It is a truth universally acknowledged that to a mother blessed with five unmarried daughters, the single state is generally sufficient to achieve eligibility in a suitor. Alas, it is equally correct that this is not always satisfactory to her over-particular offspring.
Elizabeth's spirits, rarely sunk for long, remained irritated by the events of the Netherfield ball with respect to herself. Perhaps it was the continued presence of her cousin, Mr. Collins, which brought to mind his undesired perseverance the previous evening. Her father may find the silliness of Mr. Collins's behavior diverting, but he had not been forced to endure his company at a ball, nor had his toes been so painfully abused by Mr. Collins's deplorable dancing. Wriggling her toes gently, Elizabeth winced, noticing they were still sore this morning. What an appropriate reminder of the whole dismal affair.
Had that been all, her spirits may have rebounded, but to be subjected to Mr. Darcy's condescension and the disappointing absence of Mr. Wickham rendered the whole evening rather odious. After their disastrous meeting on the dance floor, Elizabeth hoped never to see the former again in the whole of her existence! All her previous objections to him had only been strengthened over the course of the set. That he treated everyone in the room save Mr. Bingley in a high-handed, disdainful manner was the least of it. His behavior toward someone as blameless and deserving as Wickham could never be forgiven!
It was only upon regarding the happy countenance of her dear sister, Jane, across the breakfast table, and thus remembering Mr. Bingley's artless display of admiration, that she felt at all restored to her usual equanimity.
She would be much surprised if something interesting did not happen in that quarter before too long. No gentleman could honorably display such a preference for a lady, giving rise to expectations of the general company present and the lady in particular, without following through to its natural conclusion. As Mr. Bingley was both honorable and a gentleman, it was unthinkable to consider any other outcome.
She recounted her own efforts to forward the match during her dance with Mr. Bingley. Of course, his thoughts were directed toward Jane and consequently so was his conversation with Elizabeth. She chuckled at the recollection. Any other lady would have been quite rightly infuriated. Since she hoped Jane would one day be as dear to him as she was to Elizabeth, it had served as the one bright spot of the ball.
During their dance, she had sensed--by a certain amount of self-deprecation--that Mr. Bingley's natural modesty made it difficult for him to trust his own worthiness as Jane's suitor. Elizabeth wanted to laugh that he was foolish beyond measure, but at once remembered Charlotte's ridiculous notion that a lady must practically throw herself at a man's feet in order to fix him.
Since Elizabeth desperately wanted him to come to the point with her sister, she had attempted through subtle stratagems to help him understand that though Jane's composure of temper and uniform cheerfulness of manner might suggest she held him in no special regard, that was certainly not the case.
She had fretted for two sets after her dance with Mr. Bingley that she had perhaps gone too far--meddled where she should not--but resolved that putting him at ease, giving him confidence that his addresses would be received with a great deal of pleasure, might tip the balance. She now felt nothing could stand in the way of the couple's future happiness.
Elizabeth's cheeks glowed at the thought of her mother's appalling behavior at Netherfield. She had certainly made her expectations known to anyone and everyone who was willing to listen. Elizabeth had lived in dread lest Mr. Bingley hear her mother's pronouncements. Though she did not believe him to be as fickle as all that, she thought it must be an embarrassment to him, as it would certainly be to dear Jane, to find himself the center of conversation under any occasion and certainly one as personal as a proposal of marriage.
Of course, her mother had not been the only one to behave in such a ridiculous manner. Her youngest sisters' impropriety was of great concern to her, not in the least because her mother was too foolish herself to see any fault in their outrageous conduct. If her father would take even the slightest trouble to intervene in his family's affairs, he could quite easily check them. As it was, Elizabeth had no hope that he could be induced to take an interest. He seemed to delight in ridiculing his own daughters without a thought for the consequences to the reputation of his entire family.
She turned her thoughts to the prospect of a walk. The succession of rain in the days preceding the ball had kept her most uncomfortably indoors and her feet--in spite of the previous night's abuse--fairly leapt out of the breakfast room on their own accord, so eager was she for the chance of reflection and refreshment that she invariably found on her solitary ambles about the countryside. Jane's expectations and the anticipation of a walk were the only two topics upon which she could rest her sensibilities with any degree of comfort.
This tenuous sense of satisfaction was wholly shattered upon hearing Mr. Collins solicit a private audience with her from her mother. Elizabeth came abruptly out of her reverie with dismay to see her so obviously delighted in her conjecture that a proposal was imminent that she rose hastily from the table--though she had just poured herself another chocolate and had yet to finish her egg--and shoo Elizabeth's remaining sisters from the room. All Elizabeth's vexed and embarrassed looks, as well as her vague attempts to escape the meeting entirely, were in vain, serving only to dim the glowing smile Mrs. Bennet cast upon her least appreciated daughter. Brooking no opposition and showing no concern for Elizabeth's feelings Mrs. Bennet said severely before leaving the room, "Lizzy, I insist upon your staying and hearing Mr. Collins."
Elizabeth could not oppose such an injunction--and sensible that it would be wisest to get it over as soon and as quietly as possible, she turned in her chair to give Mr. Collins her full attention.
Her suitor--if he could be called such--seemed to have no doubt as to the outcome of the interview, and beginning with these words said, "You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house, I singled you out as the companion of my future life." His address went on for quite some time and Elizabeth listened with some amusement to his expostulation on the benefits of marriage--to himself--a recitation of his manifold attractions as a suitor and consequently, her causes to be much pleased.
When he finally lapsed into silence, she adopted a modest tone, for she had no wish to offend her cousin, "Sir, accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honor of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them."
Believing the interview to be at an end, Elizabeth would have then quit the room had Mr. Collins not thus addressed her: "You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that my hand is not unworthy of your acceptance; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you."
At these words, Elizabeth became really rather irritated, and her tone was one of frustration, "I thank you again for the honor you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible and your warnings offer no further inducement. Let us put an end to the matter, sir and endeavor to remain friends as well as cousins."
Not yet willing to concede, Mr. Collins cried, "Miss Elizabeth, I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail to be found acceptable."
Upon hearing this declaration Elizabeth knew she could make no reply lest she lose her composure entirely. Immediately and in silence, she withdrew, determined to apply to her father whom she had no doubt would support her.
Mr. Bennet's study was in a distant part of the house. It was, in fact, not meant to serve the purpose at all, but by virtue of being set away in a back corner, through a small hallway connecting an older structure from the more spacious modern rooms in more general use, it had been given the singular honor by the master himself. Due to the craftsmanship used in the older building, including having more substantial walls and heavier doors, it served his needs well; it shut out the boisterous noise of five daughters and deterred his over-sensitive wife from seeking his council on the least provocation, which she was sure to do if he was more conveniently located.
Thus, Mr. Bennet was surprised to hear the shrill tones of his wife growing increasingly loud as she made her way hastily to his sanctum.
"Oh! Mr. Bennet, you are wanted immediately; we are all in an uproar. You must come and make Lizzy marry Mr. Collins, for she vows she will not have him, and if you do not make haste he will change his mind and not have her."
Mr. Bennet raised his eyes from his book as she entered, "I have not the pleasure of understanding you," said he when she had finished her speech. "Of what do you speak?"
"Oh! How you do vex me, Mr. Bennet!" She then related what she knew of the interview and, upon being questioned by her husband about how she obtained the information, admitted that she had remained in the vestibule eager to give her felicitations to the happy couple and heard the entire interview through the thin door.
Both husband and wife knew that she must have been listening purposefully through the small crack between the doors, for they were not as thin as all that. However, that was neither here nor there, so he did not express one of his particularly wry comments, which Mrs. Bennet had no patience for at the moment anyhow. "That wretched girl! Putting the welfare of her mama and all her sisters at risk with this foolish impetuosity! There is no reasoning with the girl, Mr. Bennet. You must make her do it!"
She finished relating the news on a note of hope by saying, "I am sure he will continue his pursuit upon an injunction from you, Mr. Bennet. Goodness knows, she will not listen to me!"
Mr. Bennet, without stating his intentions, replied calmly, "Let her be called down. She shall hear my opinion."
Mrs. Bennet rang the bell, and Miss Elizabeth was summoned to the library.
"Come here, child," cried her father as she appeared. "I have sent for you on an affair of importance. I understand that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of marriage. Is it true?" Elizabeth replied that it was. "Very well--and this offer of marriage you have refused?"
"I have, Papa"
Mr. Bennet, who usually had a twinkle in his eye reserved for his favorite daughter, instead bestowed a stern expression upon her and said decisively, "Lizzy, this will not do. The state of my affairs put you in the unenviable position of requiring a husband for your maintenance. I am sorry to say that it is wholly out of the question for you to refuse him. It pains me more than you know, for I know he does not suit, but you must resolve yourself to it."
Mr. Bennet had very often wished before this period of his life that instead of spending his whole income, he had laid by an annual sum for the better provision of his children, and of his wife, if she survived him. He now wished it more than ever. Had he done his duty in that respect, Elizabeth would not be forced into an undoubtedly unhappy marriage. Nevertheless, in this instance, reason must triumph over desire.
"Father! No!" cried Elizabeth with a shocked expression at her father's unexpected faithlessness.
Mr. Bennet listened patiently to his daughter express her disbelief, explain her absolute unwillingness to resolve herself to such a fate, and finally--when he proved to be unmoved by her arguments--to have mercy on her, his favorite child. She could not but believe that her father misunderstood her feelings in the matter.
"How can you ask it of me? To marry for security alone, would you truly have me be so mercenary? His speech, his understanding, his manner, all are repulsive to me. I am sure I would be very unhappy with him and he with me, I daresay."
Mr. Bennet softened, almost, but was not quite ready to give in to her, for he knew that she was on the mark in her assessment of the marriage. Condoling with her over the matter was all the support he could muster. Even to his ear, the attempt sounded craven.
"I had thought this business would go another way. Mary would make an excellent wife for him and had there been time, it might have happened that his attention veered in that direction."
Remembering his duty and wishing to brook no more opposition that may veer him from it, he added more severely, "But he has made his choice from among my daughters, and I can have no opinion on the matter beyond the necessity of his being welcomed into the immediate family."
"And how was this maneuver in his affections to be brought about with your continued disinterest?" she cried. "This one time in my life when I should look to you for support and protection--when you could have been the means of, if not my actual happiness, at least not my decided unhappiness--you have not the energy, the motivation to rouse yourself on my behalf to see that such a simple thing as this is done."
Elizabeth did nothing to disguise the resentment she felt toward him when she added fervently, "Why, it was in the space of a moment for him to look from my sister Jane to me. Have you so little care for me, Papa, that you could not spare a few moments of vexation for my everlasting gratitude? You have doomed me to a most unhappy marriage, nay a miserable life, because you could not tax yourself on my behalf. I am ashamed of you, Father!" This last embittered sentiment was delivered with a sob as she burst into hot tears.
Mr. Bennet's eyes were downcast, for he really did feel the injustice he had done her. Of all her sisters, she was the daughter whose intellect and wit most closely resembled his own, and he knew what it would cost Elizabeth to be married to such a man as Mr. Collins. Fully aware that Collins's want of understanding would lead him to choose imprudently, he had hoped there would be sufficient time to intervene. He berated himself for his selfish indolence that had now cost his daughter's happiness.
He had assumed his managing wife would make all well, though he knew she did not care whom Mr. Collins's eye alighted upon; her only requirement was that it be within her own household. Could he ever forgive himself? Certainly it would be sooner than the forgiveness he sought from his daughter. That Lizzy could not excuse him seemed too great a burden, and he was on the point of relenting until recalled by his wife's words to the necessity of Collins marrying into his immediate family.
One glance at Mrs. Bennet's expression showed him that she was completely out of patience over the matter and wanted the interview to be concluded, fully expecting it to resolve itself as she wished. Mr. Bennet knew that there would be no peace in his household if he did not follow through with his demands. He was irritated at his wife, who, with so little understanding of the sensibilities of her daughter or her spouse, could conceal neither her happiness over the affair nor her irritation over the difficulties being cast before her.
With an insensitivity that made Mr. Bennet wince, she cried in the shrill tone she adopted when bent on getting her way, "Pshaw! A happy marriage! What does that signify in the least? As your father has told you Lizzy, you must marry him. You have the good fortune to have received this proposal from Mr. Collins, and though it must mean nothing to you, I tell you it does relieve my poor nerves from the distress I shall have when Mr. Collins succeeds your father at Longbourn. Only think of your family, you selfish, ungrateful girl!" Her voice became more agitated the longer she spoke.
Mr. Bennet knew that he must end the interview instantly or be in great danger of relenting. Unable to look his daughter in the eye, he directed his remark at Mrs. Bennet. "My dear," he said with feigned equanimity, "our daughter has heard my views on the matter and I have little doubt that she will comply. Now, I have two small favors to request. First, that you will abstain from referencing my demise; and secondly, that you will absent yourself from my room. I shall be glad to have the library to myself as soon as may be."
Mrs. Bennet, having won her point, retired to the drawing room where her remaining daughters were assembled with Mr. Collins. Upon entering, Mrs. Bennet expressed with delight her certainty of the outcome in delighted tones, alternating with displeasure at Elizabeth's behavior which were revealed by scornful comments about her daughter's shameful ingratitude and selfish disregard for the needs of her family. A person with greater acuity might have realized the impropriety of voicing such intemperate remarks in the hearing of a nervous suitor, but it did not even once cross the less fertile imagination of Mrs. Bennet.
On occasion, the gods delight in providing a worthy setting for our greatest unhappinesses and, at least in this achievement, Elizabeth might be considered fortunate. Five days of unremitting rain preceding the ball at Netherfield made the countryside quite muddy and, for a less resolute walker, quite impassable, too. Into this environment, Elizabeth, low-spirited from the previous evening, harried by her mother, teased by Mr. Collins, disappointed in her beloved father, and rendered hopeless as to her future, sought a temporary refuge out of doors.
Refusing the kindness of her sister, Jane, she set out very much alone, attempting to gain a mastery over her agitated sensibilities. Though Elizabeth had the forethought to wear a spencer left in the hall by one of her sisters, it had not occurred to her to wear pattens. Consequently, the heels of her slippers slowed her progress by sinking deeply into the mud upon every step. To her disordered senses the feeling was very nearly like a living thing, grasping jealously, pulling her back home and toward a most undesired fate. Likewise, her dress was not made for the excursion, being more suitable for needlework in the drawing room than a walk in rough weather. It would take a great deal of effort upon the part of the laundress to remove the mud stains, which spread a full twelve inches deep along the hem. This, however, did not occur to her in her present state of mind.
Hot, angry tears blinded Elizabeth, and only her familiarity with the path she walked kept her mindful of her surroundings; she was insensible to every single thing around her. Though she trembled, at this point it was from suppressed hurt and even fury rather than the cold mist of the morning air.
At last, she reached a large spreading oak located on a rise, which made it a visible landmark from as far away as Meryton. The eminent specimen had long been a favorite destination for Elizabeth, who as a young girl had often climbed into its lower branches with a favorite book or sought its shelter when the bedlam of her family became too much to bear. Elizabeth gave herself fully up to her distress, the cause alternately the prospect of her future unhappiness as the wife of Mr. Collins and the deep sense of betrayal at the hands of a most beloved parent.
Justice demanded that Elizabeth absolve her mother immediately for her share of the blame. Mrs. Bennet, with whom Elizabeth had never shared an affectionate relationship, may not understand her, but she did not wish even her least beloved daughter to be unhappy, nor fathom her reasons for being so. On the contrary, she had made it abundantly clear that she believed the marriage was the best possible alternative for her daughter and could not be faulted for placing the maintenance of the entire family above the satisfaction of a single child.
That her father knew intimately how bleak her future would unfold, yet did not support her, he had made wholly evident and it was on this that her anger and pain alighted. How can he not bestir himself from his own comfortable domain to aid me, nor be brought to make any concessions over a marriage that is so repugnant to all my senses? That such a degradation to her could be so trivial to him was beyond all she could endure.
In time, her initial feelings of outrage at the injustice she suffered gave way to a depression of spirits as she eventually perceived herself to be in a situation with no happy outcome and began to accept her circumstance as being without remedy. All too soon she was forced to admit that whatever their failings, her parents wished for her material security and that of her family; they were thus not wholly unpardonable, and as Mr. Collins's proposal was the only solution presented to them, of course they must grasp it, no matter what the consequences.
Nor could Elizabeth long berate the folly of a parent she esteemed so much, but even her liberal eye found fault in the indifferent management of his family's affairs, financial and otherwise. Perhaps the most grievous matter was the propensity of both her parents to allow all their daughters the flights of fancy that could only lead to very real heartache when the truth of their circumstances must intrude.
Elizabeth had always intended to marry only for love, certain that nothing less could persuade her. She had been left to believe these expectations attainable and it was the relinquishment of this conviction which continued to cause her pain. Had her parents reined in her hopes, perhaps she could feel some small satisfaction at being the cause of her family's future security. Elizabeth could not resolve herself to a future with Mr. Collins, though perhaps a degree of understanding was achieved. Nevertheless, after each interval of calm was achieved through rational contemplation, her tangled sensibilities were turned, once again, to the unhappiness she could not escape as Mr. Collins's bride or else to the betrayal of a beloved parent and more stormy tears ensued.
Sensing the unwanted presence of a stranger, Elizabeth turned abruptly to confront the intruder. Though her eyes were still clouded with tears, she knew him at once. It was Mr. Darcy, who never looked at her but to criticize and whom she was certain bestowed his attention upon her because there was something more wrong and reprehensible, according to his ideas of right, than in any other person present. His proud, arrogant manner was on full display in the grim set of his mouth and in the firm control he maintained of his high-spirited horse. Elizabeth shuddered, recalling to herself the disdain Mr. Darcy had displayed from the first moments of their acquaintance. She felt mortification enough at her circumstances; to receive pity from such a man was more than she felt able to bear. At once, she felt all the force of her humiliation and her cheeks scorched with a mixture of embarrassment and anger. To be discovered in this state was disgraceful; to be discovered by Mr. Darcy was beyond all endurance!
When Mr. Darcy came upon Elizabeth sobbing helplessly against the trunk of a distinguished old oak, his surprise was solely in finding that the owner of the yellow gown happened to be the very same Miss Elizabeth Bennet he had been contemplating only moments before. He frowned, noting how unattractive her crimson blush looked against the lemon hue of her gown. He was astonished to find her so disheveled and overcome with emotion.
Having observed a young lady from some distance away by the creamy lemon color of her muslin gown against the dull brown of the tree bark, he had made his way to the spot, understanding by her dress that the lady was of the genteel class. However, he did not know whom he observed. Nevertheless, he felt it his duty to come to her aid; though, in his own belligerent mood, he believed himself not up to the task of condoling with a distressed young female. As he rode toward her, he regretted riding out this morning, or at least wished it had taken him in another direction.
In truth, Mr. Darcy was in a great deal of consternation himself, having that morning been the recipient of a letter which contained no small share of vitriolic remarks with regard to his obstinacy over the widely expected nuptials between he and his cousin, Anne. Darcy was furious with himself for continuing to defer the moment when his wishes must be made clear. And my wish is not to marry my cousin! That he would disappoint Anne was of no concern, for they had spoken repeatedly about their disinclination for the event, which held so much significance for others.
Anne, however, could not countenance standing with him in opposition to her mother, so it was left to him to shoulder the recriminations of his relations as a means of protecting her. Though it was not the case that he wished to wed her, neither did he wish to disturb her tranquility. In truth, he had no desire to bring down Lady Catherine's disapprobation on his own head!
Darcy valued family above all else and, having so very little of it, sought to avoid conflict and disappointment at all cost. That his aunt must be made to understand that he would not marry Anne had always been a secondary consideration to him; of paramount importance was maintaining the approbation of his relations.
In addition to these thoughts, Darcy found himself in a quandary over his good friend, Mr. Bingley. The previous evening, from conversations he overheard, it had become clear to him that there was a general expectation of his betrothal to Miss Bennet. This was not an event Bingley's sisters could approve, and they sought Darcy's assistance in separating the couple. He was loath to involve himself in the effort, but had admitted, perhaps unwisely, to his own reservations.
Naturally, Darcy had misgivings over the suitability of the lady's family but his chief concern was over the young lady's own sensibilities with regard to his friend. He believed Miss Bennet to be an amiable girl but he could not see in her manner any particular regard for Charles and this disquieted him.
Darcy knew him to be a man of strong sentiment; if he believed himself attached to the young lady, he would be devastated to find himself rebuffed or, worse yet, married without his affections returned in full measure. Though Darcy had different expectations for himself, he did not wish for Bingley to be trapped in a marriage based on convenience, nor a victim of a mercenary mama.
To all this must be added his bewilderment with respect to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy was decidedly put out by the conversation they had shared during the set they had danced together the previous evening. He was also angered by what he presumed was her strong partiality for that scoundrel Wickham over himself. That she could not be easily dissuaded from her faith in Wickham's character he found insulting.
Yet, in her defense, he admitted that his own sister and even his father had been taken in by that man's chicanery. To the end, his father held the highest opinion of that perfidious young man. Could he suppose Miss Elizabeth to be more perceptive than his own father when she had not equal experience with which to guide her judgment? With this recognition, he absolved her of any fault toward himself, but remained disappointed that Wickham had intruded so disastrously on what he had hoped to be an intimate moment between them.
Perhaps it was for the best, in which case it was the only good turn Wickham had ever done him, no matter how unknowingly, he had brought the thing about. For it was very clear to Darcy that there could be nothing between him and Miss Elizabeth Bennet; every rational motive challenged any sentiment that creeped in when they were in company together. His reflections then turned from the previous evening to Wickham, the disreputable blackguard who seemed at the center of so much unhappiness in his own life. Would Darcy never be rid of him? It was with these distracted thoughts that he arrived at the majestic tree.
"Good God! What is the matter?" cried he, with more feeling than politeness; then recollecting himself, he added more gently, "May I offer my assistance, Miss Elizabeth?" As he spoke, he threw a leg over his horse, jumping athletically to dismount.
"Please! Go away! You are not wanted here," she begged forcefully, a succession of anger and embarrassment crossing her features. "This is a private matter and none of your concern."
He slowed as he approached her, recalling the stormy emotions of his own sister. "I am sorry to intrude," he said gently, "but I must know that you are not injured in some way. Allow me to offer you my help; it would be ungentlemanly not to do so in such a circumstance." He looped the reins he held over a low branch, making it clear that he had no intention of leaving.
Darcy observed the mud-bespattered gown, and it brought to mind their time at Netherfield, her attentiveness to her sister, her witty intercourse with him, and her good-manners in response to Bingley's sisters, who had done little to hide their peevishness.
He could tell she was cold and uncomfortable. Surmising this must be the cause of her distress--though he had a niggling suspicion that Elizabeth would not be so undone by such a paltry thing--he determined his course of action; he would provide the warmth of his cloak, guide her home, and leave her to consider the folly of walking out so unsuitably dressed.
Seeking her handkerchief, Elizabeth sighed in a tone which bespoke consternation upon realizing she did not have one with her. Darcy silently handed her his own. He himself felt dismay when she turned away to dry her eyes and tidy herself, her face ablaze with extreme mortification. He supposed it was due to having been caught in the midst of an epic display of emotion by a relative stranger. Darcy knew he was not perceived, even by those closest to him, as a particularly sympathetic person, and he certainly never invited intimate confessions. In truth, he was rather chagrined to find himself in such a situation and had no idea how to proceed.
"I observe you are not injured, Miss Bennet," Darcy said at last, endeavoring to comfort her with the same solicitude with which he treated his sister. However lacking in displays of emotion and comforting platitudes he may be, it was in Darcy's nature to feel protective, a quality strengthened considerably from his experience as Georgiana's guardian from the time she was a mere ten years old.
He had come down from Cambridge ready to pursue the life of a city buck. He soon realized how ill his father was and could only feel relieved to have finished his studies before his father fell into a decline from which it was evident he would not recover. His young sister, lonely, frightened, and so sweetly naive, had clung to him. Caring for her had assuaged some of the anxiety--nay terror--he felt upon assuming the mantle of family patriarch and master of Pemberley. Therefore, it seemed quite natural to Darcy, though he gave it little thought, that he would treat Miss Elizabeth--a young lady whom he had grown to admire--with the same concern he felt when his sister was in distress. He hoped his gentleness was not lost on Elizabeth.
"No, sir," she sniffed impatiently. "I assure you, I am in perfect health. It is another matter entirely which has overset me. I shall be well presently."
Darcy was unperturbed by her resentful manner, understanding that her shame and anger at his intrusion far outweighed any courtesy and respect she endeavored to express. Just last night, they had parted from their dance with mutual repugnance. He could not expect her to be so easily moved by his expression of concern when the memory of their past crowded her thoughts of him.
"I am sorry to see your sensibilities so affected. You need not take me into your confidence, only tell me if there is something I may do for you at the present time," he replied, affecting not to notice her tone. The sight of her, so forlorn, had softened all his feelings toward Elizabeth, and he truly wished to provide solace.
"May I offer you my cloak? I perceive you are cold, and it is some consolation that I may relieve you of that concern at least." He removed the heavy wool garment and, with a sympathetic smile, placed it around her shoulders before she could object. It was fashionable and expensive, of fine wool with many capes indicating he was a member of one of London's most prestigious driving clubs.
"You are most kind," she replied. He smiled to see her unable to resist wrapping the cloak more securely around herself, though the tone of her voice lacked warmth. With head bowed and shoulders hunched in defeat, she added in a near whisper, "I am sure there is nothing to be done. I have suffered a grave disappointment and must deal with it as best I can." Her voice was laced with bitter regret.
"Dear God, it is Wickham!" Darcy cried angrily. In that instant, he perceived Miss Bennet's tears were for his arch nemesis. A hard look betrayed his disgust for that man. Have I not comforted Georgiana through her own heartache and despondency at Wickham's hands that I could not recognize his treachery anywhere?
Startled, undoubtedly by his outburst, she looked up at him. "No, sir, this has nothing to do with that gentleman, I assure you," she said with an expression of surprise.
Relief flooded through him. He could not account why the thought of her being Wickham's innocent victim affected him so; Aside from Georgiana, he had never given a great deal of consideration to Wickham's other gently bred victims.
"That man is no gentleman, Miss Bennet. I have all too much reason to know. Without revealing my history with him to you, yet I tell you so in the strongest terms."
"Mr. Wickham can have no interest in me, Mr. Darcy," she replied crossly.
"I fear he has a great deal of interest in you! He is a dangerous, unscrupulous man."
With a look of exasperation, she retorted, "I am to be a married lady, Mr. Darcy. Mr. Wickham will be no danger to me."
"Married!" he cried in alarm as his eyebrows shot up with the strength of his surprise. Without thinking, he reached to grasp her hand, entirely disregarding the impropriety of the action. "To whom?" he asked almost roughly.
She sought to pull away as they both looked down at their clasped hands. With some embarrassment at his lapse, he let go, and, though unwilling to raise her eyes to him, she responded to his question, "My cousin, Mr. Collins has very graciously offered for me and my parents have accepted on my behalf." He watched her struggle to look at him when she added in a tone reminiscent of the archness he found so charming, "Do you felicitate my good fortune, sir?"
Disregarding the mockery that distinguished this question he sputtered, "On your behalf! Dear God! How can that be? How could anyone willingly give their daughter to that ridiculous toad-eater?" He blushed, realizing how insulting these comments must be to Elizabeth.
Speaking to Darcy in a subdued, detached manner, instructing him as she would an ignorant child, she said, "Parents are often in a position which forces them to weigh their child's happiness against her material welfare. Such is the case with my parents. Can they be criticized for holding the belief that a comfortable establishment will be of greater benefit to me than a life of uncertainty and degradation should my father die whilst I am yet unattached? Though the result has not met with my approbation I cannot fault their intent." This speech, however heartfelt, was belied by tears which threatened to spill onto her cheeks.
"Oh yes, yes. I see. Allow me to apologize," Mr. Darcy said distractedly, remembering again the precarious circumstances of the Bennet daughters and the considerations and compromises that by necessity they would be called upon to make. Recalled to his senses, he glanced at her, realizing the terrible intrusion on her privacy and understanding why she very much wanted to be alone.
"You no doubt wish me to the devil right now. Can you deny it?" he inquired, adopting such a penitential tone and expression that it caused a rather wet gurgle of mirth to escape her. Darcy immediately saw the effect this had of brightening her eyes, which sparkled from her tears.
"Wish myself to the devil more like," she quipped. "It is most injurious to one's pride to be caught out like this, out of all temper and feeling so sorry for oneself." Drying her eyes on the corner of his handkerchief, she added bashfully, "I am utterly wretched, I will own, but I have no wish for anyone else to know it!"
"Yes, it is so much worse when our private disappointments are aired before all the world. Please rely on my discretion, Miss Bennet. Your secret is safe with me!"
"You are too kind, sir." She dipped her head in acknowledgement and gave him a tentative smile. "You must think me a little fool! I daresay I do myself! My spirits shall improve shortly. It is the shock, and my mother's determination to have me wed within the quarter. I had not thought that I would not be consulted in these matters." She attempted to remove the heavy wool garment he had placed on her shoulders, "I had not thought I would be married under such circumstances."
Watching her struggle with his cloak, he wondered if she might be trying to indicate in the most gracious way possible that she would like him to leave. Certainly, he had fulfilled his duty as a gentleman, and it wanted nothing more than for him to take his leave after seeking reassurance that she had no further need of his assistance. Strangely, he had no wish to depart and, in fact, wanted nothing more than to continue the increasingly pleasant experience of conversing with her. Consequently, he did not help her remove his cape; instead, he tucked her more securely within its voluminous folds, going so far as to button it closed.
"You have no wish to be allied with Mr. Collins. I do not wonder! Your parents leave you no choice in the matter?" he said sympathetically as an image of his domineering aunt came to mind. He himself was unable to escape those haranguing letters, littered with unreasonable expectations, which arrived in the post weekly. "You may not think it to look at me, but we have something in common, Miss Bennet."
"I very much doubt that, Mr. Darcy!" Her laughter was still very wet from such recent tears but he was pleased to see her returning to her usual spirits and felt some satisfaction that he might have assisted her to do so. He noted with additional pleasure that her previous tone, by turns angry and embarrassed, had become calm, even friendly, in a way she had never conversed with him before. This is what I had hoped for when I requested the dance!
"Oh yes, you see, it has long been supposed by members of my family that my cousin and I will marry; indeed, the pressure has become unceasing. It was from yet another attempt to set the date of our matrimony that I sought escape on Ajax this morning when I came upon you here."
"Yes, I believe I have heard that rumored, though I did not realize it was not your wish as well," she replied. "I am sorry for your sake to hear their exhortations have followed you to our little village."
Darcy's pursed lips and furrowed brow indicated his vexation. He hated the inescapable gossip--even following him so far into Hertfordshire--which left him with a constant feeling that his entire life was minutely examined. He assumed it was the odious Mr. Collins who must have brought that bit of information about Anne with him from Rosings Park and then determined that this was the explanation for Miss Bennet's disinclination to dance with him last night. Indeed, she may have learned of it from some other source, for it was no great secret. It must be this influence which explained why she let pass numerous opportunities to attract his notice.
It never occurred to Darcy that there could be any other reason why Miss Bennet showed no interest in him--such as dislike or disapproval--and thus chose not to conduct herself just as every other eligible female of his acquaintance did; namely, to seek by any means at hand to gain his favor. Her indifference in no way diminished her worth in his eyes; instead he imbued her with every proper feeling, ignorant that his assumptions did not coincide with reality. In spite of his unwillingness to acknowledge sentiments which threatened his own equanimity, it was due to his partiality that everything about Miss Bennet must be construed in her favor.
"Neither my cousin, nor I wish to bring it about!" he said fiercely. "It is desired, nay assumed, by all my family. In vain I have endeavored to dissuade them though they choose not to listen."
"Yes, I see that is quite a tangle." Elizabeth laughed ruefully. She blew her nose delicately into Mr. Darcy's handkerchief, her nose stuffy from the copious tears she had spilled, the fact of which embarrassed her considerably, assuming that no man, and particularly Mr. Darcy, might find it unaccountably charming.
She did not inquire further, nor offer any additional opinion, for she was quite ready for their intimate conversation to come to its natural conclusion, and this seemed to be that time.
Admittedly, Elizabeth was beginning to feel quite comfortable with Mr. Darcy and the mortification with which she had met him had subsided to a rather inconsequential sense of embarrassment over his witnessing her outburst. She was certain he would take his leave from her now that he had gained the intelligence he had sought and assured himself of her physical well-being. Indeed, after her disclosures, any true gentleman would most certainly allow her the privacy she sought. That he did not caused her to feel a degree of consternation, and she was left to assume that his ideas of good manners and hers were entirely different.
That she could not bring herself to request his departure showed a lack of courage which she quite despised in herself. However, it was in her nature to see the ridiculous in the behavior of those around her, including her own, so rather than dwell on his conduct she engaged him in further conversation, for it was clear Mr. Darcy did not intend to withdraw.
Relaxing against the trunk of the tree she said philosophically, "Yet I perceive you have more freedom in the matter than someone such as myself. I, sir, much as it pains me to admit, have no other prospects. For me, a marriage of convenience is the best to which I can aspire. According to my mother, it is for me to be grateful for the blessings bestowed by Mr. Collins, and I believe he is very much in accord with her."
"A marriage of convenience. Yes, that is all most can hope for. Are not most marriages the product of who is near at hand, or who offers advancement, improvement in wealth, or consequence? Even the farmer or blacksmith must choose his wife with these requirements in mind." Warming to his topic, he added, "I believe a love match to be out of the reach of most couples. That is precisely why it is valued so highly, particularly among young ladies who indulge in the romantic novels so in fashion these days." With this gentle admonishment he smiled at her and then concluded by saying, "and who are even less consulted in their wishes than is a man.
Resting his elbow on a low branch, Mr. Darcy ran his fingers through his unruly hair, and Elizabeth's eyes were drawn to the uncharacteristic gesture. "I myself place little value on love, per se," he added loftily, "though I regard mutual respect, similarity in intellect, and a clear understanding of the shared responsibilities which will ensure a prosperous estate for my heirs as essential to marital satisfaction."
"What a charming picture you paint of marital felicity, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth replied with a mixture of archness and sweetness that caused him to laugh out loud. She added in the same tone, "You must be gratified to know your own heart in the matter of a wife."
"I understand you completely, Miss Bennet. What you wish to say, is that I am a callous wretch and no woman would have any chance of happiness married to one as cold-hearted and unnatural as myself."
"No! You cannot think me so uncivil as to accuse me of such a thing," she said, with a laugh, though she pointedly did not deny his words.
"I have frequently observed you take great pleasure in professing opinions which are not indeed your own."
"I beg of you to keep that knowledge close, Mr. Darcy," she chuckled wetly, "or I shall never be able to pass myself off with any degree of credit."
"No one who has the pleasure of knowing you, Miss Bennet, can ever find you wanting," he said with a fervency that quite surprised Elizabeth. The reddening of his face indicated that he had not expected to speak quite so forcefully.
"You are still young, Miss Bennet. Perhaps your parents could be induced to wait a season or two before thrusting you into a match which clearly disgusts you so."
"But nothing can be done--I know very well that nothing can be done," Elizabeth said, raising the handkerchief to the corners of her eyes as the idea threatened fresh tears. "The sooner I accept my fate, the more quickly I shall recover my spirits; wishes, no matter how ardently felt, will not serve me in this matter. You see, I have so little opportunity to be in society. I fear my chance of attracting a suitor whom I could esteem is very small indeed." She glanced at him sideways from under her lowered lashes, adding with an air of feigned lightness calculated to discomfit him, "In fact, I am considered only tolerable by at least one gentleman's standards. I dare not aim too high!"
He colored, then blanched, an expression of shock and horror upon his face. "Oh, Good God!" He cried. "You heard me utter those outrageous words. How you must loathe me! My impudence is unforgivable. Miss Elizabeth, I humbly beg your pardon for my speech, which was as mistaken as it was intemperate," he spoke with obvious sincerity.
She smiled at his discomposure, "Nonsense, I was justly punished for listening to a conversation that was not meant for my ears. I have been told we should not wish to know what others think of us and now that it has been proven to me I daresay I hope to have learnt my lesson."
"There can be no excuse for my insufferable behavior that night!" he continued fervently. "Especially toward you Miss Bennet, my words were unquestionably inaccurate and wholly unjust."
The degree of distress he exhibited was quite surprising to her, and Elizabeth could only account for it by his vanity and pride which could not brook his own poor manners. For this reason she continued to tease him.
"Come now, Mr. Darcy, you need not dissemble with me. Did you not once say that 'your good opinion, once lost is lost forever?' You cannot remedy the situation to my satisfaction, for either your inconstancy regarding your own character must be admitted, which you may remember I am perfectly convinced has no defect, or your judgement of my charms must stand, and my conviction of your character need not be found wanting. Thankfully, we are all entitled to our point of view, so let us settle the matter between us thusly."
"Miss Bennet, you jest with me at your own expense. I must be permitted to explain myself," he begged. "If it is not to your satisfaction only you may be the judge, but I ask your forbearance as I make the attempt."
"You may proceed." Elizabeth inclined her head mockingly. In truth, her feelings had been hurt and so her pert manner was an attempt to conceal the sensitivity she felt over a matter she had intended to cast into oblivion and penitently wished she had let remain there.
Darcy looked very seriously into her eyes, and Elizabeth, rather than observe the impenetrable stare of a man indifferent to the comfort of those around him saw in his expression apprehension, hopefulness, gratitude, and embarrassment. There was a vulnerability that was wholly disconcerting to her, and she felt herself flush to be gazed at with such evident emotion. His eyes alone softened her feelings toward Mr. Darcy and she vowed to meet his confession with understanding.
"I am not comfortable in new society," he began hesitantly, "especially in large gatherings of people unknown to me. You must realize that in my position, my circumstances are discussed a great deal, and many allusions to my wealth and station are cast about; thus, I cannot enter a room of strangers with any degree of comfort or anonymity. Perhaps had I gained more experience only as my father's heir rather than enter society as the master of Pemberley, I could have become accustomed to it more easily. In any event, it has led me to have a very guarded, cynical nature, even to those persons, such as yourself, whom I would like to know as more than a passing acquaintance."
Elizabeth pinched her eyebrows quizzically at the idea that she would be in the category of persons Mr. Darcy would condescend to offer the hand of friendship, but she wiped the expression of confusion from her face, pretending that he had not uttered that particular sentiment. She remembered how quickly news of his vast estate and connections had flown around the assembly hall and understood how the object of such interest--especially one as reserved as Mr. Darcy--must be disturbed by it.
""Then I ask you to excuse my unkind remark last night Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said with feeling."
Darcy's brow creased which caused Elizabeth to laugh. "No wonder you are confused, I now recall that I said a great deal for which I should apologize, but I refer to my accusing you of an unsociable taciturn disposition. I see now that it is self-consciousness that produced your reserve."
"Indeed, though it is my own negligence which convinced you to think otherwise. Truthfully, I find myself resentful of Mr. Bingley's ease among new acquaintances, his eagerness to please and be pleased, his ability to disregard the chatter and gossip about him. Darcy added warming to his topic. "Though I genuinely wish to emulate it, I find my ability to do so inadequate. It was my pique that caused me to say something so wholly reprehensible and entirely undeserved. Only the veriest fool could find you wanting, Miss Elizabeth."
Convinced of his sincerity, but embarrassed by his candor, Elizabeth laughed nervously; then, gathering her wits, she replied, "Now we are on even ground, Mr. Darcy, for I may pity you as much as I believe you pity me. If you will do the same for me, I shall absolve you of every offense toward myself; you may be easy on that score."
"You are all goodness Miss Bennet," he responded with a look of relief that surprised her. But you must know that as for myself, there is nothing to forgive." After a pause of some duration he said, "I feel I must also disclose to you that my sensibilities have been particularly affected by some private matters which have left me downcast of late. In fact, these matters relate to Mr. Wickham and are chief among the reasons for my dislike and mistrust of him, though they are far from the only offense he has given me."
As Elizabeth recounted the last quarter hour of their intercourse, she was surprised at the intimate nature of their conversation, and seeking to return to the more formal mode she invariably adopted with him, she said, "With regard to Mr. Wickham, you did not express yourself well last night, Mr. Darcy, but today your warnings serve no purpose. Thus, I will not ask for elaboration that, I daresay, you have no wish to recount to me."
Darcy inclined his head, then let out a quiet sigh that she was sure he did quite deliberately. She was puzzled by the notion that he in fact did wish to confide in her, and her natural empathy prompted her to say, "I can see you are oppressed by your burdens, Mr. Darcy. I cannot fathom I have the ability to assist you. If, however, you wish to bring me into your confidence, you may rely on my discretion in any matter you wish to relate."
His relief was evident to her as he began his tale. "Ajax is restive. Do you mind if we walk as I disclose my history?"
"Not at all," she smiled. "Shall we continue toward Oakham Mount? It is a favorite of mine and always serves to improve my spirits."
"It has been raining a great many days," he said adopting an expression of concern as he regarded the fouled hemline of her skirt. "Do you not feel the path will be too muddy for you?"
"As you have reason to know, Mr. Darcy, I am inured to mud," she bantered. "Indeed, I have not had the pleasure of a ramble out of doors in some days. It would please me very much to continue, but perhaps you have some concern for your boots?" she remarked in a saucy challenge.
He laughed, and Elizabeth noted how it softened his countenance and made him quite handsome, a fact she had never before admitted to herself.
"Do I seem such a town dandy to you? Well, I am not! And you may lead the way." He said all this with a twinkle in his eye and a lightheartedness that quite transformed his features. He had ceased to be the aloof, disapproving man of her acquaintance and Elizabeth found herself intrigued.
* * *
Thanks to Sophia for this early peek at the book. What did you think of it? I am NOT pleased with Mr Bennet in this book! Although canon Mr Bennet was a negligent father in some respects one of the things which redeemed him a little for me was the fact that although he didn't do much to assure his girls' futures he also didn't force one of them into righting his wrongs and ensuring one of them provided for their sisters. Although he could only protect them for his lifetime at least he did that, even if the girls knew there would be a need for one of them to marry well.
You can connect with Sophia on Facebook and Goodreads and 'On Oakham Mount' is available for preorder now.