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Something sweet

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In the book... Darcy has saved Lydia and Elizabeth is head over heels in love with him, but she thinks she has missed her chance. Then Darcy and Bingley come back to Netherfield, they are invited to dinner, and while Bingley instantly resumes his courtship of Jane, Elizabeth and Darcy have no opportunity to interact.

Elizabeth keeps hoping he will come to her. And at last, dinner is over, the men have just entered the drawing-room, Elizabeth is pouring coffee, Darcy tries to talk with her, but a young lady keeps interrupting... Jane Austen's text in italics!

***

Elizabeth was a little revived, however, by Darcy bringing back his coffee cup himself; and she seized the opportunity of saying: “Is your sister at Pemberley still?”

“Yes, she will remain there till Christmas.”

“And quite alone? Have all her friends left her?”

“Mrs. Annesley is with her. The others have been gone on to Scarborough, these three weeks.”

She could think of nothing more to say; but if he wished to converse with her, he might have better success. He stood by her, however, for some minutes, in silence; and, at last, on the young lady’s whispering to Elizabeth again, he walked away.

Elizabeth was left in a state of misery which was difficult to behold – difficult for her to comprehend, really. Was she feeling so bereft – just because a gentleman had left her, after a perfectly polite conversation? He didn’t come for you, she thought, he is here for his friend – to be agreeable to Mr. Bingley – of course, he does not want to come and talk to you – he feels nothing for you, but perfect indifference – Elizabeth could not convince herself of the last point though – not completely, not yet.

The drawing-room was not large, but it was warm and pleasant – fire crackling, cheerful voices – Mrs. Bennet had invited two prominent families of the neighborhood, and after the food, the wine, and the port, the assembled party was quite lively – Elizabeth was still standing near the coffee table, and the young lady, Rebecca was her name, kept talking – about a family of the neighbourhood – about the eventful friendship that she was having with the eldest daughter there – Elizabeth was hardly listening – not listening at all, to be honest – “female friendships are fraught with misunderstandings,” was the only answer she thought of giving Rebecca, hoping that the generality of the statement would cover for her inattention – it did, too well maybe, because the young lady exclaimed,

“Oh, that is so true! Well said, Miss Elizabeth!” At the mention of her name, Elizabeth thought – imagined – she felt Darcy’s eyes on her. “Friendship is really a more complex journey than romantic love ever is, despite what the novels would want us to believe,” Rebecca continued, and maybe she was right – in a general way – but considering her own particular situation, Elizabeth was far from ready to concede the point.

Darcy was standing alone, on the other side of the room – near the piano, looking, or maybe pretending to look through the music pieces. Elizabeth felt such a yearning to join him, but had no reason to – she was saved, they were saved, maybe, by a luscious plate of lemon cakes, replacing the tartlets that had swiftly disappeared despite the plentifulness of Mrs. Bennet’s dinner.

“Something sweet?” Jane asked, presenting the biscuits to her sister with a smile – Elizabeth took the plate without thinking – Rebecca was now talking to Miss Heart, Charles Bingley leaned towards Jane, who turned all her attention to that very agreeable gentleman – Elizabeth was free – she was seized by a sudden feeling of determination – madness maybe – she walked towards the piano, towards Mr. Darcy – she was still holding the plate.

“May I interest you in one of our lemon biscuits, sir?”

Darcy’s eyes widened slightly at her sight. Elizabeth turned red – but she heroically continued,

“I am on a mission, Mr. Darcy. I know that the cook would be offended if there was any cake left at the end of this night – and if you think about it – is there a more dangerous being in the world that a scorned cook?”

Darcy was silent for a moment – staring at the plate – Elizabeth’s spirits sank. She had been too forward. Crossing the room – alone – for everyone to see – striking a conversation with a gentleman, on the flimsiest pretext – offering him some cake – she has acted shamelessly – brazenly – Mr. Darcy must be despising her right now – certainly, he was appalled by her lack of manners – a London courtesan would have acted no differently. Elizabeth’s cheeks were burning, but before she could find the will to flee the scene Darcy took a biscuit and raising his eyes to her at last – his color was high too – he answered,

“Indeed. I shudder just thinking of all the opportunities a cook would have to poison all of us.”

Elizabeth searched for a reply – any slightly ironic dialogue would do – maybe something about ragout – but her tongue was tied, her wit gone – she was still holding the plate – finally she found the strength for a wavering smile.

“We are at the mercy of fate – and arsenic.”

“Yes,” was the only thing Darcy could think to say – Elizabeth saw – hoped – he was struggling like she was – that he wanted to talk to her, but could not think of how – alas, she could not be certain – staying, imposing herself on him would be shameful, even more than coming here already was – she curtseyed briefly and walked away.

She found a safe haven near her mother. Mrs. Bennet was standing near the mahogany buffet, talking loudly to Mrs. Goulding; Elizabeth felt quite safe in her vicinity – protected from other people’s conversations – truth was, she was quite at a loss – not knowing what to think. Had she been right, to act as she did? Elizabeth had never crossed a room in pursuit of a man before – she never had to – men crossed the room for her – more to the point, her heart had never been engaged before – oh it was a scary, unmaidenly emotion – unworthy of the cleverness and distance Elizabeth Bennet had always been so proud of maintaining – she would stop – now – she would quell her hopes, silent her mind’s vulgar speculations – she would give him up, not think of him anymore – she needed indifference – and coffee – she turned around –

To find Darcy standing just behind her.

Elizabeth’s heart leaped. He had crossed the room - alone, to talk to her. She stared at him for a moment – they were both quite embarrassed – Mrs. Bennet stout voice resonating so close – “I beg your pardon, I did not mean to startle you,” Darcy began, in a low, deep tone; Elizabeth struggled to hear him.

“Not at all,” she managed to answer – she felt herself blushing again – she raised the plate that she had not realized she was still carrying, “Have you come for more lemon cake, sir?” she uttered, finally.

“No. I mean… yes. I thank you.”

And there they were – Darcy with a new lemon cake in hand – Elizabeth wondered briefly what he had done with the other one – and they were no closer to a conversation topic. Darcy waited, a few moments passed, Elizabeth couldn’t find anything to say – a shadow passed briefly on the gentleman’s face – he bowed, and was gone.

Leaving Elizabeth almost sick.

He had sought her out. And she had chased him away with her coldness and her hesitancy – now all was lost. Elizabeth stared at the fireplace mantel, unable to move – trying to hide her reaction – truly she was overwrought, and berated herself for this also – where was the elegant distance she had just a minute ago decided to maintain? A few moments were necessary for the truth to emerge in her mind – from her maelstrom of overdramatic anguish – yes, the truth – because, again, he had sought her out. Even if the attempt had been unsuccessful, the time had not come yet for despair – oh but he was going to leave – it was getting late, Darcy and Bingley would be gone soon, bidding their adieux to the company, back to Netherfield – and then maybe Darcy would go back to London – where he would be lost to her – Elizabeth had a lively imagination, her mind jumping easily from the present, the cozy fireplace and the friendly company to a dreary future, where she, the beautiful Mrs. Bingley’s plain and poor spinster sister, was meeting Darcy and his gorgeous (and wealthy) bride in a London ballroom – Elizabeth raised her eyes in despair and saw him – standing at the other side of the room, alone – looking right at her.

She drew a short breath. Their eyes stay locked for what seemed an eternity – Elizabeth lowered them brusquely when she heard her mother call for cards – Mrs. Bennet began to forcibly bring players to the tables, whether they wished it or not – shrewdly avoiding Bingley and Jane who were still conversing on the sofa. Elizabeth saw the moment where Darcy was going to be drafted too, send to the faraway land of whist and separated from her the rest of the evening – she raised her eyes to him again – he was still looking in her direction – whatever he saw in her expression at that moment – Elizabeth never knew, but in half a heartbeat he was at her side.

Just in time. “You are playing, aren’t you, Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Bennet asked in a loud voice.

“No madam. I beg your forgiveness – I am not one for cards,” the gentleman politely answered.

“The company here is considered too low for some people’s taste, I suppose,” was Mrs. Bennet half-muttered comment; Darcy heard; Elizabeth felt like the ground could swallow her – this was the man that had saved them all, the man who had rescued Lydia from infamy, at great personal cost – Mrs. Bennet had no way to know, of course, but considering the circumstances, her hostility was even more unforgivable – for a moment Elizabeth could not talk, could not even glance at her companion – the gentleman stayed silent and steadfast at her side, waiting for the storm to pass – that is to say, for Mrs. Bennet to order chairs and people around.

Soon the enlisted guests were in place and the cards had been dealt. Darcy and Elizabeth were left alone near the hearth – Bingley and Jane were still blind to the world, Rebecca and Miss Goulding remained on the sofa, whispering and laughing with Kitty – Mary has taken possession of the piano – she was hardly playing, more experimenting with the keys, the hesitant melody slow and pleasant to hear.

Near them, the fire was cracking.

At last, Elizabeth raised her eyes. “Have you ever wondered, Mr. Darcy,” she slowly began, “why we act in such a singular manner when we find ourselves away from home? You, sir, are an example of this – I could not help but notice – when you stray in foreign lands – when you are far from Pemberley, I mean – your attitude is so different.”

Elizabeth’s voice was not absolutely steady – but she was trying – anything to draw him in conversation – to create, if she could, a sense of intimacy – her smile was forced at first, but it soon became more sincere, because of the way Darcy’s gaze was set on her – the polite chatter of the cards players seemed very far away – Miss Goulding laughed again, Kitty joined – all of it seemed muffled, elements of décor – while Elizabeth’s fate was playing on stage.

Darcy rested his arm on the fireplace mantel. He was not so close to her – close enough so their conversation might be unheard, but far enough to look like a casual discussion. Elizabeth’s smile became even brighter – something passed in Darcy’s eyes again, that she could not interpret.

“I do feel well at ease on the grounds of Pemberley,” he finally replied. “But if I am less talkative here in Hertfordshire, geography is not the reason. I would attribute the change more to a difference in context.”

“I feel it is now my duty to ask you, Mr. Darcy, what difference you are alluding to.” Elizabeth smiled at him again. “I must, you know, to keep our discussion going.”

He smiled – but before he could reply, his eyes fell downwards – Elizabeth realized with an amused horror that she was still carrying the plate of lemon cakes. “Oh – did you wish for one, sir?” she asked without thinking.

“Certainly,” the gentleman answered, taking still another biscuit – Elizabeth felt that he had acquiesced more of a sense of duty – or to avoid saying no to her – or just because of the general awkwardness of the situation – indeed, Darcy quickly added, “please allow me to relieve you of your burden, or at least hand it out to a maid,” he made it happen with a quick, commanding gesture – the plate was taken from Elizabeth and sent to the kitchen to be replenished – our heroine’s smile had now taken a new nuance.

“I see I have amused you, Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy commented with the same peculiar light in his eyes. “May I ask how, or why?”

“I – it was the way you summoned Molly – the maid, sir. Your manner there – was very akin to the natural authority you shewed in Derbyshire.”

Darcy seemed to ponder her answer. “I find – that in any situation, I prefer knowing what my duty is, or my purpose, maybe. When I am in Pemberley, I know what I must do; it gives me a sense of certainty; I act and talk to others accordingly.”

“And here you had to save me from a plate of cake.”

“Indeed, Miss Elizabeth. My duty was clear.”

There was a silence – after that amusing exchange, they were again at loss – Elizabeth felt Jane’s eyes on her; the gazes of the two sisters met across the room – Jane seemed worried, thinking, maybe, that her sister was stuck in unpleasant company; Elizabeth smiled and bent her head slightly, conveying “all is well” – Jane smiled in return, before turning back to the handsome gentleman at her side.

“Women have a secret code, I believe,” Darcy commented in a low voice – he had missed none of it. “And the ability to communicate silently – with a look, or a gesture, that we gentlemen never learned.”

“Because you did not need to do so, sir – while this silent language is indispensable to us – to females – since custom and society hinder our ability to communicate directly.”

“How so?”

“There are so many things we are not allowed to say,” she said, looking at him – Elizabeth had spoken without design, but meeting his intense gaze, she suddenly became conscious of the meaning her words could convey – she turned red – there was a question in his eyes – a burning look even – she had to avert hers – the silence was very heavy after that.

“Maybe,” Darcy began, hesitantly – “maybe we are friends enough…” He colored instantly. “I overstep. Please forgive me. We are not friends, of course,” Elizabeth’s head shot up – despite all her education, all her politeness – she could not hide the fleeting pain in her eyes – he was right – a violent dispute followed by a few civil days at Pemberley a friend did not make – Darcy must have seen her reaction – seen something – because his voice was raw when he added,

“Unless you wish us to be, of course.”

Elizabeth tried to answer, but could not – she only had the courage to look at him, before averting her gaze again, “You are giving me hope,” Darcy said, his voice very low, “and it is cruel of you,” – at the nearest table, a game had just finished; a gentleman called for port – the relative peace was shattered – the ladies standing up to converse, the men stretching – Elizabeth was staring at the floor – unable to utter any of the respectable answers a young lady should always have ready when an eligible gentleman is caught in her net – but she felt too much to think – to speak – “Lizzy!” her mother ordered, a slight irritation in her voice, “would you please help with the coffee?” – Elizabeth turned to Darcy and – in a desperate move – put her hand on his forearm – briefly – wordlessly – when she moved away her fingers brushed involuntarily, for the merest moment, the naked skin of his hand – she felt him freeze at the touch – then she had to go pour the dark, bitter liquid in the delicate porcelain cups, her heart pounding, her mind reeling – deeply ashamed at the same time, and for conflicting reasons, of both her cowardice and her temerity – hating the coffee, hating the sugar, hating everyone who was not named Fitzwilliam Darcy – Jane had volunteered to help, of course, “No, no, Lizzy can take care of everything,” their tender mother protested, eager to send Jane back to the sofa – and to her suitor – Jane would not leave though, and assisted her sister in her task – there was a new plate of lemon cakes that Elizabeth presented to the guests – when she turned around, there Darcy was – rather pale.

“Could we talk? In private?” he whispered; Mrs. Bennet chose that moment to address him – something about the biscuits – Elizabeth was - not quite herself - and did not hear a word, but Darcy obediently ate another lemon cake – then Mr. Goulding complained that players took too long to come back to the table, his appeal fortunately drawing Mrs. Bennet’s attention away.

“I – I am a little cold – I believe – I believe I left my shawl in the hall,” Elizabeth murmured - she walked to the hearth, abandoning the cakes to their fate, then discreetly fled through a narrow, ancillary corridor connecting the drawing-room to the hall – the place was not really in use and, along the years, had transformed into a secondary dressing room for the family – now crowded with coats, hats, boots and umbrellas – but at least it was out of view – for a few moments it seemed as if Darcy would not join her – then he did – his arrival felt so very sudden – in a moment Elizabeth found her hands taken into his, “Please,” he murmured, “please tell me I did not err in my interpretation… Please tell me that, in your generosity, you are giving me a second chance to…” – “Please,” Elizabeth was saying, at the same time, “you must allow me to thank you for your kindness – your great kindness – toward my sister Lydia – if my family only knew…” Darcy stopped talking – happiness drained from his face; he let her hands go.

“So this is why you are civil to me tonight, Miss Bennet.” He shook his head in deep mortification. “Because of gratefulness. Because you now feel indebted to me in some way…”

“No!” Elizabeth eagerly cried. “No, sir... This… This is not gratefulness. This... This is…”

She was unable to continue – but her eyes conveyed all – and her message was flawlessly understood, because in a moment her hands were taken again and pressed against Darcy's heart – “Then,” he murmured, “would you accept…” - Elizabeth never knew what she had been supposed to acquiesce to, because Darcy's voice trailed away – and then - they were alone - in the relative darkness – in a state of perilous proximity - “would you allow…” he whispered – hesitantly drawing her closer - "would you..." - “Lizzy!” - her mother’s voice – resonating, continents away – in the drawing-room – “Lizzy, where are you? Kitty, where is your sister?” – but Elizabeth could not, would not move – not for an empire – and then – then – his lips touched hers briefly – and oh, the next morning, when Darcy came to visit (at an ungodly early hour, asking if he could have a moment alone with Miss Elizabeth, at Mrs. Bennet utter stupefaction,) – yes, that next morning, in the privacy of the park beneath the house, there were many explanations given, many mistakes forgiven – and a passionate oath – but maybe – maybe Elizabeth sweetest memory of their complicated courtship was this clumsy, nervous, secret embrace among the coats – and the second, short, trembling kiss that followed – and then, after Elizabeth was happily settled in Pemberley, and enjoying all the private delights of a loving union, Darcy would ask the cook, every year, to prepare a plate of lemon cakes to celebrate the anniversary of their understanding – it was not until much later that he finally revealed that he had no liking for lemon cakes – at all.

The End!