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The Way It Ought to Be, Chapter 14

November 01, 2016 12:56PM
So, here it is! I hope it was worth the wait. Thanks to my betas, as usual!


Chapter 14: Not a Tidy Experience


Every possible emotion warred with disbelief as she watched him ride closer. How could it be possible that, of all men, Fitzwilliam Darcy rode out of the woods to her? He was in Derbyshire or London or any place else in England but here! Yet it was he, and as he called her name again Elizabeth suddenly became aware of herself—barefooted, filthy, hair falling down her back, in a ludicrous predicament. He had clearly not seen her yet, and for a wild moment she thought of hiding herself in the grass until he went away, but then her common sense asserted itself, and, taking all her humiliation in her hands, she called to him.

His head whipped around, and even at this distance she could see his look of relief when he finally spotted her. “Miss Bennet, thank God I found you!” he cried, as he wheeled his horse about. As he drew nearer, she could see just when he fully comprehended her situation. He came to a stop by the shore, glancing from it to her island and back again. “What are you doing there?” he finally called to her, over the water.

“There was a boat, but it sank!”

He looked at the narrow channel. “Could you not swim it?”

She sighed. “I don’t know how,” she shouted.

He appeared to accept that, and looked about until he spotted the other boat, lying upside-down by the shed. He dismounted. “I will come and get you,” he called.

“No, no!” Elizabeth waved her arms for emphasis. “You must not risk it! The first boat sank, this one might too!”

But he did not listen to her, in his usual stubborn fashion. Already he had tied his reins to the shed, and was stripping off his coat. Elizabeth felt a sudden, giddy rush of joy. He might not love her any more, but he was here! She had expected one of her father’s hired men to find her, but instead it had been the man she loved, and now he was coming to rescue her.

Darcy handled his boat with much more ease than she had hers. In only moments he had it to the water line; his only difficulty appeared to be that there was only one oar. The ring that held it was rusted through, though; one sharp kick with the heel of his fine boot and it broke.

Elizabeth watched him push the boat into the water and climb nimbly aboard. Having only the one oar made paddling awkward, but he started out well, with a few quick, strong strokes. The oar changed hands, and he did the same again on the other side, zig-zagging across the water. It would not take him long, at this rate. Standing a little above his level on the slope, Elizabeth watched anxiously, fearing at any moment to see him glance down at some inrush of water.

Smoothly the boat pulled up to the shore. Mr. Darcy sprang out. Unfortunately, his foot came down upon a rock, his ankle twisted, and he went down hard.

“Mr. Darcy!” Horrified, Elizabeth flew to his side.

“Miss Bennet!” He struggled to sit. “I am well.”

“No, you are not. Oh, your ankle! What have you done?” There was nothing much she could do other than flutter about his booted feet. “Or is it your foot that is injured? Oh dear, is it very bad?”

“Of course not. Your concern is exaggerated.” He tried to stand, and she went to take his arm, but he shook her off. “I am quite well, Miss Bennet. A small twist of the ankle, but I do not require the assistance of a woman to—aah!” This as he put his weight on his foot.

“See, I told you!” She knelt and drew his arm over her shoulder before he could stop her. “You must lean on me.”

She felt his whole form stiffen, and was suddenly embarrassed, but he needed her assistance, and so she stayed. There was a tense moment, then he shifted his weight, and together they got him to his feet. As soon as he had gained his balance he withdrew, and limped away.

“Are you sure you should be walking?” she called after him.

“Perfectly,” he answered over his shoulder. “It is better already. Your time would be much better spent attempting to retrieve—” His words trailed off as he turned his head and saw his boat. Lightened of Darcy’s weight, blown by a keen afternoon breeze, it had begun drifting away and now sat just beyond the point where Elizabeth might have been able to safely retrieve it.

“Oh dear,” said Elizabeth.

She got the impression that Darcy would like to have uttered something forceful and ungentlemanly, but all he said, after a pregnant silence, was, “Can you wade in to get it?”

She shook her head. “The water is too deep there.”

He sighed and turned away, limping on, as if determined to walk away all their difficulties.

“I am sorry.”

“It is not your fault.”

“Still, you would not be here if it were not for me, and my… sudden mania for boating.”

He gave her a sideways glance, smiling slightly. “A rather surprising choice for an afternoon’s amusement, it is true.”

“A disastrous one, anyway.” Her courage rose at this faint sign of encouragement, and she took a deep breath and pressed her hands together. “Mr. Darcy, since you are here, I cannot delay the apology you deserve. You may not wish to hear it, and I know that I do not deserve your forgiveness, but I must speak, to tell you how very sorry I am.”

He looked away again. “No apology is necessary.” Despite his words, his voice was constrained.

“Of course it is necessary! Mr. Darcy, the things I believed—the way I abused you so unjustly! I cannot think of it without shame!”

Finally he met her eyes. “It is a feeling I am not unfamiliar with,” he said.

The graciousness of the remark caught her off guard, and she fought back sudden tears. “It is not the same.”

“Is it not?” He smiled a little, twisted smile. “Perhaps you are right. Come, let us not talk of it. We should instead—”

His voice had stopped abruptly, and when she looked to him in confusion she found that he was, at long last, looking properly at her, but with the oddest expression. He almost appeared… amused.

“Oh,” she said, aware again of her appearance. She smoothed her gown self-consciously, “Nearly drowning is not a tidy experience, you know.”

His eyes moved to her feet and dwelt there a moment, before returning to her head. “It is not that,” he said, “though I am sorry you had to endure such an ordeal. But…”

“What is it?” She put her hands up with a sense of dread. “I know my hair is coming down, but I cannot help that.”

“Indeed; but—” He hesitated.

“Tell me at once.”

“But I cannot help but wonder how it is that heather came to be growing from your head?” He was now suppressing a genuine smile.

“Oh!” Belatedly she recalled the wreath she had made before she fell asleep, and began feeling for the purple-flowered stalks, and extracting them. Her face, already flushed, burned even brighter. “I have been here a long time,” she said sheepishly.

Darcy looked away again, but she could see that now it was to hide a desire to laugh, and that heartened her so much that she did not mind her embarrassment. “I am sorry,” he managed after a moment. “I can imagine how tedious it has been.”

“Very tedious! You will find out how tedious very shortly, I am afraid.” She was feeling over her head. “Is that all of them?”

“No, there is one—just there—” He hesitated, and moved forward to pluck the stalk from her hair. It tangled, and he had to use both hands for a moment.

“Thank you.”

“Yes; of course.” He cleared his throat.

At a loss at first, Elizabeth finally opted to sit on the ground, tucking her feet beneath her skirts, and looked to him to join her. He did after a moment, settling gingerly in the grass about three feet away. “Now comes the part where we wait, and think about our dinner, and look longingly at the shore.”

“Oh, our plight is not so dire.” He stretched his long legs out. “Unlike you, I can swim.”

“Not with your injury, surely!”

“I am not convinced I am really injured at all. I daresay a short rest is all my ankle needs.” His mien was positively cheerful now. “If it comes to it, I can definitely swim, but if we are lucky I will not even have to. The wind may blow that fickle vessel back to us, and if it does not, a search party will find us soon enough.”

Looking for the boat, Elizabeth found it nearly out of sight around the edge of the island. “It will join mine soon,” she said. “Wretched things.”

“How came you to be out in a boat by yourself in the first place?”

“A silly impulse. My sisters and I used to have boating parties down here when we were younger, and I suppose I was wishing to recapture some of that joy.” She saw his quick look. “I did not even notice it was taking on water until I was all the way around to the other side. It was all I could do to make it this far.”

“Then I thank God you succeeded.” He plucked at the grass beside him.

“Yes, but it would have been far better if I had never set out in the first place.”

The sun had fallen even lower in the sky now, lengthening shadows and striking off the water in almost blinding brightness. Elizabeth turned her head a little to look away from it, and found herself staring at Darcy’s horse, still cropping the grass peacefully where he had left it. “How came you to be here?” she asked suddenly. “I thought you were at Pemberley, or in London.”

“Bingley did not tell you he had invited me to Netherfield?”

“No.” Jane, I see your hand, thought Elizabeth.

“Oh. Well, he did.”

“And you came.” She turned to study his profile.

He looked a little uncomfortable. “He is my friend, after all.”

“Yes.” Feelings so strong she scarcely knew how to control them welled up, and she looked away. “That does not explain how you came to be searching for me, though. Had my father sent out search parties?”

“Well... that is to say, Mr. Bennet did not think it necessary at that time. He still expected you would return as usual. I am sure,” he added, “that he has acted differently by now.”

“Oh.” Elizabeth digested this. He had come looking for her on his own, even when her father had said there was no need. Her heart, already full of tenderness for him, grew even more so. She had injured him and slighted him, but still he came to her aid. “Thank you,” she whispered.

He looked at her. “You are welcome.”

This was something entirely new to her, to be sitting so near to him with the consciousness of her love. She found herself with all kinds of irrational and nearly overwhelming impulses—to take his arm, to kiss his hand, to lay her head on his shoulder and nestle into his embrace. Once, she knew, he would have welcomed such attentions, but that time was gone now. She had wasted his love, had not valued it, and so he had given it to another.

The thought was exquisitely painful, but as she sat there, feeling his nearness and loving him, Elizabeth told herself she must think of him now. She must be unselfish. “I—” she swallowed. “I have forgotten to ask you, Mr. Darcy, how is Miss Cornish?”

“Miss Cornish?” he seemed startled.

“Yes. Was she well, the last time you saw her?”

“She was very well. Miss Cornish,” he said slowly, “is not Miss Cornish any more. I thought you would have read it in the paper.”

“Read it in the—is Miss Cornish married?” Her heart tumbled over and over.

“Yes, more than a fortnight ago. I was not at the wedding, but I knew of it.” He was watching her closely. “I had always known of it, of her engagement, that is.”

“I don’t understand.” Elizabeth found it difficult to stay sitting in her agitation, and moved a little away from him and his too-potent presence. “I never heard of any engagement. The only thing I ever heard was that you—” she could not continue.

“It was a secret.” He had turned toward her, and began to speak more rapidly. “I know her husband, he is an old university friend of mine. He works as a diplomat, and they had only just become engaged when he was sent abroad on a mission of some delicacy. There was risk involved, and secrecy, and so it was decided that they should not announce the engagement until his return. In the mean time Miss Cornish was to come to town, and he asked me if I would look after her.”

“Look after her!”

“She did not then know anyone in society.”

“And no one can be introduced in London.”

He flushed a little. “She is shy.”

“Shy?” Elizabeth felt herself dangerously close to growing hysterical. Never would she have thought of the dignified Miss Cornish as shy.

“Yes,” he said defensively, “she reminded me of my sister, actually.”

That was too much. On the verge of both laughing and crying, unable to control her emotions any longer, she jumped to her feet and walked away.

He came after her, moving quickly despite the limp. “I swear I never heard the rumours. No one ever spoke to me of them directly, and any hints I received I dismissed. And really, they made much out of little. I never thought—”

“But you should have!” She rounded on him, some of her emotions finding vent in indignation. “You are a man of the world. You should have known that if you let yourself be seen frequently in company with a single woman of birth and beauty and fortune, everyone would think you were her suitor. And—why are you standing?”

“Yes, I should have.” He seemed stung. “But I was a fool, as usual, and as usual, I have paid for it.”

“You are a fool if you do not sit.”

He ignored this admonition. “I was careless, and I ought not to have been, but was the impression it gave you of my character really so bad, that you would believe me capable of seducing an innocent girl? Of base deceit and falseness to no less than four women at once?”

So he was still angry after all. “Of course not! I never even questioned your character until—”

“Until you heard a stranger’s gossip.”

“Not just gossip. The woman I spoke to gave me such details—”

“Details!” He dug his hands through his hair in frustration. “Details ought not to have mattered, if you had any understanding of my character, or any trust in me.”

“I did trust you, I did think I understood—oh! You were not there, you did not hear her. She described you—”

“She described my cousin!”

“Well, how was I to know you had a cousin? You never said one word to me about having a Darcy cousin! When she said Mr. Darcy, there was only one Mr. Darcy I knew!”

“And did you know me?” He stared intensely at her, and looked away. “I sought while in London to correct the bad impression I had made, to show you that I am a honourable man, and I thought I had succeeded, but perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps the disgust of our early acquaintance was too great to be overcome.”

This was very bad. All of Elizabeth’s protests died away as she saw him turn back to the place they had been sitting. His limp seemed more pronounced than it had been a minute ago. She felt ashamed of arguing with him, though it was because she did not want him to think she had been eager to believe him bad. Arguing was no way to show contrition, and no way to soothe the hurts she had given him; sitting there in the grass, he still looked proud and noble, but he also looked hurt, and sad.

She went to sit next to him. “Mr. Darcy, I ought not to defend my reasoning. It seemed unanswerable at the time, it is true, but clearly it was wrong. Clearly I was wrong. And you are right: in believing the worst of you, I betrayed our friendship. Nothing can ameliorate my wrongs. But I want you to know…” she swallowed, and her voice wavered a bit. “Believing those things… was very painful to me. It was nothing like at Netherfield; then, I was too indifferent to care much about like or dislike. It was nothing to me if your character was poor. But in London… in London you had become…” she took a breath, “my friend. I did believe in your goodness, I was confident of it, and when it seemed that all had been a lie, that you were not a good man at all, I… I was very unhappy.”

She ended by staring at her lap, rolling a head of grass in her fingers, unable to watch his reaction. It was the closest she dared come to a declaration of love, and it had cost her something to make it, but she hoped that, somehow, he would be comforted in the knowledge that she too had been miserable there at the end. Perhaps, too, he might feel some triumph, in knowing how far he had conquered her affections, even if his own had changed. He was as generous, she doubted not, as the most generous of his sex, but while he was mortal, there must be triumph.

“And now?” he asked her quietly.

“Now?” She was surprised into looking up. He seemed somehow closer than he had been, watching her steadily, and she could only answer him honestly. “Whatever my regrets have been these last months, it has been a great comfort to me in all of them to know that you are exactly the sort of man I wanted you to be.”

It was silent then. Still she rolled the spikelet, bristling with seeds, back and forth in her fingers, in time to the beating of her heart. Perhaps it was too late, and nothing she said would make any difference to him. She felt him shift beside her, saw him lean forward in the corner of her eye. She turned her head, and just as she met his gaze again, he dipped face toward hers. He moved quickly, his face suddenly filling her vision, and Elizabeth started back in surprise. It was only a reflex, done before she realised his intention or her own, but it was enough: the next moment, he had rolled away in the other direction and was climbing to his feet.

By the time Elizabeth had collected her scattered wits and realised what he had meant to do, he was walking away. “Mr. Darcy!” she cried. He would not look at her, limping his way determinedly up the hill. Everything about him spoke the deepest mortification, and she thought she heard him mutter the word “fool!

Giddy now with joy, she jumped to her feet and rushed after him. “Mr. Darcy, please!” If possible, he turned even further away, moving higher on the hillside. She tried to catch his arm, but he pulled it free. “If you would just look at me—!” She darted around in front of him, tried to catch his eye, but he was too deeply chagrined, too hurt at what had appeared as yet another rejection, and kept turning his head. Finally, in desperation, she took the only action that seemed adequate to her feelings: she threw herself upon his chest, and clasped her arms around his neck.

Her timing was unfortunate. They were now high on the little hillside, right at its crest, and Mr. Darcy was not at all prepared, in body at least, to receive a muddy and excited young woman into his arms. Her weight threw him off balance, he staggered, his bad ankle buckled, and with a sharp cry of pain he went down, and she with him, down into the grass, and tumbled a few feet down the slope before coming to rest.

“Mr. Darcy! Oh heaven, what have I done?” Elizabeth untangled herself from his arms, and crawled over to his feet.

“Elizabeth—”

“How badly does it hurt?” His actual foot inaccessible, she touched his boot, running her hands over the leather. “Please say it isn’t broken!”

“Elizabeth, stop.”

“But your foot—”

“Hang my foot!” he said forcefully. She looked up. He grasped her wrist and pulled her, so that she fell against him. “You threw yourself in my arms. Why?”

There was only one possible reply. “Because I love you.”

He closed his eyes, and for a moment she wondered if he had passed out from pain or shock, but then the next he opened them, gave her one more deep look, and, pulling her closer still, made good on his earlier intentions. This time, she was very well prepared.
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The Way It Ought to Be, Chapter 14

Suzanne ONovember 01, 2016 12:56PM

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