Posted on: 2013-06-19
It was known across the nearby county of Derbyshire that there was no one Mrs. Bennet despised more than their dear neighbors' son and heir, the young Master Fitzwilliam of Pemberley. Longbourne, being one of the few estates within easy distance, enjoyed somewhat greater intimacy with Pemberley than the genteel residents of the small market town of Lambton.
But it was still so far removed in wealth and station from the lofty position of the Darcys that it left room for a great deal of jealousy and competition--at least in the eyes of the Bennet ladies. Indeed the Bennets' mannerism and acquaintance, in general was far closer to the gossipy ladies in Lambton than to the dignified behavior of the Darcys. It was owing to a boyhood acquaintance that Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bennet kept in association with each other, and insisted their families suffer each others company once in a while.
Perhaps it was because she knew none of her daughters could ever aspire to marry into wealth like that of the Darcys that Mrs. Bennet particularly despised Fitzwilliam. Her daughters thought it more likely that it was due to an adolescent moment when young Fitzwilliam had made some remark to the girls about their mother's dim wit which the matron only understood enough to know she was the target.
Elizabeth, her eyes flashing, had said to her sisters, "And that is why they send young men to Eton I suppose, to learn to pick on the unarmed."
Fitzwilliam had flushed but the next second insisted haughtily, "They send young men to Eton to learn in the company of other men. It is a privilege of which you could never understand."
"Learn with men!" cried Mrs. Bennet, "No indeed!"
"The rector studies with his wife," said Mary in a weak but rallying defense. But poor Mrs. Bennet hushed her girls and directed young master Fitzwilliam towards the library to join his father and Mr. Bennet--which, the ladies assumed, is what he had wanted permission to do all along.
He was not the only young man from Pemberley forced in one way or other to spend exceeding time with the Bennet ladies when home from Eton. George Wickham was a more occasional visitor, especially when running errands with his father in Lambton. His gentleman-like manners and smooth flattery were enough to make him welcome in that home so bereft of any legitimate suitors. His prospects were so dim that this would hardly allow him welcome into Mrs. Bennet's parlor. It was the gossip he brought of Pemberley that Mrs. Bennet eagerly swallowed up; he knew everything from the new draperies Lady Anne had ordered down to what the second hand scrullery maid had found crawling in the kitchens before the cook awoke. The ladies, all down to little Kitty, very much doubted most of his information. Still it was at times fun to hear such intimate details of so great a family as the Darcys.
It was not till Elizabeth's coming out, however, that Mrs. Bennet truly began to court the idea of a match with Wickham. Jane had by that time been married to an old, handsome gentleman her aunt in London had introduced.
Mr. George Darcy was all too proud of Wickham's rather slight accomplishments at school and mentioned to Mr. Bennet his decision to offer the young man a living once the vicar's term was over. Who knew when that would be, Mr. Bennet had said laughingly to his wife. But that lady seized upon the idea with magnificent speed and was aided in her imaginations by the boastful Wickham himself. Mrs.Bennet had determined some time ago that Elizabeth would be the most difficult of her daughters to marry. What had she to recommend herself, but a sharp tongue and ready intelligence; and what use w]?
In her attempts to have Elizabeth married and settled she was aided by the generous spirit of their esteemed neighbors. Lady Anne had decided that Elizabeth would lead the dance in an Easter ball at Pemberley, to which they had invited a great many more families than usual. Mrs. Bennet thought it fit to call with Elizabeth, ostensibly to express her gratitude but really to comb out the finer details of the event and change them to her own liking if she could.
Lady Anne bore with her as stoically as possible, but could not help but feel a little pity on the blushing young lady who delicately tried to curb her mother. At last Mrs. Bennet, growing tired of Elizabeth, sent her away to examine some books on a table in the corner of the saloon. "She reads a great deal," confided she to the Lady within Elizabeth's easy hearing. "But as she has little to recommend her, I have no choice but to encourage her in this."
Lady Anne could say nothing to the contrary as she watched Elizabeth bend over the books. Jane had been such a beauty! But Elizabeth had more archness than sweetness in her looks. And though a lovely girl, she lacked the fullness of womanhood that had appeared so early in Jane. "She may yet prove handome enough to tempt a man of fortune. Come Mrs. Bennet, let us not be so harsh. She is not yet eighteen!"
She could not help but be amused that though they were different in every way, her mother and Lady Anne could at least agree on how little they thought of her. Needless to say what pity Elizabeth had for inflicting her mother on the elegant Lady soon vanished. She stood a short while later, opened the salon doors and sought and was granted permission to stroll out into the grounds while the ladies finished their conversation.
The breeze carried the scent of pine and wood as it stirred the dark tendrils around her neck. Elizabeth delighted in the briskness of the weather, even in her sheer elbow-length sleeves. It seemed to her that the grounds of Pemberley only improved with every spring. Though she had determined to remain close to the salon doors to be within sight of her mother, the sound of the stream beckoned her as it stumbled over pebbles and carved it's way around the front of the house. It was here that the two young men spotted her. They were about to make their way to the stables for a ride to the edge of the park, but upon seeing her the shorter and handsomer of the two immediately turned and motioned his companion to follow.
"Isn't she a fine thing to behold on a dull day like this," said he as he walked a step before Darcy.
"She's tolerable I suppose," he responded in an attempt to curtail the other's exclamations.
"Damn! If I could only afford to be as fastidious as you," replied George. "But I am telling you she's a fine creature--though mind you her tongue. Me and the Bennets get along famously, you know. I've seen them all, but she's as good looking as the younger ones, I'll grant you that. "
Darcy had the inexplicable urge to collide his fisted hand against his companion's jaw.
"Well here is my Miss Elizabeth, Darcy," said he as they approached with a grin that neither of those individuals cared for. "You're looking rather more dressed than usual Miss Elizabeth. Is the cause your visit to see us?"
Elizabeth barely curtsied. "No young sir. You see me in white, as usual for this time of day. I was calling on Lady Anne with my mother."
"Ah yes, and that is why we find you lingering out here, to be caught in our sight?" He laughed. Darcy-- though he would not say it aloud-- had to admit it was a little suspicious.
Elizabeth indifferently crossed her arms loosely around herself and looked away towards the trees, as if bored by the very sight of the gentlemen. Her posture exuded such hauteur that it could not help but prickle Wickham in annoyance and amuse Darcy.
"Why yes George," she said, "Every activity a lady enjoys is necessarily some mean art of captivation."
Wickham laughed. "You cannot blame me for being cautious, considering how fond your mother is of attaching you to a comfortably situated gentleman."
The lady's brow arched. "Yes to a gentleman. You are safe from me."
Darcy's eyes flew up in surprise. Wickham flushed red and he spat words that sounded vaguely like curses.
"It might surprise you to hear Darcy," said Wickham, for he was cognizant of the fact that Darcy had not come to his defense. "That the sole hope Mrs. Bennet has in seeing Elizabeth happy is in me."
Elizabeth was reaching for the leaves on a tree above her, as if completely unaware of the rudeness she had just inflicted. "Some can bring happiness where ever they go Mr. Wickham," she said. "You however can only bring me happiness whenever you go."
Darcy had heard enough and before Wickham released another string of swears, he said to him, "Clearly George our company offends her. Let's be off for we have but few hours before we're expected back."
"Wait a while," he responded to Darcy with deadly seriousness, all the while looking at the lady. "I forgot my whip."
He turned and Darcy watched him till he was out of earshot before turning to Elizabeth.
"Now is your purpose served?" he asked
Elizabeth looked at him pointedly. "In part." But she regretted the words even as they spilled from her mouth for it was after all his home, and she was the guest.
Darcy merely chuckled and kicked at the ground. "I will of course leave you in a moment, but will you do me the honor -- or do I ask too much-- of telling me how you came to be so angry at George?"
Elizabeth, embarrassed, turned her face away. She was rarely so rude. An uneasiness that grew from knowing the true character of his friend overcame Darcy. He had in fact only a few moments ago caught George with the nurse on the other side of the house and had to convince him to go riding instead. "Whatever his behavior may really be," Darcy said, "To you he has acted no less a gentleman, hasn't he?"
Elizabeth sighed and tucked a lock undone by the breeze behind her ear. "Aye, his manners with me are all that is right."
Darcy's relief seemed to reverberate against his ribs.
"It is not George that I mind," she continued. "But his attentions are not welcome. At least not by me."
Understanding dawned on Darcy. Her mother, no doubt had encouraged him beyond sense.
"Would you like me to talk to him?"
Elizabeth was taken aback by his kindness. "To what end? He is, you know, always welcome at our home by both my parents. Moreover I would not harm your friendship for my selfish needs. He will understand by and by. I only hope that there will be others I can dance with at your mother's ball, otherwise her effort will all be for naught."
She said this lightly with a smile and after a moment they parted--she to urge her mother home and he to the stables. However he thought on the conversation several times that day. Though he followed her advice and did not speak to Wickham -- after all there was no reason to believe he would listen -- Darcy could not help thinking that something ought to be done to help Elizabeth out of her predicament. If he did not, she could soon be supposed by half the county to be the undeclared intended of a man she clearly would refuse.
The discussion of the ball did not end that day. His parents were sharing the details of it that evening after dinner as he entertained Georgiana with a dog on the floor. Lady Anne while discussing one or other of the changes she was making could not help but mention Mrs. Bennet's coarseness.
Mr. Darcy dismissed it easily. "Anne, let it be" he said. "She cannot help it any more than you can. I am sure Elizabeth is a worthy subject for your efforts; she was always a charming girl."
"Yes, not unlike old Wickham's son." Lady Anne leaned back with a smile in her tea cup.
Their son swiveled to catch the exchange, but there was no more mention of it. When his mother went later to see that Georgianna had indeed gone to bed with the nurse, her son followed her out.
"About the ball mother," he said without preamble once they were out in the hall.
"Yes?" she said tilting her face up toward her son. With some pride she noted how tall he had grown.
"Might I request you to make one little arrangement amongst all the other work I know you to be doing?"
"And what would that be?"
"First you must agree not to ask me my motives."
Lady Anne came to a full stop. They were that moment on the stairs. Her eyes became shrewd. It was the last thing she had expected him to take an interest in. Darcy took her arm gallantly, smiled at her surprise, and beckoned her forward.
"I will not agree to that measure so you are free to withhold your request," she said and seeing he was still resolved to speak, "I see it is more urgent. Out with it then."
"Can you not arrange for George to be elsewhere engaged the evening of the ball?"
"George? As in our George Wickham? I think not my dear, it would be unseemly rude to not invite him. And your father wouldn't hear of it anyway."
"I did not say not to invite him... Only-- cannot you keep him away?"
"But what for? Doesn't George like Elizabeth? Why ever would you want him away?" The answer shot through her like an arrow. Her eyes narrowed in disgust and her hand stilled on the door to the nursery. She was sorry that they had ever known Elizabeth Bennet, or even kept the Bennets at arm's length as she had. She should have tossed them all from her husband's company the moment she had married.
Her son read her expression and shook his head. "Do not be so suspicious mother," he said gently. "Her mother takes delight, as you know, in whatever attentions a young man shows around her daughters. It may lead to uncomfortable situations for all, even George, and most especially for you--in the presence all our acquaintances too."
"Is that your only motivation my dear?"
"Do I need any other? George himself told me about Mrs. Bennet's wishing him happiness with her daughter. If she were to do so at the ball, it would seem that father was playing matchmaker."
"As indeed he is," she said and watched for his reaction to this little revelation on his darling wish for 'Bennet's girl.' But her son merely raised an eyebrow.
"It is enough to tolerate Mrs. Bennet, we need not be joined in front of all our neighbors in the coarseness of her manners by appearing as matchmaking fools." Elizabeth would have been pained to hear him saying so, he thought and he winced saying it himself, but it did the trick. His mother acquiesced. He pressed her hand so warmly then, that the suspicion that had just been aroused arrested her again.
"And what of Miss Bennet?" she asked.
"What of her?"
"Have you reserved a dance?"
"Is that the common thing to do? I saw her earlier about the grounds, but no, it never occurred to me to ask as it seems rather early to be reserving dances." he added.
His mother was left to watch his retreating figure, feeling equally relieved and anxious.
Whatever other distasteful manners Mrs. Bennet might of had, she had fine taste in clothing. And she followed the making of Elizabeth's ball gown to minute detail. The result was a light silk with cascading gray print embroidery from the train to just below the knees. Tall gloves and an overflowing deep red scarf, sent from London by Jane to match the red bands that tied up her hair, finished her attire. She looked, Elizabeth had to admit, as she bowed to Lady Anne and Mr. Darcy, in the full revelry of the ball, even more beautiful than she actually was.
It was Mr. Darcy who at the very start took her arm affectionately and informed her that George Wickham was not there. Lady Catherine, his wife's dear sister he explained, insisted on interviewing George that very weekend regarding a living that had recently been vacated and she hoped to fill. "I would love of course to promise him the one in Kympton," said Mr. Darcy, "But it is unlikely it'll be available in the near future." He said it almost apologetically but Elizabeth's spirits soared with delight, and in an unguarded moment she cried, "Oh, what good news!"
Mr. Darcy happily took his own meaning from that and introduced her to his wife's nephew. She was immediately engaged for a dance; and thus the night continued, dance after dance, with suitors at every turn and delicious conversations in between. The hall was alit from all sides and the large glass windows shone in the moon and stars that out glittered the ladies in their fine attire.
Elizabeth was admiring the view of the stars as she left one of the adjoining halls with the rector's daughter when she spied a familiar figure near one of the windows with one hand in his pocket and his face bent. She made her excuses quickly and joined him there.
"And how can Master Fitzwilliam be hiding, at his own ball no less," she asked cheerfully as she turned to face him by leaning against the window's ledge.
He looked up and gave her a half smile. "It is your ball Lizzy, or so my mother tells me." He joined her, turning on his side to lean against the window sill. "And how are you enjoying it? Very much it seems"
Elizabeth glanced at him and spied a neat little volume under the fold of his arm. Before he could move she had snapped it up. "You're reading? A book at a ball! I suppose I shall have to inform Lady Anne of this."
"I beg you will not," cried Darcy, for he could imagine his mother would have other suspicions.
"Von Humboldt?" asked Elizabeth as she examined the book. "I have not read him, but I've heard him mentioned. Father passed to me some fascinating drawings of his of a sloth that appeared in Scot's Monthly. Have you seen it?"
Darcy turned to face her, leaning one shoulder against the wall, and told her of what he had just been reading on Humboldt's new discoveries. His face was at it's most animated and she was completely drawn in by his conversation. Her chin was tilted up to hear him, and the dark of her eyes grew in her concentration till they quite covered the colored part. It suddenly struck Darcy that she was the most beautiful young woman he'd ever seen. He had always thought her pretty, all the Bennet girls were, but facing her at that moment made his sentence stick in his throat.
The music started up at that very moment, warning the dancers to prepare. Darcy looked towards them as though it was the music that had distracted him from what he had been saying.
"Oh! I am keeping you from your partner," Lizzy said standing erect all at once and letting the deep red shawl fall around her waist as she did so. From an old childish habit of bickering with him she added cheekily, "I am without a partner myself, but do not think I moved this way in order to beg for a dance.''
"For what reason did you come to this corner Lizzy?"
She blinked and looked hesitant and it was clear to Darcy she had sought his company and nothing more. The proud, smug look which this produced was not one Elizabeth cared for. She motioned him away toward the dark corner of the window. He moved but inquired why she had asked him to move when she herself was moving loftily away.
"Moonlight becomes you sir," she replied, "but total darkness even more."
He narrowed his eyes as he walked a few quick steps and caught up with her. But there was a half smile on his face as he unceremoniously took her gloved hand as if to lead her away. "You mean to pain me I know and I demand recompense for such unladylike impertinence," he said.
"With a dance?" she asked in surprise for they had reached the others. He lead her in a circle to the lead of the line. "What you ask is no punishment for me," she said taking position and curtsied low, her train in hand. "But I thought you had a partner?"
He confessed he had been reading for a while and forgotten to engage anyone for this dance.
She laughed at him. "Only you would think dancing a fitting retribution for a wrong, dull chap that you are."
Darcy was too used to her laughing to be upset. "The punishment is in that you must stand up with me," said he. "For I know how much you despise my company."
"You know nothing of the sort," said Elizabeth, her cheeks burning at the reminder of how coldly she had spoken the last time she had been at Pemberley, even asking him to leave his own grounds. And all because she had heard their discussion about her.
"So if I had asked you to dance--"
"I would not have refused you," she finished for him. She was the next moment so embarrassed to have admitted it that she could scarcely raise those thick, fine lashes to glance at him for the remainder of the dance.
His heart swelled at her admission. And he gazed unstintingly at the curve of her cheek, her throat, the light, pleasing curves of her figure as she turned away from him, then joined him in the center.
The Bennets were almost the last to leave, after many a stern hint and glance from Mr. Bennet to his wife. Elizabeth worn from the festivities had been urged to sit in a chair while they awaited the carriage. It pleased the young heir of Pemberley to bend against that chair. Many a quick reply was exchanged between them but past the half-smiles that occasionally lit her son's face, Lady Anne could not hear their conversation. No one else noted it however--and why would they? It was as common to see him speak to Elizabeth as it was to see Mr. Darcy seek out Mr. Bennet. Innocent thus had everyone thought them; even Elizabeth and Darcy were not too aware of their attraction to be in any danger.
But with a mother's keenness did Lady Anne observe her son walk with the Bennets to their carriage. She was the last one to leave the hall. Dearly as she wished to confide her suspicions to her husband, she knew that it was too sensitive a subject to bring up lightly at the end of a long night. And yet the anxiety kept her too alert to retire.
So it was that she found herself in her dressing gown, out in the hall, seeking out her son. Unlike herself, he was fully dressed in his ball attire. His shoes were off and his hair a mess when he opened the door to his room for her.
"Mother?" he said, blinking past eyes full of sleep to behold her. "Are you ill?'
She walked past him, calmly responding that she was well. She took a seat, the only one available, by his fireplace. She was so engrossed in how to broach the subject that she did not at first notice the concern lining his face as he bent on one knee on the floor before her.
"Is it Georgianna? Is she unwell?"
Lady Anne waved her hand, dismissing his worries. And instead asked why he was still fully dressed.
"I was too tired," he said, standing. "There are too few hours left of the night to waste time in changing--I'd much rather sleep."
He walked over to a table on the side of his bed, poured some water, and looked over it's rim at Lady Anne. "Well, mother? What has made you sleepless?"
For all that Lady Anne had deliberated, the question came out all at once. "Are you not at all afraid of showing Elizabeth Bennet so much attention? It may confuse her."
"Ah," said he in sudden clarity. "It may confuse her as to which of the young men associated with Pemberley she is welcome to employ her arts of enticement on?"
Lady Anne flushed. "I will not allow such a speech in my own children." she reprimanded, thinking all the while that it was certainly Elizabeth Bennet's company that had made Will speak so, an assumption that was not altogether unfounded.
"Forgive me mother, but you have known her all your life. What artifice can you possibly detect in her to keep you awake at this hour?. Or are you really afraid that I may be a challenge to George in procuring her consent. Which by the by I take as a compliment, coming from my parents, as you think so highly of him." 'Who,' he thought to himself, 'are as blind as Mrs. Bennet where he is concerned.
"I don't care for either one. We've given George and Elizabeth plenty of opportunity, now they are free to decide what to do with their own lives." Lady Anne stood and came where her son sat leaning against his bed. "But let me not while I live see you, my son, forget what you owe to yourself and to all your family by making, at so young an age, a hasty proposal of marriage to anyone."
The awkwardness of the conversation made him chuckle nervously. "Am I so young? Forgive me, mother! Yes, I attend you," he added hastily as she frowned. "No one must marry without due thought and consideration. I understand. Not Elizabeth, Georgianna, George, and least of all your only son." He stood and kissed her on the forehead hoping they were through. However his mother was was not to be deterred.
"Elizabeth Bennet is a girl of so inferior a house and birth--"
"Mother you make poor Mr. Bennet sound like a servant. He is my father's childhood friend, you remember?"
"Yes, owing to a sad coincidence that made them neighbors; but I expect you to insure that that is all they remain. Neighbors and friends."
Either his mother was not making any sense, or he was very tired. Darcy drew a hand through his hair and rubbed his eyes--more from how uncomfortable his mother was making him than from sleep. "I am not in any danger from anyone, mother, and really I haven't the slightest clue what you mean. But I promise you I will take the time to understand you in the morning, but mother I must sleep to be up at dawn for farmer--"
"Not so hasty, if you please. I will be done in a moment," she responded and silently drew in a breath. She knew it to be ridiculous and beneath her to stoop to such measures, but the expression on the face of her son as he led Elizabeth to the dance floor flashed before her, and she no longer cared. "Will you promise me, never to enter into such an engagement?"
There was no misunderstanding her motive for coming to his room now. She may have been his mother but he started in anger at this and his mind raced, quickly connecting the little statements she had been dropping since entering his room.
A long silence stretched forth. And then suddenly his heart seemed to stop. His very blood was cold with fear. In a voice that was heavy and hoarse he asked, though he knew now to whom she referred, "To whom exactly?"
"You can have no doubt by now who I mean. I refer of course to Elizabeth Bennet."
"Elizabeth Bennet," he intoned in the deathly quiet of the room.
Darcy stared unblinkingly for he had been honest when he said he hadn't the slightest clue--not the damnedest clue, he realized. For how long had he thus been? He had always turned whenever they were in a room to catch Elizabeth's reaction to every insignificant incident that occurred; and whenever they were not together he wished, hoped, expected to bait her into interaction. He knew now why even on those breaks from his education he had followed his father to Longbourne; he had been cold and insulting when she did not pay him any attention, insulting even to harmless Mrs. Bennet. And was he not always working to effect some little change that he was aware Elizabeth desired, even if it was him she sought to change? And had he not, indeed, always sought her advice, if not her approval?
"To Elizabeth," he choked out again.
Lady Anne did eventually fall asleep, though she tossed uneasily half the night. Her son had not given the promise she so desired, not even when she pleaded on behalf of Anne deBourgh. But at last when she pressed him with tears in her eyes he had promised to think it over.
It was not so hard to keep that promise, for in truth Darcy could think of nothing else. Nothing but how dear she was to him and how he had been made aware of it too late, and at such a juncture! He did not sleep. He lay on the pillow, his brows distressed and his hand unmoving, tangled in his hair, staring with wide eyes straight to the ceiling.
Posted on: 2013-07-30
To see Elizabeth Bennet was now as painful a desire as ever Darcy had battled with. Though he had determined to see her within a few days of the ball, his mother, who had by no means given up her efforts to ensure his heart, had redirected him one day, waylaid him the next, and sent him to help his father the day after.
Lady Anne had chosen to shield her son by not confiding in his father about what she knew and suspected. For it was a matter far too sensitive for his short temper. But this led to an unexpected incident one afternoon as Darcy's father handed him several stacks of paper that he wanted his son to personally review, then have it notarized with a lawyer he trusted in Lambton. There were other such errands he had gathered, all leading Fitzwilliam further and further away, till something occurred to Mr. Darcy. "That is not far from Longbourne, you know, you might as well stop there to thank Bennet for recommending his brother-in-law; he's quite the attorney."
Fitzwiliam's hand stilled on the stack of papers he was slowly organizing. Hopeful though he had been for this chance meeting, he was yet too dutiful to his mother's wishes. "I am sure a note will do," he said. "Is it necessary to stop there?"
"Now, now," his father chided. "You begin to speak like your mother. I know they aren't always pleasant, but he is my dear old neighbor. And you like the ladies well enough don't you?"
Darcy could only assent.
"Then please do them the honor of calling there once in a while. Your mother finds it more taxing and it will save her the necessity."
Presented thus, Darcy felt free to agree. And as his father did not mention it later, he did not find it necessary to make it known to the general household where he would be going on his way out of Lambton.
He was unusually trepidatious as he approached Longbourne on his horse. It was a trip he had made not three weeks ago, but his world had changed since then. So it was odd to to find nothing out of the ordinary in the house.
Mrs. Bennet could be heard calling Mrs. Hill from within, the young girls were out on the grounds with their nurse, and alongside them sat Lizzy, lazily leaning against a bench, reading a letter. It was little Lydia and older Kitty who ran up to greet him first, pleased and eager for any change to their routine. He was familiar enough to them to allow running and little handshakes, and occasional enough to warrant interest. Their older sister's gaze he dared not meet and so bent to give the younger girls uncharacteristic attention. He commented on how long Lydia's hair was and how well Kitty curtseyed; he was immediately rebuffed however by the spoilt little ladies who retorted that Lydia's hair was shorter now than it had been and Kitty was too old to be told she curtseyed well.
"You don't know how to speak to a lady at all," said Kitty.
"Your friend George is much better at it," said the other. "Mary and Lizzy both agreed."
Behind them Darcy could see Elizabeth approaching, the hem of her lightly printed dress brushing against the grass in waves behind her. Slowly he raised his sight to meet her's. It was hard, so hard to look away then. She was the same Lizzy, or almost the same. But how had he been so unaware to what rhythm his own heart beat? And when had fashionable necklines fallen so low?
With all the hauteur of a Darcy he asked solemnly after her welfare to cover what he was sure was a red face. Lizzy glanced at him curiously and responded in the usual way.
"I suppose you are here for my father," she remarked, turning to walk. "I can take you to him."
He thanked her and affirmed he was there for Mr. Bennet. "But why did you suppose it?" he asked, his voice grave and deep. "I could have come for you as well."
"Not with that severe face you couldn't have," she said cheekily. "Your company would hardly have been tolerable. I would have sent you away to him either way."
There were days that Darcy allowed Elizabeth to laugh at his expense but today he felt a distinct annoyance in the tinkling of her laugh.
There was a short pause in which she explained that her father had gone for a fishing expedition with their neighbor but in a pond not too far away and offered to lead him to it. She seemed to guess his annoyance and asked after his parents. And when he finished pronouncing them well she asked absently, "And how are the others?"
Darcys steps slowed to almost a stop. She perhaps only meant Georgianna, but his mind jumped treacherously to the image of George Wickham smugly smirking at Elizabeth from across the lawn of Pemberley. The very thought of it made his hand unconsciously flush to a red fist.
"I suppose you mean George Wickham?" he said.
She turned to him in surprise. "Why no, I--"
"He has returned," he said, and then recalling what he had heard her sisters say added with some dismay, "But of course he has already called here." And again, now that Darcy recollected that Lady Catherine would be offering the Hunsford living to Wickham, and that perhaps now he had a view to settle on Elizabeth, Darcy asked hastily, "He did not perhaps have something particular to say to you?"
"He has not called here, if you must know," she said coldly. "By the by, you sound very much like your father. Though in this instance, at least, you ought to have a better understanding of the situation than your father."
He turned his face away and looked silently at his hands. As usual it was she who took his awkwardness away; smoothly she turned the conversation to calls she had received, making light of the few young men who had called on her following the Pemberley ball.
"Sir Fleming was of course most promising. Do you know him?" He turned to her in surprise at her description.
"He called on you? Last I heard of him he had not enough fortune to support himself."
"Not even half himself, if we are to be accurate, for I've never seen a thinner man. He makes up for it in cravats, however."
"Oh yes, has he not spoken to you about it? Well than you must not have spoken to him at all. After describing to me the many styles, and to my mother the sheer number of colors he owned, he stood and actually offered to retie my father's neck cloth in the fashionable style."
She was rewarded by a half smile on Darcy's more than usual pensive face,
"But he does come with a title, my mother strove to remind me. And indeed, who would not like to be called Lady? It gives one the feeling of being one even if one hasn't the demeanor. Yes, as I said, I find him most promising."
"You encouraged him then?"
"My father certainly did for me. Just enough to warrant a few more visits, for his own entertainment, not enough to warrant another gesture to retie his caravat."
Darcy took her arm and seized walking. She turned to him with some surprise.
"I wish you would not speak so Lizzy." His voice was quiet and a single line knit through his forehead.
"I beg your pardon," she exclaimed. "I did not realize he was your friend; you are right in stopping me. I am sure he is not ridiculous, but you must know I like to-"
"It is not Fleming--" For a moment he struggled to compose himself, trying to remember what his mother might think if she saw him there. He still held Elizabeth's elbow so severely that she, with true concern for him and some discomfort, brushed his hand with hers to release his grip. Their eyes instantly met and she quickly released his hold and folded her hands behind her. His composure was now completely undone, but Elizabeth, who seemed so calm, begged him to continue.
"I wish you would not speak so lightly of your suitors. Or at least--"
Her eyes turned sharp but he was not to be intimidated and with more pleading he spoke. "At least Lizzy do not make a sport of them, whatever your father may wish. Your attentions may effect more than those immediately before you, When you might cause injury to others, for no reason than that they love you, would you not regret it?"
"You speak with feeling on the subject," she said.
He set his jaw, fighting for control, and ground his teeth against tight lips to halt the words that nevertheless came tumbling out. He touched her elbow lightly, brushing his knuckles against her skin, brushing it down to her wrist, then he held her hand in his.
"With great feeling dearest," he said softly, and bowing low, pressed a kiss to her hand.
It was so tender a gesture, and his voice of such quiet anguish that it sent her into a whirl of confusion and wonder, her heart palpitating almost beyond it's capability.
When he rose he could not meet her eyes and so hastily he bid her goodbye and was off.
That evening Mr. Bennet mentioned to his wife that Darcy's son had been to see him to thank them for recommending her brother.
"He might have stayed for dinner," sniffed his wife.
"He would not because his parents were expecting him. I did expect that he wanted to call on you ladies as well, as it is unlike him to come to seek my company without his father. But he said he had other business to attend and could not come in." This explanation he chiefly made to Lizzy, but she could only affect a smile.
"I don't see why he did not pay me any compliment by calling, though it is my brother who lent them the service," cried Mrs. Bennet. And so she continued on about the 'Darcy pride' and on that note, to Elizabeth's great discomfort, the conversation ended.
Trouble was clearly etched across her only son's face, Lady Anne thought as she observed him over dinner, but she ignored it silently, with all the austerity of her class.
He stood after dinner with his father, both leaning opposite sides of the same window , as they discussed business. There was a certain pride with which the elder Darcy listened to his son, a certain bravado in his air and squint in his eye. His wife and son both noticed it that night and wondered how long such approval might last. But while one expected that it might certainly fail if a hint of certain affections for a lady were known to him, the other expected to rely on it when the subject was brought forth.
A short while later Mr. Darcy bid his family adieu and retired to his room. His wife was considering to follow him when her son's voice arrested her on the chair in which she sat.
"I visited Longbourne today mother," he said. "I did not stop for dinner, though on a different day I might have."
She was touched by his honesty, though by no means pleased.
"My father asked me to call on Mr. Bennet regarding a small business matter he had helped us with. No--you need not look so relieved," he added bitterly as she turned to look at him with a smile. He sighed and stood and walked to the mantelpiece. His frame was not lanky exactly, but he had grown tall rather suddenly so that he sometimes gave the impression of not being able to hold his height.
Observing him thus, his face in such anguish that one would suppose he had committed some great crime, Lady Anne with great motherly empathy strove to reassure him. "I can imagine how strange, nay even painful, this must be for you. But you must see the wisdom in it?"
He looked down sullenly, and this she took as his assent.
"I can say at least that Elizabeth Bennet is a good girl. I am sure your imagination has added a good deal more to her merits than is there, but the inferiority of her connections, her situation, is far below what your father and I aspire for you. You must not grieve. Whatever difficulty you encounter now will soon be over and you and Miss Bennet will be able to meet like common and indifferent acquaintances."
"Very indifferent indeed!" scoffed her son.
Lady Anne's delicate face closed very suddenly.
"I know you will obey me in this," she said quietly.
"Forgive me, mother, but you know nothing of the kind."
She started and her forehead turned almost alarmingly white.
"Mother," he continued more softly though no less urgently, "I could hardly obey you in this instance even if I sincerely tried. I have never been able to stay away from her. I understand her background is not all that we wanted but what need have we for influence or wealth? I could not honorably live by any other woman's side."
Lady Anne turned coldly away from him. "I see you have made your decision. Then you mean to propose?"
Her son shifted uneasily. His courage did not falter but his voice did a little to see the parent he had spent most of his life pleasing turn, it seemed, against him. "I am not sure she will have me."
"Nonsense. I will not be trifled with anymore. Tell me exactly what you mean to do. Do you mean to bring shame upon us all, even upon your poor cousin--in short do you mean to marry that girl?"
"I mean to court her favor mother," he said with a sigh.
"But you are afraid she might refuse you." His mother's mind was quickly calculating how much influence she might exert over Elizabeth Bennet and her answer. She knew it to be unlikely and she became drained from the unhappiness that such an alliance would bring her. As was her habit she began to feel physically ill with every disturbance of heart and home.
Darcy came forward and knelt on the chair his mother had chosen that moment to lean on. He took her arm and with great sincerity and vulnerability looked on her face. Such an affectionate gesture with such a beloved expression made his mother's heart quake with indecision. She really did believe that he was relenting, and that perhaps she might agree on some other girl for his sake, some one other than Anne or Elizabeth.
"Do you really think Lizzy will reject me?" he asked, lost in his own thoughts. "I cannot give in to that answer I am afraid. Since it is her, I cannot let it end there. I mean to try for as long as I honorably can."
Lady Anne turned her face stoically away. His anxiety was for another. His vulnerability to be cured by another, not by herself. "You may bid me goodnight, if you please."
Darcy immediately regretted revealing so much, but it was too late, for she had already turned to organizing a bouquet. His next several attempts to catch her attention were stoutly ignored and at last he departed, unacknowledged.
Having made his declaration to at least one parent, Darcy felt rather free to visit Elizabeth when he chose. He had determined a week enough time for everyone to become comfortable regarding his sudden passion for Elizabeth Bennet. Unconsciously he was relying on his mother to ease his father into the news. She may have so done in any, nay in every other situation. But her own feelings, in this case, interfered and kept her so ill at ease that she could hardly leave her bed, much less go about speaking to her husband about it within the week that Darcy expected.
The possibility of Elizabeth's rejection was too much to bear, but that she might feel the same as he in so short a space of time seemed too high an expectation. In the fear of both he teetered for several days. He remembered with painful consideration how often he had been ignored by the object of his affections. And how often he had derided her parents. But the loveliness of her, the want for that companionship that had led him there throughout the years, eventually won all other considerations. Before the week was through he was on his horse, bound to Longbourne.
The entire Bennet clan was within when he called, all of course except the person he most wished to see. Previously he might have exchanged some news with Mr. Bennet then have gone off to find Elizabeth. But today he felt rather keenly his rudeness to Mrs. Bennet. It would be no wonder if Elizabeth's parents discouraged the match as much as his, he had told himself, and he labored hard to converse on subjects Mrs. Bennet most enjoyed. If she was pleased she knew better than to let 'that Darcy boy' see it and after a while with her usual tact she said, "I suppose you want to see Lizzy."
He was sent into momentary confusion, but no one else thought it of particular note that he wanted to see Lizzy. The servant was called to bring the tea and to send Lizzy, but Fitzwilliam stood and said he would bring her there himself.
"She's likely in the shrubbery," said Mr. Bennet with an appraising look. "She left us just a moment ago."
The grounds at Longbourne were not very large but a path at the back led to a shaded bit of wilderness in the back. Heavy rains had made a slight rivulet and before it he found Elizabeth, sitting and gazing.
Seeing in her sloping shoulders some definite sign of irritation, Darcy could not help but approach her and, sliding noiselessly onto the log, to sit beside her. He folded his hands before him, training his eyes to look steadily away from her. He felt, rather than saw, her start. She turned to gaze at him unabashedly for a long moment as he stared awkwardly away at his own hands.
"Are you angry with me Lizzy?" he asked quietly.
"No," she said. "At least I know I ought to be gratified but--oh Fitz!" She stood in her anxiety and placed a hand against her head. "Of what were you thinking? You'll never be allowed in Longbourne again if they hear of it. And papa you know will be upset if hears gossip in Lambton, for despite what others may say, the Darcys do not have a monopoly on pride. Papa's pride, for whatever reason has always rested heavily on my shoulders."
"I did not come here to find out what anyone else thinks," he said.
She might have gone on, but his words paused her. He was faced with her back again and drawing an agitated hand through his hair, he stood and approached her once more. For all her earlier boldness she would not look at him now.
"Won't you spare me a glance at least?" Thick lashes bowed even more and touched the crest of her cheek.
Something between fear and hope clutched at his chest. "You are too honest to trifle with me," he said tapping her elbow with the tip of his finger to catch her attention. Then with some consciousness, he clasped his hands behind him. "Lizzy my heart has been ardently yours for I know not how long. If I could but hear the state of your heart, I will know how to act. I can not promise your other concerns can entirely be done away with. But I hope they are not so much as to deprive me of a chance?"
Her face did not look forbidding, but she was quiet. For the first time in their acquaintance, she felt unnatural, and she longed for some quick reply to turn the page back to their light conversations of yesterday. Her silence thus stretched, Darcy really began to be afraid of being rejected. He wound his hand in his hair, and then stepped before her in such a way as to demand her gaze on his own. There was a certain confidence about him that she had in her younger years found attractive and at other times thought of as his Darcy pride. He presently pressed her fingers.
"We have always been friends, at least I have thought so, but will you become my best and dearest friend?"
There was a funny feeling in her stomach but the glow she felt in her heart reflected in her face. Seeing it, Darcy's eyes closed with visible relief, and her fingers, which he still held, were crushed in the intensity of his emotion. But Lizzy would not have pulled away for the world.
Instead her eyes danced. "And will I be your only dear friend?"
"Forgive me sir, I must ask, for I know how highly you think of your cousin Richard, and how strongly you feel toward George. I must know if that station of best and dearest friend is to be shared before I acknowledge it."
"Do be serious."
"You've declared me too good to trifle with you. But perhaps now you regret the whole thing, for you see I will always tease and torment you. Our friendship, as you name it, will hardly change."
He tugged the fingers he still crushed in his and caught her lightly with an arm around her waist. At last the teasing spark in her expression stilled.
"Everything will change, my dear," he said, the first line of distress knitting his forehead. "But you did say 'always,' and I will hold you to it. I will not allow you to change your mind, but you must say something now before I am inappropriate."
"That I return your regard with equal fervor? I do love--"
The last word of that oft repeated phrase was murmured against his lips. Warmth rose like a tide inside him and crashed heavily against his chest. Soft, surprised lips sweetly urged him and pushed against his own. It was a chaste kiss by any standard except for the two who had never known something so exquisite as to be in love.
When they parted, there was still a great deal that Darcy wished to impart. But Lizzy with a delayed shyness, urged a return to the house asking, "Are they not waiting on us for tea?"
So they walked back, greatly slowed, for Lizzy could not help but voice her concerns again of earlier, especially what her father would think. "For it is no great secret," she said. "That your parents would desire a much higher match. And now it will seem to all the county as though father and I were scheming for an alliance while dallying as childhood friends. Oh it will not do! I can't bear for that to be said, especially as it is your fault. I rarely had a stray thought before."
"Rarely, you say?" He asked smilingly and she ducked her head out of sight.
"I promise I will soothe the opposition, be it my parents or yours, but my dear, none of it will matter to us s .,o much as this--" He looked down at their joined hands.
"It may matter almost as much."
He could not contend with that and they were both silent till just before they entered her home and he whispered that he would speak to his father before he spoke to her's.
Their extended disappearance was of course noted. Mrs. Bennet complained that the tea had been sent back for it had gone cold. Darcy stayed a while after speaking as solicitously as he had ever to all her family. Till even Mary roused herself to compliment him on it. He was embarrassed enough then to leave soon after.
"Have you lost your mind?"
Mr. Darcy's voice boomed across the field. They were both on horseback, on the perimeter of the grounds, and Fitzwilliam had taken that moment to confess his very decided interest in Elizabeth Bennet.
He had promised Elizabeth before leaving that he would speak to her father, but only after he had talked to his own. His father's horse before him slowed to a trot. "Your mother will not hear of it, and neither will I."
"I am not engaged to any other."
"And nor will you be if word of this gets out. Handle it tidily and end it quickly. I hope you have not spoken to her yet."
He paused. The sun was overhead, but the breeze was strong. Strong enough to make it a pleasant run on a horse without fear of heat. It had taken every ounce of courage to come this far, to confess to his mother, to Elizabeth , and now to his father; but in that silent pause, where in place of the birds whistling and the horses kicking impatiently on the grounds there was a swooshing sound in his ear, Darcy realized that he was perhaps a coward.
He gripped the reigns tightly. The beast was impatient to run as they had come to a rather sharp stop.
"I called on her yesterday."
"So you have?"
It was difficult to say which nostril flared in anger more, Mr. Darcy's or the beast he rode. But they both charged at Fitwilliam in a stream of anger.
"You had no right. None! To speak before you had spoken to me. What did you imagine I could be made to accept a match so wholly unsuitable?" There was a great deal more of this tirade, of what little sense his son had, of his duty and station, and a great deal of abuse for his friend's family. "I did not think Bennet was so little to be trusted," he said bitterly as at last the first flush of anger began to die down. "But then I do not know my own son, so how can I be expected to know the intentions of a clever man like him?"
"I believe he is as unaware of it as you are, but as for your son--" Fitzwilliam sighed. "Have I ever before caused you such distress?"
"Not since you were ill as a babe and the doctor said you would not survive the night."
They were so very rarely candid, even with each other, that there was an awkward element to a conversation already ripe with difficulty. To be told how much he was meant to his father at such a juncture only strengthened his resolve.
"I have, perhaps a little uncommonly for men my age, heard your counsel and obeyed you in every matter."
"Save this one."
"So I beg you sir, will you not allow for this exception? Lizzy herself is as much a lady in manners and birth as any other. Whatever her connections or her mother may be, there can be no objection made towards her."
"I would have had you marry Lord Kindling's daughter. Or even your cousin Anne."
"Perhaps. But I assure you that neither would have honored Pemberley as a home as one who has seen intimately our ways."
"So you will do as you please?"
"I do wish to be married, and to be married soon."
His father seemed to start and Fitzwilliam quickly added, "I will wait for your consent, sir."
"And if I should deny it?"
Fitzwilliam was silent and in silence they rode till they entered Pemberley. Mr. Darcy all but stormed in and retired to his chambers. Fitzwilliam, after watching him depart, turned, left the house and strode to the stables; he took his horse from the surprised stable boy. He rode with reckless speed till the beast itself protested.
His appearance at Longbourne for the second consecutive day caused a ripple of curiosity. There were a number of questions, especially from Mr. Bennet, but once it was understood that there was nothing the matter at Pemberley, and that Fitzwilliam's grave expression was just from being 'tired,' he was allowed by Mrs. Bennet to wait in the parlor till dinner.
He declined as quickly as he could, and said he had stopped only for a quick hello, and must be on his way directly.
"Go with him then oh 'quick hello,'" said Mr. Bennet quietly to Elizabeth. "But not past the gate if you please."
His daughter bowed her blushing face past him and walked beside Darcy, who held his horse. True to her father, she stopped and turned to him before the gate.
The gravity of Darcy's face showed a little of his anguish. "It may be a long courtship, Lizzy," he said. "It pains me to say that I cannot announce us as engaged, and seek your father's approval right away. But it may be a while my dear before we are married. That is all I came to say, that we will have to wait."
"Is that why you came here looking as grieved as a widower?" said his lady in sweet perplexity. "Did you imagine we would marry by Michaelmas?"
"No, but I had hoped at least I might see snowflakes like confetti dancing over us when we left the church, even if rose petals were scarce."
Elizabeth had an uncontrollable smile on her face. "I rather thought gentlemen preferred snowdrops and daffodils."
He did not quite smile at her mocking, but his expression lightened a degree.
"He said I disappoint him."
Elizabeth could say nothing, but swallowed hard. It seemed to her that stormy clouds were gathering against them; and Fitz might never be forgiven once they cleared. "Do you think it will all be worth it in the end?"
"You speak as if I will have to make a sacrifice. I assure you, dearest, I do not intend to give anything up. Not one connection, not one piece of any belonging, not one love for another."
Such a declaration uttered with such tenderness and quiet decisiveness could not help but move. She leaned herself against his arm, her hands on the rough of his coat, and rising on her toes, brushed soft lips against his cheek, which tightened in surprise.
So pleased was she with him that her cheeks did not burn in shame when upon bidding him adieu she was confronted by her startled and alarmed parents. She could but rush forward and laughingly embrace them.
Mr. Darcy, owing to some pride in his son's constant and upstanding behavior all the previous years of his life, slowly began to adjust to the idea of Elizabeth as a daughter in law. Indeed, she was so charming herself and so unafraid when confronted some weeks later by all the aristocratic anger he had, that he could not help but admit that he had always liked Bennet's daughter.
"Perhaps even to have as your own daughter?" his son had asked smilingly.
"It was a mistake to be sure," said the elder Darcy to his wife. "But it would be very bad for Fitzwilliam to break it off now. I'm inclined to allow it, as he's never disobeyed me before."
"Better to have disobeyed you on all the little matters," cried his wife, "Than to do this now to my poor Anne!"
At last she agreed, but only on the condition that Elizabeth and Darcy remain at Pemberley after the wedding and make it their home too. It was a sign of how deeply Elizabeth cared for him that she swallowed hard and agreed to his eager eyes. The smile, however, did not reach her's.
Though a trying one, it was but a year, before Elizabeth felt that the country air was quite stifling to town. And even Darcy began to be impatient for a more private arrangement. Mrs. Bennet became a stronger supporter for Elizabeth at that time, than in all her years previous; she so frequently made Elizabeth an excuse to visit Pemberley that Lady Anne began to wish Elizabeth elsewhere to curtail these over eager visits.
There was a great deal of shuffling and occasional boughts of illness that at times brought them back under one roof. But between Elizabeth and her husband was a perfect affection, and though they argued, there was not a day that the friends' conversation ran dry.