Posted on 2010-07-07
"Miss Benn . . . I beg your pardon, Mrs. Bingley."
He offered a stiff bow to her curtsy. A moment of awkward silence followed, there on the steps of the exhibition, each looking anywhere but the other's eyes. She was the first to speak.
"Please accept my condolences on the death of your wife."
He nodded, his discomfort becoming more apparent. She had never been so mortified. "Excuse me please, I must return to my party."
"Wait!" He reached a hand out to touch her sleeve, and quickly pulled back. "I beg your pardon. Can we talk for a moment?"
She was amazed he had anything to say--so few people in her own circle spoke to her these days, his desire to do so was quite shocking. She nodded sadly, remembering an evening in Kent ten years ago when he had shocked her almost speechless. Almost.
He led her a few steps away from the others and stared at his feet for some moments. Abruptly he looked directly into her eyes and said, "I have and excellent attorney--he's served my family for two generations--and I believe he may be able to help you."
Her mouth fell open.
He continued in a rush, "I understand how these things work, the hypocrisy of it, the woman always taking the blame. I know Bingley, believe me I do! Please let me help you. Mr. Bradshaw is quite competent, I assure you. If it is money that worries you, please do not consider it. Chalk it up to arrears on my old debt to you, to the Bennets."
She colored deeply and said in a near whisper, "You owe me nothing, sir." He began to interrupt, so she held up her hand and said, "None of this is your fault. It is my own doing, and who but I should pay the price."
"Nonsense! Had I not interfered, he would have married your sister before her death. Your family's security would have been assured, and you would not have had to endure an alliance with such a . . . such a . . . "
"A pusillanimous milksop?" She couldn't help but grin, for the first time in weeks it seemed.
"Yes," he agreed, a small smirk of his own twisting his lips, "and a philanderer. Given his history of falling in love every few months, I always wondered if he would honor wedding vows to any woman. I am sorry to have learned the answer in such a way."
Her smile disappeared as her eyes began to mist over. Nobody had shown her any sympathy in weeks, except for her dear Uncle Gardiner. Unfortunately, his sympathy was usually accompanied by his wife's sermons on the evils of adultery and a fallen woman's shame.
The worst part was that she knew she deserved it, the shame was hers and she must own it. She was no better than Lydia. And she could not allow this man--this apparently very good sort of man--to get involved in her scandal.
"Mr. Darcy, I appreciate your kind offer, but you must not do this." By this time tears were streaming down her cheeks, but still she continued, "It is sure to become general knowledge that Mr. Darcy paid for Mrs. Bingley's divorce. What will come of that, do you think? Imagine the gossip, sir! What of your reputation?"
His face suddenly assumed the old expression from Hertfordshire and Kent--haughty, superior, disdainful--and to her surprise she nearly cheered.
"I believe," he drawled, "that I made it clear at Hunsford that I will not be guided solely by society's views. What is the opinion of those people to me? I have always done what I believe is honorable and just. How can I do other than assist you, a woman I claimed to love?" Then he smiled almost shyly and shrugged. "Anyway, what can they do to me now? I'm a childless widower and my sister is a Viscountess."
Yes, he had once claimed to love her. Of course Bingley had also said the words in his airy, inconsequential way. She could never quite take him seriously--rightly so, as it turned out. But if Mr. Darcy was anything at all, he was serious. And he had claimed to love her.
She wiped her cheeks and studied him. He appeared serious indeed, and confident and determined. No milksop he.
Confidence, she decided, must be contagious, and she felt her own growing by the second. "Very well, sir. I will accept Mr. Bradshaw's assistance. Shall I contact him or wait to hear from his office? I am staying with my Uncle Gardiner in Gracechurch Street."
She nodded toward her uncle and aunt, who stood near their carriage and who were intently watching her and Mr. Darcy. They looked quite concerned, and it suddenly occurred to her that they must be wondering if he was another paramour, and that thought made her laugh.
Mr. Darcy grinned. "Yes, I am an object of some interest, it seems."
"I wish they could be less obvious. I am afraid, Mr. Darcy, that such is the lot of a fallen woman."
"You are hardly that."
She took hold of his forearm and shook it, then said with deadly earnestness, "I did it, sir. Everything Mr. Bingley claims, I did. I have . . . misbehaved with two different gentlemen since my wedding." She squeezed hard, willing him to understand, to drop any fantasy he may harbor about her. "I am a fallen woman." She let go of his arm and clasped her hands behind her.
He narrowed his eyes and chewed the inside of his cheek as he stared at her. At last he said, "While I was not a philanderer, I have bedded nearly a dozen women in my life, unfortunately including my wife." Her eyes went round. "Yes, a dozen--and I was not promiscuous by the standard of my circle. Am I a fallen man?"
"I never realized you were such a radical."
"Ha! I never was, believe me. But I'd never really thought about all this until recently. Since I have learned about your situation, I have been forced to reconcile what society teaches us with my own understanding of your character. While I agree that you are not blameless, you are no more to blame than is your husband. And had you behaved as I behaved before your marriage, you would have been considered a whore, but I am still considered a gentleman." He shook his head. "I am no radical, but I despise hypocrisy."
Elizabeth stared at him as though she had never seem him before. She felt such a sense of lost, of waste--to think, she could have married this man! All these years, she could have been his wife, a man who never cheated on his cross, sickly cousin through seven years of marriage, who believed in duty and honor and despised hypocrisy.
She felt her tears returning, as he said gently, "Mr. Bradshaw will contact your uncle next week, if that is convenient."
She nodded. "Thank you," she whispered.
"Not at all." He bowed with a stern look and walked away. She did not move until he had disappeared in the crowd.The End