"Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding.... There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?”

“Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language." --Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Astonished in Derbyshire, Part Two, Chapter Three

Chapter 3

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."

"Mr. Wickham—"

"Tried to elope with my sister."

She gaped.                           

"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."

Monday, June 24, 2013

Astonished in Derbyshire, Part Two, Chapter Two

Chapter 2

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.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Astonished in Derbyshire, Part Two, Chapter One


Chapter 1

Elizabeth watched the carriage bearing Lydia and her wastrel husband roll away with a sigh of relief. She could scarcely believe that she had ever found his smooth verbosity charming; every time he smiled she had wanted to scream. And Lydia's behaviour had convinced her that she truly was lost to all sense or decorum.  But at least they were married. It was a dreary comfort, knowing they were only bound to make each other miserable, but infinitely better than the alternative.

Turning, her eyes landed on her elder sister, standing with hands clasped, and she smiled, her heart immediately lightening. Bingley had proposed. He had proposed even before the news came from London that the runaways had been found; proposed, perhaps, in an attempt to prove that he was not fickle or overly persuadable, but it mattered not. Despite all his past misdeeds, he had been, in the end, unwilling to watch the woman he loved descend into shame and poverty, and so he had offered her everything he had to assist her—his name and his fortune. The engagement had had the added benefit of preventing Mrs. Bennet from crowing quite so much over having a daughter married at sixteen.

Of Mr. Bingley's friend she had heard very little. Bingley had delivered brief greetings from him when he first arrived; since then there had only been the occasional mention of him in passing conversation. Lydia had gotten an odd look on her face when Bingley spoke his name over dinner once, and she began to say something, but her husband had spoken right over her, giving her a look Elizabeth couldn't interpret. It didn't make sense that he would prevent Lydia from criticizing or making fun of Darcy—not unless he was planning to impose often on the Bingleys, and worried that Mr. Bingley would take exception.

She linked her arm with Jane's, and they returned to the house. Certainly, the future looked far brighter than it had in that first miserable week after she arrived back in Hertfordshire. All seemed lost then, but somehow, it had been given back again. First Mr. Bingley had showed and, regardless of all odds against him, proposed. Then, just when there seemed any chance of Lydia's recovery left, the news had come from Uncle Gardiner—they were found, not married, but soon to be so. Their wedding was arranged and carried out with a minimum of trouble for those to whom it most mattered, and Mr. Bennet had only to pay off Wickham's debts in Meryton.  Lizzy knew her father believed her uncle had bribed Wickham, and it was a debt that weighed heavily on her heart. But her own marriage prospects had seemingly been restored—that is, if you did not mind a scoundrel for a brother in law. Or a fool for your sister, she added mentally. Or your mother.

"Dear Jane," she said, "how glad I am that you are engaged to Mr. Bingley. Now you have given Mama the wealthy son in law of her dreams, and I may rest easy from the Mr. Collinses of the world."

Jane smiled. "Not all men are like Mr. Collins, Lizzy. You will find one you like soon enough."

"Or I shall simply live with you and earn my keep by fetching your shawl and playing with your children. I think I might like being the lively spinster aunt."

"You would be very welcome, but of course you would not need to earn your right to stay. You have the right because you're my sister, and I love you."

"Oh, but now that I think of it, there may be a difficulty. If Miss Bingley is also to live with you, then it really is best that I stay at Longbourn. The two of us would not do well under one roof."

"I am not certain, but I think Caroline intends to remain with the Hursts. I received a very kind letter from her, you know."

"Jane! Do not tell me your faith in her sincerity is unchanged!"

"No, of course I know she means only to please her brother, but I am glad we can be at peace. It would distress Charles if we were at outs, and that would distress me."

"Why, Jane, that sounded very nearly unfriendly. I'm proud of you."


Elizabeth just laughed.


Another month went by, and Jane's wedding was nearly upon them. There still had been nothing seen of Mr. Darcy, although Elizabeth understood that he was expected to be present some days before the wedding. Bingley spent so little time at Netherfield that it did not seem to matter to him that he was alone in the house.  

Miss Bingley and the Hursts appeared about a fortnight prior to the ceremony. They came to dinner at Longbourn with many supercilious looks, and received the women in a return call with rather pinched faces. They were very fond of Jane, though.  

Then one day Elizabeth was walking down a lane near Longbourn, and a familiar straight figure came cantering towards her. In an instant, her mind flashed back to that morning in Derbyshire when they had met the same way, and as she moved onto the grass, she held her breath to see what he would do.

She knew the exact moment he saw her. He must have been deep in thought because it didn't happen until he was almost upon her; he checked so abruptly the horse nearly reared. By the time he had soothed the animal he looked flushed—whether from embarrassment or some other emotion, she didn't know. Then he looked undecided whether to dismount or to ride on.

Deciding not wait on his whims, Elizabeth dropped a small curtsy. "Good day, Mr. Darcy." She turned and began to walk away.

His voice came after her. "Miss Elizabeth!"

He was still on his horse, his dark gaze fixed on her, gripping his reins tensely. She returned the look, and after a moment his hands relaxed, his body shifted, and he climbed slowly down.

She smiled just a little. "We meet again."

"Yes. How are you?"

"Much as I have always been."

"I am glad for that." He cleared his throat. "And your family? Are they well?"

"Yes indeed. We are all very pleased for my sister, of course. Jane," she added, when he looked uncertain.

"Yes, yes of course. Bingley is very happy—and I for him."

"And how is Miss Darcy?"

"She is very well, thank you. She enjoyed making your acquaintance in August."

"I enjoyed it too," she said with sincerity. "And yourself, sir? How are you, Mr. Darcy?"

"I am..." he glanced away. "I am happy for my friend Bingley."

"Yes, I believe you said that already." A happy smile, nearly a laugh, bubbled to the surface. It was so good, for some reason, to be in his presence again. He was abrupt and enigmatic, but she felt he was... a friend. Yes, Mr. Darcy was her friend, and she was no longer reluctant to say so. "Have you no feelings on your own behalf, Mr. Darcy?" She let the laugh come out, and hoped it would provoke a smile or even an answering laugh from him.

Instead, all expression seemed to disappear from his face, and he ran a hand over his mouth. After another moment of awkward silence went by, Elizabeth said, “I really must be getting home.”

“Yes, of course.” He tipped his hat, but rather than getting back on his horse, stood and watched her as she walked self-consciously away.


There was a dinner party at Netherfield that night, to be followed by dancing. Mr. Bingley had invited half the neighbourhood, much to his sisters’ disgust, and Netherfield’s long table was crowded and noisy and cheerful. As the sister of his future bride—and a daughter of the leading local family—Elizabeth was placed near the top of the table with Sir William on one side and Mr. Hurst on the other, one of whom was terribly voluble, while the other was almost entirely silent. Mr. Hurst certainly appeared to be enjoying Nicholl’s fine cooking, but other than that he had not much to say for himself, while Sir William had opinions to share on everything from the decorations of the rooms to the crops to the probable attachments of various young people both present and otherwise. Since she had known Sir William for most of her life and was genuinely fond of him, Elizabeth bore his conversation very well, but she could not help often glancing at the composed and handsome man who was seated across the table. He seemed to be paying his plate almost as much attention as Mr. Hurst was, but sometimes their eyes met.

“I had a chance to speak to Mr. Darcy before dinner,” said Sir William, in what he undoubtedly believed was sotto voce. “I told him how much we enjoyed visiting at Rosings in the spring, and how affable her ladyship his aunt was when we had the honour of dining with her—three times, I told him. We dined three times at Rosings while I was there.”

“And what did Mr. Darcy say?” she asked back, glancing at him in amusement. Although it was faint, Darcy’s face had taken on the conscious look of a person who knows he is being discussed.

“He said Lady Catherine always enjoys company.”

“A very solid observation.”

“Indeed it was, Miss Elizabeth! A very sound and fitting observation indeed.”

“Did you say anything else?”

“I indicated how sorry I was to hear from Maria about his sister’s illness, and that I was certain that you young ladies were keenly disappointed not to have the pleasure of his company while you were there.”

“I am sure he had some reply to that.” She peeked slyly his way again.

“He said he did not know if you were disappointed or not, but I assured him that any young lady of sense would be sorry to miss such a fine young man, and I well remember how finely the two of you danced together at Mr. Bingley’s ball in November.”

Mr. Darcy was starting to look acutely uncomfortable now, so Elizabeth had mercy on him and changed the topic. She reflected that it was so different, seeing him here rather than in Derbyshire. If they had never met there she would have undoubtedly continued to think him unbendingly proud, but she knew now that there was more to him than that. He was a man of real substance, a man of not only wealth but authority and importance, who lived a large life—who was accustomed to beauty and refinement—who could enjoy the small beauties of nature even while influencing the lives of hundreds under his care. It was no wonder that he did not look at home in their small neighbourhood, or that he felt himself to be above much of it. Such feelings of superiority were not, perhaps, commendable, but they were more understandable than she could have grasped before she saw his home and him in it.

Later in the evening, when the men re-joined the ladies, Mr. Bingley persuaded Mrs. Hurst to play so that they could have some dancing. Their numbers had thinned since the departure of the regiment, but the young people quickly paired off.

Elizabeth was claimed for the dance by a local gentleman. She went through the steps with sprightly ease, catching only glimpses of a tall and noble figure across the room. Some other young man asked her when that dance was over. She had some thought of sitting out the third, but just as she finished thanking her partner, that same tall and noble figure appeared at her side. “Will you do me the honour, Miss Bennet?”

She wondered at his behaviour—what the invitation might mean—and to cover her sudden nervousness she smiled and said, as he led her out. “I am flattered, Mr. Darcy, to have been asked to dance for the second time.”

“You are mistaken,” he replied. “This is the fourth time I have asked you to dance. You refused the other two.”

“I suppose you are correct, but I did not believe you actually desired to dance with me those times.”

He looked at her. “Was it concern for my feelings that led you to refuse, then—or it was it rather that you did not desire it?”

She coloured uncomfortably. “Perhaps I shall just say that I believed us to be alike in our opinions.”

They did not say much as they took their places in the set. It was, as chance had it, a reel, and they could not help but smile a little to find themselves here at Netherfield and dancing a reel together at last. Despite his professed dislike of it, Mr. Darcy danced very well, and did not even look out of place performing the lively steps. He managed it, somehow, with rather more dignity than any other man present . The energetic nature of the dance made conversation difficult, and it was not a large enough set to require any couples to stand around and wait their turns.

His hand was very hot through their gloves as he led her back off the dance floor, nor did he immediately leave her side. He stood next to her, not looking at her, but somehow very near. Glancing around, Elizabeth did not see anyone close by. “I wish to thank you, sir—”

“Thank me? What for?”

“Well...” she glanced self-consciously down. “In regards to my sister.”

“Your sister?” His voice sounded a little sharp. “I do not understand you.”

“Well, in regards to two of my sisters, I suppose. Jane, and, uh,” she sighed, “Lydia.”

“I’d prefer not to speak of that,” he said. Glancing up at him, she saw his colour was high, and could only sigh again. Of course he did not wish to be reminded of her sister’s imprudence! She only meant to thank him for his discretion, and for whatever role he might have had in Mr. Bingley’s return. But the subject clearly made him unhappy, confirming that, however kind he may have been in Derbyshire, he would certainly not want to be connected to her family in any closer way.

The silence was strained after that and she soon made her escape. It was foolish to feel so. She had known very well when they left Derbyshire that any chance she might ever have had with him was lost, and nothing that had happened since indicated otherwise—except perhaps the dance, but what was a dance, after all? Other than Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, who was at the piano now, she was probably the only lady in the room that he’d had more than a passing conversation with. That was the reason he asked her. The only reason he’d asked her.

She made her way back to the end of the room where tea and conversation were to be had, but the conversation was oppressive, and finding a desire to be alone, she slipped discretely through the doorway into the hall.

It was quite empty, and she heaved a sigh of relief. Idly, she wondered up and down, examining the paintings on the wall and a pseudo-Grecian statuette on a stand. When footsteps sounded quietly behind her she glanced around, only to see Mr. Darcy himself again, coming towards her with an oddly purposeful look on his face. Before she could say anything he came to a stop before her.

“Miss Bennet, I— He glanced around and, catching her by surprise, took her elbow and steered her, before she even knew what was to happen, across the hall and into a window recess. It had a curtain, tied up to one side, but he pulled the tie loose and let it fall across the opening. They were alone, and hidden from sight.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Astonished in Derbyshire, Part One, Chapter Four

Chapter  4

By the time that Mr. Darcy arrived with his groom and two carriages, Elizabeth still had not read any more of Jane’s letters. She had gone out with her aunt and uncle immediately after breakfast, for her aunt had recalled yet another old family friend she wished to visit, since they had decided to remain another day. They also went into the general store for a new pair of driving gloves for Mr. Gardiner, since he had not brought anything suitable for the purpose, and the ladies became occupied with choosing small gifts for the family at Longbourn.  By the time they returned to the inn, heavily laden with packages, there was only enough time to hastily change into a more suitable gown, and to pin her curls up more firmly and exchange her bonnet for a hat, before the gentleman was announced.

Darcy seemed a bit self-conscious as he explained how the afternoon would go. He and Miss Bennet would occupy the curricle, while Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner drove the phaeton. There was a perch for the groom on the back of the phaeton, which meant that, should the Gardiners by chance fall behind, he would insure they did not become lost. Of course that meant that Elizabeth and Darcy would have no chaperone, the curricle having no extra seat behind, but he assured her uncle that they would all remain close together.

Elizabeth had an odd feeling as they set out, a premonition of trouble almost, but nothing happened to disturb their sunlit drive. It was a golden day, and the trees threw dappled patterns across the grass as they passed. The winding trail around the edge of Pemberley’s park led them through forests glades, by rocky outcroppings with glorious views, shining ponds… there seemed a new beauty around every corner. Mr. Darcy was a pleasant and knowledgeable guide, who neither sat in uneasy silence nor distracted her with needless chatter. He answered her many questions patiently and did not seem to be in the slightest hurry; any time she gave hint of wishing to explore on foot, he would immediately draw reign and jump down to assist her. The Gardiners were always right behind them, and they would pull up too, sometimes climbing out to walk around with her, and sometimes sitting in quiet conversation and enjoyment of scene.

They paused eventually on a ridge which afforded them an excellent view of the house, from a different angle than she had seen it before. “It is a very well situated,” said Elizabeth, feeling all the inadequacy of the remark.

“Yes, I am indebted to my forebears for that.”

“I am… I am glad you have not succumbed to the modern mania for improvement.”

“Cut down trees for a Grecian temple, you mean? I think it would look sadly out of place.”

“And so it would be. What I find especially silly is this idea of building a ruin.”

“You do not like ruins?” He turned his head to look at her.

“Real ruins, with real history attached to them, yes, although they still always seem a bit sad to me. A new ruin is ridiculous—a conceited waste of building materials and labor.”

“I agree.” His eyes dwelt on her with a soft look she found pleasing and disconcerting at the same time. “Would you...” he cleared his throat. “Would you do me the honor of taking some refreshments at the house, before returning? I would very much like to introduce my sister to you.”

Now this was a compliment, and Elizabeth felt its weight. She wondered what she had possibly done to have earned such favor from a man like him, and what could have engendered such an apparent change from the arrogant face he displayed in Hertfordshire.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, on having the invitation communicated to them, agreed with surprise and pleasure, and once they had completed the circumference of the park (which took some time), they got down once again before the great doors. Inside, they were led to a smaller, private parlor which had not been on the tour. Fruit and cake and other pleasant things appeared almost instantly, and Mr. Darcy urged them to help themselves before disappearing to find his sister.

The three left in the room looked at each other. “This is very particular attention, Lizzy,” said Mrs. Gardiner.

Lizzy just shook her head a little, unable to discuss it. She did not know what to think, much less what to say. In a few minutes Mr. Darcy returned with his sister, who turned out to be a sweet, shy girl (more proof that Mr. Wickham had lied, thought Lizzy). They spoke haltingly for a few minutes, then Mr. Bingley turned up, seemingly restored to his usual jovial spirits. With him in the room conversation went on in a spirited fashion for some twenty minutes before the Gardiners indicated a desire to return to the inn—more out of politeness than feeling. They all knew that Mr. Darcy had other guests. Mr. Bingley’s sisters did not appear, but no one lamented them.

Elizabeth and Darcy travelled the miles back to Lambton in near silence.  It had grown rather hot and Elizabeth could feel a bead of sweat making its way down the back of her neck, but she refused to think of that. It was just entirely too beautiful, too perfect, and the perfection, to her continuing and substantial surprise, included the man sitting beside her. Casting a glance at him, she could not but admire him. He was handsome, handsomer even that Wickham, his face in profile, hat straight, posture relaxed, one foot on the dash, and the reins held easily in capable, brown-gloved hands.  She wished she knew what he was thinking.

When he helped her down in front of the inn she expected to be bid goodbye, but instead he came upstairs with them, still not saying much, his brow furrowed just a little, as if in thought.

When they came into their private parlor, Elizabeth gave a cry of dismay. Jane’s letters, left to dry by the window, lay scattered on the floor.

“Oh dear, we forgot to shut the window, didn’t we?” said Mrs. Gardiner, as Elizabeth gathered the sheets.

“I think the promise of a ride around  your estate must have distracted the ladies,” said Mr. Gardiner humorously to Darcy. “I never think of such things myself, of course.”

“I’m afraid it’s my fault—I’m the one who kept us rushing around all morning. I simply could not resist using our extra hours here.” Mrs. Gardiner sighed.

Darcy opened his mouth to make some reply, but just then Elizabeth gasped loudly. Turning, they saw her looking pale, her eyes frantically scanning the page she held. It was the second of Jane’s letters, and unlike the first, the coffee had stained primarily the upper middle of the page, leaving a few lines at the top and a larger section at the bottom. The section her eyes had lit upon, and which she now read aloud in an agitated voice was, “…gave them to understand that they were going to Gretna Green, something was dropped by Denny expressing his belief that W. never intended to go there, or to marry Lydia at all, which was repeated to Colonel F., who, instantly taking the alarm, set off from B. intending to trace their route. W! Can it be?” She looked up with horrified eyes. Seeing only shocked faces she did not wait for a reply, but turned the paper over and continued, “He did trace them easily to Clapham, but no further; for on entering that place, they removed into a hackney coach, and dismissed the chaise that brought them from Epsom. All that is known after this is—oh, I cannot read any more!”  She moved down the paper “…feared W. was not a man to be trusted. My poor mother is really ill, and keeps her room. Could she exert herself, it would be better; but this is not to be expected. And as to my father, I never in my life saw him so affected. Poor Kitty has anger for having concealed their attachment; but as it was a matter of confidence, one cannot wonder. I am truly glad, dearest Lizzy… where is the other page?” Frantically she looked around the room. “There was another page! Where is it?”

The others recovered from their stupor enough to help her search, but the missing sheet was not to be found. “I am afraid it must have blown out the window,” said her uncle.

“Oh, wretched, wretched fool!” Elizabeth castigated herself. “Why did I not read them this morning?” She snatched up the first letter, searching it for clues and, upon turning it over, realized that there was more writing on the fold on the back. “Off Saturday night about twelve… express… Lydia left a letter… oh, there’s nothing here either!”

“May I see?” Taking the second letter from her, her uncle put on his spectacles and studied the stained area closely.

Elizabeth rung her hands, suddenly and miserably conscious of Darcy, his face so grave and stern. “Lizzy,” asked her aunt hesitantly, “is it certain who it is… the man, I mean? Might Lydia know some other W besides Wickham?”

She shook her head. “I cannot tell you. I know of none, but… oh, wretched, wretched little fool!” she repeated, but this time speaking of her sister. The tears she had been disregarding ran over, and she dashed them away.

“Mr. Darcy, you have known Mr. Wickham for many years. Can you tell us anything of him—give us any insight to his character?”

Darcy shook his head, looking grim. “I wish that I could offer you some reassurance, Mrs. Gardiner, but I cannot.”

“By which you mean that it is entirely conceivable that he might run off with a girl like my sister, and not at all certain that he would marry her.”

He said nothing.

“London!” exclaimed Mr. Gardiner by the window. “Mary, come and look at this. Does it look like it says London to you?” The ladies crowded around him.  The small, blurred word he pointed out did, indeed, look like it might spell London, and coming closely after the words all that is known after this is, they had hope that it might be a clue. “If they have not gone to Scotland,” he argued, “then London would be the next logical destination. I would bet my brother has gone there to search.”

Their speculations were interrupted by Darcy’s voice. “Forgive me,” he said, “I have imposed on you far too long. I have… I would wish…” his eyes moved to Elizabeth’s and held them for a long moment. “I know there is nothing I can say to ease your distress, but you may be assured of my discretion.”

“We cannot thank you enough for your kindness, sir,” said Mr. Gardiner.

“Not at all.” He bowed, looked again at Elizabeth, and was gone.


Their departure from the inn was swiftly accomplished. Not until they were sitting in the carriage did Elizabeth have luxury again to consider the gentleman who had dominated her days here. Derbyshire had been filled with surprises, most of them involving him. As she watched the countryside outside the window she could not help but remember the idyllic hours of that very afternoon—how long ago it seemed!—and alternated between futile questions about what might have been, and bleak thoughts of what almost certainly would be.

There was no pleasure in the rushed trip home, no matter how splendid the scenery. It was not until they reached Longbourn that they were able to finally receive the whole story. It was, indeed, Wickham who had stolen Lydia and her virtue—and all their futures—away. The news seemed hopeless, so that even Jane was near despair. The Gardiners returned to London with their children and soon met up with Mr. Bennet, but none of their searches were successful.

Then, as if by a miracle, Mr. Bingley returned to Hertfordshire and began calling again. He seemed to know their troubles before he arrived; she supposed Mr. Darcy must have told him, but could only be grateful. She also had to give Mr. Bingley credit for coming now, without waiting to see how their fortunes would turn out, and lending them his countenance. It did not stop the stares and whispers, but at least no one had shunned them yet. She was equal parts happy for Jane and disgusted with her mother, who fawned vulgarly over him and spent half an hour pouring laments about Lydia into his ears. He handled it with remarkable grace.

In her free time, those dull, heavy hours when there was nothing to do but fret, she would occupy herself with imagining how things might have gone with Darcy if Lydia had never run away. He seemed always more desirable as she thought of him, as unattainable as the stars, and as unknowable. She tried to recall how arrogant he had been last autumn—but instead, found she could only remember his profile in the sunshine as they rode. In her mind, she arranged fancies wherein he had been secretly in love with her ever since the autumn—but she knew that they were just fancies. The fact was, any interest he’d had in her could only have been passing, and was certainly over now. The fact was that no man was ever likely to look at her again the way that he had looked at her that day.

Elizabeth had always been sanguine about the future and her chances at a happy marriage, but now she admitted that her prospects had never been very good. She and her sisters were bred as gentlewomen, forbidden from looking to prosperous men in shops and farms, and yet too poor in fortune or connections for men of their own class. The only men who could afford to marry without consideration for fortune did not want an obscure country gentleman’s daughter, and that was before the ruined sister. Now that Lydia had disgraced them, they had not even respectability to offer. Jane, perhaps, with her beauty and excellences of character and manner, would marry her Bingley, should his love and will prove stronger than before, but would it be enough to redeem them all? She did not think so.

No, thought Elizabeth, staring at the clenched hands in her lap, she surely could never marry a man of sense and character now… and so, she would never marry.