Posted on Friday, 26 July 2002
Elizabeth Bennet awoke on the morning after the Netherfield ball with a throbbing headache and a bad temper. To tell the truth, she actually had slept very little the previous night, having devoted the better part of the hours designated for that purpose to revisiting the disastrous events of the Netherfield Ball. She finally fell into a fitful sleep during which she ground her teeth and had nightmares about dancing with her embarrassment of a cousin, Mr. Collins. Lizzy opened her eyes to the harsh cold light of day and grimaced. Then she cringed as her mother's shrill voice pierced the thick oak door that separated her from the rest of the household.
"Lizzy! You are not still abed are you? Everyone else is already downstairs and we are waiting upon you."
"Mama, there is no need to wait upon my presence," Lizzy replied wearily. "I am unwell and wish to take my breakfast in bed this morning." The door opened and Mrs. Bennet bustled in.
"You will do no such thing. Mr. Collins fully expects you to be at the table this morning and you will not disappoint him."
"Mama, I am quite certain that Mr. Collins will be able to endure one meal without me in attendance. I am not--."
"Did you not hear me, child? You will get out of that bed and dress this instant! We are holding breakfast for you and you will come down. Betty!" A young servant appeared at the door. "You will help my daughter to dress and make herself presentable. I want her downstairs in ten minutes."
"Not another word, Lizzy!" With that, Mrs. Bennet left in a flounce of skirts and muttered complaints about ungrateful children and enormous sufferings.
"Close the door, Betty," Lizzy sighed as she slipped out of bed.
"Yes, ma'am," the young maid said. She'd brought in clean water earlier, so she immediately tuned her attention to finding suitable attire for the young mistress. "What do you wish to wear, ma'am?"
"Oh, anything, Betty," Lizzy said wearily. "It does not signify. I am destined to entertain Mr. Collins, after all." She slipped out of her nightgown and shivered.
"This will do nicely, then," Betty replied. Lizzy turned and looked at the simple morning dress. "Although I daresay Mr. Collins would like you in whatever dress you wore."
"If that was meant as a compliment it is wasted on me, Betty. I have no wish to impress my cousin," she said a bit abruptly. Realizing that her comment was a bit harsh, she turned and smiled at the blushing maid. "Perhaps you could find something among Mama's old mourning clothes that would be more suited to my opinion of him," she said with a twinkle in her eye. Betty immediately brightened and set about helping Lizzy to dress.
"Mrs. Hill says that Mr. Collins rather fancies you," she confided as she brushed Lizzy's lustrous hair.
"A regular oracle, that Hill," Lizzy replied sarcastically. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and sighed. "This shall do; it is as good as Mr. Collins deserves, anyway." Betty giggled.
"Perhaps better." Lizzy smiled back at her and descended the stairs. She encountered her mother coming out of the parlor.
Fitzwilliam Darcy also greeted the morning in a foul temper. He'd spent the previous night staring at the swagged silk canopy over his bed, which reminded him of the gown worn by a certain lady of his acquaintance the previous night. He'd asked her to dance and had spent every waking minute since regretting that moment of weakness. Thoughts of Elizabeth Bennet had haunted his every waking minute since that dance and filled his dreams as well. Mr. Darcy was forced to concede that he was in grave danger of becoming completely besotted with the beautiful, bewitching, beguiling and wholly unsuitable lady. I should never have permitted myself that brief indulgence, that opportunity to hold her hand, to gaze into those eyes, to lose myself...
"This is not to be borne," Mr. Darcy cried aloud as he sat up and threw off the bedclothes. He called for his manservant and got dressed. "We will leave after breakfast," he said and ordered his valet to begin packing his things. "No, no; it would be rude to leave without giving fair notice to my host. We will leave on the morrow. You can begin packing all that is nonessential for another day's stay." Mr. Darcy left his rooms and headed down the stairs to the breakfast room. He caught a glimpse of his host entering the room as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
"Good morning, Darcy!" the affable Mr. Bingley declared as he took a seat at the table.
"Bingley! I am surprised to see you up so early after the festivities of the previous evening. I should have thought you would sleep in this morning."
"I daresay I might have, if I could sleep. But I am far too happy to rest. I intend to break my fast and then put all of this spare energy to good use," Mr. Bingley replied with a secretive smile.
"May I inquire as to what you intend?" Mr. Darcy was amused by his friend's good mood. It seemed to be infectious for he found himself smiling in spite of the turmoil in his head.
"I am going to town. Oh, it will be just for the day; I fully intend to return tomorrow so there is no need for you to worry. I promise you that I will not tarry; you will have to suffer only one day at the hands of my dear sisters. I shall not be gone for one minute longer than my errand requires." Mr. Darcy's amusement grew as he watched his dear friend wolf down a sizeable breakfast.
"And what might that errand be?" Mr. Bingley looked around the room. Mr. Darcy did the same, curious as to what he was looking for. Seeing that his friend was satisfied, however, he returned his gaze to Mr. Bingley.
"I will be happy to tell you my mission, but you must promise to reveal it to no one, least of all my sisters."
"I am most intrigued," Mr. Darcy replied. "Pray tell, what is this quest?"
"Have I your word as a gentleman that you will not tell a soul?"
"On my honor, you do, indeed! Now what is it? I am positively aflutter with anticipation," Mr. Darcy said teasingly. Mr. Bingley leaned across the table to whisper, although the two men were completely alone.
"I am bound for London to purchase a gift." Mr. Darcy felt unaccountably disappointed.
"Yes, a very special gift...for a lady." Mr. Darcy felt a knot of dread in his chest.
"What manner of gift?" he inquired suspiciously.
"I believe the popular fashion these days is a ring," Mr. Bingley said with a significant look.
"A ring? Bingley, please tell me you are not contemplating--." Mr. Darcy could scarcely bring himself to utter the word aloud, as though saying it would make it all too real.
"It is high time I married, Darcy. Caroline was telling me so just last summer before we came into the country. And now I have found the perfect companion in--."
"No?" Mr. Bingley was stunned by Mr. Darcy's outburst.
"I mean...it is only that--. Bingley, you scarcely know the girl! She is very pretty, I grant you, but no more than any other girl you--."
"She is beautiful, yes, but there is much more to her than that. I love her, Darcy! She has captured my heart and upon my return tomorrow I intend to capture hers."
"Why must you act so hastily? The two of you have only just met," Mr. Darcy managed to sputter. He wanted to try and dissuade his friend from making a disastrous match, but he feared that any attempt to do so would be met with stubborn resistance. He needed time to think. He needed time to form a well-reasoned and undeniable argument that would convince his friend to see reason. He rose from his seat to refill his coffee cup and go to the window. He couldn't think with Mr. Bingley beaming at him like a lovesick fool.
"What is there to wait for? I love Jane Bennet and if she will have me I will make her my wife as soon as I may."
"Oh, I am quite confident she will have you," Mr. Darcy sneered into his coffee. Of that much he could be certain. He recalled with disgust the vulgar boasts of Mrs. Bennet at supper the previous night. She clearly meant to see her eldest daughter married to Mr. Bingley, undoubtedly with the goal of advancing the social status of her four younger daughters. The memorable eyes of Elizabeth Bennet intruded on his thoughts and he immediately banished them. If Mrs. Bennet had her way with Mr. Bingley she would indubitably set about promoting a match for her second eldest at her earliest convenience. Mr. Darcy could not allow his mind to be distracted by that possibility. He turned to confront his friend. "Does she love you?"
"It is not a difficult question, Bingley; has Jane Bennet displayed any sign of having found in you what you have so obviously seen in her?"
"What are you driving at, Darcy?" Mr. Bingley asked with a look of wounded dignity.
"I am only asking you to--." Mr. Bingley leapt to his feet and silenced Mr. Darcy with a gesture as the door opened and Caroline Bingley entered the room. Mr. Bingley gave his friend a beseeching look and Mr. Darcy nodded solemnly. He would say no more, for now. But he must do something and he must do it quickly, before Mr. Bingley found himself ensnared in a disadvantageous engagement by the calculating Mrs. Bennet.
Mr. Darcy returned to his seat, which happened to be opposite Caroline's. She bade him a good morning and promptly launched into a diatribe about the inferiority of the social circle of Hertfordshire compared with that of London. Mr. Darcy didn't listen to a word of what she said. He stared at his plate as he organized his thoughts knowing that he had to act quickly. Perhaps if he joined Mr. Bingley on his trip to town... He made the suggestion at the first lull in the conversation.
"Are we returning to town, Charles? I cannot say I am displeased to hear it," Caroline said. Mr. Bingley shot his friend a reproachful look. "I would not willingly tolerate another day in this--."
"We are not returning to town, Caroline. I am merely going to London on business this morning. I shall return tomorrow, so there is no need for anyone to stir. Why do you not stay on here, Darcy? My sisters would be seriously aggrieved if I was to deprive them of their only company." Mr. Darcy was surprised to hear Mr. Bingley's refusal; he hadn't expected it and it made him all the more suspicious. He listened to Caroline argue with her brother as he mechanically finished his breakfast, tasting nothing and thinking much. He looked up and into the eyes of Caroline. He knew he would need her help to persuade his friend to see reason. But how was he to obtain her assistance and support without betraying a confidence?
"Well, I hope you are satisfied, Miss Lizzy! While you were above stairs behaving like a prima donna your father went in to breakfast and took Mr. Collins with him."
"I am glad to hear it! It would have been most unfair to let Mr. Collins to go hungry just because I felt unwell."
"Well, there is nothing to be done for it now. He escorted Jane to the table, but I would have preferred to see you in her place. He was most anxious to escort you, I am sure. Well, we shall make the most of this opportunity, Lizzy. Go upstairs and change into your blue dress," Mrs. Bennet commanded.
"Go and change, girl! Mr. Collins was very complimentary the other day; he said he liked the look of you in blue."
"I daresay Mr. Collins was very complimentary about whatever color I wore, mama. In fact, our cousin has lavished praise on absolutely everything and everyone in Meryton since his arrival."
"Do not be so tedious, Lizzy! The man has eyes for you alone. Now go up and change!" Lizzy turned and headed back up the stairs.
"But I do not even own a blue dress," she muttered.
"Oh, and do something with your hair! It looks positively feral!" Lizzy sighed heavily and sat down on the top step as soon as her mother disappeared. Betty came out of the bedroom shared by the two youngest Bennet girls with an armload of linens.
"Are you all right, ma'am?" Lizzy looked up dully, but a moment later she smiled and rose to her feet.
"Get your wrap, Betty!" she cried as she flew down the steps. "Meet me outside."
"Why, miss?" Lizzy did not answer and Betty quickly went to the servant's room and retrieved her woolen shawl. She met Lizzy outside and ran to catch up with her, for Lizzy turned and headed for the gate of the small estate as soon as she spied Betty coming around the back of the house.
"Do not tarry! We must make good our escape," Lizzy said laughingly as she ran down the lane toward the village of Meryton. "Believe me, you do not want to be here when my absence if discovered!"
"Will you not reconsider, Bingley?"
"Why, Darcy, if I did not know better I would say you were afraid to stay behind with my sisters," Mr. Bingley chided him as the two men descended the front steps.
"Well, to tell you the truth, Bingley, I was considering returning to town myself," Mr. Darcy admitted. "In fact, I had planned on leaving tomorrow."
"Why?" Confronted with Mr. Bingley's blunt ingenuousness, Mr. Darcy found that he had no ready answer. He shrugged.
"I awoke this morning with a desire to be in town, perhaps take in a play or an evening's entertainment," he said vaguely.
"We have had a good deal of entertainment here in the country," Mr. Bingley replied. "Nothing of the sort to compare with London, I grant you, but rather pleasant nonetheless."
"Yes, but I long to walk the streets of the city. I wish to buy a new coat before the winter fully sets in and--."
"Well, why not wait till the week's end at least? It would be unkind of you to leave us soon after the ball. We shall not be entertaining company for another two weeks or more, so we are in need of your good company, Darcy. Do say you will stay a bit longer," Mr. Bingley pleaded. No sooner had Mr. Darcy reluctantly agreed to the plan than Mr. Bingley began to urge him to stay on till the new year. "We can ride up to town for your winter coat next week," he insisted. Mr. Darcy promised to consider the request and watched his friend' carriage leave Netherfield.
He walked back into the house regretting his failure to raise the questions that he'd held back earlier. He could not in good conscience allow Mr. Bingley to succeed in his plan to marry Jane Bennet, but he could also not in good conscience break his friend's heart. But one priority must give way to the other and Mr. Darcy needed to make a decision as to which one must be sacrificed: Mr. Bingley's present happiness or his future?
"Where are we going, ma'am?"
"I do not know," Lizzy admitted, "but I am not yet ready to accept my fate gracefully."
"What fate is that, ma'am?"
"Mama wishes for me to marry Mr. Collins. I have tried to ignore her 'subtle' hints, but I am afraid that I can no longer pretend to be ignorant of her objective. I have no intention of accepting him, of course, but Mama will insist upon my hearing his suit and she will be furious with me for refusing his proposal." Mrs. Bennet had been hinting for days that Mr. Collins wanted to make Lizzy his wife, and her mother's behavior that morning warned her that Mr. Collins's offer of marriage was imminent. Even the thought of submitting to an audience with Mr. Collins was repugnant to Lizzy and she picked up her pace, practically forcing Betty to run to keep up with her.
Mr. Darcy walked back toward the entrance of the house but instead of entering he turned on his heel and headed for the stables. Minutes later he was mounted and riding across an open expanse of green in the direction of Netherfield's western gate. He needed to think before he approached Caroline or her sister, Mrs. Hurst, and he needed to consider the value of his friendship with Charles Bingley before he did anything else. Mr. Darcy was well aware of the potential consequences of his interference. Mr. Bingley was an affable, tractable sort of man, but Mr. Darcy had never seen him look as determined as he appeared to be that morning. In all their years as friends Mr. Bingley had allowed himself to be guided by the older man's advice. What if, on this occasion, he chose to assert his independence? What if Mr. Bingley did not appreciate his friend's concern and chose to sever their longstanding acquaintance? And if his intervention did not cost him Mr. Bingley's friendship, would Mr. Darcy be willing to continue their acquaintance once Bingley had allied himself to the Bennets? Mr. Darcy would have to sort all that out and weigh his options. He had to come to a decision about a course of action and soon. But first, Mr. Darcy decided to simply enjoy the morning with a bit of exercise.
The exertion of riding always helped to clear his head. He kicked his horse into a gallop and let it have its head. But after just a few minutes it drew up lame and Mr. Darcy quickly dismounted to assess the horse's condition. He was a short distance from the gate and he walked toward it intent on taking advantage of the large boulder that sat close to the high wall that enclosed that part of the property.
"Why will you refuse him? I mean I know he is not as handsome or as clever as any of the men of the militia, but he is a good man and Mrs. Hill says that he is to inherit Longbourn after the master dies." Betty bowed her head, concerned that she might have offended Lizzy in speaking about the possibility of her father's death. But Lizzy looked at Betty with surprise. The two had wandered aimlessly for some time and now coincidentally found themselves very near to Mr. Darcy's position. Unbeknownst to them, he was just on the other side of the wall next to which they were standing. He sat down upon the rock and lifted his horse's hoof to examine it.
"Betty, you might think it is important to marry well and make a good situation for yourself...and to some extent I agree with you. But there is much more to marriage than financial security."
"What do you mean, ma'am?" Mr. Darcy raised his head. He had instantly recognized the voice of Elizabeth Bennet and looked around to see where she might be. He quickly surmised that she was on the far side of the wall and was both grateful and disappointed simultaneously. She could not see him, but alas, he could not see her, either. Mr. Darcy hearkened his ears; he was extremely curious as to what Miss Bennet had to say on the subject of marriage.
"I know this will go against all you have been told, but hear me out before you reject my advice. One should not choose a marriage partner simply on the basis of monetary advantage or social status. While such a marriage might suffice to assure one of a comfortable establishment, it does nothing for one's emotional well-being."
"Well-being, yes," Lizzy repeated patiently. "What I am trying to say, and not at all well, I fear, is that one should give equal consideration, if not more, to the man she marries. That man will be her partner for life. She will be his companion for a good many years; how can she agree to his proposal without giving some thought to his personality or temper, to his likes and dislikes? How can she plight her troth with his if she cares nothing for him? Or worse, what if he should care nothing for her beyond getting himself an heir and a body to occasionally warm his bed?"
"Miss Lizzy, how shocking!"
"Yes, Betty," Lizzy laughed. "It is most shocking," she agreed, intentionally misinterpreting the girl's meaning. "But some men will marry for reasons that are not entirely...altruistic."
"I do not understand, ma'am," Betty said in confusion. Mr. Darcy dropped his horse's hoof and stood up to listen, all curiosity.
"I am sure you do not," Lizzy laughed, "but my point is a simple one. One needs to choose her marriage partner wisely. One cannot always find wealth in a marriage, but if one tries one can find happiness. A girl should marry a man she admires and respects. Indeed, a girl should only marry a man she can love. We have daily reminders of what can happen when two people who are unsuited marry," Lizzy said with a sigh.
"Who do you mean, ma'am?"
"Can you not see it, Betty? No, I am sure you do not. Our parents," she said hesitantly. But she drew herself up and went on. "You must not repeat what I am about to tell you, Betty. I will say this to you in confidence because I want you to promise me that you will only marry for love." Betty's eyes opened wide and she nodded.
"I promise, ma'am." Mr. Darcy was most intrigued.
"My parents married for all the wrong reasons. My father needed a wife and my mother needed a husband. Oh, they might have been fond of each other at one time, but I am sure little thought was given to such things as compatibility or love. And you see the result--a father who has grown indifferent and insensitive to his wife, five daughters with little to recommend them but their charms and very little in the way of proper instruction on how to comport themselves in society."
"Oh, but Miss Lizzy! You are one of the most elegant ladies I have ever seen!" Mr. Darcy smiled at the compliment, while Lizzy laughed outright.
"Betty, you have seen very few elegant ladies in your lifetime, I daresay, and if you did you would know that I am nothing of the sort!" Mr. Darcy frowned at Lizzy's harsh self-criticism. "I am far too impertinent and I care too little for fashion or my appearance to others to make any claim of being elegant," she laughed. Mr. Darcy's smile returned and he found himself agreeing with her statement. He folded his arms and mused on the fact that in spite of the fact that he believed Lizzy to perform quite well in elegant society, elegance had very little to do with her appeal.
"Nonsense, Miss Lizzy! Both you and all the Miss Bennets are very elegant ladies! I have seen none finer!"
"Oh, Betty! Had you seen my sisters last night you would not say so," Lizzy said with a sigh. "The ball last night was a disaster for all our family! I have never been so mortified or humiliated in my life!" Mr. Darcy heard the distress in Lizzy's voice and instinctively rose to his feet, knowing that decorum required him to walk away so as not to eavesdrop on such a personal discussion, but his feet would not move. He sat down again and listened quietly, letting go of the horse's reins and letting it amble off a short distance lest it make a noise that would give him away.
"Oh, only a million things too embarrassing to talk about," Lizzy said as tears rose to her eyes and threatened to spill over. "It was as though some conspiracy had been contrived to make my family the laughingstock of Hertfordshire! I could not believe so many awful things could happen to one family and in so little time."
"Oh, dear! Miss Lizzy, please don't cry," Betty pleaded. She wanted to comfort her young mistress but could think of nothing to do. She drew Lizzy to the side of the path opposite the wall and bade her to sit on a tree stump. "Please, ma'am..." To her amazement, Lizzy suddenly began to laugh.
"I suppose I should have taken Mr. Collins's request for the first two dances as an omen of bad things to come. When we danced--," she paused to laugh again, though bitterly, "if such a thing could be called dancing, the poor man trampled my foot and went awry at every turn! I shall never again laugh at the absurdity of watching mismatched partners dance, now that I have lived that experience for myself," Lizzy declared. "In fact, I should never dance again," she added as an afterthought, although she realized with an uncomfortable pang that she did dance again that night. Mr. Darcy was equally cognizant of that fact and took a deep breath and casually slumped against the wall, transported by the memory of those eyes... He quickly righted himself with the thought that those eyes were now full of tears.
"It should be very unfortunate to find oneself married to a man who cannot dance," Betty observed. Lizzy looked up at her.
"Yes, Betty," she said dryly. "That is precisely the thing to offer as my excuse for rejecting Mr. Collins." Mr. Darcy frowned. His Elizabeth? Married to Mr. Collins? He was certain that his hearing had failed him and rose to his feet again, drawing closer to the wall. He heard Lizzy sigh. "If that were the only thing I had to regret last night I would not complain, but alas, it was just the beginning. There were more embarrassing things to follow, more ill-suited partners..." Mr. Darcy clenched his jaw in righteous anger.
"What happened, miss?" Lizzy sighed again.
"My younger sisters were most unguarded and wild in their behavior. They danced every dance and flirted outrageously with all the soldiers. Our parents did nothing to restrain them; our father removed himself to the gaming room to play at cards as soon as we arrived and our mother was far too busy boasting about the possibilities of a marriage between Mr. Bingley and Jane to pay them any attention. It was awful, Betty," Lizzy said as she rose from her seat. "Mama spoke quite boldly and in plain hearing of everyone, including the Bingleys. Then Mary insisted upon playing the pianoforte after dinner. You know she has much enthusiasm but limited talent. Father emerged from the gaming room to eat and stopped her in the middle of her second piece in a most rude and shameful manner with no regard for poor Mary's feelings," Lizzy said as the vision of Mary's red face appeared to her once more. Mr. Darcy was stunned by Lizzy's unvarnished recitation. She had seen everything as he had done and had not flinched from an accurate portrayal of her family's transgressions.
"Oh dear! It must have been awful for you!"
"Oh, I care nothing for myself, but poor Jane! I shudder to think what all of this will cost her." Lizzy began to walk and Betty hastened to follow. Mr. Darcy also followed. He had to know what was said next.
"Did something befall her as well?"
"No, no, Betty, it's just that...well, she has fallen deeply in love with Mr. Bingley. She has not said as much, of course, and as you know, our dear Jane has never been effusive with her emotions. But I can see it in her eyes when she speaks of him, and I saw it last night when they looked into each others' eyes." Mr. Darcy froze in his tracks. Could this be true? He shook his head, but it occurred to him that Elizabeth Bennet had no reason to lie to her companion. "I am sure that he loves her as well."
"That is wonderful! Mr. Bingley is ever so handsome. He's not as handsome as Mr. Darcy, but rather comely nonetheless." Lizzy looked up sharply as did the man who suddenly found himself the topic of discussion.
"When have you seen Mr. Bingley or Mr. Darcy?"
"I have seen them riding by in town and last week when they came to pay their respects to Mr. Bennet." Lizzy nodded, satisfied with Betty's response. "Do you think he will ask for her hand in marriage, then?"
"I would have expected it until last night," Lizzy admitted, "but after our family disgraced itself before all of Meryton I should think it very likely that Mr. Bingley will have second thoughts. At the very least I am sure that Mr. Bingley's sisters and Mr. Darcy will discourage him from aligning himself to our family." Mr. Darcy agreed very strongly with Lizzy's opinion.
Indeed, I shall do precisely that, Mr. Darcy thought to himself, even as he felt a twinge of guilt. If the pair was truly in love...
"Jane will be left with a broken heart and why? Because my parents are both too self-absorbed to devote the time and energy to each other and to their children."
"I still do not understand, ma'am." Lizzy sighed again.
"No, Betty. Perhaps I am not making sense. Perhaps I am rambling. But all that happened last night might easily have been prevented--save for Mr. Collins," Lizzy smiled ruefully. "If my parents had given more thought and consideration to how we are perceived by others, if Lydia and Kitty were taught proper manners and comportment, if my mother and father had been more discreet--. We are all victimized by their neglect and Jane will suffer for it. She will lose her Mr. Bingley. What if it was her only chance to marry for love?
"What right has my family, or anyone else for that matter, to deprive Jane of her chance at happiness? Why should she face a future without Mr. Bingley because her sisters are too foolish to know how to act? Why should she be deemed unworthy to marry Mr. Bingley because Mary insinuated herself into an inappropriate situation to display her talents and my father tactlessly extricated her? Mind you, if someone just once had showed her an ounce of appreciation under other circumstances she would not try so desperately to prove herself. Is Jane to spend the rest of her life regretting Mr. Bingley because my family was held up to ridicule and is reviled by the Mr. Darcys and Miss Bingleys of the world? Make no mistake, Betty, I love all of my family very dearly, but I can no longer pretend that my parents and my sisters are sweet innocents. We shall all share in their disgrace and Jane more than the rest of us."
Lizzy walked on, but Darcy no longer made an effort to keep up. He was deeply moved by Lizzy's words. Never had he heard such a scathing criticism of one's own relations and it deeply troubled him. He felt pity for both Jane Bennet and her sister. But Lizzy had not gone far, so he still heard her next words.
"I...I should not have said any of that," Lizzy said softly. She stopped and turned to Betty with a pained look.
"It is all right, ma'am. I understand. This has been preying on your heart since you left the ball last night and you needed to--."
"I needed to vent my frustration," Lizzy laughed mirthlessly. "But I am as bad as the rest of them, standing her gossiping with a servant like a fishmonger's wife."
"You are being too hard upon yourself, Miss Lizzy. You are nothing like a fishmonger's wife. You are nothing like your sisters, either. Well, you are like Miss Jane. You are both good and kind and well-mannered. You feel things very strongly, and your concern for your sister speaks very highly of you. I wish there was something I could do to help, miss. Neither you nor Miss Bennet deserve to lose your chance at happiness." Lizzy hugged the younger woman.
"Thank you, Betty. I have no illusions about my future. It is Jane I am concerned for." Mr. Darcy frowned at this, and stood pondering all he had heard as Lizzy and her companion turned and walked away.
"Elizabeth Bennet, where have you been?" Mrs. Bennet cried as soon as entered the house. "We have been waiting for you for the better part of an hour. You were sent to change your gown and--."
"I do not have a blue gown, Mama," Lizzy interjected gently. "My headache returned and I thought it might improve if I took a walk to get some air."
"Mr. Collins was most disappointed to miss you at breakfast, Lizzy. I had a time of it consoling him," Mrs. Bennet said as she warmed to her topic and prattled on. Lizzy looked to Jane, whose tiny shake of the head gave the lie to her mother's protestations. Lizzy took a seat beside her sister and pulled out her sewing, relieved to hear that Mr. Collins was spending the day with Meryton's vicar.
But as she sat and did her work she recalled her words to Betty that morning. She looked across the room at her mother, who was complaining bitterly about Lizzy's ingratitude; at her two youngest sisters, who were bickering over a piece of lace; at her sister Mary, who was determinedly studying Fordyce; and finally at Jane, whose sad long-suffering smile very nearly broke her heart. Lizzy turned her eyes back to the work in her lap and fought back tears of despair.
By the time Mr. Darcy had walked back to Netherfield he was certain of only one thing. He'd been mistaken in his assumption that Jane Bennet was an adventuress. Her sister's eloquent defense left him in no doubt that Miss Bennet's affections belonged to his friend. Mr. Darcy took some comfort in knowing that Mr. Bingley's feelings were returned. Perhaps he had misconstrued the true state of things. Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley were in love. Of course, over the course of the last decade, Mr. Darcy had seen his young friend fall into and out of love more times than he could count. But if Miss Bennet's heart was true, maybe Mr. Bingley had justly found his mate and was indeed ready to marry and settle down.
But that did not alter the fact that Mrs. Bennet, indeed the entire Bennet family, was a problem. No, not the entire family... Mr. Darcy stood on the steps for a moment recalling Elizabeth Bennets' painful depiction of her family.
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane Bennet cannot be taken into consideration with the others. They are both above reproach," Mr. Darcy admitted. But that left the problem of the Bennets. "Perhaps the thing to do is to convince Bingley to slow things down. Make him wait and carefully consider what he would be getting himself into before he makes her an offer. I can do that much for him. If he still wants to marry Miss Bennet once he has had a chance to think things through, then I must and will give him my blessing." Mr. Darcy headed for the library and settled himself into a comfortable chair to consider the matter further. If he could persuade his friend to give up Netherfield and move north, or perhaps just into Kent...any distance between himself and the Bennets would improve Bingley's chance for happiness. Mr. Darcy decided that he could be quite content being married to Miss Bennet, knowing that her family was two days' travel distant. He was, admittedly, not thinking of Mr. Bingley's Miss Bennet and he also knew all too well that Mrs. Bennet would strongly oppose Mr. Bingley's removal from Hertfordshire with her daughter.
"If Miss Elizabeth were the object of Bingley's affections I'd have little doubt of Bingley's success in leaving Hertfordshire. Then again, if Miss Elizabeth were the object of Bingley's affections I should be quite--." Mr. Darcy fell silent when he heard voices in the hall outside the library.
"It really is a pity that Jane has been burdened with such a family. She is such a pretty thing. If she had decent connections I would be quite willing to overlook her lack of fortune."
"Perhaps you would, Louisa, but I see no reason why Charles should settle for a poor girl when there are so many more suitable ones to choose from. However lovely Jane Bennet may be, she adds nothing to our fortune or our stature in society and we are not so well positioned that we can afford to overlook those priorities." Mr. Darcy grimaced when he heard Caroline Bingley's comment. It was very similar to the argument he'd made earlier himself, but now it sounded coldly mercenary to his ears.
"It is our brother's decision to make, Caroline," Louisa laughed. "You speak as though his choice of marriage partner was something to be decided jointly between the two of you."
"Do not be coy, Louisa! I know you have no intention of standing idly by while Charles falls into the clutches of that scheming family. They are only out for what they can get and they mean to have Charles's fortune."
"And just how do you intend to stop them?"
"I am going to have a word with Mr. Darcy. He will know how to act. He will not permit his friend to marry beneath himself because of a pretty face."
Beneath himself, Darcy thought angrily. Why Mr. Bennet has greater claim to the title of "gentleman" than Bingley! He rose and walked to the window, to put more space between himself and the conversing pair.
"Are you sure that is wise, Caroline? Mr. Darcy may not be disposed to involve himself in such a scheme."
"Nonsense, Louisa!" Mr. Darcy winced as Caroline's words reached his ears in spite of having doubled the space between them. "Mr. Darcy is very much concerned with our brother's well-being. He would not wish Charles to make an unfortunate alliance, especially one that would sink him in Mr. Darcy's estimation." Mr. Darcy grimaced again as a pang of guilt clutched his heart. Would his friendship truly suffer if Bingley were to marry Jane Bennet? He searched his conscience and was relieved to find that the answer was no. Charles Bingley deserved to be as happy in marriage as any man. Why should he not marry the woman he loved, even if Darcy himself did not approve?
"I have been a fool," Mr. Darcy told himself as he laid aside the book in his hand. He strode purposefully toward the door, which opened to admit Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst. Mr. Darcy bowed stiffly. "Good morning, ladies," he said.
"Good morning, Mr. Darcy," Louisa said.
"We wonder if we might have a word with you on a most urgent matter," Caroline interjected.
"Urgent?" Mr. Darcy repeated.
"It concerns our brother," Caroline said. "You saw his behavior last night at the ball. He danced almost exclusively with Miss Jane Bennet and showered her with attention. It did not go unnoticed, I assure you," Caroline said, "and I can also assure you that Mrs. Bennet now assumes that an understanding has been reached between the pair."
"And this is urgent?" Mr. Darcy said levelly.
"It is, indeed, Mr. Darcy! You must not allow this to go any further!" Caroline exclaimed as she grabbed hold of his arm imploringly. Mr. Darcy looked down and restrained himself from pulling away.
"It is hardly my place to intervene in such a matter."
"Oh, but you must, Mr. Darcy! I am quite certain that our brother is prepared to throw himself away on that girl! You must do something! You are Charles's closest friend and he has always benefited by your good counsel. Please say that you will speak to him when he returns on the morrow. Something must be done." Mr. Darcy moved his gaze from Caroline to her sister.
"And are you in agreement, Mrs. Hurst?"
"I must admit that I am concerned at the alarming rate with which things seem to be proceeding. Charles..." she faltered in the face of her younger sister's glare. "Yes, Mr. Darcy. I believe that you should have a word with our brother. Something must be done." Mr. Darcy smiled to himself.
"Very well; I shall have a word with Bingley upon his return tomorrow. Now if you will excuse me, I have an errand to run." With that, he left the ladies to the ruminations and escaped from Netherfield once more. This time he ordered his carriage for a ride into Meryton.
Longbourn was in an uproar. Lizzy had received and adamantly refused the long-dreaded proposal of marriage from the Mr. Collins, resulting in his abrupt departure for the friendlier atmosphere of Lucas Lodge and the fury of Mrs. Bennet, whose vituperative commentary rained down upon Lizzy and the rest of the unfortunate household for a better part of an hour. Finally, more for his own peace of mind than anything else, Mr. Bennet suggested that Lizzy leave the house for a while. She was only too happy to comply. She grabbed her reticule and hat and ran out of the house as quickly as her legs would allow. She slowed down once she reached the gate, relishing the comparative quiet and calm. Jane joined her at a more sedate pace and together the pair set out for Meryton.
By the time Mr. Darcy arrived in Meryton he was in considerably better spirits. He'd come to the conclusion that he'd been prejudiced in his estimation of Jane Bennet and was determined to guide Mr. Bingley as any true friend would. He would help him find his happiness and if that meant that Bingley would marry Miss Bennet so be it. As to how to deal with Bingley's sisters, Mr. Darcy was less complacent. He would have to deceive them. That did not sit entirely well with them, but hadn't they asked Mr. Darcy to use his influence to prevent their brother from making a mistake? Mr. Darcy smiled as the carriage came to a halt in front of the confectioner's shop. Mr. Darcy exited the carriage and asked the coachman to meet him at the end of the high street. He looked down the neat row of shops and decided to stretch his legs before going to the library, his intended destination. He cast a glance in the opposite direction, and saw Colonel Forster and his wife. He spoke with them briefly, so that he didn't see the Bennet sisters enter the library before him.
Mr. Darcy turned toward the library and began to walk. He paused at the window of the haberdasher's and stopped in to look at his selection of gloves. Mr. Darcy was rather impressed with the small shop's selection and bought a pair of riding gloves to replace the pair he'd damaged that morning. He continued on toward the library and crossed the road. He was about to enter the library when he saw a familiar face.
"Why if it isn't Mr. Darcy," George Wickham said with a sneer. "I heard you were in Hertfordshire."
"Yes and I heard that you had gone to London to avoid meeting me," Mr. Darcy replied easily.
"Avoid you? Why on earth would I wish to do such a thing? I thought we were old friends." Mr. Darcy tightened his grip on his walking stick and grimaced. "What? Nothing to say to your old friend?" Mr. Darcy turned and faced Mr. Wickham.
"Friend? You throw that word about very casually, Wickham." Inside the library, Lizzy looked up at the sound of the two men's voices. She turned to the window and peered out. Thus she became a silent witness to their confrontation.
"What could you possibly mean by that remark?" Mr. Wickham smirked. "Why you and I used to be thick as thieves."
"You are half right, Wickham. You always were a thief, and for a time I was too thick-headed to do anything about it."
"Why, Darcy, you wound me!" Wickham replied smoothly. "Besides, that is all in the past! I have joined the militia. An honest soldier is what you see before you," he said with a flourish of a bow.
"The past?" Darcy growled. "Why it was less than four months ago that you attempted to rob me of thirty thousand pounds."
"It was your sister's thirty thousand pounds," Wickham replied, "and she was more than willing to share it with me."
"Share? You have never shared anything that you could simply take for yourself," Mr. Darcy spat.
"Like your sister's honor?" Lizzy gasped and covered her mouth at the implication of the remark. Mr. Darcy growled again and started to grab at Wickham's lapels.
"Ah, ah, ah, Darcy! We are not in Derbyshire, where you are admired and respected wherever you go. Here you are merely an arrogant, pretentious snob whom no one cares for. If you raise a hand to strike me, do you think anyone will believe me to be at fault?"
"I care nothing for what others may think of me, Wickham," Mr. Darcy said ominously. "I know what you are and why you are here. Do not think for one minute that I will not expose you to Colonel Forster."
"Oh? And will you expose the folly of your trusting, innocent little sister who was more than willing to give herself to me--." This time, Mr. Darcy did grab the man's lapels and press him to the wall.
"So help me, Wickham, if you attempt to besmirch Georgiana's reputation I will--."
"You will what? You dare not tell the world the truth of how you allowed your fifteen year old sister to be coaxed into an illicit elopement. Let us not play games, Darcy," Wickham said as he pushed the larger man away. "I know you and your steadfast sense of honor. You will go to your grave with that secret rather than expose poor Georgiana to shame and ridicule." Mr. Darcy glowered but remained silent. Emboldened by this, Mr. Wickham stepped smiled and calmly dusted his red coat. "You know, we need not be enemies, Darcy. We have always understood each other."
"I do not pretend to understand the likes of you, Wickham."
"Ah, yes, the good saintly Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. A man without vice! A man without a flaw! Well, we are not all as perfect as you. But perhaps, if I could start over, make a clean breast of things...I have been thinking about going to the Continent. Perhaps if you were to assist me--."
"Let me make myself perfectly understood. You will not receive one farthing from me. I have already given you far more than you deserved. For years I paid your gambling debts at school. I gave you the sum of three thousand pounds in lieu of the living you so foolishly declined to accept from my father's legacy. I even bailed you out of that entanglement when you ran afoul of those smugglers a year ago, and I gave you another thousand pounds when you left Ramsgate last summer. My estate now supports two bastards born to young girls you toyed with and abandoned. I am through wasting my hard earned money on the likes of you. You will never again hurt me, or my family, or anyone I care about ever again," Mr. Darcy said in a menacingly low tone. "If you so much as show a sign of causing trouble to anyone, leaving a gambling debt, spoiling a girl's virtue or even cheating an extra biscuit at tea I will use every bit of influence at my disposal to see to it that you are dealt with to the full extent of the law." Mr. Wickham went pale, as did Lizzy. She had not thought Mr. Darcy capable of such anger. Nor could she believe the things he said of George Wickham. She turned away from the window with her thoughts in turmoil.
She knew she should not have eavesdropped on their discussion. It was apparently not meant for prying ears. But what she had heard had rocked her to the core. Mr. Darcy, who she was so willing to believe a reprehensible arrogant man, castigated Wickham for his licentious behavior! Indeed, his accusations gave the lie to George Wickham's earlier assertions that he had been the wronged party in his dealings with Mr. Darcy. Lizzy put her hand to her head. She needed to think.
"Lizzy?" Jane put her hand on her sister's shoulder and Lizzy started. "Are you unwell?"
"I think I need some air," Lizzy managed to say. She immediately caught herself and turned away from the door, but it was too late. Jane opened the door and stepped outside drawing her sister out with her. Lizzy found herself face to face with the two men. Mr. Wickham sketched a hasty bow to the two women and briskly strode away. But Mr. Darcy composed his features and bowed most civilly.
"Good morning to you, Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth." The two ladies curtseyed.
"Good morning, Mr. Darcy," Jane replied amiably.
"Mr. Darcy," Lizzy managed. He fixed his gaze upon her and noted with some alarm that she was rather pale.
"All you all right Miss Elizabeth? Forgive me, but you do not look at all well." Before Lizzy could protest, Jane confirmed his suspicions and Mr. Darcy took hold of her arm.
"I am fine, I assure you both," she said, but confusion reigned in her mind and she felt oddly lightheaded.
"You are not well, Miss Elizabeth. I know you are rather decided in your opinions but I will not defer to your judgment on this occasion," he said with a tiny smile. "My carriage is at the end of the street. Let me fetch it and see you home."
"Oh, no, Mr. Darcy. That is not necessary!" Lizzy cried. She was even more confused by his sudden display of concern.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy. It would be most appreciated," Jane said with a stern look for her sister. Mr. Darcy jogged up the street and returned with his carriage a moment later. Mr. Darcy's own hand guided Lizzy into the carriage and he took a seat opposite the sisters and rapped on the roof of the carriage to urge it forward. Lizzy could not bring herself to look him in the eye.
Lizzy thought back to all she thought she knew about the man before her. She'd allowed her bruised pride to transform Mr. Darcy, the man who had snubbed her at a country dance, into a villain capable of despicable deeds. She'd thought him cold, arrogant, cruel and unfeeling, malicious, and conceited. How wrong she had been in her estimation of him! How eager she had been to interpret his every action and word to suit her agenda! Lizzy could not believe how easily she'd allowed herself to see in Mr. Darcy everything to ridicule and dislike. And how wrong she had been to trust Mr. Wickham at his word! Gambling debts, spoiled girls, an attempted elopement with a girl of fifteen...the daughter of the man who had treated him as his own son...Lizzy could feel nothing but shame and self-loathing at how easily she'd allowed herself to be taken in by George Wickham's smooth charm. She had made a complete fool of herself, willfully misjudging two men on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence. Indeed, in hindsight she had to admit that there was no evidence to support her opinion of either man. She had judged them merely as she chose to. And why? Because she wanted to find a reason to despise the man who'd done nothing more than refuse her a dance. Tears stung her eyes. Lizzy was utterly miserable and humiliated.
Mr. Darcy observed the younger Miss Bennet with great consternation. She looked most unwell and near tears. Worse, he felt frustrated by his inability to do anything more for her. He glanced at the elder Miss Bennet, whose eyes held all the warmth and compassion she felt for her sister though on the surface of it, she appeared calm and composed. Her only outward sign of concern, save for those eyes was her firm grasp on her sister's hand. She looked up at Mr. Darcy and smiled.
"I thank you for this kindness, sir. I am sure we would have managed on our own, but I am most grateful that you cam to our aid."
"We are both grateful," Lizzy said softly.
"It is the least I can do," Mr. Darcy replied as the carriage entered the grounds of Longbourn. It pulled to a stop in front of the house and Mr. Darcy hopped out and again assisted the ladies himself. Lizzy forced herself to meet his eyes.
"Can we persuade you to come inside and join us for tea? It is the least we can do in return for keeping you from your own business." Her smile was sincere and Mr. Darcy was only too happy to accept.
"I should like that very much," he said and offered his arm for her support. He would meet these Bennets on their own turf, prepared to meet them halfway. For all their gaffes the previous night, the family had produced two fine daughters. There was much, Mr. Darcy believed, much more to them than outward appearances.
Lizzy accepted Mr. Darcy's arm and took a deep breath before she entered the house. She didn't know what would happen once she was inside. But she had learned her lesson about judging people at face value and was ready give Mr. Darcy a second chance. Had he been able to hear her thoughts he would have been very gratified to know that they echoed his own sentiments. And if his heart ran away with him, perhaps it would not be such a bad thing after all.