It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young lady in possession of a good fortune must marry a man whose financial worth is equal to her own.
However little known the character of any single man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that they will consider little else.
There was therefore much interest when the news made its way around Meryton that, the old Squire having no son of his own, his great-nephew was to inherit Netherfield Park. Indeed, it was reported that the young man — he was reputed to be seven or eight and twenty — had already arrived to take possession.
“I suppose you must call on him in the next day or two,” Lady Bennet had remarked to her husband one afternoon, when the family were gathered together in the blue sitting room for tea, “since his estate runs next to a part of ours. But we should not encourage him. Lady Lucas tells me the old Squire let the place go quite to rack and ruin in the last few years. She says his nephew will now struggle to get more than fifteen hundred a year from it. And you know that would never do for Jane or Lizzy.”
Lord Bennet glanced up briefly from reading his letters. “Indeed, my dear. But Squire Hamley was an old friend and his family have lived at Netherfield Park a great deal longer than we have lived at Longbourn. He might not have had the manners one would expect of a gentleman these days, but I dare say his nephew is a good sort.”
Mrs Bennet conceded, as she carefully unlocked the tea caddy and spooned the tea into the pot, that it might be so. “And I suppose you should call on him before Sir William’s harvest ball next week. He will at least be another young man for our girls to stand up with.”
“Oh, do we have to go to that wretched ball?” Lydia, who had already moved from chair to sofa and then taken a turn around the room, threw herself down in the window seat and sighed dramatically. “All those tenant farmers and shopkeepers and their dowdy wives.”
Mary sniffed as she turned a page in the book of sermons she was reading. “It behooves us to be gracious to those the Lord has placed below us.”
“But they’re so dull!” Lydia pouted. “And there are never any new fashions to look at. Even Charlotte Lucas is always in last year’s style. Oh, if only we were in London already.”
“If we were in London, you wouldn’t be able to go to a ball at all,” Elizabeth remarked, glancing up from the book that was taking more of her attention than the silk flowers for Kitty’s bonnet that she and Jane were helping to make.
“We would so, if only you and Jane would stop being so silly and marry one of those young men you met last year. Or the year before.”
“Mama forbade it,” Jane offered up quietly, her gaze fixed firmly on the spray of leaves she was working.
“And quite right,” Lady Bennet declared. “They were none of them a good enough catch for a beauty like Jane. One or two of them might have done for Lizzy, if she hadn’t declared she couldn’t hold a sensible conversation with any of them.”
Elizabeth turned a page in her book. “If one is to eat breakfast with someone for the next fifty years, I do feel it is the least one can ask for.”
“Nonsense! And do get your nose out that book, Lizzy, and take this tea over to your father. You know how it vexes my poor nerves to see you reading all the time.”
Sighing inside, Lizzy marked her page in the book with a strip of ribbon and rose to do her mother’s bidding.
It was certain that one must be Squire Hamley’s great-nephew, Mr Darcy. The other must be his intimate friend, Mr Bingley, who had come down from London to join him for some shooting. A report was soon in general circulation throughout the room that the latter had recently inherited a fortune of more than forty thousand pounds and that he was intending to use it to purchase a small estate in the next year or so. What remained to be discovered was which of them was which.
Lord Bennet had, in fact, called on Mr Darcy the day after his wife had mentioned the possibility, and Mr Darcy had returned the visit three days later. But Lady Bennet, concerned that Mr Darcy would at once wish to ingratiate himself with the young ladies of the house, had banished her daughters from the morning room to their bedrooms as soon as she had learned of his approach.
In the event, Mr Darcy had sat with Lord Bennet in the library for no more than ten minutes, before making it known that he had several other calls to make that morning and could not stay longer. The young ladies’ curiosity was satisfied only to the extent of being able to discern from an upper window that he wore a brown coat and rode a grey horse. Lord Bennet would not subsequently be drawn to any further description of his visitor.
Moreover, because Lord Bennet had, much to his wife’s irritation, accepted an invitation to the card room while they were still in the entrance hall, further acquaintance was delayed still further, depending as it now did upon the intervention of their hostess Lady Lucas. At last, however, Lady Lucas led the two men over to where Lady Bennet and her daughters were holding court and made the introduction.
To Elizabeth’s slight surprise, Mr Darcy proved to be the more imposing and gentlemanlike of the two. She knew he was the result, through his father, of a highly imprudent if happy match on the part of Squire Hamley’s sister with a corn broker. As for Squire Hamley himself, although Elizabeth had been fond of him, for he was a kindly old man and not one to mind her rambling across his fields or asking bothersome questions or borrowing books from his library, his manners had been shaped by the less refined customs of his youth.
Mr Darcy, she now discovered, was far more gentlemanlike in his bearing and manners than such a history would suggest, as well as blessed with handsome features and a fine person. Mr Bingley, to be fair, was also a gentlemanlike young man, though his manners were perhaps a little too easy for such short acquaintance.
When the introductions had been made, Lady Bennet enquired, “And how do you find Netherfield, Mr Darcy?”
“Alas, much declined from my memories of it as a boy,” Mr Darcy returned. “I fear my great-uncle was less active in his latter years than he should have been and not much interested in the latest ideas.”
“And are you interested in the latest ideas, Mr Darcy?” Elizabeth asked.
“Oh, Darcy is simply full of them,” Bingley interjected, with a laugh. “Don’t let him start, I beg you.”
At that moment, the orchestra struck up the bars of the first dance and Mr Bingley at once turned to Jane and begged the honour of the first two. At a nod from Lady Bennet, Jane accepted and allowed herself to be led to near the top of the first set.
Lady Bennet glanced at Elizabeth and then gave Mr Darcy a pointed look. He seemed not to notice. Indeed, he had half turned and was scanning the room as if in search of someone. Turning back to Lady Bennet, he made a short bow, offered them a brusque, “Madam, ladies,” and strode away.
“Well, really!” Lady Bennet remarked, adjusting her wrap.
Clearly Mr Darcy had inherited something of his uncle’s manners and it was likely no great loss, Elizabeth thought, that he had not asked her to dance. Besides, “Here comes Master Lucas to dance with me,” she pointed out. That would be no great joy, either, as she would have to listen to him expounding on the latest exploits of his favourite foxhound, But at least she would not have to discover if Mr Darcy’s dancing would add another blemish to her favourable first impression of his person.
Elizabeth happily found a partner for the next two dances, but the anticipated scarcity of gentlemen then proved accurate. She was forced to sit down for a time and not long after found herself near to Mr Darcy again. He had been making his way around the room, engaging in conversation with various gentlemen, but was at that moment quite alone, until Mr Bingley came out from the dancing to join him.
“Come, Darcy,” Elizabeth heard Mr Bingley say. “You must dance.”
“I shall not.” Darcy replied. “You know I take no pleasure in standing up with strangers who, like as not, have not a word of wit in their pretty little heads. If you could introduce me to a woman of sense, with whom I can converse, it would be tolerable.”
“I think you are too fastidious by half,” Mr Bingley exclaimed. “I have rarely danced with so many agreeable young ladies as I have this evening. Why, Miss Bennet was quite sensible in our conversation and told me much about Meryton and its history, as well as being uncommonly pretty.”
“Then you have been most fortunate. But I believe Miss Bennet is engaged for the remainder of the evening.”
“That is so,” Mr Bingley conceded, “and I confess I would not give up my place in the cotillon even for you, Darcy. But come, there is one of her sisters sitting down nearby who is also very handsome, and I’m sure will do well enough.”
Mr Darcy turned around and looked for a moment at Elizabeth until, catching her eye, he turned away hastily. “I am sure she is perfectly pleasant, but I am in no humour to listen to idle chatter about the dance or the size of the room or the number of couples.”
Mr Bingley laughed. “And I suppose you have something better to talk about?”
“Indeed I do. I am hoping to discover who has the copy of Lawrence’s Calendar that I bought my uncle. He was still using Bradley, you know. The housekeeper thinks he lent it to some neighbour or other, but I cannot yet discover who has it. But I wish you joy of your dance with Miss Bennet.” With that, Mr Darcy strode off towards the group of men gathered around Sir William Lucas.
Elizabeth was quite glad he had not looked at her again, for she started guiltily at the mention of the Calendar. She was conscious that it, along with the two volumes of James Adam’s Practical Essays, were lying in the drawer of her dressing table, where she trusted her mother would never look.
For that lady had, on Elizabeth’s coming out two years ago, expressly forbidden Lord Bennet from indulging their daughter’s interest in estate management and agricultural improvements, declaring that Elizabeth would never be allowed to stoop to marrying a man so poor that he must waste his time on such things. She had certainly done her best to make such an eventuality come to pass, by introducing Elizabeth to an abundance of young men who were entirely ignorant of those topics and happy in their ignorance. Elizabeth had therefore been forced to practice a little subterfuge. She had, with Squire Hamley’s permission, raided his library — and was already well aware that the old man had sworn by Bradley’s monthly directory and refused to even open the latest books that his nephew had purchased for him.
Given Mr Darcy’s earlier manner, and the low estimation of her sex just expressed, she had no great desire to reveal herself as the cause of his inconvenience. Indeed, she took a playful delight in the fact that his dismissal of all women as lacking wit had deprived him of immediate success in recovering the Calendar. The whole thing made a fine story to tell Charlotte Lucas during supper. She discovered in return that Mr Darcy’s obsession with the Calendar and disobliging nature in the matter of dancing had become quite generally known. He was now considered entirely disagreeable and everybody agreed it would have been better if he had never come at all.
“I cannot imagine why you insist on this rambling around the lanes in all weathers,” her mother declared, waving over one of the footmen for more plum cake. “If you wish to go somewhere, you only have to ask for the chaise to be harnessed.”
“But I like walking, Mama,” Elizabeth replied patiently. “I have often told you so. And I do not like to inconvenience Thomas when I have no particular object in mind and merely wish for some fresh air and exercise.”
Seeing that her mother was about to embark on her usual invective against such evils, Elizabeth hastily finished her coffee and excused herself from the table.
The September morning was, as it happened, a fine one for walking: sunny and crisp but not too cold, and the ground underfoot almost dry. Elizabeth took her time, taking in the sights and sounds around her as she walked.
She had just crossed the lane that divided Longbourn from Netherfield, and entered on to the track that skirted the lower fields of Netherfield Home Farm, when she encountered the farm manager supervising a number of workmen digging a trench.
She stopped and nodded at him. “Sanders. I did not think to meet you here.”
Sanders touched a finger to the brim of his hat. “Miss Bennet.”
Elizabeth turned to survey the workmen. “You’re putting in drainage ditches?”
“Yes, miss. Mr Darcy was all for it as soon as I told him it turns into a regular bog down here once we get the winter rains, and that we can never plant as early as I’d like.”
“How many channels are you putting in?”
“Just the one in this field to begin, miss. I dare say it will make a great deal of difference. And if it is not as much as we hope, we can always dig another.” Sanders’s gaze went past Elizabeth and he again touched his hat. “Morning, sir.”
Elizabeth turned and found herself face to face with Mr Darcy, who looked as surprised as she felt. “Mr Darcy!” She managed a brief curtsey.
“Miss Bennet.” He bowed to her stiffly. “I did not realise you were interested in our drainage.”
“Sanders and I have discussed it several times. But your uncle was always much against it. I am only sorry that, now the work is to be done, I may have played some part in delaying it.” When Mr Darcy arched an eyebrow, she added, “I am the neighbour who borrowed your Calendar. And the Practical Essays.”
“You?” Mr Darcy could not keep the astonishment from his tone and Elizabeth felt a small amount of pleasure that he had discovered so soon that her pretty little head was not as witless as he had imagined.
“If I had realised I was inconveniencing you, I would have returned them sooner. Your uncle had told me I could keep them as long as I liked. But we will be leaving for town in two days, so I was on my way to Netherfield to return them as soon as possible.” She showed him the parcel she was carrying.
He stood wordless for a moment and then managed a stiff, “That is much appreciated.”
“And now,” Elizabeth added with a smile, “I fear I am delaying the work once again, as I am sure you did not come here to listen to my idle chatter.” At that, Mr Darcy started. “I shall be on my way to complete my errand. Good day to you, Mr Darcy.”
“And you, Miss Bennet,” he managed, as she began to turn away, sounding quite out of breath.
She did not look back as she walked briskly up the path, tempted though she was to see if he was looking after her.
But at last they were in London and settled in Grosvenor Square. The younger girls had the various entertainments of shopping, parading along Rotten Row to see who there was to be seen, and private parties at home in the afternoons. The two eldest, along with their mother, attended every ball and musical evening whose hostess was deemed worthy of receiving Lady Bennet’s attention.
Elizabeth, as a rule, enjoyed dancing, though generally she had fewer partners than Jane, for Jane was an acknowledged Beauty, while Elizabeth was regarded as merely handsome, and the more substantial fortune attached to an eldest daughter will always make a young woman a more attractive partner. It was no great loss, however, when Elizabeth had no one to stand up with, as it allowed her to revel in the lively conversation of her particular set of friends, though she did, from time to time, heartily if privately wish for the occasional quiet evening at home.
They had been two weeks in town and were at yet another dance when Lady Bennet raised her glasses and peered across the ballroom. “Is Jane dancing with Mr Foster yet again?”
“I believe so, Mama. He is quite persistent and Jane says he looks so sad when she declines to dance that she does not like to refuse him.”
Lady Bennet snorted. “Well, it will not do. You met with him when you and Jane were out walking yesterday, did you not?”
“Yes, Mama. He greeted us in Bond Street when we were just about to go into the milliners. Jane insisted I go in and pick up my bonnet while they spoke outside.”
Lady Bennet snorted again. “Well, Jane must discourage him. He has no fortune and no parentage to speak of, and altogether nothing to recommend him beyond some very pretty manners. I must speak to her about it tomorrow.”
“Yes, Mama.” Elizabeth’s reply was quite distracted, for she had caught a glimpse of a most unexpected person as the dancing finished and the men began to lead the ladies off the floor. Surely it could not be! Then the crowd shifted once more and this time she was quite sure that not only was Mr Darcy in attendance but that he was making his way across the room towards them.
When he reached them, he bowed. “Lady Bennet. Miss Bennet.”
Lady Bennet merely inclined her head in acknowledgment, but Elizabeth could not help exclaiming, “Mr Darcy! I did not expect to see you in town.”
“I had an errand to complete, and when I met Bingley, he persuaded me to join his party this evening.” He held out his hand to her. “Miss Bennet, if you are not otherwise engaged, may I have the honour of the next two dances?”
Elizabeth took his hand, too surprised to find an excuse to refuse him, and let him lead her into the set. They danced the first dance without speaking a word, but shortly after the start of the second, Mr Darcy said, “You are very quiet this evening, Miss Bennet.”
Elizabeth turned and gave him her other hand so they could parade in the other direction. “I did not wish to burden you with any nonsense about the size of the room or the number of couples, Mr Darcy.”
A blush spread over his face and Elizabeth thought it just as well that the dance now separated them for a short time. But when they came back together, Mr Darcy said immediately. “I am very sorry I ever said that, Miss Bennet. It was not gentlemanlike. And I am sorrier still that you heard it.”
Elizabeth made no response for a while and then, seeing the anxiety of his face, said carefully, “I am sorry, Mr Darcy, that so many of my sex are given the kind of upbringing and education that would make you say it.”
“You have not had such an education,” he observed quietly.
“I believe my mother wishes I had. It would be easier for her to find me a husband. But, alas, I have always been quite inconsiderate and much too fond of reading what she disapproves of.”
“I cannot disapprove of a woman who reads Adam and Lawrence,” Mr Darcy responded with surprising earnestness.
Now it was Elizabeth’s turn to flush a little. “And how does your drainage scheme progress?”
“Very well. Sanders is quite hopeful that it will do the trick before the Spring. We may even begin on another scheme further along the valley.”
“In the Forty Acre field?”
Mr Darcy turned an astonished face to her. “My word, Miss Bennet, you have taken an uncommonly keen interest in my land.”
Elizabeth flushed still further. “I am not permitted to take an interest in our own. And there seemed no harm in it when your uncle was so set against incurring the expense of any such work.”
“It is quite an expense, yes,” Mr Darcy murmured.
Before Elizabeth could reply, the dance ended. They made their bow and curtsey and Mr Darcy walked her back to her mother. He was barely out of earshot when Lady Bennet exclaimed, “Well, I am quite glad that is done, and hope we do not see that dreadful man again this season. I cannot think who brought him or why he thought to inflict his disagreeable presence on you, Lizzy! At least he did not ask to take you into supper.”
Elizabeth, who had not found the last few minutes at all disagreeable, but knew better than to contradict her mother, murmured a suitable reply. Indeed, her head was so full of what had transpired that it was hard to pay attention to her mother’s observations, and it was a relief when, a few moments later, supper was announced.
Lady Bennet’s temper was not improved by Mr Foster taking Jane into supper and managing to seat them at some distance from her mother and sister. However, her complaining was cut short by the news imparted by one of her friends — on the strictest confidence, of course — that Mr Foster was soon likely to come in to a substantial inheritance in Ireland. A distant cousin, the heir to an estate that was entailed, had died in the fighting with the French, and Mr Foster was now believed to be the heir presumptive to the whole estate. Lady Bennet therefore merely scolded Jane lightly on the way home to not show more partiality to Mr Foster than was appropriate.
“Oh, Lizzy!” Jane had exclaimed, once Peggy had finished unpinning their hair and taken away Jane’s frock to repair some torn lace. “I do not think I could show Mr Foster too much partiality. He is entirely admirable, is he not?”
“He is certainly very handsome and has very charming manners,” Elizabeth admitted, as she finished plaiting her hair. Jane was altogether too inclined to think too well of everyone, and Elizabeth was mindful that her mother still did not fully approve of him.
“Oh, but you do like him, don’t you, Lizzy? Oh, but you must! For soon you must call him brother and let him call you sister.”
“Jane!” Elizabeth turned in astonishment to face her sister. “Do you mean—? Can it be that Mr Foster has made you an offer and you have accepted?”
“Yes. He spoke to me when you were in the milliners. He says he will call on Papa tomorrow to ask his permission. Oh, Lizzy, he said it was such torture tonight to have my answer and not be able to acknowledge it, or to dance with me above twice. And he has waited so long, you know. He told me he wished to offer last year, but thought he would not be accepted.”
“But now,” Elizabeth remarked drily, “he is to inherit an estate in Ireland. How shall you like living there?”
“Oh, Henry says it will be a while and a while before we live there. His relative in Ireland is not so very old, you know. We shall visit, of course. But he has talked of taking a place in Wimpole Street or Harley Street when we are first married.”
“He seems to have everything quite planned out,” Elizabeth murmured. Then, not wishing to cause Jane even a little pain, she held out her hands to her sister. “I am very happy for you, Jane, and hope you will be very happy together.”
As promised, Mr Foster presented himself to Lord Bennet the following day and, after providing assurances that his Irish cousin had indeed passed away, and that the very large estate he was to have inherited would now descend to the next nearest male heir, he was accepted.
Oh, what a flurry of preparations then ensued! The church was settled on and the date set. Lady Bennet’s friends must all call by turns to congratulate her on having secured such an excellent match for her eldest daughter. The best warehouses must be visited for the bride’s trousseau.
It was on an errand to secure a particular kind of hat ribbon, which her mother had taken a great fancy to, that Elizabeth met with Mr Bingley outside Grafton’s. They had been present at several of the same entertainments over the past few weeks, and danced together more than once. Elizabeth’s largely favourable first impressions had been confirmed: he was lively and unreserved, and made himself agreeable chiefly by finding everyone and everything around him agreeable.
It seemed, however, that Mr Bingley had found the limits to what agreed with him. After he and Elizabeth greeted each other, Mr Bingley remarked with a dejected air, “I understand your sister is to be married. To Mr Foster.” When Elizabeth answered in the affirmative, he said, “Well, I wish her joy,” as if it cost him a great effort to do so. They parted soon after and Elizabeth was left to reflect that, though she had suspected a partiality on his part for Jane — who could not know Jane and love her — his cheerful countenance had evidently concealed deeper feelings than she had guessed at. As there was no possibility now of them being returned, she hoped that he would soon recover.
Mr Foster was much in their company during that time and Elizabeth began to understand why he had captivated Jane. He always had a compliment or a pretty turn of phrase for all the Bennet girls. He was ever willing to listen to Mary play and sing duets with her. He would eagerly admire Kitty’s sketches and sat still long enough to allow her take a likeness more than once. He would even express a keen interest in which of two ribbons Lydia should use to trim a bonnet. With Elizabeth, he talked books, having a lively opinion on all the latest novels. Lady Bennet repeatedly declared that she was entirely delighted by their “dear Henry”, while Lord Bennet satisfied himself with remarking that he was glad that Jane had finally allowed a suitable young man to endear himself to her. The only fault Elizabeth could find in him, indeed, was that he was sometimes a little too over-familiar.
Things proceeded thus until a week before the wedding. Elizabeth, putting the final touches to her toilette and trying to ignore Mary’s laboured practicing of the same phrase over and over, was disturbed by a terrible shriek from somewhere downstairs. Hurrying into the morning room, she found her mother lying unconscious on the couch, with Jane kneeling next to her and fumbling with the stopper of the bottle of smelling salts.
“What in heaven’s name has happened?” she exclaimed
“Oh, Lizzy, such terrible news!” Jane turned a pale face to her. “Henry has fought a duel and been most grievously wounded.”
Elizabeth moved swiftly to Jane’s side and took the smelling salts from her shaking hands. “Let me have that and you sit down and compose yourself.”
Opening the smelling salts, Elizabeth waved them under her mother’s nose. Lady Bennet started awake and fixed her gaze on Elizabeth. “Oh, Lizzy, that dreadful Mr Darcy!”
Elizabeth stared at her in amazement. “Mr Darcy fought a duel with Mr Foster?”
Her mother had slumped back on the cushions, eyes closed again and emitting low moans. It was Jane who replied, “No, Mr Darcy was the other gentleman’s second. He came to tell us the news. He is with Papa in the study now.”
Elizabeth looked up and saw Kitty and Lydia, still in their dressing gowns, crowding in the doorway, with Mary behind them. “Kitty, Lydia, go and finish dressing before Mr Darcy sees you. Mary, go and tell Hill to send up the tea at once.”
The younger girls skittered away, while Elizabeth helped her mother to sit up. Jane, a little recovered, made the tea when it was brought. There was nothing else either of them could tell her, for Lord Bennet had taken Mr Darcy away as soon as Lady Bennet had fainted.
“Far be it from me to decry the right of a gentleman to defend his honour,” Mary began, taking a sip of her tea. She got no further, for Elizabeth interrupted snappishly, “Not now, Mary.”
They then sat largely in silence until Elizabeth, handing a dish of sweetened tea to her mother, heard voices in the hall below and someone going out. A moment later, Lord Bennet entered the room and surveyed his wife and daughters. Then he nodded to Elizabeth. “Come with me, Lizzy. Jane, Mary, take care of your mother.”
Elizabeth followed him downstairs into his study and shut the door behind her. He sat down in a chair in front of the fireplace and regarded her gravely. “Well, Lizzy, this is quite a pickle. Quite a pickle indeed.”
Elizabeth sat down opposite him. “I know that Henry has fought a duel and is wounded. Is there more?”
Lord Bennet sighed. “Much more. Mr Darcy — you know he was here? — informed me that the other gentleman called Henry out over the matter of seducing and then abandoning his ward. The other gentleman was attending to his properties in the West Indies and only learned what had transpired when a letter was sent by his ward’s companion to inform him that she was gravely ill, having—. Forgive me, Lizzy, I know that you are not wholly ignorant of such things, but it pains me to speak of them to you. Having been brought to bed with a three-month child.”
“And there can be no doubt that Henry, that Mr Foster—?”
“None. The young lady was quite clear on the matter, and her companion — evidently much at fault also — admitted that she had allowed them to be alone together. Her guardian hastened back as soon as he was able and called Mr Foster out at once. Mr Darcy, knowing of the connection, brought us the news.”
“It would be better for Jane if Mr Foster did not recover from his wound,” Elizabeth remarked, after a pause for thought. “Though I fear the scandal will be well-known all too soon and not easily forgot.”
“Indeed.” Lord Bennet sighed heavily. “She must write to him as soon as she is able, to break off the engagement. And it appears also that the inheritance in Ireland is by no means secure. There had been some falling out with that branch of the family — and I fear it may be for some similar reason — and Mr Foster was only hoping to be reconciled and named as heir. We have all of us been sadly deceived.”
Elizabeth agreed with him. With a heavy heart, she went away to relate the rest of the tale to her mother and sister, to console Jane and to assist her in writing the letter that must be now written.
Lady Bennet suffered another attack of her nerves on learning of the full wickedness of Henry Foster, but had recovered sufficiently by the middle of the afternoon to insist that Jane and Elizabeth accompany her to a concert at the Hanover Square Rooms. “That wretched man has abused you most abominably Jane, but you have done nothing of which you should be ashamed, and we must not give people reason to believe you have,” she pointed out.
Reluctant as Elizabeth was to venture out into society that day, she felt the rightness of her mother’s words. She therefore joined her in persuading Jane to dry her tears and dress in her most elegant clothes.
Alas! When they entered the Rooms, it seemed rumour had run far ahead of them. Several acquaintances greeted them very coldly indeed, while others turned their backs entirely as Lady Bennet approached. Lady Bennet handled it with more composure that Elizabeth would have credited, leading them to their seats and sitting down and looking around her as if nothing was amiss. Jane would have held back, but Elizabeth linked arms with her and steadied her as they followed their mother.
Elizabeth could not, however, have given an account of what was played or how well, and even her mother’s resolve lasted only until they reached the hall of their own home again. There, she called out at once that they must leave immediately, on the morrow, that she could not bear to be amongst such vile people for a moment longer, and that Jane — that all her daughters were ruined and would never find husbands with reputations that would not lower them still further.
Lord Bennet had also ventured out to his club. Though his reception had been more sympathetic, it had been painful enough that he was not inclined to oppose his wife, and he agreed to a rapid removal on the morrow.
It was a dreary return to Longbourn. The weather was alternately rainy or overcast, confining the ladies indoors or restricting them to taking short walks in the dripping shrubbery. The three youngest girls quarrelled endlessly, their mother berated them constantly for having no consideration for her poor nerves, and Jane grew paler and quieter every day. Elizabeth soon found herself quite out of patience with acting as peacemaker.
There was no help from Lord Bennet: he retreated into his study. On the few occasions Elizabeth ventured in there, she found him sitting before the fire, staring distractedly into the flames. Even voicing her concerns for Jane roused him only as far as to say, “I am sure you know best how to take care of your sister, Lizzy.”
Elizabeth had, indeed, tried to improve Jane’s spirits, as well as tempt her to eat a little more nourishing food. When pressed, Jane confessed that she had not been so very in love with Mr Foster after all, but that it pained her how easily she had let herself be deceived, and how her foolishness had ruined the chance of happiness for all her sisters.
At last, however, there came a day when the sun shone and the wind dried up the ground enough for Elizabeth to declare after she would risk a walk. Her route was guided merely by choosing those paths that seemed least likely to lead to a mire, but shortly she found herself once more on the track that skirted the lower fields of Netherfield Home Farm. Curious to discover how the drainage works had progressed, she walked a little further and saw that the ditch was now complete and well lined, and was feeding a steady flow down into the small river that pursued its course along the bottom of the valley.
She was just contemplating how life had changed since she last stood there when she became conscious of hoofbeats approaching. Turning, she saw to her consternation that it was Mr Darcy. He drew to a halt next to her and bowed to her.
She curtsied in reply. “Mr Darcy.”
“You are examining how the work goes?”
“I am. Well, I think?” She turned away and surveyed the field again. She was aware of him dismounting and stepping up next to her.
“The ditches are certainly collecting plenty of water,” he remarked. He was silent for a moment, and then said gruffly, “I did not expect to meet you here so soon after our last meeting.”
“Nor did I.” Elizabeth drew in a deep breath. “Mr Darcy, I have had no opportunity to thank you for bringing the news of Mr Foster to us when we were in London. It was not your place to do so, as you were the friend of the other gentleman, but it was kindly done.”
“I felt it my duty to make it known to you as soon as I could, before it began circulating more widely and you met the rumour unprepared. Your sister was not at fault.”
“If only others thought so, Mr Darcy!”
They were silent again and then he enquired diffidently, “How fares Miss Bennet?”
“As well as might be expected. She has taken it hard, though she speaks less of it than my younger sisters, who are most put out that ‘that horrid Mr Foster’ has put an end to their time in London this season. I fear they do not yet see that it may have put an end to any future season in London also.”
“You fear that no respectable man will make an offer for any of you?”
“And that many who are not respectable — but like our fortunes well enough — will do so.” She added wearily, “I do not think any of us will make the kind of match my father and mother hoped for.”
Again, Mr Darcy was silent for a long while, before he said in careful tones. “And if a respectable gentleman who did not have a large fortune but who could offer a comfortable home, together with a sincere regard and affection, were to offer, would your father accept him?”
“Perhaps.” Elizabeth gave an unhappy laugh “But I cannot imagine such a man exists who would make such an offer.”
“Can you not?” There was silence again, and then Mr Darcy said abruptly, “Good day to you, Miss Bennet,” and, with another bow, remounted his horse and rode away.
Elizabeth puzzled over his words as she walked home. Did he mean his friend, Mr Bingley? Certainly Mr Bingley had seemed much in love with Jane. And though his fortune was not the equal of Jane’s, Elizabeth rather thought from her little acquaintance with him that his temper might be. Such a match would give Jane respectability, perhaps even happiness. Yet it was not very likely, she thought, that Mr Bingley would give Jane another moment’s consideration again.
He quit the room before his wife had a chance to reply, but as the door closed, that lady exclaimed. “Mr Darcy! That dreadful man! Bringing ruin down on us all. We should never speak to him again, even if he is a neighbour and his uncle always kept the best coverts in the district.”
It vexed Elizabeth to hear her mother talk of Mr Darcy in such fashion, but she waited until Jane had left the room before she said. “Mama, it is hardly Mr Darcy’s fault that Mr Foster abused the ward of his friend. And it is surely to Mr Darcy’s credit that he stood by his friend, and that he brought us the news of Mr Foster’s disgrace before we should hear of it from anyone else.”
“Nonsense,” her mother exclaimed. “I hold him as much at fault as anyone in the case. And I think it very strange that you should defend him so, after he treated you so abominably at the Lucases’.” To that, Elizabeth could make no good reply.
The matter was not allowed to rest, however. Lord Bennet returned, not only to report a fine day’s shooting, but to inform his wife that he had invited both Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, who had come down from town for a few days, to dinner in two days' time. Lady Bennet threw up her hands and declared that she believed her husband took a great delight in tormenting her and her poor nerves, but she supposed cook could find some joint or other that would do.
Elizabeth awaited the dinner with much interest and was not disappointed when Bingley attached himself to Jane almost as soon as he entered the room and, seating himself next to her at dinner, talked to her in a lively but gentle manner about such unobjectionable subjects as her favourite walks thereabouts, whether she played or sang, and how she had liked Bath when they had visited the previous year. After dinner, he even persuaded her to take her place at the piano and accompany him in a song. Elizabeth was much pleased by the improvement in Jane’s appearance that resulted from these attentions, and by the evidence in Bingley’s manner of his continued attachment to her.
Darcy spoke only a little to Elizabeth, but much to her father about the further improvements he hoped to make to Netherfield — to the house as well as the land. This gave Elizabeth ample opportunity to note the many approving glances Darcy cast in the direction of Jane and Bingley during the course of the evening. He was, happily, seated far enough away from her mother that they had little occasion to speak.
Darcy and Bingley then called again the following morning. After sitting for ten minutes, Bingley proposed them all walking out, if the ladies were so minded. The weather was not the best and the three youngest excused themselves: Mary to practice the piano, Kitty to practice her drawing, and Lydia with the need to trim an old bonnet that she had pulled to pieces just that morning. Jane and Elizabeth, however, readied themselves for walking — Elizabeth was gratified to see how eager Jane was — and the party of four set off.
Bingley and Jane soon allowed Darcy and Elizabeth to outstrip them and, indeed, Darcy seemed determined that he and Elizabeth should set a brisk enough pace to do so. They walked in silence for a while before Elizabeth said, “I was most interested in your talk with Papa last night about the further improvements you plan.”
“Do you approve of them?”
Elizabeth smiled to herself. “I hardly think it is for me to approve or disapprove, Mr Darcy. You must manage your own estate as you see fit. But I will offer you my opinions, if you wish to hear them.”
“I do, Miss Bennet. And I would very much like it if your approval was necessary to their execution.”
His reply was so unexpected and said in a tone of such deep emotion that Elizabeth could only draw a conclusion that entirely astonished her. She had thought she had gained Mr Darcy’s good opinion in the months since they had first met, but she had never considered that he might have grown to admire her sufficiently to wish to marry her.
They walked on in silence for a while and then he said earnestly, “Miss Bennet, I am a gentleman, but I know that my fortune and standing is not the equal of yours. I cannot offer you a place that would match the one you have enjoyed until now. Yet I would offer you such comforts as Netherfield Park affords, as well as a heart that is wholly yours, if you will have them.”
Though she had been briefly forewarned by his earlier comment, Elizabeth could still not compose her thoughts enough to make her reply, now he had made his meaning plain. To marry a man who combined gentleman-like manners and an agreeable person with a respect for her opinions was more than she had ever dared hope for.
She was still struggling to answer when he spoke again. “Forgive me. I have spoken when I should not have done. A word from you and you will silence me on this subject for ever.”
His tone was now so dejected that Elizabeth forced herself to reply. “Mr Darcy, that is a word I would not give. I was only struck dumb because I had thought you were speaking of Mr Bingley and Jane when you asked me before if there was any hope of success.”
“And I was.” He stopped and took her hands between his, looking at her intently. “I hope that my friend is even now asking your sister the same question. And I hope that her answer will be the same as yours, if I may dare guess at it after what you have just said.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Mr Darcy, there is no need to guess. I should be delighted to become mistress of Netherfield Park and chief architect of its farm improvement plans.”
An expression of such happiness now spread itself over Mr Darcy’s face that Elizabeth had to look away.
They resumed their walk shortly after, proceeding in silence until they neared the turning that would take them back to Longbourn, at which point Mr Darcy said, “I must, of course, speak to your father. Will he be at home when we return?”
“He will, but I beg you, let Mr Bingley speak to him first, if my sister has consented to his proposal. I think my father would wish to see Jane settled — especially after all that has happened — before allowing any of his younger daughters to marry.”
To this, Mr Darcy assented. The conversation then turned to Elizabeth’s opinions on Mr Darcy’s proposals for the farm and continued thus until they reached the house.
“He is so entirely different from — from Mr Foster, that I cannot forgive myself for having entertained Mr Foster’s addresses as I did. Charles is kindness itself and, while he is generally very agreeable, it is not with that air of ingratiating himself that I can now see was so often a part of Mr Foster’s conversation. And he spoke very eloquently in his proposal about how he might not possess the fortune to which I should aspire, but we can have no doubt that he in truth possesses the fortune he claims. I do hope that Papa will not consider him unworthy of me on that account.”
Elizabeth rather thought that, after all that had happened, their father would have accepted Mr Bingley even if he came with considerably less fortune, but she did not say so. Instead, she congratulated her sister with a delight which words could but poorly express.
After a while, she turned the conversation to her own news. Though Jane was always willing to welcome any advantage or compliment to her sister, she was incredulous.
“You are joking, Lizzy! You have accepted him? But why? Now that I am to be married, that business with Mr Foster will surely be entirely forgot. You will not need to settle now for a man with less than five thousand a year.”
“This is a wretched beginning indeed!” Eliabeth returned. “I had hoped you, at least, would not be concerned with such considerations, as long as I did not choose a man with no fortune at all. Yet indeed, I am in earnest. If Mr Darcy had ten thousand a year, I could not accept him more gladly than I do with fifteen hundred. I cannot conceive of a man that I could like — nay, love — more, even if he did have ten thousand.”
“Yet if you returned to London—?”
“My dearest sister, I have already spent two years in London being courted by many men with larger fortunes and, as Mama has often lamented, discouraged all of them. Perhaps there is some young man out there who offers wealth as well as wit, and a respect for my wits, but I do not think it likely. I assure you, Mr Darcy suits me very well.”
At this protestation, Jane had to admit herself convinced of Elizabeth’s future happiness and offer her congratulations.
Elizabeth faced a like conversation with her father when, a day after Mr Bingley made and succeeded in his application to their father, Mr Darcy made his. Lord Bennet knew well enough, however, that Elizabeth could never be happy in an unequal marriage. Having assured himself that she understood the difference such a disparity in fortune would create, he gave his consent.
The astonishment and delight of Lady Bennet on learning within the span of two days that both Jane and Elizabeth were to be married respectably can be easily imagined. Indeed, the only objection she raised was to remark that it would have been better if Mr Darcy could have been persuaded to offer for Jane, so as to unite the Longbourn and Netherfield Park estates on the unhappy occasion of Lord Bennet’s eventual death, and for Mr Bingley to reserve himself to Elizabeth. Both Jane and Elizabeth were, however, quite firm in their expressions of satisfaction with their respective choices, and Elizabeth only occasionally wished after her marriage that she had been able to remove herself further from the vicinity of her mother.
Happy for all, then, was the day on which Lord and Lady Bennet got rid of their two most deserving daughters. Lady Bennet now felt quite equal to facing whatever residual gossip might still be circulating, and resumed her engagements in town. Kitty and Lydia were delighted to finally be out, and to be able to partake in all the pleasures of society previously denied to them. Mary no longer suffered the comparisons between her sisters’ beauty and accomplishments and her own. Lord Bennet, indeed, found he missed his both his daughters more than he expected, and was often to be found walking into the parlour at Netherfield Park to “consult” with his son-in-law on matters of farm management.
For Elizabeth, the comforts of Netherfield Park were quite sufficient, and she never felt the slightest pang of regret for the kind of the pin-money, jewels and carriages her mother had always considered a necessary part of any successful marriage. She would, after all, be eating breakfast for the next fifty years with someone with whom she could always hold a sensible conversation.