Section I, Next Section
The bright sun outside temporarily blinded the young man coming out of the church and he blinked, halting for a brief moment before continuing so he would not run into anyone. Around him he could hear people say that it had been a beautiful wedding and that it was so wonderful that the weather was perfect too. Fitzwilliam Darcy shut his ears to their words. It might all look perfect, but he knew it was not.
People did not know what had really happened. He had wanted to protect his sister from that and he had kept it a secret. She was still so young, far too young. She should not be marrying at all, but there was no choice. This had been the only thing to do and it tore him apart to know he was the one who had to make her do it.
Had he made the right choice? For Darcy it had been an impossible task to take a decision. This made her happy at the moment, but it put her future happiness at risk. There was no damage to her reputation now, but perhaps this was far worse. Perhaps it would have been less cruel of him to let her reputation be ruined, although he should not forget that she actually wanted this. It would undoubtedly become a wish she would regret, but at the moment she was happy.
Although he wanted her to be happy, the mere fact that a rake like Wickham could make her happy tortured him. Should he be selfish, however? And think most of his own feelings? Or should he trust his sister? He wanted to, for Georgiana's sake, but he could not trust his sister's feelings. Trusting her would mean he would also have to trust Wickham and that was something he could never do. Wickham could not be trusted. He had proved this time and again.
It pained him even to glance at the bride -- so young, so innocent, so completely unaware of the undoubtedly painful journey she was embarking on with such confidence. Georgiana looked happy. Her face was radiant and she was smiling at her new husband. All she could see was the handsome man beside her.
How could Darcy blame her? She was infatuated with the man. She barely knew what she had done wrong, if she had done anything wrong at all. It was all his fault. Darcy shot a vicious glance at Wickham. He had made her do it. He felt nothing for Georgiana, Darcy was sure, only for her money. He had seduced her with a purpose. Darcy could not blame his little sister. He had not even fully explained all the consequences of her actions to her, for fear of hurting her or turning her against him. He had not been able to tell her about her husband's true character. Had he done so, she might have become rebellious and turned away from him, because Wickham had taken care to establish a great hold over Georgiana, knowing full well that her brother was aware of the flaws in his personality.
And Georgiana was fifteen. She was likely to choose Wickham's side instead of her brother's should it come to any disagreement. After all, she had not protested when he had coaxed her into running away with him. Darcy had not wanted that. Life was going to be hard enough for her as it was. He wanted to be there for her if she needed him and he could never live in peace if she chose never to see him again. Even if she chose to go her own way he would always be thinking of her. She was his little sister and it was his duty to protect her.
He closed his eyes at the stab of pain he felt upon realizing he was failing her now. He was doing this when he could clearly see what was ahead of her. His eyes met Wickham's. There was a smug look on the other man's face and Darcy narrowed his eyes, conveying his feelings in his icy stare. If you so much as lay a hand on my sister, I will kill you. And he meant it. Wickham knew he meant it too, because he quickly looked away. If he was wise he would remember this message his entire life and live accordingly.
Darcy had not wanted to come with Bingley at all. He had felt a great reluctance to leave Georgiana alone with Wickham. Ever since their marriage he had visited them often, ignoring his deep-rooted dislike of the man. He had to make sure his sister was being treated well. In spite of the fact that he had never caught anything being amiss, he still feared what might happen in his absence. Wickham had only behaved because he had been around. Now that he was gone, Wickham might show his true nature and treat Georgiana badly. Darcy was even beyond supposing this -- he knew it for a fact.
Bingley, always eager to see the good in people, had not quite agreed. Despite that side of his character, he could see that things were not going well with Darcy. He saw only that his friend was getting more and more trapped by the fears and negative feelings he had created himself, not that these fears were really based on anything. He had pressed Darcy to join him for a change of scenery. It had taken all of Bingley's persuasive skills, more than he had ever thought he possessed, to get Darcy to come along.
The matter that had ultimately clinched it was that Colonel Fitzwilliam would be in London and that he would be there for Georgiana to turn to. While he had disapproved as much of the marriage as Darcy had, he had known it was the only solution. He would not, like Lady Catherine, refuse to see Georgiana ever again.
With two friends earnestly urging him to take a break, Darcy had finally agreed, but not after extracting the promise from his cousin to write frequently and to send for him immediately if anything happened. The Colonel had promised this solemnly.
Still, Darcy was in no mood to have fun. He bore the locals with admirable patience, but he could not shake off his fears.
He could not even bear to read Georgiana's letters. She was completely unaware of anything. It nearly made him sick to read how Wickham must be deceiving her. On the surface it appeared as if there were no problems at all. Georgiana sounded cheerful and happy. This could not be true. Darcy knew better. He knew that at some point there would be a turnaround in Wickham's behaviour and that it would hit his little sister much harder if she believed herself to be happy now. Had she been complaining already the blow would not be as hard, but it would merely have been a logical consequence.
He would not be able to bear to see his sister struck so hard and he prayed it would not happen, but in his opinion it was inevitable, considering Wickham's baseness. There was almost a life-long rivalry between them. It was unlikely that Darcy could ever be persuaded to see Wickham as anything other than bad and corrupted. He had already had too much experience with the man.
At the same time he knew Bingley was right. This hatred was overtaking him far too much and he should relax. He was suffering, whereas Wickham was not and Georgiana was happy. "Does that not count for anything?" Bingley had asked.
Darcy knew that showing Georgiana too much of his feelings would have a negative effect. She would rebel and choose her husband. In fact, she had already wondered why he visited so often despite not getting along all that well with Wickham. If he had told her she would have been angry. He had considered Bingley's argument. Perhaps he should trust Georgiana just once, for a few weeks and then see again. He did not want to upset her either. Perhaps a short absence would place matters in a clearer perspective for all of them.
Caroline had picked up enough of the matter not to ask any direct questions about it. Darcy suspected that Georgiana had told her an embellished story, but since he was reluctant to discuss it, he did not ask her. Whatever was the case, it had made her reflect on her own position, he believed. This had given her hope. Did she not know that nothing could be more useless at a time like this than a hope of ever becoming Mrs Darcy?
The Hursts certainly did not know or care what had passed. Sometimes Mrs Hurst unwittingly made remarks that angered or hurt him, but he had to ignore them.
Caroline had indeed been told a very embellished tale from which some crucial details had been missing. She had not betrayed her shocked feelings, but she had accepted the story and its impossibilities without saying a word. Not for a moment had she believed that Darcy had given his consent voluntarily. It had made her suspect that something had been very wrong for him to allow Georgiana and Wickham to take this step.
She had been hoping he would tell her something about it, but he had not. She liked Georgiana as a young friend and she was probably as concerned as he was about the outcome of this match. It rather disappointed her to be ignored as a valuable confidante. It was true that Darcy was a friend of her brother's, but that did not mean that she could not be a good friend to him as well. It was she after all who had spoken most to Georgiana, because she could not see Darcy talk to Georgiana about the marriage.
If she really thought about it, she was shocked. The elopement was a shock, the wedding was a shock, everything was. And it had also felt strange to hear someone she had always considered still a child speak about being married. This childlike adoration of Wickham proved it all the more. There would still have been quite a few years before Georgiana would have come of age, legally as well as mentally. Caroline was not always sure she had reached that state herself, but one thing she was sure of was that she would never have become happy had she married at fifteen or sixteen.
Bingley was extremely glad that Darcy had finally come along. He needed to get away from all that brooding. Bingley saw no better way to accomplish that than moving to different circles where nobody knew them and nobody would be at all acquainted with the story of Georgiana's marriage. He looked forward to meeting new people and he would simply drag Darcy along.
He was not discouraged by Darcy's initial reactions. His feelings would run very shallow indeed if he could forget them after such a short period and if only days after leaving his sister he would have forgotten about her plight sufficiently to enjoy himself. While Bingley never needed this much time to become cheerful, he had learnt that Darcy was a bit slow about these things, but once into the spirit it would be hard to get him out of it again. Unfortunately that applied to his current mood as well.
It was a good thing, he reflected, that he did not take any of those grumpy comments personally. If he had, he might have felt like sending Darcy back to London after the first day, but he had endured. He was used to enduring anyway, what with Louisa and Mr Hurst belonging to the party.
Also, Bingley admitted to himself, it had become easier to endure Darcy after he had met Miss Bennet. Bingley thought she was wonderful. She improved his mood in such a manner that he would be able to stand being locked up in a very small room with no fewer than ten Darcys.
After the first days Darcy still had not received any letters from his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, only one or two from Georgiana telling him about all the unimportant things she had done. Each morning he had fretted about that, pacing the room. He had been gone for a considerable time now and still no letter. However, today there was one and he nearly tore it apart in his hurry to see its contents.
All was going well, it said right at the beginning.
It could not be, although he heaved a deep sigh of relief as well. How could all be going well? This was so contrary to his fears and expectations that he had trouble believing it.
"Is anything the matter?" asked Bingley.
"No, all is well," Darcy replied automatically, scanning the rest of the letter. For the rest it only contained trivial news. The most important thing was that all was going well, even though he had been gone for ages and Wickham would have had ample time to get into mischief.
"Well, that is good!"
"I am not sure."
"Darcy, you should stop seeing the worst in everything. If it says all is going well, all is going well. Is this a letter from your cousin?"
"Yes, it is."
"Then you may believe what he says. He would not lie to you."
"But he might be tactful."
"Tactful?" Bingley laughed incredulously. "There is no tact between friends and cousins. I think you are a deuced idiot."
Darcy rubbed his eyes and temples in a tired gesture. Perhaps he was, if Bingley said so. No, that meant it was true. One had to be really bad for Bingley to make such a comment. He was generally positive about everyone, or at least he tried to be.
"Nobody is reading his letters. There is no reason why he cannot be absolutely frank if he writes to you. Am I ever tactful in my letters?"
"You write so few that I cannot remember."
"Alright, I admit that you do not appear to be very tactful," Darcy conceded. "Could I trust this then? Really?"
"Let me read it." Bingley held out his hand authoritatively. He read the epistle attentively. "Yes. I think you may believe this."
Darcy continued to be preoccupied and worried, despite his cousin's reassuring letter. He wondered if he perhaps did not have enough faith in other people to trust Fitzwilliam completely. There was always the chance that Fitzwilliam had misjudged the situation. He did not know Wickham to the same extent. Of course he knew him well, but he had grown up in another place where he had not constantly been confronted with Wickham, unlike Darcy himself. It was possible that Fitzwilliam could not see through him.
He had to attend an assembly with such feelings of anxiety still ruling him and he derived very little pleasure from the prospect, contrary to Bingley. His friend tried to convince him that it would be fun, but Darcy would not even enjoy such an occasion in better spirits. "I shall endure it for your sake, but I wish I could avoid dancing altogether," he said to Bingley and it made him feel very much like a martyr.
Miss Bingley fancied she understood him and she endeavoured to let him know about it. "But if you dance only with me and Louisa you will have met the basic requirements. We shall not tease you. Would it really be such a punishment to stand up with us?" He could depend on her to make the evening more agreeable.
Darcy shook his head. He should express some gratitude for her concern, because he was certain that it was kindly meant. "You know I would never consider it a punishment to dance with you, Caroline."
She looked pleased with his answer and drew nearer to him. "But you must know I was not looking for compliments," she said in a low voice. She had only wanted to reassure him and to get him to be a little less gloomy.
"I am genuinely concerned about your mood."
"I appreciate your concern, but there is very little you can do to help," he said kindly. He did not want to offend her by saying her help was useless, but it was. Unless someone killed Wickham, his situation could not improve.
She did not agree and frowned. It was as if Darcy enjoyed this mood. He certainly did not make any effort to lift his spirits and she did not really admire such a defeatist attitude. It seemed to her that he presently derived his energy from feelings of hate and resentment and that somehow felt very wrong. It was true that she spoke ill of people at times, but she did not make it an obsession the way he did.
However, Darcy was not the sort of person she would dare to tell a thing like that and she kept quiet, although she was not certain that she would be able to curb her tongue in the future if he kept this up. She could never refrain from speaking about things that vexed her and perhaps it would do him some good to be scolded.
At the assembly Darcy indeed only danced with Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley. He could not muster up the energy to speak to people he did not know and to be bothered with their petty concerns when he had so much more important issues on his mind at the moment and he simply walked about without speaking. Some men addressed him, to be sure, but he gave only very minimal replies that did not encourage a deeper acquaintance.
Darcy could not help but realise that he would be perceived as a good catch, just like Georgiana had been seen as one. He would not act like one -- never. Had he disliked it before, he was now decided completely against any fortune hunters. He would never do anything to accommodate them.
He wished that Bingley and Caroline were less chatty. Their fondness for lively conversation always made them profess contrary opinions and one would never be convinced by the other, so that they rattled away until someone put an end to it. Caroline would disagree with whatever Bingley said and he would soothe any criticism she voiced.
He grumbled a bit when they solicited his opinion on the assembly. He had not expected to enjoy himself and so he had not. Unfortunately he tended to agree with Caroline where the locals were concerned, so his reaction only caused Bingley to disagree with them both and to come up with more arguments as to why the locals were very agreeable indeed.
It only served to give Darcy a headache and an even worse opinion.
Fortunately for those who regularly spent time in Darcy's company, his anxiety and bad humour lifted a bit. One could not associate with Bingley and not be infected, especially when Colonel Fitzwilliam's reports continued to be favourable. Although Darcy had once angrily hurled a letter into the fire when his cousin reported on a good act of Wickham's, calling Fitzwilliam a traitor, he kept on reading the letters that arrived subsequently.
Georgiana seemed to be pleased with her new situation and it was difficult, but reason said that he should convince himself that Georgiana was the one who mattered. Unfortunately reason had not been the dominant force within him lately.
He began to notice a bit more and to participate in conversations, which to his great surprise distracted him enough to feel more cheerful. With less time spent on thinking about Georgiana, her situation also seemed less hopeless and his own guilt less strong. Occasionally a positive thought on the matter surfaced in his mind, although it was still quickly expelled with a feeling of a different kind of guilt.
To say he enjoyed the social gatherings that Bingley was invited to would be a lie, but at least Darcy could now communicate civilly and he could observe, whereas he had only been capable of the most depressing introspection before.
There was a definite change in his behaviour when he received a new missive from Fitzwilliam.
I am sorry if my previous letters were a bit short and vague. I was working on something that I could not tell you about until it was done. It is fairly good news and perhaps it will compensate for the fact that Georgiana is upset with me at present. She has perhaps written to you already, so I am sending this note in haste so it will reach you at least as quickly as hers. The matter is as follows: I pulled some strings somewhere and managed to drop the hint that Wickham's regiment ought to be sent off to _____. It appears to have worked. I am still cautious about this, however, and we cannot be sure until we have seen his ship leave our shores.
But here is the catch: Georgina then entreated me to pull some strings to have this decision retracted and I have not displayed enough eagerness for this task to her taste, as you might be able to understand. I think she has now written to you for help as a last resort, but there is no telling what the silly girl will do if Wickham is sent abroad. She might contrive to go with him.
At any rate, I would advise you against offering your help in the matter. It would reflect badly on our family if I should say one thing and you another.
Darcy read the letter with mixed feelings. It would be wonderful to get rid of Wickham in such a manner, yet the danger of Georgiana doing something foolish was very real. Still, Fitzwilliam was acquainted enough with these matters to pull the right strings to ensure Wickham would be sent somewhere from where there was only a small chance that he might return. This was an important consideration and one that influenced his thoughts the most.
The letter had lifted his spirits considerably. Just like he had blotted out the other options before, he again focused on only one this time. He had been given hope and he clung to it with all his might.
Wickham would be sent abroad. No doubt he would get into mischief there. Darcy's mind was constantly busy imagining what could happen. It was quite pleasant to think of such things, actually, and he cheered up a little.
Wickham would no doubt seduce so many ladies as to yield at least five husbands who would challenge him to a duel. No person could duel five times and survive it, Darcy thought. And then Georgiana would be safe and free. He would be free as well. Everybody would be happy.
At the next social gathering Darcy was capable of smiling.
A smiling Mr Darcy was an oddity when his smiles were neither polite nor condescending, but seemingly genuine. He even exerted himself so much as to make polite conversation. It took people by surprise to see him thus altered and they gathered some courage to approach him.
Meanwhile in London, Colonel Fitzwilliam had some problems with Georgiana. She proved to have a will and mind of her own that seemed to conflict with her former guardians' wishes in every instance. Her infatuation with her husband -- Fitzwilliam still cringed at that term -- clouded her judgement. She had convinced herself that she was in love and that she would die if she were ever parted from her dear Wickham.
The prospect that he was to be sent off to _____ with his regiment was in that light a horrible one. She had tried her best to convince her cousin to undo this, but he had not appeared very eager to use his influence. This had angered her tremendously and the quiet Georgiana had become more outspoken than he had ever seen her.
She had also become quite irrational and emotional and he never really knew how to deal with that.
Georgiana felt as if the entire world was united against her except for Wickham. He was the only one who was kind to her and yet everyone else cruelly conspired to send him abroad so suddenly after they were married, as if they wanted to deny her any happiness.
She had expected her cousin and her brother to take some action after she had told them about it, but they had not. They cruelly insisted on remaining passive.
Richard had looked embarrassed and evasive and mumbled that he could not do anything for her, no matter that he should be able to do such things because he was in the army. She knew he could, but he just did not want to. He had looked even more evasive when she had accused him of that and she knew she had been right. He simply did not want to because he hated George. It hurt her to discover that his dislike of George would also lead him to disregard her wishes. She had assumed that he would at least care enough about her to do what she asked, even though she had known he was not too fond of George. He should have done this for her.
And Fitzwilliam had never replied to her letter that she had sent when she had grown too frustrated with Richard. Or rather, he had sent one back, but one that did not address any of the points she had brought up in hers, as if he was unable to read.
She had told George about it and he had been kind. He had hesitantly suggested that her brother might have some problems. The way he had said it was very convincing, but also very upsetting, because something of the sort had never occurred to her.
"You are married now, Georgiana," George had also said. "He can no longer make you do all the strange things he wants."
That had been so right and Georgiana was determined to ignore her brother. Richard was still welcome as long as he behaved and as long as he did not speak ill of George. She had told him so. She was married now and she was perfectly justified in saying that. Richard reacted with some shock and she was a little smug. See? He did not see her as a grown and married woman, but still as a little girl. "You have to get used to treating me differently now," she said to him. "You cannot make me do what you want anymore."
Colonel Fitzwilliam looked at her oddly. "Believe me, Georgiana. We have never made you do any things simply because that was what we wanted. We have always acted in your best interests." They had never abused their authority, except perhaps in forcing her to get married to save her reputation, which was conveniently also what she had wanted to do herself.
"You have not and you know it." It was in her best interest if they were to get George out of this overseas assignment. They did not care about her at all. It was all about themselves and it made her so angry.
"We have." It was in her best interest not to do anything about it. She would be much better off without Wickham and she would thank them for it later.
"I am not a little girl anymore."
"I did not say you were."
"You do not have to say it for me to know that you are thinking it."
There was no arguing with her and Fitzwilliam sighed. Why did it have to be his lot to have to deal with all the misconceptions and self-delusions of an immature girl? He wished he could leave it to someone else, preferably a woman, but there was no one else.
"Am I not the best judge of what I want and of what is good for me?" Georgiana asked challengingly.
Fitzwilliam did not think so. At her age she could not know her own mind yet. It was too easy for Wickham to influence her and she did not even realise it had happened. "You are young..."
"Does that mean I am incapable of thinking or feeling?" Her voice rose threateningly.
He had to make sure she would remain calm. He disliked emotional eruptions. "No, I am not saying that."
"I am only saying...."
"That I do not know myself."
"You are too young to be aware of all the consequences of your actions." He winced when he saw this had not been the most felicitous thing to say. She was convinced of one thing, he of another, and there would never be a compromise. It was futile, absolutely futile, to talk about it. But if he stood by and let her ruin herself he would be feeling guilty forever.
He could not tell her she had married a cad, because she would never believe him and she would only resent him for saying so, thereby throwing herself even more in Wickham's power. Once she had severed all ties with her family Wickham would be free to do with her as he pleased, ruining her and taking her money. She did not deserve to be ruined, even though she seemed to want to. Fitzwilliam felt it was his duty to do anything in his power to prevent Georgiana's downfall, but she made his efforts very difficult indeed.
Georgiana turned away at his words. She wanted to cry from anger, frustration and disappointment. "I am disappointed in you," she told him. This was something she would never have dared to tell her older cousin before, but she was married now. "You do not take me seriously. I am not too young! Who gives you the right to say such a thing? I am right. Why can you not admit that? Why can you not admit that you were wrong, instead of telling me I am wrong?" There were tears in her eyes. "I love George!" She really did and George loved her. He had said so. "He is the only one who is kind to me! The only one who takes me seriously! All the rest of you do not!"
Wickham would be kind to her as long as he still did not have her money, Fitzwilliam thought. Of course he would say he loved her. It had nothing to do with Georgiana herself. Once her assets were her husband's, he would stop acting and he would neglect her or hurt her.
"I will go with George if he is sent abroad," Georgiana declared. "I will not be parted from my husband! And you cannot do anything about it! You will not be able to stop me!"
If he had not known Darcy would kill him for it, Fitzwilliam would have felt very tempted to let Georgiana suffer. Finally he settled for simply leaving her to her own devices for the moment until he had figured out what to do.
Colonel Fitzwilliam was even more at a loss when he discovered that Darcy now seemed completely convinced that he would and could settle this matter to their satisfaction and extricate Georgiana from Wickham's clutches without her feeling anything other than the deepest gratitude.
He was in a difficult position. Darcy expected the impossible and Georgiana had proven that she was already feeling hurt, insulted and angry and that whatever happened, gratitude would be a very minor emotion.
He was now faced with the dilemma of telling Darcy what the situation was really like or letting him recover from his depression. Neither option was remotely ideal.
"You seem very cheerful all of a sudden," said Miss Bingley to Darcy when she had noticed it was no passing mood. He had even spoken to some locals and she had always believed that he was even more particular about that than she was.
"Why is that?"
"I have my reasons."
"I am interested in hearing them," she said encouragingly.
Darcy had been so engrossed in himself that such an answer surprised him. "I received some good news from my cousin."
"What did he write?" Caroline was curious. She wanted to know exactly what had caused Darcy's sudden recovery. It must have been something significant.
"You can tell me." He seemed to underestimate her, but if she told him so he was never going to tell her this news.
Darcy was silent for a while, as if he tried to decide if she could be told. "He has fixed the situation with Georgiana."
Caroline raised her eyebrows. It was odd that she had regarded the situation as quite unfixable. She did not see how it could have been fixed, least of all by Darcy's cousin. "May I ask how?"
Darcy's story of how Wickham would be sent to ____ and thus solve every problem naturally raised some questions, but Caroline did not ask them, afraid as she was of upsetting the precarious balance in Darcy's mind. It had taken so long for him to shake off the gloom and to be less annoying and vexing for his companions.
When she was alone she asked herself those questions, however. It seemed to her that Darcy was overlooking a good deal in his optimism. There were three questions to go with every sentence he had spoken and his predicted outcome of the whole scheme was but one and by no means the only possible result. Was she the only one who could see more options? And was she also the only person who did not count on Georgiana's passivity?
The roles were now reversed. Darcy was beginning to enjoy himself, whereas Colonel Fitzwilliam was beginning to feel very concerned. He was failing dramatically at this diplomatic mission that Darcy had sent him on. Talking to Georgiana had only had the opposite effect. What could he do now? What with his aunt being in town he saw only one option and he went to her town house to consult her.
She was out, but he was sufficiently well-acquainted with her servants to be allowed to wait. After nearly half an hour of pacing, a loud voice in the hall announced that Her Ladyship had returned. "My nephew?" he could hear her say. "What is he doing here?" But the answer -- if there was one -- was too soft for him to hear. She entered the room almost instantly and it was as he had expected -- she still had her coat on. "To what do I owe this visit, Fitzwilliam?" Lady Catherine asked. "You do not generally visit me when you are not supposed to."
Colonel Fitzwilliam realised that he would first have to engage in some explanatory small-talk before he could get down to business. Even though his business would explain why he had come, it would never be adequate as an excuse for why he had not come before. "I am always very busy -- and so are you, Aunt Catherine."
"That is true," she conceded. "But that is not an excuse. As you see today, I have enough time to receive you and you may always wait for me, because eventually I will return, knowing that I probably have visitors waiting for me."
"I do not always have time to wait."
"Nonsense, Fitzwilliam. You are a colonel." As far as she knew they had plenty of time for social visits.
He decided to cut it short. "Yes, Aunt Catherine. I shall visit you more often in the future." He was sure it was not his company, but simply the idea of him paying respect to her that she liked. If he showed her some respect now, he would not actually have to follow it up by visiting her.
"What have you come to see me about?"
Lady Catherine narrowed her eyes. "What about her?" Georgiana's marriage was a sensitive issue in the family. She had not approved of it, but she had realized there was very little else that could have been done. It was not the best of examples of a young girl's folly to witness for a mother of an unmarried daughter and it had made her even more determined to keep Anne sheltered. It was perhaps not fair that Anne should have to pay for all of Georgiana's mistakes, but at least it would keep her out of trouble.
"We have a small problem on our hands."
"Again?" Lady Catherine's eyebrows shot up. "I had hoped that the problem was now solved. And by the way, it was never small." Wickham was much more than just a small problem. He was an eminently undesirable connection to have.
"I have arranged for Wickham's regiment to be sent off to ____," the Colonel began.
"Excellent," his aunt cut in. They were young, but sometimes her nephews showed great promise. She tried to remember if she had ever whispered the suggestion of sending Wickham off in his ear. It did sound like something she would think of first, so she probably had. Fitzwilliam was still a promising young man for heeding her words.
Things were not excellent. "Wait a minute, Aunt. Georgiana is now seriously displeased."
"You are not doing her a disservice." Lady Catherine did not think Georgiana had any right or reason to be displeased. Georgiana should have the good of the family on her mind first and the family was helped by a removal of Wickham.
The Colonel delivered his coup de grace in an ominous tone. "She has threatened to go with him."
"Is she crazy?" Lady Catherine cried out.
"I am beginning to think so." He decided to get his aunt more firmly on his side. "I am glad Anne is a wise girl at least."
Her Ladyship acknowledged this compliment with a regal nod. Contrary to her habit, she did not extol Anne's virtues but waited for him to continue.
"Georgiana will turn away from us if I put any more pressure on her. I do not know what to do." Colonel Fitzwilliam looked at his aunt as he worryingly ran a hand through his hair. He had done that before and it now looked quite untidy.
"I am glad you are wearing a hat outside, Fitzwilliam," Lady Catherine said pensively. Her mind was already dealing with the problem of Georgiana. There was nothing she liked better than a good puzzle or some social problem to fix. That she had stayed relatively aloof so far was simply because her pride had been wounded slightly because the boys had got there first.
"I thought perhaps a woman could help," Fitzwilliam suggested.
"Did you now, Fitzwilliam? You must have inherited your mother's understanding, boy." She was still gazing absentmindedly at the fireplace.
"Are you listening?" he asked in frustration. Her mind seemed to be miles off.
"I am thinking."
Fitzwilliam had more to say before he could let her think. "Darcy believes I have everything under control, but I do not. Georgiana is in an explosive state. One wrong word from us and we shall lose her."
"That is quite true. If only she was more like Anne." Anne would never get up to this sort of thing. Anne had been raised well. She had always known that her sister and brother-in-law had been too indulgent with their children, but neither had ever listened to her advice on the matter. They had taken her seriously, but now she was proven right.
"I told her she was too young to think."
Lady Catherine winced. "That was not quite felicitous, Fitzwilliam. May this be a lesson to you -- never tell a young and stubborn girl that she is too young to think." She could well imagine the effect this would have had on Georgiana, who by the sound of it had inherited a good deal of the Fitzwilliam stubbornness. She was all too familiar with the effects of stubbornness on the young female mind.
"Was I supposed to agree with her?" he wondered.
"No. It is no use wondering about what you should have said instead. It is not likely that you will ever be in the same situation again. Anne and your sisters will not do this."
"I should hope not!" he exclaimed.
"Georgiana claims to love Wickham, does she not?"
"I had not expected otherwise," she sighed. "She has picked the wrong man, the wrong moment and fortunately also the wrong aunt to become rebellious. Leave it to me, Fitzwilliam."
He was startled. "What will you do?" He did not know anything could be done.
Lady Catherine frowned reflectively. "I shall not acquaint you with the particulars yet. I have to work them out still. Let me ask you -- have you or Darcy spoken to Wickham?"
"No, we have not." While he might be able to remain polite, he was sure that Darcy would have throttled the cad if they were left alone anywhere. "Excuse me, Aunt Catherine," he said when an idea occurred to him. "You are not planning to speak to him, are you?"
"I have not decided that yet. I might. Leave it to me, I told you."
"But Darcy would have a fit." Darcy would never tolerate anyone speaking seriously to Wickham. It was a cad, as far as Darcy was concerned, and he did not deserve any time spent on him. Cads should not be acknowledged.
"Dear boy, Darcy is in such a state as to have fits about anything. And really, Darcy could not solve this problem. He has tried and failed. He has therefore forfeited his rights to have fits about any actions other people may undertake," Lady Catherine said imperiously. Darcy should remain in Hertfordshire or wherever he was and leave this situation to be handled by less unstable persons.
"But it is his sister."
"Perhaps he should stop thinking of his sister as something that belongs to him or as someone who should do what he says simply because they are related."
"But Aunt Catherine!" Colonel Fitzwilliam was shocked. "Are you implying we should let Georgiana do whatever she wants?"
"Not at all. She should do what I say."
"I see very little difference," Fitzwilliam complained. "I do not understand you."
"That is why you should leave this to me and not to a young and rash person such as yourself or Darcy. You are sadly unqualified to deal with matters of the heart, Fitzwilliam."
Fitzwilliam wondered if his aunt had a heart at all and why she would be qualified. It was useless. "I shall not enter this discussion with you, Aunt."
"Very wise," she agreed.
"Can I just leave the entire problem with you? I have done my bit." He was eager to get rid of it somehow.
Lady Catherine shook her head in disapproval. "Are you bowing out?"
"I am bowing out," Fitzwilliam said with a shameful blush. It was defeat and he hated defeat, but he had no other option. It was driving him crazy and he disliked to be confronted with his own incompetence. A military man should not bow out, but he could not get any further here.
"Very wise," she said mysteriously. "I have better connections, but in the unlikely case that I need your assistance, I shall call upon you again. Perhaps it will not be anything more taxing than entertaining Anne while I am out on business."
"I could do that," he said in relief. "I shall always be available to entertain my cousin." He would do anything as long as she solved this problem.
She raised her eyebrows. "Make sure you remember that." She would get back to that in the future.
The boys should have come to her sooner. They should not have let it come this far. Nevertheless, Lady Catherine liked challenges that would intimidate everyone else. She was not easily put out and she would bring this to a good conclusion. She could succeed where all others failed and lost courage. That was something she had absolute faith in.
First she would speak with Georgiana, that foolish, headstrong girl.
"Aunt Catherine!" Georgiana said in some shock when her visitor was shown in. Her carefully maintained composure of grown-up married lady did not hold up very well under her aunt's piercing gaze. She felt like the old, unmarried Georgiana again.
"Georgiana. Let me look at you." The Wickham's residence was tolerable and better than Lady Catherine had expected. It had undoubtedly been financed by Darcy, but it was far from being the sort of house a Darcy was expected to be comfortable in. For the son of a steward it did very well, but she could not imagine Georgiana, who had been used to the best, voluntarily moving in here. Despite living here, Georgiana looked reasonably well.
She was no longer a little girl and that comment made her sound like one, but one did not protest audibly to Lady Catherine. "What brings you here, Aunt?" she asked nervously. Her aunt was not known to make friendly visits. They always had a purpose.
"I had not seen you for a long time. I needed to see if you were well."
"I am well."
"Are you?" Lady Catherine sounded inquisitive. "How is your brother?" The answer to that question would tell her a lot. Anything positive would be a lie. Everyone would know Darcy had been in a pretty bad state when he had left town. If Georgiana acknowledged this, she would also be acknowledging the fact that something was wrong.
"He has not written."
"Have you not written him?"
"No, I have not. We did not part on the best of terms." Georgiana fell silent. She did not know what else to say about it.
"But fortunately you still have Wickham," Lady Catherine said subtly.
"He has been very good to me." A marked change came over Georgiana. Her features softened and she lost the contrary look in her eyes that had appeared at the first mention of her brother.
Her aunt observed it with interest, but she did not comment on it. She waited for Georgiana to continue. Surely if she was so fond of her new husband she would want to speak about him.
"He is the only one who has been kind to me. It pains me to hear my brother and my cousin speak ill about him." Thinking of their insensitivity in voicing their mistaken assumptions nearly moved her to tears. "He is not bad. I do not understand why they hate him so. They have not been as kind to me as George is. He does not treat me like a younger sister or cousin. He does not tell me what to do."
Lady Catherine disagreed somewhat with this picture of Wickham, but she realised the impossibility of saying so. It would only enforce Georgiana's opinion that everyone else was unkind. If it was simply Wickham's kindness, fake or not, that had appealed to Georgiana, perhaps even more kindness could pry her loose. It called for a different approach from her usual one, Lady Catherine mused. Honest outspokenness would have the wrong effect. She should perhaps pretend to be on Georgiana's side when it came to Darcy and Fitzwilliam. "My dear Georgiana..." she said as kindly as she could. She was not used to speaking in such a way and it cost her some trouble, but her common sense told her that a motherless girl might not be the best judge and that Georgiana in all likeliness would not notice the difference.
Georgiana tried to be a sensible girl, but her bottom lip quivered. She flung herself at her aunt, wanting to be comforted. Up till now she had always kept a brave face when she had been confronted with issues that had really made her want to cry, but she could not do it any longer. She was still not crying, but she wanted to speak about all that had happened and she did not know where to begin.
"Oh dear," said Lady Catherine in some consternation. Her plan was working faster and better than she had anticipated. She put her arms around the tense girl and pressed her against her chest. What did one do in such a situation? She wished against all common sense that Anne had been a little more silly. It would have prepared her better for this situation. Anne was too sensible to do such things, just like she had always thought Georgiana to be, but this was not the right moment to consider which implications this might have for Anne. "What is wrong?"
A pitiful sound escaped Georgiana's lips. "Nobody loves me."
Something within Lady Catherine cried out in despair. How was she to handle this before Georgiana burst into tears? "That is not true." There was not much one could say in such a case that would actually be believed.
"It is! Nobody takes me seriously."
"Oh, Georgiana! I take you seriously, do I not?" Lady Catherine took the problem seriously and that was what she meant. She was not yet certain if she was on Georgiana's side when it came to Wickham, which was what Georgiana would define as being taken seriously. The girl seemed so easy to manipulate with a little kindness. It made her doubt the intentions of Wickham, who by all accounts appeared to be a master manipulator.
"Yes," Georgiana sniffled. "But my brother does not and I thought he loved me."
"He does love you."
"If he truly loved me he would let me do what is best for me, instead of wanting me to do what is best for him."
Lady Catherine believed that her nephew's ideas on what was good for Georgiana coincided more with her own than with Georgiana's. Wickham was not an ideal match for a member of her family in either class or character. Even if some rumours were untrue there remained too many others that would contain enough grains of truth to make him undesirable. But, until she had spoken to the man himself, she would not be able to make any definite judgments. He would not be able to fool her, she was sure, but she had to play this well. If she demanded to see him too abruptly, he would catch on and play a role. He was good at that. It was better to catch him unawares, to let Georgiana take her into her confidence. "Older brothers do not always know what is best," she soothed and she was not even lying. Being a younger sister herself, she could muster up enough empathy.
"I know what is best for me," Georgiana continued.
"Of course you do, dear."
"I love George!"
Lady Catherine attempted to hide her disgust. Fortunately Georgiana could not see her face. She could imagine how Darcy or Fitzwilliam would have looked upon hearing this and how this might have had a disastrous effect on the conversation. "Because he is kind to you," she murmured in agreement.
"Yes, precisely!" Georgiana cried eagerly, happy to have found someone who understood her at last. "Why will no one see this?"
Now that she had been embraced as Georgiana's only true friend in the world, Lady Catherine had to proceed with care so as not to ruin this. "Because...their wishes for you were different and am I wrong in assuming Wickham has not be as kind to Darcy as he has been to you?" she inquired cautiously.
"No," Georgiana admitted in a low voice. "But I do not know everything that has happened. He will not talk about it and says it has nothing to do with us. And he is right. All that matters is that he is nice to me. My brother does not have to like him. They do not even have to meet each other if they do not want to. I too would like my brother to marry a lady I liked, but the decision is ultimately up to him and I must be happy with his choice, because it is his choice and not mine, but this is mine and not his."
"That is true." It had been Georgiana's choice, but one that might have been based on the wrong information and it might be one she would come to regret. "Shall I speak to Darcy?" offered Lady Catherine, who had no such intention. She had spoken to Fitzwilliam and she had no reason to believe that Darcy and Fitzwilliam held different opinions.
Georgiana looked up hopefully. "Would you? It truly pains me to find that members of my family disagree with me when it comes to George. I want so much for everyone to be happy."
"Do not worry about it, Georgiana."
"But..." Georgiana said with a choke and her tears welled up again when she thought about her other, equally great problem. "George's regiment will be sent abroad and nobody wants to do anything about it. Can you, Aunt Catherine? I would miss him so much if he left and I would not have anyone here. I would be all alone if I did not go with him."
Lady Catherine had hoped the emotional spell had been over, but unfortunately that had been too premature a conclusion. She hugged her niece for lack of a better alternative. "Do not fret about it. It might never happen." Georgiana might never go with him. "Do not think too far ahead and do not concern yourself about things that are beyond your control."
Georgiana sniffed somewhat when she realised she was being silly. There might still be hope and knowing her aunt, there might be a solution. "Thank you, Aunt Catherine. You have been a great help."
Her aunt looked reasonably satisfied, for being a great help to all and sundry was one of her main objectives in life. She did not quite feel that she had succeeded yet, however. All she had done so far was gauge the situation. From now on she would be facing the hardest challenge: to solve this problem in a manner that brought the greatest satisfaction and the least disgrace to the family.
Colonel Fitzwilliam had wondered whether he should tell Darcy about Lady Catherine's interference. It would prevent his cousin from sending him any inquiries into the current state of affairs, but on the other hand it would also be an admission of defeat. He had failed to resolve this matter and he had had to resort to asking another person to step in. He had pondered the matter for a few days and each time he had put off coming to a final decision. Finally he had decided it was best to tell Darcy anyway. After all, Darcy had done the same thing: he had left it to Fitzwilliam to take care of everything while he went away to amuse himself in Hertfordshire.
It was quite a logical thing to the Colonel that Darcy should be amusing himself. While others were sorting out a man's problems, he had no option but to enjoy life. At least, that was what Fitzwilliam would do himself. He liked a carefree life with as few personal problems as possible. If he were in Hertfordshire with Bingley he would be sure to enjoy himself, for Bingley always attracted some very nice young ladies. Unfortunately it was not an option at the moment to leave town, what with the obligations and the work his occupation entailed.
Still, his social engagements would be much more agreeable now that he did not have the responsibility of Georgiana's happiness. It had weighed upon him quite happily. He would feel a little like a cad if he flirted with ladies while he was supposed to rescue his young cousin. It was perhaps selfish of him to enjoy his own pursuits better, but he could not think of anyone who seriously enjoyed meddling in other people's lives, other than his aunt. She was much more persistent and thorough than he was when it came to meddling. He should let her handle this.
He wrote to Darcy to inform him that the matter was wholly in Lady Catherine's hands and that she had assured him it would end well. Had she? He could not recall if she had said that, but he wrote it down anyway. It would reassure Darcy and whether Lady Catherine had said it or not, she would still be thinking it. They knew their aunt well enough to know that.
Darcy, who had lately acquired the habit of interpreting letters the way he would like to interpret them, was greatly relieved by his cousin's information. He trusted his aunt, knowing her fondness for sorting out people's lives and knowing that she too was disgusted by Georgiana's choice of a husband. Lady Catherine would make any effort imaginable to resolve this matter to her own satisfaction and Darcy was glad that their opinions coincided in this case. Quite frequently they agreed on something, but his dislike of her meddling usually prevented him from saying so.
So as not to have Georgiana on his mind constantly, he sought other matters to occupy him and he found that if he spoke to people, he had less time to think of his sister.
Elizabeth found Mr Darcy to be an odd character. Initially he had refused or ignored all openings that had been made towards him, but then something had occurred that had drastically changed him, even so much as to make her wonder whether he did not have a twin who was now staying with Mr Bingley in his place.
From complete silence or at most curt and abrupt answers to any comments, Mr Darcy had gone to addressing people spontaneously and smiling. It puzzled her exceedingly, especially since it did not always make sense what he said. Quite frequently he appeared to speak simply for the sake of speaking, not caring very much whether it followed what had been said before.
She discussed it with her sister, because there was something about Mr Darcy that made her want to know more about him. "Jane, what do you think of Mr Bingley's friend?" she asked, not even daring to name the man, but resorting to referring to him via Bingley. Jane must not think she thought about Mr Darcy in his own right.
"He seems a nice man," Jane said cautiously, not wanting to betray that she had in fact paid very little attention to Bingley's friends when Bingley was around.
"Do you not think him odd?"
"No, I do not. Do you?"
"Sometimes I do. Why do you not?"
"I have not spoken with him very often, but he has never struck me as being odd. Why do you think so, Lizzy?" Jane could not believe that Bingley would have odd friends.
"In the beginning he never spoke and you must have noticed how he is now."
"I am afraid I do not follow you, Lizzy." Jane had not noticed much of a difference. Perhaps Mr Darcy was indeed more talkative, but since she usually spoke to Bingley or his sisters, she could not really say anything about Darcy.
"He speaks! And he never did so before."
"Perhaps he was shy."
"Jane, even you cannot give me good reasons for his behaviour." Elizabeth shook her head. "Even you cannot make me believe that it is normal for a man to go from total silence to asking people's opinions on chandeliers, paintings and furniture. It is almost as if he looks around and brings up the first thing that catches his eye, only to have something to speak about!"
"I am sure you are imagining that. Why is it odd to speak about furniture?"
"Because he is..." Elizabeth hesitated. She lowered her voice. "He speaks without thinking. He asked my opinion on a certain desk, but when I asked for his, he was nonplussed and he changed the subject! He speaks a lot, but you cannot hold a true conversation with him. Whenever he is in danger of conversing like a normal person, he gets a wild look in his eyes --"
Jane laughed incredulously at her sister's imagination. She had never perceived a wild look in Darcy's eyes.
"-- and he starts to talk about the carpet." She was exaggerating only a little.
Elizabeth shrugged. Jane's goodness would never allow her to see things as they really were. No matter how strangely Darcy behaved, Jane would always be able to make excuses for it. But she was convinced that something was ailing Darcy that she could not laugh at. It was not mere shyness or folly.
Elizabeth went to see her father about it to get a definitive answer. He was one of the very few people whose opinions she respected. If he considered Darcy a fool, Darcy was a fool. But it was difficult to bring Darcy up without leading her father to think she had any interest in the man. Then again, she could always deny everything. "I should like to know if you think Mr Darcy odd, Papa," she began.
Mr Bennet frowned. "Mr Darcy?"
Elizabeth had expected an answer, not a question and she looked uncomfortable. "Yes, Mr Darcy. Mr Bingley's friend."
"I know who he is, but why should I think Mr Darcy odd?"
"Because he is."
Mr Bennet looked thoughtful. "And may I ask why you are asking for my opinion?" He hoped he was not about to have the young man approach him to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage. He would like to keep her here for a little while longer.
"Because I was not sure if I was right," Elizabeth admitted.
"Lizzy!" her father laughed. "I thought you were always right."
Elizabeth looked very dignified. "Usually, yes, but he puzzles me. I think he might have a painful secret." Ever since she had conceived of that idea, she had seen more and more clues.
"Oh Lizzy! I thought you were more sensible than that!" he exclaimed.
"Is it too strange for a man to have a painful secret?" she asked defensively, stung by the disappointment in his voice.
"No, every man probably has one. But my dear, I thought you were more sensible than to have your interest piqued by painful secrets. It is often not worth the interest."
"My interest is not piqued," Elizabeth protested with a heightened colour.
"He is nothing but a quiet and morose young man who likes his drinks," Mr Bennet shrugged. "And that is no secret, let alone a painful one. Not to the gentlemen in the neighbourhood, at least."
Elizabeth was sure Darcy liked his drinks because he wanted to forget about his painful secret. This was more evidence that proved it. Her father would never believe her, so she left to ponder the evidence alone.
"George bought a new carriage for us," Georgiana announced proudly to her visitor. This information was supposed to impress her aunt and it did, albeit for another reason than Georgiana had expected.
Lady Catherine was silent as she digested the news. Wickham had bought a carriage. He must have spent Georgiana's money doing so, for he could not have enough of his own. Was it beginning already? "I thought you had a carriage." She had been under the assumption that Darcy had given the couple an old carriage of his.
"Yes, but it did not suffice anymore."
"Did you sell the other one?"
Georgiana looked faintly puzzled. "No. What would I use?"
Lady Catherine raised her eyebrows. "You?" Surely the girl was not implying that Wickham used the new carriage while she was relegated to the old one? The former Georgiana Darcy could not be travelling in a carriage older than her husband's.
"Yes, we have two now."
Having her niece driven around in a second-hand carriage while her upstart husband made use of a new one was completely unacceptable and Lady Catherine felt her anger towards Wickham rising. However, betraying it would have the wrong effect on the girl. "Can...can Wickham afford such large expenses?" she asked instead. She was sure of the answer. He could not. He was already using his wife's money for his own purposes.
"I can." Georgiana's expression made it absolutely clear that she would pay for anything her husband could not afford. That was what love was all about. It made her happy to do something for George that he could not do himself.
"I can only advise you not to spend all your money at once, Georgiana, and not on things you do not really need." Hopefully Georgiana would learn something from her words. Lady Catherine regretted that she could not be her usual self. She preferred to be outspoken and unequivocal. This diplomacy was uncharacteristic for her, as well as highly ineffective.
"We really needed it," Georgiana said curtly. Her good spirits had vanished and the proud and immovable Darcy look appeared on her face.
Her aunt looked at her with a mix of pity and exasperation. Of course Wickham would have convinced her of that, but there was no newly-wed couple who needed two carriages, especially not a soldier and his wife. Georgiana was too shy to do much socialising and her husband had a daytime occupation. Nobody could convince Lady Catherine that a second carriage had been absolutely vital. "Georgiana..." she tried, not sure what she could say that would not make things worse. Had her sister Anne not frequently sighed that it was best not to cross George Darcy when he had that look on his face? His daughter had the same look now. Crossing her was bound to lead to disaster.
"Yes, Aunt Catherine?" It was as if Georgiana had some idea of her aunt's thoughts, because it sounded more defiant than inquisitive.
"Remember that when your money is spent, it is really spent. This is all you have. Spend it wisely."
"I am sure you would not have told me that had I not told you it was George who bought the carriage."
Perhaps. Lady Catherine chose not to answer. Members of her own family were formidable opponents, even the young. She could not make them bend to her will. First Darcy had refused and now Georgiana.
"See?" Georgiana said in a hard voice. "You immediately suspect him of spending my fortune. Why should I even bother to tell you that I offered him my money and that he did not want to use it? My husband is an honourable man." She looked proud.
George Wickham had been called many things, but honourable had never been one of them. He had sometimes given the appearance of it, but the truth had always come to light. "How much persuasion did he need?" Lady Catherine inquired. Darcys and Fitzwilliams ought to be proud, but not about this.
Georgiana did not answer, but there were tears in her eyes. "Why do you insist on hurting me, Aunt Catherine? It pains me to see you think so ill of my husband. He would never steal my money."
"I do not want him to hurt you."
"He is not doing that! He loves me. Why else did he marry me?"
There were plenty of reasons to marry Georgiana Darcy, Lady Catherine thought, but all much less honourable than love. The girl was making her life unnecessarily difficult by being so thick-headed. If her aunt had not had a genuine desire to save the girl from ruin she would have given up already. "I love you too, Georgiana." Those words sounded awkward, coming from her. She was not in the habit of speaking them.
Georgiana did not believe her. "That is the first time you have ever said that to anyone. Have you ever said it to Anne? What makes you think I would believe you if you said it to me?" She spoke quietly, but with a touch of defiance.
It was the quietness and the mention of Anne that hit Lady Catherine hardest. For a few moments she did not stir. Then she gathered her skirts together and stood up. "Very well, if that is the way my good advice is being taken I shall draw my conclusions and leave."
Georgiana burst into tears, but her aunt was no longer prepared to stay and be kind.
It was unfortunate that Jane had fallen ill, but even more unfortunate that this had happened at Netherfield where there was no one to assist Elizabeth in her nursing duties or relieve her temporarily. Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley did no more than basic politeness dictated and the gentlemen could of course not sit by Jane's bedside. Elizabeth cared for her sister, but she nevertheless got bored when Jane had fallen asleep.
Venturing outside the room tentatively, wondering if either her conscience or Jane would call her back, she ran into Mr Darcy. He stared at her, as usual, and he reeked faintly of wine. Elizabeth, still convinced he was hiding a dark and painful secret, assumed he had been seeking refuge in the bottle. She did not know what to say to such a man.
"Have you been in there all this time?" he asked.
"Yes, I have," she replied, a little surprised. She wondered if he had stood waiting here all this time -- with or without a bottle of wine. Odd people always entertained her, but she should not feel entertained if he had a painful secret. It would be all too serious and she was not certain that she appreciated too much seriousness in life.
"Your concern for your sister..." he whispered hoarsely. "...is...admirable."
Elizabeth stared back at him. It was not mere drunkenness that caused him to speak so hoarsely, nor was it admiration of her. She would think it funny if someone lost his voice upon beholding her, but she did not think it was happening here. Mr Darcy seemed moved by some greater emotion. Perhaps he cared for Jane. She pondered the idea. He was, she believed, the kind to stand by and let Bingley woo a girl, without revealing his feelings. Somehow she felt pity. He could not help caring for Jane and he certainly could not help it that Bingley did too. Was this his painful secret? His unrequited love? "My sister is asleep and her fever has gone down," she said to comfort him. She might perhaps not have been as kind had it not been her sister he admired, but she must approve of anyone who appreciated Jane.
But Darcy did not care much about her sister. He looked helpless at this turn in the conversation and stared at the floor. "I am glad," he said hurriedly. "But it is your concern that I find admirable, not your sister."
"My concern?" Elizabeth asked. "Not my sister?"
"No. Your sister is a nice girl..." he said as if he had trouble speaking.
"But you do not admire her."
"No, I do not. Not more than is her due." He did not mean to say he could not see Jane Bennet was a fine girl, but that was all beside the point right now.
"I am glad. You would have a hard time competing with Mr Bingley." Her assumptions had been wrong then. What should she think now? Correct impressions of Mr Darcy were not easily obtained, nor was fluent conversation. "Why does my concern move you?"
"Your concern for your sister. You would understand me." Darcy spoke with considerable urgency.
"Please," Elizabeth said a little exasperatedly. "I do not understand you at all!" Frankly she was beginning to be a little frightened of him. She took a step back when he stepped forwards. He smelled of wine and the look in his eyes was strange too. "You have been drinking."
"No," he said impatiently. "I dropped a decanter because my hands were shaking." His eyes bored into hers, desperate to find some understanding or sympathy for the plight he had been in for so long. Why did she say he had been drinking? He had wanted to, but he had not been able to pour himself a drink.
Elizabeth would otherwise never have believed such a lame excuse, but she did now. Something was more important to him. She could not imagine his hand would shake without a reason. "Why?"
"I did not know you had a sister," she said with some surprise. She had heard of aunts, uncles and cousins, but not of a sister. Something must be the matter with her that even Miss Bingley had not mentioned her, for she had made it clear that she was acquainted with all the rest of Darcy's family.
"I do not like to talk about it. She has fallen in the hands of...of..." Darcy's face contorted into a grimace of hatred or at least utter dislike.
Elizabeth waited patiently, intrigued. He was obviously too overcome to go on directly.
"...of a man she believes to have married her for love. She is only sixteen."
Darcy's pain was evident and Elizabeth felt for him. She would never have guessed him to be capable of such deep feelings, nor that he would reveal them to her. He must really be feeling desperate to confide in someone who was practically a stranger. She touched his sleeve, wanting to do something for him. Even he deserved some sympathy. He cared for his sister and that was a good quality.
He closed his eyes. "The worst is that I had to make her marry him to save her reputation and I hate him. He seduced her. He had run away with her." His voice was barely audible. "My childhood friend and enemy."
"What does your sister think of him?" Elizabeth whispered. She thought of the poor girl and how she must have been tricked. A sister of Mr Darcy's must be an attractive catch.
"She believes she loves him and that he loves her, but she is so young. What does she know?" He looked at her in despair. "She is rebellious. She will turn away from everyone if we say anything negative about her husband. Any help is seen as criticism. I cannot do anything but watch her be ruined. He is a cad. He will spend her money and break her heart and I just pray he will do it before they are reduced to extreme poverty."
Elizabeth did not ask if it was really that bad -- evidently it was. Odd though he was, Darcy was not given to dramatising things in general. She led him away from her sister's door, to a place where they would be less easily seen. He was no longer Mr Darcy of Pemberley now. He was only a brother deeply concerned about his young sister. Suddenly she noticed he was not much older than she was, a few years at the most, and that he did not know what to do. She looked at him with different eyes.
"Why am I telling you this?" Darcy asked himself. "I am like my sister. We bare our souls to the first person who approaches us with kindness." The gentle expression in Miss Bennet's eyes was genuine, however, contrary to how Wickham might have looked at Georgiana. He was certain of that and he had come too far to go back. Invoking the Darcy pride to slide back behind his mask was not the right solution. It had not helped him before. As frightening as it was, he should perhaps continue to speak.
"You are telling me because you cannot see a way out." Elizabeth sat him down on the back stairs as she would do with a small child. She would try to help him. He was a good person, behind that confusing attitude, but that made some more sense now. "So you think this man pretended to be kind to your sister to win her heart?"
Darcy inhaled deeply and plucked at his trousers. "He does not really care for her. Had I spent more time with my sister she would not have felt so...so...neglected, so in need of kindness and friendship that he could take advantage of that. I did not know she needed that. I do not know everything. It is my fault."
"It is not your fault." Elizabeth felt just as helpless as he did. She did not know everything either. What was she to say? She did not feel she knew how to solve this. If only things could be helped along by just sitting here on the stairs. But was he even aware of her? Their shoulders were touching and he spoke to her, but she did not know whether she could really get through to him.
"It is," he said lifelessly. "Despite all my wealth and possessions I was not able to give my sister the care and love she needed. I failed her." He rubbed at his eyes with an angry motion.
Elizabeth heaved a deep sigh. "Please do not look back. It happened. It is no use. We -- you must look ahead."
"I see nothing there that could possibly give me any hope."
"Well, my cousin was going to have him sent overseas with his regiment, but the last I heard of it was that my cousin had bowed out and passed the task on to my aunt, who apparently also gave up, so that now there is no one left who could do anything."
It was strange that she had been taken into Darcy's confidence without being anything to him. Elizabeth watched silently in the dim light on the staircase as Darcy fumbled in his pockets.
"I am not weeping," he said in a hoarse whisper as he dabbed at his eyes with his handkerchief. He was aware that he said it to convince himself rather than Miss Bennet. Thank heavens that it was dark and that she could barely see him.
"You have my permission," she said kindly. It did not make her uncomfortable, although it usually did.
"Miss Bennet," he asked after a few moments, turning towards her. It was his weakness that he now thought Miss Bennet all that was generous and loveable. She had listened without judging him. He grabbed her hand. "I should like to ask you..." Perhaps for the purpose he had in mind he should first ask her if she objected to being addressed less formally.
His closeness was overwhelming not only because of the smell of the wine that had been spilled over his trousers. Elizabeth drew in her breath. She could not comment on his squeezing her hand too hard, for fear of making him withdraw into his cool and aloof self. "Yes, Mr Darcy?" she spoke encouragingly when he did not continue.
"Perhaps I have no right to ask...you would despise me..." Again he was speaking mainly to himself. "It is hard for me to ask."
"I understand, but you have done very well so far..." Elizabeth touched his hand when it increased its grip on hers. She told herself she was not speaking to a little boy, but to Mr Darcy of Pemberley, who might take offence at her soothing tone.
The touch of her hand was as soothing as her voice. Mr Darcy of Pemberley was far from taking offence at anything -- quite the opposite, in fact. He stared at her hand in fascination. It was only touching him. How could it have such an effect?
Elizabeth had been watching him carefully, especially his face. His expression had softened when she had touched him, but he also looked faintly puzzled. Without dwelling too long on it, she knew what she had to do and she moved closer to do it.