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A Fault in Their Characters

Chapter Text

Hunsford Parsonage
April 1812

Once the Collinses were gone to take tea at Rosings Park, Elizabeth, as if intending to exasperate herself as much as possible, chose once more to read Jane’s most recent letters. Only one intimate with her sister could comprehend the want of spirits that underlay every sentence. She had hoped that her sister’s sojourn in town with their aunt and uncle would recover Jane to her usual happy mood. Alas, Jane remained unhappy. She still cherished a very tender affection for Bingley. While she had fancied herself in love before, her regard for Bingley had all the warmth and steadiness that a strong attachment can boast; and so fervently did she value his remembrance, and prefer him to every other man, that all her good sense, and all her attention to the feelings of her friends, were requisite to check the indulgence of those regrets, which must have been injurious to her own health and their tranquility. Elizabeth, knowing her sister so intimately, comprehended those efforts and was roused to anger on her behalf.

Mr. Darcy’s claim of exerting himself to separate his friend, Charles Bingley, from her sister (a circumstance inadvertently revealed by Mr. Darcy’s cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam) could only exacerbate such feelings and, as was her wont, she chose to recover her calmness by physical exertion; however, she could hardly do so out-of-doors, for what would the Collinses think were she to exit the house, after claiming an indisposition to avoid attending them to Rosings Park. Thus, she paced with great agitation the length of the parlour. Four strides towards the door, turn, and four strides back. As she thus expended her frustration, she could not help but recall her stay at Netherfield when Miss Bingley had induced to her to walk with her in their drawing room. She doubted that ever-so-elegant lady would regard Elizabeth’s current efforts with anything other than disdain. Miss Bingley did no more than stroll as elegantly as possible, displaying her figure for Mr. Darcy’s delectation. Elizabeth paced, as forcefully as the small parlour allowed.

Her musings were suddenly interrupted by the sound of the door bell, and though her inclination was to refuse accepting any callers, she suspected it might be Colonel Fitzwilliam, who had once before called late in the evening, and might now come to enquire particularly after her. She had no interest in his company this evening but, as he had always behaved in a gentlemanly manner with her, she could not in good conscience turn him away now. But this idea was soon banished, and her spirits were very differently affected, when, to her utter amazement, she saw Mr. Darcy walk into the room. In a hurried manner he immediately began an enquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. Sitting herself, she answered him with cold civility, uncertain how best to proceed. She had no desire for his company, had no interest in conversing with him, would afford him the barest and slightest of civilities, and do whatever was in her power to hurry his departure.

She was considering how this might be effected when her deliberations were distracted by his restlessness. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word, for she was attempting to marshal her own thoughts. She wished that she might confront him about his machinations in regards to his friend and her sister, but civility and propriety dictated against raising such an awkward subject.

Directing her thoughts to how best she might encourage his departure, she was only superficially aware of his presence; however, after a silence of several minutes he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began, “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 silent, diverted from all thoughts of her own concerns. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her, immediately followed. She listened, her anger at his interference with her sister and Mr. Bingley compounded by the mode of his address. Darcy spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was as eloquent on the subject of pride as affection. Her inferiority - of the degradation that would ensue from attaching her family to his own - of his family’s disgust at being required to acknowledge such a relationship, were dwelt on with a warmth that made accepting his suit impossible. His lack of understanding of the very great insult imparted by his disparagement of her relatives, spoke poorly of his affections for her. Moreover, did he believe her so bereft of sense to not comprehend the vast difference between his station and hers? He, a grandson of an earl, and she, who could only claim to being the daughter of a gentleman possessed of a modest estate?

He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security.

He had not been speaking long before she felt her anger increasing. She strove to master it, telling herself that, as deficient as his manners were, she would not respond in kind. She could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive, for though he had injured her family, she did not believe him dishonourable. He was a man of sense and education and had lived in the world. Surely, he could not believe that such a mode of address would further his suit? She was finally roused to resentment by his subsequent language and lost all compassion in anger. She tried, however, to compose herself to answer him with patience, when he at last fell silent in expectation of her answer.

She had thought, when Mr. Collins had made her an offer of marriage, that it was impossible for a man to frame such a request more insultingly. She was wrong. Her only relief was the assurance that, as Mr. Darcy was a much more sensible man than Mr. Collins, she would be required to reject his offer only once and not several times as was the case with Mr. Collins.

His conceit, for his assurance of a favourable response could hardly be termed otherwise, only exasperated her further. The colour rose into her cheeks, and she said, “In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude for your offer, I would now thank you. But I cannot - I have never desired your good opinion, and you have clearly bestowed it most reluctantly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It was, I assure you, not intentional, and will, I hope, be of short duration. Those concerns which, you tell me, you have struggled to overcome in order to acknowledge your regard, should very shortly erase the latter with very little difficulty.”

Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantle-piece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips, till he believed himself to have attained it. The pause was to Elizabeth’s feelings dreadful. At length, in a voice of forced calmness, he said, “And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”

“I might as well enquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have another provocation. You know I have. Had not my own feelings decided against you, had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, 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 my eldest sister?” As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued.

“I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. While there may be reasons for your actions of which I am unaware, I rather suspect that your motives are unjust and ungenerous. You dare not, 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, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.”

She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.

“Can you deny that you have done it?” she repeated. With assumed tranquility he then replied, “I have no wish of denying that I did every thing in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards her I have been kinder than towards myself.”

The significance of his words was not immediately grasped but, when it had, she regarded him in total amazement and confusion for some moments, her anger displaced, at least temporarily, before stammering, ”Towards HER? I do not have the pleasure of understanding you.”

He, still labouring under her chastisement, did not at once respond, his mien suffused with resentment and anger. Interpreting his silence as a reluctance to explain, she repeated more firmly, “I really, really do not have the pleasure of understanding you, Mr. Darcy! Whatever can you mean?”

Allowing him no chance to respond, her tone became scornful as she continued, ”I wonder what form of reasoning you have contrived to convince yourself that you acted on my sister’s behalf? Please, satisfy my curiosity, Sir.”

Darcy moved once more towards the fireplace, leaning on the mantle, contemplating the small fire that burned to warm the room against the spring chill. Elizabeth was tempted to again demand an answer but more careful observation suggested he might actually be attempting to form a response. She therefore remained silent. It was several minutes before he spoke.

“I believe I owe you an explanation, Miss Bennet. While I am perhaps impinging on Bingley’s privacy, this matter makes it essential that your misapprehension be corrected.” He paused for a few moments to collect his thoughts. “First, allow me to correct a misunderstanding. While I consider Bingley an interesting acquaintance, we are not close friends. My friendship is with Hurst. Our families have a long history and when he asked for my assistance in helping Bingley to learn the rudiments of managing an estate, I felt I could do naught but agree. Hurst took upon himself the responsibility of ensuring that Bingley did not impose himself on any of the local ladies.”

“But… But Mr. Hurst was rarely sensible or particularly observant.”

There was a grim wryness to the twist of his mouth. “He is an excellent actor, is he not? Had you paid attention, which you had no reason to do, you would have seen that he always positioned himself as to keep Bingley under scrutiny. And had you ever tasted his drink, you would have had the pleasure of drinking well-watered brandy.

“Mrs. Hurst is his equal in deceptive guise. She has perfected that vacant expression while toying with her bracelets.”

Elizabeth, paid little attention to his last comment and gasped, “Mr. Bingley is no better than Mr. Wickham then!”

Darcy regarded her closely. During their dances at Netherfield, she had spoken in defense of Wickham. Apparently, a major alteration in her opinion had occurred; however, that was a matter for future discussion.

“No,” said he, “I would not equate the two men. Bingley is nothing like Wickham. Wickham’s character is dissolute in almost every respect; Bingley, on the other hand, is a respectable gentleman. However, place him in proximity to a beautiful young woman who appears to return his regard and is possessed of certain… characteristics, any thought of propriety may dissipate altogether. He has no other serious faults that I know of. He does not gamble, nor drink to excess. He is diligent in his business affairs. But a lovely and willing woman, well….” He shrugged.

“And my sister owns those characteristics you spoke of?”

Darcy nodded.

“And might I inquire as to what they are?”

Darcy flushed slightly and appeared unwilling to be explicit, but Elizabeth, despite observing his discomfort, would not relent. Finally, he answered.

“Bingley has a marked preference for women with flaxen hair, blue eyes, and… ah… certain… ah… physical attributes.”

Darcy’s eyes flickered to Elizabeth’s bosom, and both flushed, he from embarrassment at his involuntary reaction and she at understanding what he had implied. Then she recollected that her eldest sister was remarkably full-figured. She was not, though she had never felt deprived. If Mr. Darcy had proposed to her, she must not be too wanting in that regard. Her flush deepened and it was almost a minute before she felt sufficiently composed to respond.

“I see.” said she, “Then you were attempting to protect my sister?” He nodded and she was silently thoughtful for several long moments, before adding, “I find this portrait of Mr. Bingley almost unbelievable. I had never thought well of his sisters, but of him I had no doubts.”

Darcy shuddered in disgust. “Miss Bingley’s character is not so very different, though she is motivated solely by gain. She behaves with reasonable manners in public; but, in the privacy of Netherfield, she was more overt and less prone to honour propriety. Mrs. Hurst was required to attend her closely whilst I was in residence. I could not allow myself to be alone with her. I always ensured that Bingley, or the Hursts, or yourself on one occasion, were present. You must have seen how forward were Miss Bingley’s manners were to me with others present. Had she found me alone, I have no doubt her behaviour would have been worse. I was required to lock my rooms and have my valet sleep in a cot in my dressing room. I could not trust that she would not attempt a compromise.”

Elizabeth smiled, “I thought her behaviour to be foolishly sycophantic and fawning. But I had not thought her so bad as that.”

Darcy sighed with exasperation, “Two nights after I arrived at Netherfield. I had gone out riding with Bingley and we had returned very late after dining with your neighbours, the Gouldings. I was heading to my rooms when we encountered Mrs. Hurst looking very distressed. Miss Bingley, it seemed, was missing. Mrs. Hurst had been searching all the rooms excepting only the guest chambers which she proposed to do next. Our progress, however, was interrupted by screams coming from those same guest chambers. We, of course, scrambled madly to get there.” He began to chuckle, apparently lost in memories. Her prompting made him continue.

Ah, yes! Well! It seems that my man, Chambers, whose arrival had been delayed by a family emergency, had finally done so, and, as you might expect, had gone to my rooms to perform his duties.” Darcy laughed, “Miss Bingley apparently managed to acquire a key to my rooms and had established herself rather comfortably in my bed. Chambers found her there when he went to satisfy himself that the room was unoccupied.”

“Oh dear!” said Elizabeth, rather amused at the thought of the elegant Miss Bingley actually carrying out a compromise, and to have encountered a servant, no less, rather than the master. “I assume Mrs. Hurst removed her.”

Darcy nodded, a rueful smile on his lips, “As soon as she was appropriately garbed, she did. Chambers was very shocked at the whole business. He’s a staunch Methodist and frowns fiercely on such behaviour. I doubt I could find anyone more devoted to ensuring my… respectability.”

“Miss Bingley was…?”

“Indeed, she was. As G_d made her.” He added, almost as a non-sequitur, “Chambers could not look at Miss Bingley for the remainder of our stay without blushing.”

“I wonder,” said she, “that Miss Bingley was allowed to remain.”

Darcy shrugged, “I thought she would be sent away as well; however, the Hursts felt they could control her behaviour at Netherfield. If she returned to town, Mrs. Hurst would have been required to accompany her, leaving Bingley without a hostess. I also suspect they were also concerned she might attempt something similar against another gentleman if left unguarded…”

“I rather thought she had eyes for no one but you.” Snickered Elizabeth, “She certainly did not stint in praising you.”

Darcy shrugged, “She wished for access to the highest level of society. Any gentleman of my station would suffice. In any event, separation of the Hursts was impossible. Hurst, you see, was required to stay at Netherfield to control Bingley. Mrs. Hurst promised that Miss Bingley would be kept under even stricter supervision. It may have also given rise to rumours had she been sent away.”

Elizabeth’s amusement at Miss Bingley’s failure gradually dissipated as her musings returned to the lady’s brother and her sister.

“Am I to suppose then you acted to prevent Mr. Bingley’s return because you feared he would seduce my sister?”

Darcy shook his head, “No, I am convinced he intended to propose, but…”

Her features assumed that angry look with which he was now familiar.

“Then I fail to see how you acted in my sister’s interest, Sir.”

“I have very high regard for Miss Bennet. She appears to me to be everything proper and genteel. I cannot speak to the state of her affections for Bingley, but whether she holds him in the greatest of affection, or is totally disinterested (which I do not believe now to be the case), I strongly suspect she would be very unhappy if married to a man who is unlikely to remain true to his vows. It was to spare her such pain that I acted. Bingley would have almost certainly returned had I not assured him of your sister’s disinterest. I abhor deceit but, in this instance, I felt it the lesser evil.”

“That is why you did not inform Mr. Bingley of Jane’s presence in town.”

“Would you have wished me to do so?” responded Darcy in surprise.

She huffed in exasperation, unsure as to how much to reveal. She considered whether to relieve his confusion. Her meandering thoughts, however, were interrupted by Darcy.

“You cannot seriously wish for her to marry Bingley given his nature!”

She nodded slowly.

He collapsed, rather inelegantly for a man who did everything in a dignified manner, in the nearest chair. He, unconsciously perhaps, echoed her previous response.

“I really, really do not have the pleasure of understanding you, Miss Elizabeth.”

His obvious befuddlement seemed to require an answer from her, though the prospect of discussing her sister’s proclivities was far from pleasing. Mr. Darcy thought poorly enough of her family as it was. Her explanation could hardly improve matters.

“My sister is possibly the kindest, gentlest creature in the world. She is not unintelligent, though her reserved nature does not allow her to demonstrate her abilities except to those closest to her. Your interference in the attachment growing between her and Mr. Bingley has prevented their marriage. Mr. Bingley admired her enough, I hoped, for her to be secure with such a situation.”

She sighed when his mien gave no sign of understanding.

“Jane,” she said, “is, as I said, everything that is kind and good; however, she also has a rather unfortunate weakness.”

“Weakness?”

“Indeed, it is perhaps fortunate that our neighbourhood contains few gentlemen of a particular… attraction. She is proof against the designs of most men; however, it seems my sister is unable to withstand the persuasions of certain handsome gentlemen and, like Mr. Bingley, she is drawn by a particular aspect of his… form. She is not a wanton, sir, and her virtue has not been compromised, but she is… persuadable.”

Elizabeth huffed at his apparent incomprehension. Clearly, Jane’s façade of modest propriety had blinded Mr. Darcy.

“Only my father, Mary and the Gardiners, my aunt and uncle in London, are aware of her true character.”

“Do you mean… ???”

“Do you recollect my mother speaking of a gentleman who wrote Jane some poems while she was in London. She was only fifteen at the time. The poems were truly horrible; the poet was quite the reverse, possessing all those characteristics which are so potent to Jane’s sensibilities. My aunt, by accident, left them alone for a quarter hour, returning to find Jane’s person rather more exposed than it should be. Had the ardent poet the means to marry, there would have been no alternative; however, he did not and was sent away. That was when we learned of Jane’s susceptibilities.”

She huffed again, “Why do you suppose I was so very eager to impose myself on you at Netherfield when Jane became ill? I feared that her attraction to Mr. Bingley would be her undoing.”

“You feared she would compromise Bingley?”

Elizabeth glared at him. “My sister is not so duplicitous! Nor is she wanton!”

“I would never have supposed she was. Certainly, a single incident, some years in the past in surely not cause for such concern?”

Elizabeth regarded him closely. Could she disclose more of her sister’s past? Darcy had trusted her with Bingley’s. She supposed he should not be kept in ignorance of her sister’s.

“If it were but a single incident, I doubt I would have been greatly concerned; however, Jane has often felt herself in love before, though her feelings for Mr. Bingley were far beyond anything I have previously observed in her.” Elizabeth sighed, “there was a Mr. Atkinson in year six, a Mr. Rowan in year seven, and a Mr. Didier in year ten when Jane was visiting the Gardiners. None had any intentions beyond seduction that we could determine. They were quick to distance themselves when their attempts to get Jane alone were unsuccessful. Jane is everything proper but her good sense simply deserts her in the presence of a man who can stir her affections.” she slumped in resignation, “I thought to protect Jane and Mr. Bingley both and went to Netherfield to ensure Jane did not succumb to his ardent admiration. He is such a gentleman that I rather expect he would offer for her in such an instance, little suspecting her nature. While I would wish them to marry, I did not want them to be forced to do so before a strong mutual affection had developed. Of Mr. Bingley’s feelings I was certain, but Jane, I knew, was uncertain of her affections for Mr. Bingley. That would not, however, be sufficient deterrence should he importune her.”

She glanced at Darcy to find him bent over, head in his hands, his shoulders shaking and odd noises issuing forth. Was he laughing?

“Mr. Darcy?” she cried. He raised his head and any doubts as to his amusement disappeared at his chuckles. That he was amused rather than further offended was an astonishment.

“You thought,” said he, attempting to control his mirth, “that I might have separated Bingley from your sister to protect him from her?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“Might I inquire as to the particulars of Bingley’s form which your sister found so… interesting?”

Elizabeth was sure she had never flushed so thoroughly before and she hardly knew how to respond. She was certain, however, that she dare not look at the gentleman lest her gaze inadvertently fix on that part of his anatomy in question.

Darcy smirked. Her response was telling and, though he had no specific knowledge about the part of Bingley’s form under consideration, he had noticed on one or two occasions, when a very beautiful woman was in his proximity, that a certain part became rather more noticeable.

“May I assume,” said he, controlling his mirth in deference to her sensibilities, “that your sister’s apparent modesty when fixing her eyes on the ground, is to allow them, in fact, to drift in a more northerly direction on occasion?”

Elizabeth mumbled something he might interpret as agreement. She did not know where to cast her eyes, but the fireplace seemed the safest spot. Darcy’s thoughts, however, had now turned to another object.

“Miss Elizabeth, you mentioned George Wickham’s name in connection with your sister. Am I intruding too much to seek an explanation? I might,” he added, “also be curious as to the evolution of your opinion in regards to that gentleman.”

“I believe I am in your debt for an apology, Mr. Darcy. I have come to believe I was misled as to that gentleman’s character.”

There was that in her demeanour which led Darcy to suspect that the matter had affected her greatly. His tone was, therefore, gentle and undemanding.

“You need not explain further, Miss Elizabeth. I would not have you distressed about it.”

She shook her head. The matter displayed her sister in a good light; however, given Elizabeth’s own defense of the man to Darcy, admitting her faulty judgement was embarrassing. Having raised the subject herself, however, she felt obligated to explain.

“Mr. Wickham is, I am sure you will agree, a handsome and beguiling gentleman; however, my sister is quite immune to his attraction and has reservations about his character. Mr. Bingley warned her against him and she would, therefore, have nothing to do with him.”

Darcy grunted in satisfaction and Elizabeth suspected he would have been even more pleased had her opinion been equally against the gentleman at that time. She continued.

“Mr. Wickham, however, sensing my sister’s unhappiness appeared to believe that she could not resist his blandishments if he persisted. Knowing that she was not attracted to him, we did not guard her closely. Once he came upon her as she was strolling around Longbourn’s park behind the house. We learned that he attempted to persuade her to walk with him, to which she agreed, thinking nothing of it. He directed their route, without her being aware of it, out of view of the house. I was out walking myself and came upon them soon thereafter and it was very clear that Jane had become uncomfortable with his attentions. He desisted at once, of course, and we thought little of it until several days later when Mary and Jane had gone into Meryton. Mary was delayed at the book shop and Jane had wandered out to browse the various shop windows. Mr. Wickham must have believed her alone, for he once more importuned her to walk with him to a more private location. Mary came out in time to overhear the whole thing. It was most improper, for Mr. Wickham, you see, was purported to be engaged to Miss King who had come into a fortune of ten thousand. It did not take a great deal of understanding to realize that his intentions to Jane, who had no fortune to speak of, were not honourable.”

The latter was uttered with an almost savage growl.

She continued, “My father, knowing that Mr. Wickham could not support a wife and having no means of dowering Jane to enable her to marry, chose to send her to London to live with my aunt and uncle to prevent any future incidents. He did not wish to speak to Colonel Forster, for Jane had already been subject to a great deal of gossip arising from Mr. Bingley’s departure and he did not wish to further burden her.”

“I am sure,” said Darcy, “that there is some pithy quote from Shakespeare to describe this situation, though I cannot, for the life of me, think of one. I am only amazed at the similarities between your sister and Bingley. He has, according to Hurst, been more free than he ought with his… favours to certain young ladies. Fortunately, they all appear to have been married, and he has escaped any consequences. Hurst has been extremely vigilant else I believe Bingley might have been captured by a female with a mercenary character.”

“Whatever might be said of Jane, she is not mercenary.” Elizabeth sighed, “They are a pretty pair, are they not?”

He laughed. “Indeed.”

A silence of some minutes ensued. Elizabeth wondered at his continued presence. A small part of her wished that he would take his leave, the remainder, however, wondered how a man she had previously considered so disagreeable, could converse with her on a delicate subject in such an amicable and pleasant manner.

“Miss Elizabeth,” said Darcy into the increasingly awkward silence. “I owe you an apology for my boorish and insulting proposal earlier this evening. In attempting to persuade you to the depth of my affections, I have undoubtedly wounded your sensibilities greatly. I do not know if you can forgive me. Had a man spoken to my own sister in such a fashion, I would have been incensed on her behalf. Can you find it within yourself to accept my heartfelt regrets?”

Elizabeth nodded, sensible to the fact that a man of such consequence would not speak so unless he was sincere.

Darcy was not inclined to allow the matter to rest there. “And, would you be willing to allow me to convince you of the depth of my affections. To allow me to call on you… perhaps court you?”

Elizabeth’s response to this request was not afforded as quickly. “Might you allow me to consider your request, sir? I would prefer to answer you tomorrow.”

Darcy agreed quickly, “I am willing to meet with you at any time and place of your choosing. The grove where you seem to prefer walking, perhaps?”

She nodded once more and he, bowing, went away. Elizabeth remained in thought for some time until roused by the sound of a carriage which, she assumed, carried the Collinses and Maria, retreated to her room to continue her contemplations in private. Charlotte disturbed that process only briefly, coming to question the state of her friend’s headache. Satisfied upon being assured of it abating, she was content to observe that Lady Catherine had been more irritated by her nephew’s absence, than by Elizabeth’s. Failing to elicit any response from her friend, she sighed and closed the door. Elizabeth was relieved at being alone, for not only was there the question of her sister and Mr. Bingley which required her consideration, the more compelling issue was that of Mr. Darcy. What was she to do about the man? And how best to do it?

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 any thing 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, for she recollected that they had not fixed when they were to meet; but, remembering that Mr. Darcy had suggested that spot, made her way there directly, expecting that she might have time, should he have not yet arrived, to prepare her thoughts for their discussion.

The five weeks which she had now passed in Kent, had made a great difference in the country, and every day was adding to the verdure of the early trees. She was on the point of continuing her walk, when she caught a glimpse of a gentleman entering the grove. He was moving towards her; and hoping that it was him, she remained still. The person who advanced, was now near enough to see her, and stepping forward with eagerness, pronounced her name. It was Mr. Darcy. She moved towards him and when he reached her side, they exchanged the usual civilities and he asked whether they might continue her walk. Her agreement being quietly given, they continued onwards in a silence of some minutes’ duration.

“Miss Bennet,” said he at last, “have you an answer for me? Might I have the honour of courting you? Properly, as a woman should be courted.”

“Before I answer you, Sir, I would prefer to discuss the matter of my sister and Mr. Bingley?”

“If you so wish, assuredly, though I cannot determine what should take place there.”

“I have given that matter some thought and it seems to me that the question we face is whether they are better off separated, possibly at some time or other married to another, or married to each other. To allow them to impinge on their relatives as has been the case is not a tenable, long-term solution. Is that not so?”

Darcy started in surprise, slowing his steps as he considered what she had said. Finally, he replied, “I had thought the matter obvious, but clearly your thoughts are different. What, in your opinion, would justify their marriage?”

Elizabeth did not at once respond, but sighing, said, ”Given their… proclivities, would we wish either to be married to someone of a more proper character? Would not such unions produce nothing but unhappiness for the unsuspecting partner? I had thought that my sister would be content with Mr. Bingley, though I could not be totally comfortable about her constancy. Now I suspect it might be less of a problem than I previously imagined. Mr. Bingley, from your explanation, is no better or worse than my sister. Would we wish them to continue as they are, knowing that their behaviour is unlikely to improve and may worsen over time, to such a point where they bring disgrace and ruin upon their respective families? I accept that society is likely to view and treat Mr. Bingley more… kindly, or perhaps more accurately, less harshly than my sister; but both will certainly incur society’s disapprobation should they remain unmarried.”

“Marriage, then, you believe to be the answer?”

She nodded and smirked. “I suppose we might lock her away in a nunnery if such existed but as that is not possible, I trust that their affection for each other will last for a few years. Should either or both (which seems probable) stray from the path of virtue, neither will suffer unduly and both will have the sanction of marriage to protect their reputations and that of their families. Jane, I believe, will remain constant as long as Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her continue. Should they cease, I cannot vouch for her… ”

Darcy interrupted. There was no need for Elizabeth to continue down that path.

“I see.” He walked for some distance contemplating her proposal, turning it this way and that, examining it from every angle that suggested itself. There was something inherently pleasing about the whole idea. Two wrongs did not make a right, but two persons with a similar fault in the characters were best suited to each other.

“I agree,” he said at last.

“You do?” she squeaked.

“Indeed. It is a solution to a problem which has plagued Hurst for some time and there’s a certain elegance to the whole idea which is quite beguiling.” He smiled in amusement, “And Miss Bingley will absolutely hate the very thought of the connection. Though…”, and he paused and regarded Elizabeth more closely, “I hope your answer to my question was not contingent upon my agreement.”

“It was not, though before I give it, I would also wish to learn what truly lies between you and Mr. Wickham. I have come to understand that his word is not to be trusted; however, I would wish you to confide in me. If I am worthy of courting, and possibly marrying, am I not worthy of your trust in this matter?”

He turned to her and assented and then, over the course of a quarter hour, gave her to understand the full measure of Wickham’s shameless treatment of the Darcy family. Of his debts and gambling and debaucheries, of his relinquishment of the Kympton living in exchange for monetary compensation, and, lastly, his attempted elopement with Miss Darcy when she was but fifteen years of age.

Elizabeth was largely silent throughout his explanation, only interrupting with the occasional exclamation of disgust or concern. She walked beside him in silence for several long moments afterwards before, finally, turning to face him. “I had not thought him as bad as this. I am ashamed that I was so gullible as to believe his slander of your character.”

“You need not be, Miss Bennet. My own father was completely fooled by George Wickham, and he was a man of considerable experience and no little discernment.” He paused only briefly, “I would have you think on it no more. I am, instead, much more interested in your answer to my question. Am I to be afforded the privilege of courting you?”

She looked at him through her eyelashes, the slightest of smiles on her lips. He really was the handsomest man of her acquaintance and, though his manners and attitudes might require further amendment, he had already proven himself capable of recognizing and correcting his faults. He was far from perfect, as was she, but she thought she might never encounter a man more suited to her preferences. She had never teased him as thoroughly as was her wont. Now, however, was not the time to begin. She titled her head, her consideration now more blatant. Before he could become too uncomfortable, she replied, “You offered me your hand this evening past, Mr. Darcy. The purpose of a courtship is, I believe, a means of allowing a couple to determine whether they can live together in a fashion satisfactory to them both. If I have come to the conclusion that we have arrived at such a happy state, is there a necessity for a courtship?”

She added hastily, “I would not have you believe that my feelings are in any way equal to yours, nor would I wish you to believe that I am altogether satisfied with the manner of your proposal; however, as you have acknowledged its… deficiencies and in light of my admiration for your… form, I am prepared to put any reservations aside if you will assure me of your respect.”

Mr. Darcy was quite eager to do so, and thus that matter was resolved to their mutual satisfaction.

~~~~~

Charles Bingley was, following the return of Elizabeth and Darcy to London (for they both chose to return as planned) re-introduced to Jane Bennet. Every encouragement was given to their forming an attachment and, with such support, they arrived at the altar on the same day that Elizabeth and Darcy were married in June of that year.

The Darcys marriage was as tumultuous as might be expected for two stubborn and strong-minded persons; however, the respect which underlay their attachment was firm and, over the passing months, Elizabeth’s affections for her husband grew, despite his many aggravations, into a passionate regard.

Of more significance, however, is the marriage between Jane and Charles Bingley. They were blessed in the first years of their marriage with two children in whom the features of both parents were easily marked. Jane was to have several more children and while most bore some resemblance to her, it was more difficult to discern those of Charles. Jane was not unintelligent, and, if her eyes and inclinations strayed, it was handled with much discretion, for she was sensible to a woman’s greater need in that regard, as to insure that she retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her. Bingley, perhaps feeling less encumbered in matters of reputation, and freed from Hurst’s protection, was far less discrete. While not deemed a rake, he did gain a reputation amongst those ladies, married or unmarried and of an particular inclination, of being both willing and capable. If Jane, over the course of time, encountered a young woman or man with a cast to their features reminiscent of her husband, she was too wise to take note of it.

~~~~~

While the Bingleys were not frequent visitors to Pemberley, the connection could not be altogether ignored and it was not unusual for them to stay for a month during the summer. It was on one such visit, a few years after the birth of Jane’s third child, that Darcy noticed Elizabeth observing the Darcy and Bingley children playing together. There was a pensive cast to her features that puzzled him and he did not hesitate to enquire as to its cause. Elizabeth did not answer immediately and then, looking at her husband with a playful glint in her eye, responded.

“I am,” said she, “simply attempting to determine the paternity of Miss Abigale Bingley.”

“Ah,” said he, settling down beside her. Having already satisfied himself as to their privacy from listening ears, he continued, “I had also considered the matter. From the manner with which she staggers from one spot to another, I thought it might be Harold Carstairs.”

Elizabeth failed to stifle a snort, and then shook her head. “I fear you are not privy to ladies’ gossip, my dear. Mr. Carstairs would never suit my sister.”

“Why ever not? He is tall, fair-haired and amicable enough?”

“I cannot speak of my own cognizance, you understand, but Mr. Carstairs apparently fails in one important attribute. He is, I have been reliably informed, a very… modest gentleman. He, according to my sources, disguises his limitation with… ah… stuffing.”

Darcy who had been sipping a glass of lemonade, began coughing, a condition which could be relieved only by several strong thumps on his back by his wife. He glared at her after regaining his composure and his breathing. She smiled beatifically at him, “What say you to John Rolston?”

He glanced at her, raised his eyebrows, and pursed his lips, “Rolston? Hmmm.” He inspected Miss Abigale again and then nodded.

“Yes, I can see a possible resemblance. The hair… and the eyes. Yes, that might well be the case. I do hope she has not inherited his intelligence. The man has the wits of a goose, a stupid one to be exact.”

Elizabeth laughed, “My sister is, I believe, prepared to make allowances for deficiencies in that aspect provided the man is amiable… and pleasing in another respect.”

Darcy’s interest in Jane Bingley’s amorous inclinations was never very great. He much preferred to fix his gaze upon his wife. Childbearing had made some interesting and very enticing changes to her form, enhancing her bosom in particular. He thought of her nursing their children and found his pulse quickening. If there was a more powerful aphrodisiac than making a baby with a woman you loved, he could not imagine it. She appeared to have noticed where his eyes were fixed, smiled and leaned forward, allowing her gown to fall slightly open.

“Ahem,” said she, drawing his eyes upward, “I do believe my chamber might offer some relief from this heat. And it is not only my sister who is interested in manly… attractions, though I have no wish to enjoy any but yours, if you will so oblige me.”

Mr. Darcy was more than ready to oblige, rose quickly, assisted his wife to do likewise, and hurried her into the house.

~~~~~

The exercise of determining the paternity of Mrs. Bingley’s children was repeated several more times. Darcy always felt somewhat disadvantaged in these discussions, complaining that Elizabeth’s access to ladies’ gossip and her sister’s confidences, endowed her with an unfair advantage. It was only with the Bingley’s last child that he felt entitled to gloat. He had invited Elizabeth to begin the game and identify who she believed the father. Her guesses, he declared to be excellent, asserting that any of them might well claim paternity.

“However,” said he with a broad smirk, “I do believe I have finally triumphed and it is a name you would never guess.”

Elizabeth, inured to winning this little competition, only looked at him with amusement, claiming that he could hardly expect her to accept such an assertion after his many previous failures.

“Who, “ she scoffed, “is your candidate? What improbable reason have you imagined?”

“Carrington!” said he.

“Joshua Carrington? You cannot be serious? The man is renown for his rectitude. The father of George Bingley? Impossible!”

Darcy laughed, his certainty proof against his wife’s humour.

“George informed me himself.”

“Informed you? A child of three years? Do not insult my intelligence, my dear, misguided husband. Spoke to you himself, indeed!”

“I did not claim any such thing, Elizabeth. Indeed, how could the child know? But I observed him this morning as the boys were playing in the river. I am certain the child is Carrington’s.”

Elizabeth’s disbelief abated not a single jot, however, she did press him to explain.

“I am quite willing to do so. You see the boys were clad only in their smallclothes as they splashed in the water. Joshua has a small abnormality, you may not have seen.” Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose, and he smirked once more, waiting for her to press him for the explanation. Her desire for his explanation outweighed her wish to disoblige by feigning disinterest.

“Tell me!” she huffed.

“George has a slight abnormality. A sixth toe, to be exact.” He smiled.

“And Mr. Carrington is similarly possessed?”

“Indeed he is. We attended Eton together. Hardly something to be kept hidden from his fellows there. We teased him rather unmercifully for a while.”

“Carrington! I can hardly believe it! He is so very… respectable.”

“And your sister appeared so to me when I first knew her. Appearances, my dear. Appearances!”

 

~~~~ The End ~~~~

Chapter Text

Copyright © 2020 by Peter Hood

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.