Posted on Tuesday, 3 July 2007
A torrential rain afflicted the vicinity of Longbourn for the second day in a row. Kitty and Lydia complained about it loudly and without cease, for how vexing it was that they could not walk into Meryton to see the officers! Elizabeth and Jane, sighing over more than just the weather at a parlour window, saw a shadow-like apparition appear at the bottom of the approach road, its indistinct shape gradually enlarging as they watched. Their speculations drew the attention of the younger girls, who were eager for any novelty to break up the tedium of waiting for Tuesday’s ball.
The downpour lessened suddenly. The mysterious phenomenon approaching the house was revealed to be the largest carriage that Elizabeth and her sisters had ever seen, drawn by six horses, opulently ornamented, its glistening black-lacquered sides emblazoned with a family crest unknown to them. What earl or duke, for surely it could be no lesser mortal, could possibly be visiting Longbourn in such an equipage?
The younger girls’ excited squeals, carrying all the way to the library, aroused the curiosity of Mr Collins, much to Mr Bennet’s relief. The parson lumbered into the room and to the adjacent window for a look.
“Oh, my dear cousins! You are indeed uniquely blessed! That fine coach and six even now making its way to your door belongs to none other than my noble patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. What condescension, that she should make a stop in her journey to convey her greetings to my humble person and my most honoured cousins. And in such dreary weather, too! She is the most affable, most obliging lady whose acquaintance I have ever had the privilege to make. Perhaps,” and here he broke off to cast a look at Elizabeth that she did not like, “she comes to approve of my selection of wife, for I wrote to her only a few days ago on a matter of some importance to herself that I had recently discovered, and found it a suitable occasion also to describe to her the young lady with whom I am determined to share my life.”
By the time Mr Collins stopped for breath, the coach had reached the door and Lady Catherine was already in the hall, loudly demanding to see her parson and exclaiming to the frightened servants that she would brook no delays. Mrs Bennet, fluttering nervously, followed the formidable matriarch into the parlour.
The parson quailed. That tone of voice from her Ladyship did not bode well, and was more likely to herald a reprimand than anything else. Did she disapprove of his choice from among the Bennet girls?
“You must inform me at once how you came to discover that infamous rumour that my nephew, Mr Darcy, was about to ally himself with a scheming adventuress! Who told you of such a thing?”
For once, Mr Collins had almost nothing to say. He managed to stammer something only barely coherent about overhearing a remark from one of his cousins.
“From one of your cousins? From one of these girls?” Lady Catherine swept Mrs Bennet and her five daughters with an unfriendly look.
For a few minutes, nobody dared speak.
“Your Ladyship,” Elizabeth ventured, “perhaps Mr Collins is referring to a remark I made in jest after Mr Bingley and his sisters delivered an invitation to their ball to us a few days ago.”
Lady Catherine turned a sour eye upon the speaker. “Bingley, yes, that is the name of the upstart who dares to have designs upon my nephew. And you jest about such a thing?”
Elizabeth stood her ground. “I was merely remarking that Miss Bingley’s ambitions to become Mrs Darcy were unlikely to be fulfilled, because I had found out that he is to be engaged to your daughter,” she said calmly.
“And so he is,” Lady Catherine proclaimed. “This Miss Bingley must be put in her place. I have no time to lose.”
And with that, Lady Catherine was gone, taking so little leave of the ladies of the house as to be deemed highly impolite by all but her worshipful parson. That worthy gentleman filled the next ten minutes with fulsome praise of his exalted patroness, never once taking notice of the fact that no mention had been made of his choice of wife.
Soon afterwards, Mr Bingley, his sisters, and his butler were to be amazed by the same stately coach and the grand entrance into Netherfield House of its passenger.
“I would see Darcy immediately.” Lady Catherine thumped the tip of her umbrella on the floor for emphasis.
While a servant undertook the errand of summoning Mr Darcy, Lady Catherine unerringly picked out Caroline from her audience – surely such an unprincipled jade had to be the more overdressed lady of the two - and turned upon her with a great deal of hostility.
“So you are the upstart jezebel who would seek to entrap my nephew into marriage?”
“Your Ladyship …,” Miss Bingley faltered.
“Silence! I can inform you right now, such a marriage as you aspire to shall never take place. Who do you think you are? – a mere nobody whose fortune came from trade. And you presume to set your sights on the grandson of an earl? It is not to be borne. You shall put such thoughts out of your head at once.”
“Lady Catherine,” Mr Darcy interrupted, entering the room. “This is unexpected.”
Her Ladyship turned to him, ignoring the stammered disclaimers from the self-aggrandizing hussy. “Nephew, you shall set aside whatever engagements you have agreed upon with this woman … ” – she pronounced that word with breathtaking venom – “ … at once. You are engaged to my daughter, and that is an end to it.”
Miss Bingley looked stricken. That information had never before come to her ears. Tears of mortification, of the frustration of all of her hopes, threatened to spring to her eyes, and she wanted nothing more than to be away.
“Lady Catherine,” Mr Darcy said in a grave tone that he intended should obliterate all doubt in his listeners, “you have made this long journey uselessly. I am not engaged to your daughter or to Miss Bingley, and I can also safely promise you that neither such engagement is likely ever to become a reality.”
A few moments passed while both ladies assimilated this statement. Miss Bingley rushed from the room, followed almost immediately afterwards by Mrs Hurst.
“You would circumvent the express wishes of both your mother and Anne’s?” Lady Catherine asked, aghast. “I assure you, your promise not to marry a pretentious upstart such as that woman in no way releases you from your obligations to my daughter.”
“Those obligations are in no way binding upon me.”
Although more words were exchanged, no satisfactory resolution to the impasse was concluded between Mr Darcy and his aunt. Her Ladyship soon departed with little greater exercise of the social graces than she had shown at Longbourn.
“The ball is to be called off?” Mrs Bennet cried. “Whatever for? Is Mr Bingley unwell?”
“No, Mama,” Jane said patiently. “Miss Bingley has received unpleasant news, and has taken it very hard. She is in no state to be receiving any callers at the house, much less a ball with so many people.”
“Well, I never,” Mrs Bennet huffed. “Lydia will be so disappointed. Call off a ball! Could not Mrs Hurst do the honours of the house?”
“Mama, it is Miss Bingley’s home too, and I think it is very kind of Mr Bingley to be so considerate of his ailing sister.”
So loud and so persistent were the wailings of Mrs Bennet and her youngest two daughters over the cancelled ball, that as soon as a day without rain dawned – the very day that ought to have seen the ball, in fact – Elizabeth sought refuge from the caterwauling and Mr Collins by taking a long walk. Her footsteps took her, almost without her conscious thought, in the direction of Netherfield.
About halfway, she encountered Mr Darcy, drawn from the house for not dissimilar reasons of his own. She greeted him in cool, neutral tones, his salutation was warmer, and he asked her what drew her out for a walk on a day with weather still so unsettled.
“The cancellation of the ball at Netherfield has caused more consternation than the occasion probably warrants – but my youngest sisters are not the philosophers than Jane and I are. Sometimes these things cannot be helped.”
“No,” Mr Darcy said. “Mr Bingley’s sister has taken ill, and a ball would be quite impossible under the circumstances. The family intends to return to town soon, and I shall go directly to Pemberley.”
“And you are yourself not unhappy to leave Netherfield, I venture.”
Mr Darcy had been relieved at the prospect, but now, in Elizabeth’s presence, he could not bring himself to say so.
“Your departure does not have anything to do with Lady Catherine’s visit, then?” Elizabeth asked, with a bit of cheekiness.
Mr Darcy looked uncomfortable.
“We shall be sorry to see Mr Bingley go.” Elizabeth paused a moment, realized something suddenly, and continued with a slight tone of bitterness, “It is our foolish cousin who is to blame. A rumour, an idle speculation, and he inflates it into a full-fledged catastrophe. His express to her Ladyship surely precipitated her foray into the wilds of Hertfordshire.”
“A rumour?” Mr Darcy asked.
“After observing Miss Bingley’s attentions to you, I was surprised to hear last week from Mr Wickham – you know him, I believe – that you were betrothed to Miss Anne de Bourgh … ”
“You have been speaking with Mr Wickham?”
“Yes, I have found him to be quite charming company.” Elizabeth’s eyes flashed a challenge at her companion. “And he in turn has found in me nothing at all disagreeable or intolerable.”
Mr Darcy flinched. He seemed to battling something within himself. After a while he collected himself, and said, “Mr Wickham has the fortunate ability of making friends easily wherever he goes.”
“But he has not been so fortunate as to retain your friendship. Perhaps, Mr Darcy, it is Mr Wickham who instils in you a desire to leave this neighbourhood. You prefer not to look into the eyes of the man whose inheritance you have denied and whose prospects you have blighted.”
“I assure you … ”
“And perhaps your neglect to inform your friends about the existence of your arrangement with Miss de Bourgh adds particular impetus to your wish to be away from the family at Netherfield … ”
Mr Darcy grew nettled, and a small crease appeared between his brows. “Do you believe me to be so dishonourable?”
Elizabeth allowed herself to enjoy a small moment of triumph. “I hardly know what to think. The information I receive is sometimes so contrary, it leaves me quite confused.”
“And without knowing anything of his background, his history, you choose to believe Mr Wickham? I had thought better of your good sense, Miss Bennet.”
“I cannot believe that Mr Wickham would invent such a history as he gave me last week – names, facts, everything mentioned without ceremony. There was truth in his looks.”
“And did it not puzzle you, that he should speak so openly of his affairs to somebody whom he had barely met?”
“Why should it have? I saw with my own eyes the way the two of you behaved when you met in Meryton, and it was natural that he might ask me that night whether I had known you long, what my opinions were, and how long you were likely to remain at Netherfield.”
If Elizabeth had been expecting her companion to look affronted at this, she was surprised, because his demeanour appeared more sorrowful than angry.
Neither spoke for a few minutes, and when Mr Darcy broke the silence, it was to ask of her what her reply had been.
Elizabeth fought a small battle with her conscience; whether to prevaricate in the way of a polite, properly brought up lady, or to tell him her frank opinions. The latter course won. “I told him,” she replied defiantly, “that I had known you only a month, and that thus far, I found you quite as disagreeable as surely you find me.”
Darcy started a little. “Disagreeable!”
“Surely the poor opinion of one so contemptible, so far beneath you, so intolerable, as you find me to be, cannot be a matter of great concern to you.”
“You believe that I dislike you?”
“Certainly I do. Have we not argued every time we are in company together? Have you not often looked on me with that intense disapproving glare, merely to find fault?”
There! I have rendered you speechless! Elizabeth walked a little away from her adversary and allowed herself to enjoy her little triumph over him. She had been longing to confront him with these matters for some time; only propriety had stopped her. She resumed her ramble on the path; Mr Darcy followed some twenty paces behind her in silence.
“Miss Bennet,” he said after some considerable minutes.
His voice was so altered that she found herself turning once again to face him, to draw nearer to him, without realizing that she had done so. There it was again – a clear intimation of sorrow. Why?
“We have got off to a most unhappy start, you and I,” Mr Darcy said. “Perhaps it can yet be corrected. To begin, I must apologize for a few words you have overheard that I should never have spoken in the first place.”
Elizabeth was very briefly tempted to reiterate the entirety of that moment at the Meryton assembly, to fling it in his face, but her better nature and her sense of justice stopped her in time.
“Before you consign me to the innermost circle of the condemned, Miss Bennet, would you do me the honour of listening to my side of the story?”
She nodded, not daring to voice any words that might muddle the circumstances further.
“Mr Wickham,” Darcy began, “is the son of a very respectable man … ”
Elizabeth returned from her walk with a different view of the world, her head swirling with new and far from unwelcome thoughts.
But Longbourn was much as it had always been. Her mother accosted her crossly the moment she was within the house. “Where in heaven’s name have you been, Lizzy? Mr Collins has been looking for you this entire morning!”
“I cannot imagine why –”
“I had thought, Cousin Eliza, that you and I could walk into Meryton together with your younger sisters. Now that you have had the good fortune to meet my esteemed patroness, I am most eager to apprise you further of the singular advantages of the notice of Lady Catherine de Bourgh which must accrue to the future –”
“We are likely to see Mr Wickham, Lizzy,” Lydia put in with saucy satisfaction.
“ … partner of my fate,” the parson continued with an unctuous smile that made Elizabeth shiver in disgust, “and as we have so unfortunately been denied our opportunity to have a dance together –”
Elizabeth had no wish to be in the company of either Mr Collins or Mr Wickham. “I must decline my part in your pleasures,” she said quickly.
“Lizzy, I insist that you walk to Meryton with Mr Collins.”
“Mama, I have been walking for quite some hours already this morning, and now desire only to go to my room.”
Mr Bennet lowered his newspaper and, looking from one participant to another, assessed the situation rapidly. “My dear Mrs Bennet, can you not see that the girl does not want to go?”
“Oh, nonsense! She does not know her own mind. Why, if I were younger … not to walk to Meryton, indeed! Lizzy, I will have no more of –”
“Go on, off to your room, Lizzy,” her father interrupted. “Mary, you shall go with Mr Collins in your sister’s stead.”
Elizabeth cast him a grateful look and was quickly gone, up the stairs.
Alone, Elizabeth had a great deal to think about.
How could she have so misinterpreted everything? Mr Wickham’s account, initially so plausible, appeared now to be blatant in its misinformation, its cunning omissions, its sheer impropriety in having been divulged so liberally amongst company newly met. And Mr Wickham’s manners, originally so open, so pleasing, looked now to be nothing more than the insincere fawning of a man with something to gain.
And at what cost, had he sought his advance! Elizabeth grieved for that unlucky heiress, duped into affection, solely because the man hoped to marry her fortune, and left disconsolate and distrustful of the world after learning the truth.
Kitty and Lydia were certainly too poor to be Mr Wickham’s next targets for a lucrative alliance, but what of the other matters at which Mr Darcy had hinted darkly? – the improprieties and vicious propensities, that implied a habit of importuning unwitting young ladies for baser reasons. Flirtatious as her youngest sisters were, Elizabeth felt it prudent to caution them against the latest object of their obsession – or better yet, to warn her father.
And to think that Mr Wickham had once sought to be a clergyman! True, Elizabeth had lately had reason to harbour doubts about the qualifications required by the Church of England of its men of the cloth – but however inferior Mr Collins was, he was a paragon of virtue next to a Mr Wickham.
But the most surprising of all of the morning’s revelations had turned out to be Mr Darcy himself. After he had apologized, and explained, and reassured her that perhaps he had brought her poor opinion of him upon himself, the air had seemed greatly cleared between them. They had talked, then, of books and music, and found that they had many tastes in common and opinions just different enough to make for a lively conversation.
No, it had not been arguments, that the two had so often engaged in during the month past, but spirited debates. Far from criticizing her views and preferences, he had been paying her a compliment by respecting them as those of an equal.
They had spoken also of family, and Mr Darcy had impressed her favourably in his warm concern over his sister, to whom he had become guardian when a very young man, and who now looked up to him almost more as a father than an elder brother. Miss Darcy, whom Mr Wickham had declared exceedingly proud, seemed from her brother’s descriptions to be merely shy. Mr Darcy had confessed that he had written to her of his acquaintance with Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and that in her reply, his sister had expressed a wish of knowing her, herself. Her vivacity and spirits, rather than the fawning of fashionable ladies – it had not been necessary for Mr Darcy to cite names for Elizabeth to know exactly who he meant – were precisely what Georgiana needed.
It was probable that Mr Bingley would come back to Netherfield after seeing his sister safely taken care of in town, and Darcy had mentioned that he too was contemplating a return after his estate business in Derbyshire was dealt with. Unfortunately, with the militia still in Meryton, and in light of Miss Darcy’s considerable fortune, he preferred not to bring his sister with him to Netherfield. Elizabeth had understood silently, and it occurred to her that the disillusioned heiress might have been Mr Darcy’s own sister.
Having learned earlier in the morning’s conversation that Elizabeth and Jane often stayed with their uncle and aunt in London, Mr Darcy had suggested that perhaps the introduction might be made in town.
“My uncle and aunt live in Cheapside,” Elizabeth had told him, cheekily, half expecting the invitation to be rescinded.
But his reaction had not been what she had expected, for they had already discussed the origins of her initial dislike for him, candidly enough that he had begun to take some of it to heart. He had then asked after and taken the trouble to memorize the name and address of these relations.
Elizabeth honestly did not know what to make of the morning’s events. Mr Darcy had acted nothing like the proud, disdainful man whose image she had been so firmly determined to entrench in her mind.
At the end of their walk, near the road to Longbourn House – for he had insisted on accompanying her back – he had seized her hand and bestowed on it a gentle kiss that made her blush.
And when her heart slowed and she felt herself again able to look at his face – with an appreciation she had never before entertained of how handsome a man he was, especially when he smiled – she had realized that what what was reflected in his dark eyes when he gazed upon her was not disapproval at all. There was a tumult of many different emotions, but she could recognize respect, admiration, a beseeching hope that her opinions of him had altered, and … dare she acknowledge it to herself? … a tender fondness. Might it be more?
Eager to find out, still deeply stirred by the phantom touch of his fingers and lips on her hand, she could hardly wait until they should meet again.