Mr. Bennet studied her for a long time and with some unknown emotion masking his countenance. “Let me advise you to think very hard on this, especially as he intends to whisk you away to a church before noon. I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband, unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery.”
Elizabeth was appalled. “I hope you think somewhat better of me than that! Do not let your disappointment in one child’s wild behavior lead you to think we are all of us lacking.”
“I assure you, I do not. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”
Elizabeth listened intently to his warning, but could not see through to an alternative. She felt as if she were trapped on a runaway carriage. The time for stopping Mr. Darcy had been when he first represented them as engaged, or when he came again and again, as a lover, to the Gardiners’ townhouse. Certainly it would have been before he procured for them a special license. The news would get out; the gossip would be unbearable.
And, Elizabeth was forced to admit, she had to own up to her own part in this predicament. She had not stopped him. She had not corrected him, to the Gardiners, to Mr. Darcy himself.
But what was the good in expressing any of that now? The time for contemplation had passed. “I do not think there is any danger in that. If anything, Mr. Darcy is too correct in his behavior, too concerned with propriety.”
“Is he?” Mr. Bennet raised an eyebrow. “He flew into this house with a special license and no permission from the father of the intended bride.”
And he had sent her a secret letter detailing all his private dealings. And he had proposed to a girl with no fortune. And…and…and… “I am as surprised as you. A special license, as if I were the daughter of a duke.”
Mr. Bennet laughed. “No, you are not that, though you may have all the jewels and carriages of one.” He seemed to think this all over for a long moment, but at last he said, “I suppose he must love you very much, Lizzy. And for that alone, I am inclined to think well of him. To add to this, his kindness toward our family…” He took a breath. “If you are resolved, how can I be otherwise?”
“Thank you, Papa.”
“But how shall this come about? The man outside seems determined to be quick about it.”
Yes, and possibly with good reason. She did not know what Mr. Darcy had heard, but she doubted he would have taken this drastic step without a strong cause.
“I would give you away, but I had determined that I would not see Lydia again until she was good and married.”
“We must all make sacrifices, Papa.”
“To which sacrifice do you refer, Lizzy?” her father asked wryly.
“Mama will not be there either. Nor Jane, nor my other sisters.”
“You think then, that I should not relent on the matter of Lydia, even though it means I shall miss the opportunity to see you wed into a foremost family of England.”
His words landed very hard, and Elizabeth felt cold all over. She balled her hands in the folds of her skirts and kept her voice even as she replied. “We will have ample time to spend together later. I’m certain you will love the library at Pemberley.”
“So it is, then.” Mr. Bennet nodded curtly. “Send the young man in, and we shall discuss a settlement for you.”
Elizabeth colored at the thought of the numbers that might be thrown about this room in a moment, and how insufficient her father’s offers might be in the face of the Darcy fortune.
She passed into the hall, but Mr. Darcy was not there. The servant must have come and directed him into the Gardiners’ sitting room. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves, but they would not be calmed. So be it.
Mr. Darcy rose at her entrance. His face was drawn, unreadable, but the color in his cheeks was high. “Miss Bennet, I must apologize for all I said. I was not a proper judge of myself in that moment. I did not mean to rush in, to impose myself upon your father…” he took in her face and fell silent.
“I have spoken with my father. He wishes to see you to discuss the marriage settlement.”
In an instant, his face changed, as if a ray of sunlight broke through the window and covered them both in its glow, and Elizabeth faltered. When he said nothing more, she went on.
“I mean to say that he has consented.”
“He has consented,” Mr. Darcy repeated awkwardly. “And you…you have consented.”
The world around them narrowed to a single point, a single word that issued forth from her lips like a breath she could not hold. “Yes.”
Time did not pass and yet, somehow, he was there, before her, and his hand reached between them, and his fingers were against her cheek, and she realized she had never felt his skin before. When they’d danced, at Netherfield, there had been gloves. When he’d taken her arm at Pemberley, to help her into a carriage or across a particularly rough patch of ground, there’d been gloves and sleeves, too.
Her flesh felt hot where he touched her and then hot all over. She raised her eyes to his, but he took no more liberties. He, too, seemed a bit in shock.
Somehow, this calmed her, more than anything else had, and she found her humor had not fled entirely.
“Do you intend to kiss me, Mr. Darcy?”
His gaze dropped from her eyes to her lips. “Many times.”
Then his hand dropped too, as he caught himself, and stepped back. “I shall go to your father at once.” He bowed and departed, and Elizabeth, breathless, immediately found the support of a chair most necessary.
She was getting married. To Mr. Darcy.
Elizabeth’s wedding was set for that very evening. An evening wedding! Mrs. Gardiner had found a lovely bit of lace with which to adorn the best gown Elizabeth had brought to London. For Lydia, not as much could be done, though Mrs. Gardiner had devoted more lace and ribbons to the wayward youngest Bennet.
She’d sent the servants out for nosegays and tsked at the limp arrays that returned. Elizabeth longed for the gardens of Longbourn.
Lydia was escorted into the house by Mr. Gardiner. Elizabeth had not been permitted to know where Lydia had stayed while in London. It was not thought fitting for an unmarried lady.
“Oh, Lizzy! This is so exciting! A special license!” Her sister swooped in to hug her without so much as a how-do-you-do.
Elizabeth searched her sister, as if her shame might show on her face and body. How strange. She’d spent so much time thinking of Lydia’s suffering, Lydia’s actions, Lydia’s danger, over the past week. And yet here her sister stood, as bright and bubbly as ever, with no change at all to take note of. Her hair, perhaps, was not arranged as nicely as the servants at Longbourn had been wont to do. Her dress was not quite so crisp. But Lydia was Lydia still, unchanged by her time away, whereas Elizabeth felt as if she’d aged a year.
She wanted to be angry at her sister, at the suffering she’d caused their parents, at the gossip she’d sparked in Meryton and, apparently, in London. Most of all, she wanted to be angry at the way Lydia’s elopement and the scandal that followed had cut short her chances at a real courtship with Mr. Darcy, had rushed them all into marriages that might well turn out to be miserable
But in that moment, Elizabeth was struck only by the thought that for all she was supposed to believe her sister ruined by her wild behavior, for all that she knew she should be furious, Lydia looked so young, so innocent, so happy, that Elizabeth began to cry as she folded her into her arms, allowing her anger to melt away.
“What?” Lydia asked, when she saw the tears on her face. “Why, Lizzy, smile! You would think you are not getting married at all today! And certainly not to a man like Mr. Darcy! He isn’t so amiable or handsome as my darling Wickham, but he is so very, very rich.”
There was the Lydia she knew. Silly and shallow and in constant competition with her older sisters. But Elizabeth would not let it irk her today. For it was Lydia’s wedding day, too, and though Elizabeth would not have chosen this path or this bridegroom, she knew Lydia was happy—must be happy—for she had no choice.
“Lizzy?” her sister repeated, a frown creasing her pretty brow. “Are you not happy? Wickham says all that unpleasantness with Mr. Darcy must be forgotten, now that they will be brothers. We shall not hold it against him in the future, so do not feel uneasy.”
Elizabeth could not contain her surprised exclamation. “How magnanimous of Mr. Wickham!”
Lizzy? Are you not happy?
She had hardly time at all to think of what she felt. Hardly time to reflect on whether the flutters in her innards were due to dread or excitement. Mr. Darcy’s voice rumbled through her memories, the mark of his fingers still burned against her cheek. Soon, she would be his wife. The next time he touched her, he would not stop.
Elizabeth held tightly to her nosegay. While she’d dressed, Mrs. Gardiner had endeavored to speak to her of wifely matters. The conversation had been short and uncomfortable, as Elizabeth did her best to express as simply as possible that her mother had educated her quite well on these matters some years ago, when Elizabeth—in a fit of childish high dudgeon—had demanded to know why it was that her mother could not have contrived to provide her father with a son.
Her education might be lacking in the eyes of Miss Caroline Bingley, but she was not completely ignorant.
And then there was Lydia. Lydia, who knew still more. Again, Elizabeth regarded her sister with no small amount of wonder. If Lydia was nervous, there was no indication. And really, why should she be? She was going back to Wickham, this time lawfully married, and therefore remedied against the sin of fornication, as the vows would say. If Lydia were Jane, Elizabeth might even feel free to ask if she thought there’d be a difference.
But if Lydia were Jane, they would not be in this situation at all.
“Perhaps you shall have us to visit Pemberley very soon,” Lydia said, intruding upon Elizabeth’s thoughts. “Wickham is to take a position in a northern regiment, so it shall not be too far. I think it a shame to have to leave Brighton. I was so well-liked there. But where duty calls, my dear Wickham will go.”
Elizabeth was saved from a response by the entrance of her aunt into the room. The clergyman had been collected; the bridegrooms awaited.
How very odd it was, not to be married in a church. Elizabeth had not spent much time thinking of her wedding day, having believed for many years now that it was unlikely to ever come to pass, as she had no fortune and little enough opportunity among the gentlemen of the neighborhood.
When the sisters entered the parlour, the men were standing in alongside Mr. Gardiner’s local priest, who was holding out The Book of Common Prayer and looking—it must be said—quite shocked to find himself marrying two couples by special license. Mr. Wickham was wearing a blue coat and looked quite dashing. And Mr. Darcy—
Their eyes met from across the room. His countenance was bold, cold—his mouth set in a stern line. Thunderheads gathered behind his eyes.
Elizabeth blinked, and her steps faltered.
Mr. Gardiner handed the Bennet girls, each in turn, to their respective bridegrooms. Elizabeth’s arm brushed Mr. Darcy’s elbow, and he glanced down at her. She gave him a furtive look from beneath the lace edge of her cap.
In the space of a heartbeat, Elizabeth saw a hundred emotions shining out from his face, each vying to be let out. Anger and resignation, resentment and wounded pride. What a humiliation it must be to have to spend so much time in the company of Mr. Wickham. And now Elizabeth remembered what Lydia had said—henceforth, they would be brothers.
She was making Mr. Darcy the brother-in-law of his greatest enemy.
This thought was foremost in her mind throughout the first part of the ceremony. It shouted from within as the priest said:
“I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.”
It was lawful, to be sure. But was it fair? Was she dooming her husband to a lifetime of self-recrimination and regret? This was all so fast. Had Mr. Darcy thought of how his sister might take this news? How Lady Catherine would respond?
So consumed was she by these thoughts, that the next words she heard were from Mr. Darcy’s own lips.
The curate was looking at her. “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”
In a smaller voice than she expected, Elizabeth replied, “I will.”
In a daze, as if from far away, Elizabeth waited as Mr. Gardiner placed her hand in Mr. Darcy’s. His fingers were warm as they closed around hers, and she felt the ghost of his touch on her cheek like an arc of fire running from her face to her hand. She wasn’t sure she could breathe as she looked up at him again, fearful that she was about to exchange vows with an angry man.
But instead, all those emotions had vanished, and they were replaced with something serious, true, but also open—and so intense for a moment she thought they might be the only people in the room.
“I, Fitzwilliam Darcy, take thee, Elizabeth Bennet, to my wedded Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward.”
All time stopped, and the words landed on her heart, as soft as sifted snow, as simple as a sunrise. “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.”
From somewhere very far away, she heard the voice of the priest, giving her the words she must use in return. But she knew she would never forget them, for the vow already lived in her soul.
“I, Elizabeth Bennet, take thee, Fitzwilliam Darcy, to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”
Did his eyebrow twitch, just the slightest bit, as she pronounced the word obey? Was that a flash of humor, deep within his eyes?
He bent his head over her hand and then his fingers were encircling her own as he slipped the ring across her knuckles. It was thin and a reddish gold. “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Her hand curled of its own accord as the ring settled into the hollow of the top joint of her finger. It was warm. Warmer than she had expected.
They knelt at the priest’s command. Mr. Darcy murmured something beneath his breath. She couldn’t be sure, as the clergyman moved on to Lydia and Wickham, and she was distracted by their exchange of vows, but she thought it might have been, “It fits.”
Elizabeth kept her head bent, but could not look away from her husband’s hands, folded in front of him.