As Elizabeth was shown to the summer parlour, she realised how little her reason had come into play in her hasty decision to seek out Georgianna. She had not taken the time to think on the Colonel's words, but had acted impulsively on her overwhelming need to discover the truth. It was now abundantly clear that there was another view point concerning Mr Darcy's and Wickham's common past, and if it could vindicate Mr Darcy in his actions toward that man, it seemed vital to know it.
As she approached the room though, the difficulties associated with her current position suddenly rushed in on her. Georgianna might not be alone, and even if she was she may not want to discuss such matters with her, she might find Elizabeth's enquires hurtful or impertinent, and how was she to introduce such a topic anyway?
A fear that the brother might actually be with Georgianna then settled on her, and she knew that she was not yet prepared to see him. At this point they had just reached the entry to the room, and if the servant hadn't been with Elizabeth, she may have considered trying to slip unseen from the house.
Through the haze of her thoughts she was only half aware of the servant announcing her presence, and it was an almost tangible relief that met her upon stepping into the room, and finding Georgianna sitting there alone.
Georgianna looked up with pleasure.
"Lizzy, I didn't expect to see you until tonight... Lizzy, are you well...?" Elizabeth's pale face and uncharacteristic manner was noted immediately by the sensitive younger girl. "Please sit down."
"I'm sorry Georgie. I am well. I just found it difficult to sleep last night."
Georgianna nodded, but was unable to accept this as a full explanation for Elizabeth's discomposure.
"Was there something concerning you?" she gently inquired. "I find that if my sleep is denied me that there is usually something particular playing on my mind."
Elizabeth again had the understanding of her new friend confirmed to her, and gave Georgianna a slight smile.
"As a matter of fact there were more than a few contradictions running around in my head. Have you ever found yourself in a position where your instinct and reason were at war?"
"Dear Lizzy, you have no idea of how I can relate to such an image. I'm surprised though at your suffering from such distractions. I've come to truly envy your judgement and understanding of life."
"Oh Georgie, please do not say such things, as you only serve to make me feel my inadequacies even more."
"Lizzy, you have said it to me oft enough over the past month, that none of us is perfect, but that we should learn from life and move on."
Elizabeth had to smile at Georgie using her own words against her. She was right too, she had to move on, but she couldn't do it until she found out the truth about Wickham. To live in ignorance on this subject was impossible; or at least it was impossible not to try for information - so taking her courage in her hands she approached the question she needed to ask.
"Georgie, Colonel Fitzwilliam said something this morning that has made me suspect that I've made a huge error in judgement, and I was hoping it may be in your power to set me right on this matter. Please, if this question is too personal, or too hard to answer, tell me so at once and I will never again mention the matter in your presence."
Georgianna was a little daunted at the seriousness of Elizabeth's tone, but also flattered that Elizabeth obviously considered that their friendship had progressed to a point where Elizabeth felt able to come to her with such a difficulty.
"Please tell me your concern Lizzy - I only hope that it is within my power to make things clearer for you."
"Oh Georgie - thank you, but remember - I will not be offended at all if you tell me that this is no concern of mine."
Georgie just nodded as Elizabeth fidgeted with a curl of her hair, and coloured a little as she tried to think of a way to put her dilemma into words.
"I have been holding something that I heard, against your brother, since before I left Hertfordshire, and I now wonder at the accuracy of the substance of the charge."
Georgianna felt no great shock this revelation; she had suspected that something was not quite right between Elizabeth and her brother since the first night they had all been together at Rosings, but she had never been able to discern quite what it was. She had fished for information a couple of times, but Elizabeth had not been particularly forthcoming.
Therefore, the pleasure she had felt over the last few weeks as she watched not only her brother, but also Elizabeth, let down their barriers a little, and begin to enjoy each others company, was not inconsiderable. She would be gratified if she could be the means of removing any remaining impediments to their friendship. It was now quite clear to her that William had strong feelings toward Elizabeth, and she would do almost anything to facilitate this relationship, which she firmly believed could make her brother as happy as he deserved.
"What was it you heard of him", she gently prompted, "and who was it you heard it from?"
"I heard that he went against all the conventions of honour, and with no reason stronger than jealousy, defied your fathers intentions and failed to honour a bequest of his will."
"George Wickham..." Georgianna spoke in almost a whisper as the colour drained from her face.
Georgie did not know what she had expected but it had not been this. Maybe Elizabeth's introduction should have prepared her a little, but it had not. She had known that this would concern her brother, but hadn't had any idea that it would touch her also, and her discomposure was obvious and acute.
"I'm sorry Georgie... I shouldn't have brought it up!" Elizabeth chided herself for putting Georgie in this position. "Please, forget that I mentioned it. I will be satisfied in assuming that I was misled - I have no need for detail."
Confusion and distress was easily seen in her young friends eyes, and Elizabeth moved next to her to give Georgie the comfort of her arms. Silence hung in the air for a few moments before Georgianna responded to the spontaneous affection of Lizzy's gesture, and she began to quietly weep. It was hard to explain, but her crying was less a reaction to the pain she had felt over Wickham's callous manipulation of her emotions, than it was an out pouring of feelings that she had kept bottled up inside her, for which Elizabeth's concern and sympathy had provided a release valve.
Elizabeth felt absolutely dreadful, and desperately wished she could undo the last few minutes of her life. She continued to hold Georgianna, murmuring comforts, and apologies for being the cause of her distress. It was only the comprehension of Elizabeth's anxiety on her part, that gave Georgianna the strength to compose herself enough to try and tell Elizabeth that she really would like her to know the truth about George Wickham.
A little under half an hour later the story of Ramsgate and Mr Wickham's dealings with Georgianna, had all come out. There was no question that Elizabeth was exceedingly shocked at the revelation of such behaviour from her former favourite, but she had no reason to disbelieve Georgianna's story. There was no doubt that the man was charming and upon her first association, his countenance, voice, and manner had established him in her mind as in the possession of every virtue, but now, when she actually applied herself, she was unable to recollect any instance of goodness, or distinguished trait of integrity or benevolence, that might rescue him from the complete loss of character in her eyes.
The memory of the ease at which he spoke of Georgie as driven by pride, and ungrateful for his early attentions, left her cold. That he could try to use this loving and innocent young woman in such a way, solely for the sake of material gain, and obviously feel no shame or remorse, was unforgivable. That he should feel no duty of honour to her, as the daughter of a generous benefactor, made his behaviour even worse.
"There is one thing that I do not understand Georgie. When you speak of a desire of his to revenge himself on your brother, what was his perceived grievance? There is no truth to his tale about Mr Darcy denying him his inheritance is there?"
"Smatterings of half truths mixed liberally with falsehood." Georgianna explained. "My father did recommend the living for him, but Mr Wickham told William that he was resolved against ever taking orders, and he was given a large amount of pecuniary compensation in lieu of his right to the living."
Elizabeth did not know that she had been holding her breath while waiting for this answer from Georgianna, but she now let it out with a low sigh of relief.
"I wish I had known all this before last summer," Georgianna continued. "I suppose that William saw no reason for me to have my childhood illusions of Mr Wickham shattered. I believe that William had been more than pleased to meet Mr Wickham's monetary desires in exchange for forgoing his patronage in the church. He knew enough of Mr Wickham's propensities to understand that the church was not an appropriate profession for him."
"But Georgie, I still don't understand. If Mr Wickham was given the money he requested, what does he have against your brother?"
"Well, two years ago, when the living became available, Mr Wickham returned and expected it to be given to him. Apparently in just the few years that had passed since my father's death, his life had been one of such extravagance and general profligacy that it had led to an extreme distress of his circumstances. When my brother did not comply with his entreaty in regard to the living, he became very abusive toward him..."
"Oh Georgie," Elizabeth sighed as she sat back in her seat, her eyes closed. "I have been such a fool. I was totally taken in by Mr Wickham's charm."
"Well," Georgianna dryly replied. "It's nice to know I'm in good company."
After the heaviness and emotions of the morning's conversation, Georgianna's surprisingly wry comment struck Elizabeth as rather amusing, and she could not suppress a laugh.
"Can I ask Lizzy, what was it that my cousin said to you about Wickham this morning?"
Elizabeth sifted through the tangle of information and impressions that were now swirling around in her head.
"I can't remember the exact words," she grinned, "but it was something about what he might do to Wickham if he ever found himself in his command."
"Oh really?" Georgianna asked, unable to feel anything but a twinge of delight at the idea of the Colonel's feeling violent toward Wickham.
"I wonder what he might do?" Elizabeth asked, suddenly feeling a little giddy in the relief of what she had learned that morning. "He did look rather dangerous."
Looking back on the occasion , Elizabeth could not remember who began laughing first, but somehow they managed to end up in a giggling mess. Just as they would start to recover, one or other of them would make a conjecture as to what the Colonel may have in mind as a punishment for Wickham, and they would again be gone.
Mr Darcy on returning from a ride, was pleased when was informed by a servant that Georgianna was with Miss Bennet in the summer room. The idea of being able to spend a few moments with Elizabeth before she returned to the parsonage, was an enticing one, but he paused at the door as he saw the two women he loved, sitting on the couch in close conspiracy, obviously lost in their amusement, to everything around them. He was about to join them when somehow he sensed that it was not the right time to interrupt; that he should be satisfied with the knowledge that he would see Elizabeth at supper that evening. He took one more look at the women, and shook his head in amazement at their uncharacteristic behaviour, before slipping away from the room with an undeniable smile on his face.
That afternoon there was a visible spring in Georgianna's step. The memory of last summer would never be a pleasant one, but it had lost much of it's pain and oppressive weight. It was so liberating to have shared everything with Elizabeth, and to have received in return neither censure nor pity, but understanding. That Elizabeth thought no less of her was the greatest relief, and to know that Elizabeth too had been taken in by Wickham's charms, had considerably lessened her feelings of guilt and stupidity over the incident.
Elizabeth though, was going through a reverse of Georgianna's relief. Though she had returned to the parsonage in excellent spirits, as the afternoon wore on she began experiencing an increase of self-doubt and self-reproach. Now that Mr Darcy was proved fully worthy of her affection and esteem, she began to question her earlier impression of the extent and nature of his feelings toward her.
It was odd, last night when she had been confused and unsure as to whether she desired a relationship with this man, she'd had no doubt of his affection for her, but now that she knew for certain that he was just the man she'd always longed to marry, she began to disbelieve that he could really love her.
She tried to remind herself of the look in his eyes as he'd kissed her hand, only the night before, but an insecure little corner of her mind kept suggesting that maybe she had misinterpreted the gesture and his increasingly more familiar, attentions to her.
The fact that it had been such an emotional day and night conspired with her lack of sleep, to make it even more difficult for her to cope with her feelings.
She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. -- Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
``How despicably have I acted!'' she chided herself -- ``I, who have prided myself on my discernment! -- I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust. -- How humiliating is this discovery! -- Yet, how just a humiliation! -- Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. -- Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.''
She'd meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason, but now the folly of her attitude and behaviour stood before her as though illuminated.
Her physical and mental exhaustion were taking their toll, and the agitation and tears that the subject occasioned brought on a headache which grew much worse toward the evening. Still, she dressed with extra care for supper at Rosings, not allowing her new found feelings of unworthiness to overwhelm her desire to impress Mr Darcy.
Charlotte, however was growing increasingly concerned for her friend, whom she easily perceived was really unwell, and she urged her to stay at home. Mr Collins could not conceal his apprehension that this might displease Lady Catherine, but Charlotte was firm.
Despite Elizabeth's protesting that she truly was fine, and Mr Collins's concern in deference to his benefactor's pleasure, Charlotte would not be moved.
Through her nervousness and tiredness, Elizabeth now struggled to discern whether she most wished or feared to see Mr Darcy. The acute insecurities she was suffering as to what he might think of her, rose again to predominance, and she decided to take the cowards way out and put off meeting him again until the morrow, telling herself that she would cope with things far better, after a good nights rest.
Charlotte was truly relieved, her for the sake of her friend's health, that Elizabeth did not insist on going, and despite Mr Collins's panic that it may make them late, waited patiently as Elizabeth wrote a quick not to Georgie, apologising for her absence, and promising to visit in the morning.
When they were gone, Elizabeth, as if intending to exasperate herself even further, chose for her employment the examination of all the letters which Jane had written to her since her reintroduction into Mr Bingley's society a few weeks previous. They contained very few overt references to her feelings toward Mr Bingley, but in all, and in almost every line of each, there was a cheerfulness which had been missing during her early days in London. Elizabeth noticed every sentence conveying the idea of ease and happiness, with an attention which it had hardly received on the first perusal. She would always be grateful toward Mr Darcy for this service to his friend and her sister, and she blamed herself for ever having thought that he might have been the means of separating them.
While chiding herself on this point, she was suddenly roused by the sound of the door bell, and her spirits were a little lifted by the idea of its possibly being Georgianna come to enquire after her. But this idea was soon banished, and her spirits were very differently affected, when, to her agitation, she saw Mr. Darcy walk into the room. In a tender 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 a nervous embarrassment, feeling both humbled and gratified that he was so concerned.
He sat down for a few moments, on a chair facing her, looking at her intently and then getting up, walked about the room before seating himself next to her on the couch. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. She was too full of emotion to know how to speak. After a silence that only served to increased her discomposure, and make her even more acutely aware of the man at her side, he reached across and took her hand, and she made no move to withdraw it.
The sensations created by this simple touch, and the intensity of the look in his eyes were greater than Elizabeth had ever experienced in her life, and on top of her exhaustion they almost threatened to overwhelm her. She had always disdained the type of heroine in a novel, who would swoon upon a look or a touch from her hero, but at this moment she could almost be in sympathy with such a girl.
Elizabeth was not the only person surprised by Darcy's action. The man himself was taken completely unawares by his own inability to control his behaviour. He had fully intended to take things slowly and carefully in his courtship of Elizabeth, not risking frightening her off by moving too fast, but the strength of his feelings had caused him to get a little ahead of himself, and for just a moment he knew not how to go on, but though very affected himself, he could not fail to notice that Elizabeth had neither pulled back, or withdrawn her eyes from his; and he lifted her hand to his lips for a delightfully light kiss before proceeding.
``In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.''
``In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love yoou."
Elizabeth's elation at his words might have been almost perfect at this time, had it not been for the guilt that she had been encouraging throughout the whole of the afternoon and evening. As it was, her joy was severely tempered by a sense of unworthiness, which might be somewhat understandable, given the revelations that she had only lately been dealing with, on top of her lack of sleep.
Despite a fleeting idea and wish that he might never learn of her folly, she realised that, not only for her own conscience sake, but also to make sure that this man's eyes were fully opened before he went on, she needed to be honest about the prejudices that she had been harbouring about him, and she forced her self to speak.
"Mr Darcy... there is something I feel I must tell you before you say any more..."
She paused, struggling for the right words, and for a dreadful moment Darcy thought that she was might be on the point of refusing him - of saying that she could not love him, but the realisation that she still allowed him to hold her hand kept him from such despair. Her eyes had left his, and she was looking at the floor, making it obvious that she was finding this quite difficult. Instinctively he softly pressed her hand, as though by doing so he could share some of his strength with her.
"Yes Elizabeth...?" he encouraged gently.
His solicitude, and the gentleness with which he spoke her name, was too much for Elizabeth and tears threatened to come with her confession.
"I need you to know that until only recently I had given credence to a story concerning you, that was told me by Mr Wickham..."
"I know that Elizabeth," Darcy answered with a smile, incredibly relieved that she was presenting no great impediment to his progress.
His free hand came up and lightly brushed away a small tear that had appeared on Elizabeth's cheek. It was a moths touch, but it affected her incredibly, and sent a little shiver over her whole body.
"You told me yourself, remember, at the ball at Netherfield - during our dance," he continued, "and I hope you don't mind, but Georgie told me again this afternoon."
"... You don't blame me for it?" she managed.
"How could I blame you... though your belief was ill-founded, formed on mistaken premises, I had never given you any reason to be at all suspicious of Wickham's lies. I cannot recall much of my behaviour in Hertfordshire without a feeling of abhorrence. I was too proud to give an account of myself to anyone."
"Oh do no say that Mr Darcy - indeed you have no improper pride."
Darcy laughed at this.
"Elizabeth, I know that I am far from perfect. I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own."
Elizabeth shook her head, denying such an explanation, though less than a month before she would have heartily assented. The last few weeks in Kent had made her almost forget the arrogant man she had known in Hertfordshire; but Darcy continued.
"It is nothing but the truth, sweet Elizabeth, and it has been you who opened my eyes to my true self... You can throw me as many disbelieving looks as you like, but it will not change the facts... If this going to be a night of confessions, I have one of my own, and I hope I can obtain your forgiveness."
Now it was time for Darcy to pause and struggle for the right words.
"I did have a hand in separating Mr Bingley from Jane in November."
It was at this point that Elizabeth did withdraw her hand. It was not a conscious rejection of Darcy, as much as an instinctive reaction to again being reminded of her sister's pain. It only took her moments to remember that Darcy had not held her sins against her, and also to recall that he had been the means of restoring her sister's happiness.
She regretted her impulsive movement straight way. It was not only her feeling that it was unjust toward Mr Darcy, but the loss she was now experiencing at the absence of his touch. She ached for physical contact with him again, and had she had the confidence at that moment, she would have reached out to him. As it was, she could not bring herself to make so forward a movement, but she could at least look at him.
For a painfully long moment Darcy waited. He was taken aback by Elizabeth's reaction, but questioned what else he could have expected. While one part of him suggested that he'd gone beyond stupidity for bringing the matter up, another told him that he couldn't begin this relationship with a lie, despite the risk of incurring Elizabeth's anger.
He was startled back into reality by a soft laugh, and looked up to find a beautiful pair of eyes considering him with a slight smile.
"I suddenly don't feel so bad for some of my former opinions about you Mr Darcy, and I feel that I can now salvage a few shreds of pride in my discernment - I'd been so sure you'd had something to do with Mr Bingley's defection. His sister's do not have the position of respect that you hold in his eyes... May I ask why you sought to break them apart?"
"As long as those opinions remain 'former...'," Darcy answered in relief that Elizabeth did not seem as angry as he'd at first thought, "...I will attempt to let you know what was going on in my mind at the time, and please believe me, I now understand the impertinence and arrogance of my interference, and truly regret my actions..."
"At that ball, while I had the honour of dancing with you, I was first made acquainted, by Sir William Lucas's accidental information, that Bingley's attentions to your sister had given rise to a general expectation of their marriage. He spoke of it as a certain event, of which the time alone could be undecided."
Elizabeth inwardly cringed at the memory of that night. Not only had she accused Mr Darcy of callousness toward Wickham, but it seemed as though the rest of her family had made a pact to expose themselves. She coloured at the memory but indicated for him to go on.
"From that moment I observed my friend's behaviour attentively; and I could then perceive that his partiality for Miss Bennet was beyond what I had ever witnessed in him. Your sister I also watched. -- Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening's scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment. -- I was misled by such error, to inflict pain on her, and your resentment is not unreasonable."
"Nor is your assessment of Jane's feelings Mr Darcy." Elizabeth reluctantly admitted, as she could not help remembering what Charlotte's opinion had always been. "I cannot deny the justice of this description of my sister. Jane's feelings, though fervent, are little displayed, and there is generally a constant complacency in her air and manner not often united with great sensibility."
"Oh thank you for allowing this Elizabeth. I know I was wrong but I shall not scruple to assert that the serenity of your sister's countenance and air was such as might have given the most acute observer a conviction that, however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be easily touched."
There were a few moments of awkward silence before Darcy continued.
"I assure you that my friend's attachment to Miss Bennet is sincere, and if I had not been able to convince him of your sister's indifference, nothing could have prevented the marriage. Bingley has great natural modesty, with a stronger dependence on my judgement than on his own. -- To convince him, therefore, that he had deceived himself, was no very difficult point. To persuade him against returning into Hertfordshire, when that conviction had been given, was scarcely the work of a moment - at the time I felt that I'd acted rightly, but now I truly blame myself for having done thus much."
"Then what was it that caused you to change your mind - to go to London it seems, with no other purpose than to reunite them?"
"It was you Elizabeth. I was already feeling guilty for deceiving my friend, by keeping from him the news of your sister's presence in town," Darcy replied ruefully. "Then one day I over-heard a comment that you made to Georgie about your sister, and it began to dawn on me that I might have made a terrible mistake."
"Eeves dropping Mr Darcy?" Elizabeth smiled. "I would have never expected such behaviour from you."
"Believe me Elizabeth, it was not deliberate," Darcy answered, recalling the circumstances that had left him an unwilling listener to the girls' conversation. The recollection of Elizabeth's emphatic rejection of him, still had the power to make him feel less than adequate, and he looked for some reassurance in her eyes.
"Well, be it by accident or providence, I'm certainly glad that you over heard us," Elizabeth spoke softly, "and I'm glad you are the type of man who is willing to admit error, and to take action to redeem the situation"
It occurred to Darcy as Elizabeth spoke these words, though she did not know it, that they were applicable to more that one error, and one situation, and he fervently hoped that he had achieved full redemption in Elizabeth's eyes.
As he looked at her beautiful face he could see the signs of tiredness, and he couldn't help but put his hand up to lightly caress her cheek, again sending that sensation of delight through Elizabeth.
"I hope that I have not stayed too long," he stated in concern. "I had forgotten for a moment that you are feeling ill."
"Not ill sir," she managed a little smile as she tried to overcome the extremity of her awareness of this man at her side. "I am just tired. I did not sleep at all well last night. There were too many thoughts running around in my mind."
"I hope that at least some of them were pleasant thoughts," Darcy answered, resisting the urge to run his fingers down her jaw line, and then to trace her enticing lips with them.
"As a matter of fact Mr Darcy, they were not," Elizabeth told him candidly. "I was too cross for pleasant thoughts."
"At whom was your anger directed?" Darcy asked, fearing he knew what the answer would be.
"At you Mr Darcy," Elizabeth answered with an ironic smile, "for being, I thought then, less that my ideal of perfection... but I was also very angry with myself for..."
Elizabeth drifted off, too embarrassed to complete the sentence out loud.
"Angry at yourself for...?" Darcy asked, as his hand again came up, this time to touch the softness of her hair.
Elizabeth took in the expression of tenderness in his features, and the question in his eyes which was coupled with a tinge of insecurity, and it was then that she realised she owed him an answer.
"...Angry at myself for having fallen in love with you," she finally admitted.
Had Elizabeth been able to maintain eye contact, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face, became him, but as it was, she heard him release a long sigh of relief.
"Even before learning I had done no wrong to Wickham, you loved me?"
"Yes" she answered in a small voice.
The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before, and he took some time to savour it before going on.
"Elizabeth, I love you, and I know that our love will continue to grow in the years that we have ahead... Would you allow me a kiss to seal our engagement?"
"I'm afraid that is something that I can't allow Mr Darcy," Elizabeth laughed. Her joy now threatening to overflow.
Mr Darcy's disappointment was not long lived though, as Elizabeth continued.
"I know that due to lack of sleep that I am not at my intellectual peak... but no matter how I cast my mind back over tonight's conversation, I cannot recall a proposal of any kind."
Darcy grinned as he removed himself from his seat and knelt before her.
Elizabeth looked embarrassed.
"Really Mr Darcy, that is not at all necessary."
"Dearest Elizabeth," Darcy replied with an wicked glint in his eye. "If receiving a kiss is contingent on a proper proposal, I'm not about to risk not doing this properly."
"Elizabeth Bennett," he went on, taking her hand in his. "I cannot conceive of a love or a longing greater than that which I feel for you. Will you please put me out of any despair by consenting to be my wife."
"I cannot think of anything that I desire more than to be your wife," Elizabeth answered softly, more moved than she ever thought possible.
"Is that a yes?" Darcy asked teasingly. "I mean, I do want to make sure that this has all been concluded officially."
"Of course it's a yes," Elizabeth laughed.
"Good," answered Darcy, sitting himself back close at Elizabeth's side.
He gently took her face in his hands, and turned her head up to face his. Elizabeth shivered again, not only at his touch, but at the love she could read in his eyes. He caressed her cheek as he ran his other hand around to the back of her neck and drew her softly toward him.
The electricity as their lips touched was almost tangible, and what began as tentative and light, soon deepened into something more, as they both savoured love's first kiss.
It was Darcy who ended the exchange, gently pulling away from her.
"I think that I should really leave now," he told her huskily, "or I may never go."
Elizabeth just nodded in silent assent, too overwhelmed with all she was thinking and feeling to speak.
She stood with him and they walked silently to the door.
"Goodnight Elizabeth," he said softly as he reached out to touch her face once more. "Sleep well."
"Mr Darcy," Elizabeth answered with that mischievous little smile that Darcy had come to know and love. "If I was unable to sleep last night after a simple kiss on the hand, I'd say I have no chance of any sleep at all tonight, or for many nights to come."
Darcy just laughed before giving her another, deliciously light kiss, and disappearing into the night.
Elizabeth actually did find sleep that night. It was a sleep not only of exhaustion, but also one of deep contentment. She had stirred in the morning, rather later than was her wont, with the rather delightful feeling that something was very right, and it took her a moment to become fully awake to the memory of the events of the previous evening.
She grinned as she lay there and indulged in the delicious remembrance of his words, his touch and his kisses. How could she have ever imagined that a day which began with such turmoil could end with such joy? Life was perfect... life was more than perfect... life was exactly as it should be.
Charlotte was a little concerned on Elizabeth's sleeping so late that she might still be unwell, but was reassured by her appearance at breakfast, looking both refreshed and cheerful.
She commented that the extra rest last night must have been just what Elizabeth needed.
Mr Collins, still put out by his cousin's non-attendance at supper, did not concur with his wife's assessment.
"It all turned out very poorly," he mumbled. "There was not enough to make up two full tables for cards, which I'm sure made things very inconvenient for Lady Catherine as hostess."
"Mr Collins, be fair! - Elizabeth's attendance made no difference to cards one way or the other," Charlotte remonstrated. "The fact that Mr Darcy was shut up in his room attending to matters of business for a large part of the evening, meant that a second table could have not been made up anyway."
Elizabeth suddenly felt extremely self-conscious but neither her blush, nor her quick turning the subject, awakened a suspicion of the truth.
After breakfast Charlotte informed Elizabeth that she had some things to take care of in the village that morning.
"Miss Elizabeth," Mr Collins chimed into the conversation. "I would strongly recommend you take the opportunity this will afford you, to visit Rosings to make some kind of amends for your absence last night, and also to say the appropriate farewells to her visitors. They have shown great condescension in their attentions to you during the last month, and are deserving of your thanks."
Elizabeth could hardly help laughing at so convenient a proposal, and assented to it immediately.
Consequently Elizabeth spent the next hour at the great house with Georgianna, Anne, and Lady Catherine. As was always the case when Lady Catherine chose to join their company, the girls were able to speak but little. Elizabeth and Georgianna though, did manage to have enough conversation to promise to write very regularly, and even to visit each other.
It was quite clear to Elizabeth that her brother had not yet informed his little sister of the engagement. In a way she was relieved by Lady Catherine's presence, as she knew it was Darcy's place to share the news with Georgie, and did not quite trust that she would have been up to keeping everything to herself had they been alone.
As it was, the greatest difficulty was proving to be keeping her mind on what was going on around her, because her thoughts were more with another, and on wondering when he might appear.
Her eyes were turned to the door more often than she was aware, but all her watchfulness came to naught, as the only addition to their party was Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was genuinely pleased to see Elizabeth looking so well, and commented to this effect, before joining Georgianna on the couch.
"Have you seen my brother since breakfast?" Georgianna asked of him. "I don't know if he's aware that Elizabeth is with us."
"He told me he intended to take in some exercise this morning," the Colonel replied. "He walked out not very long before Miss Bennet arrived."
Elizabeth's visit did not continue long after the question and answer above mentioned, as she soon made her goodbyes and walked out to the park herself.
Her instinct proved right, as she had not spent long on her favourite path when she heard from behind her, the voice for which she'd been waiting.
"I have been walking in this grove some time in the hope of meeting you."
"And I Sir, have been loitering at your Aunt's home in the hope of meeting you." She smiled up at him as she turned and caught his eye.
The smile Darcy gave Elizabeth in return was enough to make her joy over flow, and she willingly gave him the hand for which he reached.
"Last night my mind was not in a state to think of practicalities such as arranging a place and time to meet," he apologised. "It did occur to me just now that you might be at Rosings, but I'm afraid I didn't really want to see you in company. I'm not yet willing to share you with others. I'd much rather have you to myself."
Elizabeth coloured slightly at his words, but concurred whole-heartedly with the sentiment. This was certainly preferable to the sitting room at Rosings, where even the addition of one other person would seem like a crowd.
They wandered on hand in hand, not attending to their surroundings, as they just savoured the touch and closeness of the other, and the joy that came with the knowledge that they both loved, and were loved.
They spoke to each other in soft tones, sharing thoughts and feelings that only made the other ever more valuable. Though Darcy was not of a disposition in which happiness overflows in mirth, Elizabeth could not repress her joy and often her light and delightful laugh would rise to the surface, enchanting Darcy even more, and causing him to further bless his good fortune in obtaining the love of such a woman.
They came to the bench where they had been seated only a few weeks earlier, fighting their inclinations toward the other, but this time there was no such impediment and restraint in their communication, and they sat close together and talked of many things.
Elizabeth's spirits soon rising to playfulness, wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her.
"How could you begin?'' said she. "I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?''
"I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.''
"My beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners -- my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?''
"For the liveliness of your mind, I did.''
"You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them. Had you not been really amiable, you would have hated me for it; but in spite of the pains you took to disguise yourself, your feelings were always noble and just; and in your heart, you thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you. There -- I have saved you the trouble of accounting for it; and really, all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable. To be sure, you knew no actual good of me -- but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.''
"Was there no good in your affectionate behaviour to Jane while she was ill at Netherfield and in your interest, friendship and encouragement of Georgie during these last weeks?''
"Dearest Jane! who could have done less for her? And Georgie is just a delight, the time I have spent with her is my privilege. But make virtues of these by all means. My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible."
Darcy laughed at this, before replying.
"You do not know what your attentions have meant to Georgie."
"She has become a dear friend," Elizabeth honestly answered.
"She told me yesterday that she loved your friendship, but wished it could be more; she wished you could be a sister."
"My goodness," Elizabeth laughed. "She's becoming bold in her scheming. So that was what your proposal was all about. Pleasing your little sister?"
Darcy exclaimed against such a suggestion.
"Certainly not! As glad as I am that our engagement will give Georgie happiness, I'm afraid I was thinking only of myself... I would marry you even in the face of opposition from all my family."
"Speaking of which," Elizabeth asked with a slight smile, "Shall you ever have courage to announce to Lady Catherine what is to befall her?''
"I've thought on this," answered Darcy, unable to keep a wry smile from his own face, "and have decided that it would not be appropriate to tell her of our engagement until I have formally received your father's consent. I will inform her by letter from Hertfordshire."
"Excellent thinking Mr Darcy," Elizabeth laughed. "I can now add wisdom and discretion to your list of merits."
"I'd have thought they would already be close to the top of you list," Darcy answered in mock disappointment, "and please will you call me William. I'm afraid Mr Darcy seems far to formal for times such as these."
"I'd be delighted to William," Elizabeth replied, testing out the sound of his name on her tongue, and liking it. "Are you going to keep the news from Georgianna until then? I fear I will not be able to keep it from Jane once I see her."
"No, if you don't mind, I think I will tell Georgie and Fitz as soon as the carriage rolls out of the sight of Rosings."
"I don't mind in the least," Elizabeth answered, pleased that he wanted others to know of their happiness. "I'm sure they will share our joy. I fear though, that I may shock Jane with my communication. My sentiments have gone through so material a change since arriving in Kent, that she may think me joking."
"How do you think your father will react to my approach?" Darcy asked seriously. "Do you fear any opposition?"
Elizabeth thought on his question and earnestly wished her former opinions had been more reasonable, or at least her expressions more moderate.
"No," she answered. "I do not fear any opposition, but I will try and prepare him for the news. I would hate to see him made unhappy or distressed by my choice."
Darcy was again struck by the fact that his money and position did not gain him automatic approval from the Bennets. I was humbling and refreshing at the same time, to know that Elizabeth had come to love him personally, and not his status and wealth.
"I am sorry," he said, "that my arrogant behaviour in Hertfordshire has put you in this position."
"William, let us not quarrel for the greater share of blame in regard to my family's understanding of you. The conduct of neither, if strictly examined, will be irreproachable. If I hadn't been so gullible in regard to Wickham's lies, my father might have a whole different perspective on you."
Elizabeth had come back to earth quite suddenly at the thought of her manipulation at the hands of Wickham, and an involuntary shudder went though her body.
"Are you feeling alright Elizabeth?" Darcy asked in concern, immediately sensing the change in Elizabeth's mood.
"I'm fine William," she answered, forcing a smile, "It just occurred to me what I might have lost through my mistaken prejudice toward you. It's frightening to think that if my eyes had still been closed to this when you proposed, I might have refused you, and you would have been lost to me forever."
Darcy too felt all the horror of such a scenario, and took Elizabeth into his arms to comfort and reassure her. He did not really want to think on what might have been, had he not been made aware of his own deficiency in Elizabeth's eyes. The idea that he might have forever ruined his chances with her was inexpressibly painful.
He pulled her even tighter to him and murmured words of reassurance and love, causing in Elizabeth such an overload of emotions as she had never felt before, so much so that she wondered at the increase of feelings which she had already thought must have reached their apex. Love was proving to be so much more dynamic than she had ever imagined even in her wildest dreams. She wanted to be married to this man so much, and she wanted to be married very soon.
"When will you come to see my father?" she asked pulling back, suddenly recalling Darcy's mind from where it had wandered.
"Coincidentally enough, Bingley is planning a stay at Netherfield with in a week of your and Jane's return to Longbourne, and I think I might keep him company."
"Oh Jane is sly," Elizabeth grinned. "She said not a word in her letters. This will work out very well indeed. Though I begin to think that almost a week without you is far too long indeed. I will be extremely disappointed if you do not contrive some means of visiting me while I am at my Aunt and Uncle's on the way home."
"I would be extremely disappointed in myself if I could not contrive a reason such a visit," Darcy smiled at her in response. "I think I can give assurance of seeing you whilst in London."
"Thank you William, I shall look forward to it." Elizabeth laughed as she examined her watch. "Oh no! I believe that if I do not get back for lunch, Charlotte will be sending out a search party for me!"
William too looked at his watch, and exclaimed at the lateness of the hour. His time with Elizabeth had not seemed near long enough.
"I fear that my Aunt is going to be rather displeased with me," Darcy stated, not looking at all contrite. "but If I am going to be deprived of your presence for the next two days, can I take with me a quick kiss to tide me over."
"I thought you'd never ask," Elizabeth smiled cheekily, and she shivered with delight as he slid his hand up her back, and brought it to rest between her shoulder blades, as he drew her toward him for the kiss which they had both been desiring all morning.
Darcy may have intended the kiss to be light and decorous; he may have thought he would make it back to the meal just in time, but once their lips touched, thoughts of Lady Catherine and her table somehow became an even lower priority, and Darcy really felt very little remorse as he walked into his Aunt's dining parlour, almost half an hour late for lunch.
The congratulations that Darcy received upon informing Georianna and Colonel Fitzwilliam of his good fortune, were both sincere and joyful. They could not have wished for anything more for their loved and esteemed brother and cousin, and Georgie was almost as happy for herself in her acquisition of a sister, as she was for her brother in his choice of a wife.
Although he was secure in the knowledge of Elizabeth's love for him, being separated from her, even for such a short time, caused an acute emptiness in him, and he determined that as soon as he reached London he would try and talk Bingley into going down to Netherfield even earlier than he'd intended. Given all that his friend had written to him of Jane in his recent letters, he didn't think that Charles would take too much persuading.
On Elizabeth's arrival in London only two days later, she was barely able to keep her news to herself until she managed to find some time alone with Jane. As she'd anticipated Jane was a little confused at first, but it didn't take more than a few minutes to convince her that Darcy was truly the object of her choice and affection, and to receive in return, not only her heartfelt congratulations and joy, but also news of Jane's own engagement.
True to his word, Darcy was able to contrive reasons to visit the Gardiners with Bingley on both days Elizabeth was in London, and by the time the Gardiners saw their nieces off, they were happily anticipating, not one - but two, announcements of impending nuptials, and they rejoiced in the confidence that each of the men and women involved were deserving of the other's love and respect.
As Darcy had been easily successful in convincing Bingley to return to Netherfield almost immediately, Elizabeth had little time to prepare her father for the news. Her even higher than usual spirits however, and her constant mentions of her friends from Kent, made him suspicious of her feelings, though he at first assumed that the object of her affection must have been Colonel Fitzwilliam, because he knew that Darcy was a proud and unpleasant sort of man.
The arrival though, of Bingley and Darcy on their doorstep, only a couple of days after his daughters' return, and Elizabeth's obvious joy in seeing Bingley's friend, made him quickly reassess his assumption. Given this, he was not taken completely by surprise on receiving the petitions of both young men that very evening.
Elizabeth had the satisfaction of seeing her father taking pains to get acquainted with Darcy, as well as Bingley, and was happy in the assurance that her father was not only reconciled to, but relieved and pleased with her choice.
Mrs Bennet's reaction to the news of her two daughters engagements was somewhat more extreme, and her squeals of excitement and delight were such that she managed to strain her vocal chords, and the next day was unable to speak in anything above a whisper. Being of a disposition which made her unable to take the advice of the doctor, and rest her voice completely, especially when there was such news to be shared, she continued to spread the news with all the volume she could muster, and in doing so did herself permanent damage, leaving her forever unable to speak in anything but the softest voice.
An interesting aside to this outcome, and one that particularly amused her husband, was that amongst that part of society which is unable to look past appearances to substance, amongst those who could see only Mrs Bennet's good looks and hear her soft voice, she gained a strong reputation for elegance and discretion.
The only person of the Bennet household truly upset by her sisters' news was Lydia, as her required attendance at the wedding put a hole in a scheme to visit Brighton with her dear friend Mrs Forster. She cried out at the injustice, and pouted and sulked, but without even the support of her mother, her case had no hope at all.
It all worked out rather well for her in the long run though, for at the wedding she met a certain Mr Higgingbottom, an obscenely rich and very silly young widower to whom Caroline, after having seen all her attentions to Darcy as futile, had transferred her hopes, and had convinced her brother to invite to the wedding.
Mr Higgingbottom was immediately taken with Lydia's energy and vivacity, not to mention her full and inviting figure, and being too stupid himself to recognise her deficiencies, had proposed within the month. The world may not truly appreciate its good fortune in that Mr and Mrs Higgingbottom were never able to have children of their own. Mr Higgingbottom was not at all concerned, as he already had a heir by his first wife - a little boy who was now being loved and cared for by doting maternal grandparents - and this left him and his lovely young wife free to indulge in, and enjoy, all the superficial frivolities that the world had to offer them.
Lydia was not the only of the Bennet girls to have had her summer plans disturbed by the wedding, and as Elizabeth was no longer able (or at this time even desirous) to take the trip with her Aunt and Uncle, Mary was invited to join them.
On her return from such an enjoyable trip, relaxed, tanned and feeling generally good about herself, Mary caught the eye of her Uncle Phillip's clerk, whom she had secretly been harbouring strong feelings about for some time, and was married not long after Lydia. The happiness of such a settlement, brought an animation to her face and such a boost to her spirits, as forever put an end to there being any talk of a plain Bennet girl.
This left Kitty, the only single of the Bennet women, able to spend much of her time with her older two sisters, whose careful attention and instruction worked wonders on the younger girl. She became a much sought after prize in her own right, but turned down more eligible suitors in order to marry a superior young curate, whom she truly and rationally loved. With Mr Darcy's patronage he was able to rise very high in his profession, but no higher than he deserved.
Oddly enough, nothing was seen of Wickham by those at Longbourne after Elizabeth's engagement was announced, and it was later learned through some of Kitty and Lydia's contacts within the regiment, that he had taken flight from Brighton in order to avoid some debts of honour that he was unable to meet. What they never learned was that in his subsequent scheming to marry into money, he had passed himself off as a man of fortune and had been able to secure the hand of an older, but beautiful, Lady Susan Vernon. It was only after the marriage that he learned that she too had no money of her own, and was passing herself off as rich with the same purpose in mind.
Colonel Fitzwilliam frequently came to stay with his friends at Pemberley until he was called away by duty to do his service against Napoleon. During his time abroad his most faithful and cherished correspondent was Georgianna, whom he dearly missed.
When he returned from his service, made rich by his rewards, he wasted no time in paying his addresses to Georgianna by whom he was most joyously and gratefully accepted.
This development, though warmly approved and accepted by Darcy, took him from completely out of the blue, but on informing Elizabeth of the engagement, he found her delighted, but not in the least surprised.
The Darcy marriage was everything they had hoped it could be. It was not only one of passion and joy, but one in which each enhanced the other. It was a relationship in which they both chose to grow together, to face any trials as a couple, to share, to encourage and to laugh. It was a union which was dynamic rather than dramatic, rational as well as romantic, and one in which neither took their fortune in finding the other, or their true happiness, for granted.
The end..... ( oh, just in case you missed it, they all lived happily ever after.)