"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was not silent enough as she muttered: "Not again."
"Excuse me?" questioned a very shocked Mr. Darcy. "Did you just say ‘not again'?"
If Elizabeth had seemed to blush before, now she turned positively crimson as she realized her lapse and stammered, "No, Mr. Darcy, excuse me. Regardless of my complete incredulity at the current situation, that utterance was wholly inappropriate and beyond impertinent. I..."
Elizabeth trailed off, seemingly unsure of how to extricate herself from such a humiliating predicament.
Darcy, disbelieving and hurt, retorted, "By the phrase ‘not again', may I take it that mine is your second unwelcome proposal of marriage?"
"Fourth, actually," replied Elizabeth with still-pink cheeks but at least a hint of her usual lively manner.
"Fourth?" sputtered Darcy.
"Well, yes, if you don't count Billy Lucas' first proposal, offered when we were but six in response to my catching him a lovely garter snake, nor indeed the more recent proposal tendered by my young cousin John, in response to a similar gift just last year." At this remarkable statement, Elizabeth seemed to warm to her subject as she smiled and continued, "Oh, and I mustn't forget the repeated entreaties of Old Tom, our retired gardener, who asks me to marry him every time I prepare a tincture for his gout."
"Fourth?" repeated Darcy hollowly.
"Yes," she concluded with greatly improved spirits and a twinkle in her eye, "if one excludes those that were never taken very seriously by either party, your proposal---had it ever actually been tendered---would have been reckoned my fourth unwanted proposal.
"If it will make you feel any better, sir, it is the first one of its kind to be so wholly unexpected as to cause me to lose all sense of decorum, mutter under my breath, and expose my private business to a near stranger."
"Stranger?" whispered Darcy.
"Well, perhaps not stranger. How about acquaintance, or perhaps arch-nemesis, or even architect of my dearest sister's ongoing sorrow?" challenged Elizabeth before murmuring, not exactly to herself, "Ugh, this is what I get for indulging in medicinal claret on an empty stomach."
"Claret?" queried Darcy, appearing truly perplexed at this latest revelation.
"Did I say that? Oh, dear." Regrouping, Elizabeth made a final desperate attempt to remove herself from the increasingly uncomfortable situation by saying, "Mr. Darcy, recent discoveries aside, you have generally shown yourself to be a gentleman. I would ask you to act as one now, and leave me to my headache and my humiliation before this situation degenerates any further. If your feelings will not be repressed, it seems neither will my words!"
At this reminder of his melodramatic statement, Mr. Darcy stared, coloured, doubted, and---against all odds---began to smile. The smile became a chuckle; the chuckle, a chortle; the chortle, a deep belly laugh such as Mr. Darcy had not loosed since his Cambridge days, if ever.
Rather than being insulted at this surprising turn of events, Elizabeth's highly-developed sense of the absurd got the better of her almost immediately, and she felt the corner of her mouth quirk up in a grin. The grin became a giggle; the giggle, a very unladylike snort; the snort, a full-blown laugh complete with hiccups. The snort also had the added effect of redoubling Mr. Darcy's own laughter until both he and Elizabeth were holding their sides and gasping for breath.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gentleman in possession of many words but scant wit will inevitably enter a room at the most inconvenient possible moment: and so it was that Mr. Collins, accompanied by sensible Charlotte and shy Maria, returned from Rosings.
The sound of raucous laughter naturally drew the Collins' party to the drawing room. As the door opened and Mr. Collins stood with his hand frozen to the doorknob and his jaw halfway to the floor, Mr. Darcy realized the awkwardness of their predicament and tried to bring his comportment under its customary strict regulation. Elizabeth, however, had an utterly different type of realization and declared with glee---"His was the third!" which statement promptly crumbled Mr. Darcy's barely attained reserve into a choking sputter.
Unable to sanction such a scene nor censure such a man, Mr. Collins availed himself of one of his few viable options. He stepped backward into his wife and sister and, with unusual perspicacity, closed the drawing room door.
Faced with the appearance of sense from the often-senseless Mr. Collins, both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were shocked into momentary silence. The pair eyed each other with something akin to amazement and, perhaps, the beginnings of understanding. Finally, the reality of their situation intruded, and Mr. Darcy broke the charmed moment, saying "It seems that Mr. Collins has chosen to take the high road and leave us to our merriment. Nevertheless, I feel I can trespass on his hospitality no longer. Miss Bennet, this entire evening has turned out so differently than I might have expected, I hardly know what to say or even think."
"Perhaps we should just say ‘goodbye', then, and forget the whole thing ever happened," replied Elizabeth with a slight smile.
"I believe it would be impossible for either of us to forget this singular evening, and I am not certain I would want to turn the clock back even if I could. So, I bid you ‘good evening', Miss Bennet, but I hope not ‘goodbye.'" Mr. Darcy looked as though he would say more, but a noise in the hall caused him to stand and move toward the door.
As he was about to leave he heard Elizabeth say softly, "Good evening, then, Mr. Darcy." With a smile and a nod, he left the room.
One may only imagine the turmoil with which Mr. Darcy prepared for his evening repose.
As for Elizabeth, her thoughts were much at Rosings as she readied herself for bed. One might suppose that having been the recipient of three-and-a-half unwanted marriage proposals, Elizabeth would finally be accustomed to the event. In truth, she had rarely been as agitated as she was tonight.
If Mr. Darcy had called on her simply to ask after her health, she would have been merely surprised. As it was, the fact that Mr. Darcy had called to express intimate feelings of admiration and love for her in such a forceful manner had been almost beyond comprehension. Elizabeth had been overwhelmed: by the revelations of the day, by her headache, and by the turncoat claret that had loosened her already free tongue beyond the bounds of propriety. Mostly, however, she had been overwhelmed by Mr. Darcy's wholly unexpected proclamation and, perhaps more so, by his subsequent bout of unrestrained laughter.
Who was this strange creature that had inhabited Mr. Darcy's face and figure? He had expressed ardent and tender sentiments, which would imply that he actually possessed some organ with which to feel them. He had seemed genuinely distressed at her unwillingness to hear his declarations, which gave further proof that more than ice water flowed through his veins. And, most remarkably, he had laughed rather than sneered when Elizabeth had let slip about the claret---which meant that quite possibly the man possessed a sense of humour or at least a sense of the absurd. What was Elizabeth to make of the mounting evidence that Mr. Darcy was in possession of more than a great fortune and a haughty exterior? Did he perhaps possess a heart and soul as well?
Remembering that Mr. Darcy had not replied to her accusation that he had authored Jane's unhappiness, and that she had not yet levelled her other charges against him, Elizabeth decided to cease sketching Mr. Darcy's character for the moment. She needed to get some rest. Besides, regardless of what he had said about goodbyes, Elizabeth knew that Mr. Darcy was leaving Hunsford in but two days time. The chances of them meeting ever again---especially in light of their difference in circumstances---were not very great.
As Elizabeth fell asleep, she wondered why she felt vaguely uneasy at the thought of never again seeing someone she disliked as much as Mr. Darcy.
Elizabeth awoke the next morning to the same thoughts and meditations which had at length closed her eyes. She could not yet recover from the surprise of what had happened; it was impossible to think of anything else, and, totally indisposed for employment, she resolved soon after breakfast to indulge herself in air and exercise. She was proceeding directly to her favourite walk, when the recollection of Mr. Darcy's sometimes coming there stopped her. It suddenly occurred to her that she might have been misinterpreting the meaning of Mr. Darcy's recent presence on her walks. Given last night's events, this seemed a likely conclusion.
It was clear to Elizabeth that a man who had, for all intents and purposes, just been rejected by a woman would not willingly put himself in her way on the very next morning. Therefore Elizabeth set out toward her favourite grove confident of not encountering Mr. Darcy.
As clear as Elizabeth's logic seemed, Mr. Darcy had other ideas: as soon as she entered the grove, there he stood looking quite as handsome as usual, though tired and perhaps almost vulnerable.
"I told you it was not ‘goodbye', Miss Bennet. In fact, I believe it is now 'good morning'," said the gentleman behind Mr. Darcy's once-forbidding mien.
"It is a ‘good morning', Mr. Darcy," rejoined Elizabeth as the two left the grove in step and in seeming harmony for the first time on one of these now-common rambles.
After some time spent walking in companionable silence, Mr. Darcy blurted, "Did you really reject three other proposals of marriage?"
"Yes." responded Elizabeth simply, wondering to what this repeat of last night's encounter could tend.
"Is that any of your concern, Mr. Darcy?"
"No, not really. But I should like to know all the same."
"If you must know I shall tell you, though it is not any great mystery. Rejecting Mr. Collins, I hope I do not have to explain! Mostly, however, it was because I did not love any of the men who asked. Nor did I esteem any of them enough to feel that love was certain to develop. My father has often said, and I tend to agree, that I could not be happy in a match where I would be unable to respect my mate. No matter what the conventional wisdom, no material security is worth such misery in my opinion. You know enough of my impertinent ways, I'm sure, to know that my tongue would get me into trouble before long if I did not respect my partner in life," explained Elizabeth with a wry grin.
"And you would have rejected me too, had I gotten that far?" queried Mr. Darcy.
"Yes," responded Elizabeth simply, worried at the direction of this second interview.
"Yes, Miss Bennet, I would dearly like to know why. I know this in an unusual request. If I had actually proposed last night and you had rebuffed me, I am certain we would not be having this conversation today. But, the absurdity of last night, your frankness, and our laughter have somehow given me hope when there is no rational reason for it. After much soul-searching during the long and sleepless night, I determined to find you today and ask why you would have rejected me."
"I believe we have had this conversation before, Mr. Darcy. It is my turn to ask ‘why?', is it not?" challenged Elizabeth with her usual impertinence.
"I am sorry to seem obtuse. I had thought the reason for such an exercise would be obvious: so that if I ever again pluck up my courage to ask for your hand, I will have a better chance of actually winning it."
At this preposterous idea, Elizabeth could not help but laugh, "You cannot be serious, sir. You would like me to abuse you to your face, listing all of your faults as I perceive them, and you imagine that after such a recital you may indeed still harbour tender feelings for me? No, if poetry can starve away a sickly sort of love, I am quite certain that accusations and anger would shrivel up even such an ardent admiration as you claim to possess."
"I am not afraid of you," he said, and they both laughed at his quoting himself. "However, I do have one favour to ask; will you allow me to try to change your opinion of me, to defend myself from the charges laid at my door?"
"It is not my good opinion which once lost is lost forever, dear sir. I am, in general, happy to be proved wrong. However, my fellow man rarely disappoints in this area, and my first impressions are more often correct than not. You once told me you would rather I not sketch your character, yet now you ask specifically where I find fault. Surely we shall meet but rarely in the future and could simply acknowledge one another as common and indifferent acquaintances?"
"I doubt I could ever be indifferent to you and thus I am willing to take my chances. Please, do go on."
"As you wish. From the first moments of our acquaintance, your manners conveyed that you felt yourself far above our simple country company. Your selfish disdain for the feelings of our Hertfordshire neighbours could hardly be misunderstood. I could cite many examples of your aloof, even arrogant behaviour, but I shall leave that to your own superior memory."
Mr. Darcy replied, "I cannot defend what you call my arrogance other than to repeat what I have already told you, that I do not perform well to strangers nor do I converse easily with new acquaintances or during large gatherings. The real reason for my initial unsociability in Hertfordshire could more correctly be traced to some nearly tragic events that befell my only sister just a few months previous. I was certainly in no frame of mind to dance and make merry when I was still so concerned for Georgiana's welfare."
"I am sorry to hear that, Mr. Darcy. Is that why you did not dance at the Assembly, then?" wondered Elizabeth with some measure of concern but even more of mischief. "I had thought it was because the ladies present were merely tolerable and not handsome enough to tempt you. "
"Ahh, so now I see why your resentment of me is so implacable. Would that I could unsay those unthinking words." Mr. Darcy looked chagrined as he continued, "I am sorry for any offence I caused, but you must know that for many months now I have considered you one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance."
"I know no such thing, sir!" rejoined Elizabeth. "While I had certainly noticed the inordinate amount of time you spent staring at me, I had always assumed that you were looking only to find fault. I can assure you that I was completely taken aback by your avowals of affection yesterday. You may not believe this, but I had thought you could barely tolerate me."
"Although I tried to keep my feelings for you private to avoid gossip and prematurely raised expectations, I felt that I was as obvious as a schoolboy with a crush on the vicar's daughter," quipped Darcy. "I was too successful for my own good if even you had no inkling of my inclination toward you. I can see, then, why you were unprepared to hear my suit."
Imagining the forbidding Mr. Darcy as a lovesick schoolboy, Elizabeth could not help but feel her previous dislike wane at least a little. Nevertheless, as she thought of the more well-founded reasons for her dislike, she discovered new courage to continue.
"Those were a few of the reasons, but not all. I have other provocations. You know I have; I told you last night. Do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?"
As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued.
"I doubt there is a motive that can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You cannot deny that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other: of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, the other to its derision for disappointed hopes. I cannot imagine that Mr. Bingley is content with the results of your counsel, and I know for a fact that my sister has never recovered her former blithe spirit."
"Is this really what my actions have wrought?" asked Mr. Darcy. "Since you mentioned your sister's unhappiness last evening, I have spent many hours reflecting on my part in separating my friend from your sister. Will you hear me out before condemning me for that act?"
"You do not deny you have done it, then?" Elizabeth responded, her temper rising.
"I do not, but I would like you to hear my reasons before you judge my actions. That is all that I ask."
"Very well, I will try. But I warn you that my conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam yesterday has already prejudiced me in this regard. Hearing of your gloating did nothing to endear you to me."
It was in this moment that Mr. Darcy's countenance returned to its original state of vulnerability. He looked chastised for the first time in their entire acquaintance, but Elizabeth told herself that for dear Jane's sake she must remain unmoved.
"At the Netherfield Ball, I became aware that Bingley's attentions to your sister had given rise to a general expectation of their marriage. It was spoken of as a certain event, of which the time alone could be undecided. From that moment I observed my friend's behaviour attentively; and I could then perceive that his partiality for Miss Bennet was beyond what I had ever witnessed in him.
"Your sister I also watched. Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening's scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment. I was concerned that, even if she did not have any special regard for him, she might have been convinced to accept him anyway. I wanted to save my friend from the pain of an unequal match. I had other reasons as well, but my belief in her indifference was chief among them.
"Miss Bennet, your comments last night and your further elucidation this morning have led me to believe that my interference was indeed officious. Given that you have turned down three and nearly four proposals, one of which I know to have been by a very eligible gentleman," both of them smiled and Darcy continued, "I have no reason to doubt that your sister too would only accept a man whom she truly esteemed. I apologize for any pain and embarrassment I have caused her."
It was several minutes before Elizabeth could speak. Mr. Darcy had apologized. Mr. Darcy had all but admitted he was wrong. Mr. Darcy seemed to be concerned for the feelings of others, and not just his friend but her sister as well. Did she dare ask what he was going to do about it?
Before Elizabeth could summon the courage to ask him to make amends, Mr. Darcy broke the silence by saying, "You are so quiet; may I take it that there is more?"
"There is one more thing, but you must know that even I am not usually this frank. Or, do I begin to detect the method to this madness? You hope my accusations will so offend your sensibilities that you will have no cause to regret me. Clever plan, I admit. There is a price, however, for my continued frankness."
"And that is...?"
"That no matter how I wound you, if I wound you, you will go to Bingley and tell him of your interference in his suit to Jane. And, you will apologize. And, it would not hurt if you told him Jane was in town, as I cannot imagine his sisters have done so. Do all of this, and I will continue to enumerate your faults for as long as you wish," Elizabeth answered with mock severity that could not cover her returning smile. "Do I have your word of honour sir, as a gentleman?"
"You have my word, but it is not necessary. I had already decided to confess in any case. Now, if you will be so kind as to continue, Miss Bennet, I must know the full extent of my failures."
"Very well, I will oblige you by bringing up a topic that I know will give you no pleasure. Just remember that it was done at your request. Long before your interference with Jane and Bingley, my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself?"
"Ahhh, Mr. George Wickham. Is his account your final reason for rejecting me?" inquired Mr. Darcy, with the air of a man who has just been pardoned.
"I suppose it is, Mr. Darcy, but I can hardly understand why you are looking relieved!" retorted Elizabeth, ready to defend her friend Wickham against such callousness.
"I look relieved because I am relieved. For the first time since you began your litany of my flaws, I can honestly say that in this case I have not the least wrong action or impure motive with which to reproach myself. In fact, I believe that the full disclosure of my dealings with George Wickham cannot but help my suit. I think you had better sit down on this log. I fear this tale is a long one."
Before Elizabeth could respond with further accusations and incredulity, Mr. Darcy began to lay before her the true facts of his relationship with Mr. Wickham. From the blind fondness of his father for young George, to Wickham's dissolute behaviour at Cambridge; from the living he rejected to the large sum he accepted in its stead, Mr. Darcy kept nothing from her and even offered to have his solicitor verify anything that she did not believe.
"I hoped I had seen the last of George Wickham, but then the living he had formerly rejected came open. He was at my door almost before the previous vicar had died, asking that I make good on my father's promise. I, of course, refused him, reminded him of the ample remuneration he had already received, and told him never to darken Pemberley's halls again. My response was, I admit, a bit harsh, but I was sick of the lies and the profligacy. Wickham left, promising to revenge himself upon me for this perceived injustice.
"Miss Bennet, what I am about to tell you has never been shared outside our family circle, and I trust that it will go no further. I mentioned earlier that my sister had faced a near-tragedy last summer. That tragedy was Wickham. Georgiana had been taken to Ramsgate by her companion, Mrs. Younge, a woman in whom we were much deceived. Shortly thereafter Wickham arrived and began to pay Georgiana inappropriate attentions; he convinced her that they were in love and that they should elope. My sister was then but fifteen years old. I thank God that I came to Ramsgate for a visit but a day before they were to leave. Though Wickham had urged secrecy, Georgiana exposed the whole of it to me. You may imagine what I felt and how I acted. I stopped this ludicrous plan, of course, and thereby stopped Wickham from attaining his true goal---my sister's fortune of thirty thousand pounds and his revenge upon me.
"It does not surprise me that a coward and scoundrel like George Wickham would spread lies about me. I suppose I only have myself to blame that you believed him. His manners, I admit, are more engaging than mine. If you require further proof, I can offer the testimony of Colonel Fitzwilliam, my sister's other guardian. He knows all of the unfortunate particulars. Shall I ask him to call later today?"
During the entirety of his story, Elizabeth had sat unmoving. At first she had doubted him, but the more evidence Mr. Darcy presented, the more Elizabeth could not deny the note of truth in every word he spoke. How, she wondered, had she been so utterly taken in by Mr. Wickham's charming ways and deceitfully open manner? Did she possess no more sense or discernment than Mary or Lydia? Her own words about being a good judge of character came flooding back to her, and it was with shame that she finally looked up into Mr. Darcy's tired but hopeful eyes.
"Mr. Darcy, I hardly know what to say. I cannot but believe your story. In admitting that, however, I am admitting that I was a fool---and a judgmental fool at that! I accused you of arrogance while self-righteously believing the lies of a blackguard. I am so very sorry and so very ashamed.
"I teased you earlier that you wanted me to abuse you abominably so that you would have no cause to regret me. I can see now that I needn't have bothered. My own gullibility and the gossip I indulged in at your expense are quite enough, I'm sure, to convince you to be happy at your escape." The free laughter of last night seemed a distant memory. Today Elizabeth gave a small derisive laugh at herself as she shed tears of self-recrimination. Abruptly she turned and began to return to the house at a rapid pace.
"Miss Bennet. Elizabeth. Wait. Please. Do not cry." Saying this, Mr. Darcy approached the mortified Elizabeth and handed her his handkerchief. "Mr. Wickham's falsehoods are not worth your tears. I will not let that scoundrel cause me one more moment of concern and neither should you. I am angry if he imposed on you, but I am not angry with you for believing his lies. I had not given you much reason to like me before you first met him, and I am certain that he spun a good yarn. Please, let us think of him no more."
As Elizabeth looked up into his concerned eyes, she smiled just a bit through her tears. "I see you have adopted some of my philosophy, Mr. Darcy, to think of the past only as its remembrance gives you pleasure."
"Do you know what would give me pleasure, Miss Bennet?"
"A glass of claret?" Elizabeth asked in seeming innocence.
"No, not claret, although I find myself much in debt to that heady libation," chuckled Mr. Darcy. "Perhaps a cup of tea, though. And after that, a long ride."
"A long ride?"
"Well, not a very long ride. After all, what is fifty miles of good road?"
"Are you serious?"
"Very. I intend to call on a certain father of my former arch-nemesis, Elizabeth Bennet, and ask said father for permission to pay court to his loveliest daughter---with her permission, of course."
"You will have to stop by London on the way to Longbourn, then, and ask Jane for her permission. However, I am not at all certain she will say yes to your suit given that she is still quite in love with a man named Bingley," replied Elizabeth with the beginnings of a grin.
"You do take delight in vexing me, don't you, my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth." Mr. Darcy chuckled before adding in a slightly more serious tone, "Do I have your permission, then? I hope I have given you reason enough to doubt your former opinion. I am a stubborn fool sometimes, Elizabeth, but I am determined to become a man worthy of a woman such as yourself."
"And you will stop by London on your way to Longbourn to fulfil your promise about Jane and Mr. Bingley?" Elizabeth could not help but confirm.
"Even though it will mean staying away from you for far too long, I will do it tonight. Perhaps Bingley himself will be in the mood for a not-so-very long ride."
"In that case, yes."
"Yes. Yes, you have permission to court me. Yes, you may go to my father. Yes, you may escort me back to the parsonage. Yes, I will wheedle a cup of tea from an already-shocked Mrs. Collins---and if you are good, perhaps some sustenance for the road. And yes, you may offer me your arm for the walk back," she added with her customary cheek.
"Who am I to argue with such an agreeable lady?" said Mr. Darcy as he offered his arm to the woman who already held his heart.
And, later that day, as she watched her surprise suitor canter off to Longbourn, Elizabeth realized that once Mr. Darcy screwed up his courage again, proposal number four and a half would finally, thankfully be her last.