Captain Wickham was waiting when Elizabeth appeared walking down the path. He had spent considerable time stalking her movements, until, at last, discovering her routines. He had come to this particular spot, sheltered from view, on each of the last three mornings, awaiting his prey.
“Miss Bennet! What a delightful surprise. I had taken to exploring the country and found this pleasant spot just today. I had no idea that I would meet with such a lovely companion.”
Normally, meeting a man of such charming manners would have pleased her, but Elizabeth was wary. There was something not quite right about Captain Wickham; it was as if he had indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long. Robert seemed not to trust him; she had seen her brother’s look of disgust when he and the captain had un-expectantly met in Meryton. She had enjoyed their dance at Netherfield, but Robert’s disapprobation was enough to put her on her guard.
“Captain Wickham,” she replied. “You are not with your regiment this morning.”
“No, madam.” He bowed over her hand. “My presence was not needed and I decided to seek fresh air and exercise, just as I see have you.” She could not know that he had bullied a junior officer into taking his place that morning.
“I see.” Elizabeth grew uneasy as Wickham continued to hold her hand. “You will excuse me. I am expected at Longbourn and must be on my way if I am to return by the appointed hour.”
“Not quite yet, Miss Bennet, I would dearly like to enjoy your company a little while longer.” Wickham pulled the now struggling Elizabeth into his embrace. “I like your spirit, Miss Elizabeth. Yes, I like a woman who likes it rough.” Wickham forced a kiss upon her mouth. “You are so beautiful and so lively!”
Surely he would not … Elizabeth began to panic; she was alone, with no one to defend her from the man who now held her tightly, arms pinned to her sides.
“Please, sir! Let me go! This is not proper!”
“No, Elizabeth, it is most improper! And I take what I want!” He threw her roughly to the ground; before Elizabeth could react, Wickham was upon her, the weight of his body pinning her. Once again he coarsely kissed her mouth, muffing her screams. As he lifted his face from hers, Elizabeth spat at him. Enraged, Wickham hit her, so hard that a gash appeared above her jaw line.
“A cat I see. I know what to do to wild cats!” He grasped her gown at the neckline and rent it down the middle, exposing her stays. “That is much better! You have lovely breasts, Elizabeth. You would do better to wear gowns that show them to their best advantage.”
“Stop this at once! You will not get away with this!”
Wickham laughed in her face. “And who is to stop me? We are alone, Elizabeth.”
“My family will seek justice!”
“And risk the ruination of their reputation and yours? I think not. And if I get you with child? They will just send you away in disgrace. No, I have nothing to fear.”
“Then you should fear me, Wickham!”
A deep voice rang out as a hand gripped Wickham’s shoulder, spinning him around, followed by a fist to Wickham’s jaw. The blow was so severe that Wickham was hurtled to the ground several feet from Elizabeth. Darcy turned to assist her, but she had already begun to scurry away from her attacker.
“Miss Bennet, has he harmed you?”
“Always the polite one, Darcy?” Wickham sneered. “Or are you jealous because I was ready to take what you wanted?”
Darcy moved back towards Wickham when the rest of his shooting party — Bingley, Robert Bennet, and the servants — finally caught up with him. Robert was shocked to see his sister sitting on the ground, her knees pulled to her chest, now quietly sobbing. He knelt to comfort her until, remembering the cause of his sister’s distress, he moved to confront her attacker. Bingley and Darcy, standing guard over Wickham, moved to restrain him before he had the chance to engage the captain.
By now Wickham had begun to recover, the haze of anger and lust replaced by fear and the prospect of failure. He had to bait Robert now, if he was to complete his mission.
“How typical, Bennet, letting your friends keep you from being a man! Can you not do your duty to your sister? She would be my whore, if Darcy had not shown up in such an untimely manner.”
“Wickham, you bastard! I…”
“NO, BENNET!” Darcy shouted forcefully at his straining friend. “Can you not see what he is trying to do?”
“She is my sister!” Robert screamed.
“I will defend her.”
“Darcy, no!” Bingley and Robert said together.
“Robert, your family is depending on you to be the heir. Charles, your Jane needs you!”
“Yes, Bennet, let Darcy do what you have not the courage to.” Wickham was getting desperate. His purpose was to disgrace the Bennets, not to duel Darcy.
“I will defend my family! I cha…” Before Robert could finish the challenge, Darcy punched his friend in the mouth.
“Forgive me, Bennet, but Wickham is my responsibility.” Turning once again to his boyhood playmate, Darcy spoke the words no one wished to hear. “Wickham, I will defend Miss Bennet’s honour, and I demand satisfaction. I am calling you out. My second will call upon yours. Send his name to my man.”
“Go back to Meryton!” Bingley hissed.
Aware that he was now in mortal peril, Wickham hastily scrambled to his feet, mounted his horse and galloped away.
“Why, William? Why did you stop me?”
“Robert, Wickham was trying to goad you into challenging him before I could. He knows he is no match for me with either pistol or sword. Do not take offence, but he knows that his best chance to prevail would be by fighting you. I could not let you put yourself in harm’s way. Your family truly needs you alive.” Darcy’s voice softened. “And perhaps, one day, my sister will see that she needs you alive, too.”
Stunned by the words of his friend, Robert was all but insensible to his sister’s distress. Seeing Darcy stride over, wrap his cloak around Elizabeth, and pick her up, he was at last provoked to action.
“Here, Darcy, let me. She is my sister.”
Darcy transferred her gently into the arms of her brother. “All will be well, Miss Elizabeth. I will avenge your distress.”
Robert carefully placed his sister upon his horse, swung up behind her, and the party made its way swiftly but solemnly back to Longbourn.
Mr. Bennet looked up from his book as he heard hoofbeats approaching and was surprised to see Robert cradling Elizabeth and riding pell mell towards the house. He hurried out to meet the party; by the sombre visages greeting him, he knew that something was terribly wrong. Robert lowered his sister to his father, dismounted, and reclaimed her to carry her up to her room. Mr. Bennet saw his daughter’s tears, and that she was wearing a man’s cloak, and a dread fell upon him.
Sensing that time was of the essence, he asked the gentlemen to meet him in his library whilst he sought out his eldest daughter. Jane had heard the commotion outside and her mother had sent her to investigate. Fortunately, the windows of the sitting room faced west, opposite the front entrance to the house. Meeting her in the entrance, Mr. Bennet swiftly acquainted her with what little he knew, then sent her back with orders to keep her mother occupied, and ignorant, until he knew what had befallen his second daughter.
Robert summoned Mrs. Hill to Elizabeth’s room, telling the housekeeper only that his sister was distressed; he asked the faithful servant to assist his sister and suggested that Elizabeth might wish to retire to her bed for a rest. He ordered that Elizabeth not be disturbed then rejoined the men downstairs.
After speaking with Jane, and upon entering his library, Mr. Bennet saw Bingley and Darcy speaking in agitated whispers, stopping abruptly as soon as the master of the house had appeared.
“I suppose I must wait upon my son before I am to learn what is going on?”
Bingley looked helplessly to Darcy to answer his future father-in-law. “Sir, out of respect for my friend, your son, I believe we should await his return before launching such a discussion.”
“Very well. I anticipated your response. Would you like a glass of port whilst we wait?”
“I think Bingley and I would prefer something stronger, sir.”
Mr. Bennet gazed at the men before him, now truly worried for his child. The minutes crept by slowly until Robert Bennet made his way into the room. They had not waited even ten minutes for his appearance, but each would have sworn it was much longer. Indeed, the deepening worry lines on Mr. Bennet’s face seemed to have aged him.
“Tell me, Robert.”
Taking a deep breath, he obeyed his father and began. “As Bingley, Darcy and I approached the field where we were to hunt this morning, Darcy noted something and rode on ahead. Then we all heard the cries of a woman coming from the direction in which Darcy had headed. We spurred our mounts but Darcy’s horse, of course, pulled away. When we finally came upon him, we found Elizabeth huddled on the ground, crying, and George Wickham in a heap several feet way. It was evident that Darcy had pulled Wickham off Elizabeth and struck him.”
“No, Mr. Bennet. He had not made it that far.” Darcy answered.
“The bastard! The filthy, rotten, bloody bastard! I will call him out for what he did to my daughter!”
“There is no need for you to do so, sir.” Darcy answered quietly.
“NO NEED? No need to avenge my daughter?”
“It is being dealt with, Father.”
“It is not Robert, sir.” Mr. Bennet turned to look Darcy in the eye, silently asking the question. “Yes, Mr. Bennet, it is I.”
“Mr. Darcy, I cannot allow this…”
“Wickham is my responsibility. I shall have it. I will not be swayed in this matter.”
“I do not understand, Mr. Darcy.” Mr. Bennet studied the man before him, then gazed at the faces of his son and his future son-in-law. He was surprised by the air of acceptance of the latter two men. Mr. Bennet returned his focus Darcy, who, understanding the need for clarification, began to speak.
“George Wickham is the son of an honourable man who was steward of my estate until his recent death. Indeed, my family and I owe much to the late Mr. Wickham. I have learned a great many things from him and when I gain full control of my inheritance, I shall finally be able to put into practice much that he taught me. George, however, is quite a different story. We played together as boys, but as we grew older I came to understand that he was not a man of honour like his father. Unfortunately, my late father never saw this side of him, for George Wickham was very adept in concealing his baser actions. Under the terms of my father’s will, Wickham was provided with a gentleman’s education and a small legacy; we were also instructed to aide Wickham in the establishment of a profession. He attended Cambridge with us.” Bingley nodded in affirmation.
“This explains your reactions to the mentioning of him, Robert.”
Darcy continued “My uncle, the Earl of Matlock, was the executer of my father’s will as well as one of my guardians and a trustee of my estate. He, like me, saw through Wickham’s appearance of goodness and encouraged him to pursue a career in the army. When Wickham finished University, a commission was purchased for him. I hoped I would never have to suffer his presence again.”
“But I still fail to see why you take responsibility in this matter, Mr. Darcy.”
“Do you not see, sir? MY family is responsible for his education. MY family is responsible for his profession. MY family is responsible for his ill character not becoming known in the neighbourhood. My father would be appalled at what has happened. It is my duty to step forward and endeavour to remedy an evil which has been brought about by my family. I am doing nothing more than trying to atone. It is my greatest regret that your family has been made to suffer for the mistakes of mine.”
“I understand your reasoning, sir, and it does you credit. But I cannot allow you to place your life in jeopardy. You could be killed.”
“As could your son and heir,” replied Darcy. “Mr. Bennet, put your mind at ease; Wickham is no match for me with either pistol or sword. I am fully confident in my abilities in that regard. I am not in danger.”
Still Mr Bennet hesitated.
“Please, sir, you must allow me this. I did not challenge Wickham without reason. I defend the honour of both our families.”
Mr. Bennet saw that Darcy would not be dissuaded. He chose to relent. “So be it, Mr. Darcy. As much as I regret the need for your gallantry, I find that I must accept it. Go with God and with the gratitude of all my family.”
“Not at all, sir. Rest assured that I will take every precaution. I will see this blackguard punished for what he has done.”
“Darcy.” Robert gained his friend’s attention. “I will be your second.”
“Darcy, you must let Bennet be your second.”
“Darcy, Elizabeth is his sister.”
Darcy pondered the words of his friends. “Bennet, I would be honoured if you would be my second.”
The room slipped into silence. Mr. Bennet was next to speak.
“How is Elizabeth, Robert?”
“She is very distraught. Mrs. Hill is with her, and I ordered that she not be disturbed.” Bennet hesitated.
“What are you not telling me, son?”
Robert was afraid to meet his father’s eye. “Did you notice the condition of her gown?”
“Wickham, he … he tore its front and…”
Mr. Bennet finally named the fear that had been drifting just out of reach in the recesses of his mind. “Who saw her as such?” None of the men would look at him. “Did the servants see?”
And then the sound of muffled sobs.
“Oh, Elizabeth,” softly.
“Mr. Bennet,” firmly spoken. Darcy arose and stood tall, proud, and erect before the defeated father ready to do that which to him would have been unthinkable only that morning. “Mr. Bennet, I ask for your consent to marry your daughter, Miss Elizabeth.”
A shocked silence…
All eyes turned to Darcy.
“Will you grant me the hand of your daughter, Elizabeth, in marriage, sir?” Darcy spoke again.
“Why?” Any of them could have asked the question.
“Robert, if it were not for you, I would not be alive today. I vowed someday I would repay you. I will do that now, if your father will grant me the hand of your sister.”
“All of you know what will happen if Elizabeth does not marry.”
“I promise to be a good and kind husband to your daughter, Mr. Bennet. She will never lack for anything.”
“I respect Miss Elizabeth more than any other woman I know. I cannot stand idly by and see her ruined, through no fault of her own, when it is within my power to prevent it. She is my friend. For us, that will be enough.”
“There is no other way.”
Darcy turned to his friend. “Please, Robert, let me do this for you, for Elizabeth, for all your family.”
Robert finally came out of his stupor. “Darcy, I cannot allow you to take this all upon yourself. You have already called out the bastard. That is more than enough.”
“Bennet, how can I convince you? I want to do this!”
“Your family will not approve.”
“I am my own man. I may marry whomever I choose. I choose Elizabeth.” Seeing his friend still opposed to the idea, Darcy continued. “Bennet, I am not Georgiana. Do you have a better solution? Think of your sister, man! I can restore her honour by meeting Wickham AND marrying her!”
“But there must be another way. She does not deserve to give up her hopes for her future.”
“Can you foresee that future now? She will be in disgrace if she does not marry. To whom would you arrange a marriage? Am I not the best prospect she could have? What fate would you consign her to if she does not marry me?”
This time Darcy made it a point to look each man in the eye. One by one they signalled their acquiescence.
“Very well, Mr. Darcy. I grant you my consent, and my blessing. You are a good man, sir. And I shall be proud to call you my son.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bennet. I shall strive to live up to such standards. Bennet, Bingley, we shall be brothers at last.” Darcy rose and shook each man’s hand. A silent vow, a covenant sealed in adversity, a kinship born.
“How should we proceed, Father?” Mr. Bennet pondered his son’s questions for many minutes before answering.
“Where are the servants who witnessed Elizabeth’s situation?”
“I ordered them to remain here at Longbourn, sir.” Bingley answered.
“Robert, go speak to them. Warn them that there will be dire consequences if they spread this news about like a bunch of old women!”
“Yes, Father.” And Robert rose to carry out his father’s wishes, certain, however, that such news had already begun spreading among all the servants. Thus, he determined to order that no one was permitted to leave the property until the master came and spoke to all of them later.
“Mr. Bingley?” Mr. Bennet addressed the younger man.
“What do you wish for me to do?”
“Please speak to Jane, privately. Her mother will not stop you.” The three men exchanged wry looks. “Explain everything.”
“Everything?” he asked, looking at Darcy.
“Yes, everything, but ask her not to reveal Mr. Darcy’s offer. Also ask her to ascertain when Elizabeth will be able to come downstairs to see me.”
Mr. Bennet and Darcy were alone. “Mr. Darcy, how can I ever thank you? Yet I am saddened that I must give away my beloved Lizzy in such a manner.” Darcy nodded in understanding. ”But I believe she will be content with you. She esteems you. Her lively talents would have put her in danger of an unequal marriage, otherwise. At least I can be assured that she will respect her partner in life. This brings me some comfort and spares me much grief.”
“Mr. Bennet, I would like to be present when you tell Miss Elizabeth of our arrangement.” Mr. Bennet raised his brow in question. “I… I believe it would be better coming from the both of us. And I would suggest that only we three be present. Your son’s presence would be a … hindrance … to the honest words I fear we must all say.”
“I can give no arguments against your request. So be it, we will tell her together.”
Thomas Bennet contemplated the young man before him. He had yet to understand why Darcy would choose, for the sake of friendship alone, a path such as he had put himself — and Elizabeth — on today. There must be some other reason to explain his actions. Fighting Wickham was one thing; Mr. Bennet accepted, if only just, Darcy’s arguments on that score. But marry Elizabeth? When he looked upon Darcy, he did not see a man violently in love. But there was definitely something there, and he hoped to solve of the mystery of the man before him.
Robert soon returned from his mission and explained his precautions and worries to his father. Mr. Bennet agreed that he needed to speak to all of the servants that afternoon after the announcements had been made to all of the family, Elizabeth being the primary recipient.
They adjourned to take tea with the family. Bingley joined them there, but Jane remained upstairs with Elizabeth. The men were in no mood to converse and Mrs. Bennet held forth.
“You must excuse my eldest daughters. I am told Elizabeth returned from her walk unwell and Jane is attending her.” Mary said little as Mrs. Bennet informed her husband of her morning visit to Lady Lucas and her plans for an upcoming dinner to once again show off Jane and Bingley’s engagement. “Now, if I can only convince Robert to find a wife, then I shall be perfectly content.” Everyone wisely ignored her.
Jane finally appeared in the room. Bingley’s mood instantly brightened upon the entrance of his fiancée. Jane merely smiled at her father and Mr. Darcy, but it was enough to convey the message. ‘Elizabeth will join you in the library after her tea.’
“Is Lizzy feeling better now, Jane?” Mary asked.
“Yes, I believe she will be downstairs later today. Her tea was brought up to her just as I was leaving.” Jane showed an affection for her sister that Bingley found quite pleasing.
As the tea things were cleared away, the gentlemen removed to Mr. Bennet’s library, citing a need to discuss some estate management issues. Once assured of privacy, Mr. Bennet spoke to his son. “Robert, please ask Jane to see if your sister now feels well enough to meet me here. Then join Mr. Bingley in keeping your mother and other sisters company. Not that Bingley will let you interfere in apprehending Jane’s undivided attention for long.”
“But, Father, I wish to be here to comfort Lizzy when you reveal her marriage arrangements. Considering your instruction, it appears Darcy will be here with you,”
“Yes, Mr. Darcy and I will speak with Lizzy. But we will do so alone.” Thomas Bennet rarely exercised his authority, as he was doing now. As much as Robert Bennet wished to cajole his father into changing his mind, this was one time he knew it would be futile.
When Elizabeth finally entered her father’s library, she was unprepared to meet Mr. Darcy. What little composure she had managed to summon abandoned her; the sight of him brought back the unpleasant memories of the morning in waves, each pouring over her like floods of ice-cold water. Her father understood her distress; he helped her sit in a chair and knelt on one knee before her.
“All will be well, my child.”
At last, Elizabeth regained her composure. “I am sorry, Papa, It is only that when I saw Mr. Darcy, I was suddenly back …”
“I regret that my presence has brought you such distress. Perhaps I should leave after all.”
“No, Mr. Darcy. It was not your presence alone which triggered such recollection. I believe any participant in the morning’s events would have elicited the same response.”
Buoyed by his daughter’s words, Mr. Bennet returned to his favourite chair and Darcy himself sat next to him.
“Robert and Mr. Darcy have related the events to me, Lizzy. I feel that I have failed to protect you, my child.”
“No, Papa, I have been walking these country paths for many years and before this day I have never felt unsafe. I do not understand! Why did he try to do such a thing?”
“I have no answers for you, only questions myself.”
Realizing the great debt she owed the man next to her father, she addressed Darcy. “Mr. Darcy, how can I begin to thank you for all that you have done for me and my family. I… I shall be forever in you debt.”
“It is my honour to protect you, Miss Elizabeth.”
She nodded in acceptance of his gallantry.
“I shall forever be grateful to Mr. Darcy for all he has done, and will do for our family.”
Her father’s words brought new meaning to Darcy’s pledge of protection.
“Sir, I thank you for your actions today, for restraining Robert, but I cannot allow you to willingly put yourself in mortal peril because of me.”
“It is my honour to defend you, Miss Elizabeth. I would not have it any other way.”
“But surely… Father, there must be another way besides a duel. Can we not go to Colonel Forster?”
“Lizzy, I do not know how to say this.” Her father’s words made Elizabeth apprehensive. “Lizzy, my child. I want to tell you that I know that you have done nothing to deserve this.”
“I know that the villain did not succeed in his attempt, thanks to Mr. Darcy. But…”
“But what, Papa?” Her agitation was growing. Surely not…
“But he did succeed in compromising you.”
Shocked beyond all belief, Elizabeth covered her face with her hands and began to weep. She felt a strong hand on her shoulder. “Do not despair, Miss Elizabeth, all is not lost.”
Looking up, bewildered, she said through her tears, “You have chosen to enter a duel yet that will not completely remove the stain now upon me. What honour do I have left for you to protect?”
“All will be well, Elizabeth.”
“All will be well? All will be well? Sir, how can you keep saying such a thing? My life is utterly ruined! My family will be fortunate indeed to escape my shame!” She was crying harder now. And still Darcy held his hand fast upon her shoulder.
“I will defend you and my family, Elizabeth.”
This second use of her Christian name, the lack of censure from her father, the claim of his family — all fused into one astonishing thought.
“Surely, sir, you can not mean…”
Darcy dropped to his knee before her and took her hand.
“It is my honour to defend you and our family. Your family will be my family. Mine will be yours.”
Elizabeth tore her eyes away and looked to her father. “Father?”
“Yes, I have given my consent to Mr. Darcy to marry you, Elizabeth.”
“But Father, I do not wish…”
“But I do. You will marry Mr. Darcy.” Elizabeth was filled with melancholy. “Elizabeth,” Mr. Bennet continued, in a gentler tone. “You must see that we have no choice. I would not wish to give you in marriage this way, but I must think of our family. What of Robert, Mary, Jane, and even Mr. Bingley?”
“What of me, Father? What of my wishes?”
“Lizzy, Mr. Darcy is a good man. I know that you like him and respect him. He is Robert’s friend, and I thought he was your friend, too. Under the circumstances, none of us could hope for better.”
“Father,” Elizabeth released an exasperated breath. “You know I always wished to marry for love. But why, why are you doing this, Mr. Darcy?” Elizabeth said, turning again to look at her unexpected fiancé.
Darcy still was kneeling before her, holding her hand. Purposefully he released her hand and rose again to his feet. He turned to face the other man. Respectfully he asked, “May I have some time alone with Elizabeth, sir?”
Mr. Bennet considered the pair for a moment. Then, without uttering a word, he got to his feet and left the room.
Neither Darcy nor Elizabeth spoke.
Darcy contemplated how he should proceed. He knew that the next few minutes would set the tone for their future together. He decided that honesty, which had always served him so well, was the only sensible choice of action.
“Elizabeth, I would always speak the truth with you. Will you hear me now?” She inclined her head in consent. “Elizabeth, before we go any further, we need to clarify a few things. Until this morning, I would have called us friends. Was this your belief?” Elizabeth silently agreed. “Then what has changed? Are we not still friends?” She hesitated, but he was correct. Neither had done anything to diminish their understanding of each other. Her eyes answered ‘yes, we are still friends’.
“You asked me why I offered to marry you. To own the truth, I do not fully know the answer myself. I know only that when the true import of your situation became apparent, I knew what I must do. What I wanted to do. I would not see my friend, the sister of my friend, brought to shame for something of which you are entirely blameless.
I do not pretend to believe that it will not be awkward between us, at least at first. Again, Elizabeth, I am being completely honest with you. When I look at you I see Robert’s sister, I see my friend. Actually, I believe, outside of my family, you are the only woman I would have ever called my friend. That is a start for us, is it not?”
“But Mr. Darcy, I also see you as a friend. I do not love you. I have never sought your affections for a romantic attachment.”
“I understand, Elizabeth. You are a beautiful woman, but I have sought nothing from you other than friendship as well.”
“Then why are you marrying me?”
“I have told you, I do not fully understand it myself. Perhaps I feel myself partly responsible. The… man who did this to you was my father’s godson. My family has supported him in school and in the Military. And I do owe your family a great debt, one I can never repay. Your brother…” Darcy words caught in Darcy’s mouth. He paused to regain control and changed the mode of his reasoning. “Beth adores you, and I have no doubt that your wit, charm and quickness of mind will serve you well and make you a worthy mistress of Pemberley.”
The words ‘mistress of Pemberley’ triggered another apprehension. Darcy noticed her change in expression and immediately guessed its cause. “Elizabeth, I know this is difficult to speak of, but I will not insist that we immediately consummate our marriage. We can wait until we know each other better and are ready. Indeed now, the same reasons that impelled me to ask your father for your hand prevent me from experiencing such desires. And please do not think I am rejecting you. That is not my meaning. It is only that I am not ready now to bind myself to you in that way. I would never use you to satisfy my urges. That would be beneath you, and it is beneath me. And I will assure you now, that once I pledge you my troth, I will be faithful to you alone. I am yours in honour.”
“Do you not wish for an heir?”
“You will allow me to choose when?”
“When we are BOTH ready.”
Elizabeth sat in silent contemplation. What choice did she have? Her father had granted his consent and there was nothing more, really, to be gained by mourning over it. And then she remembered something of her philosophy, ‘Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.’ She recalled scenes of their walks, their discussions, their debates. She smiled that impish smile. Darcy was captivated… and relieved.
“I may not love you, Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth sighed, “but I do like you very much. Yes, it is a start.”
“Then you consent?”
“To what do I consent?” She was smiling again.
“To my offer of marriage!”
“Excuse me, sir, I have not heard an actual offer, an implied statement, but no offer.”
Darcy was relieved.
He once again left his chair to kneel in front of Elizabeth. Taking her hand, and staring straight into her eyes, he said, “Miss Elizabeth Bennet, my dear friend, will you marry me?”
Never taking his eyes off hers, Darcy raised her hand to his lips and bestowed a kiss.
When Mr. Bennet returned to his library, the lack of tension in the room was noticeable. He found Elizabeth and Darcy seated close to each other, their faces awash in the amicable comfort they felt in each other’s presence. ‘As long as Darcy survives this duel, perhaps all will be well for these two.’ And for the first time Mr. Bennet understood what had been before him this entire time, what he had seen in Darcy when the young man offered for Elizabeth’s hand. Darcy and his daughter were very companionable with each other. There was no false dignity at all. It was as if they understood one other without yet even truly knowing each other. It was… remarkable. Mr. Bennet smiled. The two persons before him had met their soul’s mate.* He wondered who would be the first to discover it.
“Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth. It appears that you two have come to an understanding.”
“Yes, Mr. Bennet. Miss Elizabeth has accepted my offer of marriage.” Darcy smiled at Elizabeth. Mr. Bennet noticed that Darcy continued to hold his daughter’s hand, and was absentmindedly stroking it with his thumb. “We have also been discussing the timing of the wedding. It is my opinion, as well as Miss Elizabeth’s, that we should be wed soon after I meet Mr. Wickham. It would defeat the purpose to delay longer. Gossip might spread.”
Darcy immediately squeezed Elizabeth’s hand in an act of reassurance. Grateful for his gesture, Elizabeth continued. “We would like the ceremony to be held next Friday.”
The suddenness of it all once again washed over Mr. Bennet. He had consented to and blessed this union; indeed, it was he who had insisted that Elizabeth accept it as well. It did not mean, however, that he was prepared to lose his daughter so suddenly.
“Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy. Please forgive this sentimental old fool. I found the rapidity of events of this day suddenly overwhelming.” He paused, then continued, “You are, of course, correct. I believe Friday next is a logical choice. You have a special license to secure, Mr. Darcy.”
“I will leave for Town tomorrow, after… and I have need to visit with my solicitor as well. Marriage is not an uncomplicated venture, sir.”
“No, it is not.” Mr. Bennet smiled at the young man before him. Almost too young to be marrying, but there was nothing for it. “You will return with a copy of the marriage settlements?”
“Yes, sir. Have no fear over Miss Elizabeth’s future. I will see to it that she lacks for nothing in any eventuality.”
“I do not doubt you, sir. I will have my brother, Mr. Phillips, prepare everything in regards to Elizabeth’s dowry. He has recently done the same for Jane, so it should not take long to complete.”
“I assure you that is of little consequence to me. I will see to it that your daughter is well cared for, as is her due as my wife.” Darcy again smiled at Elizabeth, her hand still in his. They were both baffled by Mr. Bennet’s amused smile. ‘Neither of them have any idea,’ the older gentleman thought.
“Then there seems little else to discuss along these lines until you return.” Turning to more pressing matters, Mr. Bennet continued. “I believe I should speak to Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth, do you wish to inform Mary, or would you like for me to do that as well.”
“I detect from your comments that they are the only members of the family yet to be informed?”
“You are a clever child. Yes, Robert and Mr. Bingley were present when Mr. Darcy made his offer.” Elizabeth raised her brow as she looked to Darcy.
“I was not expecting to offer when I entered the room.” Darcy said in embarrassment. “Once I did so, I found my task trebled. I had to obtain the consent of three men instead of just one.”
Elizabeth was now quite diverted. “And Jane?”
“That was my decision, child. She needed to be able to judge your ability to hear Mr. Darcy’s proposal.”
“You must admit, Papa, it is not many sisters who know of their sister’s betrothal before they do.” Both men were relieved at Elizabeth’s acceptance of the situation. “Perhaps you should inform Mary as well. Then I will have none of the pleasure of informing any of my family that I am to be wed,” she added sarcastically.
Darcy almost barked at the impudent tone of her remark. Yes, Elizabeth Bennet was indeed a remarkable woman. Perhaps he was the fortunate one in their alliance after all. At least he would never have to put off Caroline Bingley again! He almost wished he could be there when Bingley spoke to his sister. But upon further contemplation, he decided he would rather not.
Anticipating the great upheaval sure to follow, Mr. Bennet sent the young people out for a walk, with instructions to Bingley to see that Elizabeth and Darcy had time alone. That couple had much to discuss. He then instructed Mrs. Hill to gather all of the servants and to wait for him in the kitchen. With all human impediments thus removed, Mr. Bennet went to his wife. She was very surprised to see him, especially alone.
“Mr. Bennet, to what do I owe the honour of your company at such an hour?”
“Frances, there is something I wish to speak to you about. Come, sit by me.” As she sat, he took both her hands between his.
“Thomas, the servants.”
“They will not disturb us, my dear.” He looked her full in the face. “You are as beautiful today as the day I first saw you.”
“That was nearly thirty years ago, and I am no longer that young girl.”
“You age has matured your beauty. When I look at you now, I see all of our past life together and the hope for many more years as well.” He leaned over and gently kissed his wife of six-and-twenty years.
“What is it, Thomas?”
“Frances, I have something very important to tell you. I ask that you listen to all that I have to say, and not interrupt. Will you promise, my Frances?”
Her husband’s tone and manner were so unexpectedly serious that she could only nod her head in acquiescence; and so Mr. Bennet began to tell her of all that had transpired that day. Whenever it seemed that his wife would speak, he stopped, looked her into the eye, squeezed her hands, and tilted his head to remind her of her promise. Mrs. Bennet managed to hold her tongue until the news of the duel was spoken and she understood the true import of Elizabeth’s distress.
“Oh, Thomas! We are all ruined!”
“Calm yourself, Frances, and listen. I am not yet finished.” He told her of Darcy’s offer and of Elizabeth’s eventual consent. Mrs. Bennet’s agitation increased as she began to credit what such an alliance should mean to their family.
“And have they set a wedding date?”
“So soon! But the wedding clothes?”
“There will be time enough for such things later.”
“Oh well, I suppose, if you put it that way. Two daughters married! And such rich husbands!”
“Madam, the only matter to me is the quality of the men they are marrying. I could not wish for two better men to take my daughters from me.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose you are right. But I shall go distracted if I do not begin making plans for Lizzy’s wedding immediately. There is so much to be done and so little time. Where is she, I must speak with her.”
Mrs. Bennet tried to stand but her husband would not allow it. “Frances, I sent the children and their betrothed away for a walk, they will not return for at least an hour. The servants know they are to stay in the kitchen until summoned. I find the thought of two of our children leaving very distressful. I would like some company… and some comfort.” Slowly, Mr. Bennet leaned over and kissed his wife. Deeply.
At last he arose… took her hand… and said, simply…
“Georgiana, I have need to speak with you in private. Please join me in the library.”
Darcy glanced toward his younger sister, busy with her lessons, then turned to leave. Georgiana excused herself to Mrs. Annesley and followed him.
With the library door shut behind her, Georgiana immediately inquired after her brother’s agitated state.
“William, what troubles you? Are you ill?”
“I am quite well, thank you. But today has been a most extraordinary day.” He paused, unsure how to proceed. “Georgiana, I know you wished to depart for Town in a few days, but I would ask you to extend your stay here.”
“William, we have discussed this. I have need to go to Town early to prepare for Christmastide.”
“Georgiana, I need you here more. I…”
“What is it? What could possibly require my continued presence at Netherfield?”
“Georgiana, I am to be married on Friday next.”
Georgiana, startled, was silent for several moments. “I see.”
Darcy waited impatiently for her to continue, but she did not. “Is this all you have to say to me?”
“I have so many things to say, I do not know where to begin.”
“You have not even asked to whom I am to be married?”
“I always assumed that you would marry cousin Anne. But the haste of this wedding leads me to believe it is not she whom you are to marry.”
“Anne? Why does every member of this family believe I want to marry Anne?”
“Do you not?”
“If I did, then I would certainly have treated her like a lover, not a beloved cousin.”
“Anne would be a good match for you and the alliance would unite two splendid estates. Aunt Catherine has made no secret of her expectations. The family always assumed you two were all but engaged.”
“Then you all have been deluding yourselves. I have never desired it, and neither has Anne. Or did no one bother to ask her either?”
Georgiana was stung. “If not Anne, then who is to be your bride?”
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
Now Georgiana was truly shaken. Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet? Sister of the man whose marriage proposal she had refused? Was she, the granddaughter of an Earl, to be replaced as mistress of Pemberley by this, this nobody?
All the reasons she had rejected Robert Bennet coursed through her mind: his inferior connections, his lack of affluence, prospects, and social position. Despite all that, she had loved him: despite that love, she had renounced him. Duty, honour, decorum, birth — all demanded that she not marry so far beneath her. Surely these were equally compelling arguments against his sister as a suitable match for her brother.
Georgiana, suffering from disappointment and regret, grieving over what was and wishing for what could never be, was angry. She had chosen duty over love; William did not even have the excuse of ardent attachment. Indeed, if there was any love at all between him and Miss Bennet, it was platonic at best. Why? Why was William doing this? Why was he doing this to her? After all that she had sacrificed, he was throwing it away!
“William! What have you done? What manner of arts and allurements has she used that makes you forget all that you owe to our family? Nay even to yourself! How has she drawn you in?”
“You are quick to assume the worst of Miss Bennet! You were just as quick to lavish praise upon her for her artlessness and lack of social pretensions.”
“Your haste leaves me no other opinion.”
“Perhaps you should be more leisurely in forming such a decided opinion. I have a very good reason to marry Miss Bennet with all due haste.”
Georgiana gasped. “You have compromised her!”
“No! How could you even think such of me?” In great distress, Darcy stood and fled to the other side of the room, willing himself to be calm, then continued. “Georgiana, do not think ill of my future wife. We have broken no rules of propriety. Our honour is intact.”
“Then why this rush to the altar? Please, William, I do not understand your rash behaviour?”
Darcy saw the pleading in her eyes, the struggle to understand, the need to think well of him. “Are you now prepared to hear my reasons?” She nodded. “Then let us sit together and I shall tell you what has transpired since Bingley and I left with our shooting party this morning.”
Knowing how difficult this would be for the both of them, Darcy tenderly took his older sister’s hand in his. How often had she done the same for him, especially after their mother died? She had held his hand and calmed his fears most tenderly. Now it was his turn. Slowly, and in great detail, he retold the events of the morning. When he revealed the state in which he had discovered Elizabeth, she began to silently weep. Darcy knew that he must not stop to comfort her, that he must continue his tale before he too succumbed to emotion; and he knew what her response to the news of the duel would be.
“William! I… you…”
“Please let me finish. I think you will better understand if you allow me to continue.”
She did not interrupt again. He waited for her to speak. At last she was ready.
“I must confess this is quite a shock. I… I am at loss for words. You should have allowed Ro… Mr. Bennet to confront Wickham, she is his sister after all.”
”And see my friend gravely injured or even killed? I owe him my life, Georgiana!”
“Be that as it may, surely there was no need to further protect Miss Bennet with an offer of marriage.”
Darcy was frustrated and disappointed by his sister’s lack of concern for the young woman in such a difficult position, a woman he had thought was friend to all his family. He released her hand and once again strode a short distance away before turning to speak to her.
“You still see only inferior wealth and connections.” He glared again at Georgiana, his gaze turning cold. “You cannot see Miss Bennet’s strength of character, her fierce loyalty, her quick mind, her impeccable manners. You place too high a value on rank, ancestry, and consequence. What a peculiar sense of honour you have, Georgiana; it allows you to abandon a friend who, through no fault of her own, faces ruin. I could not consider myself a gentleman had I not offered a solution to her distress when it was entirely in my power to do so; especially when, in so many ways, it is our own family’s fault! That, Georgiana, is my definition of honour and duty!”
Georgiana stiffened under his rebuke, but returned his cold glare with one of her own. “Am I to congratulate myself, or you, on the prospect of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath our own? Your first duty is to your family, brother, not to some young woman wholly unconnected to us. Instead of rescuing the Bennets, you may very well have destroyed the Darcys.”
Darcy looked at his sister as if he had never seen her before. “I have asked you to stay for my wedding, and it is still my desire that you do so. I would share this day with those I love. However, if you cannot bring yourself to accept the situation as it stands, then remove yourself to London immediately. But be forewarned: if you cannot or will not give my wife what is her due, perhaps you should stay with our Uncle and Aunt Matlock permanently.” And Darcy strode out of the room, closing the door forcefully behind him.
That evening at dinner, Beth was bewildered by the behaviour of her companions. Georgiana and Darcy spoke few words to each other, each utterance cold and polite. Bingley also spoke little, and for once, Caroline was restrained and distracted, not even attempting to command Darcy’s attention. Beth longed to know what had caused such an alteration in everyone’s mood and was unwilling to let Darcy slip away for the evening without comment. So when he came to wish her a good night, Beth was ready.
“William, everyone was acting very strangely at dinner, including you.”
“I apologize, Beth. It has been a rather extraordinary day.”
“Will you tell me?”
Darcy looked at his sister with great affection. She was no longer a little child; all too soon she would complete the transformation from young girl to woman. He smiled and took her hand.
“Beth, very soon you will have a new sister.”
Beth’s eye grew wide and she could not hide her excitement. “William, are you to be married? To whom?”
“I believe you will be pleased to know that Miss Elizabeth Bennet has consented to be my wife.”
“Miss Elizabeth! Oh William!” she said as she threw her arms around to brother. “Truly?”
Darcy laughed. “Yes, Beth, truly. I knew you, at least, would be pleased.”
“Pleased? I am beside myself with joy! I cannot believe Miss Elizabeth will be my sister… But, you just said you knew I at least would be pleased. Is this why you and Georgiana were not speaking tonight? Is she not pleased?”
Darcy sighed. “No, she does not approve of my marriage.”
“I do not understand. I thought Georgiana liked Miss Elizabeth.”
“It is somewhat more complex than simple likes or dislikes. Georgiana believes that I am marrying too far below our circle. She is angry with me and concerned about the ramifications of my choice upon you — and herself.”
“That is the proudest and haughtiest… Does Georgiana really believe this?”
“I am sorry to say that she does. But do not be too harsh on your sister, Beth. In the eyes of society, she may be correct. There may yet be a price to pay. I only pray that once Elizabeth is known amongst the ton that her country upbringing will no longer be held against her.”
“I care not for the opinion of others! Miss Elizabeth will make you a wonderful wife, William. I have never seen you so at ease with a woman as I have seen you with her.”
“Thank you, Beth.” He gently kissed her forehead. “I will leave you now to your rest.”
“Will I see Miss Elizabeth tomorrow?”
“One way or another.”
“What do you mean?”
“Pay no attention to me. You shall see Elizabeth tomorrow. Goodnight, Beth.” – ‘I only hope I am still alive when they do so.’
“Good night, William. And I am VERY happy for you.”
Elizabeth sat up in her bed that evening, unable to fall asleep, her mind too engaged with the events of the day. She knew herself well enough to know that unless she took the time to come to terms with the day’s events, she would still be awake at dawn.
The best place to start was at the beginning. Elizabeth directed her thoughts to the time she had left Longbourn for her walk. She had left the house exceedingly pleased with the prospects for Jane’s marital felicity. Charles Bingley seemed to be the perfect man to become Jane’s husband. Their tempers were so evenly matched that she could hardly imagine them seriously arguing. It was with such pleasant thoughts that she came upon Captain Wickham. Such a strange place to come upon another person; little wonder she had grown apprehensive so quickly. He should not have been there. Surely he had duties that required his attention. Was he waiting for someone? For her? Elizabeth shivered; the thought that Wickham might have singled her out was chilling. Why would he do such a thing to any woman, to her?
She remembered the sneer on his face as he talked to her, knowing she was totally in his power. Impossible to believe, but he had hit her, he had hit her! Elizabeth touched the cut from his blow. He took pleasure in hurting her, shocking her. Why?
The sound of fabric ripping, the feel of his hand as he tore away her clothing … Elizabeth shuddered, reliving her terror; she pulled her knees to her chest again, recalling her helplessness. Why was he doing this?
“Then you should fear me, Wickham.” The memory of the words was so forceful that Elizabeth looked to see if anyone was in the room. She could hear Mr. Darcy speaking as if he were there before her. No, not Mr. Darcy… William now. His words; could any six words ever mean as much to her as those did? As she relived hearing William’s words, a feeling of relief flooded her mind. She was safe.
Then William had spoken another six words: “Wickham, I am calling you out.”
The words were not unexpected, but the speaker was. Robert was on the verge, but William had stopped him. Why? The same question over and over again. Why? Why had William assumed Robert’s duty?
Elizabeth faced the mortifying realization that she was relieved that Robert was not in danger, but also a bit put out with Mr. Darcy for usurping her brother’s place. This would never do. The man was risking his life to defend her honour and she was annoyed that he was doing so? How selfish could she be? She owed him her gratitude, not peevish resentment. He stopped Robert from placing himself in mortal peril and had stepped in instead. Why?
She remembered feeling completely exhausted whilst riding back to Longbourn, cradled in Robert’s embrace. He had sheltered her from the prying, mocking eyes of the world. She became conscious how dazed she had been and, only now, realized that her father had held her in his arms before Robert carried her to her room. What must Papa have thought? Did he fear for her? She certainly was incapable of fearing for her reputation then.
It was only after Jane had come to her, to calm her, that she had begun to comprehend just how perilous a position she was in. Jane, so beautiful, so kind, always finding the best in everyone and everything. Seeing the worry etched on her sister’s face made Elizabeth all too aware of the gravity of her situation. But Jane’s tender ministrations soon began to work their healing power and the gloom began to dissipate.
Stepping into her father’s library had been like stepping through a doorway into a new life. Elizabeth entered the room ruined; she left with a future. William’s offer was still beyond belief. Nothing in their acquaintance had even hinted at anything more than friendship. He did not need to fight a duel to preserve her honour; he most certainly did not need to offer her the shelter of marriage. Why had he done so? Another why; another question for which she had no answer.
“…You are the only woman I have ever called my friend. That is a start for us, is it not?”
‘Yes it is a start, William. But if we are to be joined in Holy Matrimony, I must learn to see you as so much more than my friend.’
Who was this man? Mr. Darcy, her friend; William, her champion, her protector, her … husband? He was handsome; she had noticed that the first time they met; his smile lit his whole face with a sublime beauty. His voice – deep and resonant. He had an inner strength of character that she had rarely seen in others. He seemed to be a man of integrity in all that he did. He was intelligent, well-read, and respected her opinions. She would never be poor, far from it, and she believed he would, at the very least, be kind to her. She had been determined to marry only for love, but she began to comprehend that, if she must marry, the character and respect of a good man, a good friend, might serve as a foundation for love. There was certainly at this moment, in her mind, a more gentle sensation towards him than she had ever felt before; and she grew steadfast and fearless in her thankfulness for Fitzwilliam Darcy.
‘As long as he survives tomorrow.’
Robert had done his best to assure her of William’s superior skill with blade and pistol, but only the hand of God could assure his safety. There was just one thing she could do.
“Oh Gracious God in Heaven, protect Thy servant, William, who seeks only to protect me. Keep him in Thy tender care and let not his adversary overcome him. I ask Thee, by Thy mercy, to give him victory and justice over the one who sought to bring me harm and shame. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. Amen.”
At last Elizabeth had come to the place where her mind was at ease. Tomorrow was a new day, and as long as William still walked this earth at the end of it, there was hope.
George Wickham was a confident man. Rarely had he found himself in a situation with so little doubt of an outcome advantageous to himself; today was surely one of those times.
When he had returned to Hertfordshire to complete the mission Lady Allenby had set for him, any lingering remorse for what he must do to the sister of his classmate had been quickly assuaged by contemplating the perilous position that failure, or a lack of an attempt, would place him. Lady Allenby was ruthless when she chose to be; it was one of the qualities that made their affair less repulsive for him than it would otherwise have been. The thrill of the forbidden, and the danger, had drawn him in; now he must face the cost of his folly. Very soon, he would meet an old friend in a potentially deadly conflict. As boys they had played together, but over time, they had grown apart. Darcy was the heir; Wickham was only a diversion for his godfather. Yet old Mr. Darcy had provided him with an education and a profession; despite craving the life of a gentleman of independent means, he was not ungrateful to his patron – or his patron’s son. Darcy had never treated him as a social inferior. He may not have wished for Wickham’s company, but he was never rude to him. They had travelled in different circles as young men, each by his own choice.
Wickham had chosen swords; he had no wish to kill the companion of his youth – nor to be killed by him, and pistols left the outcome too much to chance. Swords were the elegant weapons of days gone by, before powder and ball became the fashionable paraphernalia for inflicting death on an opponent all too often previously considered a friend. He and Darcy had been training partners. Though a year his junior, Darcy had more often than not bested him. Darcy was stronger and faster, his skill with blade not to be discounted. But Wickham had noted, through years of closest observation, that a flustered Darcy was a vulnerable Darcy. Wickham knew what he must do; it was not honourable, but he did not care. Survive and regroup – and hope Lady Allenby would not bring about his ruin.
Bingley would hear none of Darcy’s protestations and insisted that he accompany his friend. Robert had suggested the clearing in the wood bordering Longbourn and Netherfield as a place with the privacy necessary for the event. Bingley wished to assure that nothing befell Darcy on his way to the duel; he did not trust George Wickham.
Robert Bennet had, unsurprisingly, been the first to arrive. He knew Bingley would escort their friend and had no concern for his safety before hand. Yet he was still uneasy to be only Darcy’s second. He should be the one defending Elizabeth and, could he have but admitted it, he was displeased to have allowed his friend to take what should have been his rightful duty. There was nothing to be done for it now. He would be the second, and make damn well sure that Wickham was punished for his malevolent act.
Robert was relieved when Mr. Harding, the doctor, arrived — bag at the ready. Harding had been in the military and was adept at treating the kind of wounds that would, no doubt, be inflicted upon at least one of the duellists.
Next to appear were Darcy and Bingley, both of them grim, determined, and silent. There was nothing left to do but wait for Wickham and his second, Lt. Denny. When three men in red uniforms rode up, Robert was startled to see Colonel Forster among them. This must be Denny’s doing.
“Colonel Forster, I did not anticipate that you would join us today.”
“Mr. Bennet, when I learned that one of the men under my command had entangled himself in a very illegal duel, I was damned sure I would be present. I will not put a stop to it, but I wish to be certain that I know the full and true details, should I need to report the death of one of my officers. You must be aware that I am in a very awkward position. The army frowns on this sort of behaviour.”
‘The army frowns on its officers attacking innocent young women,’ Robert thought, but he spoke civilly to the Colonel: “Yes, sir. I fully understand your predicament. I speak for my party when I say that we want this whole affair concluded with utmost discretion.”
“Very well, then I suggest you proceed.” Colonel Forster turned to Wickham. “We will discuss this later, Captain.”
All too soon, the adversaries were facing each other, swords at the ready. At the command, they began exchanging parries, and Wickham began his taunts.
“You have not lost your touch, Darcy. But I must say I was surprised that you chose to stop Bennet and challenge me yourself.” The two continued to probe the other’s defences. “From what I heard, you showed no romantic inclinations towards the chit.”
“Do not speak of Elizabeth!” Darcy hissed.
‘Finally, a reaction.’ “Elizabeth is it? Perhaps I was correct and you wanted her for your own amusement.”
“You speak with impudence for a man who may soon die at my hand.”
‘Yes Darcy, Let your anger cloud your mind.’ “Ah, but she is a comely wench. I enjoyed her lively spirit.”
“For the last time, I warn you to desist or I will show you no mercy.”
“Mercy? You want me to show you mercy? All this for some female, Darcy?”
“You have defamed my fiancée for the last time. I was going to spare you…” At the word fiancée, Wickham started, inexplicably affected, and bid a hasty retreat, disengaging from the duel.
“Your fiancée?” ‘Oh my God, William, what have I done! Is Miss Bennet really your betrothed?’
“Yes, my fiancée! Take up your guard so we can end this.” But Wickham still did not re-engage. “Defend yourself, Captain!”
“I… I did not know.” ‘I cannot dishonour my benefactor’s memory. This changes everything!’
“Damn it! Defend yourself!” Darcy brought up his sword and held its point against Wickham’s heart.
Wickham’s thoughts were in a whirl as, at last, his conscience managed to be heard. In a very different tone of voice he replied. “You can not believe I would do such a thing of my own volition.”
“What are you talking about?” Darcy’s confusion was evident.
“I did only what I was instructed to do.” Wickham’s shoulders slumped; he could not continue to fight. Memories of days gone by flooded his mind: playing together at Pemberley, his godfather, his own father. And then one particular moment played out in his mind. They could not have been more than eight or nine.
“Darcy I want to rescue the fair maiden from the dread pirate. You always get to be the hero.”
“That is because we use my wooden swords!”
“But it is not fair that I should always be the villain!”
“You are correct, Wickham. It is not fair. This time I will be the dread pirate and you can rescue the damsel in distress. But after that I get my turn as the heroic ship captain.”
Suddenly Wickham was thoroughly ashamed. Had he become the villain in reality? He could never defend his actions to the men whom he had revered as a boy: their fathers. And Darcy, whom he once considered as a brother: Long suppressed affection sparked, then lit a flame in his chest. What had he done?
“Do what you must, Darcy,” Wickham said in resignation
“I must know your meaning. Who told you to do such a contemptible thing?”
“If you promise to spare my life, I will tell you. But not now. I need time.” The shame, and the danger, were too great to reveal all now.
“After what you have done! You dare ask me to believe that you will hold to your word?”
“I swear that I will tell you in four months’ time.”
“An empty promise!”
“I swear on the memory of my father, and yours. I will tell you in four months’ time.”
Darcy paused, pondering the offer before him.
“Do what you must, Darcy. But if you spare me, I need time to make preparations to counter the repercussions of my disclosure. If you will not grant me four months, then kill me now.”
Darcy suddenly drew his weapon away from Wickham’s chest, then made a quick slash across his opponent’s abdomen, administering a non-lethal end to the confrontation.
“I accept. If I do not hear from you within the stated time, I will hunt you down and I will kill you.”
Wickham slumped to the ground in pain, but he would not let Darcy leave without having one last word. Willing himself to look Darcy in the eye, he gasped, “Once again the fair maiden is saved.”
Darcy looked into the eyes of the man before him. Pain was evident, but so was remorse.
“And once again the dread pirate lives another day. Perhaps someday you will be the heroic captain, Captain.”
With that, Darcy threw down his sword, replaced his discarded clothing, swung up on his horse, and rode away.
Whilst Mr. Harding tended to Wickham’s wounds, Colonel Forster approached the remaining three men. “I do not suppose any of you gentleman will tell me what led up to this?” None of them spoke. “I gather that something inappropriate occurred between the Captain and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” No one contradicted him. “And Darcy is betrothed to Miss Bennet?” Again he was initially met with silence. However, Robert realized Colonel Forster could be an ally in the effort to protect Elizabeth’s reputation.
“Yes, Colonel Forster, Darcy and my sister Elizabeth are engaged and will soon marry.”
“Well then, I will see that no word of this meeting, or speculation as to its cause, is spread by my men. As far as I know, only Denny and I are aware of this meeting. Do not be concerned for your sister, Mr. Bennet. Her honour is intact as far as I am concerned. I will make an excuse for the Captain’s injury, but I will not countenance his behaviour. I think it is time for Wickham to choose another Regiment.”
“I thank you, sir.”
“Denny, return Wickham to his lodgings. What a perfectly horrid beginning to a lovely autumn day. At least the red of his blood matches the red of his coat.”
Darcy was full of emotion as he urged his steed across the fields, his mind whirling with the revelation of Wickham. ‘Who in God’s name would order such a thing? Why?’ The Bennets led a quiet existence. It was impossible that any of them had offended a person powerful enough to control a man like George Wickham. And was Elizabeth’s dishonour itself the goal, or only the means to another end? None of it made any sense!
His mind full of unanswerable questions, Darcy realized it was time to inform his fiancée of the events of the morning. Elizabeth would be awake and anxious to know of his welfare. Turning his horse towards Longbourn, Darcy contemplated what to tell her. It occurred to him that, before he revealed Wickham’s confession, he should confer with Robert and perhaps even Mr. Bennet. Satisfied with his resolution, he came upon the wilderness area attached to the house. As he had expected, there was Elizabeth: sitting on a bench, elbows on her thighs, palms together, chin resting on her thumbs, head bowed, bonnet and a discarded book lying at her side. Was she praying?
He dismounted and walked quietly towards her, not wishing to disturb her solitary vigil. He was nearly before her when Elizabeth realized she was no longer alone.
“William!” Elizabeth stood up, and, without thinking, embraced him. “Oh, Thank the Lord! You are safe,” she said, and burst into tears. “I was so afraid for you,” she managed to sputter between sobs. Darcy held her head against his chest, speaking calm and soothing words to her.
Neither knew how long they remained that way, but at last Elizabeth’s sobs began to abate and soon ceased. Still, they made no move to separate. Finally Elizabeth pulled back slightly to look at Darcy’s face.
“You are unharmed?”
Darcy smiled, “Yes.”
“He is wounded, but not seriously.”
“Thank God! I did not want his blood on your hands.”
“Let us think no more on this. It is done.”
Elizabeth moved closer again for one last embrace, then stepped out of Darcy’s arms and returned to her seat on the bench. “Please, come sit with me, we have much to discuss, and I fear I am in no condition to return to the house as yet.” Darcy smiled as he sat down. “Do you still believe that we should marry next Friday?” she asked.
“Yes, I do. It is soon, but I believe it is imperative that we marry quickly to stop any gossip.”
“But such a swift wedding might itself give rise to suspicions of impropriety.”
“Elizabeth, I know this is difficult. It seems that no matter what we do, there may be talk. But I believe that we should stay with our original plans and decision. Are you having second thoughts?”
“No, not exactly second thoughts, perhaps fourth or fifth thoughts.” She smiled impishly. Darcy was relieved to see her lively spirits returning. “Very well, then. Will you still go to London today?”
“Yes, I must. There is much to do. I only delayed my departure a short while, to personally assure you of my safety.”
“I thank you.”
Darcy looked at Elizabeth again. Evidence of her tears remained, but he also noticed how tired she appeared. “Elizabeth, you look exhausted, did you not sleep well?”
She bowed her head. “No, I did not.”
“I sincerely hope your sleep did not suffer from concern for my well being.”
“As much concern as I had for you, I had other disturbers of my mind as well.”
Darcy immediately understood. He took her hand in his. “You are safe from him now. You are under my care and protection and I swear to you that I will never allow him, or any other man, to harm you again.”
Elizabeth nodded her head slightly, but could not bring herself to look at him. They lapsed into silence and remained, her hand in his, until Robert found them.
“Elizabeth,” her brother spoke tenderly, “it is time to return to the house. Jane is waiting for you.”
“Thank you, Robert.” She stood and turned to Darcy. “I… Thank you, Mr. Darcy. I await your return.”
After Elizabeth had gone, Robert turned to his friend. “I believe I owe you my life, Darcy. I saw Wickham’s skill; he would have killed me today.”
“Neither of us knows what might have happened today. But without your intervention, I would have drowned that day. It is I who owes you my life.”
“Then to my mind, as we are each indebted to the other, both debts are now paid.” Robert extended his hand to his friend, and the two men sealed their accord with a handshake.
“Agreed. And soon we shall be brothers.”
“Yes, indeed we shall.” Robert hesitated for a moment, and then said, “She had an unpleasant night.”
“So I gathered.”
“Mary heard her crying out in her sleep. She managed to wake her but Elizabeth was very distressed. It took Jane almost an hour to calm her. I am very concerned. She may try to mask her emotions behind a smile, but yesterday affected her more that she will admit.”
“It affected us all, Bennet.”
“Yes, but neither of us were the one assaulted. She will need your patience and understanding to overcome this.”
Darcy grasped Robert’s arm. “Rest assured, my friend, that I will do everything in my power to help Elizabeth put the incident behind her, and I will give her all the time she needs to accustom herself to our marriage.”
Robert’s expression softened. “Of course you will, Darcy. I know you to be a good man, and I will be proud to call you brother.” He paused, then, “What did Wickham mean today?”
Darcy began to pace. “I do not know. I have been contemplating his words but I cannot make any more sense of them now than when he first spoke. Who could wish this upon your family?”
“I wish I had an answer for you. My family has lived a quiet life in Hertfordshire. We are infrequently in town and little known there. We have no enemies. This makes no sense to me at all! Who could we possibly have offended so badly to bring us such ill?”
“Why did Wickham insist that I wait four months? Of whom is he afraid?”
“It may seem an eternity at present, but you will have your answer soon enough. The question is, what will you do after you know?”
“That will depend entirely on the identity of the culprit. Be assured that I will call him out. This infamy can not go unpunished.”
“Darcy, do not be so hasty in your resolutions. Wait. Learn who is responsible. Try to discover why this was done. And do not forget that you will have a new responsibility by then. Elizabeth has already suffered through one duel, involving her fiancé; do not make her suffer through another, involving her husband.”
“Wise advice, Bennet. I promise not to act without first consulting you. You may have my hand on that as well.”
“I do believe that you will make my sister a tolerable husband, Darcy… Eventually! I will keep you no longer. Off to London with you!”
“I will return to Hertfordshire as soon as I am able. Obtaining the license will, I fear, be a trifle in comparison to telling Fitzwilliam and Uncle Matlock. At least the unpleasant portion of my tasks is finished.”
“I sincerely hope that marrying Elizabeth would not be considered ‘unpleasant’.”
“No, not at all. It is my honour to marry such a woman. And I would say the same were she not your sister.”
“I know, I know. You are a man who abhors duplicity. That is a part of your character I have always particularly admired. Godspeed, Darcy. I too await your return.”
There was one more person with whom Darcy needed to speak before he left for London: Georgiana. He was still greatly dismayed and more than a little disillusioned; he could not help but contrast the very different reactions from his two sisters to his forthcoming marriage. He had always known that Georgiana held solemn, if eccentric, beliefs about duty and societal hierarchy; but to reject as unsuitable a refined and accomplished woman because her dowry and connections were inferior to those of a Darcy was beyond understanding. Her arrogance, pride, and prejudice shamed him; then he considered whether he would have responded as she had were their situations reversed. If he had been first-born, subjected to the constant demands of duty to family, would he have been the proud one? He wondered, not for the first time, what had happened between Georgiana and Robert Bennet. Such musing softened his demeanour as he rode to Netherfield; he determined to make peace with his sister, if she would allow it, before he left for London.
Georgiana was still in her rooms when he arrived; the day was not yet very old. Darcy was relieved when she granted his request for an interview. She was relieved to see him, apparently unharmed; in truth, she too wished to make peace.
“Thank God, William! You are well?”
“You have far too low an opinion of my skills with a blade; surely you did not fear an outcome other than my prevailing?”
“William, please, I was very worried.”
“I know, Georgiana.” He paused, seeking the most prudent approach. “Georgiana, I wish to apologize for the harshness of my words yesterday. It was a very trying day and I am afraid that I deeply offended you.”
“No, William. It is I who must seek forgiveness. Your motives are altruistic and it does you honour. You obviously hold Miss Bennet in the highest esteem. I was petulant and selfish. I am sorry. You and Miss Bennet do seem to get on very well together and I believe you will be content. At least she is no fortune hunter.”
“Thank you. Yet I sense that you are still not entirely pleased with my engagement.”
“I will not lie to you, William. Her lack of dowry may be overlooked, as you have no need for a wealthy wife. But the inferiority of her connections still concerns me, as does Beth’s future, and my own. I remain uneasy about the consequences and repercussions of your marriage.”
Darcy sighed. “Georgiana, you must believe that I, too, have given it much thought. I do give credence to your arguments. You very well may be correct, but these fears could also prove to be of no consequence. Much will depend on how Elizabeth is received during this upcoming season. I believe that the Darcy name, and her own grace and charm, will prevail and she will be accepted, however reluctantly, into society. If there is one thing I have learned about Elizabeth, it is never to underestimate her.”
“I pray you are correct, brother. But there is nothing to be done about it now. You cannot go back on your word, nor would I ask you to do so. That would be more damaging than this wedding could ever be. I would not have you dishonour our family’s name.”
“Then you will attend our wedding?”
“I would not miss my brother’s wedding for the world!”
“Thank you, Georgiana. All will turn out well. You will see.”
‘I hope so, William. I certainly hope so.’ But there was a sadness about her, a hurt, that William did not see.
Darcy’s unexpected arrival in London sent his house into a frenzy of activity. Mrs. Thomas, his venerable housekeeper, set the staff to their added duties as soon as she left the presence of the master. Their interview had been most astonishing! The master was to be married, and married very soon! As he made his plans known to her, his only true request was her discretion until he had the opportunity to make the news known to his family. When that task was complete she had leave to prepare the master’s quarters that had been unused since old Mr. Darcy had died five years before. She had, over the years, made it her practice to maintain those chambers so that only a small amount of effort would be necessary to ready them for occupation once again. So she was confident that in the time given to her, the new Mrs. Darcy would be pleased with their condition.
It was nearly dinnertime when Darcy arrived at Afton House. Lord Matlock had responded to Darcy’s note requesting a meeting with an invitation to dine. Unable to turn down his uncle’s hospitality, Darcy accepted knowing full well that it could very possibly be the last meal taken together in peace for the foreseeable future. His cousin met him as soon as he arrived.
“Hello, Richard. I see you have taken up residence with your family.”
“I saw no need to open Darcy House for myself alone. I planned to remove there when Georgiana came to Town. Tell me, what brings you to London so suddenly?”
“After dinner, Cousin. Let me dine in peace this evening.”
Richard Fitzwilliam stared at his cousin, unable to fathom what could be the matter. He had thought Hertfordshire a safe place, but by the look on Darcy’s face, something was very wrong indeed. It was an inauspicious beginning to the evening.
Darcy’s companions could see that all was not well. Respecting his privacy, none made an effort to draw him out. His demeanour brooked no questions until he was ready to unburden himself. As Lady Matlock excused herself so the men could enjoy their cigars and drink, she whispered to her husband.
“Be very cautious with William. He has come here tonight with some great burden. This is not the time to assert your status as head of the family to force him into revelations he may not yet be ready to make. Treat him with the respect he deserves, Hugh. He is no longer a boy.”
Lord Matlock smiled his silent acknowledgment of his wife’s sage advice and patted her hand in reassurance. When she had gone, the two Fitzwilliam men waited for Darcy.
“There can be no doubt that you noticed my lack of spirits, Uncle.”
“Yes, I have. What troubles you so?”
Darcy waited until Lord Matlock had poured a drink for each of them.
“It has been an extraordinary two days.”
“Has it now?”
“Will you now tell me?”
“I fought a duel this morning.”
“What!? Why? With whom?”
“Wickham? Is he…”
“He is very much alive.”
“William, you could have been killed! How did this happen?”
“Uncle, you show little faith in the countless hours I have spent with sword and pistol. Your son can attest to my proficiency. I was in no danger.”
“But a duel! How in God’s name did you find yourself in a duel? And with George Wickham of all people? It is fortunate that you did not kill him. You know that the authorities frown on duelling.”
“Before I answer your questions, there is one more matter I need to reveal. Then I will tell you all that has occurred to bring matters to this point.”
“I do not know how to say this.”
“The straight truth is always the best alternative.”
“Yes, well… I am to be married next Friday in Hertfordshire.”
That was NOT what the Earl had anticipated. “I am speechless. It cannot be Anne, or I would have heard from Catherine by now.”
“No, her name is Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Bennet you say?” The Earl flashed a quick a glance at his son, who answered with a barely perceptible nod.
“I do not believe I have met this woman. She is from Hertfordshire?”
“Hhmm. Perhaps you had better start at the beginning.”
Darcy spent the next hour relating the events since he had arrived in Hertfordshire, omitting nothing.
“You have no idea who could wish Miss Bennet such harm?”
“No, sir. The Bennets are respectable members of the gentry. They live a quiet life at Longbourn. To their knowledge, they have offended no one.”
“I agree with your assessment; it makes little sense. And Wickham would not tell you?”
“He assured me that he would reveal the instigator within four months.”
“You believe he will honour his promise? What assurance could he possibly give you?”
“He will honour it. If I was not absolutely convinced of his sincerity, I would have killed him then and there.”
“But why four months?”
“He is afraid to reveal who ordered such a nefarious act. He begged me to kill him if I would not grant his request.”
“And so the mystery will remain. I do not like this, Darcy. You do understand that by marrying the girl, this unknown person will likely become an enemy to you as well?”
“Yes. I have promised my protection over Elizabeth. Unpleasant scenes might arise should I come face to face with the reprobate who desired her ruin.”
“Caution, Nephew. Do not make vows you may be unable to keep.” Darcy nodded his understanding. Lord Matlock decided it was best to change the direction of the conversation.
“Darcy, you admit you are not in love with Miss Bennet.”
“I am all astonishment! I always thought that you would fall madly in love before you married. I assumed that if you settled for a marriage of convenience, you would just marry Anne, not someone whom you do not love and who is not your equal in wealth and status.”
“Uncle, I fail to understand why all my family assumes that I would marry Anne. Am I the only one who has sought her opinion on the matter?”
The Earl looked blankly at his nephew.
“Have you, or my aunt, ever spoken with Anne on this? If you had, you would know, as I do, that she neither desires nor would welcome such a union.”
Lord Matlock had no response. “I must bow to your better knowledge of your cousin’s feelings. As for your marriage to Miss Bennet, I am at loss to understand why you offered for her. But there is nothing for it now, it has gone too far. To even attempt to break the engagement would only bring shame to you and to our family. I hope you will not come to regret your choice.”
“Sir, I will admit that the circumstances are far from ideal, but at least we begin our marriage as friends. There are many marriages of convenience that have been built on less; I have great hopes for our future felicity. She is a remarkable woman.”
“Does Miss Bennet understand the full implications of becoming Mrs. Darcy?”
“As much as can be expected. If you refer to the need for an heir, we have discussed this as much as is proper. She understands what is… required… but I have promised to give her time. Elizabeth is… struggling to overcome her distress over Wickham’s actions. Any approach before she is… at peace… would be unwise for the both of us.”
“And will you feel at ease during…”
“I assure you, sir, being… with Elizabeth will not be a deprivation.”
“I see. Are we welcome at your wedding?”
Darcy smiled. “Elizabeth and I would be honoured.”
“Very well. Lady Matlock and I will come to Hertfordshire. I may not agree with your way of getting a wife, but it is important that we show our support for you both. You have chosen a difficult path; society will be curious and may be unforgiving. You are both so young.” The Earl rose and moved to stand before Darcy. “I wish you the best, Nephew. Marriage is… a challenge. But reward awaits if you can find contentment.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Richard, you may speak now.”
Fitzwilliam laughed. “Sometimes it is more prudent to listen than to prattle away. Congratulations, Darcy, I wish you the best.”
“You will come as well?”
“I dare not miss it. I am most curious about Miss Bennet.”
“I have every confidence that you will come to respect her as much as I do.” Darcy paused, gathering his resolve. “Richard, will you stand up with me?”
“Darcy, I… I am honoured! But I confess I am surprised you do not ask Bingley. He is your closest friend.”
“And soon to be my brother. You gave up your army career for my sisters and me, and you have guided me these many years since Father died. There is no one I would rather have at my side. It is I who am honoured.” Darcy was relieved at his consent.
“Come then, let us inform your aunt of your impending nuptials.”
Whilst on their way to Lady Matlock, the Earl quietly drew his son aside.
“Richard, could this Elizabeth Bennet be Thomas Bennet’s daughter?”
“Yes, she is. Darcy has mentioned the Bennets in his letters from Hertfordshire. You may also recall that he and Charles Bingley were at Cambridge with the son, Robert.”
“Then at least half of the objections to this marriage are moot.”
“Perhaps both, Father. I suggest that it is time for you to invite your old business partner to join you in London. After the wedding, of course.”
“You do come up with a good idea once in a while.”
“Why thank you, Father. I believe you can thank my mother for instilling some sense into me.”
“She has always placed the blame on me for your apparent lack thereof!” Both men laughed as they followed Darcy into the Drawing room. Thank God his intended bride’s father was known to the family. It could have been so much worse.