I'm sorry so much of this is rewriting JA but I had to start at this point in P&P to give my story roots.
Elizabeth Bennet's long awaited tour of the lakes and the north country had been postponed indefinitely. Little Lucy Gardiner had come down with a fever and, despite her aunt's casual tone in the letter informing her that their tour of the lakes had been postponed, she knew that as an apothecary's daughter Mrs. Gardiner must be fully aware of the potential of a fever in one so young.
Mrs. Bennet had not been pleased at Elizabeth insisting on going to Gracechurch Street while Lucy was ill.
"You will catch the fever," she threatened, "and lose your looks, then who will marry you?"
Elizabeth sighed. She was relieved to avoid her mother's company for a few weeks as she had not been entirely forgiven for refusing Mr. Collins. She tried to imagine herself in Hunsford parsonage bottling fruit and playing whist with Lady Catherine, but it did not bear much thinking about even with her lively sense of humour.
Eventually, the coach turned into Gracechurch Street and she was delighted to see her aunt and her eldest cousin, Harriet, standing on the steps to meet her.
She greeted them both warmly, enquiring after little Lucy before she had got through the door.
"She is a little better," said Mrs. Gardiner, "Mr. Easton comes every day and is confident of an improvement before the end of the week, but I still do not have the heart to leave her."
Their tour of the lakes was then definitely canceled but Elizabeth's temperament demanded she be happy with what was before her. London did have its attractions and her only real regret could be leaving Jane alone with their mother's insensitive speculations about Mr. Bingley.
A consideration of the sad situation between Jane and Mr. Bingley usually led her to a consideration of Mr. Darcy. It always started with a pang of remorse for misjudging him where Wickham was concerned and finished with a little laugh at his misfortune in being both rich, handsome and honourable but with such a disagreeable temper.
A week passed and Mrs. Gardiner received a dinner invitation from friends, the Campbells, in ---- Street.
Dinner at the Campbell's was a pleasant affair and made pleasanter for Elizabeth by the fact that Mr. Bingley was there without the Hursts or Mr. Darcy.
"It seems a very long time since we last met," said Elizabeth when they were introduced.
"Yes, yes it is. I believe it is above eight months, we have not met since the 26th of November when we were all dancing together at Netherfield."
"You are right," Elizabeth smiled at him guessing he was anxious to know more of Jane's circumstances. Although she had felt his behaviour towards Jane to have been capricious and unkind and could not respect him for being so easily persuaded by Mr. Darcy, she still found his manner irresistible. She longed to see his look when he realized Jane was still unattached.
But I will not tell you immediately, she thought, you do not deserve that much kindness.
Caroline Bingley looked bitterly at her brother, it disconcerted her to know that he remembered to the very day the last time he saw Jane Bennet. She had never understood, never would understand, his preference for Jane Bennet over Miss Darcy and her thirty thousand pounds.
"Are all your sisters still at Longbourn?" Bingley's emphasis was almost laughable but Elizabeth, with pride in her self-control, did not laugh.
"Yes," she replied, "they are all at Longbourn," and had the satisfaction of noting the expression of relief that remained on his face for the rest of the evening.
Elizabeth considered Charles Bingley the most fortunate of men. He had passed over a woman with the nature and looks of an angel for the snobbish opinions of one rich man and two arrogant women and yet he could yet be forgiven and rewarded with her hand.
Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst visited Gracechurch Street the next day although it was obvious to Elizabeth, if not to her aunt, that they resented it. It seemed that with Mr. Darcy safely at Pemberley Bingley was free to choose his own acquaintance and was making every effort to revive the good opinion of her family. The ladies stayed a proper fifteen minutes and left promising an invitation to dinner the following week.
Mr. Bingley's London house showed every indication of Caroline Bingley having spent two winters there with little to do. It was newly decorated in the most modern taste and equipped with every imaginable comfort. Bingley was delighted to see Elizabeth again, having still a great deal to say to her, and many enquiries to make after all their Hertfordshire friends. Elizabeth interpreted this as a wish of hearing her speak of her sister and tried to oblige, but without Miss Bingley overhearing too much. She was not superstitious and she knew that he had persuaded his sisters to visit Gracechurch Street but still she felt by mentioning Jane in Miss Bingley's presence she might tempt fate.
Miss Darcy and her brother appeared exactly when Miss Bingley said they would and Elizabeth was subject to a dread introduction. Her reliance on Wickham's information was now almost non-existent, but from her own experience of Mr. Darcy she had no reason to believe his sister to be anything but insufferably proud and self-satisfied.
At first Darcy seemed surprised to see Elizabeth but collected himself rapidly and made a point of her being the first person in the room to whom Miss Darcy was introduced. Elizabeth could not be insensible of the compliment, especially when she realized that Miss Darcy was not at all proud only extremely shy. She was also very beautiful, her looks outshone those of her handsome brother as surely as his outshone the merely pleasant and gentlemanlike Mr. Bingley.
"Her mother was reckoned a great beauty," whispered Mrs. Gardiner, "and her daughter will be just like her."
It seemed to Mrs. Gardiner in the course of the evening that she had been mistaken in the degree of acquaintance between her niece and Mr. Darcy. He was certainly most attentive and very pleasant. Was this the haughty man Elizabeth had described? Elizabeth herself was amazed at her lack of composure. She had never expected to feel this degree of agitation in his company and the more she examined herself for its source, the worse it became. She was comforted though, by the knowledge that she had only her own stupidity to mind and that neither of her friends were capable of disgracing her in any way.
"I am very glad to meet you, Miss Bennet" said Miss Darcy, "I have heard much about you."
Elizabeth felt strangely confused. Surely Mr. Darcy had not mentioned her to his sister, what could he say? She glanced at him aware that he had been looking at her for most of the evening; his expression was serious and she looked away. It must have been Colonel Fitzwilliam, she thought, he is the only member of the family I am on good terms with.
"Will you play?" asked Miss Darcy.
"I will, if you want," replied Elizabeth, "although I warn you, I do not do it at all well."
Georgiana looked serious, "My brother enjoyed hearing you very much and he has excellent taste."
Elizabeth was astounded. She sat down at the pianoforte with an unaccustomed degree of trepidation, confident of disappointing. However, although she was not particularly skillful, she played gracefully enough and her performance of Mozart's Voi se chapete was listened to with sincere pleasure by everyone present, especially Mr. Darcy.
Mrs. Gardiner was inclined to believe Mr. Darcy very much in love with her niece. It only remained to discover Elizabeth's feelings on the matter, but Mrs. Gardiner was not the type of woman to force a confidence, and Elizabeth was not in the mood for sharing any.
The morning after that brought a visit from Georgiana and her companion, Mrs. Annesley. Elizabeth greeted her warmly and was particularly glad that neither of the Bingley ladies had chosen to accompany her. Harriet, Mrs. Gardiner's eldest daughter, a very quiet, pretty girl of fourteen was thrilled to be in the company, and Elizabeth was charmed to see how well the niece of the earl and the daughter of the businessman could get along in the absence of the Miss Bingleys and Lady Catherines of the world.
"Your charge is certainly a delight," said Mrs. Gardiner to Mrs. Annesley.
Mrs. Annesley was all smiles, she had come predisposed to like Elizabeth, of whom she had only heard the very best of things from both brother and sister. In her opinion, and she was a genteel woman with many years experience in caring for young girls, Miss Bingley was hardly a suitable companion for a snake let alone an impressionable sixteen year old.
"She is indeed, Mrs. Gardiner, in all my years of looking after young ladies I have never met one so sweet and so tractable."
"Have you been the family long?" asked Mrs. Gardiner anxious for more information on the Darcys than her memory could supply.
"A little over a year."
Since Ramsgate, thought Elizabeth.
"Her brother quite dotes on her," continued Mrs. Annesley, "I happen to know there is an exquisite instrument on its way to Pemberley this very day as a birthday gift for her, it will be there to welcome her when she returns home in a fortnight."
Elizabeth agreed, "It is evident to anyone who has seen them together that Mr. Darcy loves his sister very much."
"He is an excellent brother and guardian," said Mrs. Annesley, "in truth an excellent young man. I had heard he was unreasonably proud when I first went to work for the family, but I have never seen any indication of it myself."
Never seen any indication of it? thought Elizabeth, that is going too far.
"Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper at Pemberley has known him since he was four years old and has the very highest opinion of him, no praise is too great for her. He is the kindest brother, the best master, the fairest landlord."
Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner exchanged wondering glances. Perhaps the polite and amiable man they had met in Mr. Bingley's drawing room the previous evening was the real Mr. Darcy after all.
"Unlikely," thought Elizabeth with a pang of regret, "very unlikely. He cannot have changed. Oh, a man who could love his sister so much would love his wife...." she stopped herself conscientiously. What a stupid thought! Mr. Darcy must long since have thought better of the foolish impulse that persuaded him to propose to her. She reminded herself that, although his employees might think him generous and unassuming, that she had evidence to the contrary. He must certainly be acquitted of cruelty towards Wickham but nothing could excuse his attitude towards Jane. The man who could not see the goodness and sweetness in Jane that raised her above paltry considerations of fortune and connection was not quite so excellent a character.
For the next week Elizabeth found herself often in Mr. Darcy's company. She was invited to a party at his London house by Georgiana and had a repeat of the pleasure she had had with Bingley when he met her aunt and uncle. Her aunt's elegance and refinement of dress were more than matched by the elegance and refinement of her mind and Mr. Darcy would see that not all her relations were a disgrace to be connected with. Her only problem lay in not being able to determine why she cared quite so much what Darcy thought of her family. In the end she decided that it must be for Jane's sake. Of course it was for Jane's sake, Mr. Darcy had been instrumental in separating her from Bingley before and if his opinions didn't improve he might be equally successful again. Thus armed against the state of her heart she felt quite equal to meeting him again even in his own house.
Mr. Darcy's town house was larger and better appointed than Mr. Bingley's. The evidence of the Darcys being 'old money' was everywhere, because although everything was elegant and comfortable there was nothing too new, nothing overtly fashionable and certainly nothing that one might find in every other wealthy home in London. Entranced as she was by the beauty and dignity of the place she tried to be careful where she looked and made sure not to look at any one thing too often; it had occurred to her that too much praise on her part might be construed mischievously.
Georgiana persuaded Elizabeth to sing while she played and the two sat together at the pianoforte for half an hour, until Mrs. Gardiner remembered that no matter how happy Mr. Darcy might seem watching them together, that Elizabeth was in danger of giving herself a sore throat.
Elizabeth was well aware that Miss Bingley's dislike of her was rooted in jealousy. She might endeavour to pretend to herself that she was no longer the object of Mr. Darcy's particular regard, but Miss Bingley had seen and heard enough to fear otherwise. It was clear she resented almost every word that passed between Elizabeth and Georgiana for not one was uttered without inviting her comment. Elizabeth was most relieved when the gentlemen returned to the drawing room; the conversation among the ladies was becoming more and more difficult as it was impossible to mention anything on which Miss Bingley did not want to share an opinion with Georgiana to the exclusion of everyone else.
After a while she felt it necessary to revive Mr. Darcy's poor opinion of Miss Bennet, so found it expedient to allude not only to Lydia and Kitty's notorious flirting with officers but Elizabeth's own partiality for a man whom Darcy despised.
"Pray tell me, Miss Eliza, are the ----- shire militia still quartered at Meryton?"
Elizabeth sighed to herself but retained her outward composure. "No," she replied, "they are encamped at Brighton for the summer."
"That must be a great loss to your family," she continued maliciously, "some ladies had a preference for a certain gentleman, I believe."
A moment's recollection was all it took for Elizabeth to answer her question in the manner it deserved but more than that was required for Miss Darcy to recover her composure. If Miss Bingley had intended to renew Mr. Darcy's contempt for the Bennet family she had succeeded only in condemning herself to a far lower place in his estimation than she had held previously.
Elizabeth sat down next to Miss Darcy and under the pretext of needing her help to decide what to play next provided her with the moral support she needed to get over what was probably the first mention of Wickham, nameless though that certain gentleman had been, since her lucky escape a year ago. She glanced up momentarily and caught Mr. Darcy's eye; he was looking at her, not seriously as before but with an expression of such tenderness that she could hardly believe it was directed at her and not Georgiana.
Mrs. Gardiner could not be insensible to any attention paid to a much loved niece, but knew not how to approach the subject. She was forced to resort to the observation that Mr. Darcy looked at her very often.
"He looks at me!" laughed Elizabeth, "he looked disapprovingly at me in Hertfordshire, especially when my petticoat was three inches deep in mud, he looked gravely at me in Kent when I talked with Colonel Fitzwilliam, and now you imagine he is looking tenderly at me! I promise you, my dear aunt, I offend Mr. Darcy terribly and that is why he keeps staring at me!"
Mrs. Gardiner merely smiled and raised her eyebrows a fraction.
"Do not tease aunt," she said, "Mr. Darcy is not considering me, he has in all likelihood but finished the several months ablutions necessary to rid himself of the impurity of visiting at Longbourn. He will not want one of its daughters presiding at Pemberley."
"Oh, Elizabeth, had we been able to make our tour of the lakes you would have seen Pemberley, it is only five miles from Lambton."
"I long to see Lambton for your sake but I am sure I will live happily enough without seeing Pemberley."
Mrs. Gardiner shook her head and smiled, "When you have seen it, you will never forget it. It would be something indeed to be Mistress of Pemberley!"
Elizabeth laughed, "She is not likely to be anyone we know! Still should we ever go I am sure she will not mind if we trespass a little and deprive her of a few petrified spars."
Their tête-à-tête was interrupted by the approach of Mr. Darcy, and Mrs. Gardiner tactfully found a reason to move and sit by Mrs. Annesley.
"I hear you have been obliged to cancel a tour of Derbyshire and the lake district" he said.
"Yes" replied Elizabeth, "Mrs. Gardiner's youngest daughter was unwell."
"If you are able to resume your trip this summer, in fact any summer, you must all come and visit us at Pemberley, you will be more than welcome."
Elizabeth's heart skipped a beat. He still wanted her to see Pemberley! She felt at once confused and elated and could not look at him.
"I should like to see Pemberley very much," she said, attempting to collect herself, "I have heard much of its beauty."
"Yes, it is very beautiful," he said unaffectedly, "I should like your good opinion, you have a truly genuine discernment which prevents your good opinion being given where it is not deserved."
Elizabeth could not reply. She looked at him, noting his smile and remembering how handsome he was when he smiled, and felt the atmosphere between them change tangibly. The enchantment did not last, however, for Bingley came towards them looking for an audience to listen to his plans for Netherfield. Elizabeth ought to have been delighted to listen to him for every idea and plan indicated his continuing interest in Jane but, most inexplicably, she longed for him to be elsewhere, in Derbyshire, in Cornwall, in America - anywhere out of that room.
The evening ended sooner than she should have liked and she was obliged to relive it several times in her imagination before she could make much sense of it. Mr. Darcy had certainly gone out of his way to be kind and attentive to her on two occasions, and she had felt more pleasure in his company than ever before. She could only wish there was time to know him a little better before he left for Netherfield to prepare for his sister's birthday.
The next morning Mrs. Gardiner went out to make her visits and Elizabeth stayed in Gracechurch Street, playing with her little cousins and reading her letters when they allowed her to.
Charlotte's was long and descriptive; her house, her parish and her poultry seemed to compensate more than one would imagine for her dull, pompous husband. Elizabeth laid it down at last and laughed aloud at Charlotte's deft picture of Mr. Collins losing at whist every Monday night in deference to Lady Catherine. He must be the most ridiculous man in England, she thought, I could enjoy him more were we connected less.
She returned the children to the nursemaid at last and sat down again to read Jane's letter which she had purposely saved till last. Jane was an excellent correspondent. Elizabeth knew she had never enjoyed tea with her mother and Aunt Phillips as much as she enjoyed reading about it and she wished with all her heart she had been there when Mary, engrossed in a book, inadvertently spread some of Kitty's new receipt for hand lotion on her bread. She turned the page which was only half written, it was not like Jane to waste paper.....
"Oh good God!" she cried, "it cannot be true!"
She smoothed out the paper as if smoothing away the news it contained. Lydia elope with Wickham? Wickham marry Lydia? There must be a mistake, no, Jane could not have made such a mistake..... he will never marry her.... whatever Lydia might have been persuaded to believe, he will not marry without money...... poor stupid Lydia!
Elizabeth was by nature self-confident and assured but nothing in her experience could prepare her for this. I must find my uncle, she thought, only he will know what to do. She rang the bell for the maid and unable to wait ran out into the hall in search of her.
The front door was already open much to her relief but instead of admitting her uncle as she hoped it was Mr. Darcy who stepped in.
"Miss Bennet, are you unwell? Please sit down, you are in no condition to go anywhere" he put his arm around her shoulder and helped her back into the morning room.
Elizabeth was now beyond care. She sat down and covering her face with one hand began to sob. Darcy sat opposite her quietly; he had come hoping to make her happy and had found her at the very pitch of grief.
"Might I get you something?" he asked helplessly, "a glass of wine, perhaps."
Elizabeth choked back her tears with little success. "I have had very bad news from home."
He took her free hand and for a brief moment she felt nothing but the warmth of his hands around it; it was a comforting, safe feeling. Elizabeth had never been so distressed, never so in need of comfort, never so consciously and wonderfully comforted.
"Jane writes to tell me that my younger sister has run away from Brighton.... she has eloped, she has abandoned all her friends and thrown herself into the power of.... Mr. Wickham!"
Darcy was momentarily speechless as a thousand fears and reproaches flooded his mind.
"What is being done to recover her?"
"I do not know," she replied, "my father must now be somewhere in London with Colonel Forster and they will come here to see my uncle. But what can be done? I know very well that nothing can be done!"
He released her hand, "I will get the servant to fetch your uncle."
"Thank you," Elizabeth could not be at ease until Mr. Gardiner arrived. She knew he could do nothing. Who could? Who could work on such a man as Wickham to make him marry Lydia? However, her uncle's presence was required by her before her father arrived, she could not face him alone.
"I am afraid you have long been desiring my absence," he said.
No, you have long been desiring your absence, she thought. I understand.
She smiled, "Thank you for all your kindness. Please apologize to Miss Darcy for me, I will no longer be able to keep our engagement tomorrow and, please, conceal the unhappy truth for as long as you can. I know it cannot be long."
He picked up his hat and gloves, "You are assured of my secrecy."
The maid saw him out and returned with a glass of wine.
"Drink this ma'am, it will do you good."
Elizabeth took the wine. Her nerves were now strangely calm, it was as if her future as well as Lydia's had been decided, and she no longer had anything to concern herself with. We must all partake of her ruin and disgrace, she thought, none of us have anything to look forward to now. No decent man will want anything to do with any of us, Mr. Bingley will not now renew his addresses to Jane, and Mr. Darcy is congratulating himself on his lucky escape from me.
Mr. Darcy paused outside the slightly disreputable looking boarding house. Finding Mrs. Younge's establishment had not been easy and he knew that persuading her to give up Wickham would be even less so. He rapped smartly on the door which was opened almost straight-away by a distinctly slovenly maid. Mrs. Younge stood behind her.
He was mistaken in his assumption that she would be hard to persuade, she intended only not to be agreeable about it.
"It is quite simple, Mrs. Younge" he said, "You tell me your friend Wickham's whereabouts or I tell the authorities of the nature of your business."
She could not easily decide on his sincerity under the circumstances and she was fond of Wickham, he had aided in her in some very profitable schemes and she was not inclined to give him up to the law without good reason.
"I have no idea of his whereabouts," she replied, "please leave my house."
"A great pity," he responded, "because I know exactly the whereabouts of your other house."
Mrs. Younge was a hard, cruel sort of woman who counted nothing beneath her, if it made money, and her other house certainly made more money than the one in which she lived. However, although her life had been dedicated to crime, she had never been in prison, and the thought of the Newgate or even deportation was more than sufficient to make her easy about giving up Mr. Wickham.
The area in which he found Wickham's address was even less pleasant than the one he had left. He shuddered to imagine what Wickham had said or done to Lydia Bennet, who had always lived on that pretty little estate at Longbourn, to make her stay in such a place. His first concern was for her alone, and his greatest wish that he might find her unharmed and in as good a state of mind as was reasonable under the circumstances. He was therefore torn between relief and dismay when he discovered that not only was she in good health but also in excellent spirits.
"Miss Bennet, I urge you most strongly to leave here with me now. I will take to your uncle's house or even back to Longbourn if that is what you want."
Lydia gaped, "Lord, no! Leave Wickham and return to Longbourn, I should think not. I am in danger of dying of boredom at Longbourn, this is exciting."
Darcy smiled at her remembering that although she was Elizabeth's sister that sense and intelligence had been shared out most unfairly in the Bennet family.
"Lydia," he said gently, "it will be for the best if you leave with me now. I do believe this can all be hushed up and no one need ever know of it."
Lydia only laughed, "He is my darling and we are going to be married. I cannot wait to be Mrs. Wickham, it is all such a great joke! I hope it is soon though, or Jane or Lizzy will get a husband ahead of me."
Darcy enquired after the date of the wedding but Lydia did not know or care. She was sure it would happen some time and was willing to wait.
Darcy then spoke with Wickham whose loyalty to Lydia was not quite so impressive. It did not take long for him to ascertain that Wickham had never any intention of marrying her and had every confidence in marrying into a fortune elsewhere.
"And what of Miss Bennet?" he said.
Wickham shrugged, "What of her?" He smiled, a saucy, dissolute smile. "Don't preach a sermon, Darcy, there's a good fellow," he said pouring more wine.
"For God's sake Wickham, what did you think you were doing? She's a gentleman's daughter and was actually staying in your Colonel's family! Even for you the game cannot be worth the candle!"
He stopped to quiet his temper knowing from experience it was useless to remonstrate. Wickham's vicious propensities had been obvious to him for many years and apart from occasionally discharging his gaming debts there had been nothing he could do. He abhorred both Wickham's excessive drinking and gambling, but nothing was as wholly repugnant to him as Wickham's attitude towards the young women he lied to, used and then cast away. Lydia Bennet was not the first, although perhaps the first of her class, but she would certainly be the last. Wickham's career as a seducer ended here. Whatever it took he was sure Elizabeth Bennet's sister would not join the unhappy company of those seduced and abandoned by Wickham. Although only God knew if forcing a marriage between them was much of a kindness to Lydia, she, however, had shown herself insensible to good advice and had resolutely refused his assistance, and regardless of whether or not marriage to Wickham would be kind to her, the respectability of it would be kind to Elizabeth.
He then began to work on Wickham, and having known him his whole life, it was not too difficult. He was seriously in debt but that hardly needed saying, it was mentioned only for the sake of discovering how much and to whom. The next matter was to determine what could induce him to marry Lydia; it was not easy. Wickham needed to clear his debts and wanted to start over again in another country, where he reasonably hoped to meet with a young woman of tolerable fortune. He had been endeavouring to join with Mrs. Smith in one or other of her schemes, but was more than happy to refer his creditors to Mr. Darcy, however, he made it quite clear that he could settle his own debt given time, and would require more than that to marry a girl as penniless and senseless as Lydia Bennet. Darcy was pragmatic; he regarded debtors' prisons as one of the less useful institutions of the land but found it convenient to remind Wickham of their existence. After a short while in which Darcy gave Wickham to believe that he was willing to make his character public, it seemed that Wickham had a certain affection for Lydia and was persuaded to think marrying her a good idea. His fondness for Lydia was increased greatly by his hope of extorting more out of Darcy in future years than what was offered him at present. He eventually agreed to a small settlement from Mr. Bennet, a generous one from Mr. Darcy and a commission in General -----'s regiment.
Darcy went straight from Wickham's lodgings to his friend Colonel Dashwood in St. James' Street. The Colonel had known both Darcy and Wickham from Cambridge, and with Darcy he was on the most intimate terms. He arranged with the Colonel the purchase of Wickham's commission which was to be effective as soon as possible. He also arranged for Colonel Forster and Mr. Bennet to be informed of the arrangement. From there he did not know how to proceed. He did not want Elizabeth to know of his involvement and normally would have conducted the whole business through her uncle, whom he had come to regard as a most reasonable and trustworthy man. However, the fact that Elizabeth was staying in her uncle's house made that impossible. It was eventually agreed that Colonel Forster should have the credit for tracking Lydia down and Colonel Dashwood the credit of sorting out the financial mess. Colonel Forster accepted his part in the subterfuge willingly, he was a sensible, decent sort of man but he wanted rid of all responsibility for Wickham and longed to be able to look Mr. Bennet in the eye. Dashwood, on the other hand, participated reluctantly. He had never been at a loss for a straight answer from Darcy before and was most uncomfortable with it now. However, he had known him long enough to realize that his every action was accompanied by the greatest propriety and consented to have the appearance of helping Wickham with more than simply getting to the church on time. Darcy would have liked to conduct Wickham to the ceremony himself, but again that would mean revealing his part in it all to Elizabeth, and so he entrusted that task to the Colonel and even had the heart to laugh a little, a soldier shortly returned from fighting the French was surely a better groomsman for Wickham under the circumstances than a mere country gentleman.
James Dashwood was a man of the finest character; his friends regarded him as the kindest and best of men, his enemies as the most honourable. He was also one of the very few men Darcy thoroughly respected, his easy manner made him as likable as Bingley and his moral rectitude closely resembled Darcy's own. It was his unpleasant duty to watch over the profligate Wickham for as many days as it took Mr. Gardiner to make the wedding arrangements. Neither he nor Darcy trusted Wickham to go through with the arrangement if left to himself.
Lydia was collected from Wickham's lodgings the next day by Colonel Forster and conveyed to Gracechurch Street. With what emotion Lydia was received might well be imagined. Mrs. Gardiner, crediting Lydia with a little more conscience than she had, was horrified at her lack of compunction, and Harriet Gardiner, peering through the banisters at her cousin's arrival, was almost distraught. Elizabeth, however, had ceased to credit Lydia with much and was almost resigned to the business. Lydia, of course, was ecstatic. She could see nothing but her marriage and was totally oblivious to the wretchedness of her aunt and sister.
"Don't you think I have been romantic, Lizzy, have I not caught myself a smart beau?"
Elizabeth had nothing to say that Lydia could wish to hear and so remained silent. Lydia, however, rattled on.
"Do they know at Longbourn I am to be married?" She giggled at her reflection in the glass, "Are Kitty and Jane wildly jealous?"
"I daresay my father has reached home by now and informed them of your happy news." replied Elizabeth curtly.
"Father, was he here, why did he not wait to see me?"
"I can't imagine" said Elizabeth but sarcasm was lost on Lydia.
"How much money did he give me for wedding clothes? I do hope Wickham wears his blue coat to church, it seems he cannot be married in his regimentals, I am quite devastated over that."
Elizabeth thought she must be losing her senses. Had Lydia really expressed regret over Wickham's clothes, she who had eloped.... lived with him as his wife, almost eradicated her family's standing in the world and utterly destroyed the hopes of her four sisters?
"Lydia," she began, "do you not comprehend the misery this has caused your family? You could not control your passions, and now we must all suffer, there is more to this than Wickham's blue coat!"
"Could not control your passions," mimicked Lydia, "Aye, that is just like your morality Lizzy, you are nearly as bad as Mary but use less words!"
"I am not quoting to you from Fordyce!" Elizabeth was unaccustomed to raising her voice but somehow Lydia demanded it, "I am talking about reality, the reality your sisters now face because of your laxness, your selfishness, your viciousness - yes, Lydia, viciousness."
The penny dropped. Lydia understood at last but her reaction was far from the remorse expected.
"La! Have I frightened off Jane's beau? I should be ashamed to be Jane, still single at three and twenty, I do declare she will soon be an old maid!"
Elizabeth struggled with her emotions and with the fearful temptation to actually hit Lydia. It was high time someone did.
Lydia continued, "Or are you jealous for your new friend, Miss Darcy? I believe she wanted my darling Wickham at one time but he did not want her, she had not enough spirit for him," she winked saucily, "and that is why her brother treated him so unjustly. I believe Miss Darcy has had everything else she ever wanted."
Elizabeth's temper snapped. She grabbed Lydia by her ringlets and slapped her face most soundly. For a moment both sisters were transfixed by the horror of what had happened; Lydia because she had never been disciplined before, and Elizabeth because she had never stooped so low before. Lydia collected herself first and her screams brought Mrs. Gardiner rushing into the chamber.
She decided at this juncture that she would not tell Lizzy of Mr. Darcy's involvement in the affair; Lydia was the silliest and most ignorant of girls but she had a certain quickness where attachments were concerned, she had noticed Darcy looking at her sister in Hertfordshire and she deduced the possibility that Elizabeth's affection for Miss Darcy might have its roots in another affection. No, she would do nothing to help Lizzy get Mr. Darcy and his ten thousand a year, especially after his horrid behaviour to her most darling boy.
"I hit her, aunt" said Elizabeth dropping to the floor and sobbing, "I actually hit her. Good God, what will become of us?"
Mrs. Gardiner helped her up and took her to her room. "Do not grieve yourself, my dear, in a day or two it will all be over. They will be married and that will be an end of it. I have just this moment learned from your uncle that an old friend from his university days has managed to procure Wickham a commission in a northern regiment and so they will be gone to Newcastle hopefully for a few years."
"Wickham has a friend? You surprise me."
"I suspect Mr. Wickham will always fall on his feet, my dear; there will always be someone for him to deceive. And Lizzy my love, you are not expected to accompany her to church."
For a moment Elizabeth was more relieved than she could express, the circumstances of Lydia and Wickham's marriage were such that she did not think she could bear to sit there while the precious words of the wedding service were read for them. She recalled with a pang how she and Jane had gone over that portion of their prayer-books often and how much it had meant to them, there had been so many hopes and dreams caught together in that girlish past-time and now they were all to be sacrificed to Lydia's thoughtlessness.
The wedding day dawned bright and cool. Elizabeth was awake many hours before the sun rose on such an inauspicious day; both she and Lydia had been sleepless but for very different reasons. She resolved that she would go to the church with Lydia. She had stayed in Gracechurch Street rather than returning to Longbourn with her father because Lucy was not yet fully recovered and it seemed unfair to abandon Mrs. Gardiner with a sick child and Lydia. It now occurred to her that it would look remarkably odd if she did not attend the wedding, the gossipmongers were already delightfully provided for she thought, I will not give them more.
Lydia arose at the earliest possible hour but Elizabeth delayed going to her for as long as she could. Mr. Bennet had refused a penny for wedding clothes but the Gardiners had felt that for Lydia's own sake as well as the consequence of the family she should have the appropriate attire and the previous four or five days had been a misery of dressmakers and milliners. Lydia was now as happy as she could be, her only regret was that all her sisters would not be available as bridesmaids. Nothing that Mrs. Gardiner or Elizabeth said could persuade her of the foolishness of her actions, the seriousness of matrimony or even the importance of her conducting herself reasonably in future and they soon gave up.
On entering St. Clement's Elizabeth could not but be curious to see the man who had obtained Wickham's commission and paid at least some of his debts. She had decided in advance that the acquaintance of such a man was wholly undesirable, a friend of Wickham's had to be in some respects at least as bad as Wickham himself, however, it was also true that Lydia and her whole family were obligated to him. She winced inwardly and began the long walk up the aisle with Lydia on Mr. Gardiner's arm behind her. It was her dearest wish to be maid of honour at Jane's wedding to Bingley and she would have attended either Mary and Kitty with happiness but now her first experience of being a bridesmaid, which every young woman knows is second only to the felicity of actually being a bride, was thoroughly tainted.
The procession eventually reached the chancel steps and Lizzy accepted Lydia's flowers and gloves. Dear God, was she really present at this performance? Her mind focused unwillingly on the words, "a remedy for sin", she had been forced when Charlotte married to consider it a remedy for poverty, but sin? True enough, though, where there would be no companionship. After a while she remembered she was in a house of prayer and thanked God seriously and fervently that her mother was not present. On opening her eyes again she realized that Wickham's friend was looking quite intently at her, surely not all his acquaintances were equally as lecherous. It seemed a long ceremony even to Elizabeth, appreciative as she was of both the principles and poetry of the prayer-book, but at last it ended and she had the privilege of having Lydia's bouquet handed her as the happy couple entered the carriage that was to convey them first to Gracechurch Street for a change of clothes and then directly to Hertfordshire. Fortunately for Elizabeth's feelings there was to be no wedding breakfast and the flowers she tactfully abandoned on an out of the way pew.
She stood by her aunt waiting patiently while Mr. Gardiner talked to Colonel Dashwood. She overheard a snippet conversation which intrigued her but she did not have the courage or inclination to move any closer to the offending speaker and was forced to remain ignorant of the rest.
"We are all thoroughly indebted to you, sir." said Mr. Gardiner.
"No, no," Dashwood sounded convincingly self-deprecating, "you are not indebted to me at all."
Mr. Gardiner smiled, "It is good of you to say so, but you were under no obligation to help my niece, absolutely none."
Dashwood bowed a little awkwardly and moved off. Elizabeth was not sorry to see him go. It was certainly an association she wished to avoid. Her uncle of course did not know the complete truth about Wickham but surely he knew enough by now to share her convictions on this subject.
"He seems a most pleasant sort of man," said Mr. Gardiner as they settled in the carriage, it having been arranged they should visit Mrs. Gardiner's sister while Lydia and Wickham were at Gracechurch Street.
"It is not likely that Wickham has many pleasant friends," replied Elizabeth, "Can you imagine any friend of Wickham's, especially one willing to lay out that much money on his behalf, to be pleasant, aunt?"
"We have severely misjudged two young men so far, Lizzy, let us not be hasty with this one. I admit that his friendship with Wickham is hardly a recommendation, but remember how he prevailed upon you, is it not possible he has done the same here?"
Elizabeth did not trust herself to respond.
The next day she was so unfortunate as to meet both Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst outside her favourite milliner's shop, a new hat might seem like a poor consolation for all that had passed, but it was amongst the very few available to her.
Miss Bingley was effusive and insincere, "My dear Miss Eliza, you must allow me to congratulate you on your sister's marriage. We are both delighted for you, are we not Louisa?"
Mrs. Hurst smiled and nodded, "We were only discussing it last night with my brother and Mr. Darcy."
They both laughed heartily. Elizabeth could not envisage Mr. Darcy participating in such a conversation, but she imagined Miss Bingley had retained correspondents in Hertfordshire and must know at least as much about Lydia's circumstances as the inhabitants of Longbourn.
"I am afraid to say we will not see you in town anymore, Miss Bennet" said Miss Bingley, when their mirth had subsided, "we are traveling north tomorrow. Mr. Darcy has invited us all to Pemberley. He has just left London himself, taking dear Georgiana with him."
Elizabeth had not thought Mr. Darcy would be much of a figure in her life, now that she was Wickham's sister-in-law, but the speed with which he had removed himself and his sister from her company was distressing. He must think Miss Darcy will be tainted by association with me, she thought, my father was wrong when he said that wherever Jane and I went we would be respected and valued for ourselves but we do appear to less advantage for having a very silly sister. She walked home slowly unwilling to inform her aunt of Mr. Darcy's sudden departure. She had forgotten and, naturally, Miss Bingley was not inclined to remind her, that Georgiana had gone home for her birthday and that their leaving date must always have been set for that day.
Elizabeth had not the personality which increases its vexations by dwelling on them. She bitterly regretted informing Mr. Darcy of their troubles for her own sake as well as Jane's and tried to put the whole idea out of her mind. It was banished regularly and as regularly returned. It seemed to her that, now that she was parted from him forever, she wanted to know more of him. Her heartache continued unabated for several days, although she made every effort to subdue her feelings and participate in as many games and outings with her little cousins as the weather and her aunt permitted. She felt at once gratitude and anger towards Mr. Darcy; gratitude for him apparently having overcome his disgust of her connections enough to want to renew their relationship, and anger at him not valuing her sufficiently to still like her once her connections had sunk a little lower. She was now as convinced as she could be that until a fortnight ago he had still been in love with her. He loved her enough to associate with the uncle in trade and overlook the uncle who was a country attorney, but his love stopped short of having Wickham for a brother-in-law. She knew this to be quite reasonable and sometimes wondered if she could respect the man who did not mind Wickham as a brother-in-law, but her heart rankled at the idea of his love being so easily dissolved.
At the beginning of her last week she received an invitation to attend a ball with the Campbells. If the decision had been entirely her own, Elizabeth would not have gone, but it appeared to her to mean much to her aunt and so she consented. Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were excellent people, like Bingley's father, they had made their fortune in trade but were now welcome in many of the most elegant houses in London. In this instance the fashionable house belonged to a General Dixon, and to Lizzy's chagrin the ballroom was awash with red coats. She remembered though that it was her business to be pleased even if only to please the Campbells and laughed at herself for not realizing a General's ball would be full of officers.
She was happily occupied in talking to Miss Campbell until that lady's fiancé demanded her company in the next dance. Elizabeth let her go reluctantly, she reminded her of Jane and she missed Jane desperately. She glanced around the room and suddenly caught sight of Colonel Dashwood standing by the door talking to Mr. Campbell, he bowed to her, and she looked away wishing she had moved straight to Mrs. Campbell and the tea table as soon as the music started. To her relief though he did not approach her, and it wasn't until Mr. Campbell, with an idea of being chivalrous, almost forced him to ask her to dance that she had anything real to worry about concerning him. She had intended to say she did not intend to dance, but given the circumstances and her desire to know more about his connection with Wickham, she agreed. Unlike Mr. Darcy at Netherfield he was not difficult to talk to, she might have been dancing with Bingley, but he was difficult to get on to the right subject. When the usual pleasantries had been done with, he talked entertainingly of so many things that she had difficulty in remembering what she wanted to know and even more difficulty making him acknowledge her. She enquired tentatively at first and then merely tactfully, but seeing he was determined to elude her, she resorted to a barefaced question.
"How did you come to be acquainted with my brother-in-law, Colonel?" She already knew the answer but it was a good place to start.
"We met at Cambridge" he replied.
"And have you been much acquainted with him since?"
"No, not at all. I had not heard of him for some five years or so until a.... he applied to me for help in obtaining a commission in my uncle's regiment."
"It was very good of you to help him" said Elizabeth, with so little sarcasm that she barely recognized her own voice. She did not quite believe him yet but began to wonder what hold Wickham had over him to make him so compliant.
"I felt I did not have much choice in the matter, when I learned what his actions had been. George Wickham and I have never been close, but I felt that I could not withhold from him what was necessary for him to re-establish his character in the world."
"I must thank you then on behalf of all my family, as they may never get the opportunity themselves."
For a moment he looked as taciturn as Mr. Darcy at his worst and then, recollecting his spirits, he said, "No thanks are necessary, Miss Bennet, I assure you."
She sensed his discomfort but could find no suitable cause to attribute it to beyond, perhaps, embarrassment, and he did not seem the kind of man to be easily embarrassed. He was, however, excellent company. He could talk of Gilpin and Cowper with perfect ease and familiarity, and when they had exhausted that topic, for a first meeting at least, he described for her coastline on his estate in North Devonshire with such poignancy that she could not help feeling quite anguished at never having seen the sea.
The Gardiners held a dinner party for her on her last night, which included the Campbells, General and Mrs. Dixon and Colonel Dashwood, who was the Dixons' house-guest. Elizabeth was far from sorry to see him, that he liked her was plain and it had occurred to her that he must like her for herself alone without any consideration of her fortune or connections. He knew the worst there was to know of her family and yet he still liked her. A marked contrast to Mr. Darcy, she thought, who could not even ask me to marry him without mentioning how disgusting he found my family and who could not remove his family from me fast enough. Her contempt of Mr. Darcy's pride and arrogance was once more restored to its former glory, and she set about finding as many unfavourable points of comparison between him and her new companion as she possibly could.
She could not persuade herself that he was as handsome as Darcy, it had been a long while since she had believed she could meet any man who fulfilled her idea of masculine beauty as well as Mr. Darcy did. However, he was handsome; she found him pleasing to look at and was aware of having been the envy of the room, when he had asked her to dance a second time at the Dixon's ball. His fair hair and grey eyes reminded her a little of Wickham's blond good-looks but there was a seriousness and a refinement in his features that Wickham lacked, and she concluded that where virtue and beauty combined there was a definite attractiveness which Mr. Darcy lacked! On the second issue, that of his personality, even the most biased observer must admit that Dashwood had by nature all the social graces that Darcy would not stoop to learn. He had the happy manners that made him sure of being liked wherever he went, and Elizabeth was very far from being immune to an open heart and playful disposition, as her experience with Wickham had proved. She also discovered with a confused and delighted chagrin that he would tease her as she teased others, and that the superiority of his age and education made her very occasionally unable to respond as she would like - an irresistible challenge indeed! It did not take her long to find out that Colonel Dashwood had but one fault in comparison to Mr. Darcy (she was not inclined to consider an income of seven thousand a year instead of ten to be a fault), and that was that he was determined to flirt with a woman he could have no serious designs on. However, as she was equally intent on flirting with him and felt no real interest in him beyond the appeal of good-looks, a red coat and intelligent conversation, she could not be too disappointed in his failing.
Colonel Dashwood, however, could not imagine himself to be as safe from Miss Bennet as she obviously thought. He was quite enchanted and more than prepared to enjoy the sensation for as long as it lasted; Miss Bennet's light, sparkling manner had convinced him that her heart was not easily touched, and he relied wholly upon his friend Darcy being the man to touch it. He had not been in her company more than half an hour at General Dixon's ball, before deciding that, if Darcy had not arranged Lydia's wedding for the sake of Elizabeth, then he must be the greatest fool in Christendom, and if James Dashwood was aware of one thing, it was that Fitzwilliam Darcy was no fool.
"Miss Bennet?" Elizabeth sighed inwardly, she knew her delightful conversation with the Colonel must end, but she had not thought of it ending sooner than necessary by a request from Miss Dixon for her to play. She seated herself at the instrument and began to play the music that had been left open there; she could not hope to have the same entrancing effect on the Colonel that she had had on Mr. Darcy. Why had Darcy praised her singing to his sister? Why had he looked at her in such a way at their last but one meeting? Fortunately there were no difficult passages for her to fudge her way through, and she was unwittingly fair on her way to having exactly that effect on the now most unwilling Colonel.
"So, cousin," began Miss Dixon, lowering her voice so that she could not be heard above the music, "you are living up to your reputation for having an eye only for the prettiest lady in the room. Do not think your obvious preference for my friend, Miss Bennet, went unnoticed at our ball."
Dashwood smiled. Henrietta Dixon, it was rumoured, had made matches in her cradle, and he was well used to her speculations about his future bride, but on this occasion she had hit a raw nerve.
"I think you will be most fortunate man," she continued, "she is as delightful a creature as I ever met and well worth catching."
"Aye, she is a delightful creature," he agreed, "but she is not interested in me. Go back to your fiancé and remind him of his good fortune and leave me be, I entreat you."
She laughed charmingly, "You wish to sit alone and listen to your lady play? Well, I will oblige you this once. I have seen your friend, the rich and handsome Mr. Darcy, listen to her in just such a way and without a fraction of the encouragement you have received this evening."
With a quick childish wink she was gone, leaving him in a state of agitation he had reasonably expected never to feel, having reached the great and unromantic age of thirty-two without ever having experienced it before. It was unbelievable that she should prefer him to Darcy. Darcy, he knew, could be talkative and pleasing enough when it suited him and he had the looks that made most women swoon. He began to watch Elizabeth attentively, no longer caring who saw or what they thought. Did he think Elizabeth Bennet to be the kind of woman swayed by exceptional looks and income? No, he did not. Could he imagine Darcy in all his pride condescending to marry into such a family? It did not matter to Dashwood that half of Elizabeth's family were in trade of some sort, his mother had been the daughter of a country surgeon and his estate at Everingley inherited through a complicated series of entails which removed him a considerable distance from the aristocrats who once possessed it. He could not trace his ancestry to William the Conqueror as Darcy could and felt no desire or duty to choose his bride from among those with similar family histories. No, Fitzwilliam Darcy, grandson of an earl and one of the richest, most distinguished landowners in the country would never propose to Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn.
Elizabeth traveled back to Longbourn with Mr. and Mrs. Campbell who were on their way to visit a married daughter in Norfolk. They were kindly, well-meaning folk but she was glad to see her father's carriage waiting for her at Stevenage. It contained Mary with a pile of newly-purchased books and Kitty who was still in the throes of jealously and loneliness following Lydia's wedding.
"Mamma met Mr. Nicholls in Meryton" announced Kitty as they drove off, "he says Mr. Bingley is expected back very soon."
Elizabeth could not be happier. Surely Bingley would not return to Hertfordshire if he did not want to renew his relationship with Jane? She reminded herself, though, that it was the shooting season, and as Mr. Hurst did not have an estate, that they were more or less obliged to come to Netherfield if they wanted any sport.
"And there is a letter waiting you from Charlotte Collins," added Mary, "Mamma is quite unreasonably anxious about it."
Elizabeth made a face, "I wish she were not so very interested in Charlotte's affairs, she makes me feel as if Charlotte is praying for our father to die and I know that is not the case."
"We all know it," replied Mary, "except our mother and our aunt Phillips."
Elizabeth was delighted to see Jane again, she could not but feel guilty at having been in London dancing and flirting while poor Jane presided over the madhouse that would have been Longbourn in the aftermath of Lydia's disappearance. Her father, she knew, would avoid all responsibility except that which was actually thrust upon him and her mother had never heard of the concept -- all would have fallen on Jane's shoulders.
Mr. Bennet too, seemed happy. He voluntarily told her how good it was to have her home on several occasions. Mrs. Bennet was less happy, she smiled and reproached and smiled again. It seemed to Elizabeth that none of them were to leave home in future unless they could come back married. Lydia's way of obtaining husbands did not seem offensive to their mother and so she was upbraided in no uncertain terms for not being as clever as her younger sister. However, the joy of having her youngest daughter married and the prospect of Mr. Bingley coming to claim her eldest, surpassed her disappointment at Elizabeth's remaining single after long sojourn in London. She went off gaily to plan her menu for when she should prevail upon Mr. Bingley to join them for dinner.
"We are having a little dinner on Tuesday next," she said, "I think I shall try out some of the dishes I have devised for dear Bingley then."
Elizabeth smiled encouragingly at Jane, but her sister's eyes were firmly fixed on her work and she would not look up until her mother had left the room.
"I know you are smiling at me, Lizzy," she said as Mrs. Bennet's footsteps faded along the corridor, "I wish you would not."
If it had not been for Lydia's scandalous behaviour Elizabeth would have been quite confident that Mr. Bingley returned to Netherfield with no other purpose in view than to make himself the happiest of men by engaging himself to her sister. However, she could not forget Mr. Darcy's hasty removal of his sister from London and, if her mother and uncles had been unacceptable to him before, what must her brother-in-law be now?
The door opened again and Mrs. Bennet returned holding Charlotte's letter.
"This arrived for you," she said holding it out.
Elizabeth took it and slipped it under her huswife, "Thank you, Mamma."
"Read it, read it!" urged Mrs. Bennet, "We all long to know how dear Charlotte keeps."
Mary and Kitty who had entered in her wake began to snigger and Elizabeth with a pointed sigh opened the letter and casting her eye down the page was struck by the most awful news.
My dear Lizzy,
I do not wish to worry you, as it may all come to naught but Mr. Collins has just this moment returned from Rosings with the most alarming report. Lady Catherine has informed him that Mr. Darcy's friend (she can mean none other than Mr. Bingley) is planning to return to Hertfordshire with the intention of fitting up Netherfield to receive his bride. Oh, Lizzy, I so hate to be the bearer of cruel tidings, but, if Lady Catherine is correct, it is not to be Jane! Apparently Mr. Bingley met with a young woman in Town, a Miss Mansfield, whose family is originally from Meryton (her aunt is old Mrs. Hayter) and she wishes to reside in the country after their marriage.
I hope with all my heart that this is not true and that Lady Catherine is mistaken, but I wanted you to know first in order to prepare poor Jane if it should be true.
"She has certainly written very little," commented Mrs. Bennet, "the page is not half full - is she bored with Hunsford then?"
Elizabeth shook her head, "It is private, Mamma. It is not for sharing."
"Not for sharing - nonsense, it is only Charlotte - what can she have to say of any import?"
She snatched the letter from Elizabeth's hand and shook it out.
"Oh, dear Lord! Miss Mansfield, oh what can it mean? Lizzy, Lizzy, tell me it is not true!"
"Mamma?" Jane's first thought, as ever, was for her mother. Elizabeth tucked the letter in her pocket and helped Jane to sit Mrs. Bennet in a comfortable chair as her hysterics promised to take some time to dispel.
"He cannot! He cannot!" she screamed, "Oh, Mr. Bingley cannot marry Selina Mansfield! It cannot be true, it is not true!"
"Who is Miss Mansfield?" asked Kitty.
Elizabeth looked silently at Jane who was standing at the window from which the chimney tops of Netherfield could just be seen.
"She is the niece of Mrs. Hayter who lives above the milliner's in Meryton."
Kitty stared, "I did not know she had a niece."
"She lives elsewhere," replied Elizabeth shortly, she longed to comfort Jane but knew not how, and something in her sister's manner prevented her from trying.
"Mrs. Hayter's sister married very well," said Mrs. Bennet, who was recovering slightly thanks to Mary having the presence of mind to fetch her salts, "they were school-friends of mine, Selina married a man of fortune and Louisa, that is Mrs. Hayter, turned down the vicar," here she looked pointedly at Elizabeth, "and was forced to settle for a clerk. Young Selina visits her every so often but she is nothing to any of you, she is all bosom, you are, all of you, what you ought to be in that area at least, you all have excellent figures, even you Mary."
Mary felt all the force of the compliment but wished it had been delivered at a time when she might safely enjoy it. There was no enjoyment to be had with Jane's hopes dashed by a girl with twenty thousand pounds, even if she was overly curvaceous for Mrs. Bennet's taste.
Jane locked her door that night and nothing her mother or sisters could do would persuade her to open it. Elizabeth was wild with worry and nothing would satisfy her but to creep out into the passage every hour or so to check the light under her sister's door. Mary, it seemed, had the same idea and at one point followed Elizabeth back into her room.
"Jane's filial kindness to my poor mother when Lydia ran away exceeded everything I have ever read," she said, "I felt with all my heart God would reward her goodness with Bingley - I cannot believe it has all gone awry."
"If there is any justice in the world, Jane should get Bingley," said Elizabeth, "but he is greatly swayed by his sisters and Mr. Darcy - Miss Mansfield has excellent connections and a good fortune."
"She is no different from Jane in respect of connections. Her father is a gentleman but her mother's family are nothing to write to Mr. Darcy of." Mary was more astute than Elizabeth had realized.
"It must be the twenty thousand pounds, then," she said, "assuming it is true to begin with. Mary, I believe Lady Catherine to be the most malicious of women - I would not put it past her to embroider a snippet of gossip, something about Bingley having danced twice with this girl or such like, and to present it to Mr. Collins as fact knowing that he will pass it on to us."
"He is a simpleton, if he prefers a thousand pounds a year to Jane," said Mary.
"You are right. Remember though, Lydia and Wickham. Neither they, nor you, nor I or anyone will ever forget what they did - it is entirely possible, no it is all too probable, that no respectable man will ever look at any of us now."
"Have you ever been in love, Lizzy? I should have liked the experience, although I realize that my chances of making a good marriage, any marriage, were always least of all."
"You may still have the experience," said Elizabeth, "only take care you do not expect a return."
Had she ever been in love?
She had flattered herself that she lay awake for her sister's sake, but long after Mary had left and doubtless fallen soundly asleep in her little north room, Elizabeth was all too awake - and not thinking of Jane.
Had she ever loved? She had played at being in love with Wickham, and how embarrassing that was now.
"The only time I have ever made a public spectacle of myself," she said aloud, "and he was there to see it!"
After a while she was forced to get up and sit by the window to better avoid the uncomfortable thoughts of Mr. Darcy that invaded her attempts to empathize with Jane.
"And what do I know of men and beds?" she thought, "except that they ought not to be thought of together!"
By the next morning the ill-effects of Charlotte's letter had left Mrs. Bennet and she was in excellent spirits - it seemed to Mary, who was obliged to sit with her all morning, that she believed Mr. Bingley's heart might be turned again by excellent venison and better soup than he was likely to have at the Lucases.
Jane spent the greater part of the day in her room trying to convince herself, and anyone else who happened in, that she had never cared much for Bingley and that when they met it would be as the common and indifferent acquaintances they had always been.
Elizabeth and Kitty walked into Meryton to visit their aunt. Elizabeth's stay in London provided Mrs. Phillips with much needed news and gossip and Kitty was glad to hear of the latest fashions when Elizabeth's stories of General Dixon's ball were finally exhausted.
"I should have simply loved to attend such a ball," she said, "it must have been quite as grand as Netherfield. How many officers did you say there were, Lizzy?"
Elizabeth's thoughts, however, were entirely on Jane and Bingley. In every conversation, in every smile, in almost every look he had spoken to her of Jane, she could not believe that a man so in love with Jane a few weeks ago could be in love with another now. Darcy's repugnance at the idea of being intimately connected with Wickham might induce him to sacrifice all future happiness, but she could not imagine Bingley to be so foolish. No, he must love Jane.
They attended Church as usual on Sunday morning and Mary was the only one of the party with sufficient presence of mind to concentrate on the sermon. Mr. Bennet had given up hope of hearing something absurd from the new rector, Kitty had never listened to a sermon in her life and Mrs. Bennet was chiefly engaged in bowing and smiling at Mr. Bingley whenever she could catch his eye. Elizabeth was mortified, if Bingley was engaged to someone else, then her mother's behaviour was as inappropriate as it had been at the Netherfield ball - she was intensely grateful that Mr. Darcy was not there to witness it. It was the first time since reading his letter that she had had a good opportunity to see her family through his eyes. Her father was quite obviously reading something that was neither prayer-book nor Bible, Kitty was eyeing one or two young men that she liked, Mary's expression suggested she could preach a better sermon herself and Mrs. Bennet's behaviour could not have been less fitting to the occasion.
I cannot wonder at his not wanting to connect himself to such a family, she thought. Oh, but I am sure he had overcome his feelings when I saw him in London, I am sure he had! She glanced desperately at Jane but she had wisely chosen a wide bonnet and her expression could not be seen. After a while it appeared to her that on the rare occasion Mrs. Bennet was not looking at Mr. Bingley that Mr. Bingley was looking at Jane.
Matins ended and the congregation clustered around the door shaking hands with the vicar and each other. Mrs. Bennet bounded over to Bingley with the enthusiasm of favourite spaniel, much to the delight of Mr. Bennet, whose opinion on the sermon he had not listened to, was being anxiously solicited by his third daughter.
"Oh, my dear Mr. Bingley," she cried, "I had thought we should never see you again!"
Bingley was all smiles. He smiled at Mrs. Bennet, at Mary, at Kitty and most of all at Jane but she would not look at him.
"Remember now," continued Mrs. Bennet almost coquettishly, "you never fulfilled your engagement to have dinner with us...."
Elizabeth longed to remove her mother from Bingley. It was too much that she should attempt to invite him to their house when he might be engaged to another woman, how could she do this to Jane? Stupid, thoughtless woman!
"Mr. Bingley, have you met our new rector?" interrupted Mary, "Mr. Owen, this is Mr. Bingley of Netherfield, he has been out of the country quite some time."
Elizabeth was relieved to see Bingley fall into conversation with Mr. Owen, it gave her time to take Jane's arm and walk her briskly towards the house and out of range of her mother's voice.
"I thought I should never been able to face him," said Jane, when they were safely through the gates of Longbourn, "but I managed well, did I not?"
"Very well," smiled Elizabeth, "you did not return his gaze once!"
"Lizzy, do not tease me. I do not think he was gazing at all."
"Ah, but I dared to observe him and you did not."
"Lizzy! Jane!" Mrs. Bennet was unaccustomed to running but, in spite of being forty-three years old and a mother five times, she had retained her youthful figure and managed to catch up with her daughters before the reached the front door.
"He is coming, he is coming! Oh, Jane, he will be here on Tuesday - Hill, Hill! Where is Hill?"
She dashed past the girls into the hall unable to spare a moment that might be better spent discussing the food that would put Mr. Bingley in the mood to declare his love.
Tuesday evening eventually arrived and nothing but the expectation of having a daughter soon married to a man with five thousand a year could have made the interval bearable for Mrs. Bennet.
The dinner party passed pleasantly enough. Jane, Mrs. Bennet said, had never been in greater beauty and Elizabeth was inclined to agree with her. Indeed, Mrs. Bennet's pleasure in the evening was dampened only by Bingley's not proposing to Jane straight-away, and the ducks being rather lean. However, she consoled herself with the notion that her soup was superior to anything the Lucases had to offer now that Charlotte was gone, and that Bingley might prefer to ask her for an audience with her daughter as Mr. Collins had done.
"It seems the Lucases have their eye on Mr. Owen for Maria," she commented sourly to Elizabeth as they drank their coffee together, "he is altogether too good for her, they say he has quite eight hundred a year on top of his stipend, I am in hopes of him taking a liking to Kitty."
Elizabeth longed to remark that serious, other-worldly Mr. Owen was not likely to be taken in by a pretty face with little behind it whether it belonged to a Miss Maria or a Miss Catherine, but judged it prudent to agree with her mother and escape quickly to Jane.
"I believe you are in as much danger as ever you were of making Mr. Bingley madly in love with you."
Jane only blushed. Elizabeth was glad for her but disappointed in herself. She knew that without Jane's sweet, modest disposition that the things that made Jane happy would not do for her, but still she longed for that sort of happiness. The gentlemen soon joined them and Elizabeth had the pleasure of seeing Jane and Bingley together as if he had never left her with any doubt of his affection.
"It is a match well made," said Mrs. Bennet in a paroxysm of self-congratulation, "I knew, did I not, when he came here he would marry one of my girls?"
"'Tis a pity ma'am that he did not have four brothers," said Mary much to Elizabeth's delight and amusement. Mary was returning a little to her former spirits, she had become more reserved as Lydia had grown more wild and now with Lydia gone she was losing a little of the reserve. Kitty too had improved since the disturber of her brain had been removed and, although it was still difficult to have a conversation with her, it was suspected by her father that she was spending even more than ten minutes a day in a rational manner.
At last their guests departed and not all that Mrs. Bennet's contriving could do would keep Bingley's carriage from arriving on time.
"My poor nerves," she said to Elizabeth as Hill shut the door, "they will not endure another day! Why does he not speak?"
"Mamma - he could not declare himself in company! Would you have him propose to her between the cheese and the trifle?"
Mrs. Bennet glared, "You have had your chance, Miss!"
When Elizabeth reached her room she found Jane waiting for her.
"Lizzy, Lizzy - I am the happiest of women - he begs for a little of my time tomorrow, I am to meet him in the garden."
Elizabeth was overjoyed. Jane would be Mrs. Bingley and without her mother feeling forced to engineer anything. Mrs. Bennet's attempts to set the scene for a proposal had occupied her mind horribly for half the evening.
And so Miss Jane Bennet of Longbourn became engaged to Charles Bingley, who had a handsome estate and a clear five thousand a year. Those who loved them saw a marriage of true minds and rejoiced; the rest of the world had to be content with remarking on her beauty and his wealth and, of much more interest all round, how his proud friend and sisters had been undone.
Jane was so far from congratulating herself on her good luck that the first thought in her mind was that her favourite sister should be equally happy.
"I should never have know such felicity was possible," she said, "Lizzy, I do so long for the same for you."
Elizabeth smiled, "Until I have your goodness I shall never have your happiness. No, Jane, let me shift for myself and I may have the good fortune to meet with another Mr. Collins by and by."
Jane laughed and shook her head. "Will I always tempt you to tease me, dear Lizzy? Tell me of Colonel Dashwood. I should like to know more of the man to whom we are so indebted."
"Has not my aunt told you everything you could wish to know?" asked Elizabeth.
"Tell me more. She cannot tell me what I want to know most - do you like him?"
Elizabeth pretended to sigh, "I would have thought you and my Aunt Gardiner would have better things to write about it. Are you settling that I should marry the Colonel?"
Jane looked as arch as she was ever likely to, "Are you?"
"I esteem him, I respect him, I like him. We have no attachment!"
"Faint praise! Is he handsome? I know he is rich."
"Yes, he is very handsome," replied Elizabeth, surprised by her impulse to blush, "and he is not at all proud. He liked me for myself without regard to family or connections or notions of respectability, I value that greatly, however, he is a sensible sort of man and not likely to marry a woman with a mere fifty pounds a year - I think I am safe."
"Of course, sensible men never marry women with a mere fifty pounds a year," laughed Jane, "I am horrified Lizzy that you should have such a poor opinion of your future brother!"
Jane was determined to continue the topic of Colonel Dashwood the next day as they waited together in the shrubbery for Bingley to arrive. Most unaccountably she wanted as much time with him and without her mother as all her own and her sisters' ingenuity could contrive.
"You said he is handsome, I believe?"
Elizabeth thought of his fair hair which glistered enticingly in the sunlight, and which, as a member of wholly dark-haired family, she had often longed almost irresistibly to touch.
"Yes," she replied shortly.
"And he has many good qualities?" Jane persisted most aggravatingly.
"He has every good quality," replied Elizabeth, "he is everything Mr. Darcy could wish to be." Why did that admission give her pain? Was he not intelligent, unassuming and thoroughly amiable?
"Mr. Darcy?" asked Jane, "What has Mr. Darcy to do with it?"
Bingley had told her of Darcy's continued regard for Elizabeth and she had not wanted to believe him. It seemed poor Mr. Darcy was destined for a broken heart.
"He truly loves her, Jane," Bingley had said. "I have never seen the poor fellow so affected. He will never look at my sister now - nor any woman for that matter."
"Lizzy, what has Mr. Darcy to do with the Colonel?"
Elizabeth took a deep breath, "Absolutely nothing. I thought I might better describe the Colonel to you by comparing him to Mr. Darcy who is vain, haughty, smug and altogether too full of himself!"
Jane sighed. It seemed as if Mr. Darcy must suffer, and that Bingley's dearest wish, that the man he thought of as a brother might marry her sister, would not come true.
Mrs. Bennet and the four sisters set off for London to buy wedding clothes. Mr. Bennet had excused himself from the trip by telling his wife that he did not know a chemise from a fichu and, offering her a wad of notes, he retired into his library to enjoy a fortnight in which his only distraction would be Mrs. Hill with the tea tray.
As she sat in Mrs. Gardiner's drawing room listening to her mother's happy, inane chatter and wondering how Jane could bear to be the centre of it with such a tranquil countenance, Elizabeth could not help but think that there she had last seen Mr. Darcy. Perhaps I would look like that too if it was my wedding they were planning, she thought, but the idea of her mother fawning round Mr. Darcy - or even Colonel Dashwood - made as good a case for singleness as she had ever heard. However, she could not be long insensible to her sister's joy and soon found herself as engrossed as the others in choosing silks and lace, visiting dressmakers and searching out the best milliner in town. How very different it was from Lydia's preparations.
They left Goulding's Warehouse at last having chosen the perfect ivory silk to go with Jane's complexion and were heading for the jewelers where some lovely old pearls belonging to Bingley's mother were being restrung for the new bride when, on the corner of Compton Street, they walked into Miss Dixon, her fiancé and Colonel Dashwood. Miss Dixon was on the same happy errand as they were themselves, she had come to collect some lace just in from Ireland, and for a few moments the young women were wholly taken up with exchanging their opinions on Gouldings and the other retailers they had visited. Elizabeth, recollecting herself, was anxious to introduce Jane to the Colonel, of whom she had heard so much from Mrs. Gardiner and to whom their whole family was so particularly indebted. Jane, in turn, was equally taken with him and even went as far as to share her opinion both of the Colonel and of Elizabeth's liking for him with their aunt.
The following evening Mrs. Gardiner invited Colonel Dashwood and his cousin Miss Dixon to dinner. From Miss Dixon they learned that Lady Catherine had entirely invented the story about Bingley's attachment to Miss Mansfield and that it had come about because she hoped Mr. Darcy would marry Miss Mansfield's younger sister and did not want him thrown into the wrong sort of company by his friend marrying beneath him.
For a moment both Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner were horrified by their friend's lack of discretion but she redeemed herself quickly.
"I have always thought that when a man has a good four or five thousand a year he can afford to indulge himself by marrying for beauty and intelligence, and Bingley is particularly fortunate in both respects."
"I thought Mr. Darcy was engaged to his cousin, Miss de Bourgh?" said Mrs. Bennet, mollified somewhat by the allusion to Jane's looks.
Elizabeth who knew perfectly well that Mr. Darcy was not interested in his cousin could not help remarking in an aside to Jane that if he was more like Colonel Dashwood he might be able to attach himself to a lively, intelligent woman worth knowing.
"Indeed, ma'am," replied Miss Dixon, "but Miss de Bourgh was not consulted in the matter by either her mother or Mr. Darcy, and so when the Earl of Dovedale stopped by in his barouche and asked her if she fancied being a Countess, she apparently had to be restrained from jumping in and riding off with him there and then."
Elizabeth suppressed her laughter and wondered how the engagement really had come about. Mrs. Bennet did not like Miss Dixon's way of speaking about the nobility, but was overcome with curiosity as to the price of her lace and so wondered aloud where Miss de Bourgh might buy her's.
Miss Dixon was not to be drawn out and changed the subject a little by remarking to her cousin who had just entered with Mr. Gardiner that she had seen Mr. Darcy in Grey Street that morning.
"Darcy usually arrives in Town about this time," he replied, "his estate keeps him busy well into October."
Elizabeth caught his eye as he spoke; he seemed uncomfortable and the mention of Darcy had made him more so. She had not realized they knew eachother and longed to know more of the acquaintance, but could not think of a remark that would not sound obvious.
"I think he is earlier than usual," continued Miss Dixon, "he likes the country, he does not go there merely to hunt like so many young men."
"Then it is settled," he replied, "he has come to arrange his marriage to Anna Mansfield. We cannot spend the whole evening, dear Henrietta, speculating on Darcy's marriage plans."
She smiled a dismissive smile, "I shall be forced to correspond with Miss Darcy on the matter and that will be a long and costly business, like going to Bath to cure the gout."
While Elizabeth had the foresight to realize that Darcy was no more likely to marry Anna Mansfield than Bingley had been to marry his sister - there must always be gossip surrounding the plans of two such handsome and eligible young men - Jane was quite convinced. She was more than comfortable with her plans for Elizabeth and the Colonel now that there was no hope of Mr. Darcy's heart being broken over them With this in mind she persuaded her aunt to bring the Colonel with them to her wedding. The effect of such a romantic occasion might as well be tried on his heart as Mr. Darcy's.
Jane's wedding day was softly white. Mary rhapsodized romantically about the very weather being adorned for a bride and then went with Kitty to decorate the interior of the church with newly collected ivy, mistletoe and Christmas roses. Elizabeth watched them from her window, Kitty running and laughing with her arms full of greenery and Mary following her sedately with the baskets of flowers provided by the hothouse at Netherfield. She tried to help Jane dress but her mother and two aunts made her quickly redundant. This was the most important day of Mrs. Bennet's life so far and she was not giving up any pleasure to Elizabeth even if it was only the arrangement of a few pins or the fastening of a clasp or two.
"Lizzy, Lizzy - see to yourself, you are not half-dressed. Perhaps there will be one amongst Bingley's friends who will take some notice of you, if you are prettily turned out."
Jane and Mrs. Gardiner exchanged knowing smiles and Elizabeth found it expedient to retire to her own room.
She dressed slowly and at length Kitty and Mary returned and she had the business of helping them dress. Mary managed well enough alone but Kitty required more assistance than a bevy of ladies' maids could provide and at the end of an hour Elizabeth could only feel relief at it not being Kitty's wedding.
Much to her horror, and Mr. Bennet's delight, Mr. Collins insisted on driving over from Lucas Lodge and arriving at Longbourn only moments before they were due to leave for the church.
"I shall not detain you long, sir" he announced, "I felt I must convey to you, in advance of your daughter's nuptial ceremonials, Lady Catherine de Bourgh's most graciously bestowed congratulations."
Elizabeth was amazed and wondered what he could be at. The Earl of Dovedale must be a fair exchange for Mr. Darcy, he was wealthy and titled, but still she could not imagine Lady Catherine being anything but furious at the possibility of Mr. Darcy associating with her again under any circumstance. What was the stupid man wittering about?
"I believe, my dear sir...." Mr. Collins dropped his voice and Elizabeth groaned inwardly as both his intimacy of address and his melodramatic whisper, heralded something particularly ridiculous and it was preventing Jane from leaving for the church. She stood on the stairs almost in earshot of her father's study and, by leaning forward and straining a very little, heard the most astounding news.
"It has come to my attention, and I feel it my duty as your nearest relation, nay as one who is almost a son to you, to inform you of something which hitherto you may have been, I hope you are, thoroughly ignorant of."
"Pray continue, Mr. Collins" said Mr. Bennet in deliberately loud tones.
"It seems that your daughter Elizabeth is not to bear the name of Bennet long after her sister relinquishes it....."
"Really? And who is the fortunate fellow?"
"Mr. Darcy! I have it on excellent authority that there is an understanding between them."
Oh, you conniving man! thought Elizabeth, that is why you are so glad that Jane is marrying Bingley, you think it will increase my chances of marrying Mr. Darcy and through him you hope to extend your livelihood, he must have extensive patronage in the church and his aunt can have nothing but Hunsford which you already have!
Eventually Mr. Collins was persuaded to leave and join his wife and the rest of the Lucases in the church. Elizabeth set off with her mother, Kitty and Mary with Jane and Mr. Bennet following in the next carriage. The wedding was everything she had planned for Jane in her dreams and the only thing that could possibly mar it for her was having to stand opposite Mr. Darcy for the whole service.
I would almost be back at Lydia's wedding she thought furiously, at least I was not an object of contempt to the groomsman!
He continued to stare gravely at her throughout the ceremony, he seemed to have little joy in the happiest day of his friend's life and Elizabeth could only think that he still opposed the match and was only there because Bingley had somehow overridden his better judgment. Once she thought he looked worried, and once she thought he looked angry but on the whole his expression was one of severity and she grew slowly angrier and angrier as the time passed. Caroline Bingley, sitting in the front pew, had a better idea of what was passing through Mr. Darcy's mind and had Elizabeth been able to see her worried expression she might have judged him less harshly and with more interest.
He thinks Bingley degrades himself by marrying into our family. I wonder that I ever imagined myself in love with him, I could never love anyone so proud, so self-satisfied.
As the newly-weds carriage moved off to Netherfield for the wedding breakfast Elizabeth found herself face to face with Mr. Darcy. He seemed anxious to speak but she would not humour him and thought herself in good luck when Mr. Collins bustled over to inform Mr. Darcy in excessively loud tones that Lady Catherine, Anne and the Earl of Dovedale had all been in perfect health only a week before. It was not in Darcy's power immediately to be rid of Mr. Collins, he was required to listen to at least some of the nonsense and make one or two curt replies before the ever tactful Mrs. Collins could relieve him of the babbling fool. He immediately looked around for Elizabeth only to witness her warm, joyous reception of Colonel Dashwood.
Elizabeth had been truly hurt by Mr. Darcy's treatment of her after Lydia's wedding and his apparent coldness in the church had confirmed her in her belief that whatever his feelings might have begun to have been in London that they were now what they had been at first. She had turned to speak to her Aunt Phillips on Mr. Collins attacking Mr. Darcy, as she was sure that his pride would prevent him making any empty enquiries after her health or whatever in the presence of such a despised relation, but Colonel Dashwood was not deterred by any number of vulgar small town aunts and in a matter of moments she had given him both her hands to kiss and in the general gaiety and crush no-one noticed except Darcy. He had not realized that they were acquainted and it did not occur to him that Elizabeth was unhappy and that his friend was simply playing at gallantry to make her laugh again. He stood silently while Miss Bingley, always encouraged by his silence, talked incessantly of how much more elegant the wedding would have been if it had been in St George's, Hanover Square.
Elizabeth and the Colonel walked from Longbourn church to Netherfield. Mrs. Bennet had shouted at Elizabeth to get in a carriage at one point but she was too excited and happy to care much and Elizabeth did not find it difficult to slip away. The woods between Longbourn and Netherfield sparkled and glistened enchantingly and they walked slowly neither wishing to leave it. Elizabeth drew her blue velvet cloak around her and wondered how long it would be before she would be missed at Netherfield.
"Be careful, Miss Bennet, do not slip - how should I explain it to your father if anything happened to you?"
Elizabeth stretched out and took the hand he offered. He smiled at her and she felt as if no-one had smiled at her before; shy - as if no-one had spoken to her before; she wanted to trace the tiny lines around his eyes and mouth with her fingers and taking off her gloves decided that there was no good reason why she should not. She felt almost drunk; time, sense and propriety had all been suspended for Christmas.
"We should have been at Netherfield at least half an hour ago" he said reluctantly, "it seems I will have to do some explaining to your father and your brother!"
Elizabeth laughed, she had no inclination to hurry to Netherfield. Mr. Darcy could stay there and glower at someone else. She was not anymore inclined to leave when he began to kiss her. The snow had started to fall gently and over his shoulder, when she thought of opening her eyes, she could see Netherfield lit up like Queen Mab's palace. She knew she should not be responding in quite this way but it was an eventuality that neither Fordyce, or Mrs. Bennet or even Mary had ever covered.
"Shall I go to your father tomorrow?"
His words brought Elizabeth down from heaven abruptly.
He means to marry me? Of course he does, decent men don't kiss girls in the woods they don't intend to marry! I am such an unholy mess of a girl - what on earth can I do?
Colonel, please do not go to my father!"
He paused and smiling slightly replied, "Why, do you mean to do it yourself?"
Elizabeth blushed, "No sir, I do not. I - I merely do not want to get married yet."
His expression of surprise was more than she could easily bear and she regretted the statement as soon as it was made.
"I like you but not enough - I know I must sound ungrateful and believe me that is the last thing I would wish. I am more than sensible of the honour you have paid me but I would be unfair to both of us if I allowed anything but the very deepest love to induce me into matrimony."
"You are quite right" he replied, "your honesty is admirable, one would not expect to meet with it in one young woman in a hundred."
Elizabeth felt wretched. It had been only sensible to turn down that pompous idiot Mr. Collins and perfectly justifiable to refuse Mr. Darcy when he had been so arrogant and ungentlemanlike but only a fool would turn from the prospect being offered to her at the moment. Colonel Dashwood was handsome, rich and amiable. His estate in Devonshire was reputed to be the loveliest piece of land in the whole of the west country and his wife might reasonably consider herself a very fortunate woman indeed, yet here was she, Eliza Bennet with no fortune, walking away from the best offer she had ever had or was ever likely to have. Fortunately for her principles Netherfield was very soon in view, she had begun to feel that she might retract her refusal at any moment and she knew that she must not appear at Jane's wedding breakfast an engaged woman. She must be free to see Mr. Darcy just one more time. She could not explain to herself why that was important, important enough to sacrifice a life of love and luxury for but it did not need an explanation. Her heart was convinced, she must see and speak to Darcy one more time and her heart must be free.
To her relief they had not been too much missed. Mrs. Bennet had noticed, of course, but if the Colonel wanted to propose to Lizzy in the snow that was his look out. A sensible man would have waited for a cozy fireside but at seven thousand a year who cared if he was sensible? The other person in whom Elizabeth's absence had created delightful visions was Miss Bingley. She did not care much for the idea of Elizabeth marrying so well but at least it would ensure she never became Mistress of Pemberley.
"I wonder where Miss Bennet can have got to?" she mentioned casually to Mr. Darcy as soon as she could contrive a moment.
"I imagine you are anxious to greet her as your sister" he replied unkindly.
Miss Bingley was shocked but quickly realized that he would not have indulged in such unguarded sarcasm had his mind not been elsewhere. She wandered off on the pretext of finding Mrs. Hurst and observed his actions. He did not once turn from the window which gave him such a good view of the path leading from the woods. Miss Bingley allowed herself to smile. It was so good of Elizabeth Bennet to behave so badly. Why going for a long unchaperoned walk in the woods with a handsome officer on her sister's wedding day was an escapade fit for Mrs. Wickham! It would be even more delicious if she came back unbetrothed, she would have forfeited her reputation and lost Mr. Darcy.
At length they appeared. The Colonel was as charming and easy as ever but she at least had the grace to blush, although Miss Bingley was quite certain it would take more than a few blushes to purge her of Mr. Darcy's bad opinion.
"It is a long time since we last met, Mr. Darcy" said Elizabeth aware of the lameness of the remark but determined to say something. If she did not speak to him now she might lose her courage and never have another chance.
"Yes, it is" he replied curtly, trying to observe Colonel Dashwood as he chatted merrily to Aunt Phillips. What a disgusting woman, how could James Dashwood with all his taste and refinement enjoy the company of anyone quite so vulgar? Nothing but the possibility of soon acquiring Elizabeth's hand could have made Darcy even civil to Mrs. Phillips. Was Dashwood simply making the best of things with his future in-laws?
"How is Miss Darcy?" asked Elizabeth desperately. Good God, had she nothing imaginative to say!
"My sister is very well. She is in London for the winter, as always."
Elizabeth pushed a damp curl away from her forehead and smiled, "Please give her my regards and I hope we will meet again some time."
At that moment Colonel Dashwood glanced over and caught Lizzy's eye as she attempted automatically to tidy her hair which had lost a little of its style thanks to her walk in the snow. Darcy could not help catching the look. It was innocently meant, as Dashwood had long forgotten any idea of Darcy being interested in Miss Bennet, but Darcy was too interested to feel anything but jealous rage at the idea of anyone except himself being out with Elizabeth in the lonely, white quietness of Longbourn woods. He stared at her with the sudden helpless realisation that he could cry and she looked back with the renewed conviction that he was simply not interested her.
Fool! She thought to herself, You could not wait to get back here to throw yourself at him and all he can manage is a few monosyllables and a blank stare!
She avoided him carefully for the next hour and had the satisfaction of seeing him often forced into conversation with Miss Bingley. At the end of the hour she noted her father whispering something to Jane and Bingley and receiving enormous encouragement for whatever it was. Finally Bingley stood up and addressed the company.
"As you all know I am today the happiest of men. I did not deserve the hand and heart of this lovely creature but she graciously condescended to marry me all the same. And it is now my delightful duty to ask you all to reassemble here in two month's time to celebrate the marriage of one of my newly acquired sisters...."
He paused to enjoy the scene and had Elizabeth been looking at Darcy she would have seen all the love she needed in his pain.
"I am overjoyed to tell you of the engagement of Miss Mary Bennet to the Reverend Mr. Edward Owen!"
The guests actually applauded. Elizabeth was so shocked she cried, for a moment she had thought Dashwood had assumed she was not serious and had spoken to her father anyway and her relief was immeasurable, so much so it took her several moments to feel much joy for her sister. Mary, however, did not need Elizabeth's congratulations immediately. She had Jane, her mother, her aunts and half of Hertfordshire to smile at and kiss. Plain she might be but she was safe; safe from want, safe from pity and safe from a loveless life. Elizabeth could find it in her heart to envy her. Mr. Owen was only moderately handsome but three times more so than Mary, only comfortably off with eight hundred a year but that was wealth compared to her fifty, and he loved her. Mr. Owen loved Mary and so they would be happy. Hot tears began to jab at her eyes, tears of despair, of jealousy and self-pity.
I am the stupidest woman in England. I was vain enough to think that Mr. Darcy might still like me in spite of everything, so vain I refused a man who is worth more than him in every respect excepting three miserable thousand pounds a year! I have refused more love than I could ever dream of from an intelligent honourable man who would have been a companion of whom I would never have been bored, or ashamed or afraid.
Darcy's thoughts on hearing Bingley's announcement were only slightly less confused and pitiable. His first sensation was an overwhelming relief and for several moments he could feel nothing beyond that, absolutely nothing apart from the fact that his beloved Elizabeth was safe. However, it did not last. He was in a public place and gradually he reigned in his emotions and waited for a moment he could steal alone with her. Dashwood, he noted carefully, was not in the Bennet family party as they clustered around Jane and Mary. Elizabeth was there laughing and being indulgently affectionate to both sisters at once but thank God Dashwood had been cornered by Mr. Hurst and a bottle of port.
"So Darcy, don't you envy me my wife?" asked Bingley teasingly.
"Very much so" he replied with mock seriousness, "and there are only two Miss Bennets left..."
Bingley chuckled, "Well, go to it my friend before our good Colonel Dashwood gets there. I fancy Miss Katherine is not so much to your taste as her elder sister."
Darcy smiled, "No, indeed."
"If Owen can seize the moment so can you" said Bingley becoming deadly serious, "I mean it, old chap, Jane is utterly convinced that Dashwood has only to say the word and Miss Eliza will accept. You cannot let it happen."
The smile left Darcy's face abruptly. "I do not consider Miss Bennet capable of marrying for less than the most perfect love" he replied sadly, "if she is prepared to accept Dashwood it can only be because he has her whole heart, it could not be otherwise with a woman like Elizabeth."
Bingley gasped, "Darcy, don't be a fool! Elizabeth Bennet is a morally superior young woman, I grant you, but even the most ethical, the most scrupulous woman does not want to live her life alone, on the charity of a brother-in-law, and that is her fate if she does not marry well."
Darcy shook his head. "You are mistaken, there is a universe between women like Charlotte Collins and Elizabeth Bennet for all that they may be friends. If she marries Dashwood she loves him and why should she not? He is everything I am not. He is warm, open, unassuming and..." his voice broke off as he searched the room for Elizabeth and realized she had vanished presumably with the Colonel. "No, forget it Bingley, I will order my horse and leave. Please do not be offended, I know it is early and people will think it strange but I must be alone now. Mrs. Bingley knows her sister better than anyone and if she thinks she loves Dashwood then she must..."
Bingley acquiesced helplessly. He watched Darcy ride off quite unaware that Elizabeth too was watching from an upper window.
"You see?" she announced to Kitty and Maria, "he is so disgusted at his friend marrying my sister that he does not even stay to celebrate properly!"
"He is no loss to us!" cried Maria, "We can be happy without him."
Yes, thought Elizabeth as she was pressed into service with paper flowers to throw at the bride and groom on their departure, I will, I definitely will, be happy without you, Mr. Darcy.