When Jane and Darcy left Hertfordshire, so did the sunshine—or so it seemed to Elizabeth. The following weeks were wet and cold and dreary. She despised it, and she despised her own crossness too. Longbourn without Jane seemed lonely. With Lydia gone, Kitty attached herself to her, and she tried to be a friend and sister to her, but she could not talk to her the way she talked to Jane. She was fidgety, dissatisfied, glad for her sister, sorry for herself, determined not to regret Mr. Darcy, and yet unable to help it.
Did she love him? She wasn't sure—she thought not—but she could have. She could have loved him, would have loved him. He was a man such as she was never likely to see again—and, somehow, she had managed to arouse his admiration, his affection even, so that months of absence had not changed it—but then willful, selfish, thoughtless Lydia had ruined everything. It must be confessed that Elizabeth's feelings for her youngest sister were not very kindly in those days.
The Bingleys' wedding trip was to last a month or possibly more. They had gone north to visit Mr. Bingley's relations in Yorkshire. Elizabeth hoped Jane would fare well among her new family—although how could she not? Who could do ought but love Jane? Her sweetness and eagerness to think well of all would stand her in good stead.
Who knows but Darcy's grand relations would have been exceedingly unpleasant.
It was nearly three weeks after Jane's wedding, on a blustery day in early December, while Elizabeth was sitting in the parlor at Longbourn, pulling out the stiches from yet another botched flower, when their butler came in and announced, "Mr. Darcy, madam."
The entire room full of women stared in wonder. There he was, a tall, dark, serious young man in boots that probably cost their combined pin money for a year, making his bow and speaking stilted greetings.
Mrs. Bennet had not much bothered to conceal her dislike of Mr. Darcy, but his presence without his friend seemed to surprise even her into near quiet. For perhaps the first time it occurred to her that he was a very eligible man, and she still had three unmarried daughters. She cast a calculating look around the room as she greeted him.
Elizabeth, recognizing that look all too well, spoke quickly. "What brings you into Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy?"
His eyes met hers. "I have business in the area."
That was incredible, but that he should be there for her seemed even more so.
"It seems strange to see you without Bingley," said Kitty, and when Elizabeth looked at her reprovingly—"What? He said I might call him Bingley now, since he is our brother."
That was not what she meant, but Elizabeth naturally could not say so, so she forced a smile instead. "Have you heard any recent news of the Bingleys?" she asked. "I have not had a letter for a week."
"Then your information is more recent than mine. Bingley is not generally an avid correspondent," he replied.
"My dear Mrs. Bingley writes very regularly, as a rule," put in Mrs. Bennet. "I daresay they are busy with his family."
"I'm sure you're correct."
"I was sure to tell her to be very condescending and polite to them, of course. Just because they aren't landed gentry like us is no reason to be looking down on them."
Fortunately for Lizzy's sanity, the butler brought in a tray of refreshments, and then Kitty sneezed and dropped a tea cup. In the bustle that followed Elizabeth looked at Darcy with an embarrassed, apologetic smile.
Glancing at her preoccupied relatives, he said, "Miss Bennet, would you care for a stroll in the garden?"
Elizabeth looked out the window. It was grey and windy and had only stopped raining in the last half hour. "Certainly."
Mrs. Bennet, upon being told their destination, opened her eyes very wide and said, "Of course, Lizzy, you must show Mr. Darcy all around. Take your time! Don't hurry!"
Blushing, she led Darcy to the entry, where they retrieved cloaks and hats, and then down the long hall and out the back. That this was, in fact, his whole purpose in coming to Longbourn became clear as he began to speak almost as soon as they were outside. His voice was low and quick and earnest, his eyes straight ahead. "Miss Bennet, I know my behavior must appear most capricious, but I had to see you. These past weeks... I have had a talk with my sister."
"Your sister?" Now Elizabeth was just confused.
"Yes. As you are probably aware, she is some twelve years my junior, and I have stood as more father than brother to her in the last few years, so I do not usually make her my confidante, but on this particular occasion, I am grateful for her opinion and advice. She was after all," he stopped abruptly, turning towards her, "at the very heart of the matter."
They were now a little distance from the house, thanks to their quick steps, but not far enough for Elizabeth's comfort. She could just imagine her mother running into different rooms of the house to watch them from the windows. "Mr. Darcy, the corner of the garden there, beyond the hedge, is most lovely. Would you care to see it?"
He caught her meaning and resumed his walk, though not so hurried. "Being the sensitive soul that she is, Miss Darcy could not fail to see how I have been... but I am beginning this at the wrong end."
He lapsed into silence and a bemused Elizabeth did the same, until they went through the opening in the hedge. Usually pretty, the small area was today brown from the cold and drooping with water, but Darcy did not seem to notice. "Please, will you take a seat?" he asked her, nodding towards the bench.
Elizabeth looked at the water standing all over it. "No, thank you, I would prefer to stand." She wrapped her cloak more tightly around her body.
He nodded distractedly, pacing a little bit while the wind blew his long coat around his legs. With his head down, it was difficult to see his expression beneath his hat. "Miss Bennet, my behavior to you as been reprehensible," he said at last. "As I look over the course of our acquaintance, and my inconstancy of purpose, I can only imagine your perplexity. Particularly after my attentions to you in Derbyshire, you must have wondered—"
"No!" She hastened to interrupt him. "No, Mr. Darcy, I do understand. I understand perfectly."
"But you don't! You cannot, for you do not know everything."
"Tried to elope with my sister."
"It was the summer of last year, before I met you. He arranged to meet with her when she was visiting the coast with her companion, a woman in whose character we were most unhappily deceived. He convinced Georgiana to believe herself in love with him, and to agree to an elopement. Fortunately, I visited her a few days before, and she, I am happy to say, confessed it all of her own volition. When she learned the full truth of his character, and his motives for acting, which were undoubtedly both her fortune and his desire for revenge on me, she was absolutely distraught. I comforted her as best I could, but it was many months before she recovered from it." He stopped and looked appealingly at her. "The thought of my connecting that man to her!"
Elizabeth shut her eyes and nodded miserably.
"Other concerns I might be willing to set aside—I was willing to set aside!—but my duty to my sister, who depends on me for everything, that could not be ignored."
"Mr. Darcy, this explanation is not necessary." Indeed, all she wanted to do was to get away again. "I do understand—I did understand, even before. Whatever it is that you came here to get from me, whether forgiveness, or... or... whatever it is, I give it to you freely."
To her surprise, he smiled a little. "You are generous," he said, "but that is not why I came."
Puzzled, her heart beating heavily in her breast, she waited to hear what he would say.
Still with that odd little smile, he glanced around the drooping garden before looking at her again. "I left Hertfordshire determined to forget you, you know. It proved quite the futile endeavor. I was already beginning to give up hope of it when I met you again at Pemberley, and then... well, let us say that I could no longer remember why I had thought it so necessary in the first place. You were, you have always been," he stepped closer to her, "an enchanting creature, capable of snaring me easily with your loveliness and laughter. I think it is your mind that I admire the most, though, quick and lively and original as it is. Your lack of pretension, and the devotion you show your sister, and all those you love...." His countenance she would never forget, the black brim of his hat slashing across his forehead, the lapels of his greatcoat turned up around his jaw. He was ruddy from the wind and the cold, his often stern mouth softened, his eyes so expressive and for some reason glad. "Will you marry me?" he asked simply.
Elizabeth felt like the garden was bursting into bloom around her and had broken apart beneath her feet at the same time. "But—but—" she stuttered. "I thought you said..."
He laughed, a completely unexpected sound. "I've forgotten half my story," he said, "for which your eyes must bear the blame."
"Your sister." She simply must keep him on topic, or they would both lose their wits entirely.
"Yes." He sobered at the word. "My dear sister, who could see how I was afflicted, although I attempted to hide it. When I realized that my melancholy was distressing her, and that she feared she might be the cause, it seemed to right to me to confide in her somewhat, to offer her what reassurance and explanation I could. And then," he shook his head. "She astonished me."
"First, by offering me her assurances that although she could not remember the events of Ramsgate without regretting her own behavior, she was now so perfectly indifferent to the memory of Mr. Wickham that he no longer had any power to disturb her. She was very sorry for your sister, to have ended in the same position she escaped, but said that, for herself, your connection to Wickham should not be a deterrent." He paused, and Elizabeth could only marvel. Still, the solution seemed too simple. "We spoke of other things, as well—of how my marriage might affect her future, of your family's situation, in short, of many of the reservations I had. She urged me to seek my happiness, and did it so sincerely, and with such surprising vigor, that I could not but heed her."
Elizabeth thought about that a moment. "So your sister told you to propose to me?"
"No. She would never presume so far. But she..." he exhaled. "She eased my fears that by choosing you, I would harm her. And no other encouragement was needed."
They were silent for so long that Darcy shifted on his feet, and looking up, Elizabeth realized that he was preparing himself for a rejection. His glad eyes were shuttered now, and the way he straightened his coat and tugged at his gloves seemed anxious. "Forgive me!" she said. "Only—are you very certain?"
"I have—perhaps I should tell you honestly. I have been very bemused since we met in Derbyshire."
"I can imagine," he said dryly.
"No, I don't think you can. I didn't—that is, I had never imagined that you saw anything to approve of in me last autumn. And, I am ashamed to say, I believed things that Mr. Wickham told me about you—absolute lies, I'm sure now, but I thought them the truth then. I even blamed you for Mr. Bingley's desertion of Jane, though I had no reason to do so."
"Yet you were correct. I was the reason that Bingley left—though I swear I never meant to hurt your sister."
It was curious, but she could not even care about that any more. Jane and Bingley were married now, and in any case, Bingley alone was truly responsible. "When we met again, I could not understand your behavior at all. It seemed impossible that you might admire me."
He sighed. "As I said, my treatment of you has been reprehensible. I did begin to understand that, a little, after that afternoon at the inn, when you forestalled my proposal with your very justified indignation."
"Oh! Were you meaning to propose then?"
"What will you think of my impulsivity? Yes, that was my intent. You had told me you were going to leave, and I did not wish to let you."
"And yet you came back, even after I spoke to you so angrily."
"Once I realized that it was my own fault, that I had indeed insulted both you and Bingley by my concealment—and that I had taken your acceptance of my addresses too much for granted—of course I came back. You were still there, and I still loved you." They both paused on the word, Elizabeth's heart bounding giddily within her. Love!
"Miss Bennet, I am a patient man in most circumstances, but this current wait is more than I can bear. If you feel you cannot love me well enough to marry me, then please say so at once." Their eyes met. "I love you," he repeated.
Tears pricked at the back of her eyes. "Are you certain?" she asked again. "You will not change your mind?"
"I am and I will not. No man with the inestimable good fortune of being your husband could regret it, Elizabeth. So far I have regretted only the times I walked away from you."
Happiness, which had been fighting a fierce war with caution, triumphed and danced on caution's grave. It was incredible that they were standing here in a rain-soaked corner of Longbourn's gardens, blown about by the wind as Mr. Darcy made his profession of love and offered her the one thing she had thought so unattainable. It was the astonishing end to a sequence of astonishing events, and how it come about that she should be so deliriously pleased at the idea of marrying a man she once despised she didn't know, but there it was and there they were and—"Yes." She laughed into the cold breeze. "Yes, Mr. Darcy, I will certainly marry you."