(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.)
“You have a choice, Lizzy,” her father said to her. “I know which one I would make in your place, but you must decide for yourself.”
“I care foremost for your own comfort, Papa,” Elizabeth replied. “Every other concern is minor.”
Her father’s face was grim. “I shall be quite all right alone. Lydia may want her sister nearby.”
Lydia, thought Elizabeth, had not cared two straws for the location or welfare of any of her sisters for nearly a fortnight. The idea of staying behind in London to help her prepare for her wedding, therefore, held very little interest for Elizabeth. But once the news of Lydia’s forthcoming wedding had reached Meryton, her mother had first extracted from Mr. Bennet a promise of a generous sum for the purchase of wedding clothes, and had then begun begging to be allowed to go to London herself and help Lydia pick them out.
On this matter, Mr. Bennet remained resolute. He would neither countenance nor finance any extra comings-and-goings between Hertfordshire and London to celebrate the marriage of his youngest daughter. Though he’d agreed to the settlements that had been arranged, he had not yet declared whether he would accept the Mrs. Wickham-to-be back into the family fold.
Elizabeth was sure she herself was only being offered the opportunity to stay because Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had suggested it, their ruse to allow her more time to spend with the man to whom they thought her engaged. Mr. Darcy had informed them he would remain in town and stand up with Wickham at the church, to make sure all went according to their arrangements.
That Mr. Darcy still believed it possible Mr. Wickham might back out of his agreements—despite their dependence on his honor—was an unhappy thought, and one that Elizabeth was glad her father was spared. She wished she, too, were ignorant of all the particulars. Thinking of what they owed Mr. Darcy for his unexampled kindness, and what price he might exact for all that he had given them, had robbed her days of occupation and her nights of repose.
She had not spent much time in her life longing for the company of her youngest sister, but days engaged in shopping and listening to Lydia’s ceaseless chatter might take up space in her head that had too oft been filled with worrisome questions. Perhaps she was better off remaining in London than back at home, where the peace and tranquility of Longbourn and Meryton would give her time and space for too much contemplation.
Perhaps, too, if she left for the country, Mr. Darcy would take it as a personal affront. It was two weeks until Lydia’s wedding. If her aunt was correct about Mr. Darcy’s motivations, she could not afford to anger him before then.
After, she could not account for. The longer she went without a sure answer to her feelings, the more she felt she would do best by both of them if she refused him, once and for all, before he took their union as a given. As deeply indebted to him as she was for his service to her family, she could not base a marriage on gratitude alone. It would make neither of them happy.
And still, that small, soft voice inside her sang out to wait, to wait. For everything had happened so quickly since her arrival at Pemberley: her changes in understanding, her trip to London, and all the events that had followed. She needed to know him more. She needed to understand. And if she stayed in town, he would no doubt call. With Lydia’s situation settled, they would be able to speak of other things, to get to know one another as they might have at Pemberley or Longbourn, with no crisis hanging over them.
“Then I will stay,” she found herself saying to her father. “I will go upstairs and tell the maid to cease packing my things.”
“Good girl,” he said gruffly and sent her away. He was standing in the corridor now, directing his things to be set on the stoop for the coach. She was not sure if her staying displeased him, but knew how eager he was to be off. Perhaps it didn’t signify to him whether or not Elizabeth went herself, so long as he quit this town and all the reminders it offered.
Elizabeth knew his inability to help his daughter on his own weighed heavily on her father’s mind. She was not aware of all that had passed between Mr. Bennet and Mr. Gardiner, but from her father’s manner she guessed that his guilt over her uncle’s supposed cost was great indeed, and imagined that he had pressed his brother-in-law most firmly for an accounting of it so that he might be repaid. What her uncle had managed to say in response, Elizabeth did not venture a guess, though she knew he had not, upon Darcy’s request, revealed the true source of Mr. Wickham’s sudden windfall.
She was still in her room when she heard the bell downstairs. The coachman had come. She moved to the landing and looked down into the hall below, only to see Mr. Darcy standing opposite her father.
“Mr. Darcy!” Mr. Bennet exclaimed. “What a surprise.”
Mr. Darcy bowed. “Good morning, sir. I hope you are well.”
“I am very well. You may congratulate me, Mr. Darcy. I am to gain a son-in-law.”
“I have heard. It is in fact on that account that I am here now—”
“Please, sir,” Mr. Bennet warned him, raising his hand, “before you say anything that you may regret, be advised that I know all the faults and virtues of my new family member, and nothing you say shall change my mind on the matter of this match. The young people in question, I confess, are remarkably well-suited.”
“I agree that the match must go forward,” said Mr. Darcy, quickly, before they were forced into any more depictions of Mr. Wickham’s character. “And more quickly than might otherwise have been intended.”
Even from where she stood above them, Elizabeth could see her father’s confusion.
“I have come, Mr. Bennet, directly from the archbishop, where Mr. Wickham and I have procured two special licenses.”
“Two!” Mr. Bennet cried, while Elizabeth reached out to the bannister for support.
“I must ask you at once for permission to marry your daughter, Elizabeth.”
Her feet carried her downstairs in the space of a breath, and she stood before both of them, even before Mr. Bennet collected himself enough to sputter, “What can be the meaning of this?” He turned toward his daughter, his face a mask of shock. “Lizzy?”
But Mr. Darcy spoke first. He wasn’t even looking at her. “I know this is highly irregular. But yesterday—” he hesitated, and when he went on, it was clear how carefully he weighed his words, “—I have reason to believe a vicious story spreads about your youngest daughter, sir. One that even upon her marriage to Mr. Wickham will not soon be forgotten by society’s tongues.”
Mr. Bennet frowned. “What does this have to do with you and Elizabeth?”
“I wish to alter this story,” Mr. Darcy explained. “If we four get married—today, if we can—then all the talk in town will be only of Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley and his childhood friend George Wickham, who quite unexpectedly married a pair of beautiful sisters from the Hertfordshire countryside.”
And now he turned to her, and his expression was like none she had seen since the day she’d spoken so harshly to him at Hunsford. He was angry, yes, but also burning with some other emotion she dared not name. There was a fire of sorts behind his eyes, and it called to a flame she had not realized burned within her own breast.
She was not even able to attend to his compliment, to register him calling her beautiful to her father.
“Forgive me, sir, but I can scarce understand you. Lizzy…” Mr. Bennet looked to her for help. “What part do you play in all of this?”
All eyes were on her now, and in her father’s, she saw pure bafflement. In Mr. Darcy’s, a simple question, one which had only two answers. Elizabeth was at the edge of a chasm. There would be no opportunities to wait, to delay. He had procured not one, but two special licenses from Canterbury. He wanted them to wed. Now.
She swallowed. “Mr. Darcy and I… we have had an understanding of sorts.” It was the best she could do. Elizabeth dared not look at the gentleman and instead watched her father’s face move through a half-dozen emotions.
“Elizabeth!” he gasped at last. “Can this be?”
She nodded, her eyes cast downward. Was it her imagination, or did she hear Mr. Darcy’s sharp intake of breath in the silent hall?
“Mr. Darcy,” her father said, without looking at the gentleman, “I beg your pardon, but I must speak to my daughter alone.”
Quick as could be, Mr. Bennet ushered her down the hall and into Mr. Gardiner’s study. As soon as the door was shut, he whirled on her. He was wearing his carriage coat, his hat was held in his hand. “Are you out of your senses to be accepting this man? Have not you always hated him?”
She folded her hands before her. “My former opinions did leave much to be desired, Papa. But it has been a little while now since they began to alter.”
“Began to alter!” he scoffed. “Lizzy, he arrives at the door with a special license!”
“Indeed, I am as surprised as you.” She took a breath. “But I believe he may be right about this action having the potential to overshadow any other gossip in town. No one will care about the dates of Lydia’s departure from Brighton once they hear the news of Mr. Darcy’s sudden wedding.”
“So you seek to set the wagging tongues on you and Mr. Darcy rather than your sister?” Mr. Bennet shook his head. “An unworthy inducement to matrimony.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth admitted. “Though I must allow that Mr. Darcy knows more of the particulars than we do. It is possible he has reason to suspect that if Lydia’s marriage does not occur soon, it might not at all.”
Her statement had the desired effect, as Mr. Bennet’s eyes went wide. “What does Mr. Darcy know of our predicament… that the whole world, apparently, does not? You have been sly, Elizabeth!”
“Sir, forgive me. Mr. Darcy has known Mr. Wickham for a long time.”
“And has hated him just as long,” Mr. Bennet observed, most astutely. “It occurs to me now that despite what we all said of the man in our neighborhood, Mr. Darcy may have had good cause to deny Wickham a clergyman’s living. Would that we’d all believed the gentleman instead of the soldier.”
“Yes!” she cried. “If only we had! If only I—when once I’d been told the truth of Mr. Wickham’s character—had warned you. Had warned Lydia!”
“You do not blame yourself for your sister’s flight?”
She straightened. “I accept my part in the blame, sir.”
“As do we all,” he replied, in a tone of grave humor.
“Including Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth explained. “He feels responsible for not informing the world of Wickham’s low nature.”
“Be careful how you speak of my henceforth son-in-law, Lizzy. But now tell me more of the other one who has applied for the honor. This responsibility he feels…has it extended into the realm of financial compensation?”
Elizabeth hesitated for a moment. “I am afraid, Papa, that if I answer you honestly, you will take a prudential view of the honor he has just requested.”
Mr. Bennet was silent as he considered her statement, his usual indolent teasing replaced by an attitude of utmost seriousness. “And I am afraid it might be warranted. You do not speak like a girl in love.”
How odd it was, now, to be speaking of sentimentalities to her father. She’d always believed he took a dim view of the subject, given how his own inclination had once led him astray. Wouldn’t her father rather that she picked a man with a cold, clear view of the situation, than be momentarily blinded by charms only to regret her choice in the long years that followed? “I have not had the leisure, this past week, of considering the more elevated emotions. We have all of us been more concerned with the immediate danger.”
“A week.” Her father frowned, as he did the calculations. “Since you traveled with the Gardiners from Derbyshire. Your aunt and uncle have been most deceptive.”
“I assure you, it was only at Mr. Darcy’s urging.”
“Which does nothing to endear me to him.” He took a few steps up the room, turned and headed back down again. “This is the last thing I would have expected. It casts a different shade over the entire matter of Lydia’s marriage.”
Elizabeth took a step forward, suddenly worried. “You plan to withhold your consent?” Even as she said it, she marveled at her concern. It was not relief she felt, that her father might extricate her.
No! It was fear.
And so…she must want to marry Mr. Darcy. Mustn’t she?
Her father marked her reaction. “Do not be overly concerned, my dear. I am no fool, to deny the suit of a Darcy of Pemberley, even if he requested all my daughters in one fell swoop.”
He endeavored to be serious. “He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse anything which he condescended to ask.” He eyed her carefully. “Is that the same position in which my daughter discovers herself? Are you afraid to refuse him?”
She definitely feared doing so before Lydia’s wedding. And, she was beginning to understand, she might fear missing out on the chance entirely. But on this point she could reply with perfect honesty. “I refused him when first he asked, many months ago. And quite viciously, when I look back upon it.”
“Great heavens! You refused another proposal? I will wager there could not be two less alike men in all of England, than this Darcy and our dear cousin Collins, but they do have this one thing in common. Or did… for it seems that Mr. Darcy has been more persistent in his suit and has won you over at last”
“The procurement of a special license shall indeed be seen as evidence of that,” she replied, quite carefully.
“A special license. These hot-headed young men.” Mr. Bennet shook his head. “Your mother will have the vapors, you know, to hear she’s had two daughters married by special license…But Lizzy, we must put aside her feelings for a moment and concentrate on your own. Do you know what you are about, in accepting him? What has changed between now and his last attempt to win your hand?”
So much had changed. She could hardly remember the girl she had been then. And, yet, there were still so many doubts that lingered. She knew—she was almost certain—that he was not the man she had feared the last time he presented his offer. She did not find him disgusting, as she had then.
But could she really marry him, even after all he’d done for her family? Could she become Mrs. Darcy without at least speaking of it to Jane?
Jane would forgive her, she knew. The dear, sweet girl would never begrudge anyone a moment of happiness, even denied her own. And no one else of their acquaintance would have a moment’s hesitation in calling it an extraordinary conquest. Charlotte Collins, perhaps, even expected it. Her mother might perish from happiness.
At Elizabeth’s hesitation, he spoke again. “Do not let it be your sister. I shall not have you sacrifice your happiness for her folly. I will pay Mr. Darcy back, every last farthing.”
Even if he could beggar Longbourn with such an attempt—and Elizabeth was not entirely certain he should try— she would never allow it. “Think of poor Charlotte.”
“I’ll think of my own children first and leave the Collinses to their scandals in their turn.”
His tone stopped her short. There was no humor in it. For once, her jocular father was serious, and so she must be as well. “You are mistaken. My previous dislike had already begun to be altered when I learned that some of it had been built on a false foundation. When I visited Pemberley—”
“A drafty old pile, no doubt?”
“A fine house, sir. You shall see it—” she cut herself off.
“Oh, shall I!” he cried, almost in triumph, as if he had weaseled a confession from her at last. “You are resolved on having him, then.”
“I—” Elizabeth could not finish. She supposed she was.
And in truth, that scared her more than anything else.