As they passed through the gates, she leaned her head near the window to veil her expectant glancing ahead and was the first guest to watch the rectangular stone-building of Netherfield Park emerge out of the moist December dusk. The weather had taken a turn for the worse after several days of unexpected warmth. Clouds of breath were puffing from the horses' snorting nostrils, when the carriages held at the entrance and the passengers climbed the steps hurriedly, anxious to escape the chilly wind. Sighs of approval were heaved, as the company entered the illuminated hall to find themselves welcomed by the warmth from a huge blaze and the agreeable sound of murmuring guests.
Kitty remarked that apart from the limited company, it was all very much as it had been one year ago on the day of Mr. Bingley's long awaited ball. A vestige of melancholy was in her voice, for tonight she had no expectation to find officers or any other eligible young gentlemen within the gray walls. In order to demonstrate that she was above such foolishness, Mary pulled a face saying, that this was to be a far more agreeable occasion, family and friends gathering for grand supper and refined conversation; with any luck there might even be some musical entertainment. Jane and Elizabeth exchanged exhausted glances, but they were too happy to take their sisters' wrangle to heart.
The courteous butler indicated a twin door across the hall, informing the ladies that behind it they would find a chamber put in order for the convenience of female guests. Mrs. Gardiner and Mrs. Bennet entered with the girls and the services of the two obliging chambermaids present to assist them were soon fully claimed.
When she had received help to ridden herself of her damp cloak, Elizabeth approached one of the grand mirrors. She had merely intended to throw a brief glance in it, checking that the locks of her coiffure were still in order; however the gratifying sight of her reflection made a flush of warm anticipation dart through her body. She lingered a moment, unable to hold back a tiny smile of excitement, silently hoping that he would be pleased with her. As she smoothed the skirt of her gown with eager hands, there was a knock at the door and a footman came to discreetly inquire after Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He spoke to one of the maids and the girl came over to inform Elizabeth in a whisper.
"Mr. Darcy is expecting you to join him as soon as you are ready, Miss Bennet!"
She nodded her consent.
"You may send word to Mr. Darcy, I shall not be long."
The man made a bow and left. A wide-eyed Kitty had overheard the exchange and now cried excitedly.
"Oooh, Lizzy how wonderful! I wish some man would be that eager to have me in his company. I am sure, Mr. Darcy must be madly in love with you."
Elizabeth"s cheeks warmed to hear Kitty's unguarded outburst and their shade deepened, when Mrs. Gardiner sent her a glance full of meaning, after she had hushed Kitty with a reproach on her manners. Mrs. Bennet only looked as if she was pleased to know one daughter was so sought-after and another had the sense to realize the value of it.
Out of propriety Elizabeth stayed for a while in front of the mirror, occupying herself with a few damp curls that were defying the perfection of her hairdo and tugging at her gloves to make every wrinkle disappear. It would not do, to come running out the minute he asked for her. With a murmured excuse she left the other ladies to venture out into the hall, where the footman immediately approached to close the door behind her. He then took her to where his master was standing, at an appropriate distance, waiting to greet her.
Elizabeth"s heart made a double beat from relief as well as happiness, for she was anticipating her encounters with some of the guests with no small trepidation and had secretly hoped Darcy would be by her side to fortify her courage.
These nervous expectations she knew to be shared by Jane, although her ordeal was not nearly as great. She had no unknown relatives to meet, only the slightly unpleasant task of restoring reasonably friendly terms with the insincere sisters of her fianc». Unless Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley were very unwise, Jane was sure to succeed, for she came prepared to render good for evil.
When Mr. Bennet entered the parlor, his arrival was the signal Darcy had been keenly anticipating and after the necessary politeness the older man was amused to notice, that his stand-offish son-in-law had left him to the friendly reception of Bingley's. Mr. Bennet had no difficulty penetrating the intentions of Elizabeth's fianc» and he was not in the least offended, he was quite able to understand the power his favorite daughter must hold over her lover.
Possessing the knowledge of her presence, Darcy was indeed loath to remain in company; he preferred to wait for her in the hall. Counting the minutes he had summoned a man to inform her and now had time to think of it again. Do I appear too anxious? Will she be embarrassed? But every consideration for appearances was abandoned, when the door opened and she became visible escorted by the footman. Good God how adorable she is! She floated towards him like a spring blossom in her soft gown, on her cheeks was a pale rosy hue and even from this distance her sparkling eyes compelled him to irresistibly move towards her.
As Darcy approached, she noticed how his eyes swept over her person, before he was close enough to take her hand and solemnly place a welcoming kiss on it. It was the first time she wore her new evening dress from London and she could see, that he approved. She knew it made her look different, not even her yellow ball gown endowed her appearance with the elegance of this green silk creation.
She lifted her free hand to adjust the necklace and smiled into his eyes, as her lips formed a "Thank you, Mr. Darcy". Round her neck was what completed the impression of her toilet, a link of small, identical emeralds with the exception of one bigger, forming a drop and fitted into a golden filigree setting, resting near the dent just below her neck.
Darcy had given it to her the night before, when he was about to leave Longbourn. Stealthily, in the general disorder of the farewell, he had unexpectedly placed a blue leather case in her hands and whispered something about a token of love. She hardly had time to realize what was happening, before he was gone. The greater had been her surprise to behold the beautiful contents, when she opened the case in her room. She had reflected that it did look old, and wondered whether it could be family jewels?
Now he allowed his eyes to momentarily touch upon the green drop against her pale complexion and then smiled back at her in disconcerted admiration. When he spoke, she got the impression, that he did not wish to dwell on the gift. For he began to greet her formally and then lowered his voice to convey his private thoughts. Finally he mentioned what would be expected from them.
"Good evening Miss Bennet! What a pleasure it is to welcome you here. Elizabeth, you are more beautiful than ... ever. I find no words when I look at you. Do you appreciate the emeralds, then? My precious rose, ... I would wish to be alone with you. But that will have to wait until the social obligations are attended to. Present here tonight are some members of my family, whom I would like you to meet."
As he spoke the last sentence he escorted her into the reception parlor. She was greeted by Mr. Bingley who beamed at them, as he squeezed Elizabeth's hand, but who could not keep his eyes from returning to the door behind their backs, every minute expecting the entry of his fianc»e.
Greetings were exchanged with the gushing Mrs. Hurst and her indifferently muttering husband and - finally even with Miss Bingley, although the latter appeared to be very much involved in conversation with Lady Lucas, whose indulgence she had to secure before she was able to nod and aim an extorted smile towards Elizabeth. When she rattled off the congratulations required, Elizabeth felt something similar to pity on seeing Caroline's nervous glances roving about from herself to Darcy and back again. She feared her response might appear condescending or shallow and hence could think of nothing to say but a plain thank you. She was grateful when Darcy put an end to the torturous moments.
"We must not take up more of your time, Miss Bingley."
He made an impeccable bow and offered his arm to Elizabeth.
She was even more relieved, when he resolutely brought her to his sister; she knew he was most anxious for them to renew their acquaintance and she could not help but consider it an opportunity to draw breath before the next trial. Georgiana, whose face lit up at the sight of Elizabeth and whom she heartily embraced and began to speak to without difficulty, was obviously happy to see her sister-to-be. While she was again felicitated, this time with such considerable sincerity by Miss Darcy, Elizabeth was aware of her remaining disquiet, it was like a fluttering butterfly inside. So far so good, the first confrontation with Miss Bingley is done without a scandal; but alas, I did not expect the sweet Georgiana to be part of this evenings trials. As for this fearsome earl, I am not entirely confident. He is the brother of the mistress at Rosings and then there is a countess to count upon ... . I shall not allow myself to be frightened. I am good enough for Fitzwilliam, they will have to accept that. For his sake, however, I would so wish for this meeting to go smoothly. As was her habit she tried to fortify her resolve by a secret joke and at the same time ensured Georgiana ,that she was looking forward to joining her at Pemberley after their short London sojourn.
In the beginning Darcy stood silently beside them; it was as if he was supervising their understanding with a protective smile. Then he seemed to recall something and began to discreetly search the room and when he found what he sought, claimed Elizabeth's attention by putting his hand on her arm.
"My dear, will you allow me to disturb you ... . Georgiana, please excuse us for a moment. I want Elizabeth to meet our Aunt Fitzwilliam!"
The Countess of Matlock was strategically seated on a sofa to one side of the adjacent drawing room, an arrangement which allowed her a general view of the rooms, but also the privacy she might require speaking to someone. She had noticed Miss Bennet the minute she entered by Darcy's side and being a most observant lady, she had already made some mental notes, before her nephew came to introduce his fianc»e.
"Lady Matlock, would you permit me to present Miss Elizabeth Bennet to you."
"Yes, by all means do. I have been looking forward to our meeting, Miss Bennet!
Her intense gaze was appraising Elizabeth as she curtseyed.
"It is an honor to make Your acquaintance, Lady Matlock."
"Ever since we heard of your engagement to Darcy, Lord Matlock and I have anticipated this meeting. Where is Gerald, Darcy? You might find him anyplace where there is some mischief about. Probably near the Billiards or in the Smoking Room. Will you please go and get hold of him for me!"
Elizabeth had been listening with concealed delight while the lively lady addressed Darcy thus and finally dismissed him. He did not make any objections, but gave Elizabeth a furtive smile before he simply turned to comply with the request of his aunt She tried in vain to hide her own smile, as she watched him receding. Her eyes followed his dark head and broad shoulders until he disappeared from the room.
"Come Miss Bennet and take a seat next to me, so we can get acquainted. If I may be so impertinent, pray begin by telling me; why were you smiling?"
Elizabeth found herself drawn down on the sofa next to the countess and observed by a pair of remarkably clear blue eyes. She could feel her cheeks getting warm as she answered.
"Oh, I beg Your pardon! I fear I have appeared inexcusably insolent, ... but I assure Your Ladyship that it was the sight of Mr. Darcy being ordered about that amused me."
" Yes, he is very much his own man, is he not. I see what you mean, there are not many of us allowed to use him for an errand boy!"
The countess laughed to herself, before she leaned near to Elizabeth.
"Now my dear, let me look at you. You have no idea how curious I have been. It is really most improper. Wondering what you would be like. As you are about to notice, I am arrived at an age, where one has very little regard for the tiresome rules of society. When it comes to things that are really important, one tends to overlook them entirely. You will have to excuse my abrupt manners, but I must ask you this, before our handsome delivery boy returns with my husband. Are you in love with him?"
Elizabeth winced and stared at the older lady, wondering if she was after all not so very unlike Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Her face betrayed her reserve and Lady Matlock patted her hand.
" I can see that you do not approve of my forwardness. Quite rightly so. If there was only another way for me to see my fears be frustrated ... I would not ask you. We have had two exuberant letters from Darcy; some reading between the lines is always possible, would you not agree? He appears to be completely bewitched by you! From what I have heard today it is altogether the same, he finds no faults with you. He assures me that you are unequaled among women. So my prime concern now is, will you take good care of him, Miss Bennet?
Normally I would know better than to doubt Darcy's judgment. But it seems this whole business with you is something quite out of the ordinary in his life. My intuition tells me, he is at your mercy and what Colonel Fitzwilliam has been able to relate from the weeks he spent in Kent last spring, only conduce to reinforce my fears. My son is most appreciative, too, Miss Bennet. Which serves to prove, that you have a captivating personality."
The countess fastened her searching gaze on her young companion.
" These past years since old Mr. Darcy died, there have been ... several ... husband-hunters with greedy eyes ... and the scheming mothers or guardians of such, who have considered Darcy their rightful prey. But he has always been able to repel their attacks. I have never seen him as defenseless as he is now. Were I ever to suspect, that you mean to hurt him by ... tricking him into marrying you, under false pretenses, that is, without sincere love ... . He is so vulnerable and pure in heart, you see.
I want you to understand, that neither Darcy nor Lord Matlock would approve, if they heard me talk to you like this. They might never forgive me. Thank you for hearing me out. Can you see Miss Bennet, why I would like you to tell me. Will you not put my mind at ease? My nephew is not likely to give me such confidences, is he?"
Elizabeth was utterly amazed as she listened to the countess. She had not expected anything like this, never imagined such forwardness possible in a refined lady. Yet I have met with Lady Catherine De Bourgh, that might have prepared me. The very rich can afford to give offense ... .Some of the things the countess said were insolent indeed, ... but for all that, the substance of it, Lady Matlock's main concern, did not offend her. She took a deep breath and raised her eyes to look steadily into those unyielding blue irises.
"My first impulse was certainly to stand and leave You instantly, My Lady. I am not sure why I do not. Somehow I get this feeling that You really care for Mr. Darcy and I must seek the good in anyone who does. He is the best man I know. He is the only man I have ever met, whom I can love without reserve. Yes, Your Ladyship, I will take good care of him. He is very dear to me. In fact he means everything to me. Does this set Your heart at ease? "
The countess had been watching Elizabeth's face as she spoke; the shifting sentiments and the deepening blush on it as she revealed so much to a stranger. A warm smile started in her eyes and soon reached her mouth. She pressed Elizabeth's hand and impulsively moved forward to place a kiss on her cheek while whispering.
"It does. Indeed it does! Will you allow for this conversation to remain our secret, my dear?"
This unexpected display of affection was observed by the two gentlemen who entered the room at this moment. The earl of Matlock turned his head to exchange a look of astonishment with his nephew. Darcy was puzzled, but pleased as well. She has won her heart already. Not that I am really amazed ... . Come to think of it, they ought to get along since they are both of an honest and unconventional disposition. I was only afraid Elizabeth might be offended by Her Ladyships imperative manner of address. But it seems my worries were uncalled-for. They must have found some common interest to discuss! His enthusiasm about their apparent estimation of each other found expression in his light-hearted way of addressing the countess.
"My lady, I hope I have fulfilled my obligations by bringing the Prodigal Earl back to you?"
"Such an appropriate word to summarize the personality of your uncle, Darcy! Although I would be tempted to chastise you for your insolence, if I were not so pleased and if I had not made the most charming acquaintance, while you were away. Gerald, this is the treasure whose praise our nephew has been singing in every available key and I am inclined to think he was not exaggerating. Miss Bennet! You see before you Lord Matlock, whom I hope you will learn to appreciate. He is quite charming."
A hasty glance at her fianc» showed her the color on his face was slightly heightened by the indiscreet disclosure of his aunt. She had no time to dwell on his feelings, for Lord Matlock was by no means hesitating to respond to these different contributions of his wife. Elizabeth had got up to curtsey and voice her pleasure, even more amazed to hear the countess" irreverent reference to her husband.
"Miss Bennet, I am truly enchanted. I see, this sofa is where the most beautiful ladies have gathered tonight. My dear, I hope you have not been able to intimidate Darcy's lovely fianc»e. I assure you Miss Bennet, she appears much worse than she really is. "
The earl had seized the hands of both ladies in his to place gallant kisses on them as he spoke. His imposing face with its characteristic aquiline nose could probably inspire awe and had it not been for the soothing knowledge, that his wife had become her ally, Elizabeth might have missed the friendly glint in his glittering eyes.
From relief that Darcy's aunt and uncle were no threat to her happiness and from seeing the man himself as well, the small ripple of amusement on her lips called forth by the earls description of his wife developed into a radiant smile. She was not aware of it, but her face was absolutely breathtaking, not only to Darcy, but to the elderly couple as well. It was in no way possible to mistake the love in her eyes, as she looked up at her fianc».
"I got a lump in my throat to see it", the earl confessed to his wife later, when they were alone.
"So did I, they love each other, there can be no doubt about that. What do you think of her Gerald? She is lovely, is she not?"
"I think she reminds me of you, dearest. By the time I made your acquaintance. Nearly as beautiful and dangerously witty as well."
"You are an old fool, Gerald. I can not imagine why I love you so dearly."
To herself she reflected, that had she seen that smile earlier, she could perhaps have spared Miss Bennet the ordeal of her interrogation. But then, I would not have got to know her true value so well on so short a time. How I put my nose in things. I wonder what she tells him about our conversation.
As a matter of fact Elizabeth did not say very much on the subject. They remained in the company of his aunt and uncle for a while and Darcy was continuously proud to notice the ease of the ensuing conversation. Elizabeth and the countess appeared to be old friends from the sound of their verbal exchange and the gentlemen were principally restricted to an occasional witticism or enthusiastic comment to affirm how they both enjoyed the ladies" performance.
Chapter I B
Finally the Countess expressed a mild recommendation and the high spirited exchange was concluded. Elizabeth and Darcy took a turn about the room to exchange civilities with other guests and receive their share of the felicitations.
Once this obligation was fulfilled, they joined her aunt and uncle gratefully accepting another chance to relax from social duties. The Gardiners who were staying at Longbourn had arrived thither the same morning, so Elizabeth had been talking to them earlier during the day, but she was always happy to enjoy such sensible company and as for Darcy, he had not met them since London.
There was no strain on this reunion for they had become quite close already; Darcy and Mr. Gardiner were well on their way to friendship. A mutual respect had arisen due to their joint efforts and regard for each others capability during the extraordinary circumstances that brought them together in the first place.
Now the conversation more or less solely dealt with the upcoming nuptials. Mrs. Gardiner inquired whether the number of days the newlyweds were to spend in town would allow for a joint visit to the theatre. This and other pleasant plans for the near future were dwelt on, when a mention of her wedding dress resulted in a turn that was slightly embarrassing to Elizabeth. Her uncle and her fianc» agreed most decidedly that she would be a bride to remember. In Mr. Gardiners smile was affection as well as a wish to tease his niece.
"A happy bride is always beautiful, and you do seem well pleased with your choice of bride-groom, Elizabeth. Permit me to say you look very nice tonight! She does us credit would not you agree, my dear? Speaking of credit, I think I may claim some, since that trip to Derbyshire was all my doing. "
Perceiving how Elizabeth's face flushed, he took pity on her and twisted his statement for her relief.
"But then good looks runs in the family, eh? They used to call me Beau Gardiner."
Putting his nose affectedly in the air, pretending to smooth his not too ample wisps of hair, he tossed his head and fluffed at the ends of his cravat. The light timbre of the ladies voices joined with Darcy's deep laughter, as the three of them were thus enticed into a hearty outburst of merriment. When the jester's wife had composed herself, she nodded her head in concurrence and, as she spoke, proved that she was a good match to her husband.
"Oh yes, she does. I can hardly remember an occasion when she has disappointed me in later years, though there were once times when she was a little wild ... . However, I think my appreciation has been more frequent in connection with her good sense than with her appearance; which is certainly lovely tonight. I never considered the repeated appraisal of her looks beneficial to a young lady's character. As a responsible aunt I have rather concentrated on her moral virtues. Flattering compliments I leave to the gentlemen. But ... I will not hesitate to admit, the shade of that gown is perfect with your own colors, my dear Lizzy."
Despite the apparent amusement of her aunt's Elizabeth's cheeks still hosted a faint blush and she hesitated to look at her fianc» though his gaze was constantly upon her and Darcy could not refrain from adding to that sweet bewilderment.
"Since Mrs. Gardiner has so gracefully given her permission, let me say that in my opinion there are few shades that would not appear to best advantage on Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Yet the brilliancy of her eyes outshines them all."
It was plain to see that he was overflowing with love and appreciation for his fianc». Darcy was glad to get an opportunity in this friendly society to dare express his admiration.
Mrs. Gardiner had raised an eyebrow to gently mock her young relative as they listened to the gentlemen. Then she turned serious and complimented Darcy on his choice of jewelry, saying that his had been a very fortunate guess when he decided on stones that matched Elizabeth's dress so exquisitely. Darcy looked almost shrewd and glanced at Elizabeth when he made his reply.
"Well, not really. I had been trusted with some information on the dresses bought when we were still in London and since I knew the amber shade was for the walking dress, I could imagine Miss Bennet would choose her green gown tonight."
This pronouncement took Elizabeth by surprise.
"Mr. Darcy! Did you select emeralds for me ... to go with this gown?"
She looked at him with incredulity, as if she did not really know him, which was of course the truth.
Mrs. Gardiner looked at her husband and Mr. Gardiner regretfully smiled back at his wife. They both knew they should rather be somewhere else this instant, but there was nothing to be done about it. They simply endeavored to look away to give the young couple a moments privacy.
On a few occasions earlier Darcy and Bingley had been joking that Gretna Green was perhaps not such a bad idea after all. Now again he was bent to understand better the lovers who chose this way out. The look on Elizabeth's face was so filled with love and grateful confusion and he could only glance cautiously into her eyes, all the time enforced to give every consideration to his present location. Yet this moment brought such disturbing memories to his mind. He could remember her voice confessing You need only look at me and I shall not be able to refuse ... or her seductive whisper I have wished for you to look at me like that ... .
How he longed to have her all to himself. To hold and caress her, yes, no doubt, but to talk to her also, to listen to her, in short, to be close to her without these recurrent collisions with the world surrounding them.
Repeatedly during the evening Darcy had to remind himself that he must not stare at Elizabeth, but he found this very difficult for his love was so deep, his desire so fervent and she was never more bewitching. He spent no small part of the evening trying to figure out how he could arrange to be alone with her. There was to be no dancing, which meant the groups of people were less flexible, but at last his patience and ingenuity were rewarded.
At the table with the other gentlemen after supper, his incentive was even more fortified by her absence, his mind was occupied in meandering thoughts on her doings that same moment. Inwardly he imagined her laughing and jealous of whoever was in her company, wished he was the object of her attention. Barely forcing himself to add some respectful comments to the general discussion on Napoleon and the invincible British Navy, he secretly made his plan.
He saw the possibility for a moment of solitude when the gentlemen were about to rejoin the ladies. The party spread into several rooms and in order to secure the tÕte--tÕte he had been longing for, Darcy strode resolutely towards the drawing-room and his apparent fixity of purpose brought about an ironical muttering from Mr. Bennet .
"It would seem the attraction of port and war gossip fluctuates substantially".
His comment happened to be overheard by Lord Matlock, who had discovered earlier the entertaining dry wit of this particular gentleman's statements. He turned his head to discreetly wink his eye and give a subdued response.
"At a certain stage in life there is only one cause significant enough that it be aimed at with all available fervor. I suspect the purpose of my nephews determination might be found within your family, sir!"
Mr. Bennet nodded in amused agreement equally pleased to find a fellow satirist, but the next minute quelled a sigh when on entering the parlor he was able to discern a well known high pitched voice from the ladies" conversation.
Meanwhile Darcy had sought his fianc»e out and approached to politely deprive Mrs. Collins of the company he himself coveted. Without delay he brought Elizabeth with him back through the hall and soon seized her hand to lead her to the library. She was happy and he himself heaved a sigh thinking Alone at last when he shut the heavy door behind them, for they had not been in privacy since they arrived at her home yesterday afternoon. At that time arousing some surprise and more than a few comments due to the fact that she brought, not only Mr. Darcy, but also a horse back with her from her extended walk.
That evening their sentiments were a mixture of happiness and guilt. They both felt they had perhaps had more than their fair share of privacy for one day and were quite content to exchange glances of private understanding. For instance, when Mr. Bennet commented on Mr. Bingley's magnificent black steed and his generosity to lend it to his friend, the owner of the horse replied that when it came to horsemanship Darcy was his superior and this particular gelding had been offering difficulties until Darcy took care of him. The gentlemen devoted some time to discuss the temperaments of horses and it was all Elizabeth could muster to hide her amusement when Darcy referred to Thunder in his most casual voice.
"The personality of an animal is more important than is generally believed. I place high value on his character, he is of a reserved but ingenious nature, which suits me just excellently. I prefer that a horse surprises me now and then to help me stay alert."
Saying this he looked straight over at Elizabeth, who could not fail to recognize his meaning but lowered her eyes to concentrate on the intricacy of her embroidery, a faint blush creeping up her cheeks.
Whereupon Bingley confidentially added something to the effect that very few among his friends and guests were happy with the unpredictability that must be taken into account while associating with the Thunder of Zeus, but that somehow, he and Darcy had reached an understanding.
"Exactly; this is what pleases me about him. One is never allowed to give in to indolence. He does keep you on your toes!"
This statement occasioned no attention and another secret glance of shared mirth could be safely exchanged between Elizabeth and him. Darcy reflected inwardly that he would have to talk his friend into parting with that horse. Thunder was too closely involved in his relation with Elizabeth now to be dispensed with in the stables at Pemberley.
During the continuing conversation on matters of equestrian import Mr. Bennet commented on the horses that had brought Bingley's coach to Longbourn and praised their being such a well suited pair. This made Darcy raise an eyebrow and give his fianc»e a quizzical look, indicating her and himself with almost imperceptible movements of his hand. While she smiled back at him, softly inclining her neck in agreement, she reflected that her fianc» was indeed displaying another side of his personality and assumed that their increasing intimacy, the deep affections they had betrayed to each other must be contributing to his ease. Her heart was filled with love on seeing him in so playful a mood. A lot of feeling was conveyed in that smile the warmth of which pleased him infinitely.
The time after dinner had been spent at the card tables and without offering any further opportunities for courting purposes.
The young gentlemen had left rather early in order to receive the arriving guest at Netherfield and Mrs. Bennet had declared that the brides to be, certainly needed their beauty sleep ... which, as could be expected, had been elegantly repudiated by the gallant fianc»s before they left.
Chapter I C
The long hours of the present day had slowly moved by one after another and he had not seen her until this evening. The hours of devoting himself to the multifarious obligations in connection with the arrival of Bingley's sisters last night and Georgiana, Fitzwilliam and his parents this morning, as well as the frequent inducements of the evening, had left Darcy most determined that he would seize the first available opportunity to get his future bride to himself. Although he was certainly glad to see his sister and cousin and most content that the presence of Lord and Lady Matlock would more than outweigh the abusive letter he had received from the patroness of Rosings Park, he could not rid himself of this peculiar feeling of restless emptiness when Elizabeth was not near.
There was no more emptiness when she was finally present, but instead he had to manage the frustration from incessant impulses that must not be acted upon in polished society.
The bookshelves lined the walls of the Netherfield library and there was only the blazing fire and two large candle stands in front of the windows to illuminate the room. In it prevailed an atmosphere of snug intimacy, so very different from the crowded rooms they just left. Darcy had brought his lady to one of the windows where he stood silently watching her beloved face in the flickering light. A tiny smile played in her eyes, she was happy to find herself in the warmth of his full attention.
"Elizabeth! I have missed you so. You have been constantly in my thoughts since we parted yesterday."
He removed his gloves and threw them impatiently upon a table. Then he grasped her tiny hand to hide it accurately within his own, again holding her in his gaze, until, with a sudden movement, he pressed it passionately to his mouth and then slowly released her.
"I never noticed gloves were so annoying before. I wish you were not wearing gloves, my dear, I want to kiss your hand, not your glove."
While he spoke, he let his fingers run along the length of her arm up to where her glove ended, to briefly caress the area of naked skin above her elbow. The unexpected intimacy of his touch brought a thrill she could not hide and that shiver induced him to step backwards in order to bring her closer to the flames of the fire. Surprised by his own gallantry and not fully aware if he tried to fool himself or her, he heard himself utter.
"Perhaps we had better stand here to keep you warm dearest Elizabeth. Your gown does not impress me as being very appropriate for that purpose. It does however have other advantages and ... is most becoming ... . I like it very much."
He caught her hands anew to pull her nearer, while he endeavored to keep his eyes from lingering on her pale shoulders and the full roundness of her neckline. But she was aware of his glances and looked into the fire, thinking to herself He is playing with fire, for from the minute they were alone, she could sense that the heat from yesterday was all aglow within her and betrayed also by the smoldering ardor of his gaze. She shut her eyes when his hands clasped her upper arms to hold her firmly, thinking I will not hinder him yet.
"Elizabeth, how I long for you ... to be my wife."
Tilting his head he kissed her cheek softly and she opened her eyes to look pensively at him when he pulled back.
"And you, my dearest ... how does this evening find you?"
His eyes searched hers, anxious to find her sincere opinion.
"I am very well, thank you. So happy to have met your family and know they approve of our union. I long for it too, Fitzwilliam. To be married , that is. It seems I am unable to find any meaningful occupation. My belongings are packed and my wedding clothes are in perfect order ... .What is there for me but wait ... ?"
He smiled tenderly to see the bewilderment in her eyes, gratified to recognize some of his own impatience.
His fingertips caressed her cheekbone and then lifted her chin to look earnestly into her eyes. There was something in them, he could not make out the tenor of that warm expression, but neared his face to cautiously kiss her mouth. The inviting look was still there when they parted, it was as if she mutely urged him to ... court her, to woo her, even love her without any consideration for the circumstances. It appeared to him that the sparkle was whispering, come near to me!
The thought drove him nearly wild and enticed him into boldly tracing her neck with unsteady fingers, until he was near the emerald line. Unable to withdraw, he continued to caress the silky skin on her shoulder. She stood before him trustful, warm and blushing, looking into his eyes, and he saw no rejection in them, no sign that she refused his advances. Hesitantly his fingers traveled along the thin velvet ribbon trimming the neckline of her dress, now and then allowing him a short sensation of warmth and softness. He heard her short intakes of breath, he could feel the curves of her body heaving and his own breathing turned into a ragged panting.
"Loveliest Elizabeth ... my ... alluring rose ... the flames make the stones ... flash as do your beautiful eyes."
Reluctantly he deprived himself of the seductive sensation of velvet and satin. Instead the back of his fingers were stroking her skin near the necklace and he bowed with the intention of kissing her shoulder, when a flash of sense made his brain issue a warning and heaving an irregular sigh, he refrained and instead tugged at and folded down the upper edging of her glove. He slowly placed a kiss on her bare arm, but as an almost inaudible sound escaped her, his lips returned to her skin. The scent of rose-water intoxicated him and urged him into kissing that tempting softness again and again. With every repetition his fervor increased and his persistence made her tremble and grasp his arm. Whether it was to stop him or simply from fear of fainting, she did not know.
A commotion in the hall outside, the sound of approaching steps, male voices and a deep laugh, brought them brusquely back to their senses. Elizabeth still felt the warmth where his lips had been and smiled in confusion as he gently adjusted the long glove over her blushing skin but she even had the presence of mind to check her gown and reach up to smooth some unruly curls off his forehead. His mouth was tingling from the contact with her arm, his voice was at first husky from unappeased emotion, as he began a most appropriate conversation.
"And now Miss Bennet have you ever noticed ... the distance between Italy and ... eerr Spain ... across the Mediterranean that is... ."
He had brought her with him in a rush to study the huge globe, squeezing her hand passionately and when they bent over it, her scent so close to him made him furtively plant a kiss on the locks near her temple. He was somewhat out of breath, as was his fianc»e, when she turned her head to look towards the door, which was that moment opened to allow for the entrance of two additional visitors. The deep voice of the earl of Matlock rumbled in good humor when he addressed their host.
"So Mr. Bingley, it seems your library is a popular place this evening. No surprise, really. It does look inviting, I grant you, but then libraries are in the habit of doing so; there is something about them. The amount of human knowledge and experience brought together perhaps? Tempting many a frail human being to seek an extension of his own.
What is your opinion Darcy, are you planning an elopement with your adorable fianc»e, ... and if so, where to? ... Let me see, ah, the south of Europe? An excellent idea, if only times were not so insecure ... . That Corsican upstart is not to be trusted. My dear, I think you must use your, no doubt considerable, influence to dissuade my nephew."
He nodded significantly, aiming his glittering gaze towards Elizabeth and she smiled politely back at her new relative, when he advanced to join them at the globe. His mischievous eyes seemed to be everywhere, but she could not detect any malevolence in them. She had been very relieved to learn that he was not even remotely like his sister at Rosings Park. The earl seized her hand to indicate a chivalrous kiss on it, before he continued his ramblings.
"I do not blame Darcy, if he hosts a wish to run away with you, Miss Bennet. You have what it takes to bewitch a man."
He smiled admiringly as the soft blush spread on Elizabeth's cheeks, then turned to register the heightened color on his nephews face, when he spoke. Darcy had tried desperately to maintain a composed demeanor while the ambiguous remarks of his lordship threatened to disarm every repost he could think of.
"I tend to agree as far as libraries are concerned my lord, but however tempting the idea of an elopement, I was only informing Miss Bennet of my route while touring the continent, many years ago".
Bingley had picked out a few volumes and Lord Matlock soon turned his attention back to his host. After an appropriate period of time by the globe, Darcy discretely collected his gloves and indicated that he and Elizabeth were about to return to the drawing room.
An absent-minded look was on his face as Bingley lifted his head to inform them.
"Refreshments are being served in the saloon. And there has been talk of some music. I believe your sister is about to entertain us, Miss Bennet."
But for my being constantly indebted to Ms Austen, for this part I also owe thanks to Ms Sneed for proficient advise on musical terminology & to Ms Robens, the walking thesaurus!
She was holding on to Darcy's woolen sleeve, almost clinging to it actually, in uncomfortable premonitions of what might await her. As they were ascending the staircase, he stroked that clutching hand soothingly and leaned to whisper near her ear.
"Please, do not make yourself uneasy, my dear. You are certainly not responsible."
She was grateful for his consideration, but her attempt to express it was accompanied by a miserable smile.
"I must try to remember that."
Her statement was made in a voice so small, as to have Darcy experience a flash of guilt on hearing it, for he knew, he had contributed to her present misery by his former behavior. The thought that he was to some extent responsible for her uncharacteristic dispiritedness was not to be endured. He checked the hall to make sure they were on their own and when they arrived at the top of the stairs, he stopped to look at her with concern and regret. Out of precaution he addressed her formally, although the contents of his soft and earnest prayer was indeed private.
"Miss Bennet, I entreat you ... endeavor to forget every presumptuous pronouncement I made before you showed me the insufficiency of my pretensions to please you. I was a conceited, insufferable snob ... ! You should be aware by now, the love I bear you can not be moved by external cause. Dearest Elizabeth, I ask that you forgive me for having once hurt you thus."
Realizing that her anguish was not hers alone, but affecting her fianc» as well, Elizabeth took a deep breath, furtively moved the hand on his arm to assure him of her affection, while she turned her head to look seriously into his eyes.
"You know I have long since done so ."
Lovingly meeting her gaze, he was gratified to discover a distant glimmer in her eyes and whispered.
"Thank you, gracious lady, I loathe to have you suffer from my selfishness. You are so infinitely dear to me."
She could feel his love surround her completely; their eyes locked and his anxiety for her was alleviated, when somewhere in those dark depths two stars were slowly being rekindled. He was mesmerized by the return of those dancing sparks as he watched her raise her chin, straighten her back and take another deep breath. She was ready to bid defiance to whoever stood in ambush to question the propriety of their alliance! He squeezed her hand, before she claimed again the comfort of his arm and with an inspiriting smile escorted her toward the music. They entered the drawing room to find that Mary Bennet had indeed, as was her habit, been glad to oblige and seated herself at the pianoforte.
Since Elizabeth had anticipated this possibility, she had taken precautions by mildly prompting her sister to choose wisely the sheets of music she would bring with her. Thanks to this foresight she had been able to advise against one far too complicated aria and helped Mary decide upon a few pieces, that she had been practicing for some time and none of which required any extraordinary abilities.
Furthermore, the one that called for vocal contribution was a simple yet sweet folk song, not at all pretentious. It was well suited for the range of Mary Bennet's voice and Elizabeth was soon afforded reason to heave a small content sigh, that the whole of her sisters performance was effected without exposing herself or her family to sneers or condescending glances.
They had stopped just inside the door to the drawing room so as to not interfere with the music, but when it came to an end and while joining the polite acclamations, Darcy suggested, that they should move to sit near Georgiana and Lady Matlock. His fianc»e nodded her agreement and the gentleman felt light at heart when he crossed the floor by her side and noticed the admiring glances at his lady. He knew his behavior was that of a puppy, but could not resist an inclination to exercise his "right of possession" by leaning near her to make the whispering reflection, that it did in fact turn out fairly well. When Mary willingly got up to give her place to Mrs. Hurst, he was moved to see Elizabeth's face soften with smiling relief.
He knew a burden was lifted from her and because of his being privy to that knowledge, he realized that he was getting near to her, that she had permitted him into her confidence, that no one in this room was closer to her than he was. It was as if he would choke from tenderness just looking at her and within him this clear-sight roused an unexpected need to be physically near her. The scent of her hair was lingering in his nostrils and the whole of her lovely person was suddenly irresistibly endearing. I want her in my arms where she belongs! Of course he could not act upon it .
They were about to take their seats and he assisted her more than was strictly necessary with the sole purpose of staying close to her a little longer. Elizabeth sent him an amazed glance when he moved her chair about an inch and asked if she would be comfortable. However, as soon as she saw the tension of his countenance, she perceived his emotional state and as she sat down, briefly relied on his support, slyly administering a covert caress by resting her hand on his arm.
"Perfectly comfortable thank you, Mr. Darcy. Will you not sit next to me?"
A glitter in her eyes and the faint ripple of a smile told him she knew. It did not calm his emotions, quite the opposite. His eyes swept over her from the dark curls to the tips of her shoes that peeped out from under the hem of her skirt. Yes I will, only I would prefer that you were closer still, Elizabeth. I am not perfectly comfortable ... . He clenched his jaws as he sank down next to her, further excited by the soft sound of her silk gown against his leg. Good god, why can I not stop thinking of the smoothness of that fabric and the warmth underneath it. She heard him exhale heavily and when she glanced furtively in his direction, his grave eyes caught hers and she saw the dark, smoldering ardor in them. Hastily looking down on her lap she colored and folded her hands. He must not look at me like that. Not now ... not here. The exuberant vivacity and loud volume of the music served as a shield for them to hide behind.
Louisa Hurst was in possession of some indisputable technical brilliancy and had chosen a fast tempo to test her fingers. An abundance of notes poured out of the pianoforte and it was not out of place, that her way of handling the equilibristic possibilities met with the approval of those gathered when, near the end of her performance, she favored her audience with a long virtuous cadenza.
By this time Bingley with his prominent guest had rejoined them to hear the latter part of his sisters energetic execution. Someone who was acquainted with Miss Darcy's musical proficiency from hearsay, but who obviously knew absolutely nothing of her social inadequacy, seized the opportunity to speak in the silence after Mrs. Hurst had received her applause. It might as well have been Sir William Lucas, but Elizabeth soon recognized the loud ingratiating voice as belonging to his scatterbrain of a son-in-law, Mr. Collins, who attempted a polite contribution to the general conversation.
To this deplorably short-witted gentleman, the mere fact that he was this minute in a position to examine in detail the staircases at Netherfield, served to make him realize that these fortunate circumstances called for some extraordinary civility to his host. And surely there could be no harm in an elaborate yet unstudied attention, paid to the sister of someone who had ten-thousand pounds a year - very likely more!
Who can tell what moved in the mind of this particular clergyman? Was there looming before him some tempting prospect? Was he inspired perhaps by the alluring possibility of a future opportunity to extend his comparative study to the grandeur of the chimney pieces and staircases at Pemberley! Be that as it may, he was determined to be civil, to speak and as happened more often than not, when he did so, he was prone to be the cause of some minor disaster.
"Mrs. Hurst, permit me to humbly express in the most eulogistic words my deepest admiration for your euphonious performance. I am quite enraptured! Mr. Bingley, now your own artistic sister has entertained us with such verve, would it not lend additional luster to this evening if we were to be even further privileged? I am contemplating an enhanced opportunity to dwell in the charming company of Apollo and his Muses by persuading the equally talented and distinguished sister of the other happy bridegroom to favor us in a similar manner?"
Bingley who had recently returned to his bride and was now more or less engulfed in the radiant beauty of Miss Bennet, lifted his head to send a polite smile towards his improbable guest, but he also cast a doubtful glance towards his friend, not certain how to handle this unexpected proposal.
"Ahem ... You are too kind Mr. Collins, sir ...uhrm, I am not sure ... "
From a wish to help his young host out, the earl unfortunately addressed his niece and mentioned that he would prefer to have her play something by Beethoven, which happened to be his favorite composer. Poor Georgiana blushed and gave every evidence of being terrified at the prospect. She staggered, when she refused his request almost inaudibly and in great distress.
"I am not used to playing in front of ... so many people. It would make me very uncomfortable... . I beg to be excused, ... please be not offended, Uncle Fitzwilliam!"
To those who knew her, the evident agony and uneasiness of the young woman called for interference. The earl murmuring in compliance remorsefully patted the hand of his niece and silently cursed the thoughtlessness of his suggestion.
Even Mr. Collins got a faint notion that something went wrong. He could certainly not understand what, after his well-turned and well-timed civilities. His perplexed glances wandered about from face to face in a futile attempt to gain information, but he most definitely could not be called perceptive. He had just decided that he must offer some comfort to Miss Darcy, who had obviously been very unhappy when her uncle tried to force her into playing that violent German composer, Beethauser ... Of course that would not please a delicate young lady... Now, if I were to tell her that I agree ... but then I would be most unwilling to annoy the earl of Matlock!! - the illustrious brother of my noble pat... .
At this point in his ruminations Mr. Collins was interrupted by his wife, who had concluded that her intervention was necessary to prevent further officiousness. She had developed some skill in the rapid distraction of his attention by some thought provoking suggestions. This time she inquired after how much taller was her husband than the mantelpieces at Netherfield. The one in the drawing-room? The Billiard room? Were they as high as any of Lady Catherine"s?
Apparently the countess and Darcy had the same thought entering their minds, for almost coincidentally they both turned to Elizabeth. Out of courtesy Darcy gave the preference to his aunt and with a reverent gesture bade her speak. Hence he had an opportunity to watch his fianc»e"s face as Lady Matlock made her request. He could imagine that Elizabeth had no wish to perform on this particular evening and was hesitating between his love for one and his concern for the other.
"Miss Bennet, there have been rumors concerning the pleasures that are to be had from your musical accomplishments. Will you not offer me this opportunity to hear for myself?"
"I cannot imagine the origin of these ... rumors nor how they could possibly survive any performance of mine, for I assure your Ladyship, that I play very ill indeed and should only do so in a very confined society. I have sometimes been told, that I ought to practice more, but I never took the trouble."
She cast a mischievous glance towards Darcy. His aunt, although she failed to understand the significance of this silent message, deducted that her persistence could be easily endured by this good-tempered young lady .
"Oh fiddle-de-dee Miss Bennet, this is a family gathering is it not?
Darcy"s examination of her countenance and her arch reference to what had happened in the past, justified the conclusion that he might plead for her assistance to escape the awkward dilemma. He admired again her ability to handle less desirable situations and even make them appear enjoyable. The affection in his dark gaze warmed her cheeks, as he added his supplication to his aunt"s entreaty.
"My dear, if you would consider the bestowal of this pleasure upon myself and my family... ?"
The countess in all friendliness urged her with her blue eyes, but it was the warmth in Darcy's and his cautious appeal in combination with the anguish on his sister's face, that made her pity overcome her reluctance to occupy the prominent part her performing would involve. After another glance at her fianc», this time of unfeigned affection she got up and cleverly using the situation to help his sister master her social embarrassment, she asked Georgiana a favor.
"I find it hard to resist such gracious persuasion, but I shall require some help. Will you be so kind as to assist me turning the pages, Miss Darcy?"
There was a look of such profound relief on the young girls face at her escape and this minor request seemed to her most endurable in comparison. Georgiana gave her consent at once and rose to follow her sister-to-be. Elizabeth placed herself at the pianoforte and they began to search the sheets of music. Their whispering and smiling conference impressed those who were attentive with the natural ease of their relation. The tender smile on Darcy's face, as he watched them, did not escape his aunt.
The deliberation at the pianoforte was come to an end and Elizabeth spoke.
"I am afraid Beethoven is not within my ability, Lord Matlock. My sister and I have chosen something of a more light, bright and sparkling nature. We hope you will be tolerably pleased."
Without any further frills Elizabeth began to play and the face of her young assistant assumed an expression of sweetest admiration. The countess reflected that since Georgiana was herself more proficient as an executor, her feelings towards her sister must be primarily on the personal level.
In this she could not but agree with her niece; Elizabeth Bennet was indeed a most captivating person. On one occasion Her Ladyship saw Georgiana turn a page and something made the performer look up at her assistant to make a little joke. Miss Darcy's eyes were smiling as she bent forward to reply into Miss Bennet's ear. Lady Matlock meant to comment on it to Darcy, but happened to look at him before she spoke and on seeing his bewitched expression, she was not able to resist an opportunity to tease her proud nephew, but alerted his attention by tapping her closed fan on his arm and whisper.
"Am I right suspecting, that you envy your sister her present occupation, Darcy?"
His face flushed with the hot wave of embarrassment, that swept through him when he realized his aunt's perceptiveness. She was right, but then no ... . He became aware of this need to protect his emotions at her disclosure, for he had been imagining himself by Elizabeth's side and indulged in fantasies, that soon made him grateful he was not in the center of attention. He managed to give a subdued reply and even tried to lead her thoughts into another course by turning them to the subject of Elizabeth's person.
"I am quite happy to enjoy the graceful performance from my present position, Your Ladyship. I confess Miss Elizabeth Bennet has been able to catch my attention and give me pleasure almost from the first time I had the privilege of listening to her song. Which was before I even knew her. Pray tell me, aunt Fitzwilliam, what are your first impressions of Miss Bennet?"
"The lady is a veritable treasure. When first I listened to your appraisal of her, I was not all that convinced but now I most readily admit she is everything you told us; I know your uncle is favorably inclined and I myself am exceedingly fond of her already. I could easily go on commending her, but it would be a shame to spoil the music. Only allow me to add my congratulations, well done Darcy!"
Darcy smiled with pleasure - and pride - to hear his aunt and then allowed his eyes to rest again on the fair object of all this praise. I am certainly wise to stay at a distance from her. Were I to stand where Georgiana is, I would, in all likelihood, be sorely affected by her nearness. Even now I am barely in control ... . his mind slipped back to their passionate minutes in the library and he closed his eyes to let the balm of her soft soprano caress his ears and senses.
"Treading the primrose path are you?"
The teasing words were softly spoken by the countess when the music ended and as the members of the surrounding company were all expressing their delight with a heartfelt round of applause. Darcy, at a loss for words, had never thought he would be sincerely relieved to hear Sir William Lucas, but the loud-voiced comments of that nobleman now saved him the obligation to answer his aunt.
"Capital, capital! What an altogether agreeable evening, such rhythmical music and what a fine voice Miss Eliza has got. I defy even the theaters in town to present a soprano more pleasing to one's ear. She would be appreciated at the opera, I am sure. Uhurm ... not that this will ever be the case, now she is to become the mistress of such a grand estate."
The big friendly man parted from his apparently absentminded son-in-law, who left for the billiard room, one hand firmly attached to his chest some distance below his chin, and Sir William was now approaching Darcy's company from behind in hopes of an opportunity to exchange a few words with her Ladyship. He was not disappointed.
"Sir William Lucas! I wonder if by chance we might have the same taste in music! Rhythmical opera music you say; Would that be Handel or Mozart?"
Sir William was quite overwhelmed and so nervous that he spoke without pauses or reflection.
"Uhum, yes I believe so, I believe so, Lady Matlock. A steady beat is always helpful to the concentration. Miss Eliza is an asset in every polished society. I am sure Mr. Darcy can verify my testimony when I state that Meryton is about to lose its brightest jewel. On the other hand she is about to outshine the stars over Derbyshire."
The eyes of the countess widened and she cast an imperceptible eye on Darcy, whose handsome face was almost expressionless, but for the faintest hint of amusement when he sent her a glance as if to say, Yes, you heard him. He actually said that; he is real, admittedly absurd, but real!.
Lady Matlock, with some difficulty retained control of her features and innocently replied.
"Is that so? I take it you are an admirer of gems then, Sir William?"
... and a student of heavenly bodies? Darcy smirked to himself as his eyes were on the hunt for his star-eyed, emerald lady, whom he expected to brighten his future in Derbyshire, though he hoped she would be anything but distant.
The conversation was not continued very far beyond that point; Lady Lucas would however benefit from it innumerable times in the years to come. And so would the visitors at St James's!
Chapter I E
Darkness had descended on the house and park, when he escorted Elizabeth outdoors in a last attempt to postpone the inevitable farewell. She shuddered and moved a little closer to him, as they paused beside the Gardiners" couch. She told herself it was to hear his low whisper.
"You are cold, my love; if only it was not indecorous, I would keep you warm. Permit me to wish you sweet dreams and may you be safe until we meet again!"
"I wish the same for you, Fitzwilliam. Shall you dream of me?"
No sooner had she spoken than she blushed and lowered her eyes to the ground. Her words seemed both conceited and improper. But her hand was firmly grasped and the warmth of his breath swept over her cheek carrying the passionate reply.
"Whether awake or asleep there is no way I can escape your enchanting vision, Elizabeth. But the night, which separate us, is more easily endured when dreams do show me thee! Dare I hope that you will include me in yours?"
"Oh yes, no doubt, my love. I assure you ... ."
But she was forced to leave his eager heart unsatisfied as to her last assurance for a discrete hemming told them Mr. Gardiner had approached from behind with his wife. Darcy hastened to support his fianc»e as she stepped into the couch and then had to let go of her hand.
Thus he had parted from his beloved and with wistful gaze watched her carriage disappear among the others as the guests returned to Longbourn and Lucas Lodge. Some twenty minutes after he had returned indoors Darcy found himself once again in the library with his uncle. Most of the inhabitants at Netherfield had retired for the night, Fitzwilliam had only just left them and so had Bingley who was now in the servant's quarters, going through some arrangements for the wedding breakfast with Mrs. Nichols.
It was indeed getting late, but the chances of his falling asleep were not very great, so Darcy had no objection, when the earl suggested they might sit down and imbibe something to wet the throat. As he poured some of the golden liquid from Bingley's decanter into two glasses his movements were tardy; there was also something pensive about the way he put the heavy cut glass plug back and walked over to hand the beverage to his lordship.
The latter whose searching look had been fixed on his nephew from the moment they were in private, mumbled his thanks. Despite his own absent-mindedness Darcy could not avoid noticing the undivided attention of that firm gaze and responded to it by silently raising an inquiring eyebrow, whereupon his uncle immediately looked away to instead stare down into the aromatic contents of his glass.
Darcy shrugged his shoulders as he turned to put down his drink on the mantelpiece before he bent down to poke the fire and place another log of wood on the flaring embers. Meanwhile the earl again rested his eyes on the powerful back of the young man. This time allowing his genuine affection to show, before he cleared his throat.
"Well my lad. I am really pleased to see, that you have applied such wisdom in your choice of wife."
Darcy sank into a soft armchair without bothering to hide a pleased grin at his uncles words.
"Yes, I guess you noticed that Miss Elizabeth Bennet has got a clear understanding and the sense to use it properly."
The earl returned the wide smile, but it faded, as he looked into the fire and spoke slowly.
"Catherine was very upset when she visited on her way back to Kent. She came directly from Portman Square, possessed with a feeling of alarm after her altercation with Miss Bennet! Brave girl that! I seldom saw my sister more displeased, yet she still believed you would put an end to every rumor and set her mind at ease. She seemed to be very confident, that she had made you react upon the straightforwardness of the young person!
As soon as we received the letter from you informing us of the happy news, Rebecca gave vent to her misgivings that we would hear from Catherine before long ... and we did! Did she insult you terribly with her limited opinions?"
Darcy nodded his head in the affirmative, some of his grief on that account was visible; He was hurt by the ungenerous way that letter from his aunt had dismissed his precious beloved. The sight made his uncle frown, incensed with his sister, vexed that her obnoxious selfishness and callousness would obscure the happiness of their nephew. He was about to express his feelings, when Darcy suddenly surprised him by speaking his mind plainly.
"I feel it most keenly since her narrow-minded views were my own for many years. Only last Spring I myself was as blind to the true value of my fellow beings as Lady Catherine is still."
His dumbfounded response to this statement inveigled the earl to reveal his sincere reflections without his usual diplomacy.
"There is truth then, to what Edward told us? That you have found reason to change your attitude to people? The influence of a certain lady perhaps?"
He saw Darcy close his eyes and pass one hand over his face. The suspicion that he had touched a sore spot made Lord Matlock curse his outspokenness for the second time this evening. He apologized.
"Forgive me Darcy! I often talk more than I should. Please disregard my question. Tell me instead if you have had difficulty adjusting yourself to country manners? I can well imagine them to be a little less refined, or should I say, less dissimulated?"
His lordship was relieved to see that his previous faux pas had not caused his nephew any severe damage for Darcy smiled as he answered.
"They might perhaps be called ... direct! It took me some time getting used to ... some members of my new family."
"Aaah, I see! Mrs. Bennet is slightly overbearing I grant you, but as the brother of Catherine, I am hardened ... and Mr. Bennet strikes me as a man of some wit and learning. He was damned amusing at the port.
Although it can be said that some members of the family are slightly lacking in judgement, they do not impress me as being of a mean or malevolent disposition. Hrmm. And among them is the eldest Miss Bennet who has the amazing quality of not only looking angelic, she appears to act accordingly!? All in all, take comfort, Darcy, they are still far from the Yahoo's."
Darcy chuckled but then his face turned serious.
"I know and since I learnt to listen to reason, the material point for me is that Miss Elizabeth Bennet is a very bright and judicious lady."
The earl carefully rotated the thin balloon glass in his hand before he raised it and with obvious appreciation breathed in the aromatic fumes.
"She is indeed. But I am no less satisfied to know that you have found yourself a real woman with a warm affectionate heart. One that truly loves you yourself. Darcy, the man ..."
Darcy started and studied Lord Matlock with knitted brows. The older man smiled as he sipped his cognac.
" From what I gathered, the appalling amount of noise I managed on approaching the library earlier this evening was most adequate? I had noticed that you were missing, Darcy, and so was your enchanting fianc»e. Knowing your preferences since you were a mere boy, I thought the library was a most believable hideout."
Something in his uncle's voice and choice of words made Darcy move uneasily in his comfortable chair.
"It was not long after these deductive efforts of mine, I was having a discussion with some gentlemen on the present position of the planets and this nice Bingley fellow insisted on showing me some old astronomical volumes; once by a fortunate coincidence found at a book-dealer's establishment somewhere in Europe ... originally belonged to his father. Turned out to be quite interesting in the end ... . My attempts at dissuading him were not successful, but then I did not wish to arouse any suspicions. I mean, why on earth would I object to visiting his library? So you see , all I could do to warn you was make a fool of myself by laughing out loud and speaking at the top of my voice. I think, I stamped the floor, as if fowl were to be scared out of the shrubbery."
"But My Lord I assure You ... there was really no need ."
Lord Matlock's eyes were glittering with tantalizing mirth and he held up a hand to silence his nephew.
"Darcy! Please do me the honor to credit me with some human experience ... and insight! You may find it hard to believe, almost incomprehensible, but I have been young myself ... and ... I think our little drive did indeed start two turtle doves! Birds of a feather, flocking together eh? Darcy, you rascal, do not try to convince me, that your agitated face or the sweet blush of Miss Bennet's was all on behalf of the Mediterranean Sea!"
The earl leaned his head back in Bingley's huge leather armchair and laughed affectionately, when Darcy reddened at the memory. He throw an involuntary glance towards the fireplace as the electrified, blissful moment with his lovely fianc»e was vivid in his mind. Without the faintest idea what he would say, he was left to deliver an embarrassed hemming. Lord Matlock decided he would not be so cruel as to mention the gloves.
"Darcy, my dear boy. The countess and myself look upon it with great joy that you have finally decided to settle down and have a family. The fact that you have also found love, only contributes to enhance our happiness. A marriage of convenience can work out very well and has been known to do so from time to time, but there is certainly no comparison between that kind of businesslike arrangement and a vrais liason d'amour! If I had been allowed to design your future, I could not have done better."
His benevolent face turned grave and with a deep sigh, he bent forward to place his glass on a small table.
"You have been obliged to shoulder the many responsibilities and worries of an adult man very early Fitzwilliam. Too early I might add; although the fact that Pemberley has been as prosperous as ever during the last years stands to prove your capability. You have evinced an amazing maturity and often demonstrated judgement far above the landowners that are your seniors. There have, however, been times when your aunt and I have been distressed about your serious demeanor. For a young man, you have not had your share of exhilarated carelessness. You are entitled to your present happiness. It is high time that you get to savor some of the delights of a grown man."
Relieved that he was no longer subjected to the former merciless mirth Darcy had been listening to his uncle with affection, although it was mingled with some confusion to hear himself lauded. He now contemplated what made the earl hesitate before he spoke again.
"While we are on the subject of delights, hrm yes. Now that I come to think of it, ... I wonder, are you aware of what lies ahead, Darcy?"
The younger man stared at his uncle at first without comprehending to what he was referring. But Lord Matlock, a married man with two grown sons, was not embarrassed.
"Are you capable of handling a woman, Fitzwilliam? Do you know your way around ... ?"
Darcy blushed with amazement at this unexpected twist in the conversation and suddenly he imagined himself in the warmth of an Italian night, as glimpses from his early youth passed almost unconsciously through his mind. Cecile de Gercourt ... how pale is her memory. He would always harbor respect and grateful regard for the woman who once helped him acquire the confidence and discernment that had enabled him to keep his head clear during those past years of obtrusive female attacks on his one man fortress.
The impudence and ingenuity had been amazingly assiduous but to no avail. When he was younger and less experienced, a sweet face or a glorious figure might have aroused a momentary desire, but that passed soon enough, when there was only glacial greed or shallow vanity to be found behind the initially tempting bait and he was never trapped. The example set to him by his parents, his memories of their happy unanimity had been his lodestar. Once his youthful curiosity was satisfied, he knew what he was looking for and that he would never settle for less.
And then at last he had found what he sought. A woman who was everything he ever dreamt of and yet so much more! He did not doubt that she would fulfil his every wish, though probably in an altogether different manner from what he could imagine. He was confident enough, although he knew from the past months his love for Elizabeth meant that a completely new experience awaited him.
He wished he had not been staggering when he answered.
"Uncle Fitzwilliam, I did not at first fully comprehend your meaning. I am ... yes, I have some knowledge... not that I claim myself to be an expert ... to be honest, it stems also from theoretical ... studies ... I never was much of a ladies man ... ."
His embarrassed attempt at a laugh, moved the heart of his uncle who admired the straightforwardness of his nephew and smiled in a way both tender and reassuring.
"Ladies man? I see no need for that ... though I do think some of the ladies at Almack's might disagree with you there. The very ones that are at present utterly heartbroken to hear of your engagement and marriage! So I think you have only yourself to blame in that respect, Darcy! I do, however understand your meaning, you have certainly not been fooling around in the fashion of some rakes among the wealthy bachelors.
Theoretical eh? Yes I know the library at Pemberley is a veritable treasure, the shelves hold such ... versatility. I do not think even your father knew of every volume in it. It would not surprise me if you could find the oriental thinkers as well as the European on this interesting subject. Though probably on a dusty upper shelf. Philosophers in Sanskrit as well as dear old Ovid from Latin classes. He was rather liberal was he not? Perhaps one day you could brief me on the Ars Amandi eh? My Latin was never fluent."
The bantering manner of his address was intended to relieve the atmosphere and have his young relative feel less self-conscious. Perceiving that his endeavors were not very successful the earl turned serious as he continued.
"In earnest my boy, I have great respect for your being a well-read man, as well as your moderation in leading a dissolute life. Hrm, would you allow me some piece of advice?"
Lord Matlock raised his bushy eyebrows to watch the crimson face of his young relative. He felt very much like a father. Darcy knew it was well-meant and although he was ill at ease, he also thought he would be unwise to not listen to what an experienced man who lived in a happy marriage might have to say.
"I am sure I could use ... I am much obliged to Your Lordship."
"A very wise pronouncement! I am proud of you. He is indeed a fool who never listens to advice. However, what I would like to tell you ... as far as it is in your power, do think of your wife, before you see to your own pleasure. I admit, that this is more easily said than done, but I assure you, the rewards are well worth the momentary restrain. So that would mean ..., to use the royal words of Augustus, Festina lente! Do you get my point, Darcy?"
"Yes , My Lord, I admit I do ... I have actually had ... uhrm ,some thoughts to this effect ... hm."
"Very good. Splendid! Now on a slightly different angle ... .When you are heading for an argument with your wife, make an effort before your anger carries you away. Try to listen to what she has got to say, without concern for your own pride and prestige. It is just possible that she has a point, you know, and the sooner you understand that, the better for you and for your marriage! I now speak from hard earned experience, Darcy!
Yes, I hope I have not given you reason to consider me a meddling old fool, nephew? It is all out of concern for your best interests. I do wish you happiness, and from what I have seen your prospects are very promising. A truly enchanting woman this Elizabeth Bennet! Her eyes are the kind that intrigue a man in a most delightful way."
"Thank you My Lord. I am most grateful to have you concern yourself with my future felicity. I certainly wish to do whatever is in my power to make Miss Bennet happy. The fact that she has consented to be my wife is the best thing that ever happened to me and I love her with all my heart."
Darcy smiled from genuine happiness and although sincerely thankful to his uncle for this token of affection, also from relief that the most awkward part of their conversation was over.
"I have said this before, but it deserves to be repeated. I am very pleased to have you reason with such maturity, Darcy! Let me tell you, it is my sincere belief that your parents would have been as proud of you.
I suppose you have heard before, that your mother and I were very close from our early childhood and when I look back, I recall more than one occasion, when we talked of how fortunate we both were in our choice of marriage partners. When Anne was about to marry George, I had only just met Rebecca. I am sure you remember some of it, but I can assure you, that your parents were blessed with a very happy married life. As am I.
We used to discuss what really matters in life and we agreed that people are what matters, reliable friends and, if luck smiles at you, one very special friend, someone to love and share your life with. When you were still very young, she told me she wanted this above everything for you and Georgiana. For you to find the same conjugal felicity that she herself had been granted. No wonder then that I am pleased to witness the sweet intimacy between yourself and your fianc»e, Darcy, when in my heart I know, that Anne and George would join me to wish you every possible happiness."
The two men had got up and seeing Darcy's eyes brimming with tears, the earl stepped near to place his arms round his nephew's shoulders. His short embrace was mawkish and violent, in strength resembling that of a bear's paws.
Chapter II A
Mr. Darcy was standing by a window in the drawing room at Longbourn, but he was not attempting to escape his company in the manner he had so often resorted to in former days. Nor was he seeking to hide his face in order to protect his sentiments from discovery. No, he was not even staring out into the winter's eve. He turned his back to the leafless branches and withered relics of its frozen vegetation. Life and the growing power was dormant there. Yes, he turned his back to it and instead faced the warmth of loveliness in bloom, for he was absorbed in conversation with his fiancªe. The two of them formed their own little group in the room and were discretely ignored by the others.
He tried to restrict himself, but more than once was his gaze drawn to her enchanting frame. Especially when the words failed them and left the escalating silence to quaver, heavy with unspoken wishes and suppressed caresses ... . Then there was no alternative for him but to admit defeat, give in to his yearning and just look at her, greedily imbibing her beauty, savoring her charisma.
Elizabeth was sitting in an armchair, leaning back and receiving this sometimes unguarded stare with a hardly perceptible smile of secret pleasure. It was as if his eyes were pressing her against the back of the chair and there was nothing she could do to prevent his gaze from lighting a small persistent flame somewhere inside her by the mere intensity of his fervor.
She also experienced an agony of pain, that would not go away for as long as she was in his company. No sensation similar to it had ever come upon her, but for those last weeks. It was a sweet pain, a kind of tight band around her chest and although she knew not how, afflicting her mind as well. Its effects had never been so merciless as this evening. Oh, how my heart is aching, it feels so full ... and yet empty. Yes, I do need him, this ache is a sign of it. I would wish to throw my arms round his neck ... . Suddenly she longed to touch him like she had never touched anyone before and the confusion brought about by this wish, as well as some evidence of its existence was visible in her eyes.
Darcy intuitively apprehended her response to his ardor and it excited him until he thought he was on the brink of surrender. This is torment indeed, but would I rather be freed from it? Yes, by her no doubt, but I can endure it for one more day until she will be mine and willing, ... yes, I believe so, willing to relieve my suffering. He endeavored to keep standing where he was and forced his breathing to stay regular if not calm. How am I supposed to remain indifferent, when so much loveliness is before me?
They talked somewhat hecticly of different matters regarding the wedding, such as the duration of their journey by coach to London afterwards ...
"How many hours would you say, Mr. Darcy?"
or the arrangements to collect Elizabeth's luggage ...
"If I send Mr. Bullock over here first thing tomorrow morning, would that meet with your approval?"
All in all, topics that did have some significance, but were still not uppermost in their minds. Only feverishly conjectured to provide the necessary veil, behind which they could hope to hide their ardent affections ... . Now and again the sound of a deep drawn breath was heard; one would think, there was not enough air in the room.
It was not from any lack of air, however, that Mrs. Bennet asked Jane and Kitty to accompany her upstairs; rather it was a missing ribbon and the matter concerned the final decision as to its color. With the firm intention of putting this finishing touch to a gown of Jane's the ladies left.
Bingley, finding no further incentive in the drawing room, was grateful to receive an invitation from his father-in-law to step into the library and refresh himself. Mr. Bennet was about to raise his voice to include the other gentleman in his offer, but when he glanced over toward his favorite daughter, he changed his mind. A tender smile graced his lips and he pressed them together, winked his eye at Bingley and led the way. He also suggested, that Mary should close her book and go upstairs to assist her mother.
"My dear Mary, I believe you have been buried in that volume since supper. Now take my advice and put it away. If you are to assist your mother and sisters, you will no doubt find the necessary time to reflect on what you have read. Then tomorrow you and I might discuss your observations and the rewards of your studies will probably be multiplied!"
Mary lifted her head from the page and peered at her father. With some consternation she obeyed him, for she was seldom obstinate. So after placing a silk ribbon in her favorite purple shade to mark the page, she followed the gentlemen as they left and with one meditative glance at the whispering couple closed the door behind her.
Thus another ribbon, a velvet one, was carefully selected and by industrious fingers sewn near the hem of the future Mrs. Bingley's dress. Meanwhile the amount of pheasants shot in Hertfordshire during the past hunting season was loosely estimated, by way of some port-sipping pondering and unrestrained speculations related to what particular fodder this fowl might prefer and on whose grounds it was best provided. Both gentlemen were in a state of nervous anticipation ... and each of them was equally eager to soothe the other.
The lovers in the drawing room were finally left alone for some precious moments. Not wishing for any of them to run to waste Darcy immediately approached Elizabeth and took her hand, hesitant how to address her in the soothing silence.
He tried to confine himself to letting his hand caress and his lips tenderly touch each finger on it, but it just was not enough. He so wished to kneel before her, but he dared not, for he would place his head on her lap, embrace her softness, lose himself in her warmth and it would be too imprudent, unthinkable, since their privacy was only temporary. With an expression of bewildered resignation he pulled her to her feet and buried his face against the curls above her ear, tickling it with his whisper.
" This is the last time we are to meet and part like this. I will not have to endure further such sweet torture as this evening has exposed me to. Tomorrow is the long awaited day of our wedding. What think you of it, my love?"
He pulled his head slightly backwards to look at her, but she placed her hands on his chest to push him even further away and so be able to meet his eyes.
" I think, I may safely say, that I have never been happier to anticipate the coming day in all my life, sir. As for torture, although it was not intentional, it was ... perhaps, inevitable ... You are not the sole victim, I have been somewhat afflicted too ... "
She blushed and lowered her eyes, as she let her hands brush the lapels of his coat and even furtively sneak under it to touch the soft cloth of his waistcoat.
He closed his eyes to fully enjoy the pleasure of this shy caress and her amazing frankness. Clearing his throat he once again pulled her closer to him and breathed.
"You are the most adorable woman on earth and I thank God, that you have consented to be my wife, dearest Elizabeth."
Seduced by the unexpected sensation of her hands on his chest, he pressed his feverish lips to her mouth, while he ran his hands up her back to cup them round her shoulders, grasping them roughly. He then abruptly released her, acutely aware that he had to take his leave at once. He was barely able to say good night and part from her.
Luckily Bingley's jovial face appeared in the door to inform them, that it was time to return to Netherfield. His eyes glittered mischievously, as he delivered his message in a theatrical whisper.
"Mrs. Bennet wants us out of the house. She claims the ladies need their rest, so I have asked for the horses. Darcy, you had better be brave and bid your future bride farewell!"
Bingley withdrew his head. After placing a hasty kiss on her mouth Darcy smiled lovingly down into her flustered face and seized her hand to pull her with him out into the hall. When coats and hats were donned, Jane and Elizabeth accompanied the gentlemen out on the porch to watch them mount their horses.
"Until tomorrow then!"
Bingley was beaming with happiness and gallantly saluted with his hat. Jane's eyes were as radiant, when she waved back.
"Good night, ladies."
Darcy slowly bent his head as he spoke. His dark eyes sought Elizabeth's to send her one last enamored gaze, before by an indication of his hand and a slight pressure of his leg, he made his horse turn and was off to follow his friend.
His deep solemn voice resounded within her and she pulled the shawl tighter round her shoulders with a slight shiver. Her eyes lingered on the tall silhouette standing out against the winter sky, until he disappeared behind the trees at the turn of the driveway. She breathed in the clear cool night air and put one arm around her sister's waist. Although she tried to steady her voice, there was a tinge of longing caused by the emotional discomposure she could not quite control .
"Oh Jane, I am so exceedingly happy!"
Continued in Section 2.
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