This is the prologue, but it also forms a complete vignette in itself, as it represents what I think the conversation that Bingley and Darcy had about Jane would have been like. I actually wrote this (all but about the last paragraph) long before I ever began Unequal Affections, and it just worked out that it formed a good prologue for it.
“Darcy, if you try to tell me that Miss Bennet is unworthy of me, I’ll—I’ll—!” Mr. Bingley’s hand clinched. “I’ll do something!”
They were in London, three days after the Netherfield ball. Mr. Bingley had been surprised to discover that the guests he had left behind on his country estate had followed him to town, and upon being now told the reason, he was anything but pleased.
“She is not unworthy of you, but her family is,” Darcy replied evenly. “And unfortunately, she cannot be separated from her family.” Bingley was not to know how he felt the force of that statement himself. “Think, Bingley! It is not only that Mrs. Bennet’s family connections would diminish the status your family has worked so hard to attain; beyond that, can you really imagine introducing that woman—those sisters—to your acquaintance with pride? Do you think you can bear with complacency their vulgarities and intrusiveness, for the rest of your life? What marriage could survive that? And you may be sure that the very amiableness of Miss Bennet’s temper will prevent her from ever setting them at a distance. Not only will you have to bear with them, but the whole of your acquaintance will have to bear with them too. Consider your friends for a moment—consider your sisters! You may be willing to mortify your own consequence, but what of theirs? Miss Bingley is not yet married; you cannot think it will recommend her to any future husband, that he must take on himself such connections as Mrs. Bennet and the younger Bennet girls!”
Mr. Bingley had grown a little pale, and was clearly struggling. “But they are all very good natured—” he protested weakly. “They are not so bad as you say, I am sure.”
“Yes, they are,” returned his friend sternly. “You did not observe them as I did, for you saw no one but Miss Bennet. Mrs. Bennet is a vulgar, shallow, scheming woman who had no compunction in boasting of your wealth, even before you made an offer. Miss Mary Bennet lacks sense and taste, and as for the two younger girls—mark my words, Bingley, one day one of them will disgrace her family by her foolish behavior. They are spoiled, vain and silly, with no sense of propriety, and hardly even of common decency. Their mother positively encourages them, while their father has the sense to know better, yet chooses to mock them rather than make any attempt to restrain them.”
Bingley quailed under this merciless description of the Bennet family and turned away in utmost agitation. Darcy saw him grasp the mantelpiece until his knuckles turned white. The moment his friend ceased speaking, he burst out, “But I love her, Darcy!”
“I know,” replied Darcy quietly.
“And I daresay you may say I have been in love before, but never like this!” He began to pace the room. “There’s no woman in England like her! She’s an angel! I don’t—I don’t think I could ever be happy without her!”
“You were happy before her.”
“But that was before I knew her—that I knew such a creature existed.” He paused, and Darcy waited. “No,” he said finally. “No, you cannot ask it of me.”
Darcy frowned. “But—”
“I’m a man of honor, Darcy!” he cried. “So are you! Would you have me behave so infamously—to pay her such attentions, raise such expectations and feelings, and then desert her? You would never behave so yourself, surely!”
“Do you believe she loves you, then?”
“Yes! Well—” he flushed, “not as much as I love her, perhaps, but sincerely, I am convinced of it. She does return my regard.”
“I disagree,” said Darcy coolly.
Bingley turned a shade paler. “What?”
This task was turning out to be even more unpleasant than he had anticipated, but he steeled himself to continue without flinching. “I took the opportunity to observe her carefully on the night of the ball. Her countenance was ever serene and smiling, indicating a general complaisance, but no discernible depth of feeling. She received your attentions with pleasure, it’s true, but no differently than she received any other young man’s attentions.” He waited a moment while this information sank into his unhappy friend’s mind. “She likes you, Bingley, but I do not think she loves you. I acquit her of scheming—that is her mother’s part—but if you proposed she would certainly accept you; how could she do otherwise, in her situation? You will give her no other choice. Family duty, prudence, will all compel her to accept you regardless of her feelings. If you do not propose, you will certainly disappoint Mrs. Bennet’s hopes, but not necessarily Miss Bennet’s. She will not be heartbroken. In fact, she may even be slightly relieved.”
During this whole speech Bingley had sat with his head in his hands. When Darcy finished there was a long silence before he finally looked up, his face haggard. “I—I was sure she cared about me,” he whispered.
“I’m sure that she does, as a friend. I simply do not believe she is in love with you.”
“Do not believe?” He searched his friend’s face almost desperately. “But are you sure, Darcy?”
“I am not omniscient, if that is what you are asking. But based upon my own observation, I am completely convinced within myself that her heart has not been touched.”
That Darcy’s conviction weighed heavily on the other was clear. He passed a shaky hand through his hair, and unshed tears shone in his eyes. “There’s no reason she should love me,” he said huskily. “There is nothing outstanding about me. I’m not especially handsome or especially clever or especially good. I did think, but…” he jumped up and walked around the room in a disjointed fashion. Darcy simply waited in silence. “You are right, you know,” he said at last in a low voice. “I have been trying to think of any particular look or word—anything that might have indicated a clear preference on her part; anything that would prove she loves me. But there was none. It was just her general sweetness, her kindness.” He sighed deeply.
“Charles,” Mr. Darcy spoke gently, “I know this is painful for you, but you must consider before you truly have gone too far to draw back. Is it really worth the humiliation of such a family, such low connections, to acquire a wife who, however sweet and kind, cannot even return your affection? Can you really rate your own happiness above your obligation to your sister? Would you even be happy in such a marriage? You love her, but is just having her enough? Is having her, but not having her heart—giving up so much, putting up with so much without even an equal return of regard, sufficient? Could it be sufficient for any man?”
Another long silence, then Charles said, “No. No, it is not sufficient. I could not be content to love but not be loved in return. If she had loved me, Darcy…” he sighed brokenly. “If she had loved me then I would have given anything for her. But I cannot make her love me, can I?” He looked over at his friend.“No,” Darcy agreed. “No, you cannot.”