"My dear, such news I have from Longbourn!" cried Mrs. Gardiner as she entered her husband's study with letter in hand.
Mr. Gardiner smiled broadly, "From Lizzy I hope?"
"Indeed it is! I must read it to you:
I would have thanked you before, my dear aunt, as I ought to have done, for your long, kind, satisfactory, detail of particulars; but to say the truth, I was too cross to write. You supposed more than really existed. But now suppose as much as you chuse; give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight which the subject will afford, and unless you believe me actually married, you cannot greatly err. You must write again very soon, and praise him a great deal more than you did in your last. I thank you, again and again, for not going to the Lakes. How could I be so silly as to wish it! Your idea of the ponies is delightful. We will go round the Park every day. I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh. Mr. Darcy sends you all the love in the world that he can spare from me. You are all to come to Pemberley at Christmas. Yours, &c.
Mr. Gardiner chuckled. "How proud I am of Lizzy! I could not be happier if she were our own daughter. And what an excellent man Mr. Darcy is, who could ask for a finer nephew? All is as we had hoped. But my dear, I am confused. If there was no agreement between them, why did he insist upon such secrecy? What better means to display his love for Elizabeth than by coming to the aid of her sister, indeed her entire family?"
"I cannot account for it. Perhaps he was unsure of her feelings toward him and did not wish her to feel obligated to him, but yet he must have know how she felt. The looks that past between them at Pemberley were so...so amorous!"
Mr. Gardiner paused thoughtfully and then continued, "But I do recall that Elizabeth's feelings toward Mr. Darcy were quite different upon our arrival in Derbyshire. I could never understand them myself, Mr. Darcy was not at all what we were led to believe. He was condescension itself, all ease and humility, and so very attentive to us - persons heretofore unknown to him and of a station much lower than himself. There must have been some great misunderstanding for her to have portrayed him to us in such a light."
"It was no doubt Wickham. His lies regarding Mr. Darcy were quite convincing."
"Yes, but when Lizzy revealed to us what she knew of Wickham's character on that sad day in Lambton, she implied that she had known the information for quite some time, at the very least prior to our trip to Derbyshire. Knowing Wickham had been deceitful she still thought ill of Mr. Darcy. Why?"
"I hardly know," laughed Mrs. Gardiner. "My happiness, though great, will not be complete until I know the full history."
"Nor I, my dear, nor I. Perhaps an invitation to London would induce her to be more explicit?"
Mrs. Gardiner rose and placed a kiss on her husband's forehead. "You are a most generous uncle, Mr. Gardiner, and an even better husband, knowing my curiosity will prey on me until I am acquainted with all the particulars. I will write Lizzy directly. She and Jane must come to purchase wedding clothes eventually, and why not sooner than later."
Mr. Darcy warmed himself by the fire in the Bennet's drawing room. He was surprised that Elizabeth had not been there to greet him. He and Bingley spent nearly everyday at Longbourn since his engagement three weeks prior, and each morning Lizzy met him at the door with that arch grin he had so come to love. He envied Bingley, who was already enjoying the last warms days of autumn in the garden with Jane. "I am still a very selfish creature," he thought humorously. "To wish her at my beck and call every moment of the day."
"Mr. Darcy, you have not finished telling me of your mother's family. Did she have any other siblings besides Lady Catherine?" Mrs. Bennet had taken quite a liking to Mr. Darcy in the past weeks. She had felt something near regret regarding her past treatment of him, but it was soon forgot. Never one for any kind of introspection, Mrs. Bennet's mind was soon filled with thoughts of the upcoming wedding and the future comforts of Pemberley.
"Yes, my Uncle Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Matlock." Darcy groaned inwardly as he spoke. Mrs. Bennet had been in almost silent awe of him for the first week of his engagement. He had begun to feel that his previous judgment of her had been too harsh, but curiosity soon loosed her tongue and the many questions were beginning to annoy Darcy.
"Pray tell me," Mrs. Bennet continued, "does he have any children, has he produced an heir?"
"He has two sons, my cousin Henry, his heir, and my cousin Edward. I believe you have heard Miss Bennet speak of Edward, he is the Colonel Fitzwilliam she met while visiting Mrs. Collins in Kent."
"Yes, I believe I remember her mentioning him," said Mrs. Bennet unconvincingly. "Have either of the gentlemen married?"
Mr. Darcy realized immediately the point of this line of questioning. "Henry has been married these five years, but Colonel Fitzwilliam remains a confirmed bachelor."
"Did you hear that Kitty?" cried Mrs. Bennet. "Colonel Fitzwilliam is a bachelor. Will he be attending the wedding Mr. Darcy?"
"Mama!" cringed Kitty. She previously had not understood why Jane and Lizzy so often seemed embarrassed by their mother's comments. With three daughters well situated, Mrs. Bennet naturally turned her attention to the remaining two. Kitty's marriage prospects were at the forefront of her mother's thoughts, thus her words, and Kitty was feeling it sorely.
"Mr. Darcy," said Kitty quickly changing the subject. "Lizzy received a letter from our Aunt Gardiner this morning. She often reads her letters at the stone bench on the west end of the park. You might find her there now."
Mr. Darcy smiled and rose. "Thank you Kitty. If you will excuse, Mrs. Bennet?"
"Certainly, Mr. Darcy," said Mrs. Bennet a little cross. "We can finish our talk another time."
He found her on the stone bench just as Kitty had predicted. His heart leapt when he first caught sight of her. She was always lovely, but today she looked particularly so, dressed in a warm curry color and surrounded by trees ablaze with autumn glory, as if competing for her attention.
Fully engrossed in her letter, she did not seem to notice Mr. Darcy's approach. He was only a foot or two away from her now, and a devilish grin spread over his face.
"How dare you invade my privacy unannounced, Mr. Darcy. Most ungentleman-like," said Elizabeth evenly, without moving or lifting her eyes from her letter.
Darcy chuckled as he sat beside her. "I have so rarely been the victor in the course of our acquaintance, I had hoped to gain the advantage this morning with a surprise attack."
"Perhaps you could employ Miss Bingley to teach me the proper deference toward a 'man without fault', then you would always be victorious."
Mr. Darcy raised her hand and kissed it. "Yes, Caroline is to return with Bingley and me from London next week, I am sure she would be most obliged."
Elizabeth rewarded him with a dazzling smile; she was very pleased with his growing playfulness. "I am sorry you had to come in search of me. I have had a letter from my aunt Gardiner and it has left me with much to consider."
"Is there bad news?" Mr. Darcy inquired with concern.
"No, no, nothing like that. In fact, they have invited Jane and me to London."
"That is excellent news! You can join Bingley and me; we can even extend the visit now that we will not be apart. I am very anxious to show you the house, little has been done with it since my mother passed, and it is in need of updating. Also," continued Darcy enthusiastically, "Lord and Lady Matlock, that is my aunt and uncle Fitzwilliam, have recently arrived in London. Their company was the only thing that made this trip without you tolerable, and now I can have the added joy of introducing you to them. But Elizabeth, what is wrong? Do you not wish to meet them?"
At the mention of his relatives, Elizabeth's face shadowed with concern. But before she could speak Darcy began again.
"I assure you they are not at all of Lady Catherine's opinion regarding our marriage. Colonel Fitzwilliam has been singing your praises since Kent. But I can see from your expression that that was not it."
"I am sorry William. What concerns me is that I am inclined to believe my mother will insist upon accompanying us, and, well,...I do not wish to subject your relations to her, at least not until after we are married," said Elizabeth, her eyes fixed on the bench.
"My dear, do not make yourself anxious over this. My uncle and aunt will not judge you by anything but yourself. I am certain they will find you absolutely charming and will easily overlook your mother's," Darcy paused to find the right words, "your mother's exuberance for our wedding."
Elizabeth laughed, "thank you William. Your assurances are all I could have hope for. However, there is another matter in my aunt's letter that we must discuss. It seems they have found us out; we can continue with our charade no longer."
Darcy looked at her confused, "what ever do you mean?"
"You may read the letter for yourself, if you wish," stated Elizabeth, handing the letter to Mr. Darcy.
My dear Lizzy,
You are a most unsatisfactory correspondent! The gist of your letter brought much joy to your uncle and myself, as you can well imagine, but you must view us as simpletons if you think we are satisfied with the lack of particulars. Your uncle and I have compared notes and find there is much we cannot account for in the forming of your present happiness. While things were unsettled I dared not broach the subject, for fear of making you uncomfortable, but now you must suffer our inquisition or face the consequences.
1. Due to Lydia's situation, you revealed to us what you had previously learned of Wickham's history and true character; how he had misrepresented his relationship with Mr. Darcy and unfairly sullied his good name to everyone in Meryton. You must have had this information PRIOR to our trip to Derbyshire, yet you still thought ill of Mr. Darcy - why? I know he slighted you at your first meeting with him in the assembly room, but you are not the sort to frivolously judge a person over a single incident.
2. By the end of our visit to Derbyshire, your feelings had obviously changed toward Mr. Darcy - again why? He was kind and civil to be sure, but how did such small niceties change an opinion you held so firmly just days before? The housekeeper and Miss Darcy's praise you surely took into account, but I know you are not so easily swayed once you have made up your mind. I was present for all of your interaction with him there, and unless you met secretly, I am quite baffled.
3. If there was no understanding between you and Mr. Darcy, why did he insist upon such secrecy in his dealings with Lydia and Wickham? Such a generous and gallant gesture could only increase the affection you held for him, yet he was quite adamant about concealing it.
I long to praise Mr. Darcy a great deal more (as you requested), to exclaim the perfection of such a match, and to bestow every congratulation and blessing I can summon on you, dear Lizzy - once I know the full history. And if that is not sufficient to induce you, your uncle will invite you and Jane for a visit to London AFTER a long, detailed letter is received.
Darcy smiled as he finished the note. "Your aunt is exceedingly clever."
"Too clever, I believe," said Elizabeth.
"Did you never tell them what occurred in Kent? How horribly I acted and how right you were to refuse me?"
"No, certainly not. The only person I told was Jane, and then even she did not know the full story as parts of it regarded her. But William, I told no one because I was ashamed of my actions, not yours. My aunt gives me far too much credit. Indeed I was so frivolous as to dislike you for rejecting me as a dance partner. I believed Wickham's assertions because they confirmed my prejudiced opinion of you, not because of their reasonableness. No, I could tell no one but Jane, I knew she would forgive me no matter how abominably I had behaved. May I answer them William? They have been so very good me, we would not be here if they had not taken me to Derbyshire."
"Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, of course. Only do not be so kind to me in your telling of the story as I know you will. The Gardiners are such excellent people, I would not deny them the pleasure of it. You are fortunate to have such relations," said Darcy a bit melancholy. "I look forward to knowing them better."
"They truly are wonderful, I am glad you think of them as highly as I do. Are not Lord and Lady Matlock equally dear to you?"
"They are very dear to me, but my uncle has struggled with ill health for many years and they spend much of their time in Bath. They tried as best they could to fill the void left by my parents' death, but it is difficult at such a distance." Darcy determined not to be so somber on such a glorious day and with his beloved at his side. He place a kiss on her forehead and rose. "We should return to the house. The sooner you reply to your aunt, the sooner we may escape to London."
With her arm in his, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy walked merrily back to the house. They spied Jane and Mr. Bingley some distance on the path ahead of them. Lizzy broke into a sprint and yelled back, "catch me if you can William!" Mr. Darcy, who was still quite conventional, glanced around him to be sure no one was there to witness this display, then began chasing after her earnestly. Although he was an active man, Mr. Darcy had not truly ran since he was a youth. He gained on her easily, but not so quick as to make it to Bingley and Jane before her. Lizzy's laughter caused Jane and Bingley to turn, and they could not believe their eyes. Lizzy and Darcy were barreling towards them at full speed, with Lizzy slightly ahead.
"I win, I win!" cried Lizzy who stopped and bent over to catch her breath.
"My God," said Mr. Bingley barely able to contain himself, "is this the proper Fitzwilliam Darcy chasing his fiancee like a school boy? What has gotten into you man?"
Darcy was quite breathless himself but answered, "I could not let her slip away from me again, Charles. In fact, I have half a mind to keep her under lock and key when we are married, I suggest you do the same."
The foursome roared with laughter and after a bit continued on the path.
"Jane, I have had wonderful news from aunt Gardiner. We are invited to London." Elizabeth's statement produced the desired effect; Bingley and Jane were overjoyed not to be separated in the upcoming week.
"And if you agree Bingley, I thought we might extend the trip to a fortnight at least, and enjoy what London has to offer," said Mr. Darcy.
"Capital idea!" exclaimed Bingley.
"But Elizabeth," continued Darcy, "you failed to mention that the trip was conditional only."
"Yes," said Lizzy turning to Jane who was looking at her curiously, "the Gardiners were not at all satisfied with the account I gave them of our engagement and the invitation to London is not to be given until I provide them with all the particulars. So if you two would be so kind as to entertain Mr. Darcy for a while, I will write to them directly."
"We would be delighted," pronounced Bingley. "Shall we walk to Meryton and back?"
The plan was agreed to readily, but before they parted Darcy lifted Elizabeth's hand and kissed it. "I shall miss you my love," spoke Darcy in a low tone that only she could hear.
"And I you, William." With a sweet parting glanced Lizzy headed back toward the house.
Elizabeth went into the morning room to write her letter in privacy, but was soon joined by her mother and Kitty.
"What news was there from London, Lizzy?" inquired Mrs. Bennet.
Lizzy said a quick but silent prayer and answered, "Jane and I have been invited to Gracechurch Street."
"Oh, that is wonderful news Lizzy! We will visit all the best warehouses, you and Jane must have the finest wedding clothes that were ever seen in Meryton. You will look infinitely better than Charlotte did, I dare say." Mrs. Bennet continued in this vein for some time. Lizzy's spirits could not help but be deflated by the thought of her mother chaperoning them all through London.
"But mama," Kitty began, glancing understandingly at Lizzy, "who will take me to the ball next week if you go to London with Jane and Lizzy? You know that papa will not, and aunt Phillips is in north with your cousins."
"Surely you can miss one ball, Kitty," retorted Mrs. Bennet. "There is hardly a single gentleman left in Hertfordshire now the militia is gone to Brighton. You would have very few partners."
"That maybe true," continued Kitty undaunted, "but did you not hear that Mr. Fairchild's brothers have come to visit him? They are on leave from the navy and are rumored to be very handsome. I am sure they will all be at the ball, since the Fairchilds are so new to the neighborhood."
"Yes, I hear they are a very good family and have made many improvements to Purvis Lodge since they arrived," said Lizzy joining the conspiracy. "I believe the war has made the fortune of many in the Navy."
Mrs. Bennet's interest was piqued. Of course, she could not leave such promising young gentlemen to the charms of Maria Lucas. "Surely Mrs. Gardiner will know the best warehouses as well as me, and it would be cruel to deny Kitty and Mary of the pleasure of the year's last ball. Yes, it is all settled. I know you will be disappointed Lizzy but you and Jane will have to go to London without me." And as quickly as she changed her mind, Mrs. Bennet was off to find Hill and see what she knew of the Fairchilds.
"Thank you Kitty!" said Lizzy warmly. "You are an excellent sister."
Rebecca Gardiner was by no means unconnected. She was the daughter of a clergyman, who was the third son of Sir James Bradley, a man of large property in the north of England. In the course of her life she found herself in a wide variety of social circles, as her background would suggest, and learned to interact comfortably in all of them. Her father had died when she was just twelve. Her mother then moved the family to Lambton to live with her brother, an aging attorney who had never married. They lived quite happily in Derbyshire, though money was always tight. Being the eldest and brightest, she instantly became her uncle's favorite. She met Mr. Gardiner on a trip to London with her uncle. She thought him kind and intelligent, at ease with himself and his place in the world. His positive outlook on life pleased her greatly; all he needed to complete his happiness was a partner to share it with. They married within a year of meeting. His family welcomed her warmly, which made up for their lack of refinement. She soon grew quite attached to her husband's two eldest nieces, Jane and Elizabeth, who were only ten and twelve years her junior. They had grown into elegant, accomplished women and Mrs. Gardiner was, in part, to thank for it. Her relationship with her nieces had changed gradually as they grew, from advisor and role model to confidant and friend. She was particularly pleased with their choice of husbands and was proud to have had a hand in at least one of the matches.
Elizabeth's letter was prompt and thick; she opened it with much anticipation.
My dear aunt,
Of course I cannot deny you the story of my betrothal to Mr. Darcy, when you have been so instrumental to its happy ending. However, I warn you that there is much in it that reflects badly upon both myself and Mr. Darcy. You will not be pleased with our past behavior, particularly mine. That said, please share this only with my uncle.
As you know, I first met Mr. Darcy at the Meryton ball. He declared me not handsome enough to dance with and I can now admit that my ego was sorely bruised. I found consolation in observing him to be a proud, disagreeable man who obviously felt such society was beneath him. I thought myself quite clever in forming my dislike so quickly. We were often in each other's company over the following weeks and his manners continued to impress on me his arrogance and his disregard for the feelings of others. It was obvious that he found our family lacking - more than a few times I caught him rolling his eyes or grimacing when my mother spoke. I avoided him as best I could, but he seemed to be always looking at me. I could only assume that he stared at me because I offended him. The few times we did speak to each other, I could barely disguise my hostility and was quite impertinent as you can well imagine. After each meeting, my blood boiled with dislike - how dare he think himself so far above me! When Wickham arrived in Hertfordshire, I was only too happy to have my ill feelings towards Mr. Darcy justified. I was so prejudiced against Mr. Darcy that I paid little attention to the impropriety Wickham showed in relating his stories to me so soon in our acquaintance.
As I reflect back on my dealings with Mr. Wickham, I realize what I found most interesting about him was his knowledge of Mr. Darcy!) When the Bingleys decided to remain in London, I was positive it was under Mr. Darcy's encouragement. His feelings of disgust toward my family could not be mistaken at the Netherfield ball, and excepting Jane's loss, I did not wish them back.
The next time I laid eyes on Mr. Darcy was during my stay with Charlotte Collins in Kent. He and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam had come on their annual visit to Lady Catherine, their aunt. They called at the parsonage often, sometimes together and other times alone. Mr. Darcy seemed more civil and attentive than he had been in Hertfordshire, however, his small improvements were eclipsed by the warm and engaging manner of his cousin. Colonel Fitzwilliam was all a gentleman could hope to be, and Mr. Darcy suffered in comparison. My conversations with the Colonel were my sole enjoyment in Kent. It was during our last conversation that Colonel Fitzwilliam unknowingly revealed to me that Mr. Darcy himself had separated Mr. Bingley from Jane. He said that Darcy had lately been congratulating himself on saving Mr. Bingley from a most inconvenient marriage! My astonishment and anger were surpassed only by my pity for Jane. That very evening was to be Mr. Darcy and his cousin's last in Kent; I could not bear to set eyes on Mr. Darcy after what I had learnt and I excused myself from dining with them at Lady Catherine's.
But soon after the Collinses had left the parsonage, who should call but Mr. Darcy himself. Alone, we sat in uncomfortable silence. He then began pacing the room and to my great surprise broke the silence with an offer of marriage. I was not insensible to the honor of a proposal from a man of Mr. Darcy's consequence, but the manner in which it was given was nothing short of insulting. I am sure, my dear aunt, that you cannot believe this of the Mr. Darcy you know, but it is true. He confessed that he found my family and situation in life beneath him, and that in marrying me he would be acting against the wishes of his family and even his better judgment! He claimed that he could struggle against his feelings for me no longer and asked me to relieve his suffering by consenting to be his wife. His words, abominable in their own right, were nothing compared to his presumptuous and arrogant attitude. I was nearly overwhelmed with anger and as succinctly as I could, I stated my long-standing dislike for him and refused the offer. He was shocked and for a few moments said nothing. I hoped that he would leave quickly, but he was not satisfied with my answer. He asked why with so little attempt at civility I refused him. With such a comment I could no longer contain myself; I told him exactly what I thought of his character and behavior. How I had from early in our acquaintance been convinced of his conceit and his selfish disdain for the feelings of others. How I had known of the part he played in ruining Jane's hopes to marry the man she loved. I dared him to deny that he was the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other. But he did not deny it. He even reflected, aloud, that he had been kinder to Bingley than he had been to himself. Indignant, I brought up his dealings with Wickham. He grew visibly angry but did not defend himself. He prepared to leave and made his last comment. He wondered if these offenses might have been overlooked, had not my pride been hurt by his honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented his forming any serious design on me. With as much composure as I could gather, I told him that he was mistaken if he supposed that the mode of his declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing him, had he behaved in a more gentleman-like manner. I saw him start at this, but he said nothing, so I continued, stating that he could not have made me the offer of his hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it. His astonishment was obvious, and he looked at me with an expression half incredulity and half mortification, but still he remained. I had no choice but to make my position as clear as possible; I told him that I had not known him a month before I felt that he were the last man in the world whom I could ever marry. With few civilities, he hastily left.
My emotions were beyond comprehension. That he had loved me for so long and that I had suspected nothing was unbelievable to me. The pain I must have caused him weighed down on me heavily, but then I would think of Jane and Wickham and be consoled. I spent the rest of the night trying to sort through my feelings and reflecting on what had happened, but I came to no resolution or peace about the matter.
The next day I received a letter from Mr. Darcy. He wished to defend himself regarding the charges I had made against him, involving my sister and Mr. Wickham. He began with his part in removing Bingley from Jane. He realized that Bingley's partiality for Jane was beyond what he had ever witnessed in him. He also observed Jane, but found no symptom of peculiar regard in her. Mr. Darcy believed that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment. I was angered by this but soon remembered that even Charlotte had once commented on the serenity of Jane's countenance, and that she should make her feelings clear to Mr. Bingley if she was to secure him. At the time I thought this approach ridiculous, but clearly I was wrong. However, this was not Mr. Darcy's only reason for interfering. He felt the situation of our mother's family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of the total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly, betrayed by herself, by my three younger sisters, and occasionally even by my father. I felt my anger grow at reading those words, I could not, until weeks later, admit any truth in them. He did offer the consolation that to have conducted ourselves so as to avoid any share of the like censure was high praise to the sense and disposition of us both. He then confessed that he knew Jane was in London and had concealed it from Bingley. He apologized only for that deceit and for unknowingly harming Jane's feelings, but maintained his rightness in the rest of the matter. What he then relayed to me regarding Wickham you are already aware. At that moment I did not know myself. To have judged both so wrongly and with such conviction! I was remorseful and humbled. The next few months were filled with bitter introspection. I was not sorry I refused him, but I was truly, truly sorry that I had been so exceedingly unjust and had caused him undue pain.
Can you now wonder at my trepidation in visiting Pemberley! The mortification I felt at seeing him there! I assumed he would think I was throwing myself in his path again. I also thought he would hate the sight of me, after having refused him so horridly. I was all astonishment when he returned from the house desiring to speak to me further and to make your acquaintance. Indeed, I thought once he knew who you were, he would cease with his civilities, but to my surprise it seemed to increase them. As soon as I could, I told him that we would never have dared invade his privacy if we had not been told he was away. My amazement grew as he asked that I not trouble myself regarding that matter and then requested that I allow him the honor of introducing me to his sister. If I had before believed myself to have partially misjudged his character, it was then I realized I was wholly in err. To want to continue his acquaintance with me, after all I had said and done, proved to me as nothing else could his true worth. My esteem for Mr. Darcy had been growing since Kent, but my love for him began that day. And it increased nearly every moment during our stay in Lambton. Mr. Reynolds' praise and Georgiana's love for him only solidified my feelings, and I hoped against all hope that he would ask for my hand a second time. But that opportunity never arose, and I left Derbyshire convinced that, even if Mr. Darcy had wished to renew his attentions to me, he would never lower himself to become Wickham's brother-in-law.
I returned to Hertfordshire in disappointment. I had, in Lambton that day, revealed to him Lydia's disgrace, and although I could see in eyes great pity, he left as quickly as politeness would allow. I had no indication that he blamed himself and intended to go to London. In the weeks that followed I resented him. I had no right to feel so, but if his love for me could not withstand all things, even a life-long connection to Wickham, then it was not a love worth having. How little I knew.
The following month, Bingley came back to Netherfield and revived his attentions to Jane. I sensed that his return had been, at least in part, due to Mr. Darcy's influence, and for that I was grateful. To my great surprise, Mr. Darcy accompanied Mr. Bingley to Longbourn. Not having heard of his arrival in Hertfordshire, I was very agitated, yet excited as well. I longed for the renewal of his addresses, but was disappointed again. He left Netherfield almost as quickly as he had come, with only a handful of words spoken between us. Mr. Bingley proposed to Jane the day of Mr. Darcy's departure. I was happy for Jane and miserable for myself. If Mr. Bingley could accept Wickham for a brother-in-law, why could not Mr. Darcy?
What happened next was quite strange. Lady Catherine, Mr. Darcy's aunt whom I met in Kent, paid a visit to Longbourn. She asked if I would accompany her on a walk about our park. Once we were outside the earshot of the house, she insisted that I dispel for her a rumor that I was engaged to Mr. Darcy. She was extremely rude and condescending; she found the match disgraceful and maintained that Mr. Darcy was to marry her daughter. I will not waste ink and paper to tell you of the words I exchanged with her ladyship, but I did admit to her that I was not at present engaged to her nephew. She then requested that I promise never to enter into an engagement with Mr. Darcy. Of course, I could make no such a promise and flatly refused. She was livid and let forth a string of insults against both myself and my family. I was only too happy to see her leave.
A few days later, Mr. Darcy made a second surprise visit to Longbourn. He again accompanied Mr. Bingley, who was by that time a daily visitor. The two gentlemen, Jane, Kitty and myself decided to walk to Meryton. Kitty left us shortly to call on Maria Lucas, and Mr. Bingley and Jane quickly outpaced myself and Mr. Darcy in order to gain some privacy. I decided that I had to tell Mr. Darcy how I truly felt. He was all I thought about day and night, and even if he did not return my affection, I believed I would find some relief in having expressed myself. I began by thanking him for having helped Lydia in spite of his history with Mr. Wickham. I assured him that my family knew nothing of the matter, but would surely join me in heartfelt thanks if they did. He appeared deeply affected and my heart swelled with hope. He said that my family need not thank him, for he acted on my behalf alone. I could hardly breathe at hearing this, and for quite possibly the first time in my life I was speechless. He continued to relate that his feelings for me were unchanged and that one word from me would silence him forever on this subject. Fumbling for words, I managed to say how ashamed I was of my past behavior and that my feelings were quite the reverse of what they had been in Kent. I hardly know how describe the next moments, words could not do it justice. All I can say, dear aunt Gardiner, is that I now know what it is to love, to truly love, another person. To see clearly the value of his character, his merits and faults, and to see myself with equal clarity (particularly the faults!) and then to know that by joining together we each will be improved by the other, my happiness, nay, our happiness is undoubtedly secured.
It seems I owe debt of thanks to Lady Catherine. Not having succeeded with me, she went directly to London to tell Mr. Darcy of the rumor that was circulating and of her unsatisfactory conversation with me. Unfortunately, her visit to Mr. Darcy produced the opposite effect of the one she had planned. He left for Hertfordshire immediately upon hearing that I would not make the promise his aunt had requested.
I hope this letter will provide the satisfaction my first one lacked. We are very anxious to see you and uncle Gardiner again. Mr. Darcy is planning a celebratory dinner for our party in London and you are to be the guests of honor. We await your invitation with thanks and love.
"Lord and Lady Matlock," announced the butler.
Darcy rose and crossed the drawing room to greet his relatives. "Uncle and Aunt Fitzwilliam, you are most welcome," he said with a bow. "I am so very pleased to see you again! You are both in health?"
"We are very well, thank you," said his uncle while giving Darcy a fatherly pat on the back. "But not as well as you appear to be. I can see that love you suits you Fitzwilliam."
Darcy colored slightly and addressed his aunt. "Lady Julia, you look lovely as always. I hope your journey from Bath was pleasant."
"Indeed it was Fitzwilliam." Julia Fitzwilliam embraced her nephew and kissed him on the cheek. "When are we to meet Miss Bennet? We are very anxious to make her acquaintance. I have heard such different accounts of her, they puzzle me exceedingly." The comment was made with a light-hearted tone, meant to amuse, but in truth Lady Fitzwilliam was very concerned about her nephew's choice of wife. Seeing Darcy's happy demeanor was enough to convince his uncle, but men often underestimated the social consequences of a match perceived to be unequal. Lady Fitzwilliam was worried for Darcy and his bride-to-be. I wonder if Miss Bennet is even aware of the abusive gossip already being spoken about her, she thought.
"You must have heard from Lady Catherine," Darcy replied, not completely at ease. "I hope you will not give credit to her assertions regarding Miss Bennet. Lady Catherine is very angry with me for not marrying Anne, but that was never my intention, nor do I believe it to have been my mother's."
"Of course not," the earl said, reassuring his nephew. "Catherine is as obstinate as ever, attempting to direct other's lives to her satisfaction rather than theirs. Fear not Fitzwilliam, she will become reconciled to your choice eventually. I say, I like Miss Bennet already - anyone who can stir up Cathy so must be a formidable woman indeed."
Darcy chuckled and was relieved. "I will have the honor of introducing you to my fiancee this evening at dinner. Let me show you to your rooms. Perhaps you would care to rest after your journey."
"Thank you Fitzwilliam, that would be very agreeable."
Mr. Darcy looked out the drawing room window, awaiting his guests eagerly. The first snow of winter blanketed London that afternoon and travel would be slow. Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam were with him, quietly discussing the changes they were observing in their nephew.
"It does my heart good to see him so, Julia. I do not believe he has been this happy since Anne passed away."
"Yes, he seems quite smitten. I only hope that the lady feels as strongly. The road ahead for them in society will not be easy with her background so widely known."
"Fitzwilliam has withstood many beautiful and charming gold diggers. I am sure he would not have proposed if he were not sure of her sincere regard. As for her background, it will mean nothing if they are seen to be truly in love."
"My dear," laughed Lady Fitzwilliam, "you overestimate society greatly. His being in love will only increase the ill will of women and their mothers who thought Mr. Darcy their own. But I must say his happiness is almost contagious. This should prove to be a very interesting evening."
The door was opened and Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley and the Hursts entered. Introductions and pleasantries were made. Mr. Bingley and Mr. Hurst joined the Fitzwilliams by the fire, while Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst sat down on a nearby divan. Lady Fitzwilliam found it hard to keep from eavesdropping on the ladies' conversation. She knew Caroline Bingley had set her sights on Darcy long ago, and she was curious to hear how she bore it.
"I will simply refuse them Louisa," said Caroline indignantly. "Can you imagine the hideous dresses they will choose, with their country sense of fashion. I would rather dare Charles' displeasure than stand up with the likes of Eliza Bennet."
"Surely we can create some excuse for you," offered Mrs. Hurst.
"May I join you," inquired Lady Fitzwilliam.
"Of course your ladyship," said Miss Bingley sweetly. "You are very generous to come all the way to London to meet Miss Bennet and her relations. The snow is no doubt delaying them, I believe Cheapside to be some distance across town."
"My husband and I are of course very eager to meet Fitzwilliam's fiancee. We had quite despaired of his ever marrying." Lady Fitzwilliam smiled as she spoke. The emphasis Miss Bingley had placed on Cheapside did go unnoticed. Caroline's pettiness disgusted her. Yet this is but a taste of the crass remarks and insults Miss Bennet will have to endure - I hope she is up to it.
"Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Miss Jane Bennet, and Miss Elizabeth Bennet," announce the butler
Darcy greeted his guests enthusiastically. "Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, I am so very pleased to see you again."
"The pleasure is all ours, Mr. Darcy," replied Mr. Gardiner warmly.
Mr. Darcy to turned to his fiancée and her sister. "Welcome Miss Bennet, Miss Elizabeth," he said formally, expressing his love to Elizabeth with his eyes. He could see that she was nervous and he whispered, "you look lovely tonight Elizabeth." She smiled gratefully as he took her arm in his and led her to his aunt and uncle.
"Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam, may I present to you my fiancée, Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"I am honored to make your acquaintance" said Elizabeth as she curtsied deeply. Quickly searching the faces of Mr. Darcy's relations, she was relieved to see approving expressions.
"As are we Miss Bennet," replied the Earl.
Mr. Darcy continued with the introductions of Jane and the Gardiners. Jane then excused herself to greet the Bingleys and the Hursts. It was the first time Jane had seen Mr. Bingley's sisters since her engagement. Caroline and Louisa were all that is kind and insincere. Jane received their congratulations with gladness but was not unaware that it lacked genuine feeling. She knew she could never be real friends with either sister, but she hoped to establish an amiable relationship for Charles' sake.
Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam were very pleased with their nephew's fiancée thus far. She had beauty to be sure, but it was her wit and vivacity that drew their attention.
"Miss Bennet," began Lady Fitzwilliam, "I am instructed to convey to you my son Edward's most cordial congratulations. He spoke of nothing but the 'charming Miss Bennet' in his letters from Kent. I half thought Edward to be courting you himself, until he told me that Fitzwilliam had already staked a claim."
"Thank you, your ladyship," replied Elizabeth. Feeling more comfortable than before, she continued with an arch grin toward Darcy, "I enjoyed Colonel Fitzwilliam's company in Kent a great deal. I believe it to be the only enjoyment I had in that county."
"Was not Fitzwilliam in Kent with Edward? Did he not bring you any enjoyment?" inquired Lady Fitzwilliam.
"Mr. Darcy was present, but if indeed he had staked a claim in Kent, he acted as an absentee landlord."
Mr. Darcy chuckled. "I see I must defend myself. As a landlord, one must study new property before developing it - determine the proper means of attack, as it were, particularly when the landscape is complex and uncharted."
"Complex and uncharted!" cried the earl, tickled by the couple's playful dialogue. "Is that anyway to describe your bride-to-be nephew? Surely you can come up with better adjectives than that."
"Perhaps I should lend you Edward's letters," injected Lady Fitzwilliam. "They were full of complimentary descriptions of Miss Bennet."
"Dinner is served," announced the butler.
"Ah, you timing is impeccable Mr. Harris," said Mr. Darcy. He offered his arm to Elizabeth. "Shall we proceed to the dining room, my exquisite, beautiful, radiant, inspiring and clever fiancée?"
"How could I say no to such an effusive offer?" answered Elizabeth with a smile that filled the room.
Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth led the way to the dining room. Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam followed, exchanging first impressions quietly between them.
"Delightful girl," declared the earl. "Very witty too, she will be an excellent match for Fitzwilliam."
Lady Fitzwilliam agreed. "She is uniformly charming. Her spirit is just what he and Georgiana need."
Mr. Darcy had planned the seating arrangement carefully. Caroline and Louisa were at the far end of the table, buffered on one side by Mr. Bingley and Jane, and on the other side by Mr. Hurst and the Gardiners. Miss Bingley, however, was undeterred by the distance that separated her from Elizabeth and Lady Fitzwilliam. Seeing the happy reception Elizabeth received from the earl and his wife strengthened Caroline's resolve to expose Eliza Bennet as a coarse country bumpkin whose family was unrefined and lowly connected.
The Gardiners may dress tolerably, thought Caroline, but they obviously are dumbfounded when conversing with people of rank. They have hardly spoken two words together since they arrived - what simpletons! I imagine they have never met an earl in the course of their entire lives.
"Miss Eliza," began Caroline during the appetizer, "I have yet to congratulate you on the marriage of your sister Lydia to Mr. Wickham. I am sure you felt him a welcome addition to your family."
Silence ensued. Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam were unaware of Georgiana's dealings with Mr. Wickham, but they knew there had been a bitter falling out between Mr. Wickham and their nephew. They had also been informed, most eagerly by Lady Catherine, that Darcy's fiancee was recently related to Mr. Wickham by marriage; but if their nephew was not bothered by the connection they saw no reason for objection.
How will you handle such overt rudeness, Miss Bennet?, wondered Lady Fitzwilliam.
"Thank you Miss Bingley," said Elizabeth unaffected. "With a family of five daughters, my father cannot but be relieved to see her settled."
"If all five are as handsome as you and your sister, Miss Elizabeth," remarked the earl, "I am sure your father has no cause for concern."
Elizabeth's response pleased Lady Fitzwilliam, she neither acknowledged the insult, nor did she return one - well done Miss Bennet.
Not willing to let Elizabeth take center stage, Miss Bingley moved to a fresh topic she thought would endear her to the Fitzwilliams. "Speaking of sisters, Mr. Darcy, how is dear Georgiana? What an elegant and accomplished young woman she has become. I am excessively fond of her."
Before Darcy could answer, his aunt spoke. Miss Bingley's sour grapes were becoming tiresome and Lady Fitzwilliam thought it best to silence her. "I received a letter from Georgiana before we left Bath, so I can tell she is very well." Then turning to Elizabeth, "Georgiana is overjoyed that you asked her to be a bridesmaid, and quite excited that you put her in charge of selecting the dresses. I must thank you and your sister, Miss Bennet, for including her in your wedding preparations. It was very kind."
The smug expression Caroline had been wearing quickly faded. She was smarting under Lady Fitzwilliam's reproof, she knew her conversation with Louisa must have been overheard. She silently considered a new course of attack.
"Forgive me, Mrs. Gardiner," began the earl, "but you seem very familiar to me. Have we met before?"
Caroline couldn't help but let out an indignant "Ha!" at the earl's comment.
"Caroline!" hissed Mr. Bingley. He looked apologetically at Jane and the Gardiners, hoping Darcy and Elizabeth didn't hear his sister's outburst. All present pretended they did not.
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had, by unspoken agreement, been uncharacteristically silent this evening. They had wanted to give Lizzy every opportunity to shine in front of the Fitzwilliams, but they now happily joined the conversation, knowing Lizzy's acceptance to be secure.
"Indeed, you seem familiar to me as well Lord Fitzwilliam. Perhaps you knew my uncle, Sir Phillip Bradley?"
"Yes, yes, that is it. Phillip was a school chum of mine, I spent many a holiday at his home. How extraordinary that we should meet then!"
Miss Bingley's jaw dropped as she exchanged astonished glances with Mrs. Hurst. This evening was not going as she had planned. Turning her eyes to Mr. Darcy, she saw he and Elizabeth exchange triumphant smiles and she nearly choked her wine.
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