Posted on 2013-02-04
Of Mr. Darcy it was now a matter of anxiety to think well; and, as far as their acquaintance reached, there was no fault to find... they soon became sensible that the authority of a servant who had known him since he was four years old, and whose own manners indicated respectability, was not to be hastily rejected. Neither had anything occurred in the intelligence of their Lambton friends that could materially lessen its weight. They had nothing to accuse him of but pride; pride he probably had, and if not, it would certainly be imputed by the inhabitants of a small market-town where the family did not visit. It was acknowledged, however, that he was a liberal man, and did much good among the poor.Chapter 1
With respect to Wickham, the travellers soon found that he was not held there in much estimation; for though the chief of his concerns with the son of his patron were imperfectly understood, it was yet a well-known fact that, on his quitting Derbyshire, he had left many debts behind him, which Mr. Darcy afterwards discharged. -P&P, ch. 44
When Mr. Bingley left Hertfordshire with his two proud sisters and even prouder friend, Elizabeth Bennet regretted only Mr. Bingley, and only on behalf of her sister. She was incensed at the way Jane had been abandoned by a man so lately paying her pointed attentions, and bitterly blamed his companions for influencing him, but did not think much on those companions themselves. She didn't actually think of Mr. Darcy at all, except in connection with Mr. Bingley, and sometimes in connection with her friend Mr. Wickham, who liked to tell tales of growing up on the Darcy estate.
They almost met when she went to visit her friend Charlotte Collins in Kent; she learned soon after her arrival that the Lady Catherine de Bough was expecting a visit from her nephews Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Two days before their scheduled arrival, however, Mr. Collins returned from Rosings in great distress to report that Mr. Darcy's sister had fallen unexpectedly ill and he did not feel able to leave her. Elizabeth was surprised that Darcy should have so much brotherly feeling, and felt a combination of relief at not meeting the unpleasant man again, and disappointment that there would be no addition to the company or entertainment Hunsford and Rosings had so far provided.
She had to admit that Lady Catherine seemed genuinely anxious over the wellbeing of her niece, and Elizabeth was mildly pleased when word arrived that Miss Darcy was out of danger and recovering nicely. The gentlemen's visit was rescheduled for a fortnight following her own departure from the area, so she returned home without having seen either of them.
She did not think of Mr. Darcy over the following months, until she came into Derbyshire with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, and her Aunt Gardiner expressed a wish to visit his estate, Pemberley. It seemed odd to visit the home of someone she had actually met, but Elizabeth found herself curious to view the place which Miss Bingley had so praised, and decide for herself if it was worthy of such accolades. She fully expected to find it much like Rosings, ornate and pretentious, and once the maid at the inn had told them that the family was away for the summer, she set out in the best of spirits, fully prepared to mock so much prideful munificence.
It was a very bemused Elizabeth who returned to the inn that afternoon. The day had not gone at all like she expected. First, she had been astonished at the real beauty and elegance of Pemberley. Indeed, as they walked its halls and viewed its grounds, she had to admit that it truly was, as Miss Bingley had said, the most delightful place in the world, and even that the man who owned it might have some cause for pride. She was quick to remind herself that Mr. Darcy had not built it, he merely inherited it, but even she had to concede that the current state of the house and grounds, and the tastefulness of the furnishings, reflected well on its owner.
Still more astonishing had been the account which Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, had given them as she led them about the public rooms. She had been filled with extravagant praise of her master, had named him the best master, best landlord, kindest, fairest, sweetest tempered--! Her tribute went on until Elizabeth's head was reeling. Undoubtedly she was an extremely partial old family retainer, but still! She, Elizabeth, would never have believed him capable of inspiring such loyalty in those under him.
They had seen a miniature of Mr. Wickham at one point, and she had eagerly asked about him, hoping and expecting to hear some praise at least equal to that lavished on Mr. Darcy, but received only a, "He turned out very wild, I am afraid." It was as if Pemberley was some sort of upside-down place, where things she believed inviolable were turned topsy-turvy--where Mr. Darcy was honorable and affable, and Mr. Wickham only wild.
He was a handsome man, she thought, as she looked at his portrait in the gallery. Handsome and certainly far richer and grander than she had fully appreciated before. It appeared he had at least some good qualities--he took care of his estate, and treated his servants well. His arrogance would not appear so out of place here as it did in the Meryton Assembly room--but still, she could not like him, or approve of his treatment of Mr. Wickham.
But the most startling part of the day happened when they were lingering on the lawn, admiring the view of the house from there, and Mr. Darcy himself walked around the corner. Any discomfort Elizabeth might have felt was completely lost in amazement at his reaction to the sight of her. Instead of looking displeased and offering a distant acknowledgement--or instead of not recognizing her at all, which would not have surprised her--he positively started. His mouth opened and then closed, and a deep blush suffused his cheeks. "Miss Bennet!" he said.
She gave him a small curtsy. "Mr. Darcy. Forgive us, we were told that you were from home."
"I was." But he didn't seem to be paying attention to what he said; instead, his eyes were fixed earnestly on her face. He came closer.
"We just enjoyed a tour of your house," she said helpfully, wondering at his attitude.
"Did you like it?" He came closer again, still intent on her face.
"Of course." She smiled. "It is everything Miss Bingley said."
The other woman's name seemed to recall him to a sense of himself. He blinked and stepped backward. "I trust you are well, Miss Bennet? How is your family?"
The return to normal civilities relieved her. "I am very well, thank you, and so are my family. I am here with my aunt and uncle."
"Ah." He glanced toward the couple standing in the background.
"We are touring Derbyshire."
They stood awkwardly for a few moments. "If I may inquire, how is your sister, Mr. Darcy? I understand she was ill in the spring."
"You had that from Lady Catherine, I imagine."
"She is entirely recovered, thank you. It was a surprise to me to learn, when I arrived at Rosings, that you had so recently been there."
"Really?" Elizabeth had now run out of remarks and had nothing to say.
"I had wondered whether it was possible that we might meet each other there at some time, knowing your friendship with Mrs. Collins, but I could not have reasonably supposed that it would happen so soon--as indeed it did not, but if Miss Darcy had not been unwell, we would certainly have been in each other's company."
For the life of her, Elizabeth could not imagine why he was making so much of it. He seemed different, in an odd way--or rather, it was he who was odd. Certainly her perceptions of him had been softened by the preceding hour, but she was sure that he had never looked or spoken in just that way before. "I am glad she is better." She waited, and when he made no further reply, but just continued to look at her, she made a motion as if to leave. "I am keeping you, I believe…"
"Not at all," he said, then seemed to realize that he was still standing in his riding coat, windblown and dirty. "Forgive me, I should go inside."
She curtsied and turned, but before she had gone more than two steps he called her back. "Miss Bennet!"
She turned slowly. "Yes, Mr. Darcy?"
"If I may inquire, where are you staying?"
"At the Red Lion, in Lambton."
He nodded. "I know it. Perhaps…" he paused. "Perhaps we will run into each other again."
She smiled thinly. "Perhaps so. Good day."
She walked the distance back to where her aunt and uncle stood, feeling his eyes the entire time.
"So that was Mr. Darcy, Lizzy!" said her aunt. "He is very handsome, isn't he?"
"I suppose so, yes."
"What were you talking of so long?"
"Nothing of consequence."
"He did not seem to want to let you leave, from what I could see."
"Yes," said Elizabeth slowly. "It was almost like that--but of course, it must have been something else. Only he was behaving so very strangely!"
"These great men often do take queer starts," observed her uncle. "Perhaps it is only that he liked the look of you, Lizzy."
She laughed at that. "No, uncle, I am certain that was not the reason! I have it on the best possible authority that Mr. Darcy has never admired me."
"Why, whose authority do you mean?"
"His own, of course!" She smiled cheekily at their surprise and led the way further on. But inwardly, she felt very oddly herself. Pemberley was not what she expected, Mr. Darcy was not what she expected… what had happened?
The next day her aunt and uncle went to pay calls on some old friends, and Elizabeth was left to herself. The Red Lion was situated in the middle of town so she decided to walk about a little bit and look at the shops. In a country town like this she thought little of going out alone.
Out of the corner of her eye, as she crossed the street, she caught a glimpse of a tall figure who reminded her instantly of Darcy--but when she turned her head, he was not there. Nevertheless, not ten minutes later as she was lingering before a tiny milliner shop, the man himself appeared behind her shoulder. She saw his reflection in the glass, and wondered that her stomach jumped so. "Mr. Darcy!"
He tipped his hat. "Good morning, Miss Bennet. I said we might meet again, did I not?"
She gaped just a little. "But--I understood your party was to arrive this morning. Was I in error?"
"No." He looked a bit uncomfortable. "They are expected, but I had some business that brought me into town. Miss Darcy will act as hostess." He gestured toward the window. "Do you like hats?"
Did she like hats? What sort of question was that? "No more than reason," she replied flippantly.
He smiled. "My sister frequently attempts to convince me of the same thing. In fact," he went on rather quickly, "I intend to purchase one for her this morning, as… a gift. Would you be so kind as to come inside with me, and give me your opinion?"
This request left Elizabeth more astonished than ever; firstly, that a man like Mr. Darcy would choose his younger sister's hats; secondly, that he would purchase them here instead of in London; and thirdly, that he should care at all for her opinion. She was too astonished to demur, and they went into the store together.
It was, in truth, little more than an enclosed booth, with hats and bonnets hanging all over the walls and even suspended from the ceiling. She was quite certain that Mr. Darcy had never been in there before, as he eyed the small space with unrestrained wonder. The lady who emerged from the rear of the store clearly recognized him; she turned quite pink, and her bosom swelled to see the great man standing in her establishment. Elizabeth was hard pressed not to burst out laughing.
"Mr. Darcy," the proprietess breathed. "Sir, I am honored by your patronage."
He looked down at her as if he had heard such sentiments a thousand times. "I want a hat."
"Yes, sir! Might it be for Miss Darcy, or--" she glanced at Elizabeth.
"It is for Miss Darcy. Miss Bennet, however, will chose it."
"Mr. Darcy!" exclaimed Elizabeth. "I cannot take such an office on myself. All I promised was my opinion; it is you who will have to make the choice."
He studied her thoughtfully for a moment. "Tell me what you like."
Suddenly unaccountably blushing, Elizabeth began to look about, scanning her eyes over the rows and rows of millinery creations. It appeared that the lady had a taste for flamboyance and color; there was really little among the feathers and artificial flowers to interest. Still, she made a show of looking diligently, and eventually she came across a hat that was plainer than the others, made of blonde straw, with a wide, apple green ribbon that tied under the chin. She thought it charming, primarily because of its lack of adornment. "This would be appropriate for a young girl," she told him.
Mr. Darcy regarded it with one corner of his mouth just slightly upturned. "Would you wear such a hat?"
"In the summer time? Certainly."
He looked at the lady behind the counter. "Box it up."
He was heading out the door when Elizabeth stopped him. "Mr. Darcy?"
"Did you travel in your carriage today?"
He looked surprised. "No, I rode. Why?"
"It's just that…" she couldn't suppress a smile. "You might find it rather awkward carrying that hatbox on your horse."
He looked down at the round box in his hands and colored a little. "You are right, of course." He placed the box on the counter. "Have that delivered to Pemberley."
The lady assured him it would be done, and Darcy and Elizabeth exited the shop together. Once on the sidewalk Elizabeth prepared to part, but he suddenly asked, "Have you been enjoying your tour of Derbyshire?"
"Very much," she replied. "It is a beautiful country."
"But not as beautiful as your native Hertfordshire, to your eyes. I do not suppose you would find any place as appealing as your home."
"I wouldn't say that," she answered slowly, once again surprised and unnerved. "I have a great fondness for the country around Longbourn, it is true, but it does not make me unable to appreciate such wonders as the Peak District offers."
"Did you visit Dove Dale?"
She was obliged to answer again, and in that way the usually silent Mr. Darcy somehow drew Elizabeth into conversation, so that she soon found herself strolling down the street with him, discussing Chatsworth, Matlock all the sights of the county. When they had circled around and came to the front of the Red Lion, she finally managed to extract herself. He looked oddly nonplussed to see the inn, but bowed politely, bid her a crisp good day, and strode away even before she went inside.
Elizabeth found herself mysteriously reluctant to speak of Mr. Darcy to her aunt and uncle, so instead she asked them questions about their visits. After describing the events of the morning, Mrs. Gardiner said, "There is something else I thought I ought to mention to you, Lizzy, although I am afraid you will not like it."
"Why, what do you mean?"
"When I was speaking with Mrs. Grayson I happened to mention that I had met Mr. George Wickham, who was also from this area, and asked her if she knew him."
"No, but she had heard of him. I am sorry to say this, but it seems his reputation here is very bad."
Elizabeth felt her heart thud heavily. "In what way?"
"According to her, he was here on an extended stay some two or three years ago, and when he left, he left behind numerous debts with all the shopkeepers, amounting up to several hundred pounds or more."
"I'm afraid it is true. Amelia is a very honest, kind woman and would not repeat mere unkind gossip. It was not only one man--the whole town was speaking of their losses to him." She looked at her niece for a moment. "When it became clear that he would not be returning, some of the shopkeepers wrote a letter to Mr. Darcy. They knew of Wickham's association with him and asked his help in locating him. Mr. Darcy replied very promptly, she said, and told them that he did not know Mr. Wickham's location, as all intercourse between them had long been at an end, but if they would send him a list of debts he owed, he, Mr. Darcy, would pay them."
"Mr. Darcy paid Mr. Wickham's debts?" repeated Elizabeth.
"In full." She paused for a moment for that to sink in. "Well, naturally after that I had to ask her more about Mr. Darcy and his reputation, because the report you gave of his character is not at all like what his housekeeper described, and seems rather at odds with such generosity. She said that the Darcys are felt to be proud, but only because they do not visit in Lambton. Mr. Darcy himself is known to be just and honest in all his dealings, and to do a great deal of good among the poor."
"What about the living? Did you ask her about that?"
"Well, yes, but she could not tell me anything of the matter--except that the current rector at Kympton is a fine, God-fearing man, who tends diligently to the people. It was her opinion that Mr. Wickham would have made a very poor rector indeed, and Mr. Darcy must have known that."
Elizabeth sat there for a long time after that, absently twisting her hands in her lap. Her mind immediately leapt to give any explanation which would exonerate her own judgment. She supposed that Mr. Darcy had only paid the debts because he felt guilty over denying Mr. Wickham the living--that Mr. Wickham perhaps had only spent such sums in anticipation of receiving it, and being denied it, felt he had no recourse but to flee--and yet her suppositions no longer had any conviction behind them. Mr. Darcy's word she might doubt, even the word of his friends, but the words of a respectable elderly citizen of Lambton?
For the first time in a long time her mind went clearly back to that original interview with Wickham, the one that had left her so certain of his truthfulness. Even he had admitted that Darcy claimed he lacked the character to be a clergyman--extravagance and imprudence, didn't he say? At the very least, that was true. And Wickham had admitted to Darcy's good character, too, though he attributed it all to pride. He had called him generous, and hospitable, a kind brother and good to the poor. The words rose to her consciousness, as if from a great depth. Just, sincere, honorable... at the time she had thought such characterization proof of Wickham's fair mindedness and charity, but now she could only wonder why she had believed a pride which produced such results to be so abhorrent.
On the third morning of their stay in Lambton, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner decided to walk to down to the old church, the same one where Mrs. Gardiner was baptized as a baby, and where some of her family were buried. It was, she assured Elizabeth, a very pretty building, and the three of them prepared to depart together. When they reached the lobby of the inn, though, Elizabeth quite literally ran into Mr. Darcy. He appeared to be heading towards the stairs they had just exited, and the two nearly collided.
"Mr. Darcy!" Elizabeth hardly even felt surprise this time.
"Miss Bennet, I, uh… were you going out?"
"Yes, we were just about to walk down to the church."
"The old one at the end of Windemere Lane, you mean?"
"Well yes, I suppose so. I don't really know--it is my aunt who is familiar with Lambton." Elizabeth nodded toward her relatives, but once again he favored them with a mere glance. Irritation at his incivility rose--if nothing else, she had remembered that aspect of his character correctly.
"Perhaps I might accompany you." He nodded toward the door.
She looked at him uncertainly. "Did you not have some business here, that you were going to do?"
"Ah--nothing of significance, I assure you."
"And your party at Pemberley? Are they so sanguine at having their host disappear for a portion of each day?"
"They have sufficient occupation." He offered his arm. "Shall we go?"
She did not take it. "Mr. Darcy, I am here with my aunt and uncle--Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner." As she spoke she moved backward until she stood next to them. "Perhaps I might introduce them to you?"
He colored a little, whether in anger or belated recognition of his rudeness, she didn't know. "Of course."
She made the introduction, and he managed to speak civilly, if briefly, to them, before turning back to Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet?"
It seemed she had no choice but to take his arm and endure his company yet again. Elizabeth felt strange, walking out with him like this, as if they were actually friends, and with her new knowledge of him--or lack of knowledge, rather. She had thought she understood him very well, but instead he was an unreadable cipher, and she hardly knew what to think. As the master of Pemberley, he commanded great respect. His past behavior was deplorable, his current behavior inexplicable, and his dealings with Mr. Wickham increasingly murky and uncertain. How was she to understand such differing evidence? What was she to make of him?
They made their way down the street. Elizabeth caught the occasional amazed glance directed their way, with doffed hats and hasty bows. Mr. Darcy merely nodded in response. He was silent today, without the determined questions of yesterday, and she wondered why he had bothered to come.
"My aunt grew up in Lambton," she said at last, suddenly unable to bear the silence.
"Yes. She was christened at this church."
"It was she who suggested we visit Pemberley."
"Did you not wish to visit it yourself?"
"I did not wish to intrude."
"You were not intruding."
"Still… you know, Mr. Darcy, we knew each other very slightly so many months ago. I would not presume to call myself more than the merest acquaintance, and perhaps barely that."
He looked thoughtful at that. "When do you depart?"
"Tomorrow is the plan."
"Is that because you imagined you would not wish to stay longer, or because you are expected elsewhere?"
"Lambton is our longest planned stay in any town, sir. My uncle must return to his business soon, and there is much more of Derbyshire to see."
"Of course," he murmured, and was promptly silent for the rest of the walk. When they reached the church he surprised her by volunteering information about the windows' age and design, but otherwise said little as the group explored the sanctuary and grounds outside.
As they were on their way back he unexpectedly took up their former subject. "Do you plan to remain in London for a time, or will you travel directly to Longbourn?"
"I will stay about a week with the Gardiners." She wondered to what his question tended.
"And your uncle--he lives in Cheapside, is that right?" He winced a bit as he said the name.
"Near Cheapside, Mr. Darcy," she answered drily. "Gracechurch Street. I daresay that it is unfashionable, but not quite a back alley, either."
"No, no, your aunt and uncle appear very genteel."
"They are very genteel."
Whether he heard the edge on her voice or not, he lapsed back into the same irritating introspection. Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at the Gardiners walking behind; her aunt raised her eyebrows with a questioning look, and she gave her a bewildered look back.
When they had come back into the center of town, the lead couple found themselves unexpectedly hailed from the street, where an open carriage sat, containing--of all people!--Mr. and Miss Bingley. "Here you are, Darcy, we were all wondering--" Mr. Bingley stopped abruptly upon recognizing his companion, and sat with his mouth hanging open a full inch.
"Mr. Darcy, do show me about this charming town!" Miss Bingley, her face an alarming shade of red, scrambled out of the carriage and took his free arm possessively. "Well, if it isn't little Miss Eliza," she added with a nervous laugh. "What a surprise to see you here!"
It was now obvious to Elizabeth that Darcy had not only failed to mention the Bingleys' presence at Pemberley to her, but also her presence in Lambton to them. This apparent double concealment--which she could not but believe deliberate--enraged her. Swiftly she drew her hand out of Darcy's arm. "It is a surprise to see you too, Miss Bingley," she said.
"I say, Miss Elizabeth!" Regaining his self-possession, Mr. Bingley now practically vaulted out of the carriage into the street before her. "What a pleasure this is! To think of finding you in Lambton, of all places--and walking with Darcy! Did you just meet?"
"On the contrary, Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy has known of my presence here for the last three days, ever since I encountered him while touring the grounds at Pemberley. But do not tell me that he did not inform you of it!" She opened her eyes very wide. Darcy shifted beside her.
Bingley looked taken aback, but covered it quickly with inquiries after her health and her family. She answered him briefly and said. "Mr. Bingley, please allow me to present to you my aunt and uncle Gardiner."
"Of course, I shall be delighted." They came forward, and the introductions were made.
"But Miss Bingley, you already know Mrs. Gardiner, of course! You met her when you called on Jane at their home, I believe. January, wasn't it? No, I am wrong, that was when she called on you. You returned the call in February."
Miss Bingley looked furious, Mr. Bingley beautifully astonished, and Mr. Darcy--when she did finally defiantly meet his eyes--distinctly uncomfortable. Then Elizabeth saw her aunt's face, and felt briefly ashamed. She had put her on the spot most ungraciously.
"How do you do, Mrs. Gardiner?" asked Miss Bingley through her teeth.
Mrs. Gardiner murmured something in reply, and an excruciatingly awkward silence followed. Mr. Gardiner was the one to finally break it, asking the gentlemen about what kind of sport they were enjoying. After a brief conversation they parted ways, Elizabeth being sure to firmly attach herself to her relatives. Mr. Darcy stayed with his friends.
"I am sorry, Aunt Gardiner. I should not have said it--only I could not help it. Miss Bingley's treatment of Jane was infamous, and Mr. Darcy was clearly conspiring to keep Mr. Bingley from knowing I was in the country. It just made me so angry."
Aunt Gardiner sighed. "I did not love you very much at that moment, Lizzy, but I do understand. It seems at least that Mr. Bingley knew nothing of Jane's visits with his sister--if his countenance was anything to go by."
"He did look terribly surprised, didn't he? I wonder if he ever knew she was in town--or if it will make any difference that he knows now. Either he never loved her enough to marry her, or he is far too easily led by others, and neither condition can be cured simply by knowing she called."
Later in the afternoon when Mrs. Gardiner had retired to her room for a nap, Mr. Gardiner put down his book, and looked at his niece in a serious fashion. "Lizzy," he said, "Will you be offended if I ask you about the nature of your prior relationship with Mr. Darcy?"
She blinked in surprise. "There was no prior relationship, uncle. He stayed with Mr. Bingley at Netherfield for a few weeks, and we were sometimes in company together, that is all. We have always disliked each other amazingly."
"He is not behaving as if he dislikes you."
She colored. "He has been behaving very strangely since we met again. I do not know how to explain it."
"Is today the first day you have seen him, since your unexpected meeting at Pemberley?"
"No," she admitted. "I encountered him when walking around the town yesterday too."
"I see. And it does not seem a remarkable coincidence to you, that he should appear in the same place as you, two mornings in a row? He was going upstairs in the inn until he saw you. Did it occur to you that he might have come to town expressly to call on you?"
"Oh, do not talk so!" she begged him, distressed. "Why, it is absurd. He was the most disagreeable man I ever met, when he was in Hertfordshire. We argued several times, and I haven't seen him since--not for more than eight months!"
"Even so, he has repeatedly sought your company ever since he knew you were here."
"It is unaccountable, I freely admit that, but I truly cannot think that it means anything. How could it? Please let us speak no more of it!"
He agreed, and they each took up a book. After a few minutes Mr. Gardiner began to nod off and finally declared his intention of joining his wife in her slumber. Elizabeth, who was still feeling discomposed, was glad to cast aside her book and the pretension of reading it.
It had all been so astonishing, so mystifying, so disconcerting! What was she to think? How was she to feel? And yet they would be gone soon. Surely, whatever Mr. Darcy's reasons for coming to town--perhaps he was merely evading Miss Bingley's attentions, she thought hopefully--they would not matter two days hence.
Just as Elizabeth was settling with herself that she had exaggerated the significance of what had occurred, a servant opened the door and Mr. Darcy himself strode in.
"Mr. Darcy!" She rose to her feet and smoothed her skirt, wondering what on earth was to transpire next.
"Miss Bennet." He looked around the room. "You are alone? Your aunt and uncle--"
"They have retired to their chambers for a time."
"Good. That is to say, I wish to speak to you privately." He ran a hand over the back of his head.
"I cannot imagine what about, Mr. Darcy."
"I--" He hesitated, and took a few restless steps around the room. "I was extremely surprised when I saw you at Pemberley."
"I am sure you were."
"The sight of you, standing there, where I had often--" He checked. "But first--we should speak of Bingley."
"Yes, Mr. Bingley. How strange that you should have never happened to mention that there were people I knew among your party!"
"It was for his sake, you understand."
"Oh, his sake?"
"Yes. It seemed possible that seeing you might cause him some unhappiness, and I did not wish for that."
"I see." Her mouth drew into a tight light. "And what of my sister's unhappiness, Mr. Darcy?"
"Your sister?" He looked startled.
"It is obvious to me, although you will not admit it, that you want nothing more than to keep our entire apparently poisonous family away from him, just from fear that he might somehow remember the sweet and lovely woman he abandoned last November!"
"You speak as if there were an understanding between them, which you know there was not!"
"But there would have been, had he remained any longer!"
He opened his mouth and shut it again, looking frustrated. "This is not what I came here to speak to you about."
"You brought it up."
"A mistake, clearly."
"I think your mistake, Mr. Darcy, was in coming here this afternoon. Perhaps it would be best if you left."
"I have not yet said what I came here to say."
"Whatever it is, I cannot imagine that I would wish to hear it."
He stared at her, his color very high. "Perhaps you would not say that if you knew what it was."
She stared back defiantly. "Or perhaps I would."
He picked up the hat and gloves he had discarded on a side table and gave her a quick, stiff, very slight bow before turning away. Just as his hand turned the handle of the door, though, he paused, and looking back said, "I should thank you, actually. You have saved me from a very foolish action, madam."
The bite in his tone penetrated even her anger, and she wondered at his words. But then he was gone, shutting the door with pointed force behind him.
Posted on 2013-02-07
Elizabeth's afternoon encounter with Mr. Darcy left her exceedingly uneasy. She could not make sense of it. Why had he come? What was it that he was going to say--what folly commit? She could not feel anything but justified in her words about Jane and Mr. Bingley, but yet, she had been terribly uncivil at the end.
No sooner had she begun to compose herself, than Mr. Bingley himself called. His arrival coincided with her aunt and uncle's return to the parlor, and the four of them sat around, making friendly conversation that entirely ignored the earlier awkward scene. As the time drew near for him to leave though, Bingley cleared his throat and leaned towards Elizabeth. "I wonder if I might speak to you confidentially for a moment, Miss Elizabeth." He nodded to the window.
She got up and went with him, and they stood looking down into the street as he spoke earnestly in a low tone. "Miss Elizabeth, I hope you know that I was not aware of Miss Bennet's presence in town over the winter."
She smiled slightly. "I had gathered as much, yes."
"I, um--I would have called on her, had I known."
She lifted an eyebrow. "You could also have come back to Netherfield, if you wished."
He flushed. "Yes, well… I wasn't certain, you know, if I would be welcomed… really welcomed, by her, I mean."
"Could you doubt it?"
"Yes." He rubbed a hand in his curls. "Of course."
Elizabeth looked at him in perplexity. "I don't know what you, perhaps, have been told, but…"
"Yes?" he asked eagerly.
"I cannot speak for my sister, sir. It is not for me to divulge what may be in her heart. But if you wish to know the nature of her feelings for you, is it not better to ask her, than to simply… leave?"
"Well, Miss Bennet is so kind, I do not know what…"
"My sister is kindness itself, but I assure you that the last thing she would ever do would be to give some gentleman an idea of her feeling more for him than she did. She is far more likely to show less than she really feels than more."
"Really?" A light came into his eyes. "Is this the truth?"
"Of course it's the truth. My sister is an honest woman, sir, and deserving of honest dealing."
For a few moments they stood eying each other. "I can see what you think of me, Miss Elizabeth."
"Yes. You think I am either capricious or cowardly--or both."
She hesitated. "I don't know what you are, Mr. Bingley, but I would like to think well of you."
"Thank you. I hope you have occasion to think better of me in the future."
They returned to the others then, and in a few minutes Mr. Bingley took his leave. They had not spoken of what role Mr. Darcy may have played in the whole affair, but Elizabeth hoped that Bingley's presence meant that he had decided not to defer too much to his friend or sisters any more.
Thinking about Jane brought to mind the fact that Elizabeth had received no letters from her just recently. Jane was usually a very faithful correspondent, and this silence was beginning to worry her. What was going on at home?
She sat down to try to compose a letter to Jane herself, but found she could not put into words everything that had happened in the last three days. How could she explain Mr. Darcy's unexplainable behavior--or detail the uncertain conversation she had with Mr. Bingley? She did not understand them herself.
What did it mean? What was she to think?--about Darcy, about Wickham, about Mr. Bingley's reasons for leaving Hertfordshire? Darcy certainly appeared to be a better man than she had thought him, but he was still just as proud. His attentions to her--what was the purpose behind them? And what had he come there to say that afternoon? Always her mind returned to Darcy. If Wickham was a scoundrel then she was sorry for it, but his poor character only made Darcy's more unclear.
After a night's fitful sleep she rose and dressed early, slipping out of the inn at first light. The town was quietly awake around her, shopkeepers opening their doors, street sellers setting out their wares. Wrapped in a light cloak, she stole down the street unmolested, working her way north, out of town--in the direction of Pemberley.
She thought of Pemberley, as she eyed the gracious trees ahead, of its beauty and serenity, of the grace and good taste that adorned its every part. She thought of old Mrs. Reynolds, boasting fondly about a boy who had grown into a man she was proud to call master. She thought of the strange light in Darcy's eyes when he had looked at her at times, and the angry hurt in his voice when he had left her yesterday. An unconscious shiver ran up her spine.
She had been walking for some minutes along the side of the road, lost in the iridescence of the dawning sky, when a horseman appeared, moving in her direction. She knew who it would be, even before he drew near; it seemed somehow inevitable.
Darcy drew rein about fifteen feet from where she stood, and they regarded each other in silence. "Miss Bennet," he said at last, and swung down.
"Mr. Darcy." It was the first time she had spoken that morning, and her voice sounded husky to her ears.
His next remark seemed curiously inconsequential. "My friend Bingley is very angry at me."
"Yes." A pause. "Perhaps he has cause."
She didn't know quite what to say to that.
Darcy fidgeted a bit, and fingered the reins. "I wish you to understand that I did not intend any disrespect to you… or to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner."
She sighed. "Perhaps I was unjust. You are not, after all, responsible for Mr. Bingley's desertion of my sister, and I can understand that you might find it awkward."
He looked uncomfortable but said, "May I walk with you?"
She didn't know why he asked it, or even why he was here this morning, when he seemed so intent on quitting her presence the day before. Yet she consented, and he led his mount around to walk with her in the direction she had been going. After a minute or two he began to speak again, but only to point out a falcon gliding overhead, along with interesting information about its nesting habits in nearby peaks. This was followed by observations on some roadside plants and the probable age of the trees they strolled beneath. Elizabeth listened in respectful silence, surprised alike by his knowledge and verbosity. She could not ever seem to puzzle out this man.
The occasional farm cart rolled past them, and Darcy invariably would take her arm gently as they stepped back, drawing his horse a little forward as if to shield her. Some of the farmers recognized their master in the tall gentleman, and bowed very deeply from their posts on the cart or oxen. Elizabeth rather thought they must be amazed to see him walking beside the road with a strange lady, but she could perceive no discomfort on Mr. Darcy's countenance. Unexpectedly, something her sister Mary had once said returned to her. It had something to do with the difference between vanity and pride--that vanity had to do with what others thought of you, while pride was what you thought of yourself. It was true; Mr. Darcy might be proud, but he was not vain.
"Does your knowledge of nature extend to all of England, or only your home county?" she asked him.
He smiled. "I am fond of Derbyshire, I admit. My knowledge is the sort that was of interest to a young boy who had the freedom of a large estate. I am sure you could tell me much about the flowers and wildlife of Hertfordshire."
"Perhaps," she acknowledged. "Although girls are not generally allowed the same freedoms as boys, I was fortunate to have a father who did not like to see us too much restricted, and who always encouraged my curiosity."
"My own father believed it best that I learn to love Pemberley from my youth, and that began with a love for its forests and streams, and grew to a love for its farms and mills and villages as well. I do believe my early explorations laid the foundation for all the satisfaction I feel as a landowner and master now."
Elizabeth glanced sideways at him. "Your housekeeper was quite eloquent in her praise for you in those capacities."
She might have been mistaken, but a little color seemed to creep into his cheeks. "She is rather prejudiced on my behalf, I believe."
"Yes, she has known you since you were four years old--or so she told us."
"It's true; I was very young when she first came to Pemberley."
The image of him as a small boy, clambering around those solemn halls, climbing those majestic trees, or--heaven forbid!--rolling down the slope of the mighty front lawn--was just irresistibly endearing. When she had first heard Mrs. Reynolds, Elizabeth had been quite unable to connect the sweet natured child she spoke of with the dour man she herself had known, but now, somehow, the link was made, she saw the two pictures superimposed, and once again her ideas about Mr. Darcy rotated.
"What is it?" asked Darcy, who had evidently been studying the expressions on her face.
She shook her head. "I told you once that I was having difficulty sketching your character, Mr. Darcy. I am doing no better now, all these months later, and I am afraid that if I have to continue making corrections the portrait will soon be hopelessly smudged."
There was a short silence. "Perhaps you might be willing to begin a new portrait, Miss Bennet," he said at last, softly.
She was uncertain about what he meant; did he mean that her sketching was poor, or the appearance he had shown her? Was he reprimanding or apologizing?--or perhaps neither? She may have been endowing his words with a meaning he never intended. She glanced at him again, but his face was enigmatic.
They had come now to the beginning of Lambton proper, and she half expected him to part ways with her, but he continued by her, past a few neat houses, past the butcher's shop and chandler's, past a general store, and a bakery and the tiny milliner's. When they finally turned in at the entrance to the Red Lion she paused a moment to look at him enquiringly. He cleared his throat and said, "Perhaps I might come up and greet your aunt and uncle--if you don't think it too early."
"I am sure they shall be happy to speak to you."
"It will soon be breakfast at Pemberley, so I must return quickly, but I should like to--"
He did not finish, but she nodded quickly, and they continued through the taproom, leaving Darcy's horse with a boy from the inn who promised to give it water. About half way through the lobby they were accosted by the beaming proprietor, who greeted Darcy effusively and announced that Miss Bennet had received two letters just that morning.
On being handed them, Elizabeth saw that they were from Jane, and could not contain an exclamation of pleasure. "I have been anxious for these," she explained.
He smiled courteously and followed her up the stairs. Her aunt and uncle were awake and in the parlor. Tea and coffee had been brought up but breakfast was still coming, and they were both surprised to find that she was not, as they thought, still asleep in her bed. They greeted Mr. Darcy very civilly, and he put himself to the trouble of actually talking to them, although rather stiffly.
Although Elizabeth had previously been quite wild to read any communication from Jane, her letters naturally paled in interest compared to the man standing now present in the room. He certainly was tall, she found herself thinking, though perhaps it was just the riding cloak that made his shoulders look so very broad. He looked a bit out of place in the low, old-fashioned room, and not entirely comfortable as he made conversation with her lowly relations, but he was making an attempt of sorts. She could not recall that she had ever seen Mr. Darcy make an attempt to be civil to anyone in Hertfordshire, and the ongoing mystery of his behavior raised new and interesting possibilities in her mind.
Could it be possible, as her uncle hinted, that Mr. Darcy admired her? That his persistent presence since their arrival had been his way of paying her attention? And did she wish for his attentions? This question occupied her so completely that she was hardly aware of what was being said until Mr. Darcy said, "But I am keeping Miss Bennet from her letters."
Her name in his deep voice brought her to herself, and she started and blushed at her thoughts. She went to place those letters on the table--and then he gave her this look--a kind of wry, humorous, speaking, meaningful look from under his brows, and involuntarily her hand jerked.
"Lizzy!" exclaimed Mrs. Gardiner, as hot liquid scorched her fingers. She had knocked her aunt's cup of coffee over, and spilled brown liquid all over Jane's precious letters.
The next moments were equal parts bustle, mortification and dismay. Mr. Darcy kindly said little as they mopped up the mess; how he looked she didn't know, as she couldn't look at him. They were able to carefully break the seals without much tearing the paper, and spread the sheets open to dry. Elizabeth did not try to read them, except to see that about half of each page was stained, though the occasional legible word peeked through.
A maid arrived to replace the tablecloth, and Elizabeth found herself standing rather awkwardly near Darcy, who for some reason had not yet taken his leave. He smiled at her, a bit tentatively. "I am sorry your sister's letters suffered damage," he said. "I know how valuable my own sister's correspondence is to me, when we are apart."
"Yes, and you write long letters with four syllable words back to her," she said without really thinking. "I remember."
The smile disappeared, and she felt immediately sorry for the tone of her reply. "It was very kind of you to accompany me back," she ventured. "And to… come upstairs." She did not want to say meet my relatives in trade.
He looked at her a moment. "I did not do it to be kind." There seemed to be some message he was trying to convey. For perhaps the first time, she looked at him in a genuine attempt to understand. What did he want from her? Who was he?
"Forgive me, you must wishing for my absence." Quickly, he made his bow. "We are engaged for this afternoon, then?"
"We will look forward to it," smiled Mrs. Gardiner.
"This afternoon?" Elizabeth repeated when he had left. "I thought we were to have been gone by this afternoon!"
"Did you not pay attention to anything that was said?" asked her aunt. "Mr. Darcy invited us to take a tour of his park. I told him how much I had always wished it, and he offered carriages immediately."
"But we have our own carriage," said Elizabeth stupidly.
"Yes, but that's not the proper way to see a park like that! It must be done in smaller, lighter carriages, that can get over the ground more easily."
"He said there were two such carriages in his stables," volunteered her husband. "A curricle which he generally drives, and a phaeton designed for his sister's use. He said we might take the phaeton, as your aunt dislikes curricles."
"I'm always positive it shall tip over!"
"Can we all fit in one phaeton?"
"Well, no, Lizzy." He cleared his throat. "By we I meant your aunt and I. You shall have to ride in the curricle."
"By myself?" She was being very stupid this morning.
"No, Lizzy." Her aunt now. "With Mr. Darcy."
"Mr. Darcy? Why should--and you agreed? Without asking me?"
The others exchanged looks. "Lizzy," said Mrs. Gardiner carefully, "you returned from a very early morning walk with him in tow."
"Clearly, you met him somewhere--"
"But not on purpose!"
"--and felt quite familiar enough with him to not only walk back, but bring him up to speak with us."
"He asked to come up, I did not invite him."
Another exchanged look. "Regardless, you can hardly fault us for thinking you quite willing to keep company with him."
"And you offered no objection."
Elizabeth opened her mouth and closed it again, frustrated. Would she have objected to the plan, had she heard it? Did she object? She was at least honest enough to admit that she did not know. The thought of sitting in the close confines of a curricle seat with Mr. Darcy made her heart race strangely. Anxious for change the subject, she went to fuss over Jane's letters, and read the first, unstained portion of page. "Jane says that the children are well," she announced. "Edward upset Hill by bringing a stray cat into the kitchen, but she has since forgiven him and reserves all the best treats for him." There was also some mention of a party, but the sentences after that were stained and blurred and still wet; she could just make out the word Lydia further down the sheet, then surprise, Kitty, rejoice, my father, and how thankful I am, all scattered about. Jane, who disliked the look of crossed pages, wrote instead in a neat but very small hand, and the words were easily lost. "I can't make out the rest at all." She glanced at the second letter.
"Perhaps they will be easier to read when they have dried," suggested her aunt.
"Yes…" She leaned over it. By this time, my dearest sister, you have received…
Breakfast at last arrived, in all its toothsome glory and distracted her, then, outside in the street (she stood by a window), a curricle rattled by, reminding her of the engagement to come, and her thoughts returned inexorably to Darcy.
"Is everything well?"
She realized with a start that the repast was all prepared, and the others waiting for her to begin. Blushing a little, she set the paper in hand carefully down again, there on the little table in the sun.
"At Longbourn, you mean? Yes, it seems so. I saw enough to assure us of that, at least."
By the time that Mr. Darcy arrived with his groom and two carriages, Elizabeth still had not read any more of Jane's letters. She had gone out with her aunt and uncle immediately after breakfast, for her aunt had recalled yet another old family friend she wished to visit, since they had decided to remain another day. They also went into the general store for a new pair of driving gloves for Mr. Gardiner, since he had not brought anything suitable for the purpose, and the ladies became occupied with choosing small gifts for the family at Longbourn. By the time they returned to the inn, heavily laden with packages, there was only enough time to hastily change into a more suitable gown, and to pin her curls up more firmly and exchange her bonnet for a hat, before the gentleman was announced.
Darcy seemed a bit self-conscious as he explained how the afternoon would go. He and Miss Bennet would occupy the curricle, while Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner drove the phaeton. There was a perch for the groom on the back of the phaeton, which meant that, should the Gardiners by chance fall behind, he would insure they did not become lost. Of course that meant that Elizabeth and Darcy would have no chaperone, the curricle having no extra seat behind, but he assured her uncle that they would all remain close together.
Elizabeth had an odd feeling as they set out, a premonition of trouble almost, but nothing happened to disturb their sunlit drive. It was a golden day, and the trees threw dappled patterns across the grass as they passed. The winding trail around the edge of Pemberley's park led them through forests glades, by rocky outcroppings with glorious views, shining ponds… there seemed a new beauty around every corner. Mr. Darcy was a pleasant and knowledgeable guide, who neither sat in uneasy silence nor distracted her with needless chatter. He answered her many questions patiently and did not seem to be in the slightest hurry; any time she gave hint of wishing to explore on foot, he would immediately draw reign and jump down to assist her. The Gardiners were always right behind them, and they would pull up too, sometimes climbing out to walk around with her, and sometimes sitting in quiet conversation and enjoyment of scene.
They paused eventually on a ridge which afforded them an excellent view of the house, from a different angle than she had seen it before. "It is a very well situated," said Elizabeth, feeling all the inadequacy of the remark.
"Yes, I am indebted to my forebears for that."
"I am… I am glad you have not succumbed to the modern mania for improvement."
"Cut down trees for a Grecian temple, you mean? I think it would look sadly out of place."
"And so it would be. What I find especially silly is this idea of building a ruin."
"You do not like ruins?" He turned his head to look at her.
"Real ruins, with real history attached to them, yes, although they still always seem a bit sad to me. A new ruin is ridiculous--a conceited waste of building materials and labor."
"I agree." His eyes dwelt on her with a soft look she found pleasing and disconcerting at the same time. "Would you..." he cleared his throat. "Would you do me the honor of taking some refreshments at the house, before returning? I would very much like to introduce my sister to you."
Now this was a compliment, and Elizabeth felt its weight. She wondered what she had possibly done to have earned such favor from a man like him, and what could have engendered such an apparent change from the arrogant face he displayed in Hertfordshire.
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, on having the invitation communicated to them, agreed with surprise and pleasure, and once they had completed the circumference of the park (which took some time), they got down once again before the great doors. Inside, they were led to a smaller, private parlor which had not been on the tour. Fruit and cake and other pleasant things appeared almost instantly, and Mr. Darcy urged them to help themselves before disappearing to find his sister.
The three left in the room looked at each other. "This is very particular attention, Lizzy," said Mrs. Gardiner.
Lizzy just shook her head a little, unable to discuss it. She did not know what to think, much less what to say. In a few minutes Mr. Darcy returned with his sister, who turned out to be a sweet, shy girl (more proof that Mr. Wickham had lied, thought Lizzy). They spoke haltingly for a few minutes, then Mr. Bingley turned up, seemingly restored to his usual jovial spirits. With him in the room conversation went on in a spirited fashion for some twenty minutes before the Gardiners indicated a desire to return to the inn--more out of politeness than feeling. They all knew that Mr. Darcy had other guests. Mr. Bingley's sisters did not appear, but no one lamented them.
Elizabeth and Darcy travelled the miles back to Lambton in near silence. It had grown rather hot and Elizabeth could feel a bead of sweat making its way down the back of her neck, but she refused to think of that. It was just entirely too beautiful, too perfect, and the perfection, to her continuing and substantial surprise, included the man sitting beside her. Casting a glance at him, she could not but admire him. He was handsome, handsomer even that Wickham, his face in profile, hat straight, posture relaxed, one foot on the dash, and the reins held easily in capable, brown-gloved hands. She wished she knew what he was thinking.
When he helped her down in front of the inn she expected to be bid goodbye, but instead he came upstairs with them, still not saying much, his brow furrowed just a little, as if in thought.
When they came into their private parlor, Elizabeth gave a cry of dismay. Jane's letters, left to dry by the window, lay scattered on the floor.
"Oh dear, we forgot to shut the window, didn't we?" said Mrs. Gardiner, as Elizabeth gathered the sheets.
"I think the promise of a ride around your estate must have distracted the ladies," said Mr. Gardiner humorously to Darcy. "I never think of such things myself, of course."
"I'm afraid it's my fault--I'm the one who kept us rushing around all morning. I simply could not resist using our extra hours here." Mrs. Gardiner sighed.
Darcy opened his mouth to make some reply, but just then Elizabeth gasped loudly. Turning, they saw her looking pale, her eyes frantically scanning the page she held. It was the second of Jane's letters, and unlike the first, the coffee had stained primarily the upper middle of the page, leaving a few lines at the top and a larger section at the bottom. The section her eyes had lit upon, and which she now read aloud in an agitated voice was, "…gave them to understand that they were going to Gretna Green, something was dropped by Denny expressing his belief that W. never intended to go there, or to marry Lydia at all, which was repeated to Colonel F., who, instantly taking the alarm, set off from B. intending to trace their route. W! Can it be?" She looked up with horrified eyes. Seeing only shocked faces she did not wait for a reply, but turned the paper over and continued, "He did trace them easily to Clapham, but no further; for on entering that place, they removed into a hackney coach, and dismissed the chaise that brought them from Epsom. All that is known after this is--oh, I cannot read any more!" She moved down the paper "…feared W. was not a man to be trusted. My poor mother is really ill, and keeps her room. Could she exert herself, it would be better; but this is not to be expected. And as to my father, I never in my life saw him so affected. Poor Kitty has anger for having concealed their attachment; but as it was a matter of confidence, one cannot wonder. I am truly glad, dearest Lizzy… where is the other page?" Frantically she looked around the room. "There was another page! Where is it?"
The others recovered from their stupor enough to help her search, but the missing sheet was not to be found. "I am afraid it must have blown out the window," said her uncle.
"Oh, wretched, wretched fool!" Elizabeth castigated herself. "Why did I not read them this morning?" She snatched up the first letter, searching it for clues and, upon turning it over, realized that there was more writing on fold on the back. "Off Saturday night about twelve… express… Lydia left a letter… oh, there's nothing here either!"
"May I see?" Taking the second letter from her, her uncle put on his spectacles and studied the stained area closely.
Elizabeth rung her hands, suddenly and miserably conscious of Darcy, his face so grave and stern. "Lizzy," asked her aunt hesitantly, "is it certain who it is… the man, I mean? Might Lydia know some other W besides Wickham?"
She shook her head. "I cannot tell you. I know of none, but… oh, wretched, wretched little fool!" she repeated, but this time speaking of her sister. The tears she had been disregarding ran over, and she dashed them away.
"Mr. Darcy, you have known Mr. Wickham for many years. Can you tell us anything of him--give us any insight to his character?"
Darcy shook his head, looking grim. "I wish that I could offer you some reassurance, Mrs. Gardiner, but I cannot."
"By which you mean that it is entirely conceivable that he might run off with a girl like my sister, and not at all certain that he would marry her."
He said nothing.
"London!" exclaimed Mr. Gardiner by the window. "Mary, come and look at this. Does it look like it says London to you?" The ladies crowded around him. The small, blurred word he pointed out did, indeed, look like it might spell London, and coming closely after the words all that is known after this is, they had hope that it might be a clue. "If they have not gone to Scotland," he argued, "then London would be the next logical destination. I would bet my brother has gone there to search."
Their speculations were interrupted by Darcy's voice. "Forgive me," he said, "I have imposed on you far too long. I have… I would wish…" his eyes moved to Elizabeth's and held them for a long moment. "I know there is nothing I can say to ease your distress, but you may be assured of my discretion."
"We cannot thank you enough for your kindness, sir," said Mr. Gardiner.
"Not at all." He bowed, looked again at Elizabeth, and was gone.
Their departure from the inn was swiftly accomplished. Not until they were sitting in the carriage did Elizabeth have luxury again to consider the gentleman who had dominated her days here. Derbyshire had been filled with surprises, most of them involving him. As she watched the countryside outside the window she could not help but remember the idyllic hours of that very afternoon--how long ago it seemed!--and alternated between futile questions about what might have been, and bleak thoughts of what almost certainly would be.
There was no pleasure in the rushed trip home, no matter how splendid the scenery. It was not until they reached Longbourn that they were able to finally receive the whole story. It was, indeed, Wickham who had stolen Lydia and her virtue--and all their futures--away. The news seemed hopeless, so that even Jane was near despair. The Gardiners returned to London with their children and soon met up with Mr. Bennet, but none of their searches were successful.
Then, as if by a miracle, Mr. Bingley returned to Hertfordshire and began calling again. He seemed to know their troubles before he arrived; she supposed Mr. Darcy must have told him, but could only be grateful. She also had to give Mr. Bingley credit for coming now, without waiting to see how their fortunes would turn out, and lending them his countenance. It did not stop the stares and whispers, but at least no one had shunned them yet. She was equal parts happy for Jane and disgusted with her mother, who fawned vulgarly over him and spent half an hour pouring laments about Lydia into his ears. He handled it with remarkable grace.
In her free time, those dull, heavy hours when there was nothing to do but fret, she would occupy herself with imagining how things might have gone with Darcy if Lydia had never run away. He seemed always more desirable as she thought of him, as unattainable as the stars, and as unknowable. She tried to recall how arrogant he had been last fall--but instead, found she could only remember his profile in the sunshine as they rode. In her mind, she arranged fancies wherein he had been secretly in love with her ever since last fall--but she knew that they were just fancies. The fact was, any interest he'd had in her could only have been passing, and was certainly over now. The fact was that no man was ever likely to look at her again the way that he had looked at her that day.
Elizabeth had always been sanguine about the future and her chances at a happy marriage, but now she admitted that her prospects had never been very good. She and her sisters were bred as gentlewomen, forbidden from looking to prosperous men in shops and farms, and yet too poor in fortune or connections for men of their own class. The only men who could afford to marry without consideration for fortune did not want an obscure country gentleman's daughter, and that was before the ruined sister. Now that Lydia had disgraced them, they had not even respectability to offer. Jane, perhaps, with her beauty and excellences of character and manner, would marry her Bingley, should his love and will prove stronger than before, but would it be enough to redeem them all? She did not think so.
No, thought Elizabeth, staring at the clenched hands in her lap, she surely could never marry a man of sense and character now… and so, she would never marry.
Posted on 2013-02-11
Elizabeth watched the carriage bearing Lydia and her wastrel husband roll away with a sigh of relief. She could scarcely believe that she had ever found his smooth verbosity charming; every time he smiled she had wanted to scream. And Lydia's behaviour had convinced her that she truly was lost to all sense or decorum. But at least they were married. It was a dreary comfort, knowing they were only bound to make each other miserable, but infinitely better than the alternative.
Turning, her eyes landed on her elder sister, standing with hands clasped, and she smiled, her heart immediately lightening. Bingley had proposed. He had proposed even before the news came from London that the runaways had been found; proposed, perhaps, in an attempt to prove that he was not fickle or overly persuadable, but it mattered not. Despite all his past misdeeds, he had been, in the end, unwilling to watch the woman he loved descend into shame and poverty, and so he had offered her everything he had to assist her--his name and his fortune. The engagement had had the added benefit of preventing Mrs. Bennet from crowing quite so much over having a daughter married at sixteen.
Of Mr. Bingley's friend she had heard very little. Bingley had delivered brief greetings from him when he first arrived; since then there had only been the occasional mention of him in passing conversation. Lydia had gotten an odd look on her face when Bingley spoke his name over dinner once, and she began to say something, but her husband had spoken right over her, giving her a look Elizabeth couldn't interpret. It didn't make sense that he would prevent Lydia from criticizing or making fun of Darcy--not unless he was planning to impose often on the Bingleys, and worried that Mr. Bingley would take exception.
She linked her arm with Jane's, and they returned to the house. Certainly, the future looked far brighter than it had in that first miserable week after she arrived back in Hertfordshire. All seemed lost then, but somehow, it had been given back again. First Mr. Bingley had showed and, regardless of all odds against him, proposed. Then, just when there seemed any chance of Lydia's recovery left, the news had come from Uncle Gardiner--they were found, not married, but soon to be so. Their wedding was arranged and carried out with a minimum of trouble for those to whom it most mattered, and Mr. Bennet had only to pay off Wickham's debts in Meryton. Lizzy knew her father believed her uncle had bribed Wickham, and it was a debt that weighed heavily on her heart. But her own marriage prospects had seemingly been restored--that is, if you did not mind a scoundrel for a brother in law. Or a fool for your sister, she added mentally. Or your mother.
"Dear Jane," she said, "how glad I am that you are engaged to Mr. Bingley. Now you have given Mama the wealthy son in law of her dreams, and I may rest easy from the Mr. Collinses of the world."
Jane smiled. "Not all men are like Mr. Collins, Lizzy. You will find one you like soon enough."
"Or I shall simply live with you and earn my keep by fetching your shawl and playing with your children. I think I might like being the lively spinster aunt."
"You would be very welcome, but of course you would not need to earn your right to stay. You have the right because you're my sister, and I love you."
"Oh, but now that I think of it, there may be a difficulty. If Miss Bingley is also to live with you, then it really is best that I stay at Longbourn. The two of us would not do well under one roof."
"I am not certain, but I think Caroline intends to remain with the Hursts. I received a very kind letter from her, you know."
"Jane! Do not tell me your faith in her sincerity is unchanged!"
"No, of course I know she means only to please her brother, but I am glad we can be at peace. It would distress Charles if we were at outs, and that would distress me."
"Why, Jane, that sounded very nearly unfriendly. I'm proud of you."
Elizabeth just laughed.
Another month went by, and Jane's wedding was nearly upon them. There still had been nothing seen of Mr. Darcy, although Elizabeth understood that he was expected to be present some days before the wedding. Bingley spent so little time at Netherfield that it did not seem to matter to him that he was alone in the house.
Miss Bingley and the Hursts appeared about a fortnight prior to the ceremony. They came to dinner at Longbourn with many supercilious looks, and received the women in a return call with rather pinched faces. They were very fond of Jane, though.
Then one day Elizabeth was walking down a lane near Longbourn, and a familiar straight figure came cantering towards her. In an instant, her mind flashed back to that morning in Derbyshire when they had met the same way, and as she moved onto the grass, she held her breath to see what he would do.
She knew the exact moment he saw her. He must have been deep in thought because it didn't happen until he was almost upon her; he checked so abruptly the horse almost reared. By the time he had soothed the animal he looked flushed--whether from embarrassment or some other emotion, she didn't know. Then he looked undecided whether to dismount or to ride on.
Deciding not wait on his whims, Elizabeth dropped a small curtsy. "Good day, Mr. Darcy." She turned and began to walk away.
His voice came after her. "Miss Elizabeth!"
He was still on his horse, his dark gaze fixed on her, gripping his reins tensely. She returned the look, and after a moment his hands relaxed, his body shifted, and he climbed slowly down.
She smiled just a little. "We meet again."
"Yes. How are you?"
"Much as I have always been."
"I am glad for that." He cleared his throat. "And your family? Are they well?"
"Yes indeed. We are all very pleased for my sister, of course. Jane," she added, when he looked uncertain.
"Yes, yes of course. Bingley is very happy--and I for him."
"And how is Miss Darcy?"
"She is very well, thank you. She enjoyed making your acquaintance in August."
"I enjoyed it too," she said with sincerity. "And yourself, sir? How are you, Mr. Darcy?"
"I am..." he glanced away. "I am happy for my friend Bingley."
"Yes, I believe you said that already." A happy smile, nearly a laugh, bubbled to the surface. It was so good, for some reason, to be in his presence again. He was abrupt and enigmatic, but she felt he was... a friend. Yes, Mr. Darcy was her friend, and she was no longer reluctant to say so. "Have you no feelings on your own behalf, Mr. Darcy?" She let the laugh come out, and hoped it would provoke a smile or even an answering laugh from him.
Instead, all expression seemed to disappear from his face, and he ran a hand over his mouth. After another moment of awkward silence went by, Elizabeth said, "I really must be getting home."
"Yes, of course." He tipped his hat, but rather than getting back on his horse, stood and watched her as she walked self-consciously away.
There was a dinner party at Netherfield that night, to be followed by dancing. Mr. Bingley had invited half the neighbourhood, much to his sisters' disgust, and Netherfield's long table was crowded and noisy and cheerful. As the sister of his future bride--and a daughter of the leading local family--Elizabeth was placed near the top of the table with Sir William on one side and Mr. Hurst on the other, one of whom was terribly voluble, while the other was almost entirely silent. Mr. Hurst certainly appeared to be enjoying Nicholl's fine cooking, but other than that he had not much to say for himself, while Sir William had opinions to share on everything from the decorations of the rooms to the crops to the probable attachments of various young people both present and otherwise. Since she had known Sir William for most of her life and was genuinely fond of him, Elizabeth bore his conversation very well, but she could not help often glancing at the composed and handsome man who was seated across the table. He seemed to be paying his plate almost as much attention as Mr. Hurst was, but sometimes their eyes met.
"I had a chance to speak to Mr. Darcy before dinner," said Sir William, in what he undoubtedly believed was sotto voce. "I told him how much we enjoyed visiting at Rosings in the spring, and how affable her ladyship his aunt was when we had the honour of dining with her--three times, I told him. We dined three times at Rosings while I was there."
"And what did Mr. Darcy say?" she asked back, glancing at him in amusement. Although it was faint, Darcy's face had taken on the conscious look of a person who knows he is being discussed.
"He said Lady Catherine always enjoys company."
"A very solid observation."
"Indeed it was, Miss Elizabeth! A very sound and fitting observation indeed."
"Did you say anything else?"
"I indicated how sorry I was to hear from Maria about his sister's illness, and that I was certain that you young ladies were keenly disappointed not to have the pleasure of his company while you were there."
"I am sure he had some reply to that." She peeked slyly his way again.
"He said he did not know if you were disappointed or not, but I assured him that any young lady of sense would be sorry to miss such a fine young man, and I well remember how finely the two of you danced together at Mr. Bingley's ball in November."
Mr. Darcy was starting to look acutely uncomfortable now, so Elizabeth had mercy on him and changed the topic. She reflected that it was so different, seeing him here rather than in Derbyshire. If they had never met there she would have undoubtedly continued to think him unbendingly proud, but she knew now that there was more to him than that. He was a man of real substance, a man of not only wealth but authority and importance, who lived a large life--who was accustomed to beauty and refinement--who could enjoy the small beauties of nature even while influencing the lives of thousands under his care. It was no wonder that he did not look at home in their small neighbourhood, or that he felt himself to be above much of it. Such feelings of superiority were not, perhaps, commendable, but they were more understandable than she could have grasped before she saw his home and him in it.
Later in the evening, when the men re-joined the ladies, Mr. Bingley persuaded Mrs. Hurst to play so that they could have some dancing. Their numbers had thinned since the departure of the regiment, but the young people quickly paired off.
Elizabeth was claimed for the dance by a local gentleman. She went through the steps with sprightly ease, catching only glimpses of a tall and noble figure across the room. Some other young man asked her when that dance was over. She had some thought of sitting out the third, but just as she finished thanking her partner, that same tall and noble figure appeared at her side. "Will you do me the honour, Miss Bennet?"
She wondered at his behaviour--what the invitation might mean--and to cover her sudden nervousness she smiled and said, as he led her out. "I am flattered, Mr. Darcy, to have been asked to dance for the second time."
"You are mistaken," he replied. "This is the fourth time I have asked you to dance. You refused the other two."
"I suppose you are correct, but I did not believe you actually desired to dance with me those times."
He looked at her. "Was it concern for my feelings that led you to refuse, then--or it was it rather that you did not desire it?"
She coloured uncomfortably. "Perhaps I shall just say that I believed us to be alike in our opinions."
They did not say much as they took their places in the set. It was, as chance had it, a reel, and they could not help but smile a little to find themselves here at Netherfield and dancing a reel together at last. Despite his professed dislike of it, Mr. Darcy danced very well, and did not even look out of place performing the lively steps. He managed it, somehow, with rather more dignity than any other man present . The energetic nature of the dance made conversation difficult, and it was not a large enough set to require any couples to stand around and wait their turns.
His hand was very hot through their gloves as he led her back off the dance floor, nor did he immediately leave her side. He stood next to her, not looking at her, but somehow very near. Glancing around, Elizabeth did not see anyone close by. "I wish to thank you, sir--"
"Thank me? What for?"
"Well..." she glanced self-consciously down. "In regards to my sister."
"Your sister?" His voice sounded a little sharp. "I do not understand you."
"Well, in regards to two of my sisters, I suppose. Jane, and, uh," she sighed, "Lydia."
"I'd prefer not to speak of that," he said. Glancing up at him, she saw his colour was high, and could only sigh again. Of course he did not wish to be reminded of her sister's imprudence! She only meant to thank him for his discretion, and for whatever role he might have had in Mr. Bingley's return. But the subject clearly made him unhappy, confirming that, however kind he may have been in Derbyshire, he would certainly not want to be connected to her family in any closer way.
The silence was strained after that and she soon made her escape. It was foolish to feel so. She had known very well when they left Derbyshire that any chance she might ever have had with him was lost, and nothing that had happened since indicated otherwise--except perhaps the dance, but what was a dance, after all? Other than Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, who was at the piano now, she was probably the only lady in the room that he'd had more than a passing conversation with. That was the reason he asked her. The only reason he'd asked her.
She made her way back to the end of the room where tea and conversation were to be had, but the conversation was oppressive, and finding a desire to be alone, she slipped discretely through the doorway into the hall.
It was quite empty, and she heaved a sigh of relief. Idly, she wondered up and down, examining the paintings on the wall and a pseudo-Grecian statuette on a stand. When footsteps sounded quietly behind her she glanced around, only to see Mr. Darcy himself again, coming towards her with an oddly purposeful look on his face. Before she could say anything he came to a stop before her.
"Miss Bennet, I--" he glanced around and, catching her by surprise, took her elbow and steered her, before she even knew what was to happen, across the hall and into a window recess. It had a curtain, tied up to one side, but he pulled the tie loose and let it fall across the opening. They were alone, and hidden from sight.
Darcy turned around, and she had to step back; it really was a very small recess. He seemed to blink as he realized how close they actually were. "Forgive me," he said in a low voice. "I did not mean--only I wished to speak to you for a moment."
Elizabeth just looked at him in astonishment.
"I wish--that is to say--" he ran a hand over the back of his head. "I should not have stopped you so abruptly earlier, after we danced, but I am very sorry that you should have come to hear of my involvement. I do not wish for you to be uneasy over it."
"Your involvement with what, Mr. Darcy?" Her forehead crinkled. "I am afraid I do not understand you."
He looked surprised, and on perceiving her genuine confusion, flushed darkly. "It is I who misunderstood," he said after a moment. "Please forget what I said."
But Elizabeth's mind had been working to make the connections. "You are speaking of Lydia, aren't you?"
"I really--I should never have brought you in here. Please forgive me, I will leave at once."
"No!" They were still speaking in little more than whispers, but she put her hand on his arm to stay him. It worked. "Mr. Darcy, what role could you possibly have had in my sister's marriage?"
"It was nothing of significance, I assure you."
"Is that the truth?" She looked searchingly into his eyes, and knew it was not. "Mr. Darcy," she whispered, "what did you do?"
He sighed. "Mr. Wickham has long been known to me as a man of vicious propensities, and I should have made it my duty, when he first came to Hertfordshire, to make his character known. I did not, and your sister paid the price. I could not allow your entire family to also pay for my error. I also," he swallowed as she unconsciously stepped a little nearer, "had a knowledge of his habits and friends which your relations could not."
"You mean you found them? It was you?"
"Miss Eli-Bennet." His eyes continued to remain on hers, as if she had the power to retain them at will. "I did what was right and just, no more. It was never my wish that you or your family know I was involved."
"But I am glad I know."
"I'm not." The words came out so softly she scarcely heard them.
"Why?" she asked, lifting her face a little more. "Is a little gratitude so painful?"
"From you? By heaven, yes!" He nearly staggered backwards a pace, and pressed his palms to his eyes. It wasn't until that moment that Elizabeth realized that her hand had been still on his arm, or how very close to him she'd been standing. "You are a hard woman to escape, Elizabeth Bennet," he said after some moments, without moving.
"Do you want to escape me?" She unaccountably felt like crying.
"Yes. No. Always and never!"
"I do not understand."
"Do you not?" He took his hands from his eyes and looked at her again. Elizabeth felt herself growing hot under his gaze.
Just then there was laughter in the hallway, and both occupants of the small window recess fell silent and still, looking away. The people, whoever they were, walked past, and when they were very sure that the hall was empty again, Darcy glanced at her again. "If I do not leave soon there will no longer be any choice," he said in a quiet but unmistakable tone. "And although the temptation is strong, it would not be right." He reached for the curtain.
"Let me," whispered Elizabeth. "It will be less strange if you are gone longer; you are staying here, after all.
He nodded shortly and stood aside as she slipped away.
Enlightenment had come, but it was as painful as it was pleasurable. Mr. Darcy was the unannounced hero of her family, although she did not yet know the full extent of his involvement. Her aunt would surely tell her. He was a better man than she had ever dreamed, and just such a man as she would wish to marry. As for his feelings for her, that he had them, she could no longer doubt. He was attracted to her, he cared about her--but he did not feel that he could marry her. This point was perfectly comprehensible to Elizabeth, and she did not blame him at all, although she felt real grief at it. Her fortune and connections were nothing to recommend her in the beginning, and now that she was so closely connected to Mr. Wickham, son of his late father's steward and a blackguard he had forced to marry her wanton sister, it was, of course, impossible.
It was all so strange, she thought as she sat on the hillside looking down on Longbourn the next day. A year ago, a few months ago, she could never have imagined herself pining over and regretting Mr. Darcy--and really, what had their acquaintance been, that she should feel any sort of attachment for him? It was the allure of Pemberley, perhaps, that had clouded her view of his arrogance... but yet, she wasn't wrong. He was proud, there was no question of that, but it did not disturb her as it used to. Despite his pride he was a man of true honor and character, and he was capable of being very pleasant when he chose. She found she liked him, she thought of him often, she wished to know him more, but it was all too late now. Even the triumph of knowing she had gained his affections was small consolation.
He would not wish to see her. Being in her presence, she understood, could only be painful for him, and so she resolved to avoid him when possible. It would be easier for them both.
Thus was Elizabeth's resolution, and she held to it with admirable persistence, but it wasn't always possible. In the whirl of pre-nuptial festivities that followed, her presence was usually required, as was his. They were often seated around the same table, or within the same parlor. Sometimes they were even placed next to each other at dinner, and each sought to speak only with their companions on the other side, even as they listened in on each other's conversations. She found herself watching him, as if unable to help herself, and found his eyes often on her as well. Someone would always look away quickly when their eyes met, which happened far too frequently for comfort.
One night at Longbourn they ended up, despite both their efforts, at the same card table, playing an inane game of whist with Mr. Goulding and one of Mrs. Long's nieces. Denied even the pleasure of partnering together, they nevertheless shared a corner, where their knees sometimes bumped beneath the table.
"Oh, Mr. Darcy," giggled Miss Barry. "I'm afraid I've quite lost track of the cards again. You play with such skill I can't keep up."
Darcy compressed his lips together, clearly reigning in his temper. "Simply endeavor to follow suit, Miss Barry, and only play your trumps when there isn't a higher one already on the table. I shall do the rest."
"To be sure, I know I might trust myself quite completely in your hands. What a pity it is that you cannot look at my cards to advise me."
Elizabeth wrinkled her nose disdainfully at this display. "That would be cheating," said Darcy.
"Do not worry, Miss Elizabeth!" said Mr. Goulding. "I have been playing whist with Mrs. Goulding for years, and should you run into trouble, I'll be sure to pull you out!"
Since Elizabeth had won nearly every point for their team so far, this earned him an incredulous look from Darcy and a tight smile from his partner. The game continued, with Mr. Goulding and Miss Barry engaging in cheerful gossip as they misplayed their cards while the other two sat through it all with a kind of grim frustration.
They were right in the middle of a hand when Mrs. Long called across the room to her niece, who immediately dropped her cards and went speak with her. "Well," said Mr. Goulding, as soon as she had gone. "I suppose I should take the opportunity to go refill my cup and get some more of Hill's excellent cake. Is there anything I can fetch for you, Miss Bennet? Mr. Darcy?"
"No, thank you, Mr. Goulding."
"No, thank you."
"Very well, then." Off he went, the others still sitting with their cards in their hands.
No one said anything for a little while, and then--"You should have kept the spade," said Darcy.
Elizabeth could not suppress a smile. "So say you, Mr. Darcy."
"Yes, I do." His lips curled upwards too.
"So ..." she cast a quick glance sideways. "Do you consider yourself a proficient at whist, then?"
"Well, I cannot claim Mr. Goulding's level of expertise," his voice was very dry, "but I usually fare well enough."
"You mean when you have a partner that doesn't find it necessary to trump a trick you have already won." She saw a gleam of rueful humor in his eyes and felt encouraged. "Though to be fair to her," she continued, "you did tell her to play a trump when there wasn't already a higher one on the table."
"My Aunt Fitzwilliam is even worse," he said unexpectedly and Elizabeth turned to him, as pleased by this relatively informal way of referring to his aunt the countess as she was by the confidence.
"Is she really?"
He nodded. "And since in her case her idea of a proper stake is about five pounds a point, her family tries to ensure that she does not play it often--unless they can be on the opposing team, of course."
She gurgled at that, and his countenance lightened a little more, and for the first time, he actually looked at her. He even laid his cards down on the table. "You have a charming laugh, Miss Bennet."
Suddenly happy, she raised an eyebrow saucily. "I believe the honors should go to the man who made me laugh."
"It has been a long held ambition of mine," he said softly--and just like that, things were serious again, though not so grim. They gazed at each other, eyes full of unspoken thoughts. "Tell me--" he turned a little further towards her. "Mr. Morgan, at dinner--he made you uncomfortable?"
She was not surprised that he had observed their interactions. "Only a little. I have known him for many years and understand pretty well how to handle him."
He frowned. "Are you often required to be in company with him?"
"Not often--mainly at large gatherings like this."
"I wish you had not needed to sit next to him."
"Well, my mother knows that I can converse with anyone, and Mr. Morgan is not, I fear, widely liked."
"With good reason," he muttered, his frown darkening.
"Mr. Darcy." Her hand touched his fleetingly on the table. "I know he can appear--that is, I know his manner is not entirely--"
"Yes, but he is not dangerous. I do not like him, but I do not fear him either."
He shook his head and sat back, looking more dour than ever. Elizabeth herself felt torn; she wanted to comfort him in his apparent unhappiness, but yet she also wanted him to be unhappy--to be unhappy over her, specifically, enough that he would change his mind and offer for her. Briefly she contemplated whether she had the power to do it--whether by her actions she could provoke his feelings to the point where--but that was not what she wanted. She did not want an unwilling proposal made out of passion, which he would later regret. Mr. Darcy was essentially a very rational man, and if he could not rationally desire to be her husband, then they could never be happy.
"If you will excuse me, I believe my mother requires assistance with the tea service," she said quietly, and slid out of her seat. She nearly collided with Mr. Goulding, on his way back with cup and laden plate.
"Why, Miss Elizabeth! What happened to our game?" he exclaimed to her back.
Behind her, she could hear Darcy say something about Miss Barry's having forgotten them.
The Gardiners arrived, and Mrs. Gardiner was able to tell Elizabeth all the details of Mr. Darcy's involvement with Lydia. "It was after your father returned home," she said. "Your uncle had a note from him, asking him to call at his townhouse. We were quite amazed, of course, and could not imagine what it was about--nor why he was even in town! So Edward went, only to learn that Mr. Darcy had discovered Lydia and Mr. Wickham, in a boarding house. He had attempted to persuade Lydia to leave and, failing that, struck a bargain with Mr. Wickham. There was really almost nothing left for your uncle to do; Mr. Darcy would not even allow him to bear part of the expense."
"How extraordinary! And here is my father, determined to get my uncle to confess the amount he spent."
"He will get nothing from him, but I cannot tell you how pleased I am to know that you had already learned some of the truth--from Mr. Darcy himself, I take it?"
Elizabeth nodded. "He did not mean to tell me. It was just that he misunderstood something I said, and thought you must have told me of it. His protests gave it all away."
Mrs. Gardiner smiled. "You know your uncle would never have allowed Mr. Darcy his way so easily, but, well..." she looked pointedly at her niece.
Elizabeth colored. "I know what you mean to imply, but you are wrong. He did not do it for me."
Her aunt looked patently disbelieving.
"Well, perhaps he did it for me, but not for the reasons you are thinking." She twisted the fringe on her shawl around her finger. "Since he has returned to Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy has made it very clear that I should not have any expectations where he is concerned."
"Oh, Lizzy, I am sorry! I had hoped--and his behavior both in Derbyshire, and then later in rescuing foolish Lydia. It seemed to speak a most determined preference."
"Preference he may have," she replied, "but he has pride too, and the sister of George Wickham will never be mistress of Pemberley." She smiled crookedly. "He saved me, but not for himself."
Later, when Darcy himself met the Gardiners again, he greeted them with civility, but there was nothing in his manner to betray their covert association. Elizabeth observed him conversing with both her uncle and her father together at one point, and knew that all three must have some satisfaction in finding sensible and intelligent conversation. She smiled at first, then sighed, thinking once again of all that might have been but would not.
Jane's wedding day came at last. She was as radiant as a sunbeam, and the short ceremony went without a hitch. The breakfast afterwards was lavish, the crowd so big and the weather so beautiful that they overflowed into the gardens. Elizabeth was standing on the lawn talking when she saw Darcy making his way purposefully towards her. Excusing herself, she waited for him a little apart.
"I am leaving for London this afternoon," he said, when he reached her.
"Ah." She looked at her gloves.
"I wish--" he swallowed, looked away and back again. "I wish you everything good, Miss Bennet, and the very happiest of lives."
"And I you, Mr. Darcy."
He bowed, very respectfully, and after a last long look, turned and walked away.
Posted on 2013-02-14
When Jane and Darcy left Hertfordshire, so did the sunshine--or so it seemed to Elizabeth. The following weeks were wet and cold and dreary. She despised it, and she despised her own crossness too. Longbourn without Jane seemed lonely. With Lydia gone, Kitty attached herself to her, and she tried to be a friend and sister to her, but she could not talk to her the way she talked to Jane. She was fidgety, dissatisfied, glad for her sister, sorry for herself, determined not to regret Mr. Darcy, and yet unable to help it.
Did she love him? She wasn't sure--she thought not--but she could have. She could have loved him, would have loved him. He was a man such as she was never likely to see again--and, somehow, she had managed to arouse his admiration, his affection even, so that months of absence had not changed it--but then willful, selfish, thoughtless Lydia had ruined everything. It must be confessed that Elizabeth's feelings for her youngest sister were not very kindly in those days.
The Bingleys' wedding trip was to last a month or possibly more. They had gone north to visit Mr. Bingley's relations in Yorkshire. Elizabeth hoped Jane would fare well among her new family--although how could she not? Who could do ought but love Jane? Her sweetness and eagerness to think well of all would stand her in good stead.
Who knows but Darcy's grand relations would have been exceedingly unpleasant.
It was nearly three weeks after Jane's wedding, on a blustery day in early December, while Elizabeth was sitting in the parlor at Longbourn, pulling out the stiches from yet another botched flower, when their butler came in and announced, "Mr. Darcy, madam."
The entire room full of women stared in wonder. There he was, a tall, dark, serious young man in boots that probably cost their combined pin money for a year, making his bow and speaking stilted greetings.
Mrs. Bennet had not much bothered to conceal her dislike of Mr. Darcy, but his presence without his friend seemed to surprise even she into near quiet. For perhaps the first time it occurred to her that he was a very eligible man, and she still had three unmarried daughters. She cast a calculating look around the room as she greeted him.
Elizabeth, recognizing that look all too well, spoke quickly. "What brings you into Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy?"
His eyes met hers. "I have business in the area."
That was incredible, but that he should be there for her seemed even more so.
"It seems strange to see you without Bingley," said Kitty, and when Elizabeth looked at her reprovingly--"What? He said I might call him Bingley now, since he is our brother."
That was not what she meant, but Elizabeth naturally could not say so, so she forced a smile instead. "Have you heard any recent news of the Bingleys?" she asked. "I have not had a letter for a week."
"Then your information is more recent than mine. Bingley is not generally an avid correspondent," he replied.
"My dear Mrs. Bingley writes very regularly, as a rule," put in Mrs. Bennet. "I daresay they are busy with his family."
"I'm sure you're correct."
"I was sure to tell her to be very condescending and polite to them, of course. Just because they aren't landed gentry like us is no reason to be looking down on them."
Fortunately for Lizzy's sanity, the butler brought in a tray of refreshments, and then Kitty sneezed and dropped a tea cup. In the bustle that followed Elizabeth looked at Darcy with an embarrassed, apologetic smile.
Glancing at her preoccupied relatives, he said, "Miss Bennet, would you care for a stroll in the garden?"
Elizabeth looked out the window. It was grey and windy and had only stopped raining in the last half hour. "Certainly."
Mrs. Bennet, upon being told their destination, nearly quivered with excitement, "Of course, Lizzy!" she exclaimed. "You must show Mr. Darcy all around. Take your time! Don't hurry!"
Blushing, she led Darcy to the entry, where they retrieved cloaks and hats, and then down the long hall and out the back. That this was, in fact, his whole purpose in coming to Longbourn became clear as he began to speak almost as soon as they were outside. His voice was low and quick and earnest, his eyes straight ahead. "Miss Bennet, I know my behavior must appear most capricious, but I had to see you. These past weeks... I have had a talk with my sister."
"Your sister?" Now Elizabeth was just confused.
"Yes. As you are probably aware, she is some twelve years my junior, and I have stood as more father than brother to her in the last few years, so I do not usually make her my confidante, but on this particular occasion, I am grateful for her opinion and advice. She was after all," he stopped abruptly, turning towards her, "at the very heart of the matter."
They were now a little distance from the house, thanks to their quick steps, but not far enough for Elizabeth's comfort. She could just imagine her mother running into different rooms of the house to watch them from the windows. "Mr. Darcy, the corner of the garden there, beyond the hedge, is most lovely. Would you care to see it?"
He caught her meaning and resumed his walk, though not so hurried. "Being the sensitive soul that she is, Miss Darcy could not fail to see how I have been... but I am beginning this at the wrong end."
He lapsed into silence and a bemused Elizabeth did the same, until they went through the opening in the hedge. Usually pretty, the small area was today brown from the cold and drooping with water, but Darcy did not seem to notice. "Please, will you take a seat?" he asked her, nodding towards the bench.
Elizabeth looked at the water standing all over it. "No, thank you, I would prefer to stand." She wrapped her cloak more tightly around her body.
He nodded distractedly, pacing a little bit while the wind blew his long coat around his legs. With his head down, it was difficult to see his expression beneath his hat. "Miss Bennet, my behavior to you as been reprehensible," he said at last. "As I look over the course of our acquaintance, and my inconstancy of purpose, I can only imagine your perplexity. Particularly after my attentions to you in Derbyshire, you must have wondered--"
"No!" She hastened to interrupt him. "No, Mr. Darcy, I do understand. I understand perfectly."
"But you don't! You cannot, for you do not know everything."
"Tried to elope with my sister."
"It was the summer of last year, before I met you. He arranged to meet with her when she was visiting the coast with her companion, a woman in whose character we were most unhappily deceived. He convinced Georgiana to believe herself in love with him, and to agree to an elopement. Fortunately, I visited her a few days before, and she, I am happy to say, confessed it all of her own volition. When she learned the full truth of his character, and his motives for acting, which were undoubtedly both her fortune and his desire for revenge on me, she was absolutely distraught. I comforted her as best I could, but it was many months before she recovered from it." He stopped and looked appealingly at her. "The thought of my connecting that man to her!"
Shutting her eyes, she nodded miserably.
"Other concerns I might be willing to set aside--I was willing to set aside!--but my duty to my sister, who depends on me for everything, that could not be ignored."
"Mr. Darcy, this explanation is not necessary." Indeed, all she wanted to do was to get away again. "I do understand--I did understand, even before. Whatever it is that you came here to get from me, whether forgiveness, or... or... whatever it is, I give it to you freely."
To her surprise, he smiled a little. "You are generous," he said, "but that is not why I came."
Puzzled, her heart beating heavily in her breast, she waited to hear what he would say.
Still with that odd little smile, he glanced around the drooping garden before looking at her again. "I left Hertfordshire determined to forget you, you know. It proved quite the futile endeavor. I was already beginning to give up hope of it when I met you again at Pemberley, and then... well, let us say that I could no longer remember why I had thought it so necessary in the first place. You were, you have always been," he stepped closer to her, "an enchanting creature, capable of snaring me easily with your eyes and laughter. I think it is your mind that I admire the most, though, quick and lively and original as it is. Your lack of pretension, and the devotion you show your sister, and all those you love...." His countenance she would never forget, the black brim of his hat slashing across his forehead, the green lapels of his greatcoat turned up around his jaw. He was ruddy from the wind and the cold, his often stern mouth softened, his eyes so expressive and for some reason glad. "Will you marry me?" he asked simply.
Elizabeth felt like the garden was bursting into bloom around her and had broken apart beneath her feet at the same time. "But--but--" she stuttered. "I thought you said..."
He laughed, a completely unexpected sound. "I've forgotten half my story," he said, "for which your eyes must bear the blame."
"Your sister." She simply must keep him on topic, or they would both lose their wits entirely.
"Yes." He sobered at the word. "My dear sister, who could see how I was afflicted, although I attempted to hide it. When I realized that my melancholy was distressing her, and that she feared she might be the cause, it seemed to right to me to confide in her somewhat, to offer her what reassurance and explanation I could. And then," he shook his head. "She astonished me."
"First, by offering me her assurances that although she could not remember the events of Ramsgate without regretting her own behavior, she was now so perfectly indifferent to the memory of Mr. Wickham that he no longer had any power to disturb her. She was very sorry for your sister, to have ended in the same position she escaped, but said that, for herself, your connection to Wickham should not be a deterrent." He paused, and Elizabeth could only marvel at his narrative. Still, the solution seemed too simple. "We spoke of other things, as well--of how my marriage might affect her future, of your family's situation, in short, of many of the reservations I had. She urged me to seek my happiness, and did it so sincerely, and with such surprising vigor, that I could not but heed her."
Elizabeth thought about that a moment. "So your sister told you to propose to me?"
"No. She would never presume so far. But she..." he exhaled. "She eased my fears that by choosing you, I would harm her. And no other encouragement was needed."
They were silent for so long that Darcy shifted on his feet, and looking up, Elizabeth realized that he was preparing himself for a rejection. His glad eyes were shuttered now, and the way he straightened his coat and tugged at his gloves suggested a tense anxiety. She had been so busy attempting to understand what had happened, she had not been aware of time passing. "Forgive me!" she said. "Only--are you very certain?"
"I have--perhaps I should tell you honestly. I have been very bemused since we met in Derbyshire."
"I can imagine," he said dryly.
"No, I don't think you can. I didn't--that is, I had never imagined that you saw anything to approve of in me last autumn. And, I am ashamed to say, I believed things that Mr. Wickham told me about you--absolute lies, I'm sure now, but I thought them the truth then. I even blamed you for Mr. Bingley's desertion of Jane, though I had no reason to do so."
"Yet you were correct. I was the reason that Bingley left--though I swear I never meant to hurt your sister."
It was curious, but she could not even care about that any more. Jane and Bingley were married now, and in any case, Bingley alone was truly responsible. "When we met again, I could not understand your behavior at all. It seemed impossible that you might admire me."
He sighed. "As I said, my treatment of you has been reprehensible. I did begin to understand that, a little, after that afternoon at the inn, when you forestalled my proposal with your very justified indignation."
"Oh! Were you meaning to propose then?"
"What will you think of my impulsivity? Yes, that was my intent. You had told me you were going to leave, and I did not wish to let you."
"And yet you came back, even after I spoke to you so angrily."
"Once I realized that it was my own fault, that I had indeed insulted both you and Bingley by my concealment--and that I had taken your acceptance of my addresses too much for granted--of course I came back. You were still there, and I still loved you." They both paused on the word, Elizabeth's heart bounding giddily within her. Love! It was the first time he had uttered it.
"Miss Bennet, I am a patient man in most circumstances, but this current wait is more than I can bear. If you feel you cannot love me well enough to marry me, then please say so at once." Their eyes met. "I love you," he repeated.
Tears pricked at the back of her eyes. "Are you certain?" she asked again. "You will not change your mind?"
"I am and I will not. No man with the inestimable good fortune of being your husband could regret it, Elizabeth. So far I have regretted only the times I walked away from you."
Happiness, which had been fighting a fierce war with caution in her bosom, now triumphed. It was incredible that they were standing here in a rain-soaked corner of Longbourn's gardens, blown about by the wind as Mr. Darcy made his profession of love and offered her the one thing she had thought so unattainable. It was the astonishing end to a sequence of astonishing events, and how it come about that she should be so deliriously pleased at the idea of marrying a man she once despised she didn't know, but there it was and there they were and--"Yes." She laughed into the cold breeze. "Yes, Mr. Darcy, I will certainly marry you."
He was before her almost instantly, and she felt her hand caught up in both his and passionately kissed. Then Mr. Darcy made a discovery. "You're cold!" It was true. Although she had not even thought of it, she was shivering, and her hands were icy in their light kid gloves. His, on the contrary, were wonderfully warm. "Forgive me."
"No." Then, as he looked uncertain, she laughed again, though a bit shakily. "I mean, there is nothing to forgive."
Her hands were kissed again. "I must get you inside--but... thank you. Thank you... my love." He said the endearment tentatively, and Elizabeth again felt such a rush of emotions, strong and strange and infinitely precious.
"Was it really so simple?" she found herself asking him. "As simple as a sister's reassurance?"
"Simple?" His hands slid down her arms, and closed warmly around her forearms as she shivered again. "I did not seem simple, but perhaps it was. Nothing but the profoundest responsibility could have prevailed upon me to leave you here, I think. Particularly once I saw that I was... hurting you?"
"I must have seemed cowardly to you."
"No, indeed no."
"It was Georgiana who.." he took a deep breath. "It seemed to me that if my sister, who, as you have seen, is shy and diffident by nature, could be so courageous--if she could disregard the past, and desire companionship and affection and happiness over more petty considerations--then I could not do less."
"Yes, Elizabeth, yes." His eyes, so glad again, wandered over her face, and stopped, unexpectedly, on her nose. It was almost certainly red from the cold, and she lifted a hand self-consciously to touch it.
"I must look a sight, I'm sure."
He shook his head and, with quick boldness, bent and kissed her there. The sensation was new and unexpected--a fleeting moment of his face near hers, and his lips, soft and warm and just a bit moist--and on her nose, of all places! Elizabeth's eyes opened very wide.
"You are delightfulness itself," he murmured, as hair and brims and hoods and breath all brushed and mingled.
This new frankness was quite delightful, but they could not remain there. When another round of shivers passed over Elizabeth, Darcy moved away. "Come. I cannot have you falling ill through my selfishness."
"I am never ill," she said, but went with him. He gave her his arm and she wrapped both her hands around it, to his evident pleasure. His free hand came to cover hers, and though they had to fight the wind as they walked back up to the path to house, Elizabeth felt it was not so cold any more.
"May I go to your father?" He had to speak into her ear. She nodded, and tried not to feel anxious. At the doorstep they paused, both reluctant to give up their solitude, no matter the necessity. "Promise me you will go get warm."
"And what about you?"
"I am not cold." Something about the almost rueful way he smiled made her heart beat faster again. In some ways, every minute she spent with him was more unsettling than the last. A long, rich moment stretched out between them before he finally pushed the door open.
They entered the house by the same door through which they had left. Mrs. Hill was standing in the passageway, and Elizabeth colored a bit as she handed off her cloak and gloves to her. Looking only fleetingly at Darcy, she escaped up the stairs to make herself a fit sight again. Her countenance, when she sat down before the mirror, was indeed very red, her cheeks chapped from the wind, and her hair a tangled mess. But her eyes shone out, and she could not think herself too unbecoming. Her hands trembled as she pulled her pins out and lifted the brush. It hardly seemed possible; how could it be possible?
It took her some minutes to compose herself, but she could not linger too long; even now, her father might be wishing to speak with her. Hesitantly, she descended the stairs, but there was no one there. She peered into the parlor where her mother and sisters sat; Darcy was not there either. Resigning herself to wait, she took a seat in the entrance hall and folded her hands. She was an engaged woman. She, Longbourn's Lizzy Bennet, was engaged to be married to Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire. That glorious estate she had visited would be her home. She stood up.
She was engaged. She was an engaged woman. To Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy was speaking with her father even now. She wrung her hands.
Oh, why had she been so intemperate? Why had she spoken her dislike of him so freely? Her father would surely think she had run mad! She began to pace.
Just as she begun pacing, the door to her father's library opened, and she jumped. Mr. Darcy stepped out, checking when he saw her standing there. Their eyes met; without a word, he stood aside, holding the door open for her. Her arm brushed against his coat as she entered.
Her father was very surprised, and not best pleased, but when she had done all she could to explain, and assured him that she held Mr. Darcy in very high esteem, that she believed that she could love him very well--if she did not already, a point on which Elizabeth herself was not altogether clear--and then finally resorted to telling that it was Darcy who rescued Lydia, he was finally satisfied.
Going out, she found Darcy in the hall just as she had been, already well into his pacing. Beyond him, she spied Kitty's face in a doorway, but it disappeared in a flash. She must suppose her mother was ordering wedding clothes by now.
Summoning the happiness she did know she possessed, she smiled reassuringly at her newly betrothed. He was at her side at once, and his smile was of the kind to make her forget everything else. Really, he was so excessively handsome that she thought she would have to spend the next ten years just looking at him. And trying to make him smile, of course.
"All is well," she said.
One of his eyebrows quirked in a most interesting fashion. "He did not seem... enthusiastic," he said carefully.
She smiled ruefully; it was undoubtedly not the reception he had expected. "He was just very surprised. And concerned for me, that this is what I really want. Once I convinced him that it is, he became much happier. He is in there chuckling over the match now, I am sure." She hesitated. "I hope you do not mind, but I found it necessary to tell him the truth about Lydia."
"He needed to know what kind of a man you are--to understand your goodness, as I have come to understand it."
He sighed. "I had hoped it might all remain unknown, but I suppose it is best this way. I trust your judgment." Turning his attention back to her, he took her hand and drew her to sit on the cushioned bench. "I must away back to London now, I'm afraid."
"Yes. My business there could not spare me, but I came anyway, and now I must return before I appear entirely irresponsible. My solicitor expects me tomorrow morning."
"But to travel so far in one day, and then have to return immediately!"
He shrugged and smiled a little. "What is twenty miles of good road?"
"It's not good road. It's muddy."
His smile widened more and he said softly, drawing a thumb across her cheek, "It's road that brought me to you. I shall call it good for that reason, if no other."
The tenderness of the gesture and the words were nearly more than Elizabeth could bear. Hardly knowing what she did, she took his hand in her own and turned her face to kiss the palm. His response was immediate: suddenly and shockingly, she was in his arms, with his mouth pressed hot against her own. Almost as quickly, he was on his feet and stepping back. Elizabeth gasped and reeled a little bit, putting her hands down to steady herself.
"I'm sorry, I--" Darcy seemed rather disoriented himself. "It wasn't proper--the hall--someone could have--I should--would not--"
"I would." She could not help interrupting him. He stared at her. "You have not imposed on me," she whispered.
A series of blinks were her only initial reply. A flush started up her neck as she began to regret her boldness, but then his face convulsed in some way she had not seen before, and as he glanced away and back again, she knew that he was fighting for composure. "Will you walk outside with me?" he asked after a moment.
She agreed, of course, and stood by him as he donned his gloves and coat again. His hat, still faintly damp, he held as they went out on the porch. It was even colder than it had been an hour ago, and she drew her shawl tightly around her shoulders. His carriage had not yet been brought around, and in the momentary quiet he took her hand again. "I cannot say all that is in my heart," he told her. "I wish that we were alone--that we were married."
She smiled mistily. "I believe I may require some time to accustom myself to the idea."
"Of course, and I do not intend to rush you, but--" He glanced around and, finding them still alone, bent and kissed her again, softly this time. Elizabeth felt heat bloom in her cheeks and her heart, and returned it as best she could. It did not last long, but he looked as flushed as she when he drew back. The rattle of the carriage wheels signaled the end of their privacy, and he put his hat back on his head--but she fancied his hands shook a little. "You will write to me?" he asked.
"Gladly, if you will do the same."
"Yes--and please, do not concern yourself with the cost of postage."
"Do not tell me you would object to a letter that's been crossed three times!" She tried to inject some levity into a parting that was truly wrenching.
"Not if it came from you, but I would prefer one uncrossed. It is an abominable practice." He took her hand. "I will send coin under the seal to pay for mine, of course."
"That's not necessary." Somehow her other hand found its way into his other hand too. "I can afford to pay for postage, at least."
"Nevertheless I--" He paused in mid-sentence, as if realizing the dispute was pointless. "I will return as soon as I am able." His hands tightened and released. "I do not go willingly, you should believe that."
Elizabeth could only nod. With a last few words of good-bye and looks full of quiet yearning, the two parted at last. She stayed outside despite the cold, and only when the last bit of wheel and rail had disappeared did she finally turn away.
"Oh, my dearest heart!" cried Mrs. Bennet, as she opened the door. "My clever, clever Lizzy! I knew how it would be, the moment he walked in the door this afternoon! Yes, and Lady Lucas will have to admit that I was right: girls who do not work in the kitchen get better husbands!"
Later, she sat in her room, alternately laughing and crying, incredulous and delirious and full of wonder.
Their courtship period was not perfect; Darcy spent less time in Hertfordshire than either of them would have wished, busy as he was with all the arrangements for their marriage. Once the Bingleys returned he had a place to stay, and with Jane in residence at Netherfield it was perfectly proper for Elizabeth to visit as often as she wished, and stay as long as she wanted. Mrs. Bennet was also often there, but Netherfield being a larger house than Longbourn, it was at least easier to find privacy.
Putting up with her family proved to be an exercise in patience for both of them. Darcy was quiet and always uncomfortable in her mother's presence in particular, but Elizabeth had the gratification of seeing him make real progress in learning to tolerate her over the course of their engagement. For her part, she tried to keep him to herself, to shield him from the worst of the vulgarity, and to not take offense when his civility was stilted and short.
They were very careful with each other, at first, awkward and uncertain, but by dint of much perseverance in conversing and corresponding, soon got over that. They did, eventually, have to speak of uncomfortable subjects, such as Darcy's early months in Hertfordshire, and all that had happened with Mr. Wickham, and there were times when Elizabeth sighed and wondered and worried if their prospects for happiness were quite as sunny as she had thought them, but since they were both sensible and principled, and the attraction between them was strong, and their esteem for each other real, they found their way through it. It is not to be expected that two young people, one violently in love, and the other rapidly approaching that same state, would wish to remain at outs for very long.
Their first year of marriage was also not without its contentions. They were both too stubborn, both proud, both strong willed. But they learned from each other, and grew in love and felicity and good character. Mr. Bennet came sometimes to visit them at Pemberley, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner more often than he, and Jane and Charles most often of all. When the Bingleys bought an estate only half a day's drive away, Elizabeth's happiness was complete.
"Tell me, Mrs. Darcy," said her husband one day, as they strolled the same picture gallery she had toured that fateful day, "when and how did you come to love me?"
Elizabeth paused just where his portrait hung on the wall. She looked at it before turning her gaze back to its real life likeness. "I believe, Mr. Darcy," she answered with teasing, arch smile, "I must date it to when I first saw your beautiful grounds here at Pemberley."The End