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The Benevolence of Scandal

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Lizzy awoke to the shrieks of her mother and attempted to sit up in her bed before falling back from the force of a sharp pain at her right temple. She pulled the counterpane over her head and waited for the pain and confusion to subside.

For a few brief moments, she found respite in silence until she heard her mother's voice coming from the hall. "How dare she do something so selfish? I do not care how dashing the officer is! I always knew that her boldness would be her downfall."

"Mama, it was not her fault!"

"That is not what Mrs. Goulding said! She saw it with her own eyes."

"As did I!"

Her mother burst into her bedchamber then and pulled the counterpane from the bed, exposing Lizzy. "Well, you have well and truly compromised yourself now, Child!"

The deep sense of foreboding which had permeated Lizzy's consciousness since her waking dropped to the pit of her stomach as she recalled Wickham's face and the feel of his hands painfully gripping her arms. She put her arms in front of her to see two darkening bruises above each of her elbows. She wet her lips and tasted blood only to find that her lip had split. Not entirely in control of her actions she rolled off the bed and vomited into the chamber pot underneath her bed.

Her head pounded, and though her mother had not stopped speaking, she could not make out her mother's words.

"Stop!" Lydia cried from somewhere Lizzy could not see. "You are distressing her, Mama!"

Her mother stopped for a moment, and Lizzy allowed to reality of the situation to wash over her. Wickham had attacked her—kissed her publicly and decried her as a trollop. She felt a wave of nausea pass over her again but managed to contain herself enough to say to her mother. "Might we wait and discuss this with Papa? Why do I not wait in the library for him to return home?"

Her mother finally met her gaze, and Lizzy was awash with guilt for the tears she saw there. Her mother swallowed and spoke in softly. "Yes, go. I have sent Hill to fetch him."

Lizzy walked to the library in a daze and found Jane holding a tearful Kitty in her arms. "Oh, Lizzy, you are awake!" Jane cried moving to take her hands.

"You say I am awake, but surly this must be a nightmare."

Jane appeared more concerned than Lizzy had ever seen her. "Might you tell me what happened? Kitty has told me some of it, but she did not see as much as Lydia."

Lizzy paused before taking a seat. "I am unsure of what I can tell you. I have never felt so uncertain in my life. Perhaps you might speak of what you know first."

Jane paused and nodded to Kitty who blanched before speaking. "Well, as you know, you accompanied Lydia and me to the village, and you came upon Lydia speaking with Mr. Wickham."

"Yes."

Kitty looked to Jane and continued, "I do not know what happened next, but I do know that when I came upon you, it appeared that you were pressing Mr. Wickham against the wall, kissing him. He called you a harlot, and then he asked that someone take control of you. Many people were there, and some looked quite shocked. We brought you home for you were behaving very strangely, and I do not know what else occurred."

Kitty began to cry again followed by a fit of coughing. Jane continued, "Mama was visiting Aunt Phillips, when she heard the news from Mrs. Goulding, who swore that she saw you push the officer against the wall and kiss him. Mama said there is much talk of it in the village, but I know it cannot be so."

Lizzy sniffed slightly to assuage the tears that threatened to fall. "No, it was not so." She rubbed the bruises on her arms and saw Jane's eyes widen.

"Do you know who the man was?"

"His name is Mr. Wickham, and I knew of him before I saw him in the village. I met him in my travels in Kent. He was wanted for attacking a girl from a village near to where I was staying." The lie came easily, and her only distress came in the moments of silence that followed her statement as she realized what the news of Wickham's appearance could do to Georgiana. The shooting pain in her temple returned, and she grabbed a nearby cushion and gripped it firmly in her lap.

"I—I saw Lydia flirting with him and feared what he might do to her. I threatened to expose him. I declared that I knew who he was. I feared his anger, but I never did not think he would attack me so publicly."

"He was smart." She turned to see her father in the doorway, his countenance grave. "What better way to discredit a lady than to accuse her of attempting to seduce him and compromising her in the process."

Silence fell over Kitty, Jane, and Lizzy as their father slowly walked to his chair next to the fireplace and sat. It was a long moment before he spoke. "Jane, Kitty, would you please leave us?"

Every footstep and creak of the room was audible as her sisters shuffled out of the room.

"What you did was not wise, Elizabeth."

Lizzy's eyes filled with tears, and she hid her face in her hands.

"But I know why you did what you did, my darling girl, and I can feel naught but sorrow for the events that have brought us here."

She was uncertain of how to respond to this. "How much have you heard?"

"Well, your mother and Lydia met me in the park when I arrived back at the house, but their stories differed greatly. I believe I heard enough your conversation with Jane and Kitty, though, to understand the situation."

"Oh."

Neither of them said aught for a long stretch of time as her father pulled paper and a quill from the drawer in the table beside him and began to write. She watched her father write in silence for several minutes until he looked up at her. "What was the name of the man?"

"Mr. Wickham."

He grunted and continued writing for several moments before walking to his desk to sand and seal the letter. He rang the bell, and Hill arrived in moments. "Yes, Sir?"

"Please have this hand delivered to Colonel Forster posthaste. I will be waiting for his reply."

Lizzy stared blankly at her father. "Colonel Forster?"

"He is leading the officers who are quartered at Meryton. They arrived some days ago, and I met him briefly in the village on some business. If this Mr. Wickham is truly in the military, the Colonel will have the best resources to bring him to justice. If the Colonel cannot get to him, I shall write to the magistrate."

"You mean to bring him to justice?"

He nodded slowly. "I may not be able save your reputation, as much as I might so desire, but I can refuse to allow you to accept blame for his transgression."

Lizzy began to cry, and her father moved to sit beside her on the settee. He put his arms around her, and she cried into his shoulder, finding comfort in the scent of pipe smoke which clung to his clothes.

"Hush, my dear girl. I shall not let this ruin you. I have not protected you as I should have, but I—I will do all in my power to do so now."

Lizzy knew that he was likely not being entirely truthful with himself when he spoke so, but she desired the sanguine possibility of his words.

Once she had composed herself, she sat upright and dried her face with her hands. "What shall we do now, Papa?"

"We shall have to determine all in due course. I know not what has been said in the village, nor do I know what stories have been concocted." He rubbed his jaw. "Perhaps you should write to your friend Charlotte and ask her to come and tell us of what is being said. In the meantime, we must all stay here. I do not want any of our family to speak to anyone until we know what is being said."

Lizzy nodded and moved to sit at her father's writing desk to write to Charlotte. "Papa, might you—"

He looked at her expectantly, but no words came from her mouth. Her first impulse was to have her father send for Mr. Darcy, who would likely have some idea of what to do, but her instincts prevented her from speaking the request aloud. She shook her head and turned back toward the paper in front of her.

Mr. Darcy would undoubtedly come, but then what? Would calling him here put Georgiana at risk in any way? What could he do aside from proclaim Wickham to be a liar? He would inevitably have to admit his connection to Wickham in order to testify to Wickham's perfidy, and it was doubtful that he could do so without speculation being raised.

It would doubtless be better for him to leave with Georgiana now and protect her from Wickham, whom she now realized was more desperate that she could have ever predicted. What might he do if Mr. Darcy publicly attempted to censure him? She felt paralyzed under the weight of an impossible choice, accompanied by the deep sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach at the loss of a hope she had not allowed herself to admit.

For all her flippancy regarding her impending spinsterhood, she had realized in the past weeks how deeply she wanted a home of her own with an honorable husband and another dear, sweet sister. Despite all her warnings to herself not to raise expectations for a man who could not fulfill them, she had allowed herself to hope considering his kindness and respect for her. Now, it would be impossible for him to consider her, even if he might have before this.

It might not even be possible for her to see Georgiana again or at least for a long while. Her heart constricted, and she begged herself to stop imagining catastrophes. For now, she would write to Charlotte.


Lizzy spent the impossibly long day after her confrontation with Wickham hiding from the impenetrable coldness of her mother who had not looked at her since she had refused to entertain the idea of forcing Mr. Wickham to marry her. Her mother screeched and cried out until she collapsed against the chaise lounge in the parlor in a fit of angry tears. "How ever shall I find anyone to marry you girls now?"

Torn between anger at her mother and guilt for their truly desperate situation, Lizzy decided it was best for all for her to sequester herself in the library, where she had spent an indeterminate period of time looking out the window for some sign of news.

Four hours had not passed until Mr. Collins returned to Longbourn, at which point, Lizzy was exiled from the library, so her father might explain the delicate situation. Mr. Collins was—understandably—alarmed at the turn of events and—unreasonably—furious. He claimed that it would be an aberration for a clergyman to knowingly stay under the same roof as an unchaste woman. The desperation on her father's countenance was plain as he attempted to argue with Mr. Collins and convince him to stay at Longbourn. Inevitably, her father was unsuccessful, and, thus, her unfailingly sanctimonious cousin fled to the village, where he might find other lodging.

The first piece of news came when Colonel Forster's man came to call on her father. Far from sympathetic, the man relayed Colonel Forster's view that Wickham had fled the same day "for fear that he would be forced to marry some chit who was clearly desperate for matrimony." The two exchanged heated words for several minutes before the man left with a parting blow.

"The Colonel is down a good man in my ranks during wartime because of you all, and even so, it would not be worth money to track him down. Even if he wanted to help you, Sir, he could not spare the resources to do so. My best advice is to deal with your women. 'Tis better to subdue unruly daughters before they cost you a fortune in scandal."

After this bit of news, her mother had taken to her bed and still had not emerged a day later, and Lizzy, though not entirely shocked by Wickham's departure, had become wholly reticent. She felt increasingly despondent and moved around the library as if she were having one of her mother's nervous fits. She had heard stories of women who had been compromised, and never had she ever imagined a scenario as the one she found herself it.

Lizzy hardly slept that night and was listless into the next day when her father entered the library with a missive in hand. "Charlotte Lucas has not come, but she sent a reply."

She took the letter and opened it with trembling hands. Her father looked at her expectantly, but she felt unequal to the task of reading aloud.

14 November

Lucas Lodge

My dearest Lizzy,

I am deeply distressed by your letter and wish that I had better news to impart. It seems that Mama has had more visitors coming through our parlor in the past day than in the past fortnight for Mr. Collins has come to stay with us. His departure from Longbourn has been taken as proof of your guilt. Mama has declared that "your boldness" has gotten you into trouble. While I disagree with her that you had any such intention of harming your reputation, I must admonish you for having been in a position to be compromised at all! It has now been widely accepted that you are compromised, though I doubt anyone believes Mr. Wickham's claim that you are a harlot.

The people of Meryton society know you, yet various people have speculated as to the circumstances surrounding your encounter with Mr. Wickham. Some have speculated that Mrs. Bennet encouraged you to throw yourself at the officer, and you were rebuffed. Mr. Wickham's friend and the charming Captain Denny has claimed that he fled after your encounter for fear that he would be forced to duel your father or marry you, which most have taken as a valid explanation for the events of yesterday morning. Thus, the consensus seems to be that you must marry Wickham in order to reenter society; however, I know little beyond the titters that come from my mother's parlor. I suspect any sort of respectable situation will do for you.

I do not think that anyone truly despises you, dear Lizzy, but one cannot be too careful in a small society such as ours. We ladies must be the best we can be if we seek to marry, and no one dares contradict the word of esteemed military officers. As such, Mama has forbidden me from visiting with you or your sisters until the scandal has passed as we cannot afford to squander any opportunity I might still have for marriage. I apologize for I do not truly blame you, but I cannot support you until the situation is resolved.

God bless you,

Charlotte

She finished reading and handed the letter to her father, who read it silently before meeting her gaze once more.

"I will not marry Wickham."

"I would disown you if you did," came her father's reply, and for the first time, in nearly two days, they both laughed. It was not a laugh borne of joy or diversion but the absurdity that seemed to suddenly engulf their lives.

After their laughter had subsided, she looked to her father, who wore a grave countenance. "I worry about your sisters' prospects, though, and so we must resolve the matter in some way."

Her father's words were laden with meaning, and she could not ignore the implication of his words.

"I must leave Longbourn, yes?"

"I am afraid it is the only solution that may preserve you and your sisters. I sent an express to your uncle in London and request that he retrieve you at once. Hopefully, he shall arrive within two or three days, at the latest, and if fortune is on our side, you may return to us once all has passed."

Such an idea seemed unduly hopeful, but Lizzy nodded silently, biting the insides of her cheeks.

Her father left, and she was left to consider the new realities of her life. She was not so naïve as to expect that—even if she did eventually return to Longbourn—she would be able to marry a respectable man. The life of a spinster was now guaranteed, and she found herself considering the realities of it for the first time. Even if she never had to go into service as a companion or governess, she would likely never have a stable home of her own. She might live with her sisters, helping with their children, but she could never have her own children. This thought pained her more than she expected for she loved children dearly and had always imagined herself growing old, surrounded by children who would give her an excuse to play into old age. She would grow old as a maiden, relying on the charity of others and likely never having the opportunity to travel or have great adventures.

She knew spinsters in the village—women who were often more sensible and wittier than the matrons who resembled her mother. She enjoyed their company and even admired them, but she felt no envy toward their circumstances—the way they were spoken of in society and the isolation they found themselves in. To imagine her future like theirs—inevitably impoverished and ostracized—seemed more painful than it ever had in her abstract imaginings.

Lizzy wondered if Miss Ainsworth or Miss Garrick from the village had ever desired a man as she now did. Did they ever fall in love only to have it ripped from their clutches by circumstances beyond their control? How could one live without bitterness under such circumstances? She could imagine writing to Georgiana in the future only to hear about all the details of her brother's life with a perfect, beautiful wife and a handsome brood of children with his green eyes and curt manner. The idea was enough to make her feel ill.

She cursed herself for her selfishness. While she only thought of herself and the things that were now—and probably always had been—out of her reach, there was little doubt that her sisters were concerned about how all of this might affect their chances. What if her actions prevented Mr. Bingley from proposing to Jane or from any of her sisters finding any sort of comfortable situation? She collapsed against the chaise with her head in buried in her arms as she began to comprehend the implications of her actions and wondered at how much her world could change in a mere two days.

Sometime later, Lydia entered the library. Her countenance was stricken with fear and remorse as Lizzy had never before witnessed. "What has happened?" she asked in alarm.

"Oh, Lizzy!" her sister cried as she came to sit next to her. "Everything is all wrong, and 'tis my fault! You now must leave us, and nothing shall be the same."

Lydia burst into tears, and Lizzy could not say anything for she quite agreed with her sister's assessment of the situation. She was still angry at Lydia for her selfishness, but in the midst of Lydia's present despair, she felt satisfied that her thoughtless sister might come through this situation more sensible with less of her ill-advised flirtatiousness.

In the end, sisterly affection prevailed over her anger, and she embraced her sister fiercely, allowing her to cry into her shoulder.


Darcy, who had never quite had the patience to sit through a long sermon, had in recent weeks found himself attending church regularly in the village. On this morning in particular, Bingley had commented on Darcy's uncharacteristic alacrity in getting to church. Darcy ignored his friend but could not ignore the sly smirk that crossed Georgiana's features as they arrived late. It seemed sacrilegious to admit that he was only attending church in hopes of finding an opportunity to speak with Elizabeth, yet the moment he realized that the Bennets were not in attendance at church, his disappointment was undeniable.

Though always a gentleman, he could not prevent his restlessness from manifesting itself in the incessant tapping of his right thumb against his leg. The emptiness of the Bennet pew seemed overly conspicuous, and it absurdly felt as if his disappointment with her absence was shared with the rest of the congregation. Then, he noticed that Mr. Collins was present and sitting with the Lucases and leaned over to his sister. "Why is Mr. Collins present without the Bennet family?"

Georgiana replied that she did not know but that she was pleased Elizabeth had been spared from the man's company for a while.

After the service, the Netherfield party made their way out into the church yard where there seemed to be a flurry of activity. An older woman approached Miss Bingley and began gesticulating furiously. Miss Bingley returned to their party after several moments with a scandalized expression.

"You shall not believe what I have just heard," she declared. "Miss Eliza was apparently caught in an amorous embrace with a militia officer in the village three days past. Since then, the officer has fled, refusing to marry her, and Mr. Collins has departed Longbourn, declaring that he would not sleep under the same roof as an unchaste woman."

Darcy suddenly felt nauseous, and Bingley cried, "That cannot possibly be true! Miss Elizabeth is far too sensible."

"Do not be naïve, Charles. I could see the determined, little flirt she was under her unassuming country manners. I just hope she does not bring any of her shame upon us by association."

Darcy turned around to see Georgiana looking to him in horror. He could hardly comprehend what of the story was true, for he certainly doubted Miss Bingley's veracity regarding anything associated with Elizabeth. He moved toward Georgiana and leaned to speak to her softly. "Do not worry, Dearest. I shall get to the bottom of this. Go back in the carriage with Bingley, and I will go to Longbourn. I am certain Miss Bingley is mistaken."

Georgiana nodded solemnly.

"Bingley, I am sure there is some sort of misunderstanding. Would you escort Georgiana home? I would like to call on the Bennets myself."

Bingley agreed, and he moved to leave before his sister caught his arm. "You must do everything in your power to remedy the situation."

He nodded gravely and strode in the direction of Longbourn. His thoughts raced through his head as he walked. He entertained Miss Bingley's claims for only a fleeting moment before dismissing them. Still, he knew as well as anyone how damning a rumor could be, especially for a young lady with no means of defending herself. He, however, was determined to defend her at all costs for no one in Meryton would dare contradict the nephew of an Earl and the largest landowner in Derbyshire.

He had reached the top of a particularly steep hill when he spotted her only several yards away sitting amidst a little copse of trees. He could see Longbourn in the distance and thought of his fortune that he came upon her here where they could speak alone. He only considered the impropriety of the situation for a moment. How could one be proper when the situation was entirely unjust?

"Miss Bennet?" he called gently.

She stood up and spun around, apparently shocked to see him there. "Mr. Darcy! Whatever are you doing here?"

He momentarily debated if he should be open about his reasons for calling upon her. "Miss Bennet…I…" he cleared his throat. "I wished to inform you of some scurrilous claims that I have heard circulating in the village this morning."

She visibly shrunk. "So, you have heard."

"Was that the reason you were not a church today?"

She looked down and smiled ruefully. "Many of the matrons of the neighborhood have indicated that they will publicly cut me for fear of being tainted by association. It was decided that it might be best if my family and I hide from society until it is decided what shall become of me."

"What shall become of you," he intoned quietly in disbelief. He touched her arm with the briefest of touches to get her attention. "Eliz—Miss Bennet, would you please give me your account of what happened? I have only heard what Miss Bingley has related, and I do not dare take her at her word. It cannot be as serious as you make it seem."

He was grateful he managed to modulate his tone. He would not believe that she would so betray him, but every word that she spoke managed to heighten his alarm.

She signed and turned to face Longbourn and began to tell him of her confrontation with Wickham in Meryton, his violation and public display, and her now sullied reputation. Her voice was almost disinterested, and he could not help but stare at the way her elegant jawline clenched as she kept her eyes trained on Longbourn's crumbling façade.

"My mother wanted me to marry him. She was shockingly unconcerned with his lack of honor. My father said that he would not have me marry such a man. Regardless, I am now a ruined woman, and if I do not marry Mr. Wickham—which I will not—I ruin my sisters' prospects. The only path left to me at this point is to leave."

She finally looked back at him, and the sight of her flushed countenance and beautiful, glassy eyes made his chest feel tight and heavy. He opened his mouth, but she looked away and continued to speak before he could. "My father has written to my Uncle in London to explain the situation, and with any luck, they will be able to take me in as soon as possible."

She put her arms around herself and glanced back at him slightly. "Please convey my regrets to Georgiana. I shall not see her before I go for I do not want to harm her with my shame. She has much to worry about beyond any association with me."

"I beg you do not speak like this. You must know you are not at fault. There must be some other way to remedy this situation." He felt a wave of desperation he had not felt since the night of Georgiana's attack. "Please, Miss Bennet, look at me."

She turned to face him. "There is but one remedy, Sir, and I have already chosen it. I will go to live with my uncle if he will have me."

"There must be some alternative. Georgiana was devastated to hear about this, but she would be destroyed if she knew Wickham was the cause. I cannot let that man continue to ruin our lives."

"I can imagine how terrifying this must be for Georgiana. I would have written to her to assure her had I not been so concerned with my own torment! Pray assure her that I am well, and that I have suffered no physical harm at his hands."

"No physical harm perhaps, but I cannot ignore the harm he has done to your reputation and your spirit! No, I will not take it. I will call him out. I will—"

"He is gone, Mr. Darcy. He fled soon after he came upon me just as he did in Canterbury, but do not dare call him out. I would never forgive myself if you risked your safety and Georgiana's reputation for my sake."

"I cannot let you suffer the consequences of helping my sister. I—I feel such gratitude for everything you have done for us. I cannot allow you to suffer such ramifications." He knew he was speaking loudly, but he unable to restrain his discomposure. He realized at once what he must do.

"Mr. Darcy?" She looked at him in alarm, and he realized he was likely starting at her in a rather uncouth manner.

"Marry me," he blurted.

She stiffened. "Pardon?"

He almost laughed at her surprise. God in heaven, perhaps something good could come of this wretched situation after all! He could have his heart's desire. They might leave Hertfordshire, and Georgiana and Elizabeth might be protected from any rumors.

"I know it may seem more sudden than expected, but I believe it may be the solution that would be the most beneficial for all parties involved. You would be married and protected from the scorn of your sullied reputation, and you could come with us to London or Pemberley until this unfortunate talk blows over. You could provide sisterly support to Georgiana, and I doubt anyone in this insignificant, backward neighborhood would dare cut you as my wife. Your consequence would be instantly elevated. "

He glanced at her as he paced back and forth. Her brow was furrowed, and she looked as if she might speak. He continued, however, feeling the need to reassure her. "I know that a union between the two of us might seem strange to the world considering the relative inferiority of your connections and circumstances, but I would never hear a word against you. I want you to know that I would gladly take the sacrifice of any social degradation Georgiana or I might experience in order to express my gratitude for your defense of my sister and your aid in renewing her spirits. In fact, I would like you to forget it all once we are married for, if anything, my honor requires it."

He finally stopped his restless movements and stood to look at her. Her eyes were wide, and he could not read her expression.

"Well?" he said after several moments of silence.

"Well, I am wondering how I would be able to forget the degradation I would bring upon you when I am so often reminded of my inferiority!"

"Pardon?" He could not believe the anger in her voice.

"I find it rather ironic, Sir, that you who have often managed to make me feel inferior are asking me to forget the fact that you view any union between us as degrading to your social standing."

"Make you feel inferior? How—" He had only ever considered her with admiration, respect, and—if he was honest with himself—rather potent attraction. In spite of his past unintentional insults, he had made amends, and she had forgiven him. "I—" he stuttered, "I did not intend to make you feel inferior. I intended to ask you to be my wife!"

"In fact, you did not ask me. You said, 'Marry me,' which I believe is command, not a question. Am I incorrect?"

He was dumbfounded by her response. Why was she sparring with him at a moment like this? "Well, yes, but disregarding my lack of vocabular precision, you must have understood it for what it was. I am proposing to you."

She turned around and started walking toward the tree stump she had been sitting on when he arrived. He followed her to the stump and watched as she sat down.

When she looked at him again, she was crying, but her voice was bitter. "I suppose I had difficulty recognizing your words as such. I had always imagined that if I were to receive a proposal from a man I respected and admired—from one whom I considered a friend—I would hear words of affection or perhaps even love.

"I did not think that such a man would speak of our proposed union as a sacrifice or a degradation in the same breath as his proposal, but I, having never received such an offer previously, could be completely misguided in my view."

His heart constricted as he realized how callous his impulsive proposal must have seemed. She, who always seemed to brush off the worries of the day with equanimity, was broken by his careless words and disaffection.

He knelt before her and spoke gently. "You were not misguided. I—I have been nonsensical. I have not only paid you none of the respect you deserve but have done you a great discourtesy by speaking in such a manner. I beg you forgive me."

She looked him in the eye, and he was almost startled by the emotion in them. "I have spent the last two days being humiliated by people I have known my entire life. I am aware that I have become a liability for my family. When my mother discovered what happened, she called me an abjection. I, however, had hoped when you came upon me that you of all people would not think of my presence as degrading, and I suppose you have not—at least in the way everyone else does—but to hear myself described as such is perhaps more painful coming from you than from anyone else."

He doubted he had every felt so ashamed in his life. Guilt gripped at his throat and made him feel sick. He cleared his throat and took her hand impulsively. "There is no excuse for my behavior. I have once again offended where I intended only respect and comfort. I have betrayed the spirit of our friendship by speaking thus, but might I offer an explanation?"

She looked at their joined hands for a moment before nodding. It took him several moments to gather his thoughts, and he had to swallow once to overcome his discomfiture at speaking so candidly of his feelings to one he had wronged so profoundly.

"You have born witness to my inability to properly communicate words of comfort and affection. For the entirety of our acquaintance, you have taught me how to support my sister and shown me my many wrongs. I have envied you for your ability to understand others and touch them with your words. You yourself indicated that I often find that the intention of my words and their reception are at odds with one another.

"I intended to be honest about my scruples that had given me pause because I did not wish to lie to you. I still do not wish to lie to you. My family expects me to marry a woman of nobility with a dowry of twenty thousand pounds a year at minimum. Though, I should not have described your lack of nobility or a dowry as a degradation even if my family might view it as such."

She attempted to pull her hand from his and wipe her eyes, but he held on and urged her to look at him. "Nor should I have described it as a sacrifice to forgo some noble, well-dowered lady of the ton for you because if anything, the reverse is true." He took both of her hands in his and began to stroke them with his thumbs. "It would be more of a sacrifice to let you go to fulfill the expectations of my family."

She breathed audibly, yet he was unable to look at her fearing her reaction to an unreasonable degree. "Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth…for weeks now I have struggled in vain. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. I do not have a poet's ability to convince you of my sincerity with pretty words, but I can tell you as simply as I can the honest contents of my heart. I am drawn to your beauty, wit, and intelligence. I cannot keep myself from smiling in your presence, and you have often been a balm to my weary spirits. I cannot help but trust you when you have proven yourself capable and reliable in every circumstance."

Willing himself to finally look at her, he took a breath and looked into her eyes which were wide with a contrariety of emotions. "I have been sorely humbled these past months, and perhaps I have not fully relinquished that pride I once held so dear, but at the least, I have learned that pride is not as admirable as I had thought it to be. Courage and compassion, good sense and humor, a quick mind and tender heart. These are the traits that I have learned to hold so very dear for they are the qualities of the best woman I have ever known.

"Therefore," he bent down kiss her hand, "I ask you to allow me the privilege to protect you from censure and support you as your husband."

To his horror, she pulled her hand from his grasp and walked away. "You are acting impulsively, Mr. Darcy. Do not make a promise you do not intend to keep. You have not thought this through. How would this affect Georgiana? I cannot ruin her like I have ruined my other sisters."

His voice was desperate in response. "I assure you that I am not being impulsive for I have intended to propose for more than a fortnight. I wrote to my housekeeper to make arrangements for you, and I have even secured the blessings of Georgiana and my cousin the Colonel. My affections and wishes are not borne out of a sudden fancy to play the hero. I am aware what consequences you face here, and I am also aware that most of those consequences shall disappear once you are married to a respectable man. Any doubts about your character would in time vanish for no one would believe that I would marry a woman without being assured of her many virtues."

Elizabeth said nothing, and he feared he had made the situation worse. "What can I do to prove to you that my affections are true?"

She finally met his gaze and was silent for a seemingly endless moment before sighing. "I believe you."

"You do—why—"

"I have had some notion that you held some affection for me, but I did not imagine that you would ever propose."

"Why ever not?"

She laughed mirthlessly, "For all the reasons you just mentioned, Sir! For my family and my dowry and my connections! I believe that you love me, Mr. Darcy, and were the circumstances different I would accept your offer immediately. I could not, however, bear to see your regard for me wane as you have to deal with my family's ruination."

"Do you think my devotion toward Georgiana would wane should it come out that she was ruined?" he retorted.

She said nothing to that, and for several moments, she just stared at him. Then, she floated to the ground to sit against a tree with her head in her hands. He moved to sit in front of her, feeling rather ridiculous but nonetheless willing to do anything for her at that moment.

"Elizabeth?"

She took her hands from her face and looked toward the sky. "I am sorry, Mr. Darcy, you seek to solve all of my problems, and I throw your words of love and affection away without a care for your feelings. I told you that I can be temperamental and impulsive."

"I cannot lament any feature that you possess for I am sure that any alteration to your character could not please me more."

She laughed through her tears, and he felt a sense of relief in prompting her humor. "You have a well-concealed talent for pretty words, Sir."

"Yes, I have some pretty words, but I have much more to give you if you would allow it. I cannot imagine my love for your waning." He held her hands, imploring her earnestly.

"I can imagine it clearly!" she cried. She swallowed and looked to him. "But I have also spent the last two days, considering what my life would be like in service, as a spinster, and I know that I would bitterly regret any chance to have you and your sister as my family."

Even the horrors of the day could not prevent the joy that assailed him at her response. He closed his eyes and did nothing to prevent the blissful smile from covering his face. He kissed both of her hands and whispered, "Does that mean you accept me?"

One side of her mouth quirked. "I am quite afraid to say yes, Sir. I feel completely unnerved by all that has happened and all of my fears from the past two days are upon me at once and assaulting my judgement."

"Pray tell me of your fears that I might put you at ease."

"I fear that you and I are acting irrationally."

"I assure you I am not for I have already explained my reasons for wanting to marry you."

"But perhaps it is selfish for me to accept, given the present circumstances."

"It is not for marrying me would undoubtedly protect your sisters' reputations and your family's financial future. I could dower your sisters, and the scandal surrounding you and your family would likely go away as soon as you were settled with a respectable man. Your sisters could find themselves in comfortable situations."

She looked at him in disbelief. "It would be unreasonable to do so. I would already be coming to you without a dowry."

"I am aware, but I shall not find it an onerous burden for I have been financially prudent and believe your happiness and comfort to be good investments."

She still looked rather perturbed. He knew not what to do, so he decided that frankness would be the best course with her. "I suppose it is easier for me to feel joy at the prospect of marriage when I have had several weeks to imagine it." He cursed the heat that crept into his cheeks. "Is there aught I might do to put you at ease?"

She blushed becomingly and looked at his hands, which he had not realized had been fidgeting. "'Tis strange that I believe I know more of you and your family than most ladies know of their intendeds, but I cannot help but think of something Jane said to me recently. There is so little that we know about what goes on between a husband and wife."

He stiffened, and it was evident that she saw him because she quickly dissembled. "Not in that way!"

"I meant more of our daily interactions. I have seen many marriages—some of which seem felicitous like my aunt and uncle's and some of which…" she paused and bit her lip. "My parents do not respect one another, nor do they involve each other in their lives. Though I have respected you from the moment I met you and could not imagine you behaving in a way to warrant my disregard, I do not want a marriage like my parents'. I do not want to live a separate life to my husband and be subject to his whims and caprices.

"I do not mean to offend you, and although I esteem you and have seen how well you take care of Georgiana, I do not know what you expect of your wife and…" She trailed off and looked away for a moment before meeting his gaze with a sigh. "I fear what your expectations are if you believe that I can meet them, and I am afraid that I shall disappoint."

If she had taught him one thing, it was that his first instinct when responding to the concerns of others was usually flawed. Given that his initial reaction was a desire to kiss her, he determined that it was likely the incorrect thing to do. He thought for a moment and tried to imagine what she would need to hear. "I find that it takes me longer to respond to other's admissions these days. You have taught me that I have long had a habit of applying my thoughts and opinions to the rest of the world, and that will not do if I care to truly alleviate the worries of those I care about. If you thought as I did, it would not occur to you that you could disappoint me or fall short of my expectations as you have already exceeded them.

"You would not know this, but my arrival in Canterbury was a mistake. I was supposed to meet Georgiana in Ramsgate, and I thought her to be there until the moment I happened to stop in Canterbury because my horse cast a shoe. I have reflected on the events of that night many times, and though I am not one to ascribe every coincidence as miraculous, I have come to believe that God fated us to be there when Wickham absconded with Georgiana. I pray daily for Georgiana's health and safety, and I believe that the coincidence of our arrival was a miracle in answer of my prayers.

"I did have another prayer, which I had almost given up on ever having been answered the day I met you. You see, my aunt had been pressuring me to marry her daughter, my cousin Anne."

He looked at her to gauge her reaction, but she merely nodded with a half-smile and said "I know."

He returned her smile and asked "Georgiana?" to which she nodded before he continued. "Anne is like a sister to me, and she has a vehement aversion to marriage. I knew I could not marry her, but I also wondered if I could find someone to marry at all. I am a rational man and not particularly romantic, like Bingley, but I had longed to find a connection like that of my parents who loved each other dearly. They were very close, and though I do not know much about their relationship firsthand for my mother died when I was only fourteen, I do know that they had a deep respect for each other and that my mother was my father's helpmeet. After her death, he expressed to me that he had not truly been a gentleman until their marriage—that she made him a better man. I, in my arrogance, considered myself a good, intelligent, righteous man, but you demand better of me through your counsel and your example.

"I want a relationship as my parents had. I want someone who is my partner in everything and whom I love and who loves me in return." He took her hand and kissed it again.

He suddenly dropped her hand and averted his eyes. It had occurred to him while he was speaking that her response at his declaration might indicate their unequal affections. The realization filled him with trepidation, and he felt like a boy of seventeen again. "I know you may not love me right now… but, I have said before that there a similarity in the turn of our minds, and I would like to trust with time you would…"

Elizabeth—his dear Elizabeth—took his hand, forcing him to look at her. She held his palm out and traced the lines of his hand gently before closing his hand and bringing it to her lips. She might as well have stolen the air from his lungs. She was absolutely intoxicating, and he felt nearly drunk as she looked at him with a small, sincere smile.

"I do not know if I could claim that my affections equal yours, but I can honestly say I like and esteem you very much. And I feel honored to have your respect and admiration for my character. For no man would propose to me for my piano playing and drawing room manners," she added wryly, making him laugh.

"I would not be so sure," he spoke, intertwining his hands with hers. "I have great fondness for the liveliness of your mind—especially when it is at the expense of a boorish fool."

She laughed gaily. "Even if that boorish fool is yourself?"

"Particularly so."

This provoked another laugh from her. "I daresay it bodes well for marital felicity if you are able to make me laugh so in the worst days of my life."

He could not smile at such a reminder. "I hope you will not remember this week as such years from now. I would wish for you to forget the world's scorn and my idiocy. You are aware I am not a cheery or good-humored sort, but I pray I shall always be able to lift your spirits."

She squeezed his hands, "Thank you, Mr. Darcy."

"Might you consider calling me by my Christian name?"

"You certainly did not," she replied, her tear-stained cheeks raising in a smile.

"I have thought of you as Elizabeth for a long while now. It nearly became a burden to call you Miss Elizabeth or Miss Bennet in company."

"Poor man! How ever shall you manage calling me Mrs. Darcy?"

She could not have known how her teasing would arouse such desires in him. He looked away and spoke lightly. "I think I shall manage with that title very well."

She laughed and became quiet for a moment. "Fitzwilliam," she said softly, "I had anticipated this day being somehow more terrible than the ones before it. You have utterly changed the course of my life, and the change is dizzying. Might you tell me what you suppose we should do now?"

"I should speak with your father as soon as possible. I would like to ensure our privacy in the matter—more presently than ever. I shall go to London, draw up the necessary documents with my agent, and obtain a common license, so we might be married shortly."

"How soon do you think that might be arranged?" she asked, and he was disappointed to see her trepidation.

"Five days perhaps fewer if I work quickly. I would dare not wait more than ten, given the situation. Does that distress you?"

"I must accustom myself to the idea, but I cannot deny the sense in your plan."

He took her hand and pressed a kiss to it again—not daring to do anything more given reputation. "This is not what I would have wished for us. Is there aught I might do to make amends?"

"You have already offered to do more for me than one might reasonably do for a young lady devoid of fortune, connections, or esteem. All I ask is that amongst all your duties, you make time to spend with me-and Georgiana."

"I promise," he said with a little bow and took her arm to make their way to Longbourn.