Elizabeth was strolling in the garden, pondering the fact that Mr Bingley had returned to Netherfield quite alone. She was surprised that neither of his sisters had returned to keep house for him, and pleased that his arrogant friend, Mr Darcy had not seen fit to come again. He was not wanted in the vicinity of Meryton; Elizabeth smothered a chuckle at the idea that Mr Darcy might have fled to avoid Mr Wickham – here was another thing to thank that gentleman for besides his entertaining company.
She was walking by the high hedgerow that bordered the lane when she heard voices, and was about to walk quickly away when she recognised them as belonging to Mr Bingley and Mr Wickham. Intrigued she moved closer, completely ignoring the impropriety of surreptitiously listening to other people’s conversations.
“. . .not the first time I have heard Darcy disparaged since my return from London – now I know who it is that has been spreading the lies.”
Elizabeth caught her breath, waiting to hear Mr Wickham stand up for himself against such an unfair allegation.
“You know nothing of the matter, for you only have his word to go on. Could it not be he who has misled you?”
Elizabeth nodded her head in agreement. The beginning of Mr Bingley’s response was indistinct – she was only able to hear his final words.
“. . . he has treated you more than fairly and your word is not to be trusted.”
It was obvious Mr Darcy had influenced his friend’s thinking. She drew nearer to the hedge so as not to miss hearing Wickham’s response.
“. . . a man who can deny another what has rightfully been willed to him does not deserve such loyalty. He is very lucky in your friendship.”
Elizabeth felt the truth of Mr Wickham’s words strongly. It was indeed a pity that Mr Bingley was so imposed upon by his friend.
“I do not need details – I know the man. Darcy has honour – a trait you apparently lack. He would never lay open his private affairs – the ill he knows of you he has kept to himself when it might have been in his favour to reveal it. You, on the other hand, wait for Darcy to quit the neighbourhood and then not only openly denounce his integrity and character, but make inferences as to your parentage that are preposterous.”
She had never heard Mr Bingley speak with such passion. His defence of his friend was estimable, if misguided, but what was that he had said at the end? Inferences as to parentage?
“I have said nothing I would not say to his face. What would I stand to gain by spreading lies?”
‘Indeed,’ thought Elizabeth. ‘It was Darcy who quit the neighbourhood, unwilling to face the truth of Mr Wickham’s troubles, which were of his own making.’
“That is exactly what I am wondering. I can only imagine you do it to puff yourself up and that you enjoy commiseration. I understand you are treated well in all the taverns – and that you have many a young lady’s ear. I have seen you ingratiating yourself with the ladies of this house, and I warn you that if you attempt anything with any of them you will have me to deal with.”
Elizabeth stood in shock. What was this? That Mr Bingley – so good and kind he always seemed – should infer . . . she heard Mr Wickham laugh and then practically climbed inside the bushes so as to hear how he would respond to such slander.
“Brave words, Bingley, but you are working yourself into a lather over nothing. Your support of your friend is commendable, but this accusation is ludicrous. And what position are you in to champion the Bennets anyway? I am as much their friend as you.”
His voice held a tone she did not quite like, and his defence did not satisfy her – it was not the complete renunciation of Bingley’s harsh words that she had expected.
“I am soon to be much more than a friend,” said Bingley. “And I would prefer it that your visits come to an end. Now.”
As a thrill went through her, knowing he was referring to marriage with Jane, she was also impressed by his stance as protector of her family. Whatever the truth, he sincerely believed the right of what he was saying, and her esteem for her future brother grew immeasurably.
“I believe you are in earnest.”
Mr Wickham’s voice still held that strange quality she hadn’t heard in it before this day.
Mr Bingley’s words were firm and final. Elizabeth held her breath, waiting for the defence she felt sure Mr Wickham would now communicate.
“Miss Elizabeth and Miss Lydia were such good sport. I am loath to give them up – but you are filled with so much righteous indignation that I fear you shall soon plant me a facer and mar my good looks. Please extend my regrets to Denny and any of the Bennets that you should see, and accept my fondest felicitations on your imminent engagement.”
If she had not been firmly holding onto a branch Elizabeth felt sure she would have fallen through the bushes to land at their feet, she was so stunned by what had just been said, and it was not only Wickham’s vile words, it was the jeering tone of his voice. The arrogance, the conceit, and the flippancy of his final remarks. How had she been so deceived in his character? If she had not heard it directly from his mouth she would have denounced it as the grossest falsehood.
She then reviewed the entire conversation in her mind and realised how she had let her own preconceived opinions bias her thinking. All that Bingley had said made sense. He knew his friend to be a man of honour so why should he doubt him? Wickham’s arguments in defence were weak by comparison. And when she came to think of it even more she understood the impropriety of him ever discussing such things with her on so short an acquaintance, and remembered too how he had said he would never openly denounce Mr Darcy out of respect for his father. Yet, was it not true that the moment Mr Darcy had quit Meryton Mr Wickham’s tale of woe had become common knowledge?
Elizabeth circled the garden for the rest of the morning contemplating all she had just learned. She was glad that she now knew Mr Wickham’s real worth before she had foolishly relinquished her heart to him, but she berated herself for her misjudgement of Mr Darcy. He had insulted her at the beginning of their acquaintance, and because of that she had been easily swayed into believing the worst of him. She still could not quite like him, but she had to acknowledge that he was not the base and heartless knave she had believed. And if he was the friend of a man of Mr Bingley’s stamp, he had to have some redeeming qualities.
Later in the afternoon, while Elizabeth was doing a poor job of chaperoning Jane and Mr Bingley in the garden, so lost in thought she was, Mr Bingley asked the question that made Jane the happiest woman in all of Hertfordshire. The joy that abounded in the household for the next fortnight, and the hasty preparations for their wedding, put all other considerations out of Elizabeth’s mind.
The day of Jane’s wedding was the first day that Elizabeth was again in company with Mr Darcy since the ball at Netherfield and her later overhearings that cleared him of any wrongdoing against Mr Wickham. Needless to say this made him the object of some interest to her. She felt compelled to study his countenance and analyse his conversation to see if he appeared any different, now that she knew the truth.
During the ceremony in the church she was suddenly struck by how handsome he was. That is not to say she had never before noticed his fine features or his aristocratic bearing, but upon them she had always overlaid the mantle of her dislike. On this occasion she looked at him without prejudice, and was surprised by what she saw. She managed to explain his new attractiveness partially by allowing that he was dressed very fashionably, and the clothing accentuated all his best physical qualities.
But Elizabeth had learned her lesson with Mr Wickham and was not about to let physical attractions cloud her objectivity. A man was more than the sum of his parts. What truly counted was character and disposition, and she was afraid this was where Mr Darcy’s great failing lay.
At the wedding breakfast he was as little inclined to converse with his neighbours as in the past. His eyes did stray to her quite often, a phenomenon that caused her to avert her gaze more than once, guilty of having been watching him herself. After some time he approached her hesitantly.
“Mr Darcy,” she said, and smiled. “This is a joyful day for your friend.”
“And for your sister.”
She nodded in acknowledgement.
“Bingley has chosen his marriage partner well,” he said.
“Yes, I believe they will be very happy.” She wondered if he spoke with sincerity or if he was just mouthing the hollow phrases expected at such events. In the past she had thought him not in favour of the match.
He stood beside her not saying anything for a few minutes and she wondered why he did not speak. After a while she decided that she must take the task upon herself.
“The last time we were together was at Mr Bingley’s ball.”
He looked at her steadily. “Yes, we danced. I am not likely to forget that.”
Elizabeth blushed upon recalling the nature of their previous conversation. “Nor what we spoke of?”
He visibly stiffened. “Nor what we spoke of.”
“Since that day I have . . . discovered that I was mislead as to the character of . . . the gentleman we were discussing.” She looked away, unable to meet his eyes.
He was silent for a moment and then let out his breath as in a sigh. “I am most pleased – he did not deserve your . . . regard.”
“No,” she said, looking back up to his face. “But on happy occasions such as this I cannot think of unpleasant subjects. Instead let us talk of what brings contentment to our lives. We spoke of my sister and your friend, now it is left to me to ask after your sister. How is she? Did you leave her well?”
He smiled softly. “Yes, thank you for asking. Georgiana is at Pemberley now and very well, but missing her brother, I am afraid.”
“Could you not have brought her?” asked Elizabeth with sudden impetuosity. “We would all have liked to meet her.”
“I would have liked for you to meet her as well, but she is not yet out and also shy among strangers. I will be returning today, after the festivities, so she will not have had to miss me for too long.”
Elizabeth smiled and thought that Mr Darcy, at the very least, was a good brother. But she was beginning to believe that this was not the limit to his positive attributes. They were interrupted then by Sir William, who Mr Darcy spoke to with unforeseen forbearance, and did not have occasion for private conversation again.
The new year brought some changes into Elizabeth’s life. Her beloved sister now lived at Netherfield and was no longer always with her. Though she could have visited as often as she wanted she preferred to give the couple privacy in the early months of their marriage and tried to convince her mother to do the same. She spent her mornings with her younger sisters but their silliness only caused her to miss Jane all the more.
Mr Wickham remained with the militia, but came no more to Longbourn. He was now industriously courting Miss Mary King, a young girl who had newly inherited ten thousand pounds. Lydia and Kitty lamented his desertion but Elizabeth was only too glad of it. She told her sisters that the man was not worth their tears, but they could not understand that more was expected from a gentleman than that he smile charmingly and wear a red coat.
It is small wonder, then, that Elizabeth found herself looking forward to her trip to Kent to visit Charlotte even though it meant spending time with her tedious cousin Collins. One bright morning in March she said goodbye to her family and joined Sir William and Maria Lucas in their carriage. The excursion over fifty miles of good road took the better part of a day, but finally they were set down at the parsonage gate to be greeted with an excess of civility by Mr Collins and true, friendly warmth by Charlotte.
Elizabeth was surprised at the domestic felicity in the Hunsford parsonage but soon discovered that it was all due to Mrs Collins and her careful management of home and husband. Besides the gentle routine of sitting in the small parlour or walking in the bountiful woods, there was also the gracious society of Rosings at their disposal. Lady Catherine enjoyed presiding over the company in her drawing room of an evening whilst dispersing instruction upon matters great to trivial, always ensuring that her guests were well aware of their lowly station in life in comparison to her own.
It was not long before Elizabeth discovered that Mr Darcy, along with a cousin, was expected to visit his aunt a week before Easter. She looked forward to their visit because not only would he and Colonel Fitzwilliam be an addition to their somewhat limited social circle, but she was interested to see how he comported himself with his relations – if his attitude was different to what it had been in Meryton – and primarily how he acted towards his intended bride. One of Lady Catherine’s favourite subjects was that of the betrothal between her daughter Anne and her nephew.
Mr Collins was not behindhand in visiting Rosings once Mr Darcy and the colonel arrived, and he returned to Hunsford parsonage with both gentlemen in tow. Before they entered the house, Charlotte gave Elizabeth a knowing look and told her that the promptness of their visit must be due to her. Unaccountably this brought a blush to Elizabeth’s cheeks as the gentlemen entered. Mr Darcy, upon seeing her, thought that she had never looked lovelier, and the Colonel began to form suspicions regarding his cousin’s interest in Miss Bennet.
Colonel Fitzwilliam carried the conversation that ensued. Mr Darcy, after the customary greetings, stood in silence, seemingly studying the appointments of the parlour. Elizabeth was disappointed – she had hoped to resume the level of friendly conversation that they had achieved at the wedding breakfast. Why had he come so readily if it was only to be sullen and silent? However his cousin was a gentleman well versed in the art of entertainment, and she soon gave the colonel her full attention.
When the half hour was almost up, Mr Darcy finally addressed her with questions about her family and she answered him in kind. He then smiled and asked how she had been enjoying her visit.
“Very much. The countryside here is charming and I have to admit to walking covertly along the many lovely paths in Rosings Park.”
“If I may speak for my aunt, you are welcome to explore the park at any time you should choose.”
She smiled her thanks and then the gentlemen took their leave.
Posted on Tuesday, 18 October 2005
As they walked back towards Rosings, the colonel eyed Darcy speculatively.
“You never informed me that Miss Bennet was such an attractive young lady.”
Darcy said nothing in response.
“In fact, you never mentioned her at all until that pandering Mr Collins made it known she was visiting with him.”
“There was no occasion to.”
“No occasion to inform me of the beauties of Hertfordshire that kept you at your friend’s side last autumn?”
“She was not the reason that I stayed,” said Darcy. To himself he added, ‘Rather, she was the reason I left.’
“Yet you did not waste a moment to rush to her side.”
“I went to pay my respects to Mrs Collins and her sister as well.”
The colonel rolled his eyes. “I see. That is why you conversed so animatedly with the good parson’s wife.”
Darcy tightened his jaw and increased his stride.
“Darcy, you cannot possibly be contemplating anything in that quarter. I do not know much of the lady but I doubt her connections are suitable.”
“They are entirely unsuitable,” said Darcy shortly, snapping a branch from a tree as he passed and breaking it into smaller and smaller bits.
“Well then,” said Colonel Fitwilliam, “as long as that is understood we may enjoy her company whilst we are here with no qualms.”
“No qualms at all.” Darcy threw the broken sticks away and snapped off another.
After a week the Collinses and their guests were again invited to Rosings. Lady Catherine barely condescended to speak with them, however, so involved she was with her nephews. Elizabeth noticed that Darcy paid his cousin Anne no special attention, in fact he appeared almost unaware that she was seated at his side.
On this night Lady Catherine held forth on another of her favourite subjects: music. Elizabeth stifled a grin at her assertion that both she and her daughter would have been true proficients at the pianoforte, if only they had learned. In fact she was amazed at the great gap in the grand lady’s education. Anne’s lack of tutelage was easily blamed upon her evident ill health. Colonel Fitzwilliam asked Elizabeth if she played, and on discovering the affirmative, begged her to perform. While he was involved in assisting her to choose a piece of music, Lady Catherine turned to Darcy.
“Miss Bennet will never play at all well unless she applies herself.”
Darcy frowned and moved away from his aunt and towards the piano.
Elizabeth looked up at him as she laid her fingers upon the keys. “I know your sister plays very well, but as she is not here for her playing to be held in comparison, I am not afraid to play for you and the colonel. Your aunt is perfectly correct – I need to practice more – but I enjoy traipsing about out of doors too much to always attend to my studies.”
“If that is what brings such a healthy glow to your cheeks I can find no fault in the pursuit,” he responded.
The colonel laughed. “Well said, Darcy.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks took on an even rosier hue as she bent her head over the instrument and began playing. She did not excel by any means, but her style was light and pleasing and could be forgiven the occasional mistake in fingering.
When the company had gone, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Darcy sat in the library over brandies.
“A pity about Miss Bennet,” said the colonel.
Darcy gazed into his glass, unable to lose the image of her departing smile. “What do you mean?”
“Give her a fortune of ten thousand pounds and I might be able to overlook her lowly beginnings.”
“There is nothing lacking with her birth,” said Darcy, frowning, “though her father is not prosperous. It is her uncles – one an attorney, the other in trade, who bring her down. And the common behaviour of some members of her family.”
“For you such degradation is unthinkable – I cannot afford to be as fastidious.”
Voiced aloud, what had been troubling Darcy for months rang of arrogance and vanity. He took a sip of brandy and wondered if it were really money and position that mattered or something much more intangible. What had brought him to this pass where he held social consequence over human value? To his cousin he only said, “The point is moot as there is no fortune.”
“True.” The colonel downed what was left in the glass. “As I said – pity.”
Darcy stared long into the dying fire after his cousin had left the room. When he finally reached for his candle to go upstairs his heart felt lightened of a great burden.
That evening as she lay in her bed Elizabeth pondered both Mr Darcy’s and Colonel Fitwilliam’s behaviour towards her. If she did not know any better she would have thought they were flirting with her. She realised that even if it were not for the fact that Mr Darcy found her no more than tolerable, neither he nor the colonel could possibly have serious intentions towards her. Though she was a gentleman’s daughter her station in life was far removed from theirs. She decided that they must have shown her attention more due to the lack of other young ladies to admire, Maria being so shy and Anne so retiring.
The thing that surprised her, though, was that she had enjoyed herself, something she had never expected to do in the hallowed halls of Rosings. And, of the two men, she had to admit she preferred Mr Darcy to his cousin. She puzzled over this for some time, hoping that it did not reflect shallowness of character, for indeed Mr Darcy was the more handsome. Should not Colonel Fitzwilliam’s superior address and charm have given him the most appeal? But though Mr Darcy spoke less, and with less animation, there was greater sincerity in his look and voice.
Elizabeth chastised herself for ruminations that could only lead to disappointment. She must not allow herself to think of either gentleman with too much tenderness. At the end of another few weeks they would be saying goodbye to her and returning to the high society to which they belonged and she would be returning to Longbourn to wait for some well-versed gentleman farmer to woo her. She did not expect to find the level of happiness that Jane had done, but she could not contemplate an unequal match – not with the glaring example of her own parents daily before her.
The next morning Elizabeth was sitting alone by herself in the parlour when the bell rang and a minute later Mr Darcy was announced. He apologised for intruding on her privacy, explaining that he had understood all the ladies to be within, but he made no move to leave. Instead he sat and then appeared to be studying the room again.
“Your aunt suggested all manner of improvements to my cousin when he first came to Hunsford – I imagine that is what has caught your eye. If you are truly interested I could even show you the shelves she ordered to be built into that closet.” Elizabeth motioned to the corner of the room, a mischievous smile breaking out as she was unable to keep her face straight.
“Shelves in the closet?” said Darcy. “That is the height of attention,” and then he smiled too, showing that he had taken no offence to her teasing.
“It is, and my cousin’s gratitude knows no bounds.”
“I had noticed his unparalleled ability in expressing appreciation.”
“He practices his effusions religiously, before a mirror, I believe.”
Darcy could not help but laugh at this. “He has been very lucky in his choice of a wife.”
“Indeed. And though I had not thought it at first, I do believe that the match is very suitable for Charlotte as well – she has a very placid soul. She has found contentment in a situation that for myself would be insupportable.” Elizabeth was suddenly aware that she had been too outspoken.
“I could never imagine you living in a place such as this,” said Darcy with some feeling, and then he checked himself and picked up a book from the table beside him and looked at it absently.
Elizabeth coloured and then replied softly, “I cannot expect too much more than this, sir.”
He looked up at her swiftly, and then away. His fingers tightened on the book. “Your friend must be pleased to be settled such an easy distance from her home.”
“It is all of fifty miles!”
“Yes – and good road too. A trip of half a day at the most!”
“But where there is little fortune, the expense of travelling can even make such a distance prohibitive. I do not think she is established close to her family at all.”
Darcy leaned forward in his chair. “Would it bother you to be settled far from Hertfordshire?”
“I have never had occasion to give the matter any thought.”
“No? But . . . do not you . . .” Darcy put the book back on the table and then rubbed his chin. “Is Kent to your liking?”
“What I have seen of it is most pleasant,” Elizabeth answered, wondering what it was he had been about to say. The conversation had confused her greatly and she was gratified when Charlotte and Maria joined them. Darcy stayed only for a few more minutes and then he made his excuses and departed.
“What is all this?” asked Charlotte with deep interest. “Had Mr Darcy any special question to ask of you?”
“Not at all,” said Elizabeth with all the appearance of nonchalance, “he only called by to express his congratulations to Mr Collins upon his choice of wife.”
“Yes, I am quite sure that is what he was about – he spoke of nothing else, I imagine.”
“He also mentioned the good quality of the road between here and Meryton,” said Elizabeth, taking up her workbox.
Charlotte sighed. “I will never make that gentleman out. Ah well, there are sheets to be darned and buttons to be sewn on – we can only imagine the quixotic concerns of the idle rich.”
Mr Darcy and the colonel called often at the parsonage, sometimes together, sometimes alone, and sometimes even accompanied by their aunt and cousin Anne. On these occasions Colonel Fitzwilliam always sought out Elizabeth and entered into light, carefree conversation. She was quite certain that he was dallying, with no purpose in mind other than to relieve the boredom of country life when there were no field sports to be had. Mr Darcy was different. He often stood seemingly lost in thought and then would startle her by saying something that showed how intently he had been following the conversation. He surprised her with his wit, or by voicing and opinion that she shared and had been about to utter. He would cast her quick, intent looks that she found most unsettling.
Elizabeth also met Mr Darcy whilst out walking in Rosings Park. Rather than just greeting her and continuing upon his way he always fell into step with her, staying by her side until they reached the parsonage gate. At first she assumed the meetings were accidental, but by the third one she had to admit that he had walked out expressly to see her. Though he did not speak much, his face lit up when he greeted her and he responded in kind to her teasing.
“I have been thinking, Mr Darcy, that these trees have followed your aunt’s orders very well. They all grow in such a delightfully proud manner, holding their branches up firmly as befits this great estate.”
He smiled. “I agree. There are none of the droopy, half-hearted variety.”
“As all in Rosings must do, they follow her every whim.”
“Not all. Some follow where their hearts lead.”
Elizabeth blushed, and then to cover the confusion his answer had engendered she said, “Courageous trees! I should very much like to see them.”
Mr Darcy continued on in silence for a few moments and then said, “Have you been enjoying your time at Hunsford?”
“Very much so. The weather has been splendid.”
“I am happy for that because it has made your walks all the more pleasant. When next you come to Kent I hope it will be equally fine. I know that from now on when I think of these woods, there will be blue skies and bird song.”
“And tulips and harebells and lily of the valley.”
Elizabeth felt like stretching her arms out to the sun and running along the path, but she walked sedately beside Mr Darcy enjoying this bond of common feeling that they shared.
“Rosings is a house of complicated design,” he said at last. “There are many staircases and corridors that at first you might find baffling.”
She looked up at him, wondering how his thoughts had brought him to a statement so unconnected to what had gone before.
“The staircases?” she asked, silently speculating as to why she would be attempting to navigate them.
He laughed. “My aunt delights in her staircases, but to my mind the architect could have managed all with much more simplicity. You shall soon adjust, however.”
They were nearing the gate in the pales opposite the parsonage. Mr Darcy stopped and held out his hand.
“I will say goodbye. My cousin and I will be returning to London on Saturday, and I hope I will see you before then, but I would like to take this opportunity to . . .” He paused, his fingers tightened upon hers and then, as if realising he still held her hand, let it go. “I am contemplating visiting my friend Bingley soon. Would you . . . would you welcome a visit from me if I came?”
Elizabeth had to break contact with his eyes, their gaze was so intense. “I should like that very much,” she all but whispered.
Posted on Saturday, 22 October 2005
For the rest of the day Elizabeth could think of nothing else but Mr Darcy’s parting words. She could only set one meaning to them – that he intended to court her – the idea both frightened and thrilled her. She understood the difference between their positions in society and she worried that this could cause problems for Mr Darcy if he truly did have an attachment for her. Lady Catherine was expecting him to marry her daughter. In courting her he would be turning his back upon whatever promises he had made his cousin. Could she accept the attentions of a gentleman so devoid of honour as to do something so underhanded?
But Elizabeth could not help but recognise that his feelings for her must be strong indeed if he was intending to ignore the earlier claim of his cousin and the fondest wish of his aunt. And she had to admit that despite all her intentions to the contrary she had fallen in love with Mr Darcy. How could she not? She had never met a man his equal in intellect, understanding, and appearance. She had thought of nothing but him from the moment of his coming to Rosings, though she had tried her best to temper her steadily growing attraction with reason and logic. Such things had little power in affairs of the heart.
The following morning Elizabeth’s mind was still in turmoil and she sought refuge in her old haunts. Walking under branches adorned with newly furled leaves soothed her. She strolled in abstraction until she found herself in an area of the park she had never before explored.
“What is it that you wished to say to me, Fitzwilliam?” asked Darcy, stopping and turning towards his cousin. “I think we are deep enough in the garden for private discussion.”
The Colonel seated himself upon a bench that was backed by a thick yew hedge. “I thought we had agreed that Miss Bennet’s connections were unsuitable.”
“How is it that we are discussing Miss Bennet’s connections once again?” asked Darcy, his colour heightening somewhat.
“Do not fence with me. I have seen the way you look at her, heard the tone of your voice when you speak to her. You plan to leave London directly to visit your friend Bingley in Hertfordshire. I can think of only one reason for you to do so.”
“And you would be right,” said Darcy, crossing his arms in front of his chest.
“Have you no consideration for the honour of your family?”
“I see no dishonour in marrying Miss Bennet.”
“You told me yourself of her connections! An uncle in trade, another a village attorney, and her father’s estate entailed away to my aunt’s most humble parson. How can you even consider linking such people with the Darcy and Fitzwilliam name?” Colonel Fitzwilliam wrinkled his nose in distaste.
“Is it the Darcy name that bothers you the most, or the Fitzwilliam?” asked Darcy with a sneer.
“It is everything! The utter inequality of the match!”
“I see nothing unequal. I am a gentleman – she is a gentleman’s daughter.”
“Yes – but who is her mother? Do not let a pair of sparkling eyes and a winning disposition sway you from what is important in the world.”
“The only thing of importance is that I love her.”
“Love – why bring something as transient as love into the scheme of things? In six months you will tire of her. Marriage is based on tradition and prestige. There are only two valid reasons for marriage – to raise one’s fortunes and to perpetuate one’s name.”
“When did you ever become so jaded?”
The colonel ignored this remark and leaned forward impatiently. “And what of Anne? Would you dash her hopes? She has little enough to look forward to living under the thumb of Aunt Catherine.”
“I never agreed to the union.”
“Your betrothal has always been understood. You must do your duty by Anne. Family honour demands it of you.”
“I feel in no way bound by a pact between two young mothers over their infant children. It was a flight of fancy and nothing more – I have told my aunt countless times that I have never had any intention of fulfilling her wishes in that regard. I suggest that you stay here in Rosings and do not return to London with me. In that way you may commiserate with both Aunt Catherine and Cousin Anne – and secure your fortune into the bargain.”
The colonel jerked to his feet. “I will not take your insolence!”
“My insolence?” asked Darcy, his eyes narrowing. “You are advising me to go against every principle I hold dear, and to what purpose? To preserve the nobility of my name? Do not think I have made this decision lightly. In the beginning nothing chafed me more than Miss Bennet’s situation in life. I saw it as a degradation. I could never consider marrying a lady who counted an attorney and a tradesman among her closest relatives. Whose mother openly schemed to marry her daughters to the richest gentlemen in the neighbourhood. Whose younger sisters could comport themselves in no better manner than flirting shamelessly with any man who wore a red coat. I struggled to submerge the very strong attraction I felt for her. But little by little I began to see that she could not be held culpable for her origins. And then I realised the arrogance of my thoughts. What degradation is there in loving and being loved? If I were lucky enough to win her affections I could count myself fortunate to be connected to her family.”
“You are clearly besotted,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam. “I can see there is no reasoning with you.”
“None whatsoever,” said Darcy. “Console Anne as best you can. You will be a credit to Rosings,” and he strode off.
As Elizabeth neared a yew hedge she heard voices raised in anger. She stopped and turned to retrace her steps, but suddenly one voice came clearly through the bushes. The identity of the speaker was unmistakeable – it was Mr Darcy.
“. . . as a degradation. I could never consider marrying a lady who counted an attorney and a tradesman among her closest relatives. Whose mother openly schemed to marry her daughters to the richest gentlemen in the neighbourhood. Whose younger sisters could comport themselves in no better manner than flirting shamelessly with any man who wore a red coat. I struggled to submerge the very strong attraction I felt . . .”
She ran, careless of direction, her one thought to get away before she heard more. Tears streamed down her face. ‘How could I have been so foolish as to ever think he would offer for me?’ she asked herself. What he had said about her family hurt bitterly, but what hurt more was that she had allowed herself to be taken in by his tender looks and soft words. What his intentions were, she could not imagine, but his callous deceit was more than she could bear.
She pushed through branches, tripping over roots and stones, until she found herself suddenly in a spinney behind the parsonage. She entered the yard through the back gate and slipped into the house, making her way to her bedchamber without being seen. As soon as she was in her room with the door closed she threw herself upon the bed and drowned her pillow in tears.
That evening the family was engaged to drink tea at Rosings. Elizabeth excused herself, saying that she had a headache. One look at her friend’s swollen eyes caused Charlotte to accept the excuse and hurry her husband out of the house before his complaints could be heard. Elizabeth sat in the parlour and gazed listlessly at the fire that burned in the hearth. She only knew one thing for certain – she never wanted to see Mr Darcy or hear his voice again.
When the Hunsford party arrived at Rosings without Miss Bennet, Darcy felt immediate apprehension. His argument with Colonel Fitzwilliam had unsettled him and he had been looking forward to spending the evening basking in her smiles.
“Is Miss Bennet ill?” he asked.
“I believe it is no more than a headache,” said Charlotte, noting the evident concern in Mr Darcy’s eyes. “She is not so indisposed as to be confined to her room, but she is very dispirited and would not have made a good visitor.”
“It is to Miss Bennet’s credit that she stayed behind,” said Lady Catherine. “Anne is very susceptible to illness.”
“That is just what I told her,” said Mr Collins. “Miss de Bourgh is such an exotic flower that we must be most careful of her delicate constitution. ‘Cousin Elizabeth,’ I said, ‘on no account should you come. Lady Catherine will be much more comfortable if you . . .’”
“Yes, yes,” said his patroness. “What has been done for her? A cold compress? A mustard pilaster? I recommend that she stay settled indoors for the next few days. All her excursions outside do her no good, and so I have told her myself on numerous occasions.”
While this conversation was progressing Darcy slipped from the room and called for his greatcoat.
“You are not going out?” asked the colonel who had followed him into the foyer.
“Yes. Please make my excuses to my aunt and her guests.”
“The girl simply has a headache – don’t be a fool, Darcy.”
Darcy stared at him grimly but said nothing. When the servant brought his coat he slipped it on and left through the massive front entrance. He walked quickly along the path that led to the parsonage as dusk settled over the trees. The housemaid opened the front door to his knock and admitted him into the parlour. Elizabeth stood upon his entrance, an expression of shock on her face. She stepped backwards as he came near to her.
“I came to enquire after your health, Miss Bennet.”
“I am quite well.” Two spots of colour rose in her cheeks.
“I can see that you are not,” said Mr Darcy. “Please, sit. Is there anything I can do for your present discomfort?”
“Short of leaving the room, I can think of nothing.”
Darcy had been about to assist her back to her chair. He stopped abruptly.
“Have I in some way offended you?”
“Not at all.”
“You must sit down please my dea . . . Miss Bennet and tell me what is troubling you.”
She moved behind her chair and placed her hands on the back of it for support. “Do you remember the question you asked me yesterday? I was mistaken in my answer. I would not like it at all if you visited me when you come to Hertfordshire.”
Darcy sank into the nearest chair. The colour had all but left his face. “What? I do not understand.”
“I see no reason for you to debase yourself, since you hold my family in such contempt.”
“I . . . hold your . . . Miss Bennet, what are you speaking of? I have no complaint against your family.”
“This afternoon you voiced your distaste for my relatives very fervently.”
“You overheard my conversation with my cousin? Then you must know that none of the considerations about your family weigh with me.”
“I know only that you see any . . . connection with me as a degradation.” Tears were tracing their way down her cheeks but she held her place and looked him directly in the eye. “How can you defend yourself against that?”
Darcy rose up from his chair and started forward. “How much of the conversation did you hear?”
“Only that – those hateful words against my family, my mother, my sisters, and how you had to fight your attraction to me.”
“You did not hear anything my cousin said, or how I defended you?”
“I do not call the slander of my family a defence.”
“Nor do I, dearest Elizabeth,” he said softly. “You only heard the smallest part of the argument. I was angry when I spoke – he had goaded me beyond endurance, urging me to give you up. I told him that at first I too had felt, as he does, that your connections were unacceptable – but that was very long ago – I am not such an arrogant, blind fool as I once was.”
Elizabeth sagged against the chair. “Your cousin was trying to convince you against me?”
Darcy took her hand and eased her around to sit in the chair and then knelt on the floor before her. “I had meant to wait until we were in Longbourn and I could speak to your father directly after making my feelings known to you. I do not know how to ask for your forgiveness for what you heard today – my criticisms must have sounded very cruel. All I can say is that if you accept me, you will have to accept those of my connections that are vain and uncivil and will in all likelihood never change. All I have to offer you that is of any value is my heart, and with it my unworthy hand.” He raised her fingers to his lips.
“But . . . you are promised to your cousin.” Elizabeth barely managed to get the words out.
“I never made that vow.”
“But your aunt will be so angry and the rest of your family will . . .”
“I have already had this argument today with Fitzwilliam – I have no wish to repeat it. The only thing that will sway me from my purpose is if you tell me that you do not love me and refuse my offer.” He caressed her hand and tried to look into her eyes, but she turned her face away.
“Elizabeth,” he whispered, “do not tell me I was mistaken. I thought I saw the promise of love in your eyes and in your smile. Could it be that I allowed my love for you to cloud my judgement?”
“No. I . . . I can barely think after what I have gone through today – the things I thought of you – the pain that ate me up. I believed I had no future, and now I have been granted the one thing I thought was lost to me.” she turned her head to face him. “I love you.”
Darcy stood slowly, pulling her up from her chair along with him. He reached his hand out to caress her cheek. “I trust you are feeling better now?”
“Much better. I was wrong. Leaving the room would not have done the job at all.”
She smiled, and he could not resist brushing his lips against hers. “I must go,” he said into her hair. “I will ride to Hertfordshire at daybreak to speak to your father.”
Elizabeth rested her head upon his shoulder. She had never imagined the possibility of such a resolution to her day. Her arms slipped around his waist and she closed her eyes.
“I must go,” he whispered again.
“You must,” she answered, but they stayed that way for quite some time as the fire burned and crackled in the grate.