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Incivility or; The Very Essence of Love.

Chapter Text

When Elizabeth Bennet was a very small girl, she told her father that she wanted to marry her closest friend, Charlotte Lucas.

He had laughed, until he was pink in the face, and shaken his head at her. Elizabeth, still young, and not yet accustomed to channelling her stubbornness into wit, had stamped her foot.

“Why not!” she had demanded, glowering at her father.

“It is not the way of things, Lizzie,” he had said, smiling affectionately. “When you grow up, you must marry a man to protect you. A rich man, too, if your mother has anything to say of it.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth had replied, confused. “That is silly.”

Her father had shrugged and agreed.

Elizabeth had taken in this information regarding the institution of marriage, and accepted it as truth. But for many years she still puzzled over the question of why she could not marry Charlotte, at least in the privacy of her own mind, until, eventually, the reason became clear to her.

This reason is, of course, that it simply is not done.

 

~

 

At an age of one-and-twenty, Elizabeth now understands the necessity of marrying an eligible, and preferably rich, man. Indeed, despite her mild bemusement regarding the giggling and gaggling of her youngest sisters over the slightest hint of romance, she cannot find it in herself to imagine rejecting a good man. His goodness, of course, would have to encompass wealth, status, kindliness, handsomeness, and a complete dedication to herself, but still – Elizabeth would not say no, if such a man existed. She indulges by considering herself the standard of a practical romantic, and thinks no more of the man she will marry, except when her sisters insist upon it.

“Handsomeness,” Lydia proclaims.

“Handsomeness matters little to our creator,” Mary sniffs. “I should like to marry a good Christian man, preferably a member of the clergy.”

“As long as he is kind,” Jane adds, smiling. “That is all that matters.”

Lydia sighs, and exaggeratedly rolls her eyes. “Lord, Jane, a kind man would bore me to tears. A handsome man is who you ought to aim for.”

Kitty nods. “Yes, and rich, too.”

“Bah!” Lydia wrinkles her nose. “I am sure that all rich men are ugly. I have never seen a rich man who is not old and impossible to look at.”

“Lizzie!” Jane interrupts, before Mary can interject with what is sure to be a moralistic lecture of several paragraphs. “What sort of man would you marry?”

Elizabeth only smiles. “If I could love a man who would love me enough to take me for what we shall inherit, I should be very well pleased.”

Jane returns Elizabeth’s smile as her sisters contemplate Elizabeth’s statement, and for a moment there is peace.

Elizabeth cannot resist it.

“Such a man, though, could never be sensible. I could never love a man who was out of his wits.”

Immediately, the room descends into an argument, and Elizabeth almost as quickly regrets inducing her youngest sisters into it for the concern it causes Jane.

 

~

 

Very soon, it becomes apparent that a young, rich, eligible man has found his way to Netherfield, and Elizabeth takes great pains to reserve her more scathing comments on her mother’s state of excitement over the event for Jane and Charlotte. Still, even she must admit it is a time for speculation – rumour has it that this Mr. Bingley has brought not only his sisters, but another eligible and rich man for the neighbourhood to fawn over, too. He is one Mr. Darcy, of whom little at all is known.

A ball is just the thing for such gossip to find its way to half-truths, and so the Bennet sisters dress themselves as prettily as they are able with limited means, and make their way with their parents to the public ball being held that week.

Once there, the girls quickly find themselves separated – Lydia and Kitty to whichever young, unoccupied men they can find at cards or dancing, Mary to a quiet corner with a book, Jane to dancing with their neighbours, and Elizabeth to greet Charlotte.

“Tell me, have you managed to escape the news of our new neighbours?”

“Sadly not,” Charlotte says, smiling wryly. “The household has been all a flutter, though, I venture, nowhere near as excited as your own must have been.”

“Oh, you cannot overstate it,” Elizabeth says, shaking her head.

Before they can continue their conversation, however, a series of murmurs begin to make their way over the crowd, and Elizabeth is forced to turn away to find their source. She need not look for long, however, for the source of the whispering is apparent. Not only has the renowned Mr. Bingley arrived, with sisters in tow, but it seems the rumours about his rich friend Mr. Bingley have neglected to mention a crucial factor – that his friend is, in fact, a woman.

“Oh, my,” Charlotte murmurs, and Elizabeth finds herself privately agreeing.

Miss Darcy can hardly be called the name, despite her strangely compelling beauty, for she is dressed as a man. A strange hot flush pervades Elizabeth’s senses at the impossible sight of her, yet the vision does not disappear as she blinks.

Miss Darcy’s dress, had she been a man, could cause no one to complain of either fastidiousness or laziness, yet as her dress does not match her sex, the room is quickly overtaken with whispering and staring. Though she herself cannot help but participate, given the strangeness of it all, Elizabeth feels somewhat self-conscious of the rudeness of her neighbours in their little-concealed effort to divine the reason for Miss Darcy’s oddness.

Elizabeth takes Charlotte’s arm to speak of other things, but before she has the chance to turn away, the newcomers pass her by. Without meaning to – conscious as she is of the stares pervading the room – Elizabeth catches Miss Darcy’s eye, and is frozen with surprise. Miss Darcy’s dark eyes pause upon her, but suddenly move away, as if she had not meant to do it. Elizabeth bows politely, before hastily pulling Charlotte aside, that they may speak more privately.

“Not a bachelor, then,” she whispers, when she is sure they are out of earshot.

“No, indeed! There was word that Mr. Darcy had ten thousand a year, but I am inclined to think now Miss Darcy must be an heiress.”

“An heiress! Mama shall be disappointed, then, for Miss Darcy must have designs upon Mr. Bingley if that is the case. I hope they shall be very happy together,” Elizabeth says merrily.

“Oh, Lizzie! Surely not. Besides, there is the matter of her attire to consider. Would a woman in search of a husband really …” Charlotte trails off, unable to put into words what they have seen.

“I do not know,” Elizabeth admits, truthfully. “I cannot account for it.”

“Perhaps she wishes to drive off potential husbands.”

Elizabeth wrinkles her nose in distaste. “If that is so, I shall never be able to respect her. To drive away good men because one is only concerned with one’s riches … I am sure I could never be so callous.”

“It would not be so simple, to be an heiress, Lizzie, and you know it,” Charlotte chides. “Though we are not so lucky, wealth comes with its own trials.”

“Oh, Charlotte, please,” Elizabeth begs. “I was subject already to Mary’s moralising when we came here, do not make me suffer my own faults twice.”

Charlotte laughs, and agrees to be silent, and they move on to happier topics.

The night progresses, and Elizabeth sees little of Miss Darcy, though she is obliged to sit out several dances and cannot help but notice Miss Darcy’s total refusal of the few men who are brave enough to ask her to dance. Her earlier opinion would seem to be confirmed, then, for Miss Darcy speaks only to Mr. Bingley and his sisters.

As Elizabeth sits, however, she finds that the distance between herself and the party is not so great, and she is able to overhear a little of their conversation.

“Come now, Darcy,” Mr. Bingley says. “I know you will not dance with any man here, but surely, with the shortage of men available, you will allow for a lady? See, several female couples are dancing already!”

“You have already danced with the most handsome girl in the room, Bingley, and I can see no others who would tempt me,” Miss Darcy replies, stiffly.

Elizabeth privately considers it the height of rudeness for a woman to insist that the attractiveness of one’s female partner be a consideration of dancing with them, but can hardly comment on it.

“Oh! She is beautiful, but her sister is very pretty. Allow for an introduction – surely there can be no harm in it.”

Miss Darcy glances for a moment in Elizabeth’s direction, but upon catching her eye – Elizabeth pretending not to have heard anything – coldly says: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by men. You had better return to your lady and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time attempting to rouse one from me.”

At this pronouncement, Mr. Bingley quickly exits in order to dance once more, perhaps sensing that his friend is in no mood to be teased. Miss Darcy stalks away, and Elizabeth, though perhaps affected by the speech, finds Charlotte again to tell of it with only good humour.

Chapter Text

Mrs. Bennet’s determination to find Mr. Bingley’s good favour is not to be stymied by any danger to her daughter, and so Jane is sent to Netherfield, to the satisfaction of the mother, the general disinterest of the father, and the distress of the second eldest sister. After several anxious hours spent by the window, in despair of the torrential downpour of rain, Elizabeth’s considerable terror is broken by the arrival of a note from Netherfield – to the effect that her sister is ill, yet in safe hands. It sends a wave of relief over her to hear of it, yet the relief is tempered by anger at the flagrant disregard for Jane’s safety that had prompted the journey in the first place.

Still, she reasons – it should therefore be no concern to their mother for Elizabeth to visit Netherfield too.

Her journey the next day is pleasant, sunlight having warmed the air enough to dry out the path, at least for the most part. Elizabeth’s hemline is utterly ruined, but such is the way of things, when one is required to have such a low one. It sets her to wondering, as she makes her way around yet another puddle, whether perhaps sheer practicality is the reason for Miss Darcy’s attire. After all, had the rumours of Mr. Bingley’s rich friend not begun because he was seen with a well-dressed man riding across the countryside? If Miss Darcy is the sort of woman to prefer time spent out of doors, it stands to reason that she should dress … perhaps not appropriately, but certainly with a degree of reasonableness.

It sends a flush to Elizabeth’s cheeks when she considers Miss Darcy’s manner of dressing, embarrassment mixed in with the exertion of the walk. She cannot puzzle it out. Elizabeth much enjoys time spent walking herself, yet she has never allowed herself to so flagrantly disregard social conduct for the sake of it. No, it must be some snobbish pride on Miss Darcy’s part, an arrogant assurance that no one will dare question the whim of an heiress – even for an action so strange.

Less than half an hour later, Elizabeth unfortunately finds herself in Miss Darcy’s presence once more, though thankfully, Mr. Bingley is present to mitigate Elizabeth’s displeasure.

“Miss Bennet! What a pleasure to see you,” he greets her with ease. “I must say, we did not expect to host another Miss Bennet already.”

“Especially,” interrupts Mrs. Hurst, “When she has clearly walked through three miles of mud to come.”

At this pronouncement, Elizabeth notices Miss Darcy’s gaze has turned away from herself, and as consequence for looking so long at the lady, she is forced to realise that yes, indeed, Miss Darcy is quite in the habit of dressing herself in a man’s attire. This is no mere matter of ease upon riding, then.

“I do apologise for my state of dress,” Elizabeth says, suddenly unable to think of anything else to say in the presence of the lady.

“Not at all,” Mr. Bingley says, eagerly. “I am certain that should I ever become ill, why, my own sisters would hike over hill and dale to get to me.”

Judging by the twin looks of horror on the faces of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, Elizabeth is privately forced to consider that precisely the opposite must be true, but she does not deign to comment.

“I am sure,” she replies, instead. “Please, may I see my sister?”

With that, she is taken quickly upstairs by a servant to see Jane, and relieved to see her abed and in good spirits, though too warm upon her forehead for Elizabeth’s liking. In the presence of her sister and with more pressing matters to occupy her mind, Elizabeth’s mind does not stray to the strangeness of Miss Darcy again.

 

~

 

Apart from a brief break to ascertain that she will stay at Netherfield and need her clothes sent for, and another to supper with the Hursts, Bingleys, and Miss Darcy, Elizabeth does not leave Jane’s room until she is well settled into sleep, and quite comfortably on the way to mending. Even then, she appears only at breakfast the next day briefly. Yet as the evening draws in on the second day, Elizabeth is forced to conclude that an appearance downstairs will not go amiss, and is rather called upon considering her being seen so little amongst the others the previous day.

Upon entering and finding the party at cards, Elizabeth is quick to settle in with a book, but this unremarkable habit does not go unnoticed. Mr. Hurst expresses her astonishment at the preference of books over cards, and Mr. Bingley is quick to offer her the use of her library. It is Miss Bingley who draws the vexed Miss Darcy into conversation, though, censured and rude as Elizabeth is beginning to find the lady.

“I am astonished,” says Miss Bingley, “that my father should have left so small a collection of books. But what a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Miss Darcy!”

“It ought to be good,” the lady replies, shortly, “for it has been the work of many generations.”

“And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books,” Miss Bingley continues, with a teasing tone. Though, thus far, Miss Bingley has seemed a little bored amongst their company, Elizabeth notes that her friendship with Miss Darcy seems to lighten her expression.

“I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these,” Miss Darcy continues, with something like a shadow of passion in her voice. It is the first sign of feeling other than disdain Elizabeth has noted in her character.

“Neglect! I am sure you neglect nothing that can add to the beauties of that noble place.”

Miss Bingley continues to tease Miss Darcy over the matter of her library and the grounds at Pemberly, Miss Darcy’s origin, that Elizabeth becomes quite caught up in the conversation and lays her book wholly aside. She draws nearer the card-table, close to Mr. Bingley and his eldest sister, to observe the game.

Miss Bingley brings the conversation around to the younger sister of Miss Darcy, which Elizabeth notes with a little surprise – having little known, but much observed, the older Miss Darcy, she would have sworn her a single child, though that, perhaps, is born of knowing Miss Darcy to be an heiress. Yet the younger Miss Darcy – Miss Georgiana Darcy, apparently – is quite accomplished, if Miss Bingley’s profound praise is to be believed. Given Miss Bingley’s mild distaste for Elizabeth’s own family, Elizabeth is inclined to imagine Miss Georgiana Darcy accomplished indeed.

“It is amazing to me,” says Mr. Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”

“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”

“Yes, all of them, I think,” says Mr. Bingley, nodding with surety. “They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished!”

“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” says Miss Darcy, “has too much truth.”

Elizabeth turns her head towards the lady, astonished at hearing such a pronouncement – yet her next words reveal her further snobbishness against her own sex.

“The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

 “Then,” Elizabeth interrupts, suddenly irked, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”

“Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.” Miss Darcy’s eyes turn upon Elizabeth with something like a challenge in them, one that Elizabeth immediately feels compelled to meet.

“Oh, but of course,” Miss Bingley adds, nodding and drawing her back straight. “No one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”

“All this she must possess,” adds Miss Darcy, without removing her gaze from Elizabeth, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

Elizabeth resists the urge to grin and bare her teeth in triumph, settling for a polite smile.

“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any,” she says, mildly.

“Are you so severe upon our own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?” A line appears between Miss Darcy’s eyebrows, as if thwarted in some strange way.

“Not so, Miss Darcy, only – I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united in any woman I have met.”

Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst are united in protest at Elizabeth’s words, yet she is satisfied in knowing that the blow has landed – that Miss Darcy must understand, of course, that she herself is lacking in the standards she has described, in Elizabeth’s eyes, at least.

The rest of the evening passes in much the same manner of conversation, but Elizabeth pays it little heed, returning to her book with determination.

 

~

 

In sitting together with the party the next day, having spent the night closely with Jane, Elizabeth is once more given the opportunity to observe their characters. Vexingly, Miss Darcy seems determined to continue being a puzzle – in her disdain for her own sex, there is pride, yet Elizabeth cannot account for its reason, when Miss Darcy seems to have earned the friendship of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst so easily, and when, of course, she also allows considerable praise for her sister to flourish. Indeed, Miss Darcy is even in the course of writing Miss Georgiana Darcy a letter that afternoon, an act which Miss Bingley feels obliged to narrate in order to fill the otherwise pervading silence.

Yet Miss Bingley’s narrations appear to rather provoke argument, rather than peaceful passing of time, and it is not long before a dispute erupts on the subject of flaws and failings, and whether false modesty is amongst them if it cannot be determined false after all. Thankfully, when that particular business is over, Mr. Bingley is seized by a desire for music, applying to his sister for the indulgence. Miss Bingley is able to comply, with the assistance of Mrs. Hurst’s singing.

Elizabeth, with no other occupation but her books, cannot help observing, as she glances up on several occasions, how frequently Miss Darcy’s eyes are becoming fixed on her. She hardly knows how to suppose that she can be an object of admiration to so great and rather snobbish a woman; and yet that she should look at her because she dislikes her, is still more strange. Elizabeth, after all, does not wish to look upon Miss Darcy, for all her dislike of the woman’s manners and the confusion that still causes Elizabeth’s stomach to turn in knots over her appearance. Elizabeth can only imagine that she draws Miss Darcy’s notice because there is something still more wrong and reprehensible, according to her ideas of what is right in women, than in any other person present. The supposition does not pain her. She knows herself to like Miss Darcy too little to care for her approbation.

Yet the question lingers in her mind, that Miss Darcy should harbour such feelings of displeasure at her own sex as to dress apart from them, and refuse to submit herself to the attentions of gentlemen, even as it appears her closest friend is male. Miss Darcy’s harsh words against the accomplishments of women come back to Elizabeth with startling clarity, and she is forced to conclude once more that Miss Darcy’s motivations and reasoning will remain a mystery to her.

Soon after the music finishes, Miss Bingley appearing tired of the pianoforte. She stands, casting her eye about the room, before alighting upon Elizabeth.

“Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room,” she announces, looking a little bored still even at the prospect. “I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude.”

Without intending to, Elizabeth notes that Miss Darcy has looked up. She closes her book, and it irritates Elizabeth to be so watched, sure that she is being criticised. Yet she cannot refuse Miss Bingley, and so acquiesces to the request.

“Do you care to join us, Miss Darcy?” Elizabeth politely inquires, though her teeth are gritted.

“No, it pleases me more to remain seated when other ladies walk about the room,” Miss Darcy replies.

“What can she mean, Miss Bennet?” Miss Bingley asked, looking thoroughly perplexed.

To tell it true, Elizabeth does not know, but she is determined not to be outmanoeuvred by Miss Darcy.

“Something severe,” is her answer. “She has some criticism against those females who cannot sit still and patiently.”

 “I have not the smallest objection to explaining myself,” Miss Darcy says suddenlu, as Miss Bingley and Elizabeth round the corner of the room. “You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other’s confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; if the first, I would be completely in your way, and if the second, I –”

Here she pauses, seeming to colour a little, yet she presses on.

“– I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.”

“Oh! goodness!” cried Miss Bingley, blinking. “I cannot think what a woman should admire in another woman’s figure. Tell me, Miss Bennet, how should I respond to such a proclamation?”

Indeed, Miss Bingley looks desperate for some certainty. Elizabeth is uncertain herself, yet knows Miss Darcy to be playing some trick upon them both, and decides she will not give in to it.

“I believe you should allow yourself to fall back upon your best talent, Miss Bingley,” Elizabeth says. “You must tease Miss Darcy—laugh at her. Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done.”

“But upon my honour, I do not. Tease calmness of manner and presence of mind! No, no; I feel she may defy us there. And as to laughter, we will not expose ourselves, if you please, by attempting to laugh without a subject. Miss Darcy may hug herself.”

“Oh, but Miss Darcy is not to be laughed at?” cried Elizabeth. “That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintances. I dearly love to laugh.”

“Miss Bingley,” says Miss Darcy, whose eyes do not leave their figures as they turn about once more, “has given me more credit than can be. The wisest and the best of people may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”

“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth, sensing some weakness. “There are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I am given to hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”

“That is not possible for anyone. But it has been the study of my life to – to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule, even when one is – singled out for them.”

“Such as pride,” Elizabeth persists, “or, perhaps, disdain for any particular group of people.”

“I do not believe that, Miss Bennet. Pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.”

Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile.

“Your examination of Miss Darcy is over, I presume,” says Miss Bingley, perhaps sensing that the conversation has got away from her, “and pray what is the result?”

“Oh, but I am perfectly convinced by it that Miss Darcy has no defects. She is utterly without disguise in her nature.”

“No,” says Miss Darcy, with something in her voice Elizabeth does not know how to name.

Elizabeth watches her face closely, as she and Miss Bingley come to a halt before her.

“I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of … understanding.” Here Miss Darcy pauses, shifting in her seat, looking agitated, before looking up once more with a different sort of determination. “My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding—certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever.”

“And that is a failing indeed!” cried Elizabeth. “Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But, still, I admit, you have chosen your fault well. I really cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me.”

“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular defect, which not even the best education can overcome,” Miss Darcy replies, her voice strong even as her hands twist in her lap with some strange nervousness.

“And your defect is to hate everybody?”

Miss Darcy suddenly smiles, though it is tinged with some sadness Elizabeth cannot divine the source of.

“And yours – to misunderstand them.”

A pause ensues during which Elizabeth struggles to answer Miss Darcy’s accusation, and then –

“Do let us have a little music,” cries Miss Bingley, tired of a conversation in which she has no share. Elizabeth almost feels that she understands her annoyance, having found herself once more drawn into conversation with a woman she heartily cannot respect.

 

~

 

The hours pass, and Elizabeth continually checks on Jane, and is pleased to note her sister seems to be improving, so she will not need to be in Miss Darcy’s company long, though she will be sorry to lose the others’ society upon returning home. She writes to bring a carriage around the next morning, when Jane will be more likely able to travel.

The following day, Elizabeth’s mama decides to make her presence known along with the carriage, by taking each of her daughters to Netherfield in order to bring Jane home safely. Elizabeth knows that such an action is unnecessary, of course, but is quite unable to prevent her mother from embarrassing herself at the best of times – least of all when she is required to take care of her sister in exiting the home, and cannot address her mother’s lack of manners. Thankfully, though, they are able to be gathered in the carriage at last, and driven back home to Longbourn.

As they are leaving, though, Elizabeth is forced once more to be in the presence of Miss Darcy. After assisting Jane into the carriage – with no lack of gallantry on the part of Mr. Bingley, who is nearby, inexplicably, it is not he who offers Elizabeth his hand, but Miss Darcy. Unsure of how to refuse – how to ask why Miss Darcy so thoroughly plays the part of man, when all know that she is not – Elizabeth takes her hand to enter the carriage, and is faintly surprised with the smallness of it. Miss Darcy’s skin is soft, quite clearly belonging to the hand of a lady, and it faintly stirs some amazement in Elizabeth as they drive away, that Miss Darcy, being quite pretty in her own way, insists upon deterring gentlemen admirers.

Chapter Text

Elizabeth has barely rediscovered the peace – or relative peace, perhaps, of her home – when her father makes an announcement at breakfast that shatters what little of the virtue there is left in the household.

Their cousin, Mr. Collins, apparently having taken orders, is coming to visit them that very day. More to the point, it is quite obvious that he is come in order to discover amongst the Bennet sisters a bride, and their Mama will most certainly be put into a frenzy until such time as that deed is done.

Privately, Elizabeth is given to wonder from his manner in the letter addressed to them all, whether the man is worthy of marriage to any of them – excepting, perhaps, Mary, whose solemn disposition is the only one amongst her sisters which Elizabeth can imagine matching his fastidious tone.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s summations of Mr. Collins’ character are not proven wrong upon his arrival. The man is without either sense or propriety, and Elizabeth despairs when it becomes obvious that his attachment must land on either Jane or herself – and given both her Mama’s determination that Jane should marry Mr. Bingley, seeing her settled at Netherfield, and her inclination towards meddling, Elizabeth quickly is made to understood that Mr. Collins’ attentions are to be turned on her alone.

Elizabeth is quite determined not to marry him, of course. She does not allow herself to think long on why, knowing that her reasons are sound, and she cannot possibly be expected to marry a man she does not truly love. But the time will come for that, and in the meantime, there are other diversions to take her mind off their unfortunate cousin.

For Lydia and Kitty’s favourite Mr. Denny introduces his good friend Mr. Wickham, and Elizabeth thinks, ah, of course. This must be what her sisters see in fine officers. His regimentals suit him so well, accentuating every charming grace, that Elizabeth is briefly given to mourn that she should not ever have the opportunity of dressing such herself. But that way lies the vexation that is Miss Darcy, who Elizabeth is determined not to think of.

It is the worst of Elizabeth’s luck, however, for the very lady herself rides with Mr. Bingley towards their little party on the road mere moments later. Mr. Bingley strikes up conversation with ease, but Miss Darcy, Elizabeth cannot help but note, is even more reticent than usual – in fact, she has turned quite white. Following her gaze, Elizabeth is astonished to see that the expression upon Miss Darcy’s face appears to be the result of fixing her sight upon Mr. Wickham.

Mr. Wickham, for his part, appears as affected, turning red. He touches his hat after a few moments—a salutation which Miss Darcy just deigns to return, though it appears to pain her, judging by her pinched expression and flaring nostrils.

Elizabeth watches these events unfold with the greatest of interest, and once more, is confounded by the behaviour of Miss Darcy – yet in this instance, she has one upon whom she can prevail for details of the action.

Elizabeth waits until her sisters are well out of earshot, distracted by the other officers that make up their party, before daring to inquire as to the nature of the obvious coldness on the part of Miss Darcy towards Mr. Wickham.

He smiles sadly, before beginning his tale.

“Ah, Miss Bennet, you well perceive the manner of our meeting. Are you much acquainted with Miss Darcy?”

“As much as I ever wish to be,” Elizabeth says, with some heat. “I was forced to spend several days in the same house with her very recently, and I think her a very disagreeable woman.”

Mr. Wickham nods, sagely.

“I have no right to give my opinion as to her being agreeable or otherwise. I have known her for far too long and too well to be a fair judge. But I believe your opinion of her would in general astonish—and perhaps you would not express it quite so strongly anywhere else. Here, of course, you are amongst your own family and friends.”

Elizabeth blinks, quite taken aback by his assertions. She rallies to defend herself.

“Upon my word, I say no more here than I might say anywhere! Miss Darcy is not at all liked in Hertfordshire. Everybody is disgusted with her pride, and vexed by her manner of dressing and addressing. You will not find her more favourably spoken of by anyone.”

Mr. Wickham pauses before choosing his next words, seeming to consider them carefully.

“The world, I believe, is blinded by her fortune and consequence, or frightened by her high and imposing manners, and sees her only as she chooses to be seen, in general. Therefore you must forgive my surprise at your low opinion of her. Though I have seen her mode of dress here is quite unusual, it was not always so – when I knew Miss Darcy, she was a very proper and becoming young lady. Alas, time has not been kind to her, and has been helped along by her stubborn insistence upon fancying herself with all the correct qualities of a man.”

“She was not always – as she is?” Elizabeth cannot keep the surprise from her voice.

Mr. Wickham shakes his head.

“No, you misunderstand me. Miss Darcy has always been a proud and unfeeling sort of woman – that much I still know to be true. But, in the days that I knew her at Pemberly, she had at least the decency to dress in such a way that flattered her – that was proper according to her sex.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth says, flummoxed. Somehow, she struggles to imagine Miss Darcy in a gown, with curled hair and ribbons. It feels awkwardly wrong in some way.

“I wonder,” Mr. Wickham hedges, “whether she is likely to be in this country much longer.”

“I do not know; but I heard nothing of her going away when I was at Netherfield. I hope any plans you may have in favour of remaining near will not be affected by her being in the neighbourhood.”

Mr. Wickham laughs.

“Oh! no—it is not for me to be driven away by Miss Darcy. If she wishes to avoid seeing me, she must go. We are not on friendly terms, and it always gives me pain to meet her, but I have no reason for avoiding her but that which I might proclaim before all the world, a sense of very great ill-usage, and most painful regrets at his being what she is. You see,” he pauses once more, “Her father, the late Mr. Darcy, was one of the best men that ever breathed, and the truest friend I ever had; and I can never be in company with this Miss Darcy without being grieved to the soul by a thousand tender recollections. Her behaviour to myself has been scandalous; but I verily believe I could forgive her anything and everything, rather than disgracing the memory of her father.”

“Indeed,” Elizabeth says, repressing the urge to gasp. “But surely her father would be pleased to see you so well situated as a military man – is that not some small comfort?”

Mr. Wickham sighs.

“Alas, a military life is not what I was intended for. The church ought to have been my profession—I was brought up for the church by the late Mr. Darcy, and I should at this time have been in possession of a most valuable living, had it pleased his daughter.”

“Oh, surely not!”

“It is true. The late Mr. Darcy bequeathed me a living as a curate when next it became unoccupied. He was my godfather, and excessively attached to me. Indeed, I believe, for a time, he had hopes that I might even marry his younger daughter eventually, and call me a true son – though of course, I made no overtures, the girl being so young. Sadly, this would not do for Miss Darcy.”

“Good heavens!” Elizabeth gasps. “But how could his will be so ignored?”

“Unfortunately, there was just such an informality in the terms of the bequest as to give me no hope from law. Miss Darcy chose to treat it as a merely conditional recommendation, and to assert that I had forfeited all claim to it by extravagance, imprudence. At any rate, the living became vacant two years ago, exactly as I was of an age to hold it, and it was given to another man”

“This is quite shocking!” Elizabeth says, furious. “She ought to be publicly disgraced.”

Mr. Wickham shrugs.

“Some time or other she will be—but it shall not be by me. Till I can forget her father, I can never defy or expose her.”

Elizabeth nods, understanding that this is the honourable thing to do. Yet something niggles at the back of her mind.

“But what can have been her motive, for such cruel action?”

Mr. Wickham bows his head, appearing hesitant to speak. He clears his throat.

“Miss Darcy has a thorough, determined dislike of me—a dislike which I cannot but attribute in some measure to jealousy. Though I made no overtures to the younger Miss Darcy in all my time at Pemberly, I believe that she may have considered our future marriage a certainty. This would not do, you see, as she had formed an attachment to me, which, when I declined to return it, turned to hatred.”

“I had not thought Miss Darcy so bad as this—though I have never liked her,” Elizabeth admits. “I had supposed her to be despising her fellows, men and women alike, in general, but did not suspect her of descending to such malicious revenge as this.”

Mr. Wickham makes some comments on the subject, stressing his lack of desire to speak so ill of Miss Darcy, but the conversation quickly moves on, and is decidedly beyond Miss Darcy when Kitty and Lydia walk back towards them, crying out for them to catch up with the rest of the group.

Elizabeth is left to absorb the information imparted by Mr. Wickham alone, and the more she thinks on it, the angrier she becomes. So, not only is Miss Darcy a proud woman by distancing herself from all good society – both women, who she clearly despises, and men, who she seeks to emulate while simultaneously staunchly rejecting – but she is vengeful too, capable of denying a good man his living for the sake of a jealous love of him.

That night, she relates all that she has heard to Jane, venting the anger that has built up inside her all day. To her surprise, Jane does not match her in it.

“I don’t know, Lizzie,” she sighs, combing through her hair slowly. “It seems strange to me that Miss Darcy should go to such lengths to spite a man who turned her down.”

“She has herself admitted to an unforgiving temper, Jane. It is not so strange when one considers that.”

Jane bites her lip. “I suppose, it is only – in my conversations with Mr. Bingley –” here Jane blushes “– I was given to understand that Miss Darcy is not particularly welcoming to the affections of men, barring Mr. Bingley’s friendship alone.”

“She blames all men for her disappointment,” Elizabeth reasons.

Jane shakes her head. “No, Mr. Bingley implied that it was deeper than that. He does not often seek to explain Miss Darcy’s behaviour to me, but, perhaps, he sensed that she is not well-liked in this neighbourhood, and he could not help but try to defend her. He gave me reason to think that Miss Darcy dresses and behaves as she does not out of a hatred towards men, but a preference for the company of … particular women.” She coughs politely. “At any rate, his friendship with her is assured, and I cannot think that Mr. Bingley would befriend such an evil person.”

“Oh, Jane, you and Mr. Bingley are too alike. You see the goodness in everyone,” Elizabeth says, affectionately.

The conversation is ended there, and soon afterwards, they are both abed. It is not until she is half-asleep that Elizabeth is given to wonder what Jane meant when she referred to particular women.

 

~

 

The news of a ball at Netherfield provides enough excitement in the lives of the Bennets that Elizabeth hardly thinks of Miss Darcy over the next week. Kitty and Lydia are quite dizzy with excitement, especially given the understanding that Mr. Bingley’s invitations are to be extended to practically all the officers they can think of. Even Mary is a little more cheerful than usual, spending hours at the pianoforte, practising in the hopes of displaying her skills at the ball.

Jane, Elizabeth observes, makes no indication of her being at all thrilled, yet there is something in the way she smiles when she thinks nobody else is looking, that causes a glow of affection to warm Elizabeth’s heart. Mr. Bingley’s regard is assured; of that, Elizabeth is certain, and it is only a matter of time before he proposes.

Unfortunately, it seems only a matter of time before Elizabeth will receive a proposal of her own. Mr. Collins’ attentions have not once let up, to her dismay, and he makes every effort to pay her compliments which he drops into conversation with all the delicacy of a runaway carriage.

Upon the evening of the ball, he insists upon dancing with her no less than twice, and Charlotte is barely able to keep Elizabeth hidden from him. It is during one of their conversations (whereupon Elizabeth relates all that she has heard of Miss Darcy, to Charlotte’s infuriating nonchalance,) that she discovers that Mr. Wickham is not present – that, according to Charlotte, he will not attend, owing to the presence of a particular lady.

Miss Darcy, whose timing is spectacularly bad, approaches Elizabeth not moments after her having learned this fact.

“Might I request the honour of the next dance?” Miss Darcy inquires.

Elizabeth, of course, knows that she may refuse, for there is no shortage of gentlemen to force her hand, and in any case, if there were, she should far prefer to dance with Charlotte or one of her sisters. For all these reasons, and her thorough knowledge of all Miss Darcy’s flaws, she cannot explain what she does next.

“You may,” she replies.

Miss Darcy bows stiffly, and walks away.

Suddenly aware of what she has done, Elizabeth pulls Charlotte by the arm behind a nearby pillar.

“Did I just agree to dance with Miss Darcy?”

“I believe you did,” Charlotte replies, her eyebrows very high on her face.

“But I hate her! And there are plenty of gentlemen with which I should far prefer to dance, I cannot understand it! Why should she ask me?”

“I do not know, Lizzie, but I daresay you shall find out.”

When the dancing recommences, Miss Darcy approaches to claim Elizabeth’s hand as promised. Elizabeth takes her place in the set, and they stands, awkwardly, for some time without speaking a word. Idly, Elizabeth imagines that their silence might last throughout the two dances, and at first she is resolved not to break it – yet suddenly it occurs to her that it will be the greater punishment to her partner to be obliged to talk.

Accordingly, Elizabeth makes some slight observation on the dance. Miss Darcy replies, and is again silent. After a pause of some minutes, Elizabeth prompts her once more.

“It is your turn to say something now, Miss Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some sort of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”

“Whatever you wish for me to say will be said,” she replies, looking a little discomposed.

“Perhaps,” Elizabeth continues, with some cheek, “by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones.”

“Do you often talk, while you are dancing?” Miss Darcy sounds a little irked, and this brings a smile to Elizabeth’s face.

“Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together; and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged, as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as possible.”

“Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?”

“Both,” replies Elizabeth archly; “for I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.”

“This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure,” Miss Darcy says, quietly. “How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly.”

“Oh, I cannot be expected to comment on my own examinations.”

Miss Darcy makes no answer, and they are again silent for some time.

“Do you and your sisters often walk to Meryton?” Miss Darcy says, unexpectedly.

“Indeed, we do,” Elizabeth says sweetly. “When you met us there the other day, we had just been forming a new acquaintance.”

The effect is immediate. A deeper shade of hauteur overspreads Miss Darcy’s features.

“Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends—whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain,” she says, with some constraint.

“He has been so unlucky as to lose your friendship,” replies Elizabeth tightly, “and in a manner which he is likely to suffer from all his life.”

Miss Darcy makes no answer.

Sir William Lucas, insensible of the tense silence that has formed between the two of them, draws near, meaning to pass through the set to the other side of the room; but on perceiving Miss Darcy, he stops with a bow of superior courtesy to compliment her on her dancing and her partner.

“I have been most highly gratified indeed, my dear lady. Such very superior dancing is not often seen. It is evident that you belong to the first circles. Allow me to say, however, that your fair partner does not disgrace you, and that I must hope to have this pleasure often repeated, especially when a certain desirable event, my dear Eliza,” he says, gesturing towards Jane and Mr. Bingley, “shall take place. What congratulations will then flow in!”

Sir William’s allusion to Miss Darcy’s friend seems to strike her oddly, and her eyes are suddenly directed with a very serious expression towards Bingley and Jane, who are still dancing together. Elizabeth feels somewhat defensive – but of what, she knows not. Sir William continues to make his way through the couples, chuckling to himself.

Recovering herself shortly, Miss Darcy turns back towards Elizabeth, and says, “Sir William’s interruption has made me forget what we were talking of.”

“I do not think we were speaking at all. Sir William could not have interrupted two people in the room who had less to say for themselves. We have tried two or three subjects already without success, and what we are to talk of next I cannot imagine.”

“What think you of books?” Miss Darcy asks, the hint of a smile on her lips.

“Books—oh! no. I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings,” Elizabeth replies, thinking quickly. It irritates her that Miss Darcy has struck upon the one thing they may be said to have in common.

“I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions,” Miss Darcy persists.

“No—I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something else,” Elizabeth says, smiling glibly.

“The present always occupies you in such scenes—does it?”

“Yes, always,” Elizabeth replies, unthinkingly. Her cheeks warm without warning, and she is quick to change the subject. “I remember hearing you once say, Miss Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave, that your resentment once created was unappeasable. You are very cautious, I suppose, as to its being created.”

“I am,” Miss Darcy replies, firmly.

“And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?”

“I hope not.”

“It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”

Miss Darcy’s look upon Elizabeth now is very direct.

“May I ask to what these questions tend?”

“Merely to the illustration of your character,” says Elizabeth, endeavouring to shake off Miss Darcy’s directness of gaze. “I am trying to make it out.”

“And what is your success?”

Elizabeth shakes her head.

“I have none. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.”

“I can readily believe that reports may vary greatly with respect to me,” Miss Darcy says, and there is a look about her now that speaks to some deeper thing, a past pain Elizabeth cannot reach or understand.

“I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment,” Miss Darcy continues, “as there is reason to fear that it would reflect poorly upon me.”

“But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity,” Elizabeth says, raising her eyebrows.

“Yes,” Miss Darcy murmurs, “perhaps that is true.”

She says no more, and they go down the other dance and part in silence. Elizabeth feels some strange disappointment in it, for despite their conversation, she is no closer to understanding Miss Darcy than before.

Still, perhaps she should not attempt to. Miss Darcy, as she well knows from Mr. Wickham’s account, is quite beyond reason. Elizabeth does not wish to think of her at all.

Chapter Text

“May I hope, madam, to solicit for the honour of a private audience, your fair daughter Elizabeth in the course of this morning?”

Mr. Collins’ opening words at breakfast ought to be laughable. Elizabeth already knows what her answer to the question buried in such an audience must be. Yet for reasons she cannot name, the blood drains from her face upon hearing him speak, and she feels, not the embarrassed disinterest she has put up with so far, but a true measure of fear.

Before Elizabeth has time to speak, her mother answers instantly.

“Oh dear! – yes – certainly! I am sure Lizzie can have no objection. Come, girls, I want you upstairs,” she adds, failing to subtly wink at Elizabeth’s gathered sisters.

Gathering their things together, they all hasten away, Kitty and Lydia not even attempting to stifle their giggles. Elizabeth, in a sudden state of panic, entreats them to stay.

“Jane – mother, do not go. I beg you will not go. Mr. Collins must excuse me. He can have nothing to say to me that anybody need not hear.” She looks desperately to her eldest sister, but Jane bites her lip, shaking her head as their mother tugs at her arm.

“No, no, nonsense, Lizzy. I desire you to stay where you are.” Upon Elizabeth’s seeming determined to escape, Mrs. Bennet adds: “Lizzy, I insist upon your staying and hearing Mr. Collins.”

Elizabeth knows that she cannot oppose such an injunction. She sits down again and tries to conceal her terror, but it is difficult when the object of her distress begins to speak.

“Believe me, my dear Miss Elizabeth, that your modesty, so far from doing you any disservice, rather adds to your other perfections. You would have been less amiable in my eyes had there not been this little unwillingness; but allow me to assure you, that I have your respected mother’s permission for this address. You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse. My attentions have been too marked to be mistaken.”

Yes, they rather have been marked, and Elizabeth casts wildly about in her memories for a moment when she might have stopped this address from occurring.

“Almost as soon as I entered the house, I singled you out as the companion of my future life. But –before I am run away with by my feelings on this subject, perhaps it would be advisable for me to state my reasons for marrying.”

The idea of Mr. Collins, with all his solemn composure, being run away with by his feelings, makes Elizabeth feel something like hysterical laughter bubble up in her chest. For a moment, indeed, it would easy to laugh at such a man – yet still, beneath her horror is some deeper revulsion she cannot name, a thing which she dares not examine.

Mr. Collins, insensible of Elizabeth’s inner horror, continues his speech.

“My reasons for marrying are, firstly, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced that it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly—which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. It was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford that she said, ‘Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.’ Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her manners beyond anything I can describe; and you, I think, must be acceptable to her, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite.”

It is absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.

“You are too hasty, sir,” Elizabeth says, her throat coming unstuck. “You forget that I have made no answer.”

She pauses, attempting to conceal her unexpected terror.

“I thank you for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposal, but it is – it is – impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.”

Mr. Collins waves his hand, looking almost amused.

“I am aware that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

In an instant, Elizabeth’s fear transforms into a more familiar feeling – extraordinary offence.

“Your hope,” she begins, coldly, “is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so.”

Mr. Collins pauses to recollect himself, seemingly struggling to continue. Elizabeth uses the moment to rise from her chair, beginning to quit the room, but he speaks once more.

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on the subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me. I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application.”

“Really, Mr. Collins,” Elizabeth cries out, harshly, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as to convince you of its being one.”

“It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me.”

For a moment Elizabeth is once more rendered speechless.

“My feelings,” she begins, her voice shaking, “in every respect forbid my marrying you. Can I speak plainer? We are rational creatures – I am speaking the truth from my heart.”

To her surprise, tears are near to forming in the back of her throat, and she steps back, shocked by herself.

“You are uniformly charming!” Mr. Collins says, with an air of awkward gallantry, “and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.”

Elizabeth could make no reply.

She withdraws immediately, of course, unable to stomach the thought of his attentions any further, and retreats to the outside world, unwilling to speak to anyone but God.

She has just refused what might be the only marriage proposal she ever receives.

Well – and why not? Mr. Collins is ridiculous. He is completely unacceptable as a husband to her – to allow him to have dominance over her in any way is an idea not to be borne. The thought of being any more subject to his attentions than she already has been turns her stomach. No, of course she cannot marry him.

But then –

Has she not been in the habit of accusing other women of snobbishness in their refusal to marry? Has Mr. Collins not many other considerations which would leave her family in comfort? Elizabeth will not be a hypocrite, yet – deep inside her heart is the knowledge that she cannot, cannot marry –

Mr. Collins. She cannot marry Mr. Collins, that is all. There is no shame in that. No deeper motive than that of incompatibility – no one can blame her for such a problem in the course of a courtship.

Well, nobody excepting her mother, of course.

“Elizabeth Bennet! Come back here immediately, child! I have brought your father, see if you will behave so stubbornly! You must marry Mr. Collins!”

Her mother comes flying down the garden path with her father in tow. His expression could almost be called amused, where it not for the weariness with which he stumbles after his wife.

“Come here, child,” her father says, as they draw closer.

Elizabeth draws nearer to her parents, but will not look them in the eye.

“I understand that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of marriage. Is it true?”

“It is.”

“Very well – and this offer of marriage you have refused?”

Elizabeth swallows her shame.

“I have, sir.”

“Very well. We now come to the point. Your mother insists upon your accepting it. Is it not so, Mrs. Bennet?”

“Yes, or I shall never see her again!” Mrs. Bennet cries, wringing her hands.

Mr. Bennet sighs.

“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

Elizabeth looks up in amazement, her expression mirroring her mother’s. Before Mrs. Bennet can begin to shout once more, she steps forward quickly, eyes glistening with tears, to kiss her father’s cheek.

“Thank you, papa,” she whispers, before hurrying away, ignoring her mother’s outrage.

 

~

 

Mr. Collins, offended and not a little shocked by the complete refusal of Elizabeth to consent to marry him, is moved to stay with the Lucases, who warmly receive him without a hint of surprise. Elizabeth expresses her concerns to Charlotte, of course, but they have little time to talk while Mr. Collins spends his days with her family – she is required to play the part of a hostess, after all.

Luckily, distractions are to be found in Meryton – while walking into town one morning, Elizabeth is pleased to encounter Mr. Wickham, who is more than happy to provide an explanation for his absence at the Netherfield ball.

“It is just as your Miss Lucas related,” he confirms, smiling sadly. “I found as the time drew near that I had better not meet Miss Darcy. To be in the same room, the same party with her for so many hours together – it would not only be too much for myself, but too much too, I think, for her.”

“Of course,” Elizabeth agrees. “I admire your forbearance in the face of such a wrathful woman. It cannot be easy to be so despised.”

“I bear it because I must, Miss Bennet,” he replies, before offering to take her all the way into town with her sisters. Elizabeth agrees to the proposal, and the party sets off for a pleasant morning.

Upon their return, however, another dark cloud settles over one of their number – for Jane receives a letter from Miss Bingley, a letter which, when Elizabeth sees the expression upon her face while she reads it, she deduces cannot be good news.

“You may read for yourself, Lizzie,” Jane says, calmly handing it over once they are alone. “But it is only to tell us that the whole party have left Netherfield, and do not intend to return.”

Elizabeth exclaims, and quickly takes the letter from Jane’s hand to confirm the events. But it is just as she fears.

The very first sentences comprise the information of their having just resolved to follow their brother to town directly, and of their meaning to dine in Grosvenor Street, where Mr. Hurst has a house.

Elizabeth is incensed, however, by the following words.

“When my brother left us yesterday, he imagined that the business which took him to London might be concluded in three or four days; but as we are certain it cannot be so, and at the same time convinced that when Charles gets to town he will be in no hurry to leave it again, we have determined on following him thither, that he may not be obliged to spend his vacant hours in a comfortless hotel. Many of my acquaintances are already there for the winter; I wish that I could hear that you, my dearest friend, had any intention of making one of the crowd—but of that I despair. I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings, and that your beaux will be so numerous as to prevent your feeling the loss of the three of whom we shall deprive you.

“Miss Darcy is impatient to see her sister; and, to confess the truth, we are scarcely less eager to meet her again. The affection she inspires in Louisa and myself is heightened into something still more interesting, from the hope we dare entertain of her being hereafter our sister. I do not know whether I ever before mentioned to you my feelings on this subject; but I will not leave the country without confiding them, and I trust you will not esteem them unreasonable. My brother has always admired the elder Miss Darcy greatly, of course, and a sister’s partiality is not misleading me, I think, when I call Charles most capable of engaging any woman’s heart. With all these circumstances to favour an attachment, and nothing to prevent it, am I wrong, my dearest Jane, in indulging the hope of an event which will secure the happiness of so many?”

Elizabeth sets down the paper with a huff, furious with Caroline Bingley for her interference in what might have been the happiness of Jane.

“Is it not clear enough? She is perfectly convinced of her brother’s indifference. If she suspects the nature of my feelings for him, she means – most kindly! – to put me on my guard. Can there be any other opinion on the subject?”

“Yes, there most certainly can,” Elizabeth scoffs. “Miss Bingley sees that her brother is in love with you, and wants him to marry Miss Darcy. She follows him to town in hope of keeping him there, and tries to persuade you that he does not care about you.”

Jane shook her head, but could not speak to defend Miss Bingley further.

“Indeed, Jane, you ought to believe me. No one who has ever seen you together can doubt his affection. Miss Bingley is not such a simpleton. Her problem is this: we are not rich enough or grand enough for them, and she is the more anxious to get Miss Darcy for her brother, knowing that she is an heiress and a better choice in that regard. But, my dearest Jane, you cannot seriously imagine that because Miss Bingley tells you her brother feels friendship for Miss Darcy, he is in the smallest degree less sensible of your worth than when he took leave of you. Especially when we must consider Miss Darcy’s indifference to male attention.”

“Caroline is incapable of wilfully deceiving anyone. All that I can hope in this case is that she is deceiving herself.”

“Oh, Jane!” Elizabeth cannot help but cry out. Though the love of her sister prevents her from ever feeling hatred for her, she will be vexed when Jane insists on behaving so blindly.

But the damage is done – glad as Elizabeth is to see the back of Miss Darcy, it causes her heart to ache when she considers the feelings of her sister towards Mr. Bingley. That, sadly, is something she does not know how to mend.

 

~

 

Both good and bad luck alike is said to come in lots of threes, and so Elizabeth tells herself when she is faced with a third blow – one she does not see coming, and cannot forgive herself for.

Charlotte is to marry Mr. Collins.

“Why should you be surprised?” Charlotte asks, reproach in her voice.

They are seated in the garden of Longbourn, and Elizabeth’s mouth is hanging open with shock. Charlotte frowns just a little, a tiny pinched line appearing in her forehead.

“Do you think it incredible that Mr. Collins should be able to procure any woman’s good opinion, because he was not so happy as to succeed with you?”

For a moment Elizabeth sputters, but she quickly recollects herself.

“I only – it is a surprise, to be sure. I had not thought him – worthy of – that is, I am happy for you, Charlotte, quite happy. I congratulate you. Heartily.”

Elizabeth finishes her speech somewhat awkwardly, her thoughts still whirling.

“I see what you are feeling,” Charlotte replies, quietly. “You must be surprised, very much surprised—so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not … romantic, you know; I never was. Not like you. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”

 “Undoubtedly,” Elizabeth whispers.

After an awkward pause, they return to the house and the distractions of Elizabeth’s family. Charlotte does not stay much longer.

Elizabeth finds herself, that night, reflective on the matter of her friendship with Charlotte. Once upon a time, before she had learned the proper way of things, she had wanted to marry Charlotte herself. Peculiarly, the memory of her childish wish suddenly overwhelms her – a lump rises in her throat, and tears in her eyes to match.

Well, and why not? – Is it not the normal reaction of a woman upon hearing that her closest friend is to be married and taken away from her? Their confidences dashed by the presence of a husband, whose importance in her life will overtake that of any female friends?

Elizabeth has seen those woman who, at the news of a wedding, do not laugh but rather weep, in the way of one who has suffered a great loss. Elizabeth’s feelings are perfectly natural in such a situation. What else might they be?

But it is still a long time before she becomes at all reconciled to the idea of so unsuitable a match. The strangeness of Mr. Collins’s making two offers of marriage within three days is nothing to her, but for the shock that he has now been accepted. She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she had not supposed it to be possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte, the wife of Mr. Collins, was a most humiliating picture!

And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, is added the distressing conviction that it is impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she has chosen. No, Charlotte surely cannot be happy in her choice, not truly happy. Elizabeth cannot comprehend lasting love in the marriage of Charlotte to Mr. Collins. Not the love of two friends and equals.

But it is the choice that Charlotte has made. For better or worse, it is one that Elizabeth must live with.

Chapter Text

With no greater events to distract the Longbourn family from one another than the news of Charlotte’s marriage, and otherwise only distracted by walks to Meryton, do January and February pass away. March takes Elizabeth to Hunsford.

She had not at first thought very seriously of going thither, but Charlotte, she soon finds, is depending on the plan and she gradually consinders it herself with greater pleasure as well as greater certainty. Absence has increased her desire of seeing Charlotte again, and weakened her disgust of Mr. Collins. For these reasons she allows herself to consent to the journey.

After all, a little change is not unwelcome for its own sake. The journey will moreover give her a peep at Jane; and as the time draws near, she becomes increasingly sorry for any delay. Finally, plans fall into place, and Elizabeth decides to accompany Sir William and his second daughter Maria to see Charlotte.

Arriving at the cottage in which Charlotte and her husband reside gives Elizabeth a sudden flux of nerves, but in seeing Charlotte, they are becalmed – and she knows that however sad she has been to see Charlotte go, she has not lost a friend as she had once feared. As their initial greeting and luncheon progress, Elizabeth observes that often, when Mr. Collins says anything of which his wife might reasonably be ashamed, she can discern a faint blush upon Charlotte’s cheeks, but in general Charlotte wisely does not hear. Elizabeth is satisfied as she can be with that.

Later, at dinner, Mr. Collins eagerly makes mention of the presence in the country of Lady de Bourgh, with all the excitement of one who is truly deferential to and honoured by his betters.

“You will have the honour of seeing Lady Catherine de Bourgh on the ensuing Sunday at church, and I need not say you will be delighted with her. She is all affability and condescension, and I doubt not but you will be honoured with some portion of her notice when service is over. We dine at Rosings twice every week, and are never allowed to walk home. Her ladyship’s carriage is regularly ordered for us. I should say, one of her ladyship’s carriages, for she has several.”

Elizabeth makes agreeable noises to that, which seems to satisfy him.

A few days later, on the Sunday as planned, the little party make their way to Rosings Park with a great deal of fanfare on the part of Mr. Collins, who can hardly contain his enthusiasm regarding his esteemed patroness. Rosings Park is indeed quite an estate to behold, however, even Elizabeth must admit – though Mr. Collins is more concerned with its number of windows than its extensive grounds for walking through.

Elizabeth’s first glance at Lady Catherine gives her a great deal to consider. Lady Catherine’s daughter is pale and sickly looking beside her, shrinking in her mother’s shadow – a prodigious shadow indeed, cast by a woman who gazes over her domain with a stern and keen eye for any fault. Their introduction by Mr. Collins is entirely proper, and Elizabeth notes as she bows, that her ladyship’s lip curls just a little when it settles on her.

Dinner invites conversation, and it is then that Elizabeth receives confirmation that her first impressions of her ladyship appear to be entirely correct. Turning her eye upon Elizabeth, her ladyship deigns to speak.

“Your father’s estate is entailed on Mr. Collins, I think. For your sake,” she says, turning to Charlotte, “I am glad of it; but otherwise I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. It has never been of concern in the families of de Bourgh and Darcy. Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet?”

“A little,” Elizabeth admits, cautiously.

“Some time or other we shall be happy to hear you, of course. Our instrument is a capital one, probably superior to your own. What of your sisters, do they play and sing?”

“One of them does,” Elizabeth says, thinking and internally wincing at the memory of Mary’s stubborn efforts to tame the pianoforte.

“Why did not you all learn? You ought all to have learned. Well, in any case, do you draw?” A frown has begun to appear on her ladyship’s face, but it will not stop Elizabeth from being honest.

“No, not at all.”

“What, none of you?”

“Not one.”

“That is very strange. But I suppose you had no opportunity. Your mother should have taken you to town every spring for the benefit of masters.”

“My mother would have had no objection,” Elizabeth confirms, “but my father hates London.”

“Has your governess left you?”

Elizabeth smiles politely. “We never had any governess.”

“No governess! Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.” Her ladyship shakes her head disapprovingly.

“I can assure you, ma’am, that was not the case. Our mother devoted as much time to our education as necessary.”

“Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been quite neglected.”

“Compared with some families, perhaps,” Elizabeth says, diplomatically, “but we were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary there.”

“If I had known your mother, I should have advised her most strenuously to engage a governess. I always say that nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it. I am always glad to get a young person well placed out. Are any of your younger sisters out, Miss Bennet?”

“Yes, ma’am, all.”

“All! What, all five out at once? Very odd! And you only the second. The younger ones out before the elder ones are married! Your younger sisters must be very young.”

Elizabeth responds with as much delicacy as she is able.

“My youngest is not sixteen. Perhaps she is full young to be much in company. But really, ma’am, I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters, that they should not have their share of society and amusement, because the elder may not have the means or inclination to marry early. The last-born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth as the first. I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind to hold the younger back.”

“Upon my word,” says her ladyship, sharply, “you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age?”

“With three younger sisters grown up,” replies Elizabeth, smiling, “your ladyship can hardly expect me to own it.”

Lady Catherine seems quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspects herself to be the first creature who has ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence. Luckily her ladyship’s attention is quickly drawn to other matters, and soon enough, the dinner and ensuing conversation is over. In the carriage home, (graciously granted by her ladyship, of course,) Elizabeth is called on by her cousin to give her opinion of all that she has seen at Rosings, which, for Charlotte’s sake, she makes more favourable than it really was. Mr. Collins is, to her complete lack of surprise, very soon obliged to take her ladyship’s praise into his own hands, as Elizabeth’s is not quite up to scratch.

 

~

 

The Lucases are quite reassured by the time a week has passed that their dear Charlotte is settled comfortably, while Elizabeth is at least reassured that Charlotte is not unhappy. Unfortunately, rather unfortunate news arrives within another week to ruin Elizabeth’s already delicate mood – Miss Darcy is expected to join her aunt at Rosings soon, a fact which Mr. Collins acquaints Elizabeth with. Very soon, a visit is paid to the parsonage by the lady in question, joined by another relative – one Colonel Fitzwilliam.

Colonel Fitzwilliam, Elizabeth quickly learns, is little like his cousin at all. About thirty, he is not handsome, but a gentleman beyond reproach. Miss Darcy looks just as she used to look in Hertfordshire – snobbish and cold. She pays her compliments, with reserve, to Mrs. Collins, and to Mr. Collins, who looks anywhere but at her breeches. Elizabeth curtsies to her without saying a word.

Colonel Fitzwilliam converses with the Collins easily, while Miss Darcy remains in silence, irking Elizabeth by studying her hands, smoothing their backs an absurd number of times. At length, however, her civility is finally awoken as to inquire after the health of Elizabeth’s family.

Elizabeth looks sharply at Miss Darcy, her manners being the only saving grace to prevent her from gritting her teeth.

“They are all quite well, thank you, Miss Darcy. I wonder – my eldest sister has been in town these three months. Have you never happened to see her there?”

She knows of course that Miss Darcy never did. But she wants to see whether Miss Darcy will betray any consciousness of what has passed between the Bingleys and Jane, and so studies her closely.

Miss Darcy looks only a little confused before answering.

“I was not so fortunate as to meet with Miss Bennet, no.”

“A pity,” Elizabeth says, softly.

The subject is pursued no further, and Miss Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam are soon obliged to quit them in order to continue on to Rosings. Elizabeth, meanwhile, thinks on those few words from Miss Darcy – the confirmation that she had not met with Jane – and tries to decipher their meaning.

 

~

 

Sooner than expected by any at the parsonage, an invitation to dine once more at Rosings is received, and is noted to be at the particular request of Colonel Fitzwilliam – who all the ladies agree to be a most amiable neighbour. Elizabeth is pleased to return to Rosings despite its occupants in Lady de Bourgh, her daughter, and of course Miss Darcy. The home’s loveliness and charms could not make up for this alone, of course, but Colonel Fitzwilliam’s company surely will.

Upon arrival, the party is taken once more to Lady de Bourgh’s drawing-room, and it is there that Elizabeth discovers a most perplexing sight.

Elizabeth does not recognise the woman deep in conversation with her ladyship at first. Richly adorned in the finest muslin, a gown cut to the latest style, the woman appears at the height of fashion. Her hair is curled and drawn back, prettily decorated with ribbon and a turban. As she is turned away from Elizabeth, that is all Elizabeth can see of the woman at first – but then, turning, the face is revealed, and it is more than familiar to her.

Miss Darcy is, for once, dressed in the style her sex demands, and something about it makes Elizabeth’s chest constrict with discomfort.

There is something undeniably wrong in seeing the confidant horsewoman of Hertfordshire in the latest trappings of the London season. The hair is false, Elizabeth can see now, but very well matched, and the gown unwrinkled and almost painfully well fitted, certainly recently purchased and done up. Worse still, Miss Darcy’s long arms are hidden and revealed all at once – long gloves covering them only to betray her musculature in the gap before the sleeve.

Elizabeth starts as she realises she has been staring, wide-eyed, at Miss Darcy for several seconds – it annoys her, seeing that she is guilty of the same rudeness she accuses Miss Darcy of, but that feeling passes as she realises that Miss Darcy’s own eyes have widened upon seeing her.

Lady de Bourgh finally finishes talking with her nephew and niece, and turns to the gathered party in order to greet them. As they bow, Elizabeth can hardly keep her eye from straying to Miss Darcy, whose own eye more often than not is upon Elizabeth.

They do not have a chance to talk, however, until much later in the evening, when her ladyship entreats Elizabeth to play upon the pianoforte, to Elizabeth’s embarrassment. It is not that she wants to speak with Miss Darcy for the lady’s company, of course, but she is curious to see what explanation Miss Darcy will offer for her mode of dress in the present company. Thus, when Miss Darcy edges towards the pianoforte as Elizabeth plays, she finds herself softly speaking to Miss Darcy, despite her distaste.

“You mean to frighten me, Miss Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

“You could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you,” Miss Darcy replies. “Besides which, I understand that your courage, as you call it, is less of bravery than it is of defiance.”

“Indeed! Well, defiance is a worthier fault than dishonesty,” Elizabeth bites back, raising her eyebrows as she continues to play.

“I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing dishonest opinions, which in fact are not your own.”

Elizabeth laughs at this picture of herself, a pitiful attempt on Miss Darcy’s part to insult her. She raises her voice a little, in the hopes that Colonel Fitzwilliam will hear her next words.

“You have a very pretty notion of me. I am particularly unlucky in meeting with a person so able to expose my real character, in a part of the world where I had hoped to pass myself off with some degree of credit. Miss Darcy, it is very ungenerous in you to mention all that you knew to my disadvantage in Hertfordshire, for it is provoking me to retaliate, and such things may come out as will shock your relations to hear, should they wish to.”

“I am not afraid of you,” Miss Darcy says, though the blood draining from her face says otherwise.

“Oh? Have you nothing to hide from your relatives? I cannot profess the same,” Elizabeth says, lightly. She glances up to see Miss Darcy’s expression as she processes Elizabeth’s words, the shape of it transforming into something Elizabeth cannot quite define.

“I have not the talent which some people possess,” Miss Darcy admits, hesitantly, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done. I fear that there is a divide between myself and good company which cannot be overcome. Something which … ensures that I must only keep the friendship of those with whom I am already familiar.”

Elizabeth mulls over the words, trying to divine their meaning. If Miss Darcy only seeks to prove that her good breeding has set her station far above that of common folk, she will find no sympathy with Elizabeth.

“See my fingers, Miss Darcy,” Elizabeth begins. “They do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I simply have not had the chance to … practise. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”

She glances up once more to see another strange look upon Miss Darcy’s face, as she watches Elizabeth’s fingers move upon the keys. Miss Darcy clears her throat.

“You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting.”

Elizabeth swallows her surprise at the compliment.

“I say, Miss Darcy, you seem to have mastered the art of maintaining polite company already,” she says, cordially as she as able. Yet Elizabeth cannot resist pressing the point of her curiosity. “Even in your dress you are transformed.”

“It is for the sake of my aunt that I dress as I do now, to please her,” Miss Darcy says, an unhappy tone entering her voice.

But before Elizabeth can inquire further, they are interrupted by Lady de Bourgh herself, who insists on knowing what they are speaking of. Elizabeth immediately begins playing again. Lady Catherine approaches, and, after listening for a few minutes, begins to complain of Elizabeth’s lack of instruction. Her remarks on Elizabeth’s performance continue, but at the request of the gentlemen, Elizabeth remains at the instrument till her ladyship’s carriage is ready to take them all home.

In the carriage, however, she is given time to think over her words with Miss Darcy, and cannot help but feel that somehow, they were having two different conversations altogether.

 

~

 

The next morning, Elizabeth finds herself sitting alone in the house, and is surprised when answering the ring of the door, to see Miss Darcy standing outside it – alone, and once more, dressed in the manner befitting one of her sex.

She seems astonished too upon finding Elizabeth alone, and stutters out an apology for her intrusion. Mystified, Elizabeth lets Miss Darcy in, with hardly a word between them.

After they sit down, Elizabeth desperately casts about for a topic of conversation, sensing that they are in danger of sinking into total silence given Miss Darcy’s stunned expression. Finally, a subject comes upon her, a subject which she has not yet had the chance to discuss with Miss Darcy.

“How very suddenly you all quitted Netherfield last November, Miss Darcy! It must have been a most agreeable surprise to Mr. Bingley to see you all after him so soon. If I recollect rightly, he went but the day before. He and his sisters were well, I hope, when you left London?”

“Perfectly so, I thank you.”

A momentary silence ensues, during which Elizabeth tempers her frustration with Miss Darcy’s reticence.

“I think I have understood that Mr. Bingley has not much idea of ever returning to Netherfield again,” she inquires, delicately.

“I have never heard him say so; but it is probable that he may spend very little of his time there in the future. He has many friends, and is at a time of life when friends and engagements are continually increasing.” Miss Darcy looks uncomfortable with the subject of conversation, but Elizabeth finds herself disinclined to change it.

“If he means to be but little at Netherfield, it would be better for the neighbourhood that he should give up the place entirely, for then we might possibly get a settled family there,” she says, in a hard tone. “But, perhaps, Mr. Bingley did not take the house so much for the convenience of the neighbourhood as for his own, and we must expect him to keep it or quit it on the same principle.”

“I should not be surprised,” says Miss Darcy, “if he were to give it up as soon as an eligible offer is made.”

Elizabeth makes no answer but the gritting of her teeth. They will not speak of Bingley and his treatment of Jane, then.

But Miss Darcy appears to have finally discovered her voice, and gestures to the general vicinity.

“This seems a very fine house,” she states, awkwardly. “My aunt, I believe, did a great deal to it when Mr. Collins first came to Hunsford.”

“I believe she did,” Elizabeth says. “I am sure she could not have bestowed her kindness on a more grateful object.”

“Mr. Collins appears to be very fortunate in his choice of a wife.”

For some reason this comment stings, and Elizabeth shifts uncomfortably, imperceptibly.

“Yes, indeed, his friends may well rejoice in his having met with one of the very few sensible women who would have accepted him. My friend – Charlotte – she has an excellent understanding of …” Elizabeth trails off, struggling to speak. She swallows and begins again.

“I will admit that I am not certain that I consider her marrying Mr. Collins as the wisest thing she ever did. But … she seems perfectly happy here, and in a prudential light, it is certainly a very good match for her. I can make no complaint, as a friend to her, of her being ill-used.”

Miss Darcy pauses before speaking once more.

“It must be very agreeable for her to be settled within so easy a distance of her own family and friends.”

“An easy distance, do you call it? It is nearly fifty miles.”

“And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day’s journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance – for one who had reason to make the journey. As you have.”

“I still do not call it near,” Elizabeth insists, needing to prove, somehow, that she is in the right on this matter. “This is, though you may be unaware, my first visit to Mrs. Collins since her marriage. I am afraid that the closeness of our friendship is one of the necessary sacrifices at the altar of matrimony.”

Miss Darcy nods, staring with a great intensity at Elizabeth.

“A sacrifice indeed,” Miss Darcy says, softly. “That the friendships between women which develop long before the necessity of marriage arise must be lost to it does seem – unfair. I take it that you have no such friends at great distances, Miss Bennet.”

Elizabeth shakes her head.

“Where there is fortune to make the expenses of travelling unimportant, distance becomes no evil. But that is not the case here. Mr. and Mrs. Collins have a comfortable income, but not such a one as will allow of frequent journeys—and I am persuaded my friend would not call herself near her friends and family in Hertfordshire under any circumstances. Certainly I do not.”

Miss Darcy draws her chair a little towards Elizabeth.

You cannot have a right to such very strong local attachment. You cannot have been always at Longbourn.”

Elizabeth cannot disguise her surprise at such an assumption.

“Indeed, Miss Darcy,” she says, slowly, “I have been. It is my home.”

Miss Darcy, perhaps experiencing some change of feeling, draws back suddenly, and sounds colder when she speaks once more, enquiring as to Elizabeth’s opinion on Kent.

A short dialogue on the subject of the country is about to ensure, but it is soon interrupted by the entrance of Charlotte and her sister, just returning from their walk. Within minutes, Miss Darcy has made her excuses, and left – Elizabeth once more trying to discover what precisely the lady has been trying to communicate.

 

~

 

As time passes at the parsonage, Elizabeth takes to walking, reading letters when she has them to pass the time. More than once, to her vexation, she meets Miss Darcy unexpectedly, who is always dressed in her strangely discomforting gowns. Elizabeth for her part feels all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring Miss Darcy where no one else is brought, and to prevent its ever happening again, takes great care in informing Miss Darcy that it is a favourite haunt of hers.

How it occurs a second time, therefore, is very odd! Yet it does, and a third besides. 

Happily today, however, she meets Colonel Fitzwilliam upon one of her rambles instead, to her great relief. She greets him with a smile, and discovers that he too is walking back towards the parsonage, and so they end up walking together.

“I am afraid that we shall be leaving Kent this Saturday, Miss Bennet, if Miss Darcy does not put it off again,” he mentions, by the by. “But I am at her disposal. She arranges the business just as she pleases.”

“And if not able to please herself in the arrangement, she has at least pleasure in the great power of choice,” Elizabeth snorts. “I do not know anybody who seems more to enjoy the power of doing what she likes than Miss Darcy.”

“She likes to have her own way very well,” replies Colonel Fitzwilliam, in a tone implying some carefulness to his words. “But then, so do I. In that way, my cousin and I are like, though inverse. There have even been times we contemplated –”

But here, he breaks into laughter, while Elizabeth tries not to appear as though she has lost the thread of the conversation. The colonel shakes his head.

“Miss Darcy has better means of having her way than many others of her sex because she is rich, that is the plain truth of it. I speak feelingly. A younger son, you know, must be inured to self-denial and dependence, especially a younger son whose tastes run as my own do.”

Elizabeth shakes her head.

“In my opinion, the younger son of an earl can know very little of either,” she says, dryly. “Now seriously, what have you ever known of self-denial and dependence? When have you been prevented by want of money from going wherever you chose, or procuring anything you had a fancy for?”

“Excellent questions, Miss Bennet – and perhaps I cannot say that I have experienced many hardships of that nature. But in matters of greater weight, I may suffer from want of company. I cannot always be with those people whom I should like to be acquainted with.”

Elizabeth looks questioningly at him, wondering what kind of company the son of an earl (even younger) could possibly be excluded from. There is a sorrowful look to his eye that speaks of something far more horrible than a want for invitations to grander circles.

“Why not marry?”

His smile widens, but the sorrowful look in his eyes deepens.

“Ah, Miss Bennet – I fear I am destined never to marry. Though I lack that passion which drives many men to violence in relation to their wives, it is precisely for lack of passion that I would not submit any woman to marriage with myself.”

 “I imagine your cousin brought you down with her chiefly for the sake of having someone at her disposal,” Elizabeth says, changing the topic quickly before she can once more lose the thread of conversation. “I wonder she does not marry, to secure a lasting convenience of that kind. But I have heard tale that Miss Darcy is not to suffer the trials of matrimony, either.”

“Indeed she is not,” Colonel Fitzwilliam says, chuckling and brightening once more. “I cannot speak for her sister, of course, but the elder Miss Darcy will never marry if she can help it, I do believe. That may be work enough, come to think of it – Miss Darcy and myself are guardians to the younger Miss Darcy, you see, and we shall have quite the time of it seeking a husband for her who meets the elder’s standards.”

“Are you indeed? And pray what sort of guardians do you make? Does your charge give you much trouble? Young ladies of her age are sometimes a little difficult to manage, and if she has the true Darcy spirit, she may like to have her own way.”

“Indeed, the younger is quite different from the elder! I never heard any harm of her; and I dare say she is one of the most tractable creatures in the world. She is a very great favourite with some ladies of my acquaintance, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley. I think I have heard you say that you know them.”

“I know them a little,” Elizabeth admits, not liking to be reminded of them. “My family became acquainted with Mr. Bingley some time ago. He is a great friend of Miss Darcy’s, of course. Hertfordshire was all alight with rumours that they would marry, but of course, I know that to be impossible now – as you mentioned.”

“Indeed! Well, that is not so strange. I suppose rumours may have arisen from Miss Darcy’s interference in the matter of Mr. Bingley’s – but, I ought to beg her pardon, for I have no right to suppose that Bingley was the person meant. It was all conjecture.”

“What is it you mean?” Elizabeth feels a sudden heavy dread settle in her limbs, her subconscious thoughts catching on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s possible meaning. But, surely –

“It is a circumstance which Miss Darcy could not wish to be generally known, because if it were to get round to the lady’s family, it would be an unpleasant thing,” Colonel Fitzwilliam murmurs, looking ashamed.

“You may depend upon my not mentioning it,” Elizabeth says, looking very intently at the colonel’s expression.

“Well …” he begins, looking a little doubtful. But then, glancing at her, he relents.

“Remember that I have not much reason for supposing it to be Bingley,” he warns her, and Elizabeth nods. “What she told me was merely this: that she congratulated herself on having lately saved a friend from a most imprudent marriage, but without mentioning names or any other particulars. I only suspected it to be Bingley from believing him the kind of young man to get into a scrape of that sort, and from knowing them to have been together the whole of last summer.”

“Did Miss Darcy give you reasons for this interference?”

“I understood that there were some very strong objections against the lady.”

Elizabeth feels her hand at her side tighten into a fist, and forces herself to relax it.

“And what arts,” she says, calmly, “did she use to separate them?”

“She did not talk to me of arts,” says the colonel, smiling. “She only told me what I have now told you.”

Elizabeth can make no answer, and walks on in silence, her heart swelling with indignation. After watching her a little, the colonel dares to ask her why she appears so thoughtful.

“I am thinking of what you have been telling me,” she says, pursing her lips. “Your cousin’s conduct does not suit my feelings. Why was she to be the judge?”

“You are disposed to call her interference officious?”

“I do not see what right Miss Darcy had to decide on the propriety of her friend’s inclination, or why, upon her own judgement alone, she was to determine and direct in what manner her friend was to be happy. But,” she continues, recollecting herself, “as we know none of the particulars, it is not fair to condemn her, of course. It is not to be supposed that there was much affection in the case.”

“That is not an unnatural surmise,” said Fitzwilliam, “but it is a lessening of the honour of my cousin’s triumph very sadly.”

The colonel speaks jestingly; but it is so just a picture of Miss Darcy, that Elizabeth cannot trust herself with an answer, and therefore, she abruptly changes the topic. The conversation continues regarding inconsequential matters until they reach the Parsonage.

There, shut into her own room, as soon as their visitor left them, she thinks without interruption of all that she has heard. There could not exist in the world two men over whom Miss Darcy could have such boundless influence. That she had been concerned in the measures taken to separate Bingley and Jane, Elizabeth had never doubted – but she had always attributed to Miss Bingley the principal design and arrangement of them. If Miss Darcy’s vanity did not mislead her, though, she is the cause of all that Jane has suffered, and still continues to suffer. Miss Darcy has ruined every hope of happiness for the most affectionate, generous heart in the world; and the very fact of it causes Elizabeth to burst into helpless, angry tears.

There were some very strong objections against the lady.” Yes, and those strong objections probably are Jane having country attorney for an uncle, and another in business in London. But Jane herself – no one, nobody at all, could object to her. Elizabeth dares Miss Darcy to object to Jane’s sweetness of temper and kindness of nature. Even to their father, as unsociable as he is – a gentleman all the same.

When Elizabeth thinks of her mother, her confidence gives way a little; but she will not allow that any objections there had material weight with Miss Darcy. It is the Bennets’ lack of connections which offends Miss Darcy’s absurd and infuriating pride, not their lack of sensible people.

She is unable to face the lady in question, but remembers the unfortunate fact of their dining at Rosings very soon. Thus, when Charlotte comes up to ask how she is getting on, Elizabeth does not lie when she professes a headache which prevents her from leaving the parsonage that night. What she does not tell Charlotte is that the headache is the result of many bitter tears.

 

~

 

It is an unfortunate matter of Elizabeth’s little thinking of the chances of running into Miss Darcy on one of her walks that causes her to do precisely that only a few days later, that Friday, just as a light rain is beginning to fall and hurry her steps. The parsonage is close by, Elizabeth having been already walking back when the first droplets fell, but the watery burden grows heavier until she is forced to take shelter underneath a nearby tree, where she stands, shivering, until a figure appears from down the road – slowly revealing itself to be Miss Darcy, once more clad in ladies’ attire.

Elizabeth must suppress a groan of frustration at the sight of her.

Miss Darcy must spot her, for she walks towards with her with a quickened pace, almost seeming in a hurry. As she nears, Elizabeth observes that she appears nervous, and is shockingly soaked by the rain, dripping as she walks.

“Miss Darcy, good afternoon,” Elizabeth says, politely forcing a smile.

“Miss – Miss Bennet,” Miss Darcy stutters out, staring at her with wide eyes.

Elizabeth hadn’t thought she looked that badly in the rain, especially given Miss Darcy’s own state of dress.

“Miss Bennet, I must speak with you,” Miss Darcy says, pushing back a wet lock of her into her bonnet. She hardly takes a breath before speaking, all in a rush. “It is in vain that I have struggled, and it will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth’s astonishment is beyond expression.

She stares at Miss Darcy, blinks, and is silent. Is this some form of joke at her expense?

But Elizabeth’s silence Miss Darcy must consider sufficient encouragement to continue, and the avowal of all that she feels, and apparently has long felt for Elizabeth, immediately follows.

“I know of course that such relationships as the one I hope we shall begin together are, between women, uncommon. But given the feelings which you related regarding Mrs. Collins, I am certain that you already understand that. Indeed, your feelings for Mrs. Collins might once have prevented my making any designs on you. But am I mistaken in my understanding of the conversation we had at Rosings that night you played the pianoforte?”

Miss Darcy’s expression turns somewhat desperate, seeking confirmation in Elizabeth’s eyes. Before Elizabeth can muster herself to ask for clarification regarding every single point Miss Darcy has just related, and more to the point, how she came to these conclusions, Miss Darcy continues.

“I knew I could not be. When you saw my mode of dress but did not betray my sensibilities to my aunt, I knew you understood my position and – my inclinations. You can have no idea of the happiness with which this knowledge has gifted me. When I saw that you understood those secret relationships which sometimes form between members of the same sex, I could not be dissuaded, not by my cousin who has himself suffered failure in these matters, not even by my own scruples regarding our positions and our families.”

“Scruples?” Elizabeth finally finds it in herself to blurt out.

“Of course. I understand that you have some attachment to Hertfordshire and the society there, but that will soon be dealt away with, when you become further acquainted with the society of London, especially those ladies like myself – like you. And I flatter myself that you will not find Pemberly wanting either, though it is far from those communities which might facilitate more open affection between – between couples whose tastes are not to the matrimonial state.” Here Miss Darcy colours, before continuing. “Your family is of course a consideration. I have fought against my better judgement where they are concerned, but I am convinced that I cannot continue as I have – I knew that I must tell you how I have loved you these past months. And I knew that you must allow me that.”

Finally Miss Darcy lapses into a silence long enough for Elizabeth to ask the first question that she can catch amongst the whirling thoughts which are overwhelming her mind, though it is hardly the most pressing:

“What is it about my family, precisely, that you find objectionable?”

Here the frenzied look to Miss Darcy’s eyes fades a little as she composes herself.

“Besides their own objections to a relationship of the kind I propose between us, I cannot in good conscience allow for a connection between the Darcy family and your own. It would not be proper. There is also the matter of their behaviour – your sisters, of course, you have seen behaving inappropriately and scandalously on many occasions, and your mother’s encouragement has been noted by many. Even, on occasion, your own father has –”

“My father?” At that, Elizabeth does feel her blood begin to boil somewhat.

“Miss Bennet?”

Miss Darcy appears, beneath her visage of calm, to be genuinely confused. That in itself is an insult which Elizabeth will not stand for.

“Miss Darcy, I do not understand whether you are playing some joke at my expense upon me, but for the moment, I shall assume that that is not the case, knowing what I do of your disinclination towards tomfoolery of any kind. Therefore in the case that you are serious, and are proposing a – a – relationship, between us, of a romantical nature –”

Elizabeth takes a breath, scarcely able to believe what she is saying.

“Well, in such cases as this between men and women, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot. I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly.”

Elizabeth looks carefully into the space beside Miss Darcy’s head as she continues, steadily.

“I am sorry to have occasioned any pain. It has been most unconsciously done, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”

Miss Darcy’s expression, when Elizabeth catches upon it accidentally as she stops, cannot be described as anything other than outright shock. Yet within moments her complexion becomes pale with anger, and the disturbance of her mind at this unexpected rejection is visible in every feature. She moves her mouth strangely, as if attempting to figure out once more how to speak. At length, with a voice of forced calmness, she does.

“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting? I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected.”

“I might as well inquire,” Elizabeth says, bristling, “why, with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character! Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings been decided against you – had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept an unexpected and uniquely strange proposal from the person who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”

As she pronounces the words, the angry red which has flared in Miss Darcy’s cheeks seems to drain, but she remains silent, her lower jaw pushed forward.

“I have every reason in the world to think ill of you,” Elizabeth says, her voice trembling. “No motive can excuse your actions. You dare not – you cannot deny, that you have been the principal means of dividing them from each other. You exposed my sister to ridicule and derision for disappointed hopes, and your own friend to the censure of the world for caprice.”

Miss Darcy looks at her with a smile of affected incredulity.

“Can you deny that you have done it?” Elizabeth repeats, angrily.

With assumed tranquillity Miss Darcy replies.

“I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister. I rejoice in my success.”

Elizabeth’s disgust near sets her to walking away, but she will have an admittance of wrongdoing from Miss Darcy if she must stand in the rain all day to do it.

“It is not merely this affair on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham.”

At the sound of the gentleman’s name, Miss Darcy lets out an undignified noise of complaint.

“On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself?” Elizabeth demands, triumphantly.

“You take an eager interest in that gentleman’s concerns,” says Miss Darcy, in a less tranquil tone, a tic in her jaw suddenly set off.

“Anyone that knows what his misfortunes cannot help feeling an interest in him.”

“His misfortunes!” Miss Darcy repeats, contemptuously. “Oh, yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed!”

“You reduced him to his present state of poverty. You have withheld the advantages which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life! And for what reason? That he would not marry you?”

At that, Miss Darcy turns away and begins to pace, before returning and standing very near to Elizabeth, a furious expression upon her face.

“So this is your opinion of me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design on you. Had I flattered you – in the way of an officer about town with one of your sisters. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.”

Elizabeth is speechless to note the suggestion of tears in Miss Darcy’s eyes as she continues her tirade.

“Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They are natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? or congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Forgetting Miss Darcy’s undoubtedly proud tears, Elizabeth composes herself before answering her, with what she hopes will be taken as final.

“You are mistaken, Miss Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”

Elizabeth sees Miss Darcy start at this description, but as she says nothing, Elizabeth continues.

“You dress as a gentleman, Miss Darcy, but you have never behaved as one, nor a lady. You could not have made the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it. From the very beginning of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, have made even friendship between us impossible, let alone what you have suggested. I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last woman in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to –”

But here, Elizabeth stops, colouring, unable to admit the word which had come to her mind.

“You have said quite enough,” Miss Darcy interrupts. “I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time.”

With these words, Miss Darcy turns on her heel and stalks away, looking back not once. Elizabeth, for her part, watches her go in incredulous silence, before she realises she cannot stand to remain where she is, and sets off for the parsonage, lost in the shock of the afternoon.

 

~

 

Knowing that Miss Darcy is to leave Kent that very same day is the only reason that Elizabeth allows herself to return to the road where their previous, disastrous meeting had happened. She paces for a very long time in the early morning, having been unable to sleep, or speak of what had occurred to Charlotte.

It is incomprehensible. Not only that Miss Darcy should insult her family in the name of honour and respectability, but that she should do so in the midst of an indecent and shocking proposal of her own, a proposal of a – a relationship, of a romantic nature, between themselves, and both women at that.

Uneasily, Elizabeth stops as she remembers Miss Darcy’s insinuations regarding Charlotte.

But that is not possible. Elizabeth’s friendship with Charlotte has always been beyond reproach, the lucky meeting of two agreeable souls in one neighbourhood, the stuff of any girlhood in the country. Certainly, Elizabeth had once, as a child, asked her father why she might not marry Charlotte one day, but nonsensical questions are common amongst children. It was an innocent desire, beyond reproach or repudiation. The simple understanding of a child who was not acquainted with the adult knowledge of the requirements of marriage is no reason to raise concern regarding Elizabeth’s inclinations in terms of romance.

Elizabeth turns on her foot, some uneasy feeling in her stomach not allowing her to rest. Well, and if that feeling should persist into adulthood … what then?

She had not accepted the news of Charlotte’s marriage with grace. But this can be explained by the unsuitability of the ridiculous Mr. Collins, who had proposed to Elizabeth herself not days before!

The thought of that proposal makes her stop once more, before the nervous flutterings all along her sides compel her to move again. If these are the nerves her mother is happy to complain of all the livelong day, Elizabeth does not know how she can stand to be abed. For her own sake Elizabeth feels nothing but the desire to move – perhaps even to run, or to ride, were she able to do so in Kent.

Mr. Collins’ proposal had disgusted her. That is perfectly natural in the circumstances. They are not suited to one another in any way – his manners, his awkward attempts to flatter and compliment his betters indiscriminately, his lack of propriety – these all clash most decidedly with Elizabeth’s own keen awareness of the feelings and thoughts of others.

Excepting Miss Darcy, of course, who Elizabeth is determinedly not thinking of at this present juncture.

Yet – there was fear, too, in Elizabeth’s heart at the proposal of Mr. Collins. A deeper fear than she knows how to name. She trails her hand along the hedgerow as she continues to pace, thinking upon the nameless feeling. She wonders if she would feel thusly were a more suitable man to propose to her. Colonel Fitzwilliam, for example – he is an amiable man, and would respectfully ask her hand without insulting her family to do so. True, he claims not to be interested in marriage, but – no matter, as a mental exercise, the scenario is harmless.

As she ponders the scenario, though, her imagination gives her cause to lightly stomp her foot in frustration owing to the way Colonel Fitzwilliam’s face is continually replaced with Miss Darcy’s – no doubt as a result of their relation. Perhaps Mr. Wickham? She imagines how he would look, proposing to her, offering his hand in marriage to her with genuine earnestness and love. Yet as she concentrates on conjuring this image in her mind, the terrible fear returns, the same feeling that Mr. Collins inspired months ago.

It is of no import. She had never seriously considered Miss Darcy’s proposal for a minute, as impossible and strange as it is. Miss Darcy spoke of communities in London amongst whom such unions might not inspire comment, but Elizabeth is not of London, or Pemberly for that matter either. Like her sisters, her only hope is of a respectable, loving, suitable match with a man who is closer to her equal than not. She entertains no hopes of a marriage without these principle concerns, of which Miss Darcy provided very few. What she offers in wealth she more than ruins with pride, contempt, disrespect, and disregard for anyone but herself. Her sex is almost immaterial next to these flaws. It is immaterial.

That is what scares Elizabeth.

To her dismay, as she looks up, having been lost in her thoughts for almost an hour, she spots a rider coming towards her, and quickly makes out Miss Darcy’s visage below a man’s hat. Miss Darcy, it appears, has reverted to her old ways now that she is quitting the country, and is once more dressed as a man. Oddly, despite Elizabeth’s fury at the sight of her, she feels some reluctant acknowledgement that Miss Darcy looks far better for it, thought her expression is pinched. Without greeting Elizabeth, she pulls up beside her and holds out a folded letter.

“I have been riding in the grove some time in the hope of meeting you. Will you do me the honour of reading that letter?”

Without another word, only a slight bow, she turns back, and is soon out of sight.

With no expectation of pleasure, but with the strongest curiosity, Elizabeth opens the letter, pulling out two sheets upon which is a great deal of close writing. Pursuing her way along the lane, she begins to read.

Be not alarmed, madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments or renewal of those offers which were last night so disgusting to you. I write without any intention of paining you, or humbling myself, by dwelling on wishes which for the happiness of both cannot be too soon forgotten. You must pardon the freedom with which I demand your attention; your feelings, I know, will bestow it unwillingly, but I demand it of your justice.

Two offenses of a very different nature, and by no means of equal magnitude, you last night laid to my charge. The first mentioned was that, regardless of the sentiments of either, I had detached Mr. Bingley from your sister; and the other, that I had in defiance of honour and humanity, ruined the immediate prosperity and destroyed the prospects of Mr. Wickham. Wilfully and wantonly to have thrown off the companion of my youth, the acknowledged favourite of my father, a young man who had scarcely any other dependence than on our patronage, would be a depravity, to which the separation of two young persons whose affection could be the growth of only a few weeks, could bear no comparison. But from the severity of that blame which was last night so liberally bestowed, respecting each circumstance, I shall hope to be in the future secured, when the following account of my actions and their motives has been read.

I had not been long in Hertfordshire, before I saw, in common with others, that Bingley preferred your elder sister to any other young woman in the country. But it was not till the evening of the dance at Netherfield that I had any apprehension of his feeling a serious attachment. I have often seen him in love before. At that ball, while I had the honour of dancing with you, I was first made acquainted by Sir William Lucas’s accidental information that Bingley’s attentions to your sister had given rise to a general expectation of their marriage. From that moment I observed my friend’s behaviour attentively; and I could then perceive that his partiality for Miss Bennet was beyond what I had ever witnessed in him. Your sister I also watched. Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening’s scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment.

I admit, if you have not been mistaken here, I must have been in error. Your superior knowledge of your sister must make the latter probable. If it be so, your resentment has not been unreasonable. But the serenity of your sister’s countenance and air was such as might have given the most acute observer a conviction that, however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be easily touched. That I was desirous of believing her indifferent is certain. I will however venture to say that my investigation and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears. But there were other causes of repugnance.

These causes must be stated, though briefly. The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison to that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally by your father.

Pardon me. It pains me to offend you.

If these words offend you, let it give you consolation to consider that, to have conducted yourselves so as to avoid any share of the like censure is praise no less, generally bestowed on you and your elder sister, than it is honourable to the sense and disposition of both. I will only say farther that from what passed that evening, my opinion of all parties was confirmed, and every inducement heightened which could have led me before to preserve my friend from what I esteemed a most unhappy connection. He left Netherfield for London, on the day following, as you, I am certain, remember, with the design of soon returning.

The part which I acted is now to be explained. His sisters’ uneasiness had been equally excited with my own. We shortly resolved on joining him directly in London, and there I readily engaged in the office of pointing out to my friend the certain evils of such a choice. In truth, I do not suppose that it would ultimately have prevented the marriage, had it not been seconded by the assurance that I hesitated not in giving, of your sister’s indifference. He had before believed her to return his affection with sincere, if not with equal regard. But Bingley has great natural modesty, with a stronger dependence on my judgement than on his own. To convince him, therefore, that he had deceived himself, was no very difficult point.

There is but one part of my conduct in the whole affair on which I do not reflect with satisfaction; it is that I condescended to adopt the measures of art so far as to conceal from him your sister’s being in town. I knew it myself, as it was known to Miss Bingley; but her brother is even yet ignorant of it. That they might have met without ill consequence is perhaps probable; but his regard did not appear to me enough extinguished for him to see her without some danger. Perhaps this concealment, this disguise was beneath me; it is done, however, and it was done for the best. On this subject I have nothing more to say, no other apology to offer. If I have wounded your sister’s feelings, it was unknowingly done and though the motives which governed me may to you very naturally appear insufficient, I have not yet learnt to condemn them.

With respect to that other, more weighty accusation, of having injured Mr. Wickham, I can only refute it by laying before you the whole of his connection with my family. Of what he has particularly accused me I am ignorant; excepting that which you implied to me last night regarding my supposed wish to marry him. Of the truth of what I shall now relate, I can summon more than one witness of undoubted veracity.

Mr. Wickham is the son of a very respectable man, who had for many years the management of all the Pemberley estates, and whose good conduct in the discharge of his trust naturally inclined my father to be of service to him; and on George Wickham, who was his godson, his kindness was therefore liberally bestowed. My father supported him at school, and afterwards at Cambridge—most important assistance, as his own father, always poor from the extravagance of his wife, would have been unable to give him a gentleman’s education. My father was not only fond of this young man’s society, whose manners were always engaging; he had also the highest opinion of him, considering him to be the son he had never had.

As for myself, it is many, many years since I first began to think of him in a very different manner. The vicious propensities – the want of principle, which he was careful to guard from the knowledge of his patron and his patron’s daughters, could nevertheless not escape my observations as we grew older, to the distress of my father, who once wished us to be married.

My father died about five years ago; and his attachment to Mr. Wickham was to the last so steady, that in his will he particularly recommended it to me, to promote his advancement in the best manner that I, as a lady, might allow. I need not tell you the implication of this instruction, yet I had not the strength or the will to marry him, and would not have even had he been a kind and decent man, for reasons which are plain.

Mr. Wickham’s own father did not long survive mine, and within half a year from these events, Mr. Wickham wrote to inform me that he hoped I would host him at Pemberly soon. We had at this time grown apart, and I was surprised to hear from hear, yet willing to see him nonetheless. Over the weeks that I hosted him, however, it became clear that he expected I would soon be his wife, and this was something I could not tolerate. I paid him well to study law far away from Pemberly, in order that he might do well for himself regardless of my lack of affection. This money he took, and left.

All connection between us seemed now dissolved. I thought too ill of him to invite him to Pemberley again, or admit his society in town. In town I believe he chiefly lived, but his studying the law was a mere pretence, and being now free from all restraint, his life was a life of idleness and dissipation. For about three years I heard little of him; but soon, he applied to me again by letter for more money. His circumstances, he assured me, and I had no difficulty in believing it, were exceedingly bad. He had found the law a most unprofitable study, and was now absolutely resolved on being ordained, if I would present him to a living which had recently become vacated nearby. You will hardly blame me for refusing to comply with this entreaty, or for resisting every repetition to it. His resentment was in proportion to the distress of his circumstances. After this period every appearance of acquaintance was dropped. How he lived I know not. But last summer he was again most painfully obtruded on my notice.

I must now mention a circumstance which I would wish to forget myself, and which no obligation less than the present should induce me to unfold to any human being. Having said thus much, I feel no doubt of your secrecy.

My sister, who is more than ten years my junior, was left to the guardianship of my mother’s nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and myself. About a year ago, she was taken from school, and an establishment formed for her in London; and last summer she went with the lady who presided over it, to Ramsgate; and thither also went Mr. Wickham, undoubtedly by design; for there proved to have been a prior acquaintance between him and Mrs. Younge, in whose character we were most unhappily deceived. By her connivance and aid, he so far recommended himself to Georgiana, whose affectionate heart retained a strong impression of his kindness to her as a child, that she was persuaded to believe herself in love, and to consent to an elopement. She was then but fifteen.

I joined them unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement, and then Georgiana, unable to support the idea of grieving and offending a sister whom she almost looked up to as a mother, acknowledged the whole to me. You may imagine what I felt and how I acted. Regard for my sister’s credit and feelings prevented any public exposure; but I wrote to Mr. Wickham, who left the place immediately, and Mrs. Younge was of course removed from her charge. Mr. Wickham’s chief object was unquestionably my sister’s fortune, which is thirty thousand pounds; but I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on me was a strong inducement. His revenge would have been complete indeed.

This, madam, is a faithful narrative of every event in which we have been concerned together; and if you do not absolutely reject it as false, you will, I hope, acquit me henceforth of cruelty towards Mr. Wickham. I know not in what manner, under what form of falsehood he had imposed on you; but his success is not perhaps to be wondered at. Ignorant as you previously were of everything concerning either, detection could not be in your power, and suspicion certainly not in your inclination. I will confirm most strongly, however, that at no time have I entertained any serious inclination to marry Mr. Wickham, and have worked tirelessly to ensure he will never marry into my family if I can in any way prevent it.

You may possibly wonder why all this was not told you last night. I was not then master enough of myself to know what could or ought to be revealed. For the truth of everything here related, I can appeal to the testimony of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who, from our near relationship and constant intimacy, and as one of the executors of my father’s will, has been unavoidably acquainted with every particular of these transactions. If your abhorrence of me should make my assertions valueless, you cannot be prevented by the same cause from confiding in my cousin; and that there may be the possibility of consulting him, I shall endeavour to find some opportunity of putting this letter in your hands in the course of the morning.

I will only add, Miss Bennet, that I hope your happiness will be unaffected by my actions.

“F. DARCY”

Chapter Text

For a very long time after reading the letter, Elizabeth simply stares into the distance, unseeing, insensible of her surroundings.

She is not quite sure what to think, or how to feel, regarding the events Miss Darcy has related. It is not that she doesn’t believe Miss Darcy – every word rings with truth, all the more so because Miss Darcy has openly and proudly admitted to her actions in separating Jane and Mr. Bingley. If those intimations are true, then Miss Darcy can have no reason to lie regarding the rest. She is clearly more than willing to admit to her less than honourable actions. That means, however, that her information regarding Mr. Wickham’s abhorrent, selfish actions towards the younger Miss Darcy are true as well.

All in all, the contents of the letter prove that Elizabeth has made quite the fool of herself.

For the second night in a row, she begs a headache, and leaves their party early. She rereads the letter twice more, picking up further details of the events that have occurred, and curses herself for making accusations which were, it is now blindingly obvious, unfounded. She is not entirely to blame, of course – Miss Darcy’s actions towards Jane are still abhorrent, and Elizabeth reads over these events in anger, which she feels is more than justified.

She does not exactly know how to think of Miss Darcy’s offer, and so puts it out of her mind, considering that a reasonable action under the circumstances. She has ever right to avoid such a woman – a woman who would seek to prevent the happiness of her closest friend, due to her own snobbishness!

But the poor younger Miss Darcy, taken in by a man far older than herself, still just a child … Elizabeth remembers with shame how she defended Mr. Wickham, proudly, before that child’s own guardian. For that Elizabeth cannot forgive herself, even as her anger towards the elder Miss Darcy has not abated yet.

Wherever the blame lies for the events which have occurred, however, Elizabeth knows that she has made quite the mess of things.

Of neither Miss Darcy nor Mr. Wickham can she think without feeling she has been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd. How despicably I have acted. She has always prided herself on her powers of discernment, yet she is now the one humiliated. Justly so. Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind, she thinks, despairing. But vanity, not love, has been her folly. Til this moment she has not known herself.

 

~

 

Elizabeth thanks heaven to be leaving Hunsford by the end of the week, for she can speak of what has occurred to no one – not even Charlotte, who she shies away from, remembering Miss Darcy’s implications. Elizabeth will have to relate everything that has happened to Jane back at Longbourn, especially regarding Mr. Wickham.

Except – Elizabeth pauses the thought, before it can lead to any examination of the other event which has occurred. She will, of course, have to conceal Miss Darcy’s – proposal, and come up with some other reason for Miss Darcy’s honesty. But then, Jane is so kind-hearted, she may believe that Miss Darcy has had a change of heart of her own volition.

In fact, when Elizabeth finally does relate the events of the past few weeks to Jane before they both retire to bed at Longbourn, Jane’s good nature extends even further than that. After Elizabeth is finished explaining Miss Darcy’s affection away as a friendship of circumstance, Jane chews on her lip a moment, and sighs.

“I can believe that Miss Darcy would so suddenly change her feelings, certainly – in circumstances such as these, when acquaintances are forced into close proximity over a number of weeks, indifferent feelings often turn to friendship.”

Elizabeth does not correct her sister and inform her that it is far more common for acquaintances in close proximity to learn to hate one another, but simply shakes her head, pulling nervously on her braid.

“I spoke so warmly of Mr. Wickham to her. Whatever … positive feelings she may have developed towards me, she will never forgive me that, given her previous relationship with him.”

“I do not know that you were wrong in saying what you did,” Jane says, carefully. “But … I wonder that what she said of Wickham could possibly be true. We were all such good friends …”

“Oh, Jane, this will not do!” Elizabeth says, crossing her arms around her legs. “You never will be able to make both of them good for anything. Take your choice, but you must be satisfied with only one. For my part, I am inclined to believe in Miss Darcy, but you shall do as you choose.”

Jane sits down on the bed and stares into the distance, shaking her head in wonder.

“I do not know when I have been more shocked,” she says. “Wickham so very bad! It is almost past belief. And poor Miss Darcy! Dear Lizzy, only consider what she must have suffered. To be so betrayed … It is really too distressing. I am sure you must feel it so.”

“Oh! no, my regret and compassion are all done away by seeing you so full of both,” Elizabeth teases, laughing. “I know you will do her such ample justice, that I am growing every moment more unconcerned and indifferent.”

“Lizzy!”

“It certainly seems that there certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young people. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”

“I never thought Miss Darcy so deficient in the appearance of it as you do,” Jane says, and then, at Elizabeth’s look, “or rather, did.”

“And yet I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to her, without any reason,” Elizabeth says softly. “In any case – perhaps it is all for the best. With our knowledge of Wickham, no one can be in danger from him.”

Jane pauses a little before replying.

“Surely there can be no occasion for exposing him so dreadfully. What is your opinion?”

Elizabeth thinks a moment, before sighing in resignation.

“It ought not to be attempted. Miss Darcy has not authorised me to make her communication public. On the contrary, every particular relative to her sister was meant to be kept as much as possible to myself, and besides, who would believe me about the rest? The general prejudice against Miss Darcy is so violent, that it would be the death of half of Meryton to attempt to place her in an amiable light. Wickham will soon be gone with the militia – therefore it will not signify to anyone here what he really is. Some time hence it will be all found out, and then we may laugh at their stupidity in not knowing it before. At present I will say nothing about it.”

“You are quite right. To have his errors made public might ruin him for ever. He is now, perhaps, sorry for what he has done, and anxious to re-establish a character. We must not make him desperate.”

Elizabeth resists the urge to roll her eyes at Jane’s sweetness, knowing it is the best part of her. The tumult of her mind has been allayed by the conversation. She has got rid of one of the secrets which has weighed on her for a fortnight.

But there are still some secrets of which prudence forbids the disclosure. She dares not relate the other parts of Miss Darcy's letter – in which lie the truth of Mr. Bingley’s affection for Jane, and Miss Darcy’s for Elizabeth. The former would be cruel to relate when there is no hope of reconciliation, while the latter would simply be … impossible.

“Lizzy?” Jane’s voice is hushed, as they are now settled down to sleep.

“Yes?”

“I must ask … are you well?”

“Well?”

“Mr. Wickham’s secrets must surely have caused you some pain.” Jane shifts, but Lizzie does not turn around to look at her. “We all know that you were close. And you know that I would never judge you unkindly, if, perhaps, you had some warm feelings for him.”

Elizabeth blinks. She had not even considered it – her only concern had been for the younger Miss Darcy, and how terribly she had embarrassed herself in front of the elder.

“I am quite well, Jane,” Elizabeth replies. “Please, don’t worry about me.”

Jane pauses again before speaking.

“Good night, Lizzie.”

“Good night.”

 

~

 

With the time of the militia’s leave drawing ever nearer, Elizabeth finds herself more and more in a household ruled by misery. Her mother and youngest sisters’ gloom and continual sighing over the loss of their men is hardly to be born, but soon enough a greater divide emerges within the family – for Lydia has been invited to accompany Mrs. Forster, the wife of the colonel of the regiment, to Brighton. The rapture of Lydia on this occasion, her adoration of Mrs. Forster, the delight of Mrs. Bennet, and the utter despair of Kitty, can scarcely be described. Wholly inattentive to Kitty’s feelings, Lydia flies about the house in restless ecstasy, calling for everyone's congratulations, and laughing and talking with more violence than ever.  

“I cannot see why Mrs. Forster should not ask me as well as Lydia,” Kitty sulks, to anybody who will listen, “Though I am nor her particular friend. I have just as much right to be asked as Lydia has, and more too, for I am two years older.”

Elizabeth grits her teeth and attempts to make her sister reasonable, or at least resigned to her fate, but it is little use. Privately, Elizabeth feels her concern more strongly than even Mary, who frowns and mutters to herself at the impropriety of it all. Eventually, Elizabeth finds it worthwhile to make known to her father her concerns – leaving out, of course, the fact that it is knowledge of Miss Darcy’s disapproval of their family which causes her to worry. As always, though, appealing to their father to act in a manner benefitting his children is impossible.

“Lydia will never be easy until she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and better for her to do it elsewhere,” he sighs, steepling his hands before Elizabeth.

“If you were aware,” Elizabeth pleads, “of the very great disadvantage to us all which must arise from the public notice of Lydia's imprudent manner – nay, which has already arisen from it, I am sure you would judge differently in the affair.”

“Already arisen?” Mr. Bennet repeats, raising his eyebrows. “What, has she frightened away some of your lovers? Poor little Lizzy!”

Elizabeth feels a sudden twist in her stomach, silencing any answer, at the mention of her potential lovers. For she has, of course, none. None but –

“Do not be cast down. Such squeamish youths as cannot bear to be connected with a little absurdity are not worth a regret. Come, let me see the list of pitiful fellows who have been kept aloof by Lydia's folly.”

Elizabeth’s voice takes on a sudden sharpness which she does not commonly find herself using around her father at those words.

“Indeed you are mistaken. I have no such injuries to resent. It is not of – particular, but of general evils, which I am now complaining. Our respectability in the world must be affected by Lydia's character. I must speak plainly – if you, father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her whole life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself or her family ridiculous! And Kitty will follow in her example. They will both be despised wherever they go – and we too, as their family.”

Seeing her distress, her father takes her hand gently, shaking his head. Elizabeth feels her heart in her throat, knowing she has not convinced him.

“Do not make yourself uneasy. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued. You will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters.”

Elizabeth bites back a retort, knowing that his words have already been proven false.

“We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton. Colonel Forster is a sensible man, and will keep her out of any real mischief, and she is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody. At Brighton she will be of even less importance than she has been here. The officers will find women better worth their notice. We must hope that her being there will teach her her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to lock her up for the rest of her life.”

With this answer Elizabeth is forced to accept her father’s decision, thought she knows she will continue to despair of it in preivate. But it is not in her nature to increase her vexations by dwelling on them. She has performed her duty, and now must be done with it.

 

~

 

Shortly before the militia leaves, Elizabeth finds herself unexpectedly in the company of Mr. Wickham. On the very last day of the regiment's remaining at Meryton, he dines, with other officers, at Longbourn. Despite herself, Elizabeth feels disposed to part from him in good humour, knowing that it may be necessary to be in his company in the future and perhaps influenced by Jane’s good nature into believing that he is capable of change. On his making some inquiry as to the manner in which her time had passed at Hunsford, she mentions, slyly, Colonel Fitzwilliam's and Miss Darcy's having both spent three weeks at Rosings.

“Are you acquainted with the colonel, Mr. Wickham?”

His face freezes before falling, but with a moment's recollection and a returning smile, he replies.

“I had formerly seen him quite often indeed. He was very gentlemanlike. I take it then that you were disposed towards him?”

“Oh, indeed,” Elizabeth says, smiling sweetly. Never mind that she’d nearly had an attack of nerves when she thought he might make her a proposal. “I was well-pleased to know him in Hunsford – I never met a more amiable man.”

“Hmm,” Mr. Wickham hums, with a strange twitch in his jaw. “How long did you say he was at Rosings?”

“Nearly three weeks.”

“And you saw him frequently?”

“Yes, almost every day.”

“His manners are very different from his cousin's.”

“Yes, very different,” Elizabeth agrees. “But I think Miss Darcy improves upon acquaintance.”

“Indeed!” Mr. Wickham cries, with a look of irritation which does not escape Elizabeth’s notice. “And pray, is it in address that she improves? Has she deigned to add aught of civility to her ordinary style? For I dare not hope that she is improved in essentials.”

“Oh, no!” Elizabeth says, with a sudden rush of spirit. “In essentials, I believe, she is very much what she ever was.”

Mr. Wickham stares at her, uncertain. He does not seem to know how to interpret her words, which some more vicious part of Elizabeth relishes.

“You seem confused, Mr. Wickham. Allow me to explain myself. When I said that she improved upon better acquaintance, I did not mean that her mind or her manners were in a state of improvement. Rather, from knowing her better, her disposition was far better understood.”

Mr. Wickham's silent alarm now appears in a heightened complexion and agitated look; for a few moments he is silent. Elizabeth, despite her irritation with him, colours to recollects that Mr. Wickham, knowing Miss Darcy from infancy, must surely be aware of the central reason for her refusal of his first proposal – and extracting from that fact, may even now be making assumptions regarding Elizabeth’s own feelings towards the lady. Finally, he clears his throat to speak, before Elizabeth can say something foolish in her own defence, as if she is no better than her sister Mary when she feels slighted.

“You, who so well know my feeling towards Miss Darcy, will readily comprehend how sincerely I must rejoice that she is wise enough to assume even the appearance of what is right. Her pride may be of service, for it might deter her from such foul misconduct as I have suffered by.” Mr. Wickham glances around the room a moment, before leaning in, seeming deep in thought. “I only fear that the sort of cautiousness to which you, I imagine, have been alluding, is merely adopted on her visits to her aunt, of whose good opinion and judgement she stands much in awe. Her respect for Lady de Bourgh has always checked her more extravagant impulses when they are together.”

Elizabeth feels a sensation like cold water wash over her, which must appear to Mr. Wickham as if she has been stupefied – but not for the reason he must assume; not because she believes now that Miss Darcy’s mode of dress is the result of her respect for her aunt. No, Elizabeth’s sudden clarity relates instead to the understanding of Miss Darcy’s fear – fear that her aunt might begin to meddle in family financial affairs should her usual mode of dress become known. Fear, even, that she might lose her younger sister to a guardian considered more appropriate – a person with as great standing as her ladyship.

Elizabeth cannot imagine Lady Catherine de Bourgh ever approving of Miss Darcy’s lifestyle. Not in presentation, and not in … matters of the heart, either.

“Do excuse me, Mr. Wickham,” Elizabeth says, softly. “But I am sure that I hear Jane calling me.”

The rest of the evening passes with the appearance, on Mr. Wickham’s side, of usual cheerfulness, but with no further attempts to distinguish Elizabeth. To Elizabeth’s relief, they part at last with mutual civility, and quite possibly a mutual desire of never meeting again.

As the party breaks up, Lydia must make her goodbyes, as she is returning with Mrs. Forster to Meryton, from whence they are to set out early the next morning. The separation between her and her family is rather noisy. Kitty is the only one who sheds tears; but she weeps from vexation and envy, which leaves Elizabeth rolling her eyes. Mrs. Bennet is diffuse in her good wishes for the felicity of her daughter, worryingly (to Elizabeth’s mind) advising her to have excellent fun. In the clamorous happiness of Lydia herself in bidding farewell, the more gentle adieus of her sisters are uttered without being heard. That is a relief to Elizabeth.

While Elizabeth rejoices over Wickham's departure, she unfortunately discovers over the coming weeks little other cause for satisfaction in the loss of the regiment. Her excursions are less varied, now, and at home she has to look forward only to a mother and sister whose constant repinings at the dullness of everything around them throw a real gloom over their domestic circle.

“But it is fortunate,” she explains to Jane one dull afternoon, “that I have something to wish for.”

“How happy for you,” Jane replies, a smile about her mouth. “Why, I had almost forgotten the whole arrangement.”

“Jane, are you teasing me?” Elizabeth gasps. “Well, I suppose you must get some practise somewhere!”

For she must admit that the subject of which they speak has been on her mind constantly in the past few weeks. A letter, arriving a mere few days after the departure of the regiment, containing an invitation to tour the lakes with her aunt and uncle Gardiner, has been the saving balm for Elizabeth’s poor spirits.

“Were I only able to include you in the scheme, every part of it would be perfect,” Elizabeth sighs, a few moments later.

“Never mind that. Only write more often than dear Lydia and I shall be satisfied.”

The time fixed for the beginning of their northern tour begins approaching more quickly than Elizabeth could have imagined at the outset of the proposal, and a fortnight only is wanting of it, when a letter arrives from Mrs. Gardiner, which at once delays its commencement and curtails its extent. Mr. Gardiner will be prevented by business from setting out till a fortnight later in July, and must be in London again within a month, and as that left too short a period for them to go so far, they are obliged to give up the Lakes, and substitute a more contracted tour. According to the present plan, they are to go no farther northwards than Derbyshire. To Mrs. Gardiner the location has a particularly strong attraction – for the town of Lambton, where she formerly passed some years of her life, and where they are now to spend a few days, is probably as great an object of her curiosity as all the celebrated beauties of Matlock, Chatsworth, Dovedale, or the Peak.

Elizabeth allows herself some disappointment, hardly able to stop herself from feeling it. She had set her heart on seeing the Lakes. But it is her business to be satisfied – and certainly her temper to be happy; and all was soon right again.

Yet with the mention of Derbyshire, there are many ideas connected. It is impossible for her to see the word without thinking of Pemberley and its owner. But, surely they will not meet – there is no reason to assume that her being there will ever make for gossip to slip by Miss Darcy’s ears.

At length, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, with their four children, do appear at Longbourn. The children, two girls of six and eight years old, and two younger boys, are left under the particular care of their cousin Jane, who is to all children the general favourite, for which Elizabeth is not envious.

The Gardiners stay only one night at Longbourn, and set off the next morning with Elizabeth in pursuit of novelty and amusement. They make short time before reaching Derbyshire, passing along their route over the coming days Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenilworth, and Birmingham.

To Mrs. Gardiner, of course, Lambton, the scene of Mrs. Gardiner's former residence, and where she has lately learned some acquaintance still remain, is all the present concern.  Yet for Elizabeth, it is a nerve-wracking experience to learn that Pemberly lies within five miles of the little town according to her aunt! It is not in their direct road, nor more than a mile or two out of it. In talking over their route, Mrs. Gardiner expresses an inclination to see the place again. Mr. Gardiner declares his willingness, and Elizabeth finds herself frozen with an inability to see a way out of it.

“My dear, should not you like to see a place of which you have heard so much?” says her aunt. “A place, too, with which so many of your acquaintances are connected! Mr. Wickham passed all his youth there, you know.”

Elizabeth is, to put it delicately, somewhat distressed.

“Oh – I have no business there. Indeed, I must own that I am tired of seeing great houses. After going over so many, I really have no pleasure in fine carpets or satin curtains any longer!”

Mrs. Gardiner scoffs at that.

“Oh, come now, Lizzy. If it were merely a fine house richly furnished, I should not care about it a whit, but the grounds are delightful. They have some of the finest woods in the country.”

Elizabeth has nothing to say to that. The possibility of meeting Miss Darcy, while viewing the place, is of course the mortifying idea by which she is preoccupied. It would be dreadful! She blushes at the very thought, and cannot unstick her tongue to explain to her aunt the awful inconvenience of the trip. More importantly, she has no way of knowing how her aunt will react to seeing Miss Darcy, considering all of Meryton’s scandal at Miss Darcy’s clothes – and that is what she tells herself is her chief concern in preventing their meeting. Elizabeth mentioned Miss Darcy several times in her letters prior to her trip to Hunsford, but never how she dressed, only how disagreeable Elizabeth had thought her – and she does not know if Jane has made mention of it either.

She will have to make private inquiries at to the absence of the Darcy family, and if they are unfavourably answered … then she will think up an excuse for her absence on the trip. Accordingly, when she retires that night, she finds time to make a number of inquiries to her chambermaid – is Pemberley not a very fine place? What is the name of its proprietor? Oh, indeed, and are the family down for the summer?

A most welcome negative follows the last question. Her alarm now removed, Elizabeth is at leisure to feel a great deal of curiosity to see the house at least. When the subject is revived the next morning, and she is again applied to, she readily answers, with a proper air of indifference, that she has not really any dislike to the scheme. To Pemberley, therefore, they go.

 

~

 

Elizabeth watches for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods as they drive along the next day with nameless flutterings in her chest, no matter how she chastises herself for feeling as agitated as her mother claims to. When at last they do arrive, rather than the weight in her chest lifting, a peculiar heaviness overtakes her limbs, making her slow and wide-eyed at its grandeur.

The park is very large – that is her first impression. They had entered it in one of its lowest points, and driven for some time through a beautiful wood stretching over a wide extent. They gradually ascend for half-a-mile, and then find themselves at the top of a considerable rise, where the wood ceases, and the eye is instantly caught by Pemberley House itself, situated on the opposite side of the valley. Elizabeth does her best not to gape, but her aunt feels no need to rein in her exclamations at the enormity of the home. Backed by a ridge of high woody hills, in the front a stream of some natural creation swells.

Elizabeth is somehow both delighted and intimidated at the sight of the house. It occurs to her that to be mistress of Pemberley must be something indeed – certainly it would explain a great of Miss Darcy’s self-importance.

They descend the hill, cross the bridge over the stream, and find themselves soon at the door. Elizabeth fervently prays that the chambermaid was not mistaken regarding the presence of the family. They meet a housekeeper in the entrance hall by the name of Mrs. Reynolds, an older woman with a surprising deal of energy about her, given her age. From the entrance hall, their tour of Pemberly begins, at Mrs. Reynolds’ enthusiastic consent.

Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle follow the housekeeper into the dining-parlour, a large, well-proportioned room, handsomely fitted up. Elizabeth walks to a window to enjoy its prospect rather than dwelling on the room itself. The hill crowned with wood, from which they had descended, is a beautiful object at this distance. Elizabeth feels a strange shiver pass through her as she realises that Miss Darcy must be as familiar with this view as the back of her own hand.

To her dismay, or perhaps, more accurately, her shame, as they continue the tour, Elizabeth is quickly disabused of the notion she still clung onto that Miss Darcy must at least have the gaudy taste of a wealthy woman with too much time on her hands. Nothing at all is gaudy, or uselessly fine – every part of the house has real elegance, far surpassing that of Rosings.

A sudden lump in her throat causes her to pause, as she realises that she might have lived here, been mistress of these very rooms – might have welcomed her uncle and aunt as visitors, Pemberly her home.

But – no.

She recollects herself. Such a future could never have been. Had she taken up Miss Darcy’s offer, no one in her immediate circle would have understood her place at Miss Darcy’s side – at best, she would have been the object of pity. A companion for a disliked and snobbish woman, little better than a glorified chamber maid. And as to what happened behind closed doors –

Well, in any case, her uncle and aunt would have been lost to her. She should never have been allowed to invite them to Pemberly in the first place.

The realisation of what she would have been giving up, had she lost her head completely and somehow accepted Miss Darcy’s offer, saves her from feeling something very like regret as they continue moving through the house.

Elizabeth finds herself longing to inquire of the housekeeper whether her mistress is really absent, but cannot work up the courage. At length however, the question is asked by her uncle. Elizabeth’s heart stutters over a beat before it is answered – happily, the housekeeper is quick to inform them that the family are away at present. Before Elizabeth can process her relief, though, the woman continues –

“We do expect her to-morrow, with a large party of friends.”

A single day! That is all that stands between their meeting again. Elizabeth ought to feel thankful they were not delayed.

Her aunt calls her in the next moment her to look at a picture hanging on the wall to their right, and Elizabeth’s poor, abused heart skips another beat upon realising whose visage she is looking upon.

“Ah, yes, that,” Mrs. Reynolds says, smiling, “is my mistress herself – and very like her! It was drawn – oh, about eight years ago now.”

The portrait is indeed very like Miss Darcy – that is, the Miss Darcy of Rosings, who wore flowers in her hair and pearls around her neck, and looked uncomfortable and irritated all the time.

“I have heard much of your mistress around town,” Mrs. Gardiner says, thoughtfully. “It is a handsome face, I will grant you that. But, Lizzy!”

Elizabeth tears her gaze away from the portrait a moment to blink at her aunt.

“You can tell us whether it is like her or not, surely?”

Mrs. Reynolds’ respect for Elizabeth seems increase on this intimation of her knowing her mistress, as she makes a delighted sound.

“Does that young lady know Miss Darcy?”

“A little,” Elizabeth says, shortly.

“And do not you think her a very handsome woman, ma'am?”

“Yes, very handsome.” Handsome indeed – when she is dressed in the way that suits her.

“I am sure I know none so handsome, but in the gallery upstairs you will see a finer, larger picture of her than this, and more recently painted, too. This room was my late master's favourite room, and these miniatures here are just as they used to be then. He was very fond of them.”

It occurs to Elizabeth, as they continue their tour, that Mrs. Reynolds has made no remark regarding Miss Darcy’s particular lifestyle. She may not, of course, know of Miss Darcy’s – connections, in London, but surely Miss Darcy finds it convenient to dress as is her wont in her own home. If Mrs. Reynolds should not find it worth mentioning, then, perhaps …

Elizabeth realises she has drifted into thinking of herself at Pemberly once more, and shakes away such thoughts.

Mr. Gardiner, whose manners are as usual very easy and pleasant, encourages Mrs. Reynolds’ communicativeness by his questions and remarks. Mrs. Reynolds, either by pride or attachment, has evidently great pleasure in talking of her mistress.

“Is your mistress much at Pemberley in the course of the year?”

“Not so much as I could wish, sir; but I dare say she may spend half her time here – the younger Miss Darcy is always down for the summer months.”

“If your mistress would but marry, you might see more of her. She goes into town for the season, I suppose?”

“Oh - yes, perhaps, sir. If she were to marry I am sure she would be settled in this household. But I do not know when that will be. I have never known her to be easily settled into domestic life – she prefers to run this household and her affairs on her own. I am sure no man could dissuade her from it, and I do not invite them to try, for they would have quite the battle on their hands! Really, though, I do not know who is good enough for her.”

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner smile politely, perplexed, and Elizabeth feels the need to intervene – to defend Miss Darcy’s singularity amongst the female sex.

“It is very much to her credit, I am sure, that you should think so, Mrs. Reynolds.”

“I say no more than the truth, and everybody will say that who knows her.”

Elizabeth blinks.

“I have never known a cross word from her in my life, and I have known her ever since she was four years old! I would be sorry indeed to bow to the whim of any master when I have had such a kind mistress to attend to.”

Then, not only is Miss Darcy of refined taste (and not gaudy, as Elizabeth had suspected,) she too is of an even temperament! Elizabeth’s keenest attention is awake – she longs to hear more, and thankfully, her uncle continues the conversation.

“There are very few people of whom so much can be said. You are lucky in having such a mistress.”

“Yes, sir, I know I am. If I were to go through the world, I could not meet with a better. But I have always observed, that they who are good-natured when children, are good-natured when they grow up; and she was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted girl in the world.”

Elizabeth stares at Mrs. Reynolds.

“Her father was an excellent man,” Mrs. Gardiner agrees.

“Yes, ma'am, that he was indeed; and his daughter will be just like him – just as affable to the poor.”

As they walk, Elizabeth increasingly finds that Mrs. Reynolds can interest her on no other point but that of Miss Darcy’s character. The housekeeper relates the subjects of the pictures, the dimensions of the rooms, and the price of the furniture, in vain. As they proceed together up the great staircase, the subject rises once more, and Elizabeth listens keenly in as Mrs. Reynolds details the apparently quite wondrous deeds of her mistress.

“This fine account of her,” whispers Mrs. Gardiner, “is not quite consistent with her behaviour to your poor friend.”

“Perhaps we might be deceived,” Elizabeth murmurs back, cursing herself for ever relating Mr. Wickham’s false misfortunes in her letters to her aunt and uncle.

On reaching the spacious lobby above they are shown into a very pretty sitting-room, and are informed that it has but just done to give pleasure to the younger Miss Darcy, who had taken a liking to the room when last at Pemberley.

“But of course,” Mrs. Reynolds says, “she is quite doted upon by her sister – who really raised her, after their father’s death. And this is always the way with my mistress! Whatever can give her sister any pleasure is sure to be done in a moment. There is nothing she would not do for her.”

Nothing indeed, Elizabeth thinks, remembering the contents of Miss Darcy’s letter.

In the gallery at last, there are many family portraits, but Elizabeth walks in quest of the only face whose features will be known to her. At last it arrests her – and now she beholds the greatest shock of all in this place: that Miss Darcy’s portrait has been taken with the woman in question in her usual mode of dress, and moreover, that Mrs. Reynolds does not mention this fact at all as they pass by, though Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle stare, quite incredulous.

“Ah, you see, now – this is a much better likeness of my mistress,” Mrs. Reynolds explains.

“Yes,” Mr. Gardiner says, carefully. “Is she – inclined towards riding?”

“Indeed, indeed – but not so much as some I have known.”

“But then – her clothing! Surely this, you cannot praise.”

Mrs. Reynolds stops a moment, and looks thoughtful. Finally she speaks, and her words are gentle, but firm.

“I have grown so used to it that I quite forget, sometimes, that this is a source of censure to some individuals. My mistress runs this household as any master ought, and she has raised a much younger sister since she was barely an adult herself. Never have I worried for her, never has she mismanaged this estate, never has she grown unkind, or mean. For all these virtues I do not need to forgive her more unusual habits – they are part of her, and therefore I must respect them, since they allow her to be the good-hearted woman she has always been. So, Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner,” she says, looking away from the portrait and turning her face towards them, “I shall tolerate no disrespect towards her that she has not earned. And as she does nobody any harm by her mode of dress, you will not find me in agreement with you.”

Elizabeth swallows past a lump in her throat, a sickening feeling of guilt overwhelming her senses.

You dress as a gentleman, Miss Darcy, but you have never behaved as one.

Every idea that has been brought forward by Mrs. Reynolds, who has known Miss Darcy since childhood, is favourable to her character. As Elizabeth turns her eyes back to the painting, she thinks of Miss Darcy’s regard with a deeper sentiment of understanding than has ever arisen in her before. She remembers the warmth of Miss Darcy’s gaze, and forgets all her previous judgements – just for a moment.

Mr. Gardiner apologises, clumsily, and Elizabeth finds herself interrupting.

“You are quite right, Mrs. Reynolds,” she says, softly, looking the older woman in the eye. “No one ought to pass judgement on someone else for behaviour which harms nobody.”

“I am glad that you agree,” Mrs. Reynolds says, with a smile.

When all of the house that is open to general inspection has been seen, they return downstairs. As they walk across the entryway towards the bridge over the river, where, Mrs. Reynolds assures them, a gardener will meet them, Elizabeth turns back to look at the road – only to see the owner of the grounds herself suddenly appear from the side of the building which leads to the stables.

They are within twenty yards of each other, and so abrupt is her appearance, that it is impossible to avoid her sight. Their eyes instantly meet, and Elizabeth immediately feels her cheeks overspread with the deepest blush – for Miss Darcy is once more in gentlemen’s clothing, and looks as easy and comfortable in it as she always did in Meryton. Miss Darcy stares, and for a moment seems frozen in surprise, but shortly recovering herself, she once more advances towards the party. Elizabeth, panicking, turns away, and then back again, her aunt and uncle oblivious to her suffering, only perplexed by the stranger striding towards them.

“Miss Darcy,” Elizabeth squeaks.

“Miss Bennet,” Miss Darcy says, steadily, with a short bow.

“I did not expect to see you,” Elizabeth blurts out, before feeling the mortification of such a statement.

“Ah,” Miss Darcy says, clearing her throat. “I – returned, a day early. Excuse me, I trust your family are well? Are these your relations?”

She scarcely dares to lift her eyes to Miss Darcy’s face, and knows not what answer she ought to return.

“Yes – and yes – my aunt and uncle Gardiner,” she replies, eventually.

After making polite small talk a few moments, Miss Darcy starts, and makes some excuse as to her inappropriate clothing. Elizabeth looks up in shock, but is quickly relieved to understand that Miss Darcy only means that she has been travelling and will need to change. She takes her leave with a promise to join them on their walk.

As soon as Miss Darcy is gone, the others begin discussion of the unexpectedness of the meeting, express their admiration of her manners. But Elizabeth hears not a word, wholly engrossed by her own feelings, and follows them in silence.

Her coming here is the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world! How it must appear to Miss Darcy! It must seem as if Elizabeth has purposely thrown herself into Miss Darcy’s path, in order to – to –

But no, for Elizabeth is thinking as if Miss Darcy is a male suitor instead of – what she is. Elizabeth had made it quite clear to her in Hunsford that she could never, and would never, feel about Miss Darcy the way Miss Darcy apparently felt about her. Therefore Miss Darcy has no reason to think that Elizabeth would throw herself in her way again, seeking some financial gain. But, oh! why did she come? Perhaps Miss Darcy thinks that Elizabeth has come to mock her, or to discover some secret reason for her inclinations towards her own sex in her childhood home.

Elizabeth hopes that Miss Darcy thinks no such thing, but has no faith in Miss Darcy’s pride to fool her into believing it has not crossed her mind.

And then there is her behaviour, so unexpected! What does it mean? That she should even speak to Elizabeth is amazing in itself, when they had parted on such bad terms, both making utter fools of themselves. Yet she spoke with such civility, inquiring after the same family she has formerly dismissed as an embarrassment to Elizabeth. Elizabeth knows not what to think, or how to account for this behaviour.

After some time, Mrs. Gardiner, who has never been a great walker, can go no farther, and speaks only of returning to the carriage as quickly as possible. They make their way back towards the house on the opposite side of the river, but their progress is slow. Whilst wandering on in this slow manner, Elizabeth has to fight the urge to say something very unladylike, as they are, again, surprised by the appearance of Miss Darcy from around a corner through the trees.

Still, at least this time Elizabeth is more prepared for an interview. She is resolved to speak with calmness. As Miss Darcy draws near, Elizabeth smiles politely and bows, and makes some compliments towards the grounds, before giving Miss Darcy a better introduction to her aunt and uncle – though it does strike her as a funny thing, that Miss Darcy is so polite to them, considering her disdain for Elizabeth’s other relatives.

The conversation soon turns to fishing (at her uncle’s influence, of course,) and Elizabeth is astonished to witness Miss Darcy invite him, with the greatest civility, to fish at Pemberly as often as he chooses while he continues in the neighbourhood. Indeed, at the same time, Miss Darcy offers to supply him with fishing tackle, and to point out those parts of the stream where there is usually most sport. Mrs. Gardiner, upon witnessing this congeniality, and walking arm-in-arm with Elizabeth, raises her eyebrows meaningfully at her. Elizabeth says nothing.

But the question of the change in Miss Darcy’s behaviour plays upon her mind. Why is she so altered? It cannot be for me. It cannot be for my sake, Elizabeth tells herself. It is impossible that Miss Darcy should still … care for her, after what Elizabeth said to her at Hunsford.

After walking some time in this way, the Elizabeth and her aunt in front, and Miss Darcy and Mr. Gardiner behind, there chances to be a little alteration. It originates in Mrs. Gardiner, who, fatigued by the exercise of the morning, claims to find Elizabeth's arm inadequate to her support, and consequently prefers her husband's. Miss Darcy takes her place by Elizabeth, and hesitantly offers her arm, which Elizabeth accepts with warm cheeks, and they walk on together.

After a short silence, Elizabeth finds that it is she who works up her courage to speak first.

“Miss Darcy, I must apologise. I had been assured you were absent from the house, and I never would have come regardless, but my aunt and uncle were so insistent, I could not deny them the pleasure or find an excuse to be absent. Your housekeeper informed us that you would certainly not be here till tomorrow!”

“Of course,” Miss Darcy says, quietly. “It is of no consequence. Business with my steward occasioned my coming forward a few hours before the rest of the party – they will join me early tomorrow.”

Elizabeth nods, feeling foolish nonetheless. They walk on in silence a few minutes more, before Miss Darcy speaks again, more hesitantly.

“There is … one person in the party who particularly wishes to be known to you. Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during your stay at Lambton?”

The surprise of such an application is great indeed – it is too great for Elizabeth to know in what manner she should accept. After fumbling her words for several moments, overcome with what such an introduction might mean, she answers.

“Oh – yes, of course. I would be delighted.”

At that Miss Darcy gives a rare smile, and Elizabeth subconsciously tightens her grip on Miss Darcy’s arm, before forcing her fingers to relax. They now walk in silence, each of them deep in thought. Elizabeth is not comfortable, of course – that much is impossible. But she feels almost flattered, and pleased. Miss Darcy’s wish of introducing her sister to Elizabeth is a compliment of the highest kind. It can only mean that, if she is not forgiven, she is at least permitted to be civil with Miss Darcy. That is all she may ask.

They soon outstrip the others, and when they reach the carriage, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are still a quarter of a mile behind. Now the silence is very awkward. Elizabeth wants to talk, but there seems to be an embargo on every subject. At length, she awkwardly finds it in herself to attempt to compliment the house once more.

“My aunt could not stop herself from exclaiming over every aspect of the house,” she says lightly. “But I must admit that I myself was impressed. It is a compliment to your taste.”

“Then you approve of it?”

“Yes – very much. Anyone who saw it could do naught else.”

“But your good opinion is rarely bestowed, and therefore more worth the earning.”

Elizabeth takes a moment to meet Miss Darcy’s gaze, seeking out some meaning in the compliment. Miss Darcy looks steadily back, something in her expression that Elizabeth cannot divine.

“Thank you,” she says finally, quietly.

At that moment, her aunt and uncle come over the rise, and they are obliged to speak no more. Goodbyes are quickly held, and Miss Darcy hands the ladies into the carriage; and when it drives off, Elizabeth turns back to see her walking slowly towards the house.

The observations of her uncle and aunt must now begin, but to Elizabeth’s surprise, each of them immediately pronounce Miss Darcy to be beyond all expectations.

“She is perfectly well behaved, polite, and unassuming,” Mr. Gardiner says.

“Oh, indeed,” Mrs. Gardiner agrees. “I can now say with Mrs. Reynolds, that though some people may call her proud or perhaps even scandalous, I have seen nothing of it.”

“She really was more than civil – quite attentive, and there was no necessity for such attention! I really was amazed at how much knowledge she maintained of the local fish. Her acquaintance with Elizabeth must have been very trifling, if she formed such a poor impression despite all these qualities.”

“To be sure, Lizzy,” says her aunt, “she is a little strange – quite unique, in her taste and sensibilities, for a woman, especially a lady. But how came you to tell me that she was so disagreeable?”

Elizabeth excuses herself as well as she can, which is feebly.

“Well, perhaps she may be a little whimsical in her civilities,” her uncle replies, nodding. “Your great ladies often are; and therefore I shall not take her at her word, as she might change her mind another day, and warn me off her grounds.”

Elizabeth feels that they have entirely misunderstood Miss Darcy’s character, but says nothing in her defence. She feels strangely afraid to – as if she may give away more than she intends to, should she attempt it.

The occurrences of the day are too full of interest to leave Elizabeth much attention for any of the various activities of the evening, as Mrs. Gardiner is busy being happily reunited with several old friends. Elizabeth can do nothing but think, and think with wonder, of Miss Darcy's civility, and, above all, of her wishing Elizabeth to be acquainted with her sister.

 

~

 

Two days after their meeting at Pemberly, Miss Darcy brings her sister to visit Elizabeth and the Gardiners in Lambton. Elizabeth’s uncle and aunt are all amazement, to her embarrassment, but they are cheerful at the prospect and so she does not dissuade them from it.

Elizabeth, vexingly, finds herself quite discomposed, and does not wish to dwell on its meaning too long. Some part of her knows that beneath her shame over her actions regarding Mr. Wickham, and her flustered embarrassment over being caught at Pemberly, there is a deeper feeling – one newly discovered, but long felt, and entirely frightening. But whatever it may be (for she refuses to put a name to it, and thus elevate it in importance,) her caution in all matters related to Miss Darcy is far from exhausted, and so she shall not allow herself to be too drawn in by the lady’s friendship. There have been terribly consequences for Jane, and that is something Elizabeth cannot afford to forget.

Still, more than commonly anxious to please, given the circumstances, she naturally suspects that every power of pleasing will fail her.

Miss Darcy and her sister soon appear at the inn, and are shown into a little sitting room where Elizabeth and the Gardiners await them.

It is with astonishment that Elizabeth observes that her new acquaintance is at least as much embarrassed as herself. Since being at Lambton, Elizabeth has heard that Miss Georgiana Darcy is exceedingly proud; certainly Mr. Wickham had allowed her to believe it once. But the observation of a very few minutes convinces Elizabeth that the girl is only exceedingly shy. Her eyes almost never leave the ground, and she clings closely to her sister’s arm.

Miss Georgiana Darcy is tall – though not so tall as her sister – and, though little more than sixteen, her appearance is womanly and graceful. There is sense and good humour in her face, and a great deal more feminine charm than her sister – it is as if Elizabeth is seeing what Miss Darcy might have been had the lady ever shown any genuine inclination towards the fashion of the vast majority of women.

Elizabeth, on her side, has much to do. She wants to ascertain the feelings of each of her visitors; she wants to compose her own, and to make herself agreeable to them. In the latter object, where she fears most to fail, she need not concern herself with the younger Miss Darcy, for she is eager, beneath her shyness – especially when Elizabeth mentions the fine pianoforte they were shown at Pemberly two days before.

“It was a very beautiful instrument, and a lovely room to play in, I am sure.”

The younger Miss Darcy’s eyes light up.

“Oh, but my sister gave it to me!” Turning to her, she smiles, and Elizabeth feels something strange inside her leap as Miss Darcy smiles back. “She shouldn't have, of course.”

“Yes, I should, Georgiana. Your playing deserves a proper setting.”

“Oh, very well then.”

Miss Darcy turns her smile to Elizabeth.

“She is easily persuaded, is she not?”

Elizabeth politely agrees with Miss Darcy’s teasing, and it is not long before the younger opens up, as delicately and gently as a flower, to her surroundings.

Over the course of their tea, Elizabeth carefully observes Miss Darcy. She sees an expression of general complaisance turned upon everybody, even when Mrs. Gardiner’s friends drop by and leave them all very cramped. In all that Miss Darcy says, Elizabeth no hauteur or disdain of any kind, and resigns herself to the knowledge that the improvement of Miss Darcy’s manners has at least outlived one day. Seeing her seeking the acquaintance and courting the good opinion of people with whom any discussion a few months ago would have been a disgrace is a great change, and strikes so forcibly on Elizabeth’s mind, that she can hardly restrain her astonishment from being visible. Never, even in the company of her dear friends at Netherfield, or her dignified relations at Rosings, has Elizabeth seen Miss Darcy so desirous to please, so free from self-consequence or unbending reserve – though no importance can possibly result from the success of these endeavours.

Their visitors end up staying with them above an hour. When they arise to depart, both Miss Darcys express their wish of seeing Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and Elizabeth, to dinner at Pemberley before they leave the country. The Gardiners readily agree, with Elizabeth’s acquiescence, and the day after the next is fixed on. Once more goodbyes are held, and Elizabeth is left to contemplate what has occurred for many hours yet.

She lies awake that night endeavouring to make her thoughts out. She certainly does not hate Miss Darcy. No, hatred had vanished long ago, and she has almost as long been ashamed of ever feeling a dislike against her, when so much of it turned out to be unjust. Respect is apparent – all who know Miss Darcy speak well of her, and in almost all her actions (at least since their arrival), that good nature is proven.

Above respect and esteem, thought, there is a motive within her of goodwill which cannot be overlooked. It is beyond flattery, though in that vein. It is gratitude. Gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of Elizabeth’s manner in rejecting her, and all the unjust accusations accompanying it. She who, Elizabeth had been persuaded, would avoid her as her greatest enemy, seems on this accidental meeting, most eager to preserve the acquaintance, and moreover is soliciting the good opinion of her friends, and bent on making her known to her sister. It must be attributed to some kind of affection, surely – though her love, Elizabeth is certain, has been long put to rest.

Yet it is not unpleasing to be so regarded. To have been the subject of such a regard.

It does not displease Elizabeth at all.

Chapter Text

Some fair share of disappointment has been Elizabeth’s due to the lack of a letter from home since arriving, and this disappointment has been renewed every morning by her sister’s continuing silence. But on the morning after the visit of Miss Darcy and her sister, Elizabeth’s repining comes to an end by the receipt of two letters from Jane at once, on one of which is marked that it had been missent elsewhere. Elizabeth is not surprised at it, as Jane appears to have written the direction remarkably ill.

The Gardiners are just preparing to walk out, but Elizabeth insists that her aunt and uncle go on without her, so eager is she for news of home. After some token protesting, her aunt and uncle make their leave, and Elizabeth settles in to begin reading.

The beginning of the letter dated earlier contains an account of all the little parties and engagements of Longbourn, with such news as the country affords, and this is quite enough to satisfy Elizabeth. Yet it is the latter half, which is dated a day later, and written in evident agitation, which gives Elizabeth more important intelligence. Scanning through the words written, Elizabeth feels a sense of horror come upon her as suddenly as a violent wave.

 

“Since writing the above, dearest Lizzy, something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature. What I have to say relates to poor Lydia. An express came at twelve last night, just as we were all gone to bed, from Colonel Forster, to inform us that she was gone off to Scotland with one of his officers – to own the truth, with Mr. Wickham!

We were all quite shocked, but to Kitty, apparently, it was not so wholly unexpected. I am very, very sorry. So imprudent a match on both sides! I am willing to hope the best, and that his character has been misunderstood. His choice is disinterested at least, for he must know my father can give her nothing. Our poor mother is sadly grieved. My father bears it better. How thankful am I that we never let them know what has been said against him; we must forget it ourselves. I must conclude, for I cannot be long from our poor mother. I am afraid you will not be able to make it out, for I hardly know what I have written.”

 

Without allowing herself time for consideration, and scarcely knowing what she feels, Elizabeth quickly opens the other letter, dated a day after the first’s conclusion.

 

“By this time you have received my first letter; I wish this may be more intelligible, but my head is so bewildered that I cannot answer for being coherent. Dearest Lizzy, I hardly know what I would write, but I have bad news for you, and it cannot be delayed. Imprudent as the marriage between Mr. Wickham and our poor Lydia would be, we are now given to fear that it has not taken place.

Colonel Forster came yesterday. Though Lydia's short letter to Mrs. F. gave them to understand that they were going to Gretna Green, something was dropped by Denny expressing his belief that Mr. Wickham never intended to go there, or even to marry Lydia at all, which was repeated to Colonel F., who, instantly taking the alarm, set off intending to trace their route. He did trace them easily to Clapham, but no further. All that is known after this is: that they were seen to continue the London road.

I know not what to think. Our distress, my dear Lizzy, is very great. Our mother is really ill, and keeps to her room. And as to our father, I never in my life saw him so affected. It is decided that he must go to London with Colonel Forster immediately, to try to discover poor Lydia. What he means to do I am sure I know not; but his excessive distress will not allow him to pursue any measure in the best and safest way. In such an exigence, my uncle's advice and assistance would be everything in the world; he will immediately comprehend what I must feel, and I rely upon his goodness. I am truly glad, dearest Lizzy, that you have been spared something of these distressing scenes; but now, under these new circumstances, I must beg for your return. Adieu!”

 

Elizabeth flies from her seat without a second thought, instantly intending to run after her uncle and have them all leave as soon as possible. As she reaches the door, however, it is opened by a servant, who brings and Miss Darcy behind him.

Before either have the chance to speak, Elizabeth blurts out an explanation. “I beg your pardon, but I must leave you. I must find Mr. Gardiner this moment, on business that cannot be delayed; I have not an instant to lose.”

“Good God! what is the matter?” says Miss Darcy, amazed – then recollecting herself, “I will not detain you a minute; but let the servant go after Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. You are surely not well enough; you cannot go yourself.”

Elizabeth hesitates, feeling torn, but sees the logic in it, given her own distress. Calling back the servant, therefore, she commissions him to fetch his master and mistress home instantly.

On his quitting the room she sits heavily down, unable to support herself, any longer. In a tone of gentleness and commiseration, Miss Darcy speaks, kneeling down beside her.

“Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take to give you present relief? A glass of wine; shall I get you one? You are very ill.”

“No, I thank you,” she replies softly, endeavouring to recover herself. “There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well, it is only –” and here, she speaks without thinking, “I am distressed by some dreadful news which I have just received from Longbourn.”

Quite without meaning to, she feels her resolve break down, and loses the ability to speak for trying to repress her tears. For a few minutes she cannot not speak another word. Miss Darcy, in wretched suspense, can only observe her in compassionate silence, hardly daring to place a comforting hand on her arm.

At length Elizabeth is able to speak again, knowing she must explain herself.

“I have just had a letter from Jane, with such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from anyone. My younger sister has left all her friends – has eloped; has thrown herself into the power of – of Mr. Wickham. They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to. She is lost for ever.”

Miss Darcy’s expression is careful, deliberate, and utterly frozen.

“When I consider,” Elizabeth groans, still lost to her own pain, “that I might have prevented it! I, who knew what he was. Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all – all too late now.”

“I am grieved indeed,” Miss Darcy says, swallowing, “I am shocked. But is it certain – absolutely certain?”

“Yes, it is. They left Brighton together on Sunday night, and were traced almost to London, but not beyond. They are certainly not gone to Scotland.”

“And what has been done, attempted, to recover her?”

“My father is gone to London, and Jane has written to beg my uncle's immediate assistance; and we shall be off, I hope, in half-an-hour. But I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the smallest hope.”

Miss Darcy shakes her head in silent agreement. Elizabeth continues to speak, too upset to stop herself.

“When my eyes were opened to his real character – oh! Had I known what I ought, what I dared to do! But I was afraid of doing too much!”

Miss Darcy continues to make no answer. She seems scarcely aware of Elizabeth now, and begins pacing up and down the room in earnest meditation, her brow contracted, and her air desperate. Elizabeth watches her for a moment, and it slowly dawns upon her – the truth of the situation.

For Elizabeth’s status is sinking; everything must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. She can neither wonder nor condemn Miss Darcy for acknowledging it. But the knowledge of Miss Darcy’s goodness, her kindness, her heart – these things worsen every feeling in Elizabeth as the reality of her situation becomes known to her.

Never has she so honestly felt that she could have loved Miss Darcy, as now, when all love must be vain.

But no, she will not think on this – cannot. For Lydia, the thought of the humiliation, the misery she is bringing on them all, soon swallows up every private care. After a pause of several minutes, during which Elizabeth struggles to control her tears, Miss Darcy speaks in a tone brokering compassion and restraint.

“I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence,” she says, gently. “I have nothing to plead in excuse of my stay but concern. I will not torment you with vain wishes, which may seem purposely to ask for your thanks.”

She pauses and looks away with a pained expression.

“This unfortunate affair will, I fear, prevent my sister's having the pleasure of seeing you at Pemberley today.”

“Oh, yes,” Elizabeth realises, with some pain. “Please, be so kind as to apologise for us to her. Say that urgent business calls us home immediately. Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible, please – for I know it cannot be long until all know of what has occurred, but I would not cause her pain, considering her history with the gentleman involved.”

“Of course,” Miss Darcy answers, as softly as before, though her jaw is tight, no doubt in consideration of the same fact.

With a few more words of sorrow for the events which must necessitate their parting, Miss Darcy leaves the room. As she quits the inn, Elizabeth glances out the window to watch her go, aware of how improbable it is that they should ever see each other again on such terms of cordiality as have marked their several meetings in Derbyshire. Despite all that must be done, she cannot help but throw a retrospective glance over the whole of their acquaintance, so full of contradictions and varieties, impossibilities of feeling and the strangest mode of friendship – even love – between two women of such different status. If only her feelings had continued in anger and indignation, then she might be able to feel indifference at watching Miss Darcy leave.

As the situation remains, however, she is left to nurse a heart severely bruised by imaginings.

She is wild to be at home – to support Jane in the cares that must now fall wholly upon her in a family so deranged. A father absent, a mother incapable of exertion, and two silly younger sisters are not the basis of a household which can endure hardship. Though almost persuaded that nothing can be done for Lydia, Elizabeth’s uncle's interference surely must be of the utmost importance, and until he enters the room her impatience is severe.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner burst into the room in some agitation, apparently having supposed by the servant's account, that their niece was taken suddenly ill; but satisfying them instantly on that head, Elizabeth quickly communicates the cause of their summons. Though Lydia has never been a favourite with them, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner both gasp with horror at the news. Not Lydia only but all are concerned in it, and after these first exclamations of surprise and disgust, Mr. Gardiner promises every assistance in his power. Elizabeth, though expecting no less, thanks him profusely. Finally, all three being actuated by one spirit, everything relating to their journey is speedily settled. They are to be off as soon as possible.

“But what is to be done about Pemberley?” Mrs. Gardiner exclaims. “John told us Miss Darcy was here when you sent for us; was it so?”

“Yes; and I told her we should not be able to keep our engagement. It is all settled.”

Mrs. Gardiner narrows her eyes, as if about to ask what Elizabeth knows she must – is Miss Darcy aware of the cause for their hasty exit? But at that moment, a servant interrupts, and the question is forgotten, Elizabeth grateful for it.

An hour sees the whole business of packing up and travelling arrangements created completed; and Mr. Gardiner meanwhile having settled his account at the inn, nothing remains to be done but to go. Elizabeth, after all the misery of the morning, finds herself in a shorter space of time than she could have supposed, seated in the carriage, and on the road at last to Longbourn.

The journey is marked every half hour by the exclamations and sighs of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, who on the whole find it unbelievable that Mr. Wickham could behave so ill, towards a young girl of such low social standing, too. Elizabeth cannot agree or attempt to mediate, given her knowledge of Mr. Wickham’s abominable actions towards the Darcy family. Indeed, as the journey progresses, she finds herself revealing particular facts to her aunt and uncle in order to impress upon them the seriousness of the situation where the young man is implicated. She does not tell all – for she knows she is not at liberty to do so, and could never betray Miss Darcy’s confidence, even now that there is no hope of continuing the reconciliation begun between them in Derbyshire. Nevertheless, she relates enough to assure her aunt and uncle that the situation is grave indeed, and that Lydia is in great danger, and they must make all haste. This of course has the effect of making their journey seem naught but slower.

Finally, however, many hours later, they arrive at Longbourn. Elizabeth leaps out of the carriage and, after giving each of her assembled sisters and cousins a hasty kiss, hurries into the vestibule, where Jane, who has come running down from their mother's apartment, immediately meets with her.

Elizabeth, as she affectionately embraces her and whilst tears fill the eyes of them both, loses not a moment in asking whether anything has been heard of the fugitives.

“Not yet,” Jane replies, regretfully. “But now that uncle is come, I hope everything will be well.”

“Is father in town?”

“Yes, he went on Tuesday, as I wrote you word.”

“And have you heard from him often?”

Jane takes Elizabeth’s arm, leading her further into the house, where there will be more privacy.

“We have heard only twice,” Jane admits. “He wrote me a few lines on Wednesday to say that he had arrived in safety, and to give me his directions, which I particularly begged him to do. He merely added that he should not write again till he had something of importance to mention.”

“And mother – how is she?” Elizabeth must ask, despite knowing how her mother frets regularly.

“Mother is … tolerably well, though her spirits are greatly shaken. She is upstairs and will have great satisfaction in seeing you all.”

“But you, Jane, how are you?” Elizabeth says, squeezing her sister’s hand. “How much you must have gone through!”

“I am well,” Jane reassures her, with an exhausted, but polite smile. “As well as we all may be under these circumstances.”

“Oh, Jane,” Elizabeth says, suddenly aware that there is nothing left to say which will alleviate their shared pain.

 

~

 

Mrs. Bennet, to whose apartment they all repair, receives them exactly as expected – with tears and lamentations of regret, invectives against the villainous conduct of Wickham, and complaints of her own sufferings and ill-usage. For many minutes, she blames everybody but the person to whose ill-judging indulgence the errors of her daughter might actually be owing. At this, all present are forced to hold their tongues and make assurances of Lydia’s safety and certain marriage – though hope is in sore supply.

Later still, before bed, Elizabeth finally has the chance to speak to Jane of the particulars concerning Lydia’s plight. Expressing her regrets over the secret of Mr. Wickham’s conduct, however, does not change what has passed.

“Oh, had we only been less secret, had we told what we knew of him, this could not have happened!”

“Perhaps it would have been better,” Jane agrees. “But to expose the former faults of any person without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable. We acted with the best intentions.”

“Still, it is difficult not to see now, how we could have prevented it.”

“I am not sure. Lydia is silly enough that – oh, the note she left! I had quite forgotten it until now; I shall produce it for you.”

Jane hurries to take the note from her pocket-book, and hands it over to an eager and impatient Elizabeth. The note is short, in Lydia’s unmistakeably messy hand.

 

“MY DEAR HARRIET,

You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without him, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them and sign my name 'Lydia Wickham.' What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing. Good-bye. Give my love to Colonel Forster. I hope you will drink to our good journey.

Your affectionate friend,

“LYDIA BENNET.”

 

“Oh! thoughtless, thoughtless Lydia!” Elizabeth cries angrily, when she finishes it. “What a letter is this, to be written at such a moment! But at least it shows that she was serious on the subject of their journey. I could never imagine myself in such a situation – I could never be persuaded to throw away my family, all my friends, for the sake of a man.”

Jane shrugs, uncomfortably.

“She was in love,” she reasons. “Or at least persuaded that she was. For such a love many sacrifices may be made – though I fear we may discover this was merely a passing passion for them both, violent, but short-lived.”

Elizabeth shakes her head.

“No, I cannot be persuaded that the love of a man – even one she hoped to wed – could be worth this.”

Jane is silent a moment longer, contemplating her sister. Elizabeth feels her cheeks grow warm, uncertain as to what her sister is imagining.

“Then … Perhaps it must all be put down to Lydia’s lack of understanding. Her impropriety is born of her indulgence by our parents. She has never understood the value of social standing, of community, of family. That must serve as our explanation, bemoan it though we may.”

“Of course,” Elizabeth says, before turning the conversation to the measures their father must take to recover the couple.

Later that night, though, when she is quite persuaded that Jane has fallen asleep, she allows her thoughts to turn to their earlier discussion – to love; its form, shape, and worthiness.

For Elizabeth did not lie. She cannot conceive of any man she might behave so irrationally for. She cannot understand Lydia’s – and indeed Kitty’s, even Jane’s – longings for matrimony. Safety and security, these benefits she can rationalise, but passion? Elizabeth can see no passion in marriage. Not for herself, though she might be persuaded for Jane’s sensibilities, should her sister have ever had a chance at Mr. Bingley.

When Elizabeth really thinks on it, only two names arise in her mind to whom she can attribute really irrational, emotional, passionate behaviour of her own, not befitting who she believes herself to be – Charlotte Lucas, and Miss Darcy.

In the case of the first, she had reacted with unbecoming anger to news of Charlotte’s marriage. It was not merely Charlotte’s choice of husband which infuriated Elizabeth, though that is still a man she considers beneath any of her friends or sisters. It was the feeling of abandonment, of betrayal which came with the marriage, that broke her heart.

In fact, Elizabeth realises with startling clarity, whenever she pictured the future while they were both children, it was Charlotte she pictured by her side – Charlotte was the person who she imagined she must share her days with, and vice versa, with no husbands to be spoken of. And when they got older and husbands became inevitable expectations, she still pictured Charlotte and herself raising children together, while faceless men, rarely at home, left them to their business. To have such a fantasy, a dream of her heart, (unacknowledged though it may have been), torn away from her so suddenly –

It can only mean that Elizabeth has long been in possession of feelings which she has refused to see for what they are.

And if Charlotte is not proof enough of that, then certainly, where Miss Darcy is concerned, there is more than enough evidence to convince any sane person.

Elizabeth closes her eyes against the darkness of the room and the shape of her sister beside her, and allows herself, for the first time, to fully admit to the depth of regard she has discovered in her heart for Miss Darcy.

She can no longer justify or explain away her feelings. They are not those familiar feelings born of a disagreement of temperament any longer – that particular period of their acquaintanceship ended on the day Miss Darcy committed the truth of Mr. Wickham’s action to paper and presented it to her. Nor are Elizabeth’s current feelings a more sisterly form of affection – Elizabeth knows well what it is to be a sister, or a close female friend; knows what it is to squabble and giggle and confess to private doubts and fears under the safe shelter of a female confidant.

Her feelings are alive and without rationalisation; they are more spirited and thrilling than any passing fancy she has previously convinced herself to hold for a suitable officer about town. They shock her most unexpectedly, and have run afoul of her determined ignorance of them at every turn. Yet wherever she turns, however she runs from them, they remain inextricably intertwined with her very soul. They are natural. And they are just.

But Elizabeth’s heart breaks nonetheless, for the knowledge that they will never be realised weighs heavily upon her.

How can they be, with Lydia’s disgrace hanging over her family, and consequently herself? Miss Darcy cannot afford to associate herself with a Bennet, no matter how removed Elizabeth may have been from the scandal at the time of its occurrence. Besides which, of course, Elizabeth has no reason to think that the offer she received from Miss Darcy at Rosings will ever be renewed – Miss Darcy’s cordiality at Pemberly may be explained away as her natural state at home, if the housekeeper’s testimony is anything to go by. She treated Elizabeth with as much equanimity as her aunt and uncle, and there are no more actions to be read into – no signs of deeper affection.

Elizabeth, wholly cognizant of the impossibility at every side of finding happiness with Miss Darcy, allows herself, just once more, to weep – though her tears are silent, and for herself alone rather than her family, as all others today have been. A little selfishness of her own will not go amiss where it can harm nobody.

 

~

 

The whole party are in hopes of a letter from Mr. Bennet the next morning, but the post comes in without bringing a single line from him. All present know him to be, on all common occasions, a most negligent and dilatory correspondent; but at such a time they had hoped for exertion. They are forced to conclude that he had no pleasing intelligence to send; but even of that they would have been glad to be certain. Mr. Gardiner waits only for the letters before he sets off.

Mrs. Gardiner and the children remain in Hertfordshire a few days longer, as the former is of the opinion that her presence will be serviceable to her nieces. She shares in their attendance on Mrs. Bennet, and is a great comfort to them until the time comes for her to leave – which the Bennet sisters accept with no less regret than gratitude.

All Meryton seems to be striving to blacken the man who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light. He is immediately declared to be in debt to every tradesman in the place, and his intrigues, all honoured with the title of seduction, have been extended into every tradesman's family. It is of course declared that he is the wickedest young man in the world.

Elizabeth, though she does not credit above half of what is said, believes enough to make her assurance of her sister's ruin more certain. Even Jane, who believes still less of it, grows more hopeless.

Every day at Longbourn is now a day of anxiety; but the most anxious part of each is when the post is expected. Through letters, whatever of good or bad is to be told will be communicated, and every succeeding day is expected to bring some news of importance.

News from their uncle arrives to great excitation, but he only writes to say that he immediately found out his brother; that Mr. Bennet has been to Epsom and Clapham before his arrival, but without gaining any satisfactory information; and that he is now determined to inquire at all the principal hotels in town, as Mr. Bennet thinks it possible they might have gone to one of them. Mr. Gardiner himself does not expect any success from this measure, but as his brother is eager in it, he means to assist him in pursuing it.

The next letter they receive, however, is from an even more unfortunate source – Mr. Collins, whose opinions he must believe are eagerly solicited at Longbourn.

 

“MY DEAR MR. BENNET,

“I feel myself called upon, by our relationship, and my situation in life, to condole with you on the grievous affliction you are now suffering under, of which we were yesterday informed by a letter from Hertfordshire. Be assured, my dear sir, that Mrs. Collins and myself sincerely sympathise with you and all your respectable family, in your present distress, which must be of the bitterest kind, because proceeding from a cause which no time can remove. No arguments shall be wanting on my part that can alleviate so severe a misfortune – or that may comfort you, under a circumstance that must be of all others the most afflicting to a parent's mind. The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. And it is the more to be lamented, because there is reason to suppose as my dear Charlotte informs me, that this licentiousness of behaviour in your daughter has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence; though, at the same time, for the consolation of yourself and Mrs. Bennet, I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age. Howsoever that may be, you are grievously to be pitied; in which opinion I am not only joined by Mrs. Collins, but likewise by Lady Catherine and her daughter, to whom I have related the affair. They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family? And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November; for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace. Let me then advise you, dear sir, to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offense.

“I am, dear sir, etc., etc.”

 

Elizabeth, upon receiving the letter, passes it on to Jane in disgust, and is very much occupied by the fury its contents inspire for the rest of the afternoon – though she is humbled a little when Jane reminds her of her own harsher sentiments against Lydia.

Mr. Gardiner’s next letter arrives within another week, in which he adds that they might expect to see their father at home on the following day, which was Saturday. Rendered spiritless by the ill-success of all their endeavours, he has apparently yielded to his brother-in-law's entreaty that he return to his family, and leave it to him to do whatever occasion might suggest to be advisable for continuing their pursuit. When Mrs. Bennet is told of this, she does not express so much satisfaction as her children hope, considering what her anxiety for his life had been before.

“What, is he coming home, and without poor Lydia?” she cries, wringing her handkerchief. “Surely he will not leave London before he has found them. Who is to fight Wickham, and make him marry her, if he comes away?”

When Mr. Bennet finally arrives, he has all the appearance of his usual philosophic composure. He says as little as before; makes no mention of the business that took him away, and it is some time before his daughters have the courage to speak of it.

It is not until the afternoon, when he joins them at tea, that Elizabeth ventures to introduce the subject – and then, on her briefly expressing her sorrow for what he must have endured, he replies at last:

“Say nothing of it. Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”

“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” Elizabeth replies, reaching out a comforting hand upon his arm.

“No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”

Elizabeth attempts a gentle change of subject from his own failings as a father.

“Do you suppose them to be in London?”

“Yes; where else can they be so well concealed?”

“And Lydia always used to want to go to London,” Kitty adds.

“She is happy then,” Mr. Bennet replies drily; “and her residence there will probably be of some duration.”

He leans over towards his older daughter with a sorrowful expression.

“Lizzy, I bear you no ill-will for being justified in your advice to me last May, which, considering the event, shows some greatness of mind. I ought to have been more restrictive in her movements.”

I am not going to run away, papa,” Kitty says determinedly. “If I should ever go to Brighton, I would behave far better than Lydia.”

You go to Brighton!” Mr. Bennet laughs. “I would not trust you so near it as Eastbourne for fifty pounds! No, Kitty, I have at last learnt to be cautious, and you will feel the effects of it. No officer is ever to enter into my house again, nor even to pass through the village. Balls will be absolutely prohibited, unless you stand up with one of your sisters. And you are never to stir out of doors till you can prove that you have spent ten minutes of every day in a rational manner!”

Kitty, speechless with horror, bursts into tears – and therefore Elizabeth is required to use all the skills she has acquired tending to her mother on the daughter instead. She cannot help but feel a little cross with her father for once more exciting a member of the household, though she is proud, too, to see how he has learnt from this parental mistake.

“Well, well,” Mr. Bennet adds, watching the scene, “do not make yourself unhappy. If you are a good girl for the next ten years, I will take you to a review at the end of them.”

 


~

Two days after Mr. Bennet's return, as Jane and Elizabeth are walking together in the shrubbery behind the house, the housekeeper calls them:

“I beg your pardon, madams, for interrupting you, but I was in hopes you might have got some good news from town, so I took the liberty of coming to ask.”

“What do you mean, Hill? We have heard nothing from town.”

“Dear madam,” Mrs. Hill cries, in great astonishment, “don't you know there is an express come for master from Mr. Gardiner? He has been here this half-hour, and master has had a letter!”

Without another word, only a singular glance, Jane and Elizabeth immediately make for the house. Luckily they are able to spot their father walking towards a small wood on one side of the paddock. Upon catching him, Jane cries out, unable to hold back any longer:

“Oh, papa, what news – what news? Have you heard from my uncle?”

“Yes, I have had a letter from him by express.”

“Well, and what news does it bring – good or bad?” Elizabeth adds.

“What is there of good to be expected?” He shrugs, pulling the letter from his pocket. “But perhaps you would like to read it.”

Elizabeth impatiently caught it from his hand.

“Read it aloud,” said their father, “for I hardly know myself what it is about.”

 

“MY DEAR BROTHER,

“At last I am able to send you some tidings of Lydia, and such as, upon the whole, I hope it will give you satisfaction. Soon after you left me on Saturday, I was fortunate enough to find out in what part of London they were. The particulars I reserve till we meet; it is enough to know they are discovered. I have seen them both. They are not married, nor can I find there was any intention of being so; but if you are willing to perform the engagements which I have ventured to make on your side, I hope it will not be long before they are.

All that is required of you is to assure to your daughter, by settlement, her equal share of the five thousand pounds secured among your children after the decease of yourself and my sister; and moreover, to enter into an engagement of allowing her, during your life, one hundred pounds per annum. These are conditions which, considering everything, I had no hesitation in complying with, as far as I thought myself privileged, for you.

I shall send this by express, that no time may be lost in bringing me your answer. You will easily comprehend, from these particulars, that Mr. Wickham's circumstances are not so hopeless as they are generally believed to be. The world has been deceived in that respect; and I am happy to say there will be some little money, even when all his debts are discharged, to settle on my niece, in addition to her own fortune. If, as I conclude will be the case, you send me full powers to act in your name throughout the whole of this business, I will immediately give directions to Haggerston for preparing a proper settlement. There will not be the smallest occasion for your coming to town again; therefore stay quiet at Longbourn, and depend on my diligence and care.

Send back your answer as fast as you can, and be careful to write explicitly. We have judged it best that my niece should be married from this house, of which I hope you will approve. She comes to us to-day. I shall write again as soon as anything more is determined on.

Yours, etc.,

“EDW. GARDINER.”

 

“Is it possible?” Elizabeth gasps, when finishes. “Can it be possible that he will marry her?”

“Mr. Wickham is not so undeserving, then, as we thought him,” cries Jane.

“Oh! Papa, come back and write immediately. Consider how important every moment is in such a case!”

“Let me write for you,” Jane adds eagerly, “if you dislike the trouble yourself.”

“I dislike it very much,” Mr. Bennet snorts, “but it must be done.”

And so saying, he turns back with them, and begins walking towards the house.

“I suppose the terms must be complied with,” Elizabeth ventures, frowning.

“Complied with! I am only ashamed of his asking so little,” Mr. Bennet sighs, shaking his head. “There is nothing else to be done. But there are two things that I want very much to know; one is, how much money your uncle has laid down to bring it about; and the other, how am I ever to pay him?”

“Money! What can you mean?”

“I mean, that no man in his senses would marry Lydia on so slight a temptation as one hundred a year during my life, and fifty after I am gone.”

“That is very true,” Elizabeth muses, “though it had not occurred to me before. His debts to be discharged, and something still to remain! Oh! it must be uncle Gardiner’s doings! A small sum could not do all this.”

“No,” Mr. Bennet agrees. “Wickham's a fool if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to think so ill of him, in the very beginning of our relationship.”

“Ten thousand pounds! Heaven forbid! How is half such a sum to be repaid?”

Mr. Bennet makes no answer, and of them, deep in thought, continue silently until they reach the house.

Mrs. Bennet can hardly contain herself upon learning the news. As soon as Jane reads of Mr. Gardiner's hope of Lydia's being soon married, her joy bursts forth, and every following sentence adds to its exuberance. She is now in an irritation as violent as delight as she had ever been fidgety from alarm and vexation. She is disturbed by no fear for Lydia’s felicity, nor humbled by any remembrance of her own misconduct.

“My dear, dear Lydia!” she cries, sitting up in bed. “This is delightful indeed! She will be married! I shall see her again! She will be married at sixteen! My good, kind brother! I knew how it would be. I knew he would manage everything! How I long to see her! and to see dear Mr. Wickham too! But the clothes, the wedding clothes! I will write to my sister Gardiner about them directly. Lizzy, my dear, run down to your father, and ask him how much he will give her. Stay, stay, I will go myself. Ring the bell, Kitty, for Hill. I will put on my things in a moment. My dear, dear Lydia! How merry we shall be together when we meet!”

It is a fortnight since Mrs. Bennet has been downstairs; but on this happy day she again takes her seat at the head of her table, and in spirits oppressively high. No sentiment of shame gives any damp to her triumph. The marriage of a daughter, which has been the first object of her wishes since Jane’s birth, is now on the point of accomplishment, and her thoughts and her words run wholly on those attendants of elegant nuptials, fine muslins, new carriages, and servants.

Elizabeth though, is now most heartily sorry that, from the distress of the moment, she made Miss Darcy acquainted with their fears for her sister. Since Lydia’s marriage will so shortly give the proper termination to the elopement, they might have had hope to conceal its unfavourable beginning from all those who were not immediately on the spot.

Elizabeth has no fear of this origin spreading farther through Miss Darcy’s means, however. There are few people on whose secrecy she can more confidently depend; but, at the same time, there is no one whose knowledge of a sister's mistakes would mortify her so much. Even had Lydia's marriage been under the most honourable terms, it is not to be supposed that Miss Darcy would connect herself with a family where now has been added added an alliance and relationship of the nearest kind with a man whom she so justly scorns.

From such a connection Elizabeth does not wonder that Miss Darcy should shrink. The wish of procuring Elizabeth’s regard, which Elizabeth had dared to hope for in Derbyshire, cannot in rational expectation survive such a blow as this.

She is humbled, she is grieved; she repents, though she hardly knows of what. She feels herself becoming jealous of Miss Darcy’s esteem, when she can certainly no longer hope to be benefited by it. Nevertheless, Elizabeth does wish to hear of her, and it leaves her anxious to go without news.

What a triumph for her, Elizabeth cannot help but think. Could she know that the proposals which Elizabeth had proudly spurned only four months ago, would now be most gladly and gratefully received! Miss Darcy is as generous, Elizabeth doubts not, as any man, but there must be some triumph.

They might have had a union that would have been to the advantage of both, Elizabeth knows. By Elizabeth’s ease and liveliness, Miss Darcy’s mind might have been softened, her manners improved; and from Miss Darcy’s judgement, information, and knowledge of the world and all that Elizabeth had once thought impossible or never thought of at all, Elizabeth might have received benefit of greater importance.

But no union could ever be forthcoming. Instead, a union of a different tendency, and precluding the possibility of the other, was soon to be formed in Elizabeth’s family.

 

~

 

Lydia’s wedding day finally arrives after much communication between Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet regarding the young couple’s finances; and Jane and Elizabeth feel for Lydia probably more than she feels for herself. The happy couple are to come to Longbourn for dinner before setting off once more, though whether Lydia is aware that it is the last time she will be welcomed in her home is unknown to the two elder Bennet sisters. Their arrival is dreaded nonetheless.

But come they do to the skeptical household. The family assemble in the breakfast room to receive them. An ecstatic smile decks the face of Mrs. Bennet as the carriage drives up to the door; her husband remains impenetrably grave; her daughters, alarmed, anxious, uneasy.

Lydia's voice is soon heard in the vestibule; the door is thrown open, and she flies into the room. Her mother steps forwards, embraces her, and welcomes her with rapture. Mrs. Bennet also gives her hearty greetings to Mr. Wickham, who, Elizabeth observes, shows no sign of shame or trepidation at meeting the family of his very silly wife.

Mr. Bennet is less cordial, but Lydia is Lydia still: untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless. She turns from sister to sister, demanding their congratulations; and when at length they all sit down, looks eagerly round the room, seeking further praise.

There is no want of discourse at the table. The bride and her mother can neither of them talk fast enough, while Mr. Wickham, who happens to sit near Elizabeth, is quick to begin inquiring after his acquaintance in the neighbourhood, with a good humoured ease which Elizabeth feels somewhat affronted by given the circumstances under which they are meeting.

Lydia, too, leads voluntarily to subjects which her sisters would not have alluded to for the world.

“Only think of its being three months,” she sighs happily, “since I went away; it seems but a fortnight I declare; and yet there have been things enough happened in the time. Good gracious! when I went away, I am sure I had no more idea of being married till I came back again! though I thought it would be very good fun if I was.”

Mr. Bennet’s expression remains stony. Jane coughs politely. Elizabeth cannot disguise her shock at Lydia’s words. But Lydia, who never hears nor sees anything of which she chooses to be insensible, gaily continues:

“Oh! mamma, do the people hereabouts know I am married to-day? I was afraid they might not; and we overtook William Goulding in his curricle, so I was determined he should know it, and so I let down the side-glass next to him, and took off my glove, and let my hand just rest upon the window frame, so that he might see the ring, and then I bowed and smiled like anything!”

Mrs. Bennet coos and offers all assurances that the whole neighbourhood must know of her success.

“I am sure my sisters must all envy me,” Lydia continues condescendingly. “I only hope they may have half my good luck. They must all go to Brighton. That is the place to get husbands. What a pity it is, mamma, we did not all go!”

“Very true; and if I had my will, we should.”

“You and papa, and my sisters, must come down and see us. We shall be at Newcastle all the winter, and I dare say there will be some balls, and I will take care to get good partners for them all.”

“I should like it beyond anything!” Mrs Bennet cries.

“And then when you go away, you may leave one or two of my sisters behind you; and I dare say I shall get husbands for them before the winter is over.”

“I thank you for my share of the favour,” Elizabeth cuts in, unable to hold herself back any longer, “but I do not particularly feel as if I should enjoy a husband just now.”

Lydia blinks at her in surprise, as if such a thing had never occurred to her before.

Observing the progression of their meal, Elizabeth is disappointed but unsurprised to find that Mr. Wickham's affection for Lydia is not equal to Lydia's for him. Their elopement had clearly been brought on by the strength of her love, rather than by his. Lydia is exceedingly fond of him, and it is nothing if not painful to watch. He is her dear Wickham on every occasion; no one is to be put in competition with him. He does everything best in the world; and she is sure he will kill more birds on the first of September then anybody else in the country.

Elizabeth thinks back on Jane’s words regarding the violence of passionate love, and finds that there may be something in it. Lydia’s love for Mr. Wickham is violent and passionate no doubt – but it is also shallow, greedy, and immature.

And though Elizabeth would do a great many things to find herself in the company of Miss Darcy again, she would do none of them without the assurance of mutual regard, and care taken to protect her family from a scandal such as this. Both conditions which Miss Darcy had once offered her, and which Elizabeth had scorned.

 

~

 

The next morning at breakfast, Lydia suddenly gives a great gasp, and turns to Elizabeth, while Mr. Wickham is still yet to arrive.

“Lizzy, I never gave you an account of my wedding, I believe. Are not you curious to hear how it was managed?”

“Not really,” Elizabeth replies tersely “I think there cannot be too little said on the subject.”

“La! You are so strange!” Lydia frowns, before launching into an explanation, undeterred. “I must tell you how it went off. We were married, you know, at St. Clement's, because Wickham's lodgings were in that parish. And it was settled that we should all be there by eleven o'clock. The Gardiners and I were to go together; and the others were to meet us at the church. Well, Monday morning came, and I was in such a fuss! I was so afraid, you know, that something would happen to put it off, and then I should have gone quite distracted. And there was my aunt, all the time I was dressing, preaching and talking away just as if she was reading a sermon. However, I did not hear above one word in ten, for I was thinking, you may suppose, of my dear Wickham. I longed to know whether he would be married in his blue coat.”

“Of course,” Elizabeth replies, flatly.

“Well, and so we breakfasted at ten as usual; I thought it would never be over; for, by the bye, uncle and aunt were horrid unpleasant all the time I was with them. If you'll believe me, I did not once put my foot out of doors, though I was there a fortnight! Not one party, or anything. Well, and so just as the carriage came to the door, my uncle was called away upon business to that horrid man Mr. Stone. And then, you know, when once they get together, there is no end of it. Well, I was so frightened I did not know what to do, for my uncle was to give me away; and if we were beyond the hour, we could not be married all day. But, luckily, he did come back again in ten minutes' time, or else I might have had to ask Miss Darcy for help.”

“Miss Darcy!” repeats Elizabeth, in utter amazement.

“Oh – yes! She was to come there with Wickham, you know. But I quite forgot! I ought not to have said a word about it. I promised them so faithfully! What will Wickham say? It was to be such a secret!”

“Miss Darcy was – at your wedding?”

“Oh, yes,” Lydia shudders. “And a dreary sight she was too, I hardly thought she should have been let inside the church.”

“But how came she to be there?” Elizabeth presses, impatient.

“Well, she was the one who discovered us. She paid for the commission, the wedding – everything. Though I rather think she might have allowed for a little better regarding my wedding clothes, as uncle could not be expected to. But you must not tell a soul, Elizabeth! She did make me promise to never say a word about it.”

Elizabeth nods dumbly, left entirely speechless.

Miss Darcy, at her sister's wedding! It was exactly a scene, and exactly among people, where she had apparently least to do, and least temptation to go. Conjectures as to the meaning of it, rapid and wild, hurry into her brain; but Elizabeth is satisfied with none. Unable to bear such suspense, she hurries upstairs as soon as her sister and her brother-in-law have gone, and seizes a sheet of paper, to request an explanation immediately from her aunt.

Luckily, the satisfaction of receiving an answer to her letter as soon as she possibly can is realised. Within a few days, the letter is brought by Hill, and, hurrying into a little copse near the house, where she is least likely to be interrupted, Elizabeth sits down on one of the benches and begins to read.

 

“MY DEAR NIECE,

“I have just received your letter, and shall devote this whole morning to answering it, as I foresee that a little writing will not comprise what I have to tell you.

Your uncle whilst in London had a most unexpected visitor. It was Miss Darcy who called, and indeed she was shut up with him several hours. It was all over before I arrived; so my curiosity was not so dreadfully racked as yours seems to have been. She came to tell Mr. Gardiner that she had found out where your sister and Mr. Wickham were, and that he had seen and talked with them both; Wickham repeatedly, Lydia once. From what I can collect, she left Derbyshire only one day after ourselves, and came to town with the resolution of hunting for them. The motive professed was her conviction of its being owing to herself that Mr. Wickham's worthlessness had not been so well known as to make it impossible for any young woman of character to love or confide in him. She called it, therefore, her duty to step forward, and endeavour to remedy an evil which had been brought on by herself. She had been some days in town, before she was able to discover them; but she had something to direct her search, which was more than we had; and the consciousness of this was another reason for her resolving to follow us.

There is a lady, it seems, a Mrs. Younge, who was some time ago governess to Miss Georgiana Darcy, and was dismissed from her charge on some cause of disapprobation, though Miss Darcy did not say what. This Mrs. Younge was, she knew, intimately acquainted with Mr. Wickham; and she went to her for intelligence of him as soon as she got to town. But it was two or three days before she could get from her what she wanted. Mr. Wickham indeed had gone to Mrs. Younge on their first arrival in London, and had she been able to receive them into her house, they would have taken up their abode with her.

At length, however, our kind friend procured the wished-for direction. Miss Darcy saw Wickham, and afterwards insisted on seeing Lydia. Her first object with Lydia, she acknowledged, had been to persuade her to quit her present disgraceful situation, and return to her friends as soon as they could be prevailed on to receive her, offering assistance. But she found Lydia absolutely resolved on remaining where she was. She cared for none of her friends; she wanted no help of Miss Darcy’s; she would not hear of leaving Mr. Wickham. She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.

Since such were her feelings, it only remained, Miss Darcy explained, to secure and expedite a marriage, which, in her very first conversation with Wickham, she easily learnt had never been his design. He meant to resign his commission immediately; and as to his future situation, he could conjecture very little about it. He must go somewhere, but he did not know where, and he knew he should have nothing to live on.

Miss Darcy asked him why he had not married your sister at once. Though Mr. Bennet was not imagined to be very rich, he would have been able to do something for him, and his situation must have been benefited by marriage. But she found, in reply to this question, that Mr. Wickham still cherished the hope of more effectually making his fortune by marriage in some other country. Miss Darcy did not so much as tell, as imply, through her temperament, that such words were mightily unwelcome to a woman of her standing.

They met several times, for there was much to be discussed. Mr. Wickham of course wanted more than he could get; but at length was reduced to be reasonable. Everything settled between them, Miss Darcy's next step was to make your uncle acquainted with it.

It was all settled before Monday: as soon as it was, the express was sent off to Longbourn. But our visitor was very obstinate. I fancy, Lizzy, that obstinacy is the real defect of her character, after all. She has been accused of many faults at different times, but this is the true one. Nothing was to be done that she did not do herself; though I am sure your uncle would most readily have settled the whole.

They battled it together for a long time, which was more than either the gentleman or lady concerned in it deserved. But at last your uncle was forced to yield, and instead of being allowed to be of use to his niece, was forced to put up with only having the probable credit of it, which went sorely against the grain; and I really believe your letter this morning gave him great pleasure, because it required an explanation that would rob him of his borrowed feathers, and give the praise where it was due – to a woman he once described as flighty! But, Lizzy, this must go no farther than yourself, or Jane at most.

You know pretty well, I suppose, what has been done for the young people. Mr. Wickham’s debts are to be paid, amounting, I believe, to considerably more than a thousand pounds, another thousand in addition to her own settled upon her, and his commission purchased. The reason why all this was to be done by Miss Darcy alone was such as I have given above – out of no more than redemptive action, and, perhaps, friendship to your family.

I believe I have now told you every thing. It is a relation which you tell me is to give you great surprise; I hope at least it will not afford you any displeasure.

Will you be very angry with me, my dear Lizzy, if I take this opportunity of saying (what I was never bold enough to say before) how much I like Miss Darcy? Her behaviour to us has, in every respect, been as pleasing as when we were in Derbyshire. Her understanding and opinions all please me; she wants nothing but a little more liveliness, and that, any kindly female friend might teach her.

But I must write no more. The children have been wanting me this half hour.

Yours, very sincerely,

“M. GARDINER.”

 

It is difficult to determine whether pleasure or pain bear the greatest share of Elizabeth’s frazzled nerves. Lydia’s account of Miss Darcy’s place at the wedding and financial support is then true! Miss Darcy followed them purposely to town, took on herself all the trouble and mortification attendant on such a research, and was forced to frequently meet, reason with, persuade, and finally bribe, the man whom she always must wish to avoid. She had done all this for a girl whom she could neither regard nor esteem.

Elizabeth’s heart does whisper that perhaps Miss Darcy did it for her.

But it is a hope shortly checked by other considerations, and she soon feels that even her vanity is insufficient, when required to depend on Miss Darcy’s affection for her – for a woman who has already refused her, in the cruellest terms imaginable. Miss Darcy has, to be sure, done much. Elizabeth is ashamed to think how much. But she has also given a reason for her interference, an entirely proper reason, which requires no stretch of imagination.

Elizabeth reflects that her family owe the restoration of Lydia, her character, everything, to a woman who is still abhorred by half the neighbourhood. She has never felt so heartily ashamed.

Chapter Text

The housekeeper at Netherfield, being a regular gossip in the town, has apparently received orders to prepare for the arrival of her master, who is coming down in a day or two to shoot there for several weeks. Mrs. Bennet reacts to this news with her usual degree of dignity and quiet acceptance of God’s mysterious ways, and the house is in an uproar by the time all are awake, with each member of the family required to pay careful attention to Mrs. Bennet’s chatter.

“Well, well, and so Mr. Bingley is coming down!”

Jane, sitting beside her at breakfast, colours a little, but does not reply.

“And so much the better,” Mrs. Bennet continues, undeterred. “Not that I care about it, though. He is nothing to us, you know, and I am sure I never want to see him again. But who knows what may happen? Though that is nothing to us. Is it quite certain he is coming, Hill?”

Hill confirms that it is, and the rest of breakfast is spent with many a sympathetic glance thrown in the way of the eldest Bennet sister, and many a sigh of impatience in the direction of the matriarch.

It has of course been many months since Jane has mentioned Mr. Bingley’s name to Elizabeth – but now, as soon as they are alone together after the aforementioned interminable breakfast, Elizabeth draws her aside with a look of concern.

“Lizzy, I do assure you that this news does not affect me either with pleasure or pain,” Jane says firmly, before Elizabeth has had a chance to say a word. “I am glad of one thing, that he comes alone; because we shall see the less of him. Not that I am afraid of myself, but I dread other people's remarks.”

Elizabeth opens her mouth to speak, but simply sighs. Nothing she can say will convince Jane to have hope – and indeed perhaps it is best she ought not to; considering her own failures in the arena of love, though hers are of a very different sort.

In spite of what her sister declares, and what Jane clearly believes to be her feelings in the expectation of Mr. Bingley’s arrival, Elizabeth finds it all too easy to perceive that her spirits are affected by it. The subject which had been so warmly canvassed between their parents about a twelvemonth ago is very soon brought forward again, and overheard by the two sisters, standing by the door to the dining room.

“As soon as ever Mr. Bingley comes, my dear,” Mrs. Bennet says anxiously, “you will wait on him of course.”

“No, no. You forced me into visiting him last year, and promised, if I went to see him, he should marry one of my daughters. But it ended in nothing, and I will not be sent on a fool's errand again,” Mr. Bennet grumbles.

Mrs Bennet draws quite a deep breath at this, no doubt preparing to shriek the house down about their ears, but Mr. Bennet continues, oblivious.

“'Tis an etiquette I despise. If he wants our society, let him seek it. He knows where we live.”

“Well, all I know is, that it will be abominably rude if you do not wait on him!”

“I begin to be sorry that he comes at all,” Jane murmurs softly to Elizabeth, drawing her towards the entrance hall, no doubt intending for a walk about the garden. “It would be nothing; I could see him with perfect indifference, but I can hardly bear to hear it thus perpetually talked of. Happy shall I be, when his stay at Netherfield is over!”

“I wish I could say anything to comfort you,” Elizabeth replies sadly, “but it is wholly out of my power.”

Yet for all their uncertainties and the reluctance of Mr. Bennet to remain civil towards their neighbour, it is not so long after this conversation that Mr. Bingley arrives. On the third morning after his arrival in Hertfordshire, Mrs. Bennet cries out in excitement or anger or quite likely both, calling her daughters to her side at the window – for Mr. Bingley has come to their door.

Jane resolutely keeps her place at the table. Elizabeth, to satisfy her mother and save Jane from the necessity of getting up, goes to the window. The colour drains from her face the instant she looks, out, though, for –

“There is a gentleman with him, mamma,” said Kitty. “Who can it be?”

“Some acquaintance or other, my dear; I am sure I do not know.”

“La!” gasps Kitty, “it looks just like that lady that used to be with him before. Miss what's-her-name. That tall, proud woman.”

“Good gracious! Miss Darcy! And so it does, I vow.”

Elizabeth returns to sitting beside Jane without a word. Jane gives her a look laced with surprise and concern. Elizabeth knows that Jane knows but little of her meeting with Miss Darcy in Derbyshire, but cannot begin to explain herself, certainly not at the present moment, if at all. They are both uncomfortable enough.

To Jane, Miss Darcy can be only a woman whose snobbery had given way to unexpected overtures of friendship, and whose merit has been undervalued. But to Elizabeth, she is the person to whom the whole family are indebted, and whom she herself regards with an interest, if not quite so light, at least as strong as what Jane feels for Bingley. Elizabeth’s astonishment at Miss Darcy’s coming – to Netherfield, to Longbourn, and voluntarily seeking her again, is almost equal to what she had known on first witnessing her altered behaviour in Derbyshire.

The colour which has been driven from her face, returns for half a minute with an additional glow, when she considers that perhaps Miss Darcy has come to see her. But she cannot be secure. She must see how Miss Darcy acts – how she speaks.

Elizabeth remains intently at work, striving to be composed, without daring to lift up her eyes, till anxious curiosity carries them to the face of her sister as the servant approaches the door. Jane looks a little paler than usual, but more sedate than Elizabeth had expected. Upon the appearance of Mr. Bingley, however, her colour increases. Yet she receives them with tolerable ease, and with a propriety of behaviour free from any symptom of resentment.

Elizabeth murmurs as little to either as civility allows, and sits down again to her work, with an eagerness which it does not often command. She ventures only one glance at Miss Darcy, who looks serious, as usual, and perhaps more as she had been used to look in Hertfordshire than as Elizabeth had seen her at Pemberley. But, perhaps Miss Darcy cannot in Mrs. Bennet’s presence be as she was before Elizabeth’s uncle and aunt. It is a painful, but not an improbable, conjecture.

Mr. Bingley looks both pleased and embarrassed. He is received by Mrs. Bennet with a degree of civility which makes her two eldest daughters heartily ashamed, especially when contrasted with the cold and ceremonious politeness of her curtsey and address to Miss Darcy. Elizabeth, particularly, who knows that her mother owes to Miss Darcy the preservation of her favourite daughter from irremediable infamy, is hurt and distressed to a most painful degree.

Miss Darcy, after the initial greetings, turns to Elizabeth.

“And how are your aunt and uncle, Miss Bennet?” she inquires, entirely proper and civil – but without the look of warmth in her eyes which she had maintained in Derbyshire.

“Well – quite well,” Elizabeth stutters out, unsure how to answer – how to speak with Miss Darcy honestly regarding what she knows Miss Darcy to have done for her family, without drawing the latter’s attention.

“I am glad to hear it,” Miss Darcy replies, before turning away.

Elizabeth can expect no better than this cool civility, yet a terrible ache suffuses through her, and she lowers her eyes in disappointment.

“It is a long time, Mr. Bingley, since you went away,” Mrs. Bennet laments.

“Oh – indeed,” Mr. Bingley agrees.

“I began to be afraid you would never come back again. People did say you meant to quit the place entirely at Michaelmas; but, however, I hope it is not true. A great many changes have happened in the neighbourhood, since you went away. Miss Lucas is married and settled. And one of my own daughters. I suppose you have heard of it. Indeed, you must have seen it in the papers; though it was not put in as it ought to be. It was only said, 'Lately, George Wickham, Esq. to Miss Lydia Bennet,' without there being a syllable said of her father, or the place where she lived, or anything. It was my brother Gardiner's drawing up too, and I wonder how he came to make such an awkward business of it. Did you see it?”

Mr. Bingley acknowledges that he has, and makes his congratulations. Elizabeth cannot bear to look upon Miss Darcy to see her reaction.

Mrs. Bennet is eager to know how long Mr. Bingley will stay, and makes no great effort to avoid asking him.

“A few weeks, I think,” Mr. Bingley says, a hint of nervousness in his tone.

“When you have killed all your own birds, Mr. Bingley, I beg you will come here, and shoot as many as you please on Mr. Bennet's manor. I am sure he will be vastly happy to oblige you, and will save all the best of the covies for you.”

Elizabeth's misery, if possible, only increases at such unnecessary, such officious attention! At this instant, she feels that years of happiness could not make Jane or herself amends for moments of such painful confusion.

When Mr. Bingley and Miss Darcy finally rise to go away, Mrs. Bennet is mindful of her intended civility, and they are immediately invited and engaged to dine at Longbourn in a few days time.

As soon as they are gone, Elizabeth scrambles to walk out and recover her spirits; or in other words, to dwell without interruption on those subjects that must deaden them more. Miss Darcy's behaviour vexes her still. Why did she come at all, if only to be coolly indifferent to her? To her family? Knowing that she is responsible for their salvation! Elizabeth is of a mind to put the woman from her thoughts entirely (knowing herself too well to really commit to such a venture), but it is easier, and quite a lot more tempting, to dwell on their interaction, short as it had been, and search for some sign of regard which must not be there.

Her thoughts are for a short time interrupted by the approach of Jane, who joins her with a cheerful look, which shows her better satisfied with their visitors than Elizabeth.

“I think now that this first meeting is over, I feel perfectly easy. I know my own strength, and I shall never be embarrassed again by his coming. I am glad he dines here on Tuesday. It will then be publicly seen that, on both sides, we meet only as common and indifferent acquaintance,” Jane says, with a calm confidence to her air.

“Yes, very indifferent, indeed,” laughs Elizabeth, unable to conceal her disbelief. “Oh, Jane, take care.”

“My dear Lizzy, you cannot think me so weak, as to be in danger now?”

“I think you are in very great danger of making him as much in love with you as ever,” Elizabeth says, smiling, only briefly wishing she could say the same for herself and another of their acquaintance.

 

~

 

They do not see Mr. Bingley and Miss Darcy again till Tuesday; and Mrs. Bennet, in the meanwhile is giving way to all the happy schemes which the good humour and common politeness of Mr. Bingley, in half an hour's visit, has revived. Mr. Bingley and Miss Darcy, who are most anxiously expected by the aforementioned woman, are in very good time. When they enter the dining-room, Elizabeth carefully watches to see whether Bingley will take the place by her sister. On entering the room, he seems to hesitate; but Jane happens to look round, and happens to smile. It is decided. He places himself by her.

Mis Darcy, though, is almost as far from Elizabeth as the table can divide them. She is on one side of Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth knows how little such a situation will give pleasure to either, or make either appear to advantage, and must resist the urge to place her head directly into the boiled potatoes.

Still, her wretchedly romantic heart (a thing which she once doubted herself of having; unaware that her romantic inclinations lay in a place she dared not look), hopes that the evening will afford some opportunity of bringing them together; that the whole of the visit will not pass away without enabling them to enter into something more of conversation than the mere ceremonious salutation attending his entrance.

Yet after the meal, when Mr. Bingley retires to speak with Mr. Bennet, and Miss Darcy attends awkwardly with the other women – making small talk, and not glancing Elizabeth’s way – Elizabeth feels the foolishness of expecting a warmer conversation.

A man who has been once refused would never be expected to renew his sentiments, and it can be no different – at least, Elizabeth assumes it is not – for a woman. How could she ever be foolish enough to expect a renewal of Miss Darcy’s love? It would be an indignity, and though they are both women and Elizabeth perhaps should not hold Miss Darcy to the standards of a gentleman, she sees well enough that Miss Darcy is gentlemanlike in every other respect; there can be no renewal of sentiment if Miss Darcy does not venture it first.

But despite knowing this, Elizabeth finds herself a little revived by Miss Darcy’s bringing back a coffee cup herself; and Elizabeth seizes the opportunity of saying:

“Is your sister at Pemberley still?”

“Yes,” Miss Darcy confirms, avoiding her eyes, “she will remain there till Christmas.”

“And quite alone?” Elizabeth presses on. “Have all her friends left her?”

“Mrs. Annesley is with her. The others have been gone on to Scarborough, these three weeks.”

Unable to think of anything more to say, Elizabeth lapses into silence. Miss Darcy walks away, while Elizabeth struggles to find a way to make her stay.

 

~

 

A day after this visit, Mr. Bingley calls again, and alone. He comes in such very good time that the ladies are none of them dressed. Mrs. Bennet to her daughter's room runs, in her dressing gown, and with her hair half finished, crying out:

“My dear Jane, make haste and hurry down. He is come – Mr. Bingley is come. He is, indeed. Make haste, make haste. Here, Sarah, come to Miss Bennet this moment, and help her on with her gown. Never mind Miss Lizzy's hair.”

“We will be down as soon as we can,” Jane replies, bewildered; “but I dare say Kitty is forwarder than either of us, for she went up stairs half an hour ago.”

“Oh! hang Kitty! what has she to do with it? Come be quick, be quick! Where is your sash, my dear?”

Sent down with Kitty within a quarter of an hour, Jane is quite gone from Elizabeth’s confidence for some time, as Elizabeth has been neglected till last in dressing. Elizabeth spends the whole of this time worrying that their mother is in the midst of some scheme, and hurries downstairs the instant she is dressed to discover the party.

Yet it appears that the time has finally arrived for Mrs. Bennet’s plans to find success. For when Elizabeth finally enters the drawing-room, expecting to find her family and their guest in awkward conversation, she finds, to her surprise, only Jane and Mr. Bingley standing together over the hearth, with her hand clasped in his. The faces of both, as they hastily turn round and move away from each other, tell it all. Elizabeth can do naught but laugh helplessly, as Jane runs to her in a most uncharacteristic display of effusiveness, and Mr. Bingley stands quite awkwardly, yet evidently happily, by the hearth, in quite a characteristic display of his own.

 

~

 

That night, abed, Jane’s effusiveness can hardly be described. Elizabeth laughs to watch her, but in celebration – for none can deserve it so much.

“'Tis too much!” Jane giggles, “by far too much. I do not deserve it. Oh! why is not everybody as happy?”

Elizabeth agrees that it is quite a lot indeed, perhaps too much, but, perhaps, exactly what two so generous individuals deserve.

“He has made me so happy, by telling me that he was totally ignorant of my being in town last spring! I had not believed it possible.”

“I suspected as much,” Elizabeth replies, with a wry smile. “But how did he account for it?”

“It must have been his sister's doing. They were certainly no friends to his acquaintance with me, which I cannot wonder at, since he might have chosen so much more advantageously in many respects. But when they see, as I trust they will, that their brother is happy with me, they will learn to be contented, and we shall be on good terms again; though we can never be what we once were to each other.”

“That is the most unforgiving speech,” Elizabeth says, awed, “that I ever heard you utter. Good girl! It would vex me, indeed, to see you again the dupe of Miss Bingley's pretended regard.”

“Would you believe it, Lizzy, that when he went to town last November, he really loved me, and nothing but a persuasion of my being indifferent would have prevented his coming down again!”

“He made a little mistake to be sure; but it is to the credit of his modesty.”

Elizabeth is pleased to find that Mr. Bingley has not betrayed the interference of his friend; for, though Jane had the most generous and forgiving heart in the world, Elizabeth knows it is a circumstance which must prejudice her against Miss Darcy.

“I am certainly the most fortunate creature that ever existed!” cried Jane. “Oh! Lizzy, why am I thus singled from my family, and blessed above them all! If I could but see you as happy! If there were but such another man for you!”

Elizabeth laughs a little awkwardly at this.

“If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you,” she says, demurring. “Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness. No, no, let me shift for myself; and, perhaps, if I have very good luck, I may meet with another Mr. Collins in time.”

 

~

 

In the household, Mr. Wickham and Lydia are all but forgotten. Jane is instantly and beyond competition Mrs. Bennet’s favourite child. Mr. Bingley, from this time, is of course a daily visitor at Longbourn; coming frequently before breakfast, and always remaining till after supper; unless when some barbarous neighbour, who cannot be enough detested, has given him an invitation to dinner which he thinks himself obliged to accept.

Of course, when rumours begin to spread of the happy news, the Bennets are speedily pronounced to be the luckiest family in the world, though only a few weeks before, when Lydia had first run away, they had been generally proved to be marked out for misfortune.

One morning, about a week after Mr. Bingley's engagement with Jane has been formed, as the sisters and their mother sit together in the dining-room, their attention is suddenly drawn to the window by the sound of a carriage, and they perceive a chaise and four driving up the lawn. It is too early in the morning for visitors, and the conjectures of the family are boundless, though with little satisfaction – till the door is thrown open and their visitor enters.

It is Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

They are of course all intending to be surprised; but their astonishment is beyond their expectation; and on the part of Mrs. Bennet and Kitty, though her ladyship is perfectly unknown to them, even inferior to what Elizabeth feels at the sight of her.

Her ladyship enters the room minutes later with an air more than usually ungracious. She makes no other reply to Elizabeth's salutation than a slight inclination of the head, and sits down without saying a word. Elizabeth had mentioned her name to her mother on her ladyship's entrance, though no request of introduction has been made.

After sitting for a moment in silence, she deigns to speak very stiffly to Elizabeth.

“I hope you are well, Miss Bennet. That lady,” gesturing to Mrs. Bennet, “I suppose, is your mother.”

“She is,” Elizabeth ventures, cautiously.

“And that I suppose is one of your sisters.”

“Yes, madam,” Mrs. Bennet says, delighted to speak to Lady Catherine. “She is my youngest girl but one. My youngest of all is lately married, and my eldest is somewhere about the grounds, walking with a young man who, I believe, will soon become a part of the family.”

“You have a very small park here,” returns Lady Catherine after a short silence.

“It is nothing in comparison of Rosings, my lady, I dare say; but I assure you it is much larger than Sir William Lucas's.”

Mrs. Bennet, with great civility, begs her ladyship to take some refreshment; but Lady Catherine very resolutely, and not very politely, declines eating anything; and then, rising up, turns to Elizabeth.

“Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company.”

Elizabeth agrees to accompany her, astonished though she is to be singled out and utterly in amazement at her ladyship’s calling at all.

As soon as they enter the copse, Lady Catherine turns on Elizabeth, nostrils flaring.

 “Rumours have reached me,” her ladyship begins, stiffly, “of a most scandalous nature. I have come to hear them refuted.”

Elizabeth gives no sign that she can have any idea of what her ladyship speaks, though her heart leaps, suddenly afraid for Miss Darcy. She of course did not fail to notice Miss Darcy’s uncommonly feminine manners and dress whilst at Rosings, and knows that for Miss Darcy to allow word to reach her aunt of her true nature would be to face a terrible blow. There can be no greater scandal than this, surely.

Luckily, her ladyship does not seem to require an answer, pressing forward, her forehead slightly damp with sweat in the midday sun.

“You can of course be in no doubt as to which rumours I refer to.”

Elizabeth pauses.

“Indeed, your ladyship,” she announces, smoothly, “You are mistaken. I cannot account for your coming here.”

“Cannot account for it!” Her ladyship’s tone is entirely scandalised, unused as she is to being denied. “Miss Bennet, you ought to know that I am not one to be trifled with. Nevertheless, however insincere you are, I shall not be. I shall be plain. A report of an alarming nature reached me two days ago. I was told that my niece and yourself had been seen behaving in such a manner as to imply an attachment which is entirely improper between young ladies, indeed, an attachment which many would characterise as sin. I of course took no heed, and have come at once to hear you deny it.”

Elizabeth speaks very slowly, wary of inviting her ladyship’s distemper.

“If you saw it to be a falsehood, then I wonder you took the time of coming.”

“I came to see such a rumour refuted.”

“Your coming to Longbourn, to see me and my family,” Elizabeth says, coolly, “will be rather a confirmation of it; if, indeed, such a report is in existence.”

“If! Do you then pretend to be ignorant of it? Has it not been industriously circulated by yourself? Do you not seek to scandalise the name of Darcy with such disgusting associations?”

“I do not,” Elizabeth replies, sharply, unable to hide her anger – her defensiveness, for this is a rumour that would not only ruin Miss Darcy; it would ruin herself. How Lady Catherine de Bourgh can consider Elizabeth willing to disgrace her family and herself in the hopes of spiting Miss Darcy is beyond comprehension. It speaks to her ladyship’s nature far more than Elizabeth’s own.

“And can you likewise declare, that there is no foundation for it?” Her ladyship hits her stick against the ground, as childish as an infant who stamps its foot in anger.

“I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer,” Elizabeth answers, holding her expression as steadily as she is able to.

“This is not to be borne. Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Have you embarked upon an improper relationship with my niece?”

“Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.”

“You may have drawn her in.”

“If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it,” Elizabeth cries.

“Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation she has in the world, and am entitled to know all her dearest concerns.”

Her dearest concerns, indeed! When until now she has been entirely ignorant of Miss Darcy’s true nature; her dress, the places whereupon she lays her affection.

“You are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this ever induce me to allow it.”

“Let me be rightly understood. My niece is nearly beyond a marriageable age. Without a husband, she can never expect to carry on the name of her family. And that is something she will never allow while she still maintains Pemberly, and the pride of her lineage. Now, what have you to say?”

“Only this; that if this is so, you can have no reason to suppose she would bother in a dalliance with me.”

Her ladyship, for a moment, appears mollified.

“Honour, decorum, prudence – all forbid it. Do not expect to be noticed by her family or friends, if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. Do not expect that you might find a husband of your own amongst her acquaintances – no doubt a part of your design; should you lower yourself to such depths as you have been accused of. You would be censured, slighted, and despised, by everyone connected with my niece. Your alliance would be a disgrace; your name would never even be mentioned by any of us.”

“These are heavy misfortunes,” Elizabeth, replies sarcastically. “Yet I think that any paramour of Miss Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.”

That was too honest, Elizabeth knows, and yet – she cannot deny herself.

“Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you last spring? Miss Darcy is descended, on the maternal side, from a noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled, families. She is destined for a great match – a titled match. The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune, will not prevent her from this mission!”

“Miss Darcy is a gentleman’s daughter, and so am I. Are we not equals?”

“You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition,” her ladyship scorns.

“Whatever my connections may be,” Elizabeth says, feeling her heart surge with feeling, “if your niece does not object to them, they can be nothing to you.”

“Tell me once for all, are you engaged in any sort of improper relationship with her?”

And to this, Elizabeth is briefly speechless. She admits only the truth.

“I am not.”

Lady Catherine seems pleased. Elizabeth’s stomach turns at the sight.

“And will you promise me, never to enter into such an engagement?”

“I will make no promise of the kind. You have insulted me in every possible method, and can have nothing further to say. I must beg to return to the house.”

“I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet,” her ladyship says, rising. “I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”

Elizabeth makes no answer; and without attempting to persuade her ladyship to return into the house, walks quietly into it herself. She hears the carriage drive away as she proceeds upstairs, and fends off her mother in order to be alone, and think.

In recalling Lady Catherine's expressions, however, she cannot help feeling some uneasiness as to the possible consequence of her persisting in this interference. From what her ladyship had said of her resolution to prevent any impropriety between Elizabeth and Miss Darcy, it occurs to Elizabeth that her ladyship will surely approach Miss Darcy about the issue. How Miss Darcy might take a similar representation of the evils attached to a connection with Elizabeth, she dares not pronounce. She knows not the exact degree of Miss Darcy’s affection for her aunt, or her dependence on her ladyship’s judgment – only that she is required to dress as is not in her nature and present herself in a way which is entirely antithetical to her spirit before her aunt for reasons Elizabeth is not privy to. It is not be beyond likelihood that Elizabeth has somehow hurt their relationship by behaving as she has – in fact, it is not beyond likelihood that if her ladyship discovers all the truth of her niece’s inclinations, beyond this particular connection, she will sever their relationship all together. That, when Elizabeth considers especially that Miss Darcy is, with her cousin, her younger sister’s guardian, would be a severe consequence indeed, and one which haunts her thoughts, long into the night which follows her most seriously disturbed morning.

Chapter Text

Three days later, as she is going downstairs, Elizabeth is utterly amazed to meet an unexpected guest in the house – not Mr. Bingley, of course, who visits daily; but Miss Darcy, standing with her friend in the hall with Jane and Kitty, making polite conversation.

Pausing upon the stair, Elizabeth barely has a moment to draw a steadying breath before Mr. Bingley, who no doubt wants to be alone with Jane, proposes their all walking out. At that instant he looks up to spot her waiting, and cheerfully invites her along for their journey to Meryton. Hardly able to speak for her nerves, Elizabeth quickly agrees, both dreading and anxiously awaiting a moment to speak with Miss Darcy regarding the visit of her aunt.

Mr. Bingley and Jane soon allow the others to outstrip them upon their quitting the house. They lag behind, while Elizabeth, Kitty, and Miss Darcy are left to entertain each other. Kitty, in dislike of Miss Darcy’s manner, is unable to make conversation. Elizabeth finds the words sticking in her throat, and as for Miss Darcy – any number of objects to her speaking could be upon her thoughts.

They walk towards the Lucases, because Kitty wishes to call upon Maria; and as Elizabeth sees no occasion for making it a general concern, when Kitty leaves them she is left alone with Miss Darcy. Quite quickly they lose sight of Jane and Mr. Bingley altogether, and, in a fit of boldness, Elizabeth takes Miss Darcy’s arm (quite ignorant of Miss Darcy’s expression of amazement; as Elizabeth’s eyes are quite lowered with determination), and drags her into the nearest copse of trees before her courage leaves her. Immediately, she begins to speak, stepping back from Miss Darcy and removing her hand from Miss Darcy’s arm.

“Miss Darcy, I am afraid that I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express.”

After a moment to collect herself, Miss Darcy appears ashamed.

“I am sorry, exceedingly sorry,” she replies, in a tone of dismayed surprise, “that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Mrs. Gardiner was so little to be trusted.”

“You must not blame my aunt. Lydia's thoughtlessness first betrayed to me that you had been concerned in the matter; and, of course, I could not rest till I knew the particulars. Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of discovering them.”

“If you will thank me,” Miss Darcy insists, “let it be for yourself alone. Your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.”

Elizabeth falls silent, staring at her companion in the quiet of the warm morning. A bird nearby makes its presence known by its song, and for that moment, Elizabeth, watching Miss Darcy’s gaze flicker, can feel nothing but the breeze which disturbs the leaves of the surrounding trees. She watches Miss Darcy swallow.

“You are too generous to trifle with me,” Miss Darcy whispers. “If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of Miss Darcy’s situation, now immediately, though not very fluently, gives her every reason to understand that Elizabeth’s sentiments have undergone so material a change, since the period to which Miss Darcy alludes, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure Miss Darcy’s present assurances.

That is to say; Elizabeth surges forward and kisses Miss Darcy. With as much feeling as she is at all capable of producing – with such warmth and desperation as can be poured into a single touch, she makes Miss Darcy completely aware, and utterly sure, of Elizabeth’s own feelings.

Were Elizabeth able to encounter Miss Darcy’s eye, she might see now how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over her face, becomes her. But, though she cannot look, she can feel Miss Darcy smile, and that is assurance enough to know that she has made no mistake – and that, for this brief moment at least, they need not worry about the censure and disgust of others. They are the only two in their part of the world.

Eventually, they must walk on, without knowing in what direction. There is too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to any other objects. With her arm upon Miss Darcy’s, Elizabeth soon learns that they are indebted for their present good understanding to the efforts of her ladyship, who had apparently called upon Miss Darcy in London, and there related her journey to Longbourn, its motive, and the substance of her conversation with Elizabeth; dwelling emphatically on every expression of the latter which, in her ladyship's apprehension, peculiarly denoted her perverseness and assurance; in the belief that such a relation must assist her endeavours to obtain that promise from her niece which Elizabeth had refused to give. But, unluckily for her ladyship, its effect had been exactly contrariwise.

“It taught me to hope,” Miss Darcy says softly, “as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before. I knew enough of your disposition to be certain that, had you been absolutely, irrevocably decided against me, you would have acknowledged it to my aunt, frankly and openly.”

“Yes, you know enough of my frankness to believe me capable of that. After abusing you so abominably to your face, I could have no scruple in abusing you to all your relations. Though, I must ask – how could her ladyship have come to such conclusions regarding our relationship? She made no objections to our interactions at Rosings, and you gave me reason to believe she knew nothing of your true nature.”

“Ah,” Miss Darcy says, looking across the horizon a moment, embarrassed. “My aunt, like many, will never acknowledge that which is inconvenient for her to know. I dress differently before her to make such a habit easier; it allows us both the appearance of civility even when, secretly, we both know that I shall never marry, and that she shall never induce me into the ladylike behaviour she is convinced she espouses.”

“Then why –”

“Why openly make such accusations of yourself?” Miss Darcy stops, and bites her lip, looking apologetic. “Because she believes you beneath such civility. Because it was easier for her to become convinced that you had induced me to such behaviour, than admit that this is the way I have always been and always shall be. And, of course,” she adds, shaking her head, “from her words, I am led to believe that gossip reached her ears from Derbyshire that we had been seen together at Pemberly. That, she could not ignore.”

“I see,” Elizabeth says, with shame leading her to withdraw her hand.

“Do not blame yourself for the censure of others,” Miss Darcy says, softly, taking her hand once more. “Especially one of as little consequence as my aunt, with whom I remain acquainted merely for the sake of my late parents. To be as we are is no easy thing, but nor is it impossible. There is freedom in living as I have. As – as you could, should you wish to, with me.”

Elizabeth allows herself to look upon Miss Darcy once more, and consider, as she realises she has not given Miss Darcy a proper answer regarding her implicit proposal.

“You thought me then devoid of every proper feeling, at Rosings,” Miss Darcy says. “The turn of your countenance I shall never forget, as you said that I could not have addressed you in any possible way that would induce you to accept me.”

“Oh! do not repeat what I then said,” Elizabeth shudders, “I assure you that I have long been most heartily ashamed of it. If your offer is entirely equal to the one you once made to me at Rosings – Miss Darcy, surely you must know, I heartily accept.”

“That,” Miss Darcy says, with another of those gentle smiles which she has been so rare to bestow, “is a greater honour than I ever could have expected in walking out with you today.”

The conversation continues in this manner until they reach the house, and in the hall they part, for Elizabeth to speak with her father regarding a most unusual proposal.

Her father is sitting in the library, looking entirely content, when Elizabeth enters the room.

“Father,” she says, carefully, “I have come to ask your permission in a venture which would make me very happy, but which I fear you will not at first approve of.”

“My goodness, Lizzy,” he replies, amazed. “Do go on, for I am unused to such applications from you of all my daughters.”

“Miss Darcy has made me an offer,” Elizabeth says, considering how to phrase it. “An offer to live with her, as a companion. It would be an excellent position for myself, and it would be quite permanent – I would want for nothing, and have no duties, other than that of friendship with Miss Darcy, and guardianship of her younger sister.”

For a moment, her father looks at her, squinting. He appears confused, and equally as suspicious, before sighing and shaking his head, apparently having come to a conclusion.

“You think to gain a husband amongst wealthier friends. Lizzy, the last time I allowed one of my daughters to leave all her friends and family for the sake of chasing gentlemen, I almost lost her entirely. I cannot give my consent to another venture, even for one far more sensible than her younger sisters.”

“Have you any reason for your objection beyond your belief in my desire to secure a husband?”

“None at all,” her father says, cheerfully. “We all know Miss Darcy to be a proud, unpleasant sort of woman, but if all she required and all you wished to give truly was companionship, then I should have no reason to deny you.”

“Then – then you must allow me to do this,” Elizabeth says, feeling tears prick at her eyes. “For it is Miss Darcy I intend to take as a husband.”

Her father stares at her for several long moments.

“Is that so?” he asks, his countenance impossible to read.

“It is,” Elizabeth insists. “I love her. She is not proud – she is entirely lovely; she is all that I have come to love, when for so long I have been told to find the love of a gentleman so flattering. There is only her. There can only be her.”

“My dearest Lizzy,” he says, gently, “you cannot be unaware of how unusual your request is. You cannot be incapable of understanding how close you come to Lydia’s own mistake in this persistence.”

“It is to Miss Darcy that we owe Lydia’s salvation,” Elizabeth blurts out, before covering her mouth with her hands.

“…Explain,” her father says, and Elizabeth does.

After all is revealed, her father sits back, shaking his head in amazement.

“This is a morning of wonders, indeed! And so, Miss Darcy did everything; made up the match, gave the money, paid the fellow's debts, and got him his commission?”

Elizabeth nods a confirmation.

“Perhaps she is quite in love with you, my dear,” Mr. Bennet says, looking quite perplexed. “I cannot think of another young lady who would do as much for a friend.”

“Then – will you give your consent, as if I were to marry in the usual way?” Elizabeth anxiously presses on.

Her father looks out the window with a smile of utter amusement on his face.

“I do not see how I could not,” he admits. “We shall simply have to tell your mother you are about husband-hunting in Derbyshire, and she will be happy enough with that.”

“Thank you – thank you!” Elizabeth cries, kissing her father’s cheek, and quitting the room immediately to speak with Jane. As she leaves, she hears her father call out –

“If any young people come for Mary or Kitty, for heaven’s sake, send them in, for I am quite at leisure.”

Within half an hour of searching the grounds, Elizabeth finds, and opens her heart to, Jane. Though suspicion is very far from the eldest Miss Bennet's general habits, she is absolutely incredulous here.

“You are joking, Lizzy. This cannot be! To live with Miss Darcy! No, no, you shall not deceive me. I know it to be impossible.”

“This is a wretched beginning indeed! My sole dependence was on you; and I am sure nobody else will believe me, if you do not. Yet, indeed, I am in earnest. I speak nothing but the truth. She loves me, and we are to live together.”

Jane looks at her doubtingly. “Oh, Lizzy! it cannot be. I know how much you dislike her.”

“Is this your only objection? I had considered that you might need to be convinced of such a regard between women; not that my own dislike would be so strong.”

“Oh, no,” Jane says, with a smile. “For I have known for some time that Miss Darcy’s lack of a husband owed much more to her love of the gentler sex than her lack of suitors.”

“Indeed!” Elizabeth says, amazed. “You might have made mention! How did you discover it?”

“Charles – Mr. Bingley,” Jane corrects herself, with a blush, “made me aware of Miss Darcy’s affection for you during their stay at Netherfield. I thought you quite oblivious, and warned him of it.”

“I was! And to think – all this time, I wondered how I would tell you of my growing affection for her,” Elizabeth says, in utter shock at Jane’s revelation.

Jane laughs.

“My dear, dear Lizzy, I would – I do congratulate you – but are you certain? forgive the question—are you quite certain that you can be happy with her?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth affirms, “there can be no doubt of it. It is settled between us already, that we are to be the happiest couple in the world. But are you pleased, Jane? Shall you like to have such a sister?”

“Very, very much. Nothing could give either Bingley or myself more delight. But we considered it, we talked of it as impossible. Yet now I am quite happy, for you will be as happy as myself. I always had a value for her. Were it for nothing but her love of you, I must always have esteemed her; but now, as Mr. Bingley's friend and your – husband?” Elizabeth nods; it is as appropriate a word as any. “–there can be only Mr. Bingley and yourself more dear to me.”

 

~

 

Elizabeth's spirits soon rising to playfulness again, she soon wants Miss Darcy to account for her having ever fallen in love with her.

“How could you begin?” she ponders, one evening, settled as they are away from the rest of the Bennet women, who play at cards and fuss with coffee. “I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?”

“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun,” Miss Darcy says, with one of those smiles which have been remarked upon in the neighbourhood as unusually common since she struck up a friendship with Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

“My beauty you had early withstood,” Elizabeth says loftily, teasing in the face of such honesty, “and as for my manners – my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”

“For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”

“You may as well call it impertinence at once. The fact is, you were quite bored with women who submitted and demurred in the company of their betters; gentlemen in particular. I roused your attention because I was entirely inappropriate – equally as subject to censure as my family.”

At Miss Darcy’s wrinkled nose, Elizabeth laughs. “There – I have saved you the trouble of accounting for it; and really, all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable. To be sure, you knew no actual good of me – but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”

“Was there no good in your affectionate behaviour to Jane while she was ill at Netherfield?”

“Dearest Jane! who could have done less for her? But make a virtue of it by all means. My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible; and, in return, it belongs to me to find occasions for teasing and quarrelling with you as often as may be; and I shall begin directly by asking you what made you so unwilling to come to the point at last. What made you so shy of me, when you first called, and afterwards dined here? Why, especially, when you called, did you look as if you did not care about me?”

“Because you were grave and silent, and gave me no encouragement.”

“But I was embarrassed.”

“And so was I.”

“You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner.”

“Anyone who had felt less, might have said more,” Miss Darcy says, in such a tone as to make Elizabeth blush and look away, before rising once more to tease, as always she must with one who loves her so honestly.

 

~

 

Happy for all her maternal feelings is the day on which Mrs. Bennet gets rid of her two most deserving daughters; though only one is married, the other merely sent away to discover a suitable man who, Mrs. Bennet is quite sure, will save them all from destitution. With what delighted pride she afterwards visits Mrs. Bingley, and talks happily of Miss Bennet, the toast of Derbyshire, (to be sure, with all her beauty,) may be guessed. Though Mrs. Bennet never makes for a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life, she becomes gradually a little less nervous and invariably silly, to the gratitude of her husband.

Mr. Bennet misses his second daughter exceedingly; his affection for her draws him oftener from his home than anything else can do. He delights in going to Pemberley, especially when he is least expected; and befriends even the younger Miss Darcy against the expectations of all.

Mr. Bingley and Jane remain at Netherfield only a twelvemonth. So near a vicinity to her mother and Meryton relations is not desirable even to his easy temper, or her affectionate heart. The darling wish of his sisters is then gratified; he buys an estate in a neighbouring county to Derbyshire, and Jane and Elizabeth, in addition to every other source of happiness, are within thirty miles of each other.

Kitty, to her very material advantage, spends the chief of her time with her two elder sisters. In society so superior to what she had generally known, her improvement is great. She is not of so ungovernable a temper as Lydia; and, removed from the influence of Lydia's example, she comes, albeit slow, by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid. From the further disadvantage of Lydia's society she is of course carefully kept, and though Mrs. Wickham frequently invites her to come and stay with her, with the promise of balls and young men, her father never consents to her going.

Mary is the only daughter who remains at home; and she is necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet's being quite unable to sit alone. Mary is obliged to mix more with the world, but she can still moralize over every morning visit; and as she is no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters' beauty and her own, it is suspected by her father that she submits to the change without much reluctance. Nevertheless, over time, with the growing suspicion of her elder sister, and an introduction to London societies as unlike Meryton as she has ever known, Mary comes quite into her own with the knowledge that, perhaps, she is not alone in not desiring a husband – even amidst the small community of her own family. In this matter, Elizabeth’s guidance overtakes Mary’s moralising quite.

Lydia is occasionally a visitor at Pemberly, when her husband is gone to enjoy himself in London or Bath; and with the Bingleys they both of them frequently stay so long, that even Mr. Bingley's good humour is often overcome, and he proceeds so far as to talk of giving them a hint to be gone.

Pemberley is of course Georgiana's home; and the attachment between herself and Elizabeth is exactly what Miss Darcy had hoped to see. Georgiana has the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listens with an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive, manner of talking to her sister. Miss Darcy, who had always inspired in her sister a respect which almost overcame her affection, she now sees the object of open pleasantry. Georgiana’s mind receives knowledge which had never before fallen in her way. By Elizabeth's instructions, she begins to comprehend that a woman beyond her sister may also consider taking liberties in their society.

Lady Catherine is extremely indignant upon receiving knowledge of her niece’s relationship with Miss Bennet; and as she gives way to all the genuine frankness of her character in her reply to the letter which announces its arrangement, she sends Miss Darcy language so very abusive, especially of Elizabeth, that for good, all intercourse is at an end.

With the Gardiners, they are always on the most intimate terms. Miss Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really love them; and they are both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing Elizabeth into Derbyshire, have been the means of uniting them in purest happiness, forevermore.