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More Responsible Than We Realized (One of Two)

May 14, 2015 11:21PM
My very first story about Darcy and Lizzy. Needed a break from all that World War II research, and I thought something like this might sort of cleanse the palate before I had to go back to figuring out a way to make Colonel Britannia (my WW2 incarnation of Frederick Wentworth) a major figure in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Anyway, I went through a phase in which I was reading alternate scenarios for the Hunsford Proposal scene, and one common theme was how Lizzy, hearing about the death, serious injury, or illness of Mr. Bennet, feels obligated to accept Darcy for reasons of financial prudence. Usually, she feel honor-bound to explain this to him. And, invariably, Darcy, willing to take her on any terms she finds agreeable, accepts a marriage of unequal affections.

But what if he wanted her hand and her heart, and would settle for nothing less?

That's the premise of this story.

As I was working on this, I began to find that there seemed (at least to me) to be a lot of parallels to Peter's Walk With Me. Unintentional, but when they kept on popping up, I'd already done a lot of work on this, and didn't want it to go to waste. You'll just have to chalk up the similarities to being one of those Ben Casey/Dr. Kildare, The Munsters/The Addams Family, The Tower/The Glass Inferno, Tombstone/Wyatt Earp coincidences.




MORE RESPONSIBLE THAN WE REALIZED


“I imagine your cousin brought you down with him chiefly for the sake of having somebody at his disposal,” said Elizabeth Bennet to her walking companion, Colonel Fitzwilliam. “I wonder he does not marry, to secure a lasting convenience of that kind. But perhaps his sister does as well for the present, and, as she is under his sole care, he may do what he likes with her.”

“No,” answered the Colonel, “that is an advantage which he must divide with me. I am joined with him in the guardianship of Miss Darcy.”

“Are you, indeed? And pray what sort of guardians do you make? Does your charge give you much trouble? Young ladies of her age are sometimes a little difficult to manage, and if she has the true Darcy spirit, she may like to have her own way.”

As she spoke she observed him looking at her earnestly; and the manner in which he immediately asked her why she supposed Miss Darcy likely to give them any uneasiness, convinced her that she had somehow or other got pretty near the truth.

She directly replied, “You need not be frightened. I never heard any harm of her; and I dare say she is one of the most tractable creatures in the world. She is a very great favorite with some ladies of my acquaintance -- Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley. I think I have heard you say that you know them.”

“I know them a little. Their brother is a pleasant, gentlemanlike man. He is a great friend of Darcy's.”

“Oh! yes,” said Elizabeth dryly. “Mr. Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr. Bingley, and takes a prodigious deal of care of him.”

“Care of him! Yes, I really believe Darcy does take care of him in those points where he most wants care. From something that he told me in our journey hither, I have reason to think Bingley very much indebted to him. But I ought to beg his pardon, for I have no right to suppose that Bingley was the person meant. It was all conjecture.”

“What is it you mean?”

“It is a circumstance which Darcy, of course, would not wish to be generally known, because if it were to get round to the lady’s family it would be an unpleasant thing.”

“You may depend upon my not mentioning it.”

“And remember that I have not much reason for supposing it to be Bingley. What he told me was merely this: that he congratulated himself on having lately saved a friend from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage, but without mentioning names or any other particulars, and I only suspected it to be Bingley from believing him the kind of young man to get into a scrape of that sort, and from knowing them to have been together the whole of last summer.”

“Did Mr. Darcy give you his reasons for this interference?”

“I understood that there were some very strong objections against the lady.”

“And what arts did he use to separate them? ”

“He did not talk to me of his own arts,” Fitzwilliam, smiling. “He only told me what I have now told you.”

Elizabeth made no answer, and walked on, her heart swelling with indignation. After watching her a little, Fitzwilliam asked her why she was so thoughtful.

“I am thinking of what you have been telling me,” said she. “Your cousin’s conduct does not suit my feelings. Why was he to be the judge?”

“You are rather disposed to call his interference officious?”

“I do not see what right Mr. Darcy had to decide on the propriety of his friend’s inclination, or why, upon his own judgment alone, he was to determine and direct in what manner that friend was to be happy. But,” she continued, recollecting herself, “as we know none of the particulars, it is not fair to condemn him. It is not to be supposed that there was much affection in the case.”

“That is not an unnatural surmise,” said Fitzwilliam, “but it is lessening the honor of my cousin’s triumph very sadly.”

This was spoken jestingly; but it appeared to her so just a picture of Mr. Darcy, that she would not trust herself with an answer, and therefore, abruptly changing the conversation, talked on indifferent matters till they separated some distance from the Parsonage.

Elizabeth walked the remaining distance to the house by herself. As she approached the front door, she heard a horse galloping toward the clerical residence, and turned to see an express rider approaching.

“Your pardon, Miss,” he said, “but I have a letter for a Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”

“I am Miss Bennet.”

He dismounted, placed the missive in her hand. She was not carrying her reticule, and asked the rider to wait a few moments while she got a few coins from her room.

“Not necessary, Miss Bennet, but I thank you for the thought.” And with that he was off again.
She went to her room that she might read the letter in private. Expresses were, in her experience, rarely good news, and she opened the note with some trepidation.

The letter was from Jane, and the news was as bad as it could be. Her beloved father was dead! Thrown from his mount as he was visiting tenants when the horse inadvertently placed a hoof in a rabbit hole. She was needed at home as soon as she could get there.

*


Already feeling terrible over the revelations about Mr. Darcy’s interference with Jane and Mr. Bingley, the agitation and tears which the news of her father’s death occasioned brought on a headache. She did not feel equal to bearing the sympathy of her friends and so, for the moment, kept the news of her father to herself.

Her headache grew so much worse towards the evening that it determined her not to attend her cousins to Rosings, where they were engaged to drink tea. Mrs. Collins, seeing that she was really unwell, did not press her to go, and as much as possible prevented her husband from pressing her; but Mr. Collins could not conceal his apprehension of Lady Catherine's being rather displeased by her staying at home.

When they were gone, Elizabeth, as if intending to exasperate herself as much as possible against Mr. Darcy, chose for her employment the examination of all the letters which Jane had written to her since her being in Kent. They contained no actual complaint, nor was there any revival of past occurrences, or any communication of present suffering. But in all, and in almost every line of each, there was a want of that cheerfulness which had been used to characterize her style, and which, proceeding from the serenity of a mind at ease with itself and kindly disposed towards every one, had been scarcely ever clouded. Elizabeth noticed every sentence conveying the idea of uneasiness, with an attention which it had hardly received on the first perusal. Mr. Darcy’s shameful boast of what misery he had been able to inflict gave her a keener sense of her sister's sufferings. It was some consolation to think that her visit to Kent was to end as soon as she could arrange travel home, and that she should herself be with Jane again, and enabled to contribute to the recovery of her spirits from the double blow of losing both Mr. Bingley to the machinations of Mr. Darcy, and their father to death, by all that affection could do.

While settling this point, she was suddenly roused by the sound of the door-bell. To her utter amazement, she saw Mr. Darcy walk into the room. In a hurried manner he immediately began an enquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility, and invited him to take a chair. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner.

“In vain have I struggled,” he said. “It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, colored, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement; and the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her, immediately followed.

“In declaring myself thus I am fully aware that I will being going against the expressed wishes of my family, my friends, and, I need hardly add, my own better judgment. The relative situations of our families are such that any alliance between us must be regarded as a highly reprehensible connection. Indeed, when I rationally consider the circumstance of my having fallen so deeply in love with you, to the degree that I am able to consider such a thing rationally, I cannot but regard it as such myself. But it cannot be helped. My feelings will not be repressed. Almost from the earliest moments of our acquaintance, I have come to feel for you a passionate regard and affection which, despite all my struggles, has overcome every rational objection, and I beg you most fervently to relieve my suffering and consent to be my wife.”

If Elizabeth had not already, from almost the moment they first met, regarded Mr. Darcy as the last man on Earth she could ever be prevailed upon to marry, had his cruel treatment of Mr. Wickham, and his unconscionable interference with Jane and Mr. Bingley, not already caused her to see him as the worst of men, his avowal that he had come to love her against his will, against his reason, and even against his character would have disposed her to immediately refuse his proposal.

But she hesitated to give that immediate refusal. The warning Mr. Collins had given her months ago when she refused his proposal came back to her.

She might never receive another offer.

Now, against all odds, she had. And from a person who, by any objective standard, was as eligible as any gently born young lady could hope to find, far more eligible than Mr. Collins for all that he was her father’s heir. Mr. Darcy was handsome, healthy, intelligent, well-educated, and (and in her present circumstances, this was the material point) extremely wealthy. And his offer had come at a most propitious moment.

Her father was dead. Longbourn now belonged to Mr. Collins. Her beloved family would be losing their home. She had been selfish to refuse Mr. Collins’s offer, but then their circumstances, at least for the foreseeable future, had been secure. Given the tragic situation she and her family now faced, could she really afford to be so selfish again?

And yet, could she tie herself to such a man for life, even to secure the well-being of her family?

“Mr. Darcy,” she said, “your offer comes as a complete surprise.”

A puzzled expression appeared on Mr. Darcy’s face, as though he thought her to have been expecting his offer.

“I assure I am in earnest,” she continued. “I had no notion of your regard. Indeed, I thought you quite disapproved of me, and only looked at me to find fault.”

“A man does not stare at a lady with whom he finds fault, Miss Bennet,” he replied.

“You never smiled when you looked at me, nor gave any hint of your attachment. And your remarks when we first saw each other at the Meryton Assembly were not such as to lead me to think you admired me.”

“My remarks?”

“That I was ‘tolerable, but not handsome enough’ to be any temptation to you. And, moreover, that you were in ‘no humor to give consequence to young ladies who were slighted by other men.’”

“Dear God,” said Mr. Darcy. “You heard that? I sincerely apologize, Miss Bennet. My assertion was unspeakably rude, and its rudeness exceeded only by its lack of veracity. I didn’t even look at you that night. I had . . . well, without going into details, I had dealt with a very disturbing family crisis shortly before my arrival in Hertfordshire, and really should not have been attending a public event, but Bingley insisted I come. Had I not come, I would have had to spend the evening with no one else for company but Miss Bingley, which was the one thing I wished to avoid even more than a public event.”

Elizabeth stifled a smile. Miss Bingley was the only one who seemed blithely unaware of Mr. Darcy’s antipathy towards her.

“I am not comfortable at such gatherings at the best of times, and, once there,” he continued, “I found myself so tense and out of temper, that I could not in conscience inflict my company on any lady not acquainted with me. I said what I said only so that Bingley would let me be. I assure you that, from the first moment I truly looked at you, I regarded you as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”

Despite her dislike, Elizabeth could not help but feel a pleasing satisfaction at his compliment.

“Well, be that as it may,” she said, “you can understand why your declarations tonight come as a surprise. I am sensible of the honor you do me, but I need time to consider your offer. Moreover, a family crisis of my own will necessitate my returning to Longbourn tomorrow or the next day, and the news from home that requires me to curtail my visit leaves me incapable of giving you an answer at this moment. Can you allow me to reflect on your proposal overnight? Meet me tomorrow along the open grove in the Park where we have previously encountered each other and I will give you my answer.”

Mr. Darcy assented, bowed deeply, and left.

*


Mr. Darcy was waiting for her the next morning when she arrived at the sheltered path she favored for her morning rambles.

So much that had seemed odd to her before was now explained by Mr. Darcy’s surprising declaration. His “accidentally” meeting her so frequently during her walks. His hints about staying at Rosings rather than the rectory the next time she was in Kent, or about his belief that she would not wish to be settled to close to Hertfordshire when and if she married. His visiting the rectory so often. Everything now made so much sense, that, when she considered it all, it seemed odd that any sense of his admiration had eluded her. Indeed, her dear friend Charlotte, who had married Mr. Collins after Elizabeth refused him, suggested more than once that Mr. Darcy had a tendre for her. Her inability to see it seemed now to be almost willful obliviousness.

After greeting each other, Mr. Darcy, with all the eagerness that such a reserved man was capable of displaying, asked if she had an answer for him.

“I do. But I must preface it with an explanation. My sister Jane and I have always hoped, somewhat idealistically I suppose, that we would, when the time came, be able to marry for true affection rather than merely for pecuniary advantage. Indeed, it was in the hope of such a marriage being possible that I turned down an offer from my cousin.”

“Collins offered for you?” asked an astounded Mr. Darcy.

“He did. And from what I must admit was at least a somewhat kindly motive. You may know that the family estate is entailed, and Mr. Collins is my father’s heir. He hoped to make some amends for being the beneficiary of an inheritance that would render my mother and sisters homeless by marrying one of us, so that our future would be secured. But I knew that we would make each other miserable, and so refused. My mother still has not forgiven me. And, given the news I received yesterday, her disinclination to be forgiving is likely to be strongly increased.”

“What news is that, Miss Bennet?”

“My father died in a riding accident the day before yesterday,” she said. She managed to say it without sobbing but her eyes glistened with tears. “Longbourn now belongs to Mr. Collins.”

“You have my deepest sympathies, Miss Bennet. I have lost both my parents, my mother when I was still a boy, and my father about five years past, and I still feel the pain of their passing most acutely. I know that you and your father were particularly close, sharing, as you did, a similar turn of mind. Had I known of your bereavement yesterday, I would never have intruded upon your grief with my proposal.”

“In fact, sir, your proposal came at a most opportune time. You are a wealthy man, and my acceptance of your offer would save my family from a life of genteel poverty. Aside from those personal possessions that are not part of the estate, my mother’s dowry is all that we will be able to take with us when we quit Longbourn. It is a mere £4000. At best, invested in the Funds, it will produce an income of £160 to £200, to be stretched for six females used to living on more than ten times that amount. So I can no longer afford to be idealistic. My family’s straitened circumstances compel me to accept your kind offer. But after such a heartfelt and, I now believe, sincere declaration of passionate love as you have made, I feel obliged me to warn you that, if you still want me, it would be a marriage of unequal affections.”

Mr. Darcy frowned thoughtfully, looked away for a moment, then turned back to Elizabeth.

“Miss Bennet, if I understand you correctly, that is, if I am drawing the correct inferences, I collect that not only are you not in love with me, but that you do not even like me particularly. Indeed, that you actively dislike me. Is my inference correct?”

Elizabeth looked uncomfortable. She should have just accepted him. She should not have risked her family’s future on some misguided point of honor.

Unable to meet his eyes, she looked down and answered, “Yes, sir. I am sorry, but it is.”

“Would you be willing to tell my why?”

“Would that serve any purpose, sir?”

“Perhaps I hope to improve myself. If you are willing to connect yourself for life to a man you dislike, wouldn’t it make the connection more palatable if he was attempting to improve himself for your sake? You have never struck me as the sort of lady who would be satisfied marrying only for money. It distresses me to learn that you are so desperate you would accept a man purely for financial considerations.”

“You think me a fortune-hunter,” she said. It was a statement, not a question, and her tone was one of dejection. Perhaps even of shame.

“I think nothing of the sort. If you were truly that, you would have accepted Mr. Collins. Or you would have made a pretence of affection when you accepted me. If you now feel forced to accept a man for motives of economic prudence rather than a sincere feelings, it is not a selfish inclination that moves you, but anxiety for those you love. And you have been completely forthright about it. Your concern for your family, and your honesty, serve only to increase the respect I already have for you.”

“I am complimented, sir, but my family’s immediate situation is dire, and I need that situation ameliorated quickly. We cannot live on your good opinion.”

“I suspect your family’s situation may not be as grim as you fear. Longbourn is a prosperous estate, and I am sure your father, caring for his family as I am certain he did, must have prepared for his possible unexpected departure. I would be very surprised indeed if, over a period of years, he wasn’t holding back a portion of the estate’s income and investing it so that you would all be secure. In any case, you will be officially in deep mourning for six months, and Mr. Collins, though insufferably stupid, is not vicious or cruel, and, as a Christian clergyman, would never consider turning a widow and her children out of their home in such circumstances. I am very sure he will insist on you and your family staying at Longbourn at least during that initial period. He will of course be entitled to the income, but, if, as I suspect, your father left you provided for, that should not be a problem.”

“You assume a lot, Mr. Darcy.”

“I draw reasonable conclusions based on the available evidence. Furthermore, inasmuch as a wedding between us would probably have to be postponed for at least six months, and possibly a year, please tell me how I have offended you so that I may begin to attend to your reproofs in the meantime.”

“If you insist, then, to begin with, there was the manner of your proposal.”

He looked puzzled. “I told you I ardently admired and loved you.”

“You also told me that you had resisted giving into that admiration for some time, because you felt that any association with those I hold dear would have been . . . I believe your words were ‘a degradation’ . . . for you,” she replied, more sharply than she intended to, for she knew her family would be depending on her to secure them by securing this man. She had to hold her emotions, particularly her anger, in check.

He was silent for a few moments, then said, “I hadn’t really intended to propose last night. I had decided that I would propose before you left Kent, but making my proposal last night was an impulse of the moment. An impulse I felt powerless to resist when I saw you sitting there, looking so very beautiful and, for reasons I now better understand, so very vulnerable. Once I began, I just blurted things out with no prior thought or preparation. It was certainly not my intention to insult you or your family. I simply took it for granted that you were aware of the differences in our situations. My object, looking back on it, to the degree I gave any thought to my comments before making them, was to make it clear how very great my regard for you was, by illustrating how many obstacles that regard had overcome. I have never proposed marriage before. If I was less than proficient, my lack of experience, my lack of . . . practice, must be my excuse.”

Elizabeth knew she was entering dangerous territory, but since the pistol had been cocked, she might as well squeeze the trigger.

“To me,” she said, “your disdain for those I love was not unexpected. You had, after all, already taken steps to insure that my dearest sister did not enter your exalted sphere. What motive could excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there? Surely you were aware that your interference would be exposing your friend to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and my sister to its derision for disappointed hopes.”

“My cousin, Fitzwilliam, warned me that you might be aware of that. But you are mistaken about my reasons. Bingley is the son of a tradesman, and he remains involved, at least peripherally, in his late father’s business. Miss Jane Bennet, on the other hand, is the daughter of a gentleman. It would have been Bingley who was raised up by such a connection.”

“Then what were your objections? How could you, when you say you were already feeling a growing affection for me, take steps to so cruelly ruin, perhaps forever, the happiness of a sister you knew I held so very dear?”

“I would have said nothing at all. Bingley is old enough to make his own choices. I will grant that his sisters, who did strongly oppose the match, asked me to accompany them to Town, in order to make myself available to advise him. But I only gave that advice when he asked me for it. And, at that time, I did not believe your sister to have been particularly attached to him. But knowing your mother was promoting the match, and knowing your sister’s acquiescent and obedient nature, I thought she might yield to your mother’s persuasion.”

“You speak as though you have changed your mind.”

“I have. And, moreover, have taken steps to ameliorate the effects of my interference. Upon returning to Rosings last evening, I informed my cousin that I had proposed, but that you had not yet given me an answer. Further, that you were surprised to have learned about my feelings. He told me about the conversation you and he had yesterday, and how upset it had made you. He then asked me if you were the lady I had persuaded Bingley to try to forget. I told him that the lady was not you, but your older sister, and explained why I advised Bingley to give up the match. Fitzwilliam reminded me that you had been unable to discern my affections, deep and overwhelming though they were, and suggested that Miss Bennet was similarly guarded in her feelings. I immediately wrote Bingley, telling him that I now had reason to believe that my judgment was in error, and suggesting that he return to Netherfield and gauge your sister’s feelings for himself. I will send him a second letter by express today. I know he will wish to be informed about your family’s bereavement, and that he will want to provide whatever assistance he is able to give.”

“I thank you, sir. Nevertheless, all of this seems typical of a more general tendency you have to be selfishly disdainful of the feelings of others.”

“If you refer to my churlish comment at the assembly, I had hoped that my explanation gained me your understanding, if not necessarily your forgiveness,” he said.

“Oh, to be sure, sir,” she replied. “Both my understanding and my forgiveness. It retrospect, it seems rather petty to have taken such a remark so seriously. But I have been compared to my dear sister Jane my whole life, and, in the matter of feminine beauty, have always been found wanting. I’m afraid it’s made me a little vain and sensitive. Nevertheless, I speak, as I said, of a more general tendency. To be so very cold and haughty in company, for example.”

“I have explained that I am uncomfortable in company with which I am not familiar. I will attempt to remedy that to the degree I can, but, as you once pointed out, awkward performance can only be overcome by practice. I’m afraid that will take some time, but I promise I will commence practicing. However, I am afraid that large groups will always make me uncomfortable, and practice, no matter how diligently applied, can improve performance only to a limited degree when, as is the case with me, there is no natural talent. Was there any other matter you wished me to address?”

There was something else, but, at that moment, in the face of all this gracious civility, she couldn’t bring it immediately to mind.

She struggled to remember. What was it?

Wickham! Of course. His ruthless persecution of his childhood friend.

“Your treatment of Mr. Wickham . . . ,” she began.

“ . . . was entirely justified,” he finished. “However that is a long story, and I would prefer not to go into it at length at this moment. Instead, since you need to get home as quickly as possible, may I offer you conveyance in my carriage? If Miss Lucas will be traveling with you, we can ride together. If she is staying for the remainder of her scheduled visit, I can ride alongside on horseback to preserve propriety.”

Once more, Elizabeth was overcome by the level of civility shown by Mr. Darcy. She still wasn’t in love with him. Still was not quite sure she even liked him.

But her opinion of him was certainly improving.

“And, regarding the immediate matter before us, Miss Bennet, I find I love you too much to subject you to a lifetime with a man for whom you feel no respect or affection. In other words, I cannot accept your acceptance. In any event, as has already been mentioned, we would not be able to marry until an appropriate period of mourning has passed. Allow me that period to correct my behavior, and, at a more appropriate time, permit me to renew my offer. I do not merely want your hand, Elizabeth, but your heart. I won’t accept one without the other. Would that arrangement be acceptable?”

“But, Mr. Darcy, what if your suppositions about the steps my father took are wrong? I can’t promise you my heart. True, you have overcome many of my misgivings, and with what I can only regard as almost miraculous rapidity. But my feelings were not the work of a moment, and my heart will be in a state of indecision for some time. Nevertheless, whatever my feelings may be, I could still find myself in dire need of your help for my family, and without giving you my hand, I couldn’t accept that help.”

“I am sure I am not wrong. And, even if I am, Bingley will be able to provide immediate assistance once he and your sister come to an understanding, as I am sure they will. And as I said, during the immediate crisis, Mr. Collins will, at the very least, allow you to keep your home. Do not worry, Elizabeth. And, most of all, do not think of sacrificing the rest of your life to solve a problem that might be solved by less extreme measures.”

*


Charlotte decided that it would be easier for her sister, Maria, to travel with Elizabeth than to wait for her and her husband, since Maria’s presence provided a ready-made chaperone, which meant that Mr. Darcy could ride with them in the compartment of his coach, rather than on horseback outside.

And Charlotte thought it might be a very good thing for Mr. Darcy to ride in the compartment with them. Which is to say, with Eliza.

As the trunks were being loaded, she and her husband came out to bid Eliza and Maria good-bye.

Charlotte hugged her dear friend, and told her how much she herself would miss Elizabeth’s father, a man Charlotte had come to regard as something of an honorary uncle.

“His passing makes me feel so very sad,” she said, “that it makes me realize how much worse it must be for you, Eliza. We shall be there in no more than two days. I am so sorry your visit had to end like this.”

“I have spent the last few weeks with great enjoyment, Charlotte. And your friendship is helping me bear up.”

They embraced again, then Elizabeth turned to Mr. Collins.

“I am grateful that you had me to visit, Cousin.”

“As we were to have you visit. We shall be at Lucas Lodge as soon as I can arrange for someone to take over my duties for a short period. Please assure your dear mother that both Longbourn and its income will remain hers at least through the initial period of mourning.”

“You are very generous, sir. I know my mother will appreciate it.”

“If we cannot depend upon family to sustain us through times of bereavement, what can we depend upon? It will take that long, at least, until a replacement can be found upon whom my noble patroness, Lady Catherine, can bestow the living of Hunsford.”

As was his wont, he continued in this vein for some time before his wife gently reminded him that they had to be on their way.

“Oh, of course,” he said. “To be sure.”

After the ladies had boarded the coach, Mr. Darcy turned to Charlotte and Mr. Collins and said, “I will send my carriage back here for your convenience. It will save you the cost and inconvenience of traveling by post.”

“You are most kind, sir,” said Mr. Collins.

“The very least I can do in these tragic circumstances, sir,” replied Mr. Darcy. “Particularly in light of the generous part you are playing with regard to your bereaved family. It speaks well of the kind of master you shall be when Longbourn is yours. And, in any event, I would have to send the carriage back for my cousin, so it is no trouble to make it available to you as well.”

As her husband bowed obsequiously, Charlotte marveled at how easily Mr. Darcy had manipulated him. A short conversation about kindness toward a widow and her poor children, a few Scriptural references to reinforce his remarks about the obligations of both Christian and familial duty, a reminder of how a gesture like this would be perceived by his future neighbors in Hertfordshire who held the Bennets in such high esteem, and a bit of blatant flattering of his self-importance, and Mr. Collins was soon convinced that allowing Mrs. Bennet and her daughters, not only to stay at Longbourn for the six months they would be in deep mourning, but to enjoy the security of the estate’s income during that time, was all his own idea.

In her short time as a married woman, Charlotte had herself become quite adept at manipulating her husband, but, in Mr. Darcy, she recognized a master of the art.

*


Once the carriage was on its way, Mr. Darcy reached into his pocket and pulled out several sheets of notepaper.

“Miss Bennet,” he said, “last night I discussed with my cousin that military matter about which you had expressed some interest. He agreed that these few notes might provide some facts that would give you a better insight into the particular situation that aroused your curiosity.”

Military matter? Of what could Mr. Darcy be speaking? She unfolded the pages and began to read.

Miss Elizabeth, it began.

Please forgive me for employing some subterfuge in order to accomplish this slight violation of propriety. I know you should not be receiving letters from a man to whom you are not related, but what I have to reveal is very private, and I had no wish to burden Miss Lucas with it. In revealing that, I know I can have no doubt of your own secrecy. In fact, there was not so much subterfuge as may appear at first. Since Wickham is now a militia officer, and since I did discuss the matter with Fitzwilliam before setting this explanation down on paper, the matter about which this note concerns itself is, though very peripherally I admit, a military subject.

The rest of the missive gave his version of the history between himself and Mr. Wickham. How Wickham had been the son of a most trusted steward at the Pemberley Estate. How Mr. Darcy’s own father had been Wickham’s godfather. How Wickham had received both a preparatory and a university education at old Mr. Darcy’s expense. How Wickham had, early on, developed unwholesome habits and proclivities, including but not limited to gambling and womanizing. How Mr. Darcy had endeavored to conceal this from his father, who remained devoted to his godson. How Mr. Darcy, as one of the executors of his father’s will, had been instructed to immediately make a bequest of £1000 to Wickham, as well as to assist Wickham financially in whatever profession he chose to pursue. Further, that, if that profession was the Church, to make a valuable living that was under the Darcy family’s patronage available to Wickham when it became vacant. How Wickham told him that he planned to study law rather seek ordination, and, to that end, asked for additional funds, in lieu of the living, to supplement the £1000 he had already been bequeathed. How Mr. Darcy had paid him an additional £3000 which, combined with the original thousand, would, if prudently invested, generate enough interest to provide him, a bachelor with no responsibilities, with an income that was roughly twice that of an average British family, even if he never actually sought a legal education, even if he never worked a lick for the rest of his life. And how he squandered it all in less than three years, then returned to Pemberley demanding the living that he had, at one time, scorned.

I must now mention a circumstance, the note continued, which I would wish to forget myself, and which no obligation less than the present should induce me to unfold to any human being. My sister, Georgiana, who is more than ten years my junior, was left to the guardianship of Colonel Fitzwilliam and myself. About a year ago she was taken from school, and an establishment formed for her in London; and last summer she went with the lady who presided over it to Ramsgate; and thither also went Mr. Wickham, undoubtedly by design; for there proved to have been a prior acquaintance between him and Mrs. Younge, in whose character we were most unhappily deceived; and by her connivance and aid, he so far recommended himself to Georgiana, whose affectionate heart retained a strong impression of his kindness to her as a child, that she was persuaded to believe herself in love, and to consent to an elopement. She was then but fifteen, which must be her excuse; and after stating her imprudence, I am happy to add that I owed the knowledge of it to herself. I joined them unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement, and then Georgiana, unable to support the idea of grieving and offending a brother whom she almost looked up to as a father, acknowledged the whole to me. You may imagine what I felt and how I acted. Regard for my sister's credit and feelings prevented any public exposure; but I wrote to Mr. Wickham, who left the place immediately, and Mrs. Younge was of course removed from her charge. Mr. Wickham's chief object was unquestionably my sister's fortune, which is thirty thousand pounds; but I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on me was a strong inducement. His revenge would have been complete indeed.

For the truth of everything here related, I can provide documentation, including my father’s will, and the receipts Wickham signed when he received both his bequest, and the sum agreed upon to give up the living at Kympton, as well as the statement he signed foreswearing his claim to that living. I can also appeal more particularly to the testimony of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who, from our near relationship and constant intimacy, his sharing in the guardianship of my sister, and, still more as one of the executors of my father's will, has been unavoidably acquainted with every particular of these transactions.


After finishing, Elizabeth turned away and discreetly wiped her eyes so that Maria would not see. When she had composed herself, she turned back to Darcy, sitting across from her, and handed the note back to him.

“Please thank the colonel for his very complete answer when next you see him,” she said. “I found the information on these pages most illuminating.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “And most convincing. Additional evidence was offered to support the position taken, but I do not believe that will be necessary. It is quite curious, considering how dependent we are upon our soldiers for protection, how little we really know about them, is it not?”

“Yes, but then, as you have pointed out, there is such a variety of personalities even in relatively confined society of rural neighborhoods. How could there fail to be a similar variety in as vast a society as the fighting forces of a country waging a war that spans the entire globe? The entire spectrum, from the most honorable and brave, to the most venal, corrupt, and cowardly, must surely be encompassed within their ranks.”

“Indeed.”

*


Maria Lucas looked from Lizzy to Mr. Darcy and back again. She had no idea of what on earth they were talking, but she somehow had the notion that it had not a single thing to do with soldiers.

*


Mr. Darcy’s equipage drove up the lawn in front of Longbourn and came to a stop. Mr. Darcy exited and handed down the two ladies, then saw them to the front door.

Jane opened the door and greeted them all, embracing Lizzy, and offering a warm welcome to Maria.

She then turned to Mr. Darcy and said, “I am very grateful to you for going to so much trouble to bring my sister home safely, sir.”

“In my own times of bereavement, Miss Bennet, the help of friends sustained me through my grief. I am happy to pass that blessing along. Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss.”

“Again, I thank you, sir. Would you come in and take some refreshment?”

Darcy assented, and they all entered the house while the coachmen unloaded Elizabeth’s luggage. Darcy then instructed them to go to Lucas Lodge, drop off Maria’s luggage, and return.

Once inside, Elizabeth was pleased to find that her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner had already arrived, and were seated in the parlor. She introduced them both to Mr. Darcy and Maria.

“Your mother is upstairs, Lizzy,” said her aunt, a very pretty, fashionable-looking woman in her early 30’s. “She is still overcome by the tragedy.”

“I am glad you are here to keep things running smoothly, Aunt. Did the children come with you?”

“They did not. Fortunately, my parents were visiting when we were first informed. They are staying with the children.”

While they spoke, Darcy was looking intently at Mrs. Gardiner as if trying to recall a distant memory.

Finally, he said, “Excuse me, Mrs. Gardiner, but have you ever lived in Derbyshire?”

“Indeed, I have, Mr. Darcy. My father is a clergyman. While he was still a curate, he held a living in Lambton for several years that was reserved for someone not yet of age to assume it. I regard Derbyshire as the most beautiful county in England, and my time there as a very happy experience. I was very sorry to leave after my father was offered a living of his own.”

“Then you were Miss Madeleine. Mr. Drake’s daughter.”

“I am flattered you remember, sir.”

“I could never forget. That would make Mr. Gardiner the rival who bested me.”

“I have not the pleasure of understanding you, sir,” said Mr. Gardiner, a rugged-looking, dark-haired man, perhaps 10 or 15 years older than Mr. Darcy.

“When I was 12 or 13 I developed a boyish romantic inclination for the very pretty daughter of a visiting parson in Lambton. I made it a point to attend services there, rather than at the nearer church in Kympton. I told my parents it was because I was impressed by the quality of Mr. Drake’s sermons. In point of fact, I found it difficult to attend when he preached, because I was staring at his daughter in the front row. She was, perhaps, three or four years older than I. To me, she was the epitome of poise and sophistication. I was too intimidated to ever actually approach her, and had to satisfy myself with casting longing glances at her once a week.”

“Dear heavens,” said Mrs. Gardiner. “The tall, dark-haired boy with the piercing eyes! I knew of your family of course, but I had no idea at the time that you were one of the Darcys. Indeed, I had no idea of your regard.”

Darcy nodded ruefully, and his eyes quickly darted toward Elizabeth and back again.

“You are not the first lady for whom I have developed a tendre to make that observation,” he said with a sigh and a sheepish smile.

*

Presently, while they all sat in the parlor, Mrs. Bennet came down. She was, for her, very subdued. Lizzy had been a little afraid that she might be expressing her grief in ways that were both noisy and embarrassing. But her husband’s sudden death had seemingly depleted her of the energy such extravagant expressions of emotion would require.

“Lizzy?” she said, surprised. “You are here already? We did not expect you until tomorrow. Perhaps even the next day.”

“Mr. Darcy, when he heard of our situation, offered to convey Maria and me in his carriage.”

“Did he?” said her mother, noticing Mr. Darcy for the first time. “That was very kind, sir. Exceedingly civil.”

“Not at all, Mrs. Bennet. As I told Miss Bennet, it was the assistance of friends that gave me the strength to bear the loss of my own parents. It was a pleasure to be of use to Miss Elizabeth and Miss Lucas. I hope I have not been too presumptuous in taking yet another step.”

“Another step, sir?”

“I notified my friend, Bingley, of your troubles. I know he will wish to be here to provide any assistance he can. I expect he will be opening up Netherfield in the next day or so.”

“That’s very good to know, sir. He has been gone so long.”

“I believe it was not his intention to be away for this many months. I am certain he would have returned sooner, had he been less insecure about the reception he would receive here.”

“Reception, sir,” said Mrs. Bennet. “I am sure we have always been most friendly to Mr. Bingley.”

“Indeed, you have, Mrs. Bennet. But it was the specific reception from a particular person he was unsure of.”

At this he glanced over at Jane long enough to catch her eye, then turned back to her mother and went on, “Bingley is, occasionally, too self-effacing for his own good. Given that natural modesty it was, you see, fairly easy for certain people to persuade him that, in casting his eyes upon an angel, he was gazing too high.”

“And,” said Elizabeth, “what did you tell him when he expressed those doubts?”

He turned to Elizabeth and replied, “At first, that he may be correct.” Then, turning back to Jane, who was looking increasingly unsettled, he added, “But I reminded him that, sometimes, angels do come to Earth.”

Mrs. Bennet understood this exchange less than perfectly, but enough to realize that things might still eventually be settled in a satisfactory manner between Jane and Mr. Bingley.

She turned to Maria, and asked, “When are your sister and her husband planning to arrive?” There was a just barely discernible note of trepidation in her question.

“Perhaps tomorrow, Mrs. Bennet,” Maria replied. “Mr. Darcy is sending his carriage back to Hunsford to take them to Lucas Lodge.”

“Lucas Lodge? Will they not be staying in their new home?”

“Mama,” said Lizzy. “Mr. Collins very much desired to avoid adding to your distress at this time, so he and Charlotte will be staying with the Lucases during the funeral, and will then be returning to Kent, where he will resume his duties as the rector of the Hunsford Parish until a replacement can be appointed. He particularly wished you to know that he and Charlotte both hope that our family will remain at Longbourn during the first six months of our mourning, and will enjoy the income of the estate during that period.”

“That is most kind,” said a surprised Mrs. Bennet, who had, over the years, developed a morbid fear of being immediately cast out of her home and into the hedgerows upon the death of her husband. “Such gracious consideration. He will, I think, be a good master when he succeeds to the estate.”

“Indeed,” said Darcy. “With his good wife’s help.”




To Be Continued
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More Responsible Than We Realized (One of Two)

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