It is widely acknowledged by poets and philosophers alike that the beauties of nature are among the best cures for vexation and unhappiness. This is particularly the case if such beauties are enjoyed in agreeable company. It is therefore no wonder that, after nearly six weeks of admiring the delights of the Lakes with such pleasant companions as Mr and Mrs Gardiner, Elizabeth Bennet could scarcely recall the disappointments and mortifications of the past winter and spring, and was in fact feeling in great charity with the world.
There had, some weeks before their departure, been concerns that the duration of the trip might need to be curtailed due to certain business obligations of Mr Gardiner’s. Fortunately, however, these fears had proven to be unfounded, and aunt, uncle and niece had been able to see the Lakes with all the leisure and comfort they could desire. Indeed, when their carriage pulled up to the inn at Kendal, the only regret Elizabeth had about their tour was that it was now so close to its end: this town, in which they intended to stay for two or three days, was to be their last stop before beginning their journey back South in earnest.
On their arrival at the inn, Elizabeth had great hopes of finding letters from Jane awaiting her, as the distance between Westmorland and Hertfordshire, combined with some last-moment changes to their itinerary, had caused none to reach her in more than a week. She had left instructions at their previous inns that any letters arriving after their departure were to be redirected to Kendal, and was therefore quite disappointed to discover that none had reached the town before her. The next morning, however, her repining was over: she received, in fact, four letters at once, making her suspect that the innkeeper at their previous to last inn, to which all but one letter had been directed, had been rather less than diligent in forwarding them.
They had just been preparing to walk to the town museum as the letters came in. Elizabeth, however, decided that news from Longbourn held greater interest to her than local relics, and so her uncle and aunt, leaving her to enjoy her letters in quiet, set off by themselves. The oldest missive must first be attended to; it had been written all of ten days ago. The beginning contained an account of all the little parties and engagements of the family at Longbourn, with such news as the country afforded; but the latter half, which was dated a day later, and written in evident agitation, gave more important intelligence, and abruptly thrust back into Elizabeth’s mind everything she had assiduously endeavoured to put out of it during her travels.
An express from Colonel Forster had arrived at Longbourn, bearing shocking news: Lydia had escaped Brighton in the middle of the night ‒ had eloped to Scotland ‒ and, the worst blow of all, with none other than Mr Wickham. Jane, of course, was attempting to make the best of things; though she acknowledged the imprudence of the match, she was willing to hope that Wickham’s character had been misunderstood.
Elizabeth, as she read, scarcely knew what she felt, and on finishing this letter, instantly seized the next, which had been written a day later than the conclusion of the first. Within, she discovered intelligence that was, if possible, even more unwelcome. Wickham and Lydia, it was feared, had not gone to Scotland at all, and were believed to be in London; Mr Bennet and Colonel Forster had gone thither to try to discover them; and Jane was earnestly begging her uncle’s advice and assistance.
Heart in her throat, Elizabeth opened the last two letters with the utmost impatience, but the relief she had hoped to gain was not contained in them. Jane, in increasingly bleak tones, recounted that their father’s efforts in London were proving unsuccessful, and that Colonel Forster had been obliged to return to his regiment. Mrs Bennet was keeping to her room; Kitty was in great distress; and Jane once again entreated her uncle for help. The last letter, which had been written two days ago, contained the intelligence that Mr Bennet was yet in London but was running out of avenues to search. Mr Wickham, in the meantime, had been discovered to be in debt to every tradesman in Meryton, and rumours of improper flirtations and even seductions were rampant.
It was too dreadful to think of; it was in every way horrible. Elizabeth darted from her seat, intent on rushing after her aunt and uncle, but discovered that her knees were trembling so badly that she was obliged, instead, to summon a servant and give the errand to him. This being done, she at once turned to packing her belongings, gathering up bonnets and gowns with feverish haste, though several times the unsteadiness of her hands made her almost drop what she was holding.
Still, in all her frenzied activity, as she rushed about the room stumbling and fumbling, she could not banish the one agonising thought which was foremost in her mind: she could have prevented this ‒ but she had not.
Mr and Mrs Gardiner hurried back to the inn half an hour later to discover Elizabeth pacing their rooms in tearful agitation. They had supposed, by the servant’s account, that their niece was taken suddenly ill ‒ but satisfying them instantly on that head, she eagerly communicated the cause of their summons.
Though Lydia had never been a favourite with them, Mr and Mrs Gardiner could not but be deeply afflicted. Not Lydia only, but all were concerned in it; and after the first exclamations of surprise and horror, Mr Gardiner readily promised every assistance in his power. Elizabeth, though expecting no less, thanked him with tears of gratitude; and all three being actuated by one spirit, everything relating to their journey was speedily settled. They were to be off as soon as possible, in the hope that they might need to sleep only two nights on the road. As they had no acquaintances in the town, no leave-takings or notes of explanation were required; their belongings were hastily packed while Mr Gardiner settled his account at the inn; and in less than half an hour, Elizabeth found herself seated in the carriage, and on the road to Longbourn.
This is not going to be a very long fic; I think the final word count will be around 20,000. I have the first ten chapters written and am making pretty good progress on the last two, so I think I can safely promise that I'll actually finish this. I plan to post a couple of chapters a week, and Chapter 2 will probably be up in a day or two.
As their first day of travel progressed, Mrs Gardiner began to grow increasingly puzzled by the extreme despondency of her niece. It was to be expected, of course, that Elizabeth would be grieved and shocked by what had happened, and anxious about the ultimate outcome of the affair for both Lydia and the rest of her family. However, it was unlike her to be so entirely wretched. Mrs Gardiner knew her niece to be, in general, of a sanguine temperament: she was not of a disposition to be unhappy for long, and though not possessed of Jane’s rose-tinted view of the world, would ordinarily rouse herself to search for solutions and reasons to hope, rather than wallow in misery.
On this occasion, it was not so. Instead, it seemed as if Elizabeth had determined to take the dreariest possible view of the circumstances, and could not be reasoned out of it.
As they drove from the town, Mr Gardiner, having had time to reflect on the situation, expressed his hopes that it might not be as dire as it presently appeared.
“It appears to me so very unlikely,” he said, “that any young man should form such a design against a girl who is by no means unprotected and friendless, and who was staying in his colonel’s family. His temptation is not adequate to the risk. It is peculiar, to be sure, that he and Lydia have not yet sent any communication to your family, but I think it entirely possible that we shall, on our arrival at Longbourn, discover that they have written to announce their marriage.”
Mrs Gardiner was inclined to agree; she could not think so ill of Mr Wickham, whom she had found both charming and perfectly gentleman-like, to believe him capable of such a violation of decency, honour and interest.
“Perhaps,” she suggested, “Mr Wickham’s pecuniary troubles have delayed their journey to Scotland, and they have not wished to make their location known before having made their union official. They may fear the opposition of Lydia’s family, and think it preferable to present her father with the accomplished fact.”
They were very much surprised to discover that Elizabeth was by no means as hopeful, and that her opinion of Mr Wickham, who had formerly been her favourite, was now quite the reverse of what it had been. Of Lydia’s decency and virtue, too, she had an uncharacteristically pessimistic view. While she did not believe that her sister would have deliberately engaged in an elopement without the intention of marriage, she thought her foolish enough to fall an easy prey to a man of Mr Wickham’s powers.
Mrs Gardiner briefly entertained the notion that Elizabeth’s cynicism might have its roots in jealousy. After all, Wickham had admired her first, and the mortification of being replaced in his affections by a younger sister might well colour her view of the events. This suspicion was soon discarded, however: Mrs Gardiner had never believed Elizabeth’s feelings to be seriously engaged, and her niece had not expressed any particular feeling of injury when Mr Wickham had transferred his affections to Miss King. Besides, Elizabeth seemed inclined to place the principal blame for the elopement on Mr Wickham, rather than Lydia, where a woman bitter about losing her suitor might have been supposed to do the opposite. Furthermore, her present misery seemed too acute to be the result of mere injured vanity.
By the time they reached the inn at which they were to spend the night, Mrs Gardiner had come to the conclusion that there was something weighing on Elizabeth’s mind which she had not shared, and that it was necessary to discover what it was. The opportunity for this presented itself when Mr Gardiner, having settled the ladies in a private parlour, excused himself to speak to the innkeeper about post-horses.
In the carriage, Elizabeth had been unusually reticent, but Mrs Gardiner was possessed of both tact and resolve, and her gentle but determined questioning soon brought results: her niece, when offered a sympathetic listener, promptly burst into tears and, upon recovering sufficiently to speak, began to unburden herself.
“It is all my fault,” she confessed miserably. “I have long known what Wickham really is: that he has been profligate in every sense of the word; that he has neither integrity nor honour; that he is as false and deceitful, as he is insinuating. When I consider that I might have prevented all this ‒ I, who knew what he was! Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But I was afraid of doing too much. Wretched, wretched mistake!”
“And do you really know all this?” cried Mrs Gardiner, whose curiosity as to the mode of her intelligence was all alive, though she could not believe Elizabeth so wholly culpable as her niece seemed to consider herself.
“I do, indeed,” replied Elizabeth, and her aunt did not fail to notice that her cheeks coloured faintly. “You will recall, I am sure, that Mr Wickham was acquainted with Mr Darcy ‒ and that I spent several weeks in company with Mr Darcy and his relations in Kent last spring?”
Mrs Gardiner indicated that she did.
“I discovered then that Mr Wickham’s tales about Mr Darcy and his family were quite false ‒ or rather, that they contained a sufficient seasoning of truth as to make them sound believable, while in fact grievously deceiving his listeners. Mr Darcy did not deny him a position in the church ‒ Mr Wickham refused it and was liberally compensated for it, but squandered the money on fast living. And, even worse,” Elizabeth drew a deep breath, “this is not the first time he has attempted to elope with a young lady. Last summer, he attempted to elope with ‒”
Mrs Gardiner noted the brief moment of hesitation.
“‒ with a young lady of Mr Darcy’s acquaintance, who is more or less Lydia’s age ‒ in order to possess himself of her fortune, which is quite significant. He is, in short, a wastrel, a libertine, and a fortune-hunter ‒ and I let Lydia go off to Brighton without as much as a word of warning about his real character.”
Mrs Gardiner was quite shaken by this intelligence. Still, she felt that her first task must be to return her niece to a more reasonable frame of mind. Although it was true that the present crisis might have been averted had Elizabeth been less reticent about what she knew, she could hardly be blamed for Mr Wickham’s deceitfulness and Lydia’s lack of care for her virtue. This, Mrs Gardiner attempted to impart to her niece, and at length Elizabeth was brought to admit that she had, in fact, discussed the matter with Jane, and that neither girl had thought it prudent to expose Mr Wickham when he was so soon to leave the neighbourhood. It also became clear that Elizabeth had perceived no symptoms of particular affection between Lydia and Mr Wickham.
“And so,” concluded Mrs Gardiner, “you had no reason to believe that Lydia might be in any particular danger from Mr Wickham’s deception. She had no fortune to tempt him, and they did not appear to harbour tender feelings for each other. My dear Lizzy, though it would, in hindsight, have been fortuitous had you acted differently, you had no way of predicting this sort of outcome at the time ‒ and you did, I recall from your letters, attempt to prevent Lydia’s going to Brighton in the first place. I do not see how you could reasonably be held responsible for what has happened.”
She did, however, consider it necessary to impart Elizabeth’s intelligence to her husband upon his return upstairs, that he might have a clearer picture of the man they were dealing with. Mr Gardiner listened grimly to his niece’s account, only interrupting with one or two questions to clarify some aspect of the tale.
“Well, then,” he said after she was done, “so that is the sort of man we are dealing with. I confess, Lizzy, that I had previously been inclined to think you overly pessimistic, but I must now agree with your assessment of the matter. There can be very little hope of their being married ‒ I believe we must count ourselves fortunate if Mr Wickham has not yet abandoned Lydia to the mercies of men even more unscrupulous.”
Elizabeth, not worldly enough to have contemplated such a possibility, could not hide her dismay. Mrs Gardiner looked askance at her husband.
“Forgive me, Lizzy,” Mr Gardiner said, “I should not like to frighten you with conjectures that may yet be proven untrue ‒ but with such damning information about Mr Wickham’s character, I believe the risk exists. It is imperative that we discover Lydia before she ends up in yet more dire straits. I would ask you, therefore, to cast your mind back to your acquaintance with the man, and to your conversations with Mr Darcy and his relations, and attempt to bring to mind any further intelligence you may have heard. Can you recall any mention being made of Mr Wickham’s family or friends ‒ any associates who might lead us to his present location?”
“I fear not,” replied Elizabeth unhappily. “His father, I know, is dead, and I believe his mother to be so also ‒ I cannot recall him ever mentioning her, nor any brothers or sisters. There are, of course, his friends in the militia, but Colonel Forster will surely have interrogated them quite thoroughly already. I do not believe he ever named any friends or acquaintances outside Meryton ‒ apart from the Darcys, of course, and they can have no bearing on ‒”
Elizabeth paused abruptly. For a fraction of a moment, she remained entirely still ‒ then she was leaping out of her seat and hurrying to her travel trunk. Her aunt and uncle observed in amazement as she extracted her writing box, rifling urgently through its contents before seizing upon a letter which she proceeded to rapidly scan, flipping through the closely-written sheets at a speed which suggested an intimate familiarity with their contents. Finally, she stopped short with a triumphant exclamation.
“Oh! I have it! There is a lady who assisted Mr Wickham in his previous attempt to elope. Her name is Mrs Younge, and I believe she resides in London ‒ she did, at least, before last summer, because she presided over the establishment where Miss ‒ where the young lady of Mr Darcy’s acquaintance lived. Do you believe she might be discovered more easily than Mr Wickham?”
“It is certainly worth investigating,” said Mr Gardiner. “If she has continued in a similar line of business, it may be that her name is known to somebody of our acquaintance, or that she has had cause to advertise her services. Assuming that she resides permanently in London, she will have a wider network of connections there than Mr Wickham, who ‒ if he is indeed in town as we believe ‒ is only recently arrived.”
“But Lizzy,” cried Mrs Gardiner, whose curiosity about the letter could no longer be contained, “are you so intimate with one of Mr Darcy’s relations, as to be in correspondence with her, and to be sharing such delicate information? I do not recall your mentioning such a close friendship with Lady Catherine or her daughter.”
A deep blush overspread Elizabeth’s cheeks at this question. Her aunt and uncle saw her hesitate for a moment; then she squared her shoulders and replied evenly: “No. The letter is not from one of Mr Darcy’s relations. It is from Mr Darcy himself.”
Before Mr and Mrs Gardiner could express their astonishment, she continued quickly: “I beg you to believe that there is no impropriety associated with it. It is merely that Mr Darcy and I had a ‒ a disagreement during my visit in Kent, and in the course of our argument, I mentioned Mr Wickham’s tales about him. As he was about to leave Kent, and could not be assured of an opportunity to explain his side of the matter to me in person, Mr Darcy wrote a letter to provide me with more truthful intelligence.” She coloured yet further as she added: “I would offer to show you the letter that you might judge the matter for yourselves, but it contains certain references to other people which I am not at liberty ‒ which I could not in good conscience show to anybody, no matter how trustworthy.” With these words, she dropped her gaze and was silent.
Mr and Mrs Gardiner were all amazement at this revelation, but their trust in their niece, along with their sense of discretion, silenced any questions about the nature of the argument which had led Mr Darcy to employ such drastic measures. Instead, despite their burning curiosity, they focused on the matter currently at hand, and merely desired Elizabeth to review the letter once more in the hope of discovering some further information about Mr Wickham that might be of use. Such discoveries, unfortunately, were not in her power, and it was finally agreed that they ought all to repair to their beds, as they had a long day of travel before them.
“One final thought occurs to me, however,” said Mr Gardiner. “It is quite evident that, out of us all, Lizzy is the one with the greatest knowledge of Mr Wickham and his acquaintances. If I am to attempt to discover him in London, I should think it wise that Lizzy were closer at hand than at Longbourn, in case further useful recollections surface. Therefore, Lizzy, I should like you to join us in town for as long as the search for Lydia and Mr Wickham is ongoing. What say you?”
Elizabeth readily assented to this plan, which her aunt also thought eminently sensible. It was agreed, therefore, that they should stop at Longbourn only to pick up the Gardiners’ children and to confer with Mr Bennet, and that Elizabeth should then join the family in Gracechurch Street.
One further matter, however, needed to be discussed: Elizabeth requested, with no small degree of embarrassment, that the precise reason for her traveling to town be concealed from the rest of the family. She did not wish the existence of Mr Darcy’s letter to become known to a larger circle. Though the Gardiners were somewhat reluctant to participate in such a deception, they agreed to keep the existence of the letter secret, so that Elizabeth would not find herself obligated to violate Mr Darcy’s confidence more than she already had. Mr Bennet would merely be told that Mr Gardiner hoped that Elizabeth’s former friendship with Mr Wickham might have put her in possession of some pertinent information that she might yet recall, and that her aunt would value her assistance with her young cousins. This, though not the entire truth, was also not a complete untruth.
Thus, the weary travellers were finally allowed to seek their beds. If two of them were kept awake a while longer by whispered speculation about the precise relationship between their niece and a certain gentleman from Derbyshire, and the third by wondering what her aunt and uncle might have surmised about this precise subject, all were wise enough to forgo any mention of such musings in the morning.
They're on their way! Next up: Longbourn and London.
Upon their arrival at Longbourn, Elizabeth and the Gardiners were unsurprised to find that nothing had been heard of Lydia and Mr Wickham. Mrs Bennet was still confined to her rooms; Mr Bennet, whose return from London had preceded their arrival by only a day, was rendered spiritless by the ill-success of his endeavours there and rarely seen outside his library except at mealtimes. Nevertheless, the flow of correspondence between Longbourn and Brighton attested that he was, at least, keeping abreast with the scant news Colonel Forster had to offer. What intelligence he had managed to obtain, Mr Bennet shared with Mr Gardiner, but it was clear that he had little hope that the fugitives would be found.
Jane, upon whom the burden of managing the household had fallen, appeared pale and tired, though she disclaimed any excessive exhaustion to her sister. Elizabeth was loath to leave her again so soon after her return, for it was evident that Mary and Kitty could provide but little assistance in the care of their mother and the management of the household. She consoled herself, however, with the fact that Jane would at least be relieved of the task of looking after their little cousins upon the London party’s departure.
The travellers stayed but one night at Longbourn, and so, a mere four days after their departure from the North, Elizabeth found herself in Gracechurch Street. Mr Gardiner immediately set about making enquiries, while the ladies busied themselves with settling the children into the nursery and accomplishing all the household tasks which must be seen to when returning home after a lengthy absence.
The first days of Mr Gardiner’s investigations brought no results. Besides providing her aunt with whatever assistance she could, Elizabeth spent these days going over everything she could recall of her association with Mr Wickham, and the evenings poring over Mr Darcy’s letter in the vain hope of discovering some clue that had so far been overlooked.
Her frequent perusals of that missive made it impossible not to have her thoughts occasionally touch upon its writer. She wondered whether the news of her family’s disgrace had reached him; if it had, she supposed he must be congratulating himself on his narrow escape. Yet she could not muster up her old dislike of him. Mr Darcy, after all, had gone to considerable lengths to warn her about Mr Wickham’s untrustworthy character, and his letter had, though unintentionally, provided them with their best hope to date of discovering Lydia’s and Mr Wickham’s whereabouts. Besides, though the beginning of the letter had evidently been written in some bitterness of spirit, the adieu was, considering the circumstances, charity itself. Elizabeth could not help but feel her heart soften somewhat every time she read it. She was also more conscious than ever of the great trust Mr Darcy had placed in her by revealing his family’s intimate affairs to her; it demonstrated a respect for her judgement which she could not ignore.
Still, her new consciousness of Mr Darcy’s redeeming qualities could now have no significance for anybody. They were unlikely to ever see each other again, and even if they did, he would scarcely deign to notice her after discovering her family’s disgrace. No, for the sake of them both, she very much hoped that their paths would not cross again. In the present circumstances, such an encounter could only lead to the greatest embarrassment.
When Mr Gardiner departed for his fifth day of searching, Elizabeth had very little hope that his efforts would prove any more successful than they had so far. When he arrived home that evening, however, very late and looking quite exhausted, he came bearing the news which they had been prepared to despair of: Lydia and Mr Wickham were found!
“It was your intelligence that led me to them, Lizzy,” Mr Gardiner told his niece after being hurried into the parlour and provided refreshments by his wife. “Mrs Younge, I discovered, is now letting lodgings in Edward-street, and I was able, through bribery and persuasion, to obtain from her Mr Wickham’s present address.” His expression growing sombre, he continued: “They are not married, and I do not believe Mr Wickham has any intention of rectifying the matter.”
Exhorted for more particulars by his wife and niece, Mr Gardiner related all the details which were in his possession: Lydia and Mr Wickham were living together in a cheap lodging-house, as they had been for the past fortnight. He had seen them both, though he had not been able to speak to Lydia separately, and the information he had gleaned was not encouraging.
“Mr Wickham,” he said, “was all that was affable and charming ‒ but he made it quite plain that his financial situation at present makes it quite impossible for him to marry. He is not only in debt to shopkeepers ‒ there are debts of honour, too, and I believe that was the true reason for his flight from Brighton. As far as I can determine, he only took Lydia with him because she was amenable, and he fancied himself a companion. I am quite certain that no serious thought of marrying her ever entered his head.”
“And what of Lydia?” cried Elizabeth. “She would not come with you?”
“No,” sighed her uncle, with as much exasperation as sorrow. “She would not hear of leaving Mr Wickham. She remains convinced that they shall marry some time or another, and I do not believe that it signifies much to her when. I attempted to reason with her, but she was quite adamant. I did not think it prudent to cause a scene by attempting to carry her off against her will.”
“And so she remains with that villain,” said Elizabeth bitterly. “Oh! I do not blame you, my dear uncle ‒ indeed, you have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense, and I am exceedingly grateful ‒ but poor, foolish Lydia! She does not know what she is doing.”
Mrs Gardiner shook her head in silent agreement.
“Well,” said Mr Gardiner, “the only thing that remains to be done is to arrange the marriage, if at all possible.” As Elizabeth exclaimed in surprise, he smiled rather sardonically. “Yes, yes, I know that Mr Wickham claimed that he has not the funds to do so. That, however, only means that he wishes to see how much of a bribe I can offer him. I have arranged to meet him again tomorrow to discuss the matter, and must write to your father tonight to enquire what commitments I may make on his behalf.”
Elizabeth, at once recalling the shocking speed at which Mr Wickham had squandered his inheritance, and knowing that the funds her father could put up for the purpose were limited at best, rather hesitantly enquired what size of a sum her uncle thought would be required.
“I know not,” replied Mr Gardiner grimly, “but I suspect he will not sell himself cheaply. Let us hope that he can be persuaded to be reasonable. And speaking of persuasion,” he continued, “though I dislike the notion of bringing ladies to such a place, I fear it cannot be helped ‒ I should like you both to accompany me tomorrow. We must try to sway Lydia to leave her present situation until a wedding or some other solution can be arranged. Perhaps you will have better success than I did.”
The ladies agreed to this plan with alacrity; they both understood the necessity of removing Lydia from Mr Wickham’s immediate presence. Apart from the disgrace of her living with a man outside marriage, they were acutely conscious of the power which Mr Wickham held over the situation as long as Lydia was in his clutches. If he did not get the bargain he wished for, he might attempt to abscond with her again, or worse. It could hardly be doubted that he felt rather less concern for her welfare than her family did, and that he would not scruple to use their anxiety to his advantage.
It was with equal measures of impatience and apprehension, therefore, that Elizabeth entered Mr Gardiner’s carriage the next morning. She hardly knew what to feel about finally seeing Lydia again: she wished both to embrace her little sister very tightly and to give her a good shake by the shoulders.
As they approached the street in which the fugitives had their lodgings, she could not help noting that the streets were becoming increasingly narrow and dirty, the houses more and more shabby, and the people walking about less and less reputable-looking. She understood, now, why her uncle had been reluctant to bring her and Mrs Gardiner to such a place, and shuddered to think that Lydia was living there.
The carriage stopped, finally, in front of a large house that seemed in somewhat better repair than those around it, though this was not saying very much. Mr Gardiner, having handed the ladies out, turned for a moment to speak with his coachman. The street was bustling with traffic, and Elizabeth moved a little ways towards the house, stepping carefully to protect her skirts from the dirt.
She had just raised her eyes to the small, dusty windows above her, wondering which of them concealed Lydia and her seducer, when a quick step sounded behind her and a familiar, though entirely unexpected voice exclaimed: “Miss Bennet! Thank God I have found you!”
I wonder who that could be!
Next up: what’s been going on at Pemberley all this time, featuring a lady we all know and… uh… very occasionally appreciate?
Miss Caroline Bingley had not particularly enjoyed her erstwhile sojourn in Hertfordshire, and she had great hopes of never visiting her brother’s rented house there again. Nevertheless, since Mr Bingley had not yet given up the lease of Netherfield Park, and since Miss Bingley was nothing if not diligent when it came to the management of his household, she still maintained a regular correspondence with his housekeeper, Mrs Nicholls.
Though this correspondence mainly centred on mundane matters relating to the upkeep of the house, it had the added benefit of keeping her abreast of the news and gossip which Meryton and its environs afforded. While Miss Bingley had little interest in the lives of the four-and-twenty families who made up what passed for society in that town, she recognized the value of having some knowledge of what was going on in the surroundings of her brother’s country house. There was one family in particular that could not be entirely ignored: the Bennets of Longbourn.
Miss Bingley was reasonably certain that her brother was well on his way towards recovering from his unfortunate infatuation with the sweet but entirely unsuitable Miss Jane Bennet. She was also quite certain that, given the least opportunity, Miss Bennet’s mother would throw her daughter in Mr Bingley’s way again, and that her brother would not be impervious to the lady’s charms. Miss Bingley, aided by her sister and Mr Darcy, had expended a great deal of time and effort on separating the young couple, and she did not intend to have her hard work come to nothing. Should Miss Bennet travel to London again, Miss Bingley wished to be forewarned in order to ensure that no unfortunate chance meeting occurred.
There was also the matter of Miss Bennet’s impertinent younger sister, Miss Eliza. If Mr Bingley must be kept away from the elder sister, it was equally important to ensure that Mr Darcy did not encounter the younger. Miss Bingley could not understand how such a thoroughly unremarkable girl had managed to capture Mr Darcy’s attention, but the painful truth was that she had, succeeding where Miss Bingley’s best efforts had failed. Miss Bingley thought it most unlikely that Mr Darcy would have stooped as low as to actually marry Eliza Bennet ‒ but the second-eldest Miss Bennet had been an irritating distraction, drawing the gentleman’s attention away from Miss Bingley herself in a most mortifying way.
Thus, when a letter from Mrs Nicholls arrived shortly after breakfast one morning, a little over a week into her visit to Pemberley, Miss Bingley gave it all the attention it was due. The majority of it concerned practical matters ‒ a maidservant had had to be let go; ought another to be hired? There was some evidence of dampness in the small back parlour, did Miss Bingley wish to have it more thoroughly investigated? ‒ but the end of the missive delivered the news of the neighbourhood, and such news as to capture even Miss Bingley’s fullest attention.
She was perusing her letters in a small parlour next to the breakfast-room. Her sister and Miss Darcy were walking in the garden, while her brother and the other men of the party had declared their intention to ride out. Mr Darcy himself had promised to join the gentlemen a little later, after attending to some business with his steward. Miss Bingley therefore happened to be quite alone when, mere moments after she had finished reading Mrs Nicholls’s news, her host entered the room.
Miss Bingley had only an instant to determine whether her newly acquired intelligence ought to be imparted to Mr Darcy. She knew that another opportunity to speak privately might not readily present itself. So far, the visit to Derbyshire had proceeded very much in accordance with her wishes, the small numbers of their party throwing her brother frequently into Miss Darcy’s company and herself into Mr Darcy’s. Still, if she wished to further her ambitions to one day call Pemberley her home, she knew she must foster a greater intimacy with Mr Darcy. They were friends, yes, but he rarely took her into his confidence.
However, in the matter of separating her brother from Miss Bennet, they had been confidantes, colluding together to prevent a disastrous alliance and instead promote one which Miss Bingley was almost certain they both hoped for. It was partly her desire to remind Mr Darcy of their complicity in that matter, and partly her resentful wish of lowering Eliza Bennet in his eyes, which prompted her, immediately upon his entrance, to say: “Mr Darcy, I am glad to have this opportunity to speak to you ‒ I have just this moment received a letter from Meryton, with news which I believe will be of interest to you.”
She saw his expression sharpen at the name of the town, and, assured of his attention, continued: “We may congratulate ourselves, sir, on our forethought and prudence in the matter of my brother and Miss Bennet. If the objections against her family were previously significant, they are now quite insuperable. Her younger sister, I am reliably informed, has eloped ‒ with none other than Mr Wickham! And to make matters worse,” Miss Bingley lowered her voice, “though they have been gone for nearly a fortnight, there has been no word of their marriage. It appears that, rather than having gone to Scotland, they have hidden themselves away in London ‒ and as the lady is yet underage, they cannot have wed there.”
She noted the sudden pallor of Mr Darcy’s countenance, and though it gave her a certain satisfaction to have elicited such a pronounced reaction, her lingering jealousy also made her vexed to see that he was so strongly affected. Thus, she could not resist striking a final blow: “I fear, sir, that not even Miss Eliza’s fine eyes can make up for such a stain.”
In Miss Bingley’s defence, it must be said that it was not her conscious intention to deceive Mr Darcy as to the identity of the lady who had eloped. To her detriment, however, it must also be stated that, when she saw him turn whiter still, she immediately realised his misapprehension ‒ and did nothing to disabuse him of it.
“Eloped ‒ with Wickham!” he said hoarsely. “And it is certain ‒ absolutely certain?”
“Oh yes,” she assured him, “there can be no doubt ‒ Mrs Nicholls tells me that it is the only thing anybody can speak about in Meryton.”
Mr Darcy turned abruptly away and walked over to a window; she imagined he must be attempting to compose himself. Indeed, when he turned back towards her, his face had regained some of its colour, though his expression was stiff and closed off.
“I should like to request,” he said, “that this ‒ unhappy matter ‒ not be made public knowledge among our party. I should not like my sister exposed to such scandalous news, and there is no reason to spread the tale of the Bennets’ misfortune more widely than necessary.”
“Indeed,” Miss Bingley hastened to agree, “that is why I felt it best to broach the topic in private. Besides the unseemliness of perpetuating such gossip, I should not wish my brother to take it upon himself to do something rash and foolish, which I fear he might, were he to hear of the affair.”
She could not decipher the significance of the look he directed at her then; but there was a distinct coldness in his voice when he replied: “I believe I understand your meaning. Pray, excuse me ‒ I have some matters I must attend to.” With a short bow, he was out of the room.
This was a far less satisfactory conclusion to their interview than Miss Bingley had dared imagine. She consoled herself, however, with the hope that, once his initial disappointment and disillusionment had passed, Mr Darcy might be susceptible to the sympathy and comfort of a friend ‒ sympathy and comfort which she would be in eager readiness to provide.
Such hopes persisted while she ventured out into the gardens for a solitary stroll; but they were instantly dashed upon her return. She found Miss Darcy, her companion and a number of other guests all gathered together, waiting to inform her of the news: Mr Darcy had received word of an urgent business matter which required his immediate presence in London. He had made his apologies to the rest of the party, and expressed his regrets at being unable to take a proper leave of Miss Bingley.
In short, he was gone; and Miss Bingley was left with the dubious satisfaction of knowing that he was off on a fool’s errand, and that she had sent him on it herself. It mattered little that Eliza Bennet would not, in fact, be waiting at his journey’s end. Mr Darcy was not a forgiving sort of man; when he discovered Miss Bingley’s deception, his good opinion of her would be lost forever ‒ if it was not already.
Caroline Bingley allowed herself one brief moment of self-pity. Then, determined to salvage what she could, she forced a smile onto her face and turned towards Miss Darcy, a compliment already on her lips.
Angry people are not always wise, and all that...
Next up: a lot of Darcy, not a lot of chill.
When Mr Darcy left the parlour in which he had spoken with Miss Bingley, his mind was in such turmoil that he hardly knew where he was walking. He was briefly distracted by his anger with her and his disgust at the callous way in which she had spoken ‒ but only briefly. There were other, more forceful emotions waiting their turn, and none of them were directed at Miss Bingley.
No, as he half-blindly wandered into his study and sank into a chair, Darcy’s thoughts were all fixed on Elizabeth Bennet. Disappointment, disillusionment, betrayal all coursed through him. Could he have so entirely mistaken her character? He knew that he had deluded himself about her feelings and wishes; had he also deluded himself about the very essentials of who she was? How could she, who had accused him of cruelty, so blatantly disregard Wickham’s misdeeds? Was she truly so lost to propriety as to abandon all her friends, to ruin the reputation of her family, for the sake of a charming scoundrel? He knew not with whom he was angrier ‒ with Wickham, for seducing Elizabeth, or with Elizabeth herself, for allowing herself to be seduced.
Hard on the heels of his fury, however, and so all-consuming as to push it aside, was grief. Grief for the hopes which he had thought himself to have abandoned once already, only to now discover that they had, in fact, still persisted in some corner of his heart: the hope of seeing her again, the hope of gaining her respect, her friendship, her affection. Grief for the woman he had thought her to be, for the love he had felt for her, and for the painful knowledge that, despite the shame she had brought upon herself, he was foolish enough to in some way love her still.
Yet, most of all, he grieved for her. Whatever her sins, the fate which she faced now was utterly miserable. Wickham would abandon her, if he had not done so already. Where could she turn then? Even if her family were disposed to help her, she could not return to Longbourn. Some secluded farmhouse, far away from anyone she knew, would be her destination; perhaps in time, some widowed tradesman or farmer in need of a new mother for his children might be prevailed upon to take her off her father’s hands. A life of drudgery, far below the station in life she had been born to, was the best she could hope for. The worst ‒ Darcy had no wish to think of it, and yet he could not help it. His mind conjured up distressing visions of Elizabeth, come upon the town, forced to abandon what dignity she had left to support herself, and soon to be worn down by poverty, disease and abuse.
Did she truly deserve such a fate? How much was she even to blame for her present circumstances? As the initial uproar of his thoughts and feelings began to subside, it occurred to Darcy to wonder more seriously about the circumstances of Elizabeth’s elopement. Despite everything, he found it exceedingly difficult to fathom how she could have blithely thrown in her lot with Wickham when he knew her to be in possession of the sordid truth regarding the man’s character.
But then, could he be certain that she had, in fact, read his letter?
This thought, striking him like lightning, caused him to leap out of his chair and begin pacing the room.
There were any number of reasons why Elizabeth might not have read the letter. Perhaps her sense of propriety had forbidden it; perhaps she had feared its containing a renewal of his addresses; perhaps she had simply been so angered and insulted by his manner of proposing that she had not wished to read anything he had written. Whatever her reasons, she could hardly be faulted for refusing to engage in clandestine correspondence with a man she was not related to.
If she had not been aware of the falsity of Wickham’s character, she would have been as vulnerable as any innocent young lady to his practised charm ‒ and Darcy knew painfully well that not even the most careful upbringing, the most diligently instilled moral values, could be trusted to shield a girl whom Wickham had decided to make his target. To be sure, Elizabeth was some years older than Georgiana, but she had led a sheltered life in limited society. She had not been exposed to the harsher realities of the world, and her indolent parents had likely not thought to educate her. Wickham was capable of weaving the most affecting tales, and Elizabeth was generous, warm-hearted and not inclined to suspicion. How easy for the cad to lure her in by playing upon her sympathies, and then deceive her into ruining herself!
Besides, even if she had read the letter, Darcy reasoned, why did he so confidently assume that she would have believed its contents? He had given her cause enough to think badly of him with his ill-mannered behaviour in Hertfordshire, while Wickham had no doubt been all that was charming. To make matters worse, she knew that he had behaved duplicitously in the matter of Bingley and Miss Bennet. What reason did she have to trust him? His warnings might well have appeared to her as merely a bitter man’s attempt to blacken the name of his rival.
Viewed in such a light, Elizabeth’s elopement began to look in Darcy’s mind less like evidence of a grievous flaw in her character, and more like an unhappy misstep made merely because she had, in her innocence, trusted the wrong man. His own attempts to warn her also began to seem insufficient. Why had he trusted in a letter, when he could not be assured of its being read or taken seriously? Why had he not at least attempted to speak to her, or in some way tried to ascertain that his warning had been received? And, when it came to that, why had he not made more of an effort to make himself agreeable during his stay in Hertfordshire? Had he not, in his pride and conceit, dismissed the society there as being beneath him, it would surely have been more difficult for Wickham to spread his tales of woe.
However, even as his mind was busy finding reasons to excuse Elizabeth’s conduct or at least minimise her culpability in the affair, Darcy’s attention was seized by yet another possibility, one so alarming that it arrested his pacing about the room.
What if Elizabeth had believed him? What if she had, in righteous indignation, determined to confront Wickham ‒ and what if Wickham, fearful of having his character exposed before he could flee the consequences, had carried her off against her will?
It can easily be conjectured what terrors the imagination of a man violently in love may summon up when he believes his beloved to be in danger. Countless dismaying scenarios instantly presented themselves before the eye of Darcy’s mind, each worse than its predecessor. They all seemed to end the same way: with Elizabeth abandoned in London, alone and frightened, and without anyone to turn to for help.
Once such imaginings had entered his thoughts, they could not be dismissed. Furthermore, as he pictured the horrors she might be going through at this very moment, it struck him that it did not truly matter very much in what manner Elizabeth had ended up in Wickham’s clutches: the end result would undoubtedly be the same. Even if she had gone with Wickham of her own accord, Darcy could not believe that she would have eloped without fully intending and expecting to marry very soon. By now, she must have realised that Wickham’s intentions were very different ‒ and Darcy was convinced that she must be distressed and appalled by her situation.
Could he, in good conscience, leave her to suffer the miserable fate that awaited her? If she was, in fact, the victim of an abduction, the notion was obviously unconscionable ‒ but even if she was not, was it right that she and her sisters should suffer for the rest of their lives because of one false step? Was it not his duty as a gentleman, and more importantly, as a man who might by his actions have prevented her ruin, to at least attempt to ascertain that she was returned safely to her family? He knew Wickham, was familiar with the man’s habits and had some knowledge of his acquaintances. He might well be able to discover something that Elizabeth’s relations had not.
All hope of a closer association with her was gone; his love for her was doomed; but at least he could, perhaps, be of service to her before their ways parted forever. His mind recoiled from considering precisely what sort of aid he might yet be required to provide ‒ what if Elizabeth refused to leave Wickham? What if she still retained hopes of marrying him? ‒ yet he knew how he must act.
The decision, once made, was immediately put in action. Darcy rang for a servant, imparted his instructions, and, after hurriedly taking leave of his sister and guests, was on the road towards London scarcely two hours after his conversation with Miss Bingley.
It is not the object of this work to enumerate all the discomforts suffered by Mr Darcy on his hasty journey, nor the trials he endured while searching for Mr Wickham in the less pleasant parts of London. Suffice it to say that his quest, undertaken as it was in a state of great anxiety and unhappiness, was as exhausting as it was mortifying. Nevertheless, it had the advantage of being comparatively brief. As he was previously acquainted with Mrs Younge, it did not take Darcy long to find her; although two days and a generous bribe were required before he was able to get from her what he wanted.
When, at last, he managed to persuade her to part with the address he required, it was already late in the evening. Although he would have wished to approach the fugitives that very night, reason prevailed: nothing would be gained by mortifying Elizabeth and angering Wickham by intruding upon their repose.
The next morning, however, saw Darcy approaching the boarding-house to which Mrs Younge had directed him. It was the earliest acceptable hour for calling, and he had no expectation of his quarry being anywhere but in their rooms. He was thus entirely unprepared when, immediately upon descending from his carriage, he perceived Elizabeth, standing quite alone on the busy street, not twenty feet away.
She did not see him: her eyes were directed upwards, towards the windows of the boarding house, and her pale, unhappy countenance lacked all the liveliness which he had formerly so delighted in. She looked tired, he thought, and there was something apprehensive in the manner in which she eyed the building.
Darcy had hoped for an opportunity to speak to her without Wickham’s presence, and surely no better opening would present itself. Steeling himself for the painful encounter, he stepped forward and called out her name.
Fitzwilliam Darcy: a calm, reasonable man with no penchant whatsoever for the dramatic.
Next up: a long-awaited meeting.
“Miss Bennet! Thank God I have found you!”
Elizabeth could scarcely believe it, yet there he was, striding towards her with a grave and anxious look upon his face. Before she could think of what to say, or comprehend anything beyond her utter amazement at his being there, he was in front of her, and without any of the usual pleasantries or polite enquiries, urgently began to speak.
“Miss Bennet, I beg your pardon for accosting you thus in the street, but it cannot be helped ‒ I must speak with you, and the present opportunity is more than I could have hoped for. I am aware of the unfortunate circumstances you find yourself in, and have come here today to urge you to return to your family, who are surely exceedingly anxious to ascertain your wellbeing. Should you require assistance in reaching them, I will gladly do everything in my power to facilitate your reunion.”
Elizabeth drew breath to speak, though she hardly knew what she would have said, but Mr Darcy hurriedly continued: “I understand that you may feel uneasy about your reception at Longbourn due to what has transpired, but I assure you that though your situation may, at present, appear bleak, it is not hopeless. You need not remain in this place out of fear that it is your best ‒ or only ‒ option. Your father, I am certain, will be able to make the necessary arrangements ‒ some quiet place in the country, where you may reside in tolerable comfort, will surely be found, and ‒”
Elizabeth, having regained her wits sufficiently to speak, and highly conscious of the attention they were beginning to attract, not only from her aunt and uncle, who were standing a few paces away, but from a number of passers-by, at this point found it imperative to interrupt him.
“Sir, I believe there must be some misunderstanding. I thank you for the concern you have expressed, but I assure you it is unwarranted. My family is perfectly aware of my whereabouts ‒ indeed, I have here my aunt and uncle, with whom I have been travelling for the past six weeks. As you can see, they harbour no apprehension of my suddenly disappearing.”
Mr Darcy stared at her in what appeared to be complete perplexity. “But then,” he exclaimed, “whatever are you doing here?”
Elizabeth felt her face grow hot, but since it was apparent that news of her family’s disgrace had reached his ears already, though the details had become muddled along the way, she saw no option but to be truthful. Forcing herself to hold her head high despite her burning cheeks, she replied evenly: “I am here to see my sister.”
“Your sister?” cried Mr Darcy, looking a little wild. “It is your sister who eloped?”
“Yes ‒ my youngest sister, Lydia” ‒ her eyes met his ‒ “with Mr Wickham.”
At this moment, Elizabeth saw the full magnitude of Mr Darcy’s misunderstanding dawn on him. It was now his turn to flush in the greatest mortification, and he appeared to be struck quite speechless. He made an abortive movement towards her; then abruptly made as if to turn away ‒ Elizabeth, witnessing the abject embarrassment overspreading his countenance, would not have been surprised had he indeed simply turned around and fled.
A few moments, however, were sufficient for Mr Darcy to regain some measure of composure, and though his colour remained heightened, his tone was almost controlled when he said: “I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet ‒ it appears I have been misinformed. I am sorry to have accosted you in such a manner. I fear I have caused you not inconsiderable embarrassment.”
Elizabeth murmured some semblance of an appropriate reply, now fully expecting that he would take his leave. Mr Darcy, however, seemed determined to surprise her, for instead of doing any such thing, he continued: “Miss Bennet, if the rest of my intelligence is not entirely faulty, I hope I may still be of some assistance in the matter of your sister. Would you do me the honour of introducing me to your relations?”
This request Elizabeth could hardly refuse, though she would have been glad to bring the mortifying conversation to a close. Turning therefore to her aunt and uncle, who had been standing a little aloof, though close enough to hear the entire exchange, she performed the introductions. If Mr Darcy felt discomfited by being forced to acknowledge the very people against whom his pride had previously revolted, he did not show it, and instead immediately addressed Mr Gardiner.
“I was grieved,” he said, “to hear of Mr Wickham’s conduct towards your family. Having been acquainted with him since boyhood, and considering his long association with my family, I feel that I share a certain responsibility for what has occurred. I would like to offer what aid I may towards your niece’s safe recovery.”
Mr Gardiner, evidently surprised, shared a quick look with his wife; then, after a penetrating glance at Elizabeth, who felt her cheeks heat again, courteously accepted Mr Darcy’s proposition. The gentlemen conferred briefly in low tones, while Elizabeth turned away for a moment ‒ in equal measures to attempt to reclaim her equanimity and to evade the thousand questions in her aunt’s eyes. Soon, however, her attention was recalled by Mr Gardiner; the gentlemen had finished their conversation, and it was time to attend to the business which had brought them all together.
The good news: the lady you’re in love with has not, after all, eloped with another. The bad news: before discovering this, you managed to cast aspersions on her character by assuming that she had. Very smooth, Darcy.
Writing update: I finished chapter 12 this morning, and although it still requires some revision and tweaking, the fic is now pretty much complete. This means that I feel comfortable increasing my posting frequency a bit. There will be one more chapter this week, probably on Saturday or Sunday, so stay tuned!
Next up: a fun visit with two of our favourite people.
Elizabeth had never been in a building as cramped, dark and dirty as the one she was now forced to enter. The tenants’ cottages at Longbourn, which she sometimes had occasion to visit, were most of them small and simply furnished, but nevertheless well-kept and clean. This house was neither, and though it did not appear small on the outside, seemed to consist on the inside merely of a series of narrow, dimly lit corridors and flight after flight of rickety stairs.
Along these, they were led by the proprietress, whose ill-concealed curiosity as to the nature of their business discomfited Elizabeth exceedingly. Even more unsettling were the shameless stares of the lodgers they encountered on their way; it was evident that their party’s dress and bearing immediately marked them as being of a different sphere than the usual visitors to the house.
She was also intensely aware of Mr Darcy’s presence immediately behind her ‒ Mr Gardiner was walking ahead with the landlady, and Mr Darcy had silently taken up the rear. Elizabeth could still scarcely believe that he was there. The circumstances of their encounter seemed to her so improbable as to border on the fantastical, and the implications which his impassioned speech and his offer of assistance had betrayed threw her into such a confusion whenever she contemplated them that she thought it wisest to attempt to dismiss them, for the moment, from her mind. Fortunately, a distraction was ready at hand: they had reached their destination, and the landlady was knocking on the door while loudly announcing their presence.
The rooms which Mr Wickham had rented were no better than the small, confined chambers which Elizabeth had glimpsed through half-open doors as they made their way through the house. The sitting room, too cramped to comfortably accommodate even a party as small as theirs, was already stiflingly warm despite the early hour, and the little window in the corner, no doubt opened to let in some fresh air, also admitted a considerable amount of noise from the street. Across the room, a view of the single bedchamber, which appeared even smaller than the sitting-room, could be had through the open door.
Mr Wickham immediately stepped forward to greet his guests with an ingratiating smile; it faltered somewhat, however, when he spied Mr Darcy behind the others. Though he recovered quickly, Elizabeth fancied that there remained a distinct unease behind his ready pleasantries.
Lydia, on the other hand, was entirely unaffected by this undercurrent of tension. She greeted her sister and aunt with all her usual high spirits, no trace of embarrassment evident in her countenance or manners. Elizabeth, after her initial relief at seeing her sister in good health and no apparent distress, grew quite appalled and mortified by Lydia’s cheerful chatter; it betrayed a complete lack of consciousness of the precarious nature of her situation.
Mrs Gardiner soon suggested that the ladies leave the gentlemen to discuss their business, and as no other place was available, they withdrew to the bedchamber to which Elizabeth’s attention had immediately been drawn upon her entrance. It was indeed very small; most of the space was taken up by the bed, with scarcely any other furnishings beside a washstand and a single chair. This chair, Lydia graciously offered to her aunt, though she was first obliged to remove from it an untidy pile of clothes ‒ Elizabeth glimpsed a soiled shift and a man’s shirt among them.
“The maid in this place is a disgrace,” Lydia airily remarked as she dropped the clothes in a corner, “I shall be very glad to remove to better lodgings as soon as Wickham obtains the funds he is waiting for. Lizzy, we shall have to make do with the bed ‒ but we will be quite cosy, do you not think? Why, it will be just like old times back at Longbourn!”
She haphazardly flung the crumpled linens into a somewhat better order before settling herself comfortably to face her aunt. Elizabeth, warily eyeing the sheets, which seemed none too clean, gingerly perched beside her. She tried not to think of what manner of things had likely occurred in the bed, though the saucy look which Lydia threw her indicated that her thoughts were plainly written on her face.
Mrs Gardiner now began to circumspectly question her youngest niece about what, precisely, had occurred after her departure from Brighton. It soon became evident that matters were more or less as Lydia’s family had feared: with very little embarrassment, Lydia admitted that she and Mr Wickham had been living as man and wife, as she put it, “in every particular”.
Here, Elizabeth could not resist interjecting sharply: “Save for being actually married.”
“Oh, but we shall be, as soon as dear Wickham gets his affairs in order, so there’s no need for you to look askance, Lizzy. Indeed, I wager you are merely jealous, for I know you used to admire Wickham exceedingly. How shall you like it, do you think, when I am married to your old beau? Why, the four of you will look like sorry old spinsters in comparison!”
Elizabeth was quite dumbstruck by this speech. Not even from Lydia had she expected quite such a combination of impudence and folly. Lydia, meanwhile, continued to prattle happily at their aunt, betraying no consciousness of the blow she had struck her family’s reputation and her sisters’ marital prospects. Her elopement, she thought a merry joke, a delightful adventure; her current shameful state she fancied a means of raising herself above her sisters, when it might well be their ruin. The future worried her not. She viewed her present sorry lodgings as a mere temporary inconvenience and was certain that she and Wickham would soon be settled in perfect comfort.
Mrs Gardiner’s attempts to make her see sense and comprehend the gravity of her circumstances fell on deaf ears; Lydia only laughed, ignoring her aunt’s reprimands. Elizabeth could do nothing but listen in helpless fury, and though a portion of her wrath was directed at her sister, she reserved the chief part of it for Mr Wickham.
Lydia, though her conduct was in every way reproachable, was merely acting like the spoiled child she was. Never having had to face consequences for her actions, she was unable to fathom that she might have to do so now. It did not occur to her that Wickham might not intend to marry her, and that even if he did, the life of a low-ranking militia officer’s wife would not be an unending succession of balls and entertainments ‒ rather, it would necessitate scraping by on a small income in shabby lodgings, in the constant readiness to move required of those following the drum.
Wickham, however, had known exactly what he was about. An honourable man would have seen in Lydia merely a silly girl who had been let out into society before her time; he would have ignored her antics or attempted to discourage them by his disapproval. Wickham had, instead, unscrupulously taken advantage of her folly, sacrificing her future simply for his own passing amusement, and without any intention of taking responsibility for the consequences.
It was almost a relief when Mr Gardiner knocked on the door, informing the ladies that the gentlemen had concluded their discussion for the present. Elizabeth re-entered the sitting room to find her uncle wearing a carefully neutral expression, while Mr Darcy had retreated to his mask of cool hauteur and Mr Wickham was smiling as affably as ever. It was impossible to determine the conclusion of the discussion from their bearing.
Despite acknowledging her dissatisfaction with her current lodgings, Lydia had scoffed at the attempts of her sister and aunt to persuade her to join them at Gracechurch Street. Elizabeth’s every feeling revolted at leaving her sister in such a place ‒ and with such a man! ‒ but it was clear that her uncle was still not willing to press the issue, and that Wickham had determined that it was to his advantage to keep Lydia in close proximity. She was therefore obliged to bid farewell to Lydia and to endure further proof of Wickham’s effrontery, for he took his leave of the ladies as gallantly as if they had been dining together at some party in Meryton. If he felt any shame at all, he concealed it very well.
Wickham's such a lovely guy.
Next up: a lot of thinking and a lot of talking.
It was only once they were out in the street again, waiting for their carriages to be brought round, that Elizabeth began to wonder what Mr Darcy meant to do now. His original business ‒ rescuing Elizabeth herself ‒ had turned out to be a needless endeavour, and he had now surely done more than anybody could expect of him by lending his countenance to Mr Gardiner’s bargaining with Wickham.
Mr Darcy, however, did not appear to have any intention of quitting their company. Instead, after a brief, civil exchange of words, it was agreed that his carriage would follow Mr Gardiner’s to Gracechurch Street, where they would reconvene. He remained with them long enough to hand the ladies into Mr Gardiner’s carriage; and when it drove off, Elizabeth saw him walking purposefully towards his own.
As they were now in private, Mrs Gardiner immediately set out to acquaint her husband with what they had learned from Lydia.
“She has unquestionably given up her virtue, and the possibility of a child cannot be discounted, though it is too early to know with any kind of certainty. They have without doubt done all that is required for one to be conceived, and if she takes after her mother in this regard ‒ well, it would certainly be best to see her married as soon as possible.”
Elizabeth had surmised as much from what had passed between Lydia and her aunt, though her understanding of the details of such matters was imprecise. Still, it was distressing to hear it stated so plainly: her sixteen-year-old sister might, at this very moment, be carrying Wickham’s bastard.
“I am sorry, Lizzy,” said her uncle, perceiving her dismay, “to expose you to such matters. I fear it was wrong of me to bring you to that place.”
“No,” protested Elizabeth immediately, “it was necessary to make the attempt ‒ and in any case, I am beginning to think that my sisters and I have been rather too much than too little shielded from unpleasant truths. Lydia’s example certainly does not speak in favour of keeping girls in ignorance of what the world is truly like.”
“Not all the world is so sordid, Lizzy,” Mrs Gardiner reminded her gently. “We have seen much wickedness today ‒ but also an example of great kindness and generosity.”
At this, Elizabeth blushed and looked away. Thankfully, her aunt said no more on the subject, and the Gardiners spent the remainder of the ride discussing all that Mrs Gardiner had discovered during her interview with Lydia. Regarding the gentlemen’s conversation with Wickham, Mr Gardiner was rather reticent. He acknowledged that he now had a clearer picture of what sort of financial settlement Wickham hoped to gain, but declined to share the details, as the negotiations had only just begun.
Elizabeth unhappily surmised that Wickham had demanded more than her family could afford, and that her uncle wished to spare her some measure of anxiety, in the hope that Wickham could be brought to be more reasonable. She was beginning to truly grasp that finding Lydia had only been the first battle ‒ the campaign to salvage her family’s reputation might still end in defeat, unless her uncle managed to outwit the opposition.
Upon their arrival in Gracechurch Street, Mr Gardiner and Mr Darcy immediately sequestered themselves in the former’s study. Mrs Gardiner was required by the children and removed to the nursery, leaving her niece alone in the parlour. Elizabeth tried in vain to focus on her needlework; her mind was immovably fixated on the conversation that was taking place between the gentlemen, and on the intentions and motivations of one of them in particular.
She now had time to dwell at leisure on Mr Darcy’s surprising appearance at the lodging-house, on all that he had said, and above all, on the great many questions to which she would have liked answers. Knowing the speed at which scandalous gossip travelled, she was not surprised that news of the Bennets’ disgrace had reached him ‒ but how had he come to think that Elizabeth was the sister who had eloped? It mortified her to think that she had displayed her past preference for Wickham in so imprudent a manner. But then, had not her aunt warned her to be more circumspect? As she threw a retrospective glance over her little flirtation with Wickham, she was overwhelmed by shame at her reckless behaviour. Furthermore, there were the immoderate, inaccurate charges she had thrown at Mr Darcy ‒ was it any wonder that he had believed her besotted enough, foolish enough, to consent to an elopement?
But what had prompted him to go to such lengths to discover her? She had thought that her intemperate words and unjust accusations at Hunsford must surely have extinguished any regard he felt for her, but his words and manner upon their unexpected meeting had not suggested indifference.
Then there was his offer of assistance in Lydia’s matter. Was he indeed acting merely out of a sense of responsibility for Wickham’s misdeeds? Elizabeth now thought highly enough of his sense of honour to believe it possible ‒ but her vanity whispered of another motive, which, if not his principal reason to act, might have strengthened his resolve.
Her own feelings about it all were in too much of an uproar to be untangled in the space of two hours, which was the length of time Mr Gardiner and Mr Darcy remained behind closed doors. During this time, Mrs Gardiner, having seen to her children, returned to the parlour, but found her niece too distracted to hold a sensible conversation. The ladies therefore sat largely in silence, though Mrs Gardiner would dearly have liked to interrogate Elizabeth about her past acquaintance with Mr Darcy, and Elizabeth longed but did not dare to ask for her aunt’s impression of that very gentleman.
At last, however, the gentlemen emerged. As soon as they entered the parlour, Mr Gardiner requested a private word with his wife, and they stepped out of the room, though leaving the door open. Before Elizabeth had time for more than a blush of surprise at being thus left alone with Mr Darcy, he immediately approached her and began to speak.
“Miss Bennet, your uncle has generously granted me a moment to speak to you in private, to allow me to more properly apologise for the foolish assumption I made when speaking to you earlier today. I am indeed very sorry to have cast false aspersions on you character, and can only humbly beg your forgiveness. My sole excuse is that I meant no insult to your honour, and that I would never have assumed such a thing about you, had I not received misleading information.”
It was a handsome apology, and as Elizabeth had not thought to be offended in the first place, forgiveness came easily. Her sympathy for Mr Darcy’s plight ‒ for he appeared exceedingly embarrassed ‒ helped her conquer her own discomfiture and reply with equal sincerity.
“Sir, the insult was unintended, and your intentions in the matter entirely honourable. Indeed, considering the aspersions I have cast against your character in the past, no apology can be necessary.” She saw Mr Darcy make as if to protest, and so quickly continued: “I do own, however, that I should like to know how such a misunderstanding has arisen. Therefore, if you consider further penance necessary, you may discharge it by recounting how you came to be so misinformed.”
In this, Mr Darcy was willing to oblige her, and from his explanation, though he was evidently careful not to appear to be shifting the blame, it was clear to Elizabeth that Miss Bingley’s jealousy was at the root of it all.
“The matter appears perfectly plain,” she told Mr Darcy. “You were deliberately misled, and thus no blame can be attached to you.”
“I will accept you reasoning,” he replied with a small smile, “if you will, by the same logic, agree that you are as little to blame for your former misapprehensions about my character.”
“Oh! You have me neatly trapped, sir,” cried Elizabeth, who could not but admire this feat of reasoning, though she felt that she was being let off rather too easily. “Very well, then, let us agree that we are both quite blameless for our past misunderstandings. Any foolish thoughts and words are to be attributed to Mr Wickham’s and Miss Bingley’s accounts.”
Mr Darcy bowed. “You are very generous, madam.”
“I believe the same may be said of you, sir,” replied Elizabeth, returning to seriousness, “for I do not know many gentlemen who would have gone to such lengths to assist a young lady after being as roundly insulted by her as you were by me. I will own I cannot comprehend why you did it ‒ after all, you must have thought me quite devoid of honour and virtue to have behaved in such a scandalous manner.”
“No, indeed!” said Mr Darcy earnestly. “Such a notion only entered my mind very briefly, in my initial shock at hearing the news. As soon as I was able to give the matter a moment’s rational thought, I found it impossible to believe that you would have gone along with an elopement without having been deceived in some way. I imagined that you must have been tricked into going along with Wickham, or ‒” here, he hesitated, looking almost sheepish, “or that you had not, perhaps, gone willingly.”
Elizabeth had been very little inclined to laugh or tease in the days after receiving Jane’s letters. This last statement, however, was too intriguing to be overlooked, particularly as it was accompanied by such evident embarrassment. A moment’s pert questioning revealed more or less what Mr Darcy’s imaginings had been, and what he left unsaid, her own fancy easily supplied. The dramatic picture which this evoked provided Elizabeth with the first glimmer of humour she had been able to summon up since her abrupt departure from the Lakes.
“You have been reading too many novels, sir! Young ladies are not nearly so prone to being abducted in real life as one might believe based on the writings of ladies like Mrs Radcliffe and Mrs Robinson. Indeed, if we lived in such a world as they envision, it would be a wonder that only one of my sisters has so far been carried off by a dishonourable man.” More seriously, she continued, “However, even if you were acting based on erroneous suppositions, it was exceedingly kind of you to come to my rescue, and to then offer your help in Lydia’s sorry matter. For myself, and for my family, you must allow me to thank you most sincerely for all that you have done.”
Mr Darcy shook his head. “You need not thank me, Miss Bennet. Had I acted as I ought ‒ had I exposed Wickham’s character while in Hertfordshire ‒ your sister would not be in her present predicament. I am merely attempting to alleviate the ill effects caused by my own neglect.”
“Come now, Mr Darcy, have we not agreed to be a little more forgiving towards ourselves? You were not the only one who might have warned Lydia ‒ I, too, could easily stake a claim for a share of the blame. However, I shall not, as I have already attempted it once, and been soundly scolded by my aunt for it. Unless you desire to test her patience, I advise you to give up such foolish notions. Whatever anybody else could have done to prevent him, Mr Wickham is still the true villain of the piece. You are not the one who seduced a witless girl of sixteen for mere sport.”
“You are certainly not to blame!” cried Mr Darcy. “Your actions, I am certain, have been totally void of reproach. I cannot forgive myself so easily. There is little about my own conduct last autumn upon which I can reflect with satisfaction, and my regrets are many ‒ but they should pain me less, had I merely injured my own happiness. My neglect in the matter of Wickham, however, has hurt others ‒ has hurt the one I ‒”
It was at this inopportune moment that Mr Gardiner was heard loudly clearing his throat outside the parlour. Mr Darcy instantly stopped speaking and looked away, his colour high. Elizabeth was very fond of her aunt and uncle, but this once, she dearly wished that they would have delayed their entrance just a little longer ‒ and yet some part of her was relieved. Mr Darcy had been veering very close to revealing more than he perhaps ought, and also more than Elizabeth was certain she wished to hear.
A few moments of general polite conversation ensued, but Mr Darcy still looked rather awkward, and soon began to speak of taking his leave. To Elizabeth’s astonishment, however, it now became clear that he intended to return on the morrow: he and Mr Gardiner were to reconvene before paying another visit to Wickham and Lydia. She became almost impatient to see Mr Darcy leave, so that she might question her uncle. As soon as she was certain that Darcy was out of the house, she all but demanded to know what had been agreed by the gentlemen.
“Mr Darcy has offered his advice and assistance in brokering a marriage between Lydia and Mr Wickham,” Mr Gardiner explained. “His familiarity with the man will be exceedingly helpful ‒ your father and I need to round up Wickham’s creditors to buy up his debts, and Darcy has experience with such matters. I believe he has had some reason to keep an eye on the fellow’s affairs in the past. His connections may also be of use if we can persuade Wickham to go through with the marriage ‒ Wickham and Lydia will need something to live upon, and Darcy believes that, with the aid of his contacts, a commission in the regulars can be arranged.”
“And he intends to go to all this trouble, to expend so much time and effort, to save Lydia’s reputation?” asked Elizabeth in wonder.
“Mr Darcy has expressed a sense of responsibility for Mr Wickham’s actions, given their long-standing connection,” replied Mr Gardiner, watching his niece’s expression carefully. “I believe that this is, indeed, his primary motive ‒ and if there is another, I do not intend to be so impertinent as to ask him about it.”
“He appears to be a most upstanding young man; I like him very well already,” added Mrs Gardiner, not particularly subtly.
Elizabeth made some reply ‒ coherent or not, she hardly knew ‒ and hastily excused herself. Her aunt and uncle, she knew, would not press her for details, yet she feared that they were assuming too much. After all the surprises, tension and anxiety of the day, Elizabeth did not feel equal to facing their well-meaning but entirely too perceptive scrutiny.
It was only in the privacy and safety of her bedchamber that she dared to admit to herself what had become clear during her interview with Mr Darcy: he still loved her. She had thought it impossible, but his looks, his words had unmistakeably revealed it.
Her own feelings regarding this discovery were hopelessly jumbled. She was honoured, certainly, to have inspired such affection in a man she now believed to be both principled and kind. To herself, she could also acknowledge that it was exceedingly flattering to her vanity to know that his admiration was strong enough to have survived both her refusal and their subsequent separation.
Even more gratifying to her self-consequence, however, was the startling change in his manner compared to what she had previously known. Elizabeth could not have imagined the Mr Darcy she had known in Hertfordshire and Kent condescending to wait on a tradesman in his home, yet he had done so today. In April, he had spoken with distaste of her low connections, yet he had displayed the utmost courtesy and respect in his interactions with Mr and Mrs Gardiner. Could he truly have taken her reproofs so faithfully to heart? She had had no notion that her words might have such an effect ‒ but she was now forced to acknowledge that her former beliefs about Mr Darcy’s character appeared to be even less accurate than she had hitherto thought.
Still, although she was now able to fully appreciate the compliment of Mr Darcy’s enduring affection, she was by no means certain that she wished for his feelings to persist. She esteemed, she was grateful to him, she felt a real interest in his welfare ‒ but she did not love him. Indeed, after all the upheaval in her understanding of his character, she felt as if she barely knew him.
And even if she decided that she wished to know him better ‒ even if she harboured a suspicion that, perhaps, he was the sort of man that she could come to love ‒ nothing good could come of indulging such thoughts now. Whatever Mr Darcy’s wishes and her own, Lydia’s situation made it quite impossible for him to offer for her. If he had looked down on her family before, how could he contemplate allying himself with them now, when it would mean either having a ruined woman for a sister or gaining Wickham as a brother?
No, though his remaining partiality for her had, no doubt, been one of the motivators behind his rushing to rescue her from the predicament he had thought her in, and though his assistance to Lydia might in part be attributed to the same reason, it was clear to Elizabeth that he could allow himself nothing more. As soon as Lydia’s affairs were settled, they would part again, and this time, it would be for good.
This was the conclusion to which Elizabeth’s contemplations inevitably led her ‒ and she was surprised to discover how much it pained her.
As always, Elizabeth understands Darcy's intentions perfectly. She's never been wrong about him before.
Next up: a number of mortifying insights and some more Lydia.
Over the next days, Mr Darcy was a frequent guest in Gracechurch Street. Though he was often shut up with Mr Gardiner in the latter’s study, it was nevertheless inevitable that he and Elizabeth also found themselves repeatedly in company ‒ indeed, as the gentlemen’s discussions several times continued so late into the evening that Mr Darcy was invited to dine with the family, they could hardly escape seeing, and speaking to, each other.
There was, by necessity, a certain awkwardness between them at first. Mr Darcy, having had time to recollect himself, appeared a little embarrassed in Elizabeth’s presence, which she attributed to his regretting his previous unguarded words and behaviour. She did not blame him for it. It would be best for them both to pretend that his attachment to her was all in the past, as it could have no conceivable future.
Still, Elizabeth was determined not to make the situation more uncomfortable than it must be, and therefore endeavoured to do all she could to put Mr Darcy at ease and spare him embarrassment. She felt that the best way to accomplish this was to act in as natural and unaffected manner as she could, and to behave towards him as she would towards a friendly acquaintance. An excessive display of gratitude for the help he was rendering her family, or any overt or indirect acknowledgement of the feelings he must be battling to conquer, could only cause discomfort. Consequently, she did not instigate exchanges between them on any but the most mundane topics, but entered readily into conversation if he initiated it, and spoke to him courteously but without undue deference.
Elizabeth’s efforts were aided by her aunt and uncle, whose good sense and pleasant manners went a long way towards easing Mr Darcy’s initial discomfort. Mr Gardiner and Mr Darcy had formed a rapport of mutual respect, and Mrs Gardiner’s intelligence and taste could not fail to please anyone of discernment. Elizabeth was, on the one hand, pleased to see that Mr Darcy was taking pains to be amiable towards her relations, and, on the other, consoled that he should know that, despite her family’s disgrace, she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush.
Her own embarrassment was also lessened over time, and she found that she was able to speak with Mr Darcy, if not with quite the ease she had had when she had cared very little about his opinion, at least with a tolerable semblance of equanimity. This, along with her observation of his conversations with her aunt and uncle, brought her face to face with the startling revelation that she and Mr Darcy appeared to think alike on a great number of matters, and that where they differed, they were in fact capable of debating the matter in a civil, yet intellectually stimulating manner.
To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. When she had been determined to think ill of Mr Darcy, she had convinced herself that he must entirely lack an appreciation of the ridiculous. Now, she discovered that, though he was certainly of a more serious disposition than she, he was possessed of a delightfully dry sense of humour, and though he had not yet learned to laugh at himself, she believed that he might yet be taught. She had known that he was intelligent, but now began to better appreciate his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world. In short, now that he was soon to be irretrievably beyond her reach, she began to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her.
It was fortunate that there was always much to do in a household with four young children. Elizabeth did not have the endless patience that so endeared Jane to their young cousins, but she threw herself into assisting her aunt with their care, doing her best to put her unhappy thoughts aside in order to engage herself in arranging games, superintending lessons and arbitrating disagreements.
The ladies did not visit Mr Wickham’s lodgings again, though the gentlemen called there every day. To Elizabeth, this was mostly a relief, though worry about Lydia’s future had as much responsibility for keeping her awake at night as her newly discovered personal regrets. She did not want to bear witness to her sister’s shameful circumstances more than she had to, but she did wish that her uncle would be a little more forthcoming about the progress of the negotiations with Wickham. This was not merely for the sake of her own curiosity; she had been requested by Mr Gardiner to refrain from writing home about the details of Lydia’s situation or the efforts to improve it. Elizabeth thought that she understood his reasoning, and agreed with it ‒ her mother could not be relied upon to maintain any sort of discretion, and whether the intelligence conveyed in Elizabeth’s letters had the effect of raising Mrs Bennet’s hopes or throwing her into a fit of nerves, the servants of Longbourn, and subsequently all of Meryton, would be privy to every detail. Still, it pained her to be unable to alleviate Jane’s anxiety, for her father, she feared, was not in a frame of mind conducive to soothing anybody’s fears.
There was one detail in Mr Gardiner’s injunction that pained her further. Mr Darcy, she had been told, had expressly desired that his name not be mentioned in connection with the business. She understood this desire perfectly ‒ apart from any other consideration, Wickham’s former designs on his sister must make Mr Darcy exceedingly cautious not to have any rumours spring up regarding his dealings with that man in connection with a young girl’s elopement. No, she did not blame him for his efforts to protect Miss Darcy’s name; but it was a sad portent of the approaching end of their acquaintance.
It was on Sunday, precisely ten days after the Gardiners’ and Elizabeth’s arrival in London, that Mr Gardiner once again returned home to Gracechurch Street late and tired. Unlike previous evenings, however, he was neither alone, nor accompanied by Mr Darcy. Instead, traipsing in on his arm, was Lydia. Before Elizabeth even had time to wonder what this signified, Lydia made it evident by announcing triumphantly: “Well, Lizzy, now I can say that I told you so! My dear Wickham has got his affairs in order at last, and we are to be married!”
Elizabeth, scarcely daring to believe it, looked to her uncle, who nodded. “The settlements are all in order, save for the signatures, and if your father approves of the arrangements I have made on his behalf, Lydia and Mr Wickham will be married in two weeks’ time.”
Lydia now interrupted him to demand her aunt and sister’s congratulations, and so any further questions about the details of the arrangements had to be postponed ‒ for although Lydia was eager to speak of her upcoming marriage, and in fact would scarcely permit any other topic to be introduced, the most important details in her mind were her bridal clothes and the burning question of whether Mr Wickham would be wearing his blue coat for the ceremony. It was only once the housekeeper came to inform them that Miss Lydia’s room was prepared and Lydia allowed herself to be led off to refresh herself before supper that Elizabeth and Mrs Gardiner could attempt to satisfy their curiosity.
Mr Gardiner obliged them, though his summary of the details of the settlement and the discussions leading to it was rather brief. Besides her share of the five thousand pounds settled upon Mrs Bennet, which was to be hers after her parents’ decease, Lydia was to have a small annuity from Mr Bennet during his lifetime. This, in addition to the income which Mr Wickham was to have from the army ‒ for he had accepted a commission in the regulars ‒ would allow the couple to exist in tolerable comfort, though by no means in affluence. To Elizabeth’s considerable relief, Mr Gardiner also gave them to understand that Mr Wickham’s financial situation was not, after all, as dire as it had initially seemed ‒ even after his debts had been discharged, there would be a little money left over to supplement what the army and Mr Bennet could provide.
Mr Gardiner, Elizabeth noted, was rather less enthused about it all than might have been expected, and waved off her heartfelt thanks for all the trouble he had gone to. However, as she was, despite her relief, very conscious of the fact that there was little cause to rejoice about such a match, she attributed her uncle’s gravity to this. Lydia’s reputation, and thereby that of her relations, had been salvaged, but a man like Wickham was hardly a welcome addition to the family.
Mrs Gardiner, being rather better versed in the realities of what it cost to keep a family housed and fed, and having considerable experience in reading her husband, noted both his subdued manner and what he had left unsaid, and was not fooled. However, she suspected that he had his reasons for giving their niece an abridged version of the arrangements, and wisely resolved to refrain from pressing him on the matter until they were in private.
Perhaps Elizabeth might have been more attentive, had not her mind, now that it was relieved of immediate worry for Lydia’s future, directed itself towards concerns of a more personal nature. With a praiseworthy effort towards appearing nonchalant, which might have deceived an observer less shrewd than her aunt and uncle, she enquired after Mr Darcy ‒ was he to attend the wedding, and would he remain in town until then?
“Mr Darcy is returning to Derbyshire,” Mr Gardiner informed her. “I understand he is to leave on the morrow. He asked me to convey his apologies for not taking his leave in person, but he did not feel he could delay in town any longer ‒ he has guests, I believe, at Pemberley, whom he has already been neglecting more than he should have.”
Elizabeth had thought herself prepared for this ‒ had foreseen the severing of their connection ‒ and yet she found that it was still a blow to hear the words that confirmed it. Being told that he would return to town in time for the wedding was little consolation. That he had left immediately after completing his mission, without even saying good-bye in person, surely made it clear that he meant to end their acquaintance. He would come to the wedding to ensure that everything was done properly, to see the sorry affair to its bitter end ‒ and then, having done his duty and perhaps placated his heart, he would leave again, never to return.
It was fortunate that Mr Gardiner soon excused himself to his study to write to Mr Bennet of the settlement that had been agreed upon, and that Mrs Gardiner deemed it necessary to go see that Lydia was comfortably settled into her room: Elizabeth desperately needed a moment to compose herself in solitude.
Lydia has her priorities in order!
Next up: wedding preparations and a letter from Mr Bennet.
Elizabeth now had the dubious pleasure of exchanging Mr Darcy’s company for Mr Wickham’s: with Lydia installed in Gracechurch Street, her betrothed had constant admission to the house, and Elizabeth was frequently obliged to suffer his presence. His manner was exactly as pleasant and charming as it had been in Hertfordshire, but she saw through him now, and the very gentleness which had first delighted her, could now only disgust and weary. How she could ever have thought him superior to Mr Darcy, she did not understand.
Wickham wisely took note of the coolness of her manner towards him and made no attempt to resume their former friendship. Elizabeth did not attribute this to any feelings of shame on his part; she fully believed that he would have attempted to ply his charm on her again, had she not witnessed first-hand the circumstances in which he and Lydia had been living after their elopement. Yet, though his character had been exposed to her in a manner which precluded any improvement of her opinion, he retained his smiles and easy address, and maintained at all times an air of comfortable assurance. Elizabeth was in equal measures disgusted and embarrassed by his impudence and avoided his company whenever she could.
Lydia, of course, was in raptures about her impending nuptials and overjoyed with her future husband. What breath she could spare from fussing over the wedding arrangements and crowing about being the first of her sisters to marry, she devoted to singing Wickham’s praises. Whenever he was in the house, Lydia was sure to be either hanging on his arm, flirting outrageously, or giggling and blushing at the pretty compliments he plied her with. It pained Elizabeth to observe how practised and affected his gallantry towards Lydia was, and how eagerly she swallowed it all up. Any real affection in the match was clearly on Lydia’s side. Wickham’s feelings, Elizabeth was certain, were tepid at best. In lieu of admiration, he appeared to regard his young bride with indulgent amusement, accepting her praise and adoration with a mixture of self-satisfaction and complacency that bordered on contempt. How any sort of lasting marital happiness could come out of such a union, she could not imagine.
And yet the wedding must take place. The ladies of Gracechurch Street were exceedingly busy with the preparations: suitable clothes must be acquired for the bride, some semblance of a trousseau assembled, and the well-wishes and ill-concealed curiosity of the Gardiners’ friends and neighbours weathered. Mrs Bennet wrote almost daily with instructions and injunctions. She had been sorely disappointed to discover that Mr Bennet had no intention of being present at Lydia’s wedding, nor of allowing his wife or his other daughters ‒ with the exception of Elizabeth, who was already in London ‒ to attend. He had initially even refused to receive the couple at Longbourn after the wedding, and it had required a great deal of gentle persuasion from Jane, as well as a long letter from Elizabeth, to convince him to relent.
To this letter, Elizabeth had received but a brief response from her father ‒ merely a short note enclosed in a much longer missive from Jane ‒ and as Mr Bennet was, at best, an indifferent correspondent, she had no expectation of hearing from him again before her return to Hertfordshire. She was therefore exceedingly surprised when, three days before Lydia’s intended wedding day, a letter addressed to her, in her father’s writing, was brought in with the rest of the post.
If the letter itself was unexpected, its contents were even more so. After a perfunctory greeting and enquiry as to her health, Mr Bennet proceeded directly to the business which occasioned his writing.
“Your uncle,” he wrote, “appears to take me for a fool, and though his intentions in the matter are good, I have not so completely lost my pride as to merely sit back and accept his charity. While I admit that my judgement has, of late, been sadly lacking, I do believe that I have the measure of Mr Wickham, and though he has no morals, I cannot believe that he is entirely devoid of sense ‒ and senseless he would be, were he to marry Lydia with no inducement but the pittance I have been asked to provide!
“My brother Gardiner will not admit to having bribed the fellow, but neither can he give a satisfactory account of the funds that have suddenly appeared quite out of nowhere. I am in ignorance of the exact sum, but considering that Mr Wickham’s debts have been paid and his commission purchased, two thousand pounds at least must have been required, and very likely more. Where else could such a sum have come from, but from your uncle? I must therefore conclude that he is attempting to conceal his generosity out of some misguided notion of sparing me.
“The debt must and shall be repaid, however, and so I charge you, Lizzy, to discover exactly how much money he has laid down to bring this marriage about. If it requires slyness, so be it ‒ for slyness seems the fashion in the household you are residing in.”
The contents of this letter threw Elizabeth into a considerable agitation of spirits. She recalled, now, Mr Gardiner’s initial dismal view of Wickham’s finances and his later peculiar reticence as to the precise contents of Lydia’s marriage settlement. In retrospect, it was obvious that her uncle had been concealing something, and she could only wonder that she had been so easily deceived. That Wickham should have suddenly discovered the funds to pay off his debts and purchase his commission, when he could not even afford decent lodgings, was beyond belief ‒ unless the funds had been gifted to him by some benefactor.
However, unlike her father, Elizabeth did not think Mr Gardiner was the benefactor in question. Though she could have easily believed it of her uncle’s kindness, it would have been unlike him to deny his involvement when directly questioned ‒ while he might well have attempted to conceal his generosity, he would surely not have persisted in an outright falsehood.
Besides, Elizabeth knew what Mr Bennet did not: that Mr Gardiner was not the only man who had been involved in arranging Lydia’s marriage. Mr Darcy had been present for every negotiation, and Mr Gardiner had made no secret of the fact that he had specifically offered his assistance in the matters of the commission and the debts. Elizabeth had presumed that Mr Darcy’s aid had come in the form of letter-writing and calling in of favours ‒ but it appeared that he had done much, much more.
She could not rest until she knew it all; she must confront her uncle and demand to be told everything. Fortunately, Mr Gardiner was at home and alone in his study, and at once perceived his niece’s disorder of spirits upon her hurried entry.
“Pray, Lizzy, what is the matter? I hope you have had no distressing news from Longbourn?”
“Not distressing news, precisely,” replied Elizabeth, sinking into the chair her uncle offered her, “but my father has written me a most peculiar letter, and I find I must apply to you, sir, for an explanation.”
She then proceeded to summarize what Mr Bennet had written, all the while carefully observing her uncle’s countenance. His expression remained impenetrable throughout, but she fancied that he was almost too calm ‒ as if this was a conversation he had rather been expecting.
“Well, then,” Mr Gardiner said, after Elizabeth had fallen silent, “I can only repeat to you what I have already told your father: I have not paid Mr Wickham anything, nor have I settled his debts or purchased his commission. While I should have been glad to be of financial assistance to my niece, had it proven necessary, the matter was resolved without any such expenditure on my part.”
He spoke calmly, but there was something peculiarly intent about the way he regarded her, and Elizabeth did not miss the emphasis he put on the word “my”. It was almost as if he was willing her to question him further.
“Not on your part,” she replied slowly, “but another’s?”
Mr Gardiner continued to regard her expectantly.
“And this other gentleman, I suppose,” Elizabeth continued, “did not wish his contribution known ‒ and you have given your word not to reveal it.”
A slight smile told her that she was on the right track.
“But surely, were I to discover it all on my own,” she argued, “you could not be accused of breaking your word, were you then to confirm what I surmised, for certainly Mr Darcy ‒ it is Mr Darcy, is it not? ‒ cannot expect you to lie outright. After all, he is a gentleman who professes to abhor deception.”
Mr Gardiner now smiled broadly, looking quite immensely pleased with her.
“My dear Lizzy, I congratulate you on your cleverness ‒ you have indeed deduced correctly how the matter lies, and I feel I may now enlighten you on the details without compunction. You may be assured that it was not my intention to allow Mr Darcy to bear the cost of bribing Mr Wickham to do his duty by your sister, but I must confess that I was outwitted. Darcy knew, no doubt, that I would not hear of his doing such a thing, and so he did not ask for my permission ‒ instead, he made all the arrangements and then presented me with fait accompli. I would have readily settled the whole, but Darcy would not have it. We battled it out for several hours, but in the end, I was forced to yield, and instead of being allowed to be of use to Lydia, was forced to put up with only having the probable credit of it. I am quite delighted with you for your cleverness, for it allows me to rid myself of my borrowed feathers at last.”
In the usual course of things, Elizabeth would have felt rather pleased to receive such praise, but in the present circumstances, her anxious curiosity about everything related to Mr Darcy overpowered every other feeling.
“And so Mr Darcy paid for everything ‒ the debts, the commission ‒”
“Yes, and he provided a thousand pounds to be settled on your sister, besides,” replied Mr Gardiner.
“A thousand pounds!” cried Elizabeth. “It is beyond generous ‒ far more than either of them deserve ‒ and he did not wish anybody to know?”
“No,” replied her uncle, “I was forbidden from speaking of it to anybody, with the exception of your aunt, whom I could not countenance deceiving.” Regarding her shrewdly, he added: “In particular, you were to know nothing ‒ on that point, Mr Darcy was quite adamant. The reason for such a determined wish for concealment, I cannot begin to guess, but I fancy that you may, perhaps, have a more accurate notion.”
Elizabeth’s embarrassment was such that she could hardly speak. It was clear to her that her uncle had formed his own impression of the situation, and it was equally clear that his surmises were entirely incorrect. Mr Darcy’s lingering affection for her must surely form a not insignificant part of his motivation for such unparalleled generosity, but his determination to have her know nothing of it must surely indicate that he was fearful of raising hopes that would inevitably need to be dashed.
Fortunately, Mr Gardiner, perceiving her discomfort, was too considerate to tease her further, and instead turned his attention to the matter of Mr Bennet’s letter. Elizabeth gratefully seized onto this change of subject, and it was settled between uncle and niece that the best course of action would be to delay replying until Mr Gardiner could discuss the matter with Mr Darcy in person. Elizabeth was therefore able to escape to her room with her dignity more or less intact. If she did, in the safety of her chamber, indulge in a brief bout of tears, nobody else was the wiser of it.
Detective Bennet solves the case!
Next up: wedding bells!
The long-awaited day on which Lydia and Mr Wickham were to marry arrived at last. Even Lydia’s brash temper appeared to quake a little at the solemnity of the occasion. She was exceedingly anxious that some calamity might occur and cause their party to be late to the ceremony, fussing and fretting ceaselessly from the moment she woke until their carriage finally drew to a halt in front of St. Clement’s.
Elizabeth, who had to endure a great deal of her sister’s nervous complaining, wondered whether this uncharacteristic fretfulness was a symptom of Lydia’s finally comprehending, on some level at least, the precariousness of her position and the importance to her own future of ensuring that the marriage came off. Elizabeth herself had by this time so little faith in Wickham’s character that she would scarcely have been surprised if he had absconded the night before the wedding.
She was grateful that she was to stay in London as long as Lydia and Mr Wickham remained in Hertfordshire, where they were to travel directly from the church. She had seen enough of them both in the past weeks to last her a long time, and the notion of another ten days in the same house with the newlyweds, with her mother’s raptures to endure besides, had been more than she felt she could withstand. Fortunately, her aunt and uncle had understood her wishes and extended an invitation for her to remain with them for as long as she wanted.
Whatever concerns or doubts Lydia had harboured, they seemed to dissipate the moment she stepped into the church on Mr Gardiner’s arm and saw Wickham waiting for her at the altar. To his credit, it must be said that the bridegroom played his role well, and no casual observer could have guessed how much coaxing had been required to bring him to the sticking point.
Elizabeth’s eye, however, was repeatedly drawn not to the groom, but to the man standing up with him. Mr Darcy’s demeanour was impenetrably solemn, and try as she might, she could not divine what he was thinking. Once or twice, she caught him looking her way, but he quickly averted his eyes each time.
For her part, Elizabeth could not but feel acutely the perverseness of the mischance that had caused Lydia and Wickham to be the ones reciting their marriage vows, thus precluding the possibility of herself and Mr Darcy ever being in their current position. It was a bittersweet thought indeed that, had matters progressed differently ‒ had they each been a little less foolish at the beginning of their acquaintance, or had they met again under happier circumstances ‒ they might have been the ones standing at the altar today, forming a union based on mutual respect and affection rather than one made necessary by lust and brought about by greed.
She was able to pay but little attention to the progression of the wedding ceremony, which seemed at the same time to last an eternity and be over in the blink of an eye. The presiding clergyman spoke, vows were exchanged; then they were entering the vestry to sign the marriage lines, and it abruptly struck her that, after today, she would likely never speak to Mr Darcy again ‒ never have the opportunity to voice her gratitude for all that he had done on her family’s behalf.
Perhaps something similar was going through Mr Darcy’s mind, for he lingered behind with her as the newly-minted Mr and Mrs Wickham strolled towards the church doors, Mrs Wickham clinging to her husband’s arm as he made polite conversation with the clergyman. The rest of the small wedding party had already filed outside to await the newlyweds there; Elizabeth perceived her opportunity and, before her courage could fail her, took it.
“Mr Darcy,” she said quietly, “I ought not to speak, yet I cannot remain silent any longer. You must allow me to thank you for all that you have done on my sister’s behalf. I know that I have expressed my gratitude before ‒ but I did not then know the extent, the magnitude of your kindness, and so could not do it proper justice. My family and I are forever in your debt.”
As she finished speaking, she heard the church doors swing closed. Mr Darcy, no doubt also perceiving that they were alone, stepped closer, though his voice was still low when he replied: “I beg you, do not speak of debt or gratitude. I know not how you have discovered my part in the proceedings, but I am exceedingly sorry that you have. I had hoped that you need never know of it ‒ and now fear that you may have misunderstood my motives.”
“Oh, fear not, sir,” Elizabeth exclaimed, awash in mortification, “that your generosity should have raised undue expectations. I am aware of the circumstances; I fully understand that, with my sister now Mrs Wickham, any connection between our families is impossible. I hope that it may reassure you that none but myself, my aunt and my uncle are aware of what you have done for us. You need not be anxious about rumours or demands ‒ I would not betray your confidence, nor presume to hope ‒”
“But you have it entirely wrong!” cried Mr Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion. “My desire for secrecy had nothing to do with such concerns as you have attributed to me. I have only endeavoured, as far as possible, to avoid giving you unease ‒ I would not wish you to feel under any sort of obligation to me.”
Elizabeth could not look at him; had the wedding party not been gathered outside the church, she might have abandoned all dignity and rushed out of the doors. She did not know whether to be more distressed about having once again entirely misunderstood Mr Darcy, or about having, as she feared she had done, precipitously revealed too much of her feelings. She could not think, she could not speak for her embarrassment.
Mr Darcy had no such trouble, as she discovered when her hands were seized into a fervent grip and he said urgently: “Miss Bennet, you spoke of not presuming to hope, yet you have compelled me to do precisely that. If I am mistaken, a word, a look will suffice to send me away ‒ but I must ask, I must know whether it is possible that your feelings towards me might have changed since April. My wishes remain the same; my affections have only grown deeper; but I will not distress you by speaking of them again, if you do not desire it.”
Had Elizabeth not already been struck speechless, she would have experienced the sensation now. Yet it was absolutely necessary to say something; though she could still not raise her eyes from the floor, she was acutely aware of the awkwardness and anxiety of Mr Darcy’s situation ‒ indeed, she could feel the unsteadiness of his hands as they clasped hers.
Fortunately, a few short words ‒ only half intelligible though they were ‒ were enough to make the alteration of her feelings known. She was then spared further conversation for some time, for words were not enough to express Darcy’s delight at having his proposal accepted. Elizabeth had not thought him to be the sort of man who would kiss a young lady in the middle of a church, nor herself the sort of young lady who would accept, let alone encourage such behaviour ‒ but she was thoroughly proven wrong on both counts.
Afterwards, she rested her head against his shoulder, his arm securely about her waist, and marvelled at the way their usual dispositions seemed to have been reversed. She was still too overcome to attempt any semblance of coherent speech, while he seemed to have gained all the eloquence she had temporarily lost, and was putting it to good use by detailing the extent of his admiration and love.
They might have remained thus for quite some time, forgetful of everything but each other, had not a noise from outside startled them into recalling their surroundings. Elizabeth, hastily stepping back and smoothing out her skirts, met Darcy’s eye and blushed at the dishevelled picture he made. Then, realising that her own appearance was likely just as disordered, she blushed even more and quickly set about putting herself to rights. When she looked up again, she found Darcy regarding her with an expression that betrayed equal amounts of affection and concern.
“I hope I have not frightened you,” he said quietly.
She was helpless to do anything but smile; the tenderness and delight overflowing in her heart required an outlet. Still, some trace of reason remained, and so she replied: “Not at all ‒ but we had best join the others before we are missed. After all the trouble you have gone to in order to restore Lydia’s reputation, we ought not to risk causing another scandal ‒ and at her wedding, too.”
At this, Mr Darcy looked suddenly pained, and he made no reply. Elizabeth felt an abrupt stab of uncertainty. Steeling herself, she said softly: “There is still time to reconsider, sir. If you are not certain, absolutely certain, that you can endure having such a man as your brother, I will not hold you to anything you have said ‒ there have been no witnesses ‒”
She got no further before finding herself once again in his arms, his voice fervent in her ear.
“If you imagine that such a consideration would detain me for an instant ‒!” He was silent for some moments, perhaps struggling to regain his composure. Then, releasing her from his embrace but retaining hold of her hands, he continued very seriously: “Elizabeth, not long ago I thought you lost to me forever. I spent several days fearing that I might have to see you married to that scoundrel ‒ or worse. When I discovered my error ‒ when I found out that there was still hope ‒” He broke off again, shaking his head. “Surely, you cannot think that such a paltry thing could frighten me away after that.”
Elizabeth, once again too overcome for words, stepped closer and rose up on her toes, and several moments were spent in silent mutual reassurance. When she retreated at last, she was forced to avail herself of his handkerchief to dab at her eyes.
“I am sorry,” said Darcy, still exceedingly serious, “that I should have given you cause to doubt me. I shall endeavour to never do so again.”
“And I am sorry to have doubted you even for a moment. But the turn of your countenance when I spoke of Lydia ‒ I suppose I spent so long attempting to resign myself to losing you that I can scarcely believe you could want to marry me despite everything.”
“It was not the mention of your sister which gave me pause ‒ merely that I became aware of my own ungentlemanly conduct. To accost you in such a place and in such a manner! I should have had more concern for your reputation.”
“Oh! That will teach me to curb my wretched tendency towards ill-timed levity!” Elizabeth exclaimed, though she was suddenly hard-pressed not to laugh. She did indeed need to learn to consider her words more carefully ‒ but she would also need to teach him to take himself a little less seriously, lest they find themselves forever speaking at cross purposes. “My dear sir ‒ my dearest Mr Darcy ‒ your conduct may not have been entirely proper, but I assure you I could not be better pleased with it.”
The lightening of his countenance made her heart soar, and she knew that if she did not keep her wits about her, they would soon find themselves defying propriety again.
“However, I assure you that Lydia will not forgive us if she discovers that we have usurped her wedding day by becoming engaged. We shall never hear the end of it! So come, let us go see her off before somebody comes looking for us.”
This, finally, brought a smile to Darcy’s face. “You are right ‒ let us give your sister her due. It is her day, after all.” He tucked her hand securely into the crook of his arm. “Though I expect the next wedding I attend will be even more memorable.”
As it turned out, nobody paid much attention to their late arrival outside, for though their conversation in the church had been momentous enough to feel as if it ought to have lasted longer, they had in fact been away from the rest of the wedding party for scarcely more than twenty minutes. Their appearance, too, escaped suspicion for the most part. Darcy was not of a disposition in which happiness overflows in mirth, and Elizabeth’s demeanour was sufficiently sobered by the sight of her sister smugly showing off her ring to some of the Gardiners’ neighbours. Only Mrs Gardiner gave them a knowing look as they mingled with the well-wishers who had gathered outside the church. She did not miss the fact that they remained arm in arm the entire time that they were circulating through the small crowd, nor the fact that they kept stealing glances at each other when they believed no one was looking.
At last, Mr Gardiner’s carriage departed with the newlyweds. In an effort to keep up appearances, a few of the Gardiners’ neighbours and friends had been invited to their home for a modest wedding breakfast, and as the party set off walking towards Gracechurch Street, it was not difficult for the newly betrothed couple to steal a moment’s conversation. It was agreed between Elizabeth and Darcy that he would speak to Mr Gardiner that very day, and that the Gardiners should be consulted to determine the best manner in which to inform the rest of the family.
The wedding breakfast was a comfortable affair made particularly pleasant by the absence of Mr and Mrs Wickham themselves. Still, Elizabeth could not help being rather impatient for the guests to depart, and though Darcy exerted himself to be civil to the Gardiners’ acquaintances, she had no doubt that he felt the same. It was with equal parts relief and nervous anticipation, therefore, that she watched the last of the guests take their leave, and saw Darcy approach Mr Gardiner immediately afterwards.
Almost as soon as the door had closed behind Darcy and Mr Gardiner, Mrs Gardiner turned to her niece.
“Well, Lizzy? Have you something to tell me?”
“Oh, aunt! I am the happiest creature in the world!”
The famed Darcy chill in action once more.
We’re almost done! This chapter pretty much concludes the actual plot; the last chapter will just tie up some loose ends before bringing the story to a close.
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.
tl;dr: “Elizabeth and Darcy lived happily ever after; she remained witty and impertinent and he continued to have no chill whatsoever.”
And that’s it! I’d like to thank everyone who has been reading along as I’ve been posting, and especially those of you who have posted reactions, predictions and encouragement in the comments. I’ve really enjoyed seeing so many people engage with the story.