(A note from Gwen: There was a death in my family and I fell behind in updating the chapters on the website. Thank you so much for your patience in my delay during this difficult time.)
At Longbourn, Elizabeth’s mother took her breakfast on a tray, in bed, in the fashion of the wives of gentlemen. Mrs. Gardiner had no such pretensions and met her family at the table in the morning, nodding in motherly affection over her children’s porridge and indulgently spreading bits of preserves on toast for the baby. She smiled a secret little smirk at her niece, and Elizabeth wanted to hide behind the teapot in mortification, for she knew that, no matter what her uncle might have promised, her aunt was well aware of their late night visitor and all he had promised.
Elizabeth herself had been up until the wee hours. Mr. Darcy had taken his leave of her with the same stiff regard he’d always shown. There’d been no attempt at the intimacy that an acknowledged lover might hope to enjoy—no fervent pressing of hands, no stolen kisses. Just a brief nod and a hope that they might meet again soon, once all the arrangements had been made.
She knew not what to think. The night had brought such surcease of fear and sorrow, but with it such a renewal of confusion and pique, that repose was quite out of the question. She was, if not happy for Lydia, then at least relieved that this entire ordeal might soon be brought to a swift and moderately respectable end. She would not go so far as to claim that having Wickham as a brother-in-law was desirable, but it seemed superior to the alternative of having Lydia lost to them forever.
As to how the matter had come about—of that, Elizabeth’s feelings were far more in disarray. All week, she’d been lamenting what she’d considered the permanent loss of Mr. Darcy’s affections. And now, once again, she was wondering if she’d ever been right to come to wish for his good opinion at all. His actions last night had reminded her of nothing more than his overpowering desire to impose his will upon every other person within his sphere of influence. How could she have forgotten it? Perhaps he had not ruined Wickham, as she’d thought back in Hunsford, but he had separated her sister from Mr. Bingley and had boasted to her in his letter of how he would not apologize for it.
How odd it was that he would divide his friend from one sister, but lay out money to assure his enemy would wed another.
“Lizzy,” her aunt said, after the children had been taken away by their nursemaid, “I have heard we are to expect a visitor this morning.”
Elizabeth set her spoon by her plate. “I believe so, ma’am.”
Her aunt fixed her with a good-humored look. “You are terribly sly, my dear. Is that the fashion these days? You must let me know if it is. I’m afraid I do not run in the proper circles to know such things.”
“I assure you, aunt, I have no pretensions to fashion myself. Indeed, I believe this family has had more than enough secrets already.”
“I am sorry to press, but I must know. Why did you tell me in the carriage on the way to London that you were not engaged?”
“I thought it the truth,” Elizabeth replied honestly.
Her aunt’s face registered her confusion. “You mean that you assumed he would abandon you over the scandal with Lydia? Lizzy, you must know that Mr. Darcy is too honorable a man to jilt a woman with whom he had formed an understanding.”
“That is not what I meant.”
“Rather, you thought you would not hold him to your agreement, should the worst come to pass?” This seemed a most satisfactory explanation to Mrs. Gardiner, though she had made it herself, and she nodded sagely. “It does you credit, dear Elizabeth, that you should so value his reputation that you would sacrifice your own happiness, but believe me when I say that you should not credit so little the power of a man’s affections. I am aware that your charms are valued but little in the world of fashion, where a woman’s true worth and character too often give way to more material concerns, but Mr. Darcy’s very rank and fortune are what allow him the freedom to choose where his heart leads.”
Elizabeth bit her tongue. Mr. Darcy’s very rank and fortune were what allowed him the belief that he should have the running of the world and everyone in it. “I thank you for my share of the compliment, aunt.”
Mrs. Gardiner was all astonishment. “But not for the gentleman’s? Lizzy, you do not begrudge your sister the money Mr. Darcy has laid aside? You will hardly feel it.”
“No!” She shook her head miserably. “Please do not make me explain. I hardly understand my distress myself.” Except she did. She did quite well. She’d had good reason to delay her acceptance of Mr. Darcy’s marriage proposal. She still had not entirely forgiven him for his actions regarding Jane. But what was any of that compared to his actions regarding Lydia? How could she rightly remain angry at the man who had saved her entire family from ruin, at great financial as well as personal cost?
She knew it could not have been pleasant for Mr. Darcy to prevail upon Mr. Wickham for anything, least of all to accept more of his family’s money. And yet, he had done it.
The older woman’s lips pursed as she gazed upon her niece. “I think I understand. This has been an awful season, and your courtship has not progressed as any young person’s ought. I may imagine all the obstacles that have lain in your path to matrimony, and the plans that had to be abandoned to give favor to your sister’s plight. But, Lizzy, I urge you to think not of plans, but rather of the happy conclusion of them. Listen, I hear the bell! He is here!”
They barely had time to leave their table and adjourn to the sitting room before Mr. Darcy was shown in. He was dressed in fawn-colored breeches and a deep green coat, the latter of which looked quite fine against his dark hair and reflected a spark of that color deep within his eyes that Elizabeth had not before noticed. Upon this realization, she felt her cheeks heat and looked away.
“Mrs. Gardiner,” he said and bowed. “It is good to see you again. I wish this visit were made under more fortunate circumstances.”
“They have been made fortunate, thanks to your good graces, sir,” she replied, most eagerly. “We shall always be happy to receive you here.”
“Miss Bennet,” he said now, and turned to Elizabeth with another bow. “I hope you’re well and that the events of the past week have not taxed your constitution too heavily.”
She nodded, unsure of what else to say. “Thank you. I am quite well.”
“I am relieved to hear it. I had thought, yesterday, that our conversation may have been too taxing upon you.”
“I assure you, Mr. Darcy, it was not the conversation that I found vexing, but, rather, the cause of it. My sister’s behavior is troubling to me, whether or not I am made aware of the particulars.”
“Will you not sit down, Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Gardiner urged, gesturing him to a seat. They were all seated, Mr. Darcy in a chair nearest Elizabeth. He did not rest easily, but instead leaned forward, as if eager to attract Elizabeth’s attention again.
“How fares your father this morning?”
“He is still in bed. My uncle deemed it wise to wait to deliver the happy news of Lydia’s discovery and forthcoming marriage until after all arrangements have been made.”
Mr. Darcy received this information with no small measure of surprise. “Do you not believe it would improve his condition somewhat, to be informed of this development?”
So that Mr. Darcy might add another name to the list of those who thought him their savior. “Indeed it might, sir, but I had thought you would want it settled before presenting it to my father. Was that not your reason for delaying your visit yesterday?”
“It was,” he said, giving her a curious look. “But I had understood that you disapproved of my delay, and so I thought you would be most eager to share this information, now that you are made aware.”
Now Elizabeth was confused. Did he want her to tell her father or to keep it a secret? “I defer to your judgment on this matter.”
His eyes narrowed. “You do?”
Mrs. Gardiner spoke up. “I believe I will check to see what is keeping my husband.” And before Elizabeth could stop her, she made haste to leave the room. Mr. Darcy rose as she departed, and as soon as the door was shut he turned back toward Elizabeth, searching her face for some sign of which she was utterly ignorant.
“I have angered you.”
“I am merely adjusting to the speed at which things are brought about in London. I have no experience in matters such as these, and my naiveté must surely show upon occasion. You must remember, Mr. Darcy, I am a country girl, though I feel I have aged many years in this last week.”
He appeared to consider her words carefully. “I believe, Miss Bennet, you may have to give me some sign that you are joking. Despite many months of study, I find that I cannot always tell.”
“I am not worthy of my reputation as a wit today, I am afraid. I am too tired.”
“Of course. I hope these negotiations will not go on long. I believe that your uncle will agree to the terms I have engaged for Mr. Wickham. If we can secure your father’s consent to the match, it might be that Lydia may return to this house tomorrow.”
“So soon!” she exclaimed.
“It is best to begin at once. I have arranged it with your uncle for her to stay here for a fortnight while we obtain her common license. I will also be arranging for the purchase of a new commission for… Mr. Wickham.” Mr. Darcy paused again, then gave Elizabeth a sidelong glance. “A regiment stationed in the north of England might be just the thing.”
Elizabeth rose quite suddenly and crossed to the window. Mr. Darcy scrambled out of his seat.
“You take on too much, sir. This is far more than either party deserves. Far more than my family can possibly repay.”
“I told you. I do not care about that.”
“You shall. Someday you shall care very much…” Oh, where was her handkerchief? She kept her face turned toward the window, not caring what it might look like to those in the street. “You will no longer feel so generous, no longer happy to have given so much of your fortune to a person such as Mr. Wickham.”
“I am not in the habit of regretting the path I choose after I have embarked upon it. I thought we had discussed this as well.”
“And what if I displease you?”
There was a long, dreadful silence at her back, and when at last he spoke, his voice nearly shook as with carefully checked emotion. “Do you intend, Miss Bennet, to displease me?”
She schooled her face before she turned around. “We have not always been at our best with each other, Mr. Darcy. Not our most amiable, not our most agreeable, not our most tranquil—”
“Tranquil!” He smiled. “No, I will avow we have never been that.” He took a step closer, and then another. “I might allow some future in which I will feel tranquil in your presence. But I will not make a wager on when that might be.”
One more step and he stood before her. The windowsill was at her back; there was nowhere to turn or move. And tranquility was the farthest thing from her mind.
“What do you want of me?” she whispered.
“What I have always wanted.” His gaze was no longer on her face, but rather, upon her lips, which trembled, and parted, and waited.
The door to the sitting room opened. “Mr. Darcy,” said her uncle, “thank you for coming.”
In the blink of an eye, he was back in the center of the room, shaking hands with Mr. Gardiner, and then retiring to Mr. Gardiner’s study to discuss Lydia’s fate. Mrs. Gardiner re-entered, a knowing smile plastered across her face.
“I had not realized, aunt, how long it took you to go from this room into my uncle’s study. The corridors of your home are trickier to navigate than they first appear.”
Mrs. Gardiner only smiled more broadly and picked up her needlepoint.
As Elizabeth feared that this topic would get her nowhere, she attempted a different one. “It concerns me that this discussion is taking place without my father’s input. Perhaps we should have him roused so he might at least be there for the negotiations.”
Mrs. Gardiner considered this. “I believe if Mr. Darcy had his way, your father would know nothing of his involvement at all.”
Elizabeth scoffed at this. “Mr. Darcy is very good about having his way. But my father is no fool. He will know that someone would have had to lay out a great deal of money to bring this marriage about. To whom shall he believe he is indebted?”
“Mr. Gardiner,” was her aunt’s response, “shall be forced to have the credit of it.”
“You must see how that will never do,” Elizabeth said. “My father will insist upon repaying his brother-in-law. You know he will. Such deceit cannot long remain in place.”
“Perhaps Mr. Darcy will save his revelation for when he applies for Mr. Bennet’s permission for your hand in marriage.” Mrs. Gardiner could not hide her mirth. “I have heard that the salvation of one daughter from certain ruin does much to recommend one’s suit to a father regarding another.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth replied. “It does much to recommend one’s suit to the daughter, as well.”
Mrs. Gardiner looked up. “Lizzy?”
Quickly, before she could think better of it, she spilled everything. “I told you on the way to London that I had refused him. And I had. I was not certain that we would suit. I was not certain that we could make each other happy. I was not certain that—” she cut herself off. “He is so very rich, aunt. So very used to having everyone obey him. But I am not built to obey.”
“No, I am sure you are not. But, Lizzy, I believe that is why he likes you. He is positively sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. He may well be disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for his approbation alone. You interest him because you are so unlike that. And to hear that you refused him…well—” Mrs. Gardiner laughed. “Had I not thought you above such cunning, I would rate it the method most certain to capture his regard.”
“I know why he likes me,” Elizabeth said. “But there have been other gentlemen who are captivated by a pretty face and liveliness of manner, only to discover upon achieving the object of their desire, that their characters are ill-suited for the length of a lifetime.”
She did not need to detail her fears further. Mrs. Gardiner knew exactly who she meant.
“Your liveliness of manner is not all that may recommend you, my dear. And Mr. Darcy’s money is not all that may recommend him. But I do not wish to belittle your reservations. They are your right, and the only right a lady is often given. If you have them, it is best to make them known at once, before Mr. Darcy takes actions that he cannot easily undo.”
This was precisely what Elizabeth feared. “Do you mean to say that should I withdraw my consent to marry, he may not help Wickham… may not help Lydia?”
Mrs. Gardiner’s face turned very grave. “I confess I cannot say. It seems very mean of him. I have come to understand that your knowledge of Mr. Wickham’s behavior comes from Mr. Darcy. He holds himself responsible that Mr. Wickham’s character was not widely known.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, Mr. Darcy has long been aware that Wickham was capable of these acts.”
“So he has motive to help remedy the situation beyond simply what he might do for a family he hopes to join,” Mrs. Gardiner pointed out.
Elizabeth looked at her, but said nothing.
“No,” Mrs. Gardiner said. “That does not sound very likely to me, either.”
At least here they were in agreement. Noble as Mr. Darcy’s wishes may be, and rich as his coffers, no gentleman would pay so high a price for an oversight of this nature.
Elizabeth sighed. “Last night, he told me he thought only of me. Such violent love cannot sustain, can it?”
“Why, Lizzy!” Mrs. Gardiner placed a hand against her chest. “Beware that phrase, lest you sound like a lady in a novel.”
“I wish to avoid the fate of a lady in a novel, unhappily wed to a man whose attachment is as hackneyed and uncertain as the phrase which you have long disdained.”
“What is your fear? Do not concern yourself that you might become like your parents. Your tempers are not in comparison, your understandings not so mismatched.”
“My fear is that he is possessed only by a ‘violent love.’ And when it has faded, he may regret all that he is done and resent all that he has brought into his life when he was in its throes. He will resent my family and its low connections. He will resent my lack of fortune. He will grow to hate me.”
Mrs. Gardiner fell silent, and Elizabeth, too, let her gaze be drawn toward her lap. She’d spoken the truth to her aunt. That was what she was scared of. But there was something more, too. Something that woke within her when he’d come to stand by her in front of the window. Something that rose in her chest whenever he spoke her name or smiled at her in that particular, infuriating way. Something that wanted him to kiss her earlier, even though nothing had been decided. Something that wanted to kiss him back.
If she followed this inclination, and he ended up hating her… the very thought of that misery was something that would not be assuaged by every stone in Pemberley’s walls.
“I cannot answer that for you, Elizabeth,” her aunt said at last. “You must decide it for yourself. And for the good of all connected to this matter, I pray that you do it soon.”