Chapter 1: Chapter I
TW/CW: This chapter contains non-graphic mention of sexual assault/abuse
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Friday, 7 August, 1811
"I would have never imagined such insolence—such selfishness as you have displayed, Nephew! It is not to be borne! Your mother would be ashamed, and you disgrace the Fitzwilliam family with such behavior!"
Darcy watched his aunt's face become a deeper shade of red than he could have thought possible and found himself feeling rather detached. Perhaps it was that he had expected her anger. He could nearly predict the next words out of her mouth as she rattled off a litany of her preferred insults and epithets.
While he had never before been on the receiving end of one of Lady Catherine's tirades, he had witnessed enough of them over the years to know where she liked to hit—duty, honor, family.
He, however, could not feel the sting of her words because he did not think them true. She wanted him to marry Anne, and he and Anne did not want to marry. Neither his mother nor his father had ever told him that he should marry his cousin, and there was no reason why the marriage would benefit the family in the long run. Therefore, Darcy felt immune to whatever Lady Catherine might say.
"Nephew! Are you listening to me?"
In fact, he was not, but ever the gentleman, he replied, "Yes, Aunt."
"Why are you being so obtuse then? Do your duty and marry Anne!"
He moved away from her and stared out the window, speaking calmly. "My duty to Anne is to make sure she is safe and provided for, but marriage shall be my decision. I have no other duty than to choose a respectable woman to become mistress of Pemberley."
"And what of your duty to Georgiana?" Her voice had suddenly reduced to a respectable volume.
He whipped around to see Lady Catherine seated on a massive armchair reminiscent of a throne, sipping from a cup of tea he had not noticed before. The change in mood was jarring. While she could be domineering and invasive, he could not recall a time when she was capricious.
"My duty to Georgiana?" he asked incredulously. "She is my first priority. I have done everything in my power to ensure that she is well-educated, healthy, and moral. No one could fault my devotion to my sister."
This, however, was disingenuous. Darcy had begun to feel anxious about Georgiana in recent months. He felt a distance creeping between them where there was once only warmth. She had a restraint with him that had not previously existed, and he felt completely inept at handling her concerns these days. Richard had suggested the reason weeks ago, but he was still not ready to face the truth of it. Georgiana was becoming a woman, and in spite of all his learning and observation, he did not know how to deal with women.
He tried to convince himself that she was the same person she had always been, and she was—in essentials, at least. The nature of their relationship, however, had changed. They could no longer spend their days hiding around the nursery, and she was no longer enchanted by the stories he used to make up for her. She was more conscious of her appearance and social etiquette as her whole world turned toward her coming out. Nothing could be further from Darcy's expertise.
"Georgiana will be coming out soon, and it is your duty to ensure her success. Do you think that you will be able to do that without a wife? Do you think you will be able to see through the fortune hunters and hoydens and harpies to find a woman who will guide Georgiana's into womanhood?"
This, of course, was the heart of his troubles, and he panicked that Lady Catherine had seemed to grasp his weakness out of thin air. He puffed out his chest and starred directly into his aunt’s eyes, refusing to be cowed. "And you think Anne could do so? She never came out herself," he said icily. "If I do not marry before Georgiana comes out, my aunt Matlock can oversee her coming out."
"Lady Matlock is getting too old to keep up with Georgiana, and you cannot put off marriage forever. Where will you find a paragon that will suit you better than Anne?"
"Lady Catherine, this conversation is finished. Anne and I do not wish to marry, and that will not change." He turned on his heel and strode out the door.
"Nephew, I have not dismissed you!" Her tone shifted once again, making her sound almost desperate.
He stopped to speak with the butler outside the door. "Hodges, please have my horse saddled and my carriage readied."
"Fitzwilliam, you cannot leave yet. You are not to leave for another se'ennight! Where are you going?"
"Where I belong—with my sister."
After preparing for his travels, he stood in front of a window in the library, staring out over the park. His aunt's cold and collected behavior puzzled him. How did she know what to say to most affect him? While he had ever thought her an ill-tempered woman, he never thought of her as conniving or devious. Yet, somehow, she managed to discomfit him with the mere mentions of Georgiana and marriage.
Too many young ladies had tried to use Georgiana to get to him. They would befriend her and then ignore her or, worse, take retribution on her after Darcy's inevitable rejections.
He worried for Georgiana, and he worried for himself. He could not, on principle, marry a woman who was artful or manipulative. He had more than enough manipulation from his family already. He needed to trust his wife, and he was beginning to believe that there was no woman he could trust with his home, his name, and—most importantly—his family.
He turned his head to see Anne joining him by the window and sighed.
"I take it you heard my conversation with my aunt," he said, turning back to stare out the window.
"I doubt there was a single soul between here and the village who did not hear her.”
One side of Darcy’s mouth curled up in amusement. In these quiet moments, he felt that he and Anne could have had a marriage of friendship, but they had similar strengths and flaws. She could be witty and open in private, but, like him, she felt paralyzed in the presence of strangers. They might enjoy each other’s company but only in a fraternal sense. He had known Anne his entire life, and at this point, he doubted he could feel anything other than brotherly affection for her. Anne herself had told him years ago that she never wanted to marry, and he could hardly argue given what he knew of her parents’ marriage. Though he knew only a little, he remembered Sir Lewis de Bourgh to be a first-class philanderer, gambler, and cheat—not that Lady Catherine would ever speak a word about it.
“Perhaps, but the good folk of Hunsford should be accustomed to such racket by now.” Anne let out a breath of laughter. He allowed himself a half smile before becoming serious again. “I suppose, then, if you heard our argument, you know that I am leaving.”
She nodded morosely, and he suddenly felt a stab of contrition.
“I am sorry that I am leaving you alone to manage your mother, but you understand I must see Georgie—for her sake as well as mine.”
She put a thin hand on his arm. “Worry not. There is no way to win an argument against a boulder, so ‘tis best to find a new path. If you remained, the fighting would only worsen. This way, I shall only have to listen to complaints about your supposed ingratitude and lack of honor for a fortnight or so before she moves on to the next victim of her displeasure.”
A deep chuckle escaped him, and he took her hand to bow over it. “Thank you, Cousin. Please write and remember that you are welcome at Darcy House or Pemberley if you need a reprieve anytime.”
She withdrew her hand and smirked. “I thank you for your offer, but I am fond of Rosings in my own way and cannot imagine leaving, even to escape my mother.”
He nodded and moved to leave but she stopped him. “One more thing, Cousin! In spite of my mother’s claims, have no shame in your conduct regarding Georgie. You have been a far better guardian than many others would have in your place.”
He gave her a half-hearted smile and left the room. If only I could believe that myself, he thought.
“So, Lizzy, did you enjoy our sojourn to the Cathedral today?” Mr. Gardiner asked with a twinkle in his eye.
Lizzy put her hand under her chin, feigning deep contemplation. “Well, the Cathedral was undoubtedly beautiful. Certainly, the crown jewel of Canterbury!”
“Undoubtedly. But?” he prompted. “You do not seem to be much convinced of your answer.”
“Perhaps,” she said with a sly grin. “To be quite honest, I was disappointed.”
“With the Cathedral? I thought you said it was the ‘crown jewel of Canterbury.’”
“Oh, yes, Uncle. But, you see, for all its beauty and splendor, I was more fascinated in studying the characters who came on pilgrimage! Yet, much to my dismay, there was no Wife of Bath or Miller, conveniently displaying their flaws for my amusement! I feel rather cheated by Chaucer, having set my expectations for the trip so high,” she said with mock irritation.
Mr. Gardiner laughed heartily at her words as his wife came to join them at their table. “What is so amusing, you two?”
“Lizzy, here, is disappointed in the lack of entertaining characters to study at the Cathedral this afternoon!”
Mrs. Gardiner shot her niece an amused expression. “Do you suppose you can wait for another interesting character until we return you to Hertfordshire?”
“Of course, Aunt, but there is still time to meet interesting characters here. Do not forget the interesting characters we encountered in the inns in Ramsgate and Margate!”
“Ah, yes, you certainly had fun with the Misses Bates and old Mr. Wilson. Well, I shall leave you to it while I bathe,” she gestured wryly to the virtually empty common room of the inn. “Once I am finished, I will send the maid to your room to help you with whatever you need,” she patted Lizzy’s hand and took her husband’s arm to ascend the stairs.
Lizzy sat at the table and opened her copy of The Canterbury Tales, smiling to herself. In spite of her cheeky words, she had enjoyed every moment of her trip throughout Kent, particularly visiting the seaside for the first time. She closed her eyes for a moment and leaned back in her chair.
“Love will not be constrain'd by mastery.” She opened her eyes at the sound of a deep, masculine voice. To her surprise, a handsome man was standing on the other side of the table, looking at her. “When mast'ry comes, the god of love anon beateth his wings, and, farewell, he is gone. Love is a thing as any spirit free.”
She could not speak for a moment before she gathered her wits. “I assume you have read this book before, Sir, if you are able to quote it so beautifully.”
He casually tapped the back of the chair with his hands and smiled disarmingly at her. “Indeed! I read it many a time at Cambridge. I must say ‘tis a favorite of mine, but as a lover of literature, that means very little. I have many favorites.”
It took her a moment to realize the impropriety of the situation. His manner was so easy and casual that it was difficult to summon any indignation at the fact that they had not been introduced. She had, after all, just decried the lack of interesting characters. It really would be rather ungrateful to send the man away when he had said no more than a few passing words!
“Sir, you should be lucky that you are a lover of literature, else I would surely chide you for your lack of propriety!” she said archly.
“What lack of propriety? This is an inn, Miss, not a drawing room or an assembly. The same rules should not apply.” He boldly sat in the chair across from her.
“Wickham,” he drawled. “Mr. George Wickham.”
“Well, Mr. Wickham, as you are clearly a well-read gentleman, I shall not look askance at our shockingly improper introduction—even if we are in an inn—but—”
A woman Lizzy guessed was approximately five and thirty stood in the doorway with crossed arms and a cross expression to match.
Wickham leaned over and spoke with a secretive smile, “My sister. She is of a cheery disposition as you see.”
Lizzy smirked. “Ah, yes. I have four sisters myself, you see, and I can well understand the feeling of sisterly irritation. ‘Tis for the best you go with her.”
“Four sisters, you say?” He stood up and leaned over the table, only several inches from her face. “Are they all as lovely as you?”
Lizzy scoffed, feeling a little ill-at-ease at his proximity yet not wanting to show herself intimidated. “You certainly have a talent for impertinence, Mr. Wickham. Now, have mercy on your poor sister and leave me to retire.”
“As the lady wishes,” replied Wickham, bowing low. As he turned toward his sister, she saw his face contort into a scowl, and she felt vaguely pleased at the thought that he was disappointed to be leaving her.
It was for the best, though, she supposed. Nothing could come from a rather improper encounter in some unknown inn in Canterbury. It was better to think back on a witty conversation with a handsome man with pleasure in later years as a diverting youthful indiscretion than a case of disappointed hopes.
With a tired sigh, she made her way up to her room, nearly bumping into a woman outside her door. “My apologies! I clearly was not paying heed to my surroundings,” she said nervously.
Once the woman stepped back, Lizzy saw that she was more of a girl than woman. Though she was tall and well-formed, she still had a girlish face and an aura of diffidence that made her seem not entirely at ease with adulthood. Lizzy found herself instantly endeared to the girl who reminded her of a younger version of her sister Jane with her golden hair and sweet shyness.
“Please, do not worry yourself! I am well-known as the clumsiest of my sisters, so I assure you ‘twas far likelier my fault than yours.”
The girl smiled appreciatively at Lizzy and took two steps away before stopping and turning back. “Is this your room?” she murmured, gesturing to Lizzy’s room.
Lizzy nodded, and the girl continued, not making eye contact, “My room is right next to yours.” She paused and glanced up shyly, seeming reluctant to take her leave. “Have you been in Canterbury for some days? I did not see you yesterday, and there are very few people staying at this inn, I have noticed.”
“I have been here only two days with my aunt and uncle while we are on a tour of Kent and the seaside. We recently came from Ramsgate and Margate.”
“Oh!” Her eyes lit up, “I was just in Ramsgate on holiday with my companion! We are on our way to London now.” She paused and blushed before continuing, “You see, I encountered an old friend of the family there, and we became engaged. He is going to apply to my brother for permission when we arrive.”
Lizzy raised her eyebrows in surprise. The girl must have noticed because she flushed deeply and stepped back, covering her face with her hands. “I apologize. I was too forward. I should not have shared—”
“Darcy. Georgiana Darcy,” the girl said, slowly removing her hands from her face.
“As elegant of a name as I’ve heard,” she remarked with a smile. “Well, Miss Darcy, I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and I will have you know that no amount of forwardness or impropriety you are capable of me would shock me. So, please do not apologize to me.”
This seemed to put the girl slightly at ease, so Lizzy continued, “And, let me offer my congratulations on your engagement. I trust you will be very happy together. I doubt there is any place better for a proposal than the seaside. As I have always said, why propose if you are not going to do so in a romantic setting? We ladies have very few things to hang our hats on but, I daresay, a tale of a romantic proposal is one.”
Miss Darcy began to giggle and then she sighed. “Miss Bennet, if my forwardness will not shock you, might I ask if you are going to London as well?”
“Unfortunately, my aunt and uncle are returning me to my father’s estate in Hertfordshire tomorrow. We will be passing through London but only briefly.”
“Oh, I am sorry to hear it,” Miss Darcy replied before reddening once again. “I did not mean I am sorry you are going home. ‘Tis that I’ve been in my room all day, and I have only spoken with my companion. I believe I am a bit starved for company.”
Lizzy looked Miss Darcy over, curious as to her situation. The cut and fabric of her dress were exquisite and most certainly expensive, and it seemed rather strange that a wealthy girl perhaps no more than sixteen would be staying with a companion and her intended at a second-rate inn with little to amuse her. Propriety and sensitivity won out over curiosity, and Lizzy decided to let the girl be.
“Then, I am honored that you were willing to take my poor company as consolation,” she said teasingly, making Miss Darcy smile softly. “I was about to prepare for bed, but my family and I will be taking breakfast in the common dining room tomorrow morning around eight o’ clock. If you find yourself there and your companion approves, I am certain you would be welcome to join us.”
Miss Darcy beamed and enthusiastically accepted, and Lizzy nodded to her once before retreating to her room to bathe.
Lizzy awoke with a start, having fallen asleep on the settee in front of the fireplace in her bedroom. The fire had reduced to its embers, and she sleepily shifted to a sitting position and winced as the corner of her book pierced her hip. She laughed at herself for falling asleep in such a position and stood up to stoke the fire.
She had just slipped her robe on when she heard a muffled cry from the room next door. She froze for a brief moment, realizing that the sound must have come from Miss Darcy’s room. She padded over to the wall, held her breath, and pressed her ear against the wall. She heard a thump and another muffled cry.
Her heart pounded against her ribcage, and she rushed to the door before stopping. She had no idea what to do. She could not be sure whether Miss Darcy had fallen ill or was hurt and debated the propriety in looking in on her.
After a mere moment of deliberation, she decided that Miss Darcy was not the type of girl to worry herself if a friendly face sought to ensure her safety. She would knock on Georgiana’s door only to assuage herself and return in a moment.
She tied her dressing gown around her waist and walked into the hallway. She knocked lightly on the door. “Miss Darcy?”
She heard a creak from inside the room and then silence. She waited for a moment before trying again. “Miss Darcy, are you there?”
A hoarse voice responded. “Miss Darcy requires no service.”
Lizzy heard a yelp that she thought sounded like Miss Darcy. Impulsively, she rapped on the door repeatedly, crying out in a hushed tone. “Miss Darcy! It is urgent! I pray you open up.”
After a breathless moment of trying to discern what was happening behind the door, it opened slightly to reveal the livid face of Mr. Wickham.
“You!” Lizzy gasped, not quite believing that this venomous looking monster was the same amiable gentleman that evening.
“I said Miss Darcy is not here! Leave—” His head suddenly fell back unnaturally, and Miss Darcy came flying out of the room.
Later, Lizzy would not be able to precisely articulate what she had done or why she had done it, but she could only be grateful for whatever she did. In less than a minute, the door to Georgiana’s room was closed, and Lizzy had managed to usher the sobbing girl into her room and lock the door. She put her arms around Miss Darcy’s shoulder and brought her over to the fire.
She tried to pull back slightly to inspect the girl’s face, but Miss Darcy just held on to her tighter and proceeded to sink on to her lap, sobbing violently. Lizzy just held her and stroked her hair, coming to the horrifying realization that Mr. Wickham was likely a practiced seducer. Had he invaded Miss Darcy’s chamber to compromise her? Did he even know that it was Miss Darcy whose room he was entering? She shivered. She had always imagined that the type of man who would pose the greatest threat would be evident to her, and it was terrifying to think that monsters could lurk under the skin of charming, well-read gentlemen.
Suddenly, there was a thump from outside the room, and Miss Darcy whimpered. From the hall, Lizzy heard the hushed voice of Mr. Wickham speaking to someone else just outside the door, “I do not know where she went. There was a woman who knew whom she was! How could you let this happen? You were supposed to watch her.”
Grateful the fire had nearly died, Lizzy held Miss Darcy tighter in the darkness and whispered, “Don’t say a word, Georgiana. He could not have seen which door we entered. Just stay quiet for he will not want to make a scene. You are safe here with me.”
After several minutes of no sound but the quiet creak of footsteps in the hall, she heard a woman’s voice in the hall whisper, “All the lights are out in the rest of the rooms in this hall. I believe she went downstairs.” The creaking became louder as it approached the door before getting quieter and going toward what Lizzy presumed to be the stairs.
“I think he’s gone for the moment,” Lizzy murmured. “Shall we move to the bed so you can lie down and I can stoke the fire?”
Lizzy moved to stand up, but Georgiana’s hand darted out to prevent her from moving. A small broken voice came from her. “I would prefer to stay right here.”
“Yes, of course,” Lizzy said softly, brushing the hair away from her face to reveal Georgiana’s red eyes and tear-stained cheeks hidden by shadows. “Hold my hand while I stoke the fire.”
With one hand, Lizzy gripped Georgiana’s while she grabbed the poker and moved a log so that the room became slightly brighter. Once she was seated again, she gently asked, “Might I bring your companion here? Or I could bring my aunt?”
Another sob escaped Georgiana, and she shook her head. She roughly swiped her hands in front of her eyes and cleared her throat. It was at that moment that Lizzy realized that she was only wearing a chemise that was ripped at the neckline and suddenly felt sick. Wordlessly, she took off her robe and draped in around Georgiana’s shoulders.
“That man...George—Mr. Wickham...we are engaged...” She collapsed into tears again, and Lizzy brought her hand to Georgiana’s back.
Georgiana attempted to speak again, but her voice was muffled by Lizzy’s shoulder. Lizzy pulled away, “What was that?”
“My companion is a relation of his. She encouraged the match—though I had known him my entire life in away. I do not think she would believe me if I told her…” Her voice trailed off and she succumbed to more tears.
When she had composed herself more, she spoke, “I—I—I told her this afternoon that I was having doubts about marrying him. You see, I do not think that my brother would approve of our hasty courtship, and she told me that I had to remain in my room for the rest of the day before I made a decision that would break George’s heart. I did not want to hurt anyone, I just—”
Lizzy hushed her as a new wave of tears began. She did not need to hear anymore. Putting together the confusing pieces of the evening together, she began to think that Mr. Wickham’s supposed sister was in all likelihood Georgiana’s companion who had been employed to help Wickham compromise her. She sighed, feeling completely out of her depth. The sooner she could get to her aunt and uncle for help, the better.
“Shh, Georgiana. You did naught wrong. I believe you. We shall not speak of it anymore tonight.”
Darcy pulled his horse into the stables, muttering a curse under his breath. His horse had cast its shoe more than two miles back, and he had to walk it through the dark for over an hour before he managed to find an inn. He estimated that he was still a couple of hours from Ramsgate but decided that he would rest for the night and see Georgiana in the morning. He doubted a night would make much difference to his sister whom he assumed was not sparing a thought for her brother during her seaside holiday.
After speaking with the stable master, he entered the inn, deciding that while it was not ideal, it would serve him well enough for the night. He approached the innkeeper. “Good evening. I would like a private room for the night.”
The man nodded, “Certainly, we got many free tonight.”
“Excellent, give me your finest available room,” he said, handing him a small pouch of coins he was certain would cover the cost.
“’Course, Sir,” the man said, bowing eagerly. “Righ’ away, Sir.”
Having procured his room, Darcy looked around the empty room before his eye caught that of his sister’s companion, speaking angrily with a man in a dark corner of the common room. What the devil is she doing here? He took a step to approach her before she ran in the opposite direction in alarm. He instinctively moved to follow her before the man turned around to reveal George Wickham.
Wickham attempted to flee, but Darcy grabbed his arm and held him in place. “What are you doing here, you vile scrub? Why were you with that woman?”
Wickham just smiled, though he could not quite manage nonchalance. His eyes shifted about wildly, and his voice was not steady. “What are you talking about, Fitz? I was just talking to a lady.
You have lectured me about that too often to find such behavior uncharacteristic.”
Wickham attempted to pull away, but Darcy twisted Wickham’s arm to prevent him from leaving. The leech spluttered, “I know nothing! I swear!”
The innkeeper returned downstairs and cried, “What in blazes is going on here?”
Darcy turned his head to the man without loosening his hold. “Sir, was there a woman—brown hair and about five and thirty—travelling with this man?”
The innkeeper looked at the two of them dubiously, but Darcy glared intensely at the man which seemed to erode his desire for discretion. The man nodded, “Aye, and a young lady—his intended, I think. Very pretty young thing and finer than most we see come through here.”
“His intended?” As comprehension dawned on Darcy, he turned to face Wickham and tightened his grip. “What in God’s name have you done with her?” he whispered hoarsely.
“I do not know what that man is speaking of. You know me, Fitz. I could never—”
Darcy dug his fingers into Wickham’s arm and grabbed the other one. “Where is she?” he spat at Wickham. “If you lie to me, I swear on my life that I will have you hanged before the sun goes down tomorrow.”
He felt the moment his threat sunk in. Wickham’s body became limp, and he shivered. “She is upstairs. She went into some woman’s room.”
Darcy attempted to move him toward the innkeeper, but Wickham used the moment to bolt. Darcy looked at the innkeeper for help, but the man was standing behind a table, trying to avoid involvement in a gentleman’s dispute. Darcy clenched his fists, barely maintaining control of himself, and decided that it was better to find Georgiana and deal with lech later.
He ran up the steps to the guest rooms, taking them two at a time. “Georgiana?” he called, trying in vain to keep his voice steady. He heard the innkeeper shout at him to keep his voice down, but he was beyond the point of caring. His confusion upon first seeing Mrs. Younge and Wickham together had been replaced by a petrifying fear for Georgiana’s safety.
A woman down the hall opened her door and told him to quiet down. He could not heed her words. He called out again, “Georgiana?”
Suddenly, a muffled voice called through his panic. “Fitzwilliam?”
He could recognize the sweet voice of his sister anywhere and moved blindly toward the voice. “Georgiana!”
A young woman in a nightgown appeared in the doorway of a room a few feet away from him, fiercely clutching a shawl around her shoulders. Her voice was strong and assertive. “Are you Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy?”
He nodded, unable to do anything else, and stepped toward her. “I am Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Your sister is with me, but I pray you be very gentle with her and do not ask too many questions. Do I have your agreement on this?”
He could not find it in himself to be indignant at this unknown woman giving him orders. He only managed a quick nod before Miss Bennet stepped aside to let him into the room.
His heart broke when he saw Georgiana on the settee with puffy eyes and a red face. “Fitzwilliam, I am so sorry. I am so sorry,” she cried.
He shook his head and rushed over to embrace her. “Oh, my dearest Georgie, worry not. I am here, and you are safe.”
He continued to cradle her head against his chest as he whispered words of comfort into her hair. As his panic-stricken mind began to process what had happened and how he had failed his dearest sister, he began to cry as he had not done since the death of his father.
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Chapter 2: Chapter II
TW/CW: This chapter contains non graphic descriptions of sexual assault/abuse
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Georgiana had fallen asleep in his arms before he realized that Miss Bennet was gone. He had not given a thought to the woman who gave his sister refuge until he picked Georgiana up to tuck her into bed—Miss Bennet’s bed. In any other situation, Darcy would have certainly laughed at the absurdity that he—who prided himself on never finding himself in a compromising situation—would think nothing of tucking his sister into the bed of an unknown, unmarried woman without her consent. Yet, he doubted that anything could be more horrifically absurd than the unimaginable coincidence that brought him to be here at this moment.
He pulled a chair from the corner of the room to the bed and sat there, clutching her hand in sleep. They had not spoken of what happened yet, and perhaps that, more than anything, distressed him. His mind vacillated between numbness and imagining the worst possible scenarios that could have happened.
He could not be sure how much time elapsed before the door quietly opened and Miss Bennet slipped inside with an older woman. Darcy felt incapable of standing and greeting them, and it seemed that Miss Bennet sensed this because she only glanced at him before making the appropriate introductions. “Mr. Darcy, this is my aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, with whom I am travelling. Being that she is a married woman and a mother, I felt it apt that she join us as a chaperone. I believe she can be most beneficial to Georgiana at this time.”
She turned to her aunt to introduce him, and he saw the low light of the fire and her aunt’s candle illuminate her face. Light glinted off a wet line on her cheek where a tear must have fallen, and her eyes were glassy with unshed tears. It made her look younger and totally artless, and he felt as if her distress was confirmation that he could trust her.
“Aunt, this is Mr. Darcy, Georgiana’s brother. He only had just arrived when I came to get you,” her voice did not waver, but it was not as confident as it had been before.
Mrs. Gardiner spoke, “My niece informed me of the situation in vague terms, Sir, but she suggested that she wait to explain the rest until she had returned to your sister. My husband is currently waiting out in the hall whenever you are ready to discuss how you would like to proceed in dealing with the culprits.”
He nodded and stood, relieved that he managed to remember at least some of his manners. “I thank you and your husband for your assistance, Madam. As you can see, my sister is now asleep, and I do not want to wake her from her rest. Miss Bennet, would you mind explaining what you know of the situation and how you came to be involved?”
He brought his chair over next to the settee and gestured for the two ladies to sit. Miss Bennet was direct and matter of fact as she relayed meeting Wickham and his “sister,” whom he assumed to be Mrs. Younge, as well as her meeting with Georgiana in the hallway. His heart ached as he heard Miss Bennet describe Georgiana’s loneliness and distress.
As she told them of her actions when she suspected something to be amiss with Georgiana, he had to look away. He leaned his forehead against his hand, thinking about how this young woman—a stranger for all intents and purposes—had protected his sister better than himself or any of the people with whom he left her.
“I believe, Sir, that her companion plotted with Mr. Wickham to convince her to marry. This is just my inference from the bits that she has been able to tell me, but Miss Darcy told me that she had been left alone in her room all day after she expressed some doubts to her companion about your approval of the match.
“Her companion seemed to have made her ashamed of having second thoughts and wanting your approval, leading me to believe that she was the woman I saw with him earlier. And, once Georgiana had escaped, I heard him whispering with a woman in the hall. I believe they were plotting together.”
Darcy wiped his hand over his face, sighing in exhaustion. All were silent for a moment before he looked up at the two women. “Forgive me, Miss Bennet, for I am too distraught and exhausted to fully convey my gratitude for all that you have done for my sister this night. I commend you and thank you sincerely.”
Miss Bennet only gave him a wan smile and nodded.
“I still have further questions, if you do not mind. My thoughts are rather disorganized, and I am trying in vain to articulate them. So, pardon me if I appear blunt, but you said that Wickham and my sister were in the room together alone. Do you—” he shivered just to think of the possibilities, “do you know what happened before you knocked?”
Miss Bennet looked away, and Mrs. Gardiner stiffened beside her, clearly nervous to hear the answer. “I know not, Mr. Darcy, but your sister is wearing my dressing gown because her chemise was ripped. That is all I know. I did not want to trouble your sister with further questions.”
Darcy’s heart constricted in his chest, and he felt nauseous. His eyes smarted, and he pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes to stifle the urge to cry. He would not cry in front of these two strange women.
“God, I do not even know how to ask her the question,” he spoke loudly, unthinking.
Georgiana stirred in the bed, and he looked over at her—simultaneously willing her to awake and cursing himself for disturbing her rest. Mrs. Gardiner cleared her throat, and Darcy turned to look at her.
In a soft, calm voice, she spoke, “I understand your fear well, Mr. Darcy. Perhaps, you would like me to speak with your sister? I believe the questions you mean to ask may come easier from a older, married woman than a brother.”
He saw the sense in Mrs. Gardiner’s idea, but could he trust this woman he only just met with information that could surely destroy Georgiana’s reputation? He had trusted Mrs. Younge. However, Mrs. Gardiner seemed like an intelligent and genteel woman, and she had a motherly presence about her.
Likely sensing his reluctance, she said, “I would let you know all that she said immediately after. However, she is waking, and I think it would be best to make a decision now.”
He did not know why, but at that moment, he looked to Miss Bennet, as if to get her approval. She looked slightly surprised at his questioning look but nodded nonetheless as if to show her approval for the plan.
He sighed. “Very well, Mrs. Gardiner. I thank you for your assistance. Perhpas I should speak to your husband now.”
After introducing a very weary Georgiana to her aunt, Lizzy made her way to her aunt and uncle’s rooms with her uncle and Mr. Darcy. “Mr. Darcy, this is my uncle Mr. Gardiner.”
The men shook hands, and Lizzy had no idea what to do next.
“Uh…my aunt is with Miss Darcy right now, trying to help her describe the particulars of what happened,” she informed her uncle.
He nodded solemnly, and there was a moment of silence before he spoke. “How is the girl?”
Lizzy sighed. “We do not know yet, but she was able to sleep. At the least, I am relieved by that. She was very distressed though, Uncle.”
Making eye contact with the very weary Mr. Darcy, she felt the urge speak on his behalf as he seemed hesitant to do so himself. “The man—the culprit—Mr. Wickham,” her head felt jumbled as she struggled to articulate what she wanted, “Could you aid Mr. Darcy in deciding what to do about him? Surely, he must be brought to justice is some way.”
“Now, wait, Lizzy,” her uncle spoke gently yet his tone boded admonishment. “We do not yet know the particulars. Mr. Darcy may not want to pursue justice until he knows what must be done about his sister.”
Lizzy looked at her uncle as if he was a stranger. How could he ever suggest such a thing? Not holding that monster to account for hurting Miss Darcy so! He could not possibly be suggesting that Miss Darcy…
“You are not suggesting that she be made to marry him, are you uncle? I would rather bring the man to justice myself than have that sweet girl forever chained to that rake!”
“Lizzy!” her uncle hissed, “That was not what I was suggesting. I was suggesting that perhaps Mr. Darcy would like to hear the particulars of the incident given that the case is very sensitive and Miss Darcy’s reputation may be at stake. ‘Tis not my place to make such decisions,” he turned to Mr. Darcy, whom Lizzy suddenly remembered was present.
“I apologize, Mr. Darcy, my niece can be impulsive, and she is clearly distressed.”
Lizzy shook her head as if to clear it of its fog. “Yes, I apologize, Sir. I forget myself. I do not at all feel well, nor am I thinking clearly. I’ve let my anger run away with me.”
Mr. Darcy surprised her by quite nearly smiling albeit half-heartedly. “Do not worry, Miss Bennet. I believe I was thinking almost exactly the same thing, and I, too, cannot seem to prevail myself to think clearly. This evening has certainly been taxing on all of us. But your uncle is correct. I would like to hear what Mrs. Gardiner has to say before I decide what to do about Wickham. As much as I would like to see the man hang for harming my sister, I could not in good conscious consign my sister to a life of infamy if the details of this were ever to become public.”
Lizzy looked at Mr. Darcy and decided in that moment that she liked him. Even in his apparent exhaustion and agitation, he was so sensible and explained his thoughts so eloquently. Not to mention, he did not dismiss her anger or her concerns and refused to consider forcing Georgiana to marry the reprobate.
Looking at her uncle in apology for her impertinence, she spoke to Mr. Darcy again. “Pardon me, Sir, but how do you propose bringing him to justice while maintaining Miss Darcy’s confidentiality? Should my uncle not summon a magistrate? I would assume that Mr. Wickham is still here in one of the single gentleman’s rooms.”
Mr. Darcy shook his head. “Mr. Wickham and his accomplice, Mrs. Younge, have fled. They noticed me upon my arrival, and I only managed to detain Wickham long enough to attain my sister’s whereabouts.”
“And, the charges, Mr. Darcy,” her uncle chimed in, “are you hoping to bring him up on an unrelated charge with an appropriate punishment?”
“Perhaps. I first need to locate the man. I have no doubt he has left a trail of debts in his wake, so I am assuming that he will try to earn some income on the black markets of London. I may perhaps attempt to purchase his debts, but I find myself unable to think of the particulars at the moment. I will have to confer with—”
“Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Gardiner appeared in the doorway.
Lizzy thought Mr. Darcy looked as if he was being sent to the gallows.
“Dear Lizzy,” her aunt said, taking her hand, “would you mind keeping Miss Darcy company? I need to speak to Mr. Darcy about a matter privately. I will come and retrieve you when we have finished speaking.”
Though reluctant to leave the conversation, Lizzy did as she was told. She lingered on the other side of the door just long enough to hear her aunt begin to speak. “It is not the worst we feared, Sir. There is no threat of a child, but—”
Deciding it was perhaps best to leave her knowledge of the situation there, she hurried back to her room where she found Georgiana sitting in front of the fire with her arms around her knees. Georgiana looked up only briefly before returning her gaze to the fire.
Coming tentatively around to sit next to her, Lizzy spoke softly, “How are you feeling, Georgiana?”
The girl turned to her and cocked her head, “’Tis strange that you call me Georgiana already.”
Slightly alarmed at the girl’s comment, she spoke hastily. “I apologize, Miss Darcy, if I appear officious. I—”
A corner of Georgiana’s mouth lifted slightly, but instead of the smile Lizzy assumed she intended, it appeared as more of a grimace. “No, I did not mean to chide you for it. I was just thinking how strange it is that it is only one o’ clock in the morning and we met—I cannot be certain—not yet six hours ago, I suppose. And, in the intervening time, you have saved my life. I have met your aunt and told her unspeakable things, and you have had to introduce yourself to my brother in a most improper fashion.
“As it so happens, I believe I have come to feel closer to you in a few hours than nearly any other lady of my acquaintance. So, by all means, call me Georgiana or Georgie or whatever name you prefer, Miss Bennet. I…” her voice, which until that point had been flat, cracked, and she leaned against Lizzy’s shoulder.
Placing an arm around her shoulders, Lizzy simply said, “I quite agree, dearest Georgiana, and you may call me Elizabeth or Lizzy or even Eliza if you please.”
Georgiana gave her a small smile through her tears, and they were silent for several minutes before Georgiana sniffled and spoke. “Your aunt is an exceedingly kind woman.”
“Yes, she is. She and my uncle are the dearest relations I have besides my sister Jane.”
“She reminds me of what I imagine my mother was like.”
“You never met her?” Lizzy asked and then winced, realizing what an inopportune time it was to ask such a question.
Georgiana must have sensed this. “I truly do not mind talking of her, and quite frankly, I would rather speak about anything than—than what is going on,” she paused for a moment, biting her lip. “Fitzwilliam and I are orphans now, I suppose, but it has never felt that way because in many ways he has been a parent and brother to me in the last five years since our father died. He and my cousin Richard are my legal guardians.”
Lizzy’s eyes widened. Mr. Darcy could be no more than thirty! “He must have been very young when he became your guardian!”
Georgiana laughed a little, and it felt like the first genuine moment of happiness she had seen in the girl since they had met. “Oh yes, he was just out of Cambridge, and as much as he tried, he was not very good at being a guardian to a ten-year-old girl.”
She giggled again while Lizzy did the math in her head and realized Georgiana was not yet sixteen. The poor girl! She was likely not out yet and so unprepared for courtship. Heavens, Lizzy had been officially out for nearly four years, yet she still felt unprepared for dealing with men, courtship, and marriage!
Georgiana continued, distracting Lizzy from her musings. “He is truly the best brother I could ask for, but he could never quite manage the sternness of Papa. It is quite diverting to think that my dear brother, for all his appearances of severity and gravity, can never truly be so with me. He will, I think, forever be my brother and friend, hiding sweets for me behind my sheet music or racing me through the park at Pemberley—our home…”
She trailed off, and Lizzy jumped in sensing the girl’s distraction. “How lovely to have such a brother as he! I do not have any brothers—much to my mother’s chagrin! I have always longed for a good big brother, though, to spoil and protect me!”
“Yes, but you have a sister!” Georgiana contradicted, “I would love to have a sister! I have always dreamed it.”
“Then, dear Georgie, you can have one of mine because I have three to spare!”
Georgiana’s eyes glazed over in wonder. “Might you tell me about them?”
“Well…” she paused and laughingly tapped her chin in mock contemplation, “what to tell of the infamous Bennet sisters…”
“Infamous!” Georgiana exclaimed in amusement.
“Oh, yes, infamous we are indeed. My youngest sister Lydia is but fifteen yet perhaps the boldest of all of us. She has a laugh so loud you could hear it in Scotland—I am sure. Then, the next youngest is Kitty who just turned seventeen. She is rather diffident and always seems to be sick somehow. For a country girl, she has a rather delicate countenance and frame, yet she can be just as boisterous as Lydia when she has a mind to!
“Mary is the middle child—but a mere two years younger than me—and she is of a rather pious disposition. She loves reading moral works and chiding her older sister on her hoydenish behavior!” Lizzy said archly.
This prompted another genuine laugh from Georgiana, and Lizzy felt a strange burst of satisfaction and relief, having provoked it.
“Then, there is Jane—my dearest friend and confidant. She is the first among us in age, beauty, grace, and sweetness. You actually remind me of her quite a bit.” Georgiana beamed in disbelief, and Lizzy continued, “Jane and I have a fine, unspoken agreement between us. You see, Jane teaches me to be good when I am wicked, demure when I am impulsive, and serene when I am furious. And, I boast to everyone about Jane because she is quite possibly the best person in the world yet the last person to draw any attention to that fact.”
Georgiana’s countenance became serious. “I doubt I am like your sister,” she said gravely, “I believe this evening shows just how wicked and impulsive I am.”
“Georgiana, no!” Lizzy cried.
“Fitzwilliam will be ashamed of me. He is ashamed of me. I cannot face him now. We have not yet spoken of what happened. I knew he would be disappointed, but I still went along with it!” Her voice had picked up speed as she continued, “Perhaps, I unknowingly told George to compromise me. I doubt he would have—”
“Stop!” Lizzy said brusquely, stilling Georgiana’s hands with her own. “Please, stop!”
Upon seeing Georgiana’s fearful expression, she modulated her tone. “I am sorry for being so brusque, but I cannot let you continue thinking these horrid thoughts—these horrid, untrue thoughts.
“First of all, your brother knows what happened. He knows of your supposed engagement. I told him, and I apologize for breaking your confidence—I would not have done so had the circumstances not been so dire.”
Georgiana said nothing and just looked at her intently. “He also knows, however, that you wanted to be honest with him and had scruples, and he knows that Mrs. Younge made you feel guilty for that. Even now, dear Georgiana, I can see just how much he loves you. His only concern is your welfare! He does not blame you!”
“Well, he is too good then! It is because he cannot see me clearly! He still sees me as an innocent child. But perhaps I brought this upon myself, and he cannot see it!”
She was frantic as she spoke, and Lizzy was surprised by how capricious her mood was. “Georgiana!” she cried forcefully to get her attention. “How old are you?”
The girl seemed to shrink before her eyes. “Fifteen,” she murmured.
“And how old is Mr. Wickham?”
Lizzy took her hands gently. “You are not a little girl anymore, but you still do not have very much experience with men or society. That is not your fault. The rules of propriety and courtship are intricate and confusing—even for a woman five years your senior such as myself! Most of the time, no one properly explains such things to a woman—my mother certainly did not—and with two male guardians, how could you know all the unspoken rules by which we ladies must abide?
“Your brother did right by employing a companion, but any companion acting in your interest would not have convinced you of engaging in a courtship without your guardian’s consent! That is her fault, not yours!
“And, Wickham is double your age! If he had interacted in society at all, he would have known better than to court you in such a way. He would not have taken such liberties as he had, and he would not have ever made you feel ashamed or guilty or like you had to do anything in secret.”
Seeing Georgiana’s wet eyes, Lizzy squeezed her hands. “I am sorry. I do not mean to offend you or to worry you. I just cannot bear the idea of you blaming yourself for being so mistreated. You do not deserve that, my dear friend, because I like you very much and want the best for you. And believing these lies are not what is best for you.”
At that, Georgiana burst into another fit of tears.
“I am so sorry, Elizabeth. I know not what has come over me. I feel fine one moment and then angry the next and then so very grieved!”
“All is well,” Miss Bennet soothed. “Sometimes ‘tis best to let all of the emotions out as you feel them and sort them out later.”
“Mr. Darcy,” Mrs. Gardiner whispered as she joined him in front of the door. “I know it is much to deal with so unexpectedly, but I believe it is better not to tarry and to give her your assurances as soon as possible.”
Darcy agreed, but Mrs. Gardiner was mistaken as to the source of his hesitation. He had just come from his painful interview with the Gardiners and was about to knock on the door when the sound of his name beyond the door gave him pause. He stood and listened for a minute—or maybe five—while Miss Bennet somehow managed to take all his jumbled thoughts and articulate them so clearly to his distraught sister.
He had never been so grateful for and jealous of someone in his life as he had been at that moment. While his worst fears had been averted on this night—for Georgiana could not be with child—the idea that she was no longer a maiden and that Wickham had attacked her in her sleep was the stuff of his wildest nightmares. The fear that gripped him rendered him nearly unconscious with grief. As such, Miss Bennet and the Gardiners were truly God-sent, but they also showed him his defects as a guardian in painful detail. Why could he never speak to Georgiana in such a way? He was certain that if he had to give Georgiana the same assurances, he would only manage to make her feel guiltier. At the very least, Miss Bennet and Miss Gardiner had made the task before him now much easier.
Standing up taller, he knocked firmly on the door and entered at Miss Bennet’s call of “Come in.”
Mrs. Gardiner stepped in before him and spoke. “Lizzy, ‘tis late. Why do you not come and sleep in my room tonight?”
Miss Bennet seemed to defer to Georgiana for she only moved once his sister had given her a small nod. The two women curtsied briefly before taking their leave, and he felt the absurd impulse to laugh—or cry. On this night of a thousand improprieties, when these two women had witnessed and learned more about his sister than most people ever learn about even their closest acquaintances, they still curtsied to him. He strangely wondered why. Was it out of force of habit? Or, was it consciously done to offset the impropriety of them being in their night clothes in front of him? Why did he suddenly feel like everything he had ever been taught about right and proper behavior was utter rubbish?
It was only when Georgiana called his name in a frightened voice that he realized he had been glaring at the clock on the mantle of the fireplace.
“I apologize. I was woolgathering.” He shook his head and took a seat in the armchair adjacent to her.
Not knowing where to begin, he reached out to take her hand.
“No—” he cut himself off at the look on her face and cursed himself. “Please, dearest, let me begin. I would very much appreciate it.”
She nodded, and he went on. “I want you to know I spoke with Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Bennet about what you told then and what they observed, and I want you to know that…”
That what? he asked himself. That she was not entirely ruined? That he would never let that lech or that vile woman near her again? That he was sorry he failed her? That he loved her no matter what? Nothing seemed like the right thing to say at that moment.
“First, I want to know. How are you feeling...generally?” He doubted he could have spoken in a more awkward manner if he had tried to do so purposefully.
“Uh…I feel pain in certain places where he grabbed me,” she swallowed noticeably, “hard, and I…I am uncertain how I feel. One moment I feel fine like nothing extraordinary has happened, and a moment later I feel like everything is so strange like I am trapped in a glass box and I do not know what is going on.”
He did not know what to say to this, so he simply said, “I am so sorry, Georgie.”
His voice cracked when he spoke, and this seemed to alarm her more than anything had. Tears began to flow down her face, and her whole body began to tremble. “Fitzwilliam, please. Just tell me what you are thinking. I could not bear to be the object of your disdain,” she begged softly.
Her quiet plea twisted at his heart, and unthinkingly, he moved to sit next to her on the settee and embraced her. She shuddered before sinking into his embrace. “I could never disdain you, Dearest. This is my fault, and I promise to do whatever I can to repair the situation for you. Please, do not blame yourself. Do not worry yourself. I will take care of you.”
Georgiana did not say anything in response to this which he took to be an indication that he managed the situation adequately, if not well.
Not long after this he carried Georgiana to bed and tucked her in. He could not help but dissatisfied with their conversation. He expected it to be longer and more difficult. He expected her to speak more and to seem visibly reassured by his word. Regardless, it was a beginning, and perhaps with a little more discussion, they could put it behind them.
The next morning Lizzy sat in the common room of the inn, staring out the window where her aunt and uncle were conferring with their coachmen about preparations for their journey. Their movements were slow as if moving through treacle, which was eminently strange for two people who usually did everything with alacrity. She supposed they were all rather subdued today.
She turned in her armchair and noticed Mr. Darcy conferring quietly with the innkeeper and handing him what appeared to be a banknote. The innkeeper nodded vigorously at whatever Mr. Darcy must have instructed. She noticed for the first time since meeting him how tall and commanding he was. He stood several inches taller than the innkeeper and had broad shoulders, making the paunchy, round man next to him seem small. His posture was straight, almost to the point of rigidity, and he was dressed simply and elegantly in a well-cut coat and a silk cravat.
The innkeeper bowed deeply and took his leave of the man, shuffling through a doorway behind him. Mr. Darcy turned and made eye contact with her, and she felt slightly discomfited. She doubted he had slept much from the darkness around his eyes, but it was not his apparent exhaustion which gave her pause. For all intents and purposes, Mr. Darcy was a very handsome man—a very handsome man who had seen her in her disheveled nightclothes. She felt herself flush much to her chagrin. “He likely did not notice your dishevelment, you vain creature!” she thought defensively.
She looked away and opened her book. He made his way toward her and bowed. “Miss Bennet,” he said primly. “May I?” he gestured to the armchair next to hers.
“By all means,” she said, managing some semblance of equanimity. “How is your sister this morning, Mr. Darcy?”
“Better I believe, thanks to you, Miss Bennet. We spoke last night, and I do hope she was reassured.”
She nodded, not knowing what to say to him. His expression was strangely placid and impassive, and she could hardly believe that this was the same emotive man she met last night. Feeling the need to lighten the somber mood which hung over them, she irrationally felt compelled toward pertness. “I must tell you, Mr. Darcy, my uncle was none too pleased last night when you offered to compensate him for his silence.”
He looked at her in complete shock, and she wondered whether she had made a terrible mistake. She was about to dissemble when he spoke clearly. “Yes, he was rather vehement in his refusals.”
There was nearly the hint of a smile on his face, and the expression disarmed her more than if he had grinned.
“So, Mr. Darcy, tell me, are you the type of gentleman who assumes that money can buy all things? The silence of an innkeeper? Or my uncle?”
“It seems to me that poverty is an eyeglass through which one may see his true friends,” he responded cryptically.
She tilted her head and regarded him curiously. Upon seeing her confusion, he gestured to her copy of The Canterbury Tales, and she smiled, realizing that he was quoting the book.
“Bravo, Mr. Darcy. Point taken,” she said, nodding as if to concede. “And, I am inclined to agree. I have seen wealth—or appearance of it—too often become bait for unscrupulous people.”
He frowned, and she wondered from what, in her previous statement, he took offense if he had taken none at her previous sportive comments.
“I apologize, Mr. Darcy, for my impertinence. I truly mean no offense,” she hoped she managed to convey sincerity.
“And, I took none, Miss Bennet. I assure you.” He sighed. “It is merely that your words once again reminded me of the predicament I find myself in at the moment.”
“You think what happened was the result of Miss Darcy’s fortune?”
“I can think of no other cause,” he paused for a moment, seeming to think it over, “except perhaps revenge.”
She looked at him with his immaculate clothing and his noble carriage. He was clearly a very wealthy man—perhaps the wealthiest she had ever met—yet he seemed to be weighed down by the world’s troubles more than most. He had a commanding presence, yet he was not appalled by the nearly irreverent remarks that she could not help but blurt in her discomfited state.
In short, she found him fascinating. She could not, however, justify the additional impudence required to ask what he meant by revenge.
He may have sensed this because after a long pause, he spoke, “I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet. I have been too free with sharing my speculations.”
She nearly laughed at the excess of contrition in his tone for she would have preferred him tell her too much than too little. He was so sincere, though, so she felt the need to reassure him. “’Tis no matter, Sir. If we must blame one of us for speaking improperly, then the blame should be mine, not yours. I was not you who accused some poor, unsuspecting gentleman of being avaricious.”
He laughed—a warm, rich tone—and his face transformed for a moment. “No, indeed I did not, but nor did you. If I recall, you merely asked a question, and instead of taking it in the good humor in which I believe it was intended, I spoke arcanely.”
This managed to provoke a laugh out of Lizzy which was too close to a giggle for her to be pleased with it. “Come now, Mr. Darcy. Do not dissemble. Your disguise does not fool me! I am certain that you knew I would be pleased by your witty ability to answer my jest with a Chaucer quote, but I shall have you know I was not at all pleased with you. I do not like to be outwitted,” she said an arch smile.
His eyes widened for a moment before he squinted and crossed his legs toward her. She felt a bit of a thrill at his evident surprise—at her ability to flap a seemingly unflappable man. “So, first I use money to solve all my problems. Now, I am disingenuous. I feel that naught I can do will please you. Is that correct, Miss Bennet?”
She laughed, and he joined her. She was about to reply when her aunt arrived looking grave. “Good morning, niece, Mr. Darcy.” Lizzy glanced back at Mr. Darcy who had suddenly reverted to an impenetrable wall of reserve.
He stood and bowed formally to her aunt, and when he spoke, his words were sincere yet restrained. “Good morning, Mrs. Gardiner.” Then, his hand clenched—the only indication of his discomfort. “I hope I might offer my thanks once again for you and your husband’s invaluable service last night. I must thank God for the good fortune that brought you here.”
“You are sincerely welcome, Mr. Darcy,” her aunt said with a smile. “We wish the best for Miss Darcy and yourself. Take care.”
He bowed to her aunt, and she waited for him to acknowledge her. He kept his eyes on her aunt, however, until they were beginning to walk away at which point, he glanced in her direction but a moment before bowing to her. “Miss Bennet,” he said and bowed again. “Mrs. Gardiner.”
She and her aunt had made their way out of the inn when her aunt looked at her gently. “How do you fare, dearest Lizzy? The last day of our trip was quite strenuous for you in particular, I believe.”
“I am well, Aunt, but do tell me truthfully. Will Miss Darcy be well?”
Mrs. Gardiner hesitated for a moment. “She will although there is much with which I believe I must acquaint you, my dear. When we arrive in London tonight, you and I shall have a nice long chat to discuss it all.”
Lizzy nodded gratefully, understanding that her aunt would let her know the details that she had not been privy to the night before.
Lizzy turned around to see Georgiana rushing out of the inn with her bonnet strings untied and her spencer hastily slipped on.
Georgiana reached out her hands, and Lizzy took them. “Dear Georgiana, your brother told me you were still abed!”
“I could not allow you to leave without saying goodbye,” she whispered. “I wish you did not have to leave.”
Lizzy grasped the girl’s hands tighter. “Please do not worry, Georgiana. This will not be the last time we meet. I am certain. I feel it in my bones.”
Georgiana stepped back and cast her eyes down. “I wish you a safe journey.”
With that, Lizzy hopped into the carriage, and they were on their way—beginning an uncomfortably somber ride back to London. She watched as Georgiana’s figure appeared further and further away, frowning upon seeing Georgiana swipe at her tears.
Her last image of the girl, though, was that of her brother taking her gently by the arm and walking her back to the inn.
Still looking for a beta reader! Please hit me up if you're interested in the nuances of how diction, syntax, and idiom are used across time and space ;)
Chapter 3: Chapter III
I am absolutely floored by the wonderful, kind responses I have received in response to this story from all around the world! I thank you all! It has given me such confidence in working on this project, especially since I am such an inexperienced writer. I hope you enjoy this chapter as much as you all have the past two!
Wednesday, 25 September 1811
Darcy took a sip of his brandy. "Good God, Gardiner. Where did you get this?"
"An old friend of mine imports brandy. He gives me the first pick of his stock, and I ask no questions about its origins."
Darcy laughed. "Then, I shall ask no more. This brandy is too good to be confiscated." He looked over at Gardiner and felt a certain wistfulness about his upcoming trip to Hertfordshire.
In the weeks since discovering Wickham in Canterbury, Darcy had developed an unlikely friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner of Gracechurch Street. Mr. Gardiner had given him his direction before he had left the inn, and Darcy had called on them three days after he and Georgiana had returned to London to thank them as much as to beg for advice.
He had arrived, hat in hand, and filled with trepidation only to be warmly welcomed, and his quick courtesy call surpassed the appropriate quarter of an hour and lasted several hours with an invitation to return with Georgiana the following week. Thus, his strangely fulfilling friendship with the tradesman and his wife was cemented.
In Mr. Gardiner, he found a confidante with whom he could discuss what happened to Georgiana freely and sensibly. Even his cousin and dearest friend Colonel Fitzwilliam could not be trusted in the same way. As Georgiana's co-guardian, Fitzwilliam had to be informed of the incident with Wickham. He, however, felt just as guilty as Darcy without having to manage the day to day ramifications of Georgiana's attack.
Mrs. Gardiner had proved herself to be invaluable on that front. On his first call to the Gardiner's residence, he had admitted that he was entirely uncertain about choosing a new companion for Georgiana. Mrs. Gardiner had ably stepped in, sharing her opinion on various candidates and offering to call upon Georgiana and her companion to observe them. Georgiana appreciated Mrs. Gardiner's warm and sensible company, and, much to Darcy's relief, she answered many of the delicate questions that Georgiana had after her experience without batting an eye at his sister's many tears.
"Are you alright there, Darcy? You have been glaring at my candlestick for a while."
Darcy blinked rapidly, returning his focus to the present moment. "I do apologize. I was woolgathering."
"'Tis nothing new, my friend. You have had much on your mind of late," he said, beginning to pour another glass of brandy for him.
"No," he said brusquely, before modulating his tone. "Thank you, Gardiner. I must have my wits about me tonight. I am preparing for my trip to Hertfordshire."
"Ah, yes. Hence, the woolgathering," Gardiner sat back in his chair with a sense of relaxation Darcy envied. "Do not worry. It is only four weeks until Miss Darcy joins you, and I am certain my wife will call on her every other day—as will your cousin! You must take this as an opportunity for a moment of tranquility away from the pressures of the past several weeks. You look positively ill, man, and I have it on good authority that Hertfordshire is abundant with the beauties of the natural world."
"You've been?" Darcy inquired.
"Most certainly! I must have told you. That is where my sister and her husband live. You've met their second eldest—my niece, Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Darcy nearly smiled at the mention of Miss Bennet. Georgiana did not often speak of her—she hardly spoke of anything to do with that night. Yet, he knew from Mrs. Gardiner that Georgiana asked after her often and that Mrs. Gardiner would often read Georgiana her letters from her niece to his sister's great joy.
Darcy himself was curious about Miss Bennet. He found himself thinking of her occasionally with differing feeling. Generally, he regarded her with gratitude for her care and kindness toward his sister, and he attempted to employ her techniques for comforting Georgiana with little success. Then, he might think about her with envy for being able to provide comfort for Georgiana where he could not. This, however, would inevitably lead him to thinking about how she had comforted him in her own strange, irreverent way and how bright her complexion and fine her eyes were when she laughed—or that he had seen her in her night clothes. That was not something he would allow himself to think about, though.
Gardiner interrupted his shameful musings. "That reminds me. I shall write down the direction of my brother Bennet's estate and send him a letter informing him of your presence in Hertfordshire. Then, if you need a change of scenery or some sensible conversation, you might pay him a call."
Darcy took the paper when Gardiner had finished writing it and glanced at it. "His estate? He is a gentleman?"
"Yes, he is my brother-in-law, and Longbourn has been in his family at least seven generations." Darcy's brow wrinkled in noncommittal approval.
"I must warn you, though," he laughed jovially before continuing, "though my brother is a very erudite, generally sensible sort of fellow, his wife—my sister—is quite…shakable, so to speak."
"Ah," Darcy said with the hint of a smile. "Well, I doubt it is in the neighborhood where I am staying, but I appreciate your family's hospitality nonetheless." He stuffed the paper in his pocket and stood to shake Gardiner's hand. "Shall we rejoin the ladies?"
"Kitty! Come here! We are going home!" Lizzy cried.
Kitty scurried over to Lizzy and Jane,
Jane placed a calming hand on her arm. "'Tis alright, Lizzy. She is only speaking with young Mr. Wilkins. Surely, that is proper. He is the son of Uncle Phillip's partner. They have been introduced."
Lizzy sighed, "Mayhap, but I do not like the idea of her leaving Aunt Phillip's house early to go outside and flirt with a man alone. What do we truly know about this man?"
"I believe you are being perhaps more cautious than you need be. We have been in company with Mr. Wilkins before, and he was a perfectly amiable man. I do not think there is any harm in it, and he and Kitty were not truly alone. Anyone could have walked past them."
"Amiability can say surprisingly little about a man's character, Jane, and I am not inclined to like a man who is so careless with propriety as to stand outside Aunt Phillip's house and speak with our sister without a chaperone!" Her voice sounded more vehement to her ears than she had intended, and she winced to see Jane's questioning look.
"I have never known you to be a stickler for propriety. Is all well, Lizzy? You have been rather stern since you returned from your trip to the seaside, and I daresay that Kitty and Lydia have noticed."
She knew Jane to be correct. Her trip with the Gardiners had left her without physical wounds. Witnessing the extremes of Mr. Wickham's gentility and viciousness, however, had left her uncertain in her ability to judge character. Coupled with the Mrs. Gardiner's explanation of what precisely happened to Georgiana and the threat that men can pose to young ladies, Lizzy felt a deep sense of mistrust that had pervaded her bones whenever she was in mixed company.
"I am well, Jane," she said, pulling Jane's arm through her own. "I simply heard several affecting stories during my travels about dangerous men with happy manners, and I suppose I find myself a bit wary. I am not truly angry at Kitty—or Lydia for that matter—I assure you."
"Oh, my brave Lizzy, I would never guess that you would be so affected by such tales, but I am nevertheless sorry for it." She squeezed her arm in reassurance, "I hope it relieves you to know that I think Mr. Wilkins to be very sincere. I cannot imagine what ulterior motive he could possess."
Lizzy, however, was not reassured. She longed to tell Jane everything, but she could not betray Georgiana or her aunt's confidence. The Gardiners had reluctantly agreed to keep their terrible experience in Canterbury to themselves, and so Lizzy discovered the frustrating sensation of having her perspective of the world shift without the ability to discuss it with anyone. It was frustrating to be a woman in such circumstances, she had decided. Society expected her to be in ignorance of the ways of men and the marriage bed, yet now that she knew the truth of such things, she was forced to pretend that she was still in ignorance lest it reflect poorly on herself. Men, such as Wickham, were allowed to wield this knowledge with impunity and often used it to their advantage. The injustice of it made her burn with anger.
She had, however, become adept at hiding her discontent in recent weeks, so she smiled at Jane and nodded. "I suppose you are right, dear Jane. As always, you are twice as good as I."
Jane merely patted her arm, but Lizzy looked back at where Kitty was trailing behind was left with a sinking feeling that Jane's unassuming goodness and Kitty's flirtatious naïveté could do them harm.
Lizzy was not formed for ill-humor, however, and she and Jane quickly fell into an excited chat about the Michaelmas assembly in two days' time. Upon hearing the topic of conversation, Kitty joined in the conversation, and the sisters arrived at Longbourn in high spirits, laughing about neighborhood gossip and the ridiculous songs Sir William would undoubtedly request at the assembly.
Darcy stood at the door to the music room, watching as Georgiana played Beethoven's Thirteenth Sonata. He watched in complete silence as her fingers moved in waves across the keys. The melody was beautiful and haunting, quickly building into an almost angry sound at points. There was no music on the stand, and her head was bowed toward the keys so he could not see her face. Her interpretation was undeniably powerful, and he briefly wondered if he was glimpsing the girl behind the cold, distant façade Georgiana had erected in the past several weeks.
When she finished, she paused for a moment. Her hands stood in suspension above the keys before relaxing her posture and letting her hands drop to her lap with a loud sigh that pained him. He knocked gently on the doorframe to alert her to his presence, and he tried to wince when she startled slightly at seeing him.
"Your interpretation was beautiful," he said gently, moving to sit on the settee adjacent to the piano bench. "I have not heard you play this piece before. I believe I purchased the sheet music for your last birthday."
She shrugged. "It may be that you did. I cannot remember when I received it, but I thank you for it."
"You need not thank me. Hearing you play is its own reward," he said and internally scoffed at his own mawkishness. Perhaps Georgiana was not the only one who had been distant. He felt as though he were treading on unsteady ground in her presence.
Deciding that directness may be the best course of action, he cleared his throat and spoke. "I wanted to speak with you before I leave for Hertfordshire."
"About what?" How she managed to sound simultaneously apprehensive and indifferent, he knew not.
"Nothing in particular. I merely wanted to see you and ensure you had all that you needed before I departed."
"I think I shall be well enough until I join you. Mrs. Gardiner is to call tomorrow, and I am to dine with Richard and Lord and Lady Matlock."
It was not the answer he desired, but one he should have anticipated. "Yes, I am aware," he paused, feeling as if she was trying to halt his inquiries. "I shall miss you…you will write, yes?"
He had never asked her that question before, and she looked offended for a moment before her expression became sad. "Of course, I will. Do you truly think I would not?"
One corner of his mouth tugged upward. "No, not truly. 'Tis only that we have been rather distant of late. I miss our old discussions."
She looked ashamed of herself, which was the opposite of what he had intended. "I am sorry, Brother. I do not mean to be distant. I just need…"
"What do you need?" he asked, tamping down his impatience as much as he could. He had broached the subject gently several times in the past only to receive indifferent answers. Previously, he relied on her new companion, Mrs. Annesley, and Mrs. Gardiner for information about his sister's well-being.
"I do not know," she said quietly.
How much time did she need to determine what she did need? It had been weeks since Wickham's attack, and he had no idea to what extent she had healed from the experience. Would she ever be the same again? Would she ever confide in him again? How could he help her if he knew nothing?
"I do have one request for you, though," she said shyly. "I do not know that you will approve, but Mrs. Gardiner told me that Elizabeth lives in Hertfordshire and that you might call on her father. If you meet her, could you ask her to write to me? I greatly enjoy her letters to Mrs. Gardiner for they are so interesting and witty. I know that I need your approval, but if you see fit, I would dearly appreciate her correspondence."
Darcy had not expected this request, but it pleased him greatly. "Of course, Georgiana. I will ask her if I see her. I very much approve of your friendship with Miss Bennet. She seemed to me to be a good person to have as a friend. Might I suggest that once I make the request to her, you write her first? I believe that it will help set the tone of your correspondence to make Miss Bennet feel more comfortable."
"Oh, of course! Thank you, Brother!" she cried and went to him.
He embraced her for a moment, savoring the feeling that he could do at least one thing right for her. He pulled away and kissed her forehead. "And, who knows? Perhaps we may call on her together when you join me at Netherfield Park."
Georgiana's eyes lit up at his suggestion.
"I will write you as soon as I arrive to tell you of my impressions, and I hope you will look forward to your visit."
"Oh, yes, I will," she nodded once and stepped back.
He felt her reserve slipping back, and he stood for a moment, wondering what to do next. His manner was awkward when he bowed to her and said, "Goodbye, my dear."
To his surprise, however, she smiled gently and said, "Goodbye, Brother. I shall miss you."
He returned her smile and departed the room, feeling lighter than he had in weeks.
Lizzy finished her first dance, feeling giddier than she had in weeks. Her partner was John Lucas, who had been a childhood playmate and was the younger brother of her dear friend Charlotte. They had an easy manner with each other, and she felt as if he was the closest figure she had to a brother in her life.
After she had finished her dance with John, she saw Charlotte excuse herself from her partner, Mr. Goulding. She approached, holding out her hands. "Dear Eliza, how well you look this evening! Green becomes you."
Lizzy squeezed her friend's hands. "You also look very fine. Is that a new dress?"
"It is indeed," Charlotte affirmed. "My mother purchased it, thinking it would help me win Mr. Bingley. What mother did not account for is that I am at least three years older than Mr. Bingley and that I would be standing in the same room as your sister," she said, glancing at Jane. "'Tis no matter, though. I shall not complain at having a new dress!"
Lizzy laughed heartily. "Speaking of the gentleman, where is this illustrious Mr. Bingley? He called on Papa two days ago and told him he was returning to London—not even a week after he arrived in the neighborhood!"
Slipping Lizzy's arm through her own, Charlotte guided the two of them on a turn around the room. "Have you not heard? Mr. Bingley is evidently bringing a party into town. Eight people according to my mother. Ten by your mother's—including six eligible gentlemen—and not an hour ago, I heard Mrs. Long say that he would be accompanied by twelve ladies and seven gentlemen."
Lizzy raised an eyebrow. "Is that so? I dearly hope Mama has not heard for she will be positively apoplectic if a surplus of refined young ladies of the ton do indeed arrive."
Charlotte laughed and glanced over at Mrs. Bennet chatting boisterously with the other matrons of Meryton. "She seems in rare form tonight. She has positively declared that Jane will capture Mr. Bingley, and I daresay she may be right."
"She may be. For if the reports of Mr. Bingley's affability and handsome mien are to be trusted, he could do no better than my sweet and stunning sister! Regardless, we must not encourage my mother. I can easily imagine her calling him her son-in-law before the poor gentleman even has the opportunity to ask Jane to dance!"
They laughed again just as a hush fell over the crowd. Disarmed by the sudden conspicuousness of their laughter, the pair looked up to see a group of three gentlemen and two ladies enter the room. Charlotte turned to Lizzy and whispered, "The young, blonde gentleman is Mr. Bingley, and the two ladies must be his sisters. I cannot account for the other two gentlemen."
Lizzy's eyes widened when she noticed the tall, dark-haired gentleman, standing next to Mr. Bingley. "Mr. Darcy," she whispered under her breath.
"What did you say?"
"The tall, handsome gentleman next to Mr. Bingley. I know him. That is Mr. Darcy," she said, not taking her eyes off the man.
Her heart beat rapidly in her chest as she remembered how they met. Would her presence be a reminder of that terrible night? She had thought of the horrid strangeness of her time in Canterbury every day since, but she thought of Mr. Darcy and Georgiana themselves with naught but fondness. In spite of the circumstances surrounding their meeting, she had pleasant memories of conversation with both of them and greatly admired their affection for one another. She also knew that Mr. Darcy called upon her aunt and uncle after the incident to ensure them of Georgiana's good health. Surely, Mr. Darcy would not be appalled to see her, seeing as he had taken the pains of thanking her family.
"Eliza, did you hear me? Where on earth did you meet him?" Charlotte asked in surprise.
Lizzy scrambled for an answer for but a moment before replying. "I met him and his sister when I was in Kent with my aunt and uncle."
"Will he remember you?"
"I know not, but I suppose I shall see soon enough."
Charlotte left her then for the beckoning wave of her father, Sir Lucas, as Lizzy was beckoned by her mother. She made her way over to her mother, who began introducing the entire Bennet family to Mr. Bingley. She found Mr. Bingley quite charming and quite charmingly taken with Jane, but the conversation at hand did not hold her attention for long. She frequently glanced at Mr. Darcy who was standing alone in a corner as people gawked at him. She smiled to herself, remembering him decry the sentiment that money could buy anything.
Poor, Mr. Darcy! For all his wealth, the man could not buy privacy from the unscrupulous stares of others. Not that she could blame the good people of Meryton for their curiosity. He was perhaps the finest man—in form and fashion—who had ever graced the neighborhood with his presence.
Though she desperately wanted to walk over to him, renew their acquaintance, and ask for news of Georgiana's well-being, she did not want to appear like the overbearing onlookers who seemed to make Mr. Darcy retreat back toward the wall. Not having a partner for the next dance, she decided to take a seat at the opposite side of the room.
Darcy was in hell. Could it have been only yesterday that he had found such hopeful reassurances in his talk with Georgiana? He frowned thinking of all the nuisances which had plagued him since he left the comfort of his sister's music room. Bingley's sisters' fawning and catty behavior coupled with the boorish stares from the rough, local Hertfordshire gentry had turned his sanguine mood from the previous day into acrimony.
He took a turn about the room, hoping to shake off his observers when he ran into Bingley.
"Come, Darcy, I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."
"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. There is not a woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to stand up with."
He knew his words would set Bingley off, and as usual, Darcy took solace in Bingley's predictability. "I would not be so fastidious as you are for a kingdom! Upon my honor, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life; and there are several of them who are uncommonly pretty."
He granted Bingley this concession. "You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room."
"Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" He took a quick glance at a woman of average height with dark brown curls sitting in front of him to the left. Though he could not see more than a sliver of her face, he spoke harshly, "She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me. I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
Bingley looked slightly aghast at Darcy's vehemence but followed his direction. Darcy then noticed with horror that the young woman Bingley had indicated had sat up straight and was glaring at him out of the corner of her eye. He cursed himself for his lack of tact, but before he could think of making amends, his regret turned to horror as he realized that the young woman looked surprisingly familiar.
"Miss Bennet!" he exclaimed—his voice slightly louder than he had intended it to be.
With his exclamation, she stood up and faced him. Dropping into an exaggerated curtsey, she bowed her head deferentially. "Mr. Darcy, it is a pleasure to see you again." Her tone was pert, and her words clipped. "I trust you are in good health and spirits?"
God in heaven, can I do anything right? "I am well, Miss Bennet. And you? Are you in good health?" he asked awkwardly, not knowing how to atone for his poor manners.
"My health is tolerable, I suppose," she paused obligatorily before excusing herself. "Well, Mr. Darcy, it was lovely to speak with you again, but I must be returning—"
"I am sorry!" he blurted out, not wanting her to leave.
"Sorry? For what, Mr. Darcy?"
He took heart in the hint of coyness on her face. "Allow us to speak candidly for a moment, Miss Bennet. I know your character to be a frank one, and I would like to take this opportunity to be forthright and apologize."
At the slight incline of her head, he continued, "I am aware you overheard my exchange a moment ago with Mr. Bingley."
"Yes, Sir, I did," she said—her seemingly all-knowing eyes staring intently at him. It was disconcerting.
"I—I must apologize for my vulgarity. I did not recognize you, and…even had you not been sitting there, I should have never made such a comment about any young lady. It was crude and unforgivable, but if I may say so, you look very well this evening."
He was sincere in his complement. She, however, seemed wholly unimpressed with his attempt at flattery, so he explained himself further. "I did not intend for anyone to hear me. I was merely frustrated with the treatment I have received from certain quarters, and I wanted to say something blunt so Bingley would not continue to pester me. It was wrong of me, and I feel my shame at having unintentionally insulted a respectable lady of my acquaintance."
She paused for a moment as if to study him, and the first words out of her mouth surprised him. "Do not let your grief convert to anger, Sir. You must blunt your heart, not enrage it. Such misdirected anger is the root of most society's ills."
He furrowed a brow before realizing that she was referencing Macbeth and smiled, remembering their previous interaction. "Ah, Miss Bennet, for a moment you fooled me, and I believed you were chiding me when, in fact, you were testing my knowledge of Shakespeare. I, however, believe the quote is 'Let grief convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it.'"
"I have fooled no one," she said with mock innocence. "Can one not do both? Perhaps I meant to chide you and see if your knowledge of Shakespeare equaled your knowledge of Chaucer."
He smiled broadly, nearly completely forgetting that he had grievously insulted her not a moment ago. "And," she added, "I am perfectly aware that I misquoted, but look at the context of the line! It leads to a war in Scotland. I rest my case."
He felt a certain giddiness at her playful response. "Was it not Malcolm who speaks the line though? Was he not encouraging Macduff to avenge the death of his wife and children by channeling his grief into the fight against the ruthless tyrant Macbeth? Is that not honorable?"
"Are you attempting to justify your behavior toward me, Mr. Darcy, by arguing against my point? Are you telling me it was honorable to express your frustrations by insulting me in such a manner?"
He was completely bewildered by her response before he noticed the impish grin in her eye. Sly woman! "You play a dirty game, Miss Bennet. I concede your point—and apologize once more."
"Your apology is accepted," she said, nodding with a gracious smile. "I did notice the rather impertinence gazes fixed on you this evening, so I suppose I can appreciate your feelings of discomfort."
There was no conversation for a moment, and he noticed how quickly his heart was beating. Far from being tolerable, he mentally acknowledged that Bingley was correct. Miss Elizabeth Bennet was indeed uncommonly pretty and—perhaps more significant—uncommonly witty as well.
"Now, tell me, how is your sis—"
"Might I have the honor of this—"
The both broke off, bewildered at having spoken at the same time. "After you, Sir," she said with a laugh.
"I thought I might ask you to dance, Miss Bennet—if you are not otherwise engaged, of course."
Her eyes widened for a moment before she composed herself. He stretched his hand out for her to take, and she attempted to place her hand in his own as gracefully as possible. "I would be honored."
The first dance of the new set had only just begun, yet as she and Mr. Darcy attempted to join the end of the line without any interruptions, she noticed that seemingly all the eyes of Meryton were on them.
"It appears that I have unwittingly accompanied you onto the stage in front of my curious onlookers, Miss Bennet."
"'Tis no matter. My courage rises with every attempt to intimidate me," she said coolly.
Her words were truthful. She did muster up more courage in that moment, but it was less because of the stares they were attracting and more because of a renewed sense of insecurity. She had been intimidated by Mr. Darcy's handsomeness and stature before, but in the relative privacy of the common room of that inferior inn in Canterbury, she could imagine herself as his equal, receiving his sincere gratitude.
His insult, however, cut to the core of what made her so uncomfortable about him. They were not equal in wealth, rank, or beauty, and that he saw it and spoke of it was painful for some deep yet indescribable reason. She had accepted his apology—for he had the same forlorn expression of contrition he had as when he found Georgiana—yet she found she liked him less for the sole reason that he appeared to find her less than appealing. Regardless, she could not deny that their ensuing conversation was the most intelligent discourse she had had in weeks.
"Yes, I have never seen a lack of courage in you, Miss Bennet—at least not in our brief acquaintance."
"Then, I shall feel no compunction in telling you that I believe you have garnered quite a bit of surprise with your decision to dance with one of the local ladies."
His brow wrinkled in confusion, and she nearly laughed. His ignorance was really rather endearing and served to buoy her confidence.
"Yes, Sir. You see, after spending the last hour being introduced to nobody, sitting out every dance, and standing in a corner glowering, I believe I heard the matrons of Meryton—who are the ultimate authority on human character—brand you 'intolerably haughty.'"
He looked a little aghast as she spoke, but as she had hoped, her sardonic tone brought out his teasing side.
"I certainly have not the talent which some people possess," he said, giving her a sidelong glance, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before."
He was nearly smiling as he spoke—something she was beginning to realize was his way of expressing great mirth—yet she suspected there was some truth in his statement.
"Then, I might suggest you practice," she said with a jovial expression. "But, enough of this! We must talk about something else!"
Mr. Darcy peered at her amusedly from his position at her side. "Do you talk as a rule while you are dancing?"
"Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together."
The dance separated them for a moment. When they came together again, he opened his mouth to speak, but Lizzy anticipated him. "Mr. Darcy, we are continually blown off course. I must ask you the question I have been desiring to ask since I first recognized you this evening."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "And, what, pray tell, would that be?"
Her voice was sincere when she asked her question. "How is Georgiana—I mean, Miss Darcy? My aunt wrote to me to tell me she is well, but I should dearly like to hear your reassurance, Sir."
His face fell, and she fully felt the depth of her mistake. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Darcy. I did not intend to remind you of such unhappy circumstances. My curiosity has made me forget myself."
"No, I am glad you mentioned Georgiana. She requested my permission to correspond with you before I left London, and, naturally, I consented. If you are agreeable to it, I shall write her to inform her."
"Oh! Yes, why of course." Lizzy was slightly taken aback. While she dearly wanted to hear from Georgiana, she was confused why he was tasked with communicating this to her.
"Shall I inform you of my direction?" was the only relevant question she could think of.
"That is not necessary. My sister has your direction courtesy of Mrs. Gardiner."
"Oh, why—" she began to ask when the dance ended, and from across the room, she heard Lydia and Kitty shrieking as they chased Mrs. Goulding's young nephew from Leicestershire around the ballroom. Her father was, as usual nowhere to be seen, and her mother looked on her two youngest's antics fondly.
When she turned back to Mr. Darcy, he was also looking over at her younger sisters with barely concealed distaste, and it pained her. "I beg you excuse me, Mr. Darcy. I believe I am needed elsewhere. It has been a pleasure, and I hope to hear from your sister soon."
She hoped her gracious tone masked the humiliation and weariness she felt and curtsied without meeting his eyes.
She hastened over to where Lydia and Kitty were giggling wildly. "Kitty, Lydia, come with me." Her voice barely masked her frustration.
Slipping her arms through those of her sisters, she pulled them toward the balcony of the meeting house.
"Lizzy, your twisting my sleeve! I don't want wrinkles," cried Lydia.
Lizzy ignored her sister, and once out on the balcony, she spoke to them both harshly. "Do you know why I brought you out here?"
"Because you are no fun at all?" Lydia whined.
"Because you two were behaving in a manner completely unbecoming for young ladies," Lizzy admonished.
"Egad, Lizzy, you are so strict these days! We were just having a laugh!" Kitty exclaimed.
"I do not mind you having a laugh, but I do not think you understand the consequences of having a complete and utter disregard for propriety!"
"Now, you sound like Mary!" Kitty said, leaning over the balcony to watch the lane below.
"I am not speaking of moral consequence so much as social ones," she sighed in annoyance, and her voice became angrier. "Do you want to be labeled the most determined flirts that ever made themselves ridiculous? Do you want to be wholly unable to ward off the contempt which your rage for admiration will excite?
"I do not think you both realize how little power you truly have. That boy whom you both were chasing will suffer nothing for such impropriety, but you two shall. Do not for one moment think that you can act as these young men do with the same impunity. They are allowed such amusements for they have money or at least a way to earn it. You—we, I should say—have no dowries, no inheritance, and no way to earn an income. The only thing we have is our self-respect, our dignity, and our reputation, and our reputation is set by the dictates of society. Do not tarnish it—for the consequences of such a blemish are more severe than you understand."
Lizzy rarely lost her temper, but the dam suppressing her fear and anger from the past several weeks collapsed under the pressure of her present humiliation and insecurity. Focusing her eyes on her sisters in the darkness of the balcony, she saw Kitty crying and Lydia starring at her blankly.
Feeling contrition at her harshness, she moved to take Kitty's hand. "Kitty, I am sorry. I truly do not to be so harsh. My fear makes—"
"No!" Lydia interrupted, pulling Kitty's hand away from Lizzy's. "Do not make excuses for your cruelty. You are just being mean, and because everyone thinks you are the smartest, you can just explain everything away! But you just want to make us feel bad because you are jealous," she said savagely.
"I heard Mr. Darcy say that he thought you were ugly, and you just feel bad because men actually wanted to dance with us. You're a bad sister, Lizzy."
Lizzy was in utter and complete shock. How did Lydia not understand? Kitty's reaction was wholly understandable for she could admit that she was too harsh. How great was Lydia's vanity that she thought that all criticism, all admonishment was proof of others' resentment of her own superiority?
"Lydia, I apologize for being too severe, but I truly only seek to—"
"Come, Kitty, let us get some punch," Lydia said, sticking her nose up the air and pulling a sniveling Kitty back toward the ballroom.
Lizzy's eyes smarted as they left, and feeling acutely powerless over her life, slumped against the stone balustrade of the balcony with her head in her hands.
Miss Bennet had left him abruptly, and the change in his disposition jarred him. Was she seeking an excuse to get away from him? Then, he saw her move purposefully toward the two obnoxious girls in the adjacent corner of the hall and walk off with them. He found her behavior most perplexing yet even as he attempted summon even a modicum of annoyance, he felt more dejected than anything else.
Truthfully, he had never enjoyed dancing more than he just had. For in spite of the poor facilities, the intrusive participants, and his own ill-humor, Miss Elizabeth Bennet herself was a wonderful dancer and had a way of putting him at ease. The reprieve of their dance was to be short-lived for the moment Miss Bennet had left his view, he saw Miss Bingley walking directly toward him out of the corner of her eye. He knew he would have to dance with her eventually, especially now that he had invited a lady outside of his own party to dance; however, the prospect of spending half an hour with her felt impossible at that moment. Buying himself some time, he headed for the nearest door which brought him onto a balcony. The fresh air provided a brief respite, and he took a deep breath.
"…admiration will excite? I do not think you both realize how little power you truly have."
His attention was immediately drawn to the muffled voice of Miss Bennet. He looked to his right and saw the faint silhouettes of three figures. He knew he should not listen to what they likely thought was a private conversation, but he burned with curiosity after Miss Bennet's abrupt departure. He listened for a moment in surprise as Miss Bennet told presumably her sisters of the dire reality of their situation, and he wondered briefly how old she was to be chiding sisters who were out in society despite their childishness. She sounded jaded and embittered, and he felt that he could very much understand.
She apologized for being harsh, but he did not personally think she had overstepped. She was absolutely correct, and it was unfortunate that those were the ways of the world and that they had to hear about them from their sister at a ball. It did not, however, make it any less necessary.
"I heard Mr. Darcy say that he thought you were ugly…"
God in heaven, when will I finish paying penance for that boorish remark? He did not have a moment to mediate on it because the girl accused Miss Bennet of being jealous and unkind. The notion was entirely absurd. How on earth could Miss Bennet have such an ungrateful wretch of a sister?
The girls left, and he watched in silence as Miss Bennet sunk into herself with a defeated sigh. He felt the uncharacteristic urge to comfort her, but he could think of no way to do so without embarrassing her or admitting that he was eavesdropping. He reminded himself that she was, for all intents and purposes, a stranger.
She was not, though. She perhaps knew more of his hidden self than anyone for miles, and she treated him with a sweet familiarity that inspired trust. He reasoned that it was ridiculous to trust a woman he had spoken to no more than thrice, but as he saw her figure leaning against the edge of the balcony, he could almost feel her pain.
The sensation was overwhelming and—he could hardly admit to himself—frightening. The cool air outside which had been such a relief felt overwhelming now, and he hastily slipped back into the stifling assembly hall.
He stood to the left of the doors to the balcony. No one appeared to notice him, and he sighed in relief. It was but a moment, however, before Caroline Bingley spotted him and marched straight over with all the intensity of a general in dancing slippers and stationed herself beside him.
"Are you enjoying watching the country manners and dances? I do find it all very savage, but it is amusing in a way," she asked him with a coquettish smile about her lips.
He thought her remark to be crude but acknowledged that he had no right to criticize on that account this evening. "No," he said tersely.
"I did notice that you seemed willing enough to participate during the last set. I pray you tell me who was that quaint little miss you were dancing with before. She was actually somewhat pretty—by country standards, naturally."
Her words made his blood boil. Was this what he sounded like to Miss Bennet? Refusing to inform her of what she clearly wanted to know, he reluctantly held out his hand.
"Miss Bingley, would you be willing to dance the next set with me?"
Chapter 4: Chapter IV
Many thanks to all those who left kudos and comments! You make my day with your support!
Also, props to my beta reader LucyFoudre for her edits! Any improvement in the quality of this chapter is due to her :)
…As to the request you made of me before I left, I have managed to fulfill that duty sooner than expected. Knowing Bingley, I doubt you shall be surprised that he made us attend a local assembly on our third evening there. Knowing me, I doubt you shall be surprised when I tell you that I was not entirely eager to attend. Bingley’s encouragement was, however, quite fortuitous as I happened upon none other than Miss Bennet.
As you will likely want to know, she looked very well, and I, despite being an unenthusiastic dancer, asked her to dance. I daresay she dances well, which I know is high on your list of accomplishments. I hope you shall find it reassuring that she was very interested in news of you. I mentioned that you would like to begin a correspondence, and she readily agreed. Unfortunately, our dance came to an abrupt end, so I did not have another opportunity to speak with her again. Perhaps, it was for the best, seeing as she repeatedly wielded her rapier wit at my expense. Thus, abandoned, I was to be left to the machinations of Miss Bingley.
Nevertheless, I do hope the presence of Miss Bingley at Netherfield will not induce any trepidation about your arrival here at the end of October. I have it on Bingley’s authority that the Bennet estate, Longbourn, is but three miles hence. I do think the proximity of Longbourn will provide amusement and companionship for you during your stay here. Miss Bennet and her elder sister, whom I have not yet met but Bingley says is very kind, will be a comfort, I hope . The two youngest sisters, however, are as unlike Miss Bennet in every way possible. I have heard nothing yet of the middle sister, who Bingley assures me exists. I can only hope she takes after her elder sisters rather than the younger ones for I believe she would be closer to you in age.
Overall, I anticipate that you shall enjoy your trip to Hertfordshire in spite of the presence of your rather taciturn brother for there is some very pretty scenery, and Bingley, for all his frivolity, is an excellent host.
Your loving brother,
Georgiana refolded the letter and hastily finished the last of her breakfast with the hope of sending a letter off to Lizzy in the afternoon post. As she was about to take her leave of Mrs. Annesley, Richard was announced.
“Shall you receive in the drawing room?” asked the housekeeper.
“Yes, I shall be there directly.”
She nearly rolled her eyes. Richard had come to call every day since Fitzwilliam left, and in some ways, Richard’s presence was more suffocating than Fitzwilliam’s. They both felt so obviously guilty for what happened and would never let her take any responsibility, but neither would they talk about it in any way but a circumlocutory and stilted manner which made her uncomfortable and ashamed. Richard, however, clearly felt the greater ignominy of the two. He had not been there, and he had been the one to suggest the trip to Ramsgate.
Now, every interaction was defined by that incident, and all they would ever ask is “are you well?” with their voices full of pity. It was insufferable! She wanted to scream and laugh and cry, but the only place to do so was into her pillow at night. If her maid noticed anything, she said nothing, yet Georgiana strangely wanted her—or at least someone—to know. She wanted someone to know how she was feeling without her having to explain. She wanted someone to know what she needed even when she did not, and Richard and Fitzwilliam could not even understand.
The door of the drawing room opened, and Richard walked in somberly. “Good morning, Georgie. Are you well?”
She nearly laughed at how predictable he had become. “I am well, Richard. How are you?”
“I’m well…well…” he said pensively before taking a seat in the armchair next to hers. He did not say anything for several minutes, merely fidgeting with the tassels on the edge of the armchair.
“Ah, did you receive a letter? From whom?” he finally said.
She realized she had been turning the letter over in her hands. “Fitzwilliam. He wrote of his initial impressions of Hertfordshire. Would you like to read it?”
She passed it over to him, thinking that the letter would give them better food for conversation than Richard’s tepid questions.
“Is this the Miss Bennet you met…in Canterbury?”
“I see,” he said before continuing with the letter.
After a moment, he sat up and laughed loudly. The sound had become so unfamiliar to her in the last few weeks, it made her jump.
He modulated his voice upon noticing her jump. “I apologize, Georgie,” he said contritely.
“No, do not apologize,” she shook her head vehemently. “What made you laugh so?”
Richard smirked. “’Tis only…I have never before heard your brother wax poetic about aught but Pemberley and crop yields!”
“To what are you referring, Richard? I saw nothing of the sort in that letter.”
He looked reluctant to speak more, but she would not have it. “Come, Richard. I am not so dull-witted that I cannot understand what you mean. Please tell me.”
She realized it was likely the most emphatic speech he had heard from her in recent memory, but it worked.
“I do not doubt your intelligence. It is just I do not think your brother would like me to speak of him in such a way to you, but if you shan’t tell him—”
“I shall not,” she said, feeling satisfied.
“Very well, then.” He sat back in his chair, and a smile played about his lips. “I have never heard him speak so…admiringly of a lady before. Aside from you, of course.”
“He was hardly effusive.” She furrowed her brow. She had never seen her brother and Lizzy interact more than just a few exchanged words, and his letter led her to believe they may have had a negative exchange.
“No, but your brother never is. I have never heard him speak about a woman except to say she is accomplished. He may comment on a lady’s appearance if she or some relative makes it clear they expect him to do so, but I cannot recall a time where he has ever volunteered such information on his own.
“However, it is this line which makes me think our poor relation has a particular interest in this lady.” He read aloud in a mocking imitation of Fitzwilliam’s voice, “‘Unfortunately, our dance came to an end, so I did not have another opportunity to speak with her again. Perhaps, it was for the best, seeing as she repeatedly wielded her rapier wit at my expense.’”
Georgiana inclined her head. “You think so? That line worried me. Lizzy—Miss Bennet—has a rather direct manner, and I was afraid he took umbrage at something she might have said.”
“No, no, no, dear Georgie,” Richard said jovially, “You have never seen Darcy at a ball or out in society. He is wholly ill-suited to small talk and detests the games and machinations of society. Too often, people fawn over him as a wealthy, eligible bachelor, as I am sure you know. If your dear Miss Bennet is direct and witty and not intimidated by his rank, I daresay your brother would be veritably pleased by her company.”
“Oh.” Georgiana was slightly confused as she rarely thought of what occupied her brother other than his business with the estate and with the family.
“What does she look like, your Miss Bennet?”
Georgiana tried to think of what to say for she had hardly seen Lizzy when she was not in her nightclothes. “She is about my height though she is five years my senior, and she has dark curls and large dark eyes. I could not tell you more, but I hope you shall meet her when you escort me to Hertfordshire.”
Richard smiled. “I would like to. She sounds as if she has been a good friend to you.”
“Yes, she has. I wish time would move quicker, so I could be in Hertfordshire with her. If Fitzwilliam is enjoying her company, I feel perhaps…” How could she tell Richard about her frustrations with them both? She feared for her future daily and keenly felt Richard and Fitzwilliam’s opaqueness. She was sure they were making plans for her future, but she had no inclination of what they were.
Her memory of waking up in the middle of the night with Wickham’s hands under her shift was little more than the memory of fear. She could not picture anything, yet she could remember the pain and the sounds of his threats in her ears. Her only lucid memories from the night were the relief she felt when Fitzwilliam had found her in Lizzy’s room and embraced her and the renewed fear she felt after answering all of Mrs. Gardiners questions and realizing the implications of the attack. Every passing day had brought more realizations about the ramifications of her actions, and she was certain she felt melancholier a fortnight after their return from Canterbury than she had the day after the attack. Regardless of her mounting dread, she felt as if she had no right to ask about her guardians’ plans for her. It had been her poor decisions that had initiated all of this pain. How could she defend her right to decide for herself?
“Georgie?” Richard said, looking at her worriedly.
She sat up, realizing that she had been slouching while lost in thought. “Forgive me, Richard. I was not attending the conversation. What were you saying?”
“I was wondering whether you might visit Hertfordshire sooner.”
“If I can get away, I might be able to escort you a se’ennight before.”
The broad, joyous smile that overtook her face felt rather unnatural as she excitedly blurted, “Oh, yes, Richard, would you?”
Richard laughed, and it was incredible to think of how long it had been since they had been so easy with each other. “Yes, I will write your brother and look into it. Do not tell Miss Bennet yet for I will need to secure your brother’s permission, but I suspect he will acquiesce.”
She suddenly could imagine walks through the Hertfordshire wilderness with Lizzy and her sisters. Perhaps, with Lizzy and Mr. Bingley for company, she and Fitzwilliam might be easier with each other. It all seemed idyllic, and she felt sure that everything would change if she were only able to join them as soon as may be.
“Oh, why has he not yet come?” Mrs. Bennet cried, staring out the window.
“Who, dear?” asked Mr. Bennet innocently, not looking up from his paper. He took a bite of toast with a sardonic smile playing about his lips.
“Mr. Darcy! Who else?”
“Who else? My dear, you regularly have everyone from Lady Lucas to Mrs. Long travelling through this house every day of the week. Why should you be in such a state over an unfamiliar man?”
“You read the letter from my brother Gardiner! He said that Mr. Darcy would call on us here, and he has not, even though it has been nearly a se’nnight since the ball,” she turned with unwieldy speed to Lizzy, who hid her grimace in her teacup. “Lizzy, are you sure you said nothing to scare him away? He did you such an honor, singling you out in such a way,” she admonished, waving her handkerchief wildly as she gesticulated. “I cannot believe you have been so cavalier in your acquaintance with a man with ten thousand pounds a year! You must catch him before he gets away!”
“Mama, I have told you. Mr. Darcy only asked me to dance because we were previously known to each other. As my uncle wrote in his letter, we briefly met the Darcys and have a very civil but distant acquaintance. It was mere politeness, I assure you.”
“Lizzy is right, Mama,” Lydia cried from the opposite end of the breakfast table, “I heard him say Lizzy was plain and unappealing and that he would rather stick a fork in his eye than dance with her. Unfortunately for him, he felt obligated to ask her to dance because they were known to each other.”
Lizzy gripped her cup firmly in her hand, willing herself to stay calm. Bent on revenge for her lecture at the assembly, Lydia had let everyone within 10 miles know that Mr. Darcy found her grotesque and despised dancing with her, and with each reiteration, Mr. Darcy’s supposed language became more offensive. She took a deep breath before catching her father’s laughing eyes above his paper and smiled in spite of herself. Lydia was being childish and ridiculous—why it should affect her so now was beyond her ken.
“See, Mama? You must not hope for anything from that quarter. I am apparently not handsome enough to tempt Mr. Darcy,” she said plainly. From the corner of her eye, she saw Lydia pout in indignation at her sister’s apparent immunity to her goading behavior.
“Jane, however,” Lizzy continued with a mischievous glint in her eye, “clearly caught the eye of Mr. Bingley. I daresay we should expect him to call in the coming days.”
Before her mother could begin to rhapsodize about Mr. Bingley’s many virtues—most of them having to do with his wealth and his interest in Jane—Hill arrived with the mail.
“Let us see,” her father said, scanning over the pile, “this is for Jane, and these two are for Lizzy.”
Lizzy looked at the two letters. One was unmistakably from her Aunt Gardiner, but the penmanship of the other was unfamiliar. Opening the unfamiliar letter first and scanning to the signature, her face lit up upon recognizing the letter’s author.
“And, whose letter has made you smile so, my dear Lizzy?” her father asked teasingly.
“Miss Darcy has written me,” she said, suppressing her smile, before interjecting with a glance to her mother, “which makes sense seeing as I know Miss Darcy far better than her brother, with whom I have hardly spoken.”
“Well, there is an idea!” cried her mother. “Get to the brother through the sister!”
Appalled by the suggestion, Lizzy suddenly stood up. “I believe I shall read these on my walk.”
“Oh dear! Oh, Lizzy, why do you not stay here this morning? What if Mr. Darcy calls? You could speak of his sister!”
“Goodbye, Mama,” Lizzy said, giving her mother an indulgent look to conceal her frustration.
Outside, Lizzy took a deep breath, relishing in the crisp scent of the autumn air. She walked to the edge of the park until she could no longer see the house and seated herself beneath a tree. She eagerly opened her letter from Georgiana first.
1 October 1811
Dear Miss Elizabeth,
I only just received a letter from my brother, informing me of your agreement to our correspondence, and I could not have been more eager to write you. Mrs. Gardiner has often shared pieces of your letters to her with me on our calls, and I find them to be such a balm to my low spirits. I do want to assure you that I am not always in such low spirits as I have very much enjoyed spending time with your young cousins! Little Amelia and John are perhaps the sweetest children I have had the pleasure of meeting, and it never fails to brighten my day when I am presented with a little posy or a found piece of string, given with the utter delight that only a child can contain.
I digress, though. I cannot say how pleased I was to hear an account of your meeting with Fitzwilliam at a ball of all places. I must say how diverted I was to imagine you outwitting my shy, taciturn brother on the dance floor. He is not one who enjoys an excess of people, nor am I for that matter. I, however, am not required to socialize as much as him.
I can say that I am absolutely delighted by the prospect of joining my brother at Netherfield Park on the 27th of October. Although I know our acquaintance has been brief, I have longed for someone in whom I can confide and who is near to my own age. I have never before so felt the effects of being without a mother or a sister. In this regard, Mrs. Gardiner’s companionship has been a blessing as she is warmer than my own aunts and provides meaningful guidance to me. I can most assuredly see the familial resemblance between the two of you, even if you are not related by blood!
I hope this letter finds you in good health, and I am eager to hear your reply. Please feel free to inform me of how my brother is faring and your general view of Hertfordshire. He treats me too delicately, and I think he conceals that which he believes may concern me.
P.S. I did not anticipate how difficult it would be to write the greeting of this letter. I know we have had this discussion previously, but writing Elizabeth or Lizzy felt too informal for an introductory letter. Please let me know how best you would like me to greet you in future correspondence.
Lizzy read over the letter once more before she sat back with it. The letter was quite charming, much in the same way Georgiana was herself. She wrote with a winsome candidness that was at once endearing and concerning. It was a sanguine letter yet one that revealed the struggle and pain that lie beneath her optimism.
She was pleasantly surprised, however, by the revelations that Georgiana had been spending a great deal of time with the Gardiners and that she would be coming to the neighborhood within the month. Why had Mr. Darcy not informed her of this information, she wondered. What could he have told his sister of their interactions at the assembly?
She heard his voice say, “Miss Bennet,” and she looked up to find him standing in only six feet front of her with his perfectly erect posture as if she had summoned him.
She froze for a moment, not quite certain that he was truly before her. Quickly folding her letter, she stood up awkwardly and curtsied in response to his very proper bow. “Mr. Darcy. What brings you this way?”
“I have actually come to call on your father. I believe your uncle sent him a letter informing him of my arrival.”
“Yes,” she said quickly. He had a strange look on his face as he regarded her, and she was vexed with herself for appearing so disheveled. “I had a letter from your sister this morning,” she added quickly, wanting to distract him.
“So soon?” His face did not change except for a raised eyebrow.
“I was surprised as well. You must have written her immediately after the ball for me to have such gratification after only a few days.”
He colored slightly, but otherwise she could detect no change in his countenance. “What has she written you?”
“Oh, nothing of interest to a man I am sure,” she said coyly before narrowing her eyes at him mischievously. “I must say I was surprised to hear that you sent your sister an account of your conduct at the assembly.”
“I spoke very little of my conduct. I said only that you danced very well and that you were in good spirits—or some such remark that would satisfy my sister.”
“I see,” she said, unfolding the letter in her lap, “then might you tell me what your sister means by the comment: ‘I must say how diverted I was to imagine you outwitting my shy, taciturn brother on the dance floor?’”
“I may have also made an admiring mention of your wit, even if it always seemed to come at my expense.”
He was slightly embarrassed to see her surprise at his indirect compliment. The past three days had found him pouring over their interaction at the assembly, attempting to remember her words and expressions to determine what her opinion of him was. He was rather surprised to find that he could not bear the idea that she thought ill of him, given that he took great pride in his propensity to disregard the opinions of those wholly unconnected to him.
That, however, was the crux of the matter. Miss Bennet was not wholly unconnected to him. Her actions in Canterbury indelibly linked her to his family. He could not be indifferent to her because of this inexplicable bond that now existed between his family and hers, and for that reason, he desired her good opinion. What she felt about him, however, was unidentified.
If they could simply move past his damned insult!
He blinked at her, realizing that he was not attending the conversation. “Excuse me. I was woolgathering.”
She smirked and let out a little breath of laughter, “Ah, so that explains your glare.”
“My glare?” For some reason, he suddenly thought of her uncle Gardiner.
“Yes, Sir, you were glaring at me, and I was beginning to believe my dishevelment worse than I had previously thought.”
“No!” he exclaimed impulsively, feeling distinctly ill at ease, “Your dishevelment becomes you.”
She tilted her head and regarded him with an amused expression. Changing the subject abruptly, she asked him, “Would you agree with your sister’s assessment that you are shy and taciturn?”
He had to keep himself from smiling at her boldness. “Perhaps, I would not use those words in particular, but I am a private man. I do not like to be at the center of attention, and I do not like to speak unnecessarily. I am a firm believer that brevity is the soul of wit.”
“I am of a somewhat similar disposition. We both are unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.”
She was teasing him, and it was a distinctly enjoyable sensation. “And you maintain that this description suits us both?”
“Perhaps,” she said tapping her finger on her chin in a way that drew his entire focus to the place where the tip of her index finger lightly touched the indentation beneath her lips. “You must admit, however,” he reluctantly drew his eyes back to hers, “that perhaps our shared predilection for quoting great works of literature stems from a desire to be seen as profound on the hope that no one recognizes our plagiarism.”
It was incredible how quickly her mind worked. He could never assume where she would take their conversation next. “Then, I must ask you, Miss Bennet, to refrain from pointing out my pretensions to intelligence for I believe you would certainly discern each failed attempt to affect wisdom for its falsity.”
She blushed, and he could not prevent one side of his mouth from tugging upward.
“You have clearly not met my father, Sir. I believe you may appreciate his sense when you call.”
“By all means, lead the way,” he said, holding out his arm for her to take.
She hesitated, and he worried he had done something inappropriate. “Is aught amiss?”
“No—no,” she said evasively.
He looked at her knowingly, and her shoulders slumped. “May I be frank with you, Mr. Darcy?”
He smirked. “Has my lack of permission previously deterred you?”
She smiled shyly. “I do not think it best for us to enter the house together”
“Why ever not? There was nothing improper in this meeting. We met each other by happenstance.”
“Sir, you did me a great honor in the eyes of the neighborhood by asking me to dance at the assembly, and my mother now has the inane notion that you have…designs on me—of the matrimonial kind. Therefore, I think it best that you call without me, and I shall join later. It would not do for you to show me any sort of kindness in front of my mother, Sir. For all her virtues, she is quite silly about the marriageability of her daughters, and mere civility will provoke her to be quite relentless.”
He was caught between mortification and admiration. He could not believe that this woman who was unrelated to him was speaking so frankly of marriage. Her expression was completely artless, and in spite of his fear that he had shown Miss Bennet preference, he could not fathom what a blessing it was for Georgiana to have a friend who did not see her as a tool to find a wealthy husband. He could not help, however, feeling rather injured at her reluctance. It was a novel sensation, but he figured that, in her thoughtfulness, she must merely have been conscious of the difference in their stations and the precariousness of his current position with Georgiana. He chided himself for thinking of it at all. What did it matter if Miss Bennet thought of him as a potential husband or not?
“Mr. Darcy, I must once again ask if I have offended you. You are glaring at me again.”
“On the contrary, I was merely surprised, and I assure you I was not glaring. I do appreciate your frankness in this matter and am relieved that Georgiana has a friend who does not use her to gain her brother’s hand.”
“Has that happened before?” she asked in dismay.
“Yes,” he said gravely.
They stood in stony silence for a moment before he thoughtlessly asked her, “What is it about our conversations, Miss Bennet, that always seems to make me reveal more than I would like?”
She looked a little taken aback, but her answer was surprisingly sincere. “Perhaps you understand, Mr. Darcy, that I am not one to be taken aback by even the cruelest truths of life, and indeed I am not. I would much rather one speak openly to me and find some kind of mutual assurance in such discourse than to dissemble and continue to feel misunderstood.”
He could not respond to this easily. “I very much believe I do understand that, Miss Bennet.”
He thought back to the conversation he overheard on the balcony at the assembly and briefly wondered if she was out here to escape.
“I should call on your family I believe,” he said, feeling like he suddenly knew too much.
“Yes,” she said with a self-deprecating smile. “I dare say you should.”
He bowed and took his leave of her.
Once he was in sight of the house, he looked back to see her with her bonnet pulled off and head tilted back. On stray curl was blowing in the wind, and he found he envied the lightness and freedom of spirit she possessed.
Smiling ruefully to himself, he turned and made his way to an old house with a brick façade that was beginning to crumble.
When Lizzy arrived home, Mr. Darcy was nowhere in sight. Her mother was in fine fettle, however.
“Lizzy, you disobedient child! I told you that Mr. Darcy would come, and he did!” She waved her handkerchief wildly in Lizzy’s direction as if it would somehow wave her daughter’s willfulness away. “He did not even ask after you, and he was rather disdainful. He hardly spoke to us and then hid away with your father in his study for a quarter of an hour and was barely civil when took his leave!
“I know not what you said to the poor man during your dance, but I am certain that whatever it was must have scared him away! If this hurts Jane’s chances with Mr. Bingley, I shall never forgive you!”
“I would never forgive myself if I caused such a thing, but I am certain all is well. Mr. Darcy is a perfectly agreeable gentleman but not one prone to idle chat. ‘Tis possible he merely felt ill-at-ease in the company of five women.”
“I do not see why he should be! He is a young man in possession of a good fortune. He must be in want of a wife, and we have five gently bred young ladies here. Though, he will likely not seek Jane because his friend has expressed an interest in her.”
Jane entered the room, and everyone turned to look at her. “Is aught amiss?”
Her mother fluttered toward her and took her hand, patting it gently. “Not at thing, my dearest girl! For you shall marry Mr. Bingley, and we shall be saved!”
“Oh, Mama! Do not let your hopes exceed reality. I very much enjoyed my dances with him, but there is no telling when I shall see him again!”
“I told you! You must see him when you dine with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley today at Netherfield!”
“What is this?” Lizzy asked skeptically.
“You would know if you had stayed after breakfast, but Jane received a note from the ladies up at Netherfield to dine with them today. Jane shall be taking horseback, and when it rains, she shall have to stay the night!”
Jane protested, “Mama, it is deceitful to purposely go to take advantage of their hospitality!”
“Not at all! You heard your father say that he cannot spare the carriage today. ‘Tis just a happy coincidence,” her mother said with more genuine cheer than Lizzy had ever seen.
Her mother scurried away, ordering Hill on some errand or another, and Lizzy took Jane’s arm and pulled her into the music room. “You must tell me, dearest sister? How awful was his visit?”
Jane’s expression wore a paradoxically stunning grimace, and she sighed, “I cannot say it was much of anything. He was with us very briefly before he asked after Papa, and they absconded to his study.”
“Yes, Jane, but you must tell me what Mama said that made him appear ‘rather disdainful.’”
Her voice was amused, but she was internally fearful that her family had humiliated her more than she previously thought. Mr. Darcy’s presence simultaneously fascinated her and made her feel distinctly self-conscious. She found him more difficult to read than most, so his assurances often left her at sea.
“Yes, well, I remember Mama asking after his health and the health of his sister and informing him that you had received a letter from her earlier in the morning. Then, she remarked on how much she enjoyed watching you and he dance at the assembly three nights past. And Lydia…”
“Lydia?” Lizzy urged her to continue.
“She made some sort of remark about how she was sorry that he had to dance with her most ill-favored sister. That is when Mr. Darcy requested to speak with Papa.”
Lizzy smiled at that. Perhaps Lydia’s vulgar comment was for the best. Mr. Darcy surely could not judge them too harshly when reminded of his own gentlemanly behavior.
“Now, for the real heart of the matter,” Lizzy took Jane’s hand with a glint in her eye. “How do you truly feel about the thought of seeing your Mr. Bingley tonight?”
“He is not my Mr. Bingley,” Jane responded with a shy smile. “But, truly? I cannot deny that I am nervous. He is such an amiable gentleman, and I do so enjoy his company. I do not enjoy the pressure that comes with these rituals of courting.”
“Nor do I, but unlike you, I do not have any opportunities to feel such pressure,” Lizzy laughed. “The waiting and wondering will undoubtedly be difficult. Though, I think as long as you find that you could respect Mr. Bingley enough to marry him, it shall be no burden for him to fall in love with you.”
“Dearest Lizzy, you always have such faith in me even when I do not.”
“If I could not have faith in the most wonderful lady I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, I would be a fool indeed. Luckily for us both, I am not a fool. Therefore, I can continue to advertise your goodness and beauty to the world without expense to your natural modesty. I hold no such compunction.”
“Oh, Lizzy, if there was but a man that could match your wit and appreciate your combination liveliness and sense, I am sure that you would leave him defenseless.”
“Yes, but if such a man were sensible enough for me to respect him, he likely would not marry a dowry-less lady of average beauty and subpar accomplishments.”
“Come now,” Jane admonished. “Such talk is not like you. You know that you would bring value and joy to any partnership. You must know that.”
Lizzy had once imagined a marriage based on love. She had had a romantic ideal in mind. A man with intelligence and sense who was reasonably handsome and made her feel giddy. Much to her chagrin, Mr. Wickham had conformed to that very ideal, and it had only been a few short hours later that her romantic ideal had begun to crumple under the weight of his deceiving appearance.
She did not have such an ideal anymore. In fact, she could not imagine herself married at all. Her pride had withered in the past months, leaving her to fully understand just how cruel the world was and how vulnerable she was to its caprices. She had ever had a philosophical view on life and accepted sorrows and disappointment as common and necessary. She had now, however, resigned herself to a sort of complacent uncertainty about her future.
“Then, I shall bring joy to your family someday as the spinster aunt who spoils your dozen children when you are not looking.”
This made Jane laugh, and Lizzy persuaded her to abandon the current topic and focus on what Jane would wear to dine with the Bingley sisters.
Chapter 5: Chapter V
My dearest Lizzy,
I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.
When Lizzy had read the note at the table over breakfast the following morning, her mother praised Providence for her good fortune. Jane's illness had, to her mother, become evidence that her machinations had indeed been right and just.
"Oh, my dear Mr. Bennet! How very good God has been to us!"
He made eye contact with Lizzy, who had to suppress her laughter at the sight of her father's expression. "Well, my dear," said her father wryly, "if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders."
Her mother glared at him. "Oh, pish! I am not afraid of her dying. People do not die of little trifling colds. She will be taken good care of. As long as she stays there, it is all very well. I would go and see her if I could have the carriage."
Lizzy, however, thought that such a plan would be the worst option to ensure that Jane and Mr. Bingley had a smooth path to courtship.
"Mama, why do I not go? I could walk, seeing as the horse cannot be spared."
"How can you be so silly," cried her mother, "as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there."
"I shall be very fit to see Jane—which is all I want," she said firmly.
"Is this a hint to me, Lizzy, to send for the horses?" her father asked with the tilt of his head.
"No, indeed, I do not wish to avoid the walk. The distance is nothing when one has a motive—only three miles. I shall be back by dinner."
"Yes, fine, Lizzy, but you must promise me to make yourself presentable before you see Mr. Darcy. It would not do for him to think of us as unkempt."
"Yes, Mama," though she took great amusement in the fact that only the day before Mr. Darcy had concurred with her assessment that she had appeared disheveled.
Her father winked at her, and she winked in response before standing up to prepare for her journey to Netherfield Park.
When she arrived, she was, in fact, quite dirty and smiled to imagine her mother's horror at being escorted to the beautifully decorated receiving room with her soiled petticoats and hair loosened from its simple coiffure.
In spite of her obviously unkempt appearance, she was relieved to see Mr. Darcy in the receiving room with Miss Bingley, Mr. Bingley, their older sister, and her husband Mr. Hurst. Although she often felt uncertain in his presence, she considered him her sole friend in the room. She was hopeful, however, that Mr. Bingley would be as amiable an acquaintance as Jane had suggested.
She had felt quite wary of the sisters when she had been introduced to them at the assembly. They had seemed rather above their company and disdainful of her; however, their greeting was very polite.
"Miss Elizabeth," Miss Bingley cooed. "You must be here to see dear Jane. We were horrified when she became very pale last evening."
"It will be such a comfort for her to have you attend her," added Mrs. Hurst. "I looked in on her just an hour ago, and she had just had a cup of tea which managed to put some color back into her cheeks. She still has been rather restless, however."
"I am grateful for you both for your solicitude. My sister is rarely ill, so I was naturally very concerned when I received her note this morning," Lizzy said before turning to Mr. Bingley. "And, thank you, Mr. Bingley, for offering my sister your hospitality at this time."
Bingley smiled brightly, and Lizzy liked him for the earnestness with which he did so. "Think nothing of it, Miss Elizabeth. Even in ill-health, your sister is the consummate houseguest," he said before adding hastily, "We would much prefer, however, that she recover quickly so that we can enjoy her presence and good-spirits."
Lizzy nodded in understanding at Mr. Bingley. He seemed indeed to be very amiable, and there was something about his awkwardness which inspired trust. He was not quite so debonair to feel threatening, yet he was no oaf. He held himself with a casual confidence which gave him an air of approachability.
She chanced a glance at Mr. Darcy, but he was not looking at her. He was standing in profile, looking out the window of the room, and his perfect posture seemed—at that moment—too rigid.
"Allow me to introduce you to my other guests," Mr. Bingley continued. "This is my brother Mr. Hurst."
The man in question gave perhaps the quickest and laziest bow Lizzy had ever seen, and the annoyed glance his wife shot him amused Lizzy greatly.
"And this is my old friend, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Bingley said with an almost nervous glance toward Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy finally turned fully toward her and bowed. Before he could speak, Miss Bingley spoke up. "Charles, such an introduction is unnecessary. Surely, you cannot forget that they were introduced at the ball last week. Their dance was the object of much…observation."
Thus, Lizzy recalled why she had been so wary of Miss Bingley when she had met her. Miss Bingley was the type of woman who naturally saw every person as an opportunity or a threat. Despite the innocence in Miss Bingley's tone, her gaze fixed calculatingly on Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley, in contrast, appeared surprised by the realization that Mr. Darcy had known Lizzy previously. Lizzy also realized the cause of his earlier discomfort in introducing his friend to her.
Not one to be vexed by the antics of those of Miss Bingley's ilk, she smiled at Mr. Bingley and spoke assuredly. "Yes, Mr. Bingley, there is no need for an introduction, as Mr. Darcy and I have previously been introduced."
This seemed to put Mr. Bingley at ease, and he looked to Mr. Darcy for confirmation. Mr. Darcy looked at Miss Bingley and then to Lizzy, saying, "Miss Elizabeth is correct. We have been introduced, but long before the assembly. We met by happenstance in Kent this summer and were introduced by my sister Georgiana."
This was, of course, a prevarication of some kind; however, Lizzy found she never liked Mr. Darcy more than at that moment. For a moment he appeared completely stoic before she recognized the subtle changes on his face that indicated he was diverted by subverting Miss Bingley's veiled attempt at incivility.
She met his eyes and one corner of her mouth tugged upward in response to his disguised support.
She then looked to Miss Bingley, who was clearly perturbed by this news, and Mr. Bingley, who was looking at Mr. Darcy strangely.
Deciding that the present moment was the best one to make her escape, she inquired, "Excuse me, but I am anxious to see my sister. Where might I find her?"
Mrs. Hurst stepped forward. "Come with me, Miss Elizabeth. I shall show you to her room."
They exited, and by the time Lizzy arrived at Jane's room, her strange introduction to the Bingley party had been forgotten.
Darcy looked over to see what was taking Hurst so long to stoke the fire, but he found Hurst had fallen asleep in the armchair next to the fireplace with the poker in his hand.
He sighed. Since Miss Elizabeth's arrival, it seemed that Hurst had become his only suitable option for company. Miss Bingley had been irascible since the evening before when he had asked whether Miss Elizabeth was still in residence over dinner.
"No, she is still here, unfortunately, as is her sister," Caroline said, gripping her wine glass with an excess of force. "Charles has decided to use his house as a convalescent home for country chits."
"Caroline, how can you be so inhospitable? Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth are not demanding guests. Miss Elizabeth is happy to dine with a tray in her sister's room, and I daresay it saves you the responsibility of nursing Miss Bennet," Bingley admonished.
"Mayhap, yet you cannot deny the impropriety of it all. To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum. I hope I do not overstep my bounds, Mr. Darcy, to tell you that you should seriously consider the prudence in allowing your sister to associate with such a lady—if she can even be called so."
Darcy dabbed his mouth on his napkin and set it down forcefully before speaking in an even tone. "I do say you overstep your bounds, Miss Bingley. Miss Elizabeth is one of my sister's dearest and most valued friends, and I have seen nothing in their discourse to indicate that she is a poor influence on my sister. I would beg you refrain from your disparagement, for what you call improper, I call pleasing, for it shows an affection for her sister which is admirable."
Though his tone never escalated into anger, Miss Bingley was silent in shock. Darcy, to his own dismay, had often allowed Miss Bingley's unjust tirades to run unrestrained. Thus, he expected her consternation. Bingley's response, however, was surprising and unwelcome.
"I say, Darcy, if you have so much respect for Miss Elizabeth and were previously acquainted with her, why did you say such ghastly things about her at the assembly? 'Tis a rather ungentlemanly thing to say."
"What did he say?" Miss Bingley asked with great interest.
"It does not signify," Darcy replied, not looking away from Bingley. "I did not recognize her nor expect her to be there. I did not even look at her when I spoke to you. I merely wanted you to leave me in peace. I assured Miss Elizabeth later that I held her in high regard as my sister's friend."
"She heard you?" Bingley asked with mortified surprise.
Darcy almost lost his temper at Bingley's foolish questions. "It is not the time for this discussion, Bingley. Let us speak of it at a later moment."
"Yes, yes, you are right, of course," Bingley said before turning the conversation to the upcoming hunt.
Later in the evening after everyone else retired, Bingley cornered him in the billiard room to explain what he had said to Miss Elizabeth. To Darcy's chagrin, Bingley seemed to fixate on a passing phrase he used and began to taunt him. "Yes, dear Miss Bennet's fine eyes!" he cried, his cue missing the ball repeatedly.
Upon hearing Darcy's objections, Bingley laughed even more. "No, I shall not have it, Darcy! You who are always so perfectly mannered managed to insult the one woman in the room who was known to you, and now you admit you find her pretty!"
His cue finally hit the ball, and he made a perfect shot. "Ha!" he cried, "I wish Fitzwilliam was here to witness this auspicious occasion."
Darcy had felt rather discomfited by Bingley's humor. "Auspicious? Good God, Bingley, I only said the lady was pretty—which was no more than you said yourself! It is not as if I have declared myself."
"Declared yourself?" Bingley became serious, and Darcy realized his mistake. "Do you mean to declare yourself to Miss Elizabeth?" Bingley asked with wide eyes.
"Certainly not!" Darcy had responded more emphatically than he had intended to and continued heatedly, "I was merely stating that you had no reason to suggest my comments to be propitious. Describing a woman as well-favored does not suggest anything more than that she possess a particular characteristic."
Bingley eyed him suspiciously. "Perhaps, but you do not sound like yourself, Darcy."
Darcy had somehow managed to get out of Bingley's questioning the previous night, but this morning he feared he might have no such luck. Deciding to hide from Bingley in the library, he had come across Hurst and invited him to a game of chess. After three consecutive losses, Hurst evidently had decided to escape through his best means of doing so—slumber.
Darcy occupied himself by playing several matches with himself when he was distracted by someone entering from the far door of the library. Fearing Miss Bingley's presence, he ducked below the table. He admonished himself for his childish behavior almost at once and sat back up at the chessboard.
To his conflicted delight, it was not Miss Bingley, but Miss Elizabeth Bennet exchanging a book. She turned around and jumped slightly upon noticing him. "Excuse me, Mr. Darcy. I had not seen you there." She paused and looked at his game before her lips curled into a sly smile. "Are you playing chess with yourself, Mr. Darcy? Pray tell me which side of your intellect is winning."
He could not suppress his smile. "I had been playing with Mr. Hurst; however, if you will look behind that armchair, I am certain you shall see that he is now quite asleep."
"Yet, you wait here at the chessboard for what reason? For Mr. Hurst to awaken?"
The mischief in her eyes was evident, and he grinned quite against his will.
He composed himself and changed the subject. "May I ask how your sister is, Miss Bennet?"
"She is better today. Her fever broker earlier this morning, and she is sleeping now." She looked at the book in her hands and smiled to herself. "I confess I find myself growing restless with inoccupation now that she has gone to sleep, so I decided to sneak another volume from Mr. Bingley's library."
"And what volume have you selected? This library is regrettably poor."
She handed him the volume in her hand, The Female Quixote, and one corner of his lips tugged upward. "How do you find the adventures of Arabella?"
Her face lost its mischief, and he wondered at her change in attitude. "I read it once two or three years ago, and I found it very diverting. I found much humor in Arabella's naïveté…"
She looked directly at him and found it disarming to be watched in such away. He felt utterly transparent at that moment and shivered slightly. "I believe that books are much like people—there is something new to be observed in them forever. I find that I am more changed that I previously thought for I picked up the first volume of this book yesterday hoping to find a happy diversion for my sister and me. Upon a second reading, the book holds less humor and more melancholy than I had remembered."
Her frankness had ceased to surprise him, yet her gaze seemed to communicate something more to him. Thinking back on the plot of the book, he felt his face fall at the realization that she was speaking about Georgiana. She could no longer enjoy the story of a woman's ignorance of the real world when such ignorance nearly leads to her demise. The tale was no longer fictitious to either of them.
He looked to Hurst to ensure he was sleeping before responding. "I suppose for those of us who have younger sisters the story of the dangers of youth and idealism can prove more frightening than those involving highwaymen or kidnappers."
She nodded and looked away. "Yet, I take heart in knowing that Arabella has another chance in the ending. She is cured of her ignorance by someone older and more educated, and once she knows the dangers of trusting libertines, she finds happiness and security."
"I often fear, though," he said quietly, "that the endings of novels are happier than they are in life. I must ask you, Miss Bennet, do you find this particular resolution to be authentic?"
"I daresay it could be. If young women were taken seriously and taught by those older and wiser than them, like Arabella is, I could envision a favorable ending."
"And, what if those who are older and wiser do not know what to do?" He regretted the question as soon as it came out of his mouth. He felt vulnerable and weak, and he began to stand up.
"Excuse me, Miss Bennet. I believe I should—"
He stopped when she placed her hand on his arm. "I apologize, Mr. Darcy. I do not mean to make you uncomfortable. I often find myself reminded of that occasion I suspect both of us do not like to dwell on, and it often puts me in a rather pensive state."
She was so sincere, and all at once, he remembered why he was so envious of her that night. She did not flee from discomfort like he did, and she carried it all off with such éclat. He trusted her and wanted to confess everything—his fear and anxiety and confusion.
Before he could stop himself, he gestured to the table he had been sitting at. "Miss Bennet, would you care to play a game of chess?'
She looked taken aback by the request, so he revised his invitation. "Your father and uncle are formidable opponents, and I believe your father told me on my call to Longbourn that you are quite the player yourself."
She looked reluctant, and he assumed it was because of their solitude. "The door is open, and—officially—Mr. Hurst is here. It is all very proper."
She looked at him with that slyly mischievous expression that always left him confused. "Oh, yes, very proper," she intoned with an edge of teasing in her voice. "I accept your challenge, Mr. Darcy—but only because you flattered me. How can I ignore such an opportunity to foster my vanity?"
"I doubt you have even a modicum of vanity in you, Miss Bennet." He looked down to conceal his smile, and when he looked at her again, she was looking away.
For a moment, he admired her unpretentious beauty. The simple charm of a bright complexion, curious eyes, unadorned hair that was natural to the point of being wild. She turned her head back to him, and he was distracted by a curl which fell from her hair to gently caress her collarbone.
"Mr. Darcy, I insist you do something about your habit of glaring at me," she said in mock vexation.
He felt his face heat slightly at the direction his attention was wandering. "Is it my fault that you ascribe animosity to my face when I am merely thinking?"
"Touché," she said, putting the board back to its starting place.
They began to play, and he immediately understood the skill to which her father and uncle had referred. "Your relations did not exaggerate your skill, Miss Bennet."
"Tell me," she said without looking up, "did you spend much time with my relations in London?"
He was confused at her question. "No more time that what is appropriate among friends."
She made her move and finally regarded him. "And you consider yourself a friend to my aunt and uncle?"
"Yes," he said as if stating something obvious. "Have they not told you of Georgiana and my calls?"
"No, they did not. My aunt has been very discreet with mentions of Georgiana's well-being in our letters, so one might imagine my surprise when I read your sister mention how much she enjoys the company of my aunt and young cousins."
He could not suppress a smile at the memory of the Gardiner children, recalling a day they spent in the park. He and Georgiana had accompanied Mrs. Gardiner to the park, and Darcy had been left to entertain them while his sister and Mrs. Gardiner spoke. He had felt ill-at-ease for only the first moments before little Amelia and John had caught him up in their games. His worries and fears had given him a respite for the afternoon, and by the time he and Georgiana were in the carriage home, they were tired yet relaxed and spoke the entire way home—the only time they had done so since the events in Canterbury.
"I, for one, am not surprised that my sister mentioned it. Your cousins are delightful children, and your aunt is a very kind and sensible woman—and as I said, your uncle is a rather engaging opponent."
"Mr. Darcy, you should have mentioned your visits sooner! I would have dearly loved to hear news of my favorite relations."
He was pleased at the discovery of a topic of conversation that would delight her. They always seemed to be meandering between witty exchanges and veiled confessions. It was fascinating to be so intellectually challenged by one woman and simultaneously terrifying to feel the urge to tell her everything. He was fascinated by her expressive face, yet he wanted to see her emotion when it did not have to be concealed by the fragile barrier of propriety that still remained between them. They could speak about something completely without prevarication, and they might be able to laugh freely and openly with one another. He had never had such a relationship with anyone since the death of his mother.
"Well, then I shall indulge you," he said, allowing himself an open, broad smile. "I suppose I can tell you of your cousins who recently taught me the game they invented. It was called…"
"Spinning Sally!" Miss Bennet cried in delight and took her turn on the chessboard.
"Yes, that is the one. They spent a quarter of an hour trying to teach me the rules. When we finally began to play, they kept informing me of new rules to keep me from getting ahead in the game. The rules became increasingly convoluted, and I asked them if they were inventing new rules as we went along. They denied any such allegation, and their faces were so cherubic that I found myself unable to press the point."
Miss Bennet laughed, and he forced himself to look away and focus on his next move. "Ah, those children are too intelligent for their own good—they wield their winsome charms indiscriminately."
"I wonder where they could have possibly learned that from." He looked her directly in the eye as he spoke, and she colored. God in heaven, he chided himself, you sound like a cad! He cleared his throat and realized he had not paid attention to her move.
There was silence for a moment as their attention was focused on his next move, and he was relieved when she spoke, "Pardon me, but I would not have imagined you to be such an enthusiastic participant in children's games."
He might have been embarrassed had it not been for her playful smile that mesmerize him. He was only able to breathe when she took her move. "You forget, Miss Bennet. That I only have one sibling who is twelve years my junior. I am very much accustomed to seeking entertainment in nursery games."
She laughed merrily, and he was delighted he had provoked it. "It takes a man truly confident of himself to admit to such a thing," she said with a matter-of-fact nod.
A corner of his mouth turned upward. "Or perhaps I am not confident at all, and you—as I have previously observed—often have the ability to make me admit more than what is proper."
She looked rather abashed at this comment and changed the subject. "Your turn, Sir."
He regarded the board for a moment before seeing the clear path to victory before him. He made his move and looked at the soft, triumphant look on her face. He looked back at the board, unsure why she seemed so victorious.
With the elegant swipe of her hand, she put her knight within perfect striking distance of his king. "Checkmate," she said simply.
He looked at the board and back at her. The cunning woman! There was no doubt she was skilled. He was certain, however, he would have stood a better chance at winning if he had not been so distracted by her… arts and allurements he might have called them if she had done them purposefully. For all her pert comments and sharp intellect, she was completely artless.
She attracted him powerfully, yet his head told him to be rational. Yes, it was true he admired sense, sincerity, and wit more than most things. Yet, it did not mean that he had to admire Miss Bennet more than other women merely because she embodied these qualities, he held so dear. He valued propriety and order as well, and she had the tendency to make him act in ways he would have never deemed proper. Furthermore, her entire life was disordered—granted, not of her own making, yet it could not be helped. Her family was generally without propriety or direction; their estate was in disarray, and the daughters were dowerless.
"Mr. Darcy, I believe the best display of sportsmanship would be to congratulate the victor on her win, for if you remain silent any longer, I shall assume that you are a poor sport. A fact which, I daresay, I would be obliged pass on to your sister."
"Indeed, I pride myself on good sportsmanship, Miss Bennet. Congratulations, you are a most formidable opponent." He looked over toward Hurst who was still softly snoring. "Needless to say, I preferred your company to Hurst's."
"Yes, well…" She looked toward the door.
"Could I tempt you to a rematch? It may be a more diverting pastime to your novel."
She looked reluctant for a moment. He was determined not to say anything more to her for he seemed unable to be aught but a fool in her presence, yet he was not ready to relinquish the comfort her presence provided. After a long minute, she nodded, and they began to set up the chessboard in silence again.
After a few minutes of silent play, she spoke. "So, what shall our conversation entail this round, Sir? Will we speak of the things that burden our minds and spirits or shall was speak of the inane and absurd?"
He hid his grin by holding his hand against his mouth. "For the moment, I believe we should both remain silent. I would not be surprised had you wielded your superior talent for conversation to your advantage for I confess I was distracted."
She tutted teasingly. "And I thought you claimed to be a good sport, Sir! Now you accuse me of intentionally distracting you. For shame!"
"Let us not forget who accused whom first. Are you not the lady who once accused me of being avaricious?"
She laughed. "I concede your point, Sir. My intention, however, was in sketching your character."
He could not help but ask, "And what was your conclusion?"
"That you are very sly, Mr. Darcy! You managed to reproach my accusation and state your own values with such éclat to put me to shame."
"Then by your very description, you must admit that you yourself are sly, Miss Bennet!"
She laughed again, and he wondered briefly if he was, in fact, flirting as his cousin Fitzwilliam had often encouraged him to do. No woman ever laughed so freely or openly in his presence. He had wit, but it simply never seemed to come to him in a ballroom.
"I do not deny it. I will happily admit to my flaws. I have a tendency to flaunt propriety and like to taunt people with my wit. I am too bold, and I rarely take others as seriously as they should want me to."
"Mr. Darcy," cried Miss Bingley from the doorway. "Charles and I have been looking everywhere for you this morning."
His face grew ashen. Miss Bingley looked suspiciously at where he and Miss Bennet had been sitting, and he worried that she had overheard some of their previous conversation.
"I have not been hiding, Miss Bingley. I breakfasted before you and Bingley and came across Hurst here in the library." He gestured to Hurst nonchalantly. "He fell asleep before we could finish."
"And so, you decided to play with Miss Elizabeth?" Her words were more accusation than question. He had not the time to respond before she turned her narrowed gaze on to Miss Bennet. "I had thought you would be with your sister."
"My sister has been asleep for some time now, Miss Bingley. I came to the library to divert myself with a novel. I thank you, though, for asking after my sister's health. I do believe she is improved somewhat, and I will tell her you asked after her."
Again, Darcy was impressed with how she turned an impertinent accusation around to make a fool of her accuser. Miss Bingley had the sense to look reasonably mortified by her lack of hospitality, but her penance did not remain for long.
"Well, I hope to visit with her today when she awakens. Then, I might give you more time to visit with dear Mr. Darcy and entertain him with your charming forays into gentlemen's pursuits."
"I am sure Jane will be grateful for the company. However, there is little need for me to continue here. Mr. Darcy could certainly win whenever he wants," she said with an irony lost on Miss Bingley, "and he has discharged his duty by informing me of a message from my uncle in London."
"Mr. Darcy, you did not mention that you were acquainted with other members of the Bennet family."
"Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were present when my sister and I were first acquainted with Miss Elizabeth." His tone allowed no room for further inquiry, and Miss Bingley desisted.
"Well, thank you again for your kind wishes, Miss Bingley, but I should return to my sister's chamber now." She took her leave, and the moment she had absented, Miss Bingley took her place across from him at the chessboard.
"How nice this is! We rarely have the opportunity to speak, just the two of us, Mr. Darcy. Do tell me how is my dear friend Georgiana?"
She had asked him the question no fewer than a dozen times since he had been in residence at Netherfield, and as always, he replied with a disingenuous, "She is well."
Miss Bingley began to prattle on about Georgiana's accomplishment and good prospects, but he could not attend to her words. They were painful to him. Georgiana's future seemed more uncertain now than ever before, and the worries often tormented him at night and buried themselves in his neck and shoulders during the day.
He looked at the chessboard which Miss Bingley was tracing the edge of with a long, pale finger. Distracting himself from his concerns about Georgiana, he starred at the board, realizing that Miss Bennet had a clear path to victory against him in only three moves. The irony of her comment that he could win whenever he pleased felt more laughable now than ever. She could beat him whenever she wanted, yet it had been commonplace for anyone to assume he would be the victor. The thought made him admire her and despise himself in equal measure.
Chapter 6: Chapter VI
"Oh, Lizzy, please do go down and spend time with the others. I can certainly do without you for a few hours."
"Is that a delicate hint that you want me to leave you alone?" Lizzy teased.
"Not at all!" Then, she looked contrite. "Perhaps, a little. 'Tis not that your company is distressing, but, Lizzy, you must admit that you are restless. You are fidgeting quite a bit, and it is rather difficult to rest when you do so. Why do you not join the Bingleys and their guests?"
The answer to this inquiry, though elusive to Jane, was painfully obvious to Lizzy. Her sister had lain abed when her mother and sisters came to call the previous day. Lydia was, naturally, still angry at her sister and had decided to align herself with Caroline Bingley to see how many not-so-subtle references they could make to all areas in which Lizzy was supposedly lacking. She had thought to seek Mr. Darcy as an ally, if not to defend her than to at least silently commiserate with her. He, however, seemed much colder than he had been in the library the previous afternoon and stood on the far corner of the room turned decidedly away from the conversation. Trying in vain to catch his eye, she realized to her great embarrassment that Mr. Darcy was avoiding looking in her direction. He eventually found a seat far from everyone else and paged through a book, not attending to the conversation.
To Lizzy's initial relief, her mother had not said more than the customary greeting to Mr. Darcy until the gentleman made a strange remark in response to her desperate attempt to make light of her mother's tasteless conversation.
His resonant voice came unexpectedly from the corner of the room in response to her. "I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love."
Concealing her surprise, she replied in a vigorous attempt to remain cheerful. "Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."
Her eyes met his briefly, and he smiled wanly, saying nothing more.
Her mother decided to use that opportunity to encourage Mr. Darcy's supposedly fledgling affections for her second eldest daughter. "Mr. Darcy, would you not say that my dear Elizabeth looks quite well today? Such a lovely rose to her cheeks."
Mr. Darcy's cheeks flamed, but he did not look at any of them. He put down his book on his chair and stalked out of the room without a word.
Lizzy had been mortified, partially by her mother's behavior and partially by that of Mr. Darcy. How can he be so mercurial?
Having remained in the room long after the rest of the party had left, she curiously peaked at the book Mr. Darcy had been reading—a volume by Coleridge. He had not closed the book, and she looked at the last page he had been reading. "Dejection" had been the name of the poem, and Lizzy nearly laughed at the irony of the title matching her spirits. She read the stanzas she presumed Mr. Darcy had been reading before he so rudely left.
There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
The words had left her feeling rather bereft, and she felt almost as if she had invaded Mr. Darcy's privacy. She had dropped the book unceremoniously as if it had burned her and fled the room.
Attending to the present, she smiled at Jane and took her sister's hands. "You are correct, my dearest. Why should I not?"
Jane nodded in satisfaction, and Lizzy kissed her forehead. "I pray you shall rest well in the absence of my infernal fidgeting."
The drawing room felt like hostile territory when Lizzy entered to find them looking up at her from their game of loo. It was no surprise. The Bingley sisters had with each subsequent day made her feel increasingly less welcome. Their manners had become noticeably perfunctory, and Miss Caroline Bingley had a tendency to look at her as though she were about to steal something. Mr. Bingley, she had come to realize, was too fickle to properly defend his guest in spite of his geniality. She had hardly heard a word from Mr. Hurst in the duration of her stay, and Mr. Darcy, the only person that she might deem a friend and ally in the room, did not spare a glance her way.
"Miss Elizabeth," Mrs. Hurst's voice was flat, "would you care to join us for a hand of loo?"
"No thank you. You are very kind, but I should not like to interrupt your play. I may have to return to my sister shortly. Please worry yourselves not. I shall entertain myself with a book," she said taking a seat next to a table with some books stacked upon it.
"Do you prefer reading to cards?" asked Mr. Hurst with a little frown. "That is rather singular."
So that is what the man's voice sounds like, mused Lizzy. She suspected his question to be rather rhetorical, so she remained silent. Miss Bingley, however, decided that this was not enough commentary on another one of Lizzy's many unseemly eccentricities, and spoke up, "Miss Eliza Bennet despises cards. She is a great reader and takes no pleasure in anything else."
"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," replied Lizzy. "I am not a great reader, and I take pleasure in many things."
Lizzy hoped that she had put an end to their focus on her.
"In nursing your sister, I am sure you take pleasure," said Bingley with a smile, "and I hope it will be soon increased by seeing her quite well."
Even if he would not check his sister's rudeness, she was grateful for his kindness. "Thank you, Sir. She has made progress today, and I believe her fever to be completely gone."
Mr. Bingley walked toward the table where she was browsing the books there. "Please let me know if you would like me to fetch other books," he offered generously and then laughed. "I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit, but I am an idle fellow, and though I have not many, I have more than I ever looked into."
Lizzy smiled at him, pleased that such an earnest man fancied her beloved Jane. "I assure you, Sir. I can certainly make do, but I commend you for your gallantry."
He bowed to her, and she selected the only familiar book from the pile—the one Mr. Darcy had been reading the previous day.
"I am astonished that my father should have left so small a collection of books," cried Miss Bingley indignantly. "What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!"
"It ought to be good. It has been the work of many generations." Mr. Darcy looked at Lizzy briefly as he said this, and it made her angry.
"And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books," Miss Bingley tittered.
"I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these. I hope to see illiteracy irradiated and a book in every home in my lifetime."
This comment vexed her for it was difficult to maintain her anger at him when he expressed such admirable sentiments.
Miss Bingley must have taken this as a good way to end her deluge of flattery for she returned her attention to Lizzy. "And, what have you selected to read from my brother's slim pickings, Miss Eliza?"
"Just a small collection of Coleridge's poems. I particularly like 'Dejection: An Ode,'" she said, looking at Mr. Darcy to see if he would react.
She wanted him to look at her. His coldness felt unjustified, but simultaneously she worried over what she might have done, afraid that she had finally, unforgivably offended the man in some way.
To her gratification, he did react. He shot her a startled glance, and when his eyes met hers, he colored ever so slightly and looked back to his cards.
"Well, I have never heard of such a thing. It is clearly not a book read by fashionable society," Miss Bingley said with a confidence Lizzy almost pitied for being so misguided.
With another insult given, Miss Bingley decided to let the conversation rest a while. Lizzy heard nothing but the sound of shuffling cards and the crackle of the fire for several minutes before her most appreciated respite was interrupted.
"Is Miss Darcy much grown since the spring?" inquired Miss Bingley enthusiastically. "Will she be as tall as I am?"
"I think she will. She is now about Miss Elizabeth Bennet's height, or rather taller." He looked over at her again, and she could not understand why he would seemingly ignore her one moment and mention her unwarranted in the next.
"How I long to see her again! I never met with anybody who delighted me so much. Such a countenance, such manners! And so extremely accomplished for her age! Her performance on the pianoforte is exquisite."
Mr. Darcy frowned at this, and she felt as if she could read his thoughts. One thing Lizzy had noticed within the first several hours of her stay at Netherfield was that Miss Bingley seemed to be the type of woman Mr. Darcy had described to her that day in Longbourn Park. She obviously did not know Georgiana very well yet expected that adulation of the sister would bring the favor of the brother. The mention of Georgiana, of all things, softened her feelings toward Mr. Darcy who could not be enjoying such a display.
"It is amazing to me," said Bingley, "how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are."
"All young ladies accomplished! My dear brother, what do you mean?"
"Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished."
Darcy finally decided to add his voice to the proceedings. "Your list of the common extent of accomplishments has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are truly accomplished."
"Nor I, I am sure," said Miss Bingley.
Lizzy wanted to roll her eyes. "Then, you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman."
"Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it," said Mr. Darcy. His gaze was roving her face as if he did not know precisely where to look.
"Oh! certainly," cried his faithful assistant. "No one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word. And besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved."
Miss Bingley devotedly punctuated this statement by standing from the table and walking directly in front of Mr. Darcy's line of sight.
"All this she must possess," added Darcy who, in spite of his stoic expression, seemed as amused by this as Lizzy was. "And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
The last was said was a glance at her once again, and she flushed. What was he after?
"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any." Her voice was fiercer than she had intended, but her frustration with Mr. Darcy was becoming intolerable.
"Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?" he retorted.
"I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united," she said with barely concealed scorn. She was certain that he was teasing her in some way, but his present behavior and general propensity for making her feel woefully inadequate disallowed Lizzy from taking such a jest in the humor with which she was certain it was intended.
Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley clearly took umbrage with this statement and wasted no time in having their protestations known.
Mr. Bingley, in his mercy, turned to Lizzy with an apologetic smile. "Miss Elizabeth, would you grace us with a song on the pianoforte?"
Lizzy nodded and attempted not to appear shocked when Mr. Darcy offered to turn her pages.
She sat down at the piano and composed herself, running her palms down her skirt. She felt Mr. Darcy's presence at her side before she saw him, and it made her shiver slightly.
Darcy watched her smooth down her skirts and select a piece of music from what was sitting before her. He cursed himself for his impulsive decision to turn pages for her. She was not looking at him and from his position by her side, the long curve of her neck was directly in his line of sight.
He felt a burst of longing and squeezed his fists at his sides. Why did he feel so out of control these days? The past two nights he had been plagued by unchaste dreams of the lovely woman sitting before him, and they had rendered him nearly senseless in her presence. Every arch of her brow or quirk of her lips or pert comment brought back memories of the passionate Miss Bennet of his dreams. All of this was unfortunately aided by the fact that he had once seen her in her nightclothes, and unbeknownst to him, he had remembered her appearance that terrible night more vividly than he had thought.
He moved slightly toward her as she began to play and caught a glance at her face. Her cheeks were becomingly rosy, yet her countenance betrayed a somber mood.
"Are you well, Miss Bennet?" he spoke quietly to avoid the seemingly impeccable hearing of Miss Bingley.
"Do I not appear well, Mr. Darcy?" She kept her eyes trained on the music in front of her.
He suppressed a grin at the archness in her voice. "No, Miss Bennet, I am afraid you do not."
"I thank you, Sir, for your continued frankness on the subject of my appearance."
The comment disconcerted him, and he did not know how to respond, deciding instead to change his approach. "Are you feeling well? You do not seem to be feeling sociable this evening. I merely would like to ascertain if I could be of service in anyway."
"I could say the same to you for you most certainly did not appear sociable yesterday nor today."
He was grateful she could not see how flushed his face had become. "Yes, but as we have established, I am—by my own sister's description—taciturn and shy."
Her playing became noticeably louder, and he startled slightly when she muttered, "The page please."
He turned the page, and they were silent for a few moments before she spoke. "'Tis strange then, Sir, that I have only truly felt your supposed shyness firsthand these two days past. I had gathered from our previous interactions that you did not find me to be intimidating nor a stranger, yet was I mistaken in thinking that you were seeking to avoid me yesterday?
"Or is it that you were not shy, but you happened to be offended by my words or behavior in some way. I am surprised I had not offended you before yesterday, Sir, though you seem to be rather capricious in deciding to aid me presently when I might have preferred aid only several minutes ago."
"I—I…" he began, attempting to somehow to excuse his behavior without revealing the source of his discontent. "I must apologize, Miss Bennet, for giving you the false impression of antipathy. Your mother was present yesterday, and I believed that you had told me to show you no preference in front of her. I am deeply sorry if my disinclination to speak caused you distress."
She stumbled over the next couple measures of music before composing herself. "I was not distressed so much as confused. I do appreciate your good memory of my advice, but I daresay you did your job too much credit. You left the distinct impression that you were heartily disgusted by the Bennet family, and I assure you Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst noticed."
He winced. He had been disgusted with some of the Bennets. Mrs. Bennet had been crass and the younger sisters obnoxious. "I apologize sincerely. I did not consciously intend to insult you or your family, and I very much regret Miss Bingley's lack of hospitality. I can well understand how grating her comments can be."
Her shoulders relaxed somewhat, and he wished he could see her entire face. "And, might I presume her rather oblivious comments about Georgiana were the cause of your ill humor this evening?"
Miss Bingley's fawning over Georgiana did bother him somewhat, but his vexation helped distract him from the more potent cause of his displeasure—namely, his intense attraction to the woman who was only inches from him.
"Yes," he breathed.
"May I ask what precisely the nature of your anxiety about Georgiana?"
She turned to him for a moment, and his face must have expressed bewilderment for she quickly added, "I shall not compel you to speak, but in honor of the candid nature of our discourse, I would like to offer you the opportunity to speak if you wish."
As always when speaking with her, his first instinct was to bare himself of his burdens and speak freely. It, however, struck him as too intimate—too much like a lover—to share such confidences and receive comfort from her. He could not begin to think of her in that way. He could not afford to marry obscurely and shed light on the Darcy family nor could he even think of marrying in to such an unstable family when Georgiana required stability.
What was he doing? He only had a couple dreams about the woman and was now thinking about marriage. The idea was absurd! Miss Bennet was an acquaintance of his and Georgiana's, so it would only be appropriate for him to speak to her of his sister.
"I…" he began quietly without knowing what he wanted to express. His thoughts were every changing and nearly always distressing.
"I cannot stand when Miss Bingley speaks on and on about Georgiana's accomplishments and her good prospects because," he swallowed, "I fear every day that she could be ruined by even a rumor of what happened. And, all of her accomplishments and her good character would vanish in the eyes of the world. She would cease to be Georgiana, a young lady with musical talent, a sweet disposition, and a loving family. She would become the woman that man ruined. She might never have the opportunity to marry or have a family, and even our relations and lifelong friends could refuse to speak to her. I cannot imagine what such a thing would do to her, and I cannot imagine what witnessing it would do to me…"
His voice had become so quick and quiet as he spoke, he was surprised Miss Bennet could hear him at all. He quickly realized that he had forgotten to turn the page, and she had concealed his mishap by playing the same few phrases repeatedly. He finally turned the page, and she continued playing.
"Mr. Darcy, I know it is of little consolation, but I truly believe I understand the depth of your fears."
His hoarse response was out of his mouth before he could think better of it. "I know you do."
She did not say anything, but she finished the piece and then looked at him with a piercing gaze. He wondered if she somehow could tell that he was thinking of the conversation he overheard with her sisters at the assembly.
She opened her mouth to speak, but Miss Bingley was, unfortunately, faster. "Mr. Darcy, I was hoping you could stay there and turn my pages. There is a new piece I have learned that I have been dying to play."
He bowed in attempt to hide his grimace.
While Miss Bingley went to retrieve her music, Miss Bennet pressed some sheet music into his hand. "Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Darcy."
Then her voice became quiet, and he had to lean in to hear her. "I am deeply sorry for misinterpreting your actions, and if you ever want…" she paused, and he desperately wanted her to finish her sentence. "Did you know I very much enjoy walking?"
Before he could answer this abrupt change in topic, she continued quickly, glancing at Miss Bingley's approach. "I particularly love the wood on the eastern part of Netherfield's park and walk there at dawn frequently."
He did not have the opportunity to respond for Miss Bennet left his side hastily, taking her leave of the party, just as Miss Bingley came to sit at the pianoforte.
He sorely felt Miss Bennet's absence for the rest of the evening and took the first opportunity to excuse himself. He dressed for bed without his valet and spent the night staring at ceiling feeling a contrariety of emotion within him. His anxieties were still great, and he still believed it had been improper to speak so to Miss Bennet. Yet, he could not quite regret it for she claimed to understand, and she did.
That was the crux of the matter. Everything could fall apart because no one would understand. No one would understand that Georgiana should not be blamed for the crimes of profligate men—no one save Miss Bennet. The mere knowledge that a kind, intelligent woman understood and accepted Georgiana gave him no small amount of comfort, and he fell asleep quicker that night that he had in weeks. His sleep was not to be restful, however, due to the stirring dreams that plagued him to no end.
The air the next morning was precisely what an autumn stroll required, Lizzy mused to herself as she set off along the least-traveled path in the Netherfield woods. The air was crisp with just a hint of cold portending the coming winter, yet there was scarcely wind enough to rustle the leaves that crunched beneath her feet.
It was—she thought—the perfect atmosphere for contemplation, and on this morning in particular, she had much to contemplate.
First in her thoughts since the previous evening were Mr. and Miss Darcy. She had not even considered the full extent of what could happen to a young lady like Georgiana if Wickham's crime were to be exposed. What had already happened seemed to be horrible enough without the possibility of ruining Georgiana's future.
Lizzy remembered the cautionary tales that mothers whispered to daughters when they were young—sordid tales about fallen women. Though too young to remember the incident herself, Lizzy had learned from Charlotte that Miss Jennings, Mrs. Long's niece who had often come to spend summers in Hertfordshire, was a fallen woman. Lizzy remembered Miss Jennings as a pretty lady with auburn hair and a lovely complexion who always seemed to laugh a little too loud in public. Ten-year-old Lizzy quite understood the desire to laugh loudly and be merry, and although they were never introduced, Lizzy had liked the older girl.
Charlotte, who had come out with her, told Lizzy years later of the poor girl's fate. At seventeen, Miss Jennings was found in a corridor at a ball with the hand of drunken Mr. Tate—who was twice her age—down the front of her dress. Miss Jennings' father was called upon to settle the matter. Dueling was presented as an option, but in the end, Miss Jennings became Mrs. Tate and was not heard from again by the people of Meryton.
This memory brought her mind to Mr. Darcy. Strange creature though he was, she could not deny her respect for the way he handled Georgiana's situation. He refused to blame her or force her to bear unjust consequences. He was, as evidenced by his admission the previous evening, worried about her future and well-being more than anything. Even as she loved her father, she was not sure how he would handle the same situation.
It gave her a deep and profound respect and admiration for Mr. Darcy. She thought perhaps she had been too hasty in her judgement of his behavior. He was awkward and had an unfortunate propensity for making inelegant remarks, for which no one appeared to check him. He was, however, a very good sort of man in essentials, and he clearly respected her and her opinions, which she appreciated.
She conceded that she had, perhaps, been prideful in allowing his unfavorable comments about her countenance fuel her vexation toward him. He clearly appreciated her mind, and though he might never seek her for a bride, he might consider her a friend. She refused to acknowledge the unconscious thoughts that came to her regarding his handsomeness, his dry sense of humor, and her possible attraction to him. It was an impossibility and sheer folly to even entertain the thought.
"Miss Bennet!" the subject of her thoughts called from a few feet behind her.
She turned around and cursed the heat that rushed to her face. He held his hat in his hand, and she saw that the slight breeze had made his hair unruly and his cheeks pink. "Good morning, Mr. Darcy," she said, slightly louder than she should have.
She tore her gaze away from him and looked at the ground.
"'Tis a nice coincidence to meet you here upon the path." She continued to walk in her original direction.
He quickly caught up to her. "Indeed. I saw you a fair way back, but you are rather swift of foot."
"I am quite fond of walking."
"Yes, I know."
She looked at him, and he was staring at her in a way that discomfited her.
"I apologize for all that you had to endure last night, Sir. Given what you have related to me, I can better comprehend your reticence in company."
"It does not signify. Miss Bingley has caused me disquiet long before the events of the summer, and as you have indicated several times, I am prone to brevity."
She smiled, pleased that he could at least occasionally ridicule himself. "That is no flaw in of itself, Mr. Darcy, for I believe 'brevity is the soul of wit.'"
"Again, we seem to fall back on the words of others to appear clever."
She laughed, "I shall not tell if you do not."
He fully smiled then, and she had to look away lest he see her blush. "Have you heard from Georgiana, Sir? I may have received a reply from her, but I have not had a chance to read any mail sent to Longbourn in my absence."
"Yes, I received one yesterday. In it, she spoke highly of your letter to her, declaring it 'the most charming letter she had ever received,'" he said in a wry tone.
"Although I consider your sister to be an honest soul, I might speculate that she has not had much occasion to read charming language if she describes my irreverence in such superlative terms."
"On the contrary, I do not doubt your ability to charm in the least, Miss Bennet," he said, looking up toward the sky. He cleared his throat, and his tone became aloof. "I must thank you for your letter to her. She seemed in higher spirits because of it."
"You need not thank me. It was a selfish act for I desire Georgiana's correspondence as much as—or perhaps more than—she does."
They were both silent for a moment, and the question that had been gnawing at her intruded forcefully upon her thoughts in the disconcerting silence. "Mr. Darcy, I beg you tell me truthfully. How has Georgiana fared these last months?"
He did not speak for several moments, but she now knew better than to assume his silence to be caused by offense or anger. When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet and almost vulnerable. "I hesitate to disclose any news of her wellbeing for I am not sure of it myself."
He paused again, and she did not speak, figuring that Mr. Darcy was the type of man who would speak when he would.
"Georgiana has hardly spoken to me in recent months. We will exchange words, but nothing she says expresses anything about her thoughts or emotions. It is very much unlike her to be so cold, and yet she does not appear melancholy as I might expect. Perhaps she does not think of it often. She does not like to speak of it, and I have learned to cease my attempts to discuss it."
Lizzy pondered this for a moment, recalling Georgiana's letter and her response to it. "It does not surprise me that her reaction may not be apparent." She shot him a wry smile, "For in spite of what is said of us ladies, we are not all prone to histrionics. I have found that each reacts to pain in a slightly different way, taking into account her temperament and the circumstances of her situation. While one might expect melancholy to manifest itself in a girl with tears or trembling, it may be something entirely unrecognizable as melancholy from an outsider's perspective. Regardless of its appearance, however, she may still be feeling, and you will not know until you ask."
"She will not speak of it—she will not speak of anything. I do not know what to do anymore. Her letters have been better than her conversation, but it is unendurable to feel so estranged from my sister when we are in a room together." His posture seemed like that of a man defeated.
It felt strange that he seemed to be seeking and taking her counsel. Though she could not have previously imagined what it would be like to hear this proud, powerful man reveal so much, it did not daunt her as she would have expected. "Well, what have you said to her about what happened?"
"I know not…I suppose I told her initially that I loved her and that it was not her fault. I have repeatedly told her that it is not her fault. She was so contrite and has tried to apologize, but I could not and cannot let her bear the guilt of such a thing."
"Ah, I see," Lizzy thought. She felt a stab of pity for the Darcy siblings—Mr. Darcy for not knowing how to be both mother and father to a fifteen-year-old girl and Georgiana for not having a mother or sister to properly guide her through this. "Mr. Darcy, please forgive me if I overstep, but I believe that may be the problem."
"What may be?" he asked in bewilderment.
"Your refusal to let Georgiana shoulder any of the responsibility and completely absolving her."
"Did you not do the same thing?" he asked, and she detected a hint of indignation in his tone, which confused her.
"I sincerely do not know to what you refer."
He looked at the ground sheepishly and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, sighing forcefully. "I must admit that I listened to you comforting Georgiana after I spoke privately with your aunt that night. I…I envied your ability to comfort her, and I attempted to imitate your manner of consolation with her later.
"You explained to her that it was not her fault because she—with no fault of her own—did not possess the knowledge to contradict what that manipulator Wickham had told her."
She did not respond immediately for her surprise at his response was great. If hearing Mr. Darcy speaking so openly and vulnerably was strange, then hearing that he envied her was astonishing. Gathering her thoughts and her recollections of her conversation with Georgiana that night, she replied, "I agree with you, Sir, that she was at no fault for the attack on her person nor for falling prey to a well-rehearsed seduction. However, she did act irresponsibly by agreeing to go with him and for not waiting for your approval. She was reckless, and though I believe her offense is forgivable, I am certain she still feels responsible for her part in the situation.
"She had little control over the situation, but the little power she had, she used unwisely. I would imagine that if I were her, I would be reluctant to speak about an incident where I felt guilt but was unable to shoulder blame. I would find it confusing if I was not allowed to sort out the difference between what I was responsible for and what I could not control."
He was staring straight ahead when she turned to look at him, and she could not—predictably—determine what he was thinking.
"How do you do it?" he said without looking at her.
He looked at her, and his eyes were so intense it made her shiver a little. "How are you able to know what to say in any situation? In moments that I find myself speechless and confused, you are able to grasp a situation with clarity and act accordingly."
She blushed at the compliment. "Mr. Darcy, I am not certain that my conjecture is correct. I was merely attempting to give a possible explanation for your perceptions of Georgiana's behavior. Even if I am correct, I am sure the situation is far more complex that what I have described."
"Still," he spoke in awe, "I cannot fathom how one comes to such perceptive conclusions."
"Mr. Darcy, pardon me for saying so, but you are not a woman," she teased, attempting to lighten the mood, and smiled when he laughed. "No one would expect you to understand the workings of a young girl's mind. You see, for all that women are required to know about the ways of men—how to meet and anticipate their needs and make themselves appealing to them—men know very little about how our minds work."
He stifled his smile. She was so very enchanting, and if she were not so utterly sincere, he would have deemed her remark coquettish.
He swallowed and spoke coolly. "I forgive your remark, Miss Bennet, on account of its truthfulness, and I will fully admit to knowing very little about women or their desires."
"Mr. Darcy, you have had to act as brother, mother, and father to a young girl for years, and from what Georgiana has told me you do it very well for the most part. She is a wonderful young lady, and 'tis a credit to your influence. You cannot expect, however, to be able to understand the world she inhabits like another female can."
"She told you that?" he asked skeptically.
"Mr. Darcy, I would not fabricate such a thing. Your sister told me that you were an exemplary older brother, and as she grew up, you played with her and spoiled her just as a good brother should. I believe this to be a difficult time for a brother to have a role in his younger sister's life.
"Your mother is passed, and you are not married. So, there is no feminine presence in your home while Georgiana is learning all of the complexities of society, which is—unfortunately, in my view—the main responsibility of a young lady of Georgiana's age. I believe that it is difficult for her to speak of such things with you because you have never experienced the awkwardness of being caught between girlhood and womanhood."
Once again, the idea of marriage to Miss Bennet floated through his mind to his chagrin, but when he focused on her words themselves, he sighed. "I have long since suspected that to be part of our estrangement. I do not know how I can provide the guidance that she needs. Mrs. Gardiner has been a help, and yet…"
He trailed off and felt uncharacteristically wistful at the image of Miss Bennet providing guidance to Georgiana, renewing her spirits and good humor. Perhaps Pemberley would be full of joy, and he would not feel so burdened.
"I do not think you need to be worried, Sir. She will learn as she goes along. I, myself, was dreadfully unprepared for my coming out, but my dear Aunt Gardiner helped me as she is helping Georgiana and experience proved an apt teacher. Georgiana will be far more prepared for her coming out than I was—which is certainly not difficult to do—but I am certain she will learn in her first season what I have accomplished in several!"
"Pray tell, what is your age?"
He grimaced. As usual, he spoke before he considered the implication of his question.
Her eyes narrowed appraisingly, and she looked him up and down before responding with a half-smile. "With three younger sisters grown you can hardly expect me to own to it!"
He flushed. "Miss Bennet, I apologize. That was impolitic. I—"
"Mr. Darcy," she interrupted with a good-natured expression, "do not worry yourself. I was merely teasing you. If you desire to know, I think we have established a candid discourse in which I would have no objections to inform you that I will reach my majority in May."
His surprise must have been evident for she asked amusedly, "I appear to have shocked you, Mr. Darcy. Is it truly so strange that I should be twenty years of age?"
"No, not at all, Miss Bennet. I suppose I would have suspected you to be older—perhaps four or five-and-twenty."
He could once again not make out her expression. Her eyes were narrowed, and she pursed her lips, yet she something about her countenance gave the impression of diversion.
"Since I have so graciously shared my age, I must beg you to tell me your age, so we shall be on equal footing," her head turned down, and he saw her smile archly at the ground.
He thought that he would tell her anything she wanted in that moment if she would only stay by his side like this forever. She would pull him in with her beauty, coy expressions, and general intelligence and wit. Then, suddenly, he would be unable to think rationally, and it seemed that any remaining control over his life slipped from his grasp.
He cleared his throat and nodded, trying in vain to pry his gaze away from her. "I will be eight-and-twenty in December."
Her eyes widened, and her jaw dropped open. He felt wholly mystified by her response. "Seven-and-twenty! Goodness! I would have suspected you to be nearing forty, Sir!"
"Forty?" he cried in disbelief. "I may feel it on some days, but I did not think—" He finally noticed her barely concealed mirth and, unable to feign offense, let out a short bark of laugher. "You are teasing me, Miss Bennet."
"I merely wanted you to have a taste of your own medicine."
God in heaven, she was lovely when she was being mischievous. It made him feel his age. He felt giddy like Bingley at a ball or on a hunt. "Yes, but I was only incorrect by five years—not thirteen. There is a fair difference between five-and-twenty and forty!"
"Ah," she replied saucily, "but what truly is the difference between a woman of five-and-twenty and a man of forty? They are both beginning to be thought of as 'old.'"
"Yes," he said with a faint smile, feeling suddenly more depressed than he had a moment before, "I suppose you are correct."
They did not say anything for several minutes, as the image of Netherfield in the distance grew closer. It seemed to him that the looming presence of the house cast a pall over their conversation. With every foot nearer, it seemed that she moved an inch away from him, and it was enough to slow his steps.
Miss Bennet did not slow down, however, and continued walking on, despite him. She looked back once she was several feet in front of him and spoke. "'Twas a happy occurrence to see you about the park this morning, Mr. Darcy. I bid you good day."
"Yes, good day, Miss Bennet."
She nodded at him gently and turned away from him. Unwittingly, he spoke again. "I do hope the weather is fine again tomorrow for I find nothing so refreshing as a brisk walk in the autumn air."
She stopped and looked back at him for a moment. Her head bowed, and her bonnet hid her face from his view. "I do too, Sir. It is an uncommon pleasure."
He did not move for several moments but smiled to himself as he watched her get farther away from him. Standing at the edge of Netherfield's small wood, he felt a contrariety of emotion—longing and loss, bliss and dejection, and, most alarmingly, hope.
Chapter 7: Chapter VII
Thusly, Lizzy met Mr. Darcy in Netherfield's woods the following two mornings before Jane was well enough to return to Longbourn.
He was a strange creature, she decided. Their conversations, as usual, fluctuated between the rather serious matters of Georgiana's well-being and future and rather complex quips about a mutually loved book. His presence simultaneously made her feel comfortable and disconcerted for while there was a great similarity in the turn of their minds, he had made it rather clear to her that he thought of her as more of a mannish, fraternal-sort of companion with whom he entrusted confidences about his sister.
On the occasion of their second meeting, he told her with the confidence of a compliment, "You are a better walker than any man I have hunted with. I have never known a lady to be so athletic. Are you concealing an expert skill in hunting or fencing by any chance?"
She laughed of course, but his kindly-meant comments—that she was "athletic" or that he suspected her near spinsterhood or that she looked well in her disheveled state—were rather humiliating given how much she found herself attracted to him. He had earned her initial respect when they had met in August, yet her respect and admiration grew with subsequent conversations.
He was erudite and quite eloquent when he had the mind to be. Exceedingly well-read and well-informed, he had an excellent understanding of philosophy and government, and though somewhat shy and reserved in mixed company, he possessed a dry sense of humor which frequently caught her off guard. She felt as though he considered her an equal, and he seemed to listen to her opinions with rapt attention, asking thoughtful questions and never interrupting her. What a shame it was that men seemed to respect the unattractive women more than the ladies who earned their amorous admiration!
Were it not for the pressure of Georgiana's situation and Mr. Darcy's obvious awareness of her unsuitability, she might have found herself on her way to falling in love with the man. He was attractive to her for many reasons, but, for better or for worse, Lizzy had admonished herself not to get attached. She would not seek him out in company after she left Netherfield, and then all would be easier after Georgiana's arrival. When the Darcys inevitably left, she would only hear of him from her correspondence with Georgiana. He would be married to some lady of the ton at some point in the near future, and she would wish him well—so long as he did not succumb to the cheap wiles of Caroline Bingley!
Lizzy was sitting across from Jane in Mr. Bingley's well-sprung carriage and caught her sister with an uncharacteristic expression of wistfulness.
Her sister looked up and smiled faintly.
"Is everything all right?"
"I do not know," she responded tentatively. "I feel rather strange for I had much time to think when I was ill."
"What were you thinking of?"
It took Jane so long to respond, Lizzy had almost assumed she would not answer. "I realized how little I know about being a wife," she said quietly.
Lizzy looked at Jane questioningly.
"I know how Mama or Aunt Phillips are as wives, but they are not the type of wife that I would like to be I think."
Lizzy smirked. "I would agree."
"Yet, even Aunt Gardiner who is a much better model for my own aspirations…I do not truly understand what passes between her and our uncle. What is their life like when we do not see them?"
Lizzy pondered this for a moment and could not say that she knew. They were amiable toward each other and seemed to get along well, but the moments in front of their nieces could not be the entirety of their discourse. "I honestly could not say. Why has this troubled you now? Do you truly think you would like to marry Mr. Bingley? You have not spoken of him much this week."
Jane furrowed her brow and pursed her lips. "I cannot say if I do, and that is what puzzles me. I was so charmed by him upon our first meeting, but after having been in his house for a week and hardly seeing him, I have wondered what it would be like to live there with him. How might we go on together? I daresay you would know better than I after having observed him this past week."
This type of observation was uncharacteristic for Jane, and Lizzy briefly wondered if her recent cynicism had manifested itself in Jane during her illness.
"It does seem rather strange to live so closely with a man without previous knowledge of his habits and private behaviors. I believe, though, that we ladies are allowed too few safe opportunities to know men on a more personal level. What can you learn about a man in a drawing room other than that he appears to be respectable?"
"Precisely, and perhaps that is what disarms me about a potential courtship with Mr. Bingley. I only spoke to him twice during my convalescence, and I felt each time that he would have liked to say more than he did. I may have wanted to speak as well, but I cannot do it properly. If we were married, would it be the same or would there be openness? I cannot determine whether it is propriety or his disposition which strains our discourse. The Bingleys have been in the neighborhood for so short a time.
"I do take assurance in that you knew the Darcys before. Tell me, Lizzy. Would you trust Mr. Darcy's judgement in people? Does it reflect well in Mr. Bingley that Mr. Darcy esteems him?"
"I can hardly say. I do believe Mr. and Miss Darcy to be good, honest people, so I doubt that Mr. Bingley could be a nefarious sort of character, especially given that poor Mr. Darcy is willing to put up with Miss Bingley's presence for his friend."
"Lizzy!" Jane admonished, failing to suppress a smile.
With that, Lizzy let the subject drop, but she felt vaguely bemused for the rest of the way back to Longbourn.
When she arrived, she discovered she had a letter from Georgiana as she suspected. Her mother had begun to berate her about how rude Mr. Darcy had been during her visit and how she had clearly offended him, so Lizzy slipped out the servants' door to an old retaining wall just out of sight of the house and sat down with her letter, dated but three days ago.
7 October 1811
I was much amused by your last letter, as I expected I would be. I was delighted by your pleasant descriptions of Hertfordshire and Meryton society. Between your suggestions of the view from your beloved Oakham Mount and the pleasant companionship of your beloved sister, I find myself brimming with anticipation. Such excitement is a welcome distraction from the solitude of our London house when my brother is away. I hardly realized how much his mere presence served to protect me not only from the world but from the direction my thoughts turn in solitude.
If you see my brother, please do not tell him these things for it would only serve to make him anxious. I am determined to not be dependent on him forever yet thinking about the future fills me with such trepidation my head occasionally begins to ache. I do not mean to burden you with my thoughts, but I have no one else in whom I can confide. I do not even feel at ease confiding such things to your dear Aunt, who has been more of a mother to me than any other woman has. I do hope that once we are together again, I shall think fewer dark thoughts about the future and enjoy our diversions as well as I can.
Erstwhile, all I desire is another amusing story about the various characters of Meryton who provided much amusement in your last letter.
Georgiana's letter nagged at the edge of Lizzy's mind for the rest of the day, and she found herself rather overwhelmed by her inability to comfort her friend or truly understand her thoughts and feelings. Lizzy felt strange and unworthy to have all of the hopes and anticipations of the dear girl pinned on her ability to comfort. Given the situation with her own younger sisters' resentment, it seemed strange that another girl of the same age would long for her sisterly counsel, especially when they had hardly spent such little time together.
In a way, Lizzy felt closer to Georgiana than any of her own sisters. For while her sisters remained innocent of the vile ways of men, she and Georgiana were no longer capable of such blissful ignorance. They had been indelibly changed by their shared experience in Canterbury. Such that their simultaneous loss of innocence—albeit on different scales—had bonded them in some indescribably profound way that gave no significance to the duration of their acquaintance.
Perhaps, she decided, this was why she felt so attracted to Mr. Darcy. He was the only man aside from her uncle with whom she would ever be able to honestly discuss this shift in perspective. He knew that she had witnessed things that no maiden should ever encounter, and he bore her no ill-will for it. How could she not admire and respect a man who overlooked what would be seen as a flaw by most other men? She was certain her attraction stemmed from the shifting sands of her life at the moment rather than any real desire to marry the man. Yes, he was handsome, yet she had always imagined that, if she would marry at all, she would marry a man who was affectionate and made her feel loved—entirely unlike her parents' marriage. Thus, it could not be that she had any hopes of Mr. Darcy's regard for he was not affectionate but rather aloof, if not politely respectful and, occasionally, admiring.
It was with these thoughts in mind that Lizzy made her way back to Longbourn, where she was accosted by her mother who screeched, "Mr. Collins is coming! Mr. Collins is coming!"
"Mr. Collins?" Lizzy asked with a furrowed brow. "The cousin who is to inherit Longbourn?"
"Oh, do not remind me of such things, Lizzy!" her mother chided. "I cannot think of such a thing when an eligible gentleman—the heir to our family seat—is coming!"
"Mama, he may be attached elsewhere. Do not pester the poor man if you do not know what his intentions may be."
"He said that he wants to extend an olive branch to the family and commented frequently on the daughters of the household. He must mean he wants to repair the rift through marriage! There may be hope for you yet, Lizzy!"
Deciding that it was better to avoid her mother than to argue with her, Lizzy fled for her father's study where she could forget about the world and lose herself in one of her father's beloved tomes for a while.
Netherfield Park had become suffocating to Darcy, whose feeling of idleness had roused a restless sort of surliness in him. In the eight days since the departure of the Misses Bennet, he found himself dissatisfied with every aspect of life at Netherfield. Miss Bingley brought him to the edge of an ungentlemanly fit of temper daily, and the dull state of the Hursts' marriage depressed him. Even Bingley, for all his good humor, was irritating, precisely because he did not and could not understand Darcy's profound disquiet. The only thing that had brought him any semblance of joy, even if it was not wholly so, was the news that Georgiana desired to join him sooner rather than later. Upon receipt of Colonel Fitzwilliam's letter, he wrote back immediately agreeing to the decision. Now, his sister would arrive in another four days, and he had hope that he could do better with her this time.
Still, he felt stifled by his situation, and four nights had passed before he realized that his distress was not new. It was the mere renewal of the distress that he had felt before his reacquaintance with Miss Elizabeth. He was somewhat loathe to admit it, but she, in her intelligent and compassionate way, had profoundly improved his outlook on the future for her brief stay at Netherfield. It annoyed him that he began to look for her whenever he rode his horse, and he thought about her—and more shamefully, her form and youthful vigor—more than was appropriate. It was absurd that he had met hundreds of well-bred, imminently marriageable young ladies, yet none of them possessed the same loveliness or spirit as Miss Elizabeth. He, however, could not even entertain the idea of taking their acquaintance further. For while he dearly enjoyed the company of the Gardiners, it had been strange enough for him to socialize with a tradesman and his wife, let alone confide in them as he had. To even consider their niece, who was so far removed from his social circle that they had no mutual acquaintances, was ridiculous.
Thus, it was with no little frustration that Darcy found himself riding his horse in the early mornings through areas he knew she frequented. For the past four days, he rose early and road through the various wooded paths around Longbourn, always making his way toward Oakham Mount. He told himself repeatedly that he came to this precise spot because Miss Bennet had mentioned it as "the most beautiful and peaceful place to take walk"—it was curious that he always seemed to remember her words verbatim. However, he had a tendency to linger at the spot long past the moment when his lack of movement allowed the cold autumn air to pervade his bones, and in those moments, he could not deny to himself that he had a desire to see her, alone, where they could share confidences with one another. His unwilling attraction in such moments felt patently pathetic when he stood with his horse in the cold, waiting for a woman who never appeared.
"Well, Georgie, what do you think?" Richard asked as Netherfield came into view.
"I find it perfectly charming—just as Lizzy described it." She leaned toward the window and watched as she saw her brother come into view. She felt a tightening in her stomach as they approached. While she and Fitzwilliam has been more open with each other in their correspondence, she feared a return to their reticence of the month before. They would be attending a party at the home of one of the local gentry that evening, and she took heart that perhaps Lizzy's presence would ease the tension between Fitzwilliam and her.
Fitzwilliam was at the door to hand her out of the carriage when it arrived, and to her surprise, he took her into his arms the moment her feet hit the ground. "I have missed you, Georgiana. How are you?" he asked softly, kissing her forehead.
She pulled back from him and, willing herself to look him in the eye, took his hands. "I am better. I am excited to see Hertfordshire and to take part in its diversions."
He smiled at her and squeezed her hands before turning to greet Richard. She was grateful for his warm welcome. It was as if she was a child again, and Fitzwilliam would greet her by embracing her and spinning her around when he would return from Cambridge.
It took but a moment for Miss Bingley to ruin her equanimity. The lady appeared like an apparition, grabbing Georgiana by the arm and pulling her away from her brother. "Oh, my dear Georgiana, how delighted I am that you have finally arrived! I was overjoyed when I heard that you had decided to join us early. I am certain we shall have the best time together—even if this country is rather savage."
Georgiana found the lady's fawning manner disagreeable but remained silent as Miss Bingley babbled away, guiding her inside. Upon entering the foyer, Mr. Bingley and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst greeted her and Richard. For some strange reason, seeing Mr. Hurst's greying sideburns made her distinctly uneasy, and she suddenly felt acutely aware of her youth among the Netherfield party. She twisted her hands together as the party collectively moved to the drawing room and nearly jumped when she felt Fitzwilliam take her arm to escort her. "Would you rather visit privately than in the drawing room with everyone else?" he whispered.
She nodded and felt shy at the sound of her brother's resonant voice echoing through the hall. "Bingley, would you mind if I used the library? I have some family business to discuss with my sister and cousin."
He steered them into a room on their left and brought them to the fire. Fitzwilliam shot her a half smile. "I figured you might need a respite from Miss Bingley."
It was the most unforgiving speech she had ever heard from him, and she could not suppress a giggle. Fitzwilliam and Richard looked at her in pleasant surprise, and she took pleasure in bringing them any emotion that was not consternation or sorrow. "I see the chessboard there is set up, Brother. I suppose that is your doing."
Richard laughed. "I know Bingley is no fan of the game, and I doubt Hurst is. Have you been playing by yourself, waiting for our arrival?"
Fitzwilliam ignored Richard and turned his whole attention toward her. "How was your trip, my dear? I hope you did not find it too arduous. Are you still prepared to attend the party at Sir Lucas' home tonight? I do not want it to be burden to attend when you are not out and have just spent the morning traveling."
"Yes, of course! I have been longing to see Lizzy, and I would rather not wait to see her."
"I am scarcely less excited than Georgie to meet the infamous Miss Bennet if tales of her beauty and wit are indeed true," Richard cried. Fitzwilliam glowered at him but was silent.
There was a moment of silence before Georgiana spoke for fear of letting the silence consume their congenial reunion. "I am eager to meet Miss Jane Bennet and Miss Lucas. From Lizzy's letters, they seem like wonderful companions. Have you met them?"
"I have made their acquaintance, but I am sure I can give you no more information that what Miss Elizabeth has told you. Either way, I'm sure you shall find their company instructive this evening. I do so hope you will enjoy the evening."
His sincerity was touching, and she reveled in the fragile companionship that they had seemed to rediscover. "I do believe I shall."
Lizzy could not control the beating of her heart as another party entered the Lucases' ballroom. It has been nearly a fortnight since she had seen Mr. Darcy, and her eagerness to see him again was bothersome. She thought about him far more than she was willing to admit and thought she had espied him twice during her morning walks. Deciding that it did her no use to remain near the door, preoccupied with Mr. Darcy's arrival, she made her way to Charlotte's side on the opposite side of the room.
Lydia and Kitty, who had been sitting near Charlotte, purposefully strode away at her approach. Lizzy rolled her eyes as she joined Charlotte.
"I might have asked if they were still ignoring you, but I suppose their hasty departure answered my question," remarked Charlotte with an amused glance at the two youngest Bennet sisters, each taking another punch glass each with upturned noses.
"Yes, but for all their theatrics, they occasionally have moments in which they forget that I do not exist and ask me to pass the potatoes or lend a ribbon for a dress," said Lizzy wryly.
Charlotte laughed before gently nudging Lizzy's arm. "The peacocks have arrived."
Lizzy immediately stood up, and her stomach swooped uncomfortably upon seeing the imposing figure of Mr. Darcy towering above others in the room. They made eye contact, and she willed herself not to blush. She made her way toward him before hearing someone cry her name.
Mr. Darcy was forgotten as Georgiana appeared before her with an overjoyed expression. "Georgiana, what are you doing here? I believed that you would not arrive for another fortnight!" She felt the eyes of the room on them as she took Georgiana's hands in hers but decided that the best course of action would be to ignore it.
"Your aunt and uncle conspired with me to keep it a surprise. Are you pleased?"
"Of course," Lizzy replied, squeezing the girl's hands. "I could not have asked for a better surprise. How are you, my dear friend?"
Georgiana bit her lip and looked away for a moment, seeming to suddenly realize that they were being watched. "I am well." Lizzy supposed she appeared skeptical for Georgiana added, "Truly. I am overjoyed to see you again—even around so many people."
Lizzy laughed. "Oh, do not be frightened of the attention. The people of Meryton have very little with which to occupy themselves, so they must find objects of interest where they can. When your poor brother arrived, I believe that he did not go unwatched for a moment. His countenance seemed like that of a man awaiting the gallows than attending a ball!"
Georgiana burst into laughter, and a stocky man with sandy hair and a broad smile appeared next to her. "That does seem an apt description of my cousin," he said gesturing toward Mr. Darcy, who had also joined the conversation. "He hates notoriety with a passion. He believes himself above it, you see."
Lizzy looked between the Darcys, waiting for an introduction to whom she guessed was Colonel Fitzwilliam. Finally, Mr. Darcy spoke, "Miss Elizabeth, may I present my cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam."
"'Tis a pleasure to meet you, Sir," Lizzy said with a curtsey.
"The pleasure is all mine, Miss Elizabeth," the Colonel replied jovially, bowing. "I have heard extensively of your beauty, intelligence, and wit these past weeks, and I can see now that my cousin was not exaggerating."
Lizzy felt her cheeks heat at his compliment and despised the shyness that came over her. She stung with uncharacteristic embarrassment that the Colonel should compliment her so in front of his cousin, who was undoubtedly recalling the moment when he expressed a contrary opinion.
Then, to her surprise, the Colonel asked, "Would you honor me with the next dance?"
"Perhaps Miss Elizabeth would like to visit with Georgiana for a while before you occupy her time," said Mr. Darcy. His sonorous voice felt so serious that she could only bear to look at him but a moment before looking away.
"Of course," said the Colonel, unfazed by Mr. Darcy's reprimand. "Whatever Miss Elizabeth and Georgiana prefer, but, Miss Elizabeth, you must promise me your next available dance."
"Of course," Lizzy said with a smile that she hoped belied her discomfiture. "Georgiana, I should like to introduce my sister Jane and my dear friend Charlotte."
Georgiana felt relieved upon meeting Lizzy's sister and friend for they were kind and genuine, and they made an effort to include her in their dry musings about the party and the company. She could not recall a time when she truly felt herself to be fifteen. Her old companion Mrs. Younge always made her feel like she was too immature to discern aught for herself, and the past months had made her feel like she was much older than she was. She was afraid to err in any way these days, and her hopes for the future seemed to dwindle.
The evening thus far, however, had been splendid, and Lizzy's friends and family were far more welcoming and less intimidating than the company she and her brother kept in London. Even after Lizzy joined Richard to dance, Georgiana felt quite peaceable left in the company of Miss Bennet and Miss Lucas.
"Lizzy will be the talk of the neighborhood after tonight!" Charlotte cried. "First, Mr. Darcy singles her out, and now Colonel Fitzwilliam does."
Jane laughed, "Don't remind her! Lizzy cannot abide all of Mama's talk about her marrying."
"My brother singled her out?" Georgiana asked.
Miss Lucas' face fell slightly, and Georgiana feared that she had misunderstood the intent of the question. "I am only teasing, Miss Darcy. He did not precisely single her out, but she is the only lady whom he has danced with outside of his own party. It was quite the talk in the village."
"Lizzy, as expected, ignored it all. For she wants naught to do with the careless gossip of our mothers," Jane added.
Georgiana smiled at them, but her attention soon drifted to her brother who was standing on the opposite side of the room, watching the dancers intently. His expression was reminiscent of that which he wore when he was attempting to be stern. She watched closely as her brother approached Lizzy and Richard when their dance was finished and spoke to them but a moment before guiding Lizzy back to the dancefloor.
Richard returned to Georgiana's side. "How has your conversation with the ladies been, Georgie? Better that speaking with your curmudgeonly old brother and me I would presume."
She smiled at him. "Most certainly, but that is not to say that I am sorry that you are here."
He turned his face back toward the dancers and spoke with mock gravity. "I do not like this newly-found cheek of yours. I fear your Miss Elizabeth is a bad influence on you."
"'Tis ironic, is it not, Richard, that you are suggesting that I learned to tease from anyone that is not you."
He laughed, and she followed his gaze to watch Fitzwilliam dance. She had never seen him dance before, and she would not have expected him to move with such gaiety. He was speaking with more enthusiasm than she would have expected of him, though perhaps his enthusiasm was only visible to her. No one could accuse her brother of being particularly emotive.
She was going to remark on Fitzwilliam's surprising dancing abilities, but Richard spoke first. "They make a handsome pair. Do they not?"
Georgiana watched as Lizzy turned around to face her brother with bright eyes and a teasing, half smile, and she felt compelled to agree. "Yes. They are indeed."
Lizzy bowed her head as Mr. Darcy escorted her to the dance floor. "Sir, you should not feel obligated to dance. I am much obliged, but you need not do it, especially when I know it is not to your liking."
"I do not believe I have ever said that I do not like dancing," he said with a nearly imperceptible smile that was becoming familiar to her.
"You did not need to say anything. It is obvious from your aversion. I assure you the matrons of the neighborhood are keenly aware of your preferences for dancing."
"Yes, they always are," he said dryly, prompting her laughter. "Perhaps, my aversion is not due to the activity but the company."
She ignored the skip of her heart at his words and was grateful that the dance separated them for a moment.
"I must say, Sir. I am rather impressed that you managed to conspire with Georgiana and my family to surprise me. I did not take you for a gentleman who cared for such diversions."
"The idea was Georgiana's. My only duty was to remain reticent, which is—as you know—very difficult for me, being as gregarious as I am."
She laughed loudly before quickly composing herself, yet her gaze lingered on the twinkle in his eye. "Well, though I am pleased, I am rather unprepared for her visit. Will you all come to call tomorrow morning? I believe I should like to show Georgiana the wood near Longbourn before our cousin Mr. Collins arrives in the afternoon."
"I am certain my sister will be eager to join you. Her spirits are much improved in your presence, I think, and I must thank you for it."
"You need not thank me for enjoying myself. I find my evening is much improved by her presence. I only hope she is not too discomfited by the impertinent stares which you were subjected to upon your arrival in the neighborhood."
"I am impressed that she has dealt with it far better than I. I had feared her reaction to the attention." She noticed the note of concern in his voice.
"I doubt I am as surprised as you, Sir. I think Georgiana does not despise notoriety as you do. I only think that recent events may have affected her confidence. Regardless, I do think she is comporting herself admirably tonight."
"And, for that I am greatly relieved."
Lizzy tilted her head and regarded him with a critical eye. "Are you indeed, Sir? I would not have supposed you to be relieved given your sour countenance not a few minutes past."
He laughed, but Lizzy could not enjoy it when she noticed how many people were glancing at Mr. Darcy's rare public expression of humor. He appeared to realize this as well for he quickly cleared his throat and composed himself. His aloof mask was back in place once more when he spoke again. "I believe we have established that I have no idea what to do at a party such as this. I do apologize for my dark looks once again. They were not directed at you."
"I did not think so, Sir, for I have made this mistake enough times already," she smiled at him in a manner she hoped was reassuring.
He returned her smile, and they said nothing for a while. Every time their hands touched, she felt the heat of his palms infecting her whole body and shivered slightly. She decided the best manner of escaping these uncomfortable feelings would be to resort to teasing once again. "Have you been losing any chess games recently, Sir? I am aware that that is a pleasing pastime of yours."
He looked at her with bewilderment for a moment before one corner of his mouth tugged upward. "I do not have much occasion to lose games. I am often the victor. In fact, I defeated your father in a game when I visited Longbourn, and I have defeated your uncle several times."
She mustered her best skeptical look just as their set was ending, and he was escorting her off the floor. "I must admit that surprises me, Sir. You appeared to be quite adept at losing from my vantage point."
He narrowed his eyes but could not contain his smile. She felt that she now knew the man well enough to understand that he was not offended by her jests, and there came a queer sense of victory with every smile that she provoked.
"He's adept at losing what?" Colonel Fitzwilliam asked jovially, having heard the last of their conversation.
She looked to Mr. Darcy whose jaw clenched and debated whether or not to respond. "Chess," she finally decided to answer.
The Colonel said nothing but began to laugh. Georgiana appeared by his side. "Oh, Lizzy, you are such a wonderful dancer! It was so much fun watching you."
"Thank you! You are such a loyal friend so sing my praises after a mediocre performance. Your cousin is being gallant by not mentioning how I stepped on his foot. But, enough of watching! Go on and dance yourself!"
Georgiana regarded her brother and cousin nervously. "I am not yet out."
While loathe to make Georgiana uncomfortable, Lizzy did not want her to tread so carefully around her family. "Why do you not dance one set with your brother?" she suggested, looking at Mr. Darcy with a meaningful look. "'Tis only a small neighborhood gathering for friends, and there is no harm in dancing with your brother."
"Would you honor me with a dance, Sister?" Mr. Darcy asked, bowing formally.
Georgiana looked slightly bewildered, but after a moment of indecision, she took her brother's hand with a blush and let him lead her off the floor. She noticed Georgiana stand up straighter as she stepped on to the dance floor and felt a burst of sisterly pride watching her. Mr. Darcy turned back and made eye contact with her for a moment, and she could tell he was pleased. When she turned back to speak to the Colonel, he was watching her suspiciously.
"If you will excuse me, Colonel Fitzwilliam, I must go and check on my sister Mary." Not waiting for his response, she turned around and fled the room, suddenly filled with fear that the Colonel had discerned her unseemly affection for Mr. Darcy.
Darcy sat in the library, starring at the fire. He had almost consumed the last of his brandy but was strangely unwilling to take the last sip. Instead, he had spent the last quarter of an hour in the dark, reflecting on the events of the day.
In many ways, the day had been almost a dream. Georgiana was happier and more affectionate than she had been in months, and Elizabeth had been so open with him throughout the evening. She was bold and witty as always, yet she had also encouraged and guided Georgiana. Though he would have never suggested it himself, his dance with Georgiana had been unexpectedly joyful. It was Elizabeth and Georgiana together that truly made them a family.
It was only later, after they had returned to Netherfield, that his illusions shattered. Georgiana had come to him and thanked him for escorting her on a lovely evening before admitting that she did not want him to join her and Lizzy on their walk the next morning.
"I was disappointed to not spend as much time with Lizzy this evening because you had monopolized her time."
"I dearly enjoyed spending time with you both, but there are some things I would like to discuss with Lizzy privately. I would prefer if we could go on a walk tomorrow by ourselves. Would you mind?"
He could not deny her anything and left her at the hall to her bedchamber while he stalked back to the library to ponder her words. He felt miserable that she might feel neglected or ill-used if he attempted to pursue Elizabeth as if she could ever be like all the other harpies who had destroyed Georgiana's trust by seeking his favor!
He finally drained his glass. God in heaven! He could not believe he was actually considering courting a woman—asking for her hand in marriage! It was absurd that the idea should be so incomprehensible when it had always been expected of him, but he had spent so much time running from any inclination of marriage. Now, it nearly felt like a betrayal of himself to consider a woman of insignificant lineage. Or, he realized that it only felt like a betrayal to himself when she was not around. When they were together, he felt that he could only imagine himself married if he was married to her. There was no way he could ignore it, especially when she made it easier for him and Georgiana to communicate.
He heard the door open and saw Richard entering the room with an expression that always accompanied one of the rare moments when his cousin was intending to be sincere. Richard sat down adjacent to him and poured them both another snifter of brandy.
His voice was low when he spoke. "I must say that when we received your first letter from Hertfordshire, I had suspected something. I was surprised, however, to see how far gone you truly were this evening."
"I do not know to what—"
"Do not play the fool with me. I know you better than I know my own brothers. You cannot hide from me."
Darcy said nothing.
"Do you love her?" Richard asked. His earnest stare was disconcerting.
He had, of course, asked himself this same question often over the past fortnight since her absence. Without her daily presence at Netherfield, he had questioned what he thought love was. He thought of the one time he had thought himself in love before as a mere boy of eighteen. The infatuation he had felt certainly seemed to reflect the lofty words of poets, but within mere weeks, it ended in disappointment, leaving him jaded to the idea of love or marriage. He was not a romantic by any means, but tonight he could not deny how differently he felt now nearly ten years later.
After a long silence, he answered, "Yes."
Darcy dropped his arms to his knees and put his head in his hands. His temples ached, and he could not tell if it was due to the brandy or his conflicting emotions.
"God, man! Why do you say that as if it pains you? This is marvelous."
"It pains me because it cannot be. Do you not see that?"
Richard pushed Darcy's shoulder to force his attention off the ground. "I see nothing of the sort!" he cried. "I have not seen you—or Georgiana for that matter—as happy as you were tonight in years! What in God's name is holding you back?"
Darcy did not want to answer.
"Tell me it is not because of her relatives in trade."
"No!" He exclaimed too quickly before sighing. "Perhaps, a little. Not truly. I respect and admire the Gardiners, but I cannot deny I have given some thought to her family's situation. The younger sisters and the mother are rather uncouth."
"I did not think you as lily-livered as that."
"I can manage the mother and the sisters. I am concerned about Georgiana."
Richard glared at him.
"I am being serious. Georgiana told me this evening when we returned that she would prefer if I would not spend any time with Elizabeth when we visit her. I believe that she would rather me not spend time with her and felt put-out during our dances. I also cannot risk marriage right now. It would bring to much attention to Georgiana if I made a controversial match. She would have to bear society's cruel and insipid remarks about my wife. The gossip would be insufferable for her."
"Come now! Georgiana only wants to have her moments to share confidences with her friend after their reunion. I am certain that if Georgiana could choose any sister in the world, she would be overjoyed to have Miss Elizabeth living with her and guiding her though her coming out! And if you think that society would dare say a thing against your marriage, you have clearly been listening far too much to our aunt's drivel. You are the wealthiest property owner in the North of England with a sterling reputation and connections to nobility on both sides of your family. No one would dare say a thing against you. Miss Elizabeth could be a tradesman daughter, and I'm sure that no one would speak a word against you as long as my parents did not."
Darcy's heart beat quicker as he contemplated Richard's words. He wondered if it would be possible. Perhaps after a few weeks, he could broach the subject with Georgiana.
"Would your parents support me?"
Richard placed an arm on his shoulder. "For your and Georgiana's happiness, I will guarantee it. In the meantime, I shall work on it."
Darcy gave him a wan smile. "I will consider it."
Richard nodded and stood up to leave. "Well, do not take too long. That lady is a gem, and if you and I could notice it, I'm sure that others will notice it as well. You do not want to be caught in competition with another suitor."
Chapter 8: Chapter VII
Sorry for the delay! I was unfortunately in the hospital and recovering at home for much of December :/
This chapter has gone unbeta'd, so please forgive this chapter's lack of import and quality. ;)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was a cruel punishment, Lizzy thought, that Mr. Collins should be such an odious toad and happen to arrive before Georgiana and Mr. Darcy the following morning. Mr. Collins had scarcely been in the drawing room a quarter of an hour when Hill announced Mr. and Miss Darcy. Surely, she had done something wicked to have the most embarrassing relative that she had never met exposed to the Darcys. It was some relief, she supposed, that Lydia and Kitty were still abed and that Mary was visiting the vicar's wife so that she might be spared some humiliation in front of those she admired.
She smiled at them as they entered and inquired, "Is Colonel Fitzwilliam not joining you?"
Mr. Darcy replied that the Colonel had left that morning, and Lizzy could not be sure whether she imagined that his expression to be sterner than normal. She performed the standard introductions, and the Darcys had only just seated themselves before Mr. Collins simpered. "Mr. and Miss Darcy of Pemberley in Derbyshire?"
At Mr. Darcy's curt nod, he continued, "Oh, it is such an honor to meet you both. I do not know if my fair cousins have told you, but I am the rector of Rosings and am acquainted with your aunt Lady Catherine. She is the noblest of patronesses—the condescension she has shown me! Did you know when I told her that I was to inherit a small estate in Hertfordshire, she so generously gave me leave to attend to matters here. I am ever so grateful to her, and now to be meeting with the Darcys of Pemberley in my cousin' lowly home, I can see that such condescension is customary in a family with superior breeding such as yours. I—"
"Mr. Collins," her father interrupted, "perhaps our guests would like some refreshment before you explain their lineage to them?"
"Oh, yes," cried her mother. "Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, Miss Darcy, would you care for some refreshment?"
Mr. Darcy answered, "Thank you, Mrs. Bennet. I do believe, though, that Miss Darcy was planning to take a walk with Miss Elizabeth this morning, if you would not mind excusing them. Is that not so, Sister?"
He turned to Georgiana, and she smiled at him, "Yes, Brother. Thank you, Mrs. Bennet, but I shall refrain for the moment as I am anxious to be out in the fresh air."
"Yes, why do you not go now?" Mr. Darcy said with and encouraging look at Georgiana. "Meanwhile, I was hoping, Mr. Bennet, you might show me that 17th century edition of Averroes that you mentioned during my last visit?"
Lizzy thought briefly about how strange it was that her father and Mr. Darcy had spoken previously of book collecting and philosophy before Mr. Collins unceremoniously forestalled her father's reply. "My cousin Bennet, do you truly think that it is proper to show your guest literature written by a pagan?"
Her father made eye contact with her and raised an eyebrow. "Would it make it more proper if we read Thomas Aquinas' critique of Averroes?"
Lizzy had to bite her cheeks to prevent herself from laughing. She briefly made eye contact with Mr. Darcy who smiled and looked at the floor.
Mr. Collins looked quite dumbfounded as to how to reply to such a question. He floundered for a moment before saying plainly. "I do not think it proper to read unchristian literature, Sir."
"Would it be better that they foreswear any literature aside from the bible and Fordyce's sermons?" Lizzy retorted before she could stop herself.
Mr. Collins seemed unreasonably pleased with this comment and cried, "What an excellent suggestion, Cousin!"
Mr. Darcy coughed in a way that led Lizzy to believe he was attempting to stifle a laugh. It was difficult to determine, however, when he kept his gaze resolutely on the floor. There was an uncomfortable silence, and her father decided to take pity on the party. "Lizzy, go take your walk with Miss Darcy now. I shall entertain Mr. Darcy in the library."
She nodded and took Georgiana's arm to escort her out of the room. The last thing they heard before the door closed was the sound of Mr. Collin's voice. "I think I should join you both in the library. I hope I do not presume too much, but as I clergyman, I believe I can offer guidance on theological matters."
The moment the door closed she looked at Georgiana who was biting her lip, and they both began laughing.
Darcy found Mr. Bennet's library, though rather small and disorganized, full of an enviable collection. He looked through the rows and pulled out an old book. "Les mille et un nuits. Is this an original edition of the French translation?"
"Yes, I have all the volumes except the sixth regrettably," replied Mr. Bennet. "It is one of my daughter Elizabeth's favorites."
Darcy imagined her ensconced in the Pemberley library, making pert comments about the book she was reading. "She reads French, then?" he said nonchalantly, not looking at Mr. Bennet.
He chuckled and spoke quietly to evade Mr. Collins' hearing. "Oh, yes. In her words, 'how would a lady ever read anything shocking if she limited herself to what was available in English.'"
Darcy refrained from smiling and schooled his features before looking toward Mr. Bennet, who was eyeing him curiously.
"What was that, Cousin Bennet?" Mr. Collins cried from across the room, where he was eyeing some book with disgust.
"I was merely remarking to Mr. Darcy how pleasant it is to have such an erudite theologian with us."
Mr. Bennet then glanced toward Darcy, and he felt satisfied at being included in Mr. Bennet's joke. The last time he had been in Longbourn's library, he felt as if everything he said was somehow humorous to Mr. Bennet. Only toward the end of his call, Mr. Bennet asked him to play a game of chess, which—it seemed to Darcy was confirmation that he had passed a test of some sort.
He was certain, however, that Mr. Collins was failing for his face had turned red. "Well, I shall try my best to guide your family in morality while I am here."
"Thank you, Mr. Collins. It will be an honor," replied Mr. Bennet.
"On the subject of honor, I must inform you that my purpose in coming here is to honor one of your daughters with an offer of marriage. It is the express wish of my patroness Lady Catherine that I set the model for matrimony for my parish and heal the breech between our two families by choosing one of your daughters to be my wife."
Darcy was aghast. How could a man be so lacking in tact that he would discuss such a matter in front of a guest?
"Mr. Collins, why do we not wait to speak of such a matter until Mr. Darcy has left?" Mr. Bennet said with barely contained annoyance.
"But, Cousin, I would like for Mr. Darcy to know that I am readily doing his aunt's bidding," he said, nodding at Mr. Darcy. "Now, tell me, is Miss Elizabeth an obedient sort of lady? Or perhaps Miss Bennet? I am looking for a lady who would do suitable credit to the position of a clergyman's wife."
Collins may as well have punched Darcy in the abdomen. He felt a sense of rage he had not felt since he had last encountered Wickham. The idea of Elizabeth being the obedient wife to this insipid, pompous toad of a clergyman was absurd.
Mr. Bennet turned the small volume in his hands over several times before he spoke in a calm, detached manner. "Mr. Collins, I shall tell you this once, and I shall tell you it now. I will not gift you one of my daughters like a prized horse. You will not choose one of them to suit the whims of your patroness. I will only consent to a marriage if you rightfully earn the respect of one of my daughters, and she consents to your proposal. Is that clear?"
Though Mr. Bennet's manner had remained aloof, the quiet venom that belied his tone was shocking. Mr. Collins seemed to finally realize his decorum and said, "Yes, Sir. I do believe I will take my book and leave you to your conversation."
Mr. Collins seated himself at the far corner of the room with his book but continually would look toward Mr. Bennet in a nervous manner.
Changing his tone, Mr. Bennet looked to Darcy and spoke almost sarcastically. "Would you like a rematch at chess, Mr. Darcy?"
After witnessing Mr. Bennet's fire, he decided that perhaps there was more to the man than he thought. It was strange to spend time with this man, thinking that if he decided to propose to Elizabeth, that he could be his father-in-law. When he had previously considered all that a marriage to her would entail, he only considered the younger sisters and Mrs. Bennet's fawning, but if visiting his wife's family consisted of playing chess and discussing rare books with Mr. Bennet, then perhaps it would not be such a trial.
"Yes, Sir. I am curious to see if you might prevail this time."
Darcy said this so artlessly that it surprised him when Mr. Bennet gave him a wry look from across the chess table and replied under his breath, "So, the grave Mr. Darcy can tease. I wonder from whence he picked up the skill."
Darcy's eyes briefly met his opponent's, but he said nothing as he made his first move.
Georgiana relished the crisp autumn air as she and Lizzy made their way out of the sight of the house, arm in arm.
"So, tell me, my dear friend, how are you in truth? Did you enjoy the party last night?" Lizzy inquired.
"I believe last night was the happiest night I have passed in a long while. Thank you for making it so."
Lizzy placed her gloved hand over Georgiana's and squeezed. "No need to thank me. I was delighted by your presence. And I never knew you danced so gracefully!"
Georgiana felt her face heat. "I do love to dance, and Fitzwilliam is an excellent partner. Thank you for suggesting it. We have not been exactly easy with each other since…" She trailed for a moment, not precisely sure how refer to the night they met.
"Canterbury?" Lizzy supplied.
Georgiana nodded and swallowed. "There is a change in him since he has been here. He is more open and less reticent with me. I doubt that he would have allowed me to dance with him in public even a month ago."
"I am glad to hear it. I see how much you both care for one another, and it is heartening." She nudged Georgiana's shoulder with her own, smiling playfully. "I wish I could be as fortunate as you to have an older brother to take care of me."
Georgiana once again wondered what precisely the nature of the acquaintance between Lizzy and her brother was. She had come back to the same thought repeatedly since her arrival in Hertfordshire. Richard had made strange remarks about her brother, and Fitzwilliam had laughed publicly in her presence and seemed to take her suggestions seriously. She tried to determine how much of Fitzwilliam's attitude toward Lizzy was due to the general change in demeanor she had witnessed and how much was due to some sort of closeness between them.
Then, Fitzwilliam had come to her that morning before they were to visit Longbourn, apologizing for the way he behaved when they were last in London. "I have spoken about this briefly with Miss Elizabeth, and she has made me realize that there are ways in which I may have been presumptuous in delegating responsibility and that perhaps that has prevented you from coming to me with what you need." He spoke in a humble manner which she had not seen from him before, and it moved her. "When you have aught you want to say to me, you may come to me, and I will try to listen and not command."
She thanked him and replied that she would try and come to him with her concerns. During their carriage ride to Longbourn, there had been a comfortable silence between them, but Georgiana wondered what Lizzy could have told her brother to make him say such a thing.
Now, as she walked through the park with Lizzy, her curiosity returned. "My brother told me this morning that he was endeavoring to listen to me more and apologized for any of his past presumptions. When I asked him what prompted this, he told me that he was motivated by a conversation he had with you."
Lizzy pulled away and faced her directly. "Oh, Georgiana, I apologize if you feel that this has breached your trust. I would never speak of something you shared with me in confidence, such as the content of your letters, but I did tell your brother what I noticed in his behavior and how I believed that was hindering you both. I hope I did not overstep."
"Do not worry. I trust you, and I assure you that I am not displeased. I suppose I am only curious because I did not know that you and my brother were friends."
Lizzy's cheeks became rosier, and she smiled a bit too brightly. "I am afraid I quite pestered your brother for information about you and my family in London when he arrived that he was forced to speak to me. Since then, we have developed a cordial acquaintance."
"I am glad of it, then," Georgiana said, feeling distinctly unsatisfied with Lizzy's answer. She believed and trusted Lizzy and her brother yet felt certain that there was something that they were not being entirely honest about. Given her unusually hopeful mood and the beautiful weather, however, she could not bring herself to dwell on it. "He shall not have any problem with me joining you on excursions."
"In that case, you should come to market day with me sisters and me, and feel free to invite Mr. Bingley as well. I know that we have not seen him in a while, and he is jolly company."
"That would be delightful! Your sister Mary told me last night that there is a good selection of music sheets in the village, and I am looking to purchase something new."
"You have no idea how long I have desired to hear you play! Your brother and cousin—and even Miss Bingley—have oft commented on your talent for music."
"Yes, I am sure Miss Bingley has spoken of it to you. Perhaps more than she has directed her praises directly at me."
Lizzy squeezed her arm. "Does it bother you when she praises you so?"
"No, no…" she replied, shaking her head. "Well, not often, but there was a comment she made last evening when we had returned from the party that warded off my slumber last night. She mentioned how eligible I would be when I came out based on how I had comported myself last night, and I cannot deny that I dread such comments. Not merely from her, but from anyone. For I no longer know if I shall be permitted to come out or even if I want to! What man shall want me now that I am ruined? I am certain that Fitzwilliam and Richard have thought of such things, but if they have made decisions, they have not shared them with me!"
Georgiana's own vehemence shocked her. Her voice has risen such that Lizzy jumped slightly and contrition overtook her. "I apologize, Lizzy. I did not mean to speak so."
"Do not apologize. I have been known to raise my voice many a time, and I daresay you have more right to be frustrated than I do," Lizzy said with an encouraging smile. "You have few answers to many questions, yet I think that it might alleviate your anxiety to speak to your brother directly about these fears, especially now that he has extended an invitation to do so."
"Yes, I know that is what I should do, and I should have done it before. However, I fear what I shall hear in response to my questions."
Lizzy took both of her hands and held them firmly. "I have seen your bravery, Georgiana. I do not doubt you."
Georgiana did not feel as if she merited such confidence, yet she did not want to disappoint her friend, who always seemed to laugh in the face of fear. "Thank you. I shall try."
"Good," she replied satisfactorily before pulling Georgiana to continue their walk. "For you have nothing to fear with your brother," she continued with a nearly imperceptible smile. "For I daresay he likely has as many fears as you do."
The day after Darcy had escorted Georgiana to Longbourn, he had been surprised to come upon her in the library, playing with the pieces of the chessboard.
"May I speak with you now?"
Though he had told himself that he was prepared for her to come to him, he found himself at a loss for what to do. "Yes, of course. Let us go to Bingley's study. He is conducting business in the village today."
He wished that Elizabeth was present to shield him from his own stupidity. He, however, was determined that he must face this task on his own and sat in a chair beside Georgiana, bracing himself for the ensuing conversation.
She almost seemed to tremble as she sat beside him, and he felt awash in shame, seeing how much she feared him. He tentatively put a hand over where hers rested. "Come now, Georgie. We can do this. We have been easier with each other of late, have we not?"
She gave him a watery smile in return and nodded. "Yes, we have."
"Then, might you speak openly with me? I know I am not as warm a confidant as Miss Elizabeth, but I shall endeavor to listen without speaking."
Georgiana gave him a fleeting smile before looking down at her lap and fidgeting with a loose thread on her gown. She did not speak for such a time that Darcy thought she might not speak at all. He had just made up his mind to speak when she released a big sigh and began to speak.
"I am not quite certain how to explain what I want you to know."
He inhaled and nodded. "Why do you not try, and if I do not understand, I shall ask for clarification."
She nodded and returned her gaze to the floor. "When the relations between us were…not as easy as they are presently, I believe we all felt burdened…by what happened. I suppose I forgot how to be diverted or enjoy the company of others—or solitude for that matter. Yet, I also did not know how to be sorrowful in front of you. You see, I often felt melancholy, but it felt—how can I explain it? It felt…improper to show sadness when I felt that I had brought it all upon myself."
Darcy had to quell his desire to contradict her.
"When I was with you or Richard, I often found myself dull or angry for I did not know behave. You both refused to speak of it with me, which wounded me. I did not feeling like I was a child—too stupid and foolish to be trusted or consulted."
She burst into frustrated tears, and Darcy did not know whether he should speak or not. He gave her a handkerchief and allowed her to dry her tears. After several moments, he spoke tentatively, "Why did you never tell ask us about it?"
"I felt like I had no right to ask what was to happen to me. I felt that it was my penance to do exactly what I was told and to do nothing I was not told to do. To my shame, I found that my attitude made me resentful toward you and Richard. I realized after speaking to Lizzy yesterday is that I could not have known what you were thinking without asking…but I cannot ignore the fact that you have given me no inclination as to what you expect to do about my future."
"Pardon me?" Darcy blurted, immediately cursing his lack of tact.
His outburst only seemed to make Georgiana more confident. "I have spoken with Mrs. Gardiner, and I know that I am," she lowered her voice and looked away from him, "no longer a maiden. I do not know whether I can ever be married to a gentleman or if I will be able to be presented or what you shall say if I am not. I do not know what would happen if Geo—if he ever decided to spread rumors about my virtue. I know you and Richard have considered these things. There is no way you have not, and do not deny it."
"I shall not deny anything." He said immediately. "I know that I have not handled the situation well. I have been altogether too withholding and have lacked the courage to initiate a conversation about these matters because I do not have answers. Perhaps, the cause was pride or fear, but it was my failing as a guardian that I did not consider how my reticence would impact you. For that, I am sorry."
"Thank you, Fitzwilliam. I accept your apology. I do not want you to chastise yourself too much. Lizzy once told me that she thinks that we Darcys have a tendency to sit in our discontentment with ourselves, and she counseled me to accept the situation and avoid chastising myself for events which have already caused such sorrow."
He had not expected to be moved by longing for Elizabeth Bennet during this contrite conversation with Georgiana, yet his admiration felt overwhelming in that moment. He cleared his throat. "That is very wise, and I shall attempt to abide by her counsel."
"Good," she said satisfactorily before lowering her voice. "I would still like to know what you intend to do, Fitzwilliam. I do not think I can bear to live in ignorance of it any longer."
He thought for a long moment because in spite of what Georgiana believed, he and Richard had discussed very little—only what they would do if Georgiana's reputation was publicly ruined. Deciding that reassurance was his best option in this moment, he took her hand gently. "Richard and I have made very few decisions regarding your future. The only thing that I know for certain is that you shall never be forced to marry against your will, and regardless of what may come, you shall always have a home with me, my dear sister. You are the most important person in my life, and I shall never forsake you."
At this, she began crying again, and it was a long moment before she spoke. "'Tis so strange for I knew this, but it relieves me greatly to hear it. I somehow still feared that I might be sent off in disgrace." She giggled at herself a little through her tears.
He held squeezed her hand and attempted to school his features in a reassuring look.
"But, Fitzwilliam," she said, after her tears had subsided, "I do not want to ruin your life and reputation by association."
He hesitated for a moment for her situation had made his life more difficult, and he did fear societal backlash. He, however, recalled Richard's words from three nights prior and spoke consolingly. "Do not fear for me, Georgie. I do not fear for myself beyond my concern for your well-being. I will not lament if I cannot marry a society lady who wants to socialize in town half the year," he teased. "You and I shall be fine."
"But what of society? What of my coming out?"
He crossed his legs and spoke in a manner more casual than to what he was prone. "Do you want to be presented?"
"I do not know," she said.
"In that case, we do not have to make a decision at present. We shall wait until you have made a decision, and if you do not wish to be presented, we will make an excuse. Perhaps we shall take you on a grand tour!" he said with mock excitement.
Georgiana suddenly began to laugh, and it confused him. "What might I ask is so diverting?"
"I have never heard you to be so enthusiastic, Brother, even if you were feigning it. I apologize but 'tis rather comical. I would not have recognized your face a moment ago. You are normally so…sensible."
While he felt rather offended by her laughter at his expense, he was thankful for anything that brought her laughter after such a conversation.
"Yes, well, your serious brother has many sides to him, as I hope I have demonstrated. I do hope that you can trust me with your fears in the future."
She had recovered from her fit of laughter and nodded. "Thank you, Brother," she said and stood kissed his cheek. "I believe I will go and rest for I am feeling rather exhausted."
"Yes, of course."
Once Georgiana had left the room, Darcy wandered to Bingley's liquor cabinet and poured himself a brandy. The quality of the drink was excellent, and he laid his head back on the chair as he let the brandy slide down his throat. He, too, was exhausted, but it was the type of exhaustion that stemmed from deep satisfaction with one's work or deeds. He was left with much to ponder and felt unjustly defensive. The path forward, however, would be determined by the strength of Georgiana's trust in him, and he knew now that such trust was possible. It gave him hope for his and Georgiana's future, and suddenly, the dreams he spoke of to Richard seemed within reach.
Georgiana spoke warmly of her conversation with her brother as they walked in close confederation among a large party from Netherfield and Longbourn toward the Meryton market.
"I was so anxious, but my nerves were wholly without merit. He took my criticism without complaint and reassured me in the strongest possible language that I would always be consulted about my future."
Lizzy looked toward where Mr. Darcy was walking alone behind Mr. Bingley, who was escorting Jane, and wondered at the man. He was so imposing and stoic in company that, if she had not witnessed it for herself, she would never have imagined the man to be such a devoted and affectionate brother. Perhaps, a quiet love, like that of the Darcy siblings, was preferable to showy admiration and praise put out for all the world to see.
He caught her looking at him and gave her a small smile. She immdiateley looked away.
Georgiana continued, "I had always considered him so much like our father—who would brook no opposition or criticism—yet I was in absolute error."
"What was your—"
"My dear cousin Elizabeth, would you mind enlightening me as to the history of this church here?"
Although it had appeared that Mr. Collins had his sights set on Jane during the first several days of his visit, he had transferred his attentions to Lizzy by the fourth day after his arrival in Hertfordshire undoubtedly at her mother's urging. While it had been initially diverting to make sport of the man, her enthusiasm for mocking her cousin's outrageously verbose compliments and lack of consciousness waned as his overtures began to interrupt her daily life.
"Mr. Collins," she said with barely restrained vexation, "I may not be able to tell you about the church, but my sister Mary is acquainted with the vicar's wife and would be able to explain more."
She felt slightly ashamed of directing Mr. Collins' undesirable attentions toward her sister, but it could not be helped. One more moment with the man, and Lizzy would have insulted him with such severity that even he would understand.
"But, Cousin Elizabeth, I sincerely hoped—"
"Please, Mr. Collins, I am trying to speak with Miss Darcy. I am sure she does not appreciate being interrupted."
"Oh, no! Yes, of course, Miss Darcy, continue your conversation. By all meaens. I shall direct my inquiry to Miss Mary." Mr. Collins performed a flustered bow and left them.
"Is he always…" Georgiana began tentatively.
"Such an odious fatwit?"
"Lizzy!" Georgiana cried with scandalized laughter.
"Pardon me for my crass words, dear Georgiana, but sometime only the harshest language will do when the object of one's vexation is too awful for polite speech."
"I suppose," Georgiana replied. "Is he truly that bad?"
"Oh yes, and he had now decided that he has some designs on me which would entertain me if it were not so overwhelming."
"Are you in earnest? You will not consider him, will you?"
"Oh, certainly not! It will inevitably cause some problems as he is to inherit my father's estate, but I refuse to marry a man I do not respect or admire. Mr. Collins is certainly not worthy of either."
"Of course," Georgiana agreed, and they lapsed in to silence for a several minutes until Georgiana expressed interest in perusing the music sheets with Mary instead of visiting the booksellers.
Lizzy noticed Mr. Bingley escorting Jane to the milliner's, appearing wholly enamored of each other. It pleased her that they could finally have moments of conversation alone without the pressures of the larger party, and Kitty and Lydia were harmlessly looking over the selection of sweets.
At the booksellers, she immediately went toward the French novels to see if there were any new volumes and discovered one that took place in the New World.
"I would not recommend that one."
Lizzy jumped at the sound of Mr. Darcy's voice from behind her.
"Mr. Darcy! I had not known you were here!"
"I cannot resist visiting the booksellers wherever I may be, and I cannot say I am surprised that you are here as well."
In the narrow space between shelves, he stood closer to her than propriety would dictate in any other space, and her cheeks heated as she realized how tall he was next to her.
"I must say, Mr. Darcy, I am just now realizing how tall you are, and I cannot say I like it."
Her statement must have shocked him for he took a step back and hit his back against a shelf containing a random assortment of atlases and scientific journals. He knocked a volume from a shelf, stumbling slightly, and picked it up with as much decorum as he could muster. The situation was comical enough without the contrast between Mr. Darcy's stately figure and his awkward actions. Lizzy burst into laughter. As soon as she saw him attempt to compose himself with an embarrassed flush on his face, she felt guilty for her amusement.
"I apologize for my laughter, Sir. I assure you that I am well known for my clumsiness, and it is rather comforting to know that you are not as flawless as I had thought. We both can have our moments of awkwardness."
His hair was slightly ruffled on one side where he had run his hand through it, and one corner of his mouth tugged upward in—what seemed to Lizzy to be—a most dashing smile. Her stomach flipped, and she twisted her hands behind her back.
"Let me see if I understand, Miss Elizabeth. You praise me for my clumsiness yet disapprove of me for my excessive height. Forgive me, but I am accustomed to the reverse."
She laughed. "Yes, but you see, Sir, that I am not seeking to develop a first impression. I know you to be a respectable, erudite gentleman of good principles. I do, however, like feeling on equal footing with my acquaintances. Therefore, I would rather avoid feeling excessively short or graceless in comparison to my company."
"I do apologize, Miss Elizabeth," he said, hunching over. "Is this preferable?"
She laughed. "I do not expect yourself to change your posture to satisfy me, Sir. Now—humor me—you just indicated that you know of this novel. Have you read it?"
"I have read it, and though I found some merit in it, I would not recommend it to most. Knowing your fondness for shocking French novels, I think that you are the only lady of my acquaintance to whom I would consider recommending it. Although it is both French and shocking—seemingly synonymous terms—I sincerely doubt that you would enjoy it."
"And how did you come to the conclusion that I enjoy shocking French novels, Sir?" she asked, arching a brow.
"From your father, naturally. I must admit that I was surprised for only a moment until I considered that I doubt I have ever known a person—man or woman—to bask so boldly in her own candidness."
She decided that in light of his smile and generally open attitude that she should not take his words to be too insulting, yet his words brought the familiar sting of rejection. "Yes, I shall be candid and admit to liking shocking literature. I like such novels not only because they surprise me, but I find that it attempts to portray the world as it is and not the world as we would like to see it. People so rarely express what they are truly thinking, but some authors are willing to express those thoughts that might never be shared in polite company."
Mr. Darcy nodded and moved past her to browse the collection next to her. He said nothing for a few moments, and she lamented her inability to read his thoughts. "I have developed the distinct impression that you are not fond of the dictates of society. Am I incorrect?"
She could not see his face nor recognize the tone of his voice, which she found abnormal and frustrating. "You are not wholly incorrect. I do not despise society for I enjoy people, and I generally prefer imperfect people to perfect ones. Yet, I often find that society contrives little games upon which our lives are decided and not all the players are required to follow the rules."
She wondered at herself for becoming so philosophical. She rarely spoke aloud of such things to anyone but supposed that no one had before solicited her opinions on such matteres. He had a tendency to ask and share thoughts not fit for polite society, which seemed fundamentally at odds with the person he appeared to be.
Leaning against a shelf, she regarded him as he searched through the books at her side, occasionally brushing a book with his long index finger to move it out of the way. It felt too intimate to stand beside him speaking thoughts while he casually looked through a mismatched pile of books. How often did she stand beside a man who was not her relation while he did nothing in particular?
She was unsure of how long they stood in silence when he suddenly stood straight with a book in his hand. "You did not ask for my recommendation, but if you want to read something that speaks truly of the mind, I believe this would be an excellent choice."
She looked at the book and turned it over in her hands once before opening it and reading the first stanza she found.
By thy pale beams I solitary rove,
To thee my tender grief confide;
Serenely sweet you gild the silent grove,
My friend, my goddess, and my guide.
Unbidden, her mind conjured an image of the walks she had taken with Mr. Darcy through Netherfield woods in which he confided in her about his fears and sorrows. It was torturous for her to stand next to him so closely and scrutinize his every word and action. She felt foolish for her unspoken thoughts and hopes and was helpless to stop it.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and spoke in what she hoped was a dignified manner. "Thank you, Mr. Darcy. I believe I shall take your recommendation and purchase this one."
With the book in hand, she went to speak with Mr. Brandon the bookseller in hopes of escaping the feeling that threatened to overwhelm her. To her vexation, however, Mr. Darcy followed her. She made her purchase while acutely aware of Mr. Darcy standing behind her in what she assumed was his attempt to be gentlemanly.
As she exited the shop, she stood outside the door, expecting him to continue on his way. "Please do not feel the need to wait with me, Sir. I merely intend to stop here for a few moments and enjoy the view. Do not let me deter you."
His lips quirked. "I do not mind waiting for you, Miss Elizabeth. I am happy to escort you back to the others."
"There is truly no need, Sir. Georgiana and my younger sisters shall return to the square when they have completed their shopping, and I would rather give Mr. Bingley and Jane a chance to speak alone," she said with a wry smile that belied her discomfiture.
He rolled his eyes. "No doubt at your mother's instruction."
She turned to face him angrily. "What are you implying, Sir?"
He looked unreasonably shocked at her tone. "You have told me yourself of your mother's machinations to marry off her daughters to eligible gentleman. I would not be surprised that she would instruct your sister to speak to Bingley alone. I believed you to be laughing at her schemes. Was I incorrect?"
"Yes, and I take umbrage at your implication of its truth! My sister is no mercenary. Any interest she may show toward your friend is out of a genuine desire to know him and learn if they may suit, and I daresay Mr. Bingley would be lucky to secure the hand of my sister. Though she may not have the wealth or connections of the ladies he might meet in town, there is nary a woman kinder or more loyal than her!"
Her vehemence surprised her, and she turned away from him to face the street in hopes of collecting herself.
"Miss Elizabeth, I apologize. I did not mean to insult you or your sister. You had spoken before of your mother in such terms, and I suppose I—"
"Mr. Darcy," she interrupted quietly as she saw Georgiana and Mary coming toward them. "I appreciate that you may not have intended offence, but that does not mean that I do not remain offended. Please excuse me. I would like to see what your sister has found."
She left him, stubbornly refusing to look back. Georgiana and Mary approached with Mr. Collins trailing behind, and Lizzy smiled brightly at them, ignoring the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
He had not truly offended her, but he had hurt her. If her father had made such a jest, she would not have reacted so angrily. His descriptions of her mother's behavior were humiliating but true, but the implication that Jane would have to be deceptive to secure Mr. Bingley's affections made her bitter. She had very poor marital prospects, and she could no longer deny to herself that she wished for Mr. Darcy's admiration and affection. Though it made her feel foolish, she could not help but wonder what it would be like to have the love of not only a great man but a good one as well. She would imagine how lovely it would be to live with Georgiana as her sister and to speak and laugh freely with Mr. Darcy for more than a few stolen minutes at a time.
Georgiana rushed over to her. "Oh, Lizzy, I found some hidden treasures which I cannot wait to play!"
Lizzy forced herself to continue smiling as she took Georgiana's arm in hers. "You shall have to tell me all about it," she said, guiding Georgiana away from the rest of the party.
As they walked away, she caught a glance at Mr. Darcy who had not moved from his spot in front of the booksellers. He looked forlorn, and she felt the impulse to resturn and speak to him. Her embarrassment and shame, however, were stronger, so she continued walking with feigned cheer.
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Chapter 9: Chapter IX
Sitting in his bedchamber the following morning, Darcy dressed with sharp, aggressive movements. After Elizabeth had told him off, he watched her back as she walked ahead with Georgiana and pointedly avoided his gaze whenever he approached her. He burned with indignation that she should ignore him so when he was attempting to make amends. He had not even implied that her sister was mercenary or unworthy of Bingley—only that her mother might have encouraged Miss Bennet to pursue their new wealthy neighbor. He could not fathom that she would take that from his passing joke.
It took him under ten minutes of staring at the back of her neck where an errant curl escaped from her coiffure for him to realize that he was being disingenuous with himself. He had seen Bingley's preference for Miss Bennet but ignored it as his mind became increasingly occupied by his sister's wellbeing and his growing infatuation with Elizabeth. Still, he could not deny that he had wondered how genuine Miss Bennet's smiles were when she seemed so…untouched by Bingley's admiration. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was joyful and talkative in his presence. She made her preference for his company known and spoke to him about matters of substance. Bingley's sincerity—he reluctantly acknowledged—was not even a concern in his mind.
Bingley often found himself enchanted by whatever lady had been seated next to him at dinner, developing a tendre for her until he met another ordinary beauty at his next party. Yet, Darcy had had no concern for how Bingley might raise Jane Bennet's hopes for marriage and leave her when he found some other angel to dote upon. Knowing what he did about the financial situation of the Bennet sisters, his casual disregard for his friend's behavior and joke at the Bennets' expense suddenly seemed cruel.
Unable to find a time to speak to her before she parted and her sisters parted from his party, he returned to his chamber that evening and restlessly moved about his apartment until he could bear the thought of waiting to see her. To wait to speak to her until the Bennets were to dine at Netherfield in the coming days would be folly for he knew how unlikely it would be to achieve any sort of privacy in a party of more than a dozen.
Thus, once dressed in pale light of the dawn, Darcy made his way to the Netherfield stables to ride toward Longbourn's estate. It was likely madness to attempt to speak to her on her morning walk for it had always proved futile and made him feel like a rake. He rode for an hour before deciding to return to Netherfield, and as his horse broke into a gallop, he spotted a blue cloak amidst the trees. His heart beat faster, and he dismounted, tied his horse, and walked briskly to catch up with her. "Miss Elizabeth!"
She turned around and stopped to wait for him, which he took as a sign of encouragement. "Good morning, Mr. Darcy," she greeted with a sober expression.
"Good morning," he said perfunctorily. "Miss Elizabeth, I am glad to have come upon you here for I feel heartily ashamed for my callous remark yesterday. I realize that I presumed too much to take humor in the antics of your family as you do. In light of your financial situation, it was prejudicial of me to imply that your sister and mother would act deceitfully. I did not intend to dishonor your sister, but that is what I unwittingly did. And, for that I apologize. I cannot—"
"Mr. Darcy, please, you do not have to do this. I took too much meaning from your words and was humiliated by what was an accurate assessment of my family's situation."
He looked at her questioningly, and she quickly amended her statement resuming her stride. "I do not mean about Jane and Mr. Bingley. I did not lie when I said that any interest Jane may show is sincere. You were correct, however, regarding my mother's designs. She desires us to marry well for we do not know what difficulties we shall face when my father passes. Her impetus is not to be deceitful, but she is a woman who is defenseless without the protection that only money can provide. Surely, you can comprehend her motivations even if you do not approve of them?"
Guilt twisted his stomach as he looked at her imploring expression. Would that she had remained angry rather than humiliated! He cleared his throat and cast his gaze toward the ground, staring at the sight of their feet walking side by side. "I can, and I am sorry again for any embarrassment I caused. Indeed, Miss Elizabeth, you must know that I hold you in the highest regard and would never wish to show you any disrespect."
"Thank you, Sir. I accept your apology."
He did not feel up to the task of responding and watched her fiddle with a button on her glove with rapt fascination. Thoughts paraded through his mind with a sole fixation on the idea of marrying her. After several moments of silence, she spoke.
"Come now, Mr. Darcy. You have not wounded me so that you must punish yourself with silence. You needn't look so downcast!"
The arch smile which graced her countenance was balm to his troubled thoughts, and the corner of his mouth tugged upward.
"I thank you for your clemency, madam. You are too gracious."
She laughed without much mirth. "I am not too gracious, Sir, for I knew that you sought to make amends yesterday and that I quite stubbornly refused you the opportunity to do so. Not out of any moral righteousness but to avoid confronting the humiliation of my own distemper. I can be quite mercurial, you see, for all my pretentions to sense."
He moved toward her so that they were walking with only a few inches between their arms, and she felt the space between them more keenly than she would a touch. She clasped her hands in front of her and cast her eyes downward.
"I would not call you mercurial. I believe what behavior you perceive to be capricious others might see as passionate."
If his tone had not been so reserved, she could almost believe his words to be romantic in nature. She sneaked a glance at him and could not elucidate his thoughts from the way that he seemed to be staring blankly at her clasped hands.
"Yes, but either way, I am too prone to impulsivity for my own good," she said, dismissing his words as commonplace.
"Impulsivity is occasionally a very beneficial quality especially when inaction will cause more harm than good. And you are also too severe on yourself, Miss Elizabeth, for you were correct that in spite of having good intentions, I often fail to make the desired impact with my words and actions. I too often assume that my good intentions will manifest as uniformly beneficial to all those who depend upon me, and although it causes me some disquiet, I should rather know my faults and attend to them than leave them to fester."
"I think that is quite admirable, Mr. Darcy," she said quietly, feeling the compliment of his words acutely.
"You have inspired a great deal of change in me, Miss Elizabeth, and it is gratifying to know that my attempts to improve myself should met with your approval."
"I do not see why you should seek my approval, but I am glad you are pleased with it nonetheless."
She was being coy and despised herself for it, but for the first time, she could actually believe him to be attracted to her and desperately wanted to hear him speak of his admiration aloud.
"Unlike many women, Miss Elizabeth, your good opinion is rarely bestowed and therefore more worth the earning."
Their eyes met, and she could no longer avoid the thought that—perhaps on some level—he returned her affections. His countenance rarely betrayed much, but she could not deny that she recognized some of her own suppressed longing in his eyes.
She turned her head away from him and willed herself to be rational. Even if he did have some romantic affection for her, it was doubtlessly exceeded by his awareness of her unsuitability. Her lack of fortune had never before felt so cruel, disallowing both of them to allow their fledgling relationship to develop into a deep, abiding love—preventing her from becoming Georgiana's sister in truth. The injustice of the situation burned within her and smarted her eyes.
In the midst of her deep thought, she realized that he had been speaking.
"—return soon, my horse shall become unruly. I shall let you continue with your walk."
He took her hand and bowed over it in a formal manner, but the pressure of his fingers against hers felt overwhelming as they brushed over hers. She bit the inside of her cheeks as a wave of desire rushed through her with a strength previously unknown to her.
She swallowed and spoke her perfunctory adieus, fleeing back to Longbourn where there would inevitably be distractions from her unease.
Georgiana found that dinner was much more agreeable when the Bennets were in attendance. For although the youngest sisters were rather peculiar and did not have the best manners, their conversation was far preferable to the flattery that Miss Bingley would bestow upon her and her brother during their previous dinners.
The seating arrangement was clearly contrived by Miss Bingley for beside her was Fitzwilliam, and Lizzy and Jane had been placed far away from them and near Mr. and Mrs. Hurst. Georgiana was seated near Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their two youngest—all of whom had a sportive manner of interacting which was strange and diverting.
She often glanced at Fitzwilliam to see how he was coping with Miss Bingley's fawning, only to find him looking at the opposite end of the table where Lizzy was sitting. She could not blame him for wishing for better company, but his stares were almost uncouth.
The evening improved when after dinner the ladies retreated to the parlor, and Georgiana finally was able to claim Lizzy's attention. At Lizzy's urging, she agreed to perform the duet she had purchased in the village.
They sat at the pianoforte and Lizzy pertly warned Georgiana that she was likely to make many mistakes.
"It is no matter, Lizzy, I merely want to escape the general conversation," she replied, prompting Lizzy's laughter.
They began the piece with a flourish, and once they had found their stride, Georgiana inquired after Mr. Collins.
"By some stroke of luck, he was invited to dinner by the vicar and his wife, so I am spared his raptures over my 'exquisite playing,'" she mimicked his sniveling tone, prompting a bubble of laughter from Georgiana.
The men had finally joined them, and Georgiana lapsed into silence for a moment, concentrating on a difficult passage in order to avoid erring in front of mixed company even as Lizzy played a B natural where there was a flat.
Georgiana only noticed her brother's approach when Lizzy spoke to him. "You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though 'tis obvious your sister plays far better than I."
Georgiana blushed at this praise but realized that her brother was scarcely aware of her presence as his gaze was intently fixed on Lizzy as she continued, "There is a stubbornness about me that can bear to be frightened at the will of others. As I have told you before, my courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me."
Although Lizzy was evidently jesting, her words carried a certain intensity that Georgiana could not precisely identify.
"I shall not say you are mistaken," her brother replied, "because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you, and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."
Lizzy laughed at this without looking away from her brother. She turned to Georgiana for a moment before returning her gaze to Fitzwilliam as she replied. "Your brother will give you a very pretty notion of me, Georgiana, and teach you not to believe a word I say. I am particularly unlucky that he has chosen me for the target of his barbs this evening when I had hoped to pass myself off with some degree of credit! Indeed, Mr. Darcy, it is very ungenerous for you to mention anything to my disadvantage in front of Georgiana for it is provoking me to retaliate, and such things may come out as will shock your sweet sister to hear."
"I am not afraid of you," he responded with an uncharacteristically arch smile.
"I would not have you be so! I do think it would do you credit, however, to realize that I have evidence of your less than gentlemanly conduct."
Her brother's cheeks reddened—which she had never before seen—and he looked from Lizzy to Georgiana for a moment before casting his eyes down. When his gaze returned to Lizzy, he smiled and said, "The tongues of mocking ladies are as keen as is the razor's edge invisible."
Lizzy stopped playing and covered her mouth, holding in a laugh. "Well done, Sir. I see our game continues."
"I shall not tell if you do not."
"Such a cryptic statement," Lizzy said finally looking away from Fitzwilliam's rapt attention. "Your sister will assume that we are plotting something nefarious." Her voice was far less assured with this final statement as she resumed playing their duet.
Georgiana looked to her brother whose countenance—which had been marked by a rare lightness only a moment before—retreat into aloofness. He looked at Georgiana almost guiltily and took a step back from the pianoforte. "Well, I shall distract you no longer and leave you to your music," he said, bowing curtly.
She saw that Lizzy's focus was determinedly fixed on her fingers as she played and that her brother in his new attitude by the window was glancing repeatedly at Lizzy as Miss Bingley cornered him.
Their conversation nagged at the part of Georgiana that had been discomfited every time she saw Lizzy and her brother speak. There seemed to exist an intimacy between them that was greater than that of common acquaintances, and it seemed a profound breach of trust that she should know so little about it! After speaking with Fitzwilliam about how he would trust and consult her about the matters that pertained to her, she felt absolutely indignant yet unwilling to express anger toward Lizzy. Instead, she waited until their duet was finished and feigned mild curiosity as she inquired as to the meaning of her brother's cryptic statement.
Lizzy blushed. "'Twas nothing of importance. Your brother has a propensity for responding to my comments with a quote from literature as a means of testing my knowledge. It has become a bit of a game, but it does not truly signify."
Out the corner of her eye, she caught Fitzwilliam watching Lizzy even as Mr. Hurst was speaking to him, and she realized in an instant that her brother was quite possibly in love with her friend. The memories of Richard's responses to her brother's behavior in Lizzy's presence which had once seemed strange suddenly made perfect sense.
Her brother's recent lightness, his willingness to listen, and his new tendency be less imperative had to be connected to his current proximity to Lizzy. Her anger from a moment before lessened as she considered that—in spite of all that had happened—the cause of her brother's recent changes was, in fact, happiness. Although she could not deny the fact that it felt rather hopeful to think that her brother could have fallen in love, it was vexing that the object of his affections had to be her dearest friend. Their conversation earlier had filled Georgiana with discontent for they were able to carry out a conversation in front of her as though she were hardly there. She was relegated from a participant in the conversation to a mere reference, and when she considered how many friendships had fallen once Fitzwilliam was introduced, she felt an unjustifiable stab of fear. She was certain that Lizzy was a trustworthy companion, yet the premonition persisted.
She was rather taciturn the rest of the evening as she considered her warring feelings concerning her revelation, only speaking to her brother as the Bennets were preparing to leave. "Might I have a word with you before I retire tonight, Brother?"
He looked slightly alarmed, and this pleased her for some reason. Nonetheless, he replied, "Of course, let us speak in private once the guests have departed."
Darcy arrived in the library to find Georgiana sitting primly by the dying fire. It was disconcerting to think that there were yet affairs she had not discussed with him during their previous conversation. Their previous conversation had exhausted him, and he was unsure he could speak to her now without of making an ass of himself.
"Georgiana?" He prompted, sitting beside her. "Do you have more matters to discuss with me?"
She gave him a searching look, and he had to keep himself from squirming under her silent stare. After a seemingly endless minute, she asked, "What exactly is the nature of your acquaintance with Lizzy?"
He did not know how to respond for Georgiana's countenance betrayed nothing. He knew he has monopolized Elizabeth's time during her and Georgiana's duet, and he had wondered briefly if Georgiana had minded. "I do not know what you are asking. She is an acquaintance of yours as well as of mine."
"You promised me that you would be more open with me, Brother. I may be young and foolish, but I am not the simpleton you think I am. I have observed you and Lizzy closely, and there is an intimacy to your interactions that belies a mere acquaintance! So, I am imploring you too tell me honestly if there is something more between the two of you."
He sighed and rubbed his brow. "I can tell you that, in name, we are still merely acquaintances, but you must understand, Georgie, that in my first weeks here I was alone without a single soul to whom I could confide in. Elizabeth—she became a sort of confidant. She counseled me about own feelings of inadequacy and fears of the future. For as I have told you, I have also feared greatly for the future and did not know what to make of it when you became so reticent. Without betraying your trust, she advised me on how I might be a better guardian to you, and I believe we can agree that her advice was valuable to us both."
He paused, and he hoped she might fill the silence. He gazed at his hands in his lap as he continued, "In these past weeks, I daresay I have fallen in love with her, and I have avoided sharing this information with you for fear that you would disapprove. After the night of the Lucases' party, I believed that you considered me an obstacle to your friendship with Elizabeth, so I have not pursued it. I wanted to seek your blessing first." He took a shuddering breath. "Even as I love her, I would not propose without your consent. You are my priority."
Georgiana took a deep breath, and he finally looked at her. Her eyes were wide, and she was looking at where his hands were fidgeting. "You cannot be serious."
Her reaction was unexpected, and he could not contain his blunt response. "What?"
"Brother, you cannot be serious. I love Lizzy dearly, and if she were my sister, she would be able to live with me. I will admit that I was dismayed observing your interactions with Lizzy because it was confusing and I felt that you were keeping secrets from me, but I do not understand how a man of your sense would think that I would disapprove of such a match."
Darcy could not prevent the wide grin that suffused across his face. "You truly mean that?"
"Well, I suppose I do, but I will admit to feeling conflicted about the whole thing. Lizzy was my friend first, and I shall not like sharing her attentions and affections—you know how I have longed for a friend like her." She looked down and smoothed her skirts as her voice grew quiet, "And, of course, you know how other friends of mine have taken advantage—"
He covered her hand with his own. "I do know, and I have considered it. Elizabeth is different, though. Surely, you see that."
"Certainly, I do! But I still do not want to be forgotten once you marry."
Darcy attempted to look serious, but quite uncharacteristically, his joy was undoubtedly plain to see suffused in his countenance.
Georgiana seemed aware of this a laughed heartily. "You are truly happy, Brother?"
He pressed his lips together and nodded. "Yes, I am," he cleared his throat, "but I do wish to put you at ease. I do not want you worrying over the state of your friendship with Elizabeth for I shall not occupy all of her time. I shall undoubtedly have business to attend to, and Elizabeth, as my wife," he paused slightly, savoring the words as he spoke them aloud, "would be responsible for your education and your coming out, should we decide to do so."
"And we three shall all spend much time together, shall we not?"
He squeezed her hand in his. "Indeed, we will."
"So, when shall you propose?"
He laughed loudly as he had not done in months, or perhaps years. "Eager, are you?"
"I would rather say you are the one who is eager."
He laughed again. "I am, but we must be patient. I would like to attempt a small period of courtship during the next fortnight. I would prefer to avoid making it explicit for I believe Elizabeth fears her mother's…exuberance, but in order to do so, I shall require your assistance."
Georgiana nodded, and they spoke well into the night of their plans and their hopes. By the time Georgiana retired for the evening, all of her trepidation from earlier in the evening had melted away, and she managed to fall asleep almost instantly.
As she watched Lydia and Kitty bickering in the village square, Lizzy was not sure that she had made the correct decision when she had decided she would rather escort them to the village rather than bear the exaggerated overtures from Mr. Collins. The man had become positively unbearable in the last week, and her only escape were her walks with Georgiana and Mr. Darcy, who had come to call twice in the past four days.
To her surprise, Georgiana who did not often let Lizzy out of her sight would often go ahead of her and Mr. Darcy, who was being increasingly solicitous. She had been determined not to let his actions raise her expectations. Thus, she clung to her equanimity by tempering her enthusiasm for his company. She refused to be coy or flirt and humiliate herself, even as she had the impulse to do so. For all that she respected and admired Mr. Darcy, he held all the power over their situation, and she felt that to grant him any such favor would be to surrender the little agency she still had.
Her position was unenviable and prevented her from sleeping and eating enough, and her bad habits soon manifested them in irritability with her parents, her younger sisters, Mr. Collins, and even Jane. Around the Darcys, however, she maintained the bright façade of a lady without the cares of an entailment and a virtually nonexistent dowry.
So lost in thought was she that she completely lost track of Kitty and Lydia, who were undoubtedly making a spectacle of themselves in their excitement over receiving the official invitation for Mr. Bingley's ball that morning. Her frustration mounted as she peered in each shop window, unable to find her sisters.
Assuming that they went to search for accoutrements for the ball, she went to the milliners and left when she discovered they were not there either. She came upon Kitty outside, fidgeting with the frayed end of her bonnet ribbon.
"Kitty, where is Lydia? Clouds are gathering ahead. We should leave now if we are to avoid the rain."
Kitty shrugged, "Last I saw her she was talking to the butcher's son."
Lizzy rolled her eyes. "Naturally."
She made her way to the butcher's shop when she stopped in her tracks in utter surprise.
Lydia was twisting one of her curls around her finger and looking into the face of a man Lizzy once thought handsome. Mr. Wickham's sinister countenance from Georgiana's room had haunted her nightmares for weeks, and it took her several moments to confirm that the figure before her was not—in fact—an apparition. His face was only a few inches from Lydia's, and his face was contorted into a charming smile that Lizzy found sickening.
"Lydia! Come here at once!"
The pair turned to face her, and, predictably, Lydia appeared embarrassed and angry. Wickham, however, looked only mildly alarmed and stepped back from Lydia.
"Lizzy! You needn't spoil everything!" She cried before turning back to Wickham. "I was just telling the dear Lieutenant about all the fun to be had in the neighborhood!
"You simply must come to the ball at Netherfield, Mr. Wickham! I am sure Mr. Bingley would welcome you. He is so very amiable!"
Lizzy saw the moment Wickham realized who she was. "Bingley?" he said with only moderate alarm before turning his face toward her. His eyes darkened as he starred at her. All of the fears that had gripped her in moments of solitude returned to her in an instant, and she reached out her hand and spoke calmly, attempting to hide her fear. "Lydia, come with me. Papa will not like you speaking to a man without an introduction."
This approach, however, seemed to heighten Lydia's childishness. "Papa does not know anything about the world! Leave me be!"
Wickham's thoughts were an enigma to her has he offered his arm to Lydia and began walking away from her. Panic gripped Lizzy's throat, and she rushed to Lydia's arm in a vain attempt to pull her away from Wickham's grasp.
"What on earth are you doing, Lizzy?"
Wickham rounded one her, and she saw that he was perhaps as alarmed to see her as she was to see him. His fear, however, made him bolder, and he gripped Lydia's arm.
Lydia yelped in pain. Lizzy darted in front of them, and with a might she did not know she possessed, she spat, "Remove your hands from my sister this moment, or I shall scream and make sure that everyone in Hertfordshire sees you as the vile wretch you are."
Lydia cried something in alarm that Lizzy could not understand, and she briefly registered the alarmed glances of others on the street and Wickham's fear-filled eyes before she felt herself crushed painfully against his person.
His lips were mashed against hers painfully, and he had pulled her onto him as he slammed his back against the wall. Before she had a moment to understood what had occurred, she heard him call out, "Madam, control yourself!"
The sound of his voice rung in her ear, and her eyes watered from the pressure he had put on her head. She only realized his hand had been digging into her rib cage once he had released it and pushed her away from him. She stumbled away from him, rubbing her side where he had bruised her.
She felt dizzy and could hardly discern her sisters' cries as they called out her name. There was a buzzing in her ear as if a fly was hovering next to her ear.
Above the noise was the loud voice of Wickham, "I did not think I would be plagued by harlots in this part of the village."
She discerned several voices but she could not understand them.
"Come, Lizzy," Lydia said, taking her by the arm, but Lizzy was frozen in place, unable to move.
"Please, hurry. We must get you home now," Kitty said as she took her other arm, and her two youngest sisters, who never listened to her or stopped chatting for a moment, silently led her toward Longbourn.
As she walked, she felt as though she was in a waking dream. The rolling hills and trees that marked the path from Meryton to Longbourn seemed to be different from how they had appeared her entire life, yet she could not determine how precisely they had changed. She could not believe that Wickham had truly been there for surely such a thing was impossible. Why would he grab her and press himself against her so?
"What a strange dream," she said aloud.
"Are you alright, Lizzy?" Kitty asked her in alarm.
Lizzy felt confused and did not respond as they all continued in silence toward Longbourn.
When they arrived, their mother was absent on a visit to her sister Mrs. Phillips, and their father was meeting with his steward about the harvest. Only Mary was in the parlor when they entered, but she hardly looked up from her piano music.
Lizzy suddenly felt the urge to escape her sisters. "Excuse me, I have a headache. I believe I must lie down."
Though she wobbled slightly once she disengaged her sisters, she managed to make her way up the stairs swiftly.
As she lied in bed, her thoughts confused her. They swam through her head, muddled, and she felt as if, for the first time in her life, her thoughts were incapable of being described in words. She was awash in confusion, which after an indeterminable amount of time, lead her to the oblivion of slumber.
Chapter 10: Chapter X
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."
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."
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?"
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.
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,
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."
"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.
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?"
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.