A Fine Kettle of Fish
Part One: Mr. Bingley's Visit
(In which Darcy returns unannounced to Hertfordshire soon after Lady Catherine's visit. He comes across Lizzy at an awkward moment, but this is not the only pickle she will find herself in this day!)
"Jane! He is come again," sang Mrs. Bennet, peering out the breakfast room window. "Hurry and finish eating!"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at Jane. "I am quite finished, mama. I will go and offer him tea until Jane is ready."
"Thank you, Lizzy," said Jane softly as Elizabeth sailed out the door.
Mr. Bingley was just entering the house. He smiled most warmly at Elizabeth as she greeted him, but could not stop his eyes from straying down the hall.
"My sister will be along directly, Mr. Bingley, and will join you in the sitting room. You will not need to wait long; but would you like some tea?"
"Yes, thank you, very much!" he said eagerly, obviously in too happy a frame of mind to form sentences correctly.
They waited companiably for the tea, while Bingley attempted to restrain himself from springing out of his seat and going to the door every few seconds. He did not seem inclined to speak, but Elizabeth saw that she had best distract him; so she ventured a little conversation.
"You are alone at Netherfield, still?"
"Oh! Yes, but not for much longer. I expect Darcy in the next two days or so."
The door opened, and Bingley's eyes widened; but it was only the tea.
"Thank you, Sarah," said Elizabeth warmly, and went to get him a cup. She did not know whether she wanted to discuss Mr. Darcy or not, and was glad of the opportunity to busy herself.
"Here you are, sir," she presented him with his tea, and took her own. The door opened: it was Mrs. Bennet, and Bingley surged from his chair, but his smile was more politeness than eagerness.
"Oh, Mr. Bingley, it is good of you to come again to see us." Mrs. Bennet began. "Dear Jane is on her way. And I see you have some tea, that is very well." She sat in her favourite chair and gave Mr. Bingley a look of contentment, for indeed she was quite content with him.
The door opened again, and Bingley sprang up; but it was Kitty.
"Miss Katherine, good morning," said Bingley, quite frustrated but hiding it well. Elizabeth sipped her tea to hide a smile.
"I believe she will be next, Mr. Bingley,"she said softly, so that her mother would not hear her properly. Then, more loudly, "I think I might go for a walk this morning, mama. It is a fine day."
Bingley looked at her gratefully. "Do you know, that is a marvellous idea, Miss Eliza. I should greatly enjoy a walk, and perhaps..."
The door opened, and this time it was Jane.
Bingley was beside her beaming before she could move to the table. "How do you feel about a bit of a walk, my dear? Miss Eliza was just saying what a fine day it is, and how perfect for a walk."
"Oh! That would be lovely. I shall go and get my things immediately; that is, if you don't mind, mama."
"Mind? Why should I mind? Of course you want to go for a walk, and such a lovely day it is too."
Once outside, the three turned to face one another with wide smiles. "Oh Lizzy, thank you for getting us out of the house so quickly."
"Think nothing of it, dear Jane. I know that you and Mr. Bingley want nothing more than to spend as many moments as you can admiring one another without interruption. So you shall walk in one direction, and I shall choose another."
"Miss Bennet, are you sure..." began Mr. Bingley, his face in confusion as he struggled between concern and relief.
"I assure you, sir, I have walked these roads alone for many a year and never once have I come to grief," she laughed. "In fact, a solitary walk is all I have had to keep me sane, on occasion. I like nothing better than a long ramble in the peace and quiet, with no-one to criticise me but myself."
He bowed, smiling, and kissed her hand. "I don't like to say it, Miss Eliza, but I think I like you best of all my sisters!"
She waved them off, then turned the other way down the lane. Once well out of sight of the house, she began to run, a smile on her face.
Part Two: An Uncomfortable Encounter
Darcy had returned from London a little earlier than planned; in fact had ridden since very early morning and had not sent warning to Bingley or anyone else, feeling a great need for solitude. He needed time to think; to see if he could determine how she viewed him. Was it possible her feelings had changed? Lady Catherine's account hinted at it, but what if they had not; dare he ask a second time? Dare he not?
Directly upon arriving in the neighbourhood he had ridden in the direction of Longbourn; and spying a lovely wooded hill, he had dismounted and started to walk. He needed to stretch his legs, and though the breeze was refreshing he felt a little blasted by it from his hours spent at speed. The sturdy trees would offer a welcome respite; he secured his horse by a fine patch of grass and began striding upward. Indeed it was not long before long the forest had the desired effect, and he started to feel calmer. Towards the top of the hill he came upon a path, which he began to follow. There were still a few flowers in the grass, and a bird was singing...and not only a bird. A woman's voice could be faintly heard, raised in song. His heart began to pound, for he was sure he recognised whose it was. The melancholy tune was coming from above him, and though the wind made it hard to tell the distance or direction exactly, he left the path and took the shorter way towards the source of the song, and the top of the hill.
After scrambling up a steeper section, he rounded the base of a huge oak - and there she was. The view she was contemplating was lovely, and he had no doubt he had stumbled across one of her favourite haunts. She almost had her back to him, for which he was thankful, for she was shredding flowers into the breeze as she sang and he did not wish to make her self-conscious; or to make her stop. He withdrew slightly, so that if she should turn unexpectedly he would not be noticed. She finished her song, though the sadness of the tune lingered in her expression, and began to remove her bonnet. To Darcy's utter surprise, she then tossed the bonnet on the ground, unpinned and untied her hair, and shook it loose into the wind with a sigh of contentment. Darcy had never seen her so, though he had imagined it often enough Ò and the reality outdid his expectation so tremendously, he felt his heart would burst. He should not have followed her; how could he now interrupt without causing the most profound embarrassment to them both? She was carefree and unconscious, entirely natural; so unlike any other woman he had ever known. He watched her avidly, taking in every detail. Her long dark hair flowed in waves down her back, except where it was lifted by the wind. She bent to collect her bonnet from the grass and moved to sit on a smooth stone nearby, where she settled herself with a familiar ease, one knee drawn up and her face resting on it. She sighed again, and sat gazing thoughtfully down the hill for some minutes. Her expression remained grave, with an air of melancholy. Could he be the reason for her unhappiness?
At that moment a robin alighted on the grass nearby, pecking for insects with that alertness and grace that seems to belong exclusively to small birds. Elizabeth watched it closely; its antics brought a smile to her face. It came within three feet of the stone on which she sat, looked directly at her with one bright eye, and was gone in a whirring of wings.
"Oh!" breathed Elizabeth, turning her head to trace its flight. She laughed out loud, and abruptly rose to her feet, walked a few steps and hurled the bonnet into the air with a cry. It was caught by the breeze and drifted somewhat as it fell.
"Oh, no!" she groaned, hand on mouth, for she could see as clearly as Darcy could that it was going to tangle in the branches of the oak beside her. This it duly did. "Damn!" said the lady, and she laughed at herself, shaking her head. She looked up at the offending hat, hands on hips, and sighed. "Well, mine the fault, mine the remedy, I suppose."
Darcy could not believe his eyes. Miss Bennet hitched up her skirts, and with expert success scrambled up the tree until she was almost lost from his view in the heavy foliage. He could still hear her straining within the tree, cursing softly to herself. Branches swayed to mark her progress. The branch on which the bonnet had stranded itself began to shake vigorously; the bonnet loosened, and there was a cry of triumph from above as it fell.
At that moment he made his decision. He would approach her, and he would plead his case. He was certain of one thing: that Elizabeth Bennet could not help such spirited displays any more than he could help his reticence amongst strangers. It had taken him many months of pain to realise the worth of such individuality; to accept that all his notions of propriety and honour were empty and hollow when faced with such integrity as she possessed. Whether he had earned her love or not, he must show her that she could not shock him; that she was acceptable to him exactly as she was Ò that the narrow-minded, stiff-necked Darcy was gone because of her.
Filled with resolve, he stood away from his shelter and strode forward to scoop her bonnet from the mud where it had fallen. The branches of the oak continued to shudder as she descended; her feet appeared, and suddenly she leaped, landing with a sodden thud. She bent to inspect her skirts, which were stained with mud, shrugged, and straightened; then gasped with shock and took a step back as she realised who was in front of her. Her eyes grew wide and her face paled, then darkened with a heavy blush.
"M...Mr. Darcy!" she exclaimed, deeply mortified. What must he think? There she stood in complete disarray, with dirty hands and scratches and a torn dress and her hair flying every which way. Never had she wished so fervently for the ground to open up and swallow her.
"Miss Bennet," he replied with perfect aplomb, as though nothing was out of the ordinary. He even bowed deeply. "I believe this is yours."
Part Three: Confessions
After a moment more of horrified speechlessness, Elizabeth managed to reach out and take the bonnet from his outstretched hand. "I ...I thank you, sir." She would not meet his eyes. "I beg you...you must excuse me," she said quietly, and turned to leave, highly embarrassed.
He was too fast; he expected it, and captured one of her hands before she could escape. He would not release it, and she was halted.
"Miss Bennet - please." There was an entreaty in his voice; she glanced up and saw that he was not laughing at her, but rather was gazing intently on her, almost pleadingly. "I must confess...I must speak with you, this instant."
Her face still burned with shame. That he, of all people, should have seen her behaving in such an...improper fashion! He was no doubt going to express his relief that she had not accepted him when given the chance, and send her Lady Catherine's regards.
"Please, Miss Bennet," he said again. "Calm yourself. I am heartily sorry for having disturbed your privacy so rudely, and do not wish to embarrass you further. But I find myself somewhat overwhelmed..."
She waited for bitter news with a sinking heart, and still would not look at him. He released her hand, content that she would hear him, and stepped a little closer.
"I confess I had not realised that the wood-nymphs around Longbourn were so lovely, or I would have visited these woods long before now."
At this she glanced up. It was the last thing she could have expected him to say. To her surprise there was no disapproval in his tone, and the hint of a smile around his mouth; was he teasing her?
"Please, madam," He spoke again more earnestly, "You must forgive me."
"Forgive you?" She spoke in confused tones, and raised her eyes to meet his in puzzlement. "Mr. Darcy, it is you who should forgive me!"
Upset, she would not be interrupted, and continued past his objections, though somewhat inarticulately due to the turmoil she was experiencing. "It is I who owe you the deepest apology, Mr. Darcy. Not only have you witnessed my...unseemly behaviour just now, and I know this must shame us both, though you are too much the gentleman to mention it - I am also so ashamed of the ill-founded accusations I levelled at you - I believe you know to what I refer. And my family - My family owes you their current happiness, yet I know how you must view us."
There was a slight pause; then he frowned, and said, "Miss Bennet, you know of my dealings...?"
"Please do not blame my aunt, Mr. Darcy. It was Lydia's thoughtlessness that first betrayed it, and then I could not rest until I knew the particulars." She drew a deep breath, and went on: "You must allow me to thank you, again and again, sir, for all that you have done and suffered on our behalf; for they do not know to whom they are indebted."
Once again he was silent for a moment before speaking. "Your family owe me nothing, Miss Bennet. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you."
She could think of no reply to this, having convinced herself to forget all hope; but when she looked up at him again she met with a look of such regard and warmth that she began to blush, and lowered her lids.
"And what did you say of me last April, that I did not deserve?" he continued. "My behaviour to you at the time merited the strongest reproof; it was unpardonable. You most rightly called me ungentlemanlike, which I shall never forget..."
"Mr. Darcy..." she tried to interrupt, but he would not stop.
"Miss Bennet, you must be aware of my...reserve, my unease in expressing myself. Yet it was not only this that led you, and others, to call me proud. As a child I was given good principles, yet not taught to correct my temper. My parents, worthy in all other respects, indulged me to a faulty degree and allowed me, encouraged me to believe that conceit, and pride, amongst those of consequence was a natural and worthy thing. I have been a selfish being all my life, until you checked me, Elizabeth."
She was watching him with all her attention now, her embarrassment forgotten in her astonishment, while his eyes were mostly on his feet.
"Since that time I have tried to show you...tried to act in a manner that would obtain your forgiveness, lessen your ill opinion by letting you see that your reproofs had been attended to. I know I have not always been successful; I cannot overcome this...shyness of mine. Forgive me for the awkwardness of my expression."
Here he paused a short moment; then he seemed to gather himself, and raised his eyes to her.
"Miss Bennet, you are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, then tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever."
She looked away from him, her heart pounding. He still loved her! But...
"You would still seek my hand then, even after..." and here she gestured to the tree which stood next to them. "You know I would not be a proper wife, such as you deserve, Mr. Darcy. I am too impulsive, too imprudent in my manner."
"On the contrary, Elizabeth," he reached for her hand again, and raised it to his lips. "It is your liveliness, your wit and your fearlessness that drew me to you. Such a sight as was shown me this morning only serves to deepen in my eyes the beauty of your heart. All the notions of propriety in the world can never touch me again, now that I have seen where value truly lies."
She blushed becomingly, her mind a whirl; and when she raised her eyes again there was a glint in them, and an ironic little smile was on her lips.
"Mr. Darcy...forgive me, but I must enquire: How long were you watching me?"
It was now his turn to blush, and a sheepish grin graced his mouth. "It was your song that drew me up here. I was behind you from halfway through it; and I was utterly bewitched."
"Well I must say I find that fact somewhat disconcerting; but I am convinced of your honesty."
He was looking at her again, and waiting anxiously.
"Miss Bennet, is this all the answer that I am receive? That you are convinced of my honesty?"
His grip tightened on her hand, causing her heart to beat faster still; and she took great pleasure in banishing any ghosts of insecurity that still lurked unspoken: "Mr. Darcy. I do not know what I have done to deserve it; but nothing in the world would give me greater pleasure than to be your wife."
An expression of heart-felt delight diffused over his face, which she smiled to see; and on an impulse she let her bonnet fall, stepped towards him and caught her arms around his neck, and held him close. He stiffened for an instant; then wrapped his arms around her almost more tightly than she could bear, and pressed his face into her loosened hair. A sigh passed through him, as though some great tension had been released.
"Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth," he said softly. She could not reply; her eyes were stinging. But she tightened the grip of her arms momentarily, until she had regained her composure. A moment later he loosened his hold, and they drew back enough to see eachother clearly.
"Would you do me the honour...I mean, my sister calls me William," he said shyly.
"If the occasion should arise, I suppose I could manage it," she replied with a playful smile. "It is an easy enough name to say, I think."
"You torment me," he softly accused. He raised one hand to her face and caressed her cheek; she leaned into his touch.
"So early in the engagement, too...perhaps you should call the whole thing off," she said, her eyes closing with pleasure as he stroked her hair.
"You will not escape so easily as that," he assured her. His face moved closer to hers, until she could feel his breath on her cheek.
"Do you know," she remarked with mock seriousness, "That I have a cousin called William? I believe you are acquainted with him: in fact, I believe him to be in the service of your relative..."
Here she was forced to discontinue her teasing, for to her delight her lips had become otherwise engaged. The kiss lengthened; and to the joy of both the sensation was more than either could have dreamed. Finally Elizabeth pulled back, and they stood breathing hard and leaning on one another.
"Oh! I think I need to sit down," she murmured.
"Miss Bennet, I am sorry," Darcy exclaimed, embarrassed. "I did not mean...I should not have..."
"Perhaps you are right," breathed Elizabeth. "Highly improper, I dare say, and most reprehensible for a young man to take advantage of a lady so."
He looked at her, dismayed with himself; but she smiled up at him, eyes glinting. "But I am very glad you did, William; and I should be happy to try it again...in a few minutes, when I have recovered sufficiently."
And they laughed together for the first time; and each delighted in the happiness that shone from the other's eyes.
(Can the good fortune last? Find out in Part 4: An Untimely Discovery!)
Part Four: An Untimely Discovery
A little later, the two walked slowly arm in arm down the hill. Elizabeth was carrying her bonnet, with her hairpins and gloves bundled inside it. Darcy had offered gallantly to carry it for her, but she told him she thought that would be a poor beginning and would lessen his respect for her abilities. They talked easily as they progressed, mostly of their history. The informality and high emotion of the earlier scene atop the hill had removed many awkwardnesses. She had realised that he was not so proper as he seemed, after all; and he had realised the same, and that much joy was to be found in freedom. He hoped that he might meet a certain wood-nymph in the grounds at Pemberley; she laughed and blushed, and owned that she had once seen a handsome water-sprite there, and that perhaps the sprite and the nymph could be friends; which signalled his turn to blush. On occasion they would stop, to admire a certain view or one another.
Eventually the bottom of the hill was attained, and they took paths through the Longbourn fields which would come out at the garden woods, near the house but not too near. Here was Mr. Bennet's favourite place to sit and think, for here he was usually assured of solitude and could not hear ructions or excitements from the manor. No flower beds had been planted in the grove, so it had never been especially attractive to any other family members - save his second daughter, who loved the trees as well as he did; and he never minded her presence. At this noontide the gentleman sat, hidden on an obscure bench, thinking about his dear Lizzy and what could be troubling her; for she had not been the same since her return from Derbyshire.
The faint sound of voices approaching distracted him, and he frowned when he realised that they were coming from the direction of the fields. Only Elizabeth used that path, as a rule, and from the laughter he recognised that it was indeed her; but accompanied by a man who was talking quietly. His voice was too low and circumspect to be Bingley's Ò and had she not walked out alone this morning? Curious, Mr. Bennet craned his neck over the hedge to see who might walk in through the gate. The sight that met his eyes caused his mouth to drop open in astonishment. Elizabeth was walking arm in arm with Mr. Darcy! And familiarly, too, as though some intimacy existed between them. With her hair unbound on her shoulders, no less, and a blush on her cheeks, and a silly great smile! The signs were unmistakable, and Mr. Bennet was torn: should he jump up at once and demand an accounting, or should he leave things be for the moment and speak to her in private? The question did not trouble him for long Ò for if there was a chance that Elizabeth had found happiness, then he would be the last to place it in jeopardy. He sank back out of sight, though not so far as to obstruct his view, in case he should be needed.
Once inside the arch, Elizabeth and Darcy stopped. She detached her arm from his, though they remained hand in hand, and turned to face him. Mr. Bennet, unseen, burned to hear what they would say, and held his breath without knowing it.
"Will you come in for luncheon?" she asked politely.
"Much as I would like to, Elizabeth, I had better not," said Darcy with a wry smile. (Darcy, smiling? And calling her Elizabeth!) "Or they might think me responsible for your...um...appearance." His free hand gently touched her hair.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, and blushed. "I had forgotten Ò I am sorry, you are perfectly right. My mother might even forget about your ten thousand a year if we started another Bennet scandal. She would never speak to me again," she laughed.
"Indeed," he replied good-humouredly, giving the hidden watcher a further shock. "But I will call later this afternoon, after I have cleaned up a bit at Netherfield."
"I will look forward to it," she said, smiling.
"I will be counting the minutes," Darcy said intently; and he pulled her closer. She touched his face, and he lowered his head and kissed her. It was certainly not the kiss of a friend; the bonnet fell neglected from Elizabeth's fingers, and Mr. Bennet thought that if he were given any more shocks today he would expire on the spot.
Finally Darcy turned to leave; she watched him until he was out of sight, and gave a sigh. Smiling wistfully, she stooped to retrieve her burden, and was turning towards the house when to her horror she heard her father's voice hiss, "Lizzy! Is he gone?"
Part Five: An Explanation Demanded
She was so badly startled by the sound of her father's voice she almost fell over, and dropped the bonnet again. When she had recovered a little, she looked about, but could not see him; then she noticed his arm behind the hedge, waving at her.
"Over here, Lizzy. Come and sit down with me, my child, I need to talk with you."
With a deep sigh of resignation, Elizabeth did as she was bid; though she had never been so reluctant to see her father in her life. Her face was still burning with embarrassment over what he might have seen, over the sight she must look, over how on earth she was to easily explain such a difficult matter as her drastic change of heart.
Mr. Bennet rose and took his favourite daughter by the hand, leading her to the concealed bench which she had clearly forgotten existed. "Come here, Lizzy. Sit down. It is clear that much needs to be said, and I will begin, as I dare say that you are somewhat at a loss for words at the moment."
She could only nod and sit, clearly much discomfited.
"I was going to ask you if you are out of your senses, my dear, but you have answered that question yourself. The distraction and melancholy that has afflicted you for some time was plainly not with you a short time ago, so I suppose that things have been resolved on that score Ò though I may say I was not expecting the source of your unhappiness, and have been given quite the rude surprise! You pulled the wool over our eyes very cunningly, Lizzy, and I hope to be given an explanation."
He looked at her expectantly, but not unkindly.
"Come, my dear, I will not laugh at you, if that is what you fear. I will save any chuckles that might threaten to overwhelm me until I am alone again, and you cannot hear them." He squeezed her hand and winked at her, by way of encouragement.
Elizabeth finally looked at her father, and squeezed his hand in return. "Oh, papa. I hardly know where to begin."
"Well I can offer a starting point that has greatly piqued my paternal curiousity Ò and that is, the state of your appearance. Were you merely running wild again, or have there been more liberties taken than I like to suppose?"
"No, no!" She blushed again, but was anxious to reassure him. "It was my doing entirely. I went up to Smithy Hill this morning, and I got a little carried away. Mr. Darcy met me later, you must not think that he..."
"Hmph!" snorted Mr. Bennet, one eyebrow upraised. "As to that, I am not sure what he would not do, after your charming display here in my own garden!"
"Father, I am truly sorry,"' she said earnestly. "We thought we were alone, we should never have presumed..."
"Yes yes, well well. The violence of young lovers. I trust that he has done the honourable thing and made you an offer?"
"Yes - yes he has," she said, and could not help but smile shyly.
"Well, if such a man can see you as you are now and still make you an offer, there must be more to him than meets the eye! I shall take great pleasure deciphering him and plumbing his depths, Lizzy, for it is plain he must possess them - though I think my pleasure will not be as great as yours, eh?"
"No, father," said his daughter, with an embarrassed laugh. "I think you must be right."
"Well well," said Mr. Bennet, and patted Elizabeth's hand. "Now we have gotten off on the right foot and my worst fears are allayed, I pray you to make me understand how on earth such a proud, unpleasant fellow as Mr. Darcy should be marrying one of my daughters Ò and the one who I credited with having the best sense, at that. The last I knew of anything, you couldn't stand the sight of him! Whatever has been going on, and how long have I been in the dark?"
Elizabeth, greatly affected, began her story earnestly with an account of Darcy's first proposal at Hunsford the previous spring, and detailing her struggles with the issues raised by his letter; her self-mortification as she realised her prejudices, her changing opinion of the gentleman himself Ò and all the confusions of their encounters at Pemberley, with the Gardiners. She enumerated with energy the good qualities and changes in his demeanour that she had there become sure of, and confessed her self-doubts when he had abruptly left her for London.
"So!" said her father, an avid listener. "Then began your tortures here at Longbourn Ò and no wonder you found it hard to laugh when I read you that letter from Mr. Collins! And Lady Catherine?"
"Yes, papa," smiled Elizabeth, colouring slightly, "She really did come to refuse her consent."
At this Mr. Bennet could not restrain himself, and had to laugh for a minute; and Elizabeth joined him.
Then she said, more seriously, "But that is not all. I have not yet told you of the part Mr. Darcy played in the business of poor Lydia and Mr. Wickham." And she went on, outlining all the facts and how she had gained them.
"I am all astonishment!" he exclaimed when she had finished speaking. "And today he came across you looking like Diana the Huntress, and proposed to you again! I do believe I may be speechless, for I cannot think of anything more to say." He smiled fondly at his daughter, and reached over to kiss her on the forehead. When he drew back she thought she could see a tear in his eye as he spoke: "Well, my dear, if it is all as you have said, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy."
They sat quietly for a few moments, enjoying the peace of eachother's company and contentment; then Mr. Bennet heaved a sigh.
"Well, Lizzy, up we must get, and back to the house. We are rather late for lunch, I believe, and your mother will be frantic. We must sneak you in the side door again so that she will not scold you Ò but after you break her a certain piece of news, I dare say you will be allowed to wear your hair however you choose, and get as dirty as you like, and tear all your gowns willy-nilly; she will never criticise you again."
They both laughed, and Elizabeth took her father's proffered arm, and they walked out of the grove towards the house.
Conclusion Continued: A Painful Extraction
Dinner at the Bennets' that night was as strange a mixture of delight and excruciation as Elizabeth had ever experienced. Mrs. Bennet had met Mr. Darcy's arrival with her usual displeasure, and had bordered on the uncivil in her manner of address ever since he had stepped through the door. He bore the depredations gamely, however, and even went so far as to solicit her opinion once or twice. Bingley, who was more effusive in his greeting to Darcy than usual due to his friend's surprise appearance, was even more surprised to notice this effort to appease the lady of the house. Indeed Darcy spoke more words that evening to various family members than he had ever done before. Elizabeth, though strangely quiet, could not help stealing a glance in his direction whenever she thought no one might intercept it; his returning glances made her feel warm and light-headed, and quite unable to eat with her usual appetite. Bingley and Jane both noticed several silent exchanges of this kind, and as a result shared a hopeful communication of their own; neither had failed to notice Elizabeth's awkward silences or Darcy's uncharacteristic affability. Mr. Bennet was watching the whole display with unspoken amusement, and he winked at Lizzy once or twice when he caught her eye, very unhelpfully in her opinion.
At last the meal ended, the party removed to the drawing-room for evening amusements, and Mr. Bennet retired to his library. Mrs. Bennet, curious to see this newly-civil Mr. Darcy, invited him to join the table for a round of whist; but the gentleman declined most politely, pleading a prior engagement. He then went to stand beside Elizabeth, causing Mrs. Bennet for the first time to engage in suspicions hitherto undreamed of. She could not hear of what they spoke, but the intimacy of their manner was so unexpected that it quite caught her notice for two seconds complete before she had to accost Jane and Mr. Bingley, who were not giving the card table their full attention. When she looked up again directly, Mr. Darcy had disappeared, and Elizabeth was seated with a book, fidgeting. Mrs. Bennet shrugged and thought no more of it.
"Come in," called Mr. Bennet cheerfully, upon hearing a soft knock on the library door. He knew who it would be, and was quite relishing the prospect of the conversation to come. He had a glass of fine port in his hand and was all at ease, for after his little amusements were over he was anticipating great happiness in certain quarters, and indeed could hardly restrain the emotion in himself.
"I hope I am not disturbing you, sir," said Darcy, as he closed the door behind him. "If you have a moment spare, I have a matter I would discuss with you."
"Indeed?" rejoined Mr. Bennet, in great good humour. "A most serious matter, by your expression. Do sit down, Mr. Darcy, and take your ease; can I offer you a glass?"
"I thank you, no," said Darcy uncomfortably. "I will not trespass on your time too long."
"As you will, sir," said Mr. Bennet graciously.
Darcy stood awkwardly for a moment, then cleared his throat. Mr. Bennet, watching him through new eyes since Elizabeth's revelations, was pleased to see evidence of shyness rather than arrogance in his manner.
"Mr. Bennet, I wish to speak to you about your second daughter, Elizabeth," Darcy began, his gaze direct but diffident.
"Oh? What has she done now?" her father replied with a frown, though his eyes still twinkled. "She is always up to something, I hope she has not offended you in some way."
"Not at all, sir, you mistake me," Darcy said quickly. "I assure you she is perfectly amiable in her behaviour. In fact, it is just this that I wish to discuss..."
"You surprise me, sir," Mr. Bennet interrupted. "Do you mean to tell me that you approve of my daughter? I thought you did not like her at all!"
Darcy was struck dumb for a moment before he was able to rally himself. "No, sir, on the contrary. My regard for Miss Bennet has long been of the tenderest kind. I wish to marry her, sir, and I have come to apply for your consent."
"I see," said Mr. Bennet thoughtfully, placing his glass on his desk. "And Elizabeth? What are her thoughts on the matter?"
"She has agreed, sir. Most wholeheartedly, I believe."
Mr. Bennet was really rather impressed. His attempts to bring out any snobbishness or petty behaviour in Darcy had quite failed; the fellow was acquitting himself admirably. But the interview was not over yet.
"I see," said Mr. Bennet for the second time. He fixed Darcy with his mild blue eyes and leaned forward in his chair as he spoke. "You spoke to her this morning, then, am I to understand?"
"Very good, very good," said Mr. Bennet, feeling like the cat that has cornered the mouse. "I suppose you would then be in the perfect position to clarify something for me."
"Certainly. What is it you wish to know?"
Mr. Bennet leaned back in his chair with a sigh. "Sit down, young man. It really would be advisable."
Darcy obliged him curiously and cautiously.
"Let me ask you, Mr. Darcy: Do you consider yourself an honourable man?"
"I would hope so, sir, yes." Darcy's confusion was becoming obvious, so Mr. Bennet decided to get straight to the point.
"You understand, as a father, there are certain things I have to ask; and I must know, Mr. Darcy, how my daughter Elizabeth came to be in such a state of disarray as I saw her in before luncheon today. Perhaps you can enlighten me on this topic."
Darcy looked down, clearly embarrassed. "Sir, Miss Bennet..." he cleared his throat. "I met Miss Bennet during her walk this morning, and she had been...er...enjoying the breeze up on the hill."
"Enjoying the breeze? What do you mean?" frowned Mr. Bennet.
"She...um...felt the breeze better with her hair down." Said Mr. Darcy, red as a beet.
Mr. Bennet let him stew for a moment before speaking. "Did she tell you so herself, or have you some other involvement?"
Darcy forced himself to look Mr. Bennet in the eye. "Mr. Bennet, you must know that your daughter would never willingly place herself in such a compromising position..."
"I'm sure you are correct, Mr. Darcy; but what of unwillingly?" Mr. Bennet's countenance was perfectly grave. Darcy gaped like a fish, and reddened with anger Ò but he caught himself before he could say anything rash. After all, Mr. Bennet had no assurance of his regard for Elizabeth save his word; and no reason to believe his word at all, for he had not made himself well-known or well-liked in this district when given the opportunity in the past. What father would not act with suspicion in such circumstances?
"Please, sir," Darcy began, his tone a little rough but his manner humble. "If you will hear me out for a moment, I hope you will be satisfied."
"Very well," Mr. Bennet conceded, and waited expectantly.
"Let me begin by saying that I perfectly understand any apprehensions you may be feeling. While your daughter has since had opportunity to improve our acquaintance at Hunsford and at Lambton, I am well aware that your own impression of me must be somewhat less favourable. I have given you no reason to consider me trustworthy. I am ashamed to remember such behaviour as I last exhibited whilst in Hertfordshire Ò I can offer no valid excuse for my ill-mannered and arrogant conduct. I considered this society beneath me, and gave offence to many, I am sure Ò including your daughter, as you may be aware." Here he paused for a moment to catch his breath. Mr. Bennet remained in expectant silence, so Darcy continued: "It was my continuing acquaintance with Elizabeth that taught me to condemn such attitudes in myself, you will be happy to know. She is an extraordinary woman, Mr. Bennet, and I hope you will never be anything but proud of her. Please believe that I would never do anything to harm or shame her Ò or her family. She has given me back to myself; I owe her my happiness. I realise that her appearance this morning could be easily misconstrued, but I beg you to believe..."
"Never mind, Mr. Darcy," said Mr. Bennet, brushing away Darcy's protestations. "We will go on: I am gratified by your speech but not quite satisfied. You are telling me then, that you took no liberties with my daughter this morning."
Darcy dropped his gaze again and waited for his face to stop burning a little before he raised his eyes to answer, "As regards her appearance, you assume correctly, sir. But I must be honest and confess that our...my behaviour this morning was not always strictly proper. I am ashamed to confess it. Though you must believe me that it was nothing dreadful," he went on quickly.
Mr. Bennet was most pleased; the poor man was both candid and discreet, and was more concerned for Lizzy's reputation than his own. Who would have thought it; Mr. Bennet could hardly keep his mouth straight. He stood up out of his chair, and on seeing the look of apprehension on Darcy's features was almost undone - but managed to restrict himself to the slightest of smiles.
"Mr. Darcy. You are an honest fellow, and I have been tormenting you most cruelly and shamefully." He held out his hand for Darcy to shake; Darcy stood, a little uncertainly, and did so. "I have finished teasing you now. If Lizzy wants you, then of course you have my blessing. You would have it in any case, but you have it doubly so now, after putting up with a terrible old man so bravely."
Darcy sank back into his chair, unable to speak.
"You seem a little shocked, sir," smiled Mr. Bennet; and he reached for his decanter and a glass. "Here, have some refreshment. We shall drink a toast!"
"Thank you, sir," Darcy accepted the glass, having found his voice again. "I do believe your daughter has inherited your sense of humour."
"Yes, I fear you are right." Mr. Bennet acknowledged, with a lift of his eyebrows. "I hope it won't be the death of you, for you seem like quite a decent fellow and I should be sorry not to improve our acquaintance."
"Thank you, Mr. Bennet. The feeling is mutual, I'm sure." Darcy ventured a weak smile, and raised his glass to his lips. Elizabeth had a formidable guardian in her father.
"Well well," said Mr. Bennet, and he looked over at his new son-in-law with a glint in his eye. "I have a confession of my own to make, you know: I was in the grove earlier, when you made your farewells."
Port sprayed all over Mr. Bennet's desk, and Darcy went into a paroxysm of coughing.
At the sound, Elizabeth, who had been hovering nervously outside after sneaking out of the drawing-room a short time earlier to see what was taking so long, burst through the door. Her father was standing with a broad grin on his face, patting Darcy on the back with enthusiasm.
"Father! What..." she began, not knowing what to think. Hurrying over, she took the glass out of Darcy's hand while he wheezed and spluttered, bent over the desk.
"Just in time, Lizzy," observed Mr. Bennet cheerfully. "We were celebrating your happy news, my dear, when he started to choke; went down the wrong way, I expect. You can take over the nursing, and make my apologies to Mr. Darcy when he has recovered himself. Tell him not to worry about the table. I am going to stand by the fire in the drawing-room. I shall see you both shortly."
Elizabeth looked up at her father, who reached out and took her hand and raised it to his lips. "You will be a very happy woman, my dear. I approve wholeheartedly." He winked at the still-gasping Darcy, then was gone, closing the door behind him.
Elizabeth sighed with relief, and placed a gentle hand on Darcy's bent head. "Are you all right?"
He nodded, and leaned back in his chair, breathing deeply. "Yes. I believe I shall make a full recovery Ò as long as I never have to ask your father for your hand again."
"The once should do the trick," smiled Elizabeth, moving a port-spattered newspaper so she could sit on the desk in front of him. "Was he very disagreeable?"
"No, no," Darcy assured her. "He was all ease and friendliness. I was referring to how nervous I felt before I went in."
"Oh?" said Elizabeth, disbelievingly.
"Truly, I was very nervous; and I hope never to feel so nervous again," he reached for her hand, and squeezed it gently. "But now all is well."
She smiled broadly at him, and Darcy was sure the glint in her eye was the same as one he had seen not long ago. "He told you, didn't he," she said teasingly.
"Told me?" Darcy tried to sound nonchalant, "I am sure I had ears only for his consent. He did not tell me much else."
"Oh, William, you are a terrible liar," she said with a laugh. "I know my father very well, and I only hope he was not too cruel."
"Well," said Darcy sheepishly, realising the jig was up, "Shall we say he has had his amusement at my expense."
"I think we shall never hear the end of it," said Elizabeth with a sigh. "He gave me the most awful fright this morning after you left. But luckily he loves me too well to be cross with me; and once I had taken pains to explain the situation, he seemed quite easy. I should have known he would drag you over the coals. He likes to make his point felt."
Darcy closed his eyes and rubbed at his forehead. "I feel like I have just been through the Spanish Inquisition. And he knew the whole time! I hope I never get on your father's bad side, Lizzy. He would give me the terrors."
"Poor man," Elizabeth grinned warmly at her distraught intended, and stroked his fingers. "And now I must tell my mother Ò and then we shall know what we have done."
"I know what we have done already," said Darcy with a little smile, and he raised her hand to his lips, and kissed her fingertips, and then her palm. Her eyes shone, and she smiled at him, and brushed his cheek with her hand.
"We must go, or someone will come looking for us," she said regretfully.
"In a moment," said Darcy, and he pulled her closer until she fell into his lap with a giggle. "They can wait for a moment," he said quietly. They smiled at one another, and their faces drew together for a sweet kiss, and then another, longer one.
It could not be long, however, before they had to pull back. "I love you," she whispered, "but we really must go."
He acquiesced reluctantly and allowed her to rise, following her to the door. As they opened it the sound of her family enjoying themselves came floating down the hall: Mrs. Bennet was losing at her cards, and Kitty was winning triumphantly. Mr. Bennet was questioning Mary about the book she was reading; of Jane and Bingley, nothing could be heard. There was a sudden lull in the noise level, and Mrs. Bennet could be heard to say sharply: "Where is Lizzy vanished to? And Mr. Darcy?"
"Lizzy has gone to find something, I believe," her husband answered her, "And Mr. Darcy is in the library. I am sure they will turn up shortly."
Darcy squeezed Elizabeth's hand, and she took a deep breath; and together they walked forward to face their future.
REALLY THE END
© 2001 Copyright held by author