Darcy, from the moment of his ceasing to be a child, had felt oddly about his height. It was not that he disliked the advantages it gave him over his friends– he was pleased with any opportunity to prove his capability– but something about it grated. Swanning about a head above everyone else could not endear him to anyone. Even later, when he was assured in no uncertain terms that ladies found a tall man very pleasing, the strangeness remained.
At Oxford, enjoying the academic robes a little more than he felt a serious student ought, he fell in with Wickham again. They had been friends up through childhood, but there was something in Wickham now that he did not quite like. It was nothing he could object to with any seriousness, a peculiar choice of friends, time spent at clubs with a certain reputation; in any case it was not enough to keep Darcy from seeking out his company. When something unusual began to bother him, he looked to him for solace. With his solemn, shy disposition, he could not be a gadfly, and so clung to old acquaintances.
It was because of this that it was Wickham whom Darcy told. It was of course a great mistake, but that would not become evident until later. They had both had more to drink than was wise, and the conversation had turned to their own personal woes, as is common among the drunk. The trouble slipped out.
“How droll!” Wickham laughed. “Is something the matter with your mirror, then? What do you suppose you look like, Fitz, if not the noble young man I see before me?”
“You need not call me that,” Darcy protested. There was something so undignified about the name Fitzwilliam.
He attempted to change the subject. “You were saying, Wickham, about your finances–?”
“Never mind that! Here is a mystery– have another drink, and we shall puzzle it out together.”
“It is nothing.”
“But it is interesting.” Another glass of port was pushed Darcy-ward.
Wickham teazed him for the duration of the evening. The idea of an upstanding young man of the first water, head of one of England’s finest families, finding himself unable to recognize his own reflection was a source of great amusement to him. He grew positively witty on the subject. As a result Darcy’s mood grew blacker and blacker, for no reason it was possible to articulate. When it was no longer bearable, finding an excuse was the work of the moment.
The rooms at university were smaller than the heir to Pemberley was accustomed to. Undressed for bed, Darcy, wrapped in a large woolen blanket, skirted the wall to avoid the mirror.
He would not let it die after the one night, either. The subject was grinningly raised whenever he felt he had an opportunity of getting a laugh. When in town with Wickham and a party of his friends, an increasingly rare occasion for Darcy, they were among people who liked to laugh above anything else.
One of Wickham’s acquaintance had brought his fiancee along, a lady by the name of Miss Tattersall. She was a tall, handsome woman with dark hair and piercing eyes, and Darcy found it difficult to tear his eyes from her. It was not simply attraction. Having been blushingly in love with a girl or two before, that would have been an identifiable sensation. This too was familiar, but in an exceeding uncomfortable way. More than admiration– there was something in her high, smooth cheekbones and the graceful lines of her figure that–
“I suppose you have sorted out your mirror trouble by now?”
Darcy gave a heavy internal sigh. “Oh– certainly.” This was a lie, but it was better to keep the subject from being discussed.
“What are you talking of?” said the soon-to-be-married man, raising an eyebrow. Miss Tattersall leaned in, folding her delicate hands in her lap.
Wickham waved a hand. “Some time ago, Mr. Darcy suffered some deep crisis of the soul, and always saw a strange man whenever he happened to peer in a mirror. I am pleased to hear it has passed.”
“A strange man?” joked Mr. Green, a man with sandy whiskers and an obnoxious sense of humor. “Much better to see a strange woman!”
As the men laughed, and the women affected to be scandalized, Darcy gave a smile and an excuse to cover the feeling of missing a stair-step in the dark, gathered up hat and gloves, and made to leave the room. Miss Tattersall expressed her disappointment; she looked at Darcy with warmth as she said goodbye.
Out in the hall, Darcy leaned against the banister and let out a harsh breath.
Over the next year, the consuming awareness of women only grew, everywhere he encountered them. It could not be rationalized away as infatuation; it was something other. The way they held themselves; their light voices; the clothes they wore, with their clever trimmings, soft colors, and careful structure; the way in which the light caught their curls. Darcy was, very often, taller than they were, and disliked the sensation immensely.
The unnamed trouble began to coalesce, piece by piece. At a ball one evening, not dancing and observing the ladies as they flew down the line with their partners, an idle thought came to Darcy: perhaps a dance would not be so disagreeable if one was following instead of leading. This idea turned lazily about and joined hands with several others that had been hovering nearby. The last cornerstone fell into place.
“Mr. Darcy, are you quite well?” said a man nearby, and, as was becoming a habit, Darcy fled the room.
At the family townhouse, in the well-appointed master bedroom, Darcy looked out the window. There was no fire laid in the hearth, and the air was chill. There was nothing to do but slump, in some disarray, into a chair by the window-sash.
It was quite laughably obvious, looking back. The thing had been plaguing Darcy for years, perhaps a lifetime. It was an aspect of character, as clear as honor, or cheerfulness, or pride, and could not be altered. There was nothing to be done about it. No one could be told, and no part of Darcy’s life could be rearranged to suit. The future owner of Pemberley was widely known, had certain duties and obligations, could make no scandal. Personal feelings on the matter were irrelevant. And yet–
I wish I were a woman, Darcy thought, and, pulling a hand away from the eyes, was startled to find it wet.
Shortly afterward, the elder Mr. Darcy died, and there was no more time for idle regrets. It was one affair after another in quick succession: the funeral, the inheritance, Wickham and his claims on the money, relatives and their claims on the money, comforting Georgiana, finding her a tutor, and in the tumult the matter was forced to the side. Darcy worked diligently to keep it there. For some years, it was near being forgotten.
When the true depth of Wickham’s villainy became apparent, it was difficult not to give in to despair. Georgiana was disconsolate, her trust abused, her kindness taken advantage of, and her reputation having come nearer to ruin than she had ever imagined. She had been shy before; now she was reclusive, and unwilling to confide even in her sibling. Darcy’s last dealings with Wickham were unpleasant in the extreme. Their conversations induced a desire to scour one’s skin clean. But knowing the duty that was required, Darcy shouldered through, and then vowed to stay at home with Georgiana until she was somewhat recovered.
It seemed likely to take time. But Pemberley was large, and its grounds expansive; she could have her solitude, as indeed she must. It would do them both good, this quiet interlude.
The only unfortunate result was that Darcy now had time to think. This had earlier proven to be a dangerous endeavor. Pacing about the halls, rattling with agitation, haring off on long rides about the estate– they were all ominous signs of returning trouble. On some days, it arrived in all its old force, painful to bear. The only consolation was that it was a secret, and would remain so.
Darcy had not counted upon Georgiana. After a month and a half of this, she came into the library, twisting her hands in her gown, and said in a rush,
“Please tell me– what is the matter?”
“I do not know what you mean,” Darcy said, somewhat stiffly.
“You are so low– you do not speak to me– you spend days in your study– I worry. I worry most of all, though it is selfish, that it is something I have done– I know I have done enough already to incur your displeasure, but if anything else–”
“Georgiana, Georgiana, no,” said Darcy, already going to her, “nothing of the kind– you must not think it.”
“I only wish you would be open with me,” she said in a small voice. “I hate to see you hurt.”
Darcy paused. It would be the easiest thing in the world to blame any dispiritedness on a cold; Georgiana was a trusting girl, and would believe it. But she had been lied to enough already. Perhaps some of the truth– merely enough to sooth any fear, without raising more alarm–
Darcy took a breath, and began to form an edited sentence. “It is only–” The tense misery in Georgiana’s hunched shoulders registered. Then it all rushed out.
The explanation was stumbling and uncertain, prolonged by the weight of pride pressing down upon Darcy’s shoulders. Yet it rushed on, inexorable as the boulder rolling back down the hill. The words nearly spoke themselves.
At last, red-faced, at once glad to be sitting down, Darcy halted and waited for a response. It was tempting to tell her to forget about it; that the subject was not worth mentioning. The tilt of Georgiana’s head, however, suggested that she was not likely to see it so.
“You… want to be a woman?” There was no censure in her words. She spoke like an architect considering a plan for a complicated second floor.
“I– yes. No. I suppose I do. Georgiana, it is really no object–”
“But it is. I cannot say I understand it– already being a woman– but I cannot see you so unhappy. You are my only family now. If being a woman would make you right with yourself, then you shall be one.”
Darcy had not seen this measure of determination in her before. She was still quiet, was always quiet now, but the halt in her speech was gone.
“I’ve several yards of sprigged muslin that I have found no use for,” she said. “I need no new gowns– but if you might like the idea– that is, I would be very happy to–”
She was so young; she wanted so badly to do right. It was proper to decline, of course, but the idea made Darcy’s chest ache.
“I– I should like that very much,” she said.
Georgiana must have seen something change in her expression, for she rushed forward with startled speed and embraced her.
Darcy had never had the opportunity to sew, but she was startled with the speed at which Georgiana finished the gown. She had taken her measurements with a clever new tool called a tape-measure, bought from London, and began at once to sketch, note and redraw with admirable fervor. Darcy more than once caught her sister looking at with the considering eye of an artist. There seemed always to be sleeves or skirt panels hanging about the parlor.
When it was presented to her, Darcy, wrapped in a blue paisley shawl, stopped in her tracks. The day dress was simply made, which she approved of, with a round skirt and fashionable high waist. Tiny flowers were printed upon the fabric in blue and green.
Georgiana opened her mouth to inquire, and Darcy said, “Yes, I will.”
Dressing was an awkward, unfamiliar affair. Georgiana helped her, assuring her that a woman often had the help of a maid, and it was no wonder she had difficulty with the underthings. Stockings, shift and stays were assumed; Georgiana did up the gown in the back, which Darcy was glad of. Her hands were shaking too much to be any use.
At the last, Georgiana arranged Darcy’s shawl around her shoulders before producing a small gold necklace. The pendant was made in the shape of a swift, feathers delicately traced in the metal. Darcy’s breath caught.
“You ought not to,” she said.
“I never wear it. And– Mama would have wanted you to have it, I am sure.”
Darcy was highly doubtful of this, but she did not contest the thought. She allowed her to put the chain round her neck and fasten the clasp. It settled between her collarbones.
Georgiana took her hand and led her to the mirror. She avoided it, at first; it had become a habit to dodge the looking-glass every morning. Now, dredging up her stubbornness, she raised her head.
She looked– she looked well. Afternoon sun illuminated her bedchamber and touched the lines of her face, casting her shadow on the floor. The greater part of her had feared the worst, but the gown fit her well, and the stays, loosely laced, gave the slightest shape to her figure. Her hair was still cut in a man’s crop, but aside from that, aside from it all, it looked natural. It felt more natural even than she had expected. A knot loosened between her lungs that she had not realized had ever been tied.
Darcy had never been eloquent; she could not say to Georgiana all that she meant. Instead she reached over and embraced her, trying to communicate silently what she could never express aloud.
More and more, she spent her time at Pemberley dressed as she wanted. At first she had been wary of the servants, but to her great shock, they made little stir about it. When she dared to question the housekeeper, the only response she received was that half the parish owed their livelihoods to the Darcy family; that if the head of house, who had always been a fair and kind employer, chose to be a little eccentric, that was nobody’s business; and besides, the servants were paid too well to gossip. She had the impression that the housekeeper had rather bullied her underlings into silence, but it was a relief to believe that the given reasons might be at least partially true.
It took some little while to get accustomed to skirts, but she found that the soft, light fabrics were easier to bear than the rough, heavy clothes a man was expected to wear. One by one she accumulated new things: proper shoes, new gowns in white and indigo and fawn calico, a spencer jacket, a plain straw bonnet. It was a warm, secret feeling, hoarding them as a dragon hoards gold. She had never been vain, and did not believe she was so now, but the idea of taking pleasure in her appearance was so new that it was difficult to resist indulging it. Amidst carrying out her duties, she taught herself to sew: a surprisingly mathematical undertaking. She began to let her hair grow.
But as Georgiana began to recover, Darcy was more and more in society, where of course everything must go back as it was before. Being required to live as a man was even more intolerable now that she had known the alternative. Every time she was in London, putting on her top-hat to make yet another morning call, she had the helpless sensation of sliding back down a steep hill, gravel skidding beneath her feet. Still, she gritted her teeth and bore it.
It was on one of these visits to town that she met Charles Bingley. They were introduced in St. James’ Park by a mutual acquaintance, and Darcy took to him in the way that only quiet, solemn people can take to exuberant social animals. He was shorter than her, gingery and smiling, and swung his silver-topped cane with vigor as he strode along.
“Darcy!” he exclaimed. “Of course I have heard of you, sir; I believe I once passed by your estate when traveling with my sisters. I hear Derbyshire is good country?”
Darcy acknowledged that it was.
“I confess I have a great desire to buy a house in the country. My family are not of high rank– you might call me a self-made man, ha-ha– but we are looking to establish ourselves.”
This metamorphosed into a lengthy conversation about land management– forestry was one of Darcy’s particular interests– and ended with a promise that she would call on him the next day, so they might talk longer. He wanted her advice. The acquaintance grew fast from there, and when she was in London again a sixmonth later, they were often in company.
One evening, as they sat drinking port in the window of Bingley’s townhouse, the man motioned with his glass and said,
“You said once you belonged to the ––– Club; think you I would be a good fit? I am always looking for new society.”
She had not been in the door of any gentleman’s club for upwards of two years, but this was for reasons she did not care to explain to him. Instead she said she would be glad to recommend him, if he chose.
“Excellent! I must have my chance to be out and about, you know, before I am married.”
As he spoke the word married, his smile slipped somewhat. This was odd; all the evidence indicated that Bingley was enthusiastic about pretty women.
“I daresay a wife would like me to spend more time at home. I ought to be an exasperating husband, I think, always dashing about. Have to find someone to put up with my particular oddities. But musn’t we all?”
He gave her a curious, searching look that did not sit naturally on his face. But he recovered himself, and started off on a bit of a ramble about how ladies must have the patience of Job to be able to sit and sew for hours.
“No, you must understand,” objected Darcy, forgetting herself, “it is actually quite interesting–” and the conversation lasted till midnight.
It seemed strange at first that they should become close so quickly. She was usually wary to make friends, especially with sporting men, who, if she might now be honest, held little to no interest for her. But he had an engaging manner and a kind heart, if he was not the keenest scholar. They might have their outward differences, but they conversed easily. She met his sisters, sparkling society women. They invited her to dine with increasing frequency; Bingley sometimes forgot that they had done so, but was always delighted when reminded. It pained her a little that she could be completely honest with no one; if she had the option, it was Bingley whom she would choose.
The mistake she made was to forget her great-coat on the back of his sopha. She had been lost in thought, and did not miss the article until he stopped at her rooms the next morning to bring it to her.
“You left this with me the evening last,” he said, and was in the midst of flinging it at her in a casual manner when something flew out of an inner pocket and struck the wall with a glitter.
Darcy realized, and moved for it– but Bingley was faster. He stooped and picked the object up by its chain, and began to hand it to her. Then he paused.
She cringed inwardly. She could trace his eyes examining the swift, marking the exposed lining of the coat now in her hand; the only pocket inside it was placed on the left breast, over the heart.
“I’d offer to deliver this to a sweetheart for you,” he said, “but for the fact that Darcy is engraved on the back of the pendant.”
“Family heirloom,” she managed weakly.
He stopped to collect his thoughts, as she had seen him do before when his mind had run ahead of him.
“I should hate to sound a busybody, but– Darcy, are you by any chance more of the feminine persuasion than you let on?”
She tried to look incredulous, and found she could not. Her mouth worked; she felt at once the urge to hold up her great-coat like a shield. In the end, all she could manage was,
He put a hand to the back of his neck. “It is quite alright, you must know. Still, if I have misjudged, I apologize.”
Her throat was dry. “No need. You– you are not incorrect.”
Bingley’s smile returned directly. “How famous! I thought I might be. You look a little unsteady; do you care for a drink?”
Supporting herself on the feeling of unreality pervading the scene, she followed him into her own drawing room and watched him pour Madeira from the decanter.
“How did you know?” she asked.
He waved a hand. “Oh, this–” he returned the necklace– “was only the straw that fit around the camel’s neck, or whatever the saying might be. But you flinch when I call you sir, and my sister Caroline is very taken with you; I never knew her to be seriously interested in anyone who was not a woman. Besides, like recognizes like.”
“Surely you cannot be as I am.” She had never met anyone who appeared to enjoy being a man as much as Bingley did.
“Not quite the same, but it must be much of a muchness. I was not christened Charles, you know.”
To her answering silence, he said, “I am thinking of taking a place out in Hertfordshire– should you like to come and stay?”
The people who lived in the vicinity of Netherfield were intrinsically disappointing. Their dress was dowdy, their manners rough, and their dancing bad. Darcy had said as much to Bingley upon their entering the ballroom, and he thankfully had not forced her to meet the room, but then he strode off with his usual good to cheer to converse with every provincial who passed him by. She resigned herself to stand beside his eldest sister. Darcy did not like Miss Bingley overmuch, and knew she had designs upon her virtue, but she had at least the advantage of good taste.
She scanned the room wearily. There was the local beauty whom Bingley had been so taken with– there, Sir William Lucas, drinking more than he ought– and there in the corner, a young lady talking with her friend.
The woman had dark curls and bright, lively eyes, and gestured as she spoke in a manner that drew attention to her small, neat hands. She was not much decorated, but there was something in her arch, mischievous smile that was nevertheless captivating.
Darcy shook herself. She was well aware of her particular situation by now; there was no cause to go about wishing she had the looks of every moderately pretty girl she saw. Willing the flush out of her face, she turned to Miss Bingley and encouraged her to go on about London fashions.
When Bingley later pointed out Miss Elizabeth Bennet and pressed her to dance with at least one lovely girl, she was so startled that she said something she was later afraid had been slightly rude.
Miss Elizabeth proved difficult to avoid. At a gathering at Sir William Lucas’ house, she drew large numbers of the party into a game of charades, and led them in circles trying to guess her riddles. Darcy stood at the side of the room and observed the chaos.
“It is a storm, Lizzy, is it not?” ventured the elder Miss Bennet.
She laughed. “A storm? No, no! Come, Jane, you must apply yourself a little more than that. Fair of face but firm in wrath/ I wild lash the beaten path/ And men denounce me but they know/ I write but truth they fear to show. It is not so very hard, if one has a little wit. Gentlemen, what say you?”
“Wilberforce, perhaps?” put in Sir William.
“Who ever described William Wilberforce as fair of face?” Mr. Bennet queried from behind his newspaper.
“It must naturally be a woman , then,” said Bingley, smiling at Miss Bennet.
Miss Elizabeth rewarded him with a laugh. “Nearer and nearer the mark! Charlotte, you are looking at me; you have guessed it, I know.”
“You assume a great deal,” countered Miss Lucas, “especially as you insist on making charades that no one understands but you. But I suppose it is Mrs. Edgeworth.”
“A worthy attempt, but no. I had such high expectations!” She pushed a curl behind her ear. “Very well– I will force-march one more person into answering my riddle. Mr. Darcy, your answer?”
She had not supposed that Miss Elizabeth had noticed her. But there she was, looking up from her position holding forth in the midst of the company, meeting her eyes with a challenging glitter.
“Mary Wollstonecraft,” she said. Her voice sounded halting to her own ears.
Miss Elizabeth paused. For a frightening moment Darcy thought she had guessed aright, but then the girl threw her hands in the air in mock-frustration.
“You are a philosopher like myself, sir; but you confine yourself to the English. It was poor Olympe de Gouges of whom I thought. A murdered Frenchwoman– think you I am a radical?”
“No; perhaps unconventional. But there have always been more unconventional women than is generally thought allowable.”
“I begin to suspect it is you who is the Jacobin! But now that I have outwitted everyone by being incomprehensibly bad at charades, I beg you will play something, Charlotte. You have a very nice pianoforte.”
The party rearranged itself for music, and Darcy placed sat herself down on the far sofa so as not to tower. She made an effort not to fiddle with her hair; it was long enough now that she wore it in public in an old-fashioned gentleman’s queue, dark and unpowdered. This, along with keeping fastidiously clean-faced when it was the accepted style for men to have side-whiskers, were measures of comfort when she could not be properly dressed.
She watched Miss Elizabeth laughingly refuse to sing, tossing jibes back and forth with Miss Lucas, and smiled without noticing she did so.
Darcy began to suspect some design on the part of the Bennets when Miss Bennet arrived in the midst of a thunderstorm, drenched and shivering, and nearly slid off her horse into Mr. Bingley’s arms. He, of course, was all solicitude, supporting her indoors and calling for dry clothes– but surely their family could afford to keep a carriage. She thought Miss Bennet honestly embarrassed to be in such a position, but that said nothing for her parents.
It was a small, guilty mercy that at least she was ill enough to be confined to her room. At Bingley’s urging, Darcy had come to regard Netherfield as almost as safe a place as Pemberley, and conducted herself accordingly. After some initial hesitancy, Miss Bingley had assured her it was quite alright– Mr. Bingley had been a man since before he had entered primary school, after all, and the family had no qualms about anything like. Darcy could do as she pleased.
So it was that one day, Miss Bennet securely upstairs, she sat with Bingley and his sisters in the indigo gown Georgiana had embroidered with ferns and daisies along the borders, as the conversation turned to women.
“I have never seen any girl as exceptionally pretty as Jane Bennet,” Mr. Bingley declared.
“You say that of every woman you meet, Charles,” said Mrs. Hurst. Her husband was sleeping in another room.
“But this time I am being truthful,” he objected, and turned to his eldest sister. “Is she not lovely?”
“She is a little too fair for me,” said Miss Bingley. “I have always preferred a dark-haired woman.” As she said this she cast a portentous look at Darcy.
“Her next sister is very fine,” Darcy offered.
“Miss Eliza? But she is so unrefined! At first I almost did not think her a gentleman’s daughter; you can hardly be serious.”
“She is lively and clever; she has fine eyes.” Miss Elizabeth deserved at least to be defended against Miss Bingley.
“Why, I had no notion you were cut after Caroline’s fashion, Darcy,” Bingley cut in.
Her face heated; she mumbled something, she knew not what. His sister made a disdainful noise.
“Oh, there are servant girls with fine eyes. You cannot really be taken with her?”
“Of course not,” said Darcy, wondering why the words tasted odd in her mouth.
A footman came into the room and announced, “Miss Elizabeth Bennet for her sister, Miss Jane Bennet.”
All eyes turned to Darcy. She leapt from her place on the sopha, clutching self-consciously at her skirts. They swirled about her feet, beautiful, graceful, and damning.
“Perhaps– the library–” Bingley said.
The door opened a little further; a flash of white skirt fluttered into view. Darcy fixed her eyes on the side door to the library and made her escape.
She left for her rooms at high speed. It would be rude not to make her appearance, but she felt it would be unwise to do so at the expense of her own social ruin. With the door shut safe behind her, she fumbled with the buttons at the back of her gown and removed her slippers. There was no time to undo her stays; they would be left. Instead she drew on trousers and coat, then flung a shawl– a somewhat bold Turkey red– about herself to remedy the fact that she wore no waistcoat or neckcloth, and had on a woman’s shift rather than a man’s shirt.
About to reenter the hall, she put one nervous hand to her hair and froze. It was arranged in a rather elegant rosette at the back of her head. There was no time to braid it into a queue; in an act of uncharacteristic haste, she took out the pins and let it fall loose down her back.
“Mr. Darcy,” said Miss Elizabeth as she entered the room, and gave her that same defiant smile. “What a pleasure, sir.”
With a pang, she pulled her shawl tighter about herself and made her bow. When she looked up, she felt Miss Elizabeth’s gaze on her with a light yet physical touch, like breath against her ear.
This would have to be stopt, and swiftly.
Of course, it could not be. Despite her best efforts, she found herself watching her at cards, trying time and again to match her quick, sparkling wit, fighting down her own discomfort to ask her for a dance. In vain she argued with herself that the family was abhorrent, the social position indifferent, the girl herself impertinent– in short everything unsuitable– for deep down she knew that she too was unsuitable. She had never before been inclined to the idea of marriage, but now she wished– and yet she did not. The idea of it, putting on her best black suit and presenting her offer by rote, being accepted as something she was not, made her feel cold.
She had never known Bingley to be anything but blithely confident, but when she brought her concerns regarding Miss Bennet to him, the stricken look on his face suggested that such thoughts were not alien to him. It must be a different fear, but she recognized the tenor of his voice when he protested her arguments. She sickened at the thought that she might be using such anxieties against him, and consoled herself that she was at any rate preventing the danger of his falling into a loveless marriage. He resisted the idea of leaving Netherfield for longer than she expected; at last, though, he saw sense.
If there was any place Darcy had not expected to encounter Miss Elizabeth, it was Rosings Park. Her aunt had issued the dictatorial summons, and like a good subject, she had come, expecting a month or so of being spoken at and shoved toward her cousin Miss de Bourgh. It was therefore a shock to find Elizabeth Bennet sitting in Aunt Catherine’s drawing room, exchanging pointed looks with the parson’s wife.
She was strongly tempted to make an about-face and leave the room. That, however, would be unpardonable, and she instead did her duty, drawing her attention back to her aunt whenever she found it pulled elsewhere.
Miss Elizabeth looked well– more than well. She was in finer dress than Darcy was accustomed to seeing her, and it suited her. She was constrained around Lady Catherine, but took well to Darcy’s favorite cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and they joked comfortably with one another. The colonel would call Darcy over to join their conversation; he was always easy, but there was an odd tension with Miss Elizabeth that she was not sure how to name. She would counter whatever Darcy said, now with a smile, now with a frown, tilting her head sometimes as though she was not sure what to make of her. At times it could almost make her hope– at others she floundered, caught on an unlooked-for turn of phrase.
One day, quite unprovoked, Miss Elizabeth turned to her and said, “What is your opinion of women?”
This was precarious ground. “I am not sure what you mean.”
“You seem to have a very severe opinion of the sex in general. Is it pretense, or do you really think no lady is accomplished unless she be both Venus and Diana incarnate?”
“You are certainly accomplished– though you pretended not to be. You are a classicist.”
“Nothing of the kind! My father simply owns an unreasonable number of books, and I am a thief. But you are dodging the question.”
Darcy tugged at her collar. “I have a generally good opinion of women. They are, I think– in the main– cleverer than men.”
“This is strong stuff!” she exclaimed, resting her chin upon her hand. “Quick, you must mention our beauty and delicacy, so as not to offend any readers of Fordyce.”
“Then I do so. But I must say I have observed a certain tendency in some women– not all, and not excessively– but a tendency to behave insincerely. To pretend friendship, and call one another by their Christian names when in truth they despise each other. I cannot abide any kind of deception. That sort of behavior is repugnant to me.”
She threw back her head in pretend horror. “In that case, I will be very careful never to call any woman by her Christian name within your hearing! I should not like to be thought a deceiver.”
“I did not mean–” Darcy protested, but she was laughing, one hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. She had a dusting of small freckles on the bridge of her nose, barely visible except up close.
Darcy realized with some helplessness that she had no Christian name– but if she had, she would wish Miss Elizabeth to call her by it.
She was walking by herself through the park a few days hence when she happened to pass by the parsonage, and saw Miss Elizabeth sitting with Miss Lucas– now Mrs. Collins– in the garden. She raised; she saw the two ladies exchange a few hurried words before Mrs. Collins pushed her friend toward the garden gate.
“Good day,” said Miss Elizabeth, hastily putting on her gloves. “I see you are out walking; my friend wants to know if you will come in and take some refreshment.”
“I thank you, no.” As she looked into the garden her interest got the better of her. “Is that tree a cedar, in the far corner?”
“You ought to ask Mr. Collins; he is the gardener, I believe.”
“Oh. I see.”
Behind them, Mrs. Collins was gathering up her basket and shears and returning to the house.
“You may come in, if you would like to see it closer,” said Miss Elizabeth.
She did so, wincing as the garden gate screamed. The tree was indeed a cedar; the sharp warm smell of the bark was discernible even from several feet away. That was good timber; it would last without rotting, and keep off termites.
Turning around to make mention of this, she halted in her tracks. It was a brisk, bright day, one of those in which the transition from warm sunlight to chill shade was striking and abrupt. Miss Elizabeth stood just outside the shade of the row of trees; a column of sun fell on her, shining in her dark hair and bringing out the delicate whitework of her gown. She was looking at Darcy, eyes narrowed slightly against the light.
Recalling that moment on later occasions, it was clear to Darcy that she lost her head somewhat. Everything could be explained later, or not at all– she must speak now. She dredged up her courage from the deep cave it was attempting to slink into, squared her shoulders in a fashion she was no longer used to, and folded her hands behind her back.
“Miss Elizabeth,” she said, “I cannot be silent any longer.”
It went more poorly even than she had expected.
Fleeing the scene in disgrace, she had an improper, wild urge to laugh. Most people considered by the world at large to be gentlemen had their proposals either accepted or rejected; she had been roundly disparaged, had her personal integrity called into question, been all but called a scoundrel, and then rejected. The worst of it was that the offense was not unwarranted. Her proposal had been little better.
In her rooms at Rosings she paced for half an hour with righteous indignation, conjuring up defenses like a lawyer, before sinking down over her desk. Her eye fell on the pen and ink beside her elbow.
She explained the matter of Bingley and Miss Bennet, and gave herself no quarter; she explained what Wickham had done, though it gave her pain. Then she turned to the last consideration. Without conscious thought, one hand went to the pocket where she kept her necklace. She hardly knew how to begin, but it must be addressed– for her own sake, it must.
I know, madam, that lately I have been crying up honesty as a virtue– but I fear I have not been honest with you. This is an accusation you did not, could not, lay at my feet, and yet it is a truth you had better be possessed of than not if this account is to be complete. You said to me that I was the last man you could ever be prevailed upon to marry. I do not seek to change your sentiments, nor take offense at the statement– but it is, in one respect, inaccurate.
She explained it as best she knew how. When at last she blew the blotting sand off the letter, the last section was in a shakier hand than the rest, and, she feared, more confused, but hopefully intelligible in the end. She signed it simply F. Darcy.
It was easy enough to get the letter into Miss Elizabeth’s hands. The next day, she made her excuses to her family and left the county.
Pemberley, as always, was home. Georgiana was delighted to see her, and she was delighted to be herself again. She did not tell her sister what had happened at Rosings, but she did speak of Miss Elizabeth to her; that she could hardly help. It was a surprise to see Georgiana blush when she asked if the Miss Bennets were very pretty– but then she had not always done her utmost to learn Georgiana’s preferences. It might be wise to do so now. She could learn from her failure. It shamed her now to think that she had never really supposed her offer would be refused; she was not as she had thought herself, but given time, she could improve.
When she was alone, she allowed herself the indulgence of occasional tears. She would resolve herself to this– she was determined– but it stubbornly refused to be done all at once. Her mind returned to the scene again and again, picking at a wound; it turned next to the letter. Had it been read? What had been the expression of the reader as she came to the closing line? Had she burnt it or kept it?
To avoid further speculation on the matter, she threw herself into management of the estate. Immersed in planting, land disputes, and learning to chain-stitch, she had no time for anything else. She was home; she would not now leave it without reason.
Miss Elizabeth, on the other hand, was clearly possessed of a taste for adventure. She was walking the grounds of Pemberley close to the house, considering a new book she wanted for her library, when she heard the unmistakable sounds of a small party approaching from the road.
A small carriage came up the way and halted before her. Three people stepped out: a man and a woman who were strangers to her, and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
She thought wildly of pretending she was on her way out, or diving into the lake for cover– but Miss Elizabeth had seen her. Raising a hand, and then lowering it, she paused mid-step. Her ears were pink. Darcy felt sure that her own were as well. She put a protective hand over the swift on her necklace, as though it was cover enough for all of her.
Miss Elizabeth took three precise steps forward. “You must be Miss Darcy,” she said. “Let me introduce my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner to you.”
Darcy insisted on leading them over the grounds herself. She could not look at Miss Elizabeth directly, but she could at least make herself agreeable to her relations. She thought she had heard from Miss Bingley that the Gardiners were in trade. Nevertheless, she found them good company: sensible, well-mannered, and little like the Bennets. They professed interest in everything she mentioned, and let her go on for a few minutes about the farming she– or rather her brother– planned to implement. Every so often she glanced at their companion, but she was silent.
At the door to the house, the Gardiners expressed a desire to see a statue she had mentioned, and she handed them off to the housekeeper. Then she turned to Miss Elizabeth. She saw her eyes widen fractionally.
“I hope, ma’am,” she said, speaking over the hammer of her heart, “that you will allow my sister the pleasure of meeting you.”
When the party left, she was obliged to sit down out of actual weakness.
“She called me Miss Georgiana,” Georgiana mused from her place at the pianoforte. “I suppose you ought to be Miss Darcy, now that I think of it.”
Over the following days she thought of visiting them, but dismissed the impulse. It would be unkind to impose herself. When she received a letter in Miss Elizabeth’s hand, therefore, it was a startlement. When she had done reading it, she put her head in her hands.
She told Georgiana, though her first instinct was to protect her. If Wickham had preyed upon another young girl, she deserved to know. Her eyes filled, and her breath came unevenly, but she stood upright as Darcy detailed her plan.
“You must go,” she said. “No– I will be well. Go at once.”
She left for London the next morning. Finding Mr. Gardiner was a simple enough task; a well-respected merchant could be tracked down without difficulty if one only spoke to people a little out of Darcy’s usual circles. Almost as soon as she knocked upon his door, it swung open.
“Miss– no, you must be her brother. My apologies. You look very similar.” He laughed, but quietly; she could see the circles under his eyes.
“I have come to offer my assistance,” she said.
The search was difficult. Everywhere were dead ends and closed doors, but at last they found an innkeeper who was willing to point them to the right room.
Wickham was just as she remembered him: the same plausible, charming man with the same seemingly open and confiding manner. If there was any difference, it was that he was a little frayed at the edges. The elbows of his red coat were worn thin; he appeared not to have shaved in the past few days. When she entered his apartments, he beat a hasty path toward the window.
She stepped in front of him. When they had still been friends, she had disliked being taller than him; now, at least, it was to her advantage. Doing her best to loom, she drove him away from his point of escape.
“I see you have grown your hair, Darcy,” he smiled as he backed away. “It is charmingly quaint; you look quite like your grandfather.”
“You must listen to me, sir,” she said quietly. “There is one choice open to you; I have come to explain it.”
He wanted money, naturally. As luck would have it, she was possessed of this article, and willing to part with it in order never to speak to him again. He married Miss Lydia with Darcy and Mr. Gardiner staring him down from the front pew to prevent his running away. She left directly the service was over. Miss Elizabeth was safe; no scandal would touch her now.
It was a month later that a letter from Bingley came to Pemberley: friendly, apologetic, saying that he knew her scruples on the matter but he had decided to return to Netherfield, and if she still liked to come, he would be pleased to have her.
Hertfordshire company had not changed– but perhaps her tolerance for it had increased. Though it was tiring, she did her utmost to render herself pleasant. No haughtiness could be permitted, intended or not. It was only the more reproach to observe people’s surprise when she inquired after their health, or made some effort at conversation. On entering any room, she cast her eyes about for– something. She expected nothing, but she had not yet learnt to stop wanting.
“Do you really think there is no hope?” Bingley asked her as they took tea in the library. “Regarding Miss Bennet, I mean. I know people like us must be cautious– and you are perhaps the wiser judge, not being involved–”
“Bingley,” she said, “I– I think you must try.”
He stopped jostling his leg and sat upright. “What do you mean to say?”
“You ought to do what will give you the best chance of happiness. You love Miss Bennet. I think– I have recently been led to believe– that she feels more for you than I had thought before. She is a sweet young woman. If you trust her, then if you only explain it to her, she may be more understanding than you fear.”
“That is not what you told me last time.”
“– I know. And I am sorry for it. Go to her.”
He nodded, and leant across the table to squeeze her hand. After half a minute he leapt up and strode out the door.
It was with a glad heart that she learned Mr. Charles Bingley had made his suit to Miss Jane Bennet, and been accepted. Any doubt she had vanished when he came to tell her himself, bounding across the threshold and throwing his hat into a corner.
“She said yes! Darcy, you were right– I laid it all on the table, said it plain soldier, and still she said yes! I dared not hope– I thought sometimes I would never be married, you know– but she loves me.”
She congratulated him as warmly as she knew how; then she turned away.
That night in her bedchamber, she watched the embers die in the hearth, warm gold crumbling to gray ash. She squeezed her eyes shut until her head ached.
Over breakfast she was handed a letter by Miss Bingley.
“It is from Miss Eliza,” she said. “At first I thought she might have something of import to say to me, but she writes only to ask if she might come and speak with you. What stratagems we women are reduced to!”
“Indeed,” said Darcy, clasping her hands under the table to force them still.
“What may I say to her?”
“–Tell her yes. That I would be pleased.”
It was a long day. She walked up and down the halls, stared out from the windows across the green expanse of fields, tried and failed to occupy herself with books and cards. Sitting down to write a letter to Georgiana, she found the words would not come. The faint ticking of a clock was constantly audible from somewhere in the depths of the house.
Folding herself into a window seat, she ran a finger along the hem of her gown. It was fashionably white, trimmed with deep blue ribbon; the lace on the shift was barely visible at her feet and neckline. She had thought it elegant, but perhaps it was not enough– or perhaps any more ornament would make her seem pretentious. Her hand crept, as it habitually did, to her necklace.
A flicker of movement drew her eye. She turned; outside, a figure in a green spencer could be seen crossing the fields on foot. The trees were tossing in a high wind, and the walker had one hand to her bonnet to keep it in place.
Darcy entertained for a fleeting second the possibility of escape. She could have a horse saddled and go out riding; Miss Elizabeth would arrive, and finding her not at home, would be hurt and offended and never think of her again. A clean, final break, and she could return to her duties at home without having to fear the prospect of uncertainty, of other possibilities.
She drew a breath. Then she descended the stairs into the main hall, just in time to see Miss Elizabeth entering by the front door.
Their eyes met. The roof of her mouth was painfully dry. Swallowing and finding she could not, she relied on years of learned etiquette to carry her forward.
“Miss Elizabeth,” she said, “so you are here.”
As the words left her mouth she cringed, but Miss Elizabeth’s lips quirked minutely. She put a hand out. After a moment, Darcy took it.
“So I am,” she said in a soft voice. “I– where may we speak?”
Darcy would have suggested a parlor, but there was nowhere in the house that she felt was utterly safe from the Bingley sisters. Instead, she led her through the halls and outside to a sloping green behind Netherfield. There was a large oak that no one had seen fit to fell, dropping its turning leaves onto the turf. It looked out on the gentle hills and sporadic houses as they went blue with distance.
“What an atmospheric view; I daresay you must all turn into artists, residing here.” Miss Elizabeth spoke with a flash of her old humor, but her face was solemn. “How obliging of you to bring me to such a quiet spot.”
She hoped that was not anxiety in her voice. “Before you speak– I have no wish to make you uneasy. If you would prefer to be within the house, where the others are– whatever would make you comfortable, shall be done. I have imposed enough upon you that you did not want, without regard to your feelings. You have already been kinder to me than I deserve.”
“But it was that which I wanted to speak with you about.”
She glanced at Miss Elizabeth. Her eyes were on the low-hanging bough of the oak tree by her side; there was a tinge of color in her cheeks. Darcy did not dare to make a sound.
“In April I refused you for a myriad of reasons; some of them, in my hubris, I still think were justified, and some of them I know now to have been unfounded. Your letter went some way toward changing my thinking. It was honest– I thank you for that. But the things you have done for my family– do not deny it, I have heard from my aunt– the things I have seen of you, have convinced me of your true character. You know I like to pretend to wit; I form my impressions of people as I like. But I sketched your character from a wrong angle, and I am sorry for it.”
Darcy opened her mouth to object– she had been much the haughty, arrogant woman Miss Elizabeth had wrote her off as, before she had been slapped into sense– but she had no opportunity to speak.
“I thought I hated you before you proposed, and I certainly thought I hated you afterward,” continued Miss Elizabeth. “But on examining myself recently– on looking at my conduct, my opinion of you, along with what I had learned to be true– I must confess my feelings have taken on quite a different color.”
There was an evident blush in her face now. Darcy had the curious sensation of being torn in half, like a sheet of foolscap deliberately ripped down the center. Several months ago she would have rather heard this than anything else in the world; now, though it hurt, she shook her head.
“Please, ma’am– I wish I could accept this, indeed it is all I want, but– I have tried once before to propose my suit as a man. You saw for yourself how it ended. You say my letter helped you in understanding the truth of me– then you must understand this. I am afraid you would never be happy with me. I can be no one’s husband.”
Miss Elizabeth, incomprehensibly, laughed. She took Darcy’s hands in her own.
“I think it is you who have misunderstood me! I took a frightful long time to say what I meant, so I do not blame you. Let me try again.”
She took a deliberate step forward, tilting her chin up to meet her gaze.
“Miss Darcy,” she said, “will you marry me?”
Darcy discovered that she very foolishly was crying. She wiped at her eyes; realized she had let go of Miss Elizabeth’s hands, so took them back; smiled a watery smile, and nodded.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
Between themselves it was settled; to everyone else it took more explaining. The Bingleys were variously delighted for her, jealous, and curious; the Bennets were to a man (or woman) astonished; the whole neighborhood wanted more exact details. Darcy went about dressed as a man for the essential details of getting Mr. Bennet’s blessing and procuring a license. The rest of her time up until the wedding she spent as herself, with the woman she was to marry.
“Elizabeth,” she said, appreciating the sound of the name, “I must– I hate to ask it, but how did you know? How do you?”
Elizabeth considered this, laying down her needle. “I have admired pretty women before I met you; the feeling is not unfamiliar.”
“Oh,” replied Darcy, feeling ridiculous and at the same time immeasurably relieved.
“It took me such a long while, I think, because it was not the sort of draw I was expecting with you. With men I can usually flirt and joke very genially; with women I feel some sort of need to spark off a battle of wits every time we meet. This habit has more than once made female friends whom I would have liked to kiss very put out with me. I did not know at the time you were a woman– I thought I merely hated you. Once you sent me that letter it made things embarrassingly clear.”
“Ah,” said Darcy.
“Yes– I quite agree.”
They sewed together in silence for a while longer, seated comfortably on the same sopha. Netherfield, they had decided, would be the best place for them to meet for the present.
“I have just realized,” said Elizabeth, helping Darcy unpick her embroidery thread, “that I have never been told your real name. Imagine me taking a wife without knowing her name! You will have to sign Fitzwilliam in the register, of course, but I can hardly believe you prefer it.”
This was a question that had been troubling Darcy’s mind for some time, and even a month ago she would have been hard pressed to answer it. Now, however, she thought she had some better idea of who she was.
“Frances,” she answered quietly. “And then Anne for a middle name, after my mother.”
"Frances? How unpatriotic! Early in our acquaintance I suspected you of Jacobinism; it is a sad blow to have it confirmed now."
Darcy huffed and protested. “I have always liked the name.”
“I am only teazing, you know! Frances Anne Darcy; Frances. I think it sounds very well.”
Elizabeth reached up a hand to brush the side of her face. Glancing about to ensure they had their privacy, she leaned in and kissed her swiftly.
The service was simple, gotten over with with efficiency. They made their way through the necessary pretense and dishonesty together; whatever nonsense the priest might talk, kissing Elizabeth at the altar was a moment that could not be spoiled.
Everything afterward was a whirlwind of logistics. Clothes had to be sent to Pemberley ahead of them, carriages ordered, preparations made. The journey to Derbyshire was long and passed over some rough country, but she could hardly mind that when . At a carriage inn, she stopped and dashed off a letter to Georgiana.
I am sorry you could not be here, she wrote, but we will have a proper ceremony when we are home, with all of those friends whom you know. You will be present for the real wedding.
Crossing the county line, Elizabeth, curled comfortably against Darcy’s side, said,
“Frances, I know that I am Mrs. Darcy now, but what are you?”
“You need not be Mrs. Darcy, if you prefer another name.”
She waved a hand. “Oh, but I must be Mrs. Darcy! I insist on it; you will not deter me. Every woman is addressed differently when she marries, and so should you be.”
“No disrespect to you, but I think I will not be Mrs. Bennet,” said Darcy rather awkwardly.
“Lord, no! I would be always thinking of my mother. I do not want that– I have only just escaped her.”
Darcy tilted her head. “Perhaps it is only a change of honorific. I was Miss Darcy; now I am Mrs. Darcy as well.”
“That is very complicated; I approve. Will you kiss me, Mrs. Darcy?”
“I would be honored, Mrs. Darcy,” she said gravely, and did so.
As they came up the drive, passing under the arched branches of the trees, Elizabeth turned to her, curls a little disarranged and eyes shining.
“How glad I am,” she said, “that everything has turned out this way.”
“I– as am I. But whatever do you mean?”
“An immensely rich lady, who shares my tastes in so many points and likes to argue with me, has swept me off to her vast estate intending to lavish gifts and caresses on me for the rest of my natural life– what else could I mean? But of course you are also tall. I have always liked a tall woman.”
Darcy was startled into laughter. She squeezed Elizabeth’s hand, hoping it might convey some part of her sentiments. Ahead of them, the windows of Pemberley sparkled in the sun.