Mr. Darcy sat down in his study, and taking advantage of the momentary privacy, rested his head on his desk. The ridiculous folly of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst never ceased to give him a splitting headache. He could not be more indifferent to Miss Bingley, going to far as to actually almost be rude to her, and yet the young woman still believed the fallacy that she had even an inkling of a chance of capturing his heart. He could see that even his poor sister’s patience was wearing thin, and he hoped that her gentle manner could find someway to suggest to their guests that they should leave for town sooner rather than later.
He groaned softly when he heard a soft knock at his study door. After calling for the offending person to enter, he was pleasantly relieved to find it was his butler, and not any of his guests.
“Come in Bidwell. What can I do for you?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you sir, but there is a distraught young woman here to see you directly,”
Young woman? He dared not hope it was who he wished it to be. “Me? Are you sure Bidwell? Not my sister?”
“Yes sir, she was very clear. She is come from Lambton.”
“Lambton? Did she give her name?”
“A one Miss Elizabeth Bennet sir,”
Darcy stood abruptly, nearly knocking over the large stack of books he had on his desk. He cleared his throat. “Yes, of course. Show her in please,”
“And do not let her presence known to anyone else in the house, especially not Miss Bingley or Mrs. Hurst,”
“Thank you Bidwell,”
Darcy paced back and forth while he waited for Elizabeth to enter. Bidwell said she was distraught? He had no idea what or why she would come to him of all people, but he did not have long to dwell on the matter, as the woman in question soon entered his study.
Her face was pale, especially considering her skin was slightly tanned and freckled from her travels. Her eyes were red, cheeks tear stained, and she was clutching two letters so tightly that her knuckles were white and Darcy was surprised she didn’t tear right through the paper. He could see that her hair was barely pinned underneath her bonnet, and her dress was wrinkled beneath her shawl. She was without her usual coat or pelisse, and Darcy became increasingly concerned. It was clear she had come to him in a hurry.
“Mr. Darcy, thank you for seeing me. I apologize for my appearance and for intruding on your time unannounced. I know I am not fit to be seen at present,”
“Not at all Miss Bennet. Please have a seat,” Darcy led her to the softer of the two sofas in the corner of his study, taking her bonnet and placing it on the coat rack. He called for Bidwell to bring his morning tea early, and once he had settled Elizabeth with a hot cup and his study door locked to any unwelcome guests, he sat across from her. “Tell me Miss Bennet, are you quite well? Is your family? I can see your distress. What has caused you to be in such a state?”
Her bright eyes filled with tears, and she closed her eyes to keep them from falling. After a deep breath, she looked at him resolutely. “Mr. Darcy,” she began. “Excuse my frankness, but I must know before I continue. Do you still hold any affection for me?”
Darcy’s mouth instantly felt dry and he felt as if all the air in his lungs had been knocked right out of him. “I-I-I beg your pardon?”
“Do you still love me Mr. Darcy?”
“I - uh,” Darcy was at a loss for words, though it was a feeling he was increasingly becoming used to in the presence of his beloved Miss Bennet. But did she really not know, or was this just a trap ridicule him? Though she was ardently distressed when she came in…
“I understand why you might be reluctant to answer. Please allow me to express my own feelings before continuing,” Darcy did not object. “Since your, admittedly insulting, proposal, and my significant lack of propriety in refusing, you have grown in my esteem. Knowing the full crimes of Mr. Wickham abashed me, and Jane herself wrote to tell me that it was not you who tried to sully her name, but Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. I realized my own pride, prejudice, and vanity had lead to my bad opinion of you. Ever since, I have come to admire, praise, and even love you,”
Darcy’s heart soared. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would win the favor of Elizabeth Bennet. The most he had hoped for was her respect, and a polite friendship between her and Georgiana due to her being attached to Bingley through her sister Jane’s marriage. He still believed that his sister could learn more from Elizabeth than any other gentlewoman. But her love! What a most wonderful surprise!
“I know this is all rather untoward,” she continued. “And I know it is too much to expect that you may still love me, but I do hope that some affection remains. Because of what else I have to tell, I will need your most astute advice, and these circumstances will subject me to far more ridicule than my declaration ever could,”
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet,” Darcy said her name like a prayer, moving to sit beside her and take her hand. “After you refused me, I attempted to quell my love for you, and maintain a polite acquaintance for the sake of my dear friend, your brother in law. But it was in vain, for your determination, courage, strength, and beauty have captured me, heart and soul. If possible, I love you now more than ever,”
Elizabeth squeezed his hand and gave a watery smile before looking down at her skirt. “I fear what I am about to share will change that,”
“Whatever could you mean?”
“I have received two letters since I was last here, one from my sister Mary, and the other from Charlotte Collins. It seems that almost as soon as I left for Derbyshire with my aunt and uncle, word came from Brighton that my youngest sister Lydia has run off with none other than Mr. Wickham with the intention of elopement. In an effort to retrieve her, my father went with General Forster to Brighton and was able to trace them as far as London. Mary says that they believe the stress was just too much for him, as he passed away within two days of arriving in town,” at that she began to lose her composure, sobbing into Darcy’s handkerchief. Darcy longed to reach across and hold her in his arms, but his manners would not allow him to do so. Instead he clutched her hand even tighter, silently urging her to continue.
“He never found them, and my mother, who has taken to her bed for the duration of this mess, naturally let all our troubles spill to our neighbor Mrs. Lucas. She then of course told all of Meryton and her daughter, my dear friend Charlotte Collins,”
“She is married to your distant cousin, correct? The one to whom your father’s estate is entailed?”
“The very same. And you would do well to remember that your aunt is also his patroness, as he does well not to let anyone forget. Word reached him through Charlotte, and he brought the situation to Lady Catherine, who suggested that since he need not live at Longbourne due to his parsonage, that my mother and sisters may remain there, but only if they renounce Lydia and disown her from our family and work on the estate, since there is no reason to keep a staff if a gentleman no longer lives there.
“Of course my mother and Kitty refuse to disown Lydia, even for appearances sake. Mary has, but only because she believes Mr. Collins is of the highest moral character and likens Lydia to a common whore,”
“You mentioned only your mother and sisters, but what of you?”
“That was all Mary’s letter contained. The one from Charlotte however - Mr. Darcy, I’m so sorry but I cannot speak, it is too upsetting, even now. Please, just read it yourself,”
Darcy gently took the letter from her shaking hand, and as he read, became angrier than he thought he was capable of.
Please keep this letter hidden and secret. My husband does not know I am writing it, and as the contents go directly against his (and Lady Catherine’s) wishes he will become very cross, and I do fear that will make your situation worse.
My deepest condolences are with you and your family during this terrible time. I am sorry Lydia’s selfishness and poor judgement is bringing you so much trouble. I am sure you know that my husband thinks that you and your sisters can “work away her transgressions” as Lady Catherine has suggested, by tending to the care and keeping of Longbourne. However, there is further information that pertains to you in particular, that will not be revealed to anyone until you arrive at Longbourne.
Apparently Mr. Collins is still a bit put out by your refusal, and we all know Lady Catherine thinks your willful spirit, the thing which I and so many others admire most about you, is not becoming of a lady. Therefore the two have conspired to send you to “employment more suitable for someone of your dignity”. I of course asked my husband what this meant, and he merely said that Lady Catherine knew of a boarding house that would provide an income, occupation, and suitable living quarters for someone of your station, and that she was the most generous patroness for helping his relatives out in a time of distress. You and I both know her generosity is never so generous, and so I sent a maid to inquire about the nature of this house and its mistress, Mrs. Younge. Eliza, I am horrified to tell you that Mrs. Younge is a madam for elite courtesans, and this ‘boarding house’ is nothing short of a disguised brothel!
My dear, dear Eliza, you know I would never wish that life on you. I did not marry Mr. Collins to slight you or your family, or to steal Longbourne, or any other of the dreadful rumors I’m sure your mother has told you. I only did what I did to secure my own future, and relieve my parents of the burden of having a spinster daughter. If only I had convinced Mr. Collins of taking one of your younger sisters, instead of myself, then this whole mess could have been avoided. I tried to convince my husband not to send you to this Mrs. Younge, but his mind is resolute. He would not dare insult Lady Catherine’s generosity as to ignore her advice, and as I have recently found I am with child, I fear I am not in a position to argue with him.
I don’t know what you can do with what I have told you Eliza, but I hope it is of some help. If there is any way I can help, please send a letter to my maid Rose Pinning. That way I can be sure Mr. Collins does not see it.
All my love, and Godspeed
Mr. Darcy was silent for a long time after he put down the letter. The despicable nature of his aunt’s manipulation - he knew she was well aware of what kind of place she suggested Elizabeth be sent to, for she was far too cunning for it to be serendipitous.
“What of your mother and Kitty?” he asked softly, trying to find the words to convey his thoughts without scaring Elizabeth.
“They will not disown Lydia. What are they to do?”
“My mother will go live with her sister, Mrs. Phillips, but I know I will not be welcome there. I am the least favorite daughter after all. And Kitty will be going to stay with my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. They offered me room, but as they have four young children they have neither the room nor the means to care for two more hungry mouths. Besides, this situation is my fault. Kitty is younger and needs further instruction, and I cannot make her pay for my mistakes,”
“If I had accepted Mr. Collins, my family would have other options,”
“And if I had made Wickham’s character known, this whole situation would have been avoided,”
“I also had that option Mr. Darcy,”
“Nonsense, you did as you ought. It was my pride that got in the way. Did Mary’s letter mention Jane and Bingley at all?”
“Just that she didn’t know how to inform them as they are not due back from France for another two months and she hasn’t written since they arrived in Paris weeks ago,” Elizabeth sniffled, trying to keep her tears at bay. “Mr. Darcy, I do not know what I am to do, but I cannot go to the house of this Mrs. Younge, I just can’t,”
Darcy thought for another moment. “I will not allow you to. If your feelings are what you say they are, then the obvious solution is that we should marry,”
“You would still have me?”
“Of course I would. Damn what anyone else says, I always swore I would never marry for anything less than the very deepest love. And you are the only woman I have ever felt it for,”
“But what of - “
“Hush my dear. I’m sure your uncle and aunt can be persuaded to say that I asked for your hand before we received news of your father’s passing?”
“Yes, I do believe so,”
“Then we can leave for Longbourne on the morrow. We shall say that we were already engaged, and that with the news you received these past few days, your holiday was cut short and we returned to Longbourne together. Georgiana will come with us. I promise, all will be well,”
“And what of Miss Bingley, and Mrs. Hurst?”
“They will leave tomorrow as well. Come, I should think you would enjoy the look on Miss Bingley’s face when she learns of our good news?”
“You should think correct Mr. Darcy,”