To the Credit of His Modesty
Posted on Wednesday, 4 May 2005
"When he went to town last November, he really loved me, and nothing but a persuasion of my being indifferent would have prevented his coming down again!"
"He made a little mistake to be sure; but it is to the credit of his modesty." - Jane Bennet and Elizabeth Bennet, Pride & Prejudice, Chapter XIII of Volume III (Chap. 55)
Charles Bingley lay awake, restlessly shifting under his bedcovers, for much of the night. He was not given to such behavior. Even when he’d been miserably apart from his beloved for several months he’d rested well almost every night. Those who knew of his ability to sleep regardless of any concern asserted that it accounted for his unfailingly cheerful disposition. On this night there was a brief and violent rainstorm, but it was not the cause of his restlessness, merely a distraction.
Charles could not rest because he felt he’d made a blunder in his behavior to his fiancée. Given the way he’d been misled to treat her over the past year he’d hoped to never give her pain again. Yet he felt that he had done so the previous evening by acting disrespectfully. The knowledge left him anxious to beg for her forgiveness.
He’d not intended disrespect. He’d only seen how very pretty she looked in the low candlelight in the hallway of her parents’ house when they’d met there unexpectedly. Moreover he’d seen her look at him with unguarded affection. Without thinking, he’d quickly crossed the hall and kissed her. Just as their lips met he heard the door to her father’s library opening. He pulled back from her and sought some possible way of explaining their unusual proximity in vain, panicked. They were very fortunate that Darcy and Mr. Bennet were distracted by discussion of a volume they both admired. Even so, Darcy’s look was one of surprised inquiry as he met Bingley’s eye and saw his look of anxiety. When Bingley had looked back at Jane, he’d seen an expression on her face such as he’d never seen there before.
He was horrified that he’d nearly exposed them both to the merry cynicism of her father and the utterly correct hauteur of his friend, Darcy. Jane, who was so proper, had been put at an awkward and embarrassing disadvantage. He who should protect her had nearly brought her disgrace. He was certain that she was very disappointed by his ungentlemanly behavior. She’d not met his gaze throughout the rest of the evening. He watched the clouds blow across the face of the moon and impatiently counted the minutes as he waited for the new day.
Soon after dawn, Bingley was galloping across the countryside as though to escape his worries. He wished he might see Jane out walking, but knew it was unlikely as she was to see a seamstress later in the morning. And Jane was not a good walker. She did not enjoy exercise for the sake of activity as her sister did. Bingley was amused that he, not Darcy, was marrying the more properly ladylike of the eldest Bennet sisters, by conventional standards. He realized that those who did not know Darcy mistook his friend’s reserved character as passionless. Bingley also realized that those who did not know him might think he married Jane for the sake of marrying a gentleman’s daughter, one who would enhance his standing through her excellent manners and comportment. He knew that such thoughts consoled his sisters’ pride, thought they meant nothing to him. He had seen life without Jane and understood its emptiness. She gave his life meaning and purpose, grace and ease.
At the breakfast table he realized that Darcy was puzzled by his distracted silence, but he could not pretend joy he did not feel. He even went so far as to act as though he were engrossed in a book. After some time, Darcy inquired his opinion of his book. He looked at it blankly and shrugged, admitting, “My thoughts are elsewhere. It is but a tool to keep me busy.” He stood and walked over to the window, looking out at the clouds and trying not to remember Jane’s sad expression. He was happy that Darcy did not inquire further, but instead gave him the privacy he desired. He knew he’d not have been given such courtesy if his sisters had been present.
When he and Darcy arrived at Longbourn for tea, Bingley saw that Jane still seemed unwilling to meet his eye. Her sister looked at him with obvious curiosity. He thought of the way his own sisters shared confidences and briefly feared for Miss Elizabeth’s good opinion. But nothing could occupy his thoughts for long save his embarrassment and anxiety to be alone with Jane. Unequal to the effort of entertaining Mrs. Bennet and being good company, he hardly heard Mrs. Bennet’s words, even when she read to them from a letter from her youngest daughter. He only noted that Miss Lydia seemed to infer that Jane was an aged spinster and that she thought it would soon fall to him and to Darcy to help support the Wickhams, all nonsense.
Happily, Elizabeth and Darcy exerted themselves to convince Mrs. Bennet to allow the engaged couples to walk into Meryton. Bingley had no desire to visit the village, but hoped he might have the opportunity to speak alone with Jane along the way. Darcy and Elizabeth were uncommonly fast walkers by his account. As they left the house he saw a pretty fall flower, picked it and handed it to Jane as a token of his affection and esteem. Her tentative smile encouraged him. So long as Jane smiled at him he could be happy.
Surprisingly, Darcy and Elizabeth fell behind; and then Bingley felt real gratitude when Darcy led Elizabeth from the path, giving both couples privacy. Bingley looked at Jane as they walked along in silence for several minutes. She seemed pale, though as lovely as ever. He took her paleness, silence and grave expression as signs of anger towards him. He realized then that he’d never seen her angry and did not know how to ascertain if anger was her state of mind without asking. The silence felt oppressive as they continued walking along the path. Leaves fell to the ground, crisp beneath their feet. He was afraid to break the silence. Though he’d thought of little else all night he did not know how to begin. He’d thought of self-recrimination, of her soft lips, of her sweetness. Now he wished he’d thought of exactly what he ought to say.
“I’m sorry that I kissed you last night,” he blurted. He licked his lips and swallowed hard as he waited for her reply.
She stopped walking and closed her eyes. In a stilted, low and trembling tone she replied, “I quite understand, Mr. Bingley.” She slowly backed away from him as she said, “I will not make any difficulties for you.”
He was utterly confused. She lifted her chin and looked fixedly at him. For a moment he saw her slight resemblance to her sister, Elizabeth as he’d often seen that lady look in the days after he’d proposed to Jane and before Darcy had returned to Netherfield. Tears threatened to spill as she said, “I would not have you marry me from a sense of duty. I release you from our engagement. I hope you will find someone better able to show emotion; someone whose love you can believe... and delight in.” As horror froze him in place, she turned and began to walk quickly towards Longbourn. He realized that he’d spoken much as he wrote letters, carelessly and messily.
Panicked, he hurried after her and said, “No! No! Dear God, no! Jane, don’t go! Forgive me! Please, please forgive my forwardness and stupidity.” His face was white as he watched her flee. He took hold of her arm to stop her.
She tried to hide her tear-stained face from him as she cried, “Please do not make this more difficult! I know my lack, how I must disappoint you. Do not force me to speak of it further.” She began to sob when he did not release her and he pulled her against him, wrapping her in his arms. He had never been more confused or afraid. He could not rebuke himself harshly enough for causing her to cry.
His voice was choked with emotion as he asked, “How could you think you lack in any way, Sweetheart?” She cried harder. He hurriedly assured her, “I misspoke. I misspoke.” He kissed her head. “I could never be sorry to have kissed you; nor could I ever be disappointed in you in any way. I meant that I was sorry if I offended you or seemed to show a lack of respect by being too forward. Also, I realize that I should not have kissed you where we could be discovered. It was foolish, unwise and unromantic.” He stroked her back and savored the feel of her body. Desires that were inappropriate to the moment were reluctantly suppressed. He kissed the top of her head, closed his eyes and concentrated entirely on her well being. She quieted. He kissed her head again and murmured, “I love you, Jane. I love you. Please forgive me. Please don’t leave me.”
She took a deep breath and said quietly, “Please excuse me?” He reluctantly stood back as she pulled a handkerchief from her reticule. He watched her carefully wipe her eyes and assume an expression of calm. She then turned tear-bright eyes to him and said, “It is for the best that I go, Mr. Bingley. You deserve a woman whose love you can trust.” He was sure in that instant that he saw a flash of anger in her face. She turned on her heel and again walked away from him, only now with a gait that was calm and measured.
Comprehension dawned and he said, “You despise me for my weakness and stupidity through all these months, I see!” He walked after her.
She stopped. He stopped as well, a few paces behind her. Without turning to face him, she said softly, “I could never despise you, Mr. Bingley.” He saw that she trembled.
His voice cracked a bit as he said, “I do. I hate myself for staying away from you for so long, for relying on the judgment of others instead of my own heart. I determined that I would grow into a man who, unlike my father, cared for the opinions and feelings of others; but I did not mean to make myself a fool. Does it mean anything if I say I have learned from my error? Does it mean anything if I beg to have the rest of my life to prove myself to you?” He unconsciously took a step towards her.
She turned then and nodded slowly. In a tone at odds with her calm appearance, Jane said, “I appreciate your intentions, Mr. Bingley, but you miss my point. As I grew to a woman I swore that no one would ever have cause to refer to me as ‘silly’ or ‘nervous’ or ‘emotional.’ I learned to disguise my emotions and avoid such censure. I fear that as a result I do not know how to love or how to show my love. The fault is mine, Mr. Bingley, not yours.” He longed to hold her close and kiss away the new tears that gathered in her eyes.
Though they stood paces from each other he felt closer to her than when she’d been in his embrace. Bingley forced himself to stay still and said plaintively, “Tell me about the months we were apart. Tell me how it was for you.”
She blanched slightly, so slightly that few people would see it. “Why?” Fascinated, Bingley watched the play of subtle emotion in her face.
He answered, “It is important to me. I need the truth.”
Anger flashed in her eyes again, “I have never deceived you, Mr. Bingley.”
He answered simply, “I know that, Jane.”
She said, “I see no reason...” She shook her head and crossed her arms in front of her body.
He said, “Please, tell me.”
She looked down for a long moment, sighed, and finally whispered, “It was… degrading. I thought you loved me. I’d believed you cared and that we would marry. I had even worried that I’d shown my feelings too much!” When she met his eyes he saw pain in her face plainly and he felt that he might weep. “I felt that I’d made myself ridiculous. The neighbors, my Aunt Phillips, my mother… all showed… pity… for me. I hated it. It was almost as though they liked me better for being betrayed.” He started, blinking hard once. “I tried to forget you, but I couldn’t. And then one day you came back and when you looked at me my heart melted and suddenly...” She looked confused.
He rasped, “I suddenly presumed to ask you to marry me. And last night I suddenly presumed to kiss you.” He looked down ruefully. “Another of my father’s less-endearing qualities was to assume he could do as he liked, regardless of the feelings or preferences of others. I fear I am more like him than I would wish to be.”
Jane smiled slightly, “I do not find you presumptuous, Ch... Mr. Bingley.”
He winced, “Call me Charles. I do not want to be only ‘Mr. Bingley’ to you. I do not want to be reduced to that status. I want to be your husband. I want your love.”
Her bearing became even more formal, “Mr. Bingley, I have been trying to tell you that the problem is that I cannot show my love so that you trust it. You should forget me and find a woman who can be more plain in expressing her love for you.” Her posture was utterly correct except for a slight stiffness in her bearing that betrayed the pain she felt.
Bingley’s exasperation began to show, “Jane, do you love me?” She colored slightly, but said nothing. He stepped forward and more urgently said, “Do you love me?” Finally, she nodded. She would not meet his gaze then.
He said, “I believe you. And I love you.” Standing still in the open path did not come naturally or easily to him. He asked, “Is there anywhere nearby where we might sit and talk further?”
She whispered, “Why do you believe that I love you? How have I shown that love? Haven’t I buried my emotions so deeply that they cannot escape?” When she looked up, anguish was plain in her face.
He took both of her hands in his and kissed them fervently. “You showed it by accepting me so quickly, dearest. Your heart said yes to me that day.”
She nodded slightly as she agreed in a tone of wonder, “That was neither cautious nor reserved behavior.” He felt a slight tremor in her hands and recognized it as a joyful reaction. He smiled and tenderly kissed her cheek. He was elated when she did not move away.
She hesitated, but finally said, “There are some large rocks at the top of the next hill at the edge of the trees. Lizzy called it ‘Castle Bennet’ when we played there as girls.” He gratefully squeezed her hand and followed her, not relinquishing his hold. They walked in silence as they climbed. Bingley felt the breeze flow over them. He caught a slight hint of rosewater scent on the breeze and savored it. He had missed that simple scent so much when he’d been in London, away from Jane and happiness. The view from the hilltop was lovely. Jane walked over to the largest stone and sat down there. Bingley carefully sat next to her, still clinging to her.
She did not speak, but did not take her hand from his. For a few moments he allowed the silence to continue, thinking they both needed to regain some measure of calm. Finally, he kissed her hand again and said, “I love you. I love your sweetness and your poise and your angelic goodness. You are intelligent and kind and lovely. You see the best in people, even me, and you bring it forth by expecting it. I know I do not deserve you, but I want to be with you more than anything.”
In a sad tone Jane said, “I want to be with you, too, though I am unsure if it is best for you. I am unsure of myself.”
He pleaded earnestly, “Let us be happy, together. Do not allow fear to part us.”
She took a deep breath and looked out over the countryside. He stayed still, waiting with bated breath for her next words. After a long moment she noted, “You’ve never mentioned your father before. What was he like?”
Bingley shifted uncomfortably where he sat, sighed, and answered, “He was very tall.”
He saw her look at him as though this answer told her much. She nodded and muttered, “Like Mr. Darcy...”
He paused and then said, “He was ambitious and intelligent and awe-inspiring.” She only looked at him, clearly waiting to hear more. He continued reluctantly, “Caroline is very much like our father was, though he savored hard work and she does not. He was tall and dark, with definite opinions and tastes. I favor our mother. Louisa favors our mother in appearance, but our father more in behavior.” Agitated, he stood. He wished to pace, but could not do so without releasing Jane’s hand. He sat, but restlessness was obvious in his taut posture and tone. His tone was strained as he said, “He would have preferred that I be more like my sisters. I often thought he might have been happy had Caroline been his son and I his daughter. But it could not be so and he was not happy.” He frowned and looked away, obviously recalling unpleasant memories.
Jane reassuringly squeezed his hand. She asked, “Did you spend much time with him?”
He shook his head, “No. He came and went. Specifically, he came, pronounced his judgment on whatever I was doing wrong at the time, and then left again. My mother helped me to understand what was valid and not valid in his observations until she passed away. Father was determined that we would be a wealthy family and acted as though taking time to enjoy life was impossible. He was determined that we would have a country house and that I would be a gentleman. Though I am only a tenant, I took a country house to please him finally, I think. And I think that he would be pleased that I am to marry a gentleman’s daughter...” Bingley looked at Jane appealingly, hoping he’d said enough on the subject to satisfy her curiosity.
Jane said quietly and without rancor, “Your sisters do not seem pleased by your choice, Mr. Bingley.”
Bingley scowled. He sighed in exasperation and said, “I would rather you call me Charles!” He breathed out loudly and said, “My sisters have never been displeased by you in any way, Jane. Yes, they have said that they would prefer I marry someone of great wealth or of lofty connections, but that is not what I want. I want to marry the woman I love, the woman who loves me.”
He kissed her hand again and asked, “My sisters are doing their best to behave as they ought, aren’t they? Has something been done that I do not know of?!” He looked into her eyes and said with apparent anger, “I would not stand for them to try to come between us, especially as they now know my heart and yours in the matter. What they did before can only be excused as they did not understand the cruelty they inflicted.” His look was serious and earnest.
Jane looked past him again and said quietly, “I believe that Miss Bingley did understand my feelings last November, Mr. Bingley. I believe that her concern for you simply outweighed any concern she might have felt for me. That is natural.”
He saw her tremble slightly again. He struggled against the desire to hold her tightly against him to still her trembling, assuage her troubled feelings. Bingley swallowed hard and said, “Perhaps you are correct, my love. But now she knows how we both feel, and that you are to be her sister. Now she knows that I can only be happy with you.”
Jane sighed and said, “Mr. Bingley...”
He interrupted her, “Call me Charles.” She only turned and looked at him, sadness shadowing her face. He demanded, “Call me Charles!” He put one hand against the right side of her face, at the jawbone, and stared at her intently. He saw the barest flicker of her glance down to his lips and felt both hope and passion flare within his soul. He leaned closer to her, at the same time pulling her towards him. When he kissed her this time there was nothing furtive about it, and nothing reserved. He was gentle, but passionate and possessive. He shifted closer and let his fingers drift over her cheek tenderly, then down her neck. He felt her tremble, but knew that it was from pleasure now. And as much as he’d previously wanted to still her anguished trembling, he wanted far more intensely to cause her to tremble with pleasure. He deepened the kiss, sharing more of his passion for her and desperately hoping for response. He moved to kiss her cheeks, her ears, and her neck. She stilled for an instant, then moved her hand to his back and gently pulled him closer against her. He groaned with delight and happily shifted even closer. He kissed her lips again and stroked her back and neck gently. He felt her respond, trembling under his touch. He was lost in the pleasure of her.
His kisses drifted down the skin over of her chest. Finally he heard her whisper, “Charles...”
His smile was exultant as he asked, “Yes, my love?” He pulled back slightly so he could see her face. Now he fought to still his own trembling.
She gave him a smile he’d never seen from her before as she asked, “Are you trying to seduce me?”
Though he’d been guided more by instinct than thought, he nodded and asked hopefully, “Is it working?”
She smiled more and said with a slight laugh, “Why... yes! It is!” Then, she sat back from him and said, “We must stop now before I forget myself completely.” She spoke as though gently joking, but he sensed the underlying seriousness of her words and was delighted. Her face was rosy from the heat of passion and her breath came quickly. He was amazed to see that she could look even more beautiful.
He kissed her hand fervently and said, “You could, you know… forget yourself completely.” She looked at him, wide-eyed. He whispered huskily, “And I will see to it that you do, my love.” He saw hunger in her. He continued to stroke her hand lightly, “You have a passionate nature hidden beneath your serenity. I have suspected as much all along, dreamed it to be so. I am learning to watch your expressions closely and am beginning to see the emotions you hide from others.” He kissed her lips firmly and said, “I am glad that there is so much that only you and I will share.” She met his fervent gaze now with a look of tentative trust that elated him. He teased, “With time I shall become better at knowing your feelings than you are.”
She smiled, looked at him speculatively and said, “I’ve always thought that I did not inherit Mama’s passionate nature, much as I did not inherit her coloring. I favor my father’s family while Lizzy, and Lydia especially, favor our mother.” He could see that her breathing was becoming more measured and controlled.
Bingley said kindly, “Your mother’s nature is not bad.”
With a trace of reluctance, Jane observed, “If unchecked, it can be. My sister, Lydia...” She looked away.
Bingley interrupted, “Lydia does not have your good sense, I fear.” He glanced at her as though afraid that he’d upset her with this observation.
For a moment they were both silent. Jane pulled back further as she observed, “My younger sisters and my mother do not always behave as they ought. You have seen this every time we meet, particularly at the ball at your house in November, just before you left the county.”
He heard her unspoken question and sighed, “Jane, you are perfection. I love you.”
She persisted, “But what of my family? Netherfield and Longbourn are very close. You cannot avoid their frequent society if you marry me. Have you considered that?” She looked at him almost sharply, “Was the possibility of being related to them among the considerations that kept you away?”
Earnestly he offered, “They are your family and will be mine now. I will love them as I ought, dearest.”
Jane smiled faintly. “I do not doubt your goodness. But you needed my honesty. I ask the same of you.”
He looked down, stroking her hand as he considered his words. “The only important consideration to me was the possibility that you did not return my affection, but I did notice the behavior you mention.”
As though quoting someone she said, “You could not ‘rejoice in the idea of being related to them,’ I think.”
He frowned as he said, “I do not wish to speak of them with disrespect, my love. I find your mother unguarded in her speech and behavior sometimes, but I believe that she means well. She loves you and wants the best for you. And, if her manner is in any way responsible for the passion I find in you, I love her even more.”
Jane smiled and blushed, but then after a slight pause, said, “We have both talked of honesty. Yet I have not shared something with you, something of a very serious nature. It weighs upon me.” There was obvious tension in her posture.
Surprised, Bingley clasped her hand more tightly and asked, “What is it?”
Jane looked down. She was silent for a long moment. Finally, she said, “Lydia ran away from Brighton with Mr. Wickham. They lived together in London for some time before Mr. Darcy discovered them and made him marry her.” She looked him in the eye, her expression very serious. “Though it has been resolved in the best way possible, I think it only fair that you know.” She continued, “Such bad behavior could justly cause anyone to avoid our society.”
He sighed. “Nothing could cause me to want to avoid your society.” He kissed her hand again. “I was surprised to hear that your sister had married Mr. Wickham, and wondered how it had come about. Darcy had mentioned him in the past in unflattering terms and I’d also heard tales of him at school. But I knew nothing of their elopement until just now. Even had I known it, I would only have wanted to be of service to you. I love you!”
He felt Jane relax slightly and peered into her face to read her emotions. She said, “I am glad that you know the truth. I do not want to keep things from you. I want to trust you with my thoughts and feelings.” He saw the truth of this in her face. He leaned forward and kissed her lips. When he only pulled back a few inches Jane moved forward and kissed him. He delighted in her sweet eagerness. After several heavenly minutes he was surprised that she seemed amused. He looked carefully at her, wondering if he misunderstood her.
She saw his confusion and chuckled. She said, “I am sorry! It is only that this feels so very natural, in contrast to the expectations I was given by my mother.” She smiled brightly.
Bingley was unsure of how to reply. Finally he asked, “What expectations did your mother share?” He saw that Jane’s eyes roamed over his form. He was surprised. His eyes were wide as her eyes moved back up to meet his gaze again. Her smile made him feel vulnerable and intrigued.
She laughed and said, “She talked of the duties of a married woman.”
Bingley nodded, though he did not know what to think, and said only, “Oh!”
Jane continued slowly, “She warned us that husbands sometimes desire to share their wife’s bed.” Bingley nodded, but held his silence as he watched the pleasing blush creep up her cheeks. “She urged us to hope you might take a mistress.” He started to protest, but could barely move his mouth before she continued, placing her fingers against his lips and smiling broadly at him. “It was so ridiculous! I am sure that Lizzy has been laughing over it ever since!” She laughed lightly, “I should only think you unreasonable if you did not love or desire a woman you took to wife. I know you would never take a mistress. And, now, I find that I share and happily encourage your feelings.” She stroked his cheek affectionately, “I want to be close to you. I love you.” And with that, Jane again leaned forward and kissed him.
He wrapped his arms around her and said in a tone of wonder, “I know you love me, unworthy as I am. I see it in your eyes, feel it in your kisses, and I believe it with all of my heart. The only thing I know more is the love I feel for you.”
He saw then that Jane was studying his emotions and reactions as much as he did hers. Their eyes met and he saw that all would be well between them and that their mutual understanding had deepened. Their marriage would be one of truly blended minds, bodies and hearts.