Mr. Bennet's Quiet Evening
Mr. Bennet retired into his study as soon as possible and did not expect to be disturbed for the rest of the evening. The groom to be was not inclined to leave his bride's side and his friend would no doubt keep his taciturn vigil somewhere nearby. None of the women were likely to miss Mr. Bennet while there was more cheerful company to be had. By cheerful company he meant Bingley, of course. As for Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Bennet was quite vexed that the other man should be always accompanying Bingley, and Kitty and Mary were rather scared of him.
Jane of course was far too happy to dislike any friend of Mr. Bingley, and even though Lizzy had formerly expressed her antipathy of Mr. Darcy in no uncertain terms she had seemed to be able to tolerate his company better lately. At least she had willingly gone for long walks with the man and apparently managed to avoid quarrelling with him. Hopefully they would find something to talk about during the course of the evening without Mr. Bennet for he was not in the mood for entertaining.
Mr. Bennet welcomed the solitude. He had not been able to get rid of the gloominess he had felt ever since Lydia's elopement, although things were looking up a little now that Mr. Bingley had proposed to Jane. Also, after a lot of agonizing, Lydia and Wickham were finally married. Thank God for small consolations and dubious blessings.
He blamed himself for everything that had happened, and nothing had ever stung him more painfully. He accused himself of indifference towards his daughters, especially the three youngest. It had always been so easy to be affectionate to the two eldest girls that the rest of them had faded into insignificance in comparison. Sweet Jane was a godsend, an angel in a muslin dress, and Elizabeth had always been his favourite. With her playful, lively manner and keen wit she reminded him most of himself. Lizzy was the only one in the family to fully comprehend his occasionally biting sarcasm and to answer in kind. Jane was too kind, Kitty too silly and Mary had been born without the faculties necessary for a sense of humour. His wife took everything literally and as for Lydia - oh well, she had simply never attended to the things he said.
He blamed himself bitterly for turning a blind eye towards Lydia's excesses. The girl had always been wild and too much indulged by her mother. Mrs Bennet recognized herself in her youngest daughter and encouraged her to enjoy herself to the fullest. When Lydia was younger, it had not seemed dangerous, and Mr. Bennet had not exerted himself much trying to punish or control her or her sisters. He had contented himself by occasionally remarking on the foolishness of his three youngest daughters, trusting that they would become more sensible as they grew older. But when the officers, parties and flirting had started to interest Lydia and Kitty more than was fitting, and still no signs of increasing intelligence emerged, he should have done something more.
"The best wisdom of all: that which comes after the disaster," he said aloud. "Too late to fret now." Yet he could not let be. He had to feel the sting of guilt, even if it was only for once in his life. For so long he had been unconcerned. Not even Lizzy's warnings had managed to rouse him from his idle insouciance. He had disregarded them and continued to blithely avoid any unpleasant introspection.
"Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it."
A better father would have paid more attention to his daughters. He would have realized the danger his youngest daughter was in and would have taken steps to correct Lydia's inappropriate behaviour. He would have been more strict and denied her the journey to Brighton, instead of submitting in the hopes of avoiding a little whining.
A wiser father might have been able to supply her daughters with an understanding of morality, duty and obedience, or at least a small speck of common sense, and the whole problem might have been avoided altogether.
Now you have to pay the price.
Lydia's elopement had been costly in more than one way. Mr. Bennet still had not found out the exact sum which Mr. Gardiner had had to pay in order to get Wickham to marry Lydia, but he estimated that it would take him the better part of the next fifty years to repay his brother-in-law. The whole family would have to cut back on their expenses to save such a sum, for surely Wickham had not succumbed to the lures of mere shillings and pence. How Mr. Gardiner, who had a family of his own to support, could afford the cost of the marriage in the first place was beyond Mr. Bennet's understanding, but one thing was clear: he must be repaid as soon as possible. Why his brother-in-law should be so reticent about the actual terms he could not comprehend. Whether it was from some misguided notion of charity or a futile wish to avoid distressing the Bennets Mr. Gardiner was wrong in taking the whole burden to himself.
It was a father's duty to take care of his children. And what better use for a father's money than to bribe dissolute good-for-nothings to ruin his daughters' lives? He had no doubt Wickham would manage to make Lydia unhappy one way or another, or perhaps both ways, although it might be too much to hope that she would see the effects of her own actions in her unhappiness.
Mr. Bennet raised his glass of port wine in mock toast, lips twisted into a harsh, humourless smile. "For happy marriages!", he murmured quietly.
A comment by Lizzy continued to torment him. It was just a stray remark he had happened to overhear, spoken in great frustration. "Kitty, don't you see how much has been ruined by all this? It's not just Lydia's reputation, it's yours, mine, Jane's, Mary's. None of the Bennet sisters will ever be mentioned again without an allusion to this scandal. Do you think any respectable man will seek an alliance with us now?"
He had not heard Kitty's answer as he flinched and the blood rushed in his ears. He knew it to be the truth. His failure to do his parental duty had caused great damage to all his daughters. The rumours could not be hushed up, as Mr. Collins had amply demonstrated, and now even Jane and Lizzy, who had always behaved in a totally appropriate manner, were not safe from censure and contempt.
Even his beloved Lizzy was harmed by this unholy mess.
Sometimes he had indulged in the dream that Lizzy would stay unmarried and care for him in his old age, but it brought him no comfort now to think that his wish might come true after all. Whatever his desires might be, he believed that Lizzy wanted a family of her own. She needed a partner who was worthy of her. She deserved someone to stand by her, forever. But it all seemed extremely unlikely now. No man who was worthy of her would propose to her now, considering the tainted reputation of the family. Which respectable man would want to associate with the sisters of a scandalous flirt and the in-laws of the greatest scoundrel in all England?
"Come, let me see the list of pitiful fellows who have been kept aloof by Lydia's folly."
Oh, how blind, stupid, arch foolishness all that had been!
Of course, Bingley had proposed to Jane after the unhappy event but apparently his regard had been established long before that. The poor man had not had a chance after Mrs. Bennet had set her sights upon him. Mr. Bennet smiled wistfully. The rest of the girls would have more difficulty in even getting an opportunity of making a good marriage, he had no doubt of that.
And it was all his fault.
He also blamed himself for having been inattentive to Jane's sorrows. Of course he had known that she liked Mr. Bingley and was disappointed by his going away, but he had never appreciated the extent of her feelings. He had even cheerfully teased Jane about her supposedly broken heart, without understanding how much she really cared and how much his teasing must have hurt her. She had been so quietly, discreetly devastated that it was only after Mr. Bingley's proposal had brought back her customary happiness that Mr. Bennet had realized real joy had been missing from Jane's demeanour for a long time.
He had been sadly remiss in his parental duties, he concluded. He hoped it was not too late to do something about Kitty and Mary, but he admitted to himself that he had no idea how to go about doing anything. For such a long time his child-rearing methods had consisted of merely scolding or teasing his girls for silliness but he had not been able to set positive examples for them. It had been his custom to withdraw from much of the daily family interaction as he could bear the noisy expressions of his wife and the crankiness of his youngest daughters only in small doses, and things had simply slid out of his control before he noticed.
Would he have been able to raise a boy better? Had he neglected his girls while waiting for the heir who was never born? He was not sure of the answer, but he had some misgivings which he valiantly attempted to bury in the back of his head. When Jane and Elizabeth were born he had still been secure in his hope of eventually siring an heir. But with each subsequent girl's birth, the disappointment grew bigger, and he feared that it might have led him to unknowingly resent the younger girls for not being the son he wanted to have, to write them off as insignificant.
The reason a son was so important was the fact that Longbourn was entailed, of course. He had desired an heir who would inherit the estate, which would allow his wife and daughters a home and an income, even after his death. It was one of the paradoxical ironies of life if his wish for a son to protect and provide for his girls had unintentionally made him harm them by his indifference towards them.
God, I hope not.
He rose abruptly and walked to the small side table where he kept a bottle of port wine. He poured himself a glass and drank it quickly. It did not make him feel any better but he poured another glass anyway and carried it to his desk.
At least he could be happy that Lizzy had never caused him any concern. Perhaps he had done something right, he thought ruefully.
Chapter II -- Mr. Bennet's Bewilderment
He was startled from his musings by a sharp rap on the door. "Come in," he called, expecting Bingley. The rest of the family either were not in the habit of knocking on his door or did it more softly.
To his great surprise the visitor was Mr. Darcy. "Good evening, Mr. Bennet, I hope I do not disturb you, but I would dearly like to have a word with you," he said, and stopped at the door. Had Mr. Bennet not known better he would have said Darcy looked apprehensive. But why would that confident, proud, self-assured man be nervous for coming to talk to him, for heaven's sake?
Come to think of it, why did he come?
"Please take a seat, Mr. Darcy," said Mr. Bennet jovially. He was determined to be civil, even though it annoyed him to be thus interrupted from his captivating self-recriminations. Sometimes wallowing in self-disgust was the healthy thing to do. "Have you come to discuss books or horses?"
"Actually, no, I have not. " Darcy sat on the edge of the chair, very straight.
"Why, do you wish to?"
Mr. Bennet looked at him quizzically and smiled. "I just thought it might be a welcome diversion after all the wedding talk you have surely been subjected to."
"Yes, the wedding." Darcy looked extremely uncomfortable. He rose from his chair and started to walk across the room. The space was so limited he had to turn after every two or three steps.
"Care for port?"
"No, thank you, sir."
There was a pause.
"Goodness gracious, your fondness of pacing reminds me of another young man who sought an audience with me just a couple of days ago," observed Mr. Bennet good naturedly. "Are you sure you don't want to borrow a book?"
"No, no, no, sir," said Darcy hastily. He stopped, as if surprised to hear he was pacing, and regarded his host with great solemnity. "But I suppose it is only to be expected that most young men who address you with the same objective in mind are a little nervous."
"I have not yet had vast experience of the matter." Mr. Bennet looked at him thoughtfully. Surely Darcy could not mean that he...
He dismissed the absurd thought as soon as it had entered his head. Whomever could Mr. Darcy propose to marry? Surely not Lizzy, who had always hated him, never mind that ridiculous letter Mr. Collins had written. The rumour could certainly not contain even a grain of truth, for there was not a shred of evidence of a courtship being conducted. Why, the two of them had scarcely exchanged a polite word in his hearing. And what on earth would Mr. Darcy want Kitty for? Mary's morose disposition might well be a good match with his but as Mary had conversed with Darcy even less than Lizzy it seemed an extremely unlikely union. A laughable fantasy, that was all it was. He must have meant something else.
Yet why had Darcy come to talk to him? Why had he followed Mr. Bingley to Longbourn? What enjoyment could he expect to get from socializing with the Bennet family, if his feelings considering their station in life were anything like what Mr. Collins implied his aunt's to be? After the scandal too... Surely it was beneath him to gloat, was it? Damned if Mr. Bennet could understand him - the man with his reserved air and uncommunicative expressions was a puzzling riddle.
"And how do you like your friend, Mr. Bingley's engagement?" inquired Mr. Bennet. Perhaps it was a slightly improper question, but he wanted to know. From his manner during their earlier acquaintance he had suspected that Mr. Darcy had not encouraged the match, having caught him frowning grimly at Jane and Bingley once or twice. Now he was not certain. Mr. Darcy had congratulated everyone enthusiastically enough and had not seemed resentful or unhappy. And if he objected to the upcoming nuptials, why would he join the groom so often in his visits?
"My friend and Miss Bennet seem very happy to be together and I wish them every felicity," said Darcy firmly.
"I gather you have been asked to be the groomsman, Mr. Darcy?"
"Yes, Mr. Bingley did ask me and I agreed." Darcy fixed his gaze in Mr. Bennet's eyes. "But if it pleases you I would rather stand at the altar at another capacity."
"What?" Mr. Bennet became aware of the rudeness of his exclamation right after he had uttered it but by then it was impossible to call back. He sought in vain for something else to say.
The younger man looked at Mr. Bennet steadily. "Sir, I should like to have your permission to marry your daughter, Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"L-l-lizzy?", gasped Mr. Bennet and nearly choked in his port. "Did I just hear you say you wish to marry my Lizzy?"
"Yes. It is my dearest wish to be able to make her happy."
"But, but..." It was very rare for Mr. Bennet to be at a loss for words, but lately it had happened quite often. These were bewildering times indeed.
"Do you give your consent, sir?"
"But, but..." sputtered Mr. Bennet again. "This is all very surprising. I had no idea whatsoever that ..."
Darcy nodded, his expression as serious as ever. "I understand this request must astonish you as you can have had no reason to suspect this development. But I am indeed in earnest."
Mr. Bennet regarded him quietly for some time, gathering his wits. He pushed his glass of port wine away disconcertedly. Situations like this called for something stronger, only he did not know which substance would be strong enough to dispel the strange sensation of confusion which had overtaken him.
"Why do you wish to marry my Lizzy, Mr. Darcy?"
"For all the right reasons."
"Name some." He knew it sounded rude but he was unable to care at the moment.
"From the first, I was attracted to her lively spirit and playfulness. Since I have learnt to know her better I have come to respect her integrity and admire her good understanding, and I believe we would suit very well. As I said, I want nothing more than to make her happy."
"I was not aware that you two had any closer acquaintance."
"Yes, I can see why you would think that, as I have not been a frequent visitor at this house. But I do assure you we know each other well enough, and this is not just a passing fancy. We first spent some time together when your daughters were staying in Netherfield, and later we have met in Rosings Park, and in Pemberley, when Miss Elizabeth was travelling with Mr. and Mrs Gardiner."
Mr. Bennet started. "Curious that Lizzy never mentioned seeing you in Hunsford."
"She did not?" Darcy began fidgeting in an agitated manner. Funny how Mr. Bennet had always imagined the man above and beyond such commonplace emotions as uneasiness.
"No, never a word. Why do you suppose that is?"
His visitor shifted uncomfortably. "I can only assume she wanted to avoid the topic because there were some awkward feelings between us at the time."
Mr. Bennet looked at him expectantly, but Darcy did not continue. After a while, Mr. Bennet said, "I do not want to pry, but if you are going to marry my daughter it would comfort me greatly if I understood the situation between you. Please humor an old, worried father. Otherwise I shall let my imagination run wild and picture far worse things than actually took place."
Darcy was silent for a few moments more, deliberating. "If you must insist on knowing, sir, in Hunsford I proposed to her and she refused."
Mr. Bennet did not know what he had expected but certainly not this. This distant, severe man had proposed to Elizabeth all those months ago, and she had never breathed a word. Wonder of wonders! And to think that he had never suspected any attachment on Darcy's part.
Had there been some indication of it in Darcy's behaviour? Had he not slighted Lizzy the first time they met at the Meryton assembly? Apparently his opinions had changed substantially since that time. Try as he might, Mr. Bennet could not remember any word, any look, any action that spoke for a particular regard, but he supposed he had not been looking very closely. He had not expected to see any partiality and thus he had not seen it. If this was blindness it looked like he was on the waiting list for a miracle cure. But in all fairness to himself, how could anyone have expected to see any partiality when Lizzy had made her opinion of Mr. Darcy so clear? Mrs. Bennet had not seen any either, although she had been present in more gatherings where Lizzy and Darcy had been together, and she was generally not backward in crediting her girls with rich and handsome admirers, even when the evidence did not back her theories up.
At least, he finally understood why Lizzy had seemed so embarrassed when he had teased her about Darcy's supposed attentions. Mr. Darcy, who never looks at a woman but to see a blemish, and who probably never looked at you in his life!
Oh dear, he had been so wrong on that account. How humiliating.
Lizzy's refusal did not surprise him in the light of her negative opinions of the man. She would hardly accept a man whom she considered so proud and disagreeable. But why was Darcy seeking his consent now? Surely he could not believe Mr. Bennet would urge her to take him against her own wishes. Did he think his wealth and advantageous situation would be a sufficient incentive for any father to make his daughter marry him? Such arrogance was not to be borne.
Finally he broke the silence. "I do not understand, Mr. Darcy. If she has refused... I hope you do not expect me to persuade Lizzy to submit to this alliance against her will. Even if I wanted to I doubt very much that I could."
"Oh no, sir, you misunderstand!" cried Darcy. "I would not dream of forcing her hand if she were unwilling. But Miss Elizabeth made me very happy by accepting me yesterday."
"Hmm. So that is why you two got lost."
If Mr. Bennet had believed it to be possible he could have sworn that Darcy blushed a little, almost unperceptibly. "Yes."
Mr. Bennet studied his guest carefully. So Lizzy had refused Darcy once but the fellow had persevered in his suit. Then, later he had proposed for a second time despite the disappointment and mortification presumably caused by the first rejection. What kind of a man did that? Someone who would not take no for an answer? Someone who was very obstinate? Someone whose pride could not be humiliated? Someone who was deeply in love?
"She refused at first but you never gave up on her." It was not quite a question.
"I would not give up on her for the world."
"I wonder... What could have made her change her mind about refusing you? She is usually quite decisive, you know."
Darcy stared at the floor. It appeared the way the conversation was going made him tense. "Unfortunately there were some misunderstandings between us, but we were able to clear those. Also, I had said and done things she objected to, quite justly, as I later came to perceive. I have strived to set these matters right and I assure you that there is no need for you to be concerned about them any longer."
The silence lasted for several uncomfortable moments. Finally Mr. Bennet sighed and resigned to the fact that no other explanation was forthcoming. "Very well, Mr. Darcy. I suppose it is between you and Lizzy, and I dare say it is none of my concern in any case."
Chapter III -- Let Me Not Have The Grief
Darcy seemed glad to change the subject. "I promise you your daughter would be very generously provided for, and your future grandchildren would want for nothing."
Mr. Bennet was sure that was true. What was it Mrs. Bennet had told Darcy to be worth? Ten thousand pounds per annum? He wondered fleetingly how she could know. Whatever his fortune was it was enough to pay for the prettiest gowns, the nicest meals, the finest horses and the best tutors and governesses for the children. To be certain, Mr. Bennet wanted only the best things for his favourite daughter, and in that respect Darcy would do splendidly.
Yet it was a chilling thought. Had Lizzy agreed to marry him for his money? Would she consider it her duty now that she knew the family to be in financial difficulties? Good God! He wished he had not breathed a word about his monetary troubles. Surely he could pay Mr. Gardiner back some day without selling Lizzy to the highest bidder.
"I suppose you are aware that this house is entailed and that Lizzy has no dowry to speak of."
"It is of no consequence, as my income allows us to live quite comfortably. I would settle a sufficient amount of money for her to use for her personal expenses. She would be able to travel if she wants to, and I have a house in London, in case we wished to participate in the amusements provided by the capital. I assure you that her dowry is the last thing I would marry her for."
Mr. Bennet contemplated the luxuries that loomed ahead of Lizzy. Darcy's situation was much better than Bingley's, and Jane had had no reason to be discontent with her lot. How had Mr. Collins described Darcy in his letter? "One of the most illustrious personages of the country..." That sounded grand indeed.
He startled when he remembered the object of the letter had been to warn him not to give his consent. Mr. Collins had represented her ladyship's character as very formidable, and while Mr. Bennet seldom valued his cousin's judgment he had no doubt that Lady Catherine could make Lizzy's life miserable should she choose to.
"What about your family?" he asked abruptly.
"My parents are both dead. I have only one sister, Georgiana. She could live with us in Pemberley, or she could stay at the townhouse with her companion, if preferred. But I am glad to say that when Elizabeth and Georgiana met in Derbyshire they got along very well."
Mr. Bennet observed that Darcy had dropped the formality of his earlier address and started talking about Elizabeth instead of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. He also realized how little he knew about Lizzy's journey to Derbyshire. Mr. Gardiner had mentioned they had seen Pemberley and asked of his opinions of Mr. Darcy, whom he had seemed to think favourably of. Knowing what he knew now, it occurred to him that some Mr. Gardiner's remarks had hinted at the possibility of a deeper connection between Lizzy and Darcy, but at the time he had been too preoccupied with Lydia's situation to take notice.
Lizzy had certainly been very secretive about it all, a sly creature. It looked as if she had purposely avoided mentioning Pemberley or Mr. Darcy. Not that he objected to young people handling their love affairs with discretion. Still, it hurt him a little because he had always assumed Lizzy could trust him and talk to him openly about her concerns. But this time the private emotions of Lizzy's heart were off limits to her father, her feelings for Mr. Darcy a mystery he could not solve. Of course, ever since Lizzy's return he had been rather absent-minded himself and had not asked any questions about her travelling experiences.
He had to suppress a burst of involuntary laughter when it occurred to him that sometimes secrecy was the better part of valour. He remembered the fuss Mrs Bennet had made when Lizzy had refused Mr. Collins's proposal, and wisely refrained from imagining the commotion that would inevitably have ensued if his wife had heard about Lizzy turning down Darcy's offer.
To think that she could be married to Mr. Darcy by now! And he has Ten Thousand A Year! Nobody thinks of my poor nerves, sister!
Mr. Bennet shuddered and struggled to keep his mind on the pressing matters of the present. "Do your relatives approve of the match?"
"As we wanted to ask for your consent first Georgiana has not yet been informed but I am sure she will be delighted," said Darcy.
"I am asking because I have it on tolerably good authority that your honorable aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, disapproves of your plan to marry Elizabeth."
"Good God, how do you know that?"
"I received an interesting letter some days ago, from Mr. Collins, whom I think you know. My highly esteemed correspondent, who can be relied upon to hear and repeat anything worth gossiping about, congratulated me on the upcoming nuptials of Jane and Mr. Bingley, and thereafter warned me that Lizzy was about to enter an alliance which was not suitably sanctioned by his noble patroness and which would incur Lady Catherine's frightful wrath. At the time I thought such a match was impossible and dismissed the report as Mr. Collins's idle imaginings. But now I see I was deceived."
Darcy looked mortified. "I must apologize for the behaviour of my aunt. I know she came here uninvited and was rude to your wife. She was intent on having Elizabeth deny the truth of the rumour, and, I am sorry to say, conducted herself in an abominable manner."
And pray, Lizzie, what said Lady Catherine about this report? Did she call to refuse her consent?
At last Mr. Bennet understood his daughter's confusion. How blind he had been!
He who prided himself on his astute discernment and considered himself a connoisseur of human folly - he had failed to see his youngest daughter was on her way to a certain ruin, he had failed to see any hints about Jane's matters of the heart, he had failed to see what was going on right under his nose.
And now, suddenly, his dearest child disappointed him by entering a lifelong commitment he must regard with trepidation. He did not comprehend her choice at all. Folly indeed, to assume oneself able to understand one's children, and to teach them wisdom. And all of it came as a complete surprise to him. He had not suspected a thing, even though he had been forewarned. How mortifying to be thus exposed as a fraud!
"My aunt does indeed disapprove of my engagement to Elizabeth but rest assured, she would disapprove of my engagement to anyone. It appears that she has long planned for me to marry her own daughter, Anne, which I am not in the least inclined to do, and her character is sadly flawed in that she is constitutionally unable to accept disappointment gracefully."
"Flawed, eh? I had not the honour of meeting her; perhaps it was for the best. But is she likely to cause more grief and trouble for my sweet Lizzy if you marry?"
"I have hitherto attempted to stay in good terms with her because her displeasure is quite hard to take. But if she persists in abusing Elizabeth I promise you I shall always stand by her against Lady Catherine and protect her from every kind of harm. Lady Catherine will not be able to persuade my other relatives to slight my wife. Of that I am certain."
Mr. Bennet regarded the young man gravely. "You will protect her?"
Darcy returned the gaze equally gravely, unwavering. "I will."
"You will provide for her and take care of her?"
"You will stand by her no matter what happens?"
"You will respect her and seek her opinion in all the decisions that concern her welfare?"
"Sir, I can promise you that."
"You will try to make her happy?"
"I have sworn to her that I will."
Mr. Bennet fell silent. The young man before him appeared sincere, and he wanted to believe him. Mr. Bennet considered Darcy a man of good sense, even though his manners were a bit on the stiff, disapproving side. He was not easy to talk to and he disencouraged intimacy; he would benefit from adopting a friendlier, more unguarded attitude. He was nothing like his friend Bingley, and Mr. Bennet wondered what kept those two together. Darcy's disposition had earned him his reputation as a proud man. But perhaps he was different among those he felt affectionately about. Perhaps he would be different in the company of his wife.
Maybe his wife could teach him to laugh more readily, if he made a prudent choice. After all, he had it from the man himself that Lizzy's arch liveliness was one reason for her allure. Maybe Mr. Darcy realized Lizzy would be the perfect complement for him. Opposites attract, and all that.
To be sure, Mr. Bennet knew nothing really ill about Darcy's character. Proudness might be excused, it was a man's right to be reserved if he so desired, and he had no reason to suppose Darcy was not an honourable or an honest man. He presumed Mr. Wickham's tales would have to be discounted now that that gentleman had proven himself such a worthless rascal, and, to confess the shameful truth, he felt that every person who had been able to cause Wickham any amount of vexation was worthy of infinite respect.
Of Darcy's intelligence he had no doubt. His choice of a wife showed him to be able to appreciate Lizzy's wit and excellent understanding. Intellectually he would certainly be a good counterpart for Lizzy. Furthermore, he did not seem to mind the notoriety of his future brother-in-law and the infamy of the elopement. He had to know about it, had he not? Could it be that Mr. Bennet's fears for the other girls' reputations were greatly exaggerated? Or was it merely that Darcy's attachment to Lizzy was strong enough to overcome such paltry objections as the inappropriate behaviour of her sister? His constancy was surely to his credit, and Mr. Bennet felt inclined to trust his assurances.
At least he is not a squeamish youth...
Yet Lizzy had been so decided about her dislike of Darcy. Was she crazy to accept a man she hated? Could her abhorrence have evaporated? It was sometimes said that hatred and love were but different faces of the same coin. Could her dislike have masked an underlying attraction? Could she have just pretended to hate him for some obscure scheme of her own devising? It did not sound like Lizzy but then again, Mr. Bennet had been wrong about so many people lately he did not trust his judgment any more.
Maybe the knowledge of Darcy's affection had swayed her opinion. After all, it had to be very flattering to hear that she had such a critical man in her power. But it was hardly a strong enough foundation for a life-long commitment.
He attempted to remember if he had ever heard her talking well of the man, and realized that since her stay in Hunsford she had very rarely mentioned Darcy at all. Was it a good sign or a bad sign? Was it possible that she had overcome her negative feelings enough to marry him?
It pained him to think his beloved daughter would marry without affection and true compatibility. How well he knew the evils of such a match! He had entered a hasty marriage and lived to regret it. He would do anything to protect his children from a similar destiny - if only he knew what. It was too late to save Lydia now, and they had to make the best of it, but he swore he would not let Lizzy make such a momentous mistake without a fight. At least he had to try to talk her out of it.
To be committed to each other for life without mutual respect, desire and devotion was a sad thing indeed, and he feared that Lizzy might have resigned to such a fate because she had lost her faith in the possibility of a different life. After all, at home she had never seen a model of marital happiness. Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet had become used to each other and got on tolerably well if they did not have to spend too much time together, but that was the limit of their felicity. Perhaps Lizzy thought that kind of life was all that there was to be had.
Could Lizzy live without love, passion and tenderness? Could she be happy if she did not share a friendship with her husband? Could the marriage survive without strong regard? Could she ever learn to love Darcy? Could Lizzy be happy with someone who did not know how to smile, laugh and make merry, someone who did not share her lively sense of humour?
How could he give his consent to a match he feared to be imprudent? It would distress him excessively to see his favourite daughter in an unhappy, unequal marriage. Lizzy needed more, wanted more, deserved more. Yet how could he refuse if Lizzy had made up her mind?
Darcy - well, he was the kind of an awe-inspiring man who was used to getting his way, and it might be very difficult to turn him down if he had set his heart upon marrying Lizzy. Despite the signs of nervousness the young man had exhibited earlier he seemed quite determined, and Mr. Bennet was not sure if he even dared to deny Darcy anything. He was unable to think of any appropriate excuse to refuse to give his consent. After all, he could hardly tell the real reason for his hesitation.
Excuse me, but I am afraid that your intended hates you from the bottom of her heart.
No, that would not do.
The question was: was Darcy worth her? Mr. Bennet stared at him contemplatively. The fact that it had not occurred to him previously did not mean it could not be a good match for Lizzy. But how on earth was he supposed to ascertain that?
Of course, deep inside he believed nobody could ever be good enough for his dear Lizzy, Mr. Bennet acknowledged ruefully. He felt jealous of any man who would steal Lizzy from him, resented the idea of a stranger taking her away, feared the loneliness he would feel at Longbourn with Lizzy and Jane both gone. And Pemberley was very far from Longbourn indeed. Who could he speak two sensible words with if Lizzy did not live somewhere nearby? He would miss her very much.
Some day he would have to let go of Lizzy. But he was damned if he gave her up to someone who would make her unhappy.
Perhaps he could visit Pemberley often and make sure Darcy treated her right. That man would have an irate father to deal with, if he ever broke even one of his promises. He wished he had taken the trouble to learn to know the man better. Would it be advisable now to make friends with all the disagreeable men in the neighbourhood, in case one of them proposed to Kitty or Mary?
Oh God, how he would miss Lizzy!
On the heels of that thought came another. With Lizzy, Jane and Lydia gone from Longbourn, perhaps it was time to devote more fatherly attention to Kitty and Mary. They could certainly use some guidance, and perhaps it was not altogether too late. If only he knew what to say and do.
Mr. Bennet reflected on these questions for so long that Mr. Darcy started to look a bit worried. When the silence continued, his countenance assumed a stubborn, challenging quality. Mr. Bennet was not displeased to notice that. At least it shows Lizzy is really important to him, he thought. It looks like he is determined to have her.
He found himself sympathizing with the young man's plight. He was prejudiced in favour of everyone who cared for Lizzy, predisposed to like anybody who admired her; and now that he was over his first shock of incredulity he had no trouble comprehending why Mr. Darcy would be attracted to Lizzy. On the contrary, he was so proud of her it rather surprised him that there were not any more young men head over heels in love with her, begging for her attentions.
If only he could be sure that Lizzy would not regret the marriage.
Finally Mr. Bennet broke the silence. "Do you love her?", he asked abruptly, his voice a little louder than necessary. He kept staring at Darcy as if trying to read his visitor's mind from his eyes.
Mr. Darcy met his gaze resolutely. "I do."
Mr. Bennet sighed in resignation. "Very well. I give you my consent."
"Thank you, Mr. Bennet." The young man relaxed visibly and broke into a relieved grin, an expression Mr. Bennet had never before seen on his face.
It suits him. He should definitely practice smiling more. Perhaps he might turn out to be human after all.
"I hope you both will become very happy, Mr. Darcy. But I need to talk to Lizzy alone before the engagement is announced."
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