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Tea Leaves

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“Charlotte reports that Lady Catherine was so overcome upon learning of our engagement, that she spilled tea on Miss de Bourgh,” Elizabeth said to Mr. Darcy, as they walked in the bright evening after they had met the Collinses at Lucas Lodge. “It’s unfortunate that your aunt must be so opposed to our marrying, but since she is, I suppose we must thank her for expressing her feelings in so diverting a manner.”

Darcy frowned. “I see nothing diverting in such uncontrolled, insulting behavior. I do not look forward to receiving her letter of congratulations, if she even sends such.”

“Come, Fitzwilliam,” Elizabeth said, smiling as she uttered the still-new intimacy, “we must take our diversions as we find them, and we shall, I fear, most often find them in the follies of our neighbors and relations.”

“And if we were less prone to diverting ourselves with our neighbors’ business, rather than occupying ourselves with reading, music, or other improving study, than perhaps we might enjoy more contentment and peace. You and I, for example–-we might have achieved our current happiness much sooner, were it not for idle gossip.”

“Why, how do you make such a calculation, sir?” Elizabeth’s eyes danced, but she also wondered in earnest. “I would have said the opposite.”

Darcy turned to her in surprise. “Wickham spreading false tales about our relations gave you an even worse opinion of me than you had justly held, based on your own personal knowledge of my behavior. The gossip occasioned by Bingley’s arrival at Netherfield excited a great many false hopes among the young ladies of Hertfordshire. Jane suffered greatly from the wagging of idle tongues after Bingley left Netherfield following his last stay here–and Lydia suffered even worse, after she fell in with Wickham. You needn’t tell me what the town was saying of her; I heard some myself, and can imagine the rest. Georgiana would have suffered immensely, had word of Wickham’s deceit gotten out. I would not have thought you, of all people, would need a list of the ills occasioned by gossip.”

“Your list is compelling, and I cannot deny any of it,” Elizabeth said. It still gave her pain, to think how she had believed Wickham’s portrait of Darcy, and greater pain still to consider Lydia’s plight, as imprudent and incorrigible as Lydia was. “I can counter it, however, with a list of my own: Wickham spread false tales of you, yes, but I learned the full truth of your character not only from your excellent letter, but also from the account provided by your housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds. I would not have learned of Bingley’s true affection for Jane, or of your role in parting them, had Colonel Fitzwilliam not relayed the story to me, though without particulars. Yes, I received an incomplete account from him…but he gave me enough to confront you with, so I could learn the full truth. If Lady Catherine had not heard gossip about you and me, then she may not have interrogated me regarding my intentions towards you, or told you about that encounter–which is what, from what you have said, gave you some hope of my affections. And above all, my dear,” she said, turning to him, and taking his hands in hers, “I would never have appreciated the full measure of your greatness of spirit, had Lydia not let slip that you were there at her wedding, and had my aunt Gardiner not given me the truth regarding your role in making it come about.” She smiled. “It’s a poor moral, but I might just as well say we owe our current happiness to gossip, as decry its influence.”

Darcy shook his head, but smiled in return, a slow beam that lightened his face immeasurably. “No, I will not countenance such an argument. A rational man and woman, well suited in character and temperament, do not owe their happiness to ignorant chatter. I’ve presented the case for how it hindered us, and you have ably defended the opposite case, and taking both together, there is only one conclusion.”

“That we defy gossip,” Elizabeth finished for him, “and while we may be knocked about by it, as a ship may be by waves, we remain on our self-determined course.”