Mr. Bennet's Favourite Daughter
Part I. A Proud Unpleasant Sort Of Man
******Thank you all for your encouraging comments last time. I was quite overwhelmed by the positive response to my first attempt, and although I was not planning to go on your kind words inspired me. This is an independent story which can be read and understood on its own, but as it continues straight where I left off with 'Mr. Bennet's Quiet Evening' and I've avoided repeating things, you might want to start with the previous story anyway to become more familiar with the background of the scene. Some of you will be glad to know that Mr. B gives vent to some of his more ungenerous feelings in this story. I'm quite fond of my Mr. B, and I hope you will also enjoy his further musings! I've adapted JA's original dialogue and 1 Corinthians 13 for my own purposes.
As far as evenings went, this one was surely one to remember. But whether Mr. Bennet wanted to remember it he was not at all certain. Who would have believed that giving one's consent to a wealthy and respectable suitor who wanted to marry one of your daughters was so terrifying? He would not wish that fate to his worst enemies. Two times out of three, marrying your daughters off was a nightmare. A father of five girls should know.
So this is why I wanted sons.
The amount of anxiety in Mr. Bennet's library had been steadily rising that evening. At first he had been happy to be alone, quite pleasurably engaged with beating himself up. He had blamed himself about every possible kind of fatherly misconduct, neglect and oversight. He had become familiar with pangs of conscience like none he had ever experienced before. Looking back, he knew that Lizzy had always been his favourite among his daughters and he had felt guilty about the way he had treated the rest of them. He had reproached himself about Lydia's wildness, Kitty's silliness, Mary's oddities, and Jane's sorrows. All in all, he had considered himself quite a failure as a father and a human being.
In retrospect, that had been a nice way to spend an evening. But of course Mr. Darcy just had to come and spoil it all. Now Mr. Bennet had to worry about Lizzy as well.
Just like Darcy it was too. Would any other man have the nerve to walk in and propose marriage, just like that, when he had previously not considered it necessary to take the trouble of making himself agreeable in any way? But Darcy had. As unlikely as it might seem, this was reality.
As long as Darcy was in the room looking as jittery and vulnerable as that man could possibly manage, Mr. Bennet had been able to keep a semblance of exterior calmness. A crackling and precarious facade, yes, but in the circumstances it was an impressive feat nonetheless. But when the door closed firmly but noiselessly behind his surprising visitor and Mr. Bennet was left alone to fill the quota of anxiety in the room his confused emotions got free rein and the calm facade crumbled ungracefully.
The only thing he was capable of doing was sitting at his desk in utter bewilderment. He kept shaking his head at his own thoughts and rattling his fingers against a pile of account books. The noise could not disguise the pounding in his head. He could not remember the last time he had had a headache.
Mr. Bennet bit his cheek hard to see if it would hurt. Aye, he was awake all right. Apparently there was no escape from this situation. In a few minutes his favourite daughter would enter the room and announce her firm intention to be bound for life to a disagreeable, proud man she could not possibly become happy with.
Yes, Mr. Bennet nodded grimly. Daughters were definitely more trouble than they were worth. On the eve of his marriage to present Mrs. Bennet, his father had advised him against begetting any daughters, and the old man had been right on the spot. Father had been in his cups at the time but it did not lessen his acuity one whit. He should have taken heed.
Look at his daughters, for God's sake! Nothing but trouble. Jane was nice enough but she had gotten herself engaged to a man who had in all his enthusiasm already broken her heart once. Lydia had had the precious good sense to attach herself to the best-looking villain in the whole kingdom. Kitty was always whining, and Mary's constant moralizing could demoralize a better man than Mr. Bennet. And now Lizzy! Lizzy, who had always had a little more sense than the rest of them, or so Mr. Bennet had thought. Apparently he was mistaken. If she had any sense at all, would she have agreed to marry Mr. Darcy?
While Darcy had been with him this evening, his apparent uneasiness had made Mr. Bennet think of him with more sympathy than he had ever had before. The way Darcy had conducted himself before, he had seemed an immovable object, not capable of condescending to ordinary human emotions, but Mr. Bennet felt that he had been allowed a brief glimpse of the man's soul during their conversation tonight. There was some weakness in Darcy after all, and, far from injuring him in Mr. Bennet's eyes, it made him seem more approachable, less heartless.
But as soon as Mr. Darcy left him alone, Mr. Bennet's anger at the man surfaced. Evidently it did not kill him to behave prettily and even smile when the impulse overtook him Ò so why had he insisted on being such a proud, reserved, ill-mannered grouch on their previous meetings?
Unhappily he took a sip from the port wine glass he had forgotten when Darcy had made his astonishing declaration. The port was good strong stuff Sir William Lucas had recommended, saying it would cure all ills, but its miraculous properties had not worked tonight. He surveyed the bottle and noticed that it was half empty Ò in Mr. Bennet's current miserable mood it definitely looked half empty instead of half full Ò but there was another one in the cupboard. If he finished both bottles quickly, there was a good chance he would have acute amnesia in the morning (not to mention a headache), and would be able to pretend tonight did not happen.
Momentarily it seemed like a good solution. Then he remembered that Darcy and Elizabeth would know tonight had indeed happened, and there was not enough port wine for all three of them to drink themselves into oblivion. Darcy was such a tall, strong fellow he could probably hold his port.
Oh well, he knew it would not do. There was nothing to it, the joys of fatherhood had to be endured.
Unless he managed to talk Lizzy out of the wedding plans, in a few weeks he would have the proud moment every father dreams of: he would be giving her daughter up in marriage to a man who had not a friendly bone in his body, and who had, to all appearances, always seemed to despise her connections and preferred to have nothing to do with her family or anyone in her acquaintance.
"Begging yer pardon, Mr. Darcy," he said aloud, addressing his bookshelf, "but I thought young lovers usually conducted their courtship a little differently. I may be mistaken as my experiences of proper suitors are limited, but I have always assumed that the generally recommended manner is to make oneself liked by the family of one's chosen partner."
Surprisingly, his books did not make any answer. But Mr. Bennet felt a little better for having given Mr. Darcy a piece of his mind nevertheless.
Darcy had previously never sought Mr. Bennet's company, and the few brief discussions they had had had been conducted in the spirit of cold formality and disinterest. Perhaps Mr. Bennet would not go as far as to call him rude, but Darcy had certainly stayed on top of the recent research on dismissive manner of speaking, and he had truly mastered the latest achievements in the science of haughtiness.
Mr. Bennet had taken it philosophically; after all you could not please them all, could you? But his lady had had other opinions.
After his wife had visited poor, ailing Jane in Netherfield, she had told him that Mr. Darcy had been insufferably disdainful of the quiet Meryton society and its unfashionable ways. Mrs. Bennet had been quite indignant. "I suppose he thinks we are nothing because we do not live in London and are not related to earls. But even if he were related to the King, he would still be an arrogant, insufferable man, and I dare say we are much better off because he does not like us. He would spoil any party something impossible! And our Lizzy not handsome enough to dance with! Who does he think he is?"
Up until now, Darcy's disapproval or contempt had never given Mr. Bennet a moment's concern. He knew himself to be a gentleman, which was more than could be said of Darcy. Mr. Bennet did not suffer from any feelings of inadequacy, and did not believe his more modest financial situation made him Darcy's inferior in any manner.
You despise me, I despise you; so far we are equal.
England was a free country, and every man had the right to be disagreeable if he so preferred. There were sufficient numbers of amiable acquaintances in the world to render it unnecessary to perturb oneself over pleasing anyone who had decided not to be pleased. Who was Mr. Bennet to forbid lordly staring and declining from polite conversation if someone thought his consequence was sufficient to allow such behaviour? Mr. Darcy need not trouble himself with Mr. Bennet's approbation if Mr. Bennet need not trouble himself with his.
But suddenly it had become quite a substantial concern. If Darcy indeed thought himself so far above the ordinary people that he could not associate with them without injury to his dignity, how could he stoop to the level of marrying one of them? Would he think Elizabeth was beneath him even after their marriage and show it to her?
Would it be possible for Elizabeth to have anything to do with her loved ones, if she became Mrs. Darcy? Would Mr. Darcy suffer spending time with her family and her scorned friends in Meryton? And could Lizzy be happy if she was disconnected from everybody who had been dear to her?
Mr. Bennet had strong grounds for suspecting that Darcy had once discouraged Bingley's attachment to Jane. The way he had seen Darcy look at the two of them sometimes had been sternly disapproving. It had been obvious to all and sundry that Bingley had been very fond of Jane, but then he had suddenly, inexplicably disappeared, not to be heard of again in months. And he had not visited Jane in London at all. According to Mrs Bennet's intelligence, Jane had met Bingley's sister, but she had seen neither head nor tail of the man himself. It was clear that he was in love, now that he and Jane were engaged. Why on earth would a man very much in love behave that way? Why would he shun his lady love like that?
Mr. Bennet had had half a mind to ask Mr. Bingley about it when the young man had come to ask for his consent, but Bingley had been so overjoyed and excited that Mr. Bennet figured a rational discussion with him was an impossibility. And he feared the answer. If Bingley was weak-willed enough to let his sisters or his friend to dictate his life, Mr. Bennet did not wish to know.
Could it be that Bingley and Jane had had a lovers' tiff? It seemed unlikely. Neither Bingley nor Jane was of the disposition that was prone to quarrelling, and neither of them would bear a grudge long enough to necessitate a separation of so many months. No, Mr. Bennet thought that it was more probable that the opposition of his sisters and perhaps his friend had made him hesitate.
His sisters certainly disapproved. At the Netherfield ball Mr. Bennet had overheard the sneering Miss Bingley making derogatory remarks to her sister, what's-her-name-again. The subject had been people in trade and uncles in Cheapside, and there could be no mistake about the object of their contempt. Considering the fact that the Bingleys seemed to be Darcy's particular friends Mr. Bennet could not but assume that Mr. Darcy shared these sentiments.
There was no denying that financially the Bennet sisters could not be called great catches, and they had no connections with the nobility either. (Not that Mr. Bennet considered connections to such characters as Lady Catherine De Bourgh to be an asset.) Could these snobbish, mercenary considerations have prompted Darcy to oppose to Bingley's marriage to Jane?
Certainly there was nothing objectionable in Jane herself. Her character was sterling: purity, honesty and kindness itself. Fortunately Mr. Bingley had seen beyond his sisters' superficial charges and appreciated Jane's goodness, but then he was a man in love. It was to be hoped that he would have enough backbone to stand up for Jane against his sisters.
Darcy claimed to be a man in love too, and Mr. Bennet wanted to believe him. But if Darcy thought Jane was not good enough for Mr. Bingley due to her lack of fortune and eligible connections, why on earth would Lizzy be any more suitable for himself? It hardly seemed logical for the man to be averse to his friend's marriage to one sister and then propose to another. It led Mr. Bennet to wonder whether he might have been mistaken about Mr. Darcy's disapproval. But no Ò if his expression had not been disapproving, Mr. Bennet did not know what disapproving was.
Nothing made a great deal of sense any longer.
Perhaps nothing ever had.
Presuming he was right about Darcy's feelings, could Lizzy be unaware of her suitor's attitude? Could she really be blind to his snobbish tendencies and his disdain of those he considered beneath him? Or could she be aware of them but have simply decided not to care? Was she unable to see how negatively his beliefs of superiority could affect her marriage?
Foolish, foolish girl! Mr. Bennet had thought better of Lizzy.
Had the world gone crazy, or had Mr. Bennet? The present generation of young people conducted themselves with the utmost lack of logic and consistency, and the mysteries of their motives were apparently impossible to unravel.
I am getting old. The inability to understand the youngsters is reputedly the first sign of senility.
Presuming Darcy really was contemptuous of people in trade and relatives in Cheapside, would Lizzy ever be allowed to invite her beloved aunt and uncle Gardiner to Pemberley? After all, besides being a capable professional, Mr. Gardiner had the additional disadvantages of being a true gentleman and an amiable person. None of those things could possibly recommend him to Darcy, could they?
Would the Gardiners be deprived of Lizzy forever? More importantly, could Mr. Bennet stand to be deprived of her forever? If Lizzy married Darcy, her husband would spirit her away to Derbyshire, of all places, and if he detested Meryton and all the people living there it was not highly likely that they would often take the trouble of travelling that far. Darcy might just as well have lived on the moon, thought Mr. Bennet. He should have lived on the moon, and never have come to Hertfordshire at all.
Mr. Bennet felt all the righteous anger of a jealous father whose favourite daughter is about to be stolen from him. Could Lizzy really prefer Mr. Darcy's magnificent estate and its proud owner to her humble but loving home in Longbourn?
On the other hand, he remembered Mr. Gardiner telling him that when they met Darcy in Pemberley the man had been very friendly and nothing like the proud, disapproving figure they had expected. But perhaps Mr. Darcy had not known Mr. Gardiner was in trade. Maybe he had mistaken them for people of fashion. Nonetheless, any friendliness on Darcy's part astonished Mr. Bennet as it seemed so out of character. To whom in Meryton had the man ever been friendly?
Bingley did not count. Everybody was friendly to Bingley, who was friendly to everybody. It was a natural law.
Mr. Gardiner had spoken something about fishing and a dinner invitation. He had also mentioned that Darcy had encouraged his sister to strike up a friendship with Elizabeth. It had surprised Mr. Bennet at the time but now, considering Darcy's proposal, it was quite understandable. Of course the man would want his future wife and his sister to get along.
But why should Darcy be so friendly and unaffected on some occasions and so obnoxious on others?
Mr. Bennet sighed. Unless it was just a sign of the man's general perverseness and lunacy, there were four possibilities he could think of.
Either Darcy was exceedingly shy among strangers, and his shyness was misconstrued as pride and conceit. But in Pemberley he felt at an advantage because he was at home and was able to be nice if he so desired. Oh yes, that would be a lovely explanation, which even Jane would approve of, as it made everyone good.
Or either he was in fact vain and disagreeable by choice, but could dispense with those properties when the occasion called for it. For instance, when the woman he intended to propose to appeared on his lawn with relatives she clearly held in great esteem, it was definitely in his own interests to act courteous.
Not lacking in situational awareness.
It was also conceivable that Darcy might have had some great concern or sorrow on his mind when he had stayed with Mr. Bingley in Netherfield, and that worrying about it had made him brooding, irritable and indifferent of others' opinions.
Forgivable, I suppose, but it does not bode well for the marriage if he reacts thus to any kind of adversity.
The fourth possibility was that, although Darcy had it in him to be rude, sullen and egoistical, there had been a miracle which had made him lighten up and tolerate the rest of the mankind somewhat better. But what on earth could have happened? It would be rather presumptuous and fanciful to attribute the change to his falling in love with Lizzy, would it not?
Probably his old nanny has finally given him the good scolding he deserved. It was well overdue, but better late than never, eh?
But was it a lasting transformation or just a fleeting caprice? Perhaps the man had just wanted to experiment being nice for a change, and the whim would pass.
Actually Darcy had behaved quite decently tonight during their private conversation. Almost like a human being. There had been none of his disdainful expressions, barbed retorts, thinly-veiled inattention, and aloof muteness, and Mr. Bennet had never seen him half as nice. Perhaps his Pemberley persona had taken over. Remarkably enough, he had even abstained from staring out of any windows.
Darcy had surprised him with his uncharacteristic signs of vulnerability. The young man had fidgeted uneasily and some Mr. Bennet's questions had definitely hit a sore spot somewhere in his soul. Mr. Bennet had felt inklings of sympathy he had hitherto never thought to associate with Darcy. It was as if the young man had changed somehow. Mr. Bennet did not remember ever seeing him so exposed before, so insecure, so eager to please. What could have effected such an alteration?
And the man had actually asked for Mr. Bennet's consent! Quite politely, too. On the basis of his previous impressions of him, Mr. Bennet would have expected Darcy to declare his decision to marry, and, if he cared for a formal consent at all, to demand it imperiously instead of requesting. He was the sort of man who took it for granted that he would not be refused anything he deigned to wish for, and certainly did not consider the Bennets as his equals, worthy or capable of denying his requests.
Although... I wonder if Lizzy is the first person who has ever refused him anything?
Darcy had seemed quite earnest in his assurances of affection. Mr. Bennet had been rather inquisitive and extracted all manner of promises from him. Darcy had even said he loved Lizzy. Admittedly, he had started by listing all his material arguments such as his estate and his townhouse, and had not volunteered any information about his feelings before Mr. Bennet had asked directly, but such a reserved man would not be likely to make a public exhibition of his emotions in any case. And he had seemed quite determined to have Lizzy as his wife, as if his happiness depended on it. Mr. Bennet could not help but to give credence to his words. The young man was sincere, or at least he believed himself to be.
Who could have believed that Mr. Darcy Ò Mr. Darcy of all men! Ò fancied himself in love with Lizzy?
Alas, Mr. Collins did. But apart from Mr. Collins? Who but Mr. Collins would have thought that Mr. Darcy was attached to Lizzy?
Well, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, of course. Lady Catherine must have thought that, why would she otherwise have come to Longbourn? But Mr. Collins's effusive descriptions of her had given Mr. Bennet some justification in thinking that Lady Catherine had some birds loose in her attic. Who in his right mind would have expected Darcy and Elizabeth to end up together? Who could have known about it?
Ruefully Mr. Bennet shook his head and realized that the answer to his rhetorical question was the opposite of what he would have preferred. Jane had probably known. Bingley might have known too. If Darcy was in confidential terms with Bingley's sisters, they might have known too, or Bingley might have told them. The Gardiners had obviously suspected something. Darcy's sister might have been informed of his intentions. Charlotte Collins must have known if her husband did. If the Lucases had guessed it there was no telling who else in Meryton was privy to the secret. And if he knew Mr. Collins at all, the gossip had probably been broadcasted to his whole parish in a sermon or two. It had probably been public knowledge for quite some time now, and Mr. Bennet was the very last person to find out.
It was extremely vexing. Should not a girl's father be allowed to know of her beaux if it was his job to give his approval? Why should everyone else but himself be aware of the latest developments? But he had had no idea of Lydia's involvement with Wickham, and Lizzy's suitor had taken him completely by surprise. Jane's fiance had been the only predictable swain so far, and even Bingley had done an unaccountable disappearing act. Mr. Bennet had been oblivious of it all.
Mr. Bennet resolved that Kitty and Mary would never be allowed out of the house without himself chaperoning them, for his reputation as a perceptive judge of human nature simply could not take any further failures of the same kind.
Mr. Bennet wished he knew how Darcy had taken Lizzy's refusal to his first proposal. Darcy had been prevailed upon to reveal some details of his history with Lizzy, most of which Mr. Bennet had been completely unaware of, but he had closed up like an oyster when Mr. Bennet had asked questions he considered too intimate.
But he had told Mr. Bennet more than his own daughter had. Lizzy had never told him that she had met Darcy in Hunsford, and his tight-lipped descendant had also failed to mention that Mr. Darcy had proposed to her at the time. No doubt it had just slipped her mind.
He wondered if Darcy was the kind of man who fell in love for the challenge. Could he have been attracted to Lizzy just because she had made her dislike of him clear? No matter how disagreeable he was, a handsome and rich young fellow like Darcy was bound to have had his share of hopeful young ladies and matchmaking mamas in awe of his situation fawning all over him. Even the Merytonians had tried it for a short while, up until he had made it absolutely clear that there was no chance of any one of their lowly company ever succeeding to satisfy him. If he had been fed up with all that, Lizzy's attitude must have been refreshing enough to incite his interest. And when she refused his first proposal, it might have strengthened his determination to obtain what seemed unattainable.
Mr. Bennet sighed. The small, well-hidden part of him which sported romantic inclinations relished the thought that his dearest Lizzy might have started a roaring fire of passionate love and adoration in the young man's previously untouched heart with her outspokenness, cheerfulness and the beauty of her spirit, and that this blazing inferno of affection might transform Darcy into a halfway decent individual and make a princess out of his Lizzy.
The Queen Elizabeth Darcy.
The Beauty and the Beast.
Oh yes, that would be good indeed. Very idyllic. Very romantic, just like in books.
But look at the matter any way he might, rationally he could not be optimistic about this marriage. Fairy tales did not happen in real life. If Darcy's affections indeed originated from his love of a good challenge, they would likely diminish very quickly after the wedding night was over and the challenge was history. And if he indeed looked down upon the unfashionable country folk, people in trade, or God forbid, the Bennets, could his love for Lizzy make up for these low connections and the wound to his pride? Perhaps for the blissful beginning, but indefinitely? What if he later started to resent his wife for not belonging to his aristocratic world? And how would Lizzy adjust to his high and mighty relatives and the grand lifestyle?
Another cause of worry was that Mr. Bennet had heard no declarations of love at all from Lizzy's part. On the contrary, he had heard numerous declarations of firm dislike. If there were marital problems caused by the differences in their backgrounds or any other thing Ò and there always were Ò could she stand them without the benefit of affection?
During their conversation earlier that evening, Darcy had seemed unsure of his reception but when Mr. Bennet had questioned him about his affections and all the possible objections to the match he had had an answer to everything. Eventually Mr. Bennet had run out of excuses and been obliged to give his reluctant consent. But he had not been able to bring himself to mention his greatest objection to Mr. Darcy. He was very much afraid that Lizzy had agreed to marry the man for all the wrong reasons. How could she even think of marrying a man she hated and disliked so much?
His wealth and social standing, his impressive estate and his grand connections might have induced her to accept an otherwise unsuitable offer. Mr. Bennet did not consider Lizzy mercenary, and she had after all refused his first offer, so money probably was not her first concern. But since the recent exploits of his most beloved son-in-law, a certain Mr. Wickham, had placed Mr. Bennet heavily in his brother-in-law's debt, he had worried about the family's limited finances a great deal, and he feared that Lizzy might have acted from some misguided notion of familial duty. She might have felt obliged to marry well, regardless of her true feelings, because it seemed prudent. But Mr. Bennet could not help fearing that the match was imprudent to the extreme.
She had been very decided in her dislike of Mr. Darcy, and despite the fact that some people said there was time enough to fall in love with your husband after marriage, Mr. Bennet had difficulty believing even the ficklest of creatures could easily fall in love with a bridegroom they hated at their wedding. Surely it was preferable for the prospective husband to have some agreeable, endearing traits to begin with, to make the task less daunting?
Mr. Bennet thought about the three suitors his daughters had had so far. What a remarkable group they were.
Jane's Mr. Bingley was bearable, according to his estimation. He reminded Mr. Bennet of a fluffy bunny, jolly and full of enthusiasm for life, unable to bite. Perhaps he was a tad too kind and accommodating; but it was a good deal better than cruel and unyielding. His position in life was comfortable, and there was not an unfavorable thing to be said about him. Together, Jane and Mr. Bingley made such a nice couple they were sure to be taken advantage of by every unscrupulous person in their household. They would not have the heart to banish neither an impertinent maid nor a thieving footman from the house, and all the relatives could abuse their goodwill quite cheerfully. But as long as Jane was happy... She seemed to be happier than ever, and if that was Mr. Bingley's doing the young man had Mr. Bennet's vote of confidence.
Darcy had a firmer character and would tolerate no nonsense from anyone, but a little of Mr. Bingley's kindness and happiness would not have done him any harm. What would Lizzy's life be like with him? She would see him at the breakfast table, talk to him over dinner, bear his children, share her future with him. Would he ever laugh? Would Lizzy have to labour day and night to make him even smile? Her liveliness would have to suffice for two.
Mr. Wickham had assured him that Darcy was a cruel, unjust, insufferably conceited man, but Mr. Bennet assumed that it was rather a point in Mr. Darcy's favour, because anyone whom Mr. Wickham disliked could not be completely bad. On the other hand, as a boy Darcy had apparently had a close friendship with Wickham, and that was definitely a portent of insanity.
Wickham was the bane of Mr. Bennet's existence. Had there ever been such another smirking, flattering, untrustworthy fellow? Mr. Bennet was not sure what he had done to deserve such a son-in-law, but whatever it was it must be a grievous sin, because the punishment was worse than hanging. Hanging was over quickly, but Wickham was a life sentence. And Lydia had chosen him willingly!
It made a man think fondly of arranged marriages. The bride and the groom should not be allowed to set eyes upon each other before they stood at the altar. The parents had so much more experience of life and its complexities, and as they knew their children's dispositions better than anyone they would surely be able to arrange beneficial matches with some chances of succeeding. Why on earth had people ever given up such a good custom? Young people should not be left to their own devices when such crucial decisions as organizing marriages were being made.
Hmmm. Mr. Bennet wondered if he knew anyone who would suit Mary or Kitty.
On the other hand, perhaps he should just forbid marrying altogether and persuade them to become nuns.
Part II. The Object Of Her Choice
It seemed to take forever for Lizzy to get there, although Mr. Bennet had requested Darcy to send Lizzy to the library presently. Every passing minute increased his discomposure, and no impartial observer would have called him anything approaching calm.
Finally Mr. Bennet took refuge of that device for distraught nerves which had been made good use of in his library lately: he started pacing. By the time Lizzy entered the room he had agitated himself into a feverish unease. She too appeared shaken, discomfited, not at all the picture of a radiant bride, and his worry burst out in almost angry undertones.
"Lizzy, what are you doing?", he said. "Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man? Have not you always hated him?''
"Please, Papa, do not say so. I have said lots of things that I regret very much now, and my feelings have changed most thoroughly. He is very important to me now."
"Or, in other words, you are determined to have him. He is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?'' It sounded cruel, but Mr. Bennet was long past the phase in which placid mildness was a feasible option.
"Have you any other objection,'' said Elizabeth, "than your belief of my indifference?''
"None at all." Mr. Bennet had so many objections that listing them one by one was not practical. "We all know him to be a proud, unpleasant sort of man; but this would be nothing if you really liked him.''
If it took brutal bluntness to make Lizzy reconsider her hasty decision then brutal bluntness it would have to be.
He thought he saw her flinch. "I do, I do like him,'' she answered. Her voice shook a little. Had she tears in her eyes?
"I love him. Indeed he has no improper pride."
Hah! Was his daughter delusional? Mr. Darcy had no pride? Sure, and there were lots of pink elephants in Hertfordshire, all of which enjoyed hovering above the clouds in the cool autumn breeze.
"He is perfectly amiable," Elizabeth said.
I think not.
It was not what Lizzy had said about him just a few months before. Perfectly amiable indeed!
Wait a minute, had she just said that she loved Darcy?
She continued, "You do not know what he really is; then pray do not pain me by speaking of him in such terms.''
It was not Mr. Bennet's intent to pain her, but why would it hurt her feelings to hear her own sentiments repeated? Lizzy seemed to imply she had learnt to know the real Darcy who was nothing like the general opinion held him to be, but had not her own opinion once followed the general conviction quite closely?
"Lizzy", he said, "I have given him my consent. He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse anything, which he condescended to ask." Darcy had a certain air of authority even his signs of disquietude had not managed to completely eradicate. If Darcy wanted something badly enough, it would take a special sort of a man to oppose him. "I now give it to you, if you are resolved on having him."
It hurt him to say that, but how could he possibly refuse if Lizzy was adamant? Mr. Bennet had not had the heart to refuse even Darcy's request when the young man had seemed so sincere. If Lizzy made emotional pleas he was afraid he could not keep resolute. If he could not talk Lizzy out of it...
It was not yet too late to change one's mind. The engagement had not been officially announced, and it would still be possible to cry off from it. Embarrassing, yes, and requiring an awkward confrontation with Mr. Darcy, for sure, but it would still be possible. There might be some gossip, as the Lucases and Mr. Collins clearly expected that an offer would be made, and Mr. Darcy might have informed someone of his intention to propose Ò but in the light of recent events Mr. Bennet felt assured that they could weather worse scandals without falling apart. In fact, Lydia had ensured that they already had.
Of course, there was the danger that Mr. Darcy might vent out his frustration after hearing that the engagement could not be. But no, he was hardly likely to make it public that his proposal had been refused. Twice. It would be a mortification his consequence could not endure. Darcy had no power over the family, and nothing to threaten them with. Yes, there could be few adverse repercussions of crying off now.
Lizzy had not said anything, and he could not decipher her thoughts.
"Let me advise you to think better of it."
Mr. Bennet might have been forced to give his consent; yet nothing could induce him to give his blessing if he suspected that the marriage would not make Lizzy content. Carriages and gowns could never afford that kind of happiness to her, even if they might have been quite enough for Lydia or Kitty.
"I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior."
Lizzy looked stricken, and Mr. Bennet pressed on. "Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery."
In his worst case scenario Mr. Bennet saw Lizzy so miserable in her marriage to the grim and humorless Darcy that she sought solace in someone else's arms. Her moral principles could, and should, prevent such an action, but people do uncharacteristic things when they are unhappy. Even if she did not go as far as to be actually unfaithful to Mr. Darcy, she could easily become the talk of the town by showing too much attention to some young gentleman whose countenance was more convivial to her. And Mr. Bennet had no doubt that if Mr. Darcy had any reason to be dissatisfied with his wife, her life could become still more miserable. More miserable than she could bear without breaking.
Mr. Bennet suspected that Darcy would be a possessive, jealous husband, who would not tolerate his wife's friendship to anyone he did not approve of. He might react quite violently, if he ever had cause for suspicion; he had that passionate look in his eyes.
But Lizzy had always had the predilection to enjoy the company of vivacious, congenial young men such as Mr. Wickham. What on earth could make her partial to Mr. Darcy, who was the farthest thing from a vivacious, congenial young man Mr. Bennet could imagine?
Oh, very well, Mr. Wickham was an extremely ill-chosen example. Mr. Bennet thanked his lucky stars every day that Lizzy had not fallen in love with him and broken her heart for the scoundrel, although she had seemed quite fond of him at one time. It was bad enough that Lydia had been fooled by him.
Lizzy had been severely disappointed by Wickham's character. Perhaps she had reckoned that too much vivacity was a dangerous thing, as indeed it was. But surely there was no need to go to the other extreme on the rebound and choose a stuffed shirt instead? Mr. Bennet was positive that there were at least a few young men in the world who managed to combine the virtues of a lively character and a sense of honour to a sufficient degree. Lizzy needed an honourable, honest, reasonable man with a twinkle in his eye, and while Darcy might not be dishonorable and dishonest, he had certainly not been present when sense of humour was dispensed, and his pride might make life insufferable.
"My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about." Mr. Bennet felt a physical ache at the thought of Lizzy married to someone she could not respect. He had not respected his own wife for a long, long time, and he knew how lack of respect felt on cold, dark winter nights.
" I do, I do respect him, more than I have ever respected any man before. My opinion of him has changed so completely I wish everyone could just forget what I said before. He is worth every bit of my esteem, and a thoroughly good man."
"It is all very well that you should think so of your fiance; but do you really know him well enough to declare you know his character?"
"I have seen who he really is, and I like him more the more I see him."
"It does not take a great deal of improvement to make a man more likable if he starts out as he behaved in Meryton." Mr. Bennet's tone was brusque; he had no patience for empty nothings at a moment like this.
Elizabeth seemed hurt. "Please do not judge him on the basis of that. He has changed, or I have learnt to understand him better, and he is all friendliness."
Mr. Bennet frowned. "We have rarely seen that friendly side of him, and I rather suspect that he disdains our social standing. I do not want to see you married to someone who thinks you are not his equal when you in fact are worth a thousand of him."
"No, no, you are so wrong! I assure you, you are mistaken about him. He does not look down upon me, and he has been amiability itself when I have seen him outside of Meryton."
"So it is only Meryton that does not agree with him?" Mr. Bennet asked sarcastically, while studying his daughter carefully. She seemed as uncomfortable in the face of the raw emotional situation as Mr. Bennet felt himself. Like father, like daughter Ò neither of them was used to revealing their deepest feelings without the benefit of an arch, belittling tone.
Her protestations were enthusiastic enough but something did not ring quite true. There were some pieces of the puzzle that were missing, something that she was hiding. What had made her so violently set against Mr. Darcy when they had first met? Why had she refused his first proposal? And what had made her change her mind?
Suddenly Mr. Bennet realized Lizzy had started talking again and he had missed the first couple of sentences.
"His sister loves him very much, and he is well respected by his tenants. You should have heard how well his housekeeper spoke of him," Lizzy continued cautiously.
"Since when is it customary to choose a husband on the basis of his servants' recommendation?" Mr. Bennet asked sharply. "For all I know, he may be the best of brothers, the best of landlords and a most generous master, but will those things make him a good husband for you?"
"I believe he cares for me. He has cared for a long time, I know that for certain. And even though I did not think I could return his affection at first, his feelings have endured and stood the test of time. That would make him a good husband for me, I hope."
" You do realize my difficulty in believing that you truly believe that yourself, do you not?" Mr. Bennet asked. "You look nothing like the triumphant, joyful bride Jane is. You look fearful and anxious, and I do not think it is a good sign for this marriage. Should you not be happier if it is as you say?"
"But I am happy. I have just been anxious that our engagement will not be accepted because people do not like him the way I do." Lizzy fidgeted with her skirts, looking at the floor.
There was a long silence.
Finally Mr. Bennet said briskly, "All right, Lizzy, it is time to be completely honest with me. If you want me to welcome him into the family I need to know everything."
Lizzy startled. "Everything about what, Papa?"
"This so called courtship of yours. Everything I know about it I have heard from Mr. Darcy, Mr. Gardiner or Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins, of all people! But you, my dear, have been very secretive about the relationship, which makes me worried. You appear to have very conflicting emotions about it all. Almost as if you were ashamed of your acquaintance with him, or felt guilty about something. I do not want to see you married like that, expecting unhappiness; I want to see you married with joyful bliss and glory."
"Indeed I am not ashamed of him. If you only knew! If you only knew how proud I am of him, and of his affections..."
"So tell me."
There was another long, uncomfortable silence. Lizzy had certainly picked up a few useful skills from Mr. Darcy, including one involving intimate questions and oysters.
"I shall not give in, Lizzy. You will not leave this room until I have my answer. I have to find out why you hated him so much, and I need to know why you have now changed your mind about marrying him after you refused his proposal once."
"He told you?"
"Yes, he did."
Lizzy looked thoughtful, reluctant for a while. Finally she resigned to the inevitable and started her tale haltingly. "I suppose that at the beginning I disliked him for the same reasons everybody else did. He seemed so proud and distant, and was not interested in the company of any of us. Why bother liking someone who does not like us? But I would not have thought any more about him if I had not heard him making unflattering comments of me to Mr. Bingley, who attempted to make him dance with me. His pride offended me because it mortified mine."
Mr. Bennet nodded. He could understand those sentiments.
"Later he sometimes looked for my company, asked me to dance with him or talked to me when Jane and I were in Netherfield. He was never uncivil, and I believe he liked me already, but I was inclined to interpret everything he said as criticism and provoked quarrels with him. And I was prejudiced against him, because Mr. Wickham had told me such dreadful tales of him, and I am ashamed to own that I believed everything without a doubt."
"Well, do not make yourself uneasy. We were all fooled by his smooth exterior," said Mr. Bennet, as much in an attempt to console himself as to reassure her.
"Yes, but I should not have been so quick to condemn Mr. Darcy when there was only Mr. Wickham's word against him."
"I dare say he will be able to forgive you. If he is not, you should not marry him."
Lizzy blushed. "He has forgiven me, I know it. When he proposed to me in Hunsford I accused him of cruelty towards Mr. Wickham. And he has had much more to forgive. I abused him quite dreadfully and called him conceited, rude and arrogant, un-gentleman-like and very disagreeable."
"Well, many people have had such thoughts, I am sure," mumbled Mr. Bennet, not quite able to keep a straight face.
But Lizzy did not see his expression and continued. "I told him that nothing he could do or say would ever induce me to accept his offer, and that he was the last man on earth I could imagine to marry."
"Famous last words, those."
Lizzy grimaced. "I know. I have eaten them all, have I not? The following day he gave me a letter in which he explained the truth about what had happened with Mr. Wickham. I am not at liberty to disclose the details, but his account absolved himself from all blame and exposed Wickham's character as very bad. I was not sure whom to believe at once, but as the story could have been very injurious to a third person if it became public I was finally convinced that Mr. Darcy would not have invented such a tale if it was not true."
Mr. Bennet contemplated the quasi-revelation for a while. "Well, my dear, whatever this terrible thing Mr. Wickham was supposed to have done was, I am sure he has now proven himself capable of it."
There was another silence. Mr. Bennet was growing accustomed to them by now and did not do anything to break it. Lizzy stared vacantly into the distance, deep in her thoughts. At last she was awakened into the present, and said, "Mr. Darcy was very kind and charitable in his letter, although I was sure he would bear a grudge for everything I said."
"I dare say he deserved to hear at least some of those things."
"Oh no, I was very unfair to him! And I was certain that he would never want to set his eyes on me again." Lizzy sounded wistful. "Then we went to Lambton, and the Gardiners insisted on visiting Pemberley. I did not want to go for fear of meeting him, but I was told that the family was away for the summer."
"Was it a fine place?"
"It was the most beautiful house I have ever seen." Her eyes lit up. "Very happily situated, and in a lovely part of the country. Were it possible to judge a man by his house the owner of that one would be very well liked indeed. Everything was in good taste, and all the grounds were very well kept, and all things spoke of rational management and attention to natural beauty."
"I gather that you would not mind living there then."
She had a dreamy expression. "Oh no, it is the most pleasant home anyone could imagine. The housekeeper showed us the inside of the house, which was just as beautiful and well cared for as the grounds. She had been with the family for years, and she told us a great deal of good things about them. Apparently her late master was a very fine man, and she said that Mr. Darcy is just like his father, very good-natured and generous to the poor."
Mr. Bennet could not help exclaiming, "Good-natured?"
Lizzy nodded. "So she said. She said that she had never heard a cross word from him, not since he was four years old."
"I have some difficulty in believing that. I have never known a four-year-old who does not throw a tantrum every once in a while."
"Maybe, but I am just repeating what she said. She had the highest opinion of Mr. Darcy, and she told us that Mr. Wickham was very wild, and I could not help but value her description, as she had been with the family for so long. It is difficult to fool the servants about one's character."
"Hope I will never hear what our servants say about mine. I dare say their account would not be half as good as I can scarcely pay them half as much as Mr. Darcy does."
If Lizzy was bothered by her father's cynicism, she did not show it. "Indeed, Papa, she sounded quite sincere. She need not have said anything had it not been true."
"Very well, Lizzy. And then?"
"We were looking at the gardens when Mr. Darcy suddenly appeared. He had come a day early and was expecting his sister the following day. I was chagrined to meet him there, for what must he think of me, coming there uninvited? But he was all civility and friendliness, and bid Mr. Gardiner to come fishing in his river as often as he liked, and requested my permission to introduce his sister to me."
"I was rather surprised when Mr. Gardiner told me that he seemed very agreeable, and that he could not understand how Darcy came to have his reputation as such a proud man."
"He is not proud. Or if he is, I dare say there are many things he should be proud of. He is a very good, loving brother, and a just master, and an honest, honourable man. He is not always at ease with strangers but he is perfectly amiable and trustworthy."
It sounded suspiciously like rose-tinted glasses speaking. Was there such a perfect man in existence?
As astonishing as it was, it really looked like Lizzy had developed a tendre for Mr. Darcy.
"What is his sister like?"
"I thought she was very shy, but I dare say she will be over it when she gets a little older. They came to visit us the very morning she arrived, and invited us to dine in Pemberley."
"Looks like he was eager to meet you. But how came he to be so attentive? One would have thought that all those reprimands you gave him would have been a strain on your relationship, rather difficult to overcome."
"It is a miracle, is it not?" Lizzy became suddenly animated. "But it shows just what a good person he is. He had decided to show that he had listened to me, and that he was not going to behave anything like the proud, arrogant, un-gentleman-like man I had accused him of being. Just to show that he did not bear a grudge towards me."
"Very generous of him."
A self-conscious smile fleeted on Lizzy's lips, and she removed her gaze from Mr. Bennet's eyes. After another pause she said, "Mr. Bingley was also there."
Her remark seemed strangely disconnected from the rest of the conversation, but Mr. Bennet took the opportunity to inquire, "Say, Lizzy, have you got any explanation as to why Mr. Bingley disappeared so suddenly for months, although it has now been made clear that he was in love with Jane all the time?" As Lizzy was Jane's confidante and Darcy was Bingley's friend, she might know something.
Her answer seemed cautious, reluctant, as if she was choosing her words carefully. "I believe that his sisters had another match in mind for him, and he was convinced that Jane did not care about him."
"Not the most astute fellow I know then. Why did he not just ask her?"
"I suppose he must have had his reasons but what they were I cannot tell."
" Did this other match refuse him?"
"Oh no, I do not believe for a moment that Mr. Bingley would have even asked her! She is too young to get married yet in any case."
"What made him change his mind and return to Jane then?"
Lizzy contemplated her answer for a while. "I believe a friend of his saw how unhappy he had been after leaving Netherfield and encouraged him to come back to see if he could secure Jane's affections."
"I see. This friend of his, it would not happen to be Mr. Darcy, would it?"
She flushed and stuttered her reply. "Oh, well, actually, well, yes it would."
On one hand, Mr. Bennet was not surprised. Considering everything that had passed, it was only fitting that Darcy would have such influence over his friend. He would probably have influence over the King if he set his mind upon it.
But on the other hand, Mr. Bennet was amazed indeed. Could he have been mistaken in his suspicion that Darcy had discouraged Bingley's attachment to Jane? He had been so certain of his evidence Ò and now to be proven wrong! Unless Darcy had discouraged it in the beginning and then for some reason changed his mind. But why would he? Jane was still related to people in Cheapside, and her newest connection, the scoundrelly Wickham, who was the son of Darcy's steward, on top of everything, could hardly make her more eligible.
It was decidedly very odd. But all was well that ended well, Mr. Bennet supposed, although he could not be happy about the weakness of character he saw in Mr. Bingley. What kind of a spineless young man allowed his sisters and his friends to decree whom he could or could not propose to? Either he did not know his own mind at all or he was the most easily influenced person in the world. Mr. Bennet sincerely hoped that it never occurred to anyone to tell Bingley to run blindfolded off a cliff, because in all likelihood he would comply without demur.
Really! The young men these days! What would become of them? The future of England was in unreliable hands.
Meanwhile, Lizzy was still dwelling on her visit in Pemberley. "It was such a pleasant dinner, and the Gardiners agreed that Mr. Darcy was all civility."
"So you decided to marry him, because he could afford a decent table of duck and veal, and your aunt thought him a handsome fellow. Is that it?" Mr. Bennet's flippant remark hid his pressing need to get to the bottom of all this.
"Oh, no, it was him. He was so different from what I had thought of him before, and he bore no ill will towards me for treating him so badly, and his housekeeper spoke so warmly of him, and he clearly loved his sister so much, and I felt so bad for misjudging him and saying all those terrible things about him, and it seemed to me that we could suit really well together after all, and I could have so much to learn from him, but I was not sure if I could hope that he would renew his addresses after all that had happened."
"Do not forget to breathe," Mr. Bennet reminded gently. Lizzy's rapid speech reminded him of her childhood. She had sometimes burst into his room, full of enthusiasm, showing him a collection of beautiful stones, strange plants or whatever she had found in the woods while playing, and she had chattered on and on about them, reciting the invented history of each specimen in breathless sentences which blurred together and made little sense. He missed those times. She had nearly achieved the same degree of incoherence just a moment ago.
"You would not have thought him proud or disagreeable if you had seen him there; he was so kind and considerate and wonderful."
It occurred to Mr. Bennet that he had seen this new, improved version of Darcy in action just this evening, and indeed he had thought him almost unrecognizably altered. But wonderful?
"What do you think has changed him so much then?"
Lizzy was silent for a while. "I do not believe that he has changed very much in essentials. He has always been honourable, good, reasonable and trustworthy, and it was only Mr. Wickham's lies that made me think otherwise."
"But you say that he seemed much friendlier, and Mr. Gardiner told me that he received the three of you very cordially. It surely seems like change to me, considering the fact that when he was here last autumn he managed to offend practically everyone in the village within the first fifteen minutes of the Meryton assembly."
Lizzy blushed again. "Well... He claims that the horrid things I said to him after I refused his first proposal made him reconsider his behaviour. I was angry and told him that he was proud and disagreeable and that I could never return his affection. Although I never expected my words to have such an effect, it seems that he wanted to show me he had taken heed of my censure."
"He told me that he had done something you objected to and he had come to see the justness of your reproofs and attempted to set the matters to rights. Was that what he meant?"
Lizzy did not answer at once. When she finally said, "I suppose so," Mr. Bennet was left wondering if there might not be something else she was not telling him. But he soon forgot it, pondering about the significance of Lizzy's revelations.
"I presume that he hoped you might forgive him and change your mind about his addresses if you saw that he had altered his behaviour."
"Do you not think that it speaks well of his affection? He cared enough for me to forgive my dreadful abuse of him, and took the blame upon himself, although he could just as well have started to hate me. And his devotion for me lasted for months, and he strove to change his conduct following my reproofs, even though he had no hope of ever having me as his wife. Surely you cannot doubt his regard for me, when it has been tested thus?"
Mr. Bennet could not doubt it. He was amazed. Stunned. Completely dumbfounded. According to his daughter's interpretation the explanation number four for Darcy's mystifying improvement seemed to be correct. Number four was the miracle alternative. Apparently the blazing inferno of affection had changed Darcy after all! And it was all due to his love for Lizzy.
Or due to a good scolding given by Lizzy. To think that she had such power over her fiance! Who knew what miracles she could yet perform? His affections must be strong indeed, to give her such influence.
Mr. Bennet shivered to think about the vastness of it all. Just imagine: Darcy had fallen in love and proposed to his intended in good faith. He had been rejected, in a manner which must have been very hurtful and bitter. Lizzy had called him conceited, arrogant and rude, declared that he was no gentleman, and told him that he was the last man she could ever love. Yet, despite the pain and mortification this must have caused him, he had been able to hold no grudges, forgiven her harsh words, and acted with all friendliness when they met for the first time afterwards. In fact, with far more friendliness than required. It was a sign of a strong character, and Mr. Bennet was not sure if he could measure up to that standard himself.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Darcy had been very patient and kind, not resentful in the least, and it seemed that love had certainly diminished his rudeness and arrogance. And despite the danger of further heartache and disappointment, Darcy had persevered in his suit. He had taken the risk and proposed for a second time Ò proposed again to the woman who had proclaimed him the last man she would ever marry. What kind of a man did that?
It had to be a sign of a strong love, the kind of love only his sweet Lizzy could inspire. Or was that just a father's partiality?
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
He had to reluctantly acknowledge that he felt a certain respect towards Mr. Darcy. Proud and socially awkward the man might be, but when he fell in love he did it with an almost otherworldly passion and greatness of spirit. Mr. Bennet was sure that he had never felt anything remotely comparable himself, and he was envious.
If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
It would be extremely sad to be nothing. Would a lesser love qualify? Mr. Bennet surely doted on Lizzy, but had he ever told her he loved her? And Jane! Who could help but love Jane? It was to be hoped that it was obvious for he had never told Jane that either. He was not sure if he had loved the three other girls enough. They were part of his own flesh and blood so he could not be completely indifferent to them, but he had failed to educate them properly and to protect them from all evil.
Mrs Bennet was another story altogether. Their marriage had begun in infatuation and ended up in disappointment. They were ill-matched both intellectually and temperamentally, and he was afraid that what was between them was not love but dutiful tolerance of their coexistence. Were Mrs Bennet to die, he would be sad, but also relieved. Hope to God Lizzy's marriage would never become such a bland union.
But were Lizzy's affections comparable to Darcy's? Did she reciprocate his feelings, or had she merely been swept off her feet by the intensity of his affections? It had to be flattering, but would flattering last her for a lifetime?
Finally he asked Lizzy the same question which had determined the outcome of his conference with Darcy. He thought that Lizzy had already answered it in her own manner, but he had to be sure. "Do you love him?"
Lizzy gave the same reply Darcy had given, and looked just as solemn. "I do." It sounded like a wedding vow.
Mr. Bennet exhaled deeply, slowly. He had not been aware that he had been holding his breath. "Well, my dear, I have no more to say."
It had to be enough. Mr. Bennet could not see into the future, but if these two young people loved each other now they had a chance, and it had to be enough. Their feelings had a chance of growing and strengthening, if they nurtured them properly, but they could also wilt away in neglect. Nothing to it, Lizzy and Darcy would just have to make sure that they cherished the relationship. Their mutual affection at this precise moment was all Mr. Bennet had to rely on Ò the future would be up to them.
"If this be the case, he deserves you."
Suddenly he had little doubt of their success. Lizzy and Darcy had been through so much distress already, and it had not destroyed their affection. On the contrary, it had been reinforced. There were few marriages which could be authorized if that was not a sufficient sign to enable a father to give his consent. And what would it matter if Darcy's love was stronger now? How could she help learning to love him back if he demonstrated his feelings the way he had?
"I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy."
His daughter's eyes filled with tears once more, and she seemed to struggle with her words. "Sometimes I feel that it is I who do not deserve him, Papa."
"Why would you say that, my love?"
"He is so good... I must tell you what he did for Lydia. He did not want it to become known before, but I do not think that he would mind you hearing it now."
"What, my dear? Has he had some dealings with Lydia?" Mr. Bennet was confused. Not that it was anything new. Actually, he might become more confused if one day he found himself not confused at all any more.
"When I read Jane's letter in Lambton, the one which informed me about Lydia's elopement, Mr. Darcy happened upon me just at the moment. I was quite distraught and could not conceal my feelings from him, so I told him what had happened."
"What? He knew about it so soon?"
What could Lizzy have been thinking to reveal the whole shameful magnitude of the family scandal to a complete stranger?
All right, he was not a complete stranger to Lizzy if he was in love with her. Unlikely as it might seem, a rejected proposal could perhaps add a certain kind of intimacy to a relationship. But had it really been wise? For a while, Mr. Bennet contemplated the possibility that it had been Mr. Darcy who had blabbed the whole affair to Lady Catherine, who, according to Mr. Collins, knew everything about it.
"Apparently you trusted Mr. Darcy a great deal if you felt able to confide in him in such a matter of great delicacy." His tone was neutral. After all, the servants might have spread the story, and Mr. Collins could just as well be guilty of informing the old bat. The Lucases were not exactly discreet either, were they?
"Well, I did. He was so comforting and so worried to see me in such distressed state I could not help it, although I did regret it later. He said his goodbyes to me quite abruptly and I was certain that I would never see him again because of the scandal, that he would not want to associate with me anymore." She seemed sad for a while.
So that explained her bitter outburst about Lydia's disgrace destroying all the hopes the other girls might have for respectable men's attentions.
"But he told me yesterday that he was upset because he felt that it was his fault that Wickham's bad character was not more generally known. You see, he knew that Mr. Wickham had done scandalous things before, but he had chosen not to make them public."
"Oh I wish he had!"
"I wish it too. And he does. Which is why he decided to leave for London, to see if he could track Wickham down."
"Yes, he wanted to do what he could to rectify the situation, because he felt that he was partly to blame. He knew where Wickham's old acquaintances lived and persuaded one of them to reveal his direction. When he found them he attempted to talk to Wickham and took Lydia to the Gardiners."
"The Gardiners! Why did they not mention Mr. Darcy's involvement?"
"He insisted that it should be kept secret. He thought it might look odd if it became generally known that he had arranged the marriage, paid Wickham's debts and bought the commission, and he did not want to cause me any further distress. So he requested that Mr. Gardiner take the credit and keep his name out of it. But Lydia revealed it by accident, and I could not rest until my aunt had told me everything."
"This is an evening of wonders, indeed! And so, Darcy did everything; made up the match, gave the money, paid the fellow's debts, and got him his commission!"
Mr. Bennet was incredulous. This was another charitable gesture which spoke of Darcy's caring nature. He had insisted upon secrecy, so his motivation could not have been a wish to buy Lizzy's affection. There was a lot more to Darcy than met the eye. Who knew what the chap might still manage to do to astonish him!
It made him a bit uncomfortable. Of course he preferred generosity and benevolence to meanness and ill will, but why should his future son-in-law be so dashed unpredictable?
He attempted to ease the atmosphere by reverting into a lighter tone, as he was wont to do whenever he felt disquieting emotions. Only today it had been very difficult to find solace in sarcasm and irreverence.
"So much the better. It will save me a world of trouble and economy. Had it been your uncle's doing, I must and would have paid him; but these violent young lovers carry everything their own way. I shall offer to pay him tomorrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter."
Yes, everything had worked out very satisfactorily indeed. Apparently there was a streak of goodness in Darcy after all. He wondered why the young man had insisted on such secrecy Ò for he must assume Mr. Gardiner's reticence was all Darcy's doing. His brother-in-law was not the type to enjoy undeserved praise. Surely it could not hurt Darcy's suit to have his generosity known to his sweetheart's family. They had to feel gratitude towards him.
Gratitude was an ugly word. Once more fear grabbed his heart. Had Lizzy persuaded herself that she had to accept his proposal out of gratitude? Her assurances seemed genuine, but perhaps she had been overly influenced by her feeling of thankfulness. Such gratitude could not last for a lifetime, could it?
But it was as if Lizzy had read his mind, for she said: "We are very much indebted to him, but I assure you that I did not accept his proposal because I felt beholden to him. There would be no end of husbands if I had to marry everyone who ever did anything nice to me or my family."
It was not quite true, as there could be few who had done as much to earn her gratitude as Mr. Darcy had. But Mr. Bennet understood her meaning and could put his mind at ease.
"I will miss you, Lizzy. You know that I love you, do you not?"
Lizzy nodded wordlessly. Mr. Bennet's words seemed to cause a lump to appear in her throat as she kept swallowing quite ineffectually, in an attempt to recover her voice. Finally she opted for a nonverbal declaration of her feelings and came up to hug him.
The physical contact was brief and felt strange. Mr. Bennet was not accustomed to such impulsive displays of affection from his daughters. Not from anyone else either, for that matter. As a boy he had had a dog which had often jumped in his lap and licked his face lovingly, but people were more discreet in their affections. The proprieties had to be observed.
He had loved that dog and cried for days when it died.
Now that he was about to give his two eldest daughters up in holy matrimony, he hoped from all his heart that Jane and Elizabeth would not have to rely on dogs to provide visible signs of affection. He realized that for years he had longed for physical and emotional closeness, but he had confined himself into his library instead, thinking that there was none to be had in his home.
Perhaps he should get another dog. With people, it was too difficult.
"I love you too, Papa."
Now the lump was in his own throat. He sought for something cheerful to say to break the intensity of the moment. "You had better warn him that I intend to visit you often. If he does not treat you right he will have to answer to me."
"I am sure that you have no cause for concern. But I shall be glad to see you in Pemberley."
"You have been very sly, my dear. You never mentioned having seen him in Hunsford, gave me no warning that he was about to propose, and I had to rely on your uncle to get any information about your trip to Lambton. It makes me wonder what other secrets you have kept from your poor old father."
"I did not want to talk about him while I was not sure of his affection. But there are no further secrets that you should worry about."
"Just make sure that you inform me of the birth of my first grandchild before I have to hear about it from Mr. Collins!"
It felt good to be able to laugh again. Mr. Bennet was sure that he had aged at least ten years during the previous agonizing hours. He had never excelled in candid emotional discussions; it was far easier to make light of everything. But tonight raillery had deserted him just when he had needed it most, and sarcasm had not comforted him.
The restoration of laughter was an omen; a sign that life might return normal afterwards despite everything.
"Were you able to refrain from guffawing when Mr. Darcy proposed to you? Because I quite distinctly remember you being extremely diverted when I read you Mr. Collins's letter."
Lizzy accepted the jest with only a nod. She was not in the mood for chuckling yet. "But it was such an odd letter, Papa."
"By no means, my dear Lizzy. If you had had the honour of reading Mr. Collins's correspondence more frequently, you would know that that particular letter was extremely sensible and well-constructed Ò considering the sender. But the holy matrimony is such an inspiring subject."
She managed a weak smile. "To think that Mama wanted me to marry Mr. Collins!"
"Well, I would never have forgiven you if you had. I assume that you want him to perform the ceremony."
"I will be perfectly content with the vicar, thank you, " she replied archly. Mr. Bennet winked conspiratorially.
There was yet another silence. At last she broke it by saying, "Are you quite sure that you approve?"
"Lizzy, my love, I gave Mr. Darcy my consent earlier tonight. But you may go to him now and tell him that you have my blessing too."
"Thank you, Papa." Little by little Lizzy had relaxed and become more comfortable during their conversation. Now it seemed that Mr. Bennet's words had lifted a great weight off her shoulder.
Well, finally! It was high time for that air of happiness to appear. Maybe Mr. Bennet would see the radiant, joyful bride yet; but she had certainly taken her time to look the part.
"If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure.''
Lizzy laughed. "I shall ask them to form a queue."
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