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The Best of Intentions

Chapter Text

The morning after the Netherfield Ball dawned peacefully, as if in quiet solicitude of those who had attended that event. Unfortunately, nothing that happened after that dawn deserved the slightest accolade for peacefulness, solicitude, or any other mannerly quality.

Mr Collins, forsaking all sense, modesty, and propriety, applied for Elizabeth’s hand after breakfast in so insulting a manner that she was hard pressed to refuse with any grace. But Elizabeth need not have worried for his feelings, for Mr Collins’ response proved him to be as inimitable a judge of women as he was a conversationalist; the assumption that she would accept him was so fixed in his mind that no word of her insistent refusal seemed to reach him. At length she gave it up and quitted the room in search of her father, whose auxiliary refusal could be depended upon to be made in no uncertain terms, and had the benefit of being impossible to mistake for the coquetry of an elegant female.

This interview was scarcely less intolerable than the last; though Mr Bennet gratified Elizabeth’s feelings by his characteristic dismissal of the match, Mrs Bennet could not be made to respond with any equanimity, not least because her husband did not trouble himself further to intercede between his wife and daughter. He instead waited patiently by the door of his library for Lizzy’s temper to prompt her to leave the room, perfectly content in the knowledge that his indignant wife would follow on her heels when she did, and likely neither would be in any frame of mind to notice the door shut and lock behind them.

Elizabeth could not bring herself to endure more than two repetitions of her mother’s attempts to cajole, harass, or persuade her by any other means to revise her refusal of Mr Collins, and she expressed her intention to go for a walk.

‘Oh yes, go!’ Mrs Bennet cried, thoroughly overwrought. ‘Go! For I am sure I cannot bear to look on you.’

Elizabeth did not trouble herself to reply to such a comment, and removed herself from the house without another word, excluding a quick assurance to Jane that she was well as she settled a shawl around her shoulders.

The rains that had curtailed her outings from Friday through to Monday had abated briefly; she was grateful for it, though she did not think, as her mother did, that they had done so out of deference to the Netherfield Ball on Tuesday, but rather to gather their forces for another bout. She only hoped they would not drive her back inside just yet; she did not think she could tolerate another word from Mr Collins or her mother without proving herself to be quite the opposite of uniformly charming, and she felt safe enough in her father’s opinion of the match to feel sure that he would not yield to it in her absence. Instead she struck out across the damp grounds in the direction of Oakham Mount, determined to put no less than two miles between herself and her unwelcome suitor before she stopped for even a moment.

How could Mr Collins have thought that such a proposal would be successful? She had known him before to be quite the silliest man she had ever met and yet still it baffled her that any man should think a lady might be persuaded by such an insulting declaration. She wondered if it was unreasonable to publish a broadsheet outlining exactly which sentiments ought not to be represented within a proposal of marriage, and then decided that she had better not, for one must allow such men to identify themselves for the protection of the ladies they pursued.

She amused herself by considering the possibility of procuring such men little pins to wear, that one might be saved the trouble of becoming acquainted with them before dismissing them out of hand, until she reached the outskirts of the tenant farms, at which point she was obliged to turn her attention to her footing; the roads were exceedingly bad after the rains, and the stile by which she usually exited the furthest farm on her walks was almost inaccessible for the surrounding mud. Thinking that her mother’s forbearance ought not to be tested further today, she hitched her skirts over her ankles and waded through the mire, climbing the stile with one hand on the post, and dropping unceremoniously to the ground on the other side.

She felt lighter as she left her father’s lands. Elizabeth loved her family dearly but at the present moment she could cheerfully have traded them all for a good book and a day of warm weather. Walking past the gnarled form of an old oak tree, she recalled with renewed interest a childhood ambition. Similar trees in the little wilderness by the house had been summarily repurposed as ships and other features of the high seas, for the purposes of seeing her attain, at least for an afternoon or two, her desired occupation of notorious pirate. Scenes of daring naval warfare had been begrudgingly enacted by Mary and Jane, the latter being satisfied in the role of kidnapped damsel, and the former only willing to play if she might be a very good sailor of the King’s navy. Only Lizzy had been brave enough to climb the mast – a fine young beech tree – and all had been perfectly well and good until her mother came out and shrieked upon finding her young daughter twenty feet above the ground, leaning out of a fork in the branches, searching for land through her imagined telescope, at which point Lizzy fell out of the tree and the game came to a prompt and painful end.

Mary had never been in trouble before that, and Lizzy thought perhaps that had been the moment which persuaded her she wanted nothing more to do with her older sisters. She eyed the tree with fond consideration, and then decided she had better not; it had been years since she had applied herself to the pursuit of climbing trees, and she did not think it wise to turn her hand to it now. Sighing, she marched on towards Oakham Mount, forgoing the path for it was scarcely less dirty than the fields, and doing her best to put out of her mind the reason for her flight.

The wind picked up as she approached the rise, blowing her hair into her face in such a way that Lizzy found herself in the unusual position of wishing for the restriction of a bonnet. As it was, she could feel the first drops of rain against the back of her neck and though she spared a moment to mourn the results of poor Sarah’s efforts with the hair tongs, she would not be persuaded to return to Longbourn just yet. The rain could not last overlong, and she would be sheltered when she reached the line of trees at the base of Oakham Mount; she would wait out the worst of the rain and then return, and if she caught cold so much the better for then she would not be obliged to come downstairs and see Mr Collins. She only wished she’d thought to wear her coat instead of the light shawl she had selected for a morning spent indoors. But it could not be helped, she reasoned, and so made her way onwards with an undiminished sense of good cheer.

It was only as she began to ascend the hill that she thought perhaps she had underestimated the coming storm, for she could no longer dispute that a storm was what would follow this first, tentative rainfall. The clouds were thick above her when she turned her face up to the rain and that strange half-darkness of bad weather in the middle of the day had begun to fall. Sighing, she continued up the slope, thinking of the hollow in a particular tree near the top, in which she had passed many a happy hour when she was younger, ensconced therein with a book, some candles, and perhaps an apple, safely hidden from any person who should pass by the graceful sweep of the branches of that great tree. She would have to take shelter there now, for there was not a single house in the vicinity that was less than a mile and a half’s walk from the mount. The thought did not trouble her unduly, but she regretted again her lack of a coat and the inadequacy of muslin in repelling water.

As she came into sight of her intended target, she had cause to regret the state of her shoes too, for the soles made no appreciable difference to the speed of her descent when the sleeting rain dislodged a patch of mud beneath her feet. She slipped, fell, put her hands out to stop her fall, and was at the bottom of Oakham Mount staring in astonishment at the unprecedented quantity of blood that welled up from her hand and wrist – which she was confused to discover she could no longer move – within the space of a minute. She blinked, became aware of a horrid pain in her head, and, for the first time in her life, swooned.

 

Despite their professed intention of leaving Netherfield that very day, Darcy insisted on taking his usual ride after breakfast. He told Bingley that he thought it best to make a last survey of the property, that they might leave any necessary instructions with the steward before they left; and he told himself the same thing, for he refused to admit that he was fleeing the possibility of another morning spent enduring Caroline’s insufferable musings on the merits of fine eyes. The Netherfield Ball had been, to his mind, the final push necessary to put paid to any idea of offering for Miss Elizabeth. He had not thought her family capable of further indiscretion, but they had risen to the occasion with terrifying proficiency; he did not think he could bear to hear Miss Bingley describe how very merry they would all be when his future wife’s family descended on Pemberley at Christmastimes, as surely they must. A small voice in his head offered up a different picture of the season, which involved rather less involvement with either her family or his, or in fact any other people at all; and such thoughts might have been enough to make him reconsider his determination, had not the idea of allowing Mrs Bennet anywhere near his resultant sons or daughters quickly cemented it.

A ride was most definitely in order, he thought, and left immediately for that purpose, scandalising the stableboy who found him saddling his own horse, having not the patience to wait for Achilles to be brought around to the house. He was off within the quarter hour, and he revelled in the briskness of the day. It would likely start to rain again before it came time for the Netherfield party to depart for London, but he would take a thorough drenching over four hours in a carriage with Bingley’s sisters any day.

True to his word, he set out towards the perimeter of the estate, with half a mind to see about the drainage system by the Woodmans’ farm; he had marked it out for further attention when they first arrived but the weather had been good, and it had been put off in favour of more urgent repairs. He set a steady pace, stopping once or twice to enquire about the state of the tenants rooves – there were one or two that he suspected of leaking – and resolved to tell Bingley that he must send for a tradesman before he left; the necessity of their strategic retreat from the Bennets’ society was no excuse to neglect the welfare of one’s tenants.

The skies made their first exploratory attempt at rain as he examined the groundwork at the edge of Bingley’s lands. He straightened and glanced up at the gathering clouds. The storm would come sooner than he had thought; worse, the outdated drainage system was in no state for further abuse, and they would not have time to see to it before the weather turned. Darcy grimaced and remounted his horse. He would have to tell Woodman to clear the pastures closest to the stream in case of flooding and then ride up to ensure that his neighbours did the same; the tenants ought to know not to keep any stock on them, but that was no guarantee of their being empty.

Having passed this information along to Woodman and his sons, he turned up the collar of his greatcoat against the wind and rain and steered his horse away from the Woodman’s house towards the two or three farms that occupied the lands on the other side of the stream, regretting more and more the necessity of his errand as the chill of an oncoming storm settled around him. Why on earth had he not at least bullied Bingley into accompanying him?

He put this uncharitable thought out of his mind; he knew very well that of the two of them, Bingley was by far the worse off, being trapped in the house, supposedly to oversee its closure, but most likely doing little more than getting underfoot and being evicted from every room by his sisters in their newly discovered industriousness. The Johnstons and Grahams were receptive to his instruction, but neither had the benefit of John Woodman’s three burly sons, and Darcy, prompted by the increasing deluge, pitched in to clear the grounds nearest the rapidly swelling stream.

The weather had well and truly reached the level of intensity that might be termed a downpour and was making marked progress towards acquiring a stronger title by the time they had finished. Nodding a brusque farewell to the tenant farmers, Darcy returned to fetch Achilles from where he had tethered him on a fence post behind the Graham cottage. He pulled the end of the reins back through the knot and cast his gaze around for a suitable place to mount. Sighting a convenient milestone on the path behind the farmland, he led Achilles through the gate, closing it behind him, and towards the squat grey stone. Ahead of him he could see the little woodland that marked out Oakham Mount; even from this distance he could not help but notice how the whole seemed alive with movement and he grimaced to think how violent the wind must be to shake the boughs of those old trees.

It was as he swung himself up onto his mount that he saw it: the slightest glimmer of white amongst the trees. He craned his head to see it again to no avail. But he had not imagined it, he was sure; the colour was decidedly out of place in the darkening landscape of greys and greens. He knew he ought to return to the house before the storm worsened, but instead he found himself hesitating, his eyes straining for another glimpse of that strange, incongruous colour. It was no use.

With a silent curse at his own inability to ignore the unexplained, he turned Achilles towards Oakham Mount and set off. As he approached the line of trees, he dismounted again and led Achilles slowly up the path, his boots sinking into the mud as he walked. He reached the top without incident and turned slowly, squinting against the rain as he searched fruitlessly for evidence of what he had seen, a task made decidedly harder by the fact that he did not have the slightest clue of what that thing had been. Berating himself for riding up in such weather for no good reason at all, he led Achilles back down the slope. Halfway down, Achilles shied away as a bird swooped out of a nearby tree and Darcy had to stop to calm him. Smoothing his hand over the horse’s nose and murmuring soothingly, he looked past Achilles’ ears, one of which was perked upright in distress, and there it was: an unmistakeable sliver of white amongst the foliage. He let go of Achilles’ reins – he was too well trained to wander far – and left the path to investigate.

Stepping down around a wide oak tree, taking care to step over the exposed roots, he looked up and came immediately to a halt.

‘Good God,’ he breathed, and then he was in motion. Heedless of his surroundings, he skidded down the remaining distance, steadying himself only long enough to get his feet beneath him before he dropped to his knees in the dirt before the motionless figure of Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

Chapter Text

‘Miss Bennet?’ said Darcy, praying that she had suffered nothing worse than an ill-timed swoon. ‘Miss Elizabeth?’

She did not stir. He knelt, his hands hovering uselessly over her shoulder, then her arm, up to her face, and back down to her shoulder as he tried to decide where it would be least improper to touch her in an effort to rouse her. He settled on the shoulder and shook her gently to no avail. There was not the slightest change in her expression, not the weakest stiffening in her form against the movement. Feeling strangely as though he himself could not breathe, he stripped off his gloves and felt at her throat for a pulse, but his fingers were half numb with cold and he could not find one. Withdrawing his hand, he leaned over and listened until he heard the slight sound of her breathing. Relief flooded him, and he turned his attention to assessing her condition in more detail. Her gown was soaked through by mud and rain, and when he shifted her from her side to her back, he saw blood. Her right hand had been pinned beneath her and he had to assume she had rolled onto it when she fell, for the joint was noticeably swollen, deep purple bruising marking out the injury; she could not possibly have decided that crushing it further was the most sensible option. Worse, when he extricated it from its position, he discovered the source of the blood: two deep gouges that ran from the left hand side of her palm to nearly halfway down her forearm.

He produced his handkerchief immediately and wrapped the wound as best he could. It was no good trying to clean it, he didn’t have the resources to do so. He tried again to wake her without success before relaxing his grip on propriety for just long enough to raise her shoulders up out of the mud, turn her with difficulty, and rest her back against his chest so that he could search with one hand for evidence of a head injury while the other kept her propped against him. A raised lump a few inches back from her right temple and largely hidden by her hair explained her continued lack of consciousness. He paused, chest heaving as stress threatened to overwhelm him, and then shook himself and shifted Miss Bennet to see if there were any more injuries he had missed. A hasty survey did not turn up any new discoveries and he returned his attention to the wounds at her wrist.

His handkerchief had quickly proved insufficient to stem the flow of blood and without a second thought for decency his hand was at his throat, pulling at his cravat, cursing the vanity of the elaborate knots. Gingerly, he released her injured hand to rest on his knee and made short work of the problem, pulling the cloth free and returning his attention to Elizabeth. Lifting her hand carefully, he wrapped it tightly and forced his aching heart to ignore the soft cry that his actions tore from her lips, realising that she must be close to waking. The pain could not be helped though, and Darcy knew that devoting energy to fretting about it would not serve anyone, however ungallant it might be to admit such a thing.

The rain was falling more heavily now, one or two errant curls falling into his eyes as he bent to examine his work. Satisfied that it would hold, he turned his attention to the problem of seeking help. Had the weather been remotely cooperative, he could have left her situated somewhat comfortably under one of the surrounding trees while he rode to fetch a doctor. As it was, she would be lucky to escape a serious illness even without being left in the rain any longer. Had she been somewhat conscious, he could have put her on his horse for the journey to Longbourn, but he knew she would not be able to ride unsupported in her condition, and he could not fathom a way of situating them both on the horse without help.

There was nothing to be done for it; he would have to carry her. With a sudden clarity of purpose, he leaned away from her to strip himself of his greatcoat, berating himself for not thinking of it sooner. Wrapping an arm around Elizabeth’s upper back and praying that she would not remember this, he slid the coat beneath her and manhandled her into it. Satisfied that she was as well protected as possible, he lifted her knees a little and slipped his hand beneath them, replacing his other arm around her back. Grimacing, he hauled her up and cradled her against his chest as he stood. Her head fell back and he bit back an oath, clumsily shifting her back into a more comfortable position. For a brief moment, her eyes fluttered open at the movement and he saw her eyes, frightened and unfocused, gazing up at him.

‘Mr Darcy?’

Her voice was faint, the sound barely supported by the breath. Darcy’s heart tightened in his chest and he buried the urge to push her hair back from her face and tuck it behind her ear, not least because he would drop her if he tried.

‘Yes, Miss Bennet, I’m here. Forgive me,’ he said, ‘I did not see an alternative; I must return you to Longbourn and you are not well, you cannot walk.’

She nodded slowly, barely moving. Relieved that she did not seem inclined to take offense, he continued.

‘Miss Bennet, can you hold onto me?’

She nodded again and reached up, her uninjured hand trembling as she laid it tentatively upon his shoulder. He could barely feel the weak press of her slender fingers through his shirt and waistcoat, and he shifted her slightly so that her head could rest against his chest.

‘Good. Do not try to move your other hand. I cannot tell if it is broken; I suspect it may be sprained. Are you comfortable?’

She graced him with a tight smile, though he could feel her shivering in his arms.

‘I am perfectly well,’ she said, and before he could think to school his expression he had raised an eyebrow at her in pointed disbelief. To his astonishment, a breath of laughter escaped her before she broke off as the movement jolted her wrist. She closed her eyes tightly as fresh pain and dizziness threatened to overwhelm her.

Short, rapid breathing proved ineffective almost immediately and she swooned again, her head falling back onto his shoulder, her forehead pressing against his neck. Darcy knew he should move her for propriety’s sake – there was nothing untoward in the sight of a fully dressed injured lady in the arms of a fully dressed gentleman; the sight of an indecently drenched lady almost kissing the bare throat of a gentleman, however, would likely raise eyebrows – but he did not wish to disturb her, and it would be dreadfully uncomfortable for her to be carried all the way to Longbourn with her head lolling about unsupported… He resolved to shift her when they were in sight of the house, and, taking care to look where he stepped, Darcy set off in the direction of the Bennets’ estate, pausing only long enough to nudge Achilles back in the direction of Netherfield and hope that the horse understood.

The rain only intensified as they came out of the cover of the copse of trees, and Darcy grimaced against the cold rivulets of water that ran down the back of his neck from his hair. He bent forward slightly to protect Miss Bennet from the worst of the rain, determinedly ignoring the feeling of her cold lips brushing his collarbone where his shirt had fallen open. What on earth had happened to the buttons? A quick glance down revealed two tiny squares of loose threads that suggested they had been an unintentional casualty of the battle with his cravat. His valet was going to murder him; or at the very least, pointedly avoid talking to him for at least a week. Two weeks, Darcy amended, thinking of the blood that no doubt had managed to find its way onto his shirt during his haphazard attempt at doctoring. Actually, it might be better just to burn the stupid thing; Rogers need never know.

A soft sound drew his attention back to Miss Bennet and he looked down to see her eyes flutter closed again as she succumbed once more to unconsciousness. Immediately he wished he hadn’t looked. Miss Bennet’s dress was properly drenched, and the whole thing clung to her without the slightest semblance of decency. Horrified—though whether by the sight before him or his decidedly ungentlemanly reaction to it, he refused to consider—he forced his gaze straight ahead and manfully attempted to erase the picture but it seemed to have seared itself onto his eyelids. Every time he blinked he was rewarded with the image presented by his unusual vantage point, which was putting him in a position to see far more than a gentleman ought to. Shaking himself, he heard her moan slightly in pain as he stepped down the slight embankment that lead to the path; any ardour that had managed to fight its way through his distress was immediately quelled in favour of concern.

The wind was vicious once they left the relative shelter of the trees and Darcy’s hair whipped across his face and into his eyes. He shook his head like a dog shaking off flies and momentarily dislodged the wet curls only to have them cast back against his brow immediately. He exhaled and dared to glance down at Miss Bennet to see if she was having similar trouble, though what he might be able to do about it if she was, he did not know, given his decided lack of available hands. Somehow the majority of her hair was being held in place between her head and his shoulder, but the few errant ringlets that usually framed her face blew about like the ribbons Georgiana used to tie into her poor pony’s mane. He swallowed, his throat suddenly thick with emotion. In all honesty, she had never looked worse; her face was pale and drawn with pain, hair plastered to her forehead, and a smear of dirt and blood across her cheek. He had never seen anything so beautiful.

He increased his pace, her pallor reminding him all too suddenly of the danger of illness if he did not see her safely warm and dry before too long. Distractedly, he caught himself cursing Georgiana’s ridiculous novels and the misleading ease with which the heroes always carried the heroines; Miss Bennet certainly was not as light as a feather, or a leaf, or any of the other impossible similes Mrs Radcliffe and her ilk were wont to employ, and the struggle to keep her limp extremities in a position that would not upset his balance certainly had not featured in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Really, someone ought to explain to that woman how difficult the job of carrying an unconscious person of any size actually was, since it was evident that she’d never attempted it. But he was being uncharitable; he could not imagine Mrs Radcliffe’s novels selling half so well if in the middle of some great romantic scene the hero informed the heroine that she was far too heavy to be carried any great distance and she’d much better walk. And besides, it would hardly change his current situation.

As he climbed a low hill on their path, Miss Bennet’s fingers slipped from his shoulder and down his chest until her palm rested against his heart. If she’d been awake, he was sure she would have felt its wild beating through the inadequate layers of cloth that separated him from her touch. He sent a silent thank you to the heavens at her continued senselessness, and then felt guilty and revised his prayer to reflect his wishes for her good health as well as his desire to escape embarrassment.

Longbourn came into view in the distance as he crested the hill and he walked onwards with renewed determination. It was some time before he noticed that Miss Bennet had stopped shivering. Another might have taken this as a sign of improvement but Mr Darcy had been brought up in Derbyshire, where the winters were colder and harsher than those in Hertfordshire, and he knew well what serious danger such a chill posed. Against his will, he remembered the sight of the youngest stableboy, little Thomas Baxter, being brought in out of the snow the winter of Mr Darcy’s tenth birthday, pale as a corpse and no less lifeless. He’d caught only a glimpse of the boy before his father saw him perched on the staircase, peering through the gaps in the decorated wooden banister, and yelled at him to go, but it was enough. Baxter’s face had been as white as the snow that the men tracked into the entrance hall when they carried him in, and his lips a stark, sickly blue. His eyes had been shut, Darcy remembered, but he did not look peaceful; he was frowning. It was years before Darcy understood that his features had been frozen in the attitude in which he died, and the thought of that boy still turned his stomach.

Darcy held Miss Bennet closer and prayed that his warmth might bring her some relief. For he was warm, he realised; while the exertion of carrying a young woman such a distance was not insignificant, and though his extremities were chilled and his clothing thoroughly soaked, there was a warmth in his chest that he suspected had nothing to do with the exercise.

He ignored it, focusing on the task of returning her to her home as soon as possible, and organising his thoughts into some kind of order that he might better be able to ensure the proper care was taken when they arrived. A fire ought to be built in her room and a warm bath drawn—not hot but warm—and then she must be stripped and her skin chafed with a dry towel. Her sisters must know not to force too much heat upon her all at once.

His arms were beginning to protest the strain and he shifted her upwards to allow her weight to rest more against his chest in the hope of relieving the ache that was settling in his muscles. Thoughts of decency had been unceremoniously discarded in favour of the practical concerns of the moment, and he did not think of the picture they made as he passed through the gate and finally approached the house.

The same could not be said for the occupants of Longbourn, who had been alerted to the appearance of a dark figure at the gates by an undignified shout from Kitty, whose possession of the window seat afforded her the best view of the path and whose occupation of needlepoint made her the most likely to seek other sources of distraction.

‘Mama! Jane! Look, there is a man coming! And he is carrying something!’

Mrs Bennet craned her neck to peer towards the window.

‘A man? Whatever can he be thinking of, walking in all this rain? I am sure I don’t know.’

The downpour blurred the edges of the figure as he approached, but it was undoubtedly a man, Kitty decided, and as he came within a few yards of the house she recognised him.

‘My God!’ said Kitty. ‘It is Mr Darcy!’

The Bennet women surged towards the windows.

‘Lizzy!’ Jane cried in horror. ‘He is carrying Lizzy!’

And with that, the Bennet household was plunged into chaos.

Chapter Text

Mrs Bennet shrieked for Hill to open the door; and someone must fetch Mr Bennet; Mary would do; oh! where was Hill? Jane sent Lydia upstairs to fetch her mother’s smelling salts as the matron collapsed into her chair, declaring that they were all ruined and surely Lizzy was to blame, while Kitty maintained a detailed commentary on the gentleman’s approach and Jane ran from the sitting room and down the hall towards the great front doors.

‘Oh Mama, Lizzy is hurt, I am sure of it!’ Kitty reported as Mr Darcy came close enough that she could see the scarlet stains across her sister’s dress and the gentleman’s shirt.

This, unsurprisingly, did not help matters, if the tremulous wailing Jane could hear ringing from the sitting room was anything by which to judge.

Reaching the doors, she unbolted them with difficulty and hauled them open. Looking out, she was arrested by the sight of Mr Darcy, his shirt open almost to his sternum and waistcoat stained with blood, his hair blowing about wildly as his head bent over her sister’s prone figure.

‘Lizzy!’ she cried, standing still with horror in the doorway. Mr Darcy looked up as he mounted the steps and Jane threw herself hurriedly back into motion, stepping aside to allow him to carry her sister inside the house. As soon as he passed her, Jane forced the doors shut and bolted them against the storm.

‘Mr Darcy, what has happened?’ she said, turning to face him.

‘I was out riding when the weather turned unexpectedly. I came upon her at Oakham Mount,’ Mr Darcy replied. ‘Her wrist, I believe, is injured and she is badly chilled. A warm bath must be drawn, where should I take her?’

Jane blinked, distracted by the sight of the bloody impression of fingers trailing down from Mr Darcy’s right shoulder to his chest, where Elizabeth’s hand rested limply.

‘Miss Bennet, there is not a moment to lose,’ Mr Darcy said urgently. ‘Your sister is in grave danger, she must be treated immediately.’

‘Upstairs,’ said Jane, hearing her own voice as if from some distance. She shook herself. ‘Follow me,’ she continued with more confidence than she felt as she met his eyes, and, turning, led him up the stairs towards the bedroom she shared with her sister, passing a gawping Lydia returning from her mother’s room, salts in hand. As they passed the second landing she heard Hill in the hallway below and leaned over the bannister to call for the bath to be brought up immediately, along with towels and brandy. She heard Mr Darcy’s voice behind her and leaned over again to add,

‘And linen for bandages, Hill!’

They reached the top of the stairs and Jane hurried ahead, opening the door to Lizzy’s room and stepping aside to allow Mr Darcy to pass. He ducked to enter the room and went immediately to the bed, leaning down to deposit Lizzy’s pale form on top of the bedspread. Jane pretended not to notice the way his shaking hand brushed the wet hair from her sister’s face, his brow creased as he looked down on her. He seemed to recall himself then and straightened, instructing Jane to strip her of her wet clothes and dry her thoroughly, before exiting the room.

Jane did as Mr Darcy had bade her, chafing Lizzy’s clammy skin with a bedsheet while she waited for Hill to arrive with the towels. She could hear the commotion downstairs in the sitting room erupt once more as her mother and younger sisters besieged her father with the news of Lizzy’s calamitous arrival, and the more subdued creaking of the stairs as the bathtub was brought up from the kitchen. The door opened to admit Hill and Cook, who had been deemed the only other person in the house both capable of carrying the tub, and fit to deposit it in the bedroom of a lady when said lady was not decent.

Jane was in the middle of sending them out to bring cans of hot water when she heard Mr Darcy’s muffled voice from the hallway as he called,

‘It must not be too hot; not warmer than that room, you must not cause her any more shock.’

Jane revised her instructions accordingly and Hill and Cook disappeared to fulfil them. She paused in her work and went to the door. Mr Darcy stood in the hallway, seemingly heedless of his own state of dissemble.

‘What should I do now, Mr Darcy?’ she asked. He did not look at her as he explained the process of warming her so as not to shock Miss Elizabeth in her fragile state. Jane nodded and went into the room again, leaving the door open a crack so that she could hear Mr Darcy’s continued instructions.

‘Once she is dry, you must chafe her hands and feet,’ – he paused as Hill and Cook returned with the water cans and passed by him – ‘that is where there is the worst danger of cold burn,’ he said. ‘Be careful of her wrist, it is badly hurt.’

Jane and Hill applied themselves to his instructions while Cook built up the fire, and so it went for nearly a quarter of an hour. The younger Bennets, having long since made it to the end of their explanation, carried on excessively downstairs until their father swore he would not allow them out of the house for the next month if they did not manage to conduct themselves with some semblance of propriety in this time of crisis, and left the sitting room directly, coming up the stairs to stand beside Mr Darcy.

‘How is she?’ Bennet asked as soon as he mounted the last stair. Mr Darcy turned, lost his balance, and put his hand against the wall to steady himself. Closing his eyes briefly, he replied,

‘I know not. Her injury, I think, is not cause for concern – it stopped bleeding on the way here – but she has been dreadfully chilled.’

That great man seemed truly unsettled in his concern for Lizzy, which Mr Bennet thought counted as a point in his favour and the mark of a sensible man. Exerting himself briefly in reflection of these observations, he gripped Mr Darcy’s shoulder firmly, and caught his eye as the younger man looked up, startled.

‘Not for lack of your efforts though, my boy,’ he said, glancing pointedly down at Darcy’s much abused shirtsleeves, having been told in great detail by his younger daughters of how Lizzy had been ensconced in an enormous dark greatcoat which they were sure was not hers. Mr Darcy did not smile, per say, but the corner of his mouth twisted in a tight grimace of discomfort which Mr Bennet took to mean acknowledgment. Mr Bennet released his shoulder and Darcy turned back to rest his head against his forearm on the wall beside the door to Lizzy’s room. His breathing was rapid and shaky and Mr Bennet saw the shiver run through him.

‘Come,’ he said, putting his hand on Mr Darcy’s elbow to guide him down the hall. ‘I shall find you some dry things to put on; it will not do for you to fall ill too.’

To his surprise, Darcy shook his head.

‘I thank you, but I’m well enough, it is only the cold. I should remain; Miss Bennet does not know what is to be done for Miss Elizabeth.’

Mr Bennet nodded, understanding, and went down the hall to his own room to fetch a robe, catching Hill on the way and instructing her to bring up an extra towel for Mr Darcy.

Returning to their bemusing houseguest, he privately thanked God that Mr Collins had seen fit to remove himself to the Lucases after his disastrous proposal that morning; he could not imagine how the obsequious little parson would have reacted to see the nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in such a state, and in the service of (surely by now) his least favourite cousin. Mr Darcy accepted the robe he held out gratefully, tugging it tight around him and closing his eyes as he exhaled shakily, turning back to the wall.

‘Ensure that she is not in pain,’ he was saying to Jane. ‘The water should not hurt her. More warm water may be added if she is comfortable.’

Mr Bennet assessed the situation; the colour rising on Mr Darcy’s pale cheeks must, he thought, be a sign of an encroaching fever, and while he knew he ought to insist that Mr Darcy go and warm himself before returning, he was not inclined to suggest it; Mr Darcy was clearly the only one of them who knew what to do for such a chill, and in this weather it would be impossible to summon the apothecary in any reasonable time.

Mr Darcy, however, was praying to God that Mr Bennet had not the talent to discern a man’s thoughts on his face, for he was not feverish at all, except at the distressing thought of Miss Elizabeth two yards away in exactly the state of undress that he had recommended to her sister. He buried such thoughts with vicious determination, and forced himself to listen to Miss Bennet as she described her sister’s condition, advising her what to do when appropriate.

Finally, Miss Bennet announced that the colour was returning to Miss Elizabeth’s cheeks, and that her hands were not so cold. Darcy sagged against the wall. She would likely have a fever, he knew, but Miss Elizabeth had seemed to possess a strong constitution up until that afternoon; the danger would be less now that it was her strength on which her recovery depended, and not any outside force.

Once Miss Elizabeth was safely tucked into her bed, the fire blazing in the hearth, and Hill stationed at her bedside for the time being, Miss Bennet emerged in the doorway. Darcy straightened, swayed, and steadied himself, feeling Mr Bennet’s hand on his arm once more. He had never seen Miss Bennet so discomposed, but she seemed at least to be sure of her sister’s condition, and her surety relieved him.

‘I cannot thank you enough for your kindness, Mr Darcy,’ she began before catching sight of his damp collar resting on top of the robe. ‘But you are still in your wet things! Roberts!’ she called, catching the attention one of the three footmen that had clustered at the foot of the stairs in a haphazard show of loyalty and concern. Within moments Darcy found himself being shepherded down the hallway to another bedroom, his arms piled with fresh towels and his ears ringing with the sound of Miss Bennet’s surprisingly authoritative voice instructing the servants to empty the tub and send it to their guest. Mr Bennet’s manservant followed him into the room and set a fire in the hearth, before disappearing to collect more wood. In the ensuing silence, Mr Darcy could hear the unmistakeably lecturing tones of the plainest sister, Miss Mary, and the unappreciative squawks of the youngest girl. The other sister, Miss Catherine, could be heard talking eagerly to her mother, who vacillated wildly between distress at her daughter’s situation, and vexation and complaint that it should never have come about if they listened to her. He could not make out the rest of the conversation, and he was somewhat glad of it for he could only imagine in what sort of language they might describe the whole business, and even that was mortifying to him.

Mr Bennet seemed to be of the same mind, for he knocked, and entered the room looking not a little green.

‘I thought I’d better not go back downstairs,’ he said with some attempt at levity. ‘My wife and daughters hardly need any more information with which to form up some respectable competition to Mrs Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest.’

Visions of himself and Miss Elizabeth hidden away in a ruined abbey in a dark forest beset him and he blushed, paled, and blushed again.

‘Sir, I feel I ought to say,’ he found himself saying, as his traitorous mind elaborated on that private scene, ‘that if there is any damage to your daughter’s reputation on account of my actions, I will not shirk the responsibility—’

‘No, I daresay you would not,’ Mr Bennet said, amused. ‘I thank you for your offer, but I would ask you not to worry yourself on that score at the present time. You have done more than enough, and I confess, between her life and her reputation, I am delighted that you chose to preserve the former.’ Mr Darcy looked as though he might say something and Bennet raised a hand to halt him. ‘I will be sure to emphasise to my wife that any discussion of this event would most certainly earn us the ire of Mr Collin’s patroness – your aunt, if I’m not mistaken, Lady Catherine de Bourgh – and with any luck she will recall to whom this house is entailed upon my death and hold her tongue for the sake of his good favour.’ It will not surprise the reader to discover that Mr Bennet forgot about this promise almost as soon as he made it, and when, a few days later, he did recall it, he did not exert himself to fulfil it.

‘Though,’ Mr Bennet added gingerly, following his last thought, ‘I am not sure we may claim his good favour even without his knowledge of this indiscretion.’ Mr Darcy paused in the task of working the buttons at his cuffs free and looked up at the sound of Mr Bennet’s suddenly subdued tones. The older man laughed without mirth. ‘My Lizzy gave him quite the shock this morning, I believe, when she told him she would not marry him.

‘Oh yes,’ Mr Bennet said at Darcy’s look of alarm. ‘From what her mother tells me, she told him it would be absolutely impossible for her to accept his proposal. I’m afraid he took it very poorly, Mr Darcy; thankfully, Miss Lucas called with her usual impeccable timing and offered to take him off our hands. He is at the Lucases' house now, having resolved not to set foot in this one again until it is his own.’

‘Is that why Miss Elizabeth was out of doors today?’ Darcy asked without thinking. ‘Pardon me,’ he said immediately. ‘I should not have asked. It is certainly her own concern.’

‘Perhaps it is, but I daresay you’ve a right to ask; you did, after all, take the role of the dashing hero in this particular event, a role which would have been unnecessary if she’d not walked out,’ Mr Bennet said without chastisement. ‘You will stay here tonight, and when she is well you may speak with her.’

Darcy nodded, reeling as the stress of the evening drained away and left him swaying on the spot with exhaustion. The door opened to allow Bennet’s man and the footman Roberts in with the bathtub, which they immediately set to filling. Bennet clapped him once on the shoulder and wished him a good night, saying that he would have some clean clothes sent to his room for when he had finished bathing.

And then in what seemed like a matter of seconds but in all likelihood could not have been less than half an hour, Darcy found himself standing in the empty room next to a brass bathtub full of steaming hot water. If he’d been even slightly more alert, he would have been plagued by thoughts of Miss Elizabeth being bathed in this very tub scarcely an hour ago, but thankfully he had reached the point of exhaustion where his only concern was not to fall asleep in the bath and drown himself. This he managed with only a few close encounters with sleep, both of which were thankfully interrupted by the shock of sudden submersion, after which he dried himself haphazardly, pulled the nightshirt the Bennets had provided over his head, and collapsed into bed with less dignity than he had showed in the whole course of his adult life. As he pulled the covers over his shoulder his mind was full of the memory of Miss Elizabeth’s form cradled against his chest, her fingers gripping his shirt weakly, and his heart was still two doors down the hall, wishing that he could hold vigil at Miss Elizabeth’s bedside with her sister and no doubt her father, even as sleep dragged him into its depths. He would ask after her the moment he awoke, he decided as he finally sank into an exhausted slumber.

Chapter Text

A note about timing:

So there’s been a little bit of confusion regarding the timing of the accident etc, and how fast the day seems to pass subsequently, which was brought to my attention by drdit92. I’ll explain here for now and potentially come back to see if it can be made clearer in the fic without sounding like explanation there too. J As drdit said, Elizabeth went for a walk after escaping Mr Collins’ marriage proposal, which we know he makes after breakfast. Darcy goes for a ride before the Netherfield party leaves, but not an early morning ride at all (I think in the fic I described the time as after breakfast).  I just want to emphasise that neither of these events happened at a time that we would consider early today. Cue impromptu history lesson:

On an ordinary day in Jane Austen’s time, breakfast would be taken by the country gentleman or gentlewoman between the hours of 8:00am and 10:00am. Not so for the fashionable set! Those who resided in town for the Season often kept town hours even when they were in the country, and those hours were invariably later than the country standard. We can see this in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth sits down for breakfast with her family, hears of Jane’s illness, resolves to go to Netherfield, and discovers upon arriving that the Bingleys and Mr Darcy are still at breakfast. The Bennets were a family of some standing in the local community, and so they likely broke their fast around nine or ten o’clock. Assuming even for nine o’clock, this means that Elizabeth would have finished her breakfast, changed from her morning dress to a walking dress (the latter being a little shorter in the hem to allow ease of movement), walked three miles across muddy terrain, the whole process taking no less than two hours all things considered, and still managed to interrupt breakfast at Netherfield.

The day after the Netherfield ball, breakfast would have been taken even later than usual. Balls usually began between the hours of 9:00pm and 12:00am, and the rule of lateness indicating fashion applied here too. In the case of the Netherfield ball, with none of the fashionable set to censure them, the guests probably arrived earlier rather than later. Several hours then would be devoted to dancing, and supper (which provided such an excellent opportunity in Pride and Prejudice for Elizabeth’s family to humiliate her) would have been served around or after midnight. As I think it’s safe to assume that Mr Bingley would have splurged for the six hour candles instead of the four hour candles, this would have been followed by a few more hours of dancing, and all in all, the whole affair would have wrapped up in the early hours of the morning.

Naturally, the attendees would not have bothered to rise at the usual time; anyone who meant anything to them would have been at the ball too, and therefore not likely to plague them with a morning call. Therefore, breakfast in The Best of Intentions is taken quite late in the morning, probably around midday, though it might be prudent to note here that ‘morning’ was not strictly used to refer to the period before midday during the regency. ‘Morning hours’ referred not to the time of day as we know it, but to visiting hours, which were between 11:00am and 3:00pm; in Persuasion, for example, Anne Elliot considers 1:00pm to be ‘early in the morning’. Thus, in this chapter when Darcy says that he went out riding ‘in the late morning’, his audience would have understood him to mean that he went out riding close to 3:00pm, which is towards the very end of morning/visiting hours. And while we’re on the topic of words that have slightly altered in meaning, I should add that ‘breakfast’ didn’t imply a meal taken in the early morning, as it does today. It simply meant the first meal of the day, and had no relation to timing at all: it was used literally to describe the actual breaking of your overnight fast.

So, we have Elizabeth breakfasting at around 12:00pm, after which she is besieged by Mr Collins, and then argues with her mother. Only after all of this has happened does she leave the house and walk out towards Oakham Mount, and then she has a walk of over two miles between her and her destination. Therefore, she would have been injured until around 2:00pm, at which point we have to move to Darcy’s perspective on account of her being, well, totally unconscious.

Darcy and the Bingleys would have breakfasted even later, in keeping with fashionable practices. I know that in a lot of fics, Darcy takes early morning rides, but this one takes place after breakfast. He makes a tour of the estate, finishing at the Graham’s farm on the outskirts of Bingley’s lands, and then is obliged to assist the tenants in clearing the fields closest to the river in fear of damage if it floods. This probably takes in excess of an hour, and Darcy notes in the story that the rain has been getting steadily worse since he arrived at the Woodman’s farm. By the time he’s finished in the fields, it’s pouring down.

We know from the story that by the time Darcy finds Elizabeth, she is drenched through, which suggests to him that she’s been unconscious a fair while. In my notes I have him finding her no earlier than 4:00pm, by which point she’s developed hypothermia, which, ironically, is the only thing that stops her dying of blood loss from the wrist injury. Elizabeth’s walk to Oakham Mount probably took a little more than half an hour, and Darcy’s walk to Longbourn probably takes twice that much time with his added burden. The pair don’t arrive at Longbourn until after 5:00pm, at which point Jane takes over care of Lizzy, and it is the work of well over an hour before Jane is satisfied that she’s improving. Darcy doesn’t retire until several hours after his arrival, taking into account that he waits until Lizzy is better to leave the hallway, then talks to Mr Bennet, and then bathes before falling asleep, probably at about 9:00pm, which is early for bed, yes, but I think he can be forgiven for that after the evening he’s had. J

I hope that all makes more sense now, and I’m sorry it wasn’t clearer in the story, thank you again to drdit92 for bringing it to my attention; I’ll see if I can make any of that more obvious in the story but for now, I’ll leave this explanation up. From now on though, if I come across something that requires historical explanation, I’ll see about using a footnote system.

Also, a number of you have expressed your concern for the fate of Darcy’s horse. All I’ll say now is that I haven’t forgotten him and hopefully this chapter will answer your questions. Thank you all for reading and for your lovely reviews; they brighten my days immensely,

~Eleanor


 

The morning dawned with the sort of brittle, grey light that follows every storm, and Darcy awoke to hear the quiet changing of the guard down the hall as Miss Bennet and her father relinquished their posts – to the servants, perhaps? Uncharitable though the thought might be, Darcy could not imagine the younger Miss Bennets rising at such an hour, even to care for an injured sister.

His body ached as he sat up in bed, and the residual chill of the night’s rain still hung in the air but he was determined to rise; he wished very much for an opportunity to look in on Miss Elizabeth’s welfare, and knew it would be best to do so before the mother and younger sisters were awake to hear of it. Casting his gaze around the room, he was waylaid in his purpose by the notable lack of clothing of any sort. Yesterday’s garments must have been taken away while he slept, for they certainly were not hung over the firescreen where he had left them. Not, he admitted, that it would have helped him now if they had been there, for he distinctly remembered the way the caked mud had crumbled from his breeches when he peeled them off last night. The accumulated blood and dirt had undoubtedly ruined the shirt too, and the fate of his cravat did not bear thinking about. He almost wished the servant had woken him when he came to collect his things, for it seemed a great waste of energy to try to wash them and he would much rather have just burned them to avoid having to face his indomitable valet with the evidence of his disregard for the man’s good work. Rogers would, no doubt, have managed to rescue Miss Bennet in half the time and with twice the dignity that he himself had displayed; and the man would certainly never have ventured out of the house without at least three clean handkerchiefs and a spare cravat. He only hoped that news of his horrendous abuse of a good white shirt did not reach the man’s ears before the news of his good intentions did. Regardless, he would have to send to Netherfield for something to wear. There was a bell pull by the door but was it too early to ring, considering the state of uproar in which the household had retired?

He debated briefly with himself and in the end shored up his courage and gave the cord a short tug. The wait was not long.

‘Sir?’ came a small voice after an equally timid knock. He bade the servant enter, and was surprised by the appearance of a young boy with an armful of clothes that reached up to his chin. Darcy stood to help him, relieving the boy of his burden and placing the garments on the dresser while the boy explained his presence.

‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ he piped, ‘but Mr Bennet’s man Rowe has been sent for the doctor to see to Miss Elizabeth’s wrist and Cattermole and the other footman were sent off in the night for there is a bridge out on the estate that has caused some trouble. Tis only me downstairs for I am not tall enough to be of any use out of doors,’ he said this last with the common resentment of boys who have been given an unwelcome reminder of their unmanliness. ‘I have brought you some of Mr Bennet’s things which he set aside for you this morning, if it please you.’

‘Thank you,—?’

‘Jon Preston,’ the boy said, bowing so low that the top of his head was level with Mr Darcy’s knee. ‘I am called Jon, sir,’ he added, in case it was not blatantly obvious that he was too young to be anybody’s manservant.

‘Thank you, Preston,’ Darcy said with a small smile. The boy started and fairly swelled with pride, before ordering Mr Darcy behind the dressing screen and passing him the clothes in proper order.

Darcy tied the cravat – simply today – as he waited for Preston to hand him a coat. When none appeared, he came out from behind the screen to see the young boy standing on a chair which he had evidently dragged out from its position in front of the dressing table, a coat held out before him as he waited expectantly for Mr Darcy to emerge. Darcy schooled his expression with difficulty. Only when he had turned away to allow the boy to help him into the coat did he permit himself to smile.

‘Thank you, Preston,’ he said again as the boy finished up brushing non-existent lint from his shoulders and clambered down from the chair. ‘Tell me, do you know how Miss Elizabeth is bearing up?’

‘Her fever is still high, sir,’ he said immediately, and Darcy saw the wisdom of befriending him. ‘Hill is with her now and her father too, for he would not go to bed when Miss Jane did, and I know the fire has been kept up all night for I have been sent upstairs three times with wood for it. I heard Mr Bennet say she woke for a moment and seemed to know him and Miss Bennet, but she is asleep now, though she has sometimes cried out I think.’

Darcy nodded. ‘Do you know if I might see her? I have seen such illness before, and would like to see how she fares.’

Both statements were true and totally unrelated; Darcy would have wished to see her if she’d been struck by the plague. The boy considered.

‘I shall ask Mrs Hill,’ he said, and left. He reappeared instantly, his cheeks aflame, bowed properly, and then vanished again. Darcy could hear him running down the hall to Miss Elizabeth’s room. Preston reminded him very strongly of Rogers, albeit a very small incarnation of the man, and he thought that the boy would get along very well with Rogers’ own son, little Peyton.

The knocking was firmer this time and he called Preston to enter at once.

‘Mr Bennet will allow it, sir, if you’ll follow me,’ Preston said breathlessly, and hurried back out into the hallway, Mr Darcy following at his heels.

The pair were admitted and Darcy entered to see Miss Elizabeth in much the same position that he had originally laid her in, if significantly cleaner than she had been then. Her wrist had been wrapped in clean linen and laid atop the blankets to prevent any further weight being placed on the injury. Mr Bennet sat beside the bed on the far side of the room, facing the door. One of the servants who had tended to Miss Elizabeth last night – Hill? – stood beside him, wringing a wet cloth above a basin and turning back to the bed to press it to Miss Elizabeth’s forehead.

Darcy bowed, and gave brief attention to the necessary courtesies before enquiring after the patient, whom after his initial entry he politely pretended not to see until her father and invited him to take a seat at her bedside opposite his own.

‘My eldest has retired to her mother’s room for a few hours rest,’ Mr Bennet said. ‘Elizabeth is as you see, Mr Darcy. The fever has not broken yet—’

‘That is not unusual,’ Darcy felt obliged to assure him. Mr Bennet nodded his thanks.

‘I am glad to hear of it. I am man enough to own how little I have had cause to learn of such things, and impertinent enough to ask how you have come to know so much.’

Darcy explained, briefly, the severity of winters at Pemberley, which he had often endured in favour of the London Season when he was a younger man and his relations were inclined to allow his absence.

‘It is not so easy to send for the doctor when the roads have been made impassable by rain or snow; it is as well to know what to do oneself. It seems every year or so someone is caught out in the weather, and I have given orders to my tenants that such men are to be brought to Pemberley for help. In such cases, I would favour my housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds, above any London doctor.’

Mr Bennet appraised him calmly; if he noticed the soft way that Mr Darcy’s eyes lingered on his daughter’s pale, flushed face as he spoke, he did not draw attention to the fact, though he did resolve to tease Lizzy with the knowledge of his admiration when she was well again.

The two men sat in silence until the sounds of the rest of the household awakening around them prompted Mr Darcy to excuse himself.

‘Yes, you had better return to your room until my wife and the girls descend for breakfast; you will certainly be ambushed unless Cook has first distracted them with a suitable spread.’

Mr Darcy did not think it proper to laugh, and so he did not. He bowed, refused himself a last glance at the sick lady, and left, closing the door to his own room just minutes before he heard the exodus of women from the other bedrooms. Feeling faintly ill at the thought of being so entrapped and outnumbered by the fairer sex, whose effusions he had never been remotely capable of responding to, he considered the possibility of absenting himself from meals until Mr Bennet could be persuaded to come down and shield him from his wife and daughters. He could not restrain a grimace. It would be unfathomably rude to slight the Bennets now, given the manner in which his outrageous appearance had been received yesterday evening; and honestly he could not be certain that Mr Bennet would perform any such office, even if he did come down. Darcy could only imagine how his Aunt Catherine might have responded if a near stranger had appeared in such a fashion with Anne, and he did not even want to consider how she might have responded if he had arrived so; he rather suspected she would have had the banns read before he’d awoken in the morning. Comforting himself that at least he had not woken up to find himself engaged to his sallow cousin, he allowed himself a few more minutes to gather his courage, and thought that this must be how his cousin the Colonel felt when he prepared himself to engage with the French.

Preston appeared once more to show him to the breakfast parlour and thoughts of retreat were banished with difficulty. The nervous chatter ceased immediately upon his entry and he bowed courteously, feeling the wide eyes of the Misses Lydia and Catherine fixed on him.

‘Your servant, ma’am,’ he said awkwardly to Mrs Bennet, waiting for her customary incivility. It did not come. Instead he received an effusive welcome, and an invitation to take the place at her right hand, from which position she could easily find an audience for her dissertation on his unexpected heroics.

He wondered if he were somehow still dreaming when even after five minutes of this the younger girls did not seem inclined to interrupt her with talk of lace or ribbons or whatever mysteries women discussed when they were at leisure. Instead, their boisterous voices were raised only to emphatically agree with their mother or add certain details regarding the chaos of the previous night.

The quiet middle sister, Miss Mary, waited until the others were obliged to draw breath before adding her own solemn observations on the situation, but was interrupted almost immediately by Miss Lydia’s cry of,

‘Oh hush, Mary, I am sure Mr Darcy knows the Bible just as well as anyone without your reciting it to him.’ Darcy did not have time to agree or disagree before she was speaking again, this time to him directly. ‘Mr Darcy, won’t you tell what happened?’

‘Oh please do, Mr Darcy!’ Miss Catherine said, and was corroborated by her mother, who informed him with no little emotion at the dreadful fright they had received when he appeared on their doorstep with her daughter swooning in his arms, and how very much their distress would be alleviated by knowing how such a thing had come about. Awkwardly, he attempted to persuade them that his retelling would hardly comprise much explanation for he did not know much more than they did, but was gainsaid by the collective efforts of the Bennet women, now including Miss Bennet, who came down stairs seemingly with the express purpose of overruling his protests by way of her genuine concern for her sister. He was trapped, and he knew it. Steeling himself, he began:

 ‘I’m afraid that I can only speak for my part of the story, ma’am.’ He faltered. ‘I rode out in the late morning to look at the Woodman’s farm on the outskirts of Netherfield, to survey what parts of the estate closest to the river might need attention if it rained badly; there is some old construction there for the purpose but it is in the French style and I am not at all sure the tiling will hold – indeed I daresay it will be in a dreadful state by now.’ If someone had told him yesterday morning that in a mere twenty four hours he would be breaking his fast opposite a raptly attentive Lydia Bennet he would have dismissed them out of hand; if someone had told him that the topic of their conversation was to be drainage systems, he would have recommended them the name of his doctor. Clearing his throat, he continued, ‘I found myself riding quite near to Oakham Mount when the storm picked up, and would have turned back then if I had not seen Miss Elizabeth collapsed at the foot of the hill. The rest is no great stretch of the imagination, I am sure; you saw the ending.’

He turned his attention back to the bit of toast on his plate in the hopes of avoiding further questioning, but the Bennet women had evidently been trained under either a Spanish Inquisitor or Napoleon for he quickly found himself besieged from all sides in the most alarming fashion.

‘Did you not say you were riding? Did the horse throw a shoe that you were forced to walk?’

‘No, I let him free to return to Netherfield,’ said Darcy, only belatedly realising that Achilles might not yet be familiar enough with the landscape to find his way home, and hoping that someone had brought the poor beast in out of the rain.

‘But why did you not ride?’ Miss Catharine enquired.

He very much did not wish to admit that he had not had the strength to hoist Miss Elizabeth over his head to place her on the horse, regardless of how ridiculous it would have been if indeed he had managed such a thing, and so allowed himself a slight alteration of the facts in his reply.

‘I thought it would not be safe in such weather; horses take fright so easily, and I did not want to cause your sister further injury—’ he said, neglecting to mention that Achilles had been brought from Pemberley and was perfectly used to being forced out into the rain when duty necessitated it.

‘So you carried Lizzy the whole way?’ Miss Lydia interrupted, wide eyed. He nodded distractedly, eyes scouring the doorway for some sign of Mr Bennet, hoping it was him he could hear descending the stairs, but it must have been a servant for the footsteps faded away down the hall without stopping in the breakfast parlour. He could have cursed. ‘…Oh Mr Darcy, how strong you must be!’

This exclamation had its intended effect, and Darcy thought he might have cricked his neck so fast did he turn to look at her, thoroughly mortified. She did not notice however, for Miss Catharine had bent her head to whisper something in her younger sister’s ear and the pair promptly dissolved into scandalised giggles.

Lydia,’ Miss Bennet whispered, the pallor of her sleepless night overtaken by a vivid blush.

‘Oh Jane, do not be so severe!’ Mrs Bennet cried. ‘It is nothing more than the truth, for it was quite a feat to carry her so far, and I see no reason that we should not applaud Mr Darcy for it. It must be two miles to Oakham Mount, at least, and Lizzy is no child to be carried with ease.’

He knew very well what a gentleman ought to say now. As he assured Mrs Bennet that it had been no difficulty at all, he realised how ladies such as Mrs Radcliffe might be deceived regarding the weight of adult women in relation to the strength of ordinary men. But perhaps her formula had nothing to do with physical considerations; the evidence of his own experience would suggest that the weight of adult women in the retelling of such misadventures was to be measured, not in relation to a man’s strength, but rather in relation to the strength of his aversion to embarrassment.

‘I am sure any man would have done the same,’ Darcy concluded stiffly.

This statement was overridden by three dissenting women, who all declared themselves quite sure that most men were not nearly so gallant as he, much to his discomfort.

‘No indeed,’ Miss Lydia exclaimed over the other two. ‘For if I had been a man I am sure I would have left her there.’

This did absolutely nothing to recommend her to Mr Darcy, who was considering whether telling them of the severity of Miss Elizabeth’s condition would serve to prolong or abort the conversation when Miss Bennet interjected to ask him if he himself was quite well after the exposure. He answered her question with stilted civility, for though it had turned the tide of conversation, it had turned it in his direction and he found himself once more the focus of every other person at the table.

‘I ought to return to Netherfield,’ he said quickly, before Miss Lydia could put forth another impertinent remark.

‘No, not at all, Mr Darcy!’ Mrs Bennet cried. ‘The roads are still very bad, and I am sure they will be better when they have had a chance to dry. Let us send a servant to Netherfield instead to inform them of the situation, and I shall have Mr Bennet send for the carriage to take you home.’

‘Truly, madam, I am quite happy to walk.’

‘Walk? Good heavens, and after the service you rendered our poor Lizzy! How could we ever allow it, no you must take the carriage.’

 He had just opened his mouth to respond when the attention of his hostess was diverted by a banging at the door. Not a moment later, Hill was heard hurrying up from the kitchen.

‘Oh! I am sure it is an express,’ Mrs Bennet said in some distress. ‘Oh! What else could it be at this hour? Oh girls, I am sure something dreadful has happened to your uncle!’

Miss Bennet had stood and made for the door before her mother had managed to call for her salts but she stopped abruptly in the hallway at the sound of the doors opening.

‘Mr Bingley?’ Darcy heard her say, and he rose immediately from the table.

‘Miss Bennet, I beg you will pardon the intrusion but I must ask if you have seen Darcy at all—’

‘—Mr Bingley—’

‘—His horse arrived back at the stables yesterday evening without him and what with the storm—’

‘—Mr Bingley, please—’

‘—We sent men out to look for him without success and I thought perhaps one of your tenants might have seen him, if I could enquire—’

Darcy came out into the hallway and Bingley trailed off in astonishment.

‘—whether they have seen him…’

He stared, uncomprehending. ‘Darcy, what the devil—pardon me, Miss Bennet—what are you doing here?’

‘Jane!’ Mrs Bennet’s voice rang out from the breakfast room before either could answer. ‘Do not be uncivil, invite the gentlemen into the sitting room; we shall be along shortly.’

Miss Bennet flushed but complied. When they were seated, Bingley repeated his question, but Darcy had no particular wish to recall again his misadventures, and so instead allowed Miss Bennet to provide a brief explanation on his behalf. This seemed to add to Bingley’s amazement rather than lessen it, and he was forced to concede aloud that the whole thing was indeed true before Bingley would believe a word of it.

‘Good heavens,’ he said at the end of the tale, sitting back in his chair. ‘I can scarcely imagine it.’

‘That is for the best, I am sure,’ Darcy said flatly.

They sat for another moment in silence as Bingley absorbed the story, before he seemed to recall himself enough to ask after Miss Elizabeth’s health.

‘I cannot say that she is any better, but I do not believe she is any worse,’ Miss Bennet said, ‘though I would defer to Mr Darcy’s judgement on that score.’

Mr Bingley’s eyebrows made another brief sojourn towards his hairline as he turned to his friend.

‘Darcy?’

‘Her fever was still high this morning but it did not seem to have risen a great deal over the course of the night, I think; I believe it may break entirely by tonight,’ he said, studiously avoiding Bingley’s eye.

It was at this point that Mrs Bennet entered, and she was in the process of greeting the gentlemen when her husband emerged in the doorway.

‘Ah, Mr Bingley. Come to collect poor Mr Darcy, have you?’ he said cheerfully, with a wink in Mr Darcy’s direction. He turned to his wife, ‘Come, my dear, I believe your daughter requires a mother’s attentions.’

Vexed but nevertheless determined to impress upon the gentlemen the very great usefulness of a wife in such times of strife, she almost glided out of the room. Her youngest daughters followed in her wake up to the doorway, at which point they stopped and cast another round of admiring looks and giggles in Mr Darcy’s direction, heedless of his dour expression, before a shrill summons from their mother called them away again. Mr Bennet stood aside to let them all pass and then turned his attention back to their unexpected guests.

‘Best make haste, sirs, or I’m afraid you will find yourself conscripted by the feminine armada.’

‘Father…’ Miss Bennet said in soft reproach.

Darcy grimaced in discomfort but stood with Bingley – who looked as though he would much rather stay with Miss Bennet than leave – and the pair made their adieus, with a promise to call the next day to enquire after Miss Elizabeth.

Chapter Text

As the two men rode away from the house, Darcy felt faintly ill at ease and, turning on his borrowed mount, he caught a glimpse of the youngest Bennet girls peering out of an upper window before they ducked out of sight. He faced the road again, cringing; young girls were a mystery he was sure he would never understand, and moreover, did not wish to understand. For a time, he and Bingley rode in silence, each occupied by his own thoughts.

‘Darcy,’ Bingley said as they reached the edge of Mr Bennet’s lands. He paused and Darcy turned to him, brow raised enquiringly. ‘I confess, I haven’t the slightest idea of how to approach this but… I must ask how you came to be in Miss Elizabeth’s company yesterday.’

Darcy’s countenance darkened and Bingley hastened to elaborate.

‘Do not think that I am suggesting any improper conduct on your part—or on hers!—I know you both to be above such behaviour—but you must know that it is my duty to ask, both as your host and as a friend to the Bennets.’ He hesitated, chagrined by his own line of inquiry, but persisted. ‘It simply doesn’t make sense, Darcy; I can think of no logical reason for you to have gone so far if your purpose regarded the estate. You know as well as I that Oakham Mount is more than half a mile from Netherfield’s outermost farms, and that is to measure from the back fields, not the cottages. The Bennets will know it too.’

‘Bingley, I cannot offer you another explanation; there is none. You may ask Nicholas Graham to confirm my whereabouts, if you wish.’

‘I have no need to confirm it, Darcy, I believe you. But Graham’s word does not explain how you came to be on Oakham Mount to find Miss Elizabeth…’ Bingley shook his head, and then sat up with sudden alarm. ‘Darcy, you are not protecting her, are you?’ he asked anxiously. ‘You did find her on Oakham Mount, and not in any place she ought not to have been?’

Darcy was quick to promise him that it was so.

‘I am relieved to hear it,’ said Bingley, ‘though I would have been greatly surprised to hear otherwise.’

For a long moment, neither man spoke; the one out of unwillingness to pursue the indictment of a man he looked up to as a brother, and the other out of reluctance to acknowledge the unprecedented necessity of defending his own character. Finally, Darcy exerted himself to reassure his friend, whose gentle sensibilities were clearly wounded by the division of his loyalty between his friend and the sister of his beloved Miss Bennet.

‘Truly, Bingley,’ he said, relinquishing his pride with difficulty. ‘I have not disguised any part of this. It was luck alone that led me to discover Miss Bennet when I did.’

Bingley was easily comforted.

‘Then I shall direct my gratitude to providence,’ he said, relieved. ‘Though I daresay our neighbours will insist upon directing theirs to you.’

‘I doubt it.’

‘I do not; Miss Elizabeth is much beloved in Hertfordshire, as I understand it.’

‘That may well be, but I am quite the opposite.’

‘I am sure that is not the case,’ Bingley said loyally. ‘Our neighbours are too kind to harbour any ill feelings to you, no matter how strong your reserve.’

Darcy’s private thoughts on the kindness of their neighbours were not fit to be shared.

‘Indeed,’ Bingley said. ‘I would not be surprised if you were to find yourself touted as a local hero.’

‘Good God, Bingley, I wish you would not say such things,’ said Darcy with a grimace. ‘I am sure you are wrong. If our neighbours are as fond of Miss Elizabeth as you say, I think it far more likely they would paint me the wickedest libertine before any sort of champion.’

‘Surely not!’

‘Bingley, you yourself were forced to question the circumstances that led to my appearance at Longbourn; you cannot imagine that others will not. Not everyone shares your implacable confidence in my good character.’

Bingley was dismayed.

‘I had not thought of that.’

They were quiet another moment.

‘I think I should write to my cousin,’ Darcy said unwillingly.

‘Miss de Bourgh?’ asked Bingley. Darcy shook his head.

‘Colonel Fitzwilliam.’

‘Whatever for?’

Darcy grimaced.

‘We may yet be obliged to weather a scandal; I should consider his presence invaluable, should such a thing come to pass.’

Bingley, poor benevolent Bingley, could not believe that anyone would so malign his friend, particularly after he had taken such pains to ensure the safety of Miss Elizabeth.

‘We cannot assume—’ he began, but Darcy interrupted.

‘I do not assume, but it would be ill-judged to ignore the possibility. And I must think of my sister.’

Bingley digested this with consternation of one who would have gladly gone through the whole world thinking that everyone in it was as honest and trusting as himself.

‘Of course,’ he said unhappily, and the pair fell silent once more.

But Bingley was not of a disposition to remain out of sorts and he soon roused himself to look forward to seeing the colonel. With a great deal more of his accustomed good cheer, he insisted that Darcy should invite him to Netherfield instantly upon their return; for, he declared, he should not live to see the day when a friend of Darcy’s should put up in an inn when Bingley had empty rooms in his house. Darcy, however, was most certainly of a disposition to remain out of sorts, and so, after accepting with gratitude his friend’s invitation, he spoke not another word on the whole long ride to Netherfield.

 


 

 

Mrs Bennet, upon finding Lizzy still insensate, and therefore, she reasoned, not in need of her at all, wasted no time expressing her disapproval of her husband’s scheming to remove the gentlemen from under her roof. Her displeasure was vocal enough that Lizzy was roused briefly in her room upstairs and Lydia, seeing this, hopped off the window seat she had wrested from Kitty only moments ago, and darted out of the room to yell over the top bannister for Jane to come see to Lizzy. Dashing back inside, she flung herself at her elder sister and by the time Jane had made it up the stairs Kitty and Lydia had taken up residence on the bed, one on either side of its inhabitant, and were relating to her with no little enthusiasm what a ghastly romantic picture she and Mr Darcy had made appearing out of the darkness the previous night. Jane shooed them away before they managed to tell her dazed sister about that gentleman’s state of undress and persuaded Lizzy to drink some water before she returned to sleep.

The rest of the day continued in that manner, the repetition broken only by the arrival of Mr Jones, the apothecary, who gave them a poultice for Elizabeth’s wound; decided the other damage looked like bad sprain rather than a break and instructed them to prevent her from using it until it no longer pained her; discovered a head injury heretofore undiscovered by the Bennets; assured them that it was not severe enough to merit further distress; and echoed Mr Darcy’s belief that the fever would not last another night.

He was quite right. The fever lasted until nearly midnight and then broke, much to the relief of her favourite sister and most diligent nurse, whom alone had stayed with her for the duration of the evening. The rest of the family had disseminated after dinner, Mary to the sitting room with a book of sermons and a look of sheer disdain for the general uproar, and the other girls to the parlour, to continue the uproar. Her father excused himself with a quick assurance to Jane that he thought she was rather better qualified than he in the field of caregiving and retired to his book room, having tired of the whole affair. With this abject separation of familial factions, the Bennet household returned to a state of relative normality.

 


 

 

The inhabitants of Netherfield Park endured rather a different experience of that day to those of Longbourn, and despite the lack of serious injury and illness among them, Darcy was not at all convinced that their party was the more agreeable of the two. Miss Bingley had been beside herself with distress at the news of Mr Darcy’s mysterious disappearance; and when that was resolved, she was beside herself again at the rapid undoing of all of her efforts to remove her brother and the rest of their party to London. Bingley had insisted that Darcy should not travel until they were sure he had not taken ill too, and promptly countermanded Caroline’s orders to close up the house, despite Darcy’s assurances that he was perfectly fine, and certainly well enough to ride, as he had just demonstrated.

‘And look how well that went yesterday,’ Bingley said cheerfully. ‘If it is all the same to you, I don’t think I have the nerves for any more of your heroics.’

‘Heroics?’

‘Oh indeed, Caroline; you shall be delighted to know that our Darcy here saved Miss Elizabeth Bennet from certain death, and I’m sure he needs to rest. Besides, Darcy,’ he addressed his friend, ‘we have promised to call on the Bennets tomorrow morning, you recall? It would be most ungentlemanly to give up the engagement. We must stay.’

‘Certain death—?’ was all Caroline managed to get out before Bingley left her standing in the entrance hall with a promise to return in a moment once he had seen to their guest—this last said pointedly to dissuade her from further objection.

Having gainsaid Caroline in the only way that had ever met with success in their youth—quickly and confusingly, to prevent effective argument—Bingley avoided Darcy’s eye as he steered him upstairs towards his rooms. Despite Bingley’s words, Darcy rather suspected that the change in plans had less to do with his own welfare and more to do with that of the eldest Miss Bennet. Even disregarding the natural consequences of his own actions in bringing the two families into closer acquaintance, Darcy knew without question that all of his and Miss Bingley’s efforts to persuade Bingley against an entanglement had been undone in the face of Miss Bennet’s distress. But he could not blame Bingley for his weakness.

Having realised himself to be in serious danger of forming his own attachment, he had spent the previous morning convincing himself of the necessity of removing himself from Miss Elizabeth’s company; but the afternoon he had spent with his arms around her, and he knew he was lost. How could he leave her now? Before he had only the memory of her gloved hands touching his own during their dance at the Netherfield Ball to torment him, and even that had left an unsettling impression on him. Now he knew how her lips felt brushing so lightly and innocently against his pulse, how well she fit into his arms, how his name sounded in her breathless whisper, how her fingers twisted into the fabric of his shirt in the brief moments when she had almost awoken during the long walk to Longbourn—

‘Are you alright, Darcy?’ Bingley’s voice came from beside him and he realised they had stopped in front of his rooms. ‘I was only trying to distract Caroline before but perhaps you are truly unwell. You do not seem yourself.’

‘Merely tired,’ Darcy said, thinking that he had never been less inclined to sleep in his life. Miss Elizabeth would drive him to distraction. ‘Forgive me.’

Bingley nodded understandingly and, clapping him briefly on the shoulder, left him to his own devices while he returned to face Caroline’s ire with his usual good humour. Darcy watched him go with no small amount of trepidation on his behalf, and then decided it was perhaps in his best interests to remain out of the way for their interview. Slipping inside and closing the door behind him, he rang the bell for Rogers and turned his thoughts to the situation at hand.

Mr Bennet had asked him not to think of the threat to Miss Elizabeth’s reputation at this time; he firmly ignored the part of him that wished Mr Bennet had instead demanded they marry by special licence before the week was out, knowing that the gesture must have been meant kindly. Still, Darcy could not countenance the sheer negligence of such a comment from the father of five unmarried daughters. It was all very well for Darcy to separate Wickham and Georgiana, but he had the funds and influence to protect her reputation, as well as the ownership of enough of Wickham’s debts to have him sent to prison if the scoundrel dared threaten her. He could only imagine how fast he himself would have insisted on a wedding if he had been in Mr Bennet’s position, faced with the possible ruination of his daughter by a man who could well afford to support her and who was shamefully, sinfully willing to marry her.

Rogers appeared then with such an expression of blank civility that Darcy knew his tightest and least comfortable waistcoats were about to make a mysterious reappearance in his daily accoutrements. He could not bring himself to care; a shirt and breeches was not an unreasonable price for the life of any young lady, and he would cheerfully have dragged half the contents of his wardrobe through the muddy fields for the chance to spend any length of time staring at Elizabeth without the interruption of Mrs Bennet or Miss Bingley or anyone else. A bath was brought up and he sent Rogers away again promptly with a short note summoning his cousin to Netherfield immediately, to be posted by express. He needed to govern his thoughts, and his valet’s subtle displeasure was not remotely conducive to rationality. Within moments of Rogers’ leaving, however, Darcy realised that his thoughts were all of Elizabeth, and found that that was even less conducive to rationality.

He could hear voices from the floor below, or rather one voice—Miss Bingley’s—and he wondered how his friend was faring under the assault. Personally he would rather have faced yesterday’s storm again than either the ire of Miss Bingley or the flattery of Mrs Bennet, and he could not imagine how Charles could be keeping his equanimity in the face of such womanly wrath; perhaps it had something to do with his growing up in such close company with so many women, Darcy mused. He knew that Bingley’s father had been rarely home, that he had no brothers, and that all his four cousins were girls also. No doubt that had prepared him very well for such disagreements.

He imagined for a brief moment escaping Netherfield, leaving the eminently more qualified Bingley to deal with Mrs Bennet and his sister, but put it out of his mind almost immediately. He knew very well what he must do; he must linger to ascertain the extent of the damage, both to Miss Elizabeth’s reputation and his own. Depending entirely on who related the story to the neighbours—for there was no doubt that it would be related to them—and which elements of his actions received the greater part of the teller’s attentions, either he or she or both of them might well be ruined in the eyes of society, he for a philandering rip and she for a fallen woman[1]. Among her friends it was possible that she might be exculpated by her good character but if either rumour made it to London or, God forbid, to his relations in the peerage, she would be turned out of polite society unless he married her. His heart twisted at the thought of Elizabeth, alone and friendless, forced to make her own way in the world. It was not uncommon for unfortunate women of gentle birth to end their days in Whetstone’s Park or Covent Gardens, either on the street or, if they were lucky, under the dubious care of the abbess at one of the bawdyhouses thereabouts; twice during his days at Cambridge he had been obliged to venture thither in search of Wickham after the lout had gone missing, and both times, he had been discovered making a nuisance of himself with a woman of good breeding[2]. An expensive taste but evidently one in good supply, as Darcy found out the second time, when, upon his arrival, Wickham greeted him with a declaration of how good it was of him to come settle a dear friend’s debts.

Glowering darkly at the recollection, he put Wickham out of his mind with difficulty. Miss Elizabeth would not suffer so at his hands. At the first sign of trouble he would apply to her father for her hand and damn the consequences. Colonel Fitzwilliam would come soon to help him smooth everything over, he was sure of it, and his presence would add legitimacy to the match; if his family were present, it might dismiss any unwelcome aspersions on his reasons for marrying and that would save both their reputations. Who would dare to cast aspersions on a match that was publically sanctioned by the son and representative of the Earl Fitzwilliam?

He felt a strange sense of relief at the thought that the most pressing concern of his adult life, the task of finding a suitable mistress of Pemberley and mother to his heirs, might be solved; his relations could hardly object to her lack of fortune and connections now that he had compromised her, and it was not as if his family would ever have occasion to cross paths with hers once he and Elizabeth were at Pemberley. His uncle the Earl would not be pleased by the match but the old man was an upright sort of gentleman; his displeasure would be far greater if he heard of Darcy failing to make amends to a gentlewoman than it would be at his marrying one, even one with relations in Cheapside. His Aunt Catherine’s reaction, however, did not bear thinking of, and so he studiously did not.

As Rogers reappeared with his robe, Darcy thought that everything was very well settled, if they could but circumvent a scandal.

 


 

 

[1] Rip: From ‘rep’, an abbreviation of ‘reprobate’, used to describe an immoral person, the term came into popular usage during the late eighteenth century.

[2] Unfortunate women: whores, a sympathetic term, usually used by women. Whetstone’s Park: a lane between Holborn and Lincoln’s-inn Fields, in London, frequented by whores. Covent Gardens: another famously disreputable area where brothels and whores might be found in abundance, also in London, situated near the theatre district. Abbess: the mistress of a brothel. Bawdyhouse: a brothel.

Chapter Text

The news spread in tandem with the dawn of good weather: slowly, and then with unregulated rapidity. Mrs Phillips heard it from her abigail[1], Maria, who heard it from Susan, who lit the fires in the mornings, who heard it from Mary Preston below stairs, who heard it from her mother, who was also called Mary Preston, and who tenanted a farm on the Bennets’ estate with her husband, Mr Preston. Mr and Mrs Preston had heard of the shocking episode from Roberts and Cattermole, the footmen at Longbourn, who had come down to help clear away the wreckage of the bridge after it went out in the storm—there was a great fear of flooding, you see, if the fallen bridge was allowed to form a dam—and they had seen the whole thing with their own two eyes, though they could not speak to the precise state of the ailing Miss Elizabeth or her attire upon her arrival as she had been quite indecently wrapped up in that Mr Darcy fellow’s coat.

By the time this all reached Mrs Phillips, the tale was so woefully and wildly incomplete, furnished with all sorts of unnecessary particulars but entirely lacking in connecting details, that Mrs Phillips thought it best to make her own enquiries. She called on the family at Longbourn on Friday, so early that Lydia could still be heard upstairs, yelping that Sarah ought to be more careful with the curling tongs or Lydia would never get a husband[2].

‘Sister!’ said Mrs Phillips, sweeping into the sitting room with all the force of a runaway carriage. ‘Sister, is it true?’

It would have been prudent for Mrs Bennet to enquire what she was referring to before making her reply, but it would have been prudent also for that dashed Napoleon to consider the weather before marching his soldiers across the Alps. Neither showed such wisdom. Instead, Mrs Bennet gave her to understand that it was indeed true, promptly dissolved into a fit of the vapours, and had to be revived by judicious application of smelling salts, at which point she prescribed for herself a dose of medicinal brandy, retracted the prescription, and allowed Mrs Phillips to recommend it again.

‘Oh but I could not,’ Mrs Bennet cried. ‘I never indulge, I think it quite a degenerate habit.’

Mrs Phillips met her cue admirably, insisting that she must in this case, for clearly she was unwell, and there was nothing for it but salts and brandy. Kitty wondered uncharitably if the potency of this treatment would be lessened by overuse, and then caught Jane’s eye and hurried to fetch the brandy.

Finally, Mrs Bennet was brought round to the point of conversation.

‘Oh sister!’ she cried. ‘It has been the most dreadful time! I can scarcely think upon it—such flutterings and spasms all over!’

Mrs Phillips fussed over her excessively.

‘Oh my poor sister,’ she said. ‘You must not trouble yourself; I am sure one of the girls can tell me—’

‘No!’ Mrs Bennet cried. ‘No indeed! For I am sure it will pain them as much as I but I am older and their mother; I shall bear it for them.’

Thus resolved, she related the whole of it to Mrs Phillips without further difficulty, who made a very fine listener, and gasped without prompting at all the right moments.

‘Oh! but you must not let any of this be known until all is settled between Lizzy and Mr Darcy!’ Mrs Bennet finished.

‘Surely it is resolved already,’ Mrs Phillips said. ‘I am sure I would consider everything quite settled by now.’

‘Aye sister, that is what I said, but would anybody listen? No! But I never complain.’

‘Mama!’ Jane could not restrain herself. ‘We must not speak so. Mr Darcy has not made Lizzy an offer, and even if he had, I am quite sure she would not have him.’

Mrs Bennet’s outcry was immediate and animated.

‘Would not have him! Would not have him – what a notion, child! What can you be thinking? Of course she will have him. He has ten thousand a year, you know,’ she said as if this settled the matter. ‘Though,’ she amended, ‘I am sure Lizzy would take him if he was as poor as a church mouse; that is the way of these young people nowadays. They have no compassion for their poor parents, though we do worry so for them.’

Mrs Phillips agreed, but dared to add that Mrs Bennet might be cheered that Lizzy at least had not given her heart to anyone so unworthy.

‘She has not given her heart to anybody,’ Jane felt obliged to intercede.

‘Oh hush, child. It is as plain as day!’ Turning to Mrs Phillips, Mrs Bennet added knowingly, ‘These young lovers think themselves so secretive, but they can hardly fool the likes of you or me.’

‘Mama—’

‘If you had only seen Mr Darcy when our dearest Lizzy was in peril, sister, you could not doubt the strength of his passions for her,’ she declared, conveniently forgetting both her usual animosity towards her second daughter, and the fact that she had not seen Darcy’s entrance at all except blurrily through the sitting room window.

Poor Jane could not bear to hear another word, and excused herself to her sister’s care, though as she passed Lydia on the stairs, she wondered if she had not better have stayed for Lizzy’s sake. As she shut the door of the room she shared with Lizzy behind her, she could hear her youngest sister and Kitty besiege their aunt with their own additional remembrances; the handsome set of Mr Darcy’s jaw, the scandalous lack of a cravat, the way Lizzy had clung most to him most indecently—and had Mrs Phillips ever noticed what a deep voice he had? As if Lizzy had not been totally unconscious, dreadfully ill, badly injured, and all in all quite incapable of indecent clinging. For a moment, Jane was very nearly upset with her family but her gentle nature soon won out; they must not have understood the severity of Lizzy’s condition. After all, it had been Jane who had tended to her upon her arrival, and therefore it was not surprising that she alone seemed to understand the depth of gratitude which they must now owe to Mr Darcy, without whom her mother and sisters would surely have been obliged to spend this morning picking apart their old dresses to be dyed[3].

 And surely her mother did not intend to make such indecent implications. No doubt she had not considered the way in which her comments might be perceived by one who was not intimately acquainted with either of the parties involved. Glad to be relieved of the burden of thinking ill of her family, Jane nevertheless understood that there was perhaps a slight chance that her mother’s words might be misunderstood by their neighbours, and so it was with some unhappiness that she found herself hoping that her mother was right about Mr Darcy’s feelings; altruistic though his actions might have been, and however little she would wish to lay expectations on him, they might well be ruined if he did not marry Lizzy.

But that was to put the cart before the horse and Jane was not made to suspect anybody, which saved her from further anxiety on the subject. Instead, she shook herself and set about readjusting the bedsheets to better cover her sister. It was impossible to know yet if there was to be a scandal, and she was not inclined to expect one. Their neighbours had known Lizzy for the whole of her life, and they had no cause to think so ill of her. Besides which, they had all endured the same rains as the Bennets; surely no one would be persuaded that Mr Darcy and her sister had chosen such weather for an outdoor tryst. No, she rather doubted that anyone could make a romance out of the situation.

It will not surprise the reader to know that Jane was wrong.

 


 

 

The Bennets had been ordered to keep Elizabeth abed for at least three days, and not to venture out of doors for a week. It is no great stretch of the imagination to imagine how well she endured this confinement; within an hour of waking on Friday—having mercifully slept through Mrs Phillips’ inharmonious visit—she had gathered enough strength to not only resent the instructions, but to protest their necessity vociferously to all who would listen—or to speak plainly, to Jane.

Once she had woken and been dressed by a mysteriously close-lipped Sarah, her family had invaded her bedroom to express their joy at her recovery. For a scant minute the room was home to a charming scene of domestic felicity and familial affection, before Mr Bennet remarked to his daughter,

‘I must say, Lizzy, you have demonstrated a remarkable flair for the dramatic; you put poor Kotzebue to shame on Wednesday. I am not surprised at Mr Collins’ performance but however did you persuade Mr Darcy to meet his cue?’[4]

Elizabeth was saved the embarrassment of answering by her mother, who, having been reminded of the former gentleman’s application, wished to air her grievances with Mr Bennet’s regarding his reaction to their daughter’s rejection. Evidently deciding that the sickroom was a satisfactory setting in which to do so, she interrupted to say how very vexing the whole affair had been.

‘Nonetheless,’ he said, ‘I shall not be moved.’

 ‘But of course not!’ agreed Mrs Bennet, to the surprise of all her audience. ‘You were quite right to deny your consent, but there was no need to be so very shrewd about the business.’

Mr Bennet recalled very clearly his wife’s displeasure with the frankness of his refusal of Mr Collins, and said so.

‘Oh no, I care not a whit about Mr Collins,’ said she, ‘but it would all have been so much simpler if you had only told me that you were obliged to deny him out of respect for our dear Mr Darcy.’

Elizabeth had thought her confusion with the whole conversation could reach no greater heights when her father replied blithely:

‘I assure you, madam, my consent was withheld entirely without reference to that gentleman or his non-existent engagement to my daughter.’

Lizzy’s eyes widened in alarm and she looked to Jane for explanation. Jane shook her head slightly; later.

‘Oh Mr Bennet!’ cried Mrs Bennet. ‘It is plain as anything, for why else should you have withheld it?’

‘Any number of reasons—none of which I am inclined to voice in the company of my daughters.’

Mrs Bennet did not seem inclined to hear him.

‘I only wish you had told me about it before Mr Collins requested an audience,’ said she again. ‘You have made me look quite the fool, has he not, girls?’

‘If I did, Mrs Bennet, I certainly had no intention of doing so; you have always managed admirably without my assistance,’ he said, and, with a cheerful nod to his eldest daughters, excused himself forthwith.

Mrs Bennet felt, rather than understood, that she had been insulted, and spoke very vexedly of her husband without knowing exactly why.

‘I am sure I don’t know what is to become of us all,’ she said fretfully, ‘for your father is determined to see you all spinsters.’

Lizzy ought to have been grateful that her mother did not seem inclined to recall Elizabeth’s own recent contribution towards their communal spinsterhood, descent into genteel poverty, and death in the hedgerows, etc., but she knew her mother too well to believe that she would be well served by the reprieve; even if she had been blessed with Jane’s inability to think ill of anyone, she could not have failed to hear the news of her own supposed engagement.

She longed to interrogate Jane, but Mrs Bennet, with her inimitable talent for planting herself where she was not wanted, remained in the room a further ten minutes, and rejected any effort on the part of her daughters to steer the conversation towards more pleasant subject material. Eventually it was Lydia who rescued them, albeit entirely unintentionally, by going downstairs to fetch a bonnet she wished to re-trim and returning with the intelligence that Mr Bennet had taken to his book room and given strict instructions to Cattermole that he was not to be disturbed. This, naturally, prompted his wife’s immediate indignation, which she indulged by collecting up her youngest daughters, retreating to her own rooms, and calling for Hill, to tell her that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Mary, apparently sensing the general tension, thought it a very good time to play a jig, and excused herself to the pianoforte for that purpose.

Elizabeth applied immediately to her sister for an explanation.

‘I should think myself dreaming if I had not already pinched myself twice, just to be sure. What on earth has happened that Mr Darcy of all people should be dear to our mother?’

Jane endeavoured to put her sister at ease by relating as plainly as possible the events of the last few days, making sure to describe in detail the kindness with which Mr Darcy had acted towards her sister, and his fortitude in the face of their mother and sisters. Elizabeth digested this with silent dismay.

‘And what is the talk of an engagement?’

‘It is nothing, I am sure. I would not have you distress yourself on that score. Our mother has misconstrued Mr Darcy’s motivations in ensuring your safety, that is all, and I have no doubt that it will all be forgotten soon.’

In point of fact, Mrs Bennet had not given a second thought to Mr Darcy’s motivations; it was his appearance with her daughter after Lizzy had walked out that had fixed her attention. To her, it was obvious that the pair had intended to meet in secret that day, and that Lizzy had been on her way to keep the engagement when she met with her accident. She didn’t for a moment believe that he had found her by chance, such luck could never be; no, he must have known to look for her, and more particularly, where to look. This particular assignation had likely been organised while they danced together at the Netherfield ball, she thought, but their relationship must be of longer standing than that, for surely her daughter would not be persuaded to meet with a gentleman of whose affections she was unsure. But when had such a thing come about? Casting her mind backwards, Mrs Bennet thought that Lizzy had certainly found herself in need of a great many walks in the recent weeks. Could she have been meeting Mr Darcy all this time? On further reflection, Mrs Bennet found that she could trace this increased desire for outdoor activity to her daughter’s return from her stay at Netherfield, and fancied with self-satisfied glee that perhaps her least beloved daughter was not so very useless as she had believed. Little wonder she had refused Mr Collins when she had already secured the affections of a man ten or twenty times his consequence! Thus cheered and convinced, it did not take long for Mrs Bennet to come round to the idea that she herself had suggested Lizzy’s going to care for Jane, and to take full credit for having placed her daughter in a position to catch the gentleman’s attention. That Lizzy’s heightened interest in walking stemmed primarily from an interest in avoiding the new and ingratiating inhabitant of Longbourn never occurred to her; indeed she had quite forgotten her ill-fated sponsorship of Mr Collins’ suit.

Thankfully, neither Jane nor Lizzy was presently aware of the extent of their mother’s unbridled suppositions, or they would have had cause for even greater distress than either was presently suffering. Elizabeth in particular was reaching the end of her capacity for mortification by the time Jane came to the point of explaining the seriousness of her condition, whereupon she was moved to exclaim:

‘You cannot be serious, Jane! Surely it cannot all have been so very dire.’

Jane assured her that it had been, and moreover that they must all be very grateful that Mr Darcy had found her when he did, else she would certainly have succumbed to her injuries. Lizzy, having never before been obliged to consider the fact of her mortality, was entirely horrified.

‘To think that I was in such danger—oh Jane, I can scarcely credit it! And that my rescuer should be Mr Darcy of all men. Mr Darcy, who never speaks but to give offence and who never looks at me but to be displeased with what he sees!’

It was too much. She could hardly keep her countenance and despite the consequences of her last impassioned walk, she longed for the open solitude of the countryside. Jane, however, would not be persuaded to release her for the purpose, no matter how she pleaded.

‘Jane, I am quite well, I assure you. I should not go far from the house,’ she tried vainly to convince her sister but Jane would not be moved. She sat serenely by the bed and absorbed herself in her needlework as though she did not hear Lizzy, who subsided a few minutes before pursuing a different tack.

‘Jane, hadn’t you better go downstairs? Mr Bingley will be calling soon, I am sure.’

This was a vagary of the truth; when she had questioned Sarah as to why she needed to be dressed and resettled on the daybed if she was to spend the day resting, the girl had answered thoughtlessly that Mr Darcy would likely be visiting before she realised that she ought not have said it, at which point she refused to say another word on any subject. With this knowledge and after what Jane had told her about that gentleman’s unexpected stay, she suspected that Mr Darcy would never set foot in their house again without bringing along some means of distracting her mother and sisters, a purpose for which Mr Bingley would no doubt make a very willing sacrifice.

Despite the dubious source of her assertion, Elizabeth was proved right, and the two gentlemen appeared at precisely the courteous hour[5]. Jane pretended not to mark their progress through the window of Lizzy’s room as they approached the house, and Lizzy would have laughed at her if she were not so distraught at the prospect of facing the man who was the object of her conflicted emotions, without even the opportunity to examine her thoughts beforehand.

Both ladies feigned surprise when the men were admitted to the sick room, ostensibly to apply directly to Miss Elizabeth as to the state of her health. Elizabeth, her mind a veritable gallimaufry of distress, embarrassment, confusion, and resentment at the being made to feel any such turmoil, directed her feelings in the direction of the one upon whom responsibility for her upset might most easily be placed[6]. In a fit of pique, she decided it was very likely that the gentlemen would have been satisfied with a report from her family if his friend had not wished to see her sister and her sister had not refused to be parted from Elizabeth.

She was forced to exclude Mr Bingley from that uncharitable assessment of their visitors’ motives when faced with that gentleman’s genuine and repeatedly voiced concerns for her wellbeing, but allowed it to rest on Mr Darcy with no small amount of resentment for he bowed to her once and professed a seemingly fictitious relief at seeing her so much improved, before walking directly to the window and absenting himself from all further conversation. When Jane had described the manner of her rescue, and the care which Mr Darcy had taken about it all, she had been mortified, and for one horrifying moment thought that she might have to revise her earlier opinion of him. She was relieved to discover that this would not be necessary, and that his short stint as a considerate acquaintance seemed to have cured him of any motivation to apply himself to that pursuit again.

Darcy, for his part, had wished to say more but upon seeing Elizabeth had realised that he had not the slightest notion of what to say. Their shared ordeal had given him a sense of increased intimacy with her – and vice versa, he assumed – but it had not given him any greater power of pleasing.

Retreating hastily to the window to gather his thoughts and, if he was honest, to stare at her reflection unobserved, he wracked his brains for some little civility that he might offer her. Not for the first time, he envied Bingley his natural ease. The younger man was conversing cheerfully with Elizabeth and her sister on some inane topic, while he, Darcy, a grown man and successful graduate of Cambridge, had depleted his conversational skills at ‘I am glad to see you awake, Miss Elizabeth’. He would conquer this reticence, he had to; it was hardly sensible to think that he might spend his life married to a woman he could not get the nerve to speak to.

Thus determined to improve, he naturally spent the remainder of their visit lurking and staring at Elizabeth while she smiled with Bingley and her sister. When they left, he astonished the room by bowing over her uninjured hand and murmured,

‘Your servant, Miss Elizabeth.’

Straightening, he congratulated himself on managing another four words and allowed Bingley to express their intention of calling again soon, quite unaware of Elizabeth’s expression of poorly disguised amazement.

 


 

 

[1] Abigail: a period term used to refer to a lady’s maid.

[2] Mrs Phillips arrives just after 10:00am, which is not really early by modern standards. As we have discussed, breakfast would be taken between the hours of 8:00am and 10:00am, with morning hours beginning at 11:00am, so she is ‘early’ for visiting. Regarding the fact that Lydia is still upstairs seeing to her hair at this time: the Bennet women are known to share a single maid, Sarah. (For those of you who remember the appearance of ‘Sally’ later in the original text, I have not forgotten; Sally is a nickname for Sarah.) Anyone who has ever attempted to force their hair into ringlets, even with modern technology, will agree that it is absolutely impossible that one poor woman would have been able to curl the hair of six women in the time between waking and breakfasting. The ladies of the house would have been served in order of superiority, beginning with Mrs Bennet and finishing with Lydia, the youngest, so yes they are all dressed by this point, but I have Lydia lagging behind with her hair in deference to the situation with the maid.

[3] Jane is referring to the practice of dying dresses black to wear during the first stages of mourning. This was common practice during the Regency as most families could not afford to have a new wardrobe made up in mourning colours. Thanks to the mass production and resultant affordability of fabric, the Bennets would likely have been able to afford some specially made mourning clothes, but with five women remaining in the house, they would probably still have had to sacrifice some of their old gowns to the purpose.

[4] August von Kotzebue was a German playwright who enjoyed a great deal of success in England during Jane Austen’s lifetime; he was best known for his melodramas and comedies.

[5] Visiting hours began at 11:00am. To arrive any earlier would be considered rude, unless the visitor was a close family member, as in Mrs Phillips’ case, though even then early visits would be unusual.

[6] Gallimaufry: a hodgepodge, mess, or confused medley of things; the medieval term had a small spike in popularity around the year 1800, but was used largely in literature, hence its appearance in reference to the thoughts of a great reader such as our Elizabeth.

Chapter Text

‘Insufferable man,’ said Lizzy with some feeling when the gentlemen’s footsteps had faded away, leaving her alone with her sister.

‘Lizzy…’

‘Truly, Jane, he is the most disagreeable gentleman I have ever had the misfortune to be acquainted with. Why did he come if he wished only to be silent and grave, standing in condemnation of our poor gardens?’

‘To see you, Lizzy, as you well know.’

‘Hardly – I am sure he spent more time looking at his own reflection than at me.’

‘Perhaps he is not well himself,’ Jane suggested, ‘and found that company was too great an exertion.’

‘Then he ought to have stayed home.’

‘And if he had, would you not have felt slighted?’

‘Naturally.’

‘Then he was obliged to come.’

‘That does not signify; he has never allowed obligation to regulate his behaviour in the past.’

‘Lizzy, I beg you would not speak so. Mr Darcy has done us all a great service in rescuing you, and truly I cannot believe him to be as disagreeable as you do.’

‘One may be disagreeable without being inclined towards murder by negligence,’ Elizabeth said, laughing. Jane’s reproachful gaze caught her eye and she sighed. ‘Forgive me, Jane. I shall endeavour keep my thoughts of Mr Darcy to myself in the future if they pain you.’

‘I would rather you did not think of him so unkindly,’ replied Jane, but despite her words, there was no hint of censure in her tone.

‘And I would rather not think of him at all; will that do?’

‘Lizzy, please. Try to be kind to Mr Darcy. He does not have your easy manner, it is true—’

‘One does not require an easy manner to refrain from insulting new acquaintances within their hearing.’

‘He ought not to have said it,’ Jane agreed. ‘But truly, Lizzy, I think he must be a better sort of man than his manners would suggest.’ She struggled briefly to think of how best to describe Mr Darcy’s behaviour when he appeared on Wednesday evening. ‘He was so very urgent in attending to you; he refused to spare even a moment for his own comfort until we were certain you were out of danger. And it was clear he was not easy with our mother and sisters, but he could not have been called rude. Really, Lizzy, on this occasion I think we must all endeavour to be kind to him, whatever his other failings might be.

Lizzy’s colour heightened and she agreed to behave better; at the very least she must thank him, she supposed. She laughed once in agitation and said:

‘Oh Jane, how much it distresses me to be indebted to such a man! We know well his opinion of our society; I cannot imagine that this will have improved it.’

‘We must not borrow trouble, dear Lizzy. I do not think he thinks the worse of us for your misfortune.’

‘I am sure he does; he must despise me.’

‘He does not,’ Jane said, with surprising assurance. ‘If you had only seen him when he carried you into the house—’

‘I am excessively glad that I did not,’ Elizabeth interrupted, forgetting her pledge to be more sympathetic towards her rescuer, ‘for Lydia has told me that he looked as handsome as any redcoat and I have resolved to think him quite ill favoured.’

This had its intended effect.

‘As handsome as a redcoat? Surely not,’ Jane said, disarmed. ‘Lydia would never say such a thing.’

‘I would not have thought it either but I assure you, she said it,’ said Lizzy, grateful to turn the conversation in a lighter direction.

‘Are you quite certain?’

‘Indeed! I asked her if he was as handsome as Mr Wickham; Lydia said he was just as handsome, and Kitty said more so.’

‘No!’

‘I am as astonished as you are, Jane, but it is quite true. And I shall know soon enough if he really was so very handsome for Kitty has resolved to draw me a likeness of the whole scene and I have not seen her since. I suspect it shall be a masterpiece,’ said Lizzy, her eyes glinting with mischief.

‘Be kind, Lizzy,’ said Jane reproachfully. ‘She is not very bad; I am sure if Father would allow her the benefit of a master—’

‘We would know that the world had clearly come off its axis and started turning the other way.’ Lizzy subsided. ‘But you are right; perhaps we ought to speak to him on her behalf.’

Jane thought this a very good idea and said so, and their conversation turned to how best to approach their father.

 


 

They were spared further visitations until Sunday, when Elizabeth’s absence from the morning service prompted Mrs Bennet to remark loudly to Mr Bennet as they left the church and wandered past the Lucases:

‘How very sorry Lizzy will be to have missed such a fine sermon! I am sure it is the very worst thing in the world to be ill on a Sunday.’

To which Mr Bennet replied, ‘I am surprised to hear you say that, for you have so often been ill of a Sunday yourself, and seem to have borne it with remarkable equanimity.’

‘Oh Mr Bennet! You take delight in vexing me.’ She stopped to collect herself. ‘But I am sure you are right, for I always suffer in silence.’

‘Indeed, madam,’ Mr Bennet said, and was prevented from saying more only by the timely interruption of Lady Lucas.

‘Mrs Bennet,’ said that lady as she approached them.

‘Lady Lucas,’ replied Mrs Bennet with affected surprise. The appropriate civilities were observed and dispensed with; enquiries after the health of the present members of the Bennet family led most naturally to an expression of surprise at the absence of the second eldest.

‘I had always thought Lizzy to be a dutiful sort of girl, Mrs Bennet,’ said Lady Lucas enquiringly. ‘I was surprised at her absence. Is she quite well?’

Neither woman deigned to recollect a very small, wild-haired Elizabeth slipping into her family pew during the hymns, her hem stained with mud, and a charming expression of innocent contrition in her bright eyes.

‘Oh Lady Lucas, it is everything that is terrible,’ replied Mrs Bennet. ‘I hardly know how to tell it.’

‘Perhaps that is for the best, my dear,’ said her husband. Neither lady attended him.

‘Good heavens, Mrs Bennet; she is ill then,’ said Lady Lucas. Her concern for dear Lizzy’s wellbeing, while real, was of lesser importance to her than the pleasure of gossip, and she applied to Mrs Bennet for further detail.

In hushed and secretive tones that no one below three yards away could fail to hear, Mrs Bennet related to her the events of the previous Wednesday. She was not so gratifying a listener as Mrs Phillips, but her eyes nevertheless widened at the news of Mr Darcy’s involvement.

‘Mr Darcy! Surely not,’ she said, looking past the Gouldings to where that gentleman stood, with as forbidding a countenance as ever he had worn.

‘Oh yes!’ said Mrs Bennet. ‘I daresay he is not so agreeable to all, but we have always had a very good opinion of him.’

This she said with such a significant glance in his direction that Lady Lucas felt obliged to enquire as to what had inspired her change of mind.

‘Change of mind, whatever do you mean? Perhaps we did not always know him so well as we do now, it is true, but I daresay you will find he is very agreeable upon closer acquaintance.’

Lady Lucas could not credit this, but could think of no mannerly way to say so, and therefore said nothing. Mrs Bennet thankfully did not require a reply.

‘Indeed, Lady Lucas, he is not so talkative as his friend, to be sure, but he is a charming gentleman in his own right, and he is always very welcome at Longbourn.’

‘And does he call often?’ Lady Lucas troubled herself to ask.

‘Oh of course; how else should he contrive to see my Lizzy?’

At that moment, the gentleman of whom they spoke happened to glance in their direction. Mrs Bennet caught his eye and beamed, waving her handkerchief merrily in his direction.

Darcy’s eyes widened, though whether in fear or recognition will be left to the discretion of the reader, and he bowed his head to her; then, recalling the Bennets’ hospitality to him and the great likelihood of their being ever after his own family, he reluctantly called Bingley’s attention to the them and the two gentlemen proceeded thither.

Lady Lucas watched this exchange with barely concealed astonishment, which only increased when Darcy bowed very courteously to Mrs Bennet and enquired after her health, and the health of her second daughter. If his address was a little stilted, Lady Lucas did not trouble herself to notice it; far more interesting was the handshake he exchanged with Mr Bennet.[1]

The gentlemen stayed several minutes with the Bennets and Lady Lucas, and though Mr Darcy allowed the burden of conversation to fall primarily to his friend and Mrs Bennet, he nevertheless attended the speakers with a severe, earnest gaze, which Lady Lucas decided now was not haughty, but reticent. If once or twice or seven times his attention faltered, that could now be forgiven; no doubt his thoughts were of Elizabeth, for how could they be anywhere else while she was unwell? His fortitude in the face of such misery was much admired by the matrons Bennet and Lucas, as was his excellent taste, which had directed his attentions towards one of their own. Their thoughts were all of his plight. How acutely he must feel the distance between them at such a time! How he must resent the necessity of attending the services and conversing with his neighbours when all the while the object of his affections suffered so far from his reach.

His rudeness became reserve; his condescension became concern; his arrogance became admiration.

Mrs Bennet was nearly overcome with pity for his pains and Lady Lucas marvelled at the change that had been wrought in him.

However, it soon became apparent that nothing else of interest would be discussed in the presence of the gentlemen; upon this realisation, Lady Lucas excused herself to her family, and promptly relayed the whole of her encounter to her husband and eldest daughters.

 


 

Unsurprisingly, Charlotte Lucas saw fit to visit Longbourn that very morning.[2] Lizzy declared that she was well enough to receive her friend in the sitting room and was very much pleased with herself for it until the conversation turned inevitably to the events of the previous Wednesday.

‘Oh Miss Lucas,’ Mrs Bennet began. ‘I have always said that Lizzy should not walk out so, have I not? But would anyone listen?’ She fanned herself with her handkerchief. ‘I am never heard, you see, for I never press. But it will all come out well in the end, I am sure,’ she said significantly.

Lizzy stilled, alarmed.

‘Oh do not look so surprised, Lizzy; of course we should have discovered it, though you have been very sly.’

‘This is no conversation for poor Charlotte; she cannot understand you,’ Lizzy said, feeling very strongly that it was equally no conversation for herself.

Lydia opened her mouth then – presumably to explain precisely what sort of understanding they believed to exist between herself and Mr Darcy – and Lizzy decided it was a very good time to feel faint.

‘Mama,’ she said quickly, standing. ‘I think I should lie down. Charlotte, will you attend me?’

‘Of course, Lizzy,’ Charlotte said immediately, and went to Elizabeth, who took her arm and allowed herself to be led from the room. They could hear Mrs Bennet’s voice as they mounted the stairs.

‘It is as I said, is it not, girls? I knew she was too ill to come down! And now, she will have another turn, and she will be cold in her grave before Tuesday! Oh Kitty, if only anybody would listen to me.’

‘That is hardly likely, Mama,’ Kitty responded artlessly, ‘for she would have to be laid out, and our neighbours given time to pay their respects; surely she could not be buried until Friday at the earliest.’

Her mother’s wails were instantaneous and Elizabeth was only too glad to reach the safety of her room, whereupon Charlotte persuaded her to sit up in the daybed while she drew up the chair from the dressing table and settled herself there.

‘Now, Lizzy, I shall strike a bargain with you; I shall endeavour to forget everything your mother has told my mother about your accident, and you will tell me your own account of it.’

‘That is very reasonable of you, Charlotte, but I confess you might be better served to apply to Jane. She would be far kinder in her retelling and my own memory is fragmented at best.’

‘I would hear it just the same.’

Lizzy conceded.

‘Very well,’ she said, with an infectious smile, smoothing her palms over the cream-coloured coverlet. ‘But I’m afraid the tale shall not show me to great advantage, and so you must endeavour to judge it principally as a comedy, and therefore give it no more weight than you would such a work.’

Charlotte agreed to her terms, and Elizabeth fulfilled her part, relating to her the series of events which led to her leaving the house, allowing no part of Mr Collins’ or her mother’s conduct to be touched on without mercilessly satirising it. When she came to the point of her injury, she struggled, her brow furrowed in frustration as she strained to make sense of her memories.

‘I believe I must have fallen. It was quite my own fault, I daresay, for I did not think to change my shoes for my half-boots before leaving, I was so very vexed with Mama.’

She laughed at herself for her foolishness, and though she owned that she remembered very little after the fall, Charlotte pressed her to continue.

 ‘I do recall Mr Darcy,’ she said slowly, her mortification assailing her anew at the recollection. ‘He had picked me up, I think, and he was apologising for it, if I’m not much mistaken. I am not sure; it was so very cold. I thought of very little at all, and even less of anything that did not relate to my immediate comfort…’ She allowed herself a smile, and said impertinently, ‘So you see, Charlotte, I am a very selfish creature.’

Charlotte did not bother to protest, knowing very well that her friend was not in earnest.

‘Can you remember nothing else?’ she asked instead.

Elizabeth considered and shook her head.

‘No, unfortunately,’ she said. ‘Or at least, nothing that makes much sense, I am afraid. Impressions, really. A vague idea of movement – Jane told me he carried me home, I suppose it must have been that – and I remember the cold… the rain on my face. Nothing else.’

This, Elizabeth decided, was a perfectly acceptable lie. Though she might at length admit to herself that she recalled clearly the warmth of her rescuer’s body, and the strangeness and intimacy of being held in such a way – and by a man who was no part of her family no less! – she would certainly never admit it to anyone else. What need was there to burden Charlotte with information which she herself would wish to forget, and which might well cast doubts on her modesty – precariously upheld only by her evident state of illness – if it were heard by a passing servant or sister.

Charlotte, if she suspected her friend’s dishonesty, was gracious enough to refrain from comment. Elizabeth was grateful for the reprieve and gaily turned the conversation towards happier environs.

 


 

[1] A handshake was only exchanged between close friends, and only between gentlemen. Mr Darcy choosing to use this form of greeting suggests a greater intimacy with the Bennet family than Lady Lucas had suspected.

[2] Referring to morning hours; Charlotte visits around 2pm.

Chapter Text

‘How did you enjoy the ball at Netherfield, Charlotte? It was very good of you to rescue us from Mr Collins after supper; I was beginning to think I would have to feign a fit of the vapours to escape another set with him.’

‘Then I am glad I joined you when I did for you have no talent for deception and would have fooled nobody,’ said Charlotte dryly.

‘Oh but in this particular deception I have had the benefit of a master.’

Charlotte rather suspected she knew to whom Lizzy was referring and reproached her without feeling:

‘You ought not to speak so of your poor mama.’

‘Why ever not? I should think she would be delighted to hear that I have applied myself to the study of at least one of the arts of allurement that she has tried so valiantly to teach me.’

‘I fail to see how fainting might be considered alluring – though your mother certainly seems to believe you’ve ensnared Mr Darcy by it, so perhaps I am wrong—’

‘Oh Charlotte, I pray you, let us not speak any more of Mr Darcy; I cannot think on him without distress,’ said Lizzy, and truly she was distressed.

Her efforts to sketch Mr Darcy’s character had never met with less success and it unsettled her greatly; their conversation at the Netherfield Ball had left her in little doubt of his pride, of his blatant contempt for the injuries he had inflicted upon poor Mr Wickham, and yet his behaviour on Wednesday could not in any respect be called prideful. After her initial dismay at learning of his involvement on Friday, she had been afforded any number of quiet hours during which to consider the experience – though she had not been permitted to walk any further than the length of her room – and still she had come to no better conclusion.

He had humbled himself in her service, this she knew without question both from her own vague recollections and from what Jane had told her; he had tended to her wounds and given her his coat; he had exposed himself to the viciousness of the elements, risking illness and forsaking dignity, to ensure her safety. She fairly burned with shame and embarrassment at the very thought, though she was not entirely sure why. The rest of his conduct, she could not make sense of. Excepting that first unchivalrous comment, he had ever been courteous in the face of her insolence; yet on Friday, when he would perhaps have had the best chance of attracting her courtesy, he had been insolent! He had not said ten words together, she was sure of it, and still he had managed to give offence. Insufferable man.

‘Really, Charlotte,’ she said again, attempting to regain some of her good humour. ‘Let us not think of Mr Darcy.’

Charlotte eyed her sceptically and replied, ‘I think you must think on him, Lizzy.’

Though neither made any reference to the rumoured engagement, Lizzy was far too quick to mistake her friend’s implication. She was silent a moment, her gaze fixed on her bandaged hand in her lap, her mind awhirl with that distressing possibility.

‘Is it very wrong of me, Charlotte,’ she said eventually, brow furrowed in vexation, ‘to wish that it had been some other person who came upon me at Oakham Mount?’

‘Not very wrong; but perhaps a little. And perhaps more so if you are thinking of Mr Wickham, which I suspect you are.’

‘I had not been, but I daresay he would have served well enough; better even, for he would have exerted himself to speak to me afterwards,’ she said, feeling playful and provoked by turns.

Charlotte did not bother to reproach her friend, but merely raised a bow.

‘I have said nothing that is not true, Charlotte. Even you cannot deny that Mr Wickham’s manners are far pleasanter than Mr Darcy’s.’

‘I do not deny it, but it does not follow that his character should be necessarily better; to tell the truth, I cannot imagine Mr Wickham undertaking to carry you all the way to Longbourn in such a storm,’ Charlotte said frankly.

‘Perhaps not, but it is not as if either of us could have imagined Mr Darcy undertaking such a thing until he did.’

‘I am sure that you could not have – but I have always had a better opinion of him than you.’

Lizzy laughed.

‘Do you mean to tell me that you, my dearest and most reasonable friend, have been concocting grand romances between myself and Mr Darcy? I will not believe it.’

‘Certainly not,’ Charlotte conceded. ‘But,’ she added with an implicative lightness of tone, ‘even you must admit that it would not be for a lack of beauty that neither of us suspected Mr Darcy would make a suitable hero.’

Their eyes met and any attempt at restraint was given up as a bad job.

‘No perhaps not,’ said Lizzy archly when she had recovered from their very undignified display of mirth, ‘but I am convinced we must be forgiven for neglecting to put forward a heroine who was only tolerable.’

‘Lizzy,’ admonished her friend. ‘Surely such a comment cannot have much weight in consideration of his actions now.’

‘Are you suggesting that Mr Darcy would not trouble himself to rescue a woman he thought plain? That does not reflect well on him.’

‘You are wilfully misunderstanding me,’ Charlotte said pointedly, perfectly used to such behaviour and uninclined to allow it.

‘That is what he said,’ Lizzy recalled without thinking.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Mr Darcy,’ Lizzy explained with some embarrassment. Charlotte raised an eyebrow and Lizzy said contritely: ‘While I was at Netherfield caring for Jane, I had a discussion with Mr Darcy… Regarding the nature of our respective character flaws.’

Charlotte knew her friend far too well to feel anything other than horrified trepidation.

‘Oh Lizzy, what did you say?’ she said, almost wishing not to hear the answer.

‘I said that his vital flaw must be his propensity to hate everyone.’

‘—oh good heavens—’

‘And he said that mine was to wilfully misunderstand them.’

Charlotte exhaled in relief.

‘Then he knows you very well, Lizzy,’ she said, ignoring Elizabeth’s protests to the contrary. ‘And you are very lucky that he does; another gentleman might well have taken offense.’

‘I wish he had, for then I would be spared the trouble of conversing with him.’

‘Lizzy, you are being very impertinent,’ said Charlotte with some severity. ‘I daresay you dislike the man but at the very least you must be courteous to him; he saved your life.’

‘That is precisely why I dislike him, Charlotte! I do not like to be in any gentleman’s debt, and I like it far less when the gentleman is Mr Darcy, who is too proud to accept any sort of gratitude.’

Charlotte’s gaze softened and she leant forward to clasp Lizzy’s uninjured hand briefly.

‘That may be so, but truly, I am grateful that he happened upon you when he did; I should hate to lose you, Lizzy.’

Lizzy felt all of her friend’s sincerity and as the distance was too great to allow her to embrace her friend, she instead lifted the hand in her grasp to press an affectionate kiss to the back of it.

‘Oh Charlotte, for your sake, I shall endeavour to be kind to him,’ she said, releasing her hand with a last squeeze and quite forgetting that she had already made and broken such a promise to Jane within the space of the past Friday.

‘I am glad to hear it,’ said Charlotte warmly. ‘Perhaps he will improve upon closer acquaintance. By all accounts he is a clever man, and from what you have said of your stay at Netherfield, he is a great reader, so perhaps you will find some common interest there.’

‘I hope not! That I must be courteous to him, I own, but for it would be dreadful of me to enjoy the company of a man who has so wronged one of our friends.’

‘You speak of Mr Wickham,’ said Charlotte, displeased by his return to the conversation.

‘Of course!’ cried Elizabeth. ‘Is there another in our circle who has suffered at his hands?’

‘Lizzy, I wish you would not put so much faith in what Mr Wickham has said of Mr Darcy,’ Charlotte said with some feeling. It is the blessing of a plain woman, she thought, to have never been the object of flattery; her sense of self-worth was fixed, and her vanity was not buffeted about by every charming gentleman she met with. She fancied that her perception was greatly improved by her position of impartiality, and wished only that her friend could be persuaded to listen to her. ‘Consider: we neither of us have any means by which to judge its truthfulness.’

‘Charlotte, you cannot think he would invent such a tale.’

‘If it is true, I think it very strange that he should share such personal information with you on so short an acquaintance, or indeed at all; it does not speak to a prudent character.’

Elizabeth paused, wounded by the disapproval of her dearest friend.

‘Charlotte, do you really think so ill of Mr Wickham?’

Charlotte looked to the side, then brought her gaze back to Lizzy’s with something of an archness in the quirk of her brow.

‘I do not believe that Mr Wickham would have ruined his coat for you.’

The pair dissolved into a merry exchange of denial – all Lizzy’s – and serene insistence – all Charlotte’s – until Lizzy finally conceded.

‘Perhaps you are right,’ she said, and before Charlotte could crow, continued to say, ‘but I daresay that is because he cannot afford to be ruining his coats. And that is undoubtedly a charge for which the blame lies squarely at Mr Darcy’s door.’

Charlotte reproached her without expectation of success.

‘Be careful, Lizzy,’ said she, ‘that you do not allow your vanity to inform your preference.’

‘Preference? My dear Charlotte, you speak as if I would ever be required to express an inclination either way.’

‘You may laugh, Lizzy, but we neither of us may be sure that such a situation may not come about.’

‘On the contrary, I am very sure that it shall not,’ Lizzy said dismissively. ‘Mr Wickham has paid attentions to me, it is true, but certainly never in such a way as to raise expectations, and truthfully, Charlotte, I have no particular feelings towards him. He is a very agreeable acquaintance, certainly, and while I shall be sad to relinquish his company to some woman more liable to find herself in love with him, I shall not be wounded by the loss. As for Mr Darcy, I daresay I will never be obliged to dissuade or encourage him either way; whatever my mother says, I am sure he has never looked at me but to see a fault.’

Privately and perhaps for the first time in their long friendship, Charlotte found herself agreeing with Mrs Bennet. Mr Darcy certainly looked at her friend a great deal; even Elizabeth had noticed his peculiar habit of standing near her whenever they were in company together, seemingly content to spend the evening lurking in her wake, eavesdropping on all her conversations, a habit which bothered Elizabeth mostly because he never exerted himself to participate. Her loyalty to her friend asserted itself and she decided that Mr Darcy was rather more admiring than Elizabeth gave him credit for. She knew her friend well enough, however, to know that such an idea would only prompt further laughter, and she did not think it kind to expose Mr Darcy to such cheerful censure, if indeed he did harbour soft feelings for Lizzy, so she said nothing of her suspicions.

‘Come, Charlotte,’ Lizzy said, now in a very good humour. ‘Let us speak of other things.’

‘Very well,’ said Charlotte, knowing that she could delay no further in imparting her news. ‘I have something I must tell you.’

Lizzy raised her eyebrows.

‘Why, Charlotte, what is it? You do sound severe.’ Her brow creased in concern. ‘Is something the matter at Lucas Lodge?’

Charlotte hastened to reassure her. ‘No, we are all very well.’

‘Is Mr Collins making a nuisance of himself? I am truly sorry you have had to suffer him so long but I confess I am relieved he was not here to witness the spectacle—’

‘Lizzy,’ Charlotte interrupted, reaching again for Elizabeth’s hand. ‘I am engaged.’

Elizabeth broke off abruptly. ‘Engaged?’ she repeated.

‘Yes,’ said Charlotte, her voice steady. ‘To Mr Collins. He left yesterday for Hunsford to make the arrangements. It will be announced upon his return to the neighbourhood.’

‘Mr Collins!’ Elizabeth could not help but cry. ‘No, it is not possible, Charlotte; I cannot believe that such a man has won your heart.’

‘He did not need to,’ said Charlotte honestly. She hesitated, and then continued, ‘I am not like you, Lizzy, as you well know… I am seven and twenty, well past the age where I might reasonably allow romantic inclinations to inform my choices, though,’ she added, ‘you must not think that I resent you for doing so.’ She smiled. ‘I am under no illusions, Lizzy, I am not beautiful; my charms and accomplishments, such as they are, might kindly be called limited.’

Lizzy attempted to protest but Charlotte would brook no interruption.

‘No, Lizzy, you must listen now. I am grateful for your loyalty but you must acknowledge how very unlikely it would be for me ever to receive another offer. Truly, I am content with Mr Collins. He is respectable in his way, his situation is good, and I think he will treat me kindly. Whatever indignities may befall me with such a husband, they cannot outweigh the ignominy of my alternative.’

Elizabeth did not know how to respond. She coloured, doubted, and looked down at Charlotte’s hand in her own, feeling all the mortification of their situation.

‘You are in earnest,’ Elizabeth said quietly, and Charlotte knew it was not a question. Slowly, Elizabeth raised her eyes to meet her friend’s. ‘And you are sure of your decision?’

Charlotte owned that she was. Elizabeth squeezed her hand quickly and smiled.

‘Then I am sorry for what I have said about him in the past,’ she said with forced cheerfulness. ‘By his choice of bride he has already proved himself to be cleverer than I gave him credit for, and I am persuaded that if you were to remark every so often on the subject of the felicitations you expect shall come from your new situation, I think I shall begin to think him quite agreeable indeed.’

Charlotte smiled. ‘And what particular felicitations should you like to hear described?’

‘Oh any will do. Perhaps you will share your delight in the opportunity to redecorate your new sitting room entirely in green, or tell me how well you think you shall look in a fine lace cap,’ Lizzy teased. Charlotte obliged with pleasure, and the two passed another merry half an hour in this fashion, each refusing to consider how few opportunities they would have for such shared gaiety when the day of Charlotte’s wedding was behind them.

Chapter Text

Though the subject matter was in part the same, it was a very different conversation that took place at Netherfield that day. Colonel Fitzwilliam had responded promptly to Darcy’s summons, and he arrived in Hertfordshire for the council of war on Sunday afternoon, having ridden almost ceaselessly since dawn. His cousin, who had been standing sentry by the window of the front parlour, ignoring Bingley’s one-sided attempts at conversation and generally making a rotten houseguest of himself, hurried out of the house and down the front steps immediately upon seeing the approaching rider, Bingley close on his heels. Darcy met the Colonel as he reined in his horse – too forcefully, the idiot – and reached up, flicking the reins over the horse’s head and holding them close beneath the bridle to steady the poor beast.

‘Darcy, what has happened?’ said the Colonel urgently as he dismounted. ‘Is it Georgiana? Is she ill? Is it Wickham? That scoundrel hasn’t—’

‘No,’ Darcy hastened to assure him, handing him back the reins. The Colonel nodded his thanks and took them, still breathless from the ride. ‘No, Georgiana is well enough, I believe,’ Darcy continued, ‘though you ought to know, Fitzwilliam, Wickham is in Hertfordshire, with the militia—’

‘That bloody wretch, what has he done? Was it unlawful? I’ll speak to his Colonel and have him flogged at the tumbler if it was, and if it was not, you may turn a blind eye while I lace his coat for him—I should have brought my batman, you have no skill as a pugilist, and you cannot challenge him at swords or pistols—’[1]

‘This has nothing to do with Wickham, cousin.’

The Colonel stopped, his breath coming heavily as he looked with frank irritation at his cousin.

‘What is it then?’

Darcy did not respond immediately; he knew not quite how to begin.

‘Well?’ said the Colonel with some impatience. Darcy remained silent. ‘I assume there is an explanation forthcoming, cousin.’

‘There is,’ Darcy said finally, grimacing. ‘I am sorry to have distressed you so but it could not be helped. I did not think it prudent to commit the problem to writing.’

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s brows raised in bemusement.

‘Well,’ he decided, ‘if it has nothing to do with Wickham, it cannot be as bad as all that.’

Fears of a crisis now abandoned, the Colonel found his natural jollity slowly reviving. He turned to Bingley, who had stood back from the pair to allow the cousins to greet one another.

‘What ho, Bingley, how do you do?’

‘Very well indeed, Colonel,’ said the younger man, stepping forward and accepting the Colonel’s firm handshake, ‘and yourself?’

‘Oh quite well, Bingley, it has been an easy few months; we are quartered in Newbury for the winter—’

Darcy did not fidget – gentlemen do not fidget – but the look he gave his cousin was enough. Fitzwilliam grinned.

‘I think we are upsetting Darcy. Perhaps I should spare you both the stories of my escapades for the time being, Bingley.’

 ‘Spare us now if you will, but I should like to hear them later, even if Darcy does not,’ Bingley said genially. ‘Come in then, I shall ring for refreshments and we shall go directly to the library; I always think there is nothing like negus at the end of a long journey in weather like this.’[2]

‘Bless you, Bingley,’ said Fitzwilliam, and he and Darcy followed him inside the great house.

The Colonel’s outerwear was abandoned with poor Hartwell in the entranceway, a jug of negus sent for, the fire in the library built up, and a footman contracted to guard the door against Bingley’s sisters. The necessities attended to, the gentlemen settled themselves therein, Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam in opposite chairs by the hearth and Darcy between them with a hand against the mantelpiece. Refusing a drink himself, he waited just long enough for his cousin to begin to thaw after his time spent out of doors before he launched into a brusque explanation of the events of the past week. Bingley chimed in now and again with more animated interjections, which did little to clarify the story and a great deal to irritate his friend, as they had the unsurprising effect of romanticising the whole affair.

‘Well, cousin,’ Fitzwilliam said, sitting back in his chair as Darcy reached the end of his speech. His younger cousin, apparently unable to keep still any longer, set about pacing across the space between himself and Bingley. ‘It is a pretty mess, there’s no doubt of that.’

‘Thank you, Richard; I had not noticed.’

‘Do not be snide, Darcy,’ said Fitzwilliam, in very good humour as Darcy passed by him with an acerbic glare before rounding the chair and making his way back to Bingley’s side of the room. ‘One must be certain to assess a situation properly before fixing on a strategy.’

‘I should not think this sort of thing would require a response quite so military in its execution,’ Bingley said, baffled. ‘There has yet been no cause for concern—'

Darcy wondered briefly if his friend had developed some sort of selective deafness – the better to hear the eldest Miss Bennet’s gentle voice when in company, presumably – to have been so entirely ignorant of the wanton gossiping that had taken place around them after the morning’s service. But Bingley was still speaking.

‘—and if there is a scandal, I do not see that matrimony would be such a dreadful outcome. The lady in question is entirely unobjectionable, I assure you, Colonel—’

‘That is patently untrue, Bingley, as you well know.’

‘Darcy, Miss Elizabeth is a delightful young woman; I will never understand why you object to her.’

Darcy stopped by the mantelpiece and straightened.

‘I do not object to her – I daresay I know of no man that could – but what of her family? Her connections? Even you must agree that her relations leave a great deal to be desired.’

Fitzwilliam looked to Bingley for an explanation but it was Darcy who supplied it, glowering indiscriminately as he related the low circumstances and many improprieties of the Bennet family.

‘…but it does not signify,’ Darcy said, resuming his pacing. ‘As I said, I do not seek to avoid my responsibilities; I will offer for her, and soon.’

‘I am glad to hear it, cousin. I did not think you were the type to allow a lady’s reputation to suffer on your account, though I do see clearly the injustice of your position, your own actions and hers being so well above reproach.’ Fitzwilliam nursed his wine, frowning. ‘Darcy, it sounds as if all this were settled. I confess, I do not understand why you thought it necessary for me to come here. Unless,’ he added with a sudden grin, ‘you intend to beg me to break the news of your engagement to Aunt Catharine.’

‘No, certainly not. I will write to her myself and perhaps it will excuse us both from visiting her at Easter.’

 ‘Then why? Surely not for the wedding itself. Bingley would have stood up with you, I am sure,’ said the Colonel with a wave in that man’s direction. ‘It is hardly necessary to haul your relatives down from Derbyshire just to see you marry, though I think Georgiana would be sorry to miss it.’[3]

Bingley thought of reminding them both that Darcy had yet to obtain the consent of either the lady or her father, and had just opened his mouth to do so when Darcy responded.

‘It is Georgiana that I would wish to discuss with you,’ he said, stopping by the fireplace once more and taking the iron poker from its stand to stoke the dying embers. ‘Her reputation is naturally more delicate than my own; she is not out; she has had no opportunity to establish her character in the world. If I were to marry in undue haste, the reason would naturally be the topic of some speculation amongst our circles, particularly considering the Bennets’ situation in life. The ton would certainly hear whatever butchery of the particulars is in circulation by that point; some fool would no doubt put something in the society pages and neglect to mention the near death of the lady involved, on that I would stake my life.’ He scowled again and shook his head. ‘Regardless of my intentions, of the absolute necessity of my actions, we cannot trust the ton to be understanding; my behaviour could easily be perceived as evidence of some tryst, some affair between myself and Miss Bennet, as you yourself are well aware, Bingley—no, you were right to question me,’ he said quickly, staving off Mr Bingley’s denial. ‘Others will make similar assumptions, and they will not have your desire to think well of everyone. Society will decide which version of events they wish to believe and behave accordingly. If they conclude that I am some sort of Lothario—’[4]

Here Fitzwilliam felt obliged to interject.

‘Darcy that is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. You, a Lothario? An adulterer? A wanton seducer of women? It is ludicrous; you hardly speak in mixed company, and I daresay even the Prince Regent could not seduce a woman just by glaring at her. No person of your acquaintance could ever credit such a rumour, even if one were manufactured.’[5]

The glare Darcy bestowed on his cousin then might not have seduced a woman, but it could easily have terrified one.

‘Of course, you must be right,’ he said coolly. ‘Society has, after all, always been famed for their adherence to sense and honesty.’ He jabbed at the fire again, grimacing. ‘Besides,’ he continued, ‘perhaps I do not speak in company because I am an incorrigible whoremonger and so do not desire a wife; perhaps I am rarely in town because I prefer to shut myself up at Pemberley with my mistress; perhaps that is why I sent my sister away to Ramsgate last summer though she is not yet out—’ [6]

‘Good God, Darcy, let us not do the work of the ton in their stead,’ said Colonel Fitzwilliam, alarmed. Darcy schooled himself.

‘If any rumour of that nature took hold, no matter the extent, it would reflect badly on Georgiana, and I cannot allow that.’ He paused. ‘We must find some means of eliminating the possibility of scandal completely.’

Bingley looked a little green; the Colonel could not blame him.

‘Darcy, what you are asking is near impossible,’ he warned him.

‘But it must be attempted,’ said Darcy evenly, ‘for Georgiana’s sake.’

Fitzwilliam nodded slowly, then set aside his wine glass and stood.

‘Very well. But I suggest we reconvene in an hour or so; if we are to attempt a miracle, I should like the chance to refresh myself first.’

 


 

 

[1] Wretch: used archaically to refer to either an unhappy person, or a despicable or contemptible person; in this case, the latter. Flogged at the tumbler: to be whipped at the end of a cart, a catch-all punishment for offenses in the military. Lace his coat: to beat someone up. Batman: a soldier who served as the personal servant of a commissioned officer. Pugilist: a boxer. Boxing was considered a suitable pursuit for gentlemen. Challenge: as in to a duel. Neither Darcy nor Colonel Fitzwilliam may challenge Wickham to a duel as he is their social inferior and duels may only be fought between gentlemen.

[2] Negus: a type of mulled wine, served hot. It was very popular during the Regency.

[3] Weddings were not the massive social functions they are today. Most people did not see their relatives marry unless they married from home, and it was not unusual for family to hear of their relations marriages via letter or even the newspaper. Often, spouses did not meet the family of their intended until after the wedding, though usually the gentleman would have to be acquainted with the lady’s father or other male guardian, from whom they would be obliged to seek permission to marry her, unless the lady was of age or they eloped. Family was not considered essential to the process of matrimony, and travelling to a relation’s wedding would have been a ridiculous expense to most people; Fitzwilliam is not being uncaring, this irreverence for the wedding ceremony was perfectly normal at the time.

[4] Lothario: a man who is selfish and irresponsible in his affairs with women; a seducer; from a character of that nature in Rowe’s The Fair Penitent, published in 1703.

[5] Adulterer: technically refers to a married man or woman who has sexual relations with someone other than their lawfully wedded spouse, but commonly used to mean any person who indulges in extramarital relations, regardless of the marital status of the participants. Reference to the Prince Regent: George IV was widely known to be a prolific womaniser; this was one of many degenerate habits that earned him the displeasure of so many of his subjects, including Jane Austen herself.

[6] Whoremonger: by definition refers to a person, usually a man, who has dealings with prostitutes; implies frequent or excessive use of that service; used during the Regency also to denote a man that keeps more than one mistress.

Chapter Text

The gentlemen of Netherfield called again at Longbourn on Monday, and all the Bennet women were there to greet them, though Mr Bennet, recognising a rare opportunity for solitude in the distracting presence of such important guests, would not be moved from his book room. Mrs Bennet had thought that Lizzy should receive them in her rooms upstairs if Mr Darcy wished to see her – after all, there was nothing like the sight of a woman in bed to hurry a man towards the altar – but Lizzy had categorically refused to appear before any of them in such a state once it was not absolutely unavoidable, and in this she was gratified by the support of her father, Jane, and, surprisingly, Mary. If the former took her part with more amusement than severity before disappearing to his book room, and if the latter cared not at all that only Mrs Bennet had spoken in favour of it – preferring instead to censure them all indiscriminately for a lack of modesty – Jane at least could be relied upon to act with no motivation but Elizabeth’s own comfort and happiness, and Lizzy was satisfied in that. There was, however, some compromise reached; the récamier was brought down to the sitting room from Mrs Bennet’s rooms for Elizabeth’s use.[1]

‘If you cannot be walking about,’ – a restriction Elizabeth had by no means accepted but which her mother seemed determined to enforce – ‘then you must recline when the gentlemen come, for your figure will appear to best advantage like that.’

Elizabeth blanched. A pleading look at Jane earned her a shawl placed around her shoulders but her mother just as quickly removed it, until she realised its presence served a dual purpose in that it reduced her daughter’s mutinous glower to a vague look of displeasure, and made her appear more delicate than she actually was. This reluctant fragility, if not exactly satisfactory, was at least a better picture overall than that of a perfectly healthy daughter lying down in the sitting room looking as though she could have cheerfully strangled all its occupants.

Though she had no expectation whatever of entreating anything in the way of Jane’s gentle smiles from her least favourite daughter, she badgered her nevertheless to assuage her own nerves.

‘Oh smile, Lizzy; gentlemen do not like a sullen woman,’ she said vexedly as she fussed over her recalcitrant daughter, tucking the ends of the shawl under her arms in such a way as to prevent its shielding her décolletage from any who might wish to admire it.

Mrs Bennet was saved the dubious pleasure of hearing her daughter’s response by the arrival of the gentlemen themselves. Mr Darcy entered first – unwillingly no doubt – followed closely by Mr Bingley and an unknown gentleman, whose countenance, if not precisely handsome, was friendly; and furthermore, it was greatly improved in the eyes of the youngest Bennets by his regimentals. The visitors bowed, Mr Bingley apologised that his sisters were engaged elsewhere, and Mr Darcy applied to her mother for permission to introduce his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, which was granted with alacrity. The requirements of courtesy attended to, Mrs Bennet rang for tea and invited them all to sit, at which point the plans of Mrs Bennet and the three gentlemen coincided quite unintentionally; Mr Bingley allowed himself to be directed towards a seat beside his beloved Jane, the Colonel sacrificed himself nobly to the entertainment of the youngest girls and Mrs Bennet, and Mr Darcy took the seat closest to Elizabeth, positioned in front of the récamier, but facing opposite to it in such a way that it afforded the pair a measure of privacy in their conversation. Mary did not factor into anyone’s plans.

Elizabeth had been too preoccupied with the business of the shawl beforehand to realise how the furniture had been arranged, but she could not fail to notice it now. As soon as Mr Darcy sat, she saw how her mother had ordered everything so that his broad back was turned upon rest of the occupants of the room by the placement of his chair, discouraging anyone from participating in whatever conversation they had, and effectively preventing their being observed or overheard, by way of the closeness of their chairs. It was with some dismay that she realised she could not even fault Mr Darcy for this distressing prospect, for it had been all her mother’s doing; and how thorough she had been in her arrangements! Even if Mr Darcy had troubled himself to move the chair so that it did not directly obstruct her view of the room – for from their current position, Mr Darcy occupied almost the whole frame of her vision unless she turned her head to look nearly over her shoulder – her mother had ensured that their nearest neighbours were Jane and Bingley, and there was no hope at all that either of them would discover an inclination to talk to anyone else in the room, no matter the awkwardness Lizzy was sure to be suffering.

Hill arrived with the tea then, having prepared it almost as soon as the gentlemen entered the house, and they each accepted a cup with little more than a murmured thank you. For a long moment, neither Darcy nor Elizabeth spoke, each feigning an intense preoccupation with their tea.

Elizabeth stared wide-eyed into her own cup as though it might somehow have an answer to this untenable situation. But it did not, and so Elizabeth gathered her courage and looked up to see Mr Darcy’s eyes fixed intently on her face. Recalling very suddenly the position of the shawl, she coloured brilliantly and wondered if she could rearrange it without drawing either her mother’s ire or Mr Darcy’s notice.

Mr Darcy, for his part, had not the slightest idea of the direction to which her thoughts tended, for all his own were occupied in keeping his gaze safely above the level of her shoulders. The blush confused him, though he thought on it little but to hope that he did not currently sport a matching colour. At length, the silence was broken.

‘Miss Elizabeth—’

‘Mr Darcy—’

Embarrassed, both looked away. The sound of Mr Darcy’s voice recalled her attention to him as he entreated her to continue but she discovered upon being given the floor that she did not know how to begin. Furious with herself – she was becoming as incoherent as her mother! – she swallowed her discomfort, set her tea cup and saucer on the pedestal by their chairs, and addressed him thusly:

‘Mr Darcy, there is something I would wish to say to you.’

‘I had gathered that was the case,’ he said, setting aside his own cup and giving her his full attention.

Elizabeth masked her indignation with difficulty; hers was a trying declaration to make as it was, and his interruption was decidedly unwelcome for it threw her hastily organised thoughts all out of order again. He seemed to sense her irritation though, and, in the nearest tone to contrition he had utilised in her hearing – barring of course his rain-drenched apology for rescuing her – ridiculous man – she was determined not to think on it – he asked her forgiveness and requested she continue. Glancing down at her hands, which lay clasped demurely in her lap, she thought determinedly of her promises to Jane and Charlotte. A moment’s respite from the intensity of his gaze was enough to allow her to school her thoughts and her expression, and so it was with a slight smile that she looked up again.

‘Mr Darcy, I feel I must apologise to you,’ she began slowly. A slight furrow appeared on his brow and she hurried on with as much dignity as she could muster on short notice, determined to say her piece before he could open his mouth to interrupt again.

‘I have been apprised of your actions last Wednesday, and I understand now the depth of gratitude which I and all my family owe to you, and I would ask your forgiveness for failing to thank you when you called on Friday, for which my only excuse can be a lingering confusion about the situation. My sisters have told me in great detail,’ – in great, great detail – ‘of the severity of my condition, and of your solicitousness in attending to me.’

This, Lizzy thought, was as close to the truth as to make no difference. He need not know that only Jane had been so circumspect in her telling, or that her younger sisters had been largely focused on describing the line of his throat and set of his shoulders, and frankly didn’t even seem to be aware of how very ill she had been. Recalling their comments, Elizabeth caught her eyes dropping to his cravat with a sort of morbid curiosity, which she quashed almost as soon as she felt it.

‘You need not—’ he said but she shook her head and he fell silent.

Meeting his eyes once more, she continued, grateful at least that he had decided to let her speak without further disruption.

‘I must apologise, and furthermore I must offer you my deepest gratitude for your selfless’ – Lizzy’s tongue almost refused to speak the word – ‘actions on my behalf. Let me do so now.’

‘Madam—’

Mr Darcy looked troubled and she longed to allow the subject to drop but she had committed herself to expressing her thanks and her pride revolted at the notion of her gratitude being so summarily rejected once she had humbled herself to offer it.

‘Please allow me, sir, to thank—’

Before she could think to prevent it – not that she could ever have anticipated such an action – Mr Darcy had leaned forward slightly and covered her clasped hands with his right. Elizabeth stilled at his touch; she had not realised she was worrying the muslin of her morning dress until the press of his hand prevented it.  She stared at his hand, suddenly acutely aware that neither of them were wearing gloves, then looked up at him. Surely she had meant to say something, but neither of them ever found out what it was.

His eyes did not leave hers for a long, strange moment, and Elizabeth found herself excessively glad for the angle of his chair; she thought she might have expired from sheer embarrassment if one of her sisters or, heaven forbid, her mother had seen the brief contact. Slowly, he removed his hand and replaced it on his knee, laced together with his left, though he stayed attentively close, his head bent towards her as if they had been in earnest conversation instead of awkward silence.

‘I am sorry,’ he said abruptly. Elizabeth was startled. ‘Your hand,’ he said by way of explanation, nodding to the bandages wrapped around her left wrist. The sprain had mended well enough, but the cuts, though healing, were still liable to reopen at the slightest provocation. ‘I did not intend to cause you pain.’

‘Oh,’ she said, not having given it the slightest thought. She should assure him that he had not done any such thing, but frankly she was entirely disarmed by the events of the previous two minutes, and did not have it in her to say anything further.

The conversation lapsed while both participants recovered their composure. Elizabeth decided she had tried quite hard enough to convey her thanks and gave it up as a bad job. Casting about for some other topic of conversation, she eventually settled it with herself to pass the burden on to him.

‘I believe, Mr Darcy, that I interrupted you earlier. What was it you wished to say?’

He stared at her uncomprehendingly. Elizabeth wished she hadn’t spoken.

‘I wanted only to enquire as to the state of your recovery,’ he said at length. Elizabeth was at once grateful for the change of subject and frustrated that it should be so very insipid.

‘I am far better, I believe,’ she said, ‘than I have any right to be, given the circumstances. I shall soon be out walking again, I daresay.’

His brows rose minutely.

‘Alone?’ he said.

‘Indeed,’ said Elizabeth archly.

‘Is that wise?’

‘It is a habit that has served me well these past twenty years; I shall not give it up.’

‘But should you not engage a maid or a footman to accompany you?’

‘I see no reason to do so.’

‘Do you not?’

His implication was clear and Elizabeth was rightfully nettled by it.

‘I assure you, sir, I shall be very careful,’ she said coldly. ‘You need not fear the inconvenience of being required to perform any more heroics on my behalf.’

This was precisely the reason that Darcy, as a general rule, did not speak to women with whom he did not have a long acquaintance; he was horrible at it. He knew as soon as he’d spoken that he’d said something amiss, by the unmistakeable narrowing of her fine eyes, but it was not until she replied that he realised he had offended her.

‘I beg your pardon,’ he said stiffly, mind whirling as he cycled through his limited repository of knowledge on the subject of angry women. He had had little contact with his own mother before she died but it did not require any great quickness of mind to ascertain that throwing his arms around Miss Elizabeth’s knees and sobbing heartily, as he vaguely recalled doing to his mother when he was still in skeleton suits, would not be met with any great tenderness on her part[2]. Georgiana, his closest and dearest remaining female relation, had never been properly angry with him; he had been away at school for the vast majority of her childhood so his presence at home had always been a pleasant novelty for her. He had always gone away again before she could accustom herself to his presence enough to take exception with him for anything, and even now, they lived often apart.

He knew not what to do. Ought he to retrocede wildly, as he had seen Bingley do in the face of his sisters’ wrath; or to flatter her and steer the conversation in a less dangerous direction, as the Colonel did on the rare occasion that he managed to inspire his mother’s distemper; or should he instead simply ignore her irritation, as his cousin Edward – the Colonel’s degenerate elder brother – so regularly did whenever his justly irate wife caught the scent of a Covent Garden nun on his shirt. He quickly determined that Edward’s method, which generally ended with his being forced to dodge whatever projectile was closest to his wife’s hand at the time of her discovery, was not one he was willing to risk trying; and furthermore, that Bingley’s preferred tactic was absolutely impossible for a man of his standing. He therefore settled on flattery and hoped for the best.

He opened his mouth to speak.

And then closed it again. She was still looking at him, one brow raised in challenge. He wondered if she had any idea of the effect she had on him.

Steeling himself, he gritted his teeth – metaphorically, not physically; he was not a savage – and prepared himself to suffer the indignity of forcing out something, anything, that vaguely resembled a compliment. He was going to follow through this time, he was decided, and he had just opened his mouth to do so when they were interrupted by a bright cry of ‘Mr Darcy!’ from one of the younger girls.

Darcy turned. It had been Miss Lydia who had spoken. She clearly wished to speak with him, if the Colonel’s apologetic look and the giddy, nervous expression of the other sister’s face was anything to judge by, but his chair was placed so as to make it impossible to speak to any but Elizabeth from his position. At once frustrated and relieved by the interruption, he stood, excused himself, and came to stand before the youngest Bennets and his cousin.

‘Mr Darcy,’ Miss Lydia addressed him again, with overt seriousness. ‘Kitty and I wondered if you should all be attending the next assembly. The Colonel could not give us an answer.’

‘I’m afraid I must defer to Mr Bingley in that case, for I cannot answer to our plans. Bingley?’

Bingley – who miraculously seemed to have retained both his hearing and his peripheral vision that day, despite the presence of Miss Bennet – had looked up when he saw Darcy stand and move away from Miss Elizabeth.

‘It is on the twenty-seventh, is it not?’ he asked. Miss Lydia confirmed it.

‘Yes indeed! It is three weeks on Friday.’

‘Three weeks!’ Mrs Bennet said. ‘Why! Lizzy, you shall certainly be well enough to dance then, I daresay.’

‘I daresay I shall be well enough to dance in as little as three days, Mama,’ Elizabeth with a wry smile.

‘That is all the better!’ Bingley said cheerfully. ‘We have no engagements on that day; I should be delighted to see you all there. Miss Bennet, would you dance the first with me?’

She assented graciously and Bingley beamed.

‘Colonel, Darcy, will you come?’

‘Certainly,’ said Darcy, and, catching the Colonel’s pointed look, he turned back to face Elizabeth and he bowed slightly, ‘if Miss Elizabeth will do me the honour of accepting my hand for that set.’

He could cheerfully have swallowed his own tongue at that moment; whatever had possessed him to ask her so foppishly? Why could he not simply have asked heartily like Bingley did? Wanting very much to disappear, he chanced to look up at her and saw a blush rise on her cheeks.

‘You are too kind sir,’ she said, and accepted. He could not tell if she was sincere, but it hardly mattered. It was done; he had asked, she had consented, and her mother was in raptures over it all. If his heart hammered unpleasantly for a full five minutes afterwards, that was of no consequence.

The Colonel, perhaps sensing that Darcy was on the verge of withdrawing once more, interceded.

‘Excellent!’ he said. ‘It is decided then, we shall all be in attendance.’

The delight of the younger girls and Mrs Bennet was as reserved as could be reasonably expected of them, which was to say, not at all. It was to the astonishment of all, however, that Colonel Fitzwilliam then turned to Mary – who, it will likely surprise the reader to realise had in fact been present the whole time – and solicited her hand for the first. Astonished, both at his request and at finding herself suddenly at the object of everybody’s attention – no matter her superiority in age, she had never in her life been offered a position of precedence above Kitty and Lydia by any gentleman – she stammered her acceptance and adhered immediately to her book. The rest of the conversation followed in the usual way; dances, compliments, and an invitation to dine at Netherfield on Saturday were all requested, offered, and accepted, and the gentlemen rose to take their leave.

 At this point, while Mrs Bennet was distracted by an onslaught of Bingley and the Colonel’s combined powers of courtesy, Darcy approached Elizabeth once more. She looked at him in surprise as he bowed over her hand and coloured when he said without inflection,

‘Let me assure you, madam, I should never consider it an inconvenience to render you any service which it is in my power to provide.’

Elizabeth could think of no suitable response but Mr Darcy did not seem to require one. He lifted his gaze to meet her own briefly, pressed a light kiss to the back of her ungloved hand, and straightened. He said not another word to her, and Elizabeth sat in scandalised astonishment as the visitors left. She would not be roused by her mother and younger sisters to come admire the gentlemen’s horsemanship from the sitting room window, and it was only Jane’s raised eyebrow that suggested that any but her had noticed what had passed between her and Mr Darcy.

 


 

 

[1] Récamier: a daybed or couch with a high headboard at one end and a low or non-existent headboard at the other end. They were a popular item of furniture during the Regency.

[2] Skeleton suits: the fashionable choice in children’s clothing for boys between the ages of about four and eight or nine. A skeleton suit consisted of a pair of high-waisted, ankle length trousers, a white ruffled shirt, and a long-sleeved jacket. The trousers were buttoned into the jacket.

Chapter Text

Caroline Bingley was in no mood to think charitably of her brother when he returned to Netherfield that day. Having declared her disinterest in visiting with the Bennets, she had been irked to discover that Charles was perfectly happy to visit them without her. Worse, he had successfully managed to enlist both Mr Darcy and the Colonel to join him.

‘Surely you cannot all mean to go?’ she had said in astonishment when the three assembled in the entrance hall to don their outerwear.

Charles said that they did and Miss Bingley turned her incredulous gaze on Mr Darcy.

‘I am sure Mr Darcy cannot wish to accompany you.’

‘You are mistaken, Miss Bingley,’ Darcy had said as he adjusted his gloves so they did not bunch at his cuffs.

‘Indeed!’ Miss Bingley said, her brows raised. ‘I had not thought you to be so eager for the company of the Misses Bennet, Mr Darcy – though the second eldest does have such fine eyes.’

Darcy stiffened. Bingley turned to him with an expression that was equal parts amusement and surprise but showed no intention of coming to his aid. It was the Colonel rescued him, interjecting with his usual good charm,

‘I confess, madam, I asked my cousin to spare time for the visit. I have heard a great deal about the Bennets and wished particularly to make their acquaintance. You must know too well my cousin’s unfailing courtesy and habit of solicitousness to think that he could refuse such a request.’

Miss Bingley could not contest the Colonel’s declaration without giving serious insult to the person whom she wished least to offend, and was thereby forced to concede, but it was with no particular grace that she released the gentlemen to their outing and swept away to the music room.

She was excessively distressed by the Colonel’s words, though she had by no means accepted their truthfulness; she thought it very likely that he was excusing one of his companions – but which one? Her brother was the most likely culprit, but that conclusion did not satisfy her. Charles had the most obvious motivation, to be sure, but he had not taken credit for the idea when she questioned the gentlemen and it was unlike him to disguise his intentions; he was open in everything, and almost irritatingly so in the case of Jane Bennet. And yet Darcy would surely have no desire to visit more often than was necessitated by the bonds of courtesy. It did not make sense.

Perhaps the Colonel had been in earnest then in expressing his desire to make the acquaintance of the Bennets, she mused. But that raised more questions than it answered: why should the Colonel wish to make the acquaintance of that family in particular? He must have heard something of them, but she could not imagine what he might have heard which so intrigued him. It would not have surprised her if Charles had written in the praise of the eldest, but her brother, shocking correspondent that he was, certainly had not written the Colonel since their arrival in Hertfordshire, and even if he had it would hardly have been enough to prompt the Colonel’s unexpected visit. And there was another point of suspicion; why had the Colonel come at all? He had been with his regiment, and not expected to get leave until Easter; to have gone to the trouble of leaving now, he must have felt the need to be urgent.

The same vexing questions and leading resolutions followed one another in circles until she stopped quite still in the centre of the music room.

Mr Darcy had once remarked that a lady’s imagination was very rapid, but in this instance he was wrong; Caroline Bingley’s imagination in that instant defied lightning to travel at such a speed through her muddled thoughts towards so unpleasant a conclusion.

Mr Darcy had formed a serious attachment to that insufferable girl.

It was impossible – every part of her rebelled against the very notion – but like any dreadful thing, the idea fixed itself in her mind until she could no more persuade herself of its falseness than she could quash the horror that swelled in her breast at the prospect of Mr Darcy marrying that hoyden.

It was some minutes later that Miss Bingley recalled her senses well enough to think rationally about the problem. Something must be done to prevent it, of that she was certain. She had not the slightest idea how such a thing might be accomplished though and her discomposure was still too great to think of a feasible solution at the present time. Therefore, distressed and mystified anew by the fixation apparently inspired by that harpy Elizabeth Bennet and her ridiculous sisters – excepting of course her dear Jane, whose only fault must be her unfortunate relations – she settled herself at the pianoforte and, audaciously neglecting to observe the piano marking printed clearly beneath the first note, proceeded repeatedly to butcher Rondo alla Turca. It was only when Louisa descended on the music room in vexation that she tired of Mozart and allowed herself to be persuaded to play something lighter; but it was not long after that that she tired of music altogether and was reduced to pacing the length of the room, smacking a rolled up piece of sheet music against her palm and snapping at Louisa whenever she spoke.

By the time the gentlemen returned, Miss Bingley’s irritation had risen roughly in proportion to her state of restlessness until she needed only the slightest inducement to unleash it. The inducement came in the form of one of her brother’s very first remarks upon the gentlemen’s joining her and Louisa in the music room. After making the usual vague enquiries as to her enjoyment of the morning – which she answered without a word of the truth as she rang for tea – Charles described the gentlemen’s own visit, apparently under the mistaken impression that she wanted to hear it.

‘You will be glad to hear that Miss Elizabeth is recovering well, sister,’ said Charles, looking about the room as though he had never before seen the flocked paper hangings she had so carefully selected upon their being installed in Netherfield. ‘The rest of the family is quite well, and they enquired after you and Louisa, of course. I conveyed your apologies, and they quite understood,’ – she doubted it – ‘but they would have been very pleased to see you. Indeed, it was a very pleasant visit; you should have enjoyed it, I am sure, but I have invited the Bennets to dinner on Saturday so you shall have the opportunity to see them then.’

This information he dropped very casually while the tea was being brought in, as if by feigning its unimportance she might be inclined to forgive him the issuing of an invitation without consulting her first. Caroline felt a slight twitch about her left eye as she struggled to keep her countenance.

‘You have invited the Bennets to dinner, Charles?’ she repeated, preparing her sister’s tea – lemon, no sugar – and handing it to the waiting footman.

‘Yes, and—’

‘How do you take your tea, Colonel?’ she interrupted. Adding milk at his request, she continued, ‘This Saturday, brother?’

‘Yes, I thought—’

‘Five days hence?’ she said, not requiring instruction to prepare Mr Darcy’s tea – black, with sugar.

‘Well, yes—’ said Bingley, watching his sister deliberately pass over the sugar tongs as she fixed his tea.

‘I see,’ she said, skewering him with a gimlet-eyed stare as she handed the footman his plain black tea, daring him to object. He did not.

‘I thought—’

‘Charles,’ Caroline said with a saccharine smile, quite missing the alarm in the eyes of her guests as she dismissed the footman with a wave. ‘Charles, dear, I believe you said you would show me where I might find the second volume of my book this morning. I cannot seem to locate it.’

Bingley was taken aback.

‘Indeed?’ replied her brother with genuine confusion. ‘What book is that? I am sure Darcy would know better than I—’

‘Charles, Mr Darcy is a guest in our house; would you have him play the footman?’

Her eye twitched again as she fixed Charles with a look so sweet he could not fail to discern its meaning. He wilted slightly and rose to follow her from the room.

Not two minutes had passed before the remaining occupants of the room heard a muffled shriek and the faint double thunk of an object colliding with the wall and falling. They sat in silence, each examining his or her part of the room with unprecedented interest. Darcy sipped his tea. This was a very unattractive room really. The wall hangings were garish and overwhelming; the cream ground work was interrupted by brassy gold borders designed to look like ornate curtain rods, from which swathes of violently purple fabric were depicted hanging artfully. He wondered how he had never observed it before.

Eventually he noticed the Colonel attempting to catch his eye. He raised one brow in enquiry and Fitzwilliam inclined his head slightly towards the door with a questioning look. Darcy shook his head minutely.

Another minute passed without apparent incident and Darcy began to wonder if perhaps silence was not more worrying than the sounds of an argument. He had just begun to regret his decision to keep well away from it when he heard footsteps in the hall and the pair reappeared, neither looking much the worse for wear, thankfully.

‘Louisa, come,’ said Caroline. ‘The morning is not yet at an end; we must call at Lucas Lodge.’

Louisa had not the slightest idea of her sister’s motives but, having no intention of remaining in ignorance, rose and followed her from the room immediately. The gentlemen sat silently in the residual awkwardness, adhering to their tea, before Bingley broke the tension his sisters had left in their wake.

‘She has gone to invite the Lucases join us on Saturday. I am to invite the officers tomorrow; Colonel Forster and some others,’ he said by way of explanation. Darcy could not conceal his surprise and his cousin met his eye with a baffled frown. Bingley gave a Gallic shrug and by unspoken mutual agreement the subject was dropped.[1]

 


 

Elizabeth, having retired very early and risen later than was her wont, was feeling rather better come Tuesday morning. It was to the relief of all that her mood improved with her health. Her mother, in particular, was well served by the restitution of her daughter’s good temperament, for it resulted in Elizabeth’s magnanimous agreement to take up her work in the récamier and not the bergère, and even to accept the arrangement of a blanket across her lap.[2] If her tractability had little to do with her mother’s insistence and a great deal to do with her father’s concern, reluctantly expressed by a beseeching look over breakfast, it mattered not to either lady. Mrs Bennet was satisfied, and Elizabeth was content to play the repentant invalid for one more day in the knowledge that, as the gentlemen of Netherfield had already called yesterday and the Bennets had not yet repaid the call, there could be no further threat of humiliation from that quarter; the rest of their callers could be no one but their old friends, most of whom had seen Elizabeth in many more embarrassing positions than the one she currently occupied.

She was proved almost instantly wrong.

No sooner than she and her mother and Jane had all settled in the sitting room – Mary could not be persuaded to leave off her music practice for such irrelevant visitors as they might expect to receive that day – than the sounds of a squabble erupted above them and Mrs Bennet was summoned upstairs by the habitually distressed Hill to quell the disagreement. This she did with neither grace nor objectivity, delivering a ruling which left nobody satisfied except Lydia, who flounced downstairs with all the insouciance of the perpetually vindicated. Kitty put up a strenuous objection, to which Mrs Bennet gave no consequence at all, and the pair separated with a great deal of resentment on either side.

Two doors on the upper floor slammed in quick succession. In the scant moment of stillness that followed, Lizzy caught Jane’s eye. The former raised a brow, the latter tilted her head in silent reproach, and then Kitty’s wails rang out from above stairs.

‘Well,’ said Lydia as she appeared in the doorway. ‘Kitty is a frightful bore, is she not? I cannot think what has upset her so.’

‘Can you not?’ said Lizzy, exchanging a glance with Jane. The corner of Jane’s mouth quirked slightly and she gave Lizzy a pointed look before rising gracefully and quitting the room in search of Kitty.

‘Really, Lydia, there is no cause to be so unkind,’ Lizzy began reprovingly.

‘La! It is not unkind; she does not look well in that gown, I do not see why I should not have it,’ Lydia said obdurately as she crossed the room and settled herself against the side of the centre window, perching cheerfully on the deep, cushioned sill. Ignoring her sister’s further remonstrations, she peered out of the window in search of visitors, then glanced over at the bracket clock on the mantelpiece, frowning.

Lizzy’s eyes narrowed in suspicion and she broke off.

‘Are you expecting someone, Lydia?’

Lydia seemed surprised to have been observed, despite having been in full view of her sister.

‘Why, Mr Wickham of course, and Denny if he can get away.’

‘Mr Wickham is coming?’ said Elizabeth, alarmed; regardless of her feelings towards that gentleman, her vanity was sufficiently developed as to be mortified by the prospect of his seeing her in such a state, blanketed and reclining downstairs. ‘When? Whatever for?’

‘Oh to see you, I expect; he said he would call this morning,’ said Lydia carelessly as she peeped through the window again before turning back to her sister. ‘Do not look at me like that! It is quite right that he should call to see if you are well; he is our friend, Lizzy—’

Elizabeth’s surprise at being admonished by Lydia of all people did not hinder the speed of her response, or of the rapid turn of mind which Lydia’s words inspired; embarrassment gave way almost immediately to suspicion, and suspicion to a quick and unforgiving allocation of fault.

‘Why should he need to see if I am well?’ asked Elizabeth with determined calm. Lydia did not respond. ‘He was not even in the county when I was injured; how should Mr Wickham know that I have been unwell? Lydia—’

‘Oh, I imagine that he must have heard it from Mr Denny or one of the others when he returned,’ Lydia suggested guilelessly. It was just as well that Lydia’s nature did not ordinarily tend towards secrecy, for she was no liar at all.

‘Indeed,’ said Elizabeth with a pleasantness she did not feel. ‘And how might Mr Denny have heard of the incident?’

‘I did not say it must have been Mr Denny; it could have been one of the other militiamen—’

‘One of the other militiamen? By your account, Lydia, Mr Wickham might have heard this from any person in the militia, and you know not which one,’ said Elizabeth, ‘which raises the question of how the rest of the militia might have become acquainted with the story. Have you an explanation for that, Lydia?’

Lydia turned her wide-eyed gaze on Lizzy; Elizabeth ignored it.

 ‘Lydia, you will tell me immediately how our friends came to know about my accident or I shall tell Father you have exceeded your pin money again and borrowed from mine.’

Lydia had no recourse but to reveal everything.

‘Kitty and I went to my Aunt Phillips’ last night after dinner for a card party,’ said she, ‘and Colonel Forster was there, and Wickham and Denny too, and they asked after you for they thought you would be there—’

‘Am I to believe that our aunt would willingly propagate a story that poses so much danger to my reputation?’

‘You seem very willing to believe that I have done so—and I your sister!’ said Lydia indignantly.

‘Perhaps if you made the slightest attempt to exculpate yourself—’

‘I told you they heard it at Mrs Phillips’—’

‘But Mrs Phillips has no cause to know, or to tell anyone if she did know.’

‘Well there you are wrong, Lizzy. Aunt Phillips knows everything, and why should she not?’

Elizabeth felt a growing sense of alarm; every question seemed to reveal another suspect.

‘How could she know? Does she know of Mr Darcy’s involvement?’

‘Why, of course; she called here on Friday, Lizzy, when you were still asleep—’

‘And you told her,’ said Elizabeth, her eyes narrowed.

‘I did not!’ Lydia squawked, finally forsaking whatever loyalties had kept her quiet thus far. ‘Mama insisted that she should be the one to tell her.’

Any sense of triumph Elizabeth might have felt at having finally extricated the truth from Lydia was trumped by a greater disturbance to her sensibilities.

‘Mama? Mama told Mrs Phillips,’ Lizzy repeated, mortified. ‘And Mrs Phillips told our friends? Does the whole of Meryton know?’

Lydia decided that she need not specify that Mrs Phillips had – in deference to Mrs Bennet’s claims upon her silence – only said that Lizzy had been injured in very unusual circumstances while in the company of a certain gentleman with whom they were all acquainted, and that Lydia herself had been responsible for enlightening them further. She nodded. Lizzy’s lips thinned and, standing, she swept out of the room like Persephone marching into the world below, blanket trailing behind her and a wintery chill in her wake.

 


 

The argument that followed was beneath the dignity of both of the women involved. Mr Bennet emerged from his book room for a scant minute, meaning to tell Kitty and Lydia that no dress, however pretty, could possibly be worthy of such a quarrel, and was most surprised to see the pair in the entryway, helping each other into spencers and bonnets, the latter rather more hastily than the former.

‘What on earth is going on?’ Mr Bennet said, looking between his two youngest girls and the staircase, from which the aggravated sentiments of the duellists still rang out.

‘Kitty and I want to go for a walk,’ Lydia announced with hurried exuberance. Kitty, Mr Bennet noted, did not look remotely pleased with the prospect of a walk, and he wondered for a moment how Lydia had persuaded her to come; he was quite sure they had been quarrelling not half an hour ago.

 ‘I see,’ said Mr Bennet, eyeing his daughters, the one vaguely mulish and the other decidedly guilty. He was not inclined to prevent their excursion, despite the calamity that had recently befallen one of his daughters on just such an outing, reasoning that Kitty’s recalcitrance would serve well enough, and likely better than a caution, to dissuade Lydia from walking with any speed or for any great distance.

An undignified shriek drew his attention upwards, and he had just turned towards the stairs, intent on the restoration of quiet, when three things happened at once: the first was that he suddenly recalled that the usual culprits were halfway out of the door, and making almost no noise at all; the second was that he realised that Jane and Mary must be excluded from the subsequent list of suspects out of acknowledgement of their respective characters, and therefore, that it could be no one but his wife and Lizzy arguing; and the third was that a door slammed above him and the sound of footsteps came imminently in the direction of the staircase.

Naturally, Mr Bennet decided that the best course of action was a prompt and silent retreat to the safety of his book room.

 


 

[1] Gallic shrug: Gallic meaning relating to or characteristic of the French. A Gallic shrug is the universally recognised combination of gestures: the raising of the open hands to say ‘I don’t know’, combined with the raising of the shoulders in an exaggeration of the first part of a shrug, the tilting of the head to one side or the other, and the pushing out of the lower lip in a moue, which is a cross between a pout and a grimace. 

[2] Work: sewing. Bergère: an enclosed French armchair, very popular during the Regency.

Chapter Text

Mr Bennet had been right about the length of Lydia and Kitty’s prospective walk. When Captain Carter, Mr Wickham, and Mr Denny came upon the pair, they were less than half a mile from the house, sitting on a bench beneath the leafless boughs of an apple tree.

‘Mr Wickham!’ Lydia called, sighting the gentlemen’s approach and waving. Wickham bowed and greeted the ladies, as did the other officers, though it would be as well not to say so, for neither Kitty nor Lydia paid them the slightest attention.

‘For a moment, I thought you meant to walk past us!’ Lydia scolded.

‘Indeed, I considered it; even now I am grieved to have disturbed so picturesque a scene.’

‘La! Whatever do you mean, Mr Wickham?’

‘I shall never say.’

Lydia applied to the other officers without success and eventually Wickham allowed it to be teased out of him.

‘Very well; but I speak only on the pain of disappointing young ladies, and so you may not condemn me for it.’

The young ladies assured him that they would not. He sighed and confessed with appropriate gallantry:

‘I have seen nothing lovelier in the whole of my life than the sight of two such pretty girls, hidden away in this little grove to share secrets.’

This comment earned him the delight of his feminine audience and the poorly concealed irritation of Denny and Carter. But his confession was incomplete, and when the effusions of their party settled, he added:

‘For when a man looks upon such a picture from a distance, he can have no knowledge of the ladies’ conversation; and so he might happily walk by, imagining that he might be the subject of such precious confidences, with nothing to contradict his hopes.’

This was declared by everybody, with differing degrees of resentment and pleasure, to be a very pretty speech, and Lydia announced with the greatest enjoyment that it had been very saucy of Mr Wickham to say such a thing.

Captain Carter suggested that they walk on to greet Mr and Mrs Bennet, and the party naturally divided itself. Wickham drew back with Lydia and offered her his arm, while Kitty found herself the happy recipient of the attentions of both Carter and Denny. The conversation between the latter individuals was as pleasant for all involved as it was fundamentally insipid; it shall not be discussed. The conversation between the remaining couple, however, was quite the opposite, for one of its participants at least. Once the necessary pleasantries had been attended to, Wickham turned the conversation to the only topic that anyone acquainted with the Bennet family truly wished to discuss.

‘Miss Lydia, after our conversation at Mrs Phillips’, I feel obliged to ask if I ought to wish your sister joy?’

‘Who? Lizzy?’ said Lydia. ‘Well I daresay they are engaged, but you must not say a word, for they have not made it public.’

Wickham heaved a sigh.

‘I suppose it is for the best,’ he said, as if to himself. His manner was so mysterious as to beg further question, but Lydia had not the slightest interest in Mr Wickham’s concerns at the present time, and so no such enquiry was made, much to his astonishment.

‘It is dreadfully romantic, is it not?’ Lydia said. ‘And to think, we all thought Mr Darcy so very grave and disagreeable—and all the time, he was in love with her! That poor man; I think I should be very disagreeable indeed if I were forced to keep my affections a secret for so long, do not you think, Mr Wickham?’

Wickham, thoroughly confounded by this declaration, nevertheless agreed with her, and recalled his wits enough to chivalrously observe that he could not imagine Miss Lydia being grave or disagreeable. He need not have bothered; Lydia’s attention was entirely diverted by her sister’s great romance and her vanity, for the moment, was unassailable.

‘I cannot imagine how they must have struggled to keep us all in the dark,’ Lydia continued, wondering at it all. ‘What pain it must have given them! How could Mr Darcy bear to suppress such a passionate regard – and poor Lizzy! To be forced to watch that dreadful Miss Bingley fawning over him – she has set her cap at him, you know, as if she could hold a candle to Lizzy – without being allowed to show the slightest evidence of her attachment! Such a thing must be almost impossible, I am sure; I know not how they concealed it for so long.’ She turned to confide in him, her hand pressed upon his arm, ‘You were not there, Mr Wickham – so you will scarcely believe me when I tell you – but Mr Darcy restrained himself so far as to dance but one set with Lizzy on Tuesday.’

‘Restrained himself to dance one set?’ Wickham could not help but repeat. The last time he had been in sociable company with Darcy, the man could not tolerate more than five minutes in an assembly room before having to restrain himself from dancing down the set, through the door, and all the way back to the carriage. It was impossible – it was utterly unfathomable – that Darcy should have wished to dance so much so that a girl like Lydia Bennet could perceive it in his manner.

‘Yes indeed! And they separated immediately afterwards, so as not to draw attention to their partnering, I think. It did not work, obviously, for we all noticed how deliberately they ignored one another for the rest of the evening, and there can be but one explanation for such behaviour.’

‘I pray you, do not hold me in suspense,’ Wickham said in some confusion.

‘Why, they must be in love!’ Lydia declared. ‘I have never known two people so attentive to the task of appearing not to be attentive!’

Wickham was quickly losing track of Miss Lydia’s conversation.

‘They ignored one another? And you believe them to be in love?’

‘Oh quite certainly.’

Wickham saw his opportunity and grasped it.

‘Then I am glad he is marrying her,’ he said. ‘I confess I have been most anxious to hear of their engagement.’

‘Why should you be anxious, Mr Wickham? It is as good as settled,’ said Lydia.

Wickham paused a moment before replying, ‘I’m afraid I ought not to say.’

‘Oh you should not fear on my account, for I keep secrets in the strictest confidence.’

He hoped that was not the case.

‘I am grateful for your assurance,’ he said, acknowledging her with a slight bow of the head. Lydia preened.

‘In truth, Miss Lydia,’ Wickham said slowly, ‘I fear for your sister. I have known Darcy since we were boys, you see, and I am afraid that he is not as honourable in these matters as he might appear… But it would be indelicate to make such a suggestion. I know your sister to be a lady of the highest moral character.’

‘Whatever can you mean, Mr Wickham?’

Wickham sighed again and looked unhappily at his companion.

‘Suffice it to say that Darcy can be very persuasive,’ he said finally, his mouth twisted into a regretful grimace.

‘Oh! You don’t think—’ Lydia said, her eyes wide with surprise. ‘No, I am sure you are wrong. That would be dreadfully unfair of her, to be always insisting that I behave properly and then—!’ Lydia had to laugh. ‘Oh what a fine joke that would be!’

‘I am certain your sister would not allow such liberties. But Darcy… well he is accustomed to getting what he wants.’ Wickham said with a brief smile and an implicative quirk of his brow. ‘He cannot be blamed for that – these rich men need not accustom themselves to the same denials that you or I might be forced to – but—’

Lydia did not wait to hear him.

‘Well I daresay it is only proper that he should want Lizzy,’ she said, laughing. ‘She is not so pretty as Jane, I daresay, but he is only a man.’

That was hardly the response he had been looking for.

‘Only a man?’ Wickham asked, feeling somewhat off-balance.

‘Men are not so clever as they would like to think, Mr Wickham,’ said Lydia confidingly. ‘They do not know what they want; it is the part of we ladies to instruct them.’

Wickham dutifully enquired how such instruction should be carried out and Lydia was only too happy to answer.

‘Why it is the simplest thing in the world, Mr Wickham. You need only observe which ladies a man ignores – that will tell you what he does not want – and then behave in an entirely different manner to those ladies.’

Wickham knew not what to say to that. The logic was sound, he supposed, but he could not believe that all ladies had such Machiavellian instincts.

‘This is what Lizzy has done to poor Mr Darcy, I am sure,’ she continued. ‘It would have been easy enough, I think, for Miss Bingley makes no secret of her attentions, and Mr Darcy makes no secret of ignoring them.’

‘I do not follow.’

‘Well,’ said Lydia, as though it were obvious. ‘If Miss Bingley has not secured him by flattering him and agreeing with him in everything, then obviously Mr Darcy must wish for the opposite.’

Wickham frowned.

‘You think Darcy wishes to be insulted and argued with?’

‘Oh yes; at every turn!’ Lydia confirmed. ‘And that is what Lizzy has done, the sly thing: she has teased and insulted and ignored him, and you see the result?’

Wickham’s sense of alarm was growing; could all women be so well versed in such schemes?

‘I had not thought that your sister was particularly inclined towards Mr Darcy,’ he said, brow furrowed, his own machinations forgotten for the time being.

‘Oh one need not be inclined towards a man to desire his attentions,’ Lydia said dismissively. ‘Lizzy was not inclined towards him in the beginning, I am sure; he slighted her dreadfully when they first met, you know, and I daresay that is why she first decided she would win his affections.’

‘To avenge her vanity? That is hardly a flattering portrait of your sister, Miss Lydia.’

‘La! Would you not wish to see a woman who slighted you lament their rudeness?’

‘I’m afraid I have not the disposition to think ill of those who have wronged me,’ he said regretfully.

‘Well,’ said Lydia smartly. ‘I am sure I would do just the same as Lizzy if a man slighted me so. In any case, it has come out right in the end for now he has caught her as much as she has caught him!’

Well satisfied by the suitably romantic conclusion of her narrative, Lydia gave herself over to quixotic fantasy, allowing Wickham a moment to gather his thoughts. Their conversation, he reflected, had not at all gone according to his design. Still, he ought to make some last attempt to salvage it.

‘Indeed, I should not be surprised to hear that he has won her,’ he said agreeably. Giving his companion a significant look, he continued, ‘Darcy is quite capable of making himself agreeable to young ladies when he perceives the… reward to be worth the exertion.’

‘Of course he must be,’ said Lydia guilelessly, ‘though he is so very quiet usually; I cannot imagine what they must talk of—’

‘I cannot imagine that they talk much at all,’ said Wickham, before appearing to recollect himself. ‘Forgive me. I am sure your sister has been modesty itself; it is only that I know Darcy too well to doubt his…’ – he grimaced – ‘wishes… or his persistence in pursuing them.’

Lydia frowned.

‘Mr Wickham,’ she said severely, and he was satisfied to see the turn of her countenance – surely she could not be as indifferent to her sister’s possible ruination as she seemed – but her reproof, when it came, was entirely unexpected in its direction.

‘I should never have suspected you to be so missish! She has secured him now, so there can be little harm in it; they are to be married soon, I am sure.’

Wickham could hardly disguise his astonishment; how could it be that Miss Lydia suddenly thought so well of Darcy as to be willing to excuse him for – supposedly – taking such liberties with her sister! He exerted himself to laugh – just a moment too late, though Lydia did not notice – and said with some perturbation.

‘Of course, Miss Bennet; I am sure you are right. It is their own affair, after all, and we cannot know the particulars. Perhaps Darcy has behaved better than I would give him credit for.’

Lydia was easily pleased and so deigned to raise her other hand to sit atop the one currently tucked into the crook of Mr Wickham’s arm.

‘Perhaps they both have,’ she said with uncharacteristic practicality. Then, lowering her voice, she added, ‘Oh but I could hardly blame Lizzy if they had not; Mr Darcy is so dreadfully handsome!’

They reached the house then, and went inside. Poor Mr Wickham had never been so shocked in his life. He spoke hardly another word throughout the visit, and said nothing further at all to Lydia, for which crime that lady’s capricious affections were promptly withdrawn. Afterwards, the women all agreed that his company was far less pleasing than usual. Jane was kind enough to ascribe his distraction to concern for her absent sister, but nobody else was so forgiving. Kitty suggested that he might be trying to appear to better advantage by adopting Mr Darcy’s reserved nature; Lydia, however, was less charitable, and announced that if that were the case, he ought not to have bothered, for she was sure he could not be compared with that paragon of the masculine form. Lizzy came downstairs after the gentlemen left, having pled illness during their embarrassing visit, and was on the point of entering the sitting room when she heard this declaration. She turned three shades of scarlet, and went back upstairs immediately.

 


  

On Wednesday, the ladies of Longbourn, their ranks depleted by the absence of the two youngest, called at Netherfield.

‘I am afraid my brother and his friends are from home today,’ said Miss Bingley without prompting after the proper greetings had been exchanged. ‘The Colonel has discovered some acquaintance among the militia, I believe, and desired very much to renew it.’ With an air of conspiratorial pleasure she continued, ‘But I daresay we shall not feel the loss too keenly; we ladies are well capable of amusing ourselves, are we not? And it is not so very long until we shall all be together again on Saturday.’

They all agreed that it was so, and the party began to fragment; Louisa engaged the attentions of Mrs Bennet, Jane, and Mary, while Miss Bingley turned to Elizabeth.

‘My dear Miss Eliza,’ she addressed the former. ‘My brother has told us of your dreadful accident. I cannot express my relief at seeing you so recovered! Louisa and I were quite beside ourselves.’

Elizabeth sincerely doubted it, but thanked her warmly for her concern nonetheless and assured her that she had suffered very little lasting damage.

‘And my sister has been a most diligent nurse,’ she added with a smile in Jane’s direction.

‘I do not doubt it! Jane is such a dear creature,’ said Miss Bingley with real affection.

‘There we are in agreement, Miss Bingley,’ said Elizabeth. ‘I could not wish for a better sister.’

‘Or I a better friend.’

‘Indeed.’

For a moment neither spoke, and then Miss Bingley appeared to recollect herself.

‘I have invited Sir William Lucas and his family to dine with us all on Saturday. I thought you should like to know; Jane tells me you are very intimate with their eldest daughter.’

Elizabeth expressed her surprise and delight at such information, which drew Jane’s attention and enquiry. Miss Bingley immediately turned to include her in their conversation and relayed the news. Jane’s pleasure was evident, and she enquired after Miss Bingley’s progress on a new sonata for the pianoforte the latter had purchased recently, and all three conversed quite pleasantly of music for the next few minutes.

Elizabeth was amazed; she had never seen Miss Bingley so disposed to make herself agreeable, and when the Bennets rose to take their leave, Elizabeth found her farewell to Miss Bingley immediately interrupted by that lady.

‘Oh no! You must call me Caroline,’ she insisted, much to the astonishment of her audience.

Elizabeth could think of no response but to offer her the same intimacy, and so did, albeit with no small amount of confusion and some suspicion, before the Bennets concluded their farewells and returned to Longbourn. Mrs Bennet declared that everything had gone very well, and pestered her daughters for their concurrence.

In truth, Elizabeth highly doubted the longevity of her new friendship, but, when Jane expressed to her that evening the pleasure it gave her to know that all was well between her dearest sister and her friend, she found that she could not object to it.

 


  

Thursday and Friday passed largely without incident, all the ladies of the house being separately absorbed in the business of refreshing their gowns and slippers for the greater part of the day. Maria Lucas appeared in the late morning on Thursday and promptly disappeared with Kitty and Lydia into Mr Bennet’s book room; Mr Bennet, in turn, discovered a sudden inclination to leave that sacred place and indulge his favourite daughter in a turn about the garden.

‘You have been very secretive of late, Lizzy,’ he remarked to her as they strolled through the little wilderness to the side of the house. She looked up at him in surprise.

‘Oh yes, Lizzy, you cannot deny it,’ he continued with some amusement. ‘You have been concealing a great secret indeed; I have it on your mother and sisters’ authority.’

‘I am sure I do not know what you mean, Papa.’

‘Indeed? Do not tell me you have already forgotten your poor Romeo! How careless of you, dear Lizzy; you shall break his heart.’

‘I assure you, Papa, I have broken no hearts.’

‘Have you not?’ he said in amusement.

‘Not of late.’

‘Well, that is a shame; your sisters will be most disappointed.’

‘I daresay they will recover,’ said Lizzy dryly. She met her father’s eyes, twinkling behind the wire-rimmed spectacles he never remembered to remove, and shook her head, repressing a smile. They walked in silence a moment before Elizabeth addressed her father.

‘Lydia says that all of Meryton knows of the incident, though I confess I had not the presence of mind to ask precisely what information is in circulation. Is it very bad?’

‘Should you prefer to be informed or reassured?’

‘I should prefer that the latter were the natural consequence of the former.’

‘You are far too well acquainted with our neighbours to expect such a thing.’

‘I choose to remain optimistic.’

‘More fool you, dear Lizzy,’ said Mr Bennet good-humouredly.

‘You are stalling, Papa.’

‘As are you,’ he said pointedly. Lizzy entirely failed to look contrite and her father laughed at her. ‘Very well. I shall keep you in suspense no longer.’

Mr Bennet drew to a stop, exhaled, and turned to face his daughter. Lizzy looked at him expectantly.

‘It is generally believed,’ he began, ‘that you have taken Mr Darcy as your paramour, and that you met your injury on your way to some clandestine assignation with the gentleman.’

At Lizzy’s horrified expression, he elaborated.

‘I do not believe our neighbours mean to imply that there has been any real impropriety between you, Lizzy, though I should not stake anyone’s life on it.’

‘I do not understand you, Papa.’

‘Well,’ he said, with no small amount of mirth. ‘Your mother at least seems to think that your determination to ignore and abuse one another are reflective of your secret passions.’

Lizzy could scarcely believe it. Her chest rose and fell rapidly as she struggled to contain her irritation.

‘But that is perfectly ridiculous!’

‘It is, rather,’ Mr Bennet said amusedly. Lizzy fixed him with an affronted gaze. ‘Come now, Lizzy; shall you take it to heart then? I had thought better of you than to be distressed by such nonsense.’

‘How could I be otherwise?’

‘Very easily, I should think,’ he said.

Lizzy was not persuaded.

‘I cannot be easy with this, Papa! You must see what risk such rumours pose to my reputation, and how repellent the proper resolution must be to everyone involved.’

Her father seemed unconcerned, his attention seemingly distracted by the antics of a small bird in the tree to her left.

‘Please, Papa,’ she entreated him. ‘Whatever debt I owe him for his kindness, I cannot marry him! I could not be happy with such a husband, and I am convinced I could not make him so.’ Elizabeth was near to tears as she addressed her father. ‘We could never come to love one another, I am sure; our characters are so dissimilar!’

 ‘No? I suppose that is just as well, for I had not the slightest intention of suggesting such a thing.’

Elizabeth was disarmed.

‘You did not?’

‘No, indeed.’

Mr Bennet turned once more to face his daughter took her hands in his own. He held them tightly as he measured his next words.

‘Lizzy, my dear, Mr Darcy is not a charming man, that is true, and towards you he has been unmannerly at best. But in essentials at least, I do not believe him wanting. He went to great lengths to ensure that you would live to argue with him another day, and I do not doubt that he would do his duty by you if the need arose. However, I am equally certain that it will not.’

He squeezed her hands in his and continued.

‘I do not doubt that the next few weeks shall be tiresome, Lizzy, and you shall likely hear a great many unflattering things said about you before they are finished – but finish they shall. Today you shall make sport for our neighbours, and tomorrow we shall laugh at them in our turn. There is no cause for you to give weight to their accusations; there is nothing to be gained by allowing them to know they have discomfited you.

‘Mr Darcy saved your life,’ he said with deliberate lightness, ‘and for that, I am grateful to him, certainly. But I am neither so grateful as to repay him with your hand, should he demand it, nor so sensible as to insist upon the match, though it would serve very well to protect you in the event of my untimely end.

‘Our neighbours will speculate, to be sure – they have little else with which to occupy their time – but what is that to you? The cleverest among them could not contrive to pour water out of a hat without instructions; why should you heed them? You and I shall know better, and so will any that truly care for you.’

Lizzy’s eyes filled unbidden with tears and when her father opened his arms to her, she went willingly into his embrace, pressing her face against his lapel and allowing him to rock her gently side to side as she had not done since she was a very small girl. She did not cry, but she felt the distress of the past week drain from her nevertheless.

Pulling away from her slightly, Mr Bennet entreated a smile from his daughter and, upon receiving some shadow of the expression, dropped a kiss on her forehead.

‘Good girl,’ he said affectionately, and lifted her chin up with one finger. ‘Hold your head up high, my Lizzy; you have done nothing to earn their censure.’

Elizabeth managed a smile and lifted her nose in the air with an expression of playful hauteur.

‘Just so,’ said her father and gestured that they should continue onwards.

‘Should you like my advice, dear Lizzy?’ he said when they had walked some distance away from the house.

‘Of course, Papa.’

‘Be a friend to Mr Darcy. Extend him every reasonable courtesy but no further overtures; greet him, enquire after his health, converse if you find yourself in a position to do so, but show neither deference to his ideas nor disdain for them – no matter how you might be tempted toward the latter,’ he added with a brow raised to invite her challenge. When she conceded without argument – though she could not restrain a mischievous glance at her father – he continued.

‘Give our neighbours every opportunity to observe you in company, and never contrive to avoid his company.’

Lizzy could keep silent no more.

‘Papa, I do not doubt your good intentions, but I confess I fail to see how such behaviour might quell the rumours of an attachment.’

‘Animosity, my dear Lizzy,’ said her father, ‘might well conceal an affair; but there is no romance in apathy.’

He gave her a short smile and she regretted her question. At length she replied.

‘Your plan would be a good one, Papa, if I had only been more circumspect in my dislike.’

‘Perhaps we might convince our friends that there is some merry war betwixt you.’[1]

‘No that will not do, Papa! It would give entirely the wrong impression.’

‘Would it indeed, my Lizzy?’ said Mr Bennet. ‘The situations are certainly reminiscent.’

‘Insofar as they are equally ridiculous, perhaps.’

‘Indeed, and insofar as you have a very silly female relation entirely persuaded that you are in love with a gentleman that you severely dislike, and determined that you should be likewise persuaded.’

Lizzy scoffed.

‘That does not signify for my relation shall not succeed in persuading me, and besides, Lydia could make a romance out of Fordyce’s sermons. She will find something else to think on soon enough.’

‘Or someone,’ her father agreed. ‘Mr Wickham would do, now that you have discarded him; shall I write him, Lizzy? I will inform him that he is welcome to flirt and smile and make love to any of my daughters, excepting the four eldest, and that he should come for that purpose as soon as may be.’[2]

Lizzy laughed heartily, and they both returned to the house much more contented than they had left it. If once or twice on Friday, Mrs Bennet remarked on how pleasing it was to have such attentive friends as Mr Darcy and the Bingleys, Elizabeth found that her good humour was so much recovered that she could not feel discomfited by it, and only laughed at her mother with such an air of satisfaction that Mrs Bennet felt sure that she was right. Thankfully, Elizabeth did not notice, being far too preoccupied by the restitution of her spirits and all the pleasure that must come from the rediscovery of her natural joie de vivre.[3]

 


  

[1] A reference to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Leonato describes the initial relationship between Beatrice and Benedick (the primary couple of the play) by saying, “You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them”.

[2] Make love: used in the book and here in its dated meaning ‘to pay amorous attention (to someone)’.

[3] Joie de vivre: a French expression meaning ‘enjoyment of life’.

Chapter Text

Upon arriving at Netherfield for dinner, the Bennets were shown into the library, which, though large and well-appointed, featured not a single shelf whose full capacity had been realised by the haphazard stacking of excess books horizontally atop the vertical row of volumes, and thus was rather too orderly for Elizabeth’s taste. The Netherfield party rose and greeted them, Caroline effusively, Mr Bingley with real pleasure, and Mr and Mrs Hurst with as much enthusiasm as they each showed in their marriage; that is to say, very, very little and all of it feigned. Colonel Fitzwilliam gave deference to the Bingleys greater friendship with their guests, and then approached and greeted them warmly.

Mr Darcy, Elizabeth noted with amusement, went to all the exertion of turning away from the window, by which he seemed to have taken permanent residence, and bowing to them, before his store of civilities was apparently exhausted for the time being. She bit back a laugh and bobbed a curtsey in his direction. Upon rising and meeting his eye, she was amused to see that he seemed to be gazing on her in some consternation; she wondered if he looked at everybody in such a way, and thought it must be a hard lot indeed to have a face so well formed for frowning. Of course, she had no way of understanding how very pretty she looked then, her lips curved up in a mischievous smile and her fine eyes glinting in the candle light. Darcy, however, could think of little else, and his desire to be near her then was as intense as it was paralysing. Naturally, he ignored it in favour of skulking near the curtains.

Miss Bingley accosted the object of his admiration then with gratuitous enthusiasm, and Elizabeth withdrew her eye and turned her attention to that lady. She was inclined to like her tolerably well after their last encounter, and so smiled at Miss Bingley when she approached.

‘My dear Eliza!’ exclaimed that lady. ‘Is it not the most agreeable thing in the world to be reunited with one’s friends again so soon?’

‘Oh yes, indeed,’ said Elizabeth, her countenance bright with humour and good cheer.

‘But I hope you have not overexerted yourself on our account,’ Caroline continued with excessive concern. ‘Louisa and I would be quite desolate if you were taken ill again.’

 ‘You are too kind, Caroline,’ she said. ‘I assure you I am quite recovered.’

‘I am delighted to hear it.’

‘Yes, indeed; that seems to be the opinion of everyone,’ said Elizabeth, unable to prevent herself from recalling her dreadful conversation with Mr Darcy on the subject. Quite unintentionally, her eyes drifted to rest on him as she remembered the awkward manner of his enquiry. He was by the window still, but her father had joined him there and the two seemed perfectly content to lurk together, one in dour silence and the other in quiet amusement. Mr Darcy happened at that moment to turn his head in her direction and met Elizabeth’s gaze. His eyes widened fractionally in surprise but he held her eye gravely and the corners of her lips turned slightly upwards at the severity of his countenance. Miss Bingley turned to see where she looked and, upon observing which gentleman was the object of her gaze and the steady look of contemplation which the lady received from him in return, was so overcome by vexation and spite that she could not refrain from exclaiming,

‘Oh! but how weary you look, Eliza!’

Elizabeth’s burgeoning affections quickly evaporated.

‘Indeed!’

‘Oh yes! Truly, you look very ill,’ Caroline assured her, laying a hand on her arm with patronizing affection. ‘Indeed, dear Eliza, I declare I am prodigiously worried about you; ought you to have exerted yourself to attend tonight? I hope you did not do so out of any sense of obligation.’

Elizabeth would never after know what had prompted her to say it, but suffice it to say that some feminine instinct swelled in her breast and the words escaped quite without her consent.

‘My dear Caroline! Your concern does you credit, I am sure, but on that score, I may safely reassure you,’ said Elizabeth sweetly. Drawing Caroline’s attention once more with an expressive arch of her brow, she allowed her gaze to traverse the room once more to linger on Mr Darcy, well aware that Caroline’s eye followed hers. The gentleman’s brow creased slightly as he became aware of their observation, though whether in alarm or disapproval neither lady knew or cared. ‘It was not obligation which persuaded me to attend.’

 Elizabeth was rewarded with an infinitesimal widening of her companion’s eyes before Caroline excused herself to speak to her other guests with a curtsy so shallow as to be barely civil. Noticing her sister’s abandonment, Jane entreated her to participate in her conversation with Mr Bingley. Elizabeth welcomed the invitation and joined them with a residual sense of smugness that she could not account for at all. Applying herself to their discussion, she decided that she had given Miss Bingley far more credit than she deserved, and resolved that from that moment onwards, she would think of her as meanly as she chose without compunction. She quite failed to notice Mr Darcy’s gaze resting on her as she laughed and smiled with her sister and his friend, which was perhaps for the best; if she had, she would no doubt have been quite unsettled by the intensity of his expression.

At that moment, a footman appeared in the doorway to announce Colonel Forster and his companions, and Mr Bingley excused himself from the ladies to greet them.

The officers entered the library with all the pomp and spectacle that gentlemen of their profession could usually be relied upon to provide: they bowed and paraded; they strutted and swaggered; they spoke with appropriate volume and gallantry of the beauty of the ladies present, postured and promoted one another, and generally assaulted the whole party with a veritable bombardment of jaunty salutations.

Kitty and Lydia, naturally, were beside themselves with delight.

‘Do you think they perform on the inspiration of the moment or is this a part of the mysterious foot drill?’ said Elizabeth lightly out of the corner of her mouth. ‘I have always wondered how the officers occupy their time when they are not obliged to go to war. I had heard rumours that they were employed in the very unpleasant business of preparing to fight the French; I daresay Monsieur Bonaparte will be relieved to hear that they were far more agreeably engaged in marching about the camp, flirting and flattering and making love to one another.’

Jane had just enough time to turn her face away to hide behind Elizabeth’s shoulder before she was overcome. Elizabeth bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing herself but could not restrain a smile that was more impenitence than contrition. Their mother looked over as Jane recovered; her eyes widened as she caught sight of her daughter’s laughing mouth and bright-cheeked face, and she turned a gimlet-eyed stare on her second eldest, who stood beside Jane with such an air of polite interest in the antics of the recent arrivals that Mrs Bennet could not doubt her culpability. Elizabeth avoided her mother’s narrowed eye with deliberate nonchalance and Jane, having successfully repressed her laughter, lifted her head to fix her sister with a look that entirely failed to express the level of reproach with which it was intended.

Mr Bingley returned to Jane then, having cheerfully foisted the officers onto the younger Miss Bennets, an arrangement which pleased everybody involved. He could not fathom the sudden change in Jane’s countenance, but thought her blush was very becoming indeed and so was not inclined towards analysis. If he noticed Miss Elizabeth’s poorly suppressed amusement, he only sent her a faintly bemused smile and turned his attention back to Jane, but he had hardly opened his mouth to speak before the Lucases were announced.

He excused himself again to greet them as they entered. The father was bombastic, the mother pleasant, and the daughters warm and wide-eyed respectively. Sir William Lucas promptly waylaid his host for a really capital discussion on the state of the roads – very good for this time of the year – the magnificence of the room – a credit to his sister – and how impressive was the assemblage of such a charming party as theirs – he defied even the Court of St James’s to boast such a wealth of beauty. To Mr Bingley’s credit, he performed his part in this convivial display admirably; he listened attentively, agreed wholeheartedly with everything, and never once betrayed the slightest disinclination to continue the conversation. If he found that he was happier to do so when he saw that Miss Bennet had been flanked by her sister and the eldest Miss Lucas, and was therefore involved in a conversation that did not include a single officer, that was of no relevance.

Dinner was announced then and the task of locating one’s dinner companion became the business of the moment. Miss Bingley had given Elizabeth no indication during their conversation of which gentlemen she was to dine with, and she did not at all trust that lady not to leave her without an escort, so she nearly started when she turned her head to find Mr Darcy looming by her elbow. He bowed, and, upon straightening, offered her his arm. Astonished, she accepted it, and allowed him to lead her into the dining room after his cousin and Miss Bingley. [1] They waited a moment while Mr Bingley settled Lady Lucas in the position to his right, and then proceeded towards the head of the table. Darcy escorted Elizabeth to the seat beside his cousin, and took the seat to her right, next to Charlotte Lucas and her red-coated escort, a Lieutenant Colonel by the name of Stevenson.

Colonel Fitzwilliam himself was seated at Miss Bingley’s right hand opposite Sir William Lucas, to whom Miss Bingley had been vexedly obliged, by the circumstances of rank and her unyielding determination to preserve its boundaries, to offer the place at her left. [2] Mrs Hurst sat opposite Elizabeth, beside Sir William, and looked no more pleased with the arrangements than her sister, for her escort had already managed to mortally offend her by offering to make introductions for her at St James’s if they should ever be in town for the season, and the distinction of being partnered with the second highest ranking gentleman in attendance was doing nothing at all to smooth her ruffled feathers.

Mrs Bennet sat close to the middle, between Lieutenant Colonel Stevenson and Mr Hurst, presumably for no other reason but so that she might give equal mortification to her offspring at either end of the table without going to the trouble of exerting herself. Elizabeth’s only consolation was that her mother was seated on the same side of the table as she and Mr Darcy and two places further down, and therefore could not possibly attempt to converse directly with him. The fact that this arrangement would almost certainly preclude any conversation between herself and dear Charlotte – for she could not imagine Mr Darcy being inclined to include her in any conversation they did have – she considered a fair sacrifice for the preservation of her dignity.

Mr Bennet sat opposite his wife and to her left, beside Maria Lucas and Mary, who showed not the slightest interest in conversing with her escort, Colonel Forster. Elizabeth sought Jane’s eye with a despairing expression, but Jane had been placed, by virtue of the low rank of her escort, Captain Morledge, at Mr Bingley’s left hand, and her attention was naturally drawn to Mr Bingley. [3] Kitty and Lydia were as pleased as Punch with their positions, for the former was on the other side of the handsome Captain Morledge, and the latter was flanked by Major Sutton and Captain Carter. [4] Maria Lucas found herself on Major Sutton’s other side, which would have delighted her under ordinary circumstances. Unfortunately, she had lost her poor tender heart to his cerulean eyes and fair countenance when he first entered the library, and speaking to him, therefore, was entirely out of the question.

The first course was served promptly upon the congregation’s being seated. [5] Miss Bingley and her brother performed their offices with admirable grace and by the time a footman had cleared away the soup and placed a serving of fish in front of her, Colonel Fitzwilliam’s pleasant, unassuming manners and the general cheerfulness of the conversation along the rest of the table had gone a long way towards allaying her anxiety. [6] [7] Sir William addressed Miss Bingley with his compliments for her capital arrangements and she unwillingly turned her attention – or perhaps more accurately, her head – towards him with a thin-lipped smile. Having withdrawn her fickle friendship, she now seemed determined to ignore Elizabeth, which suited Elizabeth perfectly; had their friendship survived their conversation in the library, she might have felt obliged to rescue her from the obligation of enduring Sir William’s effusions without support. As it was, she was entirely content to allow the Colonel to monopolise her attention; and if she occasionally looked over to see whether Miss Bingley’s fixed smile had faltered yet under the barrage of mortifyingly well-meant condescension, she was only human.

Smiling, Elizabeth addressed the Colonel:

‘And what do you do in Hertfordshire, sir? Have you some secret business of which we common folk may not enquire or do you come for pleasure?’

‘For pleasure, to be sure,’ he said cheerfully, ‘though it is all Darcy’s. I march at my cousin’s orders.’

Elizabeth’s brows rose.

‘Indeed? I had not known Mr Darcy was a commander of men.’

‘Did you not?’ said the Colonel with a congenial grin.

‘Oh! by inclination, certainly, but not profession,’ Elizabeth returned mischievously. The Colonel laughed heartily.

‘It seems you know my cousin well, madam!’

Elizabeth denied it.

‘No indeed; I have tried often to sketch his character without success.’

‘Then perhaps I may assist you,’ said her companion. ‘What is your impression thus far?’

Elizabeth flushed against her will and she reached for her glass of wine, praying the Colonel had not noticed. She took a sip of the sweet Madeira and looked over to him; his gaze rested on her with an expression of friendly interest, behind which she thought she detected a hint of amusement at her expense. Composing herself, she inclined her head slightly in his direction without shifting her gaze from the juddering tower of calf’s foot jelly in front of them. Colonel Fitzwilliam moved obligingly closer to hear her.

‘I do not think you should like to hear my impressions, Colonel,’ she said in an undertone.

‘No?’ he said equally lowly, now feigning interest in the wall hangings behind Sir William’s head. ‘Well then I must hear them, Miss Bennet; you have piqued my curiosity.’

‘Then piqued it shall have to remain,’ she said archly. ‘We must not mortify your cousin overmuch in the first course.’

Colonel Fitzwilliam conceded with amusement.

‘You are quite right, of course,’ he said seriously. ‘We shall abuse him in the second.’

Elizabeth could not help but laugh, much to the Colonel’s delight. Bowing her head to hide her amusement, she thought she felt Mr Darcy’s eyes upon her. Guiltily she chanced a glance in his direction to see if he had heard their exchange but his expression, as usual, was impossible to make out; that he had turned in her direction and looked at her was obvious – the particular sense of awareness that prickled across the back of her neck could be provoked by no one else – but equally obvious was his determination to keep his attention fixed elsewhere for she could not imagine that he was truly so engrossed in his vague conversation with her dear Charlotte. She could not understand him; vexing, vexing man!

Consoling herself with the knowledge that she could better judge his temper during the second course, Elizabeth returned her attention to the Colonel, who addressed her thus: [8]

‘Come, if we cannot laugh at my cousin while there is fish on the table, we must think of some more agreeable avenue of conversation with which to amuse ourselves until it is gone. Have you any inclination for music?’

‘That is a vastly proper subject, Colonel, allow me to commend you for suggesting it,’ Elizabeth teased.

‘Commend me if you will, but I should rather you oblige me.’

‘Then I shall do so and tell you that I am very fond of music.’

‘That is very good, and do you play?’

‘Aye, sir, but a little.’

‘Then you must favour us with a song after dinner.’

‘A song! I do not recall laying claim to any proficiency in that regard.’

‘You did not need to, Miss Bennet, for my cousin made mention of your singing in one of his letters recently, though he neglected to mention that you played as well.’

Elizabeth could not have been more surprised if the Colonel had told her that his cousin had written to declare his undying passion for her; Mr Darcy had never shown the slightest inclination to hear her play or sing, and when forced by circumstance to listen, his expression had been dispassionate if not frankly disdainful.

 ‘You are a credit to your profession, I am sure, Colonel Fitzwilliam; it is a brave man that requests a song knowing already the limitations of my talents!’

The Colonel glanced past her at his cousin in something akin to puzzlement.

‘Much as I would wish to own to such bravery, I am afraid I cannot,’ he said, returning his attention to her with a bemused smile, ‘for my cousin spoke very highly of your abilities.’

‘Indeed! Then I regret to inform you that your cousin has committed one of two most grievous sins: either he has perjured himself in his letter to you – or he was not listening when I sang.’

The Colonel laughed.

‘The latter, clearly, is the more heinous crime.’

‘Oh quite certainly.’

‘Then you shall be delighted to hear that he is not guilty of it.’

‘Would you call your cousin a liar then, sir?’

‘No indeed! I shall defy you on all counts and insist that he both attended your performance and was pleased by it.’

‘That is a bold claim indeed for one who has not heard me himself!’

‘Then shall fortune favour me with a song, that we might determine the legitimacy of my assertion?’

‘I cannot speak for fortune, sir.’

‘Then speak for yourself, for I should rather hear you than fortune in any case.’

Elizabeth smiled.

‘Then hear me you shall, Colonel, if there is an opportunity.’

The Colonel expressed himself to be very pleased by her promise, and as the jelly was removed with a plate of small tarts, Elizabeth decided that she would not be sorry to continue their acquaintance. [9]

 


 

[1] The hostess should always be escorted into dinner by the highest ranking gentleman guest.

[2] The organisation of seating is probably more complicated than you would wish to know but that’s too bad; I’m going to explain it anyway. The hostess sits at the head of the table and the host at the foot. The highest ranking gentleman guest must sit to the hostess’ right, and the highest ranking lady must be escorted by the host and offered the seat to his right. The higher the rank of the guest, the closer to the head of the table they should sit. As most of the ladies in this party are of the same rank – unmarried gentlewomen – I have used the rank of the gentlemen to decide most of the seating, though the rank of the ladies has been taken into account. Thus, the lowly Captains Carter and Morledge, are seated closest to the foot of the table with youngest of the unmarried ladies, Jane notwithstanding, while the Colonels Fitzwilliam and Forster, and Mr Darcy, are both seated closer to the head of the table with their companions. The gentlemen and officers of middling rank – Lieutenant Colonel Stevenson, Mr Bennet, Mr Hurst, and Major Sutton – occupy the centre of the table, with their companions.

[3] Jane is escorted by Captain Morledge, who is also escorting Kitty. As one of the lowest ranking officers, the Captain is obliged to sit near the foot of the table where Mr Bingley sits, and therefore, his partners must sit on either side of him. Captain Carter has escorted Lydia and is similarly obliged to take the lowest available seat, which incidentally places him beside Lady Lucas on Mr Bingley’s right hand side. Naturally, Kitty selects the seat on Morledge’s left, so as to be opposite Lydia, leaving Jane to take the seat directly to Mr Bingley’s left. If anyone is interested in how this arrangement came to pass, I will say only that Mr Bingley might have had a hand in it.

[4] Pleased as Punch: Punch is capitalised on purpose, as the expression refers to the character Mr Punch, from the puppet show, Punch and Judy. Punch and Judy shows have been popular in England and Europe since the 1600s.

[5] Dinner was served à la française during the Regency, which essentially means ‘in the French style’. Food would be served in three courses: the first would be fish and soup, the second would be roasts, and the third would be the desert course. However, that is not to say that these were the only dishes available during each course. Savoury and sweet appeared in both the first and second courses, as well as the desert course. Other than the fish and soup, guests would serve themselves. Well, not exactly. Male guests would serve themselves, and married women were allowed to carve for themselves if they liked, but unmarried women and in fact women in general were obliged to rely on the men near them to offer and serve them food and wine. Women could ask for food, but not wine, so it was the duty of the nearby gentlemen to observe their female neighbours to ensure that they were not without a drink. This (ridiculous) set up makes it obvious why it was important for hostesses to ensure that there was a roughly even number of ladies and gentlemen at any dinner party, as well as why it was quite popular for ladies and gentlemen to sit alternately: a shortage of gentlemen, or a table where the distribution of men and women was very uneven, would make for an awkward dining experience for the ladies. (As an additional note, this is another area where the 2005 film shows its lazy scriptwriting and apparent allergy to historical accuracy and fact checking: when Bingley finally returns to Netherfield and Jane, Mrs Bennet tries to tempt him to stay for dinner by promising him a meal of “at least three courses”. This is patently ridiculous: service à la française included three courses total. The impressive thing would be the number of dishes – anywhere between five and twenty-five – which would appear during each course. Obviously twenty five dishes wouldn’t all fit on the table at once, so if the hosts wanted to showcase their wealth they would organise for dishes to be swapped out for others halfway through the course. Mrs Bennet is clearly referencing service à la russe, or service in the Russian style, in which each type of food comprised its own course, and each course was brought out sequentially, leading to the idea of a fourteen course dinner (fourteen was the average for a dinner party, while a small Sunday luncheon required only five). Service à la russe did not come into fashion until well after Jane Austen’s day; the Bennets and their contemporaries would have served food exclusively à la française.)

[6] “First Miss Bingley and then her brother performed their offices”: during the first course, the hostess would serve the soup, and after that, the host would serve the fish. The footmen would deliver each guest their servings. Serving (including all carving) was to be performed seated.

[7] I can already hear people asking me why Darcy isn’t speaking to Elizabeth, so I’ll explain now. Conversation would flow to the left (of the hostess) during the first course of a dinner party, meaning that Miss Bingley would be supposed to talk to Sir William, Mrs Hurst would be supposed to talk to Colonel Forster, and so on and so forth around the table, Mr Bingley would be supposed to talk to Jane, and Elizabeth would be supposed to talk to Colonel Fitzwilliam. Incidentally, this means that Mr Darcy is supposed to be talking to Charlotte Lucas. Obviously, this is not a concrete rule, as often conversations would form groups. However, it does mean that there’s no awkward moment at first when you don’t know to whom you should speak.

[8] When the second course is served, the hostess turns her attention to the guest on her right, and the direction of conversation swaps.

[9] "Jelly was removed with a plate of small tarts": this is how the practice of swapping out dishes during a course was described.

Chapter Text

Naturally, the pleasantness which had characterised the first course did not last long into the second. The servants descended on the table like a horde of liveried crows on a lately seeded green, and Elizabeth could hear not only Lydia’s laughter above the muted commotion as she flirted shamelessly with Captain Carter but also her mother’s excitable tones as she spoke with Lady Lucas, seated three places down from her and on the other side of the table.

‘I knew my Jane could not be so beautiful for nothing! Did I not say so, Lady Lucas?’

Lady Lucas agreed with her and remarked that all of her daughters were very lovely. Bingley, to his credit, pretended with some success not to hear them, though Elizabeth thought that his smile was rather more affected than usual. Elizabeth could only imagine Jane’s mortification and longed to be by her sister’s side.

‘Oh yes,’ said her mother, preening slightly, ‘though I should not say so myself.’

Spying Mr Darcy’s gaze being drawn to that quarter and unable to intercede in her mother’s discussion from her place so far down the table, Elizabeth cast about desperately for a topic of conversation which might entice Mr Darcy’s attention away from her family and towards herself. It would not do to sit in silence with the man for almost an hour complete while he catalogued her relations’ every impropriety – not least because she did not think she could bear to watch them herself – but she was still searching for something to say when the footmen all drew back from the table.

She had just turned to him, prepared to give up all pretensions of cleverness if she could but think of one very dull thing to say, when he spared her the trouble by asking which vegetable she would prefer. Relieved that she had not been required to prove herself entirely devoid of sense by asking what he thought of the weather – it was vile, there could be no other opinion on the subject, and, therefore, no discussion – she hardly knew what she answered, but it must have been an acceptable request because he fulfilled it immediately and efficiently before offering her another glass of Madeira, which she accepted. An awkward moment passed in silence then. Elizabeth took a sip of her wine.

‘I believe you told me that you could never discuss books in a ballroom, Miss Bennet,’ said Mr Darcy at length. ‘Could you be persuaded to discuss them in a dining room?’

Elizabeth readily assented that she could.

‘Though I confess,’ she added, ‘that I do not think we shall find our tastes much in concurrence.’

‘You mean to discourage me, madam,’ Mr Darcy said gravely. Sensing the rapidly approaching doom of their conversation, Elizabeth summoned up her wits and delivered him a smile.

‘No indeed, sir; I invite you to contradict me.’

For a moment, she was afraid she had misstepped, he took so long to respond.

‘Then I shall endeavour to do so, Miss Bennet,’ he said, ‘though your invitation is a contrary one.’

‘Perhaps it is a reflection of its speaker.’

‘I think it much more likely to be a reflection of its speaker’s fondness for expressing opinions which are not her own.’

Elizabeth was caught entirely off her guard. She laughed in surprise, and replied,

‘Sir, that is very ungallant of you! You would force me to express my own opinions, though they might be terribly unfashionable and unravel my affectations of sense and elegance, in such a civilised forum as this?’

‘No indeed; you are welcome to let my assertion stand.’

‘Well that I cannot do! It is not in my nature.’

‘Then it seems you shall have to confess your true sentiments.’

‘Very well, but you have been warned, sir,’ she teased; ‘they may do little to represent me as a creature of any sense.’

Mr Darcy’s eyes were fixed on her own and, apparently unconscious of his movement, he inclined his head slightly to speak more intimately to her.

‘I am of the opinion, Miss Bennet,’ he said with an odd strain in his voice, ‘that sense has very little to do with sentiment.’

Elizabeth suddenly felt that her mouth was very dry. Withdrawing her own gaze from his with difficulty, she turned away and reached for her glass of wine. When she turned back to Mr Darcy, he had straightened and seemed unaware of the oddness of their exchange. She glanced around to see if anyone had noticed their unusual closeness, but it seemed they had gone unobserved.

‘Mr Darcy,’ Elizabeth addressed him determinedly, refusing to be responsible for a dearth of conversation, ‘I believe we intended to ascertain whether we ever read the same things.’

‘Indeed,’ said he, reaching for his own wine glass. ‘So what is the last book you have read?’

‘Oh, Fordyce’s Sermons, of course,’ said Elizabeth, with perfect artlessness as he took a sip. ‘I never read anything else.’

Mr Darcy choked slightly as he drank and was obliged to put his glass back down. [1] Elizabeth sipped her own wine neatly with a decided sense of smugness at having disturbed the grave propriety of the indomitable Mr Darcy.

‘Indeed, Miss Bennet?’ he said, turning to her. ‘And have you a favourite sermon?’

‘Oh certainly; that which is on female virtue, friendship, and conversation, I find most enlightening. I believe it is number five or six.’ [2]

‘I should have guessed, for you have always restrained yourself from indulging in the rash dexterity of wit.’ [3]

‘Indeed, sir. I have never been seduced by strokes of satire.’ [4]

‘Nor demonstrated a thirst of applause,’ said Mr Darcy, with such blandness of tone that Elizabeth could not be sure if he was teasing her or not. [5]

‘No indeed,’ she said, rising to the challenge, ‘for the heat which it produces, and the vanity which fosters it, are especially dreaded in women.’

Mr Darcy’s lips quirked.

‘Except, I dare say, in Mrs Howe,’ replied he, ‘for she never said an ill-natured or indelicate thing in the whole of her life.’ [6]

‘Mrs Howe, we must understand, is an exception,’ said Elizabeth seriously, ‘I have it on good authority that men of the best sense are generally averse to the thought of marrying a witty female.’ [7]

‘Then men of the best sense are fools.’

Elizabeth could not conceal her surprise at the sudden heat of his tone.

‘You should not like to consider yourself a man of sense, Mr Darcy?’ she said lightly. His eyes were fixed on her, but she was not inclined to meet his gaze and so strenuously avoided doing so. She felt him turn away.

‘Under such a definition, no.’

His voice was stiff and unfriendly, and a glance at his stern countenance suggested that he had reached the end of his inclination for amicable conversation.

Vexed and unsettled, Elizabeth turned her own attention to her food, though she scarcely noticed what she ate.

Colonel Forster, who sat opposite Mr Darcy, addressed her then and she endeavoured to be pleasant to him.

‘Miss Bennet, allow me to express my happiness at seeing you so recovered,’ he said. Elizabeth was half amusement and half woeful exasperation at the form of Colonel Forster’s unexpected rescue; welcome though it was, she thought she could quite cheerfully live the rest of her life without hearing another observation on her state of health. She thanked him warmly, assured him that she was very well indeed, and hoped that the thin bandages that remained on her left wrist were hidden from view by the towering arrangements between them, for she had not the slightest desire to play the invalid again.

‘Indeed, there was a prodigious degree of anxiety amongst my officers when we received the news of your injury. I believe more than one young man was quite distraught,’ he said with a conspiratorial wink.

Elizabeth felt Darcy stiffen beside her and she found herself wishing that Netherfield was the sort of house which might boast a convenient trap door under the table, through which she might escape this torment.

‘You are too kind, Colonel Forster,’ she replied.                       

‘Mr Wickham in particular was especially out of sorts when he returned with Captain Carter and Mr Denny on Tuesday,’ he continued, entirely unaware of her discomfort. Elizabeth had not thought it possible for Mr Darcy to exude more icy unpleasantness than she had already borne witness to over the course of their acquaintance but he achieved it now; she thought the skin of her right arm might come up in gooseflesh from the chill if he did not desist.

‘I believe they were quite distressed to discover that you were yet too ill to see them.’

Darcy’s eyes widened infinitesimally and narrowed; he turned to Elizabeth slightly. She had not been too ill to see the gentlemen from Netherfield when they called and that had been on Monday. Elizabeth did not meet his eye but thanked the Colonel again for his concern and repeated her assurances that she was entirely well.

To her surprise, it was Colonel Fitzwilliam who interrupted the conversation, addressing Colonel Forster across the table.

‘Colonel Forster, Miss Bingley was just telling me about the Netherfield Ball, and how charming it was to have such delightful guests as your officers.’

By the expression on Miss Bingley’s face, Elizabeth was quite certain she had been telling him nothing of the sort, but Colonel Forster was oblivious. Perfectly happy to direct all his attentions towards Miss Bingley and her sister, seated beside him, he did so at once with considerable enthusiasm. Sir William leapt to his aid, and the pair quickly inundated their hostess with compliments.

Elizabeth looked to Colonel Fitzwilliam with a grateful smile; he quirked his brow mischievously and inclined his head in the slightest of bows before retuning his attention to Miss Bingley.

The rest of the second course and the third passed without Mr Darcy speaking a single word to her. Elizabeth found herself vexed anew at his irregular temper; though she had been surprised by his conversation, she had nonetheless been prepared to declare him, if not a desirable companion, at least a tolerable one, before his sudden reversion to stupidity and silence. [8]

When Miss Bingley rose to excuse the ladies, Elizabeth went gladly. She longed to secure a moment with Jane or Charlotte in which to discuss whole affair but dared not broach the subject of Mr Darcy when there was the slightest possibility that her mother might overhear her.

Bingley offered the gentlemen the usual refreshments and they all pretended that they would not rather be in the drawing room with the ladies.

‘I must revise my opinion, cousin,’ said Colonel Fitzwilliam under his breath as he nursed his port. ‘Whatever the consequences are to her reputation, you cannot marry Miss Elizabeth.’

Darcy looked at him with some confusion. The Colonel grinned.

‘She is far too good for the likes of you.’

If they had both been fifteen years younger and larking about on the green by the smithy at Lambton, this would have been the moment at which Darcy launched himself at his older cousin, intent upon the satisfaction of his honour, which for a boy of thirteen was a Very Serious Business indeed. Alas, they were both full grown, and sitting within two yards of Mr Bennet, so Darcy could do nothing but scowl murderously at him over the rim of his glass and wish his cousin seventy miles away with his regiment in Newbury.

‘Only you, Darcy, could contrive to find yourself in such a ridiculous situation,’ the Colonel continued, shaking his head with a sense of disbelief that bordered on admiration. ‘You must be the luckiest man in all England.’

‘What the devil are you talking about?’ said Darcy, in no mood to endure his cousin’s rambling.

‘Do not be coy, Darcy, you know well what I mean.’

‘I assure you, I have not the slightest idea.’

The Colonel dismissed his cousin’s words with an impatient gesture.

‘Really, Darcy, I cannot understand your hesitation in this instance! You have managed to compromise the reputation of one of the most delightful women either of us have ever encountered, and yet you have not proposed? If I were in your position I should have had her kneeling before the altar thrice over by now.’

Darcy snorted involuntarily.

‘Thrice over?’ he said mildly. ‘Has she fled the church twice already in your imaginings? I cannot say I blame her; but you had better let her alone then, cuz.’ [9]

‘Well if it were you awaiting her there I daresay she would not flee,’ Fitzwilliam said wickedly. ‘You ought to have seen her blush when I asked her what she thought of you.’

Darcy’s brows made a valiant effort to rise up to his hairline before he managed to school his expression. Sitting up rather straighter and finally devoting the whole of his attention to his insufferable cousin, he pressed him for information.

‘What did she say?’

‘Something to the effect that she should not like to tell me what she thought of you, or that I should not wish to hear it.’

‘And she blushed?’

‘Yes, very much!’

Darcy hushed him.

‘Her father, Colonel,’ he said lowly in warning. The Colonel shrugged.

‘Her father is busy amusing himself at the expense of his other son-to-be,’ he said dismissively. Darcy glanced over his shoulder at where Mr Bennet stood with Bingley, the former cheerfully abusing the latter for his good nature in tolerating his womenfolk. Darcy grimaced and turned back to the Colonel.

'She clearly admires you, Darcy, I am certain of it,' Fitzwilliam said. 'She would not say another word on the subject after that and seemed very embarrassed that it had been brought up at all.'

Satisfied that he had relayed his information, the Colonel stood, clapped his cousin on the shoulder, and left to rescue poor Bingley. Darcy did not rise; instead he sat quite still, thinking and frowning and generally looking very severe indeed, until Bingley called them all to join the ladies.

 


 

 

[1] Fordyce’s Sermons: as we know from Pride and Prejudice, this is considered a very dull choice of reading material by Mr Collins. It was popular in the 1760s and 70s, but had quite fallen out of fashion by Jane Austen’s time and his views on women were considered silly and outdated. Mary Bennet is considered quite a dull thing for studying them – though, yes to the best of my knowledge, it is never explicitly stated in the novel that she reads them, but she does quote from him! Her line “Vanity and pride are different things, thought the words are often used synonymously” is clearly intended to remind a Regency reader (who would have likely read them) of one of Fordyce’s sermons, wherein he says “pride and vanity are different things” – so the idea that Elizabeth of all people would willingly read such a text is ridiculous. Even proper Mr Darcy would not have been interested in Fordyce’s idea of the ideal woman.

[2] Incidentally, it is number five.

[3] I am so, so sorry for including a conversation that is entirely based on a book that nobody has read, but Darcy is referring to a line from Sermon V where Fordyce says that there are only very few women who “may have been endowed with judgement and temper sufficient to restrain them from indulging “the rash dexterity of wit,” and to direct it to purposes equally agreeable and beneficial”.

[4] I’m sorry, this is a legitimate line from the same sermon where Fordyce is talking about the dangers of witty women, saying that wit betrays women into “great indiscretions” by “seducing them into strokes of satire”.

[5] Yes, it’s ‘of’ in the text, instead of ‘for’. I know it doesn’t sound right, believe me when I say it annoys me as much as it annoys you.

[6] Fordyce literally interrupts his own sermon to say that he knows a woman called Mrs Howe who was clever but also nice, and who never said a mean or shocking thing in her life. I have no idea who Mrs Howe is, but Fordyce was clearly pretty impressed with her.

[7] This is another quote she pulls almost word for word from the sermon: “…need I tell you, that men of the best sense have been usually averse to the thought of marrying a witty female?” I’m cringing too, don’t worry. The urge to smack Fordyce over the head with his own book of sermons is so strong.

[8] Stupidity: used in its archaic form to mean lacking sensation or animation.

[9] Cuz: archaic abbreviation of ‘cousin’, appears quite often in Shakespeare’s works. The spelling is deeply irritating because it looks so modern, but I promise it is apparently accurate.

Chapter Text

When all the guests had reunited in the drawing room, Lydia declared that they must all dance, and so the men were recruited to push the furniture aside to clear a space for that purpose. Mary was exiled to the pianoforte with instructions to find something merry to play, and seemed, if not quite content, at least not resentful of her lot, until she settled on Miss Moore’s Rant and Lydia decided that she wanted La Strasbourgeoise Cotillion, played allegretto. The former objected strenuously to this flagrant musical abomination – if La Strasbourgeoise was to be played, by heaven, it should be played andante moderato – but the latter prevailed, and the younger members of the party quickly formed two sets, without anyone quite knowing how they came to be partnered up. Bingley, having gravitated immediately to Miss Bennet’s side at the earliest possible moment, naturally secured her hand; his sister was detained by Colonel Fitzwilliam before she could even raise her head to look at Mr Darcy; Elizabeth, by virtue of having been standing nearby Captain Carter when the sexes converged to organise the set, accidentally acquired him as a partner; and Darcy, through some bizarre contrivance of the universe, found himself standing up with Lydia Bennet. [1] The second set was comprised of Kitty, Mrs Hurst, the Lucas girls, and the remaining officers, and so naturally very little of interest took place in that part of the room over the course of the dance.

Miss Mary began to play, her eyes fixed on her youngest sister with waspish resentment, and Darcy turned and made a short bow to Miss Lydia, who curtseyed with a merry smile, entirely oblivious to her sister’s irritation. Joining hands with her, and with Miss Bingley on his left, they all circled once and by the time they had returned to their starting positions, Darcy had remembered why cotillions were usually danced at a slower tempo; the footwork was insufferable, fashionably complex, and the figures tended towards chaos with every second one sending the dancers to and fro across the circle to different partners and back again.

Beginning the set, each lady moved across behind her partner while each gentlemen crossed in front of his to take the hand of the lady to his right. Releasing Miss Lydia to his cousin and passing her in that fashion, Darcy took Miss Bennet’s hands for the first allemande.

‘I am glad to see that you have suffered no ill effects after the events of last Wednesday, Mr Darcy,’ she said as they turned.

He deferred his own gratitude to her sister’s wellbeing and she smiled, pleased by it, before they separated and returned to their original partners.

‘Is it true that Mr Wickham visited with you all on Tuesday?’ said Mr Darcy offhandedly, still troubled by the information Colonel Forster had revealed over dinner. Lydia answered easily, having no perception of his motives.

‘He did, with Mr Denny and Captain Carter, and such a dreadful bore he was too; he never opened his mouth but to carp, I am sure of it.’ [2]

‘Indeed?’

‘Aye! And he complained about you more than anything—’ she said without reserve before they were obliged to part again, this time to the lady on his left and the gentleman on her right, respectively.

‘I am surprised to see you dance, Mr Darcy,’ said Miss Bingley as they turned.

In no mood to endure her teasing, he answered her tersely, ‘Are you?’, and was relieved to be away from her.

‘—though that can be no surprise to anybody,’ said Lydia as though there had been no interruption between their last allemande and this one.

‘How so?’

‘Why, do you not know?’ she said as they danced across the set and turned in a circle, their hands crossed together as they stood side by side. ‘Mr Wickham has been most determined to speak ill of you, almost from the first moment of our acquaintance.’ They went round again and she continued, ‘Oh! but you need not be alarmed, for I set him quite right.’

‘Indeed?’ he said, alarmed nevertheless.

They came to the top right hand corner of the set and he raised his arms to allow her to turn beneath them.

‘Oh yes!’ she said, turning. ‘He is convinced you have done him some great wrong.’

It suddenly occurred to Darcy what danger his boyhood friend might pose to such a girl as the youngest Miss Bennet if he managed to engage her sympathies.

‘I pray you would not heed him,’ he said stiffly. ‘He is no gentleman.’

‘He said much the same thing about you,’ Lydia informed him gaily as he turned under her upraised arms, neglecting to actually take her hands in deference to the awkwardness of his height compared with hers. She quite missed his astonishment at her declaration, for she and the other ladies swept away from their partners at that moment to form a circle between the gentlemen, their right hands laid atop one another in the centre as they skipped round in a leftwards procession.

The turn brought Miss Elizabeth to face him and he took her hand with a relief that was quickly extinguished when she addressed him with impish nonchalance.

‘I did not think you liked to converse while dancing, Mr Darcy.’

‘Your sister is an insistent conversationalist.’

‘And that is what is required to tempt you into speech?’

The dance separated them before he could reply and Lydia took her place for a scant moment.

‘Oh no, you must not think he is believed, Mr Darcy,’ she said as they turned. ‘No indeed for we know better.’

Darcy could not fathom how that might be but he did not have the opportunity to question her further for he was obliged to meet the other gentlemen in the centre as the ladies had done earlier. He had just time to meet his cousin’s enquiring glance with an expression of poorly disguised alarm before they completed the half turn and he held out his hand to Miss Elizabeth once more.

‘Then you must forgive me, Mr Darcy,’ said she, ‘for failing to press you at the ball. I shall endeavour to harass you further at the earliest opportunity.’

Again he was prevented from replying for the dance brought him again into the centre with the gentlemen and then hand in hand with Miss Lydia.

‘You have both been so very mysterious about your history,’ she said when they were reunited, ‘that it could be nothing but a lady which drove you apart.’

She danced around him as she spoke, and Darcy did not miss the way that her eyes lighted on her elder sister, nor the saucy gleam in her eye. Dear God, was there no end to this madness? Technically and in part, he supposed she had the right of it; when he and Wickham had finally broken, it had been over his sister, whom he had been reliably informed by Mrs Reynolds, much to his horror and brotherly trepidation, was now a proper Young Lady, replete with suitors and romances and a heretofore unprecedented sense of anxiety over her looks. But excepting that similarity, Miss Lydia’s assumptions could not have been further from the truth; he knew he should dissuade her, but how could he do so without opening himself to further interrogation?

‘I assure you, Miss Lydia,’ he said, taking her hands and following the other couples around in a circle; ‘there is no one to blame but that gentleman himself for the dissolution of our friendship.’

‘Oh! there can be no allotment of blame in cases such as these, Mr Darcy.’ -- He released her left hand and they circled one another leftwards – ‘It is the way of the world that some must be successful in love and some must be disappointed.’ – They switched hands and repeated the movement contrariwise – ‘We must try to be sympathetic to poor Wickham.’

It took all the experience of his eight and twenty years to refrain from shewing his reaction and he was greatly relieved by his obligation to cross over to Miss Bennet once more. She seemed unperturbed by his silence, and he was relieved to be released from the burden of conversation, for his mind was entirely consumed by Miss Lydia’s words.

Miss Elizabeth loved him. There could be no other interpretation; if Wickham was to be pitied for losing her affections, then he, Darcy, was surely to be congratulated for winning them. The thought was both exhilarating and vaguely unnerving in its finality. He trusted his cousin implicitly, of course, but he had certainly harboured reservations about the Colonel’s assessment. Founded as it was on the observation of a single instance of blushing prevarication, his claim had not carried the sort of weight that would serve to convince Darcy of its veracity, but Miss Lydia’s assertion was quite a different matter. Of her information there could be no doubt; her authority in the matter must be acknowledged. Could there be a better or truer source than the lady’s own sister?

Miss Lydia’s reappearance for the allemande recalled him to the present moment and he bestowed his full attention on his partner, not out of any particular desire on his part to be agreeable towards her but rather because her manner of speaking – continuously and with the sort of naked enthusiasm which was a particular symptom of her extreme youth – made it almost impossible to avoid listening to her.

‘I am sure you cannot imagine how very stupid he was, Mr Darcy, knowing him as you do!’ – He could, and took great, vindictive satisfaction in doing so – ‘I could scarce believe it myself. Carter and Denny spoke enough for the three of them, though, and said they were all very pleased to hear that Lizzy was not badly injured, which was only proper I suppose, but I do not believe that either of them really cared three straws for her,’ she said, with a self-satisfied air that seemed to suggest an idea that their attentions were directed towards herself. Darcy could not repress a reproving scowl at this news; Captain Carter was younger even than Bingley, so it was well enough if he looked on Miss Lydia with admiration, but Denny he knew to be very near to his own age, and ought not to be groping at the petticoats of a girl young enough to be the result of one of the man’s early trysts. It came far too near Mr Wickham’s proclivities for his comfort, and as the dance sent him briefly in Miss Bingley’s direction, Darcy found himself wondering if it would be very difficult to convince Denny that his interests should lie elsewhere.

Apparently recovered from his last curt dismissal, Miss Bingley fixed him with a suggestive twist of the lips which did not quite deserve to be called a smile.

‘You seem very engrossed by your partner, Mr Darcy,’ she said secretively, thinking nothing of the sort but desirous of discomfiting him. ‘Do not tell me that you have discovered another pair of fine eyes in the family. Perhaps you even prefer them to the first? I daresay it is only natural that you should do so – for they are the spit of one another, barring their age – but I am afraid the elder sister will take it very hard.’ [3]

She could not know how ill-timed her suggestion was but Darcy was not inclined to be forgiving and so said with deliberate cruelty,

‘I assure you, Miss Bingley, my rapport with Miss Lydia is entirely founded on more brotherly sentiments, as is only natural considering the circumstances.’

Miss Bingley’s eyes widened and she returned to the Colonel with spirits much more distressed than they had been upon her departure. Miss Lydia resumed her conversation with Darcy as if it had never ceased as they came together again for another allemande.

‘They all went away again very quickly, you know – the officers, that is. I daresay they did not stay in the sitting room above a quarter of an hour, and Mr Wickham did not speak a word to any of us.’

‘Indeed? Did he explain his reticence?’ Darcy asked, as they crossed the set together.

‘He did not need to,’ said Lydia as they turned in a circle, side by side, their hands joined, ‘for his reasons were quite clear: Lizzy would not come down to receive him.’

‘That hardly signifies; she was ill, was she not?’

Lydia snorted.

‘Oh yes, very ill,’ she said as she came to stand before him, with such a pointed look of derision that her meaning was obvious.

‘I see,’ he said, frowning. She danced back step by step as he advanced to lead them to the top right hand corner of the set.

‘Lizzy looks very well tonight,’ she said slyly, looking past his left shoulder. ‘Do you not agree, Mr Darcy?’

He glanced over his shoulder to where he could see her laughing with Captain Carter in the opposite corner of the set. Darcy thought perhaps he ought to feel something more akin to jealousy but there was only a tolerable feeling of warmth in his breast when he looked at her.

‘Yes,’ he said, without being especially aware of having spoken. ‘She looks very well.’

Though he did not smile as he said it, there was a certain softness about his expression which pleased his partner very much, and she promptly decided that a gentleman’s subtlety in the shewing of his admiration was a far prettier mark of feeling than effusive fancy.

The curious sensation of being observed served to draw Elizabeth’s eyes away from Captain Carter to settle on Darcy. As both couples came respectively up and down the set to turn under one another’s arms in the middle of the left and right outer edges, Elizabeth saw that Lydia’s gaze was also in her direction. She did not wonder at it; her sister must be envying Elizabeth the regimentals of her partner. No doubt Lydia had ensured that Mr Darcy felt his inadequacy on that score by pestering him ceaselessly with talk of the officers. Elizabeth could not but laugh at the idea of the proud Mr Darcy being compelled to give his opinion as to whether Captain Carter was more or less handsome than Captain Morledge; and whether it would be preferable to receive the attentions of a handsome man with no money or a moneyed man who was not handsome; and whether poor Lieutenant Sanderson was really handsome at all or if Kitty was only determined to believe that he was because he had requested her hand for the supper set at the Netherfield Ball and there was no gratification to be had in being flattered by an ill-favoured man. Imagining his plight with amusement, she raised a brow and gave him an impish smile that bordered on a grin, before releasing Captain Carter’s hand to join the ladies in the centre again.

The women circled and broke apart; Elizabeth reached out her hand to Darcy, and he took it with pleasure.

‘Is there nothing you would say, madam?’ he said when she did not immediately speak.

‘Nothing that would please you, sir,’ returned she, ‘for I have it on good authority that you are not to be laughed at.’

She parted from him to re-join the ladies, and then Captain Carter. He watched her as she turned with the officer, and though he never lost his place in the dance, his distraction was such that he would likely not have noticed if Miss Lydia had, at that very moment, been summarily abducted by gypsies. Had he been asked afterwards whether Miss Lydia had been present, he would have had no remembrance of her existence, except a vague idea that she was – most likely – the owner of the small hand which he had mechanically taken for the turn.

He left Miss Lydia for the gentlemen, circled with them, and met Elizabeth once more. Taking her hand in his, he said,

‘And is it your intention to please me, Miss Elizabeth?’

‘Is that not the intention of every young lady, sir?’ she challenged him.

‘I believe we have already established that vanity is not my failing.’

‘Perhaps – but I believe that we established also that my failing is a proclivity towards wilful misunderstanding, which you must now give me leave to indulge,’ she said neatly, and released him back to the gentlemen.

They went round and re-joined their proper partners for the conclusion of the set; they turned once under one another’s upraised arms, paraded in pairs to their original places, and then all took hands and danced a full circle leftwards. When Miss Mary concluded the piece, Darcy was only too grateful to make his final bows to Miss Lydia. But his hopes for the rest of the evening were quickly dashed, as by the time he had escorted his partner to Miss Catherine's side, Miss Elizabeth had managed to extricate herself from Captain Carter’s company, and was now ensconced in a corner with the eldest Miss Lucas. Neither shewed any sign that an interruption might be welcome. Their heads were bent together, their voices near inaudible, and all their looks spoke to conspiracy. He decided they must be exchanging whatever confidences ladies usually shared with their intimate friends when the one was recently engaged and the other soon to be, and thought the better of disturbing them.

Instead, he contented himself with standing by the window quite near them, from which position he could hear her laughter if not her words, and could sometimes see her reflection in the glass.

 


 

[1] Google “The Strasbourgeoise Cotillion” and click the first video that comes up. It should be of The Hampshire Regency Dancers, dancing this cotillion. The following conversations follow the movements of this dance exactly, though I have cut it a little short. If you’re interested in a clearer picture of the scene than my poor descriptions of the figures can provide, I strongly advise you to watch it. As for where our characters are placed in the set, if you should fancy to follow along, pause the video at 0:21. ‘Colonel Fitzwilliam’ and ‘Miss Bingley’ are at the top of the set as they are the highest ranking couple (‘Miss Bingley’ is almost entirely obscured in this still); ‘Darcy’ and ‘Lydia’ are the couple on the left, ‘Lydia’ is the lady in the dark brown dress and ‘Darcy’ is the tall older gentleman; at the bottom of the set with their backs to us are ‘Mr Bingley’ and ‘Jane’ (‘Jane’ can be differentiated from ‘Miss Bingley’ by the fact that she is wearing a cap, while ‘Miss Bingley’ is not); and the final couple on the right hand side of the set are ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Captain Carter’ (‘Elizabeth’ is obscured by ‘Jane’ in this still).

[2] Carp: to complain.

[3] There is no mention in the book of Lydia particularly resembling Elizabeth more than her other sisters but I’m borrowing the idea from the 1995 mini-series, where they’ve cast a Lydia who definitely looks a lot like Elizabeth, and they’ve made them look even more similar by giving them almost the same hairstyle, while all the other sisters have different ones. I’m shamelessly perpetuating this idea because I think it adds another (grosser) element to the transferral of Wickham’s interest from Elizabeth to Lydia, and because I feel like there are definitely more similarities between the two sisters than either would like to admit (e.g. stubbornness, vanity, and a similar taste in men, or at least a shared fancy for Wickham) and it’s useful in a literary sense to have that reflected in their looks.

Chapter Text

Sunday saw an unusually good turnout at the morning service. The box pews closest to the pulpit were for once obliged to accommodate every member of all the prominent families, and the long open pews behind them were crammed to capacity. Even the most negligent parishioners seemed to have recalled their faith, and the curate, Mr Underwood – being a doleful, severe, and rather astonishingly nearsighted sort of man – was inclined to call it a miracle.

Elizabeth could not be surprised at the size of the waiting congregation, but as they joined the rest of their neighbours in loitering outside the church, she decided she was pleased by it, for she had not had the opportunity to avail herself of all their oddities at once in some months.

‘Mrs Waller has made an astonishing recovery,’ she observed to Jane, ‘I had heard she was quite beyond help.’

‘I had not thought so,’ said Jane, frowning slightly as they watched the lady confer with Mrs Goulding, her poor starched handkerchief steadily wilting as she waved it about in her animation.

‘Oh indeed!’ said Elizabeth, with exaggerated derision. ‘She would tell you herself that she has a very dreadful cold in her head at present; but I have not much compassion for colds in the head without fever or sore throat.’

Jane turned a reproachful eye on her sister, but Elizabeth was unrepentant.

‘We must be kind to her, Lizzy; Mr Waller has been dead but ten months now.’

‘Perhaps that is so, but I cannot grieve about it – nor, perhaps, can his widow very much,’ said Elizabeth, looking pointedly at Mrs Waller’s lavender gown. [1]

‘He used her very ill,’ Jane admitted, ‘but I am quite sure that she loved him.’

‘You would think everybody to be in love with their husbands and wives, but it is not sound, Jane,’ said Elizabeth, brow creased in dissatisfaction; ‘there is rather too much evidence to the contrary. No, I think his Miss Trapp must have rather more reason to grieve.’

‘I had thought she was provided for,’ said Jane.

‘Not at all,’ said Elizabeth, ‘and her uncle will not take her home.’

Unable to consider the prospect of a young woman brought so low, Jane enquired if there might be something that might yet be done for her. Elizabeth opened her mouth to reply but they were at that moment called in to the service.

Occupied as they were, neither had noted their mother depart to Mrs Phillips’ and Lady Lucas’ company, and were therefore spared the indignity of hearing her say to them, none too quietly:

‘…oh yes, Mrs Phillips, I wish you had seen it! He was so admiring! He hardly spoke to anyone else. I am sure you marked it, Lady Lucas. Oh! But you must not speak of it to Lizzy, for she will say nothing of the attachment. She is the soul of modesty!’

Lady Lucas and Mrs Phillips readily assured her of their respect for Elizabeth’s refined sense of modesty, and swore that they would not breathe a word of it to her. However, as Mrs Bennet had not asked for their discretion in any other quarter, they both felt entirely justified in speaking of it to everyone but her.

 


 

 

Having foolishly assumed that the attendance of his flock had something to do with his abilities as a clergyman, Mr Underwood was quite surprised by how few of his parishioners seemed to require his spiritual guidance after the service; indeed, he did not think any person spoke more than ten words to him as they left. How strange! thought he, and then thought nothing else of import for the rest of his life.

Colonel Fitzwilliam put a hand on his cousin’s elbow as they passed the unfortunate parson and steered him away from the Bingleys.

‘What is the matter with you, Darcy?’ he said when, now some yards away from their acquaintances, they stopped.

‘I will not make a spectacle of myself—’

I said that you should look at her once or twice during the service, not put her over your shoulder and run off to Scotland,’ said the Colonel, raising a brow in disbelief. ‘The amusements of Hertfordshire are nothing to town, certainly, but they are hardly so paltry that your turning your head a little to the left might constitute a spectacle.’

Darcy glowered down at him.

‘We discussed this when I arrived, Darcy,’ said the Colonel. ‘We agreed; if reports of any real indecency were to surface, your behaviour towards the Bennets and Miss Elizabeth must have been such that it would make plausible the story of a respectable, if private, courtship, prompted by a preceding mutual affection—’

‘Without absolutely confirming an engagement in case the scandal were to die without our assistance. Yes, Colonel; I do recall. I know my part.’

‘Then act it, Darcy. People do not believe what they are told, but what they are shewn. No one will believe you to be attached to the woman if you do not shew some sign of it.’

‘Have I not done so?’

‘Good grief, Darcy; I begin to understand your bachelorhood… No, you must—’ the Colonel stopped, at a loss for words. Rallying himself, he attempted to instruct his cousin. ‘You should… seek her out and talk to her; be attentive to her conversation—’

‘I am attentive to her conversations.’

‘I meant that you should participate, Darcy. Attending a lady’s discussions from a distance is hardly the behaviour of a man who might be in love. You ought to try to be near her as often as possible! And you should talk to her – flatter her, even. Women like to think that they are admired for their looks and their accomplishments, Darcy. Appeal to her vanity; she is a handsome enough woman, she must have some. Tell her that she looks well, or that she plays well, or that she sings well. Tell her all three if you can bring yourself to speak so highly of anybody. At the very least, do not scowl when she performs; she thinks you do not like to listen to her. Volunteer to turn pages for her so you may sit beside her on the bench – that is always a sign of regard – and look at her in church.’ He considered a moment and then offered, with an air of lightness and a small theatrical motion of the hand: ‘Be gallant.’

‘Gallant,’ said Darcy flatly.

‘Yes, Darcy, gallant. Give her your arm—’

‘She is perfectly capable of walking without aid.’

‘—be sure to bow—’

‘I do.’

‘—lower, Darcy; you want to show deference to her—’

Darcy baulked visibly, but the Colonel overrode him with an enthusiasm that seemed to grow in direct proportion to his cousin’s discomfort.

‘—make every civility an expression of partiality: if you should have the opportunity of meeting her in the rain, it is very well to give her your umbrella but it would be better if you went to some trouble to fetch one. Darcy, you must court her good opinion; solicit her sentiments and her ideas. Admire her often; find your gaze drawn to her in company.’

‘You sound as though you had been reading novels, Fitzwilliam,’ said Darcy. The Colonel laughed.

‘Does it surprise you, cousin, that I might read novels?’

‘It surprises me that you can read at all,’ said Darcy, and continued before his cousin could do more than open his mouth to cry his outrage; ‘May I ask why you felt the need to discuss this at such a time?’

Fitzwilliam lost his amusement abruptly and his looks turned grim. He stepped closer to his cousin.

‘Darcy, I think we are both well aware that the tide has turned.’

Darcy felt vaguely as though his cousin were preparing him to march against the French.

‘I have not heard reports of a scandal,’ he said, frowning. ‘Have you?’

‘No, there at least we have succeeded – in a way – but it is quite obvious that they believe there is some deeper connexion between you than has been acknowledged. You cannot have been ignorant of the looks they gave her during the reading of the banns.’

Darcy owned that he had not been.

‘I think it very likely that you are being indulged, Darcy.’

Darcy frowned.

‘You think they have said nothing untoward on the assumption that any indiscretion has taken place within the bounds of an engagement?’

The Colonel nodded. Darcy digested the news in the most rational manner that could be hoped for in such a circumstance: he acknowledged it, privately rejoiced in it, feigned severity to his cousin, and promptly surrendered whatever lingering regrets he had harboured regarding the necessity of forsaking his bachelorhood.

Bingley called them over at that moment and the cousins looked over to him. Darcy made to obey the summons but the Colonel halted him briefly to clasp his shoulder and give him a bracing smile.

‘It could be very much worse, cousin,’ he said.

Darcy nodded shortly, and the pair made their way across the churchyard to their host, who stood near the gate with his sisters.

‘Whatever were you speaking of, Mr Darcy?’ said Miss Bingley upon their approach. ‘I having been telling Louisa I was sure it must some great secret.’

Darcy wondered then that she would ask about it.

‘It is no secret, Miss Bingley,’ said his cousin openly. ‘I have received a letter from my father summoning me to London for Christmas; he says my mother cannot do without me.’

Darcy restrained his surprise. Miss Bingley seemed quite put out and he chanced to think that she might have transferred her dubious affections to his cousin.

‘Then of course you must go,’ she replied with conspiratorial sweetness, ‘but do not fear for your cousin, though you shall leave him all alone in the wilds of Hertfordshire. Our neighbours are quite savage indeed, but I am sure that between the three of us, we can contrive to keep dear Darcy in good company for the season.’

Bingley flushed horribly in embarrassment. Darcy’s hopes withered and died; it was all he could do to refrain from shewing his frustration. The Colonel managed to reply tolerably well – at least, Darcy assumed he did, for he had not the patience to listen to another word either to or from his friend’s sister – before steering the conversation towards safer environs. His timing in that endeavour was, as usual, impeccable, for scarcely a minute later they were accosted by a succession of enthusiastic neighbours. Mrs Bennet and Lady Lucas gave their compliments to Miss Bingley for her arrangements the night before, then Sir William approached to make conversation with the gentlemen, and then Miss Bingley announced that her head ached terribly and begged the whole party to remove to Netherfield. Her brother was duly concerned but Darcy rather suspected she would not have felt the least bit ill if she had not spied Mrs Bennet attempting to summon her eldest daughters away from their conversation with Miss Lucas to join them.

 


 

Miss Bingley retreated to her rooms immediately upon their return to her brother’s house, and a firm grip on her elder sister’s arm ensured that Louisa saw fit to accompany her thither.

‘The Colonel must think me a fool indeed!’ she said when the door was closed behind them. ‘They certainly were not discussing any letter from the Earl. To think that I would believe such nonsense! It is not to be borne.’

‘But why should you not?’ said Louisa, settling herself on the sofa nearest the window. ‘The Colonel does not seem a dishonest sort of gentleman.’

Caroline scoffed, and disdained to sit.

‘Did you not see Mr Darcy’s expression, sister?’ she said, pacing back and forth in front of her sister’s chair. ‘There is no reason that news of his cousin’s plans for Christmas should inspire such severity in his countenance; I am sure he looked quite grim indeed.’

Louisa rather thought that Mr Darcy looked grim as a rule – his countenance was uncommonly well-formed for severity – and said so. She received a black look from her sister for her trouble and wisely resolved to withhold any further observations on the subject of Mr Darcy’s face.

For some minutes longer, Caroline occupied herself with the question of the Colonel’s news, but, as Louisa was not inclined to debate Caroline’s theories or venture any of her own, the mystery soon lost its appeal. Her mind, therefore, naturally returned to the problem which had been most often in her thoughts in the wake of Saturday’s dinner party: the insupportable attachment between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

Until Saturday, Caroline had – with varying levels of success, depending on her mood – been able to comfort herself that a match between the two would never take place. It had been unfathomable then. The characters of each should have prevented such a union; for though he might admire her, she could not have been less circumspect in disliking him. Unthinkable though it was to Caroline that any person should find fault with Darcy, the knowledge that Elizabeth did indeed think him wanting was vastly reassuring to her.

Mr Darcy had the means to marry below his station, and she knew enough of his character to know that he would do so if he thought the inducement to be worth the indignity; he was not a romantic, of course – romance was impractical, and Darcy was nothing if not practical – but he was a man, and even the most sedate members of that species could generally be relied upon to act foolishly when exposed to the charms of a pretty woman. However, though he might be willing to offer for a woman of lower rank than he, Miss Bingley could not imagine that he would stoop to offer for a woman who did not even like him, especially if he admired her; his pride was too great to tolerate being for ever in the power of his wife, Caroline was sure of it. And thus, Mr Darcy had been saved in her eyes.

The events of the previous evening had dispelled such comforting ideas. Miss Eliza had all but confessed that she held a tendre for Mr Darcy, and Mr Darcy had not made the slightest attempt to disguise his admiration for her; in fact, the wretched man had stared at her incessantly for the whole night, which vexed Caroline greatly, primarily because she had wasted her new Pomona green silk on the occasion when clearly she could have come downstairs wearing her night shift and dressing gown and Mr Darcy would not have noticed the difference. Men, she decided, were ridiculous creatures, and frankly should not be trusted with the making of important decisions.

Turning her attention back to her sister, Caroline gave some brief summary of her assessments thus far, and then said:

‘I think, sister, that it must be our part to protect Mr Darcy in this instance. Clearly, he has not the faculties at present to see the evils of his choice, and I am sure we neither of us could bear to see him made unhappy for the whole of his life as a consequence of such a brief lapse of judgement.’

Louisa agreed.

‘But what is to be done about it?’ said she. ‘Did you not say that the affections of both Miss Eliza and Mr Darcy appear to be engaged? If he is determined to have her and she is inclined to take him, I cannot see that you or I could prevent the match.’

‘I cannot believe Miss Eliza’s affections to be equal to his. Mr Darcy admitted his admiration to me weeks ago, but I saw nothing of hers until last night.’

‘No, nor I.’

‘Then perhaps something may yet be done. If something has happened to alter her opinion of Mr Darcy, we may yet reverse it.’

Louisa eyed her sister in some alarm.

‘He has saved her life, Caroline; I daresay that would change any woman’s mind – and as for reversing it, it ought not to be attempted…’

‘Miss Eliza would not be swayed by such a thing,’ said Caroline dismissively.

Louisa stared at her sister.

‘Caroline, he saved her life—’

‘She shewed no signs of an attachment when she visited us on Wednesday. Indeed, she did not even mention his name; that is hardly the behaviour of a woman violently in love.’

Louisa was forced to concede the point and for a moment the pair lapsed into silence.

‘Have we any idea what prompted her dislike in the first instance?’ said Louisa eventually.

‘None at all. They quarrelled at the Netherfield Ball, but I know of no prior disagreements.’

That two people could contrive to quarrel in a ballroom of all places was astonishing to Louisa.

‘At the ball! I heard no quarrel; how did you come to know of it?’

‘Quite by chance, sister, for I was not far removed from them in the set.’

‘In the set!’

‘Oh indeed! I always think it very ill-mannered to say any disagreeable thing during the dance,’ said Miss Bingley, chusing to forget one or two exceedingly disagreeable comments she herself had made to her own partner for that set. Her comments, she reasoned, could not have been helped – she had wished to hear Mr Darcy’s conversation with Miss Eliza, and that sapscull Mr Goulding would insist upon speaking over it – but Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s comments were no less than a stain upon the very fabric of propriety, and Caroline could not forgive her for them. [2]

‘What did they quarrel about?’

‘Mr Wickham,’ said Caroline.

‘Who?’

‘No one of any real importance in the world – the son of old Mr Darcy’s steward – but he has some history with our Mr Darcy. It is my understanding that he is not a man to be trusted; he used Darcy and dear Georgiana very ill indeed – I said as much to Miss Eliza at the ball—’

Caroline stopped abruptly. Realisation and nausea assaulted her one after the other.

‘Are you well, sister?’ said Louisa in some concern.

‘I cautioned Miss Eliza about Mr Wickham! I questioned her sister after the set – the tall one, Miss Lydia – and she told me of Miss Eliza’s preference for him. And of his for her! Of course, I could not fail to see the danger; indeed I felt it was incumbent upon me to ensure that she knew what he was. At the time, I thought her uninclined to heed the warning, but now I think she must have done just that.’

Caroline had turned quite pale by the end of her speech but Louisa, though her sister’s equal in in a great many things, could not match her for quickness of mind, and therefore had very little idea what comfort she ought to offer. Tentatively, she made some further enquiry, which her younger sister roused herself to answer thus:

‘Is it not clear, sister? Miss Elizabeth has retracted her preference for Mr Wickham, and bestowed it upon poor Darcy!’

‘Oh!’ said Louisa, pleased by even this belated understanding. ‘And all at your urging!—oh.’

‘Indeed,’ said Caroline faintly.

For a moment, the sisters sat in wide-eyed silence.

‘Well,’ said Louisa eventually. ‘What are we to do?’

Caroline pursed her lips in thought.

‘Do you think,’ she said at length, ‘that Hurst could contrive to take the gentlemen away from the house tomorrow?’

Louisa thought that he could.

‘But,’ she added, ‘I fail to see how that will help us. How can we persuade Mr Darcy against the match if he is not here?’

‘I have no intention of persuading Darcy,’ said Caroline derisively, as if the very idea was ridiculous, which, in fairness, it was; if she had been remotely capable of persuading Darcy to do anything at all, he would not now be in a position to dispose of himself with Miss Bennet.

‘Then what is it you intend?’

Caroline raised a brow at her sister.

‘Oh!—nothing in particular,’ she said archly, ‘but I rather thought we might invite the two eldest to take tea with us.’

Louisa readily agreed to the scheme, and set off to coerce her husband into doing his part, leaving Caroline to see to the rest of the preparations. A note was issued to Jane Bennet, Mrs Nicholls was ordered to replenish the supply of cakes and biscuits, and Caroline’s earlier fiction manifested itself in a real headache; therefore, she took to her bed for the rest of the day, ostensibly resting but really attempting to ward off the horrifying image of Miss Elizabeth appearing in the breakfast room at Pemberley, her petticoats six inches deep in mud, her face brown, and her husband miserable at the end of the table. Naturally, this did very little to subdue the aching in her head, and she sent word to her brother that she would not come down to dinner that evening. Bingley, being a far better person than anyone else in his party, was the only person in attendance who felt remotely sorry for her absence.

 


 

 

[1] Lavender gown: widows were expected to wear full mourning (all black) for a year and a day, after which they could begin to wear shades of grey, lavender, lilac, or white (which had been the colour of mourning in the medieval period). It is very telling that Mrs Waller has shirked her obligation early.

[2] Sapscull: a simple fellow.

Chapter Text

Through no small feat of tenacity, Elizabeth secured the use of the carriage for herself and Jane’s conveyance to Netherfield that day. Despite Lizzy’s long-standing aversion to any mode of travel that did not put a driver, a whippletree, and a distance of at least two yards between herself and any horses involved, Mrs Bennet had been quite determined that they should go on horseback. [1] No talk of dirty hems or impropriety could sway her in favour of any other scheme, and in the end it was only the reminder that there was no chance of rain that day which persuaded her against their riding. Having made himself the principal instrument of Mrs Bennet’s disappointment by being the one to actually call for the oft resented equipage, Mr Bennet was in a very fine state by the time he escaped her ire to see his daughters off.

‘I hope you are pleased with yourself, Lizzy,’ he said grouchily as they waited in the entrance hall for the carriage to be brought around. ‘I am sure I will not hear two kind words strung together until you are come back.’

‘And I am equally sure that you shall,’ said Elizabeth, straightening her bonnet in the mirror to their right, ‘but they will not be about you.’

‘Nor about you,’ he said.

Elizabeth grinned and tugged her spencer down into its rightful place.

‘I think I shall bear the abuse tolerably well,’ said she.

‘From a distance of three miles, I daresay you shall,’ said Mr Bennet. ‘But consider your poor father, I beg you, for he shall have no such protections.’

‘I would gladly take your place if you would but take mine.’

‘Oho!—I think not, dear Lizzy. I should never seek to deprive you of such excellent company as Mr Bingley’s sisters.’

‘Are you quite sure?’ she said teasingly. ‘It is not too late, and I think you would look very well in my primrose muslin.’ [2]

‘I do not think Miss Bingley would approve.’

‘No, you are quite right; she would never approve of a colour which failed to properly assault the eyes of the viewer. We must fetch out Lydia’s pink muslin for you.’

Mr Bennet protested this with high spirits and Jane appeared on the staircase at that moment, having finally been deemed presentable by her mother. Within another minute, the carriage had stopped in front of the house and, laughing, Elizabeth kissed her father’s cheek and went out with Jane to meet it.

 


 

 

Their welcome at Netherfield was a great deal warmer than Elizabeth had had any reason to expect. Miss Bingley seemed excessively pleased to see her, and Mrs Hurst, though she could not be said to be really warm towards her guests, seemed at least more inclined than usual to affect warmth.

Needless to say, Elizabeth was immediately wary of them.

‘My dear Eliza! And dear Jane! How delightful it is to see you both again!’ said Caroline as they took their seats in the drawing room. Mrs Hurst took it upon herself to echo her sister’s sentiments, and there followed a general round of happy exclamations, of which none but Jane’s were remotely sincere.

‘I am afraid the gentlemen had some business to attend to this morning,’ said Caroline, ostensibly to Jane. ‘I hope you shall not be too disappointed by the loss.’

Jane assured her that she could never be disappointed when she had such kind friends before her.

‘And you, Eliza?’ said Caroline, turning to Elizabeth with a knowing smile. ‘Shall you be quite dull now?’

The question was entirely unexpected and for a moment Elizabeth could not tell how to reply.

‘No indeed, Caroline, I assure you,’ she said, half smiling in her awkwardness.

‘It is as I feared!’ Caroline proclaimed before Elizabeth could say anything further. ‘She is already dull.’

Louisa agreed immediately and the pair looked on her pityingly.

‘Come, let us distract you,’ said Caroline. ‘I have been of a mind to learn a duet but Louisa refuses to oblige me.’

Utterly confused, Elizabeth assented, wondering if they had not confused her for Jane. She looked over her shoulder as Caroline hauled her away to the pianoforte but Jane’s attention had been commandeered by the other sister and Elizabeth could not catch her eye to express her alarm.

Caroline brought out a selection of pieces and they sat down at the bench to consider them, which seemed very queer to do as it was quite obvious to Elizabeth which piece Caroline intended to play; it was the only duet in the collection.

‘Do you know the piece?’ said Caroline, conceding the top line to her guest and swapping to sit on the left, despite Elizabeth’s protests. [3]

‘Not at all,’ said Elizabeth, reading through the first lines, her fingers mapping out their steps. ‘Though I daresay we shall manage despite my deficiency; it seems very simple.’

‘Oh yes, it is quite simple, but I think it such a charming melody; I am sure I could not exist without hearing it often. Are you familiar with the opera?’

Don Giovanni? By reputation only, I confess,’ said Elizabeth as she lightly fingered the keys. ‘I have never seen it performed.’

‘It is a delightful work, I assure you, but you must see it for yourself of course. —Shall we?’

They began their first attempt, immediately lost the rhythm, and stopped. When they started again, the first few bars sounded rather well, and Caroline thought it safe to continue the conversation.

‘It is playing in town now, I believe. Do you think you shall have an opportunity to see it?’

‘I cannot imagine so,’ said Elizabeth, her brow creased slightly; ‘I do not anticipate being in London in the next few months.’

‘Do you not?’ said Miss Bingley, with deliberate lightness. She would have continued but at that moment their elbows bumped together, and they decided to begin again rather than correct themselves. Elizabeth might have wished for some peace in which to study the unfamiliar sheet music, but it was not to be; by the end of the first bar, Caroline had recommenced her enquiries.

‘But should you not like to go to town?’ she said.

‘Of course,’ said Elizabeth, focusing on the music. ‘I am always very happy to see my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner.’

‘That is only natural,’ said Caroline, as though it pained her to recall the existence of her dear friend’s inferior relations. Fortifying her sensibilities, she affected an implicative tone, and, with a sly look at her companion, added, ‘but it would not be their presence that drew you to town, I daresay.’

Elizabeth thought that it would be neither mannerly nor advisable to look away from the music and gawk at her hostess, so it was a very pathetic piano marking that received her strange look.

‘I would not travel such a distance for the opera alone,’ she said, smiling a little to preserve Caroline’s feelings, which seemed uncommonly invested in Elizabeth’s opinion of an opera she had never seen.

But she need not have worried, for Caroline was not deterred by her disinterest.

‘Would you not?’ she pressed Elizabeth. ‘Not even for Don Giovanni?’

‘In truth, Caroline, I am not overly fond of Mozart.’

‘Indeed? Am I to understand then that you do not like him at all?’

Elizabeth frowned.

‘You mistake me, Caroline,’ she said; ‘I said only that I would not travel all the way to London to hear him.’

‘How strange; I had heard that you were a great admirer of his.’

Elizabeth considered her reply, seeking to prevent an argument with the surprisingly impassioned Miss Bingley.

‘I will not deny that I like him,’ she said slowly. ‘Indeed, I have sometimes been quite delighted by him, but I do not think I can claim your depth of feeling on the subject. But on one thing, I am quite decided; he shall not persuade me to go to town when I had rather be in the country.’

Caroline struck a note that was entirely wrong somewhere in the middle of her reply and Elizabeth thought herself very magnanimous not to draw attention to the mistake. Instead, she continued the piece, and tried to restrain her amusement at Miss Bingley’s clear astonishment.

‘Eliza!’ Caroline exclaimed when it became clear that Elizabeth did not intend to say anything further, entirely forgetting their duet in her indignation. ‘You shall make him quite miserable with your neglect.’

Elizabeth could not but laugh, and she too now gave up their playing.

‘You ascribe me a great deal of power over that gentleman’s spirits!—But you need not fear,’ she said mischievously. ‘I understand that he has a great many admirers, yourself not least among them; I daresay he will bear my neglect tolerably well.’

Caroline’s eyes widened, and Elizabeth was about to remark that a man twenty years dead could likely bear anything if needs must when they were interrupted by a loud exclamation.

‘Caroline!’ cried that lady’s brother as he entered the drawing room, the other gentlemen behind him. Caroline blanched.

‘Charles, whatever are you doing here?’ she said, rising from the bench.

‘Fosset said we should find you in here,’ he said easily, and turned to their guests with a warm smile. ‘Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth, I cannot tell you how delighted I am to see you both.’

The ladies rose and curtsied, and expressed their own greetings to him and his companions.

‘I had not expected you until later,’ said Caroline, crossing the room to ring the bell pull for tea. ‘Louisa told me you were obliged to see to some business to do with the estate.’

‘Indeed we were, but it was not so pressing that we could not have postponed it another day,’ said Bingley, successfully securing the seat closest to Jane’s. Darcy moved away to stand by the window, and Colonel Fitzwilliam took a place between Bingley and Mrs Hurst. ‘Hurst only said he thought we should see if the pond near Henry Colton’s farm needed draining.’

‘Is that so?’ said Caroline, turning a mutinous eye on her sister. Louisa gave her a look of confounded astonishment, and looked incredulously over at her husband, who in the absence of tea and cakes had given up his hopes for the morning and gone immediately to sleep on the farthest sofa.

‘Yes indeed,’ said Bingley; ‘we all rode out to look at it this morning.’

‘And?’

‘It does not need it,’ he said cheerfully. The footman arrived then with the tea things and even the minute’s respite that she stole by attending to their placement could not equip her to give a better answer than some vague nonsense about her pleasure at hearing such news. Her brother looked quite bemused.

‘You need not feign an interest, Caroline; we shall not be offended if you are not inclined to discuss drainage systems—’

‘Why should have to feign an interest in the running of the estate at which I reside?’ cried Caroline immediately. ‘Indeed, I am sure I can think of nothing that could be more interesting.’

Darcy turned his head in astonishment and caught the Colonel’s eye; Bingley, however, was too good to expose his sister’s blatant falsehood in front of their friends, and jovially allowed it to stand. Elizabeth repressed her smile with some difficulty and came away from the pianoforte to sit on her sister’s other side.

Having been thus thwarted in her attempts to broach the subject of Miss Eliza’s attachment without the presence of the gentlemen, Caroline was obliged to turn her attention to the distribution of refreshments; if her thoughts, as she served, were more particularly devoted to the hasty reworking of her scheme than to the task at hand, that was neither here nor there.

When they had all been plied with tea and cakes, and the footman had been sent away again, Caroline turned and was dismayed to discover that Mr Darcy had eschewed his habit of standing apart from the group in favour of taking a seat by the hearth that put him across from Miss Elizabeth. Of course, having had her back turned on the rest of the party while she poured, Caroline could not have seen the gimlet-eyed stare which Mr Darcy received from his cousin when that gentleman went to turn back to the window, nor the way the Colonel inclined his head very pointedly towards the place near Miss Elizabeth until Darcy shifted in discomfort and moved to take it.

As Caroline crossed the room to sit beside her sister, and opposite the Colonel, she considered how she might orchestrate a moment to speak secretly with Elizabeth, quite unaware that the latter party was the author of her present frustration. Her interference was now, she felt, of the utmost importance; it was abundantly clear to her that Darcy was quite taken in by her much-resented friend, and, furthermore, that Elizabeth Bennet was not greatly moved by any similarly tender sentiments. Her indifference alone would not have given Caroline overmuch distress. If Elizabeth had been fantastically wealthy, or incredibly beautiful, or preferably both, Caroline would not have been remotely offended by her irreverence; the marriages of prominent persons in society rarely involved any degree of affection on either side, and indeed Caroline had no aspirations on that score for herself. But Elizabeth Bennet, aside from the very great crime of living on the verge of destitution, was neither beautiful nor accomplished; she did not draw, or speak Italian, and possessed an inordinate number of opinions, which she was in the habit of expressing very regularly. Worst of all, she was inclined to put herself at odds with Caroline whenever they were both in company with Mr Darcy, and, therefore, her lack of feeling was utterly intolerable. Naturally, Caroline could not but devote the whole of her attention to the task of separating her from her brother’s friend.

To that endeavour, she soon set aside her tea, stood, and approached Miss Elizabeth. She interrupted no conversation by her approach, for Mr Darcy, having found himself beside Elizabeth, spoke to her but briefly of the weather before he was assaulted by the horrifying idea of rising from his chair and going to one knee before her in front of everybody, and decided that conversing with her would not, at the present time, be conducive to maintaining either his presence of mind or her regard. Reasoning that it would be far easier to speak with her in private, he applied himself the nearest available volume forthwith.

‘Dear Eliza,’ Miss Bingley addressed her when she stopped in front of that lady’s chair. ‘Might I persuade you to join me on a turn about the room? I do believe we were in the midst of a discussion before the gentlemen arrived.’

Having no polite means of refusing, Elizabeth accepted, and Miss Bingley immediately took her arm with such an expression of conspiracy and general intimacy that Elizabeth did not anticipate any pleasure in their conversation. Thinking that she might be given the opportunity to abscond if she could but provide a more attractive sacrifice, she enquired of her companion:

‘I believe you invited Mr Darcy to join us when we last took such a turn, Caroline. If you do not extend the same invitation now, shall he not feel terribly neglected?’

Caroline did have an opportunity to respond, for the gentleman himself saw fit to answer.

‘I assure you,’ said Mr Darcy from behind his book, ‘he shall not feel neglected—for his remains the best position from which to admire you.’

Miss Bingley exclaimed, ostensibly in scandalised delight but really in abject horror; Elizabeth blushed violently and knew not why; and the Colonel snorted in a most undignified fashion and attempted to stifle his laughter in his tea, but choked instead and had to be patted on the back by a sincerely bemused Bingley, whose awareness of the other guests and interest in their affairs were severely diminished by his proximity to Jane.

‘It is just as well then,’ said Caroline charmingly, drawing Elizabeth away to walk the perimeter of the room, ‘that we did not intend to invite you.’

Then, turning to Elizabeth, she lowered her voice and spoke thus:

‘Eliza, I hope that we may speak as friends for a moment.’

‘If you like,’ said Elizabeth, with some reluctance. ‘Is anything the matter?’

Caroline paused.

‘There is something that I would tell you, Eliza.’

‘Indeed,’ said Elizabeth.

‘It is of a delicate nature, you understand; I would not have our conversation repeated to anybody. Naturally, I should not expect you to withhold it from Jane, but it must go no further.’

Elizabeth could not think of anything she desired less than to be taken into Caroline’s confidence, but nevertheless agreed that she would not break it.

‘I am afraid, Eliza, that I have misled you. It was unintentionally done, but in the event that you should suffer for it, that would not mitigate my culpability.’

Elizabeth was astonished.

‘Caroline, whatever do you mean?’

‘When I spoke with you at the ball, that we discussed the connexion between a certain gentleman with whom we are both acquainted,’ —here she directed a subtle glance at Mr Darcy, still ostensibly occupied by his book— ‘and another gentleman, whom I had heard described as something of a favourite with your family.

‘You will recall also that I spoke rather determinedly against the latter in favour of the former.’

Elizabeth owned that she did.

‘It has come to my attention that I may have been… mistaken in my accusations. I have been seeking an opportunity to speak with you for some days now, since I discovered my mistake. It has plagued me to no end to think that you might be injured by my misinformation.’

‘Injured, Caroline? I cannot think what you mean.’

Caroline fixed Elizabeth with an implicative eye, though the rest of her manner betrayed no hint that their conversation was anything out of the common way.

‘I shall say only that many a young woman has been injured in such a way by an unscrupulous gentleman. You have not been afforded the opportunity to travel; you cannot be aware of the depravity which takes place in London or Bath, but let me warn you, Eliza, as a friend; there are gentlemen in the world who might well be called upstanding, and yet whose principles do not extend beyond the protection of their own interests. Certainly they would not extend to the preservation of a lady’s virtue and reputation.’

Elizabeth was no more alarmed than she was bemused.

‘I believe I take your meaning, Caroline—but I fail to see how it relates to our conversation at the ball. What can you be implying?’ she said evenly, half hoping that Miss Bingley would implicate Mr Wickham, so that they might quarrel over it and cease pretending to like one another.

‘I shall not say that Mr Wickham was faultless in his conduct, but it seems that our… mutual acquaintance was not, perhaps, entirely without fault either. I would go so far as to say that the latter gentleman has not behaved well at all; and, indeed, there has been some talk of such an injury as I have previously mentioned, though more than that is not known.’

That another person should perceive the extent of Mr Darcy’s cruelty towards Mr Wickham, and even discover evidence of greater crimes than that of which she was already aware, was perfectly natural to Elizabeth; that it should be Miss Bingley who did so was utterly astonishing to her. Unwilling to pry further into Caroline’s other suggestion of misconduct, she directed her enquiries to the part of the narrative about which she felt herself to be tolerably well-informed.

‘You cannot mean to suggest that you would take Mr Wickham’s part over that of our mutual acquaintance?’

Caroline steeled herself, prayed briefly that Mr Darcy would never discover their conversation, and said that she would indeed favour Mr Wickham’s version of events.

Elizabeth, for her part, knew not what to think. She was not inclined to trust Caroline’s word; indeed, she had been quite content to disregard every thing that lady ever said. She had not anticipated the possibility of their ever being in agreement, and found herself now in a position of some awkwardness and difficulty, for to agree with Caroline went sorely against the grain, and yet to disagree with her would be to align herself with Mr Darcy, which was almost worse.

Though Elizabeth’s discontentment was plain, she did not give any idea as to which gentleman was the cause of it, and Caroline suspected that she would have no further success in the course of the visit. Therefore, satisfied that she had given enough suggestion of rakish and unscrupulous behaviour on the part of both men – for even in such desperate circumstances she could not countenance ascribing it all to Darcy – she suggested that they resume their efforts at the pianoforte, and there they remained until it came time for the Jane and Elizabeth to return to Longbourn.

 


 

[1] Whippletree: the pivoted, swinging bar that hangs in front of the wheels of a carriage, and attaches to the horses’ harnesses in order to pull the carriage.

[2] Primrose muslin: primrose was a moderately fashionable colour and one that described both a darker and lighter shade of the same yellow, owing to the fact that the flower itself has dark and light versions. The darker yellow should technically be called ‘evening primrose’ but ‘primrose’ was commonly used to describe both. Jane Austen mentioned in a letter to her sister Cassandra that she imagined Elizabeth wearing yellows, so that is the colour she will probably appear in most often.

[3] If you’d like to hear what they’re playing, search on Google for “duet from Don Giovanni (La ci darem la mano) by Mozart the Joy of Piano Duets”, and click on the first video link that appears.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth could not be easy after her conversation with Caroline. It plagued her mercilessly for the whole evening, and kept her awake long after Jane had fallen asleep beside her. Eventually, she crept out of bed and down the stairs to her father’s book room, intent upon finding some distraction from her thoughts. By the light of a candle, she found out the first few volumes of her beloved Clarissa, and fetched the blanket that her father kept hung across the back of his library chair. Then, lying down in front of the hearth where the banked fire still emitted some residual warmth, she set the chamberstick on the floor before her, put the blanket around her shoulders, and opened the first volume. [1]

This text was largely untouched by her family; its length had protected it from the violent perusal of her two youngest sisters, its subject matter had deterred Mary, and the unhappy ending had injured Jane’s kind heart on her only reading. [2] Her father had read it, of course, but he could not like so faultless a heroine and so rarely revisited the novel. Only Elizabeth loved it.

She flipped through the pages until she came to the letter wherein the ridiculous Mr Solmes and his ill-fated pursuit of her Clarissa were depicted.

The man, this Solmes, she read, you may suppose, has no reason to boast of his progress with me. He has not the sense to say any thing to the purpose. His courtship indeed is to them; and my brother pretends to court me as his proxy, truly!—I utterly, to my brother, reject his address; but thinking a person, so well received and recommended by all my family, entitled to good manners, all I say against him is affectedly attributed to coyness: and he, not being sensible of his own imperfections, believes that my avoiding him when I can, and the reserves I express, are owing to nothing else: for, as I said, all his courtship is to them; and I have no opportunity of saying no, to one who asks me not the question. And so, with an air of mannish superiority, he seems rather to pity the bashful girl, than to apprehend that he shall not succeed.

The passage had always amused her before, but she read it with a somewhat more personal inflection now, and was heartily grateful that her father bore no resemblance to Clarissa’s; she did not think she would have borne the indignity of being locked in her rooms for rejecting Mr Collins with nearly so much grace as Richardson’s heroine did. Deciding that she was not inclined to read more about Mr Solmes that night, she set aside the first volume and skipped ahead to the latter part of the second. Lovelace was as vile a fiend as ever besmirched the printed page, but she could not put a face to him as she now could Mr Solmes, and therefore his schemes served rather better to distract her.

Clarissa’s troubles succeeded her own as the candle burned down steadily, the sporadic curl of its foul-smelling smoke a fair proof of her distraction. [3] Her heart constricted at the unfairness of Clarissa’s situation, it agitated to read the shocking letters she received from Lovelace, and it cried out for Clarissa to perceive his wickedness sooner this time. Of course, Clarissa did no such thing; Elizabeth could only read, helpless to prevent it all, as Lovelace tricked her yet again to come away with him. Her eyes roved across the page.

She could hardly have got into the house when I heard the first signal—O how my heart fluttered!—but no time was to be lost. I stept to the garden-door; and seeing a clear coast, unbolted the already-unlocked door—and there was he—

The candle sputtered and smoked again. Elizabeth snuffed it distractedly and set the candle snuffer back in its tray with a clatter, her left hand pressed against the centre of the book to hold her place. Waving her right to disperse the smell, she returned her tired eyes to Clarissa’s letter, anxious to finish it before she became too tired to read any more.  [4]

…and there was he—all impatience, waiting for me…

Needless to say, she did not succeed. She did not make it the end of the letter; and she certainly did not last long enough to close the book and go upstairs to her bed. Sleep proved entirely too enticing and Clarissa, as it turned out, made a tolerable pillow, if not a particularly pleasant inspiration for Morpheus. [5]

…The summer-house was pitch dark but for the dull light of her candle through the dirty glass panels of her lantern. Green ivy blotted out the moon; it had reached up its limbs over the years, and wound them around the structure wherever it could find purchase; its tendrils crept through holes in the glass panes and stretched out across the metalwork that supported the ceiling. Yet Elizabeth’s hand had found the latch on the door with ease. She slipped inside with hardly a sound, but for the rustling of her silk skirts as she turned to shut the door behind her. Had she been followed? Her heart pounded wildly and she pressed her ear against the door, listening for the sounds of pursuit, the barking of dogs and shouts of their masters.

A hand touched her shoulder suddenly; she spun around and opened her mouth to cry out but he moved forward to prevent her. His left hand shifted to her upper arm, his other came up to cover her mouth, and he pressed her backwards until she felt her petticoats crush against the heavy wooden door. A panic next to fainting seized her, and she trembled so that she would hardly have kept her feet had he not supported her. He pressed her body against the door with his own, and then slowly, carefully, removed his hand from her mouth. She saw the pattern of the shadows that hid his features shift as he lifted a finger to his lips. Trembling still, her chest rising and falling rapidly in her fright, she nodded. He leaned down towards her, and she felt his breath upon her throat for a moment before he spoke.

‘Fear nothing, dearest creature,’ said he, caressing the line of her jaw with his thumb. A native indignation stirred within her and she straightened her spine, though it brought her closer to him.

‘I am not afraid, sir,’ she said. He laughed under his breath and drew her away from the door, his arm about her waist.

‘Then let us hasten away—the chariot is at hand.’

‘Sir—’

Pulling her close again, he took one of her hands and raised it to his lips.

‘By this sweet condescension, madam, you have obliged me beyond expression or return.’

He pressed a fervent kiss against her knuckles and she gasped.

‘Sir! I pray you,’ she said breathlessly. He did not release her hand, but she thought he looked down at her. ‘I cannot go with you,’ she said, ‘indeed I cannot, sir!’ and with those words, she pulled her hand from his grasp and turned away.

‘I wrote you word yesterday that I should revoke the appointment; had you followed my direction, you would have found the letter in the usual place.’

‘I have been watched, my dearest life,’ he said, half out of breath himself, drawing her close again. ‘In every step I took, I have been watched, and my servant too—since Saturday! I dared not come near the place.’

She turned back towards the door, but he prevented her, and drew her away with him as he retreated from it.

‘You must come away,’ he insisted; ‘we shall be discovered in a moment—’

‘Sir, I am in earnest,’ she said, resisting; ‘I cannot go with you, and I would not have seen you this night but to tell you so.’

He released her and recoiled.

‘Good God! What is it I hear?’ he cried. ‘Would you stay to be Collins’ wife? Can this be your determination at last?’

‘No, sir, never!’ she said vehemently. ‘Never will I be that man’s!’ Confusion overtook ire abruptly. ‘Tarry, sir—is he not to marry Charlotte Lucas?’

He did not seem to hear her.

‘What can have possessed my dearest creature!’ he said, reaching for her once more, ‘that you should stab me with this refusal to stand by your own appointment?’

His voice was gentle, and his woe at her rejection inescapable as he put his arms around her and pressed his cheek to her hair. She blinked owlishly, and thought perhaps she ought to find some way of excusing herself, but no sooner than she had opened her mouth to do so than he crushed her to him again and the air quite went out of her lungs.

‘I beseech you, madam,’ he said, oblivious to her discomfort, ‘—fly with me!—’

‘I had really rather not,’ she wheezed.

‘—Trust your persecuted adorer!—’

‘But, sir,’ she said, regaining her breath, ‘you are justly accused.’

His hand came up to caress her cheek.

‘—Now is the time, my angel!’

‘O good Lord, sir!’ she cried at last in vexation, looking up at him. ‘How can you anticipate success with such speeches? I am no angel, I assure you, and I have not the least intention of flying anywhere this night, with you or anyone else.’

He heard her not, or if he did, he did not heed her, for his thumb brushed once more against the ridge of her cheekbone and he pressed a kiss to her brow before returning his hand to her waist. She squeaked in shock and indignation, but he only drew her tightly back to him, and whispered some very fervent words of his devotion to her. She baulked and attempted, awkwardly, to extricate herself from his embrace. Her efforts met with little success, and, sick and tired of his passions, she therefore screwed her courage to the sticking place and commanded him:

‘Release me, sir, and leave this place directly, lest we be seen.’

For a scant moment, she thought he would obey her… a very scant moment.

‘O by all that is sacred, I will not leave you!’ he vowed, hauling her back into his arms and clasping her hand to his breast. ‘To leave you now, would be to lose you for ever—’

‘Yes, sir, that had been my hope and intention,’ she said, gingerly retrieving her hand.

‘My dearest, dearest life,’ he said, clutching it back again. ‘Let me beseech you not to run a risque of this consequence! If you go back, you will on Wednesday next be Collins’ wife, and, therefore, I urge you, to prevent that dreadful certainty, come away with me!’

Distantly, she could hear men shouting, and increased her efforts to get away from him. They could not be discovered so; it would ruin her.

‘Sir,’ she said to this end, ‘I am quite sure that Mr Collins is engaged elsewhere—’

The sudden crack of a gunshot interrupted her and they both flinched. In the brief moment of stillness that followed, Elizabeth could hear her pulse pounding in her ears, and beneath it the sound of their rapid breaths. She turned towards the door.

‘Wait!’ he hissed, reaching for her and catching her wrist. Shouts echoed again; some commotion followed, and then a cry.

‘Sir, I must return home—’ she said urgently, but he pulled her back away from the door and addressed her pleadingly.

‘It is not safe—you cannot!—you must see that—’

Another gunshot sounded, and this one was nearer than the last. The shouts grew louder. She hesitated; he did not.

In a moment, he had swept her up into his arms and carried her towards the smaller door on the far side of the summer-house, the one for the gardeners. The sounds of violence grew ever closer and she turned her face away; she heard the sound of door being unlatched, and the creak as it opened, and then they were gone! She did wonder then just how he had managed with the latch –she was quite sure that his hands were otherwise occupied – but she did not get the chance to think much about it, for they were past the summer-house now and she felt obliged to turn her thoughts to the business of their escape.

 ‘Hold onto me,’ he said in an undertone, his voice rather deeper than it had been before, as they crossed through the darkened woods towards the edge of her father’s lands. Sensing that she really had very little choice in the matter at this point, and having no particular desire to fall, she did as he bade her, and wound her fingers into the fabric of his coat. To her abstracted surprise, her fingers met not the silk she had expected, but thick wool. How strange, she thought, that he should wear such a coarse fabric. Of course, it was fashionable now, but she was quite certain it had not been so in Richardson’s day. Still, she did not give it much thought; she had rather more pressing concerns than her kidnapper’s choice of coat. And perhaps he had disguised himself for their meeting.

She shivered in discomfort. The wind had picked up and brought with it a chill that seemed to seep through her skin and settle in her very bones. It must have begun to rain at some point too, for her dress was quite drenched, and she could feel tendrils of damp hair clinging to the sides of her face—and yet, how odd that she could not recall when the weather had turned so bad. Indeed, the rain was falling nearly sideways in the gale; it blew at her skirts, pressing them against her legs, and whipped her hair into her eyes. She flinched; her eyes shut of their own volition and she turned her face into his collar, only to freeze when she encountered not wool, or even linen, but the smooth warmth of bare skin. Elizabeth chanced to open her eyes, and then closed them again very quickly upon perceiving the line of his throat – uninterrupted by the starched white collar and cravat that should have concealed it – and the dark curls that blew wildly about his ear. She had always imagined Lovelace to have blond hair; and ought it not to be longer, and bound back by a ribbon?

‘Forgive me, Miss Bennet,’ he said, and good Lord, but how familiar his voice was. ‘I did not see an alternative.’

Elizabeth did not respond, though she did wonder how it was that he carried her with such apparent ease across terrain that must surely be as pitted and ridged as every other forest floor. She was relatively sure that he was not even watching his step, for there was a prickling on the back of her neck that seemed to suggest that his eyes were on her. The impression of familiarity intruded once more as she felt the flicker of his pulse beneath the hand she had placed on the juncture of his neck and shoulder, and so, gathering her courage, she opened her eyes again. The darkness was not so heavy now – they must have reached nearly to the edge of the woods that bounded the property – and thin streaks of moonlight slipped through the canopy of the trees. Slowly, haltingly, she lifted her gaze to meet his…

Elizabeth woke abruptly, extremely disorientated, and intolerably chilled. Sitting up stiffly, she pressed her fingers against her eyes as confusion and mortification assailed her. That Mr Darcy of all people should make an appearance in her dreams! Mr Darcy! Mr Darcy—well it was absurd. He was absurd—no, not absurd; insufferable! He was utterly insufferable! Even if he had figured as the very wickedest villain of her literary acquaintance, his presence was entirely unwelcome.

She rose from the floor and gathered up her things; the crumpled blanket made its way back to her father’s chair and the offending novel back to its shelf, where she was determined it would stay for at least a month before she forgave it its part in this unpleasant experience. The candle, she noted with a frisson of guilt, must have burned itself out at some point – the blackened end of the wick lay curled over the side of the sconce, and the wax had set in a pool in the saucer; she would have to scrape it out later – but, thankfully, it had not managed to do any damage. She could not but be relieved that she would not be required to think of some reasonable explanation as to why she had set a fire in her father’s library.

As she slipped out of the room, candlestick in hand, she heard Hill’s uneven tread on the lower steps. Praying she would not be discovered returning to her room at such a time, she crept across the hall towards the stairs. She was not fast enough.

‘O Miss Lizzy!’ said Hill as she emerged from the kitchens. ‘Out walkin’, are ye’? Shall ye’ be wantin’ Sarah?’

‘Oh! I—’ said Elizabeth, freezing on the bottom step and thinking longingly of her bed.

‘Miss Elizabeth?’

Elizabeth shook herself.

‘Yes,’ she said quickly. ‘Yes, I was; I thought I might send a letter. —If you would be so kind as to send her up? Thank you, Hill.’

Hill bobbed a curtsey and bustled back in the direction of the kitchen. Vexed and stymied, Elizabeth blew out the breath she had been holding and resigned herself the loss of sleep.

She was out of the house in half an hour, a vague letter to her Aunt Gardiner in her reticule and a cheerless agitation in her steps. It was early yet. The light was still cold and grey, and there was no more warmth in the shade than in the sun. Coming out onto the path, she tied the ribbons of her bonnet around her wrist and turned her bleary eyes up to the sky. It did little to wake her. She cursed herself; why had she not simply told Hill she had come down to fetch a book? She could have been asleep again by now, tucked in beside Jane, happily dreaming about… Well, about anything in the world but Mr Darcy.

Spying no one else on the road, she took off her gloves and stowed them away with the letter. She let out a long exhale, and raised her arms, enjoying the sensation of the wind blowing through her outstretched fingers.

How on earth did he manage to make such a nuisance of himself when he was not even present? She had been courteous to him the last few times they met; was this her reward? Perhaps she ought to ignore him when they were next in company. The man evidently had a talent for placing himself exactly where he was least wanted, and she had no desire to see him reprise his role as Lovelace, dreaming or otherwise. She reminded herself then of his dislike and disapproval of her, and was slightly comforted to know that there was very little chance that she would be subjected to the mortification of such declarations and attentions at his hands.

Spotting the approach of a carriage from further along the road, and feeling herself uninclined to give up to propriety and replace her bonnet and gloves quite yet, Elizabeth left the path to avoid it. Slipping through the trees, she found the interest of navigating the roots and bracken in the wooded area to be far superior to the convenience of the path, and so decided to remain there. She would not be in any danger, for the trees hardly extended five yards in either direction, with the road on one side, and open hillside falling away on the other. As she travelled, she could hear the passage of horses and carts on the main road, and laughed to herself at her undignified behaviour.

She supposed later that it was only natural she should encounter him.

He came into sight as she stepped onto the highest point of the wide, sloping base of an old elm tree. She stilled immediately but to no effect; he had clearly seen her, for he pulled up a little and turned in her direction. Coming to the edge of the path, he dismounted smoothly and approached her.

‘Miss Bennet,’ he said, bowing. She stood a little taller than him from her current perch, even if one included his hat, and she bit her lip to keep from laughing out of sheer disbelief.

‘Mr Darcy,’ she returned, and thought the better of curtseying. She glanced down, hoping to discover a more gracious means of returning to the ground than the one she had employed to leave it; she did not think she could bear to embarrass herself in front of the real Mr Darcy so soon after her encounter with the false one. Seeing her plight – for it happened that there was no convenient way to come down – he stepped forward.

‘Allow me,’ he said, and before she could think to respond, he had put his hands on either side of her waist and lifted her down. Setting her carefully on the ground in front of him, he released her immediately, but did not move away. Her hands had gone instinctively to his shoulders to keep her balance, and she removed them now with an unfathomable sense of embarrassment; whatever must he think of her?

A quick glance upwards determined that whatever he thought of her, it was not be very pleasant; his eyes were fixed on her face with a dark, inscrutable expression that could only be disapproval.

Elizabeth flushed scarlet. Was it possible to die of mortification? If it was, she must be close to doing so now; her breath came rapidly and she wished very much that he would take himself away so that she could cry for a quarter hour in peace, or at the very least throw her bonnet at something.

‘Miss Bennet,’ he addressed her, and she looked up. ‘Are you quite well?’

It took her a fraction too long to respond, and when she did, she managed nothing more than a stilted ‘yes, sir’.

She could cheerfully have smacked herself for her stupidity; why could she not think of something better to say? He was going to think her a simpleton if she did not do something to rectify the situation, but the memory of that ridiculous dream had apparently driven all cleverness out of her.

‘Are you well, sir?’ she said eventually. He stared at her for a long moment.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I am very well.’

It was through sheer force of will that she managed to hold his gaze then. His brow was furrowed, and he seemed determined to catalogue every symptom of her discomfiture before he gave up his scrutiny, but she was determined that she would not bow to his disapproval.

‘Might I ask what brings you here?’ he said, and gestured vaguely to their surroundings. ‘It is quite early.’

‘I might ask the same of you, sir,’ she said without thinking, and flushed again.

‘You might,’ he agreed.

‘Indeed, sir,’ she said. He paused.

‘And shall you?’ he said.

‘No, sir.’

Mr Darcy quirked a brow in challenge. Elizabeth held herself up straight.

‘You must know by now, Mr Darcy,’ she said archly, ‘that I take great delight in overthrowing your expectations.’

The beginning of a smile pulled at the corner of his mouth; she would never have seen it if she were not so close. But it vanished almost instantly and he looked over her shoulder, away from the road. She followed his gaze to see a horse and rider approaching across the green.

 


 

[1] Chamberstick: perhaps you all knew this already, but in case your education has had the same deficiencies as mine apparently has, ‘chamberstick’ is the word for a holder for a single candle, where the sconce is set into a saucer. Chambersticks have a small handle attached to the saucer so that they can be carried around easily and safely.

[2] I honestly cannot begin to do any justice to the plot of Clarissa here, mostly because it has an estimated word count of 984, 870, and is therefore generally considered to be the longest novel in the English language. I will however try to summarise the relevant points. Firstly, the novel is by a man called Samuel Richardson, who was incidentally one of Jane Austen’s favourite authors. It is written in epistolary form, and follows the story of Clarissa Harlowe, a young girl who is so beautiful, virtuous, and accomplished that everybody loves her; except, of course, most of the characters in the novel, who hate her because she is practically perfect in every way. She is left an estate by her grandfather when he dies, which really does not endear her to her parents and siblings, who essentially receive nothing. So, bad grand-parenting there, sir, but anyway. This guy Lovelace appears in the Harlowe’s lives as a suitor to Clarissa’s sister, Arabella, only he’s just not that into her, because Clarissa is the main character and fictional men apparently have a sixth sense for that kind of thing. He seems nice (spoiler alert: he’s really not), but it comes out that Lovelace was at university with Clarissa’s brother, James, and they did not get along. Returning to the present, James challenges Lovelace to a duel, but he sucks at fencing so Lovelace wins – but never fear! Lovelace is smart enough not to kill the brother of the girl who’s recently inherited a bunch of money. I know: he’s such a nice guy. Everybody in the Harlowe family is mad at Lovelace and they all start being rude to him, except Clarissa, who, as we know, is too good for that. Her family forbids her to marry Lovelace – because apparently just not being rude to the guy who spared your stupid brother’s stupid life, even though it was your stupid brother who challenged the other guy to a stupid duel, is evidence of being in love with him – and tries to convince her to marry Mr Solmes for convoluted, political reasons that I won’t go into here; she refuses; her family tries to force her to marry Mr Solmes; she refuses; her family locks her in her room and forbids her to write letters until she agrees to marry Mr Solmes, and I’ll give you one guess as to what she does then; that’s right, she refuses. She has been writing to Lovelace during this time, because he has convinced her that if she does not, he will not be able to control his anger towards her brother, and apparently Clarissa is gullible as hell. Lovelace offers to break her out multiple times, but she thinks that would be a little inappropriate, so he says he’ll bring a female relation along to chaperone, and she therefore agrees to meet him. Then he writes saying the relation is ill, so she tries to break off their appointment but he doesn’t get the letter – on purpose. Clarissa is too nice to stand him up without an explanation, so she goes to meet him, intending to tell him in person that she won’t run away with him. But! Lovelace is a sneaky, scheming scoundrel and he has employed a man to cause a dangerous-sounding ruckus at the Harlowe’s house. At the sound of gunshots and shouting, he whisks Clarissa away “for her own safety”. Right. Sure. The rest of the plot isn’t relevant to the scene, but if you’re interested, there are summaries online. However, fair warning: the novel becomes very dark after this first part. Lovelace turns out to be a genuinely evil person, and the later volumes contain several scenes where he sexually assaults Clarissa.

[3] Tallow candles, such as the Bennets would have had for everyday use, needed their wicks trimmed around ten times an hour to stop them from guttering and smoking. The former was bad because it would waste the candle by making it burn faster, and the latter was bad because tallow candles gave off a very unpleasant smell when they smoked.

[4] She is not putting out the candle. During the Regency, to snuff a candle actually meant to trim its wick. A candle snuffer is essentially an elaborate pair of scissors designed for the purpose of trimming the wick without either extinguishing the flame or dropping the still-burning ends of the wicks on the floor.

[5] Figure in Greek mythology who sends people dreams.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth immediately recalled her position.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ she said and moved away.

‘Wait,’ he said, catching her hand as she passed him. She turned back to him and he released her hand immediately.

‘Sir, I must go,’ she said, and bobbed a curtsey before turning away again.

‘Miss Bennet, wait—’

She ignored him and walked towards the road. He glanced in the rider’s direction, grimaced in agitation, and followed her.

‘Miss Bennet,’ he said, overtaking her and coming to a halt directly in front of her. She gave him a look that might have felled a lesser man and went to move past him again but he prevented her with a hand on her forearm.

‘Keep still, Miss Bennet,’ he said with some urgency. ‘You will do more harm than good by leaving; he has already seen us. He turned to come in this direction.’

Unwillingly, Elizabeth stopped. He watched her closely a moment and then withdrew his hand.

‘We must be seen now, properly,’ he said. ‘We have done nothing to be ashamed of; we must not behave as though we had.’

There was wisdom in his words but Elizabeth could not like it. As the man drew nearer, he dismounted his horse and came through the trees towards the pair.

‘Miss Elizabeth,’ he said genially, and, removing his hat, he bowed.

‘Mr Jones,’ said Elizabeth. In a valiant attempt to regain her composure, she turned away from Mr Darcy and curtseyed lightly to the apothecary.

Mr Jones’ eyes shifted to rest upon Mr Darcy, who had, it seemed to Elizabeth, taken it upon himself to look as cold and imposing as he possibly could.

‘Mr Darcy,’ he said, somewhat more formally. The men bowed to one another, the one much deeper than the other.

‘Is all well, Miss Elizabeth?’ said Mr Jones, looking back to Elizabeth.

‘Yes indeed,’ she said smiling warmly. ‘I thought I would post a letter to my Aunt before breakfast today, and encountered Mr Darcy on my way.’

‘Of course,’ said Mr Jones. ‘I have been to see young Master Lucas. The poor lad has a touch of cold.’ Perceiving the lady’s concern, he added, ‘It is nothing to worry yourself about, Miss Elizabeth; the boy will be well in a day or two.’

Elizabeth gave him a grateful smile.

‘I am pleased to hear it. Have you many more early calls?’

‘Only one – to the regiment, to tell the truth – and then I shall be at leisure for a while, I think.’

‘That will be a relief, I am sure. —If you will excuse me, sirs; I think I ought to return home. My mother will be wanting me,’ she said, and quickly made her escape.

After a moment’s pause – made awkward by the suspicious looks that were given by one side and determinedly ignored by the other – Darcy excused himself also, and made his way back through the trees towards Achilles.

He was not sorry to see Elizabeth go. He had come very near to making a fool of himself, and was glad that he had not been given the opportunity to do so—even if it did mean enduring suspicious looks from the apothecary of all people. Since his conversation with Fitzwilliam on Sunday, the business of proposing had been much on his mind, but he was no closer to an acceptable method than he had been then. How did one go about such a thing? Obviously, he had never been called on to make an offer before – indeed, he had spent the entirety of his adult life avoiding doing just that – and he found now that he was woefully unready for the task. Both Bingley and Fitzwilliam were unmarried, so they would not be much help to him, and there was no one else he would consider applying to for advice.

The very idea of requesting an audience at Longbourn mortified him. He baulked at the prospect of addressing her on such an intimate subject with her sisters – and no doubt her mother – listening at the door. No, that was an indignity he would not bear for anyone, he thought as he began the ride back to Netherfield; he would have to speak with her away from her father’s house. It should not be difficult to contrive to a meeting with her; evidently, she walked out alone quite regularly. Yes, that seemed the best idea. As soon as he had settled on something to say to her, he would seek her out, and hope to God that Fitzwilliam never discovered that he had met with her once already without proposing, or he would never hear the end of it.

 


 

Upon joining the gentlemen and her sister in the Netherfield breakfast room later that morning, Miss Bingley revealed a passionate sense of obligation to their neighbours. This obligation, she now assured them, was so violent as to prevent the very thought of its being neglected, and of such an immediate nature that it must demand instant satisfaction.

‘Indeed,’ she declared to a largely disbelieving audience, ‘to ignore it would be to inflict a grievous pain upon myself, which naturally I cannot countenance.’

Darcy nearly bit through his tongue to prevent himself from commending Miss Bingley for her fortitude thus far in enduring the terrible agonies that must, he assumed, have accompanied every preceding dismissal of her neighbourly duties. Only her brother could claim real pleasure to be amongst the feelings that she provoked when she announced her plans for the morning.

‘I believe I shall call on Lady Lucas and her daughters,’ she said. ‘I simply long to see them again; it has been an age!’

Hurst frowned and looked up from his coffee.

‘You saw them on Saturday night, and again on Sun—’

‘Louisa, you must accompany me,’ Caroline overbore him. ‘I know how you enjoy their company.’

‘Oh yes!’ said Mrs Hurst, following her sister’s line of thought. ‘The Misses Lucas are such charming girls – and their mother is vastly entertaining.’

‘I thought you said—’

‘Mr Hurst! You have finished your coffee – allow me,’ said his wife with unusual solicitousness. He opened his mouth to object that he had not in fact finished his coffee yet but she had already plucked the cup from his unresisting grasp and was busying herself with the silver coffee pot. Mr Hurst watched with no small amount of bitterness as his wife cheerfully went about upsetting the ratio of coffee to sugar.

Shoving the cup back into his hand, Mrs Hurst sat down again and expressed again her pleasure at the prospect of calling at Lucas Lodge. Hurst's brows drew together as he stared down at his ruined coffee, wondering if it was at all salvageable and sincerely regretting his involvement in the ladies’ conversation. His wife’s sister gave him a saccharine smile and enquired if the coffee was to his taste. Quite put out, not only by the loss of his coffee but also by the fact that not one of the other gentlemen seemed remotely inclined to involve themselves on his behalf, Mr Hurst merely grunted before returning his attention to his breakfast with a greater sense of dissatisfaction than he usually experienced at any meal. Miss Bingley returned her attention to her sister and their plans, and it was soon decided that they should call also on Mrs Long and her two nieces, and Mrs Phillips.

If any but Hurst was disarmed by the ladies’ unprecedented assertions of affection and friendship – and they all were – none gave any hint of it. Bingley declared himself very happy to hear of his sisters’ increased intimacy with their neighbours, and asked if they should like the gentlemen to accompany them.

‘No indeed, Charles!’ Miss Bingley said with surprising insistence. ‘No, you should be quite in the way, I am sure.’

Louisa echoed her sister and added,

‘There is nothing which spoils intimate conversation between ladies like the presence of gentlemen.’

Darcy exchanged a frank look of incredulity with his cousin over the rim of his coffee cup but Bingley, never of a mind to infer any meaning beyond what was actually said, accepted their rejection with indulgent good humour, and said he would send for the carriage while they collected their things.

As soon as they were out of the room, he turned to Darcy.

‘Do you think we ought to call at Longbourn today? We have not seen the Bennets since Sunday.’

‘A veritable age, I am sure,’ said Fitzwilliam, grinning. ‘What say you, Darcy? Should you not like to see Miss Elizabeth today?’

Darcy had never been more thankful of his cravat than he was at that moment. He could feel a flush blooming under his collar at the recollection of her nearness that morning. For a moment, he imagined he could feel the thin muslin of her gown against his palms again, and—God help him, he was beginning to sound like Bingley.

‘No indeed,’ he said, perhaps more severely than he had intended. He cleared his throat subtly and cited some affairs of business which would surely demand Bingley’s attention that day, and which, naturally, he would be only too happy to assist with.

 


 

The arrival of the Netherfield ladies at Lucas Lodge caused no small amount of astonishment, but they were received with courtesy nonetheless by Lady Lucas and her eldest daughter. The sisters stayed for a full twenty minutes, and, much to the surprise of their host, applied themselves to be civil for the whole visit. While the tea – having been offered, accepted, and called for – was served, polite enquiries were made on both sides as to the other’s state of health, and were answered by equally polite assurances of everybody’s wellbeing. The necessities attended to, Lady Lucas attempted to apologise for not having called at Netherfield yet to thank the ladies for their hospitality on Saturday – she was not in the habit of making calls on Mondays, they must understand – but to her surprise, Miss Bingley and her sister would not hear a word of it.

‘Oh no! You must not apologise; of course you would have called soon, I am sure, but Louisa and I could not bear to be without company so long,’ said the former with unprecedented charm. ‘And we are amongst friends here, are we not? We need not stand on ceremony.’

Mrs Hurst echoed her sister vociferously, as she was wont to do.

‘Indeed,’ Miss Bingley added, ‘we are very blessed in our choice of friends, I think. The Misses Bennet are fast becoming a fixture at Netherfield; I do declare, we cannot do without them!’

‘Is that so?’ said Lady Lucas, her interest piqued. ‘I am not at all surprised that you should like them so well, for they are very pleasant girls – and the eldest two in particular – but I wonder,’ she added with a careful lightness of tone; ‘are all the members of your party so fond of their company? Do not the gentlemen object to being so often outnumbered by the fairer sex?’

‘No, indeed!’ cried Miss Bingley. ‘My brother must be a friend to everyone he meets – and Mr Darcy is very much like him there, though he does not speak so much about it; is that not right? Louisa?’

‘Oh, yes!’ said Louisa, recalling her cue. ‘Yes, Mr Darcy is quite the best sort of friend to have. There is nothing he would not do for his friends, I am sure. You recall that dreadful business last week; our dear Eliza’s being so badly injured, and Mr Darcy’s returning her to Longbourn? That is just the sort of thing he would do for a friend, regardless of how short the acquaintance, or how shallow the friendship might be. Indeed, we would expect nothing less!’

She bestowed an ingratiating smile upon Lady Lucas.

‘Oh, certainly; I am sure he is the best of men,’ said Lady Lucas.

‘But is it not true, Mrs Hurst,’ Charlotte interjected, ‘that the length of an acquaintance has little impact on its depth? Have not some of the deepest attachments been formed in the space of only a few months?’

Miss Bingley froze.

‘I am not sure what you—’

‘Your friendship with Jane and Elizabeth, for example?’ Charlotte said, her manner all civility.

The tension went out of Miss Bingley’s shoulders.

‘Oh yes!’ she said, relieved. ‘Yes, certainly! But we ladies always know our hearts and minds better than do the gentlemen; is it not so?’

They all agreed that it was so, with varying degrees of vexation depending on whether the speaker was married or not.

‘Indeed!’ Caroline continued. ‘A gentleman is almost never really aware of his own feelings! He may think himself quite in love for a month or so, only to discover that he has been entirely mistaken in his regard.’

She laughed.

‘That is very true,’ said Charlotte evenly, ‘but I do not think the same may be said for a change in the opposite direction.’

Miss Bingley’s brows rose. Charlotte stirred her tea and replaced the spoon delicately on the side of the plate. She knew perfectly well that the comment could refer only to Mr Bingley’s attachment to Jane, or to Mr Darcy’s rumoured admiration for Elizabeth, and was not at all inclined to take a slight against either. Therefore, she continued:

‘It is quite unusual, is it not, for a gentleman to discover a passion very late in an acquaintanceship with a lady? Indeed, I would venture to say that it is almost unheard of – particularly if the connexion has spanned a period of several years, and he has not looked on her in admiration in all that time.’

Charlotte took a sip of her tea and looked at Miss Bingley with an expression of polite expectation. Miss Bingley, to her credit, betrayed no hint of her mortification, except for an abrupt change of colour.

The visit ended shortly after. The other calls Miss Bingley had intended to make followed in much the same way, though no one else gave her so much trouble or mortification as had Miss Lucas. If the prettier of Mrs Long’s two nieces snorted audibly and shared a suggestive look with her ill-favoured sister when Miss Bingley declared that Mr Darcy would likely have done as much for any friend of his as he had for Miss Elizabeth, that was neither here nor there. Mrs Long, at least – and later Mrs Phillips – nodded admiringly at her depiction of Mr Darcy’s general goodness, and it was the accounts of the matrons that Caroline intended to rely, not the younger set. She had little to fear from the words of two such silly specimens of her own sex.

 


 

Despite Mr Darcy’s intervention, Longbourn saw its own visitors that day—and, as they included in their number a certain Lieutenant and his friends, the reader might perhaps be grateful for that action on Darcy’s part which might otherwise be considered officious.

Mr Wickham brought with him Mr Denny and Mr Beauchamp apparently for the express purpose of dividing the youngest Bennet from her sisters, for that was the first thing they did upon being shewn into the parlour to see the ladies. Mr Beauchamp in particular was very well suited to that endeavour, and his lively retelling of some mischief they had recently orchestrated soon drew the attention of the room at large.

Wickham sought Lydia’s eye, and though at first she pointedly pretended not to see him, his persistence was eventually rewarded by her deigning to look at him with a condemnatory purse of her lips. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and moved instantly to take the place at her side.

‘Miss Lydia,’ he began quietly. ‘I hope you will permit me to express my remorse for having so neglected you last week.’

That she was surprised to be addressed so was evident, but she was not inclined to allow the implication of her preference for him to stand, and so quickly replied,

‘You may express it all you like, sir, but you need not worry on my account; if you did neglect me, I daresay I did not notice.’

‘I am glad to hear it,’ he said, looking at her earnestly, ‘but I am sure you are too kind.’

Lydia snorted.

‘Hardly—’

‘No,’ he insisted, ‘you must not refuse that praise which is only your due. You must know how I—’

He stopped, and looked away. A short laugh escaped him before he met her eye again and said in a lighter tone, ‘You must know how greatly it would distress me to have caused pain to such a lovely creature as yourself—and seek to spare my feelings.’

Lydia gave him a look of astonishment.

‘My only excuse – indeed, the only thing that could have ever distracted my attention from you – must be my concern for your sister. I would not see any friend of mine so injured, but I must confess to a rather greater anxiety in this case; for she is not only my friend, but your sister. I could not bear to see you brought low—’

‘Brought low? Why! Mr Wickham, whatever do you mean?’

‘If Darcy should prove himself…’ he grimaced, ‘if he should prove himself unworthy—you would share in your sister’s ruin.’

‘You cannot really think there is any danger of that,’ said Lydia. At his continued discomfort, she huffed and dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘Our conversation last week,’ she said, hardly believing that he could be so daft; ‘it was only une simple plaisanterie! Surely you did not believe—’ [1]

Wickham hastened to reassure her.

‘No! No, I would not do your sister the dishonour—but do you not think it strange that there has been no announcement yet?’

Lydia frowned and Wickham continued.

‘However little I would wish to impugn either party, you must admit that it is odd.’

‘Odd? No! not at all. Mr Darcy is a very private man; it should not surprise me at all to hear that he would not wish to openly acknowledge his feelings.’

Wickham laughed.

‘Perhaps that is so, but I daresay people will fathom it out eventually; certainly, his taking her to wife might give it away. —But really, Miss Lydia,’ he said, sobering, ‘it makes no sense. If they have an understanding, why should Darcy not declare his intentions? He will have to at some point, so why wait? And if they do not have an understanding, well—suffice it to say, I would be very disappointed in Darcy for being so careless with a lady’s reputation.’ [2]

‘Careless, sir?’

‘He has been caught meeting with her at all hours of the day, without the presence of a chaperone; I would call that careless.’

‘Whatever do you mean, Mr Wickham?’ said Lydia. Wickham seemed taken aback.

‘You mean you do not know? Why! they were seen together just this morning!’

Lydia could not believe it; or rather, she could not believe that she had not heard of it sooner.

‘This morning!’ she exclaimed.

‘Yes indeed,’ said Wickham. He lowered his voice and continued. ‘Mr Jones was coming into Meryton to see Lieutenant Faire – poor lad has had a fever these two days now – and he came upon them as he approached the road.’

‘Oh,’ said Lydia, losing interest immediately. ‘Well there is nothing very odd about that. Lizzy went into the village to post a letter before breakfast; no doubt she encountered him on the road, and we could hardly expect her to cut him.’ [3]

Wickham shook his head in feigned agitation.

‘I would have presumed as much myself, but there is more. They were not on the road at all, but hidden away amongst the trees to the side of it; indeed, Mr Jones only saw them because he approached from the fields and not the thoroughfare. Their manner towards one another, he said, could not have been clearer.’

He dropped his voice still lower, so that Lydia had to turn her head slightly towards him to hear what he said.

His hands were about her waist when Mr Jones first saw them, and hers were on his shoulders.’

Lydia’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in scandalised surprise.

‘You cannot be serious, sir!’

‘I am indeed! Mr Jones did not even recognise them at first – he thought they must be some young tradesman’s daughter and her beau – but as he drew nearer to the road, he saw who it was. They were quarrelling, it seems. Your sister turned away from Mr Darcy two or three times and each time he followed and caught her hands and spoke earnestly to her; and eventually he seemed to persuade her not to leave. Mr Jones feared some more sinister motive on Darcy’s part than was immediately apparent and so thought to interrupt the tête-à-tête for your sister’s sake; but when he drew up and enquired after her welfare she assured him that nothing was amiss. But she certainly did not go on into Meryton afterwards, for she turned back to Longbourn at once.’

For a moment, neither spoke. Wickham watched Lydia carefully, but Lydia did not notice his observation; her thoughts were all of how she quickly she could contrive to jettison her companion, so that she could relate their conversation to Kitty. The former, seeing no sign of disbelief in the latter, leaned closer and continued in a warmer tone.

‘So it seems you were quite right, Miss Lydia. I must bow to your superior understanding in the…’ he paused, seeming to consider his next words, and then took her hand and raised it smoothly to his lips; ‘in the affairs of the heart.’

He met her eyes and pressed a kiss to the back of her knuckles. Surprised by the contact rather than the sentiment, but feeling herself to be now suitably admired, Lydia bestowed on him a look of queenly satisfaction.

‘Why, Mr Wickham,’ she said, ‘Mr Darcy shall have to call you careless if you do not heed your own reproofs.’

Mr Wickham allowed a smile to spread across his features.

‘Heaven forfend,’ he said daringly, and relinquished her hand.

Lydia basked a moment longer in his attentions, and then – quite missing Mr Wickham’s confusion at the dismissal – she rose, crossed the room and hauled Kitty up by the arm.

‘Come, Kitty,’ she said. ‘I am longing for a walk—and you must all join us.’

Kitty, who had never longed for a walk in all her life and did not intend to start now, opened her mouth to object.

‘But I—ouch! What was that for?’

‘What was what for? Come along, Kitty,’ said Lydia. Without waiting for a response, she herded Kitty towards the door. As the rest of the party rose – the gentlemen with some amusement at Kitty and Lydia’s behaviour and the ladies with some embarrassment at the same – Mr Wickham was gratified by the sound of the girls whispering in the hallway:

‘You pinched me!’ said the one.

‘La! who cares about that?’ replied the other. There was a squawk of outrage, quickly overruled. ‘Oh stash it, Kitty; you will not believe what I have heard from Mr Wickham.’ [4]

Restraining a smile, he turned to Miss Elizabeth and offered her his arm.

 


 

[1] Une simple plaisanterie: just a joke.

[2] “His taking her to wife”: his marrying her.

[3] To cut someone: to refuse to recognise them socially, by ignoring them.

[4] Stash it: shut up.

Chapter Text

The conversation that subsisted between Mr Wickham and Miss Elizabeth that day was no less perplexing for both actors than it was frustrating. He was very desirous to know how much truth there was to Miss Lydia’s assertions, but no amount of subtle prodding on his part could persuade her to give up any hint of a relationship with Mr Darcy; indeed, it seemed to Mr Wickham that she was genuinely ignorant to his meaning when he jovially expressed that he would not resent her very severely for having discovered a more pleasing alternative to his own poor company.

She never mentioned him by name or implication, and eventually Wickham abandoned the all endeavour at subtlety.

‘Would I be wrong,’ he began, ‘if I were to suggest that you had seen a great deal of Mr Darcy recently?’

Elizabeth gave him a queer look.

‘You would indeed, sir,’ she said, with a faint colour in her cheeks that could have spoken of embarrassment as easily as admiration. ‘I do not believe he has been so often at Longbourn that we might be said to have seen a great deal of him.’

‘You must forgive me, madam, but I have heard rather differently.’ She opened her mouth – to object? – but he raised a hand to forestall her reply and continued quickly: ‘But I ought not to be surprised; you could hardly think it wise to confide such things to me of all people.’

‘Mr Wickham, I do not know what you mean.’

‘Of course not,’ he said indulgently. ‘Only, allow me to assure you that there are no hard feelings on part; it is my fervent hope that we shall always be friends, Miss Bennet—and perhaps Darcy and I may one day mend our bridges.’

Elizabeth hardly knew where she ought to begin to respond to such a speech.

‘Mr Wickham,’ she began with some discomfort, ‘allow me to assure you; you can have no cause for hard feelings, nor any fear of losing my friendship. Regarding Mr Darcy’s friendship, I hardly know why you should wish to reinstate it.’

Mr Wickham laughed.

‘We were like brothers once; I should like for us to be so again.’ He smiled. ‘I see you are surprised, Miss Bennet, but of course you must be. Quite apart from your own observations, my account was hardly flattering.’

‘Sir, you cannot be blamed for the light in which his own actions would make him appear; you were not the author of his choices.’

Wickham grimaced.

‘No, I was not—but I must confess, Miss Bennet, that there was perhaps more to the tale than I first thought to relate to you. Mr Darcy’s behaviour towards me you must naturally think reprehensible, and I shall not argue that it was not—but it was only the final blow in what has been a nearly ceaseless quarrel between us for more than a decade. It came as no surprise. Indeed, had I been given the opportunity—had our situations been reversed!—I confess, I would have dealt him the same injury.’

If Elizabeth had been confused before, she was utterly shocked now, and begged him explain himself. He acquiesced, and spoke thus:

‘In our extreme youth, we had been nearly everything to one another; our fathers were neither of them interested in the companionship of small boys, and, for the sake of convenience, left us in the care of a shared nurse and governess. Of course, I spent a great deal of time with my mother, who doted on me, but Darcy really had no other companions but myself, excepting his cousins, who visited once a year. His mother was forever in Bath with her friends or at Rosings with her sister.’

‘Lady Catherine de Bourgh?’

‘The very one,’ he said, inclining his head to her. ‘They were very close, you know; indeed, Miss de Bourgh is named for her aunt. —When we reached our adolescence, the governess was dismissed, and the old Mr Darcy began to take an interest in our education—and particularly in mine. When we were at home from school, Mr Darcy sent his own son to my father to learn the business of the estate, and devoted his own time to my betterment. His father taught me everything in the way of gentlemanly pursuits, and grew to love me as his own. You can imagine how well a resentful temper such as Darcy’s bore that.’

She could indeed, and though he looked to her with some amusement, she could not return his laughter without some stirring of pity for the subject of their discussion.

‘Darcy and I became competitive. Over the course of the next few years, we began to seek ways to injure one another in his father’s eyes. Old Mr Darcy, you see, took on his responsibilities as my godfather with a spirit born of true affection for me as much as duty to my father…’ He smiled without humour. ‘Darcy could not stand it; indeed, we fought on multiple occasions.’

Elizabeth’s feelings were thrown into conflict. Could it be that Jane had been right, and that neither man had been truly in the wrong? Miss Bingley had hinted at an equality of misbehaviour in their conversation, but somehow she could not reconcile the two accounts. Mr Wickham seemed desirous of exculpating Mr Darcy, while Caroline seemed desirous of implicating them both. How could they each be faultless and at fault at the same time?

‘Really, I suppose it was only natural that he should take the opportunity to revenge himself upon me when it was presented,’ said Wickham, and with such an air of sorrow and self-deprecation about him that Elizabeth could not but feel a wish to allay his unhappy feelings .

‘Sir, I am sure you extend him too much leniency,’ she offered, in an effort to comfort him.

‘I find it difficult to think ill of anybody,’ he said ruefully, ‘no matter their crimes against me. I find it almost impossible to do so when I understand so well what might motivate them to injure me.’

‘It does not follow that an understanding of motive should necessitate forgiveness. Indeed,’ she said, coaxing him to laugh, ‘I am quite sure that criminal law operates on the opposite principle.’

‘Perhaps it does,’ he conceded, ‘but criminal law is not restricted by an enduring affection for the father of the accused.’

‘Your goodness does you credit, Mr Wickham,’ she said warmly, roused by his downtrodden air. ‘But, surely, if you possess the forbearance to forgive such an injury, then Mr Darcy ought to have the forbearance to abstain from inflicting it.’

‘Come, Miss Bennet, let us not judge him any further,’ he said, suddenly feeling that he had overplayed his role to the detriment of his purpose. ‘Really, we neither of us can help where our affections lie; you must try to see the good in him. I would be the first to congratulate you if you did—’

‘Mr Wickham, I cannot understand you,’ she interrupted, with some perturbation. She laughed to conceal it, and her tone became teazing. ‘No, what is to be gained by looking for the good in people? Their follies must be of far greater interest.’

‘You are too cruel, Miss Elizabeth, surely,’ he attempted to persuade her.

‘I think I must be,’ she exclaimed, ‘for you are far too forgiving—one of us at least must hold him to account.’

Mr Wickham tried again and again to recuse himself, but every repetition only prompted Elizabeth to feel that he did not do himself enough credit, until eventually she said, in no uncertain terms, that if he could not find it in himself to resent Mr Darcy for his cruelty, she would do it for him.

There the conversation ended. The one went away with a strong sense of irritation at having been thwarted in his endeavour by his own hand, and the other with the distinct impression that she had missed some vital point of the conversation, without which the whole did not make sense.

 


 

 

In the end, Mr Darcy managed to postpone their visit to Longbourn for two whole days before Charles began to get the look of a kicked dog and Darcy was forced, very unwillingly, to acknowledge the unlikelihood of their getting any real work done with the principal tenant of the estate so clearly incapacitated.

On Tuesday, Bingley had at first been disappointed not to see Miss Bennet, but, as he was far too good to resent his responsibilities to the estate he had leased, he agreed to Darcy’s suggestion without argument—which was how he found himself riding the grounds until well past respectable visiting hours, overseeing repairs and cataloguing areas that would require further attention.

On Wednesday, however, he attempted to escape twice. The first time, Darcy immediately announced that they must go over the books and fairly locked them in the library for that purpose – which really amounted to Bingley sitting by his desk, bouncing his knee up and down like a child, while Darcy went over the books – and the second time, Bingley nearly made it to the entrance hall before Darcy caught wind of the scheme and steered him away to resolve a dispute between two of his temporary tenants, which, despite having been unattended for at least a se’nnight without causing any particular problems, now required his urgent attention.[1]

On Thursday morning, the battle was quite lost. Darcy’s attempts to direct Bingley’s attention to the invigorating topic of crop rotation proved entirely useless, for the latter’s mind had already turned most agreeably to the prospect of calling on Miss Bennet, and he could not be brought to think of anything else.

‘…Ackitt has had barley planted last year,’ said Darcy, showing Bingley the steward’s notes, ‘so he should have wheat this year…’

Bingley nodded vaguely as he considered the possibility of asking the servants if one of the ladies might perchance have lost a glove when they called on Monday.

‘…This was poorly done, though – very old-fashioned; look, the Martins’ fields has lain fallow for a year now. It is far better for the land to plant clover, so you must have him do so this year…’

No, surely he would have been informed by now if anything had been left behind on Monday. Darcy was still speaking.

‘…Higgins has livestock; have him keep them on Martin’s field, and plant barley on his own…’

Perhaps he might purloin one of his sisters’ gloves, so that he could go and enquire if it belonged to any of the Bennet girls…

‘…Knott has been ill this last winter, and he has no sons; send Martin’s sons to help—Bingley? Charles, are you listening?’

‘Of course,’ said Bingley, starting guiltily. ‘Send Knott’s sons to help with Higgins’ fields and Martin’s livestock.’

Darcy blinked.

‘Was I very far off?’ said Bingley.

‘Incredibly so.’

Bingley grinned.

‘Ought I to go back up to Cambridge and practice on Burlingame, do you think?’

‘Good God, no; that poor man endured enough of your inattentiveness while you were up the first time—I am sure he has done nothing to deserve any more of it.’[2]

‘And neither have you,’ said Bingley neatly. ‘We will get no more work done today, Darcy. Come; let us go to Longbourn.’

Darcy regarded his friend with an expression somewhere between disbelief and frustration, and wondered if Bingley was entirely aware that ‘we’ implied a sharing of labour that had certainly not taken place.

‘Richard will join me, I am sure; he is always fond of company. —Of course, I will not force you out,’ Bingley added earnestly. ‘You need not come; indeed, I am sure that my sisters could be persuaded to forgo the visit if you would prefer to stay.’

Put just so, the decision was not difficult; to Longbourn they would go.

 


 

 

As the gentlemen set out in the direction of Longbourn, Elizabeth’s thoughts were heartily devoted to praying that they would stay away, for her efforts on behalf of Kitty’s artistic proclivities had borne fruit, and she now had cause to regret them.

Her application, when made, had been immediately successful. Her father had been in no mood to deny a request of his favourite daughter, her having been so recently imperilled and still noticeably unwell at the time of asking, and so a drawing master by the name of Mr Coxworth had therefore been engaged to come from Meryton once a week, beginning the Tuesday after Elizabeth’s accident. Due to Mr Bennet’s entirely predictable level of appreciation for the peace in his house – which must naturally be occasioned by the prolonged separation of his two youngest daughters – as well as a surprising level of warmth and encouragement on the part of the tutor, and a wholly unanticipated level of talent and application on the part of the student, Mr Coxworth had instead appeared almost every day since. Kitty was well pleased by this turn of events, for not a one of her sisters could put pencil to paper and capture even a vague likeness of a thing, and she rather liked the prospect of distinguishing herself.

Unfortunately, she managed in the first ten minutes of the first lesson to convince Mr Coxworth to instruct her in the drawing of scenes and not portraits, claiming with unprecedented Machiavellian instinct that she wished to draw up her favourite stories from the Bible. And so the pleasant, timorous, and haplessly admiring Mr Coxworth set out to teach her how to draw not only faces but bodies and their motions, and Kitty promptly put her burgeoning skill to good use by making sketch after sketch of That Night, as it had come to be called in the Bennet household.

Every hour that had not been spent poring over The Champion of Virtue with Lydia and Maria Lucas had been spent bent over a drawing pad, curled up in the window seat from which she had first perceived the arrival of Mr Darcy and her insensate sister.[3] At first the pictures were vague: strokes upon strokes as Kitty sought out the proper shape of the landscape, of Mr Darcy’s drenched shirtsleeves, of her sister’s cradled form and the drape of the man’s greatcoat she had unknowingly worn; but they soon became more refined, and on Thursday morning – much to Lizzy’s horror – she called her sisters down to admire a watercolour that somewhat resembled its subjects.

Mr Bennet thought this a fine joke, and came out into the sitting room to beg a copy of his own – for posterity, he claimed.

‘And,’ he added, ‘so that if Lizzy somehow manages to knock this one into the fire, we should retain a spare.’

Kitty readily agreed to the request, feeling greatly the honour of being the only member of the family capable of fulfilling it.

Lizzy fumed silently in the face of this betrayal, before informing her father that he had better store the picture out of sight if he wished to keep it for long and exiting the sitting room with a last ineffective glower.

‘Perhaps you ought to hide your paints, Kitty,’ said Mr Bennet, patting her shoulder briefly as he stood to retreat to his book room. ‘I daresay your sister might be tempted to do away with them if you leave them out.’

 


 

 

[1] Se’nnight: a week, seven nights.

[2] Going up to Cambridge: one does not go ‘to’ Cambridge (or Oxford for that matter) as one might any other university, one goes ‘up to’ Cambridge (or Oxford). This has nothing to do with either institution being or thinking themselves superior, the terms are merely a descriptive hangover from the early days of the colleges. For a long time England only had two universities (incidentally, Scotland had four), and until recently the majority of the students would be coming from rural areas. The phrase ‘going up to Cambridge’ actually comes from the fact that students would be ‘going up from the country’ to go to university. ‘Going down’ meant returning to the country, and if one were ‘sent down’, one had been expelled.

[3] The Champion of Virtue is a gothic novel by Clara Reeve, published in 1777. It was edited and republished in 1778 under the title The Old English Baron, by which name it is better known. I have given the Bennet girls the first edition because I like to think of Mr Bennet as the sort of young man who bought books constantly in his youth, the sillier or more shocking the better, and could never bring himself to part with them later.

Chapter Text

At two o’clock, the gentlemen were sighted. Fearing for the safety of her paints, Kitty had removed to the room she shared with Lydia and stationed herself in the window for the best light. The fact that her position also afforded her the best view of the drive, she told herself, was incidental; she did not especially want Lieutenant Beauchamp to call again—only to be the first to know if he did.

Thus, having spied from the crow’s nest the approach of three men on horseback and deducing – based on the shameful lack of regimentals displayed by all but one of the party – that they must be none other than Mr Darcy, his cousin, and his friend, she felt it incumbent upon her to ensure that the ship’s captain was alerted immediately. However, she was not at all inclined to fling herself down the mast to see it done, so to speak, and so cried immediately:

‘Lydia! Lydia, the gentlemen are come! You must go and tell Mama—’

Lydia – who had elected to follow Kitty and her drawings upstairs in order to offer her some unwanted and unwarranted artistic direction, but had quickly given it up in favour of picking apart an old bonnet she had found under the bed – went to her sister’s side at once.

‘It is Mr Darcy!’ she gasped, and fairly flew out of the room and down the stairs, Kitty following at a more sedate pace. ‘Mama! Mama! Mr Darcy and the Colonel are come! And so is Mr Bingley! Mama!’

To describe in detail the chaos that followed would not reflect well upon any of its actors. Suffice it to say that there was a great deal of bell-ringing and daughter-summoning; of Hill-calling and daughter-rebuking; of shawl-fetching, cheek-pinching, gown-adjusting, shawl-banishing, hair-fussing, and daughter-bemoaning; and that by the end of it all, Mrs Bennet was tolerably satisfied with her efforts. If her daughters were less than pleased by the ordeal, it hardly mattered, for when the gentlemen were announced, she could safely boast that all of her progeny were present, dressed appropriately, and arranged to best advantage around the drawing room; they need never know that the bloom on the cheeks of the second eldest was prompted more by indignation than modesty.

 


 

 

The spirits of the approaching gentlemen could not be said to equal the contentment of their hostess. Darcy, having endured another repetition of his cousin’s advice regarding the proper wooing of young ladies during their ride, now felt very strongly that he was unequal to the task of following it—or indeed, of being in company at all with anything remotely resembling a human female. He had not the slightest idea how one might contrive to be both attentive and aloof, or why such a thing should even be attempted; surely women did not appreciate being distressed and confused by their suitors. He had made a brief attempt to suggest this to his cousin, but Fitzwilliam had only laughed and pointed him towards Claudio’s success in Much Ado about Nothing.

‘Women like to be crossed in love, Darcy; it gives them something to think on. Provided you do not cause any lasting damage, there is no harm in distressing her a little; indeed, it is quite the best way to ensure that you are often in her thoughts.’

Faintly disturbed, Darcy replied that he did not think the author of Othello ought to be considered an authority on romance, and the subject was dropped soon after. Darcy was not sorry for it; frankly the whole enterprise was beginning to make his head ache.

They clearly were not expected; the groom hurried out to meet them only as they neared the house, and Darcy gestured to his friends that they should draw their horses up at the side of the house—ostensibly to save the harried groom the trouble of running up to the door, but really to avoid, if only for another few moments, the scrutiny that would commence as soon as they came into view of the sitting room windows. [1]

 They dismounted quickly and waited as another groom came up to join the first in seeing to the horses. Darcy wished they were less efficient. He cast his gaze about for some distraction as Colonel Fitzwilliam’s horse was led away, and found it poking its head around the stable door.

‘Preston!’ he said before the boy could disappear back into the building. Preston looked at him, as if for confirmation that it was he that had been called to. Darcy beckoned him with a nod, ignoring the bemused looks of his companions. The boy approached immediately, flushing red at having been caught observing the gentlemen, and bowed so deeply that his torso was nearly parallel to the ground.

‘You are working in the stables?’ said Darcy, when the boy rose. Relieved that he was not to be chastened, he responded with alacrity.

‘No, sir, but ‘twere my day off, and I like to help with the horses.’

‘I see,’ said Darcy; ‘and do you ride?’

‘Of course, sir. ’

‘Then perhaps I might ask a favour of you—we did not give the beasts much chance to walk on our way here; would you take him for me?’

Preston beamed and nodded energetically, then recalled himself and said with dour seriousness, ‘Very good sir.’

Darcy did not grin – it would not do to crush the boy's dignity – but tilted his head towards Achilles. The boy came immediately to stand on the beast’s left side, his back to Darcy.

‘Come then—on three,’ said Darcy, and on that count, caught the boy under the arms and lifted him up to the saddle; he was far too short to have mounted with a foot in the stirrups. The work of a few moments saw the stirrups shortened and the reins handed over to one of the grooms.

‘Put him on a leading rope,’ said Darcy under his breath to the groom, as the boy peered over the side of the horse to see how far down the ground was. ‘See that he is not hurt, and a shilling for your trouble.’

The groom pocketed the coin immediately, and the gentlemen turned towards the house.

‘Whatever was that about, Darcy? Do you know the boy?’ said the Colonel as soon as the servants were out of earshot.

Darcy gave them as short a summary as could be managed of his brief stay at Longbourn and Preston’s involvement – though he did not think it necessary to add that it was Preston to whom he was indebted for having been allowed to see Miss Elizabeth’s improvement for himself that morning – and left it at that as they reached the house. If, as they mounted the step, the Colonel complained under his breath that this whole ridiculous affair would have been set to rights days ago if only Darcy could be as easy around adults as he was around children, Darcy pretended not to hear him. Privately, he thought that if adults were as transparent as children, a great deal more might be set to rights than the comparatively small matter of his marriage.

They were brought into the hall to tidy themselves, where they were perfunctorily stripped of their outerwear and divested of their hats and gloves, before being announced and shewn through to the drawing room. [2]

Bows, curtseys, and the usual greetings were all exchanged, with varying degrees of effusiveness; the weather was remarked upon – for its being better than yesterday, rather than any particular pleasantness of its own – and the Colonel most naturally suggested that they take a turn about the garden to enjoy it. Mrs Bennet was only too happy to agree on behalf of her daughters, though she herself would be vastly happier indoors.

The party migrated out into the hall, and there followed the business of accoutring themselves for the excursion. The men were reunited with their outerwear, and the ladies nearly buried under an assortment of bonnets and gloves and shawls and scarves and spencers. There being only poor Hill to do the office of helping the ladies and gentlemen into their things, nobody was particularly surprised that Mr Bingley should be the one to hold Jane’s shawl for her, or that the Colonel’s opinion should be solicited by Kitty and Lydia as to which of a selection of bonnets became them each more – to which the only gallant response was given: that they would each look lovely in any of them – or that Mary would take one look at the miniature crush and reconsider her intention of joining them. At the last moment, Mrs Bennet emerged from the sitting room and exclaimed:

‘O no Lizzy! You cannot go out in your spencer, it is far too cold—and you have been so recently ill! No, you must go up to your rooms and fetch your pelisse.’

‘I am quite comfortable, Mama,’ replied Elizabeth, feeling the awkwardness of being waited on, ‘I should not wish to delay the party for want of a yard more fabric—’

‘It is quite alright, Miss Elizabeth,’ the Colonel interrupted genially, ‘you need not fear inconveniencing us; we shall go on ahead—Darcy will wait for you, won’t you, Darcy?’

Elizabeth had nearly forgotten he was there; once dressed, Mr Darcy had stationed himself near the door to the dining-room, and stood there now with as much animation as the pedestal by his right elbow and less life than the arrangement of cut flowers atop it. Now he turned, bowed slightly to her, and said that he would.

‘O that is very good of you, Mr Darcy!’ cried Mrs Bennet. ‘Very good indeed!’

Mr Darcy made no reply.

‘It is settled then,’ said the Colonel quickly, hastening the younger girls outside before anyone could say another word about it. ‘Come, come; away with you all.’

Elizabeth, meeting Mr Darcy’s eye with some surprise and incredulity, quickly withdrew and went up the stairs.

When she came back down, Prussian blue pelisse slung over her arm to spare Mr Darcy the trouble of waiting any longer than was absolutely necessary – if he was generally disagreeable, she dared not think how unpleasant he might be when he was inconvenienced – she could not tell if she were more relieved or mortified that her mother had left the gentleman standing alone in the hall.

‘Forgive me,’ she said, settling on embarrassment. ‘I have kept you waiting—’

‘Not at all, Miss Bennet,’ he said, meeting her at the bottom of the stairs. ‘You need not have hurried.’

Recovering her equanimity, she replied with excessive severity,

‘Oh, but I did not hurry, sir. I have a great love of inconveniencing others – as you, of all people, must know – and so determined to consider every pelisse I own twice over before descending again; it is only your very good fortune that I own but three.’

‘I cannot recall ever having been inconvenienced at your hands, Miss Bennet.’

‘That is very politic, Mr Darcy,’ she said dryly, raising a brow in his direction as she stepped down to the ground floor, ‘but it does not reflect well on the accuracy of your memory.’

‘Indeed? I think it reflects very well,’ he said, turning to watch her as she crossed to the hall table; ‘a man with a poorer memory might forget your fondness for expressing opinions that are not your own, and take you at your word.’

Elizabeth could not tell if he meant to give offense or not, and so, recalling again that oft-broken promise to Jane and Charlotte, smiled and dropped the subject. Darcy hesitated, seeing her look towards the sitting room as she shook out the pelisse.

‘Your mother and the servant were wanted below stairs,’ he said, and gestured to her coat. ‘Allow me.’

Her surprise was obvious but she thanked him, gave over the pelisse, and turned to let him help her into it. Her gloves followed in half a moment, and then the pair made their way out into the garden. At Mr Darcy’s suggestion, they turned towards the little wilderness to the side of the house, and wandered in that direction without speaking for some minutes.

Elizabeth wished to introduce the subject of Mr Wickham’s disclosure but knew not how; Darcy, having already determined that he would not make his proposals in any situation which might oblige him to bear Mrs Bennet’s first reaction to the news, found that he could neither think nor speak on any other subject. Fearing he might betray himself if he dared open his lips, he was therefore silent.

At length, Elizabeth spoke.

‘I was surprized not to see Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst with you all today.’

‘Were you?’ he said dryly. She gave him a sharp look, and recovered.

‘Yes indeed, for I hear they have recently called on nearly everybody in the neighbourhood; Lady Lucas, Mrs Philips, and Mrs Long have all had visits, and Mrs Goulding has been sent a card to expect them tomorrow, but they have not come to Longbourn.’

‘And would you like such a visit?’ he said, in a tone that clearly belied his assumption that she would not. Naturally, she opposed him.

‘Why should I not?’

‘Perhaps it would be better not to say.’

‘Then it would have been better not to ask, Mr Darcy,’ she said, ‘for now I am curious to hear what sort of answer you thought I would give.’

‘Very well; I had thought you to be quarrelling with Miss Bingley.’

‘Am I indeed?’ she cried, laughing. ‘Well, that is a suprize! I should never have realised. Perhaps then, as you seem so much better informed than I, you might tell me what we have quarrelled over.’

‘I am sure it is wiser not to know,’ he said, recalling their both looking over to him as they stood together in the library at Netherfield before dinner on Saturday, the one pleased and the other quite pale.

‘It matters not; I am sure I will discover it eventually,’ she said, and the conversation lulled.

‘But you have avoided the question, Miss Elizabeth,’ said Darcy after a moment, feeling the loss of her conversation. ‘How would you have liked to have a visit from Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst?’

She laughed and said, ‘Oh, not at all, I think.’

‘But you would have liked them to come.’

‘Naturally.’

‘Can a man ask why?’

‘He can, but he ought not.’

‘Then he shall have to form his own opinions.’

‘A dangerous pursuit, I am sure.’

‘Indeed,’ he said, stopping on their path and looking at her, ‘and in your power to make unnecessary.’

‘In my power,’ she said, turning to him, ‘but not in my inclination.’

‘And why is that?’

‘If one of us must embarrass themselves, better for me that it should be you,’ she said, looking up at him archly. ‘You know I dearly love to laugh, and your self-proclaimed lack of defect has, thus far, deprived me of the opportunity to do so at your expense.’

‘Miss Bingley will be delighted to hear that she now speaks for me,’ he said, smiling; ‘but I would by no means deprive you of any pleasure which it was in my power to give.’

She raised a brow in amusement and his heart lodged itself firmly in his throat. He swallowed; would it really be so very bad to offer her his hand at Longbourn after all? Glancing down at her mouth he saw her lips pressed together against a laugh. ‘Miss Bennet—’

‘Lizzy!’

Both turned.

‘Lizzy, you will never guess who has arrived,’ cried Lydia, dropping the Colonel’s arm and rushing over to her sister. Seizing both of Lizzy’s hands, she continued, ‘Chamberlayne and Beauchamp and Sanderson have come to call, and Mama has invited everybody to stay for dinner. —That is you too, Mr Darcy,’ she added to that gentleman, ‘for we have asked Mr Bingley and the Colonel and they say you shall.’

The Colonel sent an apologetic look at his cousin and received a vaguely murderous one in reply.

‘Shall we walk on?’ he said. The party rearranged itself, and proceeded.

Darcy found himself with Miss Elizabeth on one arm and Miss Lydia on the other. Though not best pleased with this result, he could at least feel some relief that he was not in his cousin’s shoes; the Colonel had been abandoned to the sole company of Miss Catherine, whose complete willingness to be swayed to whichever opinion was currently being shared made her a charming participant in a group conversation, and a wholly useless one in a tête-à-tête.

Lydia maintained a steady stream of conversation for the next half hour, without seeming to require any reply, on the strangest series of unconnected and nonsensical topics.

‘Kitty and I have been reading Clarissa,’ she began immediately; ‘have you read it, Mr Darcy?’

For some unknowable reason, Miss Elizabeth blushed violently; and Mr Darcy, thoroughly distracted by the colour that bloomed from her cheeks to her throat and then disappeared under the collar of her pelisse, said that he had—though he knew not what he had said until Elizabeth turned her face up to look at him with the greatest astonishment.

‘Well,’ said Lydia, ‘do you not think it the most dreadful thing in the world how Mr Lovelace contrives to meet with Clarissa, unchaperoned and at odd hours?’

Mr Darcy, who seemed to recall Mr Lovelace’s doing a great many worse things than meeting with the lady in question, frowned.

‘Certainly, it was not right for him to do so,’ he began to say, ‘but—’

‘Indeed, I cannot think of anything more ungentlemanly than to risk a lady’s reputation in such a way.’

Darcy could.

‘And especially when there was a very good chance of their being seen! If they had wished to meet, they ought to have arranged to do so in a place where they would not be discovered, or they should not have met at all—do you not agree?’

This last she directed to Darcy – who could not begin to decide which part of Miss Lydia’s speech was more offensive to him; her views on secret meetings, or her completely inaccurate depiction of the novel’s plot and characters – but it was Elizabeth who replied.

‘By your account then, Lydia,’ she said with forced levity, ‘the error in their ways was that they allowed themselves to be caught in a compromising position, rather than their having entered into one.’ Lydia nodded emphatically. ‘Well, the next time I have it in my head to attend a secret rendez-vous with such a man as Mr Lovelace, I shall take that under advisement. Now—’

‘See that you do,’ said Lydia with wide-eyed seriousness. ‘You know not what dreadful consequences might occur if you do not.’

Elizabeth gave her a queer look.

‘Lydia, I assure you,’ she said with some discomfort; ‘I have no intention of meeting with a Mr Lovelace, either clandestinely or otherwise.’

‘Oh! I would not think that you did—but of course Clarissa did not know that Mr Lovelace was a Mr Lovelace.’

‘Indeed,’ replied her sister, perturbed. ‘But did you not say that Sanderson and the others had arrived? Lydia, whatever have you done with them?’

‘Oh, they are in the sitting room with Mama and Mary, I expect,’ Lydia said breezily, oblivious to her sister’s horror. ‘Now, if Mr Lovelace had been intending to marry Clarissa, that would be something else, would it not?’

Elizabeth frowned and opened her mouth to reply but this latest inaccuracy had been the last Darcy could tolerate without correcting the speaker and so said,

‘Miss Lydia, you are quite mistaken; Mr Lovelace does want to marry Miss Harlowe. His motivations to that end are—’ – he suddenly recalled the youth and sex of his audience and chose his words accordingly – ‘—not those of a gentleman, but I assure you, he has every intention of marrying her.’

Lydia stared at him in some astonishment, and Elizabeth felt obliged to lend her support to his version of events.

‘Indeed, Lydia,’ said Elizabeth, laughing a little to conceal her awkwardness. ‘He asks her repeatedly but she will not have him.’

‘She will not?’ said Lydia, looking between the two. Elizabeth confirmed it. ‘But—why?’

Elizabeth looked involuntarily at Darcy and their eyes met with equal expressions of bewilderment.

‘Well, Lydia,’ Elizabeth began awkwardly, and, failing to find appropriate words, looked at Darcy in vague panic. His rescue was swift and she was miserably grateful to him for it.

‘Clarissa is right to refuse Mr Lovelace,’ he said firmly; ‘his character is such that he could never be worthy of her affections.’

He looked back to Elizabeth and she met his eye with a relieved smile, which he returned with unexpected and frankly unsettling degree of warmth.

Any hopes that they might be allowed to continue in peaceful silence were promptly shattered by Lydia’s bold remark that she was sure Mr Darcy did not do Mr Lovelace enough credit, and – glancing severely at Elizabeth – that Clarissa was very cruel to toy with his affections so. To this abominable statement, neither felt they could make a polite reply, and so nothing prevented Lydia’s rambling from traversing a number of other subjects before they reached the house, which included but were not limited to: the weather, and how unpleasant it must be to walk out in the mornings; a party that Colonel Forster had promised to give next week; something about a woman called Miss Trappe having no friends, which seemed to give Elizabeth some unhappiness; and, most commonly, Clarissa[3]

Neither Darcy nor Elizabeth bore up well under the onslaught. His severity and disdainful looks increased her mortification, and her clear avoidance of his eye had a similar effect on his acute sense of discomfort. Neither parted with any very warm feelings towards their conversational partners.

It might be wise, at this point, to inform the reader that Lydia had not actually read Clarissa. Her sisters and father had read it aloud together three years ago, but Lydia, being but twelve years old at the time, had slept through nearly half of every reading; and therefore cannot be entirely blamed for her faulty interpretation of the text. The reader may, however, reserve the right to blame her a little.

 


 

 

[1] From the sounds of things in the book, most of the Bennets’ friends and acquaintances walk to Longbourn, so I doubt the grooms would be ready to attend to visitors unless the visitors were expected.

[2] Just to clarify, ‘outerwear’ refers to the greatcoat, not the tailcoat. They are not sitting around in their shirtsleeves; that would be indecent.

[3] Quick recap of the salient points from my summary of Clarissa in an earlier chapter: Lovelace, upon being repeatedly refused by Clarissa, tricks her into meeting him, then abducts and sexually assaults her. Clearly, Lydia has no idea what she is implying by her references.

Chapter Text

By the end of their conversation, Elizabeth was entirely sure that Lydia was trying to tell her something; what that something was, and what in heaven had possessed her to attempt it in front of Mr Darcy of all people, Elizabeth did not know, but she was determined to get it out of her sister at the earliest opportunity.

The opportunity came from an unlikely source. Kitty, for whom not even the pleasure of uninterrupted conversation – uninterrupted in that he spoke a great deal while she could not bring herself to say a word – with a real Colonel was worth another minute spent out of doors, finally summoned up her courage and asked him to hail the others. He complied, and the trio ahead stopped and waited for them.

Kitty’s nerve failed immediately upon perceiving Mr Darcy’s dark countenance, and she instead spoke in a whisper to Lydia, who laughed.

‘O Lord! already? But it is only four o’clock,’ she said, and made no move to leave.

Kitty decided she did not very much like Lydia at that moment, and applied to Elizabeth instead, who was much more helpful.

‘You must excuse us, gentlemen,’ said Elizabeth lightly, retrieving her hand from Mr Darcy’s coat sleeve and linking arms with poor Kitty. ‘It seems we must dress, for we intend to dine at a dreadfully unfashionable hour. Mama is in the sitting room, should you tire of the gardens. —Lydia, come.’

Lydia joined them, and Darcy suddenly found himself vastly interested in the poor dead gooseberry bushes on the side of the path. The three sisters curtsied in unison and made their exit; Elizabeth threw a vaguely amused glance over her shoulder as they marched her towards the house. They must have stopped to collect Miss Bennet along the way for it was not many minutes before Bingley came towards them.

‘I have sent a note to Caroline not to expect us,’ he said upon reaching them. ‘Forgive me, Darcy, that I did not consult you, but I did not want to press Caroline to host us; you know she is not well to-day.’

Darcy privately thought that Miss Bingley’s head-ache had come into being at exactly the moment her brother declared his intention of visiting Longbourn, and ceased to trouble her when she realised that he was perfectly willing to go without her, by which point Charles had already herded her upstairs and instructed the servants to see that she did not exert herself, and it was far too late for her to retract the claim of illness.

‘I hope you do not mind,’ said Bingley again.

‘Of course not,’ said Darcy with the utmost displeasure.

Colonel Fitzwilliam grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.

‘Come, Darcy,’ he said; ‘it will only be a tiny party.’

‘I hate tiny parties,’ said Darcy, as they espied the other officers coming out to join them; ‘they force one into constant exertion.’

'Indeed! Well then, I shall write my mother and tell her she must have a very large party when we are next at Matlock, in deference to your feelings on the subject,' said the Colonel, smirking. 'She will, I think, be quite delighted with the idea.'

Darcy scowled.

 


 

 

As Kitty and Jane preceded them up the stairs, Elizabeth drew Lydia to one side and addressed her quietly.

‘Is something the matter, Lydia?’

‘La! what do you mean?’

‘Is there something you would like to tell me?’ she pressed.

Lydia looked surprized.

‘No, nothing,’ she said, and added quickly; ‘is there something you would like to tell me?’

Elizabeth gave her sister an odd look.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Nothing.’

They regarded one another for a moment, perplexed and suspicious by turns, and then Kitty came out again to hurry them upstairs. Reluctantly, they complied, and parted in the upstairs hall to their respective bedrooms.

Leaning back against the closed door of their bedroom, Elizabeth turned to Jane and said with some concern:

‘Jane, I do believe that Lydia has gotten herself into some sort of trouble.’

 


 

 

When the visitors deemed that they had spent long enough out of doors to allow the ladies time to dress, they reunited with their hosts in the sitting room.

To his intense displeasure, Darcy was immediately arrested by the mistress of the house and called to sit by her, while Bingley was allowed to go to Miss Bennet’s side, the Colonel took a seat by Miss Elizabeth, and the remaining officers attached themselves to the youngest girls. Miss Mary sat at the round table in the corner, with her work basket on the chair next to her, as if to discourage any who might wish to join her—an unnecessary precaution, Darcy thought with some meanness of spirit.

‘Mr Darcy!’ cried Mrs Bennet, upon his being seated. ‘We had no chance to speak before, but let me say how delighted we are to see you again! I am sure you have been greatly missed—and your friends too! But we have been very busy, you know.’

Here she paused a moment for encouragement; but receiving none, discovered that she did not require it, and so pressed on.

‘Yes, we have been very busy indeed; there is but a fortnight now until Christmas Day, you know – less! by a day – but it is always so at this time of year, is it not? It is always best, I find, not to leave the arrangements for that day too late, for it always comes sooner than one expects – indeed it does! – and always sooner than one would wish, in my opinion. Oh! I am sure that it is an occasion of great delight for the young people, but I am not one for large parties, you know, and they are nearly unavoidable during Christmastime.’

She twittered and fanned herself with her handkerchief. If his silence discomposed her, she gave no indication of it.

‘We expect my brother and his family on the twenty-third, you know,’ she said, ‘and their children are very trying—dear creatures, I am sure, but very trying for my poor nerves. And there is St Stephen’s Day to think of, of course, and St Thomas’ Day—and we are very particular about all those things; indeed, the girls make up the boxes themselves, though it is very dull work, you know, but Lizzy is such a dutiful girl—she never complains!’ [1]

‘She is very like her mother then,’ said Mr Darcy.

‘O yes!’ cried Mrs Bennet, who was so cheered by his speaking at all that she did not care what he said. Elizabeth, who, fearing the mortification which might reasonably be expected to arise from any exclusive conversation between the pair, had been turning her attention thither at intermittent times, and was therefore in such a position as to have heard him, cared rather more. The Colonel had to ask twice if she was quite well before she regained her composure enough to appear tolerably cheerful.

‘But of course,’ Mrs Bennet continued, heedless, ‘I do not like to boast of my own children.’

‘Indeed, madam.’

Thus encouraged, Mrs Bennet set herself to quizzing the gentleman about his own relations, which, if it did not provoke him to be effusive, did at least engender some short replies on his part, for she could not, on this subject, answer her own inquiries.

Disquieted by the results of her earlier eavesdropping, Elizabeth could not refrain from casting anxious looks in their direction very frequently, and was duly grateful that the Colonel did not seem inclined to take offence at her distraction; his expression, whenever he caught her so engaged, was uniformly good-humoured and understanding.

‘I believe you mentioned on Saturday that you were attempting to illustrate my cousin’s character,’ he said on one such instance; ‘and what is your progress?’

Elizabeth turned her attention back to the Colonel in some surprise; she had indeed mentioned it, but she was relatively sure that she had discouraged that line of inquiry at the time, and was not inclined to surrender to it now.

‘I am afraid that to share it would do no credit to either the subject or the artist,’ she said.

Gallantly, he replied, ‘I daresay that any flaw in the sketch must be the fault of the subject.’

‘Indeed!’ said Elizabeth, surprise momentarily overleaping her resolution to be suppress the conversation. ‘That is a singular opinion, sir.’

The Colonel laughed.

‘Well, Miss Elizabeth, I have been reliably informed by a certain mutual acquaintance of ours that the artist is a singular lady; one who must be without fault in every circumstance.’

Before Elizabeth could think what to make of this comment, they were interrupted.

‘What is this? Are you talking of Kitty’s sketch, Lizzy?’

Lydia’s voice was – as usual – an unwelcome intrusion, and one Elizabeth would wish very heartily to ignore, but her tone in this instance was so clear and bold that to feign deafness would have been utterly unbelievable.

‘What sketch is that, Miss Lydia?’ said the Colonel, turning in his seat to look at her as she stood now by the round table, having moved thither to fetch something from her work basket. Elizabeth’s eyes widened and she opened her mouth to say something that might forestall her sister’s reply, but the expectation of mortification proved itself to be as debilitating as real embarrassment, and Lydia was impervious to her sister’s frantic looks and silent entreaties.

‘Oh I cannot say!’ – Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief – ‘I am sure I could not do it justice; you must see it, Colonel!’

Her sense of relief was extinguished so quickly and completely that Elizabeth would later have difficulty believing that she had felt it at all.

‘Kitty,’ said Lydia obliviously, turning to address her sister across the room and thereby attracting the attention of all, ‘where is your sketch of Lizzy?’

Elizabeth wanted to sink into the floor. She prayed with fervent desperation that she might simply expire where she sat, and never again be forced to endure the agonies of her sisters’ efforts to embarrass her. But it was not to be.

Kitty replied that she had put the pictures in the escritoire and went to fetch them directly. Neither seemed remotely aware of their sister’s turmoil. The Colonel noticed though, and gave her a decidedly mirthful look. Worse, Mr Darcy had apparently decided that today was the day on which he would deign to pay attention to his surroundings, and she found herself sincerely repenting that she had ever thought disparagingly of his persistent rudeness; at the present moment, she could think of nothing she would like better than to see him standing by the window, the back of his fine green coat turned on all her family, his broad shoulders stiffening unmistakeably at their every display of impropriety.

Elizabeth despaired; she could think of no polite way to exclude him from the forthcoming exhibition of Kitty’s work, but she really thought she might be on the verge of discovering exactly how unpleasant it actually was to suffer her mother’s nervous complaint.

She wondered if she could faint convincingly before Kitty could get the picture out of the drawer – but she was sitting down. If she stood perhaps?

Elizabeth had just moved to rise, having decided that sacrificing her reputation for good sense and stability was preferable to seeing Mr Darcy’s reaction to Kitty’s drawings, when Kitty turned away from the desk.

‘There!’ she declared triumphantly, holding up a thin sheaf of papers.

Mr Darcy’s eyes went most naturally to the source of the excitement, his brow furrowing slightly in confusion. Elizabeth had never been a strikingly devout Christian – dutiful, certainly, but she had rarely wanted for anything in her life, and contentment does not provoke a great deal of reliance upon the Almighty – but she prayed fervently now. For what, exactly, she was not sure, but she thought she could accept anything from her own spontaneous expiration to an attack by Monsieur Bonaparte.

‘See, Colonel,’ said Lydia, taking Kitty’s hand and pulling her back across the room. Kitty, flushed but pleased by the attention, went willingly. Upon reaching the Colonel, she was so comforted by the smile he bestowed upon her that she gave over the papers immediately, and happily shifted to stand to one side of him.

Seated as she was, opposite him, Elizabeth had perhaps the best view of his expressions as he examined the drawings. The corners of his mouth turned up; he looked up at Elizabeth’s face, then over to his cousin’s, and then back down at the picture.

‘It is a remarkable likeness, Miss Catherine,’ he announced, and grinned up at her. Kitty blushed again. He met Elizabeth’s eye, and called, ‘Darcy, come and look at these.’

Oh good Lord, never mind standing; she might just faint where she sat.

She cast a desperate look at Jane, but there was nothing to be done. Mr Darcy unfolded himself from the bergère and came over to them, the Colonel stood to meet him, and the other officers milled about interestedly. Elizabeth had but two sources of comfort in that moment: the first was that Jane – wonderful Jane! – kept her seat, and in so doing, removed all possibility of Mr Bingley’s joining them; and the second was that her mother, at that moment, was called away by Hill to give some instruction as to the serving. Having no desire to be looked down upon by Mr Darcy from an even greater height than usual, Elizabeth rose also, and placed herself at his side, from which position she could not reasonably be expected to meet his eye.

The first picture that the Colonel passed around was the most recently completed, and clearly the artist’s favourite, for it was the watercolour Kitty had shewn them all that morning. Though she had not examined it closely then, there was some comfort in having already seen it now; she was not quite so shocked as she would otherwise have been—indeed, as Mr Darcy must be, to see himself depicted crossing the gardens with Elizabeth cradled in his arms; he in his shirt and waistcoat – the former stained with blood and gaping open almost to his sternum without the cravat to hold it in place – and she in her white muslin – also bloodied – with that article being partly obscured by the dark greatcoat she wore over it. The whole image was rendered as if the viewer stood in the front door of the house, looking out at the pair as they approached. Had the picture featured any other persons than herself and Mr Darcy, Elizabeth might have been amused to note that while Mr Darcy’s shirtsleeves, hair, and expression all spoke of being thoroughly windswept, the skirt of his greatcoat fell from the place where his arm pressed it against her thigh in a neat, graceful sweep, apparently untroubled by the blowsiness that infected the rest of the scene.

The next picture, a sketch, was unfamiliar to Elizabeth, but thankfully a little less mortifying—but only a little. It was improved in style, she thought, by its subjects being framed within the doorway of the sitting room, and the action largely taking place either out of the frame, or behind the wall. Mr Darcy was standing in the hall in a similar attitude to that of his last appearance, but Elizabeth’s face and Mr Darcy’s right side were now hidden behind Jane – who faced away from the artist, clearly speaking to the gentleman – and the frame of the door concealed everything on the other side beyond the line of Elizabeth’s knees, including part of the gentleman’s left shoulder. The indecency of his dress, however, was fully displayed; indeed, two faint, horizontal lines slightly protruded from the lines of his shirt which, Elizabeth supposed, must be his collarbones. An accusatory glance in Kitty’s direction failed to prompt any shame on her sister’s part for that – surely unnecessary – detail; for Kitty was, by nature, generally unobservant, and at such a time as this, with her work put, for the first time, on display to strangers, she was nearing complete insensibility. Resolving to abuse her sister for the open shirt later, once the gentlemen had gone away, Elizabeth determinedly ignored the disdainful figure to her left and returned her attention to the sketch.

It really was not entirely bad – and the reader may safely assume that this fact accounted for above half of its offensiveness in Elizabeth’s eyes – though it was noticeably flawed, and in several places indistinct. Mr Darcy’s face, for example, was quite expressionless in this picture; but Elizabeth could not decide if that was a quirk of the subject or the artist; and therefore, in the interests of fairness, blamed and resented both equally.

A third picture was revealed, another woodland scene, and for a moment, Elizabeth could not think for mortification. Mr Darcy and herself – both properly dressed, thank Heavens, though the colour of his coat was all wrong – standing close together in a little clearing, quite alone, and surrounded on all sides by a dense forest, whose floor was in one place decorated by an oddly coloured boulder. No, that was not quite true. Mr Darcy was standing; but Elizabeth could claim only as much dignity as might be had in leaning. Presumably, this was intended to be the moment of her fainting, but it bore such little resemblance to the real events that for a moment Elizabeth could not think how to respond to it. At length, she managed it.

‘Kitty,’ she said faintly. Kitty looked up. ‘Kitty, my dear, you have forgotten the rain.’

‘Oh!’ Kitty exclaimed. ‘Oh! that is not you—well, it is, but it is not you. It is Emily and Valancourt from The Mysteries of Udolpho.’

A timely glance in Mr Darcy’s direction caught the brief lifting of his brows, the disdainful purse of his lips and muttered ‘obviously’ before he looked away; only the necessity of replying to Kitty prevented her from saying something she likely would not regret.

‘She has my spencer, my bonnet, and my face,’ she said instead, withdrawing her furious gaze from Mr Darcy and resenting him deeply for being turned away and therefore not noticing it, ‘—which, incidentally, would all have been horribly unfashionable then.’

‘They are horribly unfashionable now,’ Lydia interjected.

Lydia—’

‘Well I have never seen a lady in a pannier; how should I know what it looks like?’ said Kitty mulishly. ‘And it was easier to draw you again than to think of a new face.’ [2]

‘But Kitty,’ Elizabeth pressed, as calmly as she was able, acutely aware of Mr Darcy’s still being at her side, ‘it is only two people in a forest; how should anybody know that it is supposed to be from Udolpho?’

‘Well, he has on a red coat, you see,’ she said. ‘And look—’ – pointing to the boulder – ‘there is Emily’s dog; what is its name?’

Mr Darcy opened his lips as if to speak and then thought the better of putting himself into the conversation.

‘Manchon,’ said Elizabeth distractedly, and then with more emphasis continued: ‘but Kitty, what if someone were to see that—someone who has not read Udolpho?’

‘La! I should not think that anyone’s opinion, who has not read Udolpho, would weigh anything with us,’ was Lydia’s contribution.

‘I shall put a title on the back, if it really bothers you,’ was Kitty’s. It took all Elizabeth’s strength to keep her composure as she answered:

‘I do not care about a title, Kitty.’

‘Oh,’ said Kitty. ‘Well, never mind; I did not want the ink to bleed though anyway.’

Their conversation persisted another moment or two, while the closest gentlemen stayed wisely quiet, and the other ones went wisely further away. Kitty seemed to have not the slightest idea of having done wrong, in which conviction she was emphatically supported by Lydia, and nothing Elizabeth could rightly say in the presence of their guests seemed to reach either of them.

It was a relief to be called in to dinner.

 


 

 

[1] In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the ladies would be involved in organising preparations for the festive season, as landowners were expected to entertain their tenants and servants on Christmas Day. They would also be expected to have arranged Christmas Boxes to give out on St Stephen’s Day (now Boxing Day) to servants, tradesmen, etc. Considering how many people might interact with the estate, it would be no small task to organise gifts for them all. On St Thomas’ Day, elderly women (often widows) would go ‘a’thomasing’; they would go to the houses of their more fortunate neighbours hoping to be given food or money. These women were known as ‘mumpers’, and one of the more valued gifts was cooked wheat, as wheat was very expensive. The practice became very common during the early 1800s, potentially as a result of the Napoleonic wars, which left an enormous number of women widowed.

[2] Pannier: the wide hooped petticoats worn by ladies during the eighteenth century. They were at their widest around 1725, when their lowest hoops (as in, those closest to the lady’s feet, at the widest part of the bell-shaped skirts) frequently measured five or six meters in circumference. By the time Clarissa was published in 1748, panniers were shrinking rapidly, but they were still worn until around 1760, at which point women took to wearing several stiff petticoats instead of the larger structures. Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette saw fit to bring them back again in 1774.

Chapter Text

Dinner would not bear writing much about. The service was predictable and the food very good; but the guests behaved almost exactly as they might be expected to, and so the result was, overall, very disagreeable.

The sexes separated at the usual time, and re-joined one another after a respectable interval; but for Mr Darcy and Mr Bennet, who had been informed of each other’s fondness for chess, and were inclined to see which was the better player. If this interest was of less moment to either man than the promise of a few minutes’ peace before they went once more unto the breach, neither felt the need to call attention to it.

Mr Darcy won twice in the space of twenty minutes, and by the time a half hour had passed, looked to be in a good way of winning again.

‘You play very well, Mr Darcy,’ said Mr Bennet, leaning forward to move his bishop with deliberate nonchalance, ‘but, in this case, I think I may safely say that you have been a trifle nearsighted.’

Darcy’s brows drew together as he examined the board. Seeing nothing to suggest his strategy was in any danger, he captured a knight, laid it neatly to the side of the board, and looked up at his opponent. The corner of Mr Bennet’s mouth twitched as he moved a pawn forward, to no effect whatsoever.

‘Nearsighted, Mr Bennet?’ he said, moving his bishop. ‘—Check.’

‘Yes, indeed,’ said Mr Bennet, and moved his king out of check. Darcy took his bishop.

‘Would you care to elaborate, sir?’

Mr Bennet moved the pawn again.

‘I shall have no objection to doing so,’ he said, watching Darcy’s hand hesitate over his queen, before he shifted it diagonally and called checkmate. Mr Bennet grinned and reached out his hand to Darcy. ‘A wiser man,’ he said as they shook hands, ‘might have had the foresight to lose a game, or at the very least pretend to have had some difficulty in winning—for I have not now the slightest motivation to keep you here, and every inclination to let you suffer the re-entry alone.’

And so he did.

When the other gentlemen had come into the sitting room earlier, Mrs Bennet had summoned Elizabeth to sit beside herself; for there seemed a very great danger of her joining Jane and Mr Bingley otherwise. Upon Mr Darcy’s appearance, she credited herself with a more prescient motive, and invited him to sit in the open seat beside Elizabeth. He did so, and they all sat a moment in silence before Mrs Bennet began to suspect – quite rightly, in point of fact – that Elizabeth could not be relied upon to properly recommend herself to the gentleman; and therefore determined to undertake that office herself.

To the relief of all involved, she had gotten no further than halfway through a suggestion that Elizabeth fetch her sampler before Elizabeth discovered a sudden interest in the games that had kept him away, and enquired as to their results. The answer was given succinctly, and in such a way as precluded any further discourse on that subject, and they sank, all of them, into silence once more.

Elizabeth sent Jane a pleading, desperate look across the room; and as Bingley was at that moment turned away and listening to something the Colonel was saying to him with hushed intensity, Jane saw it.

‘Shall we have some music?’ said Jane immediately. Mr Bingley and the Colonel seconded the suggestion, and looked over to Elizabeth—but before anybody could stop her, Mary had risen and crossed the room to the pianoforte.

Mary, perhaps sensing the general good cheer of their party, selected a song accordingly and began to play.

‘Yes now I shall think of that heartbroken maid; where in days of my childhood I knew! All night she would weep in the cold willow shade, and her tears mingled warm with the dew!’ [1]

Oh good Lord, had it been so unreasonable to hope that Mary would chuse a piece with which she might pass herself off with some degree of credit?

‘…I’ve heard her exclaim—!’ – Elizabeth tried not to flinch – ‘as her wild bed she prest, her wild bed all dripping and chill! I’ve heard her exclaim as her wild bed she prest; in pity poor bosom lie still!’

Elizabeth could not but suffer; every possible misery in the way of embarrassment and mortification was hers in those moments, and to bear it all under the close, disdainful gaze of Mr Darcy was almost beyond endurance.

‘The youth whom she lov’d had been torn from her arms, by a fate too severely unkind. Thus withered alas was the rose of her charms and clouded the beams of her mind!’

It was not Jane’s fault, of course, that her efforts to help had misfired so spectacularly, but Elizabeth found herself regretting Jane’s involvement nonetheless.

‘Sweet mourner, thy for—!’ – Elizabeth sensed rather than felt her companion stiffen slightly, and she blushed for shame – ‘—tunes may haply be mine, and I fill in my heart they will; then sad shall I say with a sorrow like thine, in pity fond bosom lie still!’

Mary concluded the solo with a beatific smile to her audience, and if the applause she received was more relieved than appreciative, she did not notice and therefore it did not pain her.

Elizabeth immediately suggested that someone ought to read aloud, but was overruled by Colonel Fitzwilliam, who reminded her that she had promised to play for them at the next opportunity. She was reasonably sure that her promise had been specific to the dinner party at Netherfield, and not generally applicable, but as it provided a convenient means of escape, she chose not to remark on the inconsistency. Acquiescing, she rose to take Mary’s place at the instrument, and therefore quite missed the look that passed from one cousin to the other. She could not, however, fail to notice Mr Darcy’s following her across the room, or his offering to turn the pages for her. She agreed, of course – she could hardly refuse when the eyes of all the room were on them both, and pretending not to be – and was silently relieved when he chose to stand beside her rather than share the bench.

Contrary to her own feelings, she selected a collection of lively Scotch and Irish airs and thereby entertained the company tolerably well for some minutes before attempting to excuse herself. This met with the general objection of the whole party – excepting her father, who had during the course of My Love, She’s But a Lassie Yet come back into the room and settled himself in a corner – and when she agreed to play again, the Colonel further petitioned her to sing. She could not easily refuse, and had no wish to offend Colonel Fitzwilliam – who she thought very agreeable, despite his peculiar habit of turning every conversation they had into a discussion of his less agreeable cousin – and so she agreed.

‘I warn you, sir; you may come to regret your request,’ she said as she discarded Mary’s collection of sheet music and sought her own.

‘I am sure I will not,’ replied the Colonel; ‘I have already heard you play, and as you well know, I have it on very good authority that you sing charmingly.’

Elizabeth turned to glance reprovingly at the speaker, and in so doing caught sight of the sharp look he received from Mr Darcy for his words. Mr Darcy, sensing her observation, looked back at her almost as quickly, and she, naturally, looked away and resumed her search for the sheet music, her colour high. She had thought the Colonel to be joking when he intimated that his cousin had praised her performance – or at the very least exaggerating the level of praise given – but Mr Darcy’s irritation at the reference, despite its obliqueness, suggested otherwise. She could not account for it, but rallied her spirits with the thought that perhaps his hearing was indifferent to pitch.

‘Are there other notebooks you would have fetched, Miss Elizabeth?’ he said, turning his back on his cousin to look over the selection with her.

She shook her head distractedly and wondered if he had to stand so close. Perhaps he was nearsighted.

‘No, sir, I am only looking for—ah! there it is, Mr Darcy; all is well,’ she said triumphantly. He raised a brow; and separating the pages, she turned them over and held them up for his inspection with an arch smile. He looked.

The Joys of the Country, Miss Elizabeth?’ [2]

She cocked her head to one side and met his eye.

‘I thought it a fitting continuance to your education at my mother’s hands,’ she said artlessly.

‘It is good of you to devote your time to my instruction on this subject—I have it on good authority that my appreciation has, in the past, been found wanting.’

‘Well, Mr Darcy,’ she re-joined, with an affected seriousness that did nothing to conceal her mirth, ‘as my sister Mary would remind us: she who giveth herself to the hungry, and satisfies the desire of the afflicted soul, her light shall rise in obscurity, and her darkness shall be as the noonday—or something to that effect. So you see, sir, it is only my Christian duty to correct your deficiencies on that score.’ [3]

Mr Darcy’s reply came a fraction later than she expected.

‘Your sister is very wise,’ he said stiffly, and, directing her again to the instrument, immediately set to arranging the sheet music on the stand. Bemused and faintly vexed, Elizabeth sat and turned her whole attention to the piece before her. She would not give him another thought—strange, insufferable man!

Darcy, for his part, hardly heard the first verse, so great was his distraction. Twice he forgot to turn the pages and had to be prompted by a look from Miss Elizabeth, which was expectant the first time and laughing the second. Catching the look of amusement she threw over her shoulder at Miss Bennet, he forced his attention back to the sheets and made quite sure not to miss another turn. At some point during the second verse he deemed it safe to let his gaze stray back to her—a mistake, as it happened.

‘…There with aunts, and with cousins, and grandmother’s talking, we’re caught in the rain as we’re all out a-walking,’ – she caught his eye with some amusement – ‘while the muslins and gauzes cling round each fair she, that they all look like Venuses sprung from the sea…’

Darcy could not look at her for the rest of the piece. Quite unaware of his discomfort, Elizabeth thought only that he ought not to have offered to turn for her if he so disliked to hear her play.

Her technique left something to be desired, but her performance was lively and unaffected, and she was heard with a great deal more pleasure than was the sister who preceded her. From Mr Darcy she provoked nothing more cheerful than a frown, but from the rest of the company Elizabeth was gratified to incite laughter at all of the right moments and none of the wrong ones, and to receive some very warm applause and compliments when she finished.

Now thoroughly sick and tired of both Darcy and his cousin, she declined all further entreaties to play again and took a seat near Jane and Mr Bingley in the hopes of being ignored for a little while. It was not to be. Mary, with her fingers inching across the table towards Self-Control, renewed Elizabeth’s suggestion of reading; and Lydia objected immediately. [4]

‘Oh never mind reading, Mary,’ she cried. ‘It is nearly Christmas; let us play a game of something—oh! what shall we play?’

There was an immediate ruckus of debate. Snapdragon, Patipata, Blind Man’s Bluff, and The Toilette were all remembered and rejected, before Sanderson and Lydia hit upon The Doctor at the same time, by which coincidence it was recommended to success. [5] Darcy could not object without drawing attention towards himself and giving offense, and no amount of silent, desperate looks could persuade the Colonel to save him. Instead his cousin grinned amiably and said,

‘A capital suggestion! It has been far too long since I played anything like The Doctor.’

The younger girls conscripted the men to arrange the chairs into a slipshod circle, and Mrs Bennet vanished on the pretext of supervising the preparations for tea. Darcy rather suspected that she had gone to postpone its being served and hardly knew why she had bothered to lie; it was entirely transparent that she intended to leave the younger members of the party to themselves for the duration of the game. But despite his aversion to disguise in general, he could not be less censorious of Mr Bennet’s lack thereof. Upon his wife’s departure, that gentleman stood and remarked that he was not inclined to kiss his daughters, or to watch other men do it, and departed to his book room without another word. Stunned and mortified, Darcy found himself being shoved unceremoniously into a chair beside Miss Elizabeth by his cousin before he quite knew what was happening.

Lieutenant Chamberlayne declared his willingness to be the doctor and, by the acquisition of an old wig and pair of Mr Bennet’s spectacles – missing one lens courtesy of Lydia’s stepping on them some years ago – he was qualified and appointed.

The Colonel had taken the seat on Elizabeth’s other side, and the others arranged themselves around the circle. The game began. Approaching Kitty, Lieutenant Chamberlayne took up her wrist, and very seriously pressed his ear to it. Encouraged by the laughter of his audience, he, frowning, he drew away and looked at it, shook it lightly, and listened again. Nodding, he released her wrist and asked,

‘Pray, madam, what is your disorder?’

‘A bad cold,’ she said, ‘which will not go away.’

‘Ah!’ cried the Lieutenant. ‘Well, then, there is only one thing to do; if the cold will not go away from you, then you must go away from the cold! Ten miles in the opposite direction would do, at a brisk jog, thrice daily, but only during the hottest part of the day.’

And so the game progressed. Sanderson said he was dreadfully tired, and was prescribed three years of sleep; Jane said she was fevered, and Chamberlayne ordered her to wash with snow, with ice for soap; and Elizabeth claimed a headache, to which the Doctor inquired, stroking his chin,

‘Well, madam, do your feet hurt?’

‘No, sir,’ was her reply.

‘Ah! I have it! If your feet do not hurt and your head does, and you have been standing on the former and not on the latter, then you must do the reverse, and stand on your head!’

‘But, sir,’ she said, laughing, ‘then shall not my feet begin to hurt?’

‘Hush, madam, we will deal with your feet once we have dealt with your head,’ said he, and moved along to Darcy. As he enquired of that gentleman what his ailment might be, the Colonel leaned over and whispered to Elizabeth,

‘You know, I have the strangest feeling that our Doctor has never been to school.’

She laughed and hushed him but he persisted.

‘Really, Chamberlayne is wasted in the army – he ought to have been an actor; can you not imagine him as Nick Bottom?’ [6]

She covered her mouth to hide her laughter.

‘Oh! I think you are right, Colonel; we must conscript him to it another day,’ she said, and then returned her attention to the game. Chamberlayne now faced Mary, who complained of consumption and was ordered to fast on every day that contained in its name the letter ‘S’, except for Sunday.

When the Doctor had completed his visits, he appointed his first patient as the forfeit keeper, gave her his handkerchief, and enquired of Beauchamp what had been prescribed to Miss Lydia for her lovesickness.

Knowing full well she had been prescribed a spinster’s cap to be eaten for breakfast – which must be taken at eight o’clock sharp, while listening to her mother read from Fordyce’s Sermons – he replied, ‘An officer’s salute, thrice daily,’ and was rewarded by a generous outcry of laughter. [7] The indignant, delighted lady swatted at him with her handkerchief; he plucked it from her fingers and held it above her head with one hand while with the other he wrote his name – very sloppily, for being continually bumped – on a strip of paper to give to Kitty.

On it went. Jane muddled the prescription for Bingley’s migraine with that of Elizabeth’s headache and was greatly laughed at; she wrote her name for the forfeits with one hand up, as if shielding her eyes from the sun, her cheeks bright with good-humoured embarrassment and the corners of her mouth visibly turned up despite her efforts to prevent it. When she returned to her seat, having put the forfeit in Kitty’s lap, Bingley pressed her hand subtly and smiled at her, which – unsurprisingly – had no very mitigating effect on her embarrassment. She had her own opportunity to raise her brows and laugh at him – though she did not take it, instead smiling consolingly at his rueful looks – when, two players later, his inability to pay attention to anyone but her during the first part of the game served to make him completely awful at the second, and he confessed, to the amusement of all assembled, that he had not the slightest idea what had been prescribed to Miss Mary. Elizabeth was called on next.

‘And what, pray tell, madam, did I recommend to Mr Darcy here for lung fever.’

Still laughing at Bingley for his abject failure, she shifted her attention to the question only after she had opened her mouth to answer it.

‘You recommended—’ she stopped and frowned. ‘I—’

Realisation struck her abruptly and, instinctively, she cast a look of outrage at the Colonel. He winked, and she realised she was taking far too long to answer.

‘Well?’ said the Doctor, grinning. She coloured up instantly. [8]

‘I—’ she said again, and, floundering, full of trepidation, guessed, with increasing hopelessness: ‘Not breathing? lying in snow? eating burnt ices?’ [9]

Each wrong answer was appropriately mocked and laughed at, until Chamberlayne overruled her guesses, gave her a strip of paper and the pen, and moved on.

It might, at this point, be wise to canvass the subject which had so engaged Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam before Jane’s suggestion of music. Their conversation began as Darcy entered and sat by Elizabeth, and ran as follows:

‘It is done, I am sure of it,’ said the Colonel, swatting Bingley’s shoulder. Bingley excused himself from Jane and turned in his chair to speak with the Colonel.

‘What do you mean?’ he said under his breath.

‘What do you think?’ replied the Colonel. ‘This whole business with—’ and, without turning his head, glanced at Elizabeth. Bingley looked astonished.

‘What—no! You cannot be serious; how could he have—? There has been no time—’

‘But there has! —They were alone nearly fifteen minutes in the garden, and Darcy looked as though he could have cheerfully pushed me off a bridge when we came upon them there.’

‘You will forgive my saying so—but I am halfway to suspecting that is just what his expression is when he does not trouble himself to smile.’

‘I—well, I cannot argue with that. —But this was different, I am sure of it! And his staying behind just now to speak with Mr Bennet confirms it.’

‘You think Darcy stayed to ask for his consent?’

‘It does not take half an hour to play a game of chess.’

‘Well, they might have played more than one,’ said Bingley, reasonably.

‘Shall we not have some music?’ came Jane’s voice from Bingley’s other side.

‘At a dinner party?’ the Colonel whispered, as Miss Mary crossed the room and settled herself at the pianoforte. ‘That would be abominably rude, to avoid us all for that.’

Bingley could not refute this without insulting his friend, and so did not.

‘Then I suppose it must be so,’ he said, though with the utmost dubiousness, and the conversation was concluded as Mary lifted the lid and began to play.

 


 

 

[1] Mary’s song is one of Antonia’s solos from The Gipsy Prince, known by the beginning of its first line, “Yes now I shall think”. It is available to listen to online (Google “the gipsy prince sjsu” and click the first link; it is Track 9, about halfway down the page), and I highly recommend that you go and listen to it. And then imagine Mary singing it. The play itself was written by Thomas Moore, while the musical score was composed by Michael Kelly. It ran for ten nights in 1801 (making it the second longest running play of that season) but could not be revived the next year, because people realised that it was circumventing censorship laws about the actions of the English in Ireland; though it appeared to be about the persecution of gypsies in Spain during the Inquisition, it was quite blatant in suggesting that the gypsies represented the Irish, and the Inquisitors represented the British.

[2] The Joys of the Country, by Charles Dibdin, is a comic song. You can listen to it by Googling "the joys of the country Charles Dibdin" and clicking on the third link, which should be an mp3 on google docs.  In my imaginings, Elizabeth has transposed it down a third or so. Jane Austen had a copy in her own collection of sheet music and, reading the lyrics, it is easy to see why it would appeal to her. I have written them up here to save you hunting them down online, as the song has somewhat fallen into obscurity now:

Let bucks and let bloods to praise London agree,
Oh! the joys of the country, my jewel, for me
Where sweet is the flow’r that the May-bush adorns
And how charming to gather it, but for the thorns

Where we walk o’er mountains, with health our cheeks glowing,
As warm as a toast, honey, when it en’t snowing,
Where nature to smile when she joyful inclines,
And the sun charms us all the year round, when it shines

Oh! the mountains, and valleys, and bushes,
The pigs, and the screech-owls, and thrushes!
Let bloods and let bucks to praise London agree,
Oh! the joys of the country, my jewel, for me!  

There twelve hours on a stretch, we in angling delight
As patient as Jobs, though we get ne’er a bite;
There we pop at the wild ducks, and frighten the crows
While so lively the icicles hang to our clothes;

There wid aunts, and wid cousins, and grandmothers talking
We’re caught in the rain as we’re all out a-walking,
While the muslins and gauzes cling round each fair she
That they all look like Venuses sprung from the sea  

Oh! the mountains, &c.

Then how sweet in the dog-days to take the fresh air,
Where, to save you expense, the dust powders your hair:
Thus pleasures, like snowballs, increase as they roll
And tire you to death – not forgetting the bowl:

Where in mirth and good fellowship always delighting,
We agree – that is, when we’re not squabbling and fighting
Then wid toasts and pint bumpers we bodder the head,
Just to see who most gracefully staggers to bed.  

Oh! the mountains &c.

[3] A reference to Isaiah 58:10, King James Bible. The actual verse reads, “And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then thy light shall rise in obscurity, and thy darkness shall be as the noon day”. We may blame Mary’s indifferent talent for scripture for its not being quite verbatim.

[4] Self-Control: a book by Scottish novelist, Mary Brunton, published in 1811. The author wanted to show “the power of the religious principle in bestowing self-command”, and that a reformed rake does not make a good husband at all. It was very popular at the time, and yes you probably shouldn’t marry a rake, but honestly, it seems to me to be the fictional version of a conduct book for ladies. Jane Austen apparently had a similar opinion, because she wrote of it in a letter to her sister Cassandra: “I am looking over “Self Control” again, and my opinion is confirmed of its being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of nature or probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American river is not the most natural, possible, everyday thing she ever does”. Essentially: it is very nicely written, but it’s still a lecture on morality only thinly disguised as a novel, and has as much life in it as the former. I’m sure Mary would love it.

[5] IMPORTANT: The Doctor was a parlour game played in the Regency during Christmastime. There are two parts of the game. (Bear in mind, this would be played after dinner, and there was wine with every course and then afterwards again – I think we can safely assume most people are tipsy by this point.) In the first, everybody but the Doctor forms a circle, and then the Doctor goes around the circle (not necessarily in order) asking people what their illness or complaint is. Each person says some sort of illness (literally anything vaguely medical), and the Doctor has to prescribe them a very silly cure, preferably confusing, and usually something that is opposite to the nature of the complaint – e.g. if you have a sour stomach, you would be prescribed something sickeningly sweet. After this part, which should be done with much laughter and silliness, the Doctor picks one person at a time and asks them what they should prescribe for so-and-so’s illness. If the person asked cannot remember the cure, they must pay a forfeit. The forfeit is written down and given to the forfeit keeper, who keeps them all under a handkerchief in her lap. At the end of the game, the forfeit keeper would cry the forfeits. Another young lady would kneel before the forfeit keeper and be blindfolded. This forfeit keeper would draw one forfeit and hold it up so the party can see whose it is, and asks “what shall be done by the owner of this”. The blindfolded lady would ask if it belonged to lady or gentleman, and then, depending on the answer, declare what task that person would have to perform—at which point the game basically becomes a Regency version of truth or dare, but with all the questions and challenges picked by one blindfolded person. In this version, I have assumed that the person about whom the wrong answer was given would be involved in the paying of the forfeit.

Also, just wanted to note – The Doctor was the least undignified of the games I found. One of the games they’ve rejected, for example, is Patipata, which requires a gentleman to spend the entire round with his head pressed into a lady’s lap – since apparently blindfolding him was just not enough fun – while the lady points at random people and objects, and asks him ‘Patipata, who shall kiss that’; he replies with the name of one of the players, and they must kiss whatever has been pointed to, be it another player – their hands or their hair if they are of the same sex, but their lips otherwise – a piece of furniture, or their own knee. But wait! The patipata (or ‘person pressing their face into someone else’s lap’) can also be a lady, in which case she must put her face against a gentleman’s legs. This kind of game was perfectly normal.

[6] Nick Bottom: a character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare's classic fools; gets his head transfigured into that of an ass, and spends about half the play like that. Dreadfully funny.

[7] Salute has two meanings in the Regency. If a gentleman salutes his superior officer, it means exactly what you think it does; if he salutes a lady, he kisses her.

[8] To colour up: to blush.

[9] Burnt ice cream: made by combining eggs, cream, and the stock syrup used in all of Nutt’s ice cream recipes (literally just sugar dissolved in boiling water), with “burnt” sugar; what we would now call caramel. 

Chapter Text

The rest of the game passed quickly enough, and when everyone had been obliged to submit their name to the collection at least once, Kitty cried the forfeits. Lydia was naturally selected to pick them out and assign the punishments, for no one else would take as much pleasure in doing so, and no one else was likely to have as extensive a knowledge of embarrassing penances as she did—and if nobody was embarrassed, there would hardly be any point to the game. With a great deal of giggling and carrying-on, a length of green cloth was unearthed from the nearest work basket and tied around Lydia’s head; at which point they all realised she was on the wrong side of the room to Kitty. Of course it would be too dull to let her lift the blindfold to walk, so Lieutenant Beauchamp led her by the arm, one hand on her back to urge her forward; she went, laughing, her hands out, and tripping as often as not. Upon reaching Kitty, she felt her sister take one of her outstretched hands, and let herself be guided to kneel in front of her.

Kitty drew out the first name, blushed brightly, and held it up to the rest of the room.

‘What punishment do you afford to this forfeit?’ she asked.

‘Is it a lady’s or a gentleman’s forfeit?’

Receiving from the whole room but Kitty an answer of the former, and therefore strongly suspecting the identity of the owner, Lydia immediately declared.

‘The lady shall kiss the person she loves best, without any one else knowing it!’

There was a burst of laughter, under which the indignant Kitty could be heard crying, ‘Lydia, you louse—’, before she was called to put the forfeits in the handkerchief and chuse her gentlemen. This was done with the most extreme mortification, and having kissed the chosen three – the Colonel, Beauchamp, and Chamberlayne – as briefly as was humanly possible, she went back to her place, shoved Lydia’s hand off the arm of the chair, and sat down again, her cheeks flaming.

It went on. Chamberlayne made a very good-natured Grecian statue, if not an especially well-balanced one, and Sanderson was terrifically embarrassed to find himself ordered to go round the room blindfolded and kiss all the ladies. [1] On the fourth forfeit, Lydia broke off in delivering the sentence.

‘Wait a minute,’ she said, turning to her audience and pushing up the blindfold to look at them; ‘it has just occurred to me—’

She got no further before being thoroughly abused for trying to cheat.

‘La! what is the fun if nobody cheats! But I am not cheating now; I am making a new rule. If the punishment is not general and does not say who you must pay it to, you should pay it to the one whose prescription you forgot, to save everybody the trouble of picking someone. Is that a good rule?’

Most of the party agreed that it was and so it was instituted. Mr Bingley was obliged to say half a dozen flattering things to Mary without using the letter ‘L’ – which was perhaps a blessing, as he was likely one of the few people in the room who could have completed the task honestly – and was amply rewarded two forfeits later when Lydia called, ‘Baiser a la Capucine!’ for Jane.

He stood, offered her his hand, and led her to the centre of the circle. They knelt, back to back – Jane having organised that they should each have their legs on their own left side so that they did not trip – and linked elbows. At the count, they each leaned to their right, turned the opposite way, and met in the middle to kiss one another. It was not remotely dignified – they nearly fell over – but there was such a balance of laughter and real affection between them that the ridiculousness of the pose was quite outshone.

Of course, Elizabeth’s forfeit had to be called eventually. It happened towards the end of the game, when most of the forfeits had been retrieved, but Lydia, though by no means completely deficient in cleverness, was sorely lacking in concentration and sense; and forgetting the likelihood of the forfeit belonging to Elizabeth, and remembering a very amusing instance of the same punishment’s being inflicted on a lady at a party at Lucas Lodge last year, called for the lady to kiss the candlestick. Lifting her blindfold to observe the enacting of the sentence – for this much, she was allowed – she met Elizabeth’s eye, and then Darcy’s, and immediately burst out laughing. The pair were cajoled from their seats and propelled, with nearly equal reluctance and embarrassment, towards the centre of the room.

Darcy’s mortification was severe. If the Colonel had previously overestimated his cousin’s inclination to throw him off a bridge, he would have been perfectly correct now; for Colonel Fitzwilliam had, in delivering the candlestick to his furious relation, the audacity to grin at him.

Darcy thought his hands might be shaking as he took it, and he just barely prevented himself from giving his cousin a truly unpleasant scowl. He did not think his dignity could survive what should follow, but what could he do? Nearly everyone had been obliged to give or receive a salute by this time, and he could not kiss Elizabeth’s hand or her cheek, or he would slight her before all her sisters and expose himself to such mockery as would be entirely unbearable. [2] He flexed his free hand in agitation.

Finally looking to Elizabeth, he saw the gleam of laughter in her fine eyes and realised abruptly that she thought he had not the fortitude to take the forfeit. His mind was made up instantly.

He steeled himself, raised the candlestick between them, and arched a brow in challenge.

‘Madam?’

Her eyes widened fractionally in surprise – he restrained a smug look – but she recovered quickly. The corner of her mouth turned up in amusement and Darcy nearly lost his nerve, but he could hear her younger sisters laughing somewhere behind him, and suffice it to say that, in that moment, his pride succeeded his dignity. Elizabeth stood up on her toes, valiantly refrained from laughing at the image of the staid Mr Darcy submitting to the stipulations of a parlour game, and moved to kiss the candlestick.

Palms sweating horribly and heart hammering, Darcy did his part; he removed the candlestick to the side, bent his head, and pressed his lips swiftly to hers.

This, naturally, being of no interest to the reader, shall receive no further comment from the author.

The game concluded; Mrs Bennet reappeared; Mr Bennet did not; and tea was served. The officers took their leave as the gentlemen called for their horses. When the time came for the gentlemen to excuse themselves, Elizabeth was gone from the room, having left in search of her errant father a few moments before. Darcy could not decide if he was grateful for her absence or not, but it hardly mattered; they left before she returned.

As they went out into the hall to collect up their hats and gloves, Darcy finally allowed himself the scowl that he had, with varying degrees of success, been restraining all evening.

‘Come, Darcy, was it so very bad?’ said Bingley, grinning as he shrugged his coat on.

‘Of course it was,’ said the Colonel. ‘Darcy despises fun.’

Darcy glowered.

‘I will never understand why you take pleasure in such ridiculous diversions, Bingley,’ he said, ignoring his cousin in favour of his greatcoat.

The Colonel snorted.

‘Stupidity does not become you, Darcy,’ he said.

‘It does not become anybody,’ Bingley interjected.

‘So much more the pity, Bingley, for Darcy is determined to wear it.’

‘I am not determined to wear anything—’

‘No – you would play chess with a curtezan and keep your clothes on—’ [3]

Richard—

‘Forgive me,’ said the Colonel, sniggering. ‘I forgot: you would go to your grave before you lowered yourself to lie with a woman who was not your wife—‘

‘And I will put you in yours before the night is much older if you do not hold your tongue—’

‘Gentlemen…’ said Bingley, but was ignored.

‘Darcy, let me enlighten you: the object of the game is the forfeits.’

‘I am well aware of that, cousin; the game itself is so insipid, it could hardly be otherwise.’

‘And still you would dislike it!’

‘Yes.’

‘Come, Darcy, however foolish the game, you must at least have enjoyed collecting the forfeit.’

‘Not enough to vindicate the game, I assure you,’ said Darcy.

‘Good God, Darcy, I shall never understand you,’ said the Colonel in real amazement. ‘Are you not— I had thought—’

Darcy regarded him coolly.

‘—that Miss Elizabeth is a charming young woman, and very pretty,’ his cousin improvised lamely.

Darcy did not trouble himself to answer. He would have swallowed his own tongue rather than admit it to his cousin, but his mind was rather more agreeably engaged in the recollection of a very pleasant forfeit indeed.

 


 

 

Elizabeth pressed herself against the wall of her father’s book room, cheeks pale with anger and hot with embarrassment. That—man. Oh, it ought not to have been a surprize to hear Mr Darcy speak of her so – she did not think that anyone would enjoy saluting a lady they found only tolerable – but she felt the insult keenly nevertheless. She had, after all, devoted most of the evening to circumventing his embarrassment – in an auxiliary sense, at least; her motives, if examined closely, would probably have more to do with her embarrassment than his, but that hardly mattered – and, worse than that, she had tried at least four times to engage him in friendly conversation, which seemed, in retrospect, to be a complete waste of time and effort. 

‘Horrid man!’ she said with feeling when she and Jane were safely ensconced in their room a half hour later. ‘I wish he had not come!’

‘Oh Lizzy! It was not so very awful, was it?’ said Jane with real concern as she sat down on the end of the bed to unpin her hair. Elizabeth paced another moment in vexation, from one end of the mantelpiece to the other, and wondered if she should share with Jane what she had heard. She had just resolved to put her vexation above prudence, and opened her mouth to say something decidedly uncharitable – and decidedly untrue – about Mr Darcy’s salute, when she caught sight of Jane’s wide, anxious eyes and thought the better of it. Instead, she sighed and came to sit beside her. Clasping Jane’s hand, Elizabeth looked up at her.

‘No,’ she conceded, laughing and feeling perhaps a little miserable about it, ‘not so very awful.’

Jane’s relief was evident.

‘I am so glad,’ she said, squeezing her sister’s fingers. Elizabeth returned the gesture and then released her hand. Standing, she turned away and moved to the dressing table.

In point of fact, it had not been awful at all; that was exactly the problem. How unfair that such a disagreeable man should have such a pleasant mouth! And how wasteful that such a mouth should be continually engaged in giving offense! Hateful man; she was determined to think on him no longer.

Jane, for her part, observed her sister with some concern. If Lizzy had perceived her feelings, she would likely have attributed them to their present conversation, and possibly have worked a little harder to assure her sister of her comfort. It is perhaps better, then, that she did not perceive them, for Jane’s concern stemmed from a source that would cause her rather more distress than did her injured vanity.

Lydia had been less than subtle in her conversations with Kitty; and if the powers of her memory were never turned towards intellectual topics, she could always be relied upon to recall every detail of their friends’ reports. Through Lydia, Jane had heard of Elizabeth’s supposed encounter with Mr Darcy; and of Mr Wickham’s denigration of that gentleman’s character. She did not suppose any of it to be completely true – surely there had been some misunderstanding in both cases – but the existence of the reports, or rather the increasing general knowledge of the reports, did give her some cause for concern. It could yet go either way, in being forgotten, or in being exaggerated beyond forbearance—and though she was not inclined to think that their neighbours would be so unfeeling, she could not entirely dismiss the possibility of it.

It had been impossible for Jane to miss the reaction of the aforementioned neighbours on Sunday, when the banns had been read only for Charlotte and Mr Collins, Colonel Forster and Harriet Allen, and one or two other couples. Elizabeth’s face had been turned obstinately towards Mr Underwood for the whole length of his sermon but Jane had felt the weight of many eyes turn towards their family pew when the banns were concluded without the name Bennet being read once among them, and could not help but turn to look slightly over her shoulder in an effort to identify their observers. She met Charlotte Lucas’ gaze, saw her brow creased faintly in concern, and was relieved for a moment, until Charlotte looked purposefully to her right. Unwillingly, Jane looked over.

Mrs Long sat beside Mrs Goulding, and the pair were evidently far more interested in her sister than the service. The one spoke under her breath to the other, their faces only slightly turned towards one another; wordless gasps and sage nods of reassurance were exchanged, and the eyes of both settled often on Elizabeth with appraisal and pity by turns.

Mrs Long, at least, had had the decency to look away when she perceived Jane’s observation; her two nieces, seated on her other side, were not so well-bred. Their eyes had remained fixed on Elizabeth, except for when they flicked across the congregation to spy on the Netherfield party, and they whispered to one another behind their prayer books very constantly.

Jane blushed to recall the attention, and never considered that some of it might have been for her; her mother had hardly been circumspect in announcing her expectations of Mr Bingley at the Netherfield Ball. Her only thought was that it defied belief that anybody could take such pleasure in speculating on another’s imagined misfortune.

Elizabeth’s voice drew her back to the present.

‘But I am neglecting you, Jane,’ said Lizzy as she combed her fingers through her hair in search of missed pins. Finding none, she opened the drawer in search of a ribbon. ‘I am sure you need consolation more than I, having been obliged to receive as many as three salutes from your Mr Bingley in the course of the forfeits. Really, how did you bear it?’

Jane’s face flamed for an entirely different reason now and for a moment she floundered for a reply, her expression frozen in wide-eyed mortification. Lizzy turned to look back over her shoulder with an expression of polite interest.

‘Are you quite well, Jane?’ she said sweetly, separating her hair into three rather uneven sections. ‘Would you mind?’

Jane avoided her sister’s eye, flushing still, but went to her anyway. Depositing her own collection of pins on the dressing table, she stood behind her sister and gathered her dark hair all together. As she divided the thick curls into more even sections, she caught Elizabeth’s eyes in the looking glass and realised belatedly that she had been teased. Exhaling in what came very near to being a huff, she fixed her sister’s reflection with a reproachful gaze, which did nothing at all to dissuade Elizabeth from now laughing at her very heartily.

Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to Lizzy’s hair, and plaited it neatly.

‘I think I bore it with quite as much equanimity as you bore yours, Lizzy,’ she said.

‘Indeed! That is a cruel indictment of poor Mr Bingley; I had no notion of your finding him so unappealing.’

Jane reached over Elizabeth’s shoulder for a piece of ribbon, which the latter put in her hand.

‘I do not find Mr Bingley unappealing,’ she said, tying the ribbon at the end of the plait.

‘Then you must presume a great deal about my feelings for Mr Darcy!’

‘No indeed,’ said Jane. ‘I would only observe that, whatever his other faults, even you cannot deny that he is a handsome man.’

Elizabeth flushed a little and laughed.

‘Indeed, I cannot,’ she said, discomfited. Recovering a little of her usual playful good humour, she added, ‘And, if he could only be persuaded to stand quietly and at such an angle that I could not see his expression of grave disapproval, I am sure I would think him agreeable as well as handsome… but he has the most unfortunate habit of opening his mouth, which entirely dispels the illusion.’

Jane bit her lip.

‘You are too cruel, Lizzy.’

‘I speak as I find. If Mr Darcy wishes not to be laughed at, he ought not to make it so easy to do.’

‘I do not believe that Mr Darcy has made it particularly easy, only that you have been particularly determined to laugh at him.’

‘Perhaps I have, Jane, but it cannot be helped. I must have someone whose foibles I may laugh at – and Mr Collins is unavailable.’

Jane tried another tack.

‘I believe you like him, Lizzy,’ she said delicately.

‘Mr Collins?’ cried Elizabeth. ‘Good heavens, I had no idea! Oh Jane, I wish you had told me sooner for I have already rejected his suit.’

‘You know well I am referring to Mr Darcy,’ said Jane sternly, patting her sister on both shoulders.

Elizabeth made not the slightest attempt to disguise her contempt at the thought of being stupid enough to like such a horrid, disagreeable, churlish gentleman, but rose to switch places with Jane nonetheless.

‘Mr Darcy makes himself impossible to like,’ she said resentfully, setting to work. Jane’s hair allowed itself to be put into sections with rather more grace than had Elizabeth’s; the smooth locks divided neatly, without any of the unruly tangles that so often hampered Jane and Sarah’s attempts to plait her own hair.

‘You have not tried to like him.’

‘He has not tried to be liked,’ said Elizabeth, winding Jane’s hair into a plait and reflecting that it must be very pleasant to go to sleep and know that you shall not awaken looking as though you have been dragged through a hedge in the night.

Jane retrieved another ribbon from the drawer and Lizzy took it from her, holding the end of the plait tightly with one hand.

‘He has been very attentive to you, Lizzy,’ said Jane, looking at her sister in the mirror.

‘Indeed! He has attended my conversations, I suppose, whenever he can contrive to stand close enough to hear and far enough away to spare himself the trouble of participating,’ said Elizabeth, ignoring her sister’s attempts to catch her eye in the glass as she secured the finished plait, ‘but he hardly speaks to me at all, not willingly at least. I did try – repeatedly, in fact – to engage him in conversation tonight; once or twice I even thought we might nearly be on the verge of getting along—but he is so reserved! More reserved, I think, than anyone I have ever known; and you know I like an open temper.’

Jane knew her sister too well to think that she required a response. Elizabeth shook her head and moved to sit on the side of the bed, and Jane rose and laid her shawl over the back of the chair by the fireplace before moving to join her. Recalling again the suggestive looks of Mrs Long and her companions, she endeavoured to think of a way that she might soften her sister’s views on the man.

‘Should you like to know what I think, Lizzy?’ she said eventually.

‘If I should ever reply to that question in the negative, I give you leave to have me committed to Bethlem Hospital.’[4]

Jane ignored her.

‘I think, Lizzy, that Mr Darcy’s reserve bothers you, not because it is particularly ill-mannered, but because if he were not so reserved, you might have found an equal in him.’

‘An equal!’

‘A friend, even.’

‘A friend!’

‘Lizzy, he is a clever man. Mr Bingley always says so, and I have heard you argue with him; whether or not you like what he says, you cannot deny that he is well able to keep pace with you. If he were not so—’

‘—Rude?—’

‘—quiet, you might have found him pleasant company. I believe that is what bothers you most about Mr Darcy.’

Elizabeth had no intention of admitting that the source of her current ire was not remotely intellectual, and so she only said, ‘But he is, and, therefore, I cannot. Besides, there is the matter of his dubious morality.’

‘Lizzy, Mr Wickham’s account is very bad, but Mr Bingley and his sisters all speak well of him, and so does Colonel Fitzwilliam.’

Elizabeth shook her head.

‘Miss Bingley has intimated to me that Mr Darcy is not to be trusted, and Mr Wickham has exculpated him… I hardly know what to think. As to Colonel Fitzwilliam, he is Mr Darcy’s cousin; that must influence his opinion.’

 ‘You do not think well of your cousin, regardless of the connexion; why should Colonel Fitzwilliam be blinded by his?’

‘I despise you when you speak sense, Jane,’ said Elizabeth. She frowned. ‘The Colonel does seem an upright sort of gentleman, I will grant you that… But he is the son of an Earl, Jane; I cannot think he would be really dismayed by Mr Wickham’s mistreatment, if indeed he knew of it. Mr Wickham is a man without consequence, land, or title, and therefore he can mean very little to any man who does possess such advantages. For all the Colonel’s gallantry, he is of a higher set than you or I, and his values must reflect that.’

Jane’s brow creased but she could not readily dismiss her sister’s view.

‘Lizzy…’

‘Enough, Jane; you need not defend Mr Darcy any further. I quite understand your position.’ She laughed and added ruefully, ‘It seems that Charlotte was right.’

Jane cocked her head slightly to the left.

‘On what score?’ she said.

Lizzy raised her eyes to meet her sisters and said secretively,

‘We are all fools in love.’

‘In love?’ Jane said, astonished. Elizabeth nodded.

‘In love,’ she said succinctly. Jane stared; if her sister was indeed in love, she had a very strange way of shewing it.

‘Lizzy? You cannot be serious!’ she said. ‘Do you think you are in love with him?’

Elizabeth gave Jane a coy smile.

‘No,’ she said sweetly. ‘But you love Mr Bingley and it has made you foolish. You would wish everybody to love everybody so that we may all be as happy as you.’

Jane blushed very much and hid her face in a pillow, but Lizzy was far too pleased with herself and so laughed at her excessively until she really had no recourse but to emerge from the pillow and throw it at her sister.

 


 

 

[1] Grecian Statue: a forfeit for gentlemen. He must stand on a chair and allow his pose to be moulded by the rest of the company until they are satisfied of his ridiculousness. Presumably, this was accompanied by a great deal of falling off chairs and general silliness. To go around the room blindfolded: everyone is seated in a circle. As soon as the gentleman is blindfolded, everyone in the party switches positions, as quietly as possible. They can move to other parts of the circle, or simply change the way they are facing. The entertainment of this forfeit naturally comes when the poor gentleman finds himself saluting either another gentleman, the back of a lady’s head, or a piece of furniture. You may safely assume that Sanderson has suffered all three possible mortifications; as to who was party to his embarrassment, I leave that to your discretion. Poor Sanderson indeed.

[2] Gentlemen that fail to properly collect a lady’s forfeit, by being too slow or awkward, must be laughed at by the rest of the party, and especially by the lady who owed him the forfeit. He must beg her forgiveness and she is obliged to mock him. You can imagine how much Mr Darcy would like the idea of this punishment.

[3] Curtezan: a genteel prostitute. Playing chess: it was not uncommon to play chess with a wager, and in more scandalous situations, such as the one the Colonel is describing, that wager might involve the removal of clothes. Ladies and gentleman, I give you: the regency version of strip poker.

[4] Committed to Bethlem Hospital: Bethlem Hospital was a popular name for The Bethlem Royal Hospital, though the place is better known today by another nickname: Bedlam. From what I can find, Bedlam was a nickname that was more likely to be used by speakers of the vulgar tongue than genteel ladies, thus Elizabeth’s use of a more proper name. Though Bethlem Hospital had been in operation as a hospital since 1330, and had been admitting mentally ill patients since 1357, it was not until the eighteenth century that it became a place of public interest. Popular mythology suggests that the hospital charged an admission fee of one penny (free on the first Tuesday of every month), for which price visitors would be allowed to peer into the cells to laugh and poke at the patients. It is worth noting that this is a myth. One might speak about it as though it were entirely true, on the understanding that every audience member understood the joke. For a modern example: if you were talking about Australia, you might say that we all ride kangaroos to school. Obviously, we don’t, and everyone knows that, but we talk about it like its factual and that’s the joke. The interesting thing about Bethlem Hospital at this point in history is that at the turn of the nineteenth century, men ceased to comprise the majority of the inmates; for the first time, women began to be committed in higher numbers than men. This is the first time that it becomes common for women to be locked up for insanity. We can see this shift in public opinion in Pride and Prejudice, when Mr Bennet remarks of Lydia’s wild behaviour: “she cannot grow many degrees worse without authorizing us to lock her up for the rest of her life.” Clearly, he’s joking (we hope) but either way it’s reflective of the fact that at this point in history, men have begun to use mad-doctors to control their wives and daughters, a system of abuse and oppression that grows steadily worse until we reach the Victorian era, when we see female disorders such as Hysteria become a veritable epidemic. Lunatic asylums, as they were called, had truly horrible conditions. On a related note, readers of Jane Eyre may remember wondering why Rochester doesn’t try to get rid of his wife, who is legitimately insane: I tend to think that this is because he can’t countenance sending her to a lunatic asylum, even though he despises her, because of the conditions that she would be subjected to there, and this might have been a suggestion by the author that Rochester is a good person morally, even though he’s a bit of a dick a lot of the time. That’s only my opinion though, don’t quote me on it. Apologies for the random history lesson.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth walked the next morning—in a direction entirely opposite to any that Mr Darcy might conceivably go. His habit, as she understood it from Mr Bingley’s conversation, for he spoke often of his friend, was to devote the early mornings to business without the house, and the evenings to business within the house—all the hours in between, she assumed, he must devote to avoiding Miss Bingley. She knew from Jane that Mr Darcy had been dealing with his friend’s tenants on the morning of her injury, and would never have gone in the direction of Oakham Mount if he had not seen her there; and having encountered him herself on the Meryton road early on Tuesday, she felt safe in Mr Bingley’s assessment of the man’s usual schedule. Safe enough to turn her feet towards the Mount, where no one lived and nothing was grown, and, therefore, where nothing existed which might call Mr Darcy or anybody else thither for reasons of business. She took with her a book of poetry, which she opened the moment she had crossed the last stile on her path, and looked away from only once before reaching the rise, and then only to smile at one of her father’s tenants as he drove his cart along the nearby road.

Her conversation with Jane occupied the back of her mind. Jane’s own words did not bemuse her – her sister would always counsel her to think well of others – but their effect in recalling the many accounts of Mr Darcy’s character was irrefutable. She could not make sense of it. By Mr Bingley’s account, he was proud, clever, charitable, and loyal to his friends; by Mr Wickham’s, he remained all of those things, but his charity was attributed to pride, and his loyalty was given so parsimoniously, with so much attention given to the wealth and consequence of the potential recipient, as to make it nearly worthless in her eyes. Pettiness and resentful maleficence were flaws also laid at Mr Darcy’s door by the latter gentleman, though he himself seemed to think such traits justified by their circumstances, with which sentiment she could not agree; were she in a position to do so, she would never wilfully condemn one of her sisters or childhood friends to such poverty as Wickham presently endured—however much Lydia was striving to deserve it recently. [1]

And then there was Miss Bingley’s account; or rather, her implication. Hers was the only story which lacked in particulars, and for that it should have been discounted immediately—and it very nearly was. But Miss Bingley’s behaviour during that visit prevented such a course. Her anxiety upon the unexpected entrance of the gentlemen was odd, and her actions thereafter were no less so. She had failed to place herself by Mr Darcy when he removed to the window, though she had on multiple occasions forsaken other company to do just that; she had sat beside her sister and the Colonel when she finished serving the tea, though there was a seat closer to him still empty; and, for all her earlier flattery and solicitousness – her inability to offend him, her unwillingness to find fault! – her manner towards Mr Darcy had been nearly uncivil when she rejected him from joining her conversation with Elizabeth.

It was all such an incredible departure from her usual behaviour that Elizabeth felt herself obliged to consider its possible cause; and what cause might there be for such a profound alteration, but the discovery of such unscrupulous tendencies as she had intimated him to possess? Miss Bingley would not have invented such story; she cared too much for the gentleman’s approbation to risk a break with him—and she could have no motive to malign him undeservingly.

And yet, how could Mr Bingley – who was as kind a man as ever breathed – have befriended such a man? How could he have been either so grossly mistaken in the character of his friend, or so uninformed that his own sister knew better than him the exploits of his guest? The only conclusion she could draw which did not indicate either an indifferent guardianship of his sister or an astonishing blindness on Mr Bingley’s part was that Caroline Bingley had somehow been misinformed—but by whom?

The question plagued and puzzled her, and, having reached the crest of the hill and the oak tree that had given the place its name, she sat for a time in the crook of a low branch, frowning at some point in the distance, her book lying forgotten in her lap.

Mr Darcy did not see her until it was far too late to avoid her. Leaving his horse near the base of the slope, he had come up the side of the hill from which the trunk of the oak tree in which she sat shielded her from view until one drew nearly level with the tree. She turned her head at the sound of his approach; startlement followed recognition.

‘Mr Darcy—’

‘Miss Bennet—’

For a second, neither moved; and then, recollecting the last time he had found her in a similar position and wishing to avoid a repeat performance, she pushed herself down from the tree branch and curtsied swiftly. Her abandoned book fell, and it was only as he moved forward to pick it up for her that she remembered what she had been reading. She stilled. He straightened, brushing dirt off the cover with one hand, and then stopped, looking down at the printed spine. She briefly considered throwing herself down the hill again to escape him; good God, of all the books he had to catch her reading, it had to be—

‘Lord Byron, Miss Bennet?’ [2]

Elizabeth coloured under the weight of his gaze. She struggled briefly to think of a reasonable explanation for her having such a book, realised that any attempt to excuse her behaviour would admit her knowledge of wrongdoing, and determined to brave his censure directly.

‘Yes, Mr Darcy,’ she said with dignity. His gaze did not falter and despite her resolution, she found herself explaining, briefly, falsely, and not at all fluently, that her younger sisters, having read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, had expressed a wish to read more of Byron’s poetry and that she wished to gauge its suitability.

‘Your father did not wish to judge for himself?’

She knew very well her father ought to have done so, and had any other person suggested it, she should have cheerfully acknowledged the fact, but the question came from Mr Darcy, and so it irked her.

‘My father trusts my judgement,’ she said pointedly, neglecting to mention that her father had not the slightest idea of her having purchased or read such a volume.

‘I do not doubt it,’ he said, bowing slightly. His countenance did not shift but Elizabeth imagined perhaps a slight repentance in his words. Recalling again her promises to Jane and Charlotte, so many times broken already – and quashing the urge to ask if her father’s approval would vindicate her actions – she exerted herself to be conciliatory.

‘My father has no taste for poetry,’ she said, smiling forcibly, ‘and so the task falls to me.’

‘I did not think that you were altogether fond of it.’

‘You are mistaken, Mr Darcy; I believe I said only that a poorly written sonnet will not make a welcome suitor of a man who has not already engaged the feelings of the lady in question.’

‘Indeed,’ he said, smiling. He fell silent then, content to look at her.

Cursing his reticence and entirely failing to comprehend the odd look in his eye, Elizabeth sought another avenue of conversation.

‘I seem to recall Miss Bingley describing your sister as a very accomplished young lady,’ she said, too brightly; ‘tell me then, is she also a great reader?’

‘I believe she enjoys poetry.’

‘That is only proper; does she read novels, sir?’

‘Those which I judge to be unobjectionable, yes.’

‘I see,’ said Elizabeth, with deliberate lightness of tone. ‘And do you often feel the need to restrict her reading?’

‘No, her own sense of modesty is usually guide enough.’

Elizabeth felt his implication keenly and flushed; Georgiana Darcy would never be caught traipsing about the countryside with a volume of Lord Byron in hand. She looked away, mortified to be discovered so and thoroughly irritated with him. To suggest that she was immodest! She railed silently against his insufferable pride and wished fervently that she were anywhere in the world but here on Oakham Mount with Mr Darcy, forced to stand as the sole recipient of his censure and disdain. Occupied thus in berating herself for failing to detect the gentleman’s approach in time to stow the incriminating volume in her reticule, she did not see him glance down at it consideringly, and it was only the sound his voice, low and faintly strained, that drew her attention back to him.

‘And when convulsive throes denied my breath the faintest utterance to my fading thought,’ – Elizabeth stared up at him, astonished – ‘to thee, to thee, even in the grasp of death, my spirit turned,’ Mr Darcy recited, his gaze steady as he looked down at her. [3]

Elizabeth entirely forgot to breathe. He seemed very close to her all of a sudden and she had not the slightest idea of how it had happened; had he moved? Had she? He looked down then and after staring confusedly for a moment at the play of the morning light across his high cheekbones, it occurred to her to look down too. The book, she finally realised; he was holding it out to her. Belatedly, she reached for it.

Her fingers closed around the volume, her thumb obscuring the edge of the front title, but he did not release it. Instead, he brought his left hand up to join his right; his fingertips encountered the backs of her fingers where they wrapped around the spine of the book, and his thumb rested across her own. She did not move; what on earth was he doing? Slowly, with almost impossible gentleness, he stroked the back of her thumb. She saw the slight indentation of her skin where he pressed, and watched as his touch pulled the faint latticework of lines there to follow the movement.

Elizabeth stared at their hands, equal parts alarmed and entranced; Darcy was no less affected. He waited anxiously, his heart pounding unpleasantly, and when she did not pull away, he reached out so that his fingertips brushed hers and prised them apart, carefully, as if to interlock their fingers.

Feeling oddly lightheaded, Darcy drew his gaze upwards with difficulty to rest on her face, but her head was bowed and he could not see her expression. His height and the brim of her straw bonnet were conspiring against him; without bending down, he could see nothing but the ends of her blowsy ringlets and the pink curve of her lower lip. He swallowed with difficulty. There was a tightness in his chest that seemed to be screaming at him to reach out and tilt her face upwards so that he could look at her, and without quite knowing what he did he found himself on the verge of obeying; he removed his right hand from the book, leaving his left entwined with Miss Elizabeth’s, and lifted it haltingly.

This was a terrible idea – an immitigably stupid thing to do – and dimly, distantly, he was aware of the fact. More than ten years of fastidious control over his baser instincts was doing its level best to drown out the voices urging him to touch her – the whole point of marrying her was to prevent a potential scandal and here he found himself on the verge of initiating an entirely new one – but his mind was hazy and he felt strangely as though he were drunk, which was odd in itself, as he honestly could not even remember the last time he had been really foxed and he certainly was not so now. [4]

His hand still hovered awkwardly above the book as he warred with himself. This was not decent; no parlour game compelled him, and they were not engaged yet. He should step back now and declare himself. That would be the right thing to do. But he had not thought to encounter her this morning – indeed, it had been the awfulness of the previous evening, the unwanted reminder of precisely how appalling her family was and how humiliating it would be to claim them as his own relations, which had driven him out of the house this morning to think – and he still had nothing prepared, no speeches or pretty declarations to make. Would that matter? He suspected it would. Should he try to think of something on the spur of the moment? No, that was an awful idea, and by the time it had formed in his head he had already rejected it. If he gave voice to any of his current thoughts she would likely slap him soundly and he would fully deserve it; moreover he would probably remove his hat and kneel to facilitate the action, or offer to have his cousin do it for her to spare her the pain of striking him. Abstractedly, he thought that Richard would probably collapse for laughter if he ever caught wind of his staid cousin having been carried away by his feelings at any time, much less at eight o’clock in the morning on a perfectly ordinary Friday.

Frustrated beyond comprehension and driven nearly to distraction by the mere thought of holding her, he tried to reason with himself but he could not bring his imagination into any sort of order; his mouth was dry and he was aware of nothing but her nearness. Her chest rose and fell in time with her faint rapid breaths, and he could feel the softness of her skin beneath his fingers. He wanted to reach out to her, but he should not. Such behaviour was beneath him as a gentleman. How often had he disparaged other men for being subject to such desires?

His head resigned itself to releasing her hand, even as the imaginings of his heart leapt ahead; to caress her cheek and tilt her face up towards his, to pull the ribbons of her bonnet undone with one hand and let the other slip down to her throat, to wind his fingers into her hair and pull her to him and—

There was a sudden cacophony of high pitched birdsong as a flock of blackbirds vacated a nearby tree en masse and the strange tension was instantly snapped. Both parties recoiled and Darcy dropped her hand as though she had nettles for fingernails. He turned towards the sound, frowning, but there was no sign of what had disturbed their avian witnesses, and eventually he put it down to the general oddness of that species.

‘Lord Byron, Mr Darcy?’ said Elizabeth, her voice uneven. It took him a moment longer than it should have to remember their earlier conversation. He glanced back at her and looked away again.

‘An unscrupulous man but an excellent poet,’ he said thickly, forcing his thoughts back into some semblance of order and feeling very strongly that Lord Byron was, indeed, just as horrible an influence as he was said to be. Determined to be courteous now, he asked, ‘Do you intend to walk further?’

She did not; she would have turned back to Longbourn momentarily, and told him so, intending to excuse herself by it.

‘Might I accompany you?’ he said, and offered her his arm. She hesitated, failed to think of an excuse, and assented, laying her hand as lightly as possible against his sleeve. Her mind was still reeling as he assisted her down the slope. Ordinarily, she would have refused his help—but ordinarily, she would also have hiked her skirts up above her ankles to traverse the uneven ground and, frankly, her dignity refused to suffer another assault in his presence. They reached the base of the slope without incident, and she was only too grateful when he released her hands to take hold of his mount’s reins, flicking them forward and gathering them beneath the bridle, before offering her his arm again.

Forcing her thoughts away from her inscrutable companion, Elizabeth found herself staring warily at the beast at his side. She had never established a particularly good rapport with the equine species – she’d been thrown by almost every horse in their stable at one point or another before her father acknowledged that she would never be the horsewoman that Jane was; even their ancient pony Duchess had taken exception to her – and Mr Darcy’s horse was, unsurprisingly, as large and imposing as the man himself. A thoroughbred most likely, the beast was seventeen hands high if it was seven, and its coat was as black as pitch. [5] Her father’s Bays would have looked a poor sight beside such an animal. [6]

‘You do not like horses, Miss Bennet?’

She looked up, startled to realise he was observing her. Schooling her thoughts, she replied with some discomfort.

‘I believe the feeling is mutual, sir.’

‘Have you always been afraid of them?’

‘I am not afraid of them,’ she said, her spirits reviving as the normalcy of their present discussion began to ease the awkwardness that had lingered after their – well, she could not think of an appropriate way of describing it. Was there a word for such a queer moment of closeness? Summoning none, she had just resolved to ask her father if he knew of one when she recalled the substance of their exchange, and decided that perhaps she had better not mention it to him.

‘You are not?’ said Mr Darcy, and his look of incredulity was such that Elizabeth could not refrain from teasing him.

‘No, sir,’ she said with affected seriousness. ‘We have had a disagreement.’

‘A disagreement?’

‘Indeed.’

‘With the entire species?’

‘No, sir, but the one initially, though his friends have since taken his part in it.’

‘I see,’ said Darcy, the corner of his mouth turned up. ‘You have been thrown, I take it?’

Elizabeth laughed at herself and admitted it.

‘Then I shall inform Achilles that he ought not to take offense at your disinterest. He is a proud creature, I am afraid, and not accustomed to being ignored.’

‘Indeed,’ she replied in amusement, thinking of the man more than the horse.

Only when he left her at the edge of the small park – having mercifully declined her offer to come into the house – did she allow herself to consider the odd part of their meeting. She wished more than anything that she could put it out of her mind, but odd it had been, and odd it remained on every revisitation of the memory. What had he been doing?

Well, obviously, he had been returning her book to her – the book had begun the scene in his hands and ended it in hers, so that much was certain – but she had, in the course of her life, put several books back into the hands of their owners, and she could not say that hand-touching had ever been a noteworthy part of the experience.

His movements, she thought as she went up front steps and into the hall, had been too slow to be dismissed as an accident—but what reason could he have had to touch her hand on purpose? She pulled at the ribbons of her bonnet and felt the bow come loose. Why had he done it? She did not believe him to be a particularly tactile man; anyone could perceive his discomfort whenever Miss Bingley insinuated herself too closely beside him; and on the rare occasion that he was obliged to offer a lady his arm, he made no attempt to conceal the fact that he did indeed consider it an obligation, and not one which he found any pleasure in meeting.

But even if she had misread his aversion to being touched, it did not explain her part in it all; he did not like her. This she knew for a fact. Despite their being often thrown together by the fact of Bingley’s interest in her sister, he did not seem to take any pleasure in her company, and their conversations always ended badly. Of course, beyond some natural indignation at being unnecessarily disliked, and offense at being insulted by him, she did not especially care for his opinions. Why should she? They were wrong, anyway.

‘Ah! there you are, Lizzy,’ said Mr Bennet, emerging then from his book room. ‘Your mother thought you must have died—I do not know if she will be more disappointed to see that you have returned from your walk, uninjured and unmolested, or that you have not brought poor Mr Darcy back with you.’ [7]

Elizabeth hardly knew what response she ought to give – had he seen Mr Darcy turn back at the edge of the park? – but her father, thankfully, was too pleased with himself to require one.

‘No doubt you are sorry to have disappointed her, but these things cannot be helped. Oh! you might contrive some little nonsense about the gentleman if you like, though; I am sure it would comfort her to think that at least one of her daughters might be engaged in a scandalous romance with a man of good fortune.’

So he had not seen them. She released her breath in a laugh that was only partly forced.

‘I hardly think Mr Darcy would be the sort of man to get caught up in any sort of romance, Papa—scandalous or otherwise,’ she said, stopping to kiss his cheek as she moved towards the staircase.

‘No, perhaps not,’ he agreed. ‘You on the other hand, Lizzy—why! I fully expect to hear of your disappearing off to Gretna Green before the year is out.’

‘Really, Papa!’ she cried, laughing. ‘That is hardly enough time to find a suitably rakish gentleman to disappear off with me—and there is no point my going by myself.’

‘Another one? Can you not satisfy yourself with poor Mr Darcy?’

‘No, indeed, Papa,’ she called back as she ascended the stairs. ‘The man never opens his mouth; how would he ever persuade me to go?’

‘That is a question which I shall not answer, daughter mine.’

She threw a perplexed look over her shoulder at him.

‘What do you—?’

‘Oh! ask me no questions, Lizzy,’ he said, laughing; ‘ask me no questions. —Ask your husband, if you like, when you get round to chusing one.’

Her father disappeared back into his book room but Elizabeth paused another moment on the landing, unwilling to face Jane quite yet.

It had been her understanding, from books and the occasional shocking report, that a seduction required an element of persuasion, which seemed to suggest that there would be talking required on the part of the seducer. If, however, talking was not a necessary part of the procedure, then presumably something else must take its place.

Her encounter with Mr Darcy resurfaced in her mind; the press of his hand against her own.

Could it be—? she wondered. Was he—?

No, that was ridiculous; Mr Darcy was not trying to seduce her. Why would he want to seduce a woman in the morning whom it had not pleased him to kiss the night before? She could not understand it. Perhaps he was—practicing? Did one have to practice that sort of thing?—or did it just happen?

She wished she had paid attention to his face instead of his hands—they had told her nothing of his intentions. What she thought she could have gleaned from the former was anyone’s guess – it was not as though she had any idea what a seductive expression might look like – on anybody, really, but particularly on Mr Darcy – but she regretted her distraction nevertheless, and happily blamed it for her present ignorance. If only she had looked up! Perhaps then she would know what to think—but she had not, and she did not, and so she did the only thing she could rightly do at such a time.

She went upstairs to her room and pretended to forget about it.

 


 

 

[1] When Elizabeth talks about Wickham’s “comparative poverty”, she’s not exaggerating. As a Lieutenant in the Militia, Wickham would have been earning four shillings and eight pence a day, which according to the currency converter on The National Archives website, has the same spending worth of £7.92 in 2005. He would have earnt somewhere in the vicinity of £85 per year. Compare that with Darcy’s £10 000.

[2] Lord Byron was an English poet, well known during the latter part of Jane Austen’s life. Byron had been publishing since 1806, when he self-published his first volume of poetry, entitled Fugitive Pieces, which his mentor, the Reverend John Thomas Becher, objected to on the basis of the frank eroticism of some sections; in 1809, he published English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers, which first earned him critical favour, but it was the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, one year before the release of Pride and Prejudice, that launched him to popular success almost overnight. The eroticism of his poetry, as well as his scandalous lifestyle, made him the sort of author that a father might well prevent his daughters from reading. Mr Bennet probably wouldn’t, but many fathers would.

[3] A quote from one of Lord Byron’s poems, posthumously titled ‘Love and Death’ but better known by the title ‘I watched thee’, taken from the poem’s first line, ‘I watched thee when the foe was at our side’. In truth, this specific poem was not written until 1824, eleven years after Pride and Prejudice was published, but Byron’s other work, and his reputation, were widely known during that time. In all honesty I just couldn’t bring myself to use a different poem, I liked this one so much. Also, yes, this line is as dirty as you think it is. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, reread it.

[4] Foxed: drunk.

[5] Thoroughbred: the most fashionable choice of horse for a gentleman at the time. Pitch: similar to tar but much thicker. It was used in a number of ways but it is perhaps best known for its use in caulking ships (making them watertight by stuffing the cracks between the boards with cotton fibres and pine tar soaked hemp fibre called oakum; the filled cracks were then covered with melted pitch). Pitch that is derived from petroleum is a dark black colour, which is where the expression ‘pitch black’ comes from.

[6] Her father’s bays: Cleveland Bays were considered a multipurpose breed, equally capable of pulling a carriage and tilling a field. We know from Chapter 7 of Pride and Prejudice that the Bennets’ horses are used for both purposes because when Jane requests use of the coach to visit Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, Mr Bennet says the horses are needed in the farm. For this reason, I have decided the Bennets shall own Cleveland Bays.

[7] Unmolested: in the sense of not having been bothered, annoyed, or interfered with.

Chapter Text

Darcy rode back to Netherfield in a state of the greatest agitation. This was beyond endurance; he had never wanted so much to be engaged to her—or so little to engage himself to her family.

He left his horse with one of the grooms and went on up to the house, still berating himself. What the devil had he been thinking? Nothing remotely sensible, evidently. To even consider kissing her outside the bounds of an engagement! Her neighbours might have been inclined to forgive such an indiscretion, but he was not. He condemned others for wantonness; he would condemn himself for the same. He could only be grateful it had gone no further. Thank God she had not looked up!

 ‘Darcy!’ came Bingley’s voice from the landing above as Darcy removed his hat and handed it to a footman.

‘Good morning, Bingley,’ he said as the same footman relieved him of his greatcoat.

‘Wherever have you been?’ said Bingley, somewhat breathlessly as he came down the stairs to greet his friend, a rather badly creased letter in one hand. ‘Caroline was on the verge of sending the footmen out to look for you.’

‘Well, I am glad she did not,’ said Darcy, straightening his shirt and waistcoat. ‘It would have been a wasted exertion for the footmen; I am, as you see, perfectly safe.’

Bingley grinned at him.

‘Well, you can hardly blame her for her concern,’ he said. ‘The last time you vanished unexpectedly, one of our neighbours nearly died.’

‘Really, Bingley,’ said Darcy, grimacing as he pulled the cuffs of his sleeves back down into place, ‘you make it sound dreadful.’ He glanced down at the letter in Bingley’s hand. ‘Is something the matter?’

‘Oh! no, not especially—but I must go to London. I had meant to go after the ball, you remember, but with everything that happened—’ he broke off, finally noticing his friend’s distraction. ‘—Darcy, are you quite well? You seem out of sorts.’

Darcy’s reply did little to reassure him but Bingley continued his explanation without much pressing.

‘Well, I would say I was putting it off – going to Town, that is – but in truth, I quite forgot about it. My solicitor has written to remind me of the engagement though, and I intend to make the journey today. I had thought to ask you if you wished to join me—but perhaps you had better stay.’

‘No, indeed. I am well,’ said Darcy instantly. ‘I will join you.’

‘Really, Darcy, there is no particular need,’ said Bingley as Darcy passed him to go up the stairs. ‘I will not want for company; your cousin will ride with me, regardless.’

Darcy paused on the staircase. ‘Colonel Fitzwilliam is going to London?’

‘Indeed. His father wrote to summon him, you recall?’ said Bingley, still standing at the base of the stairs. ‘I thought he had told you.’

Belatedly, Darcy recalled that he had.

‘Yes—yes of course,’ said Darcy, with a quick smile, and an exhalation that might have been intended to be laughter. ‘I had forgotten. But I will come—I am perfectly well.’

‘Then perhaps you wish to join me now; I am to Longbourn, to take my leave of the Bennets.’

‘No,’ said Darcy immediately. Composing himself, he added more politely, ‘I—I would not wish to delay you. I must wash; I am not dressed for company. You should go.’

‘Shall I give them your apologies?’ said Bingley, with some confusion.

‘Yes, I—I thank you, yes. —Excuse me,’ said Darcy, and he went upstairs directly.

Bingley could not be insensible of his friend’s manner, but neither could he countenance the thought of prying further when privacy was so evidently desired. The matter was therefore dropt, and the three gentlemen were all away from Hertfordshire within four hours.

 


 

The peace which the gentlemen’s departure engendered at Longbourn cannot be overstated. Mrs Bennet was so comforted by Mr Bingley’s obvious regret at having to leave, and by the fact of his calling particularly to inform them all of his plans, that, for nearly two days, she could speak of nothing else to anyone, and existed in a state of unassailable good cheer.

Elizabeth, for her part, could not have been better pleased—unless of course Mr Bingley had come bearing the news that his insufferable friend was bound immediately for the West Indies, and, regrettably, would never be able to visit again.

Such was, unfortunately, not the case; it seemed that Mr Darcy would be returning with Mr Bingley when the latter’s business in Town was concluded. Elizabeth, though frustrated anew at the gentleman and his inconvenient choice of friends, had not the heart to wish her sister’s beau away for any longer than necessary, and so warmly added her support to Jane’s quiet hope that Mr Bingley’s business would not detain him long. Bingley beamed at her, and then at Jane, and then once around the room generally, and took his leave of them.

Bingley’s sisters and Mr Hurst, they had been informed, did not travel with the gentlemen, but to Elizabeth’s great delight, they saw fit neither to call at Longbourn, nor attend the service on Sunday; and she was, therefore, allowed to enjoy Mr Underwood’s sermon in her preferred attitude of total vacancy, unperturbed by the fuss that seemed to follow the Netherfield party wherever they went.

Of course, the respite was of short duration. At four o’clock on Monday, Mr Collins was expected at Longbourn; and, though they might have wished him less punctual, it was at precisely four o’clock that the clergyman made his triumphal return.

He alighted from the post chaise with such an outpouring of felicitations to all his fair cousins – ‘all’ encompassing only the eldest three daughters, as no one else would come out to meet him – that they might have been very nearly convinced of his genuine goodwill towards them, if he had not also taken it upon himself to remark, with many a pointed look at Elizabeth, how greatly and universally the looks and disposition of a woman were improved by her becoming engaged.

‘Indeed, sir,’ Elizabeth could not refrain from saying as they mounted the steps to return indoors, ‘I am sure you are right, though I do wonder at the source of your information.’

Mr Collins blinked.

‘My dear Charlotte can hardly have failed to share with you the news of our engagement.’

‘No indeed; of your engagement, I am well aware—but I did not think you had seen your fiancée since she accepted you.’

‘Oh! indeed I have not,’ he said, with no air of concession whatsoever. And then, continuing with hurried condescension, he assured her: ‘My fair cousin – you yourself can have no cause to know – but let me assure you that it is quite true – one need not see one’s fiancée to know that they are improved in appearance. You must give me leave, I think, Cousin Elizabeth, to profess a greater understanding of the matrimonial process than yourself.’

Elizabeth smiled.

‘Naturally,’ she replied, avoiding Jane’s eye; ‘I should never presume to understand the process by which you, sir, have secured a bride.’

This statement he considered proof enough of Elizabeth’s deference to his understanding, and he went up to his rooms to wash with spirits buoyed immensely by the triumph.

 


 

 

‘I flatter myself that it shall not surprise any of my fair cousins,’ he said over dinner that evening, having declared himself – to the general disappointment of his hosts – not at all too tired to join them, ‘to hear that I was summoned to Rosings on no fewer than four occasions—four!—to receive the benefit of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s most invaluable advice on the subject of the matrimonial state.’ He paused for effect. ‘Could you have imagined such attention?’

They all owned that they could not, except for Lydia, who still retained that childish talent for selective deafness, and had evidently chosen to deploy it now.

‘Rare condescension, indeed,’ remarked Mr Bennet when the vague murmur of reply had faded to nothing.

‘Oh! she is the very soul of condescension!’

Mr Bennet eyed Lizzy over his glass of wine.

‘I assure you, Mr Collins,’ said Mr Bennet, returning his attention to their guest with an expression of ardent sincerity. ‘I never doubted that for a moment.’

Mr Collins seemed wholly pleased with this response, and, thus encouraged, proceeded to recite to them what Elizabeth could only suspect to be the entire compendium of every thought Lady Catherine de Bourgh had ever entertained, even tangentially, on the subject of matrimony.

Only Mr Bennet seemed to enjoy the conversation, and Elizabeth wondered rather uncharitably if he would still take such pleasure in baiting Mr Collins if she were to suggest that both of the men should retire to his study after dinner, and leave the women to themselves a while.

‘…There will be no peace in your home, Mr Collins,’ that man recounted, ‘if you do not from the beginning take care to check any sign of extravagance in your new wife.’ Here he awaited a response again, and, receiving none from the table at large, addressed himself more particularly to his host. ‘Women are particularly susceptible to such unnecessary expenditures—do you not agree, Mr Bennet?’

‘It is more than my life’s worth to answer you, sir; you had better go on.’

Mr Collins here demonstrated his particular talent for ignoring any part of a speech that advocated for a change of subject, and fixate only on that which might be taken for encouragement.

‘Let me assure you then that it is so,’ said a man whose nearest experience to cohabitating with women had been, until his brief stay at Longbourn, to live across the lane from Rosings Park. ‘Fripperies are a great danger to women, for they appeal to that vanity which is common amongst their sex…’

By the time they all repaired to the sitting room, Elizabeth was quite ready to see Mr Collins repair all the way back to Hunsford, or at the very least, to his room. It seemed that there was no subject on which he could refrain from espousing his patroness’ opinion above his own; and no subject on which she had not apparently written a dissertation. Indeed, Elizabeth could not be entirely sure that he had it in his power to conceive an independent opinion. He certainly shewed no evidence of possessing the ability.

‘Some three—no! four days ago,’ said Mr Collins, once they were settled in the sitting room, ‘when I had been summoned to the house after dinner to make up the last member of a table for whist, she addressed me thus: You, sir, are a bachelor, Mr Collins.—she said. Indeed, I am, your ladyship.—I replied.’

He cast his gaze around the room with the air of one who has just given some fantastical speech, and expects to see an audience deeply moved. In this, he was unsurprisingly disappointed. Jane and Mary were the only two who were really listening; Mr Bennet had long since grown bored of encouraging him; and Mrs Bennet had ceased to find him an object of any interest at precisely the moment that Kitty had identified Mr Darcy walking towards the house with one of her daughters in his arms. Still, Elizabeth thought they might have passed themselves off as polite, if not quite devoted, hosts, if it had not been for Kitty and Lydia, who sat side by side on the sofa nearest the fire. Kitty had managed to angle herself away from Mr Collins in such a way that the copy of The Champion of Virtue that lay open in her lap was obscured from his view, and would likely have gone unnoticed in her perfidious behaviour if Lydia had not been attempting to read over her shoulder, and fussing whenever Kitty turned the page without warning. They were, however, impervious to the pointed looks Mr Collins directed their way whenever a squabble erupted.

‘A bachelor,’ he said, by no means dissuaded by the constant interruptions, ‘such as yourself, Mr Collins, can have no understanding whatsoever of how to properly manage his wife.’

Elizabeth stilled, her eyes lifting to settle on the clergyman’s face with an expression of outraged astonishment. Mr Bennet, perhaps sensing the increasing risk of an argument, interceded.

‘Ah!’ he said, rising from his chair, ‘there she is quite right, Mr Collins.’ Elizabeth turned to look at him; he met her eye and winked before turning back to Mr Collins. ‘It is the province of we married men to understand the intricacies of that pursuit.’ Mr Collins seemed about to agree, but Mr Bennet held up a hand and added cheerfully: ‘It cannot be done and ought not to be attempted. Good night.’

And with another smile towards his eldest girls, he promptly abandoned them.

Chapter Text

Bingley was charmingly happy to be back in Town—but then, Darcy thought with some resentment, Bingley was charmingly happy wherever he went. Indeed, he and the Colonel had passed the vast majority of the ride in cheerful conversation, their cheeks glowing red in the frigid wind and the capes of their driving coats fluttering gamely behind them. Not once did they sink into uncomfortable silence, or run out of things to say, or grow tired of listening to the other’s voice—a fact which displeased Darcy mostly because he had existed in a state of uncomfortable silence for most of his life. Indeed, he hardly said a word from Hatfield to Hampstead Heath, and more than once caught himself wishing he could have remained at Netherfield. But he knew that he ought to at least prepare his family for the possibility of his marrying beneath himself—though he did not think it strictly necessary to inform them that he was quite fixed on it. That, he reasoned, could be accomplished by letter, after the fact, and from a safe distance.

The three separated as they neared Grosvenor Square; Bingley was for Mr Hurst’s townhouse – which seemed, to Darcy, to be the only useful feature of the man himself – and for the first time in his life, Darcy wished he had an excuse to join him there. But he could not; the Colonel had sent a man ahead to tell his mother to expect Darcy as well as himself, and his Aunt would probably never forgive him if he failed to arrive now. And Georgiana would be there; that, at least, would be something.

All of Richard’s immediate family were at home when they arrived; the Earl Fitzwilliam, his wife, Lady Charlotte, and Edward, Viscount Milton, received them in the sitting room.[1]

‘Darcy!’ said the Viscount, with undue enthusiasm. ‘You are come!’

‘Yes,’ said Darcy, immediately suspicious.

‘What brought you?’ said Edward, rising from his chair. ‘Was it the lure of our delightful company or did my brother threaten you with that sabre of his?’

Before Darcy could respond, the Viscount turned to his brother.

‘—And here is Richard,’ he cried, clasping his brother’s shoulders and holding him at arm’s length; ‘I thought you were gone off to die for King and Country; what happened to that?’

‘Really, Edward,’ said his mother; ‘they will think you are in earnest. —Ring for tea, if you would.’

‘Heaven forfend,’ the Viscount replied. Releasing his brother with another clap on the shoulder, he obeyed, and then dropt into one of the high-backed chairs by the fire.

‘I trust your journey was uneventful, Richard,’ said Lady Charlotte as her eldest drew out a snuff-box from the pocket of his waistcoat and turned all his attention to it.

‘Indeed,’ said Richard, seating himself. ‘I would go so far as to call it pleasant.’

‘You said you would travel with a friend, did you not?’

‘Yes; his business happened to coincide with ours.’

‘And what was the name of your friend?’

There was a pause. Darcy crossed the room to stand by the window, knowing perfectly well what would follow and wishing heartily he had not come.

‘Charles Bingley, Mother,’ said the Colonel.

The Earl looked over to his wife, lips pursed; she looked fretfully back. The Colonel seemed very sorry that he had spoken at all, and the silence stretched awkwardly for some moments. Darcy exhaled, resigning himself to the argument, and enquired in clipped tones:

‘Is there some problem, Uncle, with my choice of travelling companion?’

This, apparently, was all the invitation the Earl had desired.

‘I shall never understand why you persist with that young man, Darcy,’ he said.

Darcy met his eye and said evenly:

‘He is a good friend to me.’

Edward laughed. Darcy glanced at him.

‘But he is not a friend—is he, Darcy?’ said the Viscount, meeting Darcy’s eye with a grin: ‘Charles Bingley is a project, and I defy you to tell me he is not. Oh! he is a good enough fellow and pleasant company too, I am sure, but a project nevertheless—something for you to work over.’ He snorted. ‘I fully expect to find him made wholly of ivory, if I ever meet him—’[2]

‘And I to find you weeping to death over your own reflection, and yet, here you sit.’[3]

Lady Charlotte made a faint tutting noise, and fussed at Darcy for encouraging his cousin. Edward spoke over her:

‘He is training him, I wager,’ —he widened his eyes theatrically— ‘teaching him our ways.’

Darcy restrained a glower and said, with complete honesty:

‘I assure you, Bingley requires no such instruction.’

‘I hope you mean that, Darcy; I should not like to see you prevailed upon by another unworthy companion,’ said the Earl. ‘We have all had quite enough of that. I have not forgot about that Wickham boy—’

Darcy inhaled deeply and closed his eyes.

‘I warned your father, you know,’ Lord Fitzwilliam continued, ‘not to raise him up too high—not to give him expectations—’

‘Oh William, I wish we would not speak of him,’ said Lady Charlotte, with some reproach; ‘Darcy has cut ties with the man, has he not? Let us drop the matter.’

The Earl’s mouth twitched in what might have been a grimace if he had been any less well-bred, and the conversation would likely have ended there if Darcy had not had the extreme misfortune of happening to roll his eyes at precisely the moment his Uncle looked away from his wife and back at his nephew.

‘I will have none of that from you, Darcy,’ he said sharply. Darcy straightened at once and then cursed himself for it; was he eight or eight-and-twenty? The Earl continued: ‘I am sure you fancy yourself very modern and liberal-minded, and think the rest of us quite decrepit, but I will not be moved on this.’

‘I assure you, my lord,’ said Darcy, with a slight bow, ‘I think nothing of the sort.’

Lord Fitzwilliam pursed his lips.

‘Indeed. No doubt your father felt nothing of the sort as well when he decided to sponsor the boy at Cambridge—’

‘The boy is nine and twenty,’ Richard interjected; Edward promptly reached out and smacked him with a glove to prevent his interrupting the quarrel.

‘—but which of us had the right of it in the end, Darcy? He would have seen us all Frenchified—’[4]

‘Are Darcy and I boys as well?’ Richard said, earning himself another swat from the glove. The Earl ignored them both.

‘Wickham is a degenerate, and a scoundrel—and worse, one who lives beyond his means. Oh! yes, he is nearly infamous for it—and I am inclined to think that the fault lies with your father; he ought never to have indulged him. Nothing good ever comes of upsetting the order of things; I daresay the French will attest to that.’

Darcy said nothing.

‘I have always said: it is the responsibility of a gentleman to maintain order upon his estate; what order may be kept if the steward’s boy runs with the master’s? —You cannot feign disinterest in the business, Darcy; you have been paying his debts since his father died—till as recently as last summer, if reports are to be believed.’

‘That is my own concern,’ said Darcy coldly. He need not have feared the exposure of Georgiana’s secret, however, for the Earl was now utterly fixated on his frustrations with the late Mr Darcy, and paid no attention whatsoever to his nephew.

‘I always told George it was a foolish thing to do,’ the Earl persisted, as though somehow the present Darcy required chastisement for the decision. ‘To take a child—without fortune or family—and raise him up in the parody of a gentleman; to teach him the pursuits and habits of a better man without any notion of responsibility or consequence. To give him expectations, when he knew full well that they could never be met—it is not to be borne! Little wonder he turned out so wild…’

He finished with censorious glance at Darcy. Behind him, Edward lounged in his chair, not attempting to restrain a smirk, while his mother fretted and tapped her fan against her left hand. The Colonel made an attempt to address his father, but Darcy could contain himself no longer.

‘George Wickham,’ he said in clipped tones; the Colonel fell silent immediately, ‘had every opportunity to live respectably. He chose not to. Neither my father nor I may be held accountable for his actions.’

The footman arrived then with the tea, suspending the discussion; and to Darcy’s great relief, Georgiana arrived before the servant could retreat, ending it permanently; for, though she was now fully sixteen, she was yet the youngest member of the family, and would, therefore, likely always be thought of by the rest of them as being terribly delicate. This did, however, give her some advantages in the way of exemptions and indulgences.

Upon noticing her brother in the room, Georgiana broke off partway through a sentence to her Aunt, and started forward towards him; then, stopping short, she gave her Aunt a pleading look. Receiving a smile from that lady, she promptly abandoned the rest of her family to speak with him exclusively. Darcy dared not think of the scolding he would have earned himself had he attempted anything similar at her age.

‘I did not know you would be here,’ she said as she joined him at the window, anxious to reassure him that she intended no slight, ‘or I would not have gone out.’

He pressed her hand.

‘I am not offended, Georgiana,’ he said, brows creased.

‘You are not?’

‘No, not at all—why should you think so?’

‘But I was not here to greet you.’

‘Why should you have been? Richard’s note cannot have preceded us by more than an hour or two.’

Georgiana looked wrong-footed.

‘Really, Georgiana,’ he said, smiling, ‘it would have been dreadfully unreasonable of me to expect you.’

To his horror, Georgiana’s eyes filled with tears.

‘I did not mean to suggest—of course I do not think you are—it is only that—’

‘No, I know; Georgiana, I only meant—’

‘I know you are not unreasonable—I did not mean—,’ and then almost inaudibly added, ‘pray excuse me,’ and quitted the room.

Darcy stayed where he was, caught somewhere between alarm and confusion. His aunt looked up at the disturbance.

‘Whatever is the matter?’ said Lady Charlotte. Darcy glanced at her, but Edward saved him the trouble of replying.

‘Oh! leave off the girl, Mother; I know I want to cry whenever I see Darcy.’

Whether Edward had spoken out of affection for Georgiana or an inability to resist provoking Darcy was, at that moment, immaterial to the latter cousin.

‘For your sake, I am glad you do not,’ he replied, ‘for I would certainly never comfort you.’

‘Comfort! from you! I am quite sure you would not offer me as much as a pocket handkerchief, never mind comfort—’

‘Of course he would not,’ Richard interjected, ‘and neither would I, or anyone else who knows you, since you always carry at least five of your own.’

‘Fie! Unjust! I carry two.’

‘So you do not need mine then,’ said Darcy.

‘Nor should I want it.’

‘Good,’ said Richard, ‘for Darcy saves his for heroics these days, and has none to spare for you.’

‘Well that—I beg your pardon; he saves them for what?

Darcy stilled.

‘What a ridiculous thing to say, Richard—heroics? From Darcy? What a notion!’ Edward said, laughing. And then, catching sight of the guilty look of his brother, broke off abruptly and said: ‘Good God, you are serious. What on earth happened?’

Neither Richard nor Darcy responded. Edward stared at them.

‘Well?’ he demanded. ‘You cannot say a thing like that and then refuse to tell the story. What in God’s name did you do?’

‘I would rather not say.’

‘Then leave off glaring at Richard and let him tell it. Honestly, Darcy, you look as though you were trying to set him on fire just by looking at him.’

Darcy tried not to fidget. He had always intended to tell his uncle that his name had become mixed up with that of a young lady, and that he might be soon obliged to marry her for it – indeed, that was the primary reason he had come – but he had not counted on telling Edward anything at all, and much less the whole story; the Viscount had an inexplicable talent for making difficult situations worse simply by existing in near proximity to them, and Darcy rather thought that his present circumstances were awkward enough as they were.

‘It is nothing, my lord,’ said Darcy finally. ‘I gave assistance to an injured lady in Hertfordshire; that is all.’

Three pairs of suspicious eyes fixed on Darcy; he met them blankly, but said nothing further.

‘Come, Father,’ said Richard after a pause; ‘let Darcy have his modesty. You cannot think he would gloat over the injury of a young lady, no matter his involvement. I, however, would be happy to gloat about my exploits, and fully intend to do so if one of you will feign even the slightest interest in them for a moment.’

They accepted the change of subject reluctantly; the Earl gave Darcy a final, hard look before attending to his second son. Darcy exhaled in relief, and promised himself he would speak to his uncle privately at the earliest opportunity. He would not be happy, but he would understand.

 


 

 

[1] Titles are an absolute nightmare to those of us who are not obliged to use them with any regularity, and I am dreadfully sorry to include them here, but they are, unfortunately, necessary. I’ll try to keep things simple but here is a quick reference guide if it gets confusing:

- William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam is Darcy’s uncle, and his formal title is the Earl Fitzwilliam, but in conversation or in letters, he would be called ‘Lord Fitzwilliam’ or ‘my lord’. He is Lady Catherine’s brother.

- The Earl’s subsidiary title is the Viscount Milton; as his heir, Edward Wentworth-Fitzwilliam is entitled to use this title, though the ‘the’ is dropped; Edward is therefore styled Viscount Milton. It is acceptable to refer to him as either ‘the Viscount’ or ‘Viscount Milton’ or ‘Milton’ (yes, despite that not being part of his actual name; I do not know; why, England, why? This is a nightmare, remind me never to write anything more complicated than a baronet into my original works), but not ‘the Viscount Milton’.

- Lady Charlotte is fairly straightforward. She will always be referred to as ‘Lady Charlotte’ because her title is inherited from her father’s status, like Lady Catherine’s, not acquired through marriage to a baronet, like Lady Lucas’.

[2] Made wholly of ivory: Edward is making a reference to the Pygmalion myth, where Pygmalion makes the statue of a woman out of ivory and then falls in love with the statue.

[3] Darcy is referring to the myth of Narcissus. There are several variations on the myth but the essence is the same: an incredibly vain man catches sight of his reflection in a body of water, falls in love with it, then either wastes away in front of it, Mirror of Erised style, or kills himself because he can’t be with… himself. Ah Greek mythology.

[4] Frenchified: an actual word that the actual Earl Fitzwilliam actually used. Repeatedly. He was apparently very much against being Frenchified, and honestly, I just could not resist including it.

 


 

Tried to put this in end notes but, vexingly, it didn't fit, so it's going to go here.

As this chapter features actual historical figures, it seemed unfair to post it without giving some indication of how much of is real and not real. Note: this information is not necessary for a general understanding of the story so you can skip it if you like. But for those of you who enjoy the occasional random history lesson, here is a (relatively) quick outline of what’s real and what’s not.

REAL:

- William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, of the County of Tyrone; subsidiary title ‘the Viscount Milton’.
- Lady Charlotte Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, née Ponsonby, his wife.

The Fitzwilliams in more detail:

Firstly, the Earl’s name really was William Fitzwilliam, so nobody is allowed to blame me for this horrible, lazy choice of names. Also, this was not a terrible decision they were content to make just once or twice. The first, third, fourth, sixth, seventh, and tenth Earls Fitzwilliam were all called William Fitzwilliam, and that’s not even looking at the Sirs and Barons that came beforehand. So Darcy got off easy with his first name really, no matter how much modern readers seem to dislike it. (And on that subject, please for the love of God, can we as a fandom just stop shortening it to ‘William’. It sounds ridiculous in context and it makes no historical sense. His first name was literally chosen (by both his author and his parents in the book-universe) to remind people about his connection to the massively wealthy and influential Fitzwilliam family. It completely defeats the purpose if you then shorten it to something as ordinary as William, so there is no way in hell Darcy would have allowed or encouraged this. He’s a snob for heavens’ sakes. Quite a liberal one yes but he’s still a snob. Let him keep his damn name, sheesh.) ANYWAY. By this point you are probably wondering why I’m talking about this family as though they were absolutely definitely related to Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is – to our unending misery – Decidedly Fictitious. I’m so glad you asked.

The libel laws in Jane Austen’s day were very strict, so you really couldn’t include real people in your work without risking a lawsuit. Of course, this didn’t actually stop anyone from doing it; it just forced them to be slightly more creative about it. So when authors needed to make reference to specific people or families, they simply gave enough factual information to make it obvious to a contemporary reader who they were talking about, but left out or changed a few small or insignificant details about them so that no one could unequivocally prove their identity. Of course this sort of thing naturally goes right over a modern reader’s head – but it was very common at the time. Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, for example, got his name from John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, an infamous 17th century rake who unsurprisingly died from a combination of alcoholism and venereal disease(s), and who apparently renounced libertinism and embraced Anglican Christianity about four seconds before he died. Translation: Reader, I married a syphilitic alcoholic who was old enough to be my father. …Romantic.

Now, back to Austen, and her implications re: Darcy’s relatives. We are introduced to Colonel Fitzwilliam, and then told that he is the younger son of the Earl of ---, the rest of his title being omitted to prevent anyone being able to absolutely say which Earl it was. However, as there was only one Earl with that last name, it’s basically the literary equivalent of ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for’. They are clearly the droids you’re looking for. Also, great emphasis is placed on the fact that Colonel Fitzwilliam’s is a younger son; he and Elizabeth have a whole conversation about it, which a) removes him as a potential love interest by telling the reader that he doesn’t have enough money to marry her, but more importantly, b) absolutely definitely makes sure the reader knows that the Colonel is not the heir. Why? Because the real Earl Fitzwilliam only had one son, so any second son is obviously fictional, and, therefore, safe from legal action.

The reputation of the Fitzwilliam family is also a big clue (as is the family motto, but as that’s referenced in an upcoming chapter, I won’t go into it here). Mrs Reynold’s famous description of Darcy as “the best landlord, and the best master” reflects the public opinion of the Fitzwilliams, who were considered very liberal masters; they charged lower rents and paid higher wages than other landowners, and took great care of their tenants. By implying that Darcy is related to this family, Austen is essentially saying he’s a genuinely good man, despite being a bit of a dick for about half of the novel.

However, this does not mean that the Fitzwilliams were in any way perfect, even if their contemporaries literally wrote poems about what nice people they were. For example: the real version of this Lord Fitzwilliam was a prominent Whig politician, and by all accounts a kind and generous man, but he was also in vehement opposition to the abolition of slavery. SLAVERY. Also, they were snobs. The whole family had a (perfectly normal) habit of marrying money, and there were numerous arrangements like the one planned for Darcy and Anne. Again I stress that it is hugely important to the story to respect that this was normal and Darcy would genuinely have been expected to go through with it. Even Darcy probably sort of figured he’d get around to it when he got older, since gentlemen had a lot more leeway to put that sort of thing off. He doesn’t expect to fall in love with anyone, much less Elizabeth, and he clearly hasn’t before or he wouldn’t be so damn horrified by it.

The Fitzwilliams were obviously charitable to those low enough to require charity, but again I must stress: this does not mean that they respected the low-end of the genteel class. The class system in England at the time was deeply complex; the difference between poverty and genteel poverty was massive. Elizabeth is not in either category; she’s just not rich. The Fitzwilliams would absolutely not have accepted Elizabeth happily under normal circumstances; they would likely have tolerated her, once they realised there was nothing they could do about it, but they would not have welcomed her with open arms as so many fanfics seem to imagine they would. I mean I’m all for a light-and-rainbows view of the world (I’m lying; light and rainbows make for terrible narrative arcs) but that’s just… it just makes no sense. There is no reason to suspect that Lady Catherine is an outlier in their family, or to assume that Darcy’s mother was not planning to marry him to Anne. Yes it’s weird to us now, but it was normal then. Why should you and your sister not plan for your kids to get married? (Don’t answer that. Please. I know; there are so many reasons.) But of course Darcy’s family would have expected him to marry Anne—or, if not Anne, another wealthy and/or titled lady. In fact, that is the whole point. That’s what makes Darcy the hero. He defies the standards of his time and marries for love, and if that sounds like a familiar choice, that’s because it is the exact thing that we like about Elizabeth. It’s a brave move to risk everything for love, whether you’re risking poverty, like Elizabeth, or the possible rejection of almost your entire surviving family, like Darcy.

Also, if you take away the familial pressure that prompts what has to be The Second Most Offensive Proposal in the History of Literature™, you actually completely destroy Darcy’s character and about half of the narrative tension. Instead of being a man struggling to break away from the crushing weight of his family’s expectations because he’s fallen arse-over-elbow in love with Elizabeth and has no idea what to do about it, he’s just… kind of a douchecanoe. Darcy is only salvageable from the utter jerk that he is in the beginning of the story because he learns to differentiate the snobbery that he was taught from his innate sense of pride – since, in the first proposal, he makes it abundantly clear that he sees his snobbery as self-respect appropriate to his station, and by the end of the story, he has realised his mistakes and learnt from them. That’s the whole appeal of Darcy: he respects Elizabeth enough to accept her criticism and actually puts effort into improving his behaviour. Seriously though, leaving aside the ‘this would just leave Darcy as a ponce for no reason’ factor; if his family was not putting immense pressure on him to marry either money or a title, why on earth would he be so genuinely distressed at the prospect of marrying Elizabeth?

The only reason that the Earl supports the match in this story is because the Fitzwilliam family cared a lot about maintaining their honour, and their reputation for being honourable. The immediate Fitzwilliam family was one of the few in Britain that did not suffer any major scandals, though one of the Wentworth relations did apparently run off with a servant at one point.

Okay. Back to fact checking.

What’s not real? Short answer: Edward. The heir apparent was actually called Charles, and he was, by all accounts, a really nice guy. He was married to his cousin, Lady Charlotte Fitzwilliam, by the way, and if you’re thinking ‘boy that sounds familiar’, you’re right; it’s also his mother’s name. Therefore, to avoid confusion, she will be Lady Mary in this. Now, why did I change his name to Edward? Well, because it felt a bit rude to drag his real name into this, considering the outrageous liberties I am planning to take with his character.

This wasn’t quick at all I am so sorry.

It was a bit awkward to break up the next few days of the story, so I apologise for the short chapter, but promise the follow up to this scene will follow soon!

~Eleanor

Chapter Text

I know that this has been a long wait already, but there's one more thing I have to say before we go on, which is that a reviewer raised a very good point about Chapter 27 that I feel like I should address. Before I say anything about it though, this is not a criticism of the reviewer. It's just that I realised that there is probably going to be some confusion in later chapters if I don't discuss this now. To anyone who doesn't fancy a history lecture: fair enough, skip to the next bolded section.

The review in question said that “The Viscount was cruel to suggest Darcy was molding Bingley; to follow that metaphor to its conclusion would have implied both men were gay—a capital crime in those days. Did he mean to carry it that far?”

Firstly, yes, it was a dickish comment, absolutely, but it’s not as serious or dangerous as it might seem at first glance. If he had made the same implication one hundred years later, it would have been, yes—but not during the Regency.

I’ll explain. We tend to think of The Past as this vast, homogenous period of time, wherein everyone was Strict and Proper and Conservative, while The Present is new and exciting and different. Here’s the thing: so did everyone else while they were living in Their Present. With regards to this specific question, we tend to assume that conservatives have looked the same throughout history—but the simple fact is that they haven’t. If you put a modern conservative in the same room as a regency conservative, they would probably both be completely horrified by the other’s values, because different generations have different ideas about what is conservative and what is radical.

Culture changes constantly. Values cycle in and out of fashion. One generation rejects the ideals of their parents, and then their children bring back a distorted facsimile of the grandparents’ set of ideals and call it vintage. Sometimes these changes are for the better and sometimes they aren’t. We touched on this a while ago when I discussed the difference between a Regency scandal and a Victorian scandal, but we’ll go into a bit more depth here because I think we need to have a look at ideas about masculinity and homosexuality during Jane Austen’s lifetime before we go on. Note: in the following discussion, I will be using words that are now considered slurs; I use these specifically within their historical context, with full understanding of the inappropriateness of using them today, and would ask that my readers are similarly respectful of the difference.

To the reviewer, you are both completely right and slightly off the mark. Yes, there were laws about men having sex (they didn’t apparently see the need to write laws for women – looks like no one told them about lesbians…), but they’re more complicated than that. Firstly, the laws specifically related to the act of sodomy itself, not the state of being gay. Why? Because they did not yet have a notion of homosexuality as a state or identity. Two men having sex was frowned upon (sort of – we’ll get back to this later) but it was not considered indicative of any state of being; it was an isolated sin, one that you could commit and then do penance for and be forgiven, etc., in the same way that you could for taking the Lord’s name in vain or back-chatting your parents. Okay you might need a few more Hail Marys for it but same principle. Men who had sex with other men (again, they really didn’t seem to have a single clue about lesbians so I am only going to refer to men here) were known as ‘sodomites’, so they did sort of  have a word for gay people, but notice that the terminology is still entirely framed around the act, not an identity. You could be gay without being a sodomite.

Now, the punishment for sodomy was indeed death, or sometimes hard labour. However – and I am not by any means minimizing the awfulness of that fact – it is important to note that it was not often prosecuted during the Regency, despite it presumably going on about as much as it ever has. There were rarely more than two prosecutions within a year, and of those prosecuted, a surprising number were found to be not guilty; indeed, often several years went by without a single case.

In fact, between the October of 1810 and the August of 1814, there was not one single case of sodomy prosecuted. This while Lord fricking Byron was living in London. Lord Byron. A man who slept with men and women both openly and indiscriminately, and published poems about it. (And also probably with his half-sister but I’m not going there today.) He also had enough friends who were similarly interested to necessitate the use of a sort of coded language in their letters to refer to their homosexual experiences; clearly this was not something practiced with complete transparency, but also neither was it entirely hidden. So what does all this tell us about how strictly the laws about sodomy were enforced during this time? Yeah, with about as much effort as digital piracy today; frowned upon from a distance, every so often prosecuted extremely harshly, before being forgotten about again. To compare with the figures mentioned above for sodomy prosecutions, there were 22 cases of bigamy, 30 cases of murder, and 119 cases of highway robbery prosecuted during the same period. End conclusion? The courts really just did not care enough to push this law, which is usually a fair reflection of the attitudes of the time; so yes, it is definitely condemned in writing, but it doesn’t seem to have figured into most people’s day-to-day concerns. (On that note, there were also no cases prosecuted for brothel keeping during the aforementioned period, despite the well-publicised existence of bawdyhouses around Covent Gardens and Drury Lane.  Ahhh Regency England, you really do not deserve your reputation for prudishness.)

The first massive shift towards a more widespread fear of prosecution for sodomy came with the Oscar Wilde trial in 1895. He was, as far as I can tell, the first hugely famous person to be prosecuted, and the trial was the subject of enormous public scrutiny; the press and public galleries of the court were full and apparently hysterical throughout the opening of the trial. (Note: as one reviewer has very correctly pointed out, there were a number of changes in the relevant laws between the Regency and the Oscar Wilde trial, but I'm not going to cover them here as this essay is already pretty lengthy, and Victorian law is not really my field of expertise. Feel free to investigate further if it is of interest to you.)

Now, this leads me to Regency ideas about masculinity. The first thing to understand is that the Regency saw the resurgence of Classical ideas: a full head of Grecian curls became popular on gentlemen as well ladies (and, yes, gentlemen curled their hair; this was perfectly normal, though possibly considered a bit vain); ladies’ fashions began to emphasise the more natural, flowing lines present in Greek and Roman artwork, with the abandonment of the pannier and full skirts, the introduction of less rigid stays, and thin, nearly transparent muslin gowns; but more important to this discussion is the resurgence of Classical ideas about men, masculinity, and the nature of male friendship.

If you’ve ever read within the Classics, you’ll have noticed that the male friendships described seem… well… just a bit incredibly gay. That is to say, by modern standards, there seems to be some quite obvious queer coding going on. A good example of this is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad, which is generally considered by scholars (as well as some Classical Athenians apparently so shipping has evidently been around forever) to be pederastic, meaning: relating to a homosexual, and usually erotic, relationship between an adult male and an adolescent. Of course, there are scholars who insist that they just had a strong “warrior bond” (translation: “no homo” in academic jargon) but this makes no sense in context since Ancient Greek male friendships could include pretty much any combination of affection, sex, and what we would now perceive as romance, and it was all within the bounds of friendship. (To anyone whose field is Ancient Greece, I deeply apologise for this shameful simplification of a complicated and fascinating element of Ancient Greek social structures.) But this seems like an awesome, progressive way of doing things, until you realise that the value placed on male/male homosocial relationships comes from the idea that it is impossible to form similarly deep relationships with women. Why? Because, according to Aristotle and his contemporaries, women were deformed, undeveloped men; and being both mentally and physically inferior to men, they were therefore considered incapable of the same intellectual and emotional depths as fully developed men.

So, in summary, f*ck Aristotle.

But getting back on topic: why is this relevant to Regency masculinities? Well, because in addition to the cool hairstyles and the comfy fashions, there was also a revival of this garbage fire of an idea. This is not to say that female friendship was ever especially valued in the interim (because sexism) but I think it’s fair to say that male homosocial relationships were very strongly emphasised during this period. Think about it: anyone gentleman enough to be properly educated was obliged, over the course of that education, to read the Classics in their original Greek and Latin. No, seriously, this was a major part of their education. Greek and Latin were considered the basics. Hell, you needed them in order to access the study texts for the rest of your schooling. Like, to a modern Western reader, Miss Bingley’s insistence that an accomplished young woman ought to be fricking trilingual (English, French, and Italian, if you were wondering; you weren’t, but in case you were) seems completely outlandish, until you realise that gentlemen were also supposed to learn at least two ancient languages, in addition to any living languages they needed. What I’m saying is: by Regency standards, we are all illiterate. I am feeling guiltier and guiltier about neglecting my Duolingo app the longer I write this…

Anyway, as I was saying, the texts that boys and men were systematically exposed to and taught to venerate all provided these depictions of male friendship as the height of all possible intimacy with another person, and many of these friendships featured the kind of intimacy that we would now read as ‘romantic’. No, this does not mean that Regency gentlemen were ‘taught to be gay’ (I can already imagine some conservative mouths opening as I write this) but it did have an impact on the way that they interacted with one another. Men in the Regency were physically affectionate towards one another without shame. It would not have been uncommon for men (when separated from ladies) to sit with their arms around each other’s shoulders, for example. They might hold hands, or lean on one another, or put their legs across another man’s knees. The homosexual implication of such behaviour is a relatively new one – there are early photographs from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods showing men doing all of these things, and as photos were often taken in public shops, it’s evident that this behaviour wasn’t seen as anything unusual. Open affection is also evident in men’s letters to one another. It was very common for a man to refer to another male friend as “my dear [X]”, or to sign his letter “Yours very affectionately, [X]” or “Yours faithfully” or “Thine, [X]”.

So, there are two principal takeaways from this discussion. 1) Sex between men wasn’t exactly uncommon, and making references to it or jokes about it wasn’t especially shocking or dangerous. And 2) Male friendships in the Regency could be very affectionate, both verbally and physically. Thought I should mention that, because I don’t particularly want to deal with an influx of confused reviewers when Edward’s very fashionable friends make an appearance (which is pretty soon). Now, that's enough from me. We return now to Darcy, who has been trapped in the inescapable hell that is a house full of extended family members for really far too long.

I remain faithlessly yours,

~Eleanor

 


 

 

It was not long before Darcy began to think that his uncle knew why he had come, or, at the very least, suspected it. Before this visit, his Fitzwilliam relations could—and often did—go weeks without mentioning his cousin Anne. Edward had once spent ten minutes insisting that he did not have a cousin called ‘Anne’, until his mother mentioned that she was Lady Catherine’s daughter, to which he replied: ‘Oh! you mean Anne—well why should I think of her? She is for Darcy. —But did you see that Lady Conway is in Town again, and without her husband? I wonder if she will be at Almack’s this week.’[1]

Now, however, the Fitzwilliams seemed completely unable to speak of anything else. This situation was made nearly unbearable by the fact that Anne had about as much character as a damp handkerchief, so there was, in fact, very little to say about her—or, indeed, to her. The subject of her perennially bad health might have supported one slightly dull conversation, but it could little endure such constant revisitation as it received over the week of Darcy’s visit.

‘I hear you shall be at Rosings again this Easter, Darcy,’ said his Uncle when the ladies had retired to the sitting-room after dinner on the day of his arrival.

Edward sniggered into his glass of wine. ‘Yes, we have all heard; Lady Catherine is delighted.’ The Earl cast an irritable glance in his son’s direction.

‘I hope not,’ said Darcy evenly, ‘for she may be disappointed. I have not yet decided where I shall be at Easter.’

‘Well you had better tell her that,’ said Edward, ‘and sooner rather than later, for she seems pretty well fixed upon it.’

‘That is hardly my concern.’

‘Fie! Darcy!’ cried Edward. ‘Where is that damned sense of duty you are so fond of?’

‘I am not responsible for her expectations, Edward; I have made no promises to her.’

‘Oh! it is not her that she wants your promise to, Darcy—though if that has been your understanding, I begin to see your reluctance to come to the point—I should not want Lady Catherine for a wife—’

‘Edward, for God’s sake, enough,’ said Richard. ‘You are drunk.’

‘Yes, and plan to be more so,’ replied Edward, raising his glass to his brother, and then draining it. ‘I do not see what I have said wrong. It would be easier for all of us if Darcy would get on with it. I am sick to death of hearing about Darcy and Anne and Darcy and Anne and Darcy. You know, Darcy, she has started writing to me now! as if I would ever know what you are about…’

‘Uncle!’ said Richard brightly. ‘I believe you mentioned you had got a new horse—’

‘Ah yes!’ cried Edward, leaning forward to pour himself another glass of wine. ‘Horses. Much better to think of than women. I always prefer a horse to a woman. Not nearly so much noise about riding them, and they never want to talk to you afterwards.’

Darcy sat rigid in his chair. Richard covered his eyes with one hand, then closed his fist, brought it down to his mouth, and pressed the backs of his fingers against his lips with a grimace. Edward was insouciant.

‘And a horse, you know, will not bar you from her rooms for taking other mounts. Very reasonable creatures, I have always thought—they know their place in the world.’ Darcy stood abruptly and went over to stand by the mantelpiece.

Richard glanced over, worriedly, then turned back to his brother. ‘Edward, really—’

‘On their backs,’ said Edward, snorting.

‘Yes, that makes perfect sense in a metaphor about horses,’ said Darcy irritably.

‘Oh you would care about the metaphor, Darcy,’ said Edward with some disgust. ‘But you can return a horse, you know,’ he continued, ‘if it does not suit. Give it on to someone else. What a pity you cannot put a wife up for auction!’

‘Edward, enough,’ said the Earl, finally losing patience with his son. ‘You shall put your cousin off marrying.’

‘Hardly,’ said Edward. ‘Cousin Anne is not such a wretched harpy as Mary. Damned wither-go-ye of a woman, Father. I shall never believe that Mother met her at Almack’s; I am sure it must have been Tattersall’s.’[2]

‘Father!’ said Richard, before Edward could say another word. ‘Did you not say you had an inclination to see where Colonel Blakeney’s regiment has been stationed? I believe there is a map in the library. Shall we look?’

The Earl agreed, and Darcy watched in ill-disguised horror as his cousin—his traitorous, villainous cousin!—led the older man from the room, leaving Darcy quite alone with Viscount Milton, and not at all happy to be so. There was a long, awkward pause. Edward seemed to know he was not wanted, but he was the sort of man who thrived on animosity. It delighted him to be disliked, and he made no effort to release Darcy; he watched him, instead, one brow cocked and a shameless smirk playing about his lips.

Darcy racked his brains for some easy civility—something that would neither cause offence nor invite further conversation—but he had never been particularly good at being either easy or civil with people he disliked, and could think of nothing better to say than, ‘How is Lady Mary?’

It was the worst possible choice, and Darcy regretted it immediately; he spent the next few minutes berating himself for forgetting, in his frantic search for conversation, that Lady Mary was precisely the subject which had led to his present discomfort. Edward gave a short bark of laughter.

‘Ah, yes, my wife,’ he said, turning his eyes heavenward. ‘My own Katherina, though I cannot seem to tame her; I suppose it is ungentlemanly to starve a woman these days. —Oh! do not look at me like that, Darcy—she is not your wife,’ he said, with a resentful petulance about him that would have ill-suited a child of four, much less a man of four and thirty. The Viscount looked down into his glass as thought it had personally offended him, then raised it in the parody of a toast.[3]

‘The Devil take her,’ he said with disgust; ‘she is well enough,’ and drained the glass.

Darcy grimaced, and wished he had followed the Colonel to the library. The Viscount rose.

‘Did she remain at Wentworth then?’ Darcy said, as his cousin approached him. ‘I have not seen her.’

‘Oh! no,’ said Edward, taking a spill from the vase on the mantelpiece, and then resuming his seat. ‘No, she is in London, but God knows where she is hour by hour—attending a Black Mass, probably.’[4]

Darcy looked up sharply. Edward laughed at him, selected a cigar from the box on the table, and then lounged back in his chair.

‘You must learn, Darcy,’ he said as he lit the spill from the candlestick on his right, ‘not to let me shock you so easily, or I shall never get tired of doing it.’ He shrugged. ‘Most likely she is dining with the Lady Harriet or the Misses Ingham. And my son is here too, before you ask. I would have left him at Wentworth but Mary insisted on having him with us, wretched woman. —But now, I must know: what is your sudden interest in my wife?’

He set the cigar between his teeth on the left side of his mouth and brought the spill over to light it. It caught; smoke plumed from the end, and he pressed the spill out on the dish of the candlestick, waving his hand to clear the air. Darcy looked over, frowning.

‘Out with it then, Cousin,’ said the Viscount, smirking. ‘Developed a fancy for her, have you? I should not be surprised; she’s a handsome enough woman, when she does not speak.’

Darcy drew himself up.

‘I do not expect good manners from you, Edward,’ he said coldly, ‘but I would think you might still recognise them in others.’

Edward snorted.

‘That is your concern, not mine. —But have her, if you like.’

Darcy shut his eyes and resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose; he gripped the edge of the mantelpiece instead. Edward watched him with some amusement as he removed his cigar and exhaled heavily. Smoke billowed from his open mouth and Darcy pursed his lips.

‘I am quite in earnest, Darcy,’ said the Viscount; ‘indeed, I wish you would.’ His manner turned contemplative. ‘I do not think I should mind being called a cuckold if I could get evidence enough to divorce her for it.’ Then he laughed again and tipped his head back against the chair, smoke furling around his right hand. ‘God, what I would not give to be rid of her.’

 


 

 

The following days were equally unbearable. Georgiana had remained quiet since his arrival, and Darcy could make no sense of it. His one effort to question his Aunt on the subject—undertaken as they sat together in the parlour on Sunday to listen to Georgiana practicing a dirge on the pianoforte in the next room—met with disaster.

‘Well of course she is unhappy!’ was her answer. ‘Every other girl her age has been allowed into Society, and she has had to stay at home—indeed, I am not at all pleased with you on that score myself.’

Darcy was quite sure this was not the cause of Georgiana’s reserve, but said nothing.

‘To be perfectly frank with you, Darcy,’ continued Lady Charlotte, ‘I do not know why you did not have her presented this year.’

Darcy rose from his seat and crossed to the window.

‘Really, she is quite the little woman,’ Lady Charlotte insisted as she took up her work. ‘There is no sense in putting it off.’

‘She will be presented next year.’

‘She will have to be,’ said his aunt, ‘for you have left it too late to bring her out this Season.’

‘Not at all; I never had any intention of allowing her to enter Society this year. She is, as yet, unready.’

‘She is sixteen,’ said Lady Charlotte; ‘that is old enough, I should think.’

‘For some, perhaps.’

In the other room, the dirge—which, contrary to the directive of the composer, had been being played pianissimo for the last minute or so—came to a sudden end, though neither Darcy nor Lady Charlotte noticed.

‘Whatever do you mean, Darcy?’

Darcy made no reply.

‘Very well,’ said his aunt. ‘I see that you mean to disappoint me.’

‘I assure you that had not been my intent, but you have my apologies nevertheless.’

‘I am sure,’ said Lady Charlotte, pursing her lips. She lifted her work to the light, frowning, and then lowered it again. For a moment, watching her unpick her last few stitches, Darcy really thought she might give it up, and change the subject. No sooner than he had begun to consider the possibility of escape did his aunt set in again.

‘Darcy, I really do not see why she could not be presented this year; Lady Mulgrave’s daughter was, and she is but fifteen.’

Darcy inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, and just barely resisted the urge to hit his head against the glass pane.

‘Because I am Georgiana’s guardian,’ he said, as calmly as he could, ‘and I said she could not.’

‘You know Miss Mulgrave is now to be married,’ Lady Charlotte said, heedless, ‘to the Earl of Banbury, of all people. They will be wed before the year is out. It is a pity; he might have done for Georgiana.’

‘Perhaps, but as he is already engaged to Miss Mulgrave, I suspect he shall have to be content to do for that lady instead.’

‘Fie, Darcy! I cannot account for you; you will damage her prospects if you do not bring her out soon,’ said his Aunt. ‘She has already begun to lose her bloom. Indeed, she looks positively sickly this winter, and she never has before.’

‘I think she looks very well,’ Darcy lied—badly, if his aunt’s expression was anything by which to judge.

‘Very well,’ she said smartly. ‘Do as you like with her. You shall have no sympathy from me when you have her still under your care at thirty.’

Darcy could not see that the situation she described would be any great departure from the one he was presently enduring.

‘If Georgiana never marries,’ he said steadily, ‘it will be of no consequence to me.’

‘It will be of consequence to your wife, when you marry.’

‘You have a very low opinion of me, aunt, if you think I would marry where it would pain my sister.’

‘Oh yes, Darcy, because that is what men choose their wives for—to please their sisters.’ She pulled a stitch through with undue force, and Darcy heard the sound of the thread snapping. Lady Charlotte closed her eyes a moment, then took a new piece of thread, and tied the two together as she continued. ‘She will be an example to your children; they will see her dependence and pity her for it. Would you see your sister so disgraced?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Then you see she must marry.’

Darcy neglected to answer her, and Lady Charlotte allowed the subject, finally, to be dropped.

‘But you know, Darcy, all this has reminded me,’ she said, at length, ‘you were rather sickly as a child, were you not?’

Darcy frowned, unsure of how this fact was remotely connected to their previous conversation. ‘I was.’

‘And yet you came out of that, did you not?’

‘I did.’

‘You are well enough now.’ Darcy owned that he was. ‘I am glad of it,’ said Lady Charlotte, pushing her needle through the fabric with excessive care. ‘You see, it is not so uncommon; I am sure that Anne will come out of it too, in due course.’

Darcy wanted to throw something.

 


 

 

[1] Almack’s Assembly Rooms: an extremely exclusive club for men and women. Entry was by invitation only.

[2] Whither-go-ye: similar to ‘whither-dye-go’. Essentially an insolent wife, one who regularly asks her husband where he is going. (Shocking ‘insolence’, I know…) Tattersall’s: perhaps the most famous market for high-class horses of the time.

[3] My own Katherina: as in Katherina, ‘the shrew’, from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Unlike in the flawless nineties rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You, Petruchio a) does not take Katherina paintballing in order to win her heart, b) does not hijack the school band so he can sing Can’t Take My Eyes Off You to her during soccer practice, and c) is not Heath Ledger. What does he do instead? Oh, you know, the usual: sleep deprivation, starvation, and humiliation… with some psychological manipulation thrown in for fun! Romantic.

[4] A spill: a small piece of wood or rolled paper used to light candles, cigars, etc., by transferring a flame from the main fire. Often kept in a decorative ‘spill vase’ on the mantelpiece. Black Mass: a ritual that witches were believed to perform in the Medieval Era; essentially a mockery or inversion of the Catholic mass. Given that these were, most likely, completely made up, there are no hard and fast rules about what they entail, but popular beliefs included everything from cannibalism, to the stabbing or burning of the sacramental wafers, to wild orgies either in honour of, or somehow including, Satan. Basically, it is a vile suggestion to make about any woman, much less one’s own wife.