Darcy turned around, and she had to step back; it really was a very small recess. He seemed to blink as he realized how close they actually were. “Forgive me,” he said in a low voice. “I did not mean—only I wished to speak to you for a moment.”
Elizabeth just looked at him in astonishment.
“I wish—that is to say—” he ran a hand over the back of his head. “I should not have stopped you so abruptly earlier, after we danced, but I am very sorry that you should have come to hear of my involvement. I do not wish for you to be uneasy over it.”
“Your involvement with what, Mr. Darcy?” Her forehead crinkled. “I am afraid I do not understand you.”
He looked surprised, and on perceiving her genuine confusion, flushed darkly. “It is I who misunderstood,” he said after a moment. “Please forget what I said.”
But Elizabeth’s mind had been working to make the connections. “You are speaking of Lydia, aren’t you?”
“I really—I should never have brought you in here. Please forgive me, I will leave at once.”
“No!” They were still speaking in little more than whispers, but she put her hand on his arm to stay him. It worked. “Mr. Darcy, what role could you possibly have had in my sister’s marriage?”
“It was nothing of significance, I assure you.”
“Is that the truth?” She looked searchingly into his eyes, and knew it was not. “Mr. Darcy,” she whispered, “what did you do?”
He sighed. “Mr. Wickham has long been known to me as a man of vicious propensities, and I should have made it my duty, when he first came to Hertfordshire, to make his character known. I did not, and your sister paid the price. I could not allow your entire family to also pay for my error. I also,” he swallowed as she unconsciously stepped a little nearer, “had a knowledge of his habits and friends which your relations could not.”
“You mean you found them? It was you?”
“Miss Eli-Bennet.” His eyes continued to remain on hers, as if she had the power to retain them at will. “I did what was right and just, no more. It was never my wish that you or your family know I was involved.”
“But I am glad I know.”
“I’m not.” The words came out so softly she scarcely heard them.
“Why?” she asked, lifting her face a little more. “Is a little gratitude so painful?”
“From you? By heaven, yes!” He nearly staggered backwards a pace, and pressed his palms to his eyes. It wasn’t until that moment that Elizabeth realized that her hand had been still on his arm, or how very close to him she’d been standing. “You are a hard woman to escape, Elizabeth Bennet,” he said after some moments, without moving.
“Do you want to escape me?” She unaccountably felt like crying.
“Yes. No. Always and never!”
“I do not understand.”
“Do you not?” He took his hands from his eyes and looked at her again. Elizabeth felt herself growing hot under his gaze.
Just then there was laughter in the hallway, and both occupants of the small window recess fell silent and still, looking away. The people, whoever they were, walked past, and when they were very sure that the hall was empty again, Darcy glanced at her again. “If I do not leave soon there will no longer be any choice,” he said in a quiet but unmistakable tone. “And although the temptation is strong, it would not be right.” He reached for the curtain.
“Let me,” whispered Elizabeth. “It will be less strange if you are gone longer; you are staying here, after all.
He nodded shortly and stood aside as she slipped away.
Enlightenment had come, but it was as painful as it was pleasurable. Mr. Darcy was the unannounced hero of her family, although she did not yet know the full extent of his involvement. Her aunt would surely tell her. He was a better man than she had ever dreamed, and just such a man as she would wish to marry. As for his feelings for her, that he had them, she could no longer doubt. He was attracted to her, he cared about her—but he did not feel that he could marry her. This point was perfectly comprehensible to Elizabeth, and she did not blame him at all, although she felt real grief at it. Her fortune and connections were nothing to recommend her in the beginning, and now that she was so closely connected to Mr. Wickham, son of his late father’s steward and a blackguard he had forced to marry her wanton sister, it was, of course, impossible.
It was all so strange, she thought as she sat on the hillside looking down on Longbourn the next day. A year ago, a few months ago, she could never have imagined herself pining over and regretting Mr. Darcy—and really, what had their acquaintance been, that she should feel any sort of attachment for him? It was the allure of Pemberley, perhaps, that had clouded her view of his arrogance... but yet, she wasn't wrong. He was proud, there was no question of that, but it did not disturb her as it used to. Despite his pride he was a man of true honor and character, and he was capable of being very pleasant when he chose. She found she liked him, she thought of him often, she wished to know him more, but it was all too late now. Even the triumph of knowing she had gained his affections was small consolation.
He would not wish to see her. Being in her presence, she understood, could only be painful for him, and so she resolved to avoid him when possible. It would be easier for them both.
Thus was Elizabeth's resolution, and she held to it with admirable persistence, but it wasn't always possible. In the whirl of pre-nuptial festivities that followed, her presence was usually required, as was his. They were often seated around the same table, or within the same parlor. Sometimes they were even placed next to each other at dinner, and each sought to speak only with their companions on the other side, even as they listened in on each other's conversations. She found herself watching him, as if unable to help herself, and found his eyes often on her as well. Someone would always look away quickly when their eyes met, which happened far too frequently for comfort.
One night at Longbourn they ended up, despite both their efforts, at the same card table, playing an inane game of whist with Mr. Goulding and one of Mrs. Long's nieces. Denied even the pleasure of partnering together, they nevertheless shared a corner, where their knees sometimes bumped beneath the table.
"Oh, Mr. Darcy," giggled Miss Barry. "I'm afraid I've quite lost track of the cards again. You play with such skill I can't keep up."
Darcy compressed his lips together, clearly reigning in his temper. "Simply endeavor to follow suit, Miss Barry, and only play your trumps when there isn't a higher one already on the table. I shall do the rest."
"To be sure, I know I might trust myself quite completely in your hands. What a pity it is that you cannot look at my cards to advise me."
Elizabeth wrinkled her nose disdainfully at this display.
"That would be cheating," said Darcy.
"Do not worry, Miss Elizabeth!" said Mr. Goulding. "I have been playing whist with Mrs. Goulding for years, and should you run into trouble, I'll be sure to pull you out!"
Since Elizabeth had won nearly every point for their team so far, this earned him an incredulous look from Darcy and a tight smile from his partner. The game continued, with Mr. Goulding and Miss Barry engaging in cheerful gossip as they misplayed their cards while the other two sat through it all with a kind of grim frustration.
They were right in the middle of a hand when Mrs. Long called across the room to her niece, who immediately dropped her cards and went to speak with her. "Well," said Mr. Goulding, as soon as she had gone. "I suppose I should take the opportunity to go refill my cup and get some more of Hill's excellent cake. Is there anything I can fetch for you, Miss Bennet? Mr. Darcy?"
"No, thank you, Mr. Goulding."
"No, thank you."
"Very well, then." Off he went, the others still sitting with their cards in their hands.
No one said anything for a little while, and then—"You should have kept the spade," said Darcy.
Elizabeth could not suppress a smile. "So say you, Mr. Darcy."
"Yes, I do." His lips curled upwards too.
"So ..." she cast a quick glance sideways. "Do you consider yourself a proficient at whist, then?"
"Well, I cannot claim Mr. Goulding's level of expertise," his voice was very dry, "but I usually fare well enough."
"You mean when you have a partner that doesn't find it necessary to trump a trick you have already won." She saw a gleam of rueful humor in his eyes and felt encouraged. "Though to be fair to her," she continued, "you did tell her to play a trump when there wasn't already a higher one on the table."
"My Aunt Fitzwilliam is even worse," he said unexpectedly and Elizabeth turned to him, as pleased by this relatively informal way of referring to his aunt the countess as she was by the confidence.
"Is she really?"
He nodded. "And since in her case her idea of a proper stake is about five pounds a point, her family tries to ensure that she does not play it often—unless they can be on the opposing team, of course."
She gurgled at that, and his countenance lightened a little more, and for the first time, he actually looked at her. He even laid his cards down on the table. "You have a charming laugh, Miss Bennet."
Suddenly happy, she raised an eyebrow saucily. "I believe the honors should go to the man who made me laugh."
"It has been a long held ambition of mine," he said softly—and just like that, things were serious again, though not so grim. They gazed at each other, eyes full of unspoken thoughts. "Tell me—" he turned a little further towards her. "Mr. Morgan, at dinner—he made you uncomfortable?"
She was not surprised that he had observed their interactions. "Only a little. I have known him for many years and understand pretty well how to handle him."
He frowned. "Are you often required to be in company with him?"
"Not often—mainly at large gatherings like this."
"I wish you had not needed to sit next to him."
"Well, my mother knows that I can converse with anyone, and Mr. Morgan is not, I fear, widely liked."
"With good reason," he muttered, his frown darkening.
"Mr. Darcy." Her hand touched his fleetingly on the table. "I know he can appear—that is, I know his manner is not entirely—"
"Yes, but he is not dangerous. I do not like him, but I do not fear him either."
He shook his head and sat back, looking more dour than ever. Elizabeth herself felt torn; she wanted to comfort him in his apparent unhappiness, but yet she also wanted him to be unhappy—to be unhappy over her, specifically, enough that he would change his mind and offer for her. Briefly she contemplated whether she had the power to do it—whether by her actions she could provoke his feelings to the point where—but that was not what she wanted. She did not want an unwilling proposal made out of passion, which he would later regret. Mr. Darcy was essentially a very rational man, and if he could not rationally desire to be her husband, then they could never be happy.
"If you will excuse me, I believe my mother requires assistance with the tea service," she said quietly, and slid out of her seat. She nearly collided with Mr. Goulding, on his way back with cup and laden plate.
"Why, Miss Elizabeth! What happened to our game?" he exclaimed to her back.
Behind her, she could hear Darcy say something about Miss Barry's having forgotten them.
The Gardiners arrived, and Mrs. Gardiner was able to tell Elizabeth all the details of Mr. Darcy's involvement with Lydia. "It was after your father returned home," she said. "Your uncle had a note from him, asking him to call at his townhouse. We were quite amazed, of course, and could not imagine what it was about—nor why he was even in town! So Edward went, only to learn that Mr. Darcy had discovered Lydia and Mr. Wickham, in a boarding house. He had attempted to persuade Lydia to leave and, failing that, struck a bargain with Mr. Wickham. There was really almost nothing left for your uncle to do; Mr. Darcy would not even allow him to bear part of the expense."
"How extraordinary! And here is my father, determined to get my uncle to confess the amount he spent."
"He will get nothing from him, but I cannot tell you how pleased I am to know that you had already learned some of the truth—from Mr. Darcy himself, I take it?"
Elizabeth nodded. "He did not mean to tell me. It was just that he misunderstood something I said, and thought you must have told me of it. His protests gave it all away."
Aunt Gardiner smiled. "You know your uncle would never have allowed Mr. Darcy his way so easily, but, well..." she looked pointedly at her niece.
Elizabeth colored. "I know what you mean to imply, but you are wrong. He did not do it for me."
Her aunt looked patently disbelieving.
"Well, perhaps he did it for me, but not for the reasons you are thinking." She twisted the fringe on her shawl around her finger. "Since he has returned to Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy has made it very clear that I should not have any expectations where he is concerned."
"Oh, Lizzy, I am sorry! I had hoped—and his behavior both in Derbyshire, and then later in rescuing foolish Lydia. It seemed to speak a most determined preference."
"Preference he may have," she replied, "but he has pride too, and the sister of George Wickham will never be mistress of Pemberley." She smiled crookedly. "He saved me, but not for himself."
Later, when Darcy himself met the Gardiners again, he greeted them with civility, but there was nothing in his manner to betray their covert association. Elizabeth observed him conversing with both her uncle and her father together at one point, and knew that all three must have some satisfaction in finding sensible and intelligent conversation. She smiled at first, then sighed, thinking once again of all that might have been but would not.
Jane's wedding day came at last. She was as radiant as a sunbeam, and the short ceremony went without a hitch. The breakfast afterwards was lavish, the crowd so big and the weather so beautiful that they overflowed into the gardens. Elizabeth was standing on the lawn talking when she saw Darcy making his way purposefully towards her. Excusing herself, she waited for him a little apart.
"I am leaving for London this afternoon," he said, when he reached her.
"Ah." She looked at her gloves.
"I wish—" he swallowed, looked away and back again. "I wish you everything good, Miss Bennet, and the very happiest of lives."
"And I you, Mr. Darcy."
He bowed, very respectfully, and after a last long look, turned and walked away.