Who can be in doubt of what followed? Mr Gardiner, though he could not give formal consent to the engagement, gladly gave Mr Darcy permission to call on Elizabeth at Gracechurch Street while she was in residence. It was agreed that Mr Bennet’s blessing should be sought as soon as Elizabeth returned to Hertfordshire. It would have been awkward for all if Darcy had called at Longbourn while the Wickhams were visiting, and both he and Elizabeth felt that, given the rather tumultuous nature of their early acquaintance, it would be best to make the application in person rather than by letter.
The young couple were thus able to begin their season of courtship in the peace of the Gardiners’ home. Here, thanks to the tactful and considerate nature of their hosts, they could continue getting to know each other in relative privacy. They were, of course, discreetly supervised by Mrs Gardiner, but that worthy lady was perceptive enough to only participate when general conversation was desired, while pretending to be occupied with her work when it was not. Elizabeth and Mr Darcy therefore enjoyed long afternoons in Mrs Gardiner’s parlour having all those conversations so engrossing to new lovers and so thoroughly uninteresting to anybody else, and were consequently better able to make a decent show of attending to their hosts when they all dined together in the evenings.
It was during one of these leisurely afternoons that Elizabeth thought to ask where Darcy meant to stay while in Meryton. She somewhat dreaded the notion of having him as a guest at Longbourn ‒ though he had, on his visits to Gracechurch Street, exerted himself to be courteous even to Mr and Mrs Gardiner’s less polished neighbours when they happened to call, she knew that her family’s behaviour would be a strain on his fastidious nature. He had made it clear that he regretted his manner during their early acquaintance and had earnestly assured her of his intention to do better in the future. She did not doubt him, but she did wish to spare him discomfort, and an extended stay at Longbourn would be nothing if not uncomfortable for him.
To her surprise, Darcy appeared not in the least perturbed by the question. “I shall stay at Netherfield,” he replied instantly. “I have already written to Bingley, and he has agreed to have the house opened. In fact,” he continued, “I rather believe that Bingley means to join me in coming to Hertfordshire. It is the hunting season, after all.”
Elizabeth was by now sufficiently familiar with his expressions and manner of speaking to discern that there was a rather studied air to his apparent nonchalance. A moment’s narrow-eyed scrutiny confirmed her suspicions, for though his countenance betrayed nothing, the colour creeping up his neck to his ears revealed a great deal.
“Mr Darcy!” she cried, half amused, half delighted. “It seems that you are destined to be forever surprising me! I had not believed you to have such an inclination for match-making.”
“It is hardly that,” Darcy protested, though she could see that he was enjoying her reaction. “I am merely righting a wrong ‒ a wrong of my own doing, I ought to add,” he continued more seriously.
This was a subject which they had not yet touched upon. Elizabeth, being in the first flush of love, had not been desirous of bringing up such a painful topic, and she suspected that Darcy had been equally loath to broach it with their understanding so new. It was therefore necessary to tread carefully. She had long forgiven his interference ‒ knowing him as she now did, she did not doubt that his intentions had been good ‒ but the subject was still fraught with awkwardness.
“Did you tell Mr Bingley ‒” she hesitated, “is he aware of ‒”
“Of my role in separating him and your sister? No ‒ not yet. I had hoped to first observe them together, and to have you do so also, in order to determine whether my confession would do harm or good. I do not doubt what you told me in April of your sister’s feelings at that time, and I have reason to believe that Bingley’s feelings, too, are unaltered ‒ but I should like to be certain of their mutual affection before interfering in the matter again.”
Elizabeth could not quarrel with this plan, and his apparent relief when she voiced her approval revealed to her how anxious he had been for it. She had not thought that she could love him more than she already did, yet every such moment, every time he demonstrated his respect for her judgement and opinions, increased her confidence in their future felicity.
Elizabeth soon learned to be exceedingly grateful for the days she and Darcy had been able to spend together in this peaceful manner, and to regret that her stay in Gracechurch Street had not been even longer. She had by no means overestimated the mortification inherent in breaking the news of her engagement to her family, nor that of having it subjected to the unabashed curiosity and gossip of Meryton society at large. The nerve-wracking interview with her father, the transports of her mother, the disbelief and giggles of her younger sisters and the endless parade of nosy well-wishers ‒ all made her long for the calm of her aunt’s parlour, or better yet, for being already installed in her own home with her husband.
There were consolations, however, even amidst such trying circumstances. Mr Bingley did indeed accompany his friend to Hertfordshire, and it was immediately obvious to all that he admired Jane as much as ever. Jane, for her part, did her best to appear sedate ‒ but even Darcy readily admitted that she was anything but indifferent. The promised disclosure was thus made, and matters progressed rapidly thereafter. Not even two weeks had passed since Mr Bingley’s return before Mrs Bennet was able to rejoice of having two daughters most advantageously engaged.
Mrs Wickham had the triumph of being the first Bennet daughter to wed, but she did not have long to enjoy the distinction of being the only one married. Less than two months after her wedding, she was joined in the married state by her two eldest sisters. Over the following months and years, she would gradually discover that being the first to marry did not bring her such lasting consequence as she had envisioned, and that her sisters, in proceeding with a little more caution, had gained the more permanent advantages of wealth, position and domestic harmony. Still, as she was made neither for unhappiness nor for reflection, the former Lydia Bennet did not lose her self-assurance (despite occasional pangs of envy), retained almost as much of her youthful good humour as her mother had in her own marriage, and never paused to consider whether the aggravations she suffered could in some way have been caused by her own conduct.
As for her husband, he had all the marital happiness which he deserved, but was able to find some degree of consolation in drinking, gambling and other such amusements. With his easy manners, he was never short of like-minded companions (though he was often short of funds). Still, his military career, while unremarkable, at least did not end in dishonour, and though the Wickhams were forever teetering on the very edge of gentility, they never toppled off it.
Mr and Mrs Darcy did not begin their married life entirely unencumbered by outside concerns. His relations did not universally approve of the match, and some of them did not scruple to express it. Hers, while more complimentary, retained their share of foolishness and vulgarity. However, these vexations were minor when compared to the great and lasting joy they found in their closest circle of friends ‒ the Gardiners and the Bingleys prominent among this group ‒ and, most of all, in each other.
The exact future course of the lives of the Darcys will not be detailed here; particulars such as the number of their children and the spouses of their younger sisters shall be left to the readers’ imaginations. Suffice it to say that they were, despite the occasional trials that life inevitably brings, very happy.
There is, however, one character who yet deserves a few words: whatever became of Miss Bingley? For a time, she appeared in danger of having her connection with the Darcys severed entirely. Mr Darcy was not inclined to forgive her deception in the matter of the elopement, particularly as it had been perpetrated in an attempt to slander Elizabeth. Such callousness, such cold calculation, could not be forgotten or redeemed.
Mrs Darcy was no fonder of Miss Bingley than her husband, but she was determined not to allow any unnecessary awkwardness to subsist between herself and her dearest sister’s family. She therefore set about persuading Mr Darcy to relent. At length, he was indeed prevailed upon to, if not overlook, at least pretend to overlook Miss Bingley’s offence, and so, though Miss Bingley would never again be an intimate of the Darcys, she was at least acknowledged by them in public.
Miss Bingley was wise enough to hide her disappointment carefully. She did not attempt to treat Mr Darcy with unwanted familiarity, paid off every arrear of civility to Mrs Darcy and was exceedingly complimentary of Miss Darcy whenever they happened to meet. Such meetings, however, did not occur very often. When Miss Bingley was invited to an event where she would have been in danger of encountering the Darcys, she tended to find that she had a previous engagement. Though the sting of mortification lessened somewhat over time, she could never quite forget that, had it not been for her own interference, Mr Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet might never have been reunited.