Jane had sufficiently recovered by Saturday that Elizabeth, desiring nothing more than a return to Longbourn, urged her to request the carriage from Mr Bingley. He, in turn, expressed such doubt about the fullness of her recovery and concern for her comfort that Jane yielded to his pleas and consented to remain at Netherfield for one more night. Thus, it was not until after services on Sunday that the eldest Miss Bennets returned to their family. Jane, as was her want, was happy to be back amongst those she loved and knew best. Her regard for Mr Bingley was undiminished, but despite her proximity to him during the previous five days, her illness had denied substantive discourse with him. Mrs Bennet had been too clever; her scheme had effected Jane’s residence in Mr Bingley’s house, but the nature of that residency precluded any noteworthy advancement toward fulfilling the dearest desire of her affectionate maternal heart. Jane had learned little more about the gentleman than that he was hospitable toward unexpected guests — and whatever information she could derive second-hand from Elizabeth’s observations of him. Mr. Bingley had learned little more about the lady than that she suffered prettily in silence — and whatever information he could glean second-hand from Elizabeth. Jane remained uncertain of the degree of his regard, and of the reasonableness of hers.
Elizabeth was delighted to remove from Netherfield, and thankful to be spared further insincere civility from her reluctant hostess. Miss Bingley thought too little of her and too well of herself to make any genuine effort toward friendship. Mrs Hurst was little better, and Mr Hurst was often asleep. Only Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy were pleasant; Mr Bingley because of his nature, Mr Darcy because of his familiarity with his party. Elizabeth quickly discerned how his manner improved when amongst his intimate friends. His continued politeness toward herself astonished her. She was of little consequence compared to such a great man, yet his manner toward her was as his social equal. It was all quite surprising, and, she admitted, more than a little puzzling.
Darcy was relieved that Elizabeth was no longer in residence. That he was attracted to her in the most basic of ways astonished him, but did not cloud his judgment. He saw how well she comported herself and was confident that, with a little instruction, she would fare well in his circle of society. In short order, his mind was made up; he was ready to speak to her. He believed his heart was not engaged. If it were, he knew he would have had to avoid her.
Love was out of the question.
On the morning after the Bennet sisters departed Netherfield, Darcy ate an early and solitary breakfast and was out of the house before anyone else had come downstairs. He needed time to compose himself. He ordered his horse readied and was soon racing through the fields trying to work off his nervousness. Darcy had learned in the course of their conversations that Elizabeth liked to take walks in the mornings. He was confident that, after nearly a week of attending Jane, she would wish to resume her rambles as soon as may be. He determined the best place to wait for her would be just outside Longbourn’s grounds. If she did not come that way within an hour, he would call at the house.
Darcy preferred his present course. A clandestine meeting, although unorthodox, would afford more time and privacy to discuss his offer and the reasons behind it. He was no fool; Elizabeth might accept without questioning him, but he sincerely doubted she would. That thirst for the truth, and the integrity it portended, was one reason he was making his offer in the first place. It was all very much like a business decision. In any agreement, there must always be negotiations. He expected no less today.
Within twenty minutes, his wait was rewarded. Elizabeth appeared. Thankfully, she was alone.
Elizabeth’s thoughts were as far from Mr Darcy as was possible. Her father had that morning informed the family of the imminent arrival of his cousin, a Mr. Collins. Based on his letter to Mr Bennet announcing his visit, she felt that he surely must be an oddity. Her father certainly was curious to meet his heir. Thus, when she encountered Mr. Darcy, she was completed flustered.
“Mr. Darcy! Whatever are you doing here?”
“Enjoying a lovely autumn morning. May I walk with you?”
Elizabeth numbly nodded her consent and they took the path together, Darcy’s horse left safely secured to a sapling. She clearly had not anticipated meeting anyone, and certainly not this soon in her walk. But in a few moments, Elizabeth recovered her wits.
“Please excuse my earlier rudeness. It appears that this time it was I who did not speak with civility.”
“Miss Bennet, following your gracious example from the night we first met, I, too, understand that you have a logical excuse for your words. I surprised you.”
Elizabeth smiled at his gallantry. “You are too kind. I should like the opportunity to begin again. Mr. Darcy, what brings you so close to Longbourn this fine morning?”
“I was riding my horse and thought I might find you here. I hope you do not resent my interruption of your privacy.”
“No sir, you only surprised me. I rarely encounter anyone on my walks.”
“You forget, madam, that you made mention of your habit to me.”
“I must have, sir, though it escapes me when. But here you are, so I must have betrayed myself to you.”
“Miss Bennet, I admit that I purposely sought you out this morning. I have a matter of great importance of which I wish to speak to you.”
“To me? What could be so important that you arrange this private conference?”
“Have you no guesses?”
Surely not that? Elizabeth’s mind raced with possibilities.
“You know that I have recently come out of mourning for my sister. You must understand what a great loss this was to me. My mother died many years ago, and my father nearly five years ago. I became my sister’s guardian only a year after I came of age. She was my only remaining family. I was inconsolable when I learned of her death.”
“You must have been very close.”
“As close as siblings can be who are so far apart in years. She was more than ten years my junior. She would have turned sixteen in February.”
“Again let me express my deepest sympathies for your loss.”
“I thank you, though earning your sympathy is not why I speak of this. When Georgiana died, I lost more than a sister. I lost the only other Darcy in my line. A cousin now stands to inherit the estate were I to die childless. For years I have resisted the efforts of the matchmaking mothers in England, preferring to remain in my single state. With Georgiana’s death, I can no longer neglect my duty to produce an heir.”
“I am sure you are acquainted with innumerable women who would be more than willing to become your bride.”
“Yes, and none of them interest me in the least. I have long been the object of desire of the unmarried ladies in society. My wealth, my estate, and my connections are highly coveted. Also, there are those of my family who have long considered a match between my cousin Anne and me an inevitable eventuality. I must confess that I meditated on this possibility these past few months. However, Anne is of a sickly constitution, and I have serious concerns about her ability to have children at all. That is not a risk I wish to take.”
“Why are you speaking to me of this?”
“There is only one reason, Miss Bennet. We have known each other for only one month, yet in this short time, I have become convinced that you are ideally suited to become Mrs. Darcy. I have come today to offer my hand in marriage. I would be honoured if you would consent to become my wife.”
Elizabeth had suspected such an offer almost since the beginning of their conversation; nevertheless, she was shocked speechless to hear it spoken aloud. Darcy had anticipated her astonishment and was undisturbed by her temporary lack of words.
Moments later, Elizabeth responded.
“I am aware of the very great honour you have bestowed on me, sir. I suppose the prudent thing would be to accept your offer immediately, and with gratitude. However, I am not yet willing to give you an answer, for I have many questions to ask you first.”
“Very well, we have complete privacy.”
“First and foremost, sir, why me?”
“I have told you, Miss Bennet. I believe you are ideally suited to become my wife. We get on well together. Surely you have noticed the ease with which we fall into conversation. I told you that I do not perform well to strangers, yet this shortcoming has never hindered me when I am around you.”
“Mr. Darcy, let us be honest with each other. I suspect you know that I have no dowry to speak of, and I most certainly would bring no valuable connections into this marriage. I am very aware that, though I am the daughter of a gentleman, I am very much your social inferior.”
“Since you have spoken honestly, I will reply in the same manner. It may be true that you would bring little dowry into this marriage. However, the money that was intended for my sister is at my disposal. I have come to consider that thirty thousand pounds as your own and should you accept me, I will settle that amount on you.”
Thirty thousand pounds!
“That is a great deal of money and entirely unexpected. You are overly generous.”
“It would provide you with your own income apart from any other monies granted in the settlements.”
“Still, sir, I have no useful connections. You must know this!”
They had come to a place where a log lay next to the path. Darcy motioned for Elizabeth to sit while he walked a few steps away. She waited for his answer.
“I know, Miss Bennet,” Darcy finally said, his back turned.
“Surely in a marriage such as you are suggesting, connections are a matter for consideration. Fortune may be dismissed if the subsequent connections are of value.”
When Darcy finally turned back to face Elizabeth, there was conviction in his eyes.
“Miss Bennet, it is precisely your scruples to acknowledge your lack of connections that is so appealing to me. Any other woman of my acquaintance would have accepted me without delay, covetous of my fortune and position. Yet, here I am needing to convince you. Is this not proof that I understand what I am doing? I do not want a wife whose only desire is to make a brilliant match, whose only interest is her social position. I do not want a wife who is always looking, thinking, speaking for my approbation alone. You are not that kind of woman. Such companionship is worth the loss of any ‘valuable alliances’ I may be forfeiting by making you my choice.”
“Your determination is very much in your favour.”
Elizabeth looked at the man before her. They both knew it would be foolish for her to reject him. He was offering more than she could have expected in an alliance, more than she could have imagined. She knew that at least one of the Bennet daughters must marry very well to assure them all of a future once their father was gone. And now it was only her consent that kept her from achieving that security for herself and for her family. She liked Mr Darcy, but could she see herself married to him? Surely, there would be a cost.
“What of my family? Would they be lost to me?”
Darcy hesitated, and for the first time looked uncomfortable.
“I know you have great affection for your family. Your walk to Netherfield to attend your sister is proof. Miss Bennet is every bit the gentlewoman you are, and I hope that, in time, your younger sisters may prove their good breeding as well. I will not stand before you and lie. I hold dear the respect of the Darcy name, and I expect our marriage will be much spoken of in the drawing rooms in London. I cannot sanction an invitation for your mother or your younger sisters to visit us, until you have established yourself as Mrs. Darcy. As for your father, I doubt he would want to stir from my library were he to join us in Town or at Pemberley. I know what I have just said may seem ungenerous of me. Please understand, I am not asking you to abandon your family. I am asking you to use your good sense and discretion when considering the appropriate time to entertain them.”
Elizabeth winced at his depiction of her family. She held many of the same opinions as he on the behaviour of her younger siblings and her parents, yet hearing them voiced by someone so wholly unconnected to her was disconcerting. Had this been any other discussion, she would have been angry; but it was not. He was as brutally honest with her as she was with him. There was too much at stake for them both for anything less than candour.
Elizabeth sighed. “Though it pains me to hear you speak so of my family, you are not unreasonable in your observations. What you have said of my mother is equally true of my Aunt and Uncle Phillips. But you have yet to meet my Uncle and Aunt Gardiner. They are people of fashion and my uncle is a man of intelligence, taste and good manners. Though he may be in trade, I could never be ashamed of them, sir. Many who now call themselves gentlemen owe the foundation of their fortunes to trade.”
A silence fell between them as Elizabeth further weighed her answer. She stood up and began to walk again.
“Please, may we just walk now? You have given me much to think on.”
Elizabeth’s feet took her down the familiar paths; she was oblivious to the man next to her. After nearly a quarter hour’s ramble, she suddenly became aware of his presence – her silent companion.
“I must once again apologise to you, Mr. Darcy. I have been ignoring you.”
“On the contrary, you have been giving me your every thought.” Elizabeth coloured. “Have you come to any conclusions?”
“Not as yet. Tell me, what would be expected of me as Mrs Darcy?”
“You duties would be much the same as any gentleman’s wife, only on a greater scale than you are accustomed – mistress of my estates at Pemberley, and my house in London. I have two very capable housekeepers who would aid you in the transition. You would be responsible for entertaining guests in the appropriate manner as well as organising any special events. You would, of course, visit my – our – tenants. The Darcys have always seen to the needs of those under our care. It is also my intention that you be presented at court, and that we be in London for the entirety of the season.”
“I foresee many new dresses if that were the case.” Darcy detected in this remark a glimmer of the return of Elizabeth’s lively wit and answered accordingly.
“I would have you look the part of Mrs Darcy.”
“When we have children, they will have the nannies and governesses you never had.”
Thoughts of children sent Elizabeth’s mind in another direction; she would be expected to share his bed. How did she feel about that? He was handsome. If she had to submit to her wifely duties, she knew she could do much worse.
Again they fell into an easy silence until emerging on a crest of a hill.
“Hertfordshire is a pleasant country,” Darcy said. “Views like this only reinforce my good opinion.”
“Derbyshire must be quite different.”
“Yes. There is an untamed quality about it, a wildness that is exciting and at the same time comforting.”
“It demonstrates that there is something bigger than man. Something beyond our ability and capacity to control. Nature in its primitive state is never static.”
What an extraordinary answer. Almost as if spoken by a poet.
They stood together for many minutes, enjoying the view. On a cart path below, a lone farmer was driving a team of horses. The man seemed so far away from them. Elizabeth knew Darcy would be expecting an answer soon. To accept him meant a lifetime without want and security for her family, yet she knew she did not love him. Until today she had been careful to guard her heart from him. She had never considered that he would offer her anything more than friendship, and now he had offered marriage. She respected him, admired him, but was that a basis for marriage to him?
“Have you any more questions for me?”
He had told her all that she needed to know.
Elizabeth pondered everything they had discussed. How could she say yes? Yet each time she would start to form a refusal, something deep within her protested. She could not say no. Elizabeth glanced over at Darcy and began to imagine what her life would be like married to him. She smiled to herself thinking of the many discussions they already had and easily foreseeing a lifetime of mutual regard and stimulating conversation. Their lives together would be very different from her parents.
Thus was her intended refusal transformed into an unexpected acceptance.
“I can only assume you would wish for a short engagement?” Elizabeth asked with the hint of a playful smile.
“Most men wish for a short betrothal, Miss Bennet. I must confess that I do as well. I alluded to this before, but there may be some very strong objections by my family. My uncle, the Earl, will not be pleased, nor will my aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady Catherine is the mother of my cousin, Anne, of whom I spoke earlier. I would like for our marriage to take place soon, to lessen the prospect of interference from that quarter.”
“I would not wish to come between you and your remaining family,” Elizabeth stated with concern.
“Miss Bennet, that decision is mine.”
“Yet as your wife, I would suffer the consequences if a breach were to occur.”
“You speak as if that were a bad thing, madam. I am not so certain. My uncle and my aunt are too used to getting what they want. Frankly, I am tired of all their attempts to order my life. I am my own master and I will wed whom I choose!”
Elizabeth was impressed by the vehemence of his speech. He obviously was not overly bothered by the prospect of defying his family.
“Not all my family will react poorly to the news, Miss Bennet. There are those who will be happy for me. Only their opinion matters and I believe they will realize that you and I are a good match. I refuse to be concerned about the others.”
Elizabeth thought his answer reasonable and that it was best to move the conversation forward. “And how soon would you wish to wed?”
“Within a month.”
“You speak with some surety of my acceptance, Mr. Darcy. Has it occurred to you that perhaps I would say no?” She smiled. “I can see the answer on your face.”
Her playfulness had made him hopeful. Darcy knelt before Elizabeth and took her hand in his.
“Are you prepared to answer me? Will you have me, Miss Bennet?”
He drew her hand to his lips, never taking his eyes off her face.
Elizabeth had no logical reason to reject him. It was true that he had not spoken of love or even tender affection, but the respect he had shown her in allowing her questioning boded well for a future with this man. She liked him, she admired his intelligence and his honesty, and they did get on well together. She believed he was right – they were a good match.
“Yes, Mr Darcy, I will marry you, in one month’s time, if that is your wish.”
Darcy stood, never relinquishing her hand, which he kissed again. He turned it over and kissed her wrist, and then her palm. His eyes, only just a few minutes before filled with conviction, now shone with a possessive passion.
“Please call me Fitzwilliam when we are alone.”
Elizabeth swallowed at the change in his demeanour.
“You may call me Elizabeth, then.”
“Elizabeth.” He leaned his head towards her and brushed his lips across hers.
Oh Lord! They both thought.
“I should go and speak to your father.”
“And it would be best if you allowed me to go inside a few minutes in advance of your call. It would not be… conducive to the peace and tranquillity of the house should you be seen coming back with me.” Darcy nodded in understanding.
“Oh dear, I almost forgot. My cousin, a Mr Collins, is arriving at Longbourn today and will be with us until Saturday next. It is good that you spoke to me before he arrived, Mr… Fitzwilliam.”
“It seems my timing is impeccable.”
They had begun to make their way back to Longbourn when Elizabeth suddenly asked, “Did you say your aunt is Lady Catherine de Bourgh?”
“Yes, she lives at Rosings, near Hunsford in Kent.”
“Pray, enlighten me?”
“This is most singular. My cousin, Mr Collins, is your aunt’s parson! He was quite effusive in his praise of her bounty and beneficence.” Darcy stopped walking. “This displeases you?”
“I would rather your cousin not know of our understanding at this time. I do not wish news of our engagement to reach Lady Catherine before I am prepared to announce it to her myself. All the more reason we should not be seen coming back together.”
“You spoke of her potential disapproval.”
“It is not potential, it is certain. In my opinion, it would be best for both of us that the news be withheld for the immediate future. I will still speak with your father this morning, but I ask you tell no one until a time your father and I agree upon.”
“This will leave even less time to prepare for the wedding.”
“Is this too much to ask of you?”
“A small wedding is preferable.”
“I shall travel to London, then, and have the settlements prepared. I will also procure a special licence. Then we can wed whenever and wherever we choose.”
They began walking again, and soon Darcy’s horse was in sight.
“I will call in half an hour.”
“My father will be surprised.”
“As much as you were?” Darcy teased, hesitantly. It felt good to tease again.
Darcy waited a full half-hour before presenting his card to the butler, asking to see the master of the house. In a matter of minutes, Darcy was seated in front of Mr Bennet’s desk, its owner eyeing him in confusion. The two gentlemen made idle conversation until Mr Bennet could no longer contain his curiosity.
“Mr Darcy, what brings you to Longbourn this morning?”
“I have come with a request.”
“I shall do all that is in my power to oblige you.”
“Earlier today, I met with your daughter, Miss Elizabeth, and have asked for her hand in marriage. She has accepted me, and I have come to ask for your consent to our union.”
Much as his daughter before him, Mr Bennet was speechless for several moments.
“Lizzy accepted you?”
“Yes, sir. I met her this morning on a path outside Longbourn.”
“A rather singular course of action.”
“I knew of Miss Elizabeth predilection to walking out in the morning. I guessed that after so many days at Netherfield, she would be anxious to resume her habit.”
“You took a risk that she would not be out today. It was a rather unconventional way to present your suit.”
“I was prepared to come to Longbourn to request a private interview if I did not meet with her.”
“I would have been more comfortable if you had.” Darcy did not fail to note the agitation in Mr Bennet’s voice. Clearly he was not pleased.
“Point taken. However, my actions were guided by a desire to assure, to the best of my ability, our privacy.”
“It is a wonder, considering your course of action this morning, that you did not seek her out whilst she still resided at Netherfield,” Mr Bennet said harshly.
“That was not something I would have done,” Darcy replied, trying to soothe the irritated father of his intended. “An agreement between us would have necessitated her removal from Netherfield before Miss Bennet was well enough to return to Longbourn. I have too much respect for Miss Elizabeth to act in a manner that would so displease her. A day or two of waiting did not signify.”
Mr Bennet studied the man before him.
“Excuse me for a few minutes. I will return shortly.”
Darcy knew that Mr Bennet wanted to speak to Elizabeth. He would do the same thing.
Mr Bennet found Elizabeth in the breakfast room, thankfully alone. He closed the door behind him and Elizabeth could see a wistful look on his face. Involuntarily, she dropped her head and asked, “He is here?”
Her father knew he had lost her.
How can I refuse Elizabeth anything? He is her choice. How can I refuse Darcy? He is not the kind of man I would dare refuse anything he condescended to ask of me. But my Lizzy? Will she be happy in such a marriage? It is a condition greater than any I could ever dream as far as wealth and situation. There is only one reply I can give.
“Yes. I have just left your Mr. Darcy in my library. It is true, you have accepted him.”
“Elizabeth,” he said with tender affection and concern, “it is not too late to stop this. Are you sure you know what you are doing? I know your disposition. You could neither be happy nor respectable unless you truly esteemed your husband—unless you looked up to him as your superior.”
“I do, Papa, I do esteem Mr Darcy.”
“Your lively talents place you in danger of an unequal marriage if you do not. Please, Lizzy, I could not bear the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”
Elizabeth could hear the dejection in her father’s gentle voice and went to stand in his embrace.
“Papa, Mr Darcy is a good man. I like him and greatly admire him. I know we have not known each other for long, but he has never been anything but respectful of me and of my feelings. It did not, and does not, matter to him that we are not equal in society. We even spoke of this when he offered. Believe me, he has thought this through thoroughly and has answered my reservations. Indeed, there is no reason for me to reject him.”
“You say you like him. Do you feel any affection for him?”
Elizabeth remembered their briefest of kisses and smiled coyly. “I believe there is something of that sort. Father, I know this is a decision of the intellect and not of the heart. I understand this. However, we have always got along well together. Is this not a good foundation for understanding and contentment?”
“I had hoped your romantic sensibilities would prevail.”
Elizabeth looked up and smiled at his dry remark.
“A woman should not dare believe she is the heroine of a novel, Papa.”
“A father can hope. I see you have made up your mind. Let us return to your young man. Forgive an old man his nostalgia.”
“I would not have you any other way.”
“You might have warned me he was coming.”
“And spoil the shock?”
Darcy was looking at the title of some of the books in the room when Mr Bennet returned with Elizabeth on his arm. Mr Bennet walked to the gentleman and took Elizabeth’s hand and placed it in his.
“You have my consent and blessing to wed. Take care of her, son, she is my greatest treasure.” Mr Bennet’s voice quivered.
“I will, sir. Thank you.”
Mr Bennet, in an effort to gain his composure, walked to his desk and sat down.
“I suppose you are like most young men and are anxious to marry with all haste.”
“Papa, when I accepted Mr Darcy’s proposal, I agreed to marry him within the month.”
“A month?” Mr Bennet blanched at so short a time left with his favourite, but bravely quipped, “Your mother will not be pleased.”
“If I may interrupt, Miss Elizabeth said you are expecting your cousin, a Mr Collins, who by amazing coincidence, is also the parson to my aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.”
“Lady Catherine is your aunt?”
“She is my late mother’s sister.”
“Mr Collins will be most happy to make your acquaintance. I expect he will be overjoyed that his cousin will be married to the nephew of his esteemed patroness.”
“Yet my aunt will not. I believe the man is to be here until Saturday next?”
“That is his intention.”
“I am hesitant to announce the betrothal whilst the man is at Longbourn. I expect that he would write to my aunt at the earliest opportunity. It had been my intention to leave for Town tomorrow to speak to my solicitor, to secure a license, and to speak with my family. I wish to tell them myself. I do not foresee returning before the end of the week, and it would be ungenerous of me to insist that the announcement of our engagement come only three weeks before the wedding. To give Miss Elizabeth the four that I promised to provide would place the ceremony right before Christmas. This would be unfair to your entire family. Thus, I believe six weeks until the wedding is a more reasonable date. That is, if it meets with your approval.”
“I do agree to this, Papa. I can understand Mr Darcy’s desire to relate our news to his closest relations in person.”
“I am uncomfortable keeping this between only the three of us.”
Darcy pulled a ring off his finger and handed it to Mr Bennet.
“A sign of my pledge. This ring was my father’s and his father’s before that.”
Mr Bennet nodded his acquiescence.
“Very well, the wedding will be in six weeks. Is Longbourn Church acceptable?”
“I have no objections. I would prefer a quiet ceremony.”
“As would I, Papa.”
“I will speak to the parson as soon as you return, Mr Darcy. The rest of the arrangements will be left to Elizabeth and my wife. Since you have postponed the wedding until after Christmas, I wish to extend you an invitation to spend that day at Longbourn.”
“As long as my presence is not required in Town, I will come.”
“Good, a little folly will do you some good. Have you any further items to discuss with me?”
“I should like to discuss elements of the settlement I shall ask my solicitor to draw up when I am in Town.”
“Lizzy, this is your signal to leave us.”
“One more matter before I go. Mr Darcy, will you allow me to tell Jane of our understanding?”
“My eldest is the soul of discretion, she barely allows her own feelings to show, let alone betray a confidence.”
“I see no harm after your assurance of her secrecy.”
“Thank you. And now I will leave you to your business. Good day, Mr Darcy, Papa.”
Mr Collins arrived as scheduled at four that afternoon. It did not take long for the gentleman to prove to be all that was hoped and feared; he had come to admire the Miss Bennets – and his future abode.
Mr Bennet spoke little to his guest, his mind occupied by the earlier events of the day, despite what otherwise would have been the irresistible invitation to sport offered by Mr Collins’ breathtaking ability to expose the flaws of his character. Elizabeth was similarly distracted; the novelty of her new situation suppressed her normally lively manners, and Mr Collins’ foolish prattle soon began to grate on her nerves. Here was yet another example of her inferior, undesirable connections. She resolved to limit Mr Darcy’s exposure to her cousin and was grateful that he would be away to Town in the morning.
Elizabeth was eager to unburden herself to Jane, and waited impatiently for the clock to release them to the privacy of the bedchamber. After laughing at the foibles of their guest – though Jane was not as willing to acknowledge the man’s ridiculousness – Elizabeth moved the conversation to her morning rendezvous. She hoped her sister would not be too disappointed in her choice.
“Jane, you will never guess who I met on my walk this morning.”
“No, not Charlotte. Mr Darcy.”
“Mr Darcy? How astonishing! You must have walked a long way.”
“Actually, he met me just outside Longbourn’s gate.”
“Strange he should be so near our house.”
“He came particularly to speak with me in private. He knew I like to walk out early and chanced that he would meet me there.”
“Oh Lizzy, was it proper of you to meet him so secretly?”
“Perhaps it was not the best course of action, but it is done.”
“Whatever did he wish to discuss?”
“Jane… I do not know how to tell you this… Mr Darcy came to offer marriage.”
“Marriage? After so short an acquaintance? What did you say?”
“I said many things and asked many questions.”
“Did you give him an answer?”
“Was that your answer to his question or mine?”
“Yes, to both. I accepted his offer.”
“You are teasing me, Lizzy. Surely you are teasing me?” Jane was uncertain about her own reaction, and unsure if her sister was teasing. “I know you like him, but do you like him well enough to marry him?”
“Papa asked the same thing of me. I admit that I asked Mr Darcy many questions and was impressed with his responses. He has given the matter serious consideration. After our discussion I believe I will be very happy with him. I like him very much, Jane. I had no reason to say no.”
“So you are engaged.” Jane was bewildered. “Do you hold a tender affection for the man? Do you love him?”
“Not yet, Jane,” Elizabeth admitted, “but I sense he is the kind of man I can learn to love. I already respect and admire him.”
Jane, normally not one to question her sister was amazed that Elizabeth would agree to such a match. She had always believed both of them would choose a mate with her heart.
“What about Mr Darcy? Has he told you his feelings?”
“He has not proclaimed a passionate love for me, if that is what you ask.”
Jane appeared more troubled.
“Oh Lizzy, are you certain you know what you are doing? To marry without love is so unlike anything I ever imagined of you. I do not want to see you unhappy. Do not marry Mr Darcy only for the sake of your family.”
“Dearest, please do not worry. I admit that his wealth is to his advantage, but it was not my sole consideration. What is important to me is that we are well-matched in temperament and understanding.”
“You do not seem at all like Mr Darcy.”
“What I mean is that we complement each other in our differences, but we are more like-minded than I expected. Not everyone is as similar as you and Mr Bingley.” Jane blushed at the inference. “There is a seriousness and depth to Fitzwilliam that I find fascinating. He is unlike any man I have ever known, and I must admit that I am drawn to him.”
Elizabeth’s declaration gave Jane hope.
“Perhaps you are all ready half in love with him without even knowing it.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Perhaps. Tell me now, do you approve? I do not know how I would survive if you did not.”
“If you believe Mr Darcy can make you happy, and if you are content with your choice, so shall I be. Oh, but Lizzy, how grand you shall be!”
“I shall still be myself, only hidden beneath layers of finery.”
“You will be a credit to your husband. Mr Darcy will be proud to have you by his side, as I am to call you my sister.”
“Oh Jane, you are too good.” Elizabeth was relieved to have finally reconciled Jane to the match. With a mischievous look in her eye she continued. “But after this evening, I can take solace in this: if the choice were between Mr Darcy and our cousin, I dare say I could barely choose between them. I am fortunate that I face no such dilemma.”
It was many minutes before either could stop laughing.
Mr Collins indeed had come to Longbourn determined to admire his cousins; more specifically, he had come to choose a bride from among the five unmarried sisters. Initially he was captivated by Jane. However, a quarter-hour’s tête-à-tête with Mrs Bennet the next morning was sufficient to disabuse him of his aspirations; he learned of the general expectation that Jane would soon be engaged. To quell his disappointment, Mrs Bennet informed him that she knew of no prepossession for any of her younger daughters. It was the work of a moment to transfer his designs from Jane to Elizabeth, next in order of birth and, in his opinion, of beauty.
A walk to Meryton had been proposed by Lydia, and all but Mary chose to venture forth. Mr Collins, at the behest of Mr Bennet, offered to escort his fair cousins. Once in Meryton, the attention of the ladies was soon diverted to a young man of a most gentlemanlike appearance, whom they had never seen before, walking on the opposite side of the street with an officer of the regiment. Lydia and Kitty contrived to place themselves in the path of the mysterious stranger and his companion. Mr Wickham was the unknown gentleman’s name and all was revealed when the sisters learned that he was a newly commissioned Lieutenant in the militia.
As the parties exchanged the prescribed niceties of new acquaintances, Mr. Bingley came riding up the street. When he saw Jane, he immediately dismounted and came to greet her. He had intended to call at Longbourn to inquire after her health and was pleased to see that Jane was well enough to walk into Meryton. Upon being introduced to Mr Wickham, he regarded that gentleman with a cool curiosity and said little more before taking his leave.
Mr Collins escorted his cousins back to Longbourn not long after. Before they left, Mrs. Philips greeted them and invited the entire party to supper and cards the following evening. She had a fondness for the society of her nieces – and anyone else who would grace her parlour with their presence. Mr Bennet was most happy to allow his cousin to accompany his daughters to the Philips’. He looked forward to a peaceful time alone in his library.
At the Philips’, the ladies were obliged to listen to Mr Collins’ soliloquy on the merits of his noble patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and her great estate, Rosings, which to Mr Collins’ great delight was separated from his parsonage only by a lane. The entrance of the rest of the gentlemen was, therefore, a great relief. Elizabeth was not surprised to see Mr Wickham amongst them and his presence was welcomed by every female in the room. He looked around for a familiar face until he spied Elizabeth and came over to her.
Since she had come into society, Elizabeth had enjoyed the attentions of men. It was true that there were some men whose notice she could happily have done without, but in general, she enjoyed her conversations with the worthier of the opposite sex.
Mr Wickham and Elizabeth were quickly immersed in a benign conversation on the weather and state of the roads in the surrounding neighbourhood, but however agreeably the conversation started, Elizabeth soon began to feel ill at ease. She wondered at her response to the gentleman. He had done nothing to cause suspicion of his motives. He appeared to desire only a lively discussion. No, there was nothing in his behaviour that merited concern. Then what caused this uncharacteristic disquietude?
Her companion stopped in mid-sentence and asked, “Are you unwell, Miss Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth recovered her composure. “It is nothing at all. I am afraid my thoughts had strayed. I apologise for my inattention.”
“I fear my recent absence from pleasant society may have made me too absurd to hold any woman’s attention.”
“Oh no,” Elizabeth laughed at his attempts of self-deprecation, “you have performed admirably. Please continue.”
They recommenced their exchange, but without the previous fervour, and soon parted to converse with other guests.
Elizabeth was careful to remain attentive to others for the rest of the evening. It was only after returning to Longbourn and retiring for the evening that she allowed herself to examine what had happened that evening. She had been in the middle of an innocent conversation with Mr Wickham when she began to experience a peculiar stirring in her soul. Elizabeth physically started when the answer came; the moment she understood what she was feeling was a shock.
She had felt disloyal to Mr Darcy.
Something had changed during the two days of her betrothal; she had become bound to the man who would be her husband. To continue to act as if she were still unattached was a violation of her promise. It was a disguise, and she could not enjoy the company of any eligible man until the world knew that she was betrothed. It was an astonishing moment!
Elizabeth fell asleep wondering what other amendments would be wrought in her before her wedding. Truthfully, this period between being an available single woman and a publicly engaged lady was losing some of its charm.
Mr Bingley called at Longbourn the next day to personally present his invitation to the long-expected ball at Netherfield, fixed for the following Tuesday. The prospect of a ball was extremely agreeable, and Elizabeth wondered if this would be the event at which her engagement was announced.
She had commenced a mental inventory of her possessions, deciding what would remain and what she would take into her marriage. There was little time to prepare for the wedding and her new life, and Elizabeth knew that the severity of her mother’s nerves would be inversely proportional to the length of the interval between announcement and ceremony.
Her reverie was cut short by Mr Collins declaring his intention to accept the invitation to the ball. He further declared his desire to dance with all of his cousins, then sought to secure Elizabeth for the first two dances. Seeing no way to decline, Elizabeth was forced to consent and for the first time wondered if Mr Collins intended to make her his wife. The absurdity of the notion soon became more than she could bear, and Elizabeth excused herself.
Alone again in the safety of her chamber, Elizabeth wondered how Mr Darcy fared. Was he having second thoughts? He had given his word and would stand by her now. Still, the one thing she did not want was a marriage tinged with regret.
Afraid of where her musings were leading, she returned her thoughts to the ball. Mr Darcy certainly would make every attempt to attend. She hoped he would understand when he discovered that the first two dances had been claimed by her cousin. Surely that man would cede those dances to Mr Darcy once he learned of their betrothal.
Jane, privy to Elizabeth’s true situation, came to comfort her.
“Mr Darcy will not be angry. You could not have refused Mr Collins without revealing more than you are currently at liberty to claim. All would have found it odd had you said you were reserving those dances for another.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Once again, you have uncovered the heart of the matter. I had no choice. Jane, do you think Mr Collins is paying rather pointed attentions to me?”
“He does seem most… solicitous of your needs.”
“He has selected me from among my sisters, I think, to become mistress of Hunsford Parsonage. If he continues in such a manner, I may find myself in a most uncomfortable interview.”
“Not even our cousin could fancy himself in love in the span of four days.”
“I do not know…”
“Your Mr Darcy will return soon, and this will prove to be idle speculation.”
But Mr Darcy could not return. The weather took a turn for the worse, and for four long days the residents of Longbourn were confined to the house. Even the shoe roses had to be obtained by proxy. Had there not been a ball to talk of and prepare for, the ladies would have been in a pitiable state.
It was not until the day of the ball that the weather improved.
Darcy sat in his carriage on his way back to Netherfield, reflecting on a wasted week.
He had left Hertfordshire early on the morning after he secured Elizabeth’s promise of marriage. The journey to London was uneventful and by noon he was safely in his house. Mrs Thomas was unperturbed at his sudden arrival, and soon there was a fire warming his chambers. He sent notes to his uncle’s residence and to his solicitor’s office. Unfortunately, the Earl had chosen to visit his sister, Lady Catherine, in Kent and was not expected back until the following week at the earliest. Darcy’s inquiries to his solicitor were more fruitful. That man would come to see him in the morning.
Darcy had been tempted to ride to Kent the next day to meet with his uncle and his aunt; however, he reasoned that it would be better to finalise the wedding settlements before venturing to Rosings. Once the papers were in order, he would confront his family and then go directly to Hertfordshire.
What he had overlooked was the capriciousness of the English weather. By the time the documents were completed to his satisfaction, the rain had begun. He was forced to delay his trip into Kent for several days, then concluded that it would have to wait until after Bingley’s blasted ball. Darcy had received an express confirming the Tuesday date, and knew that he must return to Netherfield in time. Bingley and Elizabeth would never forgive him if he missed it.
At least the marriage settlements were drawn up, the marriage license secured, and a small gift for Elizabeth stowed safely in his pocket. He would not return to Hertfordshire empty handed, even if he had to turn around and head off to Kent only two days later.
When Darcy arrived at Netherfield, he immediately set about speaking to his host. He needed to inform Bingley of his understanding with Elizabeth as a precaution against unforeseen circumstances. Bingley was elated that his friend had found such a woman for a wife. Though surprised at the news, he had seen what Darcy could not – since he had come into Hertfordshire, and more specifically since he had met Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy’s general mood had improved. Gone was the constant brooding. The man Darcy was before the death of Georgiana had begun to re-emerge. Now Bingley knew why, and secretly he was envious of his friend; for he, too, wished to marry a Miss Bennet. His declarations to Jane would have to wait a little longer. Nothing could induce him to usurp Darcy and Elizabeth’s time in the sun. It was the least he could do for his friend, and since Darcy told him that the wedding would take place right after Christmas, Bingley knew he would not have to wait long to offer his addresses to his beloved Jane.
The air seemed alive with anticipation as the Bennet carriage rolled to Netherfield. Mrs Bennet’s nerves were momentarily forgotten while she imparted last minute instructions to her daughters. A ball was a lovely place for a gentleman to fall in love, and she had no intention of letting such an opportunity pass by unclaimed. She was sure that at least one of her daughters must come away from the evening on the path to the altar.
Caroline Bingley may have been a rather haughty creature, but she certainly was the consummate hostess. Netherfield sparkled for her guests. No one could remember the old house in finer array. Musicians had been hired from London and the finest food and drink awaited the neighbourhood.
Charles Bingley was delighted. He happily greeted his guests, patiently awaiting the one family he wished to see most. When the Bennets finally arrived, he was stunned nearly senseless. Their party may have numbered eight, but he could see only one – Jane. Bingley somehow managed to acknowledge the people in line before the Bennets, but it was obvious that he knew not what he said. Mrs Bennet’s hopes were fuelled anew when she observed her host’s reaction to her eldest daughter.
Darcy had sent a short note to Longbourn to apprise Mr Bennet of the frustration of his plans to speak to his relatives because of the constant rain. Thus, Elizabeth was not too surprised when he did not immediately seek her out. She hoped he did not tarry too long and risk having all her dances taken by other men.
The first man to approach was none other than Mr Wickham.
“Miss Elizabeth, may I have the honour of dancing with you this evening, if your dance card is not already full?”
Elizabeth smiled politely. “Mr Wickham, I would be happy to dance with you. Only one other gentleman has had the chance to secure a set.”
“I am too late, then, to open the ball with you?”
“Yes, I am afraid so, but you may have the second set if you wish.”
“The second it shall be!”
Elizabeth flashed a smile that Mr Wickham at first assumed was for him. When he noticed that the direction of her gaze was not at him but rather over his shoulder, he looked to see who had her favour. It took all his self-control to keep his chin from dropping, though he could not stop the colour draining from his face.
Darcy had delayed his approach to Elizabeth so as not to appear that he was singling her out. He could not go directly to her side as soon as she arrived; there would be talk, perfectly acceptable once their engagement was announced, but not yet. Thus, Darcy allowed himself to be drawn into conversation with a few men before setting off to secure a dance with his intended. When he finally found Elizabeth, he saw that she was speaking with some unknown officer. She would be a sought-after dance partner and he did not begrudge her, or the other men of the area, a chance to enjoy the dancing. It was only when the officer turned his head that the unknown became the despised.
Wickham bowed to his old friend. Darcy barely dropped his head in recognition.
“Darcy. Miss Elizabeth, if you will please excuse me, I will claim you later for our dance.”
Elizabeth looked on in wonder. Clearly, Fitzwilliam knew Mr Wickham. By the expression on his face, it was evident that he was not pleased to see the man again. But Darcy would not allow any trace of emotion in his voice when he finally spoke.
“Miss Elizabeth, would you care to dance this evening?”
“Of course, sir. The first and second sets are claimed, but that is all.”
“The third, then?”
“It is yours.”
“Pardon my asking, but are you opening with Mr Wickham?”
Elizabeth heard a trace of animosity when he pronounced the man’s name. “Not at all. My cousin, Mr Collins, has claimed the first.”
“I see.” Darcy then spoke in a low voice. “Be wary of the man, Elizabeth. I cannot speak of it now, but he is no longer counted among my friends.”
“I shall take your warning into consideration. Thank you, but you know I must dance with him.”
“Yes, unfortunately, I do. If we have the chance, I need to speak with you and your father tonight. I will seek him out and try to arrange something.” Darcy straightened up and said in a normal voice. “I look forward to the third set. Until then, madam.”
With dread and mortification, Elizabeth heard the musicians play the opening strains for the first dance. Mr Collins promptly claimed his partner and led her to their place in the set. Elizabeth had no expectation of pleasure from the dance, which was fitting, as her partner, though enthusiastic, was one of the worst she had ever endured. She was certain her toes would be so bruised when they finished that she would not be able to stand up with another partner that night! Mr Collins kept up a steady monologue, hinting that this was to be the first of many such balls they would attend together. Elizabeth might have become agitated at such insinuations had she not already been betrothed to another. She knew her mother would certainly support their cousin’s cause, even if her father did not. Thank heavens Mr Collins would be forgotten when the wealth and stature of her true intended was revealed.
The decision to marry Mr Darcy was a most pleasant and increasingly attractive alternative to the marriage market if such a thing was populated by many fools like her cousin.
Somehow Elizabeth and her toes survived her dances with Mr Collins. She was more than happy to send the hapless parson off for refreshments while she talked to her friend, Charlotte Lucas.
“Your cousin seems to enjoy dancing.”
“Aye, but my feet do not enjoy dancing with him.”
“Ever the practical one, Charlotte. But you were not the one he was dancing with. I believe when he returns, I will encourage him to ask you to dance. Then you may judge for yourself.”
Charlotte laughed at her friend’s impertinence. “You have always been good about sharing. I will gladly stand up with him, for your sake.”
“And the sake of my sisters. He has threatened to dance with us all.”
“What other partners do you have tonight?”
“Mr Wickham has the next and then Mr Darcy.”
“I daresay you will find your next two partners agreeable.”
“Perhaps. Here comes Mr Collins. Smile in resignation to your fate, my dear friend.”
Elizabeth did indeed steer Mr Collins to engage Charlotte for the next set. She felt slightly guilty at such machinations, until she remembered the many times Charlotte had manoeuvred her into singing on social occasions. No, Charlotte deserved her fate!
Mr Wickham came to claim his dances. Darcy’s reaction was enough to put her on guard against the man, but she would not be intimidated. Her partner offered the usual niceties, complimenting her on her appearance and her skill at the dance. It was not long though until he broached the subject of his connection to Darcy.
“Tell me, Miss Elizabeth, have you known Mr Darcy for very long?”
“A little over a month, why do you ask?”
“Can you tell me how long he plans to stay in the neighbourhood?”
“I believe I have heard that he will remain until around Christmas. Why do you ask?”
“If he was in residence for very long, I fear it would necessitate my removal.”
“I see,” Elizabeth replied without thought.
“No, Miss Bennet, you do not. Out of respect, I would be forced to go. He cannot abide my presence, nor do I blame him.”
They moved through the pattern of the dance while Elizabeth digested this new information.
“I have known Darcy all my life, and I have done him great wrong. He has every reason to run me through for the dishonourable way I repaid his friendship.”
“I do not understand why you are telling me this.”
“As I said, I have known Darcy all my life. I know him. He would not approach a woman at a ball unless he counted her among his closest acquaintances.” Elizabeth blushed at his insightfulness. “I wish to be honest with you, so as to convince you to pass along a message to Darcy for me. Would you please tell him that I will respect his wishes and do my utmost to stay away from him while he is in the neighbourhood.”
“I will tell him.”
“Also, please tell him that I will be leaving the ball as soon as this set is completed.”
“Very well, I will convey this as well. I have promised the next to him.”
“There is one more thing, if I may impose further.” Elizabeth, slightly exasperated at his continued insistence, nodded her consent. “Please convey my deepest sympathies on the passing of Miss Darcy. I have nothing but fond memories or her, and I was truly saddened when I heard the news of her death.”
“You should tell him that yourself, Mr Wickham.”
“If I thought he would listen, I would. Mr Darcy’s father was my godfather, and he loved me almost as a son. He paid for my education and had even intended a valuable living for me. I did not desire to enter the church and when old Mr Darcy passed on, I asked his son for the value of the living. This I was given, and I started to study the law. Unfortunately, I was not wise in the safeguarding of Mr Darcy’s legacy to me and wasted it before I could become established my new profession. I even had the audacity to ask Darcy for the living when it became vacant. When he rightly refused, I am ashamed to say that I was rather vitriolic in my disappointment.”
“Yet you can stand here today and speak so openly about your failings?”
“Yes, it was something Darcy said to me that finally pierced my selfishness. He told me he could not in good conscience entrust a parish and the proclamation of God’s Holy Word to a man who had not the slightest understanding of or sympathy to such. He was correct. I knew the doctrines of the church, but practised them not. I would not make a good clergyman. I have since dedicated myself to become the man my godfather thought me to be.”
“This is astonishing!”
“Do you not believe that God can change the heart of a man?”
“I believe it is possible, but I confess that am not inclined to trust proclamations of sudden transformations of character from a man I barely know.”
“Neither would I. That is why I will endeavour to prove my constancy and my honesty. Test me over the coming months to see if I behave with honour.”
“I will keep that in mind and speak to Mr Darcy.”
“He will confirm all I have told you, other than my change of heart. We have not met since I began my life anew. He is a good man, Miss Bennet, and for many years treated me better than I deserved.”
Elizabeth pondered his words until the music ended the set.
“Thank you for the dance,” Wickham said as he led her to her father. “I must leave now. Remember my words. Goodnight.”
Mr Bennet looked at the departing officer, then at a thoughtful Elizabeth and finally at a fretting Darcy as that gentleman approached. He wondered what all the fuss was about.
“Is there anything either of you would care to enlighten me about?”
“That man is not worth mentioning,” Darcy replied.
“Indeed, that is the opinion of Mr Wickham himself,” Elizabeth answered.
“I am certain he said nothing good of me.”
“On the contrary. He spoke only of himself and said you are right to despise him.” Darcy was too amazed to respond. “He asked me to pass along a message. He vows to stay away from your notice, and to somehow prove that he has seen the error of his ways.”
“He said this to you, a woman he barely knows?” Darcy asked incredulously.
“I am as surprised at his forwardness as you. He also offers his deepest sympathies, though belated, on the loss of your sister.”
Mr Bennet and Elizabeth watched the emotions Darcy was unable to check as they played across his face. Finally Darcy shook his head and gestured for Elizabeth’s hand.
“The music begins. Shall we?”
Neither said much through the opening steps. Elizabeth could tell that her unexpected message from Wickham had unsettled Darcy. She set about calming him.
“I never thought I would admit this, but Miss Bingley has outdone herself this evening. Netherfield has never been shown to greater advantage.”
“However our opinions of our hostess may concur,” Darcy gave her a knowing look, “she has never lacked in her ability to organise a gathering of any type, be it afternoon tea or an elegant ball.”
Elizabeth conceded that he was correct.
“Were you successful on your visit to Town? Mr. Bingley must have felt your absence acutely.”
“The business with my solicitor was concluded to my satisfaction. However, I had wished to pay a call upon my uncle, but he was away from London in Kent.”
Elizabeth’s eyebrow was raised at the mention of that particular county. “Do you have many relatives in Kent?”
“My aunt and cousin live there. I desire to see her and will be required to leave Netherfield again on Thursday to journey to my aunt’s.”
“Is your uncle visiting her?”
“Yes, he is. I should be able to speak to them both and be back in Hertfordshire on Saturday.” The look on Elizabeth’s face told him that she understood. “It is not that great a distance, only fifty miles.”
“Fifty miles is a great distance! Though if I stop and consider your fortune, such a distance is but a trifle to you.”
“Wealth does have certain advantages.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Wealth has a plethora of advantages, Mr Darcy, as you are well aware.”
For the rest of the set they relaxed in pleasant conversation. It was always that way between them.
Elizabeth now knew no announcement of their understanding would come before Saturday. It was just as well, she reasoned, that Mr Collins would likely pass Mr Darcy on the road.
When the set ended, Darcy took Elizabeth back to her family. Yes, they would need to speak to her father tonight. She left the details of arranging the meeting to the two men.
During dinner, Mr Bennet somehow kept his wife in check, and her dining companions were subjected only to her effusive admiration of the decorations, and her equally effusive appreciation of the food and wine. She may have hinted, once or thrice, that Jane would be the next to oversee such an event at Netherfield, but not too much to annoy.
After the meal, Mr Bennet asked for Elizabeth’s company in the library in search of a particular book. Darcy surreptitiously joined them. He told Mr Bennet of his struggles and frustrations in failing to contact his nearest relations. He was able to inform his future father-in-law of the marriage license he had secured and of the settlements now laying in his room and requested a time the next day to call and review them. He also had Elizabeth’s gift to deliver and the visit to Longbourn would give him the opportunity to present it to her in a more appropriate setting.
Elizabeth was disappointed that Darcy would leave again so soon, but the rain of the past week gave him little choice in the matter. She had missed his company whilst he was in Town.
The rest of the evening was uneventful. Mary performed on the pianoforte whilst Elizabeth, Darcy and Mr Bennet were absent, and Lydia was thoughtful enough to exhibit her worst behaviour at the same time. Elizabeth was blissfully unaware of what she had the good fortune to miss, and Mr Collins was unaware that the nephew of his noble patroness was in attendance.
A tired party arrived home in the early hours of the morning, all but Elizabeth pleased with the events of the night, and all were soon asleep in their beds.