Posted on 2012-10-16
Lady Catherine found it a bitter disappointment to be denied an eminently sensible wish she had been depending upon for years. If she had not retained a spark of hope yet, she would have launched into a tirade and sent both nephews out of her home. But she put aside her anger and, with more calmness than she truly felt, invited them to extend their stay; at the very least to spend the night rather than start travelling again so close to nightfall.
The men had dinner with the de Bourgh ladies and at the end, Anne asked if she might have a word alone with Darcy. Lady Catherine's spark of hope burst into a flame. She controlled her impulse to answer for Darcy, "Of course he will talk to you!" She saw him look warily at Anne. The mother's heart beat a little faster for her little girl, so thin and pale.
She had encouraged Anne to speak directly to Darcy for the first time on this important matter. Until this moment, she could not be certain that her daughter would be brave enough to do it. Anne had fretted at the suggestion, "I could not, Mother. Please do not make me. I would be too ashamed to ask him such a thing." When she hid her face in a handkerchief, her body shaking, her mother almost withdrew the request. Seldom did she insist on her daughter doing anything because the child was weak and almost everything seemed a struggle for her. But if only Anne would speak now, it could be the saving grace of a long desired dream. The girl could plead in a way that her mother could not.
Darcy had to see how much this fragile girl needed his protection. The two cousins were a study in contrasts; her delicate features and small-boned figure came from her father's side of the family. Lady Catherine told herself she was pretty as any girl he might marry and this was not because she was looking with a mother's eyes.
At Darcy's hesitation, Anne insisted, "Please, cousin. I promise not to keep you from the colonel too long. I know how you like your cigars and brandy. But I do need you -- that is, I need to speak with you on an important matter." She smiled, and the gesture was unfortunately marred by a cough.
Colonel Fitzwilliam reached for water and offered it to her. "I'm sure Darcy does not mind. We are both at your service, my dear cousin." She took the water silently with a flutter of her eyelashes indicating her thanks and quickly turned back to Darcy. He sighed faintly in resignation and offered his arm to Anne.
They made their way to a sitting room. Darcy would have allowed Mrs. Jenkinson to enter with them, but Anne gestured for her to stand outside the door. When he tried to leave the door slightly open, Anne shut it firmly. They sat across from one another, she on the sofa and he in a chair facing her at an angle. The room felt unpleasantly damp and drafty despite the flames in the fireplace. The curtains were drawn, and the candles glowing in their lamps only barely relieved the duskiness.
He waited while she dabbed at her nose and caught himself as he was about to groan. He watched her awhile longer in silence as she kept looking downward and twisting the handkerchief in her lap. Finally, he inquired gently, "Cousin, is there something you wish to say to me?"
"I hardly know how to begin. I have something important to ask you but -- I hope I will not seem -- I am trying to think of the best way to say it or even whether I should say it at all." She sighed. "Although it seems we have known each other forever, we have never talked very much. I can only hope that I may rely upon your kindness."
Darcy, now completely bereft of the fiery resolve he had in facing her mother, felt paralyzed before this weak slip of a girl. Her vulnerable statement touched him. She, looking tenuous as a baby bird, touched him. Impossibly thin and pale, she seemed frightened half the time while she fretted irritably the other half. So different, he thought, from her mother. She was right, of course, that they were fixtures in each other's lives based on the annual Easter visits to Rosings. In his mother's memory, he never wavered from them, and he brought a cousin, usually Colonel Fitzwilliam, whenever he could in order to help him get through it. Family and duty were powerful imperatives.
He rose and went to sit beside her on the couch. "You and your mother can always rely upon me. Never doubt that," he said.
Her eyes wide, she shrank back from him, saying weakly, "As you know I am not hardy and could never do all you might expect of me -- as your wife." She punctuated the remark by blowing her nose rather loudly.
He moved away a little to give her more room. Gallantly, he said, "If you are suggesting that your delicate constitution would hamper you in the role of mistress of an estate, certainly not. You would do well, I am sure, especially when aided by an excellent staff. I daresay many men would find it an honor to take care of you and protect you. Many men would wish to be your suitor, if you allow it." He paused and added as gently as he could, but firmly, "I wish that I could say I am one of them. But I cannot."
"You mean you are still refusing to marry me? As you told Mother?" Anne asked in amazement, her voice suddenly stronger.
"I am so, so sorry, my dear cousin. I would not hurt you for the world. Your mother is disappointed that I do not seek a union with you. I care for both of you greatly as your kinsman. You may call on me at any time . . ."
"But you will not marry me? You absolutely refuse to marry me? Let us be clear about this." Not only had Anne's voice become stronger, it had taken on a cross and demanding stridency.
"Ah--that is what I am saying. Again, I apologize --" He stopped, surprised by the huge grin that appeared on Anne's face.
"Oh, thank goodness!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. "For a minute, I was afraid you were going to make an offer. You do not know what a shock you gave me when you came to sit more closely. Would you mind returning to the chair?"
She waited for him to do as she asked, and then, responding to the question on his face, said, "Mother wanted me to appeal to you. In her phrase, to make you see reason. She told me to do whatever I must, even beg. She did not say, on my knees, but I think that was implied." She punctuated her statement with a chuckle, a sound he did not think he had ever heard come from her before.
"But it was never your plan to ask me to marry you?" Darcy asked, hardly needing an answer. His sickly cousin was smiling broadly. He felt just a bit disconcerted at how not having to marry him raised her spirits. "I only recently learned that your mother has been talking of this for years -- it has been all the gossip, it seems. Have you known, too?"
She nodded. "As long as you did not seem eager to take Rosings, it was all just as well. In truth, I must admit I was afraid to bring it up. My hope was that you would marry someone else and that would be the end of it." After chuckling gleefully again, she continued, "Please, under no circumstances, whatever happens, give in to Mother's demands. I never dared hoped you would tell her outright that you would not marry me. Now that you have, you must stick to it."
"You are safe from me. But since I am not acceptable to you, you could have made your true feelings known long ago." He could also not help wondering what Anne found wrong with him as a prospective husband but he felt that to ask might sound like whining, not to mention superfluous.
"You may have noticed, it's very hard saying no to Mother. I believe she fears that if I marry the wrong man, it could mean the dowager's cottage for her -- and, of course, the end to her rule of Rosings. You already honor her almost as a surrogate mother. Also, you have Pemberley and you do not need to live here. Should my health finally fail permanently, she would not want to be at the complete mercy of my widower, and you would never make her move out of Rosings. I know for certain she considers you the one and perfect suitor."
"Did Lady Catherine concoct the idea that we should marry in order to hold onto her home? Our marriage is not some golden ideal that our mothers discussed when we were both in our cradles?"
Anne shrugged. "Perhaps our mothers did talk of it. If I wanted to marry you and you wanted Rosings, neither of us would mind. Please understand, I am not insensitive to her fears. If I die with neither a husband nor heirs, the estate will return to the de Bourghs. Mother would not be able to wield power but she would always be well taken care of -- she would be fine."
"You are too young to speak of death -- and the prospect of preceding your mother! I did not realize you felt as weak as this. I have heard of new medical approaches . . ."
"Thank you, but I have never enjoyed good health and have no desire to swallow foul-tasting draughts and to be prodded and stuck. I rather dislike the lot of apothecaries and physicians. The surgeons are the most dangerous. None have ever been able to do more than make me feel worse."
"I know of a very good man in London . . ."
"I said no," she cut him off. "As long as I do not exert myself too much, I am fine. That is why the last thing I need is a husband. Just your fondness for argument and debate would exhaust me and I would spend most of my time trying to keep out of your way!"
He smiled uncomfortably. "Well, I hardly think I would be so frightful a husband as that." He added, "But perhaps you should consider a different cousin, someone Lady Catherine knows and trusts. I know Colonel Fitzwilliam admires you and strongly urge you to consider -- "
"The answer is no." She casually added, "Why, during this visit, he has chatted endlessly with that Miss Elizabeth Bennet and barely talked to me."
Darcy looked at her closely for some double meaning but saw none. "Perhaps he thought you were meant for me and your mother would not want him to pay too much attention to you? In fact, I am certain that is why. I'm also sure he did not mean to offend you. You could find no one better to protect you and take care of you -- and to leave you in peace to yourself, too, if that is what you want."
She pursed her lips and said nothing but looked irritated. Darcy said, "Perhaps you should let him approach you directly to plead his suit."
"I suppose there is nothing I could do anyway to stop him from trying," she huffed. "But -- please, Cousin -- do not tell him that I do not want to marry you. He might let that slip to Mother."
Darcy, knowing how talkative the colonel could be at times, nodded. He felt it would be better for everyone if Anne had her own way in this.The End