said nothing untoward; sometimes, his humor gets the best of him."
"No, no, there is nothing to forgive," I laughed, "The note, though brief, was in fact, quite informative, and, Mr. Bennet has assured me that he will keep the matter to himself, for which I am most grateful."
With an expression of relief tinged with curiosity he observed, "Well, at the very least, you may be assured of his secrecy. You can imagine, with six women in his midst, Thomas has learned to keep his own counsel."
"Yes, indeed, I can."
And I did, for a moment, imagine what it must be like for the poor man, constantly surrounded by women as he was. However amiable they may be, only one amongst them presented a reasonable match for his temperament and intellect. Yes, it must be a challenge indeed. I suppose his peculiarities might be excused as a form of defense against the surfeit of femininity in his home.
Mr. Gardiner did not tarry much longer, so I soon sent him off with my regards to Mrs. Gardiner and the children, and, after a moment's deliberation, I asked him to relate to Miss Lily that I had not forgotten her advice. He looked at me a bit oddly, but asked no questions, and promised to deliver the message.
The next evening, I dined with the Fitzwilliam's, and was happy to note the improved relations between Julian and my uncle. While he had never been strictly dissolute, Julian had been very careless in the past, and was well beyond the usual age of reformation toward more moderate habits, so it was with great relief that I noted the change, and I gave more effort than usual in engaging him in conversation. He, in turn, proved to be an agreeable companion, and quite adept in the art of discourse, not unlike his brother. After some intelligent talk about politics, estate management and such, he boldly addressed the subject dearest to my heart.
"That Miss Bennet of yours is a very beguiling creature," he noted.
"She is, isn't she?" I said, rather longingly, "Though, I cannot claim her for my own."
"Perhaps not yet, but if I may be so bold, I do believe there will be a time, very soon, when you will," he suggested, then explained further with his merry laughter, "During my dance with her, she seemed far more interested in hearing about you than she did in learning about me!"
Julian was rising in my esteem with each passing moment.
Not even Richard's knowing smirk could stifle my good spirits just then. Of course, the outcome of my return to Elizabeth the next day might dampen them sufficiently.
When I left that evening, each family member wished me luck in his or her own way, some subtle, and others, not so. My favorite benediction, however, came from my uncle.
"Do stay away from the wine, son, and bring me a new niece; I begin to grow tired of the ones I have," he jested, pulling Georgiana into his embrace. She offered no objection to his words.
I departed, with Georgiana's arm in mine, feeling quite fortunate to have had the support and love of my family when I needed it most. It was a fine sensation indeed.
Papa's newfound attentiveness outlived the test of a few days. In the weeks that followed our return from London he continued to engage with all of his daughters. With Mary, he debated points on the scholarly texts she favored, and even recommended some additional readings to her. He complimented Kitty's sketches, and offered suggestions and materials for practice. He even sometimes entered the fray of wedding talk; which perplexed my mother, but pleased Jane. He attempted to show interest in Lydia's bonnets, though this only caused her sulking to intensify-she was not likely to forgive him the sin of denying her Brighton any time soon.
With me, his relationship had not much changed. We continued in our shared reflections on the literature we loved, and challenged one another in friendly games of chess. He joined me for short strolls on occasion and questioned me about the stories I had been writing. We laughed together about Georgiana's tale, but I could not bring myself to tell him about my most recent venture, a narrative featuring a hero very much in the spirit of Mr. Darcy. Perhaps I would not have been so reluctant, had I known how the story would end, but, alas, I was unsure.
There was one observation I made which lent me some uneasiness; when I was alone with my father, I discerned a hint of a distant sadness which I could not understand, but each time I broached the subject, he blamed his inattentiveness on his age, and shrugged it off, making it clear to me that it was not a matter on which he wished to speak, so I dared not press further.
In any case, I appreciated his small efforts in taking a more active interest in my sisters, but unfortunately, I was soon faced with indefensible proof that Lydia, at least, had not much improved. On a late afternoon, as I walked out beyond the boundaries of Longbourn, toward Meryton, I encountered one whom I had rather not: Mr. Wickham - locked in what looked like a lover's embrace - with my youngest sister.
"Lydia!" I chastised her, and they reluctantly pulled apart.
"There's no need to be so tiresome, Lizzy!" Lydia protested, "I was simply wishing dear Mr. Wickham God's speed. He is to leave tomorrow, you know."
Not soon enough, I thought to myself.
"And Papa is being so horrid!" she complained, stomping her foot as would a child. "If I could but go to Brighton!"
"Lydia, we must return to the house," I insisted.
At her obvious reluctance, I added, a bit more forcefully, "Now! Or, shall I tell Papa where I found you today?" I eyed her meaningfully, daring her to object.
Lydia pouted, but turned and left with me. Before we had gotten very far, Mr. Wickham's voice rang out, "Miss Elizabeth!"
I cannot say why I did, but after shooing my grudging sister along, I went back to speak to Mr. Wickham; a quite stupid position to put myself in, but I was not thinking of the potential consequences, only the anger which I wished to release upon him. Despite all he had done, I thought him a fool, not a fiend, so I did not consider myself to be in any danger.
"Yes?" I asked impatiently.
"I would not wish to leave without bidding you farewell," Mr. Wickham answered smoothly; "We were always good friends, were we not?"
"You will have to excuse me; I do not care for your method of leave taking," I replied brusquely, and turned to leave. "Good, day, Mr. Wickham."
"Please, wait!" He placed his hand upon my arm. I glared at the offending appendage until he pulled it away.
"Mr. Wickham, you can have nothing you need say to me. I must tend to my sister; the child, I might add, whom you have just importuned."
Having realized that I was no longer susceptible to his facade of amiability, he dropped the last of the charade, and his eyes held the same malicious gleam I noticed at my Aunt Phillips' house. I should have felt intimidated; but I did not.
"Your sister is hardly a child, Miss Elizabeth," he said derisively, "and, I must say, she gave no indication that she felt she was being importuned."
"You are despicable, sir. I would, if I could, wish you a safe journey, but I can only find enough charity in my heart to say, 'good riddance'."
He measured me with his eyes, an expression of disdain mixed with the unmistakable look of lust; a lascivious glare which left me feeling decidedly unclean.
"It was you, wasn't it?" he sneered.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I should have known, once I heard you praising Darcy as though he were the prodigal son, I should have realized it was you who prattled to Colonel Forster. Such a shame, too. I truly thought we understood one another." He raked me with his eyes as he drew closer, causing an involuntary shudder of disgust.
Though I had not, in fact, spoken to Colonel Forster, my father had, but I was not about to let Mr. Wickham know that. "I have not the pleasure of understanding you, sir," I said, through gritted teeth.
"Do you not know what you have done?" He demanded, stepping closer, "Ever since you've returned from Kent, they have watched me like hawks. My commanders, the shopkeepers, even the fathers of the servant girls. I value my good reputation, Miss Elizabeth, however fabricated it may be; and I will do what I must to protect it." He leered menacingly, stepping closer still, until he was only an arm's length away.
A gasp caught my attention, and as I reflexively turned toward its source, Mr. Wickham tightly grabbed a hold of my right arm. It was quite providential for me then, that I am one of the few whom are quite as capable with the left hand as the right, so I reeled and slapped him hard across the face, causing him to let me go immediately.
Though I now felt the fear that I should have admitted long ago, I did not cower as he might have wished; I met his rage with equal determination. I was, admittedly, unsure of what to expect, but was prepared for an unpleasant scene, so I was a bit surprised when he paled considerably, mumbled a hurried "forgive me," and quickly retreated into the woods. I smiled to myself as I brushed imaginary dirt from my skirts, smugly satisfied with the thought that I had inspired fear in such a contemptible man, until I turned around and faced the true source of Mr. Wickham's alarm.
I left before dawn to ensure an early arrival in Hertfordshire. I was certainly anxious to reach the county, and, more specifically, Elizabeth, but why I felt it necessary to push my beast to the brink of his ability, I cannot say. Fortunately, he is a strong animal, and carried me to my destination at a record pace. Upon reaching Netherfield, I hardly spared time for a proper greeting to Bingley, which was just as well - he was leaving for Longbourn when I arrived. I chose the efficiency of a cold bath over the comfort of a warm one, and was again ready to leave within half an hour.
I had little time before Wickham's removal from the area, so I hurried first into the village to see about discharging any of his outstanding debts. To my surprise, the shopkeepers started denying him credit weeks ago, so the damage was actually minimal. I was further astonished by the graciousness in which I was received; I certainly had not given cause for kindness. Once again, I had underestimated the people of Meryton; but further reflection upon that theme would wait-I was in search of metal far more attractive.**
The sun was beginning its evening descent when I was finally at leave to head towards Longbourn. Veering from the road and entering the woods, I was soon arrested by the sight of Elizabeth-I would recognize her form anywhere-but she was not alone. It was a few moments longer before I realized her companion was Mr. Wickham, and that he held her arm in a tight grip. Furious, but still too far away to be of any use, I pressed Bingley's fresh horse, which I had exchanged for my tired one, into a gallop towards them. Before I got much closer, he caught sight of me and spinelessly stalked away. My first instinct was to chase him down and give a free rein to my vengeance, but Elizabeth's well-being was my primary concern. I hardly gave the horse a chance to stop its gait before jumping off and rushing to her.
"Elizabeth!" I exhaled, breathing heavily, "Did he harm you?"
Her initial expression of relief was quickly replaced by one of confusion as she replied, "No; he has not injured me. I believe he suffers more than I," she added sardonically, a ghost of a smile on her face.
"You were quite fierce," I agreed, having witnessed the well-deserved slap she delivered. Still, I noticed the red marks on her arms where his filthy hands had been, and was unable to conceal my dismay. She must have seen the direction of my gaze, as she absently moved to cover the bruises with her other hand.
I continued to watch Wickham's retreat with a hardened scowl, my body taut with tension, until a soft hand gently pressed my forearm, claiming my attention. "Please, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth entreated, "Do not think of it. He is a coward, and not worth your concern." My posture and expression immediately softened at her plea, and I turned to look on the face I love so well. She drew her hand back hastily, turning away from me.
"I must say, I was disappointed to learn that it was you, and not me, who motivated Mr. Wickham's hasty departure. I had imagined myself a menacing creature," she joked half-heartedly. Had my emotions not been so thoroughly disturbed, I might have been amused by her peevishness, but, as it was, it only added to my inner turmoil.
"Miss Elizabeth," I pleaded, "Elizabeth, please, won't you look at me?"
She did, but her face was etched with a pain which robbed me of my composure.
Filled with contrition, I groaned, "How can I ever express how sorry I am for the way I behaved?"
"Are you?" she asked testily, "I have been wondering these weeks what could have caused you to act in such a manner. Why were you ready to believe me capable of such behavior - in your own home, of all places?"
I passed my hand over my face, and began pacing in my self-induced frustration. "There is no response I can provide which might excuse my words and actions. I can only say that I was jealous and angry: angry with myself, for not being man enough to secure your heart; angry with you, for giving me no encouragement; and jealous of Mr. Greene, for apparently succeeding where I had failed. I was thoughtless and stupid."
"If you knew you were wrong, then why did you wait so long to return?"
"When you left early, I could only assume you did not wish to see me, so I thought it best to give you some time; believe me, had I thought you wished it, I would have mounted my horse that very day and followed you."
"What changed your mind, then?"
"I decided whether you wish to see me or not, I needed to tell you that I know I how dreadfully wrong I was. I cannot bear the thought of you, alive in this world, and thinking ill of me."
Refusing to meet my eye, she admitted, "It hurt me; to know that I had fallen so low in your esteem. It still does." The vulnerability she revealed as she said this undid me; I stopped pacing to take her hands in mine.
"Elizabeth; you must believe that I never thought less of you; you were never culpable. You have always been, and always will be, everything that is idyllic in a woman for me. Whether you are able to forgive me or not, that truth, will never change." I met her eyes and was heartened by the tenderness I saw within them, and so continued, "The truth is, from the time I lost my father, until I found you, I was in command of nearly every aspect of my life, and whatever did fall out of my power, I was able to manage myself, or purchase my way into a resolution. But you - whom I loved so completely, almost from the start - I could not fight my feelings for you, and once I stopped trying, I learned I could not govern your heart, or tempt you with my wealth - nor would I wish to, and yet, I felt a loss of control that I have never experienced, and it frightened me."
I gently traced her cheek with my thumb as I added, "But, I am not afraid any longer, Elizabeth. Is there any way - can you, please forgive me?"
She smiled wryly as she replied, "I am ashamed that women are so simple to offer war where they should kneel for peace."***
I could make neither head nor tail of her enigmatic response; puzzled, I asked, "Pardon?"
"From the play we saw in London, Taming of the Shrew; do you not remember?"
"I do recognize the line; it is just that I find it strange to hear you speak of such subservience."
"True, I have not an acquiescent spirit," she agreed ruefully, and as I tilted her face up to mine, I could not help affirming, "As I am well aware," eliciting from her a small smile.
"Nevertheless," she added, the lively spark returning to her eyes, "On this occasion, I thought it apt." She reached for my hand where it rested on her cheek and, intertwining her fingers with mine, she said, "It would be a shame to allow one misstep, however dreadful, to come between dear friends, would it not? We have, both of us, I think, behaved foolishly."
"But Elizabeth, you know full well that friendship is not what I want from you."
As I stepped closer, she breathed, "What do you want?"
Impossible woman! I decided on a mode of expression far more effective than my words, and crushed her to me, kissing her soundly. Though by then, I am certain she knew my wishes well enough, I also understood that she needed to hear them spoken just as much as I needed to say them. Pulling away, completely breathless, and delirious with passion for this woman, I rested my forehead against hers and finally opened my heart.
"What I want, my dearest Elizabeth, is to see your lovely face as I rise each morning, laugh with you throughout the days, cry with you in dark hours, and hold you as we sleep every night."
I took the tear which fell from her eye to be sufficient encouragement to complete my declaration on bended knee, and I did so, taking her trembling hands into my steady ones.
"Elizabeth, I know you care little for my wealth and position, but whatever I have, it is yours. I have my share of faults, but I can promise to love, respect, and cherish you always. Will you do me the greatest honor, grant me my most fervent wish, relieve my suffering, and consent to be my wife?"
"Please," I whispered.
Unable to speak for tears, she choked out a barely audible "yes," and flew into my arms, where we remained; me, kneeling, she, standing, both of us sobbing, for some time. At length, a rustling in the nearby shrubbery stirred us, and Elizabeth stepped back, pulling me up by my hand.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"For what?" I asked, attempting to ignore the fact that I had just wept like a child in my beloved's arms.
"For loving me when I had given no reason to deserve it."
I pulled her back into my embrace, resting my head atop hers, as I replied; "I happen to think the opposite to be true. But let us not quarrel over which of us is less worthy of the other's love. Instead, let us be thankful that we found one another."
"You are keen, my lord, you are keen."****
"I shall delay my response to that line until after we are married, my love." She blushed furiously at my allusion to the Bard's lewd joke, "But, since you enjoy Shakespeare so very much, I shall promise to take you to the theater often."
My Elizabeth reached a hand to my face, and, smiling sweetly, gifted me with a gentle kiss. To attempt to describe my joy would do it a grave injustice. Let it simply be said, however lacking in originality I may be, that where my soul once shattered, it now soared.
"I believe I shall enjoy that," she said, adding impishly, "After all, it was at the theater where I first learned to admit that you were not all bad." I threw my head back in open laughter, foreseeing many blissful years in our future.
We walked on, too full of emotion for coherent thought. My mind was filled only with the beautiful woman by my side; that is, until my thoughts were beset with the realization that in my haste and doubt, I had forgotten to bring the ring which I intended to bring from my mother's collection. When I said as much to her, she merely laughed at my fastidiousness, saying that no jewels would be necessary to secure her affections, and claimed, "William, I would be content to wait indefinitely for the ring, so long as I am able to keep your hand." Sweeter words were never spoken; but still, I made a mental resolution to have it fetched immediately.
As we came upon the estate, we were greeted by the sight of a lone figure, slowly pacing the side of the house. On closer inspection, we recognized it to be Mr. Bennet, who appeared to be somewhat weary and lost in thought. Our laughter alerted him to our presence; he stopped his pacing and watched our approach, wordlessly. When we reached him, he looked from Elizabeth's jubilant face, to my besotted one, then held his hand out to me, saying only, "Welcome back, Son."
*from Fordyce's Sermons, because every fanfic must have a reference to Mary reading Fordyce's Sermons; well, at least most.
***from Taming of the Shrew
****also from Hamlet; but important to note that what follows Ophelia's comment that Hamlet is sharp, is a bit of a dirty joke about how to take the edge off.
*****I really like Shakespeare; especially Hamlet, apparently
Posted on 2012-05-12
As we walked back, somewhat aimlessly, closer than propriety allowed, I wondered aloud how we might go about obtaining my father's consent to marry. Mr. Darcy, now my William, informed me that Papa had already given it freely, and detailed his droll method of expression. I laughed at the tactic, it being so very like my dear Papa. Regardless of prior consent, however, we thought it best to apply to him before sharing the news with the rest of the family. Papa seemed to be waiting for our arrival; how he knew to expect us, I know not, but he welcomed Mr. Darcy with a genuine warmth which nearly brought me to tears.
We followed him into his study to receive his official blessing, which was wholeheartedly given, and my new fiancé left soon after. Though we were both reluctant to part so soon, he was obviously exhausted, and we would have the rest of our lives to share with one another.
As I walked him to his horse, which Papa graciously allowed me to do in private, I fully comprehended that my soul had found its other half in Mr. Darcy. His strengths balanced my weaknesses, and his faults, though far fewer than I had previously thought them to be, would be softened by my own abilities. Had someone thought to ask me a year ago, what my ideal of a man might be, my description would have borne little affinity to the devastatingly handsome man standing before me, and yet, I could think of no other, who could suit me so perfectly.
As if he were reading my thoughts, he bent down slowly to place a soft kiss on my lips. Though sweet and tender, it was no less filled with passion than the first, and no less satisfying. I felt his warmth through my entire body, yet shivered at the same time. He gathered me close in response.
"I sincerely hope you will not want a long engagement," he breathed against my hair.
Pulling away to meet his intense gaze, I responded, "I think, in this one instance, I will be happy to accede to your desires."
"Good," he grinned, "Until tomorrow, then, my love."
After placing a kiss on my palm, he hoisted himself into his saddle, looked back one last time, and was gone. I wandered back inside, humming a light melody. It seemed my distracted state attracted my father's notice; I heard an amused chuckle from within his study.
"Come in, child," he called. I poked my head in to see him sitting back in his wing chair, fingers steepled, as he looked absentmindedly out of the window.
"Yes, Papa?" He held his hand out to me, and I came forward to take it.
"I am very happy for you, my dear. Your Mr. Darcy is a good man, and he loves you very much. I am loath to admit it, but, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy," he said as he rose to kiss my cheek, "And, I am certain that the two of you will do well together, and perhaps be as happy even as Jane with her Mr. Bingley, if not more so," he said fondly, "She only smiles: you laugh." He continued, a bit more soberly, "What I am not certain of, however, is how I will survive without my two most sensible companions."
It occurred to me that he must have anticipated Mr. Darcy's proposal long before it happened, thus the despondency I had been noticing of late. Now privy to the source of his melancholy, I sought to reassure him. "Oh, Papa," I said as I grabbed his hand, "But the younger girls are improving daily under your instruction; Jane will not be so far, and you will always be welcome at Pemberley."
"Ah, yes; I must admit a great curiosity for seeing the famed Pemberley library, but please tell me Lizzy, that your young man does not intend to take you away from me too soon."
At my confused expression, he understood my hesitation, and saved me the need of replying, "Ah. I see he has already suggested otherwise. No matter; be it three weeks, or three years, I do not think I shall ever be ready," he smiled weakly, "Off with you now."
Leaving him with a kiss on his forehead, I skipped lightly towards my room, in the hopes of finding Jane. Upon opening the door, however, I found Lydia perched atop my bed instead.
"Lydia, what are you doing here?" I asked skeptically.
"You must think me very stupid," she stated morosely, while picking at a loose thread on the counterpane.
"You are very young, Lydia," I sighed.
"Posh; you may as well call me stupid! You did not behave so at my age." I could not mask the surprise at my sister's mature declaration, or the horror, as I realized that it must have been her voice that I heard during my confrontation with Mr. Wickham. Hoping that she left before Mr. Darcy arrived, but seriously doubting it, I began to ask, "Lydia, when I told you to return to the house-"
"I did not go," she finished for me. And, with the beginnings of a smile, she added, "I must say, your valiant Mr. Darcy makes Mr. Wickham look quite pathetic."
"Lydia!" I gasped, as my face flushed crimson, "You didn't!"
"Oh yes, I saw it all - or - heard, rather, as I was hidden, but you needn't fret; I thought it all terribly romantic!" She reminded me just how very young she is, as she sighed dreamily with her hands pressed against her chest, eyes alit with guileless delight. "It was just like something out of a novel!"
I covered my face with my hands, thoroughly mortified. But, all the emotions coursing through me at that moment gave way to an irrepressible paroxysm of laughter, soon drawing Lydia in as well. We continued laughing so hard, for so long, that tears streamed freely down both of our faces.
"Lord!" she giggled, regaining some semblance of composure, "I'm sure I can't remember when I have ever laughed so much."
"No, nor I," I agreed, as I shook my head and wiped away the mirthful tears, before returning to solemnity. After a few deep breaths, I felt sufficiently recovered.
"Lydia," I admonished, "You should not have eavesdropped."
"Oh, I know, but, I was so worried that you would keep Wickham all to yourself." She had the decency to blush a little, "But now, I know, of course, that we are all better off without him. I can't imagine what might have happened if Mr. Darcy had not appeared."
"Neither can I;" I admitted, "But Lydia, what were you thinking in meeting Mr. Wickham all alone? Surely you realize how dangerous such an assignation is to your reputation."
She bit her lip in consternation as she readied an answer. "Truly Lizzy," she began, "Had you asked me that question yesterday I would have thought you very tedious, and laughed it off; but now, after hearing what he said, I have no satisfactory answer. Of course I knew it was wrong, but I didn't care. I was still angry with Papa for forbidding me to go to Brighton, and I was determined to have my fun."
"Now that is rather foolish, Lydia, but I hope you at least have learnt to restrain your behavior a bit! Had anyone else seen you there - even a servant - your reputation would be tarnished forever. You may have been forced to marry the despicable man!" Her eyes widened in fear as I said this.
"Oh, no; in the time I have been sitting here, I have come to understand how poorly I behaved. No, Lizzy; I do not plan to put myself in a like situation again."
"I am glad to hear it. Since you understand your error, I see no occasion to make mention of the incident at present." I embraced her quickly before rising to leave, but not without cautioning her, "Lydia, no one knows of the engagement but Papa. You must keep it to yourself until I have told Mama; I must admit, I am not looking forward to it."
"Oh, but she will be delighted, Lizzy! Just imagine how she will react to know you have caught such a rich husband!"
"It is precisely that which worries me; but, there's nothing for it; it must be done."
I knew it would be merely a matter of time before Lydia would thoughtlessly betray the news, so I immediately quit the room in search of Jane. Her reaction to the engagement was exactly what I had expected; all the best wishes for our felicity, and nothing but praise for Mr. Darcy.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands together, "This is above all things!"
"Will Charles like to have Mr. Darcy as a brother, do you think?"
"He will be absolutely delighted! But Caroline," she stopped before allowing her thoughts to take a wicked turn.
"Oh, just say it, Jane! Miss Bingley will be horrified beyond belief!"
"She will!" Jane replied, stifling her laughter, but I had no such compunction.
"I can just imagine her hysterics when she finds out. Poor William," I sighed. "Poor Charles! I wonder how many of his dishes might become victims of her fury, or, how many pillows will suffer in her rage."
Laughter again threatened to spill forth from her as she begged, "Stop it, Lizzy!"
"Very well; though you will have to forgive me if I am unable to spare any charitable sentiments for her."
Now acquainted with the full extent of Miss Bingley's betrayal, Jane was satisfied to allow me that much.
I next approached Mama to inform her of the happy news. When I found her in the drawing room, she was already seated, poring over the menu for Jane's wedding, which was now little more than three weeks away.
"Mama," I ventured, "I have something I need to tell you."
"Yes, yes, Lizzy. But first, tell me what you think. I had planned to serve lamb at the wedding breakfast, but Hill says there is none to be found," she scribbled something as a thought came to her, "What do you think of venison?"
"Whatever you select, you always set a fine table, Mama; I have no doubt the guests will be well pleased with venison." She continued writing furiously as she recollected something else; I sat next to her and placed my hand on her shoulder.
"Mama." No response was forthcoming from her, but I persisted, "Mama, I hope you will be pleased to know that I have received, and, accepted, an offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy."
The announcement immediately secured her full attention; she simultaneously dropped her pen and let out a small gasp as she turned to me with an expression of open astonishment. She opened and closed her mouth several times before willing any other sound to come out.
"Mr. Darcy proposed," she declared finally, then more anxiously, "and, you say you have accepted him?"
"Yes, Mama; I have."
She closed her eyes and exhaled in relief at my assurance. Another moment brought the shrill cry I expected; "Oh my dear Lizzy! Oh my! I shall go quite distracted! I had my suspicions, but heavens! I never dreamed - and so soon! Mr. Darcy! So handsome, and so rich! I must go into Meryton and tell my sister Phillips. Pray tell me, Lizzy, what dish Mr. Darcy is fond of, that I may have it for supper tomorrow. He is coming for supper, is he not?"
"That, I cannot say. But, Mama, Mr. Darcy does not wish to be fussed over, I can assure you of that much."
"Nonsense, Lizzy! I am not 'fussing'; but he must be accustomed to such very fine dining. Why, he must have two or three French cooks, at least! And to think, you shall be mistress of it all! My Lizzy - Mrs. Darcy!"
Thus continued her happy effusions as she fluttered about the house while awaiting the carriage. I need not mention the irony I saw in how readily the carriage was made available for Mama's jaunt into the village, when poor Jane had been required to ride in the rain on horseback those many months ago. I need not mention it; but I do.
Finally, I shared the news of the engagement with Kitty and Mary, neither of whom seemed especially surprised. Apparently, my ready defense of Mr. Darcy at Aunt Phillips' dinner portended more to them than a simple wish to clear his name.
I awoke with a start; out of breath, and completely soaked in sweat. In the three days following my engagement to Elizabeth, my dreams had become increasingly…intense. After requesting yet another cold bath from my bemused valet, I hurried outdoors in the hope that a brisk ride would help me shake off the last fragments of the provocative visions. It was not that I did not wish to remember, indeed, the dreams were quite agreeable; but, in reality, it was quickly becoming difficult to be around Elizabeth and remain a gentleman. Her sensual smiles and alluring eyes could not help my cause.
Then, there was also the problem of what to do about Wickham; I was not of a mind to let his offenses against my bride go unpunished. I rode, hoping for reprieve from my tormented thoughts; instead, I found the one object of my desire, seated on a flat rock as she was reading a book. She had taken her bonnet off, and the light breeze teased her hair out of carefully arranged pins. She was simply a vision, and her presence there dangerously threatened my fragile self-control.
"O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O, stay and hear; your true love's coming."* The words of Shakespeare's comedy escaped me without my even realizing it. Admittedly, it was perhaps not the best choice, but something about the circumstances recalled them to me.
Elizabeth chuckled, then turned her laughing eyes on me as she set her book down, "Oh, my;" she teased, "That was absolutely horrendous. Please do not tell me you continue to subscribe to the ridiculous notion that poetry is the food of love."
More amused than affronted, I approached her as I countered, "But, was it not you who said everything nourishes that which is strong already?" I raised her hand to my lips, never breaking contact with her exquisite eyes.
"Yes, I believe it was," she said unsteadily. I could not hold back a smile.
I then recited more appropriate lines as I sat next to her and toyed with a loose curl:
"Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That valleys, groves, hills and fields,
Woods or steepy mountains yields.
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
And I will make thee beds of roses,
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle"**
I was halted by a look of unguarded love in Elizabeth's eyes, and she took the opportunity to speak.
"Yes, my love?"
"Perhaps I was wrong."
"Ha! So you admit I was right about poetry?" I asked, not attempting to hide my satisfied grin.
"Well, if it is the right poem, perhaps."
"In that case, madam," I said, as I leaned in to claim her lips, "I shall be certain to recite only the right ones."
When we parted some moments later, I remembered the paper that I had safely tucked away.
"I've brought you something." Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out the announcement I sent to the paper and handed it to her. "I was going to bring it when I came to Longbourn in the afternoon, but since you are here," I trailed off.
She looked it over, then turned to me with a contented smile, "My, my Mr. Darcy; that did not take long."
"I warned you; I have no wish to wait for a long engagement."
She smiled blushingly, and I was tempted to ignore the more unpleasant business I needed to discuss with her; but, it could not be helped.
"Elizabeth, you know I will have to confront Wickham."
She laughed, "What shall you do, my faithful knight; call him out for grabbing my arm?" But at my stony countenance, her look of amusement quickly changed to one of horror.
"He didn't merely 'grab your arm', Elizabeth - I know he threatened you; and yes, I do mean to challenge him for that. I protect those I love."
"Please, William," she pled earnestly, "I beg you would not. You saw how he shrank away the moment he saw you. A man as weak as he is will not come prepared for a fair fight, and I would not have you take that risk. He has left for Brighton in any case; he can bring no harm to us."
"Then you underestimate him," I stated firmly. But her genuine concern warmed me; and, if I am being honest, I was not unaffected by her reasoning. Wickham is not a man to be trusted, and as his militia had already been removed, there would be little practicality in such an arrangement. It was Elizabeth's anxiously expectant face, however, which finally prompted me to rethink my perspective.
"In any case," I owned, "My cousin has considerable influence in the military, so I have written him to seek out a commission for Wickham in the regulars, or in the Navy; far enough removed so that he will no longer pose a threat to you, Georgiana, or any of your sisters." She nodded slightly in response.
Eager to change the subject, she asked, "Have you heard from your family?"
"I received an express from my uncle; he could not be more pleased. Georgiana is, of course, delighted."
"And Lady Catherine?" she asked apprehensively.
I sighed, "I have not yet heard from her, but I will not try to delude myself, or you, into thinking she will favor the match; however, it matters not. I am my own man, and we have my uncle's blessing." I took her hand to reassure her, and to reassure myself, and I said, "Even if she is angry, it will come to nothing; the rest of my relations already accept you as their own, and my aunt will respect you. There is nothing to fear."
"I suppose there is no sense in dwelling on that which has not yet come to pass," she decided and nudged my shoulder.
"True, but we have not yet decided on when our wedding shall come to pass."
"Well, considering that you would prefer a short engagement-"
"It is not a matter of preference, Elizabeth, but one of necessity," I interrupted, a bit too gruffly.
She wrinkled her brow in confusion; I chose not to elaborate - I was skirting rather closely towards impropriety as it was.
"Well then; Jane and Mr. Bingley marry in three weeks, then they will travel north for eight weeks more, so the earliest that we can marry is three months from now, at the end of July?" At my look of dismay, she gently pressed my forearm and said, "You do understand, that I wish for Jane to be present for our wedding."
"Of course I do," I affirmed warmly, covering her hand with mine. "But Elizabeth; truly, I cannot wait that long. I don't know how I will survive it."
"My, but you are impatient!"
"I am; when I know what I want."
She blushed prettily at my open admiration. "What do you propose then, Mr. Darcy; shall we journey to Scotland?" she asked with a playful grin.
"As tempting as that sounds, no; I suggest something less scandalous. The notice has been sent to the paper already. I can go to London this afternoon and procure a license in the morning and have the settlement papers prepared. What do you think, my love, to sharing our wedding day with your sister and my friend?"
She bolted upright from where she had been seated. "I would think it a wonderful idea if her wedding were not a mere three weeks away!" she exclaimed, as she began pacing furiously in front of me. "Are you mad?"
I smirked; "Mad for thy love***, yes."
"Enough of Shakespeare! I am being perfectly serious! What will your family think? What will my family think?" I found her anger - and the resultant glow in her eyes - to be endearing, but endeavored to respond with the appropriate level of gravity.
"They will think we are in love, and wish to marry, my dear."
She glanced sharply in my direction, and continued her rigorous pace.
"What shall I do for wedding clothes? That is hardly enough time!"
"Elizabeth, I think I have sufficient resources to have a wedding gown made quickly, and whatever else you need, we can order when we get to town. Besides, I would be delighted with any gown you wear to our wedding; it is of no matter to me."
"I am sure you would," she grumbled, throwing her hands up in frustration. "Heavens, the entire ton will think I have purposely entrapped you!" At this, I roused myself and blocked her path, taking both of her hands in mine, and holding them firmly over my heart.
"Elizabeth, I do not wish to anger you. I know that our marriage will be a bigger change for you than for me, but I must beg your indulgence in this. I cannot sleep without you invading my dreams. It is difficult to imagine waiting one month, let alone three. Please also consider that I would like to take you on a proper wedding journey. We will not be able to do that if we wait three months; I will have to return to Pemberley to begin preparations for the harvest. All will be done with ceremony; there will be no unseemliness. Anyone who thinks we married precipitously will be quieted soon enough. As for your family; I have already planned to invite them all to Pemberley in the summer, after we return from our travels."
She crossly replied, "The fault is not mine, you know, for what comes to you in your dreams," but a slight smile curled her lips, giving me hope that her position was softening.
"Oh, but I beg to differ; if you were not so completely bewitching, I would surely be content with much more tedious dreams." I slowly slid my hands up her arms and drew her to me as I entreated softly in her ear, "I want nothing more than to take you home. What do you say, my Lizzy; will you come live with me, and be my love?"
All of her steadfast resolve melted away as she forwarded a fitting reply; "These delights my mind might move to live with thee and be thy love."****
"But," she added forcefully, pulling away slightly, "Only if my parents and Jane approve. I will not force the issue upon them."
I kissed her brow as I whispered, "Thank you; my sweet nymph."
*Shakespeare's 'O Mistress Mine'
** Christopher Marlowe's 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love'
****Sir Walter Raleigh's 'The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd'
The consent required for a joint wedding with Jane and Charles was obtained more easily than I had imagined it would be. Papa, having already reconciled himself to a brief engagement, had no real objection. Though it was sooner than he had anticipated, he took comfort in the fact that the arrangement would save him a great deal of trouble and expense. And Mama, though displeased with the idea, was far too much in awe of my fiancé to express her disapproval in his presence. She was sure, however, to share it with me - and did so frequently. Her biggest complaint was that she had lost the opportunity to prepare for a wedding grand enough for the likes of a Mrs. Darcy. This, more than anything else, reassured me that the decision to marry quickly was a wise one.
The prospect of a shared wedding only added to the happiness of Jane and Mr. Bingley, they both being possessed of such generous spirits. So with every decision already made on Jane's behalf, all that remained to be done was to search for a gown. William left the very afternoon after speaking with Papa, offering to convey me to Gracechurch Street if I wished to have a gown ordered in London. With such little time remaining for me in Hertfordshire, however, I preferred to rely upon the Meryton dressmakers; and Mama, my sisters and I set out in that direction the next day. Though the offerings there are certainly more limited when compared to the shops of London, I was pleased to find a lovely ivory silk embroidered with delicate scrolls of amethyst beading. Since my taste bends more toward simple design, it would be no problem to have a gown fashioned in the allotted time.
With this task completed, we returned home to find an express waiting for me from Mr. Darcy. It was not burdened with superfluous declarations of love, but carried promises to return as soon as the settlement had been drawn up, assurances that his family in London was delighted with our engagement, and his happiness that they would be attending the wedding. He also enclosed a letter to me from Georgiana; though she would be returning with him, she sent, as he put it, "a full four pages which could hardly contain her joy". He added that his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, was able to secure a commission in the regulars for Mr. Wickham in Newcastle, a place quite north of here, where he could be closely watched. At this, I exhaled a sigh of relief.
I laughed aloud at his diverting description of Caroline Bingley's reaction to our betrothal:
"You may well imagine the relief I felt upon learning that Georgiana had already taken the liberty of informing Miss Bingley of our engagement before I returned. She credited Miss Bingley for being the first to notice my admiration of you, the latter having frequently made mention of my appreciation for your fine eyes. Miss Bingley said nothing, left the room, and was neither heard nor seen again that evening, excepting a single, muffled scream. Apparently, her pillow needed replacing the next day, having been removed of its feathers (this last piece of information comes from the servant's quarters)."
In lieu of a wordy testimony of his ardor, the letter closed with these simple lines:
Elizabeth, I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say 'I love you'.* My heart is ever at your service.**
Two days more brought the return of my intended with his dear sister. She and I enjoyed continuing to nurture the friendship, in person, which had been furthered on paper. She laughed at the story I wrote for her, denying its possibility of ever occurring. I relished in hearing her sketches of Mr. Darcy as a youth. According to what she remembered, and what she had been told, he had always been more serious than the other boys his age, but he did possess a sly propensity for mischief, which, after completing his education, he repressed. I smiled to myself at the thought that I might be in a position to liberate that playful side, of which I had seen glimpses.
Of course, I took care to cherish every moment with Jane. We stayed up, talking late into each night of our future lives and fears. We both felt confident in our choice of marriage partners, but worried more about the new society and great responsibilities which awaited us. Perhaps due to the vast size of my intended's estate, or the great distance from my childhood home, I was more concerned about the changes than she. But, Jane silenced my fears as she reminded me, "Lizzy, have you not always said that your courage rises with every attempt to intimidate you? Why should this be any different? There will always be those who will censure, however well they mean, but we will be supported by our loyal husbands. And," she added as she grabbed my hand, "We shall always have one another to confide in, even if this will more frequently take place in written correspondence."
Only Jane has the good will to find one who censures others to be well intentioned; but her other points were valid, and I resolved to think on it no more.
The days passed more quickly than I would have liked, but not nearly fast enough for my dear Mr. Darcy. In the rare stolen moments with him, he expressed his impatience quite emphatically, and I occasionally wondered whether Gretna Green might have been the more prudent option. After one such demonstration of his eagerness, I was busily setting my hair to rights as he tidied his own appearance, when my one niggling doubt returned. Charlotte had arrived early with Mr. Collins for the wedding, and though she would not say so directly, it was clear that Lady Catherine's anger prompted their premature removal from Kent. I had avoided the subject for long enough, so I asked, "Dearest, have you truly not heard from Lady Catherine, or are you merely attempting to shield me from her reaction?"
He ceased his attentions to his cravat and smiled broadly, "You have never called me 'dearest' before. I could become accustomed to that."
"Well, you are my dearest, but you are also evading my question."
He sighed, then gave me to understand that Lady Catherine still had not sent a reply, but that his uncle Fitzwilliam intended to intercede if her reaction necessitated his involvement. "Besides," he said, "nothing she might say will hold any sway with me; I would not wish any companion in the world but you,"* I could not but be pleased by such a charming reply, though privately, I considered teasing him about his habit of frequently citing published works, but decided otherwise; I must admit, I thought it delightful, and would be sorry to give him cause to stop.
My thoughts were interrupted by the man at my side as he asked, with a crooked grin, "So just when did I become your dearest? How did you finally come to love me?"
"I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun," I responded as he threaded my hand through his arm, and we walked back toward the house.
In truth, I first recognized the growing affection for what it was when we argued at the ball at Darcy House, but I saw no purpose in recalling unpleasant feelings, which, for the happiness of both of us, could not too soon be forgotten.
Despite my effort to desist, my thoughts again turned to Lady Catherine. The more time passed without word from her, the more anxious I became. I had no expectation that she would welcome the match, but neither did I want to be responsible for a break in the family. She must have known of the earl's blessing, however; otherwise, she would have surely come to Hertfordshire already to make her sentiments clear.
So it happened that five days before the wedding, as Mr. Darcy's family and mine began arriving, we had a somewhat unexpected visitor.
I was at Netherfield with Jane and Georgiana, enjoying a fine tea with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; the latter of whom, had arrived three days prior, but had yet to say more than two words to me. I preferred her silence to her insults, however, so I felt no great loss. Mrs. Hurst, on the other hand, made a genuine effort to forward interaction with Jane, even including me on occasion, though with less warmth than she afforded my sister. A palpable tension between the Bingley sisters stilted conversation a bit, but as Mrs. Hurst was clearly more supportive of her brother's alliance with Jane, I directed my own efforts at amenability toward that quarter.
We were on the subject of favorite composers, a discussion in which I was surprised to find some commonalities with Mrs. Hurst. Her talents on the pianoforte had not gone unnoticed by me, and I was pleased to learn that she shared my enjoyment of Mozart, and we exchanged techniques for overcoming intricate passages.
Georgiana, by far the most accomplished amongst us, diffidently offered her advice as well, "When I am having a difficult time with a piece, I will sometimes play with my eyes closed. I find that by blocking out one of my senses, my hearing becomes more adept, and I can more easily recognize my errors."
Mrs. Hurst was the first to add her support to the suggestion, "I had never considered trying that, dear Georgiana, what a clever idea!"
It was then that the footman announced the arrival of Anne de Bourgh, escorted in by her uncle, the earl, who was already a guest at Netherfield. I was overjoyed to see her; her steady correspondence gave me great pleasure, yet I had not hoped to see her so soon. I dismissed the foreboding thought that the presence of Anne must inevitably mean her mother was also nearby, and I rose along with the others to greet her warmly. We fell into an easy conversation, and Anne once again expressed her joy upon hearing of my engagement to her cousin. From the periphery, I noticed a rather pronounced eye roll in the face of Miss Bingley, but I spared it no undue attention.
Though Lady Catherine did, in fact, arrive with her daughter, I neither saw, nor heard her, and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon amongst Mr. Darcy's relations and my own.
*from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'
*from Shakespeare's 'Henry V'
**from Shakespeare's 'Timon of Athens'
Five days before the wedding, Bingley and I chose to take a ride around the estate of Netherfield. For him, the grass had never been greener, the sun never brighter, and the country never pleasanter. The man's natural happy disposition, coupled with his current joy, was nigh unbearable; but since I shared in the source of his contentment, I bore it well enough. Though I am not of a like disposition in which happiness overflows in mirth, I by far preferred his cheerful company to that of his surly sisters.
My valet met us at the stables, and informed us that the eldest Miss Bennets had arrived some time before. Both Bingley and I moved hurriedly to the house, much to my man's amusement. We entered through the back, and were pleased to find that baths had already been ordered, so in a matter of minutes, we were ready to join the ladies. As I descended the stairs, however, I was halted by a familiar - yet unexpected - voice.
I continued my descent slowly, straining to hear the hushed words which passed between Lady Catherine and my uncle. My fists clenched tightly as I grasped the content of their conversation. Though it did not surprise me in the least, I was made no less angry by it.
"How could you allow this?" Aunt Catherine hissed, "Their alliance would be a disgrace! She is without family, connections, or fortune!"
"Darcy is a gentleman; Elizabeth is a gentleman's daughter. As I see it, they are equals," my uncle calmly replied.
"It is Elizabeth to you, is it? I suppose she has drawn you in as well!" I started at Lady Catherine's scathing reply, but my Aunt Sophia came from behind and gently, but firmly, grasped my arm in an effort to silence me; Lady Catherine was left to continue her tirade, for the moment. "Who are her uncles and aunts? Who?"
"If your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you." Had I not been so angry, I might have laughed at my uncle's reply. "Besides, her uncle and aunt are my good friends, and very well bred. More so, I must say, than many of our sphere." The gibe, aimed at my aunt, completely missed the mark.
"And what about Anne?" she demanded.
"Has Anne expressed any desire to marry Darcy?"
"It would not be proper for her to do so," she insisted, "But she would not dare defy me!"
"But Fitzwilliam would. And he is man enough to know his own heart and mind." My uncle's tone softened as the sound of feminine laughter escaped the drawing room. "Listen to that, Sister," he said, "When was the last time you heard Anne laugh? No response came from Lady Catherine, so the earl went on, "Our family has weathered much sorrow and has been somber for far too long. If an unlikely friendship brings some lightness to our hearts, I embrace it. You may not be ready to welcome it, but do not disparage it. It is good, Catherine; let the boy have his happiness; heaven knows he deserves it."
After a few more muffled exchanges, Lady Catherine was gone in a flurry of silk, and into her carriage, without Anne, and without taking leave of anyone, which was no hardship for me, as I could not trust myself to speak to her civilly just then.
My Aunt Sophia, ever one to relish a victory, smiled proudly and said, "I was sure your uncle would handle things admirably; now go on to your Elizabeth." Though I was slightly chagrined to have been robbed of the opportunity to defend my love, I took my aunt's advice without further hesitation.
I looked into the drawing room to see Georgiana absolutely aglow in the warmth of the female companionship of Elizabeth and Anne, whom I later learned had been left behind, by my uncle's persuasion, to attend the wedding. Though Mrs. Annesley had been a caring and diligent companion, she is no substitute for a friendship built on common interests. My heart swelled with joy to see her connect so well with Elizabeth, and I wasted no more time before joining them.
The last days before the wedding were busy ones. There were final wedding arrangements to be made, visits to be paid, and an intimate engagement dinner to be had at Longbourn. I was pleased to see a marked improvement in Elizabeth's younger sisters, as was she. Even Mrs. Bennet, typically the most verbose of the company, seemed to be positively affected by the serenity which accompanied the marriage of two of her daughters. Though I bore her natural liveliness with more grace than I had in the past, I could not but appreciate this milder disposition.
Mr. Bennet, it seemed, made a concerted effort to be a gracious host, abandoning his more reclusive habits. I found much to admire in the man, and rejoiced inwardly as I watched him, my uncle, and Mr. Gardiner converse as equals. Uncle Fitzwilliam was right, after all; they are equal, in abilities, at least, if not in wealth.
Richard was happily taking part in a tete-a-tete with Elizabeth's sister, Mary, and as I drew closer to them, I was surprised to find they were engaged in an animated philosophical discussion, and it was clear to me that Richard was impressed with her insights, which in the past had often been dismissed for their piety. A little religion would not hurt Richard any, I thought. Clearly, there was more to the Bennets than was readily discernible.
Bingley and his Jane glowed in their happiness as they conversed with her sister and mine. The Hursts conversed happily with Anne and Julian, while Miss Bingley brooded alone. I very nearly pitied her, but quickly disabused myself of that thought, as my attention returned once again to the lovely woman whom I would be marrying on the morrow. Though I knew she had no regrets, I felt a pang of guilt for taking her so far away from this - the comfort of her family.
Just as I was beginning to feel this doubt, she turned to me and bestowed upon me a brilliant smile, filled with all her love. My fears laid to rest, I moved to join her.
Though the days seemed to pass at an agonizingly sluggish rate, in retrospect, it all happened rather quickly, and before I realized it, I was at the altar waiting for my bride. For the men, the morning preparations were simple, and we were ready for the church well ahead of the appointed hour.
Richard was amused by our perceived nervousness. "Bingley," he called laughingly, your bride will mistake you for Darcy if you keep pacing as you are. And Darcy," he said, turning to me, "You look as though you are awaiting a funeral, rather than a bride."
Just then, Georgiana appeared. I had not expected to see her until she was seated in the church, so I expressed my surprise. "Georgiana! What are you doing here? Have you seen Elizabeth?"
"Yes; I have been with her most of the morning, as you know. Oh William! She looks absolutely beautiful!" I smiled at the thought of her; "Oh! I was sent to give you this," she recalled, holding out a small folded note. It was written in a feminine hand which I, by now, recognized as Elizabeth's, and contained the following message:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
How grateful am I then, my dearest, that it is you I am to wed; I could give myself so fully to no other. Fair looks I cannot guarantee, in true obedience I will at times falter, but my love: it is, and always will be, yours alone.
In response, I assumed an expression more appropriate to the occasion, and Richard had no further cause to tease me.
My smile only widened when, some minutes later, Elizabeth emerged on the arm of her father, while her sister clung to the other. When pressed for a description, I would only be able to say Jane Bingley looked lovely on her wedding day; it was Elizabeth on whom my eyes were trained. She was, as Georgiana said, absolutely beautiful, but it was more than that; in her smile, she radiated loveliness, joy, and goodness. Draped in a gown of understated elegance, a term which would be frequently used to describe her in society, she was just magnificent. I watched as Mr. Bennet kissed his two eldest, and handed them to Bingley and I, eyes moist with unshed tears. Elizabeth turned to me, and when our eyes met, I understood what Odysseus must have experienced when he first laid eyes on Penelope after twenty long years: I felt as though I had finally come home.
As we joined our hands in preparation of what is, for both of us, unknown, I felt no fear of what may come. Though I could not know what would lie ahead of us, I was certain that any future with Elizabeth by my side would be a blessed one.
*from Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew'
Charlotte once told me that "it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life." I can say, with full confidence, my husband and I took an alternate path from that which she suggested. We entered the marriage state with eyes open, aware of our faults, and mindful that there would be times of discord and frustration - with personalities such as ours, it is unavoidable. After all, is it not true, that "the course of true love never did run smooth"?* But even in the most trying of moments, I have never doubted my husband's love and devotion, and I am sure to never give him cause to doubt mine.
After a glorious four-month wedding journey touring Italy, we returned to Derbyshire where I finally experienced the splendor of my new home, Pemblerley. Words cannot describe the beauty of the estate, so I shall not attempt it, but I am able to express how warmly I was welcomed by servants and tenants alike, as well as by Ophelia, a docile mare my husband had surprised me with as a wedding gift. I spent the next few months becoming accustomed to my roles as capable mistress of the large estate, supportive sister to Georgiana, and loving wife to William. Even when my family descended upon Pemberley as they did, my husband bore it all with good humor, and if he did shrug or threaten to roll his eyes, it was for my benefit alone.
Soon, we removed to London for the 'season'. I wish I could claim that the ton embraced me and our marriage with open arms - and I would, if it were true; but, unfortunately, there are those who are determined to be unkind. I was never cut directly, but there were some who made a point to avoid our company if possible. It first became apparent at the ball which Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam held in our honor, when some notables declined the invitation. At the time, I thought nothing of it, so focused was I on claiming a proper waltz with my husband; which was, by the way, quite enjoyable. Of course there were some whispers that I had been compromised, forcing us to marry quickly. I could say that none of it affected me, but it did. Though they would never have the satisfaction of seeing me nettled, on more than one occasion, my husband had to hold me and reassure me he had no regrets. But as he predicted, the gossip flagged once the proof became evident that it held no truth. It was not long after, that a more interesting scandal broke, and the prominent members of the ton resumed courting Mr. Darcy's good opinion, but they would be required to seek the same of Mrs. Darcy before he would give his own - and they did. Despite our secure position in society, we continue to prefer Pemberley to the society of London. By the time we finished our first season in town, I was nearing confinement with our first child, and we have spent a greater share of our time in Derbyshire since.
Of my family and his, there is much to tell. My mother fully recovered from the shock of having her two eldest daughters married to such wealthy men, and continued to pursue husbands for the others. Papa found that nothing could draw him from home as frequently as Pemberley's library, and he visited as frequently as was practical, which was often enough. After all, where there is fortune to make the expenses of traveling unimportant, distance becomes no evil.
Jane and Charles, despite their unmatched tolerance for folly, decided that one year of close proximity to Longbourn had been more than enough for even their gentle spirits, and removed in favor of a home in a county neighboring Derbyshire; less than thirty miles away; a very easy distance by my husband's calculations. In truth, the proximity was convenient, and my sister and I cherished our frequent visits, especially as three little Bingleys entered the world in quick succession.
Miss Bingley eventually dropped her resentment of me, and married a man of fashion who craved her fortune, and enjoyed a loveless marriage of convenience typical amongst high society. Mr. and Mrs. Hurst had one child, little Charlie, who they doted on and spoiled thoroughly. Fortunately for him, he took his uncle's sweet disposition, and is unlikely to suffer much for the overindulgence.
My husband's elder cousin, the Viscount Lord Fitzwilliam, was apparently in need of a steady woman to ground him, and found such a character in his cousin Anne; they married before I completed a year of marriage with my husband.
Colonel Fitzwilliam's dance with my sister Mary may have inspired more than a passing interest; they were married last year, after a family holding became prosperous enough to offer him some independence. They just had a daughter of their own; I have never seen a man more smitten over a child than Richard is for little Emily; other than my husband, that is.
Kitty and Lydia, though still at times nervous and silly, have both improved their manners dramatically under Papa's increased influence as well as that of their married sisters. Though they have not yet married, they are both currently being courted by men of moderate means; and, more importantly, of excellent character.
Charlotte continues to be contented in her peaceful existence; she and Mr. Collins have borne two darling children - both girls. I hope, for my dear friend's sake, that their next may prove to be Longbourn's future heir.
Though Lady Catherine will never receive me with true warmth, a tacit agreement to be civil towards one another eventually gave way to a mutual regard, and she has even deigned to receive me at Rosings for Easter, and she has visited us here at Pemberley.
Georgiana remains with us at Pemberley at present, bringing us great joy. Though she was initially alarmed by my ways of sporting with her stern brother, she soon learned to follow suit, and with a little practice, became quite proficient in the art. Their relationship slowly transformed from one resembling a father and daughter, to true sibling camaraderie - except as concerned the opposite sex. She came out when she turned eighteen, and her ball went much as I had imagined it for her some years ago. She was very much sought after, but spurned many a suitor unintentionally. There was one young man who seemed to catch her eye; the second son of a duke, in fact, and he was by no means immune to her charms, but they seemed to settle for a friendship. Last summer, however, he summoned the courage, and asked my husband permission to court her. They are to be married in two months' time. While the ton heralds their marriage as a brilliant match; she bringing considerable wealth, and he, the importance of a title, only those who love them best know the real reason their union will be a successful one: mutual respect and affection.
As for my beloved and I, these first years of marriage have been nothing short of wonderful; vexations and all. I sometimes wonder if perhaps it is our imperfections which make us so perfect for one another.** Even after five years of marriage, the intensity of his gaze makes me blush as it did in the days of our courtship. Though he remains an imposing person to most, I have become party to the many manifestations of his personality, and I am well pleased to keep the more pleasant parts of him to myself. We have been blessed with two darling children, Anne and Bennet, who will benefit from Papa's resurgent mischief as they grow older. I continue to write stories, though now, I write for our children's amusement rather than my own.
With the Gardiners and the Fitzwilliams, we will always be on the most intimate terms. William, as well as I, really loves them; and we are both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by befriending one another, and encouraging us to move beyond blind prejudice, have been the means of uniting us.
*from Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
**from JA's 'Emma'