Elizabeth sprang out of her seat, glaring in amazement at the man at her side. “Mr. Darcy! How dare you present yourself thusly to my uncle!”
Mr. Gardiner held out his hands to calm her. “Do not blame the gentleman, Lizzy. Your aunt and I have suspected the connection between you for quite some time. I would not have allowed this much interference in our family matters otherwise.”
Elizabeth barely heard him. All her attention was on Mr. Darcy. Her hands were clenched into fists in the folds of her skirt, and she tripped over her words as they crowded, outraged, into her throat. “But, uncle—”
“Mr. Gardiner,” Mr. Darcy cut in, before she could accuse him of lying outright. “Do not allow the responsibility for this trespass to rest upon your head. Miss Bennet, as you see, values discretion every bit as much as I do. She is understandably astonished to be confronted with revelations about her private intentions.”
“She is standing in your presence in this moment and will not be talked of as if she is not here,” Elizabeth said, seething. As if from a distance, her uncle’s statement began to clarify in her head. Mr. Darcy had presented himself to Mr. Gardiner as Elizabeth’s betrothed. He had done so to justify his interest in their circumstances. It was quite extraordinary.
It was utterly maddening.
Mr. Darcy did not soften one bit. “I have no wish to disrupt the house at this late hour, especially given the infirmity of Mr. Bennet. If our arrangements cannot be concluded this evening, I will visit again tomorrow.”
Mr. Gardiner’s disapproving eye, meanwhile, had landed on Elizabeth, and with little wonder. No doubt he thought she was upsetting her fiancé with her angry attitude. No doubt he thought she should be grateful to Mr. Darcy for all he had chosen to do for their family. No doubt he, and everyone else, would expect her to continue such an attitude of grateful deference unto the end of her days. She would be a Mr. Collins, forever bowing and scraping before Mr. Darcy’s far superior Lady Catherine.
“Perhaps that is best, Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth, again I urge you to be calm. I have no intentions of revealing your understanding to anyone outside of this room until such time that you and Mr. Darcy wish to share it. I am not unfamiliar with the reasons that might be preventing you from coming forward with your engagement. But can you not understand why it was necessary for the gentleman to explain himself to me?”
“Yes, sir,” Elizabeth replied through gritted teeth. She could understand quite a lot of things, and none of them were pleasant.
He came out from behind the desk. “I am conscious of the unusual circumstances before us this evening, and I am sure you will not look too deeply into my reasoning when I tell you that I plan to retire. Elizabeth, I trust that you will see Mr. Darcy to the door?”
“Yes, sir,” she repeated, her eyes downcast.
Mr. Gardiner left them alone. There was a long moment of stillness, with no sound to fill the space between them but the crackling of Mr. Gardiner’s fire.
At last Mr. Darcy broke the silence. “I had not intended you to find out in this manner.”
“That I am engaged?” Elizabeth replied, archly. “How good of you! In what manner did you intend for me to discover my happy situation? At the altar, perhaps?”
“That is not what I meant.”
“What are you doing here? Our problems are not your affair.”
“You are wrong,” he insisted and took two steps toward her. For a second, in the flickering firelight, he looked younger, closer. “I am entirely to blame for the predicament in which your family currently finds itself. It was through my secrecy, my mistaken pride, that Wickham’s worthlessness was not made known. Had his character been rightly understood, it would have been impossible for any young woman of character to love or confide in him.”
“A young woman of character!” Elizabeth scoffed. “Surely you do not think Lydia that now?” He had been the one to report her impudent words, her careless disdain for the family that was even now trying to save her.
“What I think of your sister bears little relevance to my actions,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Wickham should not have been allowed in the company of any young woman after the way he tried to impose himself upon Georgiana. Had I not thought it beneath me to lay my private actions open to the world, this elopement would not have taken place. I could have prevented it, and I did not.”
“You take too much upon yourself, sir,” she said.
“That may be. You have always thought me officious.” His gaze turned away from her now.
That was true. She stared at his back, held straight and solid as the trunk of a tree. This was the Darcy she’d known in Hertfordshire, so certain that his way was the best of all ways. Willing to control the life of his best friend. Of Jane. Of all of them.
How could she have let herself forget? “And what of telling my uncle that we are engaged?”
There was a long silence. “You heard your uncle, Miss Bennet. Were I not to have offered myself to him as an intimate party, your uncle would have denied my assistance. This was the only way to move forward with the arrangements I have already ventured to make on your family’s behalf.”
“Arrangements!” she cried.
“Yes. I have spoken to Mr. Wickham, at length and on several occasions. His…” Mr. Darcy paused, as if gritting his teeth, and when next he spoke, the words were nearly spat, so great was his disgust. “His perfidy is bottomless. He never had the slightest design on marrying your sister, and he scrupled not to lay all the ill consequences of Miss Lydia’s flight on her own folly alone.”
Elizabeth had thought she had no tears left to weep, but to hear such a report, even secondhand, about this rake’s ill opinion of her youngest sister brought a fresh harvest. She and Lydia had not been close—not as close as sisters ought to be, as their differences in understanding and character set them so far apart in their parents’ affections. But there had never been any real harm to her. She was silly; that was all. Silly, like her mother. Silly, like so many other girls who think only of dances and hats and beaus, but do not deserve the contempt of the men to whom they give their hearts and their future.
“Did you tell her this, when you spoke to her?”
“No,” Mr. Darcy admitted. “As I had determined that the damage, as it were, had already been done. There was no cause to reveal to your sister how little respect her lover has for her.”
Elizabeth clapped a hand over her mouth, and Mr. Darcy followed the movement with his eyes.
“I have no wish to pain you, but so it was.”
“You do not pain me,” she replied. “The words may be yours, but the sins are his.”
“Please believe me that your sister’s comfort is of utmost importance to me. But ignorance, in some cases, can be known better as bliss. In this instance, her deeper understanding of Wickham would not enhance the course of action I felt I must take.”
“What course of action?”
“To secure, and most expediently, their marriage.”
“You! Secure their marriage!” Elizabeth could not believe it.
“I do not know if it surprises you to learn that Mr. Wickham found himself obliged to leave his regiment in Brighton over some pressing debts of honor. He intends to resign his commission immediately and had few firm plans as to his future situation.”
“I wish that did surprise me,” she replied. “But given all I know of his character, I am forced to admit it does not. But why, if his condition was so desperate, did he not marry my sister at once? I know my father is not imagined to be very rich, but he would have been able to do something for Mr. Wickham, even if it was only to help discharge his debts, or connect him to a career in trade.”
Mr. Darcy seemed to examine the study in which they found themselves. Mr. Gardiner’s home was nothing to Pemberley, of course, and in all likelihood it did not compare particularly well with whatever townhouse Mr. Darcy no doubt owned in a more fashionable neighborhood in London, but it was clear from the environs that the Gardiners lived quite comfortably, and that their income was not one to be easily dismissed. If his business kept on at this pace, her little nephews, or perhaps their sons, might find themselves in similar circumstances as Mr. Bingley, whose fortune was also derived from an ancestor in trade.
“That would indeed seem reasonable,” Mr. Darcy replied. “But in our conversation, Mr. Wickham made clear to me that he still cherished the hope of more effectually making his fortune by marriage in some other country.”
At this pronouncement, Elizabeth could do naught but scoff.
Mr. Darcy nodded in curt agreement. “I bear a similar attitude to you as to the likelihood of his success in that venture. But on this topic, it will do no good to linger. My purpose was simply to persuade them to marry.”
“But how, if Wickham was so sorely set against it?”
“I know you do not think much of my abilities when it comes to inducing a party to marry, Miss Bennet, as I have heretofore been incapable in succeeding with you.”
It was Elizabeth’s turn to look away, and to blush. And so she was not staring at his face when he went on.
“But there is a difference between you and him. To Mr. Wickham, the temptation of a fortune proved too much to resist.”
Her head shot up to see him, but his face remained impassive, cold. There was no humor in his words, merely the relation of a terrible truth.
Elizabeth was horrified. “You have paid him? To marry my sister?”
He examined a speck of invisible dust on his coat. “Wickham of course wanted more than he could get, but at length he was reduced to be reasonable. The arrangements have all been made. And now we must only ask your father for a small sum to be settled upon Miss Lydia. I thought a hundred pounds a year not unreasonable, given the circumstances.”
A hundred a year? So little! She was sure that Wickham was a fool if he took Lydia for a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. And so it must have been Mr. Darcy who provided the rest. How was even half such a sum to be repaid?
Elizabeth felt faint and her hand shot out to steady herself on the corner of her uncle’s desk. Still, she forced herself to speak. “I must thank you, Mr. Darcy. Please… please allow me to thank you in the name of all my family, for your generous compassion and for all the trouble and…” Cost? “…mortifications, you must have suffered in discovering them and helping to bring this about.”
“If you will thank me,” he replied, “let it be for yourself alone. Your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.” He raised his eyes to meet hers, and in them there was such a look as took Elizabeth’s breath away. His meaning was perfectly clear.
He had saved Lydia because of Elizabeth. For Elizabeth, back in that inn at Lambton, had promised to consider his proposal. He’d told Mr. Gardiner he was helping them, for he and Elizabeth were engaged.
And why shouldn’t he? His generous treatment of Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle at Pemberley had resulted in her willingness to reconsider his proposal. Would not his salvation of her entire family finally bring about the end he desired?
As soon as the thought occurred to her, she was certain it had to be so. For this was the man Mr. Darcy had been all along, even when he’d been trying to impress—nay, enchant!—her at Pemberley.
Elizabeth turned her head, unable to bear his looks, his expectations. His calculations had been neat, indeed. He had informed the Gardiners of an understanding between them. To fail to marry him, after all he had done, would make Elizabeth Bennet the most ungrateful wretch in England.
She had been bought.
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