Ever since Miss Bingley had told him about Miss Bennet being in town, Darcy had been mulling over the best course of action. He had agreed with her, initially, that it would be better if Bingley did not meet the lady. The fellow had never entirely gotten over her; although he was cheerful most of the time, Darcy could see the difference.
Yet… it did not sit well with him. He hated disguise; he had always said it proudly. He hated arts and deceptions and conniving. In honesty lay clarity and honor. That did not mean that it was incumbent on him to always say everything that could be said, to expose his own private dealings to the world, or to share his inner most thoughts and feelings with those who had done nothing to earn such a confidence. He did not even always confide in his best friends, not when it came to most delicate parts of himself. Darcy did, after all, have his natural pride and reserve to guard him. However, this was not such a case. This was a case, rather, of deliberately keeping information from a friend, of avoiding the subject at the very least, and it might require outright prevarication. He did not like it. He did not like it at all.
By the time that Bingley returned to the house that evening, Darcy had made up his mind. It was a basic matter of respect, and of honoring the trust that Bingley placed in him. The man deserved to know, and that was that.
He went out into the hallway and invited his friend to come into his study for a drink before retiring. Bingley was happy to do so. They shared a brandy before the fire, sipping at it and chatting idly about the people Bingley had seen while he was out. Darcy had spent the time dining with his sister.
“Bingley,” said Darcy at last, “I thought you ought to know. Miss Jane Bennet is in town.”
Bingley took a rather larger gulp of the liquor than he had intended, and choked a bit as it went down. “Jane—ah, Miss Bennet? What is she doing in London? And how,” he added with sudden surprise, “did you learn of it?”
“I believe she is staying with the family of her uncle, her mother’s brother who resides near Cheapside and is in trade.” Darcy emphasized the family’s situation slightly. “Miss Bingley told me of it.”
“Caroline told you?” he repeated. “She said nothing to me about it.”
“Well, you could hardly expect her to, after everything that happened. Of course she would be concerned that such knowledge would only pain you.”
“Well what in blazes was she doing confiding in you about it?”
“She wanted my advice on how she should proceed,” said Darcy tactfully. “I had not much to give her at the time—I did share her concerns—but I have been thinking about it and I have reached the conclusion that you ought to know.”
“Well of course I ought to know,” Bingley muttered, staring down at his warm liquid. “How long did you say she’s been here?”
“I am not precisely certain, but I believe about two weeks.”
There was silence for some time after that. Darcy leaned back in his chair, content to let his friend process the new information, glad that he could be there to help temper whatever reaction he might have.
“I ought to call on her,” said Bingley at last.
“You are not obliged to do that.”
“Well, but… for my sisters to know about her being here, she must have written to them, or called on them.”
Darcy did not feel it wise to answer that.
“She clearly still considers herself a friend of our family, and why should she not? Louisa and Caroline both liked her very much. And I hope…” his voice trailed off momentarily, “I hope that she still considers me her friend. It would look excessively rude if I didn’t call on her.”
“Or perhaps excessively pointed if you did.”
“Oh, hang it all, Darcy, I can call on an acquaintance without offering marriage, can’t I?”
Darcy looked at him skeptically. “Ordinarily, yes, but Miss Bennet is not just any common acquaintance. When you left Hertfordshire there was a general expectation in the neighborhood that you would offer for her before long; the very reason you could not return was to squelch it before it affected your reputation or hers. If you call on her now, in London, it will appear as exactly the sort of particular attentions which you most need to avoid.”
Bingley frowned. It was an unusual expression, for him; it made it him look older. “You were reluctant to me the truth about her location because you were afraid that I would simply run off after her like a lost puppy, weren’t you?”
“Ah—” Darcy was taken aback.
“There’s no need to deny it. I know I’ve not been the most constant of fellows where my affections and purposes were concerned. Yet it’s not the same, this time.” He stood up suddenly. “She’s not the same, this time. I really love her, Darcy. I’ve thought about her constantly, ever since I left Netherfield. It’s like… it’s like an ache inside of me that can never quite be healed. I know that she doesn’t love me, but if there was the slightest chance that I could make her love me, that I could win her, fairly, like a man—“ he stopped and drew a deep breath.
“A man like you should not have to win a woman like Miss Bennet,” said Darcy testily, his alarm overriding his tact. “If she cannot see the man that you are—if she was not capable of appreciating your merits and loving you from the first, then she does not deserve your devotion.”
“But Darcy, any good woman is worth winning!”
“Come now, Bingley, let’s be realistic. As charming and handsome as Miss Bennet undoubtedly is, she is simply not the warm, loving type of woman. She has no passion, no spark, no fervor! I daresay you may engage her affections as far as they can be engaged, but what is that, compared to the feelings you carry for her? She is a poor match for you in every way, and you are far and away superior to any match she has a right to expect! She will never be able to deserve you!”
Bingley stared at his friend in shock, his face reddening. “You’re wrong,” he said at last, slowly, as if the words were strange. “Miss Bennet is not what you say she is… and the fact that you think that makes me believe that you have never understood her at all.”
“No, no! You shall not convince me otherwise. I have always trusted your judgment, Darcy, but this time you are simply wrong. Miss Bennet is tender-hearted and devoted and caring. She does feel things deeply, I know it.”
“I observed her most carefully and—”
“Yes, yes, I know what you observed! And perhaps you are right that she cares nothing for me especially, although now I doubt that too. But she is worthy of me—more than worthy! It is I who am not worthy of her, of such excellence and goodness and beauty and sweetness—and yes, tenderness. Tenderness such as she showed to all her family, her sister Elizabeth most especially, but also to her mother and her father and her other sisters, no matter what they were. If she loves them so much,” he began to pace in his excitement and agitation, “even though they are everything that you said they are, even though none of them are anything like her at all, if she loves them with such devotion, why should she not love me? Her heart is ready, eager to love, Darcy! She thinks well of everyone, and truly means it. She is attached, most sincerely attached to all her family and friends. I have a chance—I am sure that I must have a chance to win her love, and if were so fortunate to do so, I should never repine, Darcy!”
“I don’t care about her family! Don’t you understand that?”
“Will not suffer unduly if I marry Miss Bennet. After all, who are we? Our family fortune was acquired in manufacturing and trade. And she likes Jane, of course she does.”
Darcy groaned inwardly, wishing that he hadn’t said anything after all. “You must consider before you act, Bingley.”
“I’ve done nothing but consider for the last two months!”
“You cannot throw yourself away on a—”
“No more, I pray you!” He patted his coat down hastily, as if checking it, and ran his hands through his hair. “Potter! I must call Potter to bring my hat and my gloves! What street did you say?”
“You can’t go tonight!”
“What? Yes, I suppose you’re right, it’s too late. I’ll go in the morning then. First thing. Potter!” He went out into the hall. “Potter, you’ll have all my things ready for the morning, won’t you?”
Darcy sunk his head into his hands. What had he done?