"What an exquisite token of your esteem, darling Elizabeth," said Mr. Darcy, politely admiring a fine set of embroidered handkerchiefs which he had just accepted as a gift from his betrothed.
"Esteem?" Elizabeth exclaimed feigning annoyance. "Do you really think I have spent all these hours a slave to a needle - not something I particularly enjoy, I might add - only to have you mock my efforts?"
"I wouldn't dream of it, my dear," Mr. Darcy was surprised and slightly offended. "Whatever makes you suppose I would do such a thing?"
"If a few squares of decorated cloth are to represent my esteem for you, every time you wipe your nose on one of them I shall be truly mortified." Mr. Darcy laughed long and heartily and then vowed never to bring Elizabeth's precious handiwork in direct contact with his nose.
"I shall use them only to mop sweat from my weary brow, or perhaps tears from my eyes."
"Very well, but only if they're tears of joy."
"Of joy and merriment, of course!" Mr. Darcy chuckled. "In which case I am entitled to use one straight away."
Mr. Darcy laughing! He, who smiled only rarely and was never seen to laugh openly, and whose stern, unsmiling countenance often projected a harsh, severe image: the image she came to love so dearly the moment she understood that it only served to screen his inner self. But it was not love at first sight. There was no deep attraction the moment they saw each other. She thought him insufferably arrogant, he suspected her mischievous and willful. And even later, when he warmed up to her high spirit and she suffered him increasingly gladly, love still was not hasty. Perhaps because neither of them was particularly romantic. Down to earth, practical, rational - but not romantic. Indeed, a finer match would be hard to find. So when it finally happened, there were no fanfares, no drum rolls, no sweet serenades from heaven: their arms did not stretch out longingly across the dividing space with a sudden realization of the fate pointing inescapably each to the other... Neither did he go down on his knee to propose. What was that, if not ominous? Was he disdainful? Should she beware? His feelings he always described as ardent, yet outwardly he was often cool and dispassionate. Such admirable restraint... but then again, he probably disliked theatricals. Was it not enough that he had to swallow his pride in defiance of his earlier misgivings, just as she conquered her prejudice in a complete reversal of her first indignant refusal? And at last they both knew they were doing the right thing.
And now he was laughing! Clearly, her beneficial influence was already paying dividends and from underneath his disguise of assumed unpleasantness his true self was peering at the world with increasing confidence, even though she knew that the laughter was for her only and no one else would be admitted lightly to the privilege of seeing or hearing it. It was strictly private. He did not dispense it freely. She enjoyed observing him more and more as he really was: before her his mask slipped off his face more readily than before anyone else. She liked to flatter herself that it was her love which was shaping and improving his image.
Darcy himself teased her, denying solemnly that he had ever changed at all: "No, no, I only did so to win your darling little heart. You know, in essentials I am, and always have been, completely abominable and utterly devious." She laughed and he watched her with gentle glistening eyes full of adoration.
Mr. Darcy made several business journeys away from Netherfield during the time before the wedding: two or three times to London with Mr. Bingley and once to Derbyshire, to make appropriate arrangements in anticipation of his wife's arrival home to Pemberley. Each time on his return Elizabeth ran out to greet him and he would take her outstretched hands in his and press them to his lips gently and affectionately, yet quite ceremoniously. He insisted on her curbing excessive displays of emotion, and himself took great pains to remain composed, which inevitably resulted in his usual appearance of coolness and reserve, stubbornly maintained even when they were alone, away from prying eyes.
Elizabeth knew from Jane that Bingley had been stealing kisses from his fiancee behind bushes in the park long before the wedding, but Lizzie's future husband would never allow himself any such impropriety, to her mixed feelings of a little regret, some annoyance and a lot of admiration. Darcy had a capacity for endurance, particularly when he was assured of success at the end of his trials. Having at last secured Elizabeth's acceptance and her father's approval, he was quite content to step back and watch serenely as matters were taking their final shape on the road to his marital bliss. He considered himself too well bred to allow himself any common manifestations of impatience.
His relentless self control fascinated Elizabeth and she often watched him with a mixture of awe and curiosity, at first slyly, stealthily, lest he was offended, and then with increasing boldness, openly staring back in playful defiance of his silent stares. His self assured haughty air which at the beginning of their acquaintance had annoyed and repelled her, was now a source of a new understanding. Their knowledge of each other grew as she no longer hesitated to tease him with endless questions which he would nevertheless answer willingly and truthfully, quite resigned even when he was visibly surprised or embarrassed by something she said, and she knew he trusted her. Could she trust him also? They both still had such a lot to learn. However, in a keen pursuit of mutual happiness they accommodated each other's needs and expectations with surprising ease: whereas he seemed willing to please her inquisitive disposition, she was equally understanding about his need for silence. Thus the conversation was interspersed with mute intervals, during which she often bore a happy, radiant smile brightening up her pretty face and lively eyes seemingly for no apparent reason, and he would look askance at her with his lips slightly tightened as if in disapproval. But if she ever wondered, simply out of sheer playful curiosity and partly perhaps in amorous anticipation, whether Mr. Darcy was a passionate man, the sparkles in his narrowed eyes, the messages in the burning, piercing looks he constantly sent her, told her more than his words had hitherto dared.
All through their life together he looked at her like that.
One day, soon after he had taken to addressing her affectionately as his dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, she ventured to draw him on the subject of his first name. He was very proud of it. "I bear it in honour of my mother's family connections. They are all recorded faithfully in the family annals in the library at Pemberley. Your name will be added there too, as soon as we come home."
"I hope it will not spoil the effect," she said, and immediately wondered whether her carefree playfulness might be sometimes considered too hasty. He looked at her reproachfully.
"It is not for the effect that I wish you to become my wife."
"I'm sorry." She sent him a disarming smile.
"I know you mean no harm, Lizzy."
Every time she looked at his handsome, customarily gloomy face, she was amazed at the depth of her feelings for the man underneath that almost impenetrable mask. Only his eyes shone watchfully, penetratingly.
"How shall your future wife address you, Mr. Darcy?"
"Erm... 'Mr. Darcy' would be quite appropriate." He smiled.
"Even in private, when we're alone?"
"In private? I shall leave it to your discretion, my dear."
"Really?" He threw her a haughty side glance, but the happy glimmer in his eyes was quite unmistakable. She concentrated hard on keeping an appearance of seriousness.
"Let's see... Fitzzz....William-m-m-m.... I know! 'Tis like Sweet William! From now on you shall be my very own Sweet William."
"Madam, please... I might have guessed that relying on your discretion would be a mistake."
"Or perhaps just Will? Yes, Will!"
"Now, now," he murmurs frowning in mock protest.
"Surely, 'tis not the accustomed manner of address."
"Such common behaviour, indeed! Lady Catherine will never forgive me now."
"Precisely, my dearest. 'Tis simply not done," he admonished, scarcely able to conceal his amusement as she struggled to stifle giggles.
"A wife must show her respect at all times."
"What's disrespectful about your baptismal name?"
"Liberties, that's what. Liberties are not to be taken." He meant it. She was almost certain he really meant it.
"I shall never embarrass you before the world, I promise."
"Yet you will be frivolous in private?"
"Yes! Oh, yes!" she exclaimed merrily clapping her hands in excitement.
"I want both of us to laugh as much and as often as may be! Our life together shall be happy!" She suddenly grew solemn again. "Unless..." she broke off in a dramatic pause.
"Yes? Unless what, Lizzy?"
"Unless you absolutely forbid it, of course." She looked archly straight into his ardent, intense gaze, softened with a hint of an indulgent smile and glimpsed on the bottom of those deep, dark, piercing eyes a secret, silent, unspoken longing to draw her towards him and into his arms. Yet he would not move and she felt compelled to lower her own eyes modestly, colouring under that relentless stare. Then he also looked away as if awakening from a dream, tightening his lips slightly, always restrained and dignified, always a perfect gentleman.
"N-no...," he said slowly, pensively, hoarsely, swallowing hard and taking a deep breath. "Sometimes I think I shall not be able to forbid you anything at all..."
"I have been pondering the subject of... er... ehm.... the arrangements for the period immediately after the wedding," said Darcy a little shyly during a stroll in the park with his beloved one day. His beaver hat was pushed firmly over his brow, the skirts of his great coat flapping in the late autumn wind.
"Do you mean to say a honeymoon, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth was walking along with one arm through his and her other hand holding on to her bonnet which seemed in danger of flying away.
"Yes, Miss Bennet, that is exactly what I mean. I've given this matter much thought lately..." She glanced up at him and was pleased to observe that his usual seriousness was softened with a touch of noticeable good humour. "...but I fear that the result of my deliberations is not very encouraging," he continued with a shadow of a benign smile lingering on his lips. "And it grieves me to say that any disappointment in this matter must be ascribed directly to you, dearest Elizabeth."
"Me?..." Elizabeth exclaimed in genuine surprise. "May I remind you that the subject has not arisen between us until this very moment and I most certainly shall not accept any blame for it whatsoever!"
"Ah, but the blame is entirely yours, my dear." Darcy's eyes were twinkling. "For if you only had accepted me the first time I proposed, we would be in midsummer now, instead of facing winter, when every interesting place within easy reach is cold and wet, and any sea journey quite out of the question." There was a moment of silence and then Elizabeth burst out laughing causing Mr. Darcy to broaden his smile a little as he glanced sideways at her, visibly satisfied with the display of mirth which his gentle teasing had brought about.
"And do you mean to tell me in this curious manner, Mr. Darcy, that we go to town for the winter?" she asked regaining composure.
"No. I am not in favour of the early season in London."
"Did you not spend the last winter there?"
"And the one before. That's why I can confidently say it has little to recommend itself."
"I shall be happy to rely on your indisputable good taste and experience in this instance. And now I guess you expect me to inquire further about your final decision. You win: I am all agog."
"What are your own thoughts on this subject, hm?"
"I must admit I was hoping to visit the Lakes...The trip seems to elude me..."
"Certainly, my dear; we shall go there as soon as the weather is milder."
"Wretched weather! I think we shall have to postpone the wedding." Elizabeth frowned.
"Postpone the wedding?" he echoed, surprised. "Why?"
"To be assured of traveling without hindrance, of course!" She threw him another of her arch looks. Darcy smiled and covered her hand with his.
"There shall be no delay, dearest Lizzy, not even if we have to spend our honeymoon in the middle of a raging blizzard," he murmured pressing her arm lightly to his side.
"And we probably wouldn't even notice it!..." Lizzy blurted out and immediately blushed profusely.
Darcy blinked stifling a smile, cleared his throat and continued, seemingly unruffled: "Well... yes, we shall simply postpone traveling for pleasure, that's all. In the meantime, disappointing though it may seem, there's only one place for us to go to, and that's home. Home to Pemberley."
"Pemberley! Now, that's what I would never call disappointing, dearest Fitzwilliam! You know there's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be." Darcy stopped, took hold of her gloved hand, peeled back the cuff and solemnly lifted her wrist to his lips.
"Should we not walk back?" he said, meticulously smoothing down her sleeve and replacing her hand in the crook of his arm. "It's rather cold and it looks like rain."
Although Mr. Bennet was exceedingly glad of his eldest daughter Jane's engagement to such a worthy and wealthy suitor as Charles Bingley, he saw no good reason to remain in the drawing room during the young man's numerous visits in his house at Longbourn. Therefore as soon as good manners permitted, he usually left the company gathered there together after dinner for the peace and seclusion of his beloved study-cum-library -- a lifelong habit which he owed mainly to his wife's noisy and pretentious pronouncements of opinion on all subjects she deemed requiring her notice. Anyone acquainted with the family knew that these subjects and opinions rarely coincided with the husband's own estimation. The fact that Mr. Darcy -- whom by coincidence both husband and wife considered an unpleasant sort of man -- usually accompanied Bingley on his visits, made Mr. Bennet's discreet withdrawals even more urgent as well as wholly justified. Mr. Darcy managed to unite Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's opinion in more ways than one, for both of them also shared a deep and heartfelt sympathy for Elizabeth's having to entertain him "to keep him out of Bingley's way", as Mrs. Bennet once put it with rare pointedness.
Mr. Bennet was therefore utterly and completely taken by surprise when one evening, soon after he had slipped out of the drawing room, he heard tapping on the library door and quite unexpectedly found himself facing Bingley's gloomy, taciturn friend. Good Lord, what was this morose man doing here, wondered Mr. Bennet silently, trying to guess the reason for this potentially worrying confrontation. Darcy was Bingley's best friend as well as his groomsman-to-be; evidently he wished to discuss some matter concerning the betrothal or perhaps the forthcoming wedding. Yes, undoubtedly, that was it. Only what could there possibly be to discuss without Bingley? Surely Bingley could manage his own affairs as he had done so far? How odious! Who did Darcy think he was - just because he had more money and an ancient lineage? What unheard of impudence! Perhaps he wished to voice his displeasure concerning something? Issue a warning? A condition? An ultimatum? The audacity of the man! This was truly unbearable. Well, just let him have his say first, a resentful Mr. Bennet thought with resignation, and then, regardless of his mission, he would be politely but firmly left in no doubt that his concerns are misplaced, his efforts futile and his meddling unwelcome. Whatever his wealth, his position, his influence in the world, here in Longbourn the answer was 'no'.
Having thus worked himself into a decidedly defensive, if not quite bellicose state of mind, Mr. Bennet prepared to hear the worst, but his astonishment soon grew to gargantuan proportions when Mr. Darcy, having refused an offer of a chair, fixed his piercing gaze upon him and somewhat stiffly requested his consent for his daughter Elizabeth's union with him in holy matrimony.
Holy... what?... Of all the sudden and unforeseen plagues in the world, this one was the least expected. Holy matrimony! Sweet Jesus, was it the wine they had had with the dinner? Strong, treacherous stuff!... For a long time Mr. Bennet sat looking at Mr. Darcy blankly, totally dumbfound and unable to speak, move or even think coherently. When at last his lips started obeying him again, he heard himself stammer out single syllables. Eventually slowly recovering himself he managed to utter with total incredulity:
"Er... er... Excuse me?... I... I fear I may have not heard you correctly..." And after Darcy had repeated his request in a calm and firm voice, his reluctant prospective father-in-law mumbled again: "Marry?... Did you say marry? Marry... Elizabeth?..."
"Yes, sir. With your permission."
Confound it! So he was not drunk or dreaming and was now in urgent need of further words to express himself reasonably on this occasion. But what was he to say? Holy matrimony, indeed!
"Forgive me, Mr. Darcy... it is an unexpected honour having you address me in this particular fashion... and I wish I had been forewarned... I mean, informed... although, admittedly, there have been rumours..."
"Rumours? What rumours?" Darcy professed a slight interest.
"Barely a few days ago I had a letter from the Hunsford parsonage telling me of Lady Catherine deBourgh's displeasure at the suggestion of such a match, which at the time I naturally dismissed as idle gossip."
"That tiresome parson, of course..." muttered Mr. Darcy and added quite unperturbed: "The rumour was correct. But let me assure you, sir, that I have the highest regard for Miss Bennet and my only wish is for her happiness. And now her happiness - and mine - depend solely on your consent."
"That, Mr. Darcy, I cannot give... "
"You refuse, sir?" cried Mr. Darcy breathlessly, his face suddenly pale, a flash of disbelief in his widened eyes.
"Pray, sir, allow me to finish... " Mr. Bennet was visibly startled. The last thing he wanted was to provoke the demure squire's anger. Alas, there was very little he could do to avoid it. He had to speak openly in his daughter's defence. Lizzie's happiness was indeed a prime consideration. "I would of course never refuse you anything in my power... except that... "
"Is there an obstacle?" asked Mr. Darcy gravely.
"In a manner of speaking... you see, Lizzie is such a lively character... she has strong opinions and expresses herself very freely... "
"That I know, sir."
Mr. Darcy's eyes began to lose their awesome thunderous quality. Mr. Bennet thought for a moment that they started misting over in a peculiar fashion. What a pity that the dour suitor's application to the father preceded the one he must make directly to the daughter! How unfortunate if Mr. Darcy hoped that Mr. Bennet's approval might add to the weight of his offer.
"Please understand, Mr. Darcy... I cannot vouch for my daughter's reply..." Despite his personal dislike of the man, Mr. Bennet hoped to spare his feelings. "I could not consider pressing her to act against her own wishes."
"I would not expect it." Mr. Darcy sauntered towards the window and inspected the view casually. "Neither would I be inclined to proceed in any way without your consent, but I cannot imagine you would be ungenerous to your own daughter."
The generosity of the offer was indeed beyond reproach. With Mr. Darcy's income rumoured to be twice that of Bingley's, and Lizzy's wit twice as sharp and sparkling as Jane's... Alas, Mr. Darcy's not being even half as pleasant as Bingley spoiled the calculations.
"It pains me to have to say this bluntly, but there it is. I know my Lizzy. Despite all the comforts you have the power to offer her, do not be surprised if she refuses you, Mr. Darcy."
"Too late; I already had that surprise," Darcy uttered under his breath, smiling wryly to himself.
"Pardon me, I cannot hear you well."
"I dare say you are perfectly right," said Darcy louder, turning to face Mr. Bennet.
"May I therefore suggest that you speak to her yourself?"
"I already have, Mr. Bennet."
"Ah, well, there you are, then... Terribly sorry, Mr. Darcy... I wouldn't try to make her change her mind."
"Neither would I. She has accepted me."
"She... what...?" It was not often that Mr. Bennet was rendered speechless, but on that particular day the frequency of such moments had suddenly become quite embarrassing. "You mean... but does she... does she...?" Mr. Bennet waved his hand helplessly. Darcy bowed his head.
"I believe she does."
Mr. Bennet stared at Mr. Darcy in amazement. "My word... you two have certainly moved fast! And so slyly! Lizzy hasn't even said anything! Pray tell me how... erm... when... "
Again, Darcy deftly anticipated Mr. Bennet's stuttered query: "I have only recently received her favourable answer." He was mildly amused by Mr. Bennet's wonderment and his usual impenetrably grave expression was softened by slightly raised eyebrows.
"That is all very well, Mr. Darcy," said Mr. Bennet suddenly. "But there is just another matter which requires clarification. Much as it pains me, none of my daughters can expect to be provided for as amply as a father would wish... "
"That is of no consequence," Darcy interposed hastily, raising his eyebrows even higher, as if to signal his absolution. "I know Miss Bennet's financial position and have no other expectations in that respect."
Mr. Bennet gasped and fell silent again, and Darcy guessed that his thoughts went to his youngest daughter Lydia and her recent infamous elopement with Mr. Wickham who had had to be heavily bribed before he could be persuaded to marry her. Darcy smiled to himself, for he was the man who, as yet unbeknownst to Mr. Bennet, had patched up the illicit affair which had threatened to spill over into a local society scandal capable of dashing his own hopes with regard to Elizabeth.
"Mr. Bennet..." said Darcy stepping forward and clearing his throat. But Mr. Bennet appeared deeply pensive and unaware of the younger man, who spoke again after a few moments with just a tiny hint of impatience in his voice:
"Mr. Bennet, I want your daughter to be my wife, my friend and my companion for the rest of my life. Do we have your blessing, sir?"
"What? My blessing?..." Mr. Bennet awoke from his reverie. "Yes, yes, of course...I shall be honoured... but only if that's what Lizzie wants... God's my witness, 'tis every father's hope to find a wealthy husband with an honest soul for his daughters... But two in a week! 'Tis too much to believe! And pray, send Lizzie in here to see me presently ..."
Darcy inclined his head respectfully and was about to leave the room when suddenly the older gentleman called after him:
"Just one small thing, Mr. Darcy. As a rational and learned man, tell me, do you really believe that a woman can truly be a man's friend?" and he chuckled quietly, greatly pleased with his parting jest. Darcy stopped with his hand on the brass door knob and regarded Mr. Bennet seriously with his keen, piercing eyes.
"Not every woman, that's for sure. But of this woman I am certain."
Caroline Bingley watched in jaundiced desperation the final demise of all her hopes and dreams of becoming Mrs. Darcy. She had persuaded herself that as long as Mr. Darcy remained unattached and in frequent contact with her brother Charles, her designs must have a very good chance of coming to fruition. A man like Mr. Darcy would surely seek a woman of distinction for his wife and Miss Bingley liked to think of herself in superlatives. In her eagerness to please him she failed to notice, or perhaps chose to ignore, the subtle signs of his express indifference and even occasional slight irritation; partly because she was so insensitive and partly because he was so polite. Thus the announcement of the engagement between Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet was a very bitter blow to Caroline's self-esteem, not least because she refused to acknowledge all the obvious signs of it approaching until it was too late for anything on her part. However, being a scheming, calculating and basically shallow person, she quickly recovered and almost immediately devoted herself to changing her tactics in firm determination to remain close to his intimate circle.
"My dear Mr. Darcy!" she gushed pouncing at him on every possible occasion, whether in the house or in the park, just as he was about to hurry off to Longbourn to visit Elizabeth, or on his way back. "How absolutely wonderful that you are to become my brother's brother at last! Just as we all hoped for and indeed envisaged! And is it not just and right for the Darcys and the Bingleys to be thus joined together in a transformation of a perfect friendship into the happiest of the family connections?"
"And the Bennets, Caroline, don't forget the Bennets!..." he muttered wearily through his teeth, his surly countenance betraying no emotion except for a faint flicker of suppressed impatience in his eyes as she was trotting by his side, trying to keep up with his long strides. He was well used to her obtrusiveness, but having no wish to offend his friend Charles, bore it with fortitude, even though amusing himself secretly at her expense on numerous occasions.
"Allow me to say what a great pleasure, nay, honour, yes, honour indeed it will be for me to call you my brother!"
"You flatter me, as usual, Caroline."
"We shall be friends, I hope?"
"But of course."
"I so much wish to remain a friend of yours for ever."
"You may depend on me, I promise..."
"You're so kind."
"...and I shall always be there for you whenever you may need me."
"Generous to a fault, as usual..."
"I trust you will not reject my goodwill, dear Mr. Darcy!"
"I am faithful to my friends, Miss Bingley."
"We've all had such a happy time together! I hope that marriage doesn't spell lessening one's enjoyment of life's little pleasures..."
"On the contrary, I 'm sure."
"Miss Bennet will not object, I hope?"
"Not at all. The future Mrs. Darcy also values true friendship."
"Then I shall look forward to joining forces with dear Eliza in looking after our gentlemen to the best of our abilities."
Darcy felt distaste and even some revulsion but said nothing. There was very little he could say, despite the danger of her accepting his silence as encouragement.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.