Edward purposefully did not dwell on what he would say to Lady Darcy during his journey to Derbyshire. He found it useless to do so — to practice some words that would, undoubtedly, be rendered obsolete by the conversation. He did not even dwell on his feelings; he knew what he felt, and he knew what he hoped, and there was no point in thinking over much about it.
Of course, he could not be as sanguine as he wished. Two months had passed. He was still very much her inferior; his father was not — had not been, at least, until he married his mother — a gentleman. He had insulted her in the past, and caused her great pain the last time they met, and both times for the same ultimate reason, his thoughtlessness, though it could be said in his favour, perhaps, that the second time had not been out of a desire to cause pain.
It was, all in all, very discouraging, though he was decided he would not allow himself to be discouraged.
He had brought a book and tried to concentrate on reading it, though the heroine's fears could not wholly distract him from his own; his being, if of less dire quality, more real and immediate to him. What did he care about something behind a veil when his future would be decided in the next four and twenty hours? Even if it were — what? A corpse?
It was too late to call on Northbrook, but he could have his book to entertain him during his dinner. However, when the man serving him made a comment about not getting too many folk passing through, he said he was not. It was all too easy, though somewhat late in the year for it, to claim he was visiting for the sights, and ask about the neighbouring estates. Northbrook was immediately mentioned, as were Pemberley and Matlock.
'Is the family at home in Northbrook?' asked Edward with deliberate casualness, taking his glass to his lips.
'They are not. Lady Darcy just married Mr Smith the day before yesterday.'
'She did?' Edward heart jumped in his chest, and he left the glass on the table without having tasted it.
'We were as surprised as you,' said the man. 'No one hereabouts thought she would ever marry again, though they were known to be friendly-like.'
'I see.' He was distantly glad to note his tone was steady.
He pushed the plate away as soon as the man left; he had no appetite. His stomach seized at the mere thought of food or wine; it felt leaden and queasy, as if he may be sick.
He was glad he had come alone — he had briefly considered delaying a few days and asking Lucas to accompany him. But it was good there would be no witness to either his disappointment nor his humiliating reaction to it. To be sick, or have such a strong reaction to something so... trivial. Because it must be trivial. She had not... she had not hoped, or at least not as strongly as he had, or she could not have married someone else a mere two months after.
And if all hope had been on his side, then indeed it was trivial. Less than a dream. He felt worse than he had when he had not yet considered that she may feel the same for him, because now he had considered it, and hoped for it, and even, to some extent, come to expect it. He was certain that no future happiness could ever offset his present distress.
His eyes burned, and he felt all the strength of the feelings he had thought to be experiencing for two months — but those were a pale shadow to his suffering now.
His throat hurt. He thought of her eyes lit with amusement, the curve of her mouth, her neck. He thought of seeing her and knowing she would never be his with an overwhelming distress. He had not imagined he could feel it with such strength that it would all — his friends, his work, the world — pale into insignificance at its side.
He had been convinced — or he had convinced himself — that all attraction, all inclination, all but a slight sympathy would fade. He had been able to show nothing, and to keep on as if nothing had indeed happened. He was sure he could never again hope to do so.
And at a time he knew that certainty was ridiculous. He was, he said to himself, feeling the first brunt of his disappointment. A disappointment more real, perhaps, than that which he had felt before, because when he had thought he could hope for nothing, he now knew that he could not, irrevocably — but, nonetheless, the present feelings would fade to a more endurable kind of pain in time.
Perhaps, he thought, he hoped, in not too much time.
He walked the perimeters of his room for half the night with that hope clear in his mind, and woke up to a reality that was closer to that wish than anything he could have expected the day before. He was not recovered — far from it. But his mind, tired perhaps of running the same circles, could leave thought of her and focus on more pressing concerns: to whit, how he must act.
He was glad he was experiencing such deep feelings now and had not felt them before — he could not vouch for what his reaction could have been three years ago; only his vanity spurned had boosted him into the very heights of folly then. It was poor compensation, but he felt it almost a gift to be able to regard her still with warmth and respect, and to know that would not change.
And, more immediately, he had Charlotte's letter. He must deliver it. Could he, perhaps, send a boy with it, and turn back without having to go up to the house and greet her in person? But there was the chance that she, or someone else, would ask, and then his presence in the neighbourhood would be obvious, and his lack of courtesy, conspicuous. He could not endure the idea of she suspecting his feelings, and then his cowardice.
And, of course, if he did see her, she would know at once. How could she not? He was sure his feelings would be obvious to anyone, but especially to her, who knew him, if only a little. She, who, moreover, would know, from an intimate acquaintance with his family, that he could have no business here except for her.
But it was still better, he thought, for her to see him, and know that he had not balked at meeting her, despite what he felt.
No, he would go, and deliver the letter personally. He did not want to meet her Mr Smith; he did not want to see her act towards some man he had never heard of as she would never act with him — but there, he knew, he could have no concerns; her pride and delicacy were too great for her feelings to be obvious on a call of five and ten minutes. Part of him still wanted to see her, and the other part, which did not, would not resign itself to appearing a coward.
He would go.
He waited then, listlessly staring into his book, for the hour to be a reasonable one for calling, and, after having ascertained the family was there, asked directions to Mr Smith's estate. It was still fairly early when he set out, but he decided to go walking to better gird himself for the ordeal.
It proved to be a mistake almost immediately. Rather than prepare itself for confronting the truth head on, his mind kept going back to his conversations with her, alternately castigating itself for the stupid things he had said, and dwelling on her character and intelligence. She was, he thought, without doubt the woman who would have best suited him, though their relative positions and ages rather made the existence of playful but merciless gods a real possibility.
When he arrived, he asked for Mrs Smith, but she was not at home. She did not know he would be there, so she could not be avoiding him; that was an unaccountable relief. It was, too, a relief not to have to face her after all, though he felt a definite pang at not being able to see her before he went from the neighbourhood. It had been two months since he had last spoken to her, and he missed her; he missed, even, seeing her face, and her smile, which he now thought he had often misunderstood.
He was about to leave the letter with the butler when it occurred to him to ask if the Dowager Lady Darcy could receive him. She had lived, he believed, with her daughter in law, and so there was then a good chance she would have moved when she had married. He liked her, and he wanted to hear from her how Mrs Smith and Lord Darcy were.
It seemed that she was visiting for a few days, and he sent in word. After some time, the butler came back with a positive answer — she would receive him. He was led into the drawing room, and had taken not two steps into the room when he had to stop, all confusion.
For a moment his prevailing thought was: I am seeing her. She had risen from her chair, and turned towards him.
She was there, and she was smiling.
He smiled, at first, in an involuntary way; a natural response to her expression; it did not take long, however, for that smile to falter and have to be maintained by a concerted effort. She was there; he would have to face her, and to congratulate her, and to see her smile when speaking of her husband. It would have to be borne, after all.
He made himself advance again, extending his hand, until he reached her. 'I am glad to be able to congratulate you, ma'am; for myself, and, I am sure, for my sister and brother. Had they known, they would have certainly written to you about it. As it is, I have a letter from Charlotte that must seem now dreadfully outdated, even if it was only written five days ago.' He almost winced, though he thought his tone was warm enough to have taken any sting from his words; he understood, after all, why she would have disliked writing to Charlotte about it.
She took his hand. He had not been sure that she would, had not thought to prepare himself for it. He was assaulted by the warmth, the softness of her hand; by the need to clasp it to his chest, to kiss it. He felt the loss acutely when he let her go.
She was, however, no longer smiling. He was powerless to change his own grim expression. Hers was undecipherable. Perhaps, he thought, she had realized why he must be in the neighbourhood. Perhaps his struggle was clear on his face.
'Mr Bennet, it is a pleasure. I take it that your family are all well?'
'Yes, indeed, they are.'
She sat, and rang for tea. 'Do sit down. I am afraid I do not know why you are congratulating me.' Her tone was brisk.
'Do you not?' he asked, and sat down. He was at a loss of what to say. He had not believed she would refer openly to his hopes, and while some suicidal part of him wanted to speak the words to her, to hear her answer, most of him had expected a more dignified sort of rejection. 'I did not expect to find you,' he said, at last. 'Your man told me you were away from home, and that I would find Lady Darcy here.'
She frowned. 'You did. I am afraid,' she said, slowly, 'that you must be harbouring a misapprehension. My great-aunt is Mrs Smith now; her man attended you.'
His mind did not understand her last two phrases — it had seized the first one, and puzzled it out. If she remained Lady Darcy, she could not have married.
She was not married.
He was suddenly, violently happy, and had to contain himself from springing up from his seat. 'I was indeed!' he said, and he wanted to say more, but did not know how; he was feeling too much to put it into words.
'You mentioned a letter from Charlotte?' she asked after a moment's silence.
He gave it to her, and she received it, rising to put it on a small writing desk. He had stood with her, not knowing what to do; for some reason, his hopes were not restored intact; he had known, of course, of the chasm that separated them, but thinking her married to a more deserving man had made it more noticeable.
She had always been reserved, but, he thought, she was now as serious as she had usually been in Hertfordshire. She made no movement to draw close to the chair again. Had her feelings changed, then? She was unmarried; it did not mean, after all, that she would want to marry him. She must suspect the reason for his coming — he had feared her understanding earlier, but now it was a sort of blessing. She must know, and she was cold and distant: she could not wish him to speak.
Furthermore, now that it was time to declare himself, he knew not what to say. He had decided the night before not to speak of his feelings — to see her, and take to her Charlotte's letter, and ask after Lord Darcy — and though the circumstances had changed, his mind still felt muddled.
'I hope your journey was not too tiring? You are staying at the White Hare?'
'No no, it was not.' He could not have named a single town he had passed on the way there. 'I am; it is very pleasant.' The White Hare was rustic at best, and not a place accustomed to receiving visitors. There was a moment of silence. 'I see,' he said at last, 'that you are confined indoors.'
'It does look like rain,' she agreed.
'You like that novel, then.' He looked at the volume that lay abandoned in the chair.
She seemed puzzled, and for the first time held his gaze. 'I have only just started it. Why?'
'Ah, but I forget you are a fair one. You critique those books you like, and I daresay you would not condemn to mud and water even the dreariest of sermons.'
She did not quite smile, though for a moment it seemed that she would. They still stood. He did not want to see her, and want her, but she was before him. The pale column of her neck, her generous mouth, the neat, haughty arch of her eyebrows.
He felt almost resentful.
'Well.' He patted his coat for his watch, and hated his hand for trembling. 'I will not keep you from your volume — be it a thrilling novel or sedating collection of sermons.'
Her mouth curved for just a moment. 'I hope — you have just arrived; you will not go immediately from the county?'
'Not immediately, no.' Though he knew not when. He had thought he would go the next day just the night before. And before that, he had hoped...
'Would you do me the honour of calling tomorrow? I am sure Fitzwilliam and my great aunt would want to see you.' Her smile was strained, and her tone was not easy.
'Yes, of course.'
He felt only relief as he took his leave. Their discomfort with each other was, he thought, the ultimate proof that all was not well between them, that her feelings must have changed. He could not bear to have her so near and know her so far.
He was melancholy for the rest of the day. He was not accustomed to feeling so, and his temper grew shorter as he tried to distract himself and failed. His contradictory feelings frustrated him; he felt the draw of seeing her again the next day, and wanting to go home at once and start to live again. He was, he felt, in a sort of limbo, and disliked it intensely.
His mind could not rest. He was constantly wondering: why had she invited him to come back the next day? Why had she been cold? Even if her feelings had changed, would not their memory make her charitable towards his? If she resented him now, would there not have been triumph in her manner? He had not seen triumph. But if she still felt for him, would she not have been warmer?
Finally, he could not understand her behaviour, but he could understand his own. He had acted the coward. His own confusion had defeated him. He had been sure, when deciding to go to her, that it would be an excruciating ordeal because she was married — on finding that it was not so, why then had he not spoken?
The next morning he made his way to the house reminding himself that he must only speak briefly with her; his business today was with Lord Darcy and Mrs Smith. That was why she had invited him; that was why he had agreed to go. But he would, if he could, say what he had come to say.
He would attempt to seize the happiness he had only glimpsed when first understanding her feelings.
Again he was led into the drawing room, and again she was the only person there. She rose to greet him, and said the others would come down shortly — her son wanted them all to step outside, as he wanted to show Edward something.
Edward agreed, and mentioned it had not rained. There was no way to avoid looking at her, and they were both standing awkwardly, waiting for the others to appear. If she would have sat down, he could have gone to a window, or gone to look at the ceramic figures on a side table, but she did not. Their gazes met, and held, and his pulse picked up speed. She looked away first, her colour rising.
The silence was almost unbearable.
There it was, he thought, an opportunity to speak to her. Perhaps the last. If he went without talking to her, it would be years, he was sure, until he could do so again.
'You must be wondering why I am here,' he said at last, and she met his gaze again. 'Here in Derbyshire, of course.' He managed to twist his mouth into a smile. 'I have not, you will be relieved to know, left the Courts for the mail coach.'
Her mouth twitched into an involuntary smile, and she inclined her head, which Edward took as sufficient encouragement to continue. 'I came for y— so that I might see you and speak to you.' He hesitated, and then continued, looking at the wall above her shoulder. 'I do not desire to make you uncomfortable — though I could not blame you if you suspected me of it. I cannot — shall not, however, remain silent, unless you wish me to.'
She made a slight movement, and he looked her way. He searched her face, but he could not understand her expression. She was flushed, but whether her uppermost feelings were of embarrassment or pleasure was unclear.
She did not stop him.
'I wish,' he said after a moment, 'that I were one of those men who arrange their words in advance so they may speak them with as natural an air as possible at the appropriate time.' He could not smile, and he forced himself to meet her gaze.
She said nothing. They stood, he thought, too far for such confidences. Even a man violently in love must quail at speaking the words into the empty, bright air of a drawing room mid-morning. He came to stand two feet from her.
'I daresay you think me a simpleton, but you must know I have no experience in this sort of declaration. I do not think,' it occurred to him with some humour, 'that you would want me to have such an experience in any case.' He stopped, and said, 'But you are silent! Are you wishing me to the farthest ends of the earth and too polite to say so? You could nod now, you know, and we could pretend we were speaking of completely different things. I could find an interesting spider below a chair for Lord Darcy.'
She smiled, and did not nod.
'I should hurry — I do not like the thought of saying what I came to say with Lord Darcy and Mrs Smith as our audience.' He took a deep breath, and smiled again, though he felt his blood draining out of his face. 'I love you. There. I have said it.' He stayed his hand — he had closed the space between them, but would not touch her uninvited, though he had almost taken her hand in his. 'I know your situation in life and mine are such that any alliance would be far-fetched, and I know that I have not shown myself to advantage with you in the past, but I had to come when I realized, when I suspected you might feel the same—' she did not speak, though she was blushing now more than earlier '—though I daresay you may not feel the same any longer, if you ever did. It does not matter, I want you to know: I love you more than anyone and anything. Now you can laugh at me.'
She did not: she smiled, openly, brilliantly. Her face was glowing, her eyes, bright.
For a moment Edward could only think that she was the most beautiful sight he had ever beheld or would behold in his remaining life. He was so dazzled he had no time to fear her answer. Her manner was agitated, but she met his gaze, laid her hand against his cheek, and expressed herself as eloquently as a woman ardently in love could be expected to do.
From Lady Darcy to Mr Edward Bennet
Northbrook, Friday morning, July 4
It is very unfair of you, dearest man, to write such a lovely letter. Reading it is like hearing you talk, with the advantage that I can go back to it as many times as I wish. I thought that I would be melancholy with you gone so briefly after arriving, and that I would despise the Old Bailey until you were free to come back to me. Alas, I am too happy! I cannot be sad in the least.
Do not think me cold-hearted. I am half-afraid you will, but if you have to think ill of me, think that I am not used to writing love letters, and not that I do not miss you.
I do miss you, very much; I have a thousand little things to tell you, but none of them fit in this letter. They are silly little things that come to mind while I design the new parlour, or mid-conversation with the housekeeper, or as I go through my chores. I then remember that you are in London, and I become forlorn, but I remind myself that we are going to be married, and I am cheerful again. It is much easier now that I have six pages crammed with your charming stories.
Speaking of which, I am not very sure I want you to introduce me to that peculiar Miss Collins. She is very entertaining to read about, and her manner of speech certainly makes me laugh when I read your quotations, but I do not think that I would know what to say if I had to speak to her. It would not be too bad if you were with me, but what about after dinner? When we invite her to Northbrook — yes, we will, because she is your cousin, and your families were estranged, and after having met her in an inn in such a fortuitous manner, it is just what ought to be done — well, we will be very informal and you will take your port with us. Please.
I will shield you from my family too, although so far nearly everyone seems pleased for me. Mrs Smith teases me, George needed five page in his last letter to congratulate me and tell me how happy he is for us, Fitzwilliam can only think about your promise to teach him fishing, and my Fitzwilliam cousins have been gossiping about you and me and a possible match for months now, because Constance tells Violet everything, and Violet tells everything to everyone else. They say that it was about time, and that autumn weddings are a family tradition.
The one I shall shield you from is my uncle Lord Christopher, who had hoped to see me married to his son. He wrote me a very angry letter, but you do not have to worry. I received such a one upon my first marriage, and it took him a mere few months to ask us to Rosings for his yearly visit again, and he positively demanded to be Fitzwilliam's godfather even before my confinement began.
I have to confess, I have become very forgetful. I cannot tell where I put things, and I have lost one of my topaz earrings. My great-aunt Smith had to ask me to bring her her shawl twice, and yesterday I told Marie to prepare my riding dress, but I never remembered to put it on, much less go near the stables. I am full of thoughts of you, and there is no room left for such mundane concerns! There is something I particularly cannot help recalling several times a day at the most inappropriate times, and it is the brief embrace behind the Northbrook well—the one that happened while I was trying to show you my orchard and our party was following a cuckoo. It is a most vivid and distracting recollection. I am both wishing that you remember it as often as I, and fearing for your clients if you do.
Fitzwilliam has just wandered in in his nightgown and asked me to tell you that Constance has learned to fetch. I will have to talk to him about his habit of visiting my rooms in the mornings once we are married, as it is something he does every day. He wants to know if you had any dogs as a child, and what were their names, and everything about them. Would you mind writing to him too every once in a while? He could certainly use some calligraphy practice, but he refuses to write just for his governess and me to see. I think he would like writing to you.
I have been thinking about your question, although I am not sure what should I tell you. I deny having found you too impertinent when we met, and it certainly was not the cause of any undue interest. In the course of the first weeks I came to consider you, I will confess this much, one of the finest and most entertaining young people of my acquaintance. A sort of favourite, if you want, more so because it was clear to me that you needed a bit of polishing. It must sound very patronizing to you. But, seeing as you have yourself told me (in the sweetest manner, that is true) that you were sure then that we disliked each other in a particularly amiable manner, I have to enlighten you: you disliked me charmingly, and I found patronizing you very entertaining.
About our quarrel, it is true that I was hurt by your assumptions, but when we met again in London I had long since considered your actions a result of both your youth and her lies. Lately I have also taken my own actions into account for this—it was true that I could have acted in a more amiable manner, not only then, but before and afterwards. I am afraid that I am not very good at making acquaintances, or at small talk, or even at first impressions. I noticed that for the first time when I went to school—but being Miss Fitzwilliam of Pemberley was good enough to get me a few friends without any effort on my side. I did not improve in my first Season; I took pride in never dancing with men I had no interest in, and spent the balls and soirees talking mainly to my cousins, whom I had known all my life. Darcy, when we were married, did not require me to exert myself to entertain either—my great-aunt Smith was happy to do it for all three of us.
I am determined to do better from now on, dearest; I have applied myself very hard since April to be charming to my Derbyshire neighbours, although it is not very hard, as I have long acquaintances with most of them already. Why, I have even held a ball at Northbrook! Though it is true that I only danced four times. You would not want me to dance with too many gentlemen, would you?
I realize I have not answered your question yet, and I have half a mind to send this letter as it is and pretend that I was so distracted with thoughts of dancing with you that it slipped my mind. You will not be satisfied, though, will you? The trouble is that I do not know when I fell in love with you, and it makes me very silly to think about it. I held you in high regard in Hertfordshire, and was vexed that you misunderstood me, but I do not think I loved you then. It must have been when we met again in London and you apologized; you looked very dashing and I was pleasantly surprized, and even gratified at your attentions. I was very surprized to meet you again the very next day, and when you agreed to visit and told me where you usually walked, I assumed that you were as glad as I was. One day I merely wanted to see you again, the other I was scheming to accomplish it, and soon I was set on marrying you. Which of these days do you suppose to be the one in which I started to love you?
I have a request to make, despite not really answering your question. Should you mind setting a date already? I would like to start making preparations for the wedding. May we marry soon, or perhaps wait until you can arrange matters in London so that you can come to Derbyshire and we might travel? I do not care for travelling if it means we have to wait, and I would not mind staying in London if you have things to do there, but I will leave the date to your discretion. I suppose a London wedding would be a good opportunity for you to make useful connections? I do not mean during the breakfast, but maybe in the following days. I am earnest about helping you become as successful in the law as you might wish, dearest Edward. I cannot do much yet, but I search the papers every morning for news about the Old Bailey, and I am learning a lot from it all.
I hope you do not mind my calling you by your Christian name. I have thought about it a ridiculous amount of time, and I have decided I cannot be always referring to you as the charming Bennet, or the Bennet with the handsomest eyebrows, or even my Bennet. Edward has such a nice ring to it, has it not?
I will end the letter now, as even I can see that it is growing absurdly silly, and both Fitzwilliam and I need to have breakfast, and he has just reminded me that I said we would walk with Constance (the dog) this morning.
I remain, yours always and happy to distraction,