Certainly there is no time in a young woman’s life when she is more in need of wise counsel than upon her marriage, and no one so well-placed to offer that counsel than her mother.
Unfortunately for Miss Elizabeth Bennett, her mother’s advice was rarely rich in wisdom. So it was with no great hopes that she, along with her sister Jane, submitted to a specific conversation on the eve of their double wedding.
“Now, girls, you are to be wives soon. I trust you have seen enough of the animals in spring-time to know which is male and which is female, and how they do pair. You have, have you not?” They could scarce reply save for nodding. Elizabeth suspected Jane’s blushing was the equal of her own, and neither could meet the other’s eye – as much from fear of laughing as from modesty, though the latter was thoroughly outraged.
Mrs. Bennett went blithely on: “Good, good, I knew you were sensible girls. Tomorrow night, it will all seem quite rude to you, and the postures are indeed strange at first! But put on a sweet smile and make the best of it, for that is what men like. You shall see, in time all pursuits become better for practice, and I dare say you shall be quite happy with your husbands in due course, and prefer your marriage bed to all other places. Why, I still do, and we wed these three and twenty years! So patience, practice, and smiles, do not forget the smiles.”
With this and a motherly pat, no more, they were set to sea on the unpredictable waters of matrimony.
Yet Elizabeth harbored no great fears in this matter. Whispers, gossip, and oblique allusions in certain novels had suggested to her that the martial relation could be embarrassing and painful, particularly for a maid. Yet the construction of all human society told her that, loath though anyone was to admit it, most women came to enjoy the practice, some of them quite beyond the bounds of decorum.
And sometimes, when she looked at Mr. Darcy – her Mr. Darcy! Such joy it was still to think it – Elizabeth wondered whether she might not fall into that latter category. Thus far they had shared no more than a handful of chaste kisses, the holding of hands, and on one thrilling evening not a week before, an embrace that lasted many moments. The very scent of his skin lingered in her memory all the night, so that she could scarce sleep.
Thus she felt only a great anticipation and tenderness when nightfall came. Her new ladies’ maid, Fletcher, helped her into a white nightgown trimmed with soft lace, and brushed out her hair until it curled and tumbled loose around her shoulders.
Fletcher also had brought up some wine on a tray, which must have been meant to ease her new lady from fretfulness. Despite suffering no such apprehensions, Elizabeth took several sips as she waited for her husband, partaking enough to feel easy, but not enough to inebriate.
When finally the door of her bedchamber opened again, Elizabeth smiled to see her dear Darcy – Fitzwilliam, she could call him now, though she had not yet presumed to do so. He wore a nightshirt of the same white material as she, thin and soft, and through it she could discern the strong lines of his body. Elizabeth was not unfamiliar with his frame, as the fashions of the day dictated that every observer should know the dimensions of a man, but it was newly thrilling to behold this and realize that she should soon touch and be touched by him.
Yet Darcy did not smile as easily as she. He seemed distinctly ill at ease. Elizabeth took this as a kind regard for her situation.
“Come, Mr. Darcy,” she murmured. “Do not fret. Anyone observing us would think me the man of the world and you the blushing bride.
This flash of wit only increased his unease. “We are not observed, I should hope. The servants are of a better ilk than that.”
“I am sure we are not.” If her husband were nervous on her account, then she should soothe him. Elizabeth rose and gestured to the small carafe of wine that waited on the nearby dressing table. “Have a glass to drink, my love."
“My love,” he repeated softly, and this seemed to gentle his temper more than wine could ever do. “My dearest, my only. Forgive me my hesitation. In this above almost any other thing I would wish for all to be well between us.”
“All is well, and all shall be well.” She dared to caress the side of his face, and when he smiled, her happiness became all the greater. “Now I shall be most impertinent and kiss my husband.”
“There will be no chance for impertinence. It is I who shall kiss you.”
In the end to her it seemed that no one had begun the kiss, that it had come into being of its own accord and claimed them both.
Darcy bore her down onto the bed, and then they were lost in kisses and embraces and endearments that became more ardent and less sensible with every passing minute. His hands caressed her, at first chastely, but then seeking greater knowledge of her form. Elizabeth was gladly sought. Her heartbeat quickened until she eagerly awaited what would come next, whatever that might be.
And yet the kisses went on and on – without ever hastening, if never slowing – until quite suddenly Darcy released her.
“It is of no use,” he said. Where he had been joyful, he was now disconsolate, and he did not meet her eyes. “Pardon me, Elizabeth, if you can.”
“I – I do not understand.” Elizabeth’s words came haltingly; her breaths remained quickened from their embraces. “Have I done something I ought not?”
“Indeed not. You are lovely and obliging in every way. It is I who have failed you.” Darcy rose from the bed to take a glass of the wine.
For a few moments, Elizabeth did not know how to answer. Why should Darcy fail to consummate their marriage? “Please. We might yet continue. Return to my side.”
“That would not avail us, and only remind me of my humiliation, and my cruelty in marrying you.” He drank deeply. His face was like the stony mask she had first beheld at the dance where they met: correct, proper, revealing no hint of the generous man within. “You see, Elizabeth, I have known for some time that I could not – that I cannot lie with you as a man should lie with his wife.”
“But how can this be?”
“In my youth I was as other men. But last year – not long ere we came to know each other – this affliction overtook me. My love for you has burned so strongly that I believed I could overcome it. Foolish, reckless pride! All I have done is ensure that the woman I love must have a share in my suffering.”
Such news was too shocking to be borne. Yet Elizabeth refused to think of her own dismay. Her husband’s evident pain and shame must be greater even than her own grief. “My love – it is but the first night. We shall have many nights together, a lifetime’s worth – ”
“And if I cannot answer now, when I have dreamt of you these many months, then truly I am beyond hope.” Darcy placed the empty wineglass on the dressing table, and she noted that his hand shook. “I would beg your forgiveness, were it possible to be forgiven for so egregious a mistake as I have made. I can in courtesy only leave you.”
Elizabeth could find no words to stop him, no words whatsoever, as Darcy left her chamber for his own. And so it was that her only companion in her wedding bed was sorrow.
The next day was desolation. Elizabeth did not see Darcy until the breakfast table, and there his evident discomfiture silenced whatever halting attempts she could have made at conversation.
Wretched though this solitude was, she later felt certain that it was the best part of their day, and that Darcy would have agreed with this sentiment, had they had one moment’s privacy to speak. However, they instead found themselves in the position of all new-married couples – accepting callers, welcoming family members and making such arrangements as were necessary for their impending journey to Pemberley. There, of course, Elizabeth would immediately assume the role of mistress. This meant that she was much in conversation with Mr. Darcy’s – with their servants, many of whom were already in attendance upon them at Netherfield. Though they all behaved with courtesy, she wondered what whispers might be taking place on the back stairs. Those who washed the linen, those who helped dress her in the morning and saw her distress, those who assisted Mr. Darcy, very much in his own room, to prepare for the day: Did they all know of this?
They could not comprehend the real truth. But surely they suspected the wedding night had not been a success. Elizabeth’s chagrin was increased by the realization that she would surely be the one blamed. Perhaps they thought her cold, or, worse, no maid upon her marriage and thus the cause of Mr. Darcy’s disgust.
Such feelings of pique, though natural and strong, did not govern her temper. Her foremost concern was the wellbeing of her husband
When night came, she had Fletcher prepare her for bed as thoroughly as before. Fletcher had brought wine again, but this time Elizabeth took none; though she knew not what calamity had befallen them, she determined to do all differently upon this second assay. After an hour of waiting that drove her to distraction, she summoned her courage and went to his chamber instead.
Mr. Darcy startled upon her entrance. Then, however, his countenance became distant and forbidding. “You should not have come.”
“Is it very shocking, that a wife might come to her husband’s bed? Not in the ordinary way of things, I am given to understand, but surely within the realm of propriety. Assuming, of course, that this wife chooses the correct door and does not instead wander into the private chamber of the butler.”
He almost smiled then, and she felt the pleasure of knowing her wit well-placed. “Your good humor is more than I expected, or deserve.”
“My humor may yet improve, sir.” She raised an eyebrow and hoped he would take her meaning.
Whether he did or did not could not be determined. Already Darcy’s countenance had assumed that forbidding coolness she disliked so heartily. “I suppose it is best that we discuss what you are to do, in light of my inadequacy. Though I beg of you that we speak of it this once and no more, quickly and directly for my sake at least, as I find the subject even more objectionable than you must.”
This had not the tone for which Elizabeth had wished, nor had Darcy made any motion to suggest she come closer. But as he had suggested they talk intimately, it was therefore a beginning, and she sat on the foot of his bed.
He began a speech which she realized must have been oft-rehearsed in the past day, and yet repetition had stripped away none of the emotion. “As you must know, my condition is one of the very few deficiencies that allow a wife to divorce her husband. Such a public action would no doubt prove – scandalous, shocking, distressing to all involved. However, if you wish to assert these grounds, I shall admit their veracity, and I would settle upon you a sum as should provide for a more than comfortable living.”
Elizabeth could only gape, until she found the voice to retort, “Divorce! I will not countenance it.”
“Then I must suggest the more common alternative in such situations.” Darcy’s jaw clenched; this was somehow more odious to him than even the thought of divorce. “I grant you your freedom. If you wish henceforth to – to spend your time in London without me, in company of your choosing, then that is your right, not to be begrudged.” She did not understand him until he added, very quietly, “I shall be blind to evidence and deaf to rumor.”
Slowly she rose from the bed. The anger that coursed through her – she had not known such indignation since --
--since he had proposed to her the first time.
“Sir, when first you applied for my hand, I believed that you had insulted me as thoroughly as man ever could insult woman. I see now that I was mistaken. Not even then, at the height of my temper and the depth of my misapprehension of your character, could I ever have dreamt you held me in such low esteem as to believe me capable of – of – the false, shameful arrangement you have proposed. I trust you will excuse me.”
With that she departed. Once again Elizabeth spent a night in her bridal bed with no groom beside her. She found fury a warmer companion than sorrow, if not an easier one.
Yet sleep is a sure gentler of mood. The next day, Elizabeth reflected more fully upon what had been said, most particularly by her husband, and why.
Again the morning provided little chance for private conversation between husband and wife. Instead of frivolities, their attention was taken by more immediate concerns – foremost among them closing Netherfield Park so that Bingley and Jane might find all in order upon their return from their wedding trip to London.
How kind it had been, Elizabeth thought, for the Bingleys to open their home to them … for the alternative would have been for them to spend their wedding night at Longbourn, a possibility that had seemed odious before and now made her shudder. How much greater would have been their mortification! But there at least Darcy could not have made himself separate from her.
They two had planned to make their wedding trip in the spring. Darcy wanted her to see Italy, and the prospect had filled her with such delight – though mostly because he would be with her there – and now what would that journey be? Elizabeth did not know and could not guess.
In the afternoon, she sat in a parlor with windows that faced southwest, the better to have light for her novel. As Darcy was far more occupied with the business of their travel than she, Elizabeth expected him not. However, a knock upon the door quickened her heart even before she lifted her head and saw him standing there – quiet and abashed.
Her heart full, she said, “You need not knock, sir. This is no more my house than yours – and wherever I am, you are most welcome.”
No sooner had Elizabeth said the words than Darcy was by her side, his hands clasping hers fervently. “I most grievously offended you. To have addressed you in so unfeeling a manner upon such a tender subject is beyond rudeness. Please allow me most sincerely to beg your pardon.”
“It shall not be allowed, for mine was the greater fault. All day I have thought of what you offered to me. While I reject those possibilities as strenuously now as I did then and ever shall, I realize now what … greatness of spirit was required for you to speak so.” To have offered his public humiliation or private degradation as a means of easing her situation had been selflessness embodied. “You were in error, sir, but you erred only in the application of your kindness. And surely that I can forgive, if you can but excuse my harsh responses.”
“I deserved no less. For my speech last night was hardly my most deplorable mistake.”
Though such self-castigation was a sign of his sincere repentance and regard, Elizabeth could not but think that it did not aid their situation. “Tell me, my husband, how did this affliction come upon you? Were you injured, perhaps? Or was there some lamentable illness?”
“It was lamentable, to be sure, but otherwise you have come not near the point.” He hesitated, then took his seat beside her. “You should have the truth of this, for I owe you no less. But to speak of such matters – please trust that I do so solely that you may understand, and with no disrespect for your delicacy.”
Elizabeth nodded. She had thoughts about men’s concern for the “delicacy” of women, and how often the result was merely feminine ignorance of matters that for the comfort of both parties would better be understood. But this subject could be raised at another time, when he was not seeking her tender confidence.
Still clasping her hands, Darcy began, “Whilst in London the season before Bingley took Netherfield, I did as many young men before me have done, thinking to fill the idle months and years before entering into matrimony. I … took a mistress.”
This information was not as startling as its teller perhaps believed. The habits of young men were not wholly mysterious to Elizabeth. She only squeezed his hands that he might know he could continue.
“Always I had held this practice in contempt,” Darcy said. “Yet I too fell prey to it, and worsened my situation through my own pride. Many of my fellows took up with actresses and other creatures of the demimonde who were nonetheless intelligent, likeable persons. Though these women would ever lack virtue and refinement, they nonetheless possessed their own sort of honor. Several might have made respectable gentlewomen had their positions in life been but slightly altered. However, I considered myself above the company I kept, and so chose a woman whom I might justly despise. Her beauty was matched only by her vulgarity. By loathing her I found it easier to pretend that I did not loathe myself for my weakness.”
Elizabeth wondered what sort of conversation was to be had among such women. Though all her education told her their discussions were likely to be uncouth, she could not but think that they would also be highly interesting.
“One night, before I went to her, I had taken much to drink. Thus the – malady first befell me.” Hastily he added, “That is of no moment, however. It is not an unfamiliar consequence of drinking more wine than is good for one.”
“That much I knew,” she dared to add. “It is in Shakespeare.”
“Is it?” Darcy must not have paid nearly enough attention to Shakespeare to find that surprising, but it did not long distract him. “If that women knew it, she cared not. For her it was but a reason to ridicule me, which she did most cruelly. She said I was no man, that I had ever displeased her but now had disappointed her beyond all endurance. I crept away with the sound of her laughter in my ears."
“That was unkindness.”
“Had she but been patient – spoken gently once in her entire vicious life – I believe I should have thought no more of the matter. Yet the next night, though entirely sober, I found myself equally unable to answer. The mockery of her gaze! The cruelty of her words!” He no longer met Elizabeth’s eyes. “Would you believe that I went to her yet again the night after? I wished to redeem myself. Instead in her chamber I found her with another, who was vigorously providing that which I could not – to her evident delight. Upon discovery she only laughed the harder.”
“She sounds wholly unworthy of any decent man’s attention."
“So she was, and yet that provided no consolation. I attempted again, with others, all to no avail. Eventually I realized that a few nights’ cruelty had forever unmanned me. It was in such temper that I left London and joined Bingley here. No doubt you have wondered at my coldness when first we met, how unwilling I was to please or be pleased. Now at last you know the source of it.”
Long-ago words echoed in her thoughts: She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me. How little had she ever dreamt what emotions might underlie such a statement!
More gently, Darcy added, “Then I came to know you. Your wit, your liveliness, your forthright nature, your beauty – all of these convinced me first that I could desire you, then that I could love you. In the privacy of my own home …” His voice trailed off, only now embarrassed. “Let me say only that I felt certain I could do you honor as your husband. I told myself that my earlier failings had been but a reflection of the company I kept, and that with another, worthier woman, one who held my sincere esteem and affection, all would be well. On this assumption I proceeded, and thus I led us both to an unhappy pass. This indelicacy – I have not offended you?”
“You have not, sir. You do me great honor by showing such faith in my understanding.”
Darcy’s eyes met hers, seeking comfort as openly as any trusting child, and she knew such tenderness as brought a lump to her throat. “I ought never to have proposed to you, Elizabeth, knowing what I knew. Though I hoped to overcome my weakness, I had no right to take such a chance with your happiness.”
“My happiness is not solely situated in our marriage bed. We are friends, are we not? Can we not – converse, and dine, and carry on our daily activities while enjoying one another’s company as we did during our engagement? You are my life’s companion. Do not let us be parted by recrimination and pain. Let us enjoy what is given to us.”
Mr. Darcy was but little comforted. “You say this now, but in one month, or one year, you will judge differently.”
Indeed there were other, greater concerns regarding their situation. Yet Elizabeth refused to consider such matters at the moment. What was most important was restoring their confidence and trust in one another. “Then give me one month, or one year. Give me whatever we may have.”
He lifted her hand and kissed the palm, and they were friends once more.
Friendship, of course, was not enough for a lifetime – as Elizabeth mused that night in her solitary bed. Darcy’s problem was no physical ailment; to her it sounded no more than a failure of confidence, and confidence could be restored in time.
Surely there must be ways for a husband and wife to overcome such a grievous difficulty. Just as surely, polite society would never allow discussion of such matters, nor would she find information in any book.
Therefore she would have to take such counsel as she could trust. Thank goodness that what society and literature would not acknowledge was still the province of confidences among women.