Posted on Monday, 22 August 2005
Upon entering the beautiful ballroom at Netherfield, Elizabeth's eyes scanned the room quickly for Mr. Wickham. She almost missed him at first because he was hidden among a sea of red coats, blending with his fellow officers. When he saw her, however, his face lit up as their eyes met and he slipped out from the knot of his fellows.
"Miss Bennet," he said, offering her a deep bow.
"Mr. Wickham." She tried to keep the full measure of her delight off her face as she curtseyed. "For a moment I was afraid you had deserted us."
He glanced to either side before replying, "I confess, Miss Elizabeth, that for a time I did consider it might be best were I not to meet with Mr. Darcy. But I allowed myself to be persuaded by my eagerness to be in your delightful company - and after all, there are so many in attendance, it is quite likely that the man and I may never set eyes on one another!"
"Quite likely indeed," Elizabeth replied, "as it is also likely that Mr. Darcy will avoid the crowds as much as possible."
"I think you are not well pleased with his ballroom manners," Mr. Wickham teased, his eyes never leaving Elizabeth's face.
"I may say that I am not," she replied. His steady regard began to make her feel warm, but there was another sight to divert her - Mr. Bingley was leading Jane to floor to open the ball.
Mr. Wickham's gaze now followed hers, and he quickly said, "But I see that I am neglecting my duty. Will you do me the honor of dancing the two first with me?"
At this reminder Elizabeth's mood darkened and she regretfully informed him that she was engaged for the first two dances to her cousin Mr. Collins. Having secured an invitation to dance with Mr. Wickham for the second dances of the evening, she answered her cousin's summons and resigned herself to being seen in his company.
Mr. Collins was, as Elizabeth might have anticipated, a clumsy partner. He steered her wrong a number of times and eventually she gave up trying to hide the fact that she was constantly correcting him: she, and, to her mortification, the couple behind them as well, took to calling out the turns of the dance for him. The entire experience was only made worse by the fact that she had at long last spotted Mr. Darcy, and he was watching from one corner with a slight look of cold disgust on his face. She thought she had never heard anything so pleasant as the musicians playing the last notes of the second dance.
When his eyes first found Elizabeth Bennet in the crowd, he had resolved not to pay her any attention and certainly not to spend the evening searching for her form among the dancers. But having spotted her and her partner, he found that he could not look away from the spectacle. Whoever it was that had claimed her hand for the first two dances, he was a menace - constantly turning the wrong way, and more than once nearly trapping Elizabeth between two other advancing dancers. Her patience seemed to run thin rather early in the dance, and Darcy hid a smile to see her neatly fling her partner back into the correct place in line with a less-than-elegant twist of her thin right arm.
He felt, rather than saw or heard, Caroline Bingley edging up behind him. Her sharp eyes of course located Miss Bennet and her partner almost immediately, and the chortle she gave sounded like a cough.
"Miss Eliza Bennet is certainly looking quite elegant this evening, is she not, Mr. Darcy?" He could not miss the obvious, heavy sarcasm in her voice and he nearly winced at it.
"I must agree," he replied neutrally as though he had not caught the tone of her teasing. "I think she is looking very well."
And truth be told, she was. Though she was of a small yet thin and wiry set that did not generally attract his interest, she always had a way of carrying herself that made her appear taller. Her blue gown was becoming to her complexion, which he had thought might have a tendency to sallow, and the candlelight in the ballroom highlighted the strands of her light brown hair that occasionally shone gold. Yes, she was looking very well, and as if to prove it, as she took her place facing in his direction for the next set, he found himself staring ridiculously at the thin necklace that hung over her delicate chest.
Then the dance began, and he saw her partner. Rage coursed through him at the sight of the wretch he ought to have, could have bested only months before. The man wore a smug, self-satisfied grin over his red coat as he handed Elizabeth neatly through the dance, clearly enjoying the most-undeserved privilege of her rapt attention. Trying to prevent his anger from clouding his vision, Darcy left his corner - making no excuses to Miss Bingley - and edged his way around the dance floor, seeking an unobserved location behind the couple.
He knew he had come close enough when he heard Elizabeth's voice, cheerful as ever but with a touch of exasperation to it, pronounce, "I do not see Mr. Darcy anymore. Perhaps he has not observed you after all."
"Good," Wickham replied. Peering out from behind the pillar that hid him from their sight, Darcy saw that he had stepped closer to Elizabeth than the dance would normally require. "Scenes might arise that would be unpleasant to more than just myself."
"I should not like to see Mr. Bingley embarrassed in his own home," Elizabeth replied, sounding perfectly sincere.
"Nor I," Wickham said, without sounding - to Darcy's ears - remotely sincere. "And of course, his embarrassment must necessarily affect your sister." Darcy listened with interest to hear what Elizabeth would say on this topic.
"Yes," she acknowledged. "I would not like to see such a scene trespass on Jane's feelings."
"From all I have observed, Mr. Bingley seems to be a fine, amiable man well worthy of your sister's affections - despite his being the particular friend of Mr. Darcy."
Darcy heard Elizabeth laugh, and her response to Wickham's denigration of him raised his ire against the man once more. But she continued, "He does seem to be a truly good man, which is fortunate because he certainly does hold her affections. Jane is not so forward as our younger sisters, but I know her regard for Mr. Bingley to be deep indeed."
"Then she is fortunate both in her choice and in the support of her sister," Wickham opined. "Not everyone would be so concerned only with their sister's happiness - and not every man behaves as honorably toward a woman who has granted him her affections, as Mr. Bingley is certain to behave toward your sister."
When Darcy glanced out again from behind his pillar, feeling certain that his eyes must be covered by now with a red film of anger, he thought that Elizabeth looked confused.
"I am certain that Mr. Bingley would always behave honorably," she replied. "But do you speak of anyone in particular?"
"I mention no particulars, Miss Elizabeth," Wickham said smoothly as the music began to come to its end. "Merely a friendly warning that not every great man is a gentleman."
As the couple parted, Darcy was left as confused as Elizabeth had looked. At first he had thought that Wickham intended to tell her some dreadful falsehood about himself and poor Georgiana - all that talk of a sister's happiness - but Wickham had been the only one with ungentlemanly intentions on that occasion, and surely he did not intend to warn Elizabeth off himself. What was he about?
Darcy carefully watched Wickham for the next few dances, taking care to keep himself out of sight, until the whole party went in for dinner and he could seat himself safely behind Wickham's back. To the man's apparent disappointment, he had not secured a chair near Elizabeth - or, in fact, any of the other ladies - and instead found himself seated at table with a number of other men from his regiment who had not fallen in with any particular group of the neighbors. Unfortunately, therefore, eavesdropping on Wickham this time meant that he had to listen to a great deal of unpleasant talk from the sort of men he could well believe Wickham would choose as friends. They were not nearly as mannerly as the officers with whom Wickham associated when he wished to recommend himself to the ladies; rather, their behavior spoke strongly of the lower ranks. Having already observed Wickham's lack of scruples in discussing their previous connection, Darcy was not at all surprised to hear the sound of his own name. The conversation that followed, however, did surprise him in its audacity as well as its completely offensive nature.
"So, Darcy has not yet given you the trouble you feared?" asked a burly officer Darcy didn't recognize.
"I did not fear his anger," Wickham protested, "but you know how I would wish to avoid causing a scene before the ladies."
For some reason those officers seated with Wickham seemed to find this statement positively hilarious. They all laughed uproariously, and one of them slapped Wickham hard on the back. "Always so thoughtful with the ladies, eh Wickham?" he exclaimed.
Another man glanced nervously across the dining room toward Colonel Forster, then - presumably after noting that his colonel was far away and not listening to the conversation - broke into a wide smile and asked, "Is that why old Darcy objects to you, eh? You trifled with a bit of skirt he fancied?"
Wickham lowered his voice a fraction, but not enough so that Darcy could not discern his words, and said smoothly, "There may have been a girl all right, but not one he fancied."
Darcy's blood ran cold. Surely Wickham did not intend to reveal the whole scandalous affair of Georgiana - not at a respectable ball at which her brother was somewhere present - not when it would irreparably damage his own reputation in the neighborhood and mark him as a rake and a seducer of women. No, Wickham must mean for this to be heard only by these ruffians, whose opinion of him would only improve were they to hear the story. Are you really that stupid? Darcy wondered. Or so much the worse for drink?
In the meantime the other men were, of course, intrigued by Wickham's insinuations. "Good boy!" one of them fairly shouted, while another asked, "So who was it?"
Wickham's back was to him, but Darcy could imagine the sickening look on his face as he slyly said, "Well gentlemen, let us say only that while Mr. Darcy looks on me with nothing but disapproval, his sister was far from sharing that opinion." As the other men guffawed, Wickham added, "Very far."
Darcy had allowed this to go on for long enough. He would not call Wickham out before the other officers - miscreants though some of them might be - and before all the assembled guests. But he would find a way of talking with him one the dancing had resumed, and he'd be damned if Wickham walked blithely away from the encounter to continue spreading lies about Georgiana. No innocent girl should have her name dragged through this filth. He would have to put the fear of God into Wickham this time if he did not want his sister to be a topic of conversation among the most uncouth of the officers for years to come. Darcy was so absorbed in this unpleasant line of thought that he scarcely noticed anything else around him - although at one point he did think he heard Mrs. Bennet's less-than-dulcet tones.
Wickham reentered the ballroom after dinner, heading resolutely in the direction of a clump of ladies that included both the youngest Bennet girls - Lydia and . . . the other one. Darcy caught up, quickly stepped out in front of him, and without giving the other man a moment to react said calmly, "I would speak with you outside, Mr. Wickham."
Wickham laughed, but his amusement did not reach his eyes and his face was pale. "Well, well, Darcy," he said. "I see your famous look of displeasure has landed upon me at last. I wondered whether you had left the ball."
"No doubt you might have spoken less freely had you known I was present at dinner," Darcy said, allowing only a modicum of anger to leak into his carefully controlled tones. "Will you step outside, sir?"
With a sardonic smile, Wickham gestured for Darcy to lead the way. He felt somehow as though it were foolish to turn his back on the man, but Darcy nevertheless turned and threaded his way through the dancers, out of the ballroom and onto one of Netherfield's many patios. As far as he could discern, their exit was entirely unnoticed by everyone else in the ballroom.
When he turned to face Wickham, the other man allowed an unattractive sneer to come over his face. "You ought to believe me, I was hoping to avoid this, Darcy," Wickham said. "But I see you are forever to be my maleficent shadow, and so I have no choice." Wickham reached into a heretofore unnoticed sheath in the belt of his regimentals and withdrew a large dagger, which glinted ominously in the moonlight. "You don't truly want to give me any trouble, do you, Darcy?" he asked, waving the dagger between them.
The sight of the blade had indeed given Darcy - who was, of course, unarmed - a moment's pause, but only a moment. The man had to be stopped; there was no alternative. Darcy held up both his hands in a gesture that was intended to be calming and said, "Wickham, I don't think you want this kind of trouble either, do you? Not directly outside of a ball attended by your commander and all the officers in the regiment?"
Wickham's sneer grew only deeper. "For what did you bring me out here then, if not to fight?"
"To impress upon you my awareness of the scandal you have been spreading, and to tell you definitively that if you speak of my sister so again I shall know of it, and then we shall fight."
Wickham's laugh was empty and humorless. "Do you really think that you are in a position right now to tell me anything? Knife-point's a great equalizer, Darcy - your money won't stand up very well against the weapon I have this time."
Darcy willed himself to remain calm and logical. "I think you'll find that it takes more than a knife to make men equal," he said coolly. "I am not much concerned."
"No, but there are things you are concerned about," Wickham replied without any hint of lowering the knife he held. "There are ways any man can be worked on, are there not? I want you to leave me alone, and I think I know what you want - or rather, what you don't want."
"If you think I will allow you to drag my sister's name . . ."
"Who's talking about your sister?" Wickham grinned, his confidence clearly increased by the fact that the knife did keep Darcy from approaching him. "Merely because no one else has noticed the object of your affections, Darcy, does not mean that I have not seen. After all, we are childhood friends, are we not?"
"I do not know of what you can be talking," Darcy replied, but a strange suspicion had entered his mind and he began to fear the worst.
"She doesn't like you, you know," Wickham said casually. "So I daresay she isn't in much danger. But then, dislike can so easily be fanned into outright hatred and that would be much more satisfying to me."
"I do not have the pleasure of understanding to what lady you can be referring," Darcy said, hoping to convey calm patience. His mind, however, was racing.
Wickham's grin became something more, something insinuating and depraved. "Come, do you really think I have not noticed your fancy for the second Miss Bennet?"
Darcy opened his mouth to say something indignant, but closed it again when he saw movement in the shadows behind Mr. Wickham. There was undoubtedly someone standing there - a most inconvenient place for one of the other guests to have come in search of a bit of air. He had only a glance before the figure slipped back into a darkened doorway, but he saw that the person was slight of form, and clearly wearing a long skirt. The worst of all things, for a woman to walk into the middle of this. He prayed that whichever lady it was, she would return to the ballroom without having observed the knife.
Unfortunately Wickham saw him notice the movement, and he whirled around to confront the intruder. By the time he looked, however, there was no one to be seen. He turned back before Darcy could do anything brave like reach for the knife, and his smile was twice as wide. "Thought you had me fooled, did you?"
Darcy shook his head dumbly, and Wickham quickly forgot the diversion.
"Let us return to the most interesting topic of Miss Elizabeth," he said, a leer in his voice. "I'm certain you would object to my warning her of your true intentions toward her."
"My what?" Darcy asked faintly.
"Your intentions. I believe a lovely young lady like Miss Elizabeth would be properly shocked to discover your hopes for making her the next in a long line of mistresses and kept women, Darcy. Shocked enough that she would be certain to repeat the tale throughout all her acquaintance."
The rage that raced through Darcy's body was now of a type he feared he could not contain; any moment he would do something rash and undoubtedly stupid. At least now he understood the reason for Wickham's earlier comment to Elizabeth about all great men not being gentlemen. He managed to stammer out, "You would dare - discuss things of that nature with a respectable woman - not to mention the gross slander of imputing to me your own filthy habits with regard to the women you have ruined over the years."
"Yes, I think I would dare," Wickham replied. "And I think she would believe me. I think everyone would believe me." Before Darcy could say anything more, Wickham continued, "and when I have gained her trust by saving her from your lascivious advances, how much easier will my suit be to advance?"
At that Darcy paused. "Your suit? Do you honestly expect me to believe that you would marry a woman who lacks the money to settle your debts?"
"No, Darcy," Wickham said slowly, the leer overtaking his features once more. "I did not say that I would marry her."
This time he was positive about the movement in the shadows, but he was determined not to let on to Wickham that someone else was present. By keeping his eyes fixed firmly on Wickham's face, in his peripheral vision he was able to see the silent approach of the dark figure over his shoulder.
Wickham, in the meantime, began to advance on Darcy with his knife still held out. "So," he said, "do you leave the neighborhood now, and swear off interference in my activities? Do you leave this patio like a coward and return to the ballroom, and send me back to Miss Elizabeth? Or do you stand and fight me like a man?"
The figure behind Wickham had stepped into the light, and Darcy had to fight hard to prevent his shock from appearing on his face. It was Elizabeth Bennet. How long has she been there? Good God - how much has she heard? She looked directly into his eyes as if willing him to understand something, and kept walking silently closer and closer to Wickham. Elizabeth, what are you doing?
He had to say something to Wickham, keep him at all costs from turning and seeing Elizabeth. "A man?" he said, striving to keep his voice light. "Is this your definition of fighting like a man, to draw a weapon on an unarmed opponent and attempt to blackmail him?"
Elizabeth was drawing slowly, agonizingly closer. Darcy could not imagine what she thought she was doing. Wickham laughed and said, "Well Darcy, if I do kill you, I promise not to fret that I didn't do it like a man."
Now something in Elizabeth's hand caught the moonlight - it was a silver candlestick, despite the brightness of the night. Darcy barely had time to notice that it was empty, and to wonder what Elizabeth was doing with a candlestick that had no candle in it, before she raised her right arm and slammed the candlestick down heavily on the back of Wickham's head.
Posted on Thursday, 25 August 2005
Darcy knew all his shock must be showing on his face as he watched Elizabeth strike Wickham on the head with the candlestick, but it scarcely mattered - Wickham certainly knew now that someone was behind him. Darcy rather hoped that Elizabeth's blow would knock him cold.
Wickham crumpled forward and staggered, but it was not enough - he spun wildly to face his attacker, swinging his knife around with him. With a very small sound of surprise that seemed unwillingly torn from her throat, Elizabeth jumped backward - to Darcy's eye, just in time to avoid the blade.
Wickham laughed with delight when he saw her, although Darcy knew he must be concealing disappointment at having his plans for Elizabeth disturbed. "Miss Bennet!" he exclaimed, stepping toward her. He had not lowered the knife, and Darcy began to edge to the side in order to keep a watchful eye on the situation and look for his opportunity to intervene. Elizabeth was nearly frozen by the time Wickham had backed her against a railing with the knife held inches from her ribs. Her eyes never met Darcy's. "Wouldn't you like to take a chance on screaming and try to bring them all down on us?" Wickham taunted.
Darcy thought Wickham must have lost his mind, and the look on Elizabeth's face told him that she thought the same. Her glance flickered down to the knife he held, and she said in tones of forced calm, "No, I don't think I shall."
"Clever girl." Wickham gestured with the knife toward Darcy, who had been edging steadily closer but was still behind him. "Over there with our friend Darcy, if you please."
Without turning her back to Wickham, Elizabeth sidled around him - giving him and his knife a wide berth - and crossed in front of Darcy to stand on his right side. It didn't occur to him until later to notice that she had deliberately not stopped on his left.
"A charming picture you make," Wickham sneered. "I begin to think that you are made for each other after all. Miss Elizabeth, I never would have thought to find you as disagreeable as Darcy."
If he had hoped to elicit some response from Elizabeth he failed, for she said nothing. There was a grim, pale look to her face that Darcy did not like, but otherwise she seemed in no danger of being overcome by the peril of their position.
Wickham was looking at her as well, but in quite a different manner. The worst possible images flooded into Darcy's mind and he knew there was no option but to find a way out of this - for Elizabeth, as least - as quickly as possible.
Wickham took a few more steps closer to Elizabeth, mulling out loud, "This is not the ideal situation in which to find yourself, Miss Elizabeth. What on earth can I do now to ensure that neither of you causes any difficulty for me? If I declared that I had found you in a compromising position no one would believe me, for the whole neighborhood must know of your dislike for Mr. Darcy." Darcy saw Elizabeth glance at him quickly as Wickham said this, and he wondered whether she had repented of any of her dislike by now. Wickham had come quite near to her, and his voice dropped in a highly offensive manner as he added, "Such a shame, for I would dearly have enjoyed improving our acquaintance - you seemed quite susceptible, you know, Elizabeth - and I am certain that, given the opportunity, I would have discovered delightful new depths to you."
Darcy was so wholly shocked to hear such a remark even from Wickham that it struck him momentarily speechless. Elizabeth had no such difficulty.
"How dare you!" she shouted, and completely ignoring the knife he held, slapped Wickham across the face with her left hand. Wickham moved so fast that Darcy had no opportunity to intervene, and struck her in return with the back of his empty hand so hard that she staggered. For all that she barely flinched, but Darcy could see the effort that it required for her not to do so. He did not wait for Wickham to speak or act further, but gave in to the insistence of the anger flowing through his veins. Ignoring the insanity of the act, he dove at the arm holding the knife and wrapped both hands tightly around it.
After that everything happened very quickly. Wickham struggled to slash at Darcy with the knife and succeeded in nicking his chin, while Darcy held fast to the flailing arm and tried to get Wickham to drop the blade. Then a thud reverberated through Wickham's body, his eyes widened, and he fell limply to the ground as Darcy released the arm he had been holding. Wickham lay unmoving at his feet.
Darcy looked up quickly and saw Elizabeth wielding, with some difficulty, a stone planter that still held its plant. There was a small amount of blood on it. She held the thing poised as though she might need it again, as when an insect has been seemingly crushed but yet begins to move. She met his gaze, but did not seem equal to speaking.
A quick check confirmed that Wickham was breathing; he conveyed this news to Elizabeth and they both stood staring down at the prone figure before them. At long last Elizabeth cleared her throat and spoke in a somewhat shaken voice.
"I am sorry," she said. Darcy looked searchingly at her, wondering for what she could be apologizing. She carefully set down the heavy planter and continued more calmly, "I ought to have hit him harder the first time."
Feeling his eyebrow quirk upward of its own will, Darcy replied, "You . . . did your best, I am certain."
"No, I did not." The look Elizabeth cast at Wickham's body was enigmatic. "I was afraid of cracking his skull."
"You are too sympathetic."
"Only toward myself. I imagined a cracked skull must be a revolting sight, and I had no wish to witness it." She met his eyes now, and he almost thought he saw humor in hers. He also saw blood on her lips.
"You are bleeding," he said, gesturing toward his own mouth with one hand while digging for his handkerchief with the other.
She touched her lips and examined the fingers that had come away wet with blood. "So are you," she pointed out as she found her own handkerchief and pressed it to her mouth.
He had forgotten about the stinging under his chin, but it did not seem to be a deep cut. "Miss Elizabeth," he began, intending to thank her, to apologize for her danger, to say something - instead he burst out, "Of what can you have been thinking?"
Elizabeth's expression turned somewhat cool, which he regretted, as she replied, "You are alive, are you not?"
"But - not that I am not grateful for your intervention -" he did not miss the surprise that flashed across her face - "but why did you not go for Colonel Forster, or Bingley, or - anyone else?"
"And simply trust that the man with the knife would be so obliging as not to kill you until I had returned with help?"
"Did you not think I could defend myself?" he asked, beginning to feel as though he might laugh himself - an odd reaction at the end of such an encounter.
"Are you worried about your reputation?" she countered. This time he could not miss the teasing sparkle in her eyes, despite the pallor that lingered on her face.
The thought brought him to his senses. "No, but if you have a care about yours, we should not be found here."
Elizabeth sobered immediately and she began to ask, "Where . . . ?"
"Bingley's library, I think, and then we can decide what to do." He held out his hand without thinking, and she reached for it with her own right hand. Then he saw what she had been hiding from him all along: her gown was without sleeves, and so he could clearly see the gash in her right shoulder from which blood had begun to flow.
"Elizabeth!" he exclaimed, still lacking enough conscious thought for control. "When did he - that happened as soon as he saw you, didn't it? When he turned around with the knife out? I thought you had missed it."
"I didn't," she said dryly. "Do not trouble yourself, it isn't bad."
"You were deliberately hiding it from me," he accused, still holding her hand and staring at the open wound.
"What would you have done? Become very angry and lunged at him? Oh no - you did that anyway, didn't you?"
He contented himself with glaring at her. "It needs a doctor."
"So does yours."
Darcy sighed heavily. "Well, we had better get to the library and summon the local surgeon - and decide what to do about him."
Elizabeth hopped daintily over Wickham's body and allowed him to lead her around the side of the house to the library. From there it was a simple matter to summon one of the manservants, along with Darcy's own trusted valet. The servant was dispatched to fetch Colonel Forster and then the surgeon, while Darcy sent his valet on a more delicate errand. He instructed the man to canvass the ballroom and drawing room and discover whether any of Elizabeth's family or friends had missed her.
When Colonel Forster appeared in the library he was clearly astonished to be greeted by Mr. Darcy and one of the more respectable Miss Bennets, both clutching bloodied handkerchiefs to their faces. They presented an abbreviated version of Wickham's guilt - one in which he threatened Mr. Darcy and injured Elizabeth, but in which the discussions of Elizabeth's susceptibility were conveniently omitted, as was the part where she knocked Wickham unconscious. Darcy said that Wickham had struck his head when he fell and Elizabeth did not argue; she had no desire to be seen as a mere brawler and so gladly relinquished any public claim to the title of heroine.
Darcy's valet returned, leading the local surgeon. "If you please, sir," he said, after bowing respectfully to Elizabeth, "none of Miss Bennet's family seem to have noticed she's gone. The gentleman outside has been collected and taken off by the Colonel. And here's the doctor, sir."
"You may yet avoid notoriety," Darcy told Elizabeth, hiding his growing sense of true relief. It could not have been good for her character in the neighborhood had she been found publicly in this state, having been alone with two gentlemen and clearly the worse for wear.
"Let us not be premature." Shifting her attention to the doctor, Elizabeth calmly said, "Well? Shall I survive?"
She remained as calm on the surface when the doctor opined that her wound would need to be stitched up, but what little color had remained in her face quickly drained away. Darcy offered her his hand to hold while the servants gathered the necessary materials, but she refused him with a nervous sort of dignity. She did accept a glass of whiskey, and to Darcy's (and the servants') amusement, downed it in one without a hint of choking.
When the doctor approached her with needle ready, however, she turned to Darcy with a face now stark white and said, "I've changed my mind," reaching out her free left hand. He promptly took a seat close to her and let her take his hand while he wrapped his other around hers. She proved to be extremely strong and his hand ached by the time the doctor had closed half of the wound. Elizabeth did not make a sound the entire time, but looking at her expression he could tell that she rather wanted to scream. She kept her teeth gritted, however, and her hand tightly clutching his, until the doctor had finished and was bandaging her arm with a great deal of plaster.
Afterwards, she did not release his hand and only sat, breathing methodically and not moving.
"Are you going to be ill?" he asked, observing her face.
After a moment of thought, she slowly replied, "No, I do not think so."
"Does it hurt very much?"
"Would you like another whiskey?"
"That would be nice."
Stifling the ungentlemanly urge to laugh, Darcy submitted himself to the ministrations of the surgeon - his chin did not require stitching - while Elizabeth sipped more slowly at the whiskey the servant had handed her. When Mr. Bennet wandered into the library in search of the daughter he had finally noticed was missing, he found them thus.
Mr. Bennet's immediate reaction to finding Elizabeth alone with Mr. Darcy, two manservants, and Mr. McTeague the surgeon faded into a rare anger when he saw that Elizabeth's mouth was bleeding and she seemed to have acquired a mass of sticking plaster on her shoulder. "What is the meaning of this?" he cried, storming further into the room.
"It was Mr. Wickham, Papa," Elizabeth said with a fresh calm that Darcy suspected had been gained from the whiskey. "I came out of the ballroom for some air and found him threatening Mr. Darcy with a large dagger."
"And he turned it on you?" Mr. Bennet asked in astonishment.
Darcy could see Elizabeth considering the options before she replied simply, "Yes, sir."
"Why was he threatening Mr. Darcy?"
Mr. Bennet looked at him as he spoke, and so Darcy answered, "We have a past history, sir. We were having an argument when he produced the dagger - Miss Elizabeth unluckily happened upon us shortly afterward." He saw Elizabeth's expression grow somewhat waspish when he proclaimed her arrival unlucky, but after all, he meant it had been unlucky for her.
"And you did not flee immediately?" This question was directed at his daughter.
"No, sir." The slightest flush crept over Elizabeth's face; Darcy could not account for it. "It was clear that Mr. Darcy was in some danger, I feared to leave them . . ."
Realizing fully that the entire story would have to be told to Elizabeth's father now, Darcy interjected, "She bashed him on the head." He was beginning to feel ridiculously cheerful.
Mr. Bennet stared at them both with his mouth open for some seconds. Finally he managed to ask Elizabeth, "Is that true?"
"Twice," Darcy answered for her.
The flush on Elizabeth's cheeks darkened as she met her father's eyes. "Yes, I did," she confessed.
"Well, the first time was not hard enough."
Mr. Bennet appeared to spend some moments deciding whether his daughter was joking; eventually it seemed he believed that she was not. "Was this before or after he struck you?" he asked, clinging to facts in a situation that made no sense.
"Both," Elizabeth replied.
"So," he addressed himself to Darcy now, "do I have this entirely correct - Mr. Wickham, who was just taken away by Colonel Forster unconscious, with talk of a court-martial - is unconscious because Elizabeth struck him on the head?"
"Twice," Darcy repeated. Only the thought of Mr. Bennet's ire kept the insane and illogical smile from his lips. Forcing himself to sober, he stood and said, "Let me offer a formal apology sir, and to Miss Elizabeth, for allowing her to be injured in my presence. I was unable to intervene until she had already been wounded, and I sincerely regret her danger. I would she had been kept out of it entirely."
The effect of this sincere declaration was somewhat hampered by Elizabeth's unladylike snort, and her insistence that if she had been kept out of it entirely, Darcy might have been the one lying unconscious - or worse. His conscience did not allow him to argue with her, as she was in all likelihood correct.
In the end Mr. Bennet did not appear inclined to call Darcy out for injuring his daughter, and his fury against Wickham was contained by the knowledge that the man faced court-martial. He fetched his daughter's shawl so that her injury might be concealed - although not much could be done about her bleeding lips - and had the family's carriage summoned.
It seemed wrong somehow that Elizabeth should simply leave with her father without a discussion of what had transpired that evening. As she followed Mr. Bennet to the library door, Darcy hastily choked out, "Miss Elizabeth!" When she turned, he asked awkwardly, "May I have permission to call tomorrow, to see how your shoulder does?"
A number of emotions flashed in sequence across Elizabeth's expressive face, but eventually she replied, sounding a bit uncertain, "Of course, Mr. Darcy. You are certainly welcome to call at any time."
"Thank you," he said quietly as they walked through the door.