The weeks following Jane's wedding were very hard for Elizabeth. Longbourn felt most unlike home without her and Mrs. Bennet nagged constantly which, although it did have a homely feel to it, was never what she needed. If she had ever wanted Jane to talk to it was now and Jane was not available. Netherfield was no further away than it had been before the wedding and Elizabeth was as good a walker as ever but she felt that every second Jane and Bingley had alone without her mother was too precious to be interrupted. Mrs. Bennet was forever visiting Netherfield, sometimes it seemed to her husband and daughters that she only ever returned to Longbourn to gloat over poor Lady Lucas whose plans for marrying Maria to the rector had been so effectively thwarted by Mary of all people.
It might be said that the three remaining Bennet girls were equally dissatisfied with life after their sister's marriage. Mary, who had been deliriously happy to begin with was now depressed because her wedding plans were being made from Netherfield in order that her mother might spend as much time as possible with her dear Jane and dear Bingley. Mary would have much rather spent the time she could not be with Mr. Owen going around Meryton with her aunt being congratulated and wondered at, it seemed very cruel that she should spend all day every day at Netherfield when for the first, and most likely last time in her life, she was the centre of all the gossip in town. Kitty, for her part, was consumed with jealousy. Lydia had married Wickham, who for all his bad reputation was still rather dashing and delicious; Jane had married a rich man who was reasonably handsome even without a red coat; and Mary, well, the fact that Mary was getting married at all was more than enough to stir up unsisterly feelings of envy and malice. Kitty found it very hard indeed to adjust to being the only Miss Bennet still on the marriage market, it was just too humiliating. She had tried to find solace in the thought that Elizabeth was yet single but as Colonel Dashwood was considered her rightful property by almost everyone it was a poor comfort, Elizabeth was as good as married.
If only Elizabeth had been able to feel the same way. She argued with herself constantly about what she should have said and done that day and never came to a satisfactory conclusion. The first thing was not to have walked with him from Longbourn Church to Netherfield when there were so many carriages available but she had wanted to be alone with him. Why then had she not taken the opportunity of being alone with him for the rest of her life when it was offered? The answer to that came all too easily - she had wanted to be alone with Mr. Darcy. Poor Elizabeth, she was in the most miserable condition and without a soul to turn to. The truly confusing thing was that although her feelings for Mr. Darcy had been so strong as to persuade her to refuse an excellent offer and risk her reputation it was not Mr. Darcy she was missing. Who could miss such an abominably proud man? No, she missed James Dashwood and he would probably never speak to her again. He had read with her, walked with her, danced with her, in short, for all his wealth had not been ashamed to be seen to be in love with a woman with no fortune and relatives in trade.
Mary and Mr. Owen were married at the end of February in a halo of pale spring sunshine. Mrs. Bennet was as happy as she could be having got the idea that she would be rid of all her daughters before Michaelmas and Mr. Bennet was equally happy in his own way as his third son-in-law was rather good at chess and often consulted him on his sermons. Elizabeth missed Colonel Dashwood, she had got used to him at her sisters' weddings but she chided herself for being foolish and was mindful to keep away from her mother who, now that Mary was finally off her hands, was likely to recall that the Colonel had never actually "spoken." The officiant was Mr. Owen's brother, Dr. Richard Owen of Christchurch College, Oxford. He was much older and rather better looking but lacked his brother's openness and evangelical fervour. Elizabeth liked him in spite of that, even her generous heart could have too much of her new brother-in-law's charity and kindness to all the world. She reminded herself though that in every respect he was superior to Mr. Collins whom Mary had previously admired and that she need never be ashamed of him or bored by him. Well, only if his sermons exceeded forty minutes which they often did!
Dr. Owen proved himself to be an interesting dinner guest on a regular basis. Mrs. Bennet was determined that he should not endure the cooking at the rectory in Mary's absence. The new Mr. and Mrs. Owen had taken a wedding trip to visit some of his family having learned from Jane and Bingley's experience that it was not wise to spend the first weeks of married life so close to Longbourn. Mr. Bennet was well pleased with the dining arrangement, the learned Fellow of Christchurch was a treasury of information on philosophy, physics and politics as well as theology and he could barely recall when he had had such fascinating discussions since his own university days a quarter of a century ago. Elizabeth found herself able to occasionally join in their talks and to follow with some difficulty even when she could not contribute but to her mother and Kitty it must have felt like intruding on the inhabitants of another world and she felt heartily sorry for them every evening.
Wonder of wonders then that Elizabeth returning from one of her rambles, should stumble upon Kitty and Dr. Owen standing together under a tall elm on the edge of Longbourn woods. Kitty was leaning against the trunk with her bonnet crumpled in one hand while he held the other and spoke in very quiet earnest tones. For a moment Elizabeth could barely comprehend the scene and when she did all she could do was turn and race back the way she had come until she reached the high ground overlooking Netherfield from which she had first seen Bingley and Darcy.
Dr Owen, serious, middle-aged and solemn is in love with Kitty! Oh, I do not believe it! What can he see in her, or she in him?
She walked home slowly and stopped in at the rectory to hear the news from Mary rather than her mother.
"I am astounded, are you not, Lizzy?"
"Oh, yes, very much so."
"Edward says Richard fell in love the first moment he laid eyes on her, can you believe it? Every bit as romantic as Jane and Bingley and with no spiteful sister in the way."
"I can believe it very well" said Elizabeth, "I don't wish to be hard on her, she is our sister and has her good qualities, but he did not fall in love with her conversation!"
And they both laughed merrily at their poor sister's lack of sense and intellect.
"But" said Mary, wiping her eyes, "it may be the making of her. She will go to Oxford and a society as unlike that of Mrs. Forster's salon as it is possible to imagine."
"Mrs. Forster's salon...." echoed Elizabeth, "was more of a saloon!"
Mary shrieked and when Mr. Owen entered the house a few minutes later and heard the unaccustomed giggling from the parlour he was seized by a most curious, unloving desire to check the wine cellar. Miss Bennet, he had discovered, had a tendency to talk, laugh and weep to herself when she thought she was alone but his Mary was such a proper girl.... such a model of a perfect parson's wife....
Kitty went to Oxford to be married and Longbourn Church was deprived of a third Bennet bride. Mrs. Bennet was inconsolable but Kitty was adamant. Richard wanted to marry in his college chapel and there was an end of it.
"I cannot bear to be here while my daughter is getting married in a strange place with strange people" she sobbed to Elizabeth as the carriage disappeared from hearing, "she is all alone."
"Mary is with her, mamma" said Elizabeth sensibly. Oh, dear God, let me be anywhere.... anywhere out of this room!
"I hope you do not think I will be able to keep you, Miss Lizzy, when your father is dead for I will not. You cannot go on turning away husbands with impunity, you know."
If only you knew that I had turned down Pemberley.
Longbourn very quickly became unbearable for Elizabeth. She was denied all sensible company except that of her father, indeed she was denied any company that was not her mother, Lady Lucas or Aunt Phillips. She staid a few weeks at Netherfield but her mother was there more than she was at Longbourn so to Longbourn Elizabeth returned only to be visited daily by her aunt. She could not quite understand why she had become such a source of interest to Mrs. Phillips but discovered in the course of one of their many tedious conversations how unhappy she had been when both her brother and sister had married ahead of her.
"I was so scared of being an old maid that I accepted your uncle Phillips before he had the words out of his mouth."
Elizabeth smothered an unkind smile.
"Your mother was such a beauty, I never matched her looks and I never expected a catch like your father either but you know I wish I had waited. There was a Mr. Oliver, a great friend of Mr. Phillips and he liked me but I would not take the chance and wait on him. He preferred Beth Gardiner above me at first and when she married my brother I thought I might have a chance but Mr. Phillips spoke first....."
She rambled on for quite some time allowing Elizabeth to think fondly of the aunt she had been named after and resolve to visit London as soon as was possible. Finally, Mrs. Phillips reached her point.
"Do not stay here to become an old maid or be bullied by your mother into accepting the next bumptious boor that comes along and thinks he does you a favour. I am traveling to London next week to see my other sister-in-law and you are most welcome to join me."
Elizabeth was now most grateful to her aunt whom she could not have got rid of fast enough an hour ago. Her return to London was accomplished without any effort or ingenuity on her part and although she was sorry to bid good-bye to her father she could not wait to fall asleep in her little blue room in Gracechurch Street.
"I am overjoyed to hear that Mary is so happy" remarked Mrs. Gardiner as they sat together in the morning room, "and Kitty too, although I am surprised at her choice."
"I am surprised too" said Elizabeth, "he is quite two-and-forty and she was so determined to marry a handsome Captain of five-and-twenty.... it is most distressing when a sister abandons her principles merely for love."
Mrs. Gardiner laughed, "I am glad you have not lost your sense of humour in all this, Lizzy. Tell me, do you not long for a home of your own?"
"Yes, I do" replied Elizabeth seriously, "but until such time I would much rather live with you. You do not wish me to marry merely for an establishment like my poor friend Charlotte, do you?"
"You know I do not. I suppose you do not need me to tell you that our dear Colonel requires only the smallest kindness on your part to make him as much in love with you as ever?"
"I am always kind to him" said Elizabeth defensively. "He is almost my only friend."
"Lizzy! Do not pretend to me that Jane and Charlotte are too taken up with their husbands and their poultry to write to you anymore!"
Elizabeth smiled broadly at the idea of Charlotte being too taken up with Mr. Collins to write letters and of Jane tending the chickens at Netherfield.
"You know Jane, aunt, she would never be able to eat a chicken she had been introduced to! but she is very absorbed in Bingley. As for Charlotte, I have had a letter from her and she is expecting an olive branch."
"An olive branch?" repeated Mrs. Gardiner in merry confusion.
"Yes, or so Mr. Collins refers to it - a baby, in other words."
"A baby!" cried Mrs. Gardiner with genuine delight, "Oh, that will make up for so much."
Elizabeth made a hideous face to amuse a little cousin and expressed very well her feelings for what Charlotte had had to endure to make this consolation possible. She looked forward to being godmother to the olive branch but the idea of Charlotte having to..... ugh! At least there could be no problems in that area with Colonel Dashwood so what was preventing her from being "kind" and encouraging?
"Lizzy, did you hear me when I said the Colonel needs only a very little reassurance of your feelings for him?"
Elizabeth smiled primly, "And did no one ever tell you, Aunt Gardiner, that a young lady is forbidden to have feelings for a man until he has declared his for her?"
She spoke gaily but her conscience sank under the remembrance that he had already declared his feelings for her. It cannot be that he still loves me but my aunt is not easily deceived.... there again, she thought Mr. Darcy cared for me.... Mr. Darcy who cares for nothing outside his pride.
"Elizabeth, I am being serious."
"So am I."
"No, you are not. Well, I will leave you now to examine your heart but take my word, dearest, men like James Dashwood do not grow on trees in any orchard I have ever seen, you will never find a better one."
No, thought Elizabeth, that much is true. Perhaps I have been deluding myself thinking I wanted a different man when everything I want is here with me almost daily.
When the Colonel arrived for dinner that evening she imagined he looked tired and remembered with a pang that he was an officer in the Regulars and had been injured in some battle or other that she could not even recall the name of.
"I hope you are well" she said brightly as they sat down to table.
"He would be very well, as I would, if it were not for that fellow Wickham" replied her uncle warmly, "in debt again up to his eyebrows!"
"Oh, my dear, surely not!" exclaimed Mrs. Gardiner, "I thought he had learned a lesson."
"That sort never do, my dear." said her husband, "I thought you would have known better, Dashwood, with your experience of dealing with men. I would never have given the blackguard an annuity of any sort, it has only made him presumptuous."
"An annuity?" repeated Elizabeth, staring at Dashwood. Is there no end to your generosity/
"I believe it was meant to represent some security for Mrs. Wickham and any children" he muttered. Damn you, Darcy, I don't know why you wanted to involve yourself in this family's affairs but I wish to heaven you had not involved me!
"You believe? You set it up, man." retorted Mr. Gardiner.
Dashwood cringed inwardly. He was a brave man, he had fought in the bloodiest campaigns of the War and had learned to confront and overcome fear long ago but this was different. He was overcome by a fear that he could not vanquish and beside which the whole force of Napoleon's army seemed trivial, the fear that Elizabeth Bennet would discover the truth and despise him. He had never been party to any form of deceit and had only entered into the thing as a favour to Darcy who was desperate to help Lydia and equally desperate that Elizabeth should not know of it. As the evening progressed he grew more and more melancholy, he could not possibly marry Elizabeth without telling her the truth but the truth was not his to tell. And would she marry him anyway? He had tried once and been refused. Did she love Darcy? Half the Town had him engaged to Caroline Bingley and the other half to Emilia Millbanke, the daughter of the Marquis of Henley. For his part the Colonel preferred Miss Bingley for her ready wit and swathes of pumpkin silk but he imagined Darcy's preference ran to the other lady. Either way, he did not intend to give up Miss Bennet. If Darcy was not satisfied with Caroline or Emilia or any of the tribe of Julias and Louisas who were all madly in love with him that was his problem, he could have any woman in the kingdom, he would not have Elizabeth Bennet.
Elizabeth, who spent most of the evening attempting to analyze his feelings for her and hers for him was rapidly becoming depressed.
I have broken his heart, she thought, he will never trust me again!
James Dashwood alighted from his horse outside Darcy's London house and, giving the reins to his servant, walked slowly up the steps and rang the bell.
It was not a pleasant duty which brought him to his friend's house so late on a Tuesday evening but one which he had to discharge all the same. He was greeted pleasantly by Thomson the butler, who, through years of service with the Darcy family had elevated mere civility to an art form, and shown into the drawing room where Darcy, his sister and the Hursts were assembled. Dashwood's heart sank, he detested the Hursts - the ignorance of the one and the frivolity of the other repulsed him and for a moment he did not have the heart to request a private audience with Darcy at the expense of leaving Miss Darcy alone with them. However, it was obvious to Darcy that he had not called for purely social reasons and as Georgiana was occupied at the pianoforte he immediately suggested they retire to his study.
"What brings you here from your club at this time of night?" enquired Darcy as he poured the claret.
"Elizabeth Bennet" replied his friend dully, there was nothing to be gained in working up to the subject. Darcy would not be better pleased with the situation given half an hour, so it was as well said straightaway.
"Elizabeth Bennet?" repeated Darcy in an uncharacteristically stupid tone. He had comforted himself with the thought that spring and summer had passed since Bingley's marriage and still nothing had been announced concerning Elizabeth and Dashwood and had almost concluded there was nothing to announce.
"Yes, Miss Bennet. Darcy, I will come directly to the point, I want your permission to tell her the truth about the events surrounding her sister's wedding."
"Why?" asked Darcy, sickeningly aware there could only be one reason.
"I want to ask her to marry me, Darcy, and I will not have any affection she may feel rooted in misapplied gratitude."
"And you believe she is in love with you?"
"I do not believe so, but I believe enough to hope."
Darcy now had no choice but to act according to the strict rules of honour he had set for himself throughout his life.
"Tell her whatever is necessary, only keep my name out of it if you possibly can."
Dashwood left immediately; there was an atmosphere in the house that he did not like and it was not entirely attributable to the Hursts.
Darcy, for his part, determined to visit Elizabeth the very next day.
The morning saw Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth comfortably arranged in the sitting room reading aloud to each other the highlights of their letters as they did every day when there were no visits to be paid or expected.
My dear Elizabeth
Yet another day of happiness - I would not have believed such happiness was possible and certainly not that it should last for so long! My mother is much taken up at the rectory and so Charles and I are very often alone together and it is very heaven. Oh, Elizabeth, if you were to be as happy as I am I should have nothing left to wish for. Well, almost nothing. Can you guess what else I wish for?
"Jane is hoping for an olive branch of her own" said smiled Aunt Gardiner, "what a lovely time of life she is at."
Elizabeth read on but the rest of the letter was not equally pleasing.
The only thing that mars my happiness is Charles' distress at Mr. Darcy's constant refusal to come and stay at Netherfield, which neither of us can understand. He promised Charles he would come and yet with every post there is another reason for him not coming. Lizzy, what can it mean? I fear I have offended him in some way but I cannot imagine how. Today he writes to say that Miss Darcy insists on remaining in London for the Season, but he did not feel he had to bring her here with him last winter, and I understand she is in Town in the care of her aunt, so I do not see that it is a very good reason. I hope I am not the cause of Charles losing such a good friend.
"Not such a good friend" said Elizabeth, "can you believe it, aunt, the shades of Netherfield are too polluted for Mr. Darcy these days."
Mrs. Gardiner sighed, "Perhaps it is Miss Darcy" she said kindly, "she is at a delicate stage having just come out, he will not wish to leave her alone, such a rich girl will be prey to fortune hunters."
Elizabeth resisted the urge to stamp her foot, "I do not believe it. Miss Darcy is in the care of her godmother, Lady Emma Gordon, she can be in no danger."
As she spoke she remembered with misgivings Miss Darcy's thwarted elopement with Wickham and that in consequence Mr. Darcy might well be more protective than was strictly necessary. Doubtless Lord and Lady Gordon did not know of that business, it had never gone further than Colonel Fitzwilliam and herself. If Lady Catherine, interfering old baggage that she was, did not know then it was unlikely that anyone else did however intimately connected.
The door burst open and Lucy and Harriet rushed in followed by the elderly, prim but indulgent housekeeper.
"Mr. Darcy is calling on Miss Bennet" she said with a smile at the two excited girls. Much to Elizabeth's chagrin she had never been able to persuade Lucy and Harriet that she would not marry Mr. Darcy, if he was the last man on earth and they persisted in imagining that she was in love with him.
"Tell Mr. Darcy and I indisposed" she said coolly.
"Ma'am?" replied the old lady.
"Lizzy!" cried Mrs. Gardiner, "you cannot be so rude."
"I can and I am" replied Elizabeth, "he thinks he can assuage his conscience by a fifteen minute call on me when he knows he is slighting Jane abominably. Well, I will not aid him."
The housekeeper left and returned a moment later with a card, "Mr. Darcy hopes he will see you and your aunt and uncle at Lady Charteris's ball next week."
Elizabeth snorted, "Who does he think we are?"
Mrs. Gardiner laughed good-naturedly, "I suppose he wanted to say something and that was the first thing that entered his head. Ah, here is your uncle at last."
Mr. Gardiner arrived holding an envelope, "I took this on my way out this morning, dear, I was in a hurry and imagined it to be something else."
Mrs. Gardiner took it from him and glancing at it began to laugh, "This is a joke, Lizzy, it is an invitation from Lady Charteris."
"It is not very amusing" replied Elizabeth peevishly.
"But it is true" said her aunt, showing her the envelope, "look, the Charteris coat of arms."
"Our friend Dashwood moves in quite exalted circles" remarked Mr. Gardiner, "only he could have contrived this."
Not so exalted if they include Mr. Darcy, thought Elizabeth unkindly, there are some things even ten thousand a year cannot make noble.
"I am going to examine the possibility of a hasty visit to my dressmaker" said Mrs. Gardiner, "come along, my dear, you know I can never choose a silk without you."
Mr. Gardiner grimaced and followed his wife out of the room.
"Will you dance with Mr. Darcy at the ball, Lizzy?" enquired Harriet, "I should love to meet Georgiana again and I never shall if you do not make up with Mr. Darcy."
"Make up with him?" repeated Elizabeth aghast, "I assure you, Harriet, there is nothing to make up."
"You must dance with him" sighed little Lucy, "he is so handsome. If I were grown-up I should only ever dance with tall, dark, handsome men."
"Mr. Darcy is such an unpleasant man I am sure he will still be single in four or five years and then you may have him all to yourself" said Elizabeth, "I am sure I do not want him."
"I think you are a simpleton, cousin Elizabeth" said Harriet solemnly, "if Mr Darcy is still single when we are out I assure you I will not be giving him up to my younger sister!"
She flounced out in mock contempt followed by Lucy intending to examine the contents of Elizabeth's closet and determine which gown might best be relied upon to make her irresistible to Mr. Darcy.
Elizabeth, blissfully unaware of the attack on her wardrobe, collapsed on the sofa and for several moments could not move or speak for laughing. Oh, if only Mr. Darcy's character was comparable to his appearance!
"Miss Bennet, Miss Bennet... Colonel Dashwood is here to see you."
Elizabeth sat up weakly, Oh, God, I don't want him to see my like this!
"Show him in slowly, Mrs. Brown" she said with a brave attempt at sang-froid.
Slowly was all too fast and before she had finished adjusting her towsled hair let alone cooling her pink tear-stained face he stood before her so pale and anxious she thought him very sick indeed.
"Colonel, do sit down. You are unwell?"
"No, no" he waved away her offer of a chair, "I am well, Miss Bennet, I am well. But you, what has happened to you?"
"I have been talking to my little cousins" she explained, "young girls have... have odd ideas sometimes.... I have been laughing."
"I am glad.... tears of joy...."
Elizabeth restrained a frown, "I do fear there is something wrong, Colonel, and I cannot bear it. Please tell me what has happened."
"Miss Bennet, you are the victim of a deceit and I am responsible for it...."
"You have never deceived anyone in your life!" interjected Elizabeth, "Certainly not me."
"Yes, you" he continued, "I am afraid, Miss Bennet, I had nothing more to do with arranging your sister's wedding than the responsibility of ensuring Mr. Wickham made it to the church."
Elizabeth forced herself to smile, "Well, that was probably the most difficult part of it."
He shook his head sadly, "It was unpleasant but no more. No, I acted on behalf of someone who does not want to be named and I took the credit for something I did not actually do. I wanted to do everything in my power to oblige him, he has been a good friend to me too, I could not know that I would... that I would become so attached to the bride's sister."
"Who are we talking about?" asked Elizabeth with difficulty.
"He does not want to be named." he repeated stiffly.
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows, "Mr. Wickham has yet another friend? How far do you expect my credulity to stretch?"
"Mr. Wickham has but one friend and I was merely his agent."
Elizabeth sighed and sat down, "Why are you telling me now?"
"Because I am in love with you - you are not a girl I had only to meet once and forget about as I originally thought. I love you dearly and even if you send me away now I shall never forget you."
Elizabeth remained sitting for a long while becoming uncomfortably aware of the quietness of the house and the magnitude of the decision about to be made. She was convinced she no longer cared for Mr. Darcy, his arrogance and pride had gone too far now, it seemed he was incapable of learning from his mistakes and she could not bear to be with someone who could not grow and change for the better. Mr. Darcy could still slight Jane, a bride, because she was not rich enough or stylish enough for him despite the fact she had made his friend the happiest of men.
"I had to tell you the truth, Miss Bennet, because I want to marry you and while I am not very confident of a favourable answer I could not accept one that originated in gratitude for something I had not done."
I do not deserve this much good luck. She stood up and walked over to the window beside him.
"I think you may be sure of a favourable answer, Colonel, and be assured the only gratitude I feel is in being asked a second time."
The strange discomposure of spirits that followed her acceptance of Colonel Dashwood did not last long, for her aunt and uncle's joy upon the discovery of their niece's expectation of felicity was very real indeed. Mrs. Gardiner felt all the satisfaction of a match well made, and Mr. Gardiner all the prudence of the arrangement.
The Colonel had gone home to write to ask Mr. Bennet's consent, and it was now Elizabeth's first duty in such a situation to write to her mother and she sat down as soon as possible to assure her of her happiness in terms intimate enough to be shared with four and twenty families. Given her slightly confused and agitated condition this was not easy, she knew herself to be happy, but did not feel so, and nothing but the assurance of being removed from her mother's throes of delight made it possible to write at all. Her letters to her sisters, although shorter, were more heartfelt and she sent them all to the post with the happy thought that Mrs. Bennet would be quite unable to surprise Mary or Jane the following day.
Mr. Bennet's consent was speedily obtained but not as speedily sent. Mrs. Bennet, for whom censure was out of character when the prospect of a daughter engaged to a man with seven thousand a year lay before her, was absolutely furious here.
"I cannot believe you have not sent for the post!" she cried, "Let me ring for Hill."
Mr. Bennet sighed and removed his wife's hand from the bell-pull, "What do we know of this man, Mrs. Bennet?"
"Know of him? What is there to know of him? He has good connections, a grand estate and an excellent income. Oh Lizzy, my Lizzy, seven thousand a year - a clear two thousand more than Bingley! Oh, the gowns and lace she will have, the pin-money, the...."
"No more lace, Mrs. Bennet!" cried her husband, "I am well aware she will have two thousand pounds worth more of jewels and bonnets than Jane, but will she be happy?"
Mrs. Bennet lolled against the door and pouted in a fashion redolent of Lydia, "I am sure our Lizzy knows her mind on the matter. You are always saying, my dear, that she has more quickness about her than other girls."
"Yes," he replied slowly, "she is an intelligent, highly principled girl but even such a girl may feel left out when her four sisters are married before her."
"Left out!" shrieked his wife, "Left out, who cares if she is left out, she should be ashamed of herself! She could have had Mr. Collins you know, and been married first of all!"
Mr. Bennet winced silently, the time had come for Mrs. Bennet to leave the library but she, unaware of this, continued.
"I have often thought how much better it would have been had Lizzy favoured Mr. Collins, for then we would have kept Longbourn and the Colonel would have made an excellent match for Kitty. Dr. Owen is too solemn and has taken her too far away."
Mr. Bennet did not attempt to explain that Devon was much further from Hertfordshire than Oxford; it seemed a supererogatory effort when directed at the woman who considered Newcastle to be at the North Pole. However, he felt all the loveless injustice in his wife's repeated wish that their bright, lovely daughter should have been shackled for life to a buffoon merely to keep a house and a little land and, with those thoughts uppermost in his mind, he wrote the address and rang for the housekeeper.
Mrs. Bennet, for her part, was as happy as she knew how to be. Her maternal feelings on the occasion of her least favourite child's betrothal spilled over into a demand that the horses were not to be wanted on the farm today, as she required the carriage to take her first to Longbourn Rectory and thence to Lucas Lodge and Meryton and finally to Netherfield where she planned to spend the night.
"I am only sorry," she said as she tied her bonnet strings into a flamboyant bow, "that Mrs. Long and the Gouldings must wait till tomorrow."
At the very moment that Mrs. Bennet stepped into her carriage with a glad heart, Mr. Darcy entered his with a heavy one. He was called back to Derbyshire by the sudden death of his steward, a good man who had succeeded the elder Mr. Wickham, given exemplary service, and was now dead leaving a family of two boys and a girl with uncertain futures. It was not only the death of Mr. Kendall that disturbed Mr. Darcy, but the silence surrounding Colonel Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet. He had half expected to be the first person to whom Dashwood communicated his good news and had laid the rest of his hopes on Miss Bingley, who was always the first to know everything that passed between their acquaintance, yet not a whisper of Elizabeth's situation had reached him. He left London from the house of his cousin, Sir James Hampton and took the risk of asking him to write often and keep him informed of the news.
"News of what?" He enquired indolently watching the rings of smoke from his cigar curl around the crystals on the chandelier, "The House? You get all the politics you are interested in from the newspapers."
"No, no, just news!" repeated Darcy in exasperation.
Sir James winked, "Very well then, old fellow. I shall undertake to keep you informed of when your Aunt arrives in London for your cousin's marriage and will dictate with unfailing accuracy every word the old baggage utters; I will describe for you with a light, bright pen every look and address of the lovers - that will not take much for Anne de Bourgh and the Earl are not famed for their expressiveness but I will do my best; I also promise to relate in detail every silk Miss Bingley wears and give an accurate account of the bobbing of Mrs. Hurst's ostrich feathers which prevent me from seeing what I wish to at the theatre. Why does that woman always contrive to sit in front of me? Oh, and I will, of course, endeavour to ascertain our friend Dashwood's success with Bingley's sister-in-law, little Miss.... what's her name again, Darcy? She is an enchanting creature, to be sure, Henrietta Dixon with brains, by Jove! I suppose I must wish Dashwood well with her, he is a tolerable fellow, not too costly for everyday and has discernment enough to appreciate her. She is not to my taste though, I am in favour of cool ladies with more acerbic wit, I should feel a real cad sharpening my teeth on little Miss... Bennet, am I right, Bennet?"
Darcy knew his cousin to be an odd mixture of parts, at once brilliant and unobservant, lazy yet successful, charming and arrogant and eight and twenty years had not been enough for Darcy, conscientiously straightforward and plain spoken, to fully understand him. Had he understood him better he might have been a better student of his own nature. Darcy considered himself, on the rare occasions he indulged in self analysis, to be a square, decentish sort of Englishman; until Elizabeth Bennet had accused him of behaving in an ungentlemanlike manner, he had been wholly unaware of the complexity of his character and had subsequently come to realize that only with her could he ever know himself.
Sir James was remarkably good at playing the fool but his words about Elizabeth Bennet were poniards to Darcy's heart and each one stabbed.
"Write whatever you please" he said brusquely, "and be careful where you call Lady Catherine a baggage."
Sir James roared with laughter, "I sometimes forget she is your mother's sister, Darcy, please accept my apologies."
"Accepted" replied Darcy with a small smile, his mother had exceeded Lady Catherine in beauty as the first of May does the last of December but in all other respects the resemblance was frightening. Sir James's mother, on the other hand, had been a very gracious woman, she had been the first Elizabeth Darcy.
Elizabeth Darcy..... that name would haunt him.
It was to Elizabeth's advantage that she was in London rather than Longbourn at this most interesting and enjoyable time in her life. She would make her engagements and receive her congratulations in the company of her aunt, whose pleasure although real, was moderated and sensible. Mrs. Bennet wrote by return to beg her intercession with her fiancÚ on poor Wickham's behalf and she knew that as soon as Lydia was informed of her situation, she would write ten times as often on the same subject. She dreaded her mother's entreaties in respect to Wickham's career more than anything else. She still believed him to be Wickham's friend and would never understand why he did not arrange to have him made up to a Captain straight-away.
Happily begging letters from Lydia were some time distant as it had been agreed between them that until the Colonel had sorted out some business with his attorney, that the news should spread no further than Gracechurch Street, Longbourn and Netherfield. The Colonel, upon his accession to Everingley had used some additional money to purchase the neighbouring estate of St. Erth which, after four years of his careful management, now yielded a good three thousand per annum and which he intended to make over to his younger brother so that he would have a home of his own and a means of marrying should he choose to leave the army. Captain Christopher Dashwood, young, blithe and handsome, had no intention of leaving the army and finding himself a wife; penury had not forced him to take a commission as it had James and, without any responsibility or a recurring painful war wound, the sweets of housekeeping on a country estate did not tempt him. Colonel Dashwood though, was by nature generous and by upbringing responsible; a lesser man would have kept the three thousand a year and put himself in the income bracket of the Darcys and the Milbankes but the man who could win the hand of Elizabeth Bennet must always be greater and so, with her heartfelt approval, he negotiated the handover of St. Erth before settling down to work out the marriage articles.
Their wedding too was to be held in the little church of St. Erth where his parents had married thirty-five years earlier. Mrs. Bennet did not much approve of Elizabeth marrying in Devonshire, she felt all the inequity of having only two daughters married at Longbourn.
"I do not see why they must marry so far away," she said petulantly at least twice each day, "I do not like the west country, St. This and St. That, each of them equally obscure, cold and damp."
"We cannot all be fortunate enough to live within an easy distance of Meryton" was her husband's understanding reply.
Mary, however, reveled in the opportunity to explore Devonshire and the adjoining counties.
"I am so longing to see Cornwall!" she exclaimed often.
"Aye, I imagine you are" replied Mrs. Bennet tartly, "Saints and shrines and holy wells are much to your liking. Oh well, why don't you just shift to Cornwall and abandon me as Lizzy and Kitty have done and Jane plans to.... When I think what I have endured for your girls to have you leave me at my age and in my condition.... I would not recommend motherhood to anyone, it is a heartache from beginning to end."
Unfortunately for Mr. Darcy, baronets in love are not the conscientious correspondents they ought to be, and while Elizabeth Bennet found time to write to her mother and dearest sister, Sir James found it impossible to be writing to Mr. Darcy when Caroline Bingley was so often around. To be exact, she was not often about him but he was often about her. Dinner invitations to the Hursts had never been so welcome, he resumed friendships long forgotten because their wives and sisters were acquainted with her, he took to riding on Rotten Row again after telling all his acquaintance it was a rotten pastime and frequently found himself improving his mind at the same booksellers and concert halls as the lady herself. Miss Bennet was entirely forgot.
However, he chanced one morning to be walking around Fenchurch Square with Miss Bingley, when they met Miss Bennet and her aunt on their way to pay a wedding visit to the newly-married Miss Dixon, now Mrs. Campbell.
"This is unfortunate," murmured Miss Bingley, "I thought when I left Hertfordshire I had seen the last of the Bennets."
"How can you say that?" he whispered, "Your brother married one."
"Jane is the best of them," she replied quietly, "the most endurable, although that is not saying much. This one, Miss Elizabeth, is by far the worst."
"You know that is not true, Miss Bingley, you see an attachment on Mr. Darcy's part, that is all."
"Hush, Sir James, I told you my liking for Mr. Darcy is over."
"Stuff and nonsense" he muttered emphatically, "I can yet see a church by daylight, and you madam, will not be happy until you stand next to Darcy in one. How long your happiness will last is another matter."
"Quiet!" she hissed, "they will hear you. Good morning Mrs. Gardiner, good morning Eliza! How do you do?"
"We are very well, indeed" replied Elizabeth, "how are you, and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst?"
"We are all prodigiously well as we always are," responded Miss Bingley, combining perfect honesty with perfect insincerity.
Sir James eyed Elizabeth, wondering if the sparkle about her face and eyes were due to love or the chill morning.
"I convey my cousin, Mr. Darcy's, regards," he said with a sudden burst of imagination and a sweeping bow.
Elizabeth laughed merrily, "Please return them with thanks and remember us to Miss Darcy."
"Mr. Darcy is gone to Derbyshire on very important business," added Miss Bingley, "I doubt you will see him again this season, Eliza. He will be back, of course, for his cousin's wedding to the Earl of Dovedale - what a stylish event that will be!"
The implication that Jane's wedding had not been stylish was not wasted on Elizabeth. Poor Miss Bingley to value everything according to style, and poor Miss Bennet that she should endure having her Christian named used without permission by someone she did not like.
"I am sure Miss de Bourgh's wedding will be all it ought to be, Caroline," she replied with all sweetness and no archness at all.
Elizabeth's look of pity, momentary though it had been, was not missed by Caroline. She could not tolerate anything approaching sympathy from anyone, except Louisa, and certainly not from Elizabeth Bennet. It was also infuriating to hear herself called Caroline by a slip of a country girl with no breeding and few manners; she used Eliza in the same way as she addressed her maids by their first names, she no more expected a response in kind from Miss Bennet than from them.
"We are all quite sure," she began with a confidential girlish giggle, "that Mr. Darcy has gone home to make arrangements for Miss Milbanke to visit Pemberley."
"Who is Miss Milbanke?" asked Elizabeth, aware that she was stepping into a trap yet unable to remain ignorant of the identity of any young woman Mr. Darcy invited to Pemberley.
"Oh, dearest Emilia!" laughed Miss Bingley, and then with real seriousness, "Of course you will not know her, she is the only child of the Marquis of Henley, heir to a great fortune and the title, not a Marchioness but a Marquise in her own right. Is that not so, Sir James?"
"Like Anne Boleyn," returned the confused baronet, "I do hope she will keep her head."
"Do not be so silly. Hers was a created title, Miss Milbanke's is inherited." Being the granddaughter of a man who lived within sight of his own warehouses, Miss Bingley was especially susceptible to things hereditary.
"I have seen them dance together a few times," said Sir James doubtfully, "but visit Pemberley?"
Miss Bingley looked patronising and smacked him playfully on the forearm with her reticule, "You spend too much time in Parliament, sir, and not enough in the parlour. The future Marquise is also the future Mrs. Darcy, I am sure."
Elizabeth could not reply. She wanted to fall down on the pavement and weep but contented herself with biting her tongue and relied upon her aunt to extricate them from the situation.
"We must take our leave," she said a moment later, although too late for Elizabeth's poor tongue and Miss Bingley's quick eye, "Mrs. Campbell expects us."
Sir James was absolutely incredulous, he could not condemn Caroline as a liar in the middle of the street, but could think of no other way of stopping her.
"What the devil are you playing at, Caroline?" he demanded as the ladies were admitted to the Campbell's house and the door shut firmly behind them.
"The whole Town knows them to have an attachment" she replied gaily, "I was merely putting poor Miss Bennet out of the misery of any expectations she might have. Any woman would do as much for another."
"The whole Town knows no such thing!" he replied angrily, "Half of those who gossip around tea tables have him attached to you and we both know that to be false."
Miss Bingley's lip trembled a little, she had not started that story and rather hoped it had been started by someone close to Mr. Darcy, someone who guessed where his true affection lay. She forced herself to laugh.
"Did you see the poor thing bite her tongue? I have suffered by Eliza's tongue and know just how unpleasant it can be. If she has bitten herself, it will cost her a thousand pounds 'ere she is cured."
"Caroline, you have the finest set of fangs in London, do not be so quick to share your glory with Miss Bennet!"
Miss Bingley was all astonishment and began quickly to reflect on the imprudence of indulging herself with Eliza Bennet in his company. There was on way of telling what he might to, he might keep it to himself or he might inform Darcy. She resisted the temptation to put him in place and walk away and, with the flawless sang-froid for which she was justly famous, she took his arm and smiling her lovely smile (the one with the perfect teeth and no fangs) she decided he might as well spend the day with her and safely away from any temptation to write letters. By the end of the day, she judged fairly, he would not be in a mood to cause her any trouble.
Lady Catherine had resolved that Anne should be married in a very quiet ceremony in Hunsford Church, one befitting an invalid. With this in mind she summoned the parson whom she could rely on to appear almost immediately, although even her sharp imagination could not fathom how such a portly, bumbling creature could move so rapidly. She had wondered on occasion if, perhaps, he spent his time lurking in the rhododendrons beneath her window; one day she would send Jenkins to look. Lady Catherine suffered a certain fellow-feeling for Mrs. Collins and admired they way she managed her dolt of a husband; her own marriage had not been a happy one, she too had married for an establishment although not for money, and had spent their first few happy years contriving ever more interesting means of keeping Sir Lewis out of her way. She chuckled to herself at the notion of Mrs. Collins arranging to have her husband spend his days like some horticulturally inclined gnome in the Rosings shrubbery.
Mr. Collins, mistaking her ladyship's smile for joy, launched into the glorious catalogue of compliments and congratulations he had prepared for this very occasion. To officiate at the wedding of dear Miss de Bourgh to the estimable, the honourable, the Earl of Dovedale was the highest expression of his calling that he could imagine. He had got thus far and been indulged by his patroness for quite some six minutes when, with a painful rap of her ebony fan on his hand, she called him to order.
"As you are well aware, Mr. Collins, my daughter is of a delicate constitution. I insist that she is not troubled in any way by this the occasion of her marriage and have gone as far as to bespeak some white fur for her gown so that she does not suffer from the cold in your church...."
"Very wise, very solicitous.... such examples of maternal regard are rarely met with..." he interjected while she drew breath.
"The Earl, of course, will remove to Rosings. Anne cannot be expected to survive a North Country winter." She smiled condescendingly at Mr. Collins who, experiencing spasms of delight at having an Earl in his congregation must reasonably be expected to remain silent for several seconds.
"Now as to the particulars of the ceremony. We will have only a few guests and we will keep it short. Anne must not be troubled, she has not the stamina to stand around for long - perhaps we will arrange a chair for her?"
Lady Catherine did not make requests but, in all condescension, she would often attach an interrogative to the end of an order to make Mr. Collins grateful. And he always was. She saw no reason to confide in him her fury at Anne's forthcoming marriage. She was pleased, of course, at Anne marrying an Earl; she was the daughter of an Earl herself but absolutely livid at her not marrying Mr. Darcy. Anne had tearfully justified herself by saying that an Earl with twelve thousand a year was better than a gentleman with ten, hoping to appeal to what really mattered to her mother, but Lady Catherine was inspired not only by wealth but by pride, and her pride was severely damaged by her daughter's match. She determined, therefore, that Anne's wedding would go unnoticed by all except those she informed herself, and they would be few. Let the newspapers print a tiny paragraph.... Recently, the daughter of the late Sir Lewis de Bourgh of Rosings Park to Edward Hamilton, Earl of Dovedale. without so much as the mention of her name.
However, in her unkind plans for her only child Lady Catherine had reckoned without that measure of Fitzwilliam pride that her daughter had inherited from her and Sir Roger Fitzwilliam, Earl of Matlock, Lady Catherine's father; Lady Catherine had hated her father and she was not prepared to meet his notorious self-esteem and determination in the person of her quiet, sickly daughter. Sadly though, for Lady Catherine, all Anne had needed to blossom into a true Fitzwilliam was, however cliched it might seem, the love of a good man.
To her horror she was transported thirty odd years into her past to the evening when her sister Anne, a raven haired, waxen beauty, whom her father fancied as consumptive, told him in the most memorable terms that she was going to marry George Darcy, and that he could keep her fortune as a dowry for his mistress when she found herself with child. It was an event Lady Catherine did not care to remember in much detail; she would have held out for Lord Newmoreland had it not occurred, but life at Matlock was insufferable after Anne's marriage and so she had married Sir Lewis de Bourgh because he was the first man of good fortune and an estate several hundred miles hence who had asked her. She had seen Anne but once after that, when Georgiana was a few days old and they had sat together an hour in the nursery making fond plans for their children, including the wonderful possibility of a union between little Fitzwilliam who was about eleven or twelve and Anne, who sat on his lap, and loved him passionately because he gave her sugared-plums when her nurse wasn't looking. Within the month, however, Anne Darcy had died, a victim of puerperal fever at the age of twenty-nine. Catherine had never got over it, never forgiven herself for submitting to her father's demand that she sever all connection with her sister and never forgotten their last silly, tender conversation.
Anne, however, at the age of twenty-two, was over her liking for sugared-plums and had never regarded her cousin as a desirable husband. She informed her mother, carefully and kindly, that she would be living in Yorkshire with her husband and performing the duties of a Countess. The first duty of a Countess, she continued, was to have a proper wedding and so it was with great sorrow that Mr. Collins learned he was thrown over for the services of the incumbent of St George's, Hanover Square, and Anne de Bourgh was married in the most fashionable church in London in a resplendence of silver and lilies and at great cost to her mother's pocketbook.
Two events of importance were to happen in Elizabeth's life before her own wedding. She learned that she was to become an aunt as well as a godmother and patiently read many letters in which Mrs. Bennet hoped that Jane might have a son and that Charlotte Collins might have only daughters and learn what it was like to have her property entailed away from the female line. She had been informed by Mr. Owen that had Charlotte and Mr. Collins no sons, then Longbourn would revert to Mr. Bennet's eldest grandson because he would be Mr. Collins's nearest male relative. Elizabeth marveled at the patience required to explain something like that to Mrs. Bennet who barely understood what an entail was in the first place. Jane's news, however, was tinged with sadness as it meant she would be unable to attend Elizabeth's wedding; she did not feel well and was not willing to risk the journey. It seemed that Mary would be the only one of her sisters to see her married; Kitty hated traveling and Lydia was not welcome, or rather Lydia's husband was not welcome.
The second event, although not at first sight, comparable in importance to the first was Lady Charteris's ball. Lady Charteris was a wealthy widow whose annual ball marked the end of the winter season and the slow but certain return of the gentry and aristocracy to their estates and summer pastimes.
All Good Things D
Elizabeth had been invited to Lady Charteris's ball with her aunt and uncle and, for her, it marked a more favourable occasion, as it was the first day she had been able to share the news of her engagement with anyone outside her own circle, although she was aware that her mother had told their whole Hertfordshire acquaintance and rather wondered at Miss Bingley not approaching her immediately with congratulations effusive, affectionate and unmeant. Miss Bingley, she had learned during the Lydia affair, was in correspondence with Mrs. Goulding's married daughter and was never short of a snippet of Hertfordshire gossip when necessary.
She was soon rescued from her reverie on Miss Bingley's behaviour, which almost led to an examination of the feelings she had experienced after their last encounter, by the advance of Colonel Dashwood's brother. He had waited almost five minutes to be introduced to his sister-to-be and seeing no likely common acquaintance had taken the office upon himself.
Elizabeth liked him straight-away. He was tall, fair and well-made, although lacking somewhat in his brother's elegance, he was open and engaging and in the general line of his features sufficiently like his brother to compensate a little for that gentleman's absence.
"When do you plan to marry?" he enquired, "I should like to be there but my Colonel is strict and leave must be asked for well in advance."
"I hope you will be able to arrange it" she replied, "only one of my sisters will manage to come and I had always imagined my whole family around me. Which is your regiment?"
"General Carlshalton's Derbyshire Militia" he replied, "see the dragon insignia? I should prefer to fight the French but my brother has kept me out of the Regulars by every means open to him and his influence extends far."
"I know" replied Elizabeth remembering Wickham. The music began and she laughed aloud, the dance now known to her sisters and friends as, "Other way, Mr. Collins!" in respect of his clumsy attempts at the Netherfield Ball, was one of her favourites yet she could not imagine indulging in such a jig with Colonel Dashwood, who all grace and elegance, required something more sedate.
"I will dance with you, sister, as you seem to like this dance so much, but there is a price to be paid."
"I do not play for high stakes" she replied taking his hand.
"It is but the cost of two questions," he continued as they took their place at the end of the dance, "why does your sister-in-law look so sourly at you? And what is so amusing about his particular dance?"
"It is a long story, sir, you may not have time for the whole of it."
"Condense it, then. I am anxious to know as much of you as possible, my brother is an infrequent and dilatory correspondent."
"I am not flattered!" she replied with mock offense, "I though he would write often of me. Very well, both your questions are answered with an account of a ball which took place on Thursday the 29th of November in the year 1811. At that ball Mr. Charles Bingley determined to marry Miss Jane Bennet, however, she was not good enough for his sisters and his friend, by that I mean not wealthy enough, and so they contrived to separate them much to the distress and unhappiness of both and all those who loved them." She paused as the dance separated them.
"But the prince returned to the princess and they are living happily ever after" he said cheerfully.
"Miss Bingley was no fairy-godmother" she replied.
"No, I fancy not, she is the kind of woman who makes thirteen at fairy rings everywhere. My brother once had a fondness for her.... I...." his voice trailed off hopelessly as he remembered who he was dancing with.
Elizabeth stood still and stretched her fingers pretending to be concerned over the fit of her gloves. Had she heard aright?
"I am sorry!" he said, "I was born to speak all mirth and no matter, do not heed me... it was a long time ago and short-lived, the lady saw to that, as my brother had not yet inherited Everingley and did not look likely to."
"I am astonished that any man of sense could become attached to Miss Bingley, however slight an attachment it might have been." She replied icily.
The dance parted them once more, and Elizabeth was permitted a full view of Miss Bingley's angry, jealous looks.
"It was a very long time ago" Christopher was anxiously attempting to gloss over his stupid remark but Elizabeth could not pity him. He was old enough to know better. Second choice to Caroline Bingley, indeed!
"It was her first season and she was barely sixteen, I promise you Miss Bennet, she was a very different creature at sixteen. Maturity and ambition have made her ruthless, but ten years ago she was merely vain, a little like Bingley but less tractable."
Elizabeth imagined Caroline an ingenue; Caroline diffident about her coming out; Caroline nervous about her first ball; Caroline falling in love for the first time.... She softened a little; her imagination was strong and had often been a good friend.
"She was not in love with James, then?"
"No, not at all. She had witnessed Louisa make a foolish match and determined not to follow suit...."
Indeed! "So even then she was determined to marry money?"
"Absolutely, Louisa's was a love match, you know."
Elizabeth laughed merrily, "I will have to take your word for that, Captain, I cannot convince myself!"
"For Caroline love and money came together in the person of Mr. Darcy, she was nineteen then and changed utterly. I imagine she thought to make herself like him, in the hope that he would respond by liking her, and given that he is such an arrogant fellow, once cannot blame her for thinking that way."
"Perhaps not" replied Elizabeth cautiously, "and she has loved him all that time?" Poor, poor Miss Bingley!
"Although," she continued, "it is very hard on Mr. Darcy to blame him for her atrocious personality."
"I do not blame him" he responded with a smile, "but he does not bring out the best in people unless they have been thoroughly informed beforehand of his goodness. I would recommend anyone expecting to meet Darcy for the first time to have an audience with his housekeeper, there they will hear a eulogy they will never forget, if they meet him unprepared they will soon think him the coldest, most arrogant, hard-hearted fellow in the kingdom."
"That much is true" agreed Elizabeth. She would liked to have met the housekeeper. "You think Mr. Darcy a good man, then?" It was getting difficult to sound playful.
"An excellent one. He is a great friend of my brother, they sit together of a cold winter afternoon and read philosophy, exchanging ideas about ideas and each one thinks the other mighty clever for it. For my part I would as soon be out hunting or dancing, all that talk of politics, philosophy and poetry bores me. If I were a girl, I should prefer a dog to a fellow that quoted poetry at me."
"I wish you luck finding one" she replied, unable to gauge his seriousness. Could it be true, could they be close friends, why had the Colonel not told her of it?
The dance finished and Elizabeth was taken back to her aunt full of questions which threatened to remain answerless. Why should James keep from her his friendship with Mr. Darcy? Captain Dashwood was immediately engaged in making himself pleasant to Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Campbell and her famously beautiful sister.
He is not the fool he pretends to be she thought, that is a relief. Like Bingley he boasts of having few books and reading less, but he is capable of intelligent conversation, faced with such beauty and wealth, he may even find a rhyme or two.
She watched as Captain Dashwood solicited Miss Susanna Dixon for the next dance and took her seat in a window alcove where she could observe the new arrivals undisturbed. The Earl and Countess of Dovedale were duly announced bringing with them Miss Georgiana Darcy. She was straight-away attacked by Miss Bingley, who assuming herself in loco parentis, began turning down dances for her. Elizabeth watched the little game for quite some time, keeping a weather eye out for whoever it might be that Miss Bingley was saving her friend for. However, she was thwarted to Elizabeth's glee, by Captain Dashwood. So amused was she observing Caroline and Georgiana that she was totally unaware of Mr. Darcy's entrance until she found him standing at her elbow.
"Mr. Darcy!" She exclaimed, "I had not thought to see you here."
He looked troubled, "I did not intend to come, I am lately returned from Derbyshire and it is a long journey. Believe me, I came only to see you."
Elizabeth was much too embarrassed and surprised to say a word and so, after a pause, he continued.
"Miss Bennet, this is difficult for me, but I must say it. My affections and wishes remain unchanged from 1812, I love you and.... and beg your forgiveness for the way I addressed you then. Your reproof, 'had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner' has tortured me and I believe you must think me devoid of every proper feeling. I assure you I am not."
Elizabeth, overwhelmed by the situation and his declaration, managed to force herself to speak and gave him to understand, although not very fluently, that he must not speak to her thus. Unfortunately, he misunderstood, and attributing her confusion to embarrassment or surprise, he left her with a slight touch of his hand and the urgent entreaty that she would consider what he had said.
Before she could assemble herself, if indeed such a thing were possible, Colonel Dashwood arrived full of apologies for being late and a story about a sick and lame mare. He found his betrothed almost as weak as the mare and equally unable to stand.
"Elizabeth, what has happened to you? You were dancing with Christopher not an hour since he informs me, what has happened in the meantime?"
Elizabeth sat down on the window seat grateful for the screen it provided from most, if not all, of the room. He sat beside her and putting an arm around her repeated his enquiry.
"I do not know," she lied and putting her head upon his shoulder felt as if she should cry for half an hour as she had done after Mr. Darcy's first proposal.
"I will make everything all right, Elizabeth, if I possibly can but first you have to tell me what it is."
Elizabeth could not tell him and this was not the place to cry for half an hour. With superhuman effort she forced herself to sit up and smile.
"You have not asked me to dance" she said with false brightness, "I have danced with your brother and do not know who else it is proper for an engaged woman to dance with."
As they walked out on to the dance floor she became aware of Miss Bingley speaking to Mr. Darcy and, upon looking round, saw Mr. Darcy glance at her with the most incredible expression of despair.
All Good Things E
Mr. Darcy left the assembly almost immediately. Elizabeth dared not watch him go, it seemed to her quite certain now that she had been in love with him and so unwilling to admit it that she had actually got as far as engaging herself to someone else.
Were it anyone else! cried her poor, confused heart.
The dance ended and she made her way back to her aunt who was engaging in the happy business of relating her niece's good news to as many people as possible, quite unaware of the events of the past half hour. Colonel Dashwood, on his way to speak to his brother, was stopped by Sir James Hampton. For some reason he had never analysed Colonel Dashwood did not like Sir James and had unusually little time for him.
Sir James, blissfully ignorant of the Colonel's dislike, thought carefully. For the present it would be wise to seem ignorant of Dashwood's real relationship with Miss Bennet. It would not do to speak so to an engaged man, better to give the impression the thought it mostly in the realm of fancy, of mere liking.
Kill two birds with one stone, he thought, give Darcy a clear aim at Miss Bennet and bag Caroline for myself.
"I hope Miss Bennet is not unwell," he remarked casually, "she did not look herself in the dance. I would say she almost walked the down the last set."
"I know... I know...." replied Dashwood eyeing Elizabeth anxiously as she drank tea with Mrs. Campbell, "she is certainly out of spirits. She was speaking to Darcy as I entered but what could he have said to cause her such distress? No, it cannot be Darcy."
Thank you for mentioning Darcy said Sir James silently. "Dashwood, do you know anything of Darcy and Miss Bennet before you met her?"
"Not a thing" he said, "besides the fact that her sister married Charles Bingley. Is that a relevant connection?"
Sir James took a pinch of snuff realizing there was no going back.
"Well, er, the old de Bourgh bird" he indicated the Countess of Dovedale, "her mother... his aunt that is, was well under the impression he had made Miss Bennet an offer and was inconsolable when she turned him down."
"Darcy proposed to Elizabeth and was refused?" repeated the Colonel incredulously.
Not too quick, are you old chap? Sir James smiled awkwardly, almost as awkwardly as he felt having caught Miss Bingley's eye as she worked her way down the dance.
"What I mean, Dashwood, is that I believe him still in love with her and you.... you ought to be very sure of her feelings for you before you take this one step further."
"You are not suggesting, sir, that Mr. Darcy would propose to Miss Bennet while she is engaged to someone else?"
"I think not but he may not know. I have only just learned of it from you this instant, you have certainly kept it quiet."
The second part of that statement was a lie; he had learned of it from Caroline a good two hours before but that Darcy was wholly ignorant of it he was sure. He chided himself for being so wrapped up in the purchase of a new hunter that he had not seen Darcy arrive and had allowed him to approach Miss Bennet uninformed.
Dashwood had little reply to make, he had kept it quiet as he had quieted his own suspicions about Darcy and Elizabeth previously. Disguise was his abhorrence as it was Darcy's and he could not bear the thought of deceiving himself or of being deceived by Elizabeth. No, she was not capable of deceit, it was not in her character, she would not engage herself to him while in love with Darcy. He began to wonder though why she had refused him on his first proposal in Longbourn woods. It seemed improbable that with all her sense and intelligence she was the sort of woman who would risk her happiness on being asked a second time by a man she truly loved, yet she had apparently refused Darcy on his first application.
Sir James, for all his cleverness, was a tardy student of the human psyche and could not imagine what kept Dashwood so quiet for so long. He began to recall with misgivings how his great-uncle, Sir Lionel Hampton had come to a bloody end on the tip of Colonel Dashwood's grandfather's sword He did not rate his or Darcy's chances highly, excellent swordsmen though they were, if required to meet with someone who actually did it for a living.
Get a grip of yourself man, he thought, "this is 1813, not even a couple of honourable old fossils like Dashwood and Darcy would engage in a duel today!
His unpleasant reverie was disturbed by Miss Bingley, whose curiosity was such that she had abandoned Mr. Hurst halfway through the dance, and come determined to wheedle out of one of them the subject of their conversation. The Colonel made a preemptory bow and walked off leaving Sir James to face his furious lady as best he could and he was no more equipped to deal with her tongue than with his sword given that her tongue exceed his sword in sharpness as lemon juice does milk.
The rest of the evening passed slowly. Elizabeth politely went through motions of an affianced woman at her first ball and could not miss the silence and sobriety of the Colonel which gave her much cause for concern and the gossips welcome meat.
"My brother means to marry an heiress" commented the Colonel dryly, "anyone between 15 and 30 may have him for the asking provided she is sufficiently beautiful and very wealthy."
"I wish him well in his endeavour" joked Mrs. Gardiner but the Colonel was in no humour to agree with her.
"I do not" he replied, "he is idle, rich and vain and one day he will do something foolish because of it."
On that sour note the evening ended and Elizabeth was not sorry to be back again in her room in Gracechurch Street where she fully expected to cry her heart out restrained only by the necessity of not disturbing her aunt. The fondly expected tears did not come however, and finally, exhausted and bewildered she wrapped herself in sensible shawl and settled down to write a long letter to Jane that she knew would never see the post. At the end of it, after many rewritings, she was tolerably sure of her heart and with the comfortless assurance that she should never cry over love again she fell into a fitful and disturbed sleep. She dreamed Jane had married Darcy and was not happy; she was forbidden to see Jane and they met only in the Roman baths where they shared cake and discussed Jane's children whom she had never seen except the little one still being nursed and in the bath with them.... Poor Lizzy, she awoke with a fever and sat shivering against the bed post reluctant to sleep again in case the next dream should be similar. Fortunately, although a series of weird events and characters populated her sleep, she remembered nothing of them on finally waking again at eight o'clock and felt only that she had not slept at all. The letter remained on her desk but she resolutely crumpled it and threw it on the fire, she recalled her decision clearly and had no inclination to reread the passionate, confused arguments that had led to it.
Colonel Dashwood was at the door by nine and oblivious to Mrs. Gardiner's protest that she was not well, a clear-sighted as well as kind-hearted woman, she had worked out the source of Lizzy's distress during her own largely sleepless night. Dashwood would not be put off, he insisted he had the only cure for Elizabeth's disorder and demanded Mrs. Gardiner allow him to apply it.
"Elizabeth" he said directly on entering the room, "I must ask this and you must forgive me if it is improper."
"It will not be improper." she replied quietly.
"Elizabeth, are you in love with Darcy? Tell me and straight-away I will release you from this engagement. Elizabeth, it is no joy to me to see you so sad."
The desperate resolution formed in the blue room last night was now to be acted upon. She composed herself and found the reply he longed to hear.
"No, I am not in love with him."
"Were you ever?"
She could only nod assent. "Yes, I must have been but I cannot trace the start of it or account for its end. I only know that it exhausted me, that it took all my health and strength and left me pitiful and weak; yes, I loved him a good deal more than I ought but I would not wish the sensation back again."
"Why did you not accept him when he proposed before, he did propose, did he not?"
"Yes, he did" replied Elizabeth almost shocked out of her composure, "how could you know?"
"Hampton picked up a piece of family gossip via Lady Catherine and shared it with me at the ball last night. He seemed very sure of Darcy's continuing regard for you and charged me to be sure of your feelings but I had suspected something of the kind before and was not willing to face it. I told myself you would be mine by fair means or foul only now I cannot quite go ahead with it as I planned.... Elizabeth, you may call off our wedding and marry Darcy if that it what you want with my sincerest blessing."
"We are neither of us good at facing up to things where our hearts are concerned" she replied gently, "and no, I do not wish to be released from our engagement unless you want to release me."
"You must be sure, Elizabeth, I love you and will marry you under any circumstances if love is involved."
"I do love you. If you require a grand-passion then I must disappoint you, I am worn out with that. I have loved and hated your friend with a fervency that would not be denied but now it is dead and I am glad. Colonel Dashwood, I love you, you are the dearest friend I have ever had and I cannot go through the rest of my life and never see you again. Do not condemn me to that dark night, I cannot be alone, I cannot be without you; Pemberley with all its beauties will not compensate me for friendlessness and Mr. Darcy will never be my friend, I am sure."